The city cried out for help.
[Transverse City was the bastard offspring of Chicago and Detroit, a sprawling trans-spatial super highway with a twelve-gauge load of miles between the mega-levels of bad road that rocketed into the sky like the launch of the Alchemax advertisement satellite back in ’91. The megacorp thought that a satellite beaming product placement ads straight into peoples’ brains from outer space would make them some money. Naturally…it did.]
The citizens’ broken bodies littered the fragmented infrastructure, painting a grim picture of a madman’s genocidal tendencies.
[The biz suits and the megacorps used to rule here, too. First it was Alchemax…then D/Monix…Doom…and now? Now everyone is pissing in their pants, bleeding in the gutters from massive head wounds, crackling forth with any shockin’ riotous act that could possibly be conceived. Nobody is in control now, everything is legal again…free will is more than just a figment of television past and Ethernet dreams. The city is ours.]
Children and the homeless scattered like rats at the sound of the engine. The legend was true; the hollow face painted on the walls of broken buildings was real. The halo of righteous allegiances was there to help them, to save them, to give them back everything they had lost in the fall of the City. The street gangs of toxic zombies and sewer line waste paused in their gutting of small animals at the sound, their hearts dropping into the pits of their stomachs. They knew what was coming.
[The city may be ours. Hell, we fought hard enough for it. There’s one question, though…who in their right mind would want a place like this?]
The steel and rubber sole of the industrial strength, theft-deterrent boot crushed the cracked pavement under an obscenely heavy foot. The Ford Velociraptor 900 eased to the ground as the propulsion unit powered off, allowing the vehicle’s owner the chance to abandon it in favor of walking. The people in the broken hovels of unrest and dirty penance each came out of the woodwork, one by one by one.
“It’s him,” one remarked.
“The Rider,” another gasped.
[They look at me as if I’m their savior, as if I can lead them to something better. Not my biz, I’m afraid.]
Zero Cochrane scanned the growing crowd with digital eyes. They had taken to calling him the Ghost Rider, an archival agent of retribution that prowled the back roads of twentieth century America. The robotic body with the skull surrounded by holographic flame had probably helped with that conclusion. The warbot’s sensors made him aware of every tiny movement in the area, a bad section of anywhere straight in the middle of the first level of Transverse City. In other words…Hell.
[These people are crying for help, but not the kind I can give. There’s only one thing I can give them.]
“Skull Face?” a young girl asked upon approach. “My mommy, she won’t wake up. The rocks hit her in the head. Please wake her up for me, please.”
The Ghost Rider looked down at the young girl, cybernetic appendages bulging with anger and stress.
[What can I give these people?]
“You know, once upon a time I was the greatest hacker in the multiverse.”
Kylie Gagarin sighed in complacency at one of the few standing buildings in the City, a watering hole called the Bar Code. She’d surveyed the crumbling remains of D/Monix with her own eyes, the building having been destroyed by the Ghost Rider on his way out of town. The information lockdown by the press in Chicago had kept the outside world from knowing the fate of her home, the other megacorps ecstatic at D/Monix’s fall. The big prodigal overlord of trans-atlantic road warfare had gone the way of the dinosaurs…extinction, with extreme prejudice.
“Lately, though, I thought I’d lost my touch. Like I was slowly becoming obsolete, while the new skeltered generation of hotwire dominators took over my world view.”
Taking a drink of her Nuclear Sundance, the tickling sensation in her throat grew more noticeable. This was her third drink, yet she was still stone cold sober. One NS could knock a spud on his ass. Three should have killed her.
“That was before the Neurotics Wizard gave me the newest in digital sunshine…the Slaveboy Symphonic System 9011! Now I can surf data with the best of ‘em, and all the babes in the sliverways know my name! Just dial up the NW line and ask for a credit extension…and tell ‘em Tsunami sent you!”
Kyle clinked the empty glass against the bar, signaling to the robot waiter that she needed a refill. “Fill it to the top, C-Gram. Turn that shit off the tube while you’re at it. Sick to death of hacker thug wannabes.”
The machine form spun its appendages in various motions, only having been patched together for a short time. A newborn once again, rebuilt after having been destroyed by Doom’s agents during his takeover of the country. The Bar Code’s owner had reactivated the robot promptly, knowing that the best way to get over a tragedy was to drown the sorrows in drink. Only bar in town, where everybody knows your name…then tries to kill you and steal your data card.
“Shockin’ wasteland now, C,” Kylie muttered as the television screens flickered at a random pace between channels, “we’re livin’ in full ghetto preliminaries; feel free to run the hamster wheel.”
[Vengeance. Easy to commit to, harder to go through with.]
“The men, Skull Face. They did something to Mommy.”
[My life’s been one, long, burning scream since the Ghostworks made me what I am today. They saved my life, while at the same time condemning me to a non-existence of artificial intelligence. Ran on autopilot for so long, I don’t even know the first place to start rebuilding.]
The three men jumped and ran, leaving the bloody and butchered woman lying in the rubble. Her head was caved in due to the rocks that the men had used to subdue her. The pants she wore were ripped to shreds, panties pulled apart at the crotch area so as to allow them easier access. The Ghost Rider studied the woman’s body, picking up fibrous details that would allow him to track the perpetrators into the ground. The first man stopped his flight, turning to produce an ancient PK 1130-mm pistol.
[The Pillar Kaman 1130 millimeter laser sighted revolver was a big deal back in the 40’s, until the manufacturer realized how shockin’ obsolete they were. Nosebleed violators of the ordinance law of ’57, the PK can still be found on the black market. Owned a few myself, back in the meat days. Now, the son of a glitch won’t even dent my chrome.]
The flash of the bullet exploding from the pistol’s muzzle lit up the darkened roadway, streaking a golden flame trail through the air. The Ghost Rider held his ground as the bullet flamed across his metallic frame, barely singeing the chassis. The little girl gasped as the warbot’s eyes blazed red, a thin laser beam igniting the air on the way to its target. The man screamed in pain as the beam burned a hole straight through his body, exiting out his back in a thin expulsion of red.
“The…the other two got away,” one of the downrampers explained, their eyes transfixed on the smoldering corpse of the gunman.
“S’ok,” the Ghost Rider said, “Got their DNA strands burned into ROM. I’ll find them, when they last shockin’ expect it.”
“But…my mommy?” the little girl questioned as she stared at her mother’s body. Tearful eyes locked with the red sensor ports of the Rider’s, questioning the world and everything in it with that single gaze. The tears streamed like a river after her hero shook his head “no”.
“Listen up!” Zero shouted to everyone around him. “The corp’s fallen. The biz suits aren’t around anymore. It’s a free for all down here, ESPECIALLY down here. Watch your backs, or this,” he pointed to the woman’s body, “will happen to every shockin’ last one of you.”
“Thank you,” the mass of skunge workers expressed, some even attempting to lay hands upon the being they felt could save them. Their protector. Their savior.
“Don’t thank me,” Zero answered as he mounted his bike, “I’m not here to help you. I don’t give two shocks about any of you. Vid?”
With that final statement, the living urban legend gunned the thruster and exploded away in a gust of wind and fury.
“You know, most people such as myself would really get off on all the carnage around here. Not me though, I think this sucks.”
“Because I didn’t get to do any of it myself.”
Salvador Sangiacomo lit up a cigarette as he studied the woman in front of him. Fires burned on the horizon of level seven, billowing clouds of smoke into the murky air. His own cigarette smoke just added to the haze.
“Such a serious man,” the woman stated as she relaxed against the cracked wall. Thirty stories up, and still the two watched the fires. They were coming closer, Salvador could tell by the smell.
“You can taste ash in the air from the fires,” he stated. Turning toward his companion, he noticed her black bodysuit rippling in the crimson dawn of the outside world. Another drag on the cigarette framed her in a halo of smoke, accentuating her beauty even more.
“I met an angel once, did I tell you that? He was all shine and chrome, sparkling in the lights of a dance floor full of frenzy. He kissed me with his fist, gave me the mark you keep staring at. The scar reminds me to be careful, and take nothing for granted. The angel taught me that.”
“You’ve got some serious problems,” he said as he reached for her hand. A glove made of leather and soaked in blood embraced his palm, sweat dripping from the intense heat surrounding him. Salvador smiled as he helped her to her feet, wiping away a bit of dirt from her face.
“You’re a good listener, that’s why I keep you around,” she answered with a smile. The two leaned in to kiss, but the woman suddenly pulled away. A finger extended to his lips, a shaking of her head teasing him with a flaming passion.
“C’mon, babe,” he stated with a look of frustration, “you’re breaking my heart here!”
“Oh, you have no idea.”
“Dude, come ON!” Valiant shouted as he pulled on the coat sleeve of his ally. The two were running for their lives, hoping to escape the solid steel demon that nipped at their heels. Mud just laughed, the effects of the White Heat in his system still jacking him up to a state of violent euphoria.
Mud threw back his shoulder, the back of his palm connecting with Valiant’s face. “Let the freak come, man! I’ll give him a shockin’ reason to STAY dead!”
“Shockin’ synthetic courage,” Valiant muttered as he scampered back to his feet. He knew there was no way to stop the ghost, especially when better than they had tried and failed. There was nothing to do but run, even if it meant leaving Mud to face certain death. His friend was still shouting to the heavens as Val turned the corner into the blind alley. The wall appeared out of nowhere, knocking him straight on his ass.
The shimmering data halo of the Ghost Rider flared against the night sky, black eye-sockets burrowing into Val’s brain.
“You should’ve seen this coming, pusbag,” the Rider said as he lifted his massive right leg. The metal appendage crashed down, stomping Valiant’s kneecap deep into the concrete.
“Gaaaaaaaahh! I’m sooo sorry!” the human screamed as the silver creature ground his foot through the bone of his leg. “I tried to stop Gill and Mud from raping that girl, I really did!”
“Sure you did,” the Rider stated with his cold, robotic detachment, “that’s why you were the one that hit her in the head with a shockin’ rock.”
“Please, man, don’t kill me,” Valiant pleaded, tears streaming down his face, “don’t shockin’ kill me…”
“You pusbags killed yourselves,” Zero replied calmly, “the moment you decided it was hunting season on downramper sex organs.”
The murderer continued to sob weakly.
“Ratbiters like you are what’s gonna get us all killed,” the Ghost Rider began, fully realizing that his words were falling on deaf ears. “We survived so much shit in this City, but right now we’ve been written off by the biz suits as a lost cause. All it takes is a few like you and your pals to make this a national emergency. If they caught wind of the type of shit you’re doing, this place would be put under martial law in a shockin’ heart beat. Is that what you WANT? Do you want several stealth smokers to fly over and obliterate this place off the map?”
“Don’ kill me, man,” Valiant reiterated.
“Shock this,” the Rider decided after a moment of thought. His massive foot shot forward, the toe of his boot connecting under his victim’s jaw. Valiant’s head came right off, with only a slight tearing sound as the death knell.
He was unfiltered, like a menthol cigarette. Streaming along the liquid data that made up the digital superhighway, Zero Cochrane was in his own personal slice of heaven. Other people had Thor or Jesus, but Zero had something better...he had fucking Che Guevara, Charles Manson, and Bill Gates all rolled into one archetype.
He was reveling in his newfound freedom after having been freed from the cybernetic shell of the Ghost Rider. He knew he wasn’t the real Zero Cochrane now, sure, but that didn’t mean he acted any differently. He was a copy of the original brainware, but he was still an anarchist at heart. Being an artificial intelligence alive on the datastreams made things seem so much simpler, but if there was one thing he felt his new lifestyle lacked, it was a purpose. What was his new mission, now that he’d successfully dismantled the bastard operating system of the Ghostworks?
In other words, what could he fuck up next?
Let the original Zero ride around in the meatspace, even if he did have the panache to finally take down D/Monix. There was Kylie, but she was little more than a bitter memory these days, a ghost he’d long made peace with. He needed something dense, something he could get his digital hands dirty on...he needed something only the stream could give him.
He stopped his fluid movement, allowing the blur of information to come to a screeching halt around him. The cyberspace was manipulated around him, taking on a familiar atmosphere.
Red Jack’s Virtual Brothel, the neon button blinked before him.
With a smirk on his digitized face, the Zero who wasn’t Zero reached forward and punched the button.
His name was Mud, and it fairly accurately summed up the extent of his mental facilities. He’d talked bravely moments before, but the sight of the giant metal warbot scraping his friend’s brain matter off of the heel of it’s massive boot had caused his drug-induced courage to take a backseat to an emotion even more primal: fear.
He’d seen the Ghost Rider before, as had most of the downramper population, and while the monster had always looked menacing there seemed something...different...about it now. In the past, the Rider had seemed to focus itself on dismantling CSS and UrMan securicops, leaving the skels to stand by and cheer him on. Something had happened since D/Monix’s fall, something had made the demon discontent with his former victims.
“Shockin’ system, can’t leave a fella alone to do his biz,” he panted out as he ran, mumbling to no one in particular. Weaving in and out of the densely packed alleyways that littered the side of the highway, he was confident that he could lose his pursuer. He’d lived in Transverse-Down his whole life, so he surely knew more about the area than some blackboot serial killing appliance.
He never saw the pencil-thin red beam streak across the alley exit in front of him. He ran full tilt through the opening, but immediately knew something was wrong. He stopped running involuntarily, though his momentum kept him going forward in a vertical motion. He hit the pavement hard, coughing up blood from deep within his chest. Rolling over onto his back, he looked down at his chest to see the cauterized burn mark that stretched across his breast and forearms.
“That’s gotta hurt,” the buzzing voice of the Ghost Rider sounded off, prompting Mud to roll his eyes backwards. Standing over and behind him was the skeletal avenger, and though he knew it was impossible, Mud could’ve sworn that the monster was smiling.
“What’s...what’s hurtin’?” Mud said through more coughing spurts of blood.
“You ran through a laser set on it’s highest frequency,” Zero replied, his eyes pulsing with red energy, “meaning it didn’t just cut you on its way through your body, it also interspersed enough radiation to turn a country into a giant steambathed graveyard.”
“Wreck you, man,” Mud said, spitting a large wad of blood into the air, splattering it across the Ghost Rider’s steel chassis.
“Oh, we ain’t done, pusbag,” Cochrane admitted as he crouched down beside Mud’s head. Raising his right arm, he allowed the electrically energized chainsaw emerge slowly, crackling to life as it roared and screamed to furious life. “You know what I use this for?” The Rider asked, enjoying the widening of the downramper’s eyes.
Mud shook his head negatively. The Ghost Rider pulled his arm back, lining the saw with the rapist’s head.
“Emergency dental surgery...”
“I oughta shockin’ kill you, you piece of wannabe hacker shit!”
Dr. Neon raised his hands defensively as Kylie Gagarin slammed him against the wall of the Bar Code’s unisex bathroom. “Whoa, chick...chill out a nanosecond!”
“Let me see if I understand this,” she said through gritted teeth. “You were contacted by some weird freak of an AI program who wanted to destroy the Ghost Rider. You didn’t give a shock about how the guy saved your ass from D/Monix a while back, all you cared about...”
“...all I cared about was you!” Neon protested, prompting a backhand slap across his cheek from Kylie’s hand.
“You allowed whatever this thing was to kick Zero out of the Ghost Rider body, you shockin’ moron! Who knows what kinda trouble that GIANT FUCKING WARBOT is gonna do with somebody else in the driver’s seat?”
“But...but...” Neon stuttered, “I thought it was the only way to get you to, y’know, hook up with me. With the big GR outta the way, I thought you’d be all happy.”
“Wreck me,” Kylie whispered, closing her eyes in disbelief. Finally, without notice, she rammed her knee high into Jimmy Alhazared’s groin, causing him to fall to the urine soaked floor. After kicking him the gut once for good measure, Kylie turned and made her way to the bathroom door. As she reached the exit, she turned back at the moaning teenager she was leaving behind.
“I hope you piss blood for a month,” she spat, “I’m going to find Zero. Something tells me you’re gonna get worse from him.”
Neon watched as the girl he thought he’d loved leave, and as he massaged his testicles a single thought kept repeating in his head.
“I’m so dead...”
[I’d made up my mind after D/Monix fell. I was gonna leave this city and hit the open road, make my own destiny out in the destination unknown. I don’t have a conscience; I purged that a long time ago. So why does one little girl with haunted eyes make me feel like my whole life is a lie?]
He sat straddling his bike, allowing the crowd of downrampers to slowly emerge into the street from their strategically built shanty town. There was blood on his fist and bits of hair sticking to the wet parts of his boots, but that only made the homeless denizens want to inspect their hero further. Within moments, the Ghost Rider was surrounded by his people, the huddled and crying masses of Transverse City. It wasn’t until he saw the little girl from before that he spoke.
“I spent the better part of my life fightin’ against this shockin’ place,” he stated, his voice amplified from in-built speaker systems installed in his throat, “but that doesn’t make me your hero. I hate everyone in this place, from the lowest ratbiter in Level One to the highest biz suit in Level Ten. But we’re in anarchy now, and what’s to keep you all from killing each other?”
No response came from the crowd, nothing but a muted blanket of whispers.
[Don’t do it. Don’t give me a reason...]
“Mr. Skull Face?” the little girl that had become an orphan in less time than it took to conceive her began.
[Don’t give me a reason to stay.]
“Thank you, Mr. Skull Face,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears as she placed a small hand on his silver arm, “thank you for hurting the men that killed my mommy.”
“If you need me,” the Ghost Rider said as he placed his hands on the handlebars of his bike, “I’ll be around.”
Gunning the combustible engine, Zero Cochrane popped a hovering wheelie before he sped off, the noise of the vehicle echoing through the buildings that lined the highway. Unfortunately, the engines weren’t quite loud enough to drown out the cheers of the crowd that followed behind him.
Salvador Sangiacomo had just died, having choked to death on the pool of blood that had risen from his lungs into his throat. Strapped to his bed, the last sight caught by his eyes had been the large knife being stabbed into his chest and then slowly pulled downward through his body, cleaving organs and entrails as it progressed down past his navel. He had died painfully and in agony, and the woman named Heartbreaker had loved every minute of it.
“My therapist said I should’ve been aborted in the womb,” the naked woman said aloud, speaking to the dead Salvador as if he were still able to hold a conversation, “in order to – in his own words, no less – save us all from the misery a person like you will inevitably bring.”
She laughed hysterically at this for several long moments.
“He told me this when I was ten years old,” she continued after regaining her composure, “and me being me, I just had to prove him right. We had sex on his desk during our second meeting, and when he hit an orgasm I ripped out his throat...with my teeth.”
Standing from her chair, she sauntered across the room to the 35th floor apartment’s balcony. The red light from the ongoing blaze that ran rampant through the city bathed her nude body in crimson light, illuminating her in the tint of Hell. Raising her arms over her head and running her hands through her raven hair, she giggled like a school girl.
“I’m coming for you, Ghost Rider,” she said in the most innocent sounding voice she could muster, “and we’ll see just who is the better kisser once and for all...”