The drone dives suddenly, swerves past rusting cables, a glass-tubed skybridge, two clotheslines, and an immense and gaudy neon sign in the shape of a grinning Buddha. It hovers twenty feet above the street for a long moment before slowing descending towards a dour-looking teenage girl in earbuds leaning against a street sign and staring intently at her phone. The drone pauses at the level of her eyes and waits. The girl, unblinking, simultaneously pages through a news feed and watches a video of a man in a lab coat speaking. The drone imperceptibly drops in altitude, its rotors seeming to sigh, and emits a piercing, modulating tone like two untuned train whistles.
“All right, all right,” Yao says, grimacing. She produces a card and presses it against the base of the drone, which becomes silent again and releases a beige marble into her hand. Yao and the drone depart in separate directions: one straight up, one through an alleyway back towards school.
The audio stream from the video continues in her earbuds: “Though long rumored, Sun Hu represents the first confirmed case of PIDC that was transmitted not by physical contact, or by air, but through electronic means.”
* * *
Yao’s room is humid, almost stifling. The windows are fully opaque and hot, wet air blasts in through a vent in the floor. The only light comes from her computer, a silvery oval flickering dim magenta. Her mouth is a grim mark on an eyeless mask. Her tongue presses against the back of her teeth uneasily. She scans through her interaction logs, looking for anyone who’s linked in any way to the Dreaming Sickness and mercilessly severing any contact with them. It’s slow going: Yao has many, many connections.
Her palms begin to sweat. She can’t focus, her mind summoning unbidden images of pox-marked tongues, halo-eyed stares and trembling fingertips, only to thrust them away as though the image itself held this black contagion. But it couldn’t. Not possible. Still, better to purge any conceivable connection to it.
She hits her first snag when it turns out that one of her contacts was a digital trap: a hypercompressed blob of nearly-empty data that, when accessed, expands like mutant blowfish to occupy all available memory. The scrolling freezes, Yao’s audio stream halts, the touchscreen becomes motionless portrait on glass.
“No, no, no,” she whispers, almost croaking. “How the hell did that get in there?” The contact’s name, glaring up at her from the unresponsive screen, is Bonedaddy3000.
“Damn. Damn,” Yao blinks for what feels like the first time in hours. She slams a palm into her computer and lets it fall on crumpled sheets. She knows whose work this is, knows that no one else would be so disgustingly retro.
She reaches over to the wall, without looking, and flips a big metal switch with a heavy thunk, unthrottling her uplink connection. She takes the beige marble from her pocket and pokes a wiry tube through its surface. Her breathing is quicker.
I am not my body.
She puts the tube to her mouth, and almost instantly a thin stream of liquid flows out of the marble. She props herself against the wall with a pillow under her lower back, legs lazily spread.
I am not my brain.
The taste that of stale water, iron and rust. But not bitterness. This batch is the purest she’s found in a while. She will use this supplier again. She feels her hands tingle, phantom fingers twitching and uncurling. Her tongue feels the edge of the tube, feels the pouring.
I am action and knowledge.
Her eyes see through her bed. The magenta light in the room blossoms into the thousand million colors of data. She stands up and sky bends, the tide red-as-blood recedes. The heads of her former enemies clatter noisily that they might warn her new ones of her coming. She drinks their secrets like a pagan goddess might the blood of a warm sacrifice. Now, her real work can begin.
I am Kali. There will be vengeance.