Ergo Sum: A Neuro-Noir Novel

Chapter 1

The Sleepwalker brought me close to my destination, and I surveyed the target. What was once a hospital had been encased in fences and barbed wire, with a perimeter full of Homefront goons. Other prison vans were parked nearby, undoubtedly having held laboratory fodder for whatever fucked up things were going on inside. The grappling hook lacked the range to take us directly to its roof, so the Sleepwalker had to find another entry point.

I saw the van and its escort car coming towards the facility, and the front gate slid opened to let its passengers out. The Sleepwalker wanted a better view of the dead hospital, so it searched for any low flying surveillance drones nearby. It detected an armed UAV heading towards a standoff with some Cause guerrillas, hacked into its camera feed as though no firewall existed, and saw through its electronic eyes for a few moments.

High-res feed was overlaid with an augmented reality display showing the identities of all involved. Homefront troopers gathered around an old building full of red-clad insurgents with ancient rifles. Before them were kneeling hostages with their hands tied behind their heads, some random civilians the Cause had snagged in a desperate bid to escape after a botched raid. The drone identified the civilians from high above, and submitted their identities to its controller. No hostage was any friend or relative of anyone of note, so Homefront had no reason to risk their asses to save anyone.

The bastard behind the controls ordered a missile to be fired at the building. "Unacceptable Collateral," the drone protested, halting the missile launch. For that one moment, the drone had more morals than the fucking coward behind the controls. Even I could predict what would happen next. The manual override predictably overcame it a split second later, and the projectile delivered its deadly cargo. Everything downrange was vaporized like bugs before a blowtorch.

I would have flinched from the carnage had the Sleepwalker not been in control. The Homefront troopers unleashed a volley of grenades and gunfire to obliterate whatever that was left. "All Targets Destroyed," came the drone's tac-rep. The drone headed back to base, and passed over the hospital across from me. I saw the structure from the sky, a towering insult to human dignity giving the finger to the heavens.

The Sleepwalker noticed there had been no smoke from an incinerator or crematorium, and an open mass grave around back was this place's preferred disposal method. An automated excavator dumped another load of fresh cadavers into the pit, dropping them in like garbage. Nearby the disposal area was a weak spot in the defenses, an old storage shed. Having identified our entry point, the Sleepwalker flanked the outer parameter of the facility.

The Sleepwalker stuck to the side streets running around the hospital, lurking through the garbage-choked capillaries of a dead society's infrastructure. There was no telling if sentry bots, booby traps, or worse waited within the decrepit buildings. Navigating through the rubble, it observed every odd sound, every strange object, and probable ambush zones with sensory focus unmatchable by a regular person.

After watching the Sleepwalker navigate its way across town, it found its way to the back of the hospital perimeter. It climbed up on the roof with the active camo engaged, and fired a grappling line to the roof of the hospital. I felt my legs and hands rappel up the side of the building, mounting the defiled corpse of a medical center. If I was in control, thinking about the atrocities inside would make me throw up inside my fucking mouth, but the Sleepwalker didn't need the burden of empathy. Putting a pure sociopath in charge had its advantages when dealing with traumatic situations.

Reaching the top, the Sleepwalker again probed the local wireless, and snatched a floor plan of the building. We reached the top, and my better half loaded a fresh magazine into our rifle. The Sleepwalker preferred the model, as the bullpup configuration made it better up close. It was loaded with electroshock rounds, each with enough juice to take down any Homefront goon or sentry drone we had to. As sociopathic as the Sleepwalker was, I programed him to share my loathing of killing. As loathsome as the goons were, they were just pawns before the real bastards.

Once we ensured the roof was empty, the Sleepwalker picked the lock and descended within the belly of the building. The night-vision implants in my retinas allowed the Sleepwalker to move down the stairs, silently and near-invisibly, keeping our rifle up at all times. To get to the vile heart of this place, I saw the Sleepwalker heading for the laboratory, where the blueprints listed specimen cages and robo-docs for all manner of surgical experiments and whimsical mutilation.

Suddenly, gunshots exploded below us in the stairwell, causing the Sleepwalker to dive for cover. Looking downwards, the Sleepwalker saw two Homefront goons shooting a man charging them down the stairs. The wounded man ran in crouch gait, despite bleeding like a wounded animal. He hissed, raising his hands like claws before a barrage of submachinegun rounds ripped through his torso.

"That's the third zombie breakout this week," one of the goons grumbled. "What the hell are those eggheads doing in the lab?"

The other guard, an overweight man barely fitting into the armor, merely shrugged. "That's classified," Fatso muttered. "Too far above our pay grade for me to give a shit. If something comes out of that door that shouldn't, shoot it."

The Sleepwalker froze in place, considering what it had just overheard. The zombies were often drawn to dead towns like this, lurking in the dark corners and feeding on small animals and each other. The poor bastards were once regular humans, only with the rotten luck to get some basement-brewed neural virus smashing their memories and humanity to shreds of protein. All that was left was pure animal, the insatiable drives to feed, fuck, and fight. If zombie research was going on, the Sleepwalker reasoned that the Neoneuro Medical Research Company was likely involved. The potential payoff for captured data from them just went up by an order of magnitude. The Sleepwalker moved into position near the guards, angling the rifle in such a way to blast the bastards from above. Stairwells could turn into great ambush sites, if you knew the best angles of attack.

The rifle barked twice, the suppressor on the weapon barely functioning as tongues of flame and smoke erupted over my head. One guard went down instantly, but I got to see Fatso stand erect and dazed for a moment before he collapsed like a sack of garbage. Hopefully he didn't have too many heart problems. As the Sleepwalker passed over his unconscious form, he pressed my fingers to Fatso's throat, ensuring there was still a pulse. Chances are, my sociopathic sub-personality probably just showed more care for the asshole's wellbeing than his bosses did.

Behind the bullet-riddled corpse of the zombie was a door leading to the level I was interested in. Carefully opening it, I was greeted with the stink of a thousand living corpses penetrating through my rebreather. I could see makeshift cells, jammed full of writhing and jittering bodies. At the top of each cage was an auto-gun turret dangling from the ceiling, ready to euthanize the poor bastards whenever the bosses willed it. Homefront goons stood guard with machine pistols, electric prods, and shotguns, while a few hazmat-suited scientists sauntered between dimly-lit corridors and offices. The guards were more interested in guarding the cages than investigating the sudden draft from the door, thankfully.

The thrumming of a generator did nothing to drown out the moans and hissing of the zombies, humans reduced to sub-cognitive beasts. The sub-cogs all wore rags soaked with blood and more disgusting things, with the bottoms of their filthy cages covered in piss and shit. I'd hate to be the janitor charged with cleaning this place up. Still, it was cleaner than the Beltway, the putrid snake pit at the heart of Commonwealth. At least they were cheap enough with security here, likely only fearing zombies and the Cause.

The Sleepwalker navigated carefully through the hallways, avoiding the heaviest concentrations of guards and zombies. The floor had been gutted and turned into a zombie prison, with plenty of dark spots and shadows to hide in. My suit's thermoptic camo was wearing down into the red, and needed somewhere to recharge. The Sleepwalker drew up an augmented reality overlay of the prison floor and its electrical systems, charting the nearest point I could recharge. A nearby office offered a wireless inductive charging station, and the door was wide opened. Whoever had worked inside had likely stepped out for a bit. The Sleepwalker went into the office, bolted the door, and hid in the closet. It was still close enough to the inductive zone that I could recharge my batteries.

As the green charge meter laid over my sight rose, we began to listen in on the local chatter and explore the wireless for more juicy info. The Sleepwalker hacked into a local highly "secure" feed, and streamed over my visual readouts. The recording of an archive-cam recorded a hazmat flunky talking with the projection of almost boyish man fitted in a lab-coat and shit-eating grin. A nametag on his pocket introduced him as "Dr. Max Kilgore."

"I must say, these sub-cogs are wildly inconsistent experimental fodder," the scientist complained. "The shear variety of neural degeneration in each one makes them unlikely candidates for future research venues."

"The Homefront guys are getting lazy," the mad scientist's bitch tried to dodge the blame. "We could have had more shipments of political dissidents and Cause POWs, but General Trasker-"

Kilgore's grin turned into clenched teeth. "Enemy combatants," he corrected. "They are enemy combatants."

"Sorry," the lackey continued. "Anyway, if you could convince the Homefront guys to send us more healthy humans, or at least no more zombies, we could get better results."

"Ah, yes, Subject Gamma started off as a healthier subject, correct?" Kilgore mused. "How has Gamma been? I believe he was the most promising of the last batch. Has he been euthanized, or is he still providing useful insights?"

"Gamma's still around, but we had some complications since that last incident," the henchman continued. "We had to separate him for his own protection near the server room. The Homefront guys wanted to kill him right there after he tore that guy's throat out."

"Ah, yes," Kilgore recalled. "It is a pity that those thugs cannot behold a thing of beauty. Don't you see it? We don't merely execute people like Trasker does. We allow them to be part of something greater, to give their sacrifices meaning-"

"Any orders about Gamma for now?" the lab assistant cut into his boss's rant. "He's been probing his cage for weaknesses, and almost escaped several times. Strain 731 worked wonders on his prefrontal cortex. The retroviral approach worked well."

"Keep him alive for now, and keep me updated regarding Strain 731," Kilgore grinned. "We may be onto something grand, provided that moronic general can resist executing my subjects rather than sending them here."

"I'll see what I can do," the lackey concluded. "Thank you for your time, Dr. Kilgore."

"Don't mention it," he continued. "Just ensure that Gamma is secure. I've had enough reports of subject breakouts to make me reconsider my choice of guards. Graves has put the priority on this project, and I can't afford to have those monkeys setting it back any further."

The Sleepwalker cut the conversation as we heard the jingling of keys outside the door. It drew my suppressed pistol from my holster, ensuring a round was chambered and ready. The office was far too close of an environment for the rifle, and a point blank rifle shot even with stun rounds was unlikely to keep the target alive.

A suited scientist cursed to himself as he entered the office, locking the door behind him. "One of those moronic guards must have locked my door again," he muttered, sitting down in his chair.

He began to record lab notes on a piece of smart-paper when the Sleepwalker moved. Emerging from the closet like a boogieman, the Sleepwalker put a dart in his back, slumping the man over in his chair. Instinctively, the latest victim was patted down for security cards and personal identification. Updating our internal maps, it plotted a course down a nearby hallway, and into an old backroom.

Skulking down the hallway, the Sleepwalker's enhanced senses picked up groaning and grunting over the humming of server towers. The door leading to the computer room was locked, and a swipe of the pilfered cards opened the door. Stacks of computers surrounded the room like a half-built city, with a cage holding a half-naked, gaunt figure within. Unlike the zombies, this figure seemed to have a bit of hygiene, and did his business in a pot near the edge of the cage. The stench of steaming shit, a combination of Subject Gamma's feces and the warm air from the computers, was slightly less pungent than the zombie gallery we had entered earlier.

The Sleepwalker probed the wireless within the room, finding a location to insert a micro-drive. The high-density disk ejaculated an attack AI into the local network, programmed for seeking out research summaries, account information, and other juicy bits of data. While the worm did its deed, the Sleepwalker turned towards Subject Gamma. Despite his gaunt appearance, Gamma was muscular, and stood upright, rather than skulking around like the zombies did. He wore a set of relatively clean hospital scrubs, rather than the filthy rags of the zombies. Compared to the sub-cogs, this man had been treated better. Whatever Neoneuro had done to him, he was one of their prized specimens.

"Hello," Gamma began to clutch his chest and cough. The subject turned his head directly at us, and the Sleepwalker stepped back. Whatever was going on in Gamma's head, he could detect us in other ways than optically. "Help me."

He began to cough, and then curled into a ball on the floor. It was then the Sleepwalker turned my attentions towards a delightful bit of potential sabotage. Gamma was a valuable asset for the corporation, and they'd lose quite a bit of research if he were to escape. Once the AI had finished, the Sleepwalker took the data, and prepared to set a plan into motion.

"Help me," Gamma pleaded. "They hurt me. Get me out."

"Follow me, and do as I say," came the Sleepwalker's synthetized voice over my mask's mouthpiece. "Can you stand?"

Gamma pulled himself up with one hand, leaning against the bars of his cage. "Yes," he said in a pathetic, sad voice.

"Follow me once I open this door," the Sleepwalker ordered. "Things will get confusing very fast."

Gamma nodded. The Sleepwalker accessed the security network, opened the cages to the zombies in subject containment. The door to Gamma's cage flew opened, and the human lab rat came charging out with surprising vigor. Gamma turned back at me, and grinned. He had dropped his fa├žade of a wounded victim, and now bore the confident stride of a predator. Even the Sleepwalker had not anticipated this.

"Stand back," the Sleepwalker pulled out the pistol.

"Die," Gamma muttered.

The human subject lunged at us, knocking the gun from our grasp. Before the Sleepwalker could react, Gamma tossed us down with a leg sweep, and reached for the firearm. He scooped it up, and looked at it quixotically for a second.

The Sleepwalker took this delay to tackle Gamma, forcing the thin man to the floor and the pistol from his grasp. Our hand reached for the pistol, and Gamma slid from our hold like a slimy snake. We tried firing, but Gamma had already burst out the door.

We followed the tricky subject out, and into a swirling chaos of shit-covered sub-cogs, shouting scientists, turrets fired randomly, and clueless goons shooting anything that moved. Alarms had been triggered, bathing the floor in flashing red and white lights. Having gotten what we had come for, even I could have realized now was the best time for an exit. Since it was time for heavy combat, the Sleepwalker drew my assault rifle and charged into the fray. Our thermoptic camo was up, but we could still be seen by all but the blind when running at full speed.

A wise-ass auto-turret locked onto us, and jagged line of anti-personnel rounds chased the Sleepwalker behind cover. A burst of rounds from the rifle answered it, disabling the malfunctioning machine. Homefront goons pointed their weapons in my direction, unsure whom or what they were shooting at. Gunfire ripped in all directions, and a pack of zombies caught me moving. Evidently still having enough neurons to engage me, one stood in front of me like a line-backer, preparing to pounce on me as we ran. The Sleepwalker jumped to the side at the last instant, bashing the beast in the side of the head with the rifle butt. Zombie hands scratched at us as we plowed through a mass of them, and almost ripping pieces of my suit off.

A ricochet caught our shoulder as we barreled through the door at the end of the stairs, stopped by the tissue thin layer of body armor covering me beneath the suit. We stumbled for a moment, our spatial memory failing us. The Sleepwalker reasserted itself, and carried us over the still-unconscious bodies of the first guard and Fatso as we darted up towards the roof. Shouting and flashlights trailed up the stairs far below us, as reinforcements would soon pour in.

Sweat reeked underneath my stealth suit, and the battery was almost gone. We repelled down the side of the hospital, escaping by the shed out back. I swore I saw someone sprinting out towards the front of the hospital, but had little interest in seeing the outcome of that chase. The Sleepwalker prioritized our own survival above all others, and we left anyone in the defiled hospital to their fates.

We spent the rest of the day laying low, resting in a burnt-out house. The Sleepwalker retreated back within my subconscious mind, and my conscious mind was left without its hypercog overseer. I could not stop ruminating about Subject Gamma, and whatever warped projects they were up to. Dr. Kilgore was a highly respected scientist at Neoneuro, and if he was involved, Gamma was just the first clue to something much bigger. I didn't need the Sleepwalker to tell me that if this was a big project, there was going to be a big payoff. I decided to worry about that later, and find out exactly what kind of data I had captured at first.