“Pharaoh” by Ryan Dalton

TWA 70 Ryan-01

October 1, 2147

Ming landed on the warehouse rooftop, gravel kicking up under her feet as she skidded to a halt. Counting down, she gave herself ten seconds to get her bearings. With her pursuers closing in, even ten seconds felt like a luxury. She pushed back her hood to let black hair tumble over her shoulders.

Wasting no time, she boosted her sensory implants to full power. No sense hiding. They already know what I’ve done.

Ten.

As her senses leapt in range and clarity, Ming could sense the signature of her cybernetic enhancements broadcasting across the digital meshworks. The walled city-state of New Beijinsk came into sharp focus, glittering like a star in the dark night.

Nine.

Cortical implants accelerated her synaptic connections, allowing Ming to process the mountain of data pouring into her brain. She shuddered in ecstasy, taking half a second to savor the sensation. Ten years. It had been ten years since she’d been able to feel like this. Like her true self.

Eight.

Navigation software overlaid her vision, a series of buildings painted with glowing patterns as she chose the path to her destination. Her ears twitched as a distinctive sound drew closer–like bone on metal. They’d caught her scent again. Even with all the hardware she was packing, they were still faster. And they weren’t out of practice like she was.

Seven.

Her route locked in and a glowing blue line appeared, starting at her chest and snaking through her chosen path. Ming stepped to the ledge and gazed out over the vastness of New Beijinsk, working to calm her nerves. The lights of the city helped. She’d always loved the lights.

This place used to feel like home, she reflected. Forever ago.

If things went her way tonight, maybe it would again.

Six.

A series of thumps shook the roof. Ming spun to see her pursuers arriving. They sniffed the air for her, implant lights tracing up and down their long snouts, reflecting off their claws. Her heart raced as she turned back to the ledge. So much for five through one.

She leapt.

Wind whipped through her hair as she plummeted toward the pavement. Resisting the urge to close her eyes, Ming extended her left arm and sent a command to the compartment just below her wrist. What only appeared to be flesh now retracted, allowing a micro-grappler to fire with a fffiiip. Trailing fine monofilament, it latched onto the stone outcropping of an adjacent building.

Ming swung around the corner of the building, the monofilament unspooling until her feet touched the ground. As the grappler released and the line retracted, she dashed away as fast as her body could carry her. A command macro signaled her adrenal gland to work overtime while the synthetic fast-twitch muscles in her legs pumped harder.

Despite the danger, another thrill raced through her. Ten years since she’d run at full speed. It felt like the pleasurable pain of stretching after a long night of sleep.

Behind her, shrill screams echoed from the warehouse rooftop. Those things were way too fast. Gotta create a bigger lead. She deviated from the blue line, crossing the street to dive through a series of interconnected alleys. The artificial fluid in her inner ears preserved balance as she leapt off walls and cartwheeled over dumpsters without losing speed.

At every corner she flicked her left arm, launching a device the size of a thumbnail. Digital chaff. Each would echo her signature in the meshworks, hopefully confusing her pursuers enough to buy time.

As she arrived back at the blue line, a tone trilled inside her ear. The image of a dark-haired, bearded man appeared in the top right corner of her vision. Finally. She breathed a sigh of relief and accepted the signal.

“What did you do?” He demanded. “My deck is solid red lights.”

“I did it, Kaz,” she breathed, running hard. “I beat Pharaoh.

There was a pause, then a loud clatter. She heard Kazmir swear repeatedly under his breath, caught the creak of old leather as he threw himself into his chair. With a lightning-fast series of keystrokes, he was no doubt already parsing through the data on the meshworks to zero in on her.

“Tell me you’re finally ready,” he said.

“I’m ready.”

“I know pranks aren’t your style,” he said. “But I’ll say it anyway. This better not be a prank.”

Ming could hear the tense grin in his voice. Raising her right hand, she twisted her fingers in a series of rude gestures. One of Kaz’s hacked surveillance systems should be able to see it.

“Hey, that’s not nice,” he chided. “Very creative, though.”

Despite her fear, Ming laughed as she ran.

“How long have you been on the run?” Kaz said.

She consulted her internal clock. “Two hours.”

“And they’ve already found you?”

“Hah. They found me about eight minutes after I did it.”

“That’s gotta be a record, Ace.”

Ming stifled a grimace at the nickname. Short for Legacy, her one-time coder handle. Only Kaz called her that now. It was a lifetime since she’d been allowed to code anything, much less create new cyber-tech.

Well, ten years, but it felt like a lifetime. Ten years since the world inside the walled city tumbled into darkness. Since the organics stole a million lives in the night–hers included. Since New Beijinsk had stopped being a home for people like her, and started being their prison.

Ten years, and not a day longer, even if it killed her. Which, it probably would.

“Anubis substation is only four blocks east of you,” he said. “We can broadcast from there.”

“No,” Ming said, cutting west toward downtown. “I need the central hub. I’m going for Osiris.”

Kaz blew out a hard breath, then his keyboard chattered again. “If we survive the night, you owe me so many beers.”

She gave a dubious grin. “If we survive, I’ll serve them to you in a French maid outfit.”

“Don’t tease me, Ace. I’m fragile.”

A series of pings wiped the smile from her face. Ming glanced behind to see six red dots pulse on her virtual map.

“The beacons barely slowed them down! Must be tracking my blood instead of my sig.”

“Blood?Who’s on your tail? I’m not . . . Ace, even with all my back doors, I’m not seeing any active deployment.”

Of course not. The last thing the organics in power would want is to draw attention to this. They wouldn’t even want their own law enforcement to know. That meant going darker. It meant sending the bogeymen.

She could hardly believe she was about to say this. “It’s the Raptor Corps.”

Kaz scoffed. “Not possible. They’re urban legends. Something the g-men use to scare us into being good little boys and girls.”

Ming’s navigation chimed. Halfway to her target now. Yet, if she kept taking this route, the creatures would eventually catch up. Then her night would end abruptly. She needed a new route–something radical enough to change the status quo.

Veering down a side street, she rifled through her most dangerous options in the blink of an eye, and promptly chose the most foolish one. The floating blue line reoriented. Twelve blocks away, an impossibly tall building pulsed–the tallest, grandest building in the city.

“I saw them, Kaz,” she said, surging her adrenaline. “They ripped through my apartment wall to get at me.”

The claw marks on her back still burned. One of them had gotten close enough to touch her. Her crusade had almost been over before it even began. She suppressed a shudder.

Kaz swore again. “Freakin’ organics, man.”

As usual, the fact that Kaz himself was an organic, not a hybrid of flesh and cybernetic implants like Ming, seemed to be lost on him. All these years, he’d been her one remaining friend on the “other side.” Had she ever told him how much he meant to her? Would she get the chance?

Stay focused. You’re not dying just yet.

—–

The building practically glowed. Impossibly tall, the steel and artificial diamond structure knifed gracefully toward the sky. Its facets caught the downtown lights and reflected them across the city. Ming had admired it many times, in what seemed like a different life.

Now, in this life, she found herself climbing its fire escape as fast as her body could move. Before long, she heard bestial snarls below, then the tell-tale scrape of claws on metal. Good. Let them follow.

“Uhhh, Ace?” Kaz said. “You do know you’re almost out of fire escape, right?”

“Oh, no,” she replied, deadpan. “What will I do now?”

“Alright, alright. I’m just trying to be a good wingman.”

“I know.”

“So, you gonna let me in on your plan now?”

“Too dangerous. Can’t know exactly which signals are getting zapped onto the mesh–I don’t want to risk giving anything away.”

Plus, the fact that the plan has changed about a dozen times in ten minutes. But he didn’t need to know that.

“Well, I’m scrambling your sig on the mesh as much as I can, but they’re pulling out some serious tricks to get at you. You’ve got drone support when you need it, too–just say the word.”

“Thanks.”

Ming reached the highest point of the fire escape and craned her neck. Where the metal scaffold ended, the remaining two-thirds of the building began. Nowhere else to go now. This was the end of the line. Or, it would be, for an organic.

Shunting power from her legs to her arms, Ming flexed her fingers and prepared to do the next stupid thing in a long list of stupid things. Then she began to climb.

Reinforced tendons, carbon fiber-laced bones, and a biochemical management system–they all worked together to keep her attached to the side of the building. Wind whipped at her body as story after story disappeared below her.

“You truly are insane,” Kaz said. She could practically hear him rubbing his face in frustration. “Mind telling me why you’re playing Spider-Man?”

“Are you picking up any Raptors following me?”

“. . . no.”

“Ah-hah.”

“Still, that’s not exactly the best way to . . . ”

Ming lowered the comm’s volume to a murmur. Kaz became a pleasant white nose in the background of her thoughts. Now there was only the ascent. And the crazy wind sheer–there wasn’t an implant that could keep her from shivering.

Inch by inch, breath by breath, Ming invaded the sky on the back of a giant silver bullet. Time blurred, the city below faded away. When she finally reached the roof and flopped onto her back, her fingers bled from every tip. She lay there panting, marveling at the utter stupidity of what she’d just done. Even her implants had never been built for something like that.

Oh, and Kaz was still talking. Ming turned up her volume.

“And on top of that, I thought you said–”

“I’m on the roof.”

Huh?” Kaz fell silent. She envisioned him double and triple checking his feeds. “Uh, okay. So, now what?”

Stifling a tired groan, Ming climbed to her feet. The massive building had tapered to a tiny patch of square, flat roof about forty feet across. She crossed to the opposite side, passing the service hatch that opened to the floor below.

“Now we wait.”

“Now you wait. I’m still busy fighting off the digital goons trying to shut you down.”

“You’re right. Want to trade places?”

“Well, see, this chair is just starting to get comfortable.”

“Uh-huh.”

Smirking, Ming peered over the roof’s edge. Far below, a myriad of buildings clustered around the massive one she’d surmounted. Each one boasted different fancy metallic colors, sporting configurations that said the builders knew they were living in the future. The only exception was one squat brick building between them, brown and dingy, like a utility box in an exotic garden.

“Can you queue up two buzz drones? Also, the raptors have dropped off my map, so I need their location.”

“Buzz drones are already close, so just say the word. Which deployment do you want?”

“Arc welder for Drone One. No deployment for Drone Two.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“Ooo-kaaaay this is me, not asking why. Anyway, the raptors or whatever they are should be . . . wait.” A torrent of keystrokes echoed over the comm. “Ming, they’re gone. Last I saw, they were on the fire escape, and now they’re nowhere!”

Three seconds later, Ming heard the sound she’d been expecting. Her heart pounded in her ears. Okay, Legacy. Let’s see if you’ve still got it. Steeling herself, she turned and put her back to the ledge, and waited.

The access hatch burst open with a clang. Six blurred forms shot through the opening and slammed down onto the roof. In a blink they arrayed themselves in wedge formation behind the alpha, pointed straight at Ming.

Now, for the first time, she got a good look at her hunters. At four feet tall, their skin was a conglomeration of feathers and scales and impact-resistant armor. Each regarded her with piercing eyes–one organic, the other a glowing cybernetic implant. She could feel them probing at her through the mesh, trying to delve into the secrets of her enhancements. She threw out as much static as she could, but that wouldn’t hold forever.

They approached slowly. Swaying on powerful hind legs, sniffing and nipping at the air with razor-sharp teeth, they appeared every inch the hunters that the textbooks said they were in their native era. Before someone had found a way to bring them back.

Ming dropped into a half-crouch and braced for whatever they might throw at her. For now, though, they appeared satisfied to have her cornered. While the other five spread out in a wider wedge–cutting off even the thought of a miraculous escape–the alpha stopped just out of arm’s reach and studied her. She wondered which organics were watching through that red electronic eye.

As the alpha stared, the lights stopped tracing across its snout, turned solid red, and flared brighter. Ming gasped as foreign thoughts slammed into her mind.

Pharaoh lives. Pharaoh rules all. You surrender.

Was a dinosaur actually talking to her? If she hadn’t been fighting for her life, she’d be amazed. Rattling her head, she forced herself to focus.

“You know I can’t do that. Over a million hybrids in this city, and what did we do wrong besides try to be better?”

Order threatened. Measures necessary.

“No. They’re lying to you. We only wanted to live our lives. But people are terrified of what they can’t control. That’s the only reason Pharaoh exists–because the organics felt obsolete!” Gesturing wildly, Ming worked to obscure her face as she whispered her next words. “Kaz, welder drone on the roof.”

“What am I welding?”

“What do you think?”

“. . . right. Gotcha.”

Ming calmed and faced the alpha squarely. “Look at yourselves–you’re hybrids, just like me. You think Pharaoh will stop with us? Eventually, you–”

Pharaoh keeps us alive. Pharaoh is good.

The thought fell on Ming like a ton of bricks. Of course. The perfect way to create loyal servants–make their lives dependent on the very system oppressing them. She knew Pharaoh had evolved since the early days, but this was new even to her. For these creatures, it almost made her regret what she was about to do.

Almost.

The alpha stepped closer. Pharaoh protects. You threaten.

“No, I’ll show you all!” Ming raved, waving her arms like a madwoman. Another distraction. “Flyby, Kaz. Low and fast,” she whispered.

“I’ll do you one better. Give me ten seconds.”

The alpha advanced again. Ming backed away until her heels were touching the roof’s edge. Head lowered, the creature bared its teeth.

Order is good.

She shook her head. “Slavery is not order.”

“Five seconds, Ace.”

It is over now.

The alpha coiled like a snake, preparing to strike. Ming mirrored its posture. Please let me be fast enough. A screech tore from the alpha’s mouth and her blood went cold.

“Incoming!” Kaz said.

Half a second before the alpha could leap, twenty buzz drones swarmed the roof, peppering the raptors with rubber riot bullets and arcs of electricity.

With those eerie hunter’s screams, the creatures responded with razor-sharp claws and guns from compartments along their spines. They spit steel-jacketed bullets into the sky, each bullet also carrying viruses that attacked the drones’ operating systems on impact.

“Heads up, Ace.”

Ming turned skyward as the twenty-first drone appeared. Barreling through the chaos, it aimed its flight path directly overhead.

Here comes the flyby I ordered.

With another fffiiip, the micro-grappler sprang from her left arm to wrap around the drone’s lower frame. She felt a surge of elation as the monofilament pulled taut and her feet lifted off the roof.

The elation died as a sharp pain lanced through her right arm. All upward movement stopped, and Ming felt her body being pulled in two directions. The alpha had her–its powerful jaws clamped tightly around her right forearm. Snarling, it stepped backward, yanking her body back toward the roof. Crying out in pain, Ming locked eyes with the creature and met with dead-eyed determination. Neither of them would give way, that much was obvious.

Of course it would come down to her last resort. Here at the end, it seemed inevitable. As if this was always going to happen. So, burying her last twinge of guilt and regret, Ming sent the two mental commands that she’d hoped never to have to send.

Her right arm–the arm that every record said was organic, the arm that appeared completely natural, the arm that she never used in any cybernetic capacity–detached. Separating at the shoulder, it went limp in the alpha’s mouth while Ming shot high into the air with Kaz’s drone.

It took only the space of a breath for the Raptor Corps to figure out what was coming next. As one, they bolted for the roof hatch–their only escape. And as one, they discovered it had been welded shut.

Five seconds later, her second command executed, and the arm exploded.

The roof became a ball of fire and concussive force, flinging debris out over the city. Ming turned, shielding her eyes from the brightness of the blast. Even at this distance a hot wind gusted around her.

As the roar faded away, an intense quiet seemed to fill the night air. Ming opened her eyes to see the maelstrom consuming the tower’s top level. Good. In all the chaos, hopefully they’d lose her just long enough.

“Whoa,” Kaz breathed over the comm, his voice subdued. “You’ve been keeping secrets.”

“Yeah,” she said, feeling sheepish. “Sorry.”

“Hey, it worked. No apologies.”

She gave a wan smile. “You know where I need to go?”

“Already heading there.”

Peering down past her feet, Ming watched as the drone lowered her to the most boring, and therefore most out of place, building in the city’s center. The squat brown structure, its plain brick an eyesore among artistic monuments to human ingenuity.

Osiris Hub–the central station for all meshworks systems in New Beijinsk–hidden in plain sight. And on its roof, a cleverly disguised broadcast array. It almost seemed to be waiting for her.

As Ming touched down next to the array, her head filled with a billion echoes of all the data flowing through this unassuming machine. She stepped closer, doing her best to shut out the noise and focus.

She held out her left arm–well, her only arm now–as hybrid bio-cables snaked from her fingertips and dove inside the array’s structure, searching for connection points. In mere moments, her body jolted as it connected with a more immense source of power and information than she’d ever experienced.

No hesitation. With a long, slow breath to prepare herself, Ming gave the command to send.

Ten years, she’d been waiting for this moment. Ten years since the organics who ran New Beijinsk had decided the hybrids who shared their city couldn’t be trusted. Ten years since they had launched Pharaoh, a programming masterpiece designed to suppress the higher functions of all cybernetic implants and hand control of them to the “normal” people.

Ten years since Ming had begun her slow, quiet rebellion, deftly carving her way through Pharaoh’s source code, painstakingly erasing her trail each night. Ten years since she’d begun designing her own masterpiece–one that she added to every night, with every new shred of knowledge about her enemy–one that would finally set things right. Two hours since she’d finally finished her code, tried it on herself, and broken free of Pharaoh’s chains.

And now, in only ten seconds, that code spread to every single hybrid in New Beijinsk.

In her mind, Ming heard the sound of a million chains shattering. With a satisfied smile, she sent her very last command and triggered the EMP hidden in her chest.

—–

Darkness.

Murky.

Floating.

Then a lance of light.

A jolt of sensation.

With a gasp, Ming sat bolt upright. Two dozen glowing wires nearly tore from her body. She glanced around wildly, desperate to get her bearings in the unfamiliar place.

“Whoa, whoa, easy.”

Hands gripped her shoulders and pushed, lowering her gently but firmly onto her back again. As she caught her breath and her heartbeat slowed, Ming finally focused on the face hovering over her. Kaz stared down, examining the wires snaking over her body for any loosened connections.

“What happened?” Her voice came out as a dry croak.

“What happened is you nearly killed yourself,” he muttered absently, tugging on a pair of wires connected to the stump of her right arm. “You built this piece yourself?”

She nodded.

“The EMP, too?”

She nodded.

“How?”

Ming tried and failed to answer, forced herself to swallow, then tried again. “Very slowly, bit by bit every night so they wouldn’t notice on Pharaoh’s activity logs.”

“And this all took you . . . ?”

She nodded. “Ten years.”

Kaz leaned back, blowing out a breath as if overwhelmed by the thought. “You started all this the day after they locked you down, didn’t you?”

“From the moment I realized what they’d done to us.”

“I see,” Kaz said. Avoiding her gaze, he turned away to reach for another tool.

Ming reached over with her good hand and grabbed his arm. “Did work? What’s happening? How long was I out? How did you get me and–?”

“I had a drone outside your EMP’s radius, fortunately, and sent it to retrieve you. And you’ve been out for three days.”

“Three days?!” She stared at her friend in dread. “What’s happened, Kaz? What aren’t you telling me?”

Kaz hesitated, moved to speak, then stopped again. “Well, let me ask you . . . I mean, I was just wondering.” He took a deep breath. “About that French maid outfit–are we talking rental, or do you already have one in your closet?”

As Ming studied her friend, his hesitation transformed into a broad smile. His expression burst with joy, and she saw the ultimate answer in his eyes.

“. . . it worked. Didn’t it?”

Kaz nodded, barely able to contain himself now. His words came on waves of excited breaths. “You broke them free, Ace. All of them. They got the code, and since you fried Osiris the organics couldn’t do anything to counteract it. We won.”

Heart full to bursting, and more than a little overwhelmed, Ming stared at the ceiling with tears welling in her eyes. Kaz gripped her hand.

“Your code–they’re calling it The Moses.”

The Moses. Ming wiped joyful tears from her eyes. “I like it.”

 

 

 

 


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RYAN DALTON either wears a cape and fights crime abroad, or he writes about it from his red captain’s chair at home. Perhaps he’s a superhero that’s trained with the world’s finest heroes, or he’s a lifelong geek who sings well and makes a decent dish of spaghetti. It’s also plausible that he’s been plotting to take over the world since he was ten, or that he’s since been writing novels to stir the heart and spark the imagination. Either way he lives in an invisible spaceship that’s currently hovering above Phoenix, Arizona. Want to talk to Ryan? Hit him up on Twitter or email him at RyanDaltonWrites.@gmail.com

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2 Comments

  1. Here we have someone leaping from a roof and using a grappling hook *stored in their actual arm meat* to swing to safety because they’ve hacked the oppressive AI imprisoning everyone and are being chased by dinosaur cops.

    That’s…that has to be the coolest sentence I’ve ever written about an arena story. This was excellent fun and was actually difficult to edit because I just kept getting bursts of adrenaline and joy while following our hero in her escape. Plus there’s a nice over-arching story told here in broad, confident, strokes that ups the ante in a great way. Sometimes we get stories here that feel like they’re part of larger books. I’m never sure how to take those, I usually feel like they are just incomplete thoughts. Here we have a story that happily tells us the larger book-like plot, but does so neatly packaged in a short story. Plus there are freaking raptors with lasers.

    An excellent entry. I’m very curious to see how the judges respond. They can be sticklers for the prompt, and while dinosaurs are obviously in this story in a big way, I can’t decide for myself if they’re central enough.

    But they have lasers so who cares…

  2. I have lots of adjectives about this story. Cool. Slick. Exciting. Gripping. That’s just four, I could go on. I won’t.

    I like the confidence, I like the ease with which Ryan drops us into the story and the setting. I like how I get to know quite a bit about the setting without there being much in the way of exposition. I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to this story for hints and tips.

    The only thing I’m missing are dinosaurs. I was sort of hoping that the protagonists would turn out to be dinosaurs of some kind. So to have them turn up as cops was a little underwhelming. Cool, but underwhelming. In the end they were just souped up K-9 units. A threat, but not the key to or the core of the story.

    So I don’t know which way to jump with this. On the one hand, it’s really well written and it pushes a bunch of reader buttons for me. On the other…am I in the mood to be taken along by the fun and set the prompt aside or not? Because it is undeniably fun, and an undeniably good read.

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