This is the first instance of The Liminal Cortex within published works. I have included it here as a reminder, for we will revisit this locale quite a bit in book six, Presumed Lost.
I exploded through the burning cubes, shattering them into shards of bleeding glass. Time itself stretched around me, pulling every atom in my body taffy-thin and molten.
The tesseract spat me forth, hurling me out with far more velocity than I’d entered with.
I screamed. I laughed. Every memory I’d ever made burned sandalwood in my mind.
The motorcycle landed, tires shrieking as they hit the ground.
“WHOOOOOAAAAA!” I screamed as I skittered across the smooth black floor.
The ground in front of me spilled into a mirror bright obsidian plane as far as I could see. Gargantuan towers stretched into the darkness above, canting and winding with perfect, meticulous angles.
A cityscape, bent and broken.
I drove down a narrow gap, a dark passage in a labyrinth of spires.
Glinting lights shone along those monoliths, colors I had no name for. I could not study them, however, not when the motorcycle beneath me purred along at what felt like the speed of sound.
“Heh.” I couldn’t help but grin like a maniac. No matter how reckless, Guthrie would have an Alabama snit when I told him about this.
Blake Runner would be proud.
Delacruz? Anya? I used the secondary comm, ticking my head in the same moment to initiate my optics. The shadows that gathered here drifted away, replaced by the half-light of my phaneric node.
Above, the darkness shifted into focus. Entire contingents of mechanical shapes drifted distantly there, moving together by the thousands. They formed lanes of odd craft, stretching into the dim-dark distance.
Guys? No answer on the link. My heart sank, just a bit.
Had they even made it through the tesseract? Anya said that once triggered it would take all of us…
Now I wondered. Perhaps I should—
WARNING. The electric-lime word unfurled over my phaneric node, hovering three feet in front of my face. For an instant, the letters appeared to twist from nothing I knew into English.
“What?” I ducked, peering past the glowing word. It’d never do to flip the bike just because my own system blinded me.
The word faded as a link thundered into me.
You are an unauthorized agent in this area. The words boomed in my secondary comm. The Diseth-In Prefecture requires you to connect to Lattice Node 512.98 and identify yourself.
I don’t have Lattice connectivity! I frantically linked. Only secondary comms. Please advise.
The Diseth-In Prefecture requires you to connect to Lattice Node 512.98.
“I don’t have Lattice connectivity!” I screamed into the darkness. “Designate Lockley disengaged my Crown Nexus!”
The drones seeped out of the floor as if they were dark liquid. They shone gleaming onyx and shimmerant silver. Each had a half halo of topaz light that briefly washed over their feline chassis; scarlet dataglyphs blossomed around them as their systems came on line.
Their tails whipped, slicing the air.
“Fuck me,” I swore, laying down the throttle. “Everything has to go sideways.”
Why couldn’t, just once, everything go right for me? The way it always did for Stone?
I glanced behind myself, wishing I’d kept the Mossburg. Or my cadre.
I didn’t have time to wonder about Sofia and Anya. The drone’s grace astounded me; a cheetah bumbled in comparison. They swam across the smooth passageway, leaping with articulated limbs. Every time they touched the reflective floor, their silvery feet ticked, tat-tat-tat-tat… tat-tat-tat-tat… tat-tat-tat-tat…
From their heads, a sanguine lens shone, only slightly brighter than the umbra of dataglyphs.
Warning. The Diseth-In Prefecture has engaged terminal measures. Please comply. Connect to Lattice Node 512.98.
As if to emphasize this sentiment, one of the drones screeched. A searing flash of gold, saffron, and sunlight tore into the dark-glass floor at my left. That light simply disintegrated the surface, shining through as if the stone were little more than shadow.
Smoke drifted up from the raw wound, smelling like the petrichor whispers of conflux systems.
“Fuck!” I jerked the bike hard to the left, aiming for a narrow pass between two of the mega-structures. To the side of me, words like Psisys Tower and Hou-Byrn Plasm Venting flashed by.
I laid the hammer down, slicing through the shadows.
Behind me, I heard the tat-tat-tat-tat… tat-tat-tat-tat… tat-tat-tat-tat…
I glanced back, only to see the drones closing.
Images of pouncing lions in the Serengeti danced in my head.
I suddenly felt very gazelle-like.
“No Lattice connection!” I screamed into the darkness. “I can’t connect!”
Another scream rent the air.
I swerved hard to the left.
Golden hatred shredded the ground, right where I’d been.
Kitty wasn’t playing fuck around.
“Fine.” I narrowed my eyes and took another hard left, skittering down a narrow way.
Above the slender gap between monoliths, a sign stretched across the structures.
WAC HyperTech Amalgamated
I cast a glance behind me; the drones had lost a few steps. It seemed as if they didn’t corner nearly as well as they sprinted.
“Good to know,” I grumbled.
I instantly began to scan ahead for my next turn. I didn’t know how long Nick’s motorcycle would keep me ahead of them, but it seemed—
Sibyl systems readied, a voice droned in my comm.
I turned my face upward, intuiting the source of the link.
Another drone hung in the air, this one roundish and oblong with shifting plates of midnight black. Its carmine lens focused upon me balefully. Four oddly quirked appendages hung beneath, the joints bending all akimbo, the fingers sharp.
The moment the device linked my secondary comm, its underside burst open with a steaming hiss. Dozens of tiny cubes exploded outward, devices the size of dice. They rolled and scattered all about.
In an instant, each of the five outward facing sides flashed a searing, blipping emerald. Within the next half second, each drone facet fired several short bursts of viridian plasma, transforming the narrow alleyway into a laser-light show.
Thousands upon thousands of sensory scans shone upon me, speeding along sexily on the sleek bike.
Everything those lights touched, they recorded. Details of every surface they came to rest on was transmitted to some Facility database, giving the Designates a picture-perfect model.
Bishop, Michael, the drone linked, Asset 108. If you have not been compromised, please connect to Lattice Node 512.98 and identify yourself with your authorization code.
“I. Fucking. Can’t!” I shrieked into the tenebrous shadows. “I only have the secondary comm!”
Your Designate is being contacted for further appraisals, the system continued. Your Designate will provide guidance and recommendations to all drone response systems.
My heart sank, drowned. It felt as if I breathed molten lead.
Any other moment I would have celebrated the idea. Ling didn’t love my shenanigans but I’d never felt she might want to kill me.
“Cadre allocation has been updated,” I grumbled, speaking in the odd half-tones of Facility systems. “Current Designate is Bertrand Lockley.”
Lockley controlled the response systems.
Twin screams erupted behind me, along with the radiance of topaz hatred.
I swerved wildly to the right, toward an archway with an odd, indigo set of letters across the top. I didn’t even have time to read them before I shot through, almost running down a group of figures in the shadows.
Four or five clumped together, cloaked shapes leapt out of the way, spitting and snarling.
“Hanpa nai!” one shouted.
The radiance from those terrible death-beams flashed across the figure’s face, for but an instant.
Human. Humanish, anyway. It definitely held the universal human expression for “Hey, asshole. I’m walkin’ here!”
“Sorry!” I screamed back over my shoulder. “It’s the murder drones!”
Said murder-drones took the corner, pouncing through the shadows.
The offended silhouettes hurled themselves back against the walls, out of the way.
Another scream heralded a golden ray of death sunshine, burning my way. I jogged left, almost hard enough to topple the bike as it sizzled by.
“No longer fun,” I growled. I remembered now. Motocross sucked when you kept eating pavement.
My next turn looked to be almost three blocks away, an intersection that shone with a dreary blue shine. I absolutely hated my chances against the slaughter-cats in an open sprint…
But I had little choice.