Once upon a time, a Dynastic philosopher dreamed that he was a butterfly, and on waking lost sight of whether he was a butterfly dreaming that he was a man, or the other way round. Elsewhere, other deep thinkers had theorized that the world around them was but a shared dream, and to attain enlightenment was to awaken and see reality as it truly was. At some point between then and now, these philosophical questions had been expanded on, modelled with generations of magitech, and built into a shared dreamscape communications network.
ONEiros connected the world, making it possible to send a message to someone on the other side of the world almost instantaneously, to make trades in any number of financial markets simultaneously, or to upload shaky videos you’d shot on your phone to social media so that they could go viral.
Ivan floated past a dozen clips of his chase with the Enforcer shot from a variety of angles and perspectives, none of them getting a clear shot of his face. Good. He pulled back, sifting through Halcyon’s news sites. The Hegemony disliked anything that might tarnish Halcyon’s image as a stable, safe, low crime-rate utopia, and the state-controlled news outlets were reporting on the incident as a prank, the culprit an unknown trespasser.
He checked back to the video clips. None of them showed him opening fire, and indeed none of the news articles, even in the tabloids, mentioned anything about the gun or the drugs. The Hegemony and the Federation were different in many regards, but both were practiced hands at censorship.
Lower down, there were reports of two Three-Tigers Triad members being arrested in Emperor Drive, but they were charged with resisting arrest and attempted battery against police officers, with no mention of the drug deal. He supposed that with both the goods and the cash gone, there wasn’t much the police could pin on them. There had been a flurry of interest over a bout of gang violence in Emperor Drive the day before, but that was buried under yesterday’s reports of his chase with the Enforcers, basically ancient history at this point.
Exiting the news sites, he jumped for a more heavily guarded data cluster. ONEiros was a riot of densely-packed, multicolored constellations, each point of light a node of information burning against a pitch-black galactic backdrop. As he sped towards his destination, his perspective blurred, muddling the stars into lines of light. He felt a vague sense of vertigo, his stomach turning as he glanced downwards, but reminded himself that it was just a phantom sensation. After all, he didn’t have a stomach here. He was Flatlining.
People said your life flashed before your eyes when you were about to die, the mind going into overdrive as it sifted through your memories for an answer to imminent death. Flatline was first discovered by Federation junkies overdosing on dreamdust, glimpsing visions of data streams like stars streaking across an infinite night sky in the moments before resuscitation. Eventually, they realised what they were seeing - the raw matter of ONEiros itself, unmediated by the medium of magitech. At the moment of death, your consciousness expanded beyond the constraints of your body, letting you connect your mind directly to the dreamscape network.
All you had to do was live to tell the tale.
Back in Halcyon, his body would be lying limp on his hotel bed, electrodes attached to his chest. The second pulse was coming soon - his heart would have stopped for no more than a few seconds, but you could move and act at the speed of thought in Flatline, turning those few seconds into minutes on this side.
Time to get to work. He found the constellation he was looking for, and zoomed in on it. As he drew closer to the stars, they resolved into massive glowing cubes linked by silvery filigree chains, their irregular surfaces patterned with angular symbols. A thicket of intrusion countermeasure enchantments surrounded the police database, encryption protocols twining around the network like thorny onyx vines.
Intermittently, the ICE would unravel, and a shooting star would come in out of nowhere to strike the exposed side of a cube, its light and substance seamlessly absorbed into the structure - information being transmitted to the database from an authenticated source. The same process occurred in reverse for outward transmissions of data.
As he watched, a smaller line of light came in for a pass on one of the cubes, but this time the ICE reacted violently, drawing tight around the cube to form an impenetrable matte-black barrier that drank the incoming transmission in without a trace. Probably an unauthorised user, trying to ping the database through a magitech device. The ICE seemed robust enough against conventional routes of attack, but deadheads - as Flatline runners were colloquially known - had a unique advantage.
All ICE was built on the dream-logic developers used to devise most applications. Through Flatline, deadheads could bring their own reasoning into ONEiros, allowing them to interface with dreamscape constructs in ways no developer could have foreseen. As another inbound shooting star came up to the nearest cube, Ivan threw himself into it. Immediately, the details of a hit-and-run flooded his mind, and he immersed himself in them.
He felt brief, intense scrutiny as the star hit the threshold of the ICE, the sensation coming through as countless prying eyes and groping hands crawling over him. He held his mind scrupulously blank as the ICE’s authentication subroutines scanned the packet of information, focusing on the time of the incident, the victim, the make of car, the license plate number, keeping his sense of self tightly hidden. Then he was through the ICE and right in the middle of the police database, directories and subdirectories of information sprawling before him, open and defenseless.
He quickly found what he was looking for and filed the knowledge away for future use, then caught the next outbound transmission and shot back into ONEiros. Not bad. He’d managed the run with time to spare, and the ICE around the database seemed undisturbed, so that was good - he’d seen ICE on high alert before, and it wasn’t pretty.
In fact, on the periphery of his awareness, he could see a flare-up, staccato bursts of light coming from a different sector of ONEiros. He zipped towards the commotion, keeping a safe distance, and stopped short as the scene came into view. Skyscraper-sized serpents forged from sapphire and lightning crashed against a larger-than-life figure, a colossus made of rainbow radiance, its form humanoid but its features indistinct. He’d seen something like this before, but never on this scale. This was all-out war - but it wasn’t the violence with which the titans clashed that gave him pause.
It was the size of the invading force. One.
One deadhead, breaking themselves against some of the nastiest ICE he’d ever seen. Diamond-tipped chainsaws unfurled from the serpents’ jaws, sawing off fragments of multicolored light as they bit deep into the colossus. That had to hurt - if your Flatline form took too much damage, there wouldn’t be enough left of you to function on the other side, if you made it back at all. But the radiant titan forged on, heedless of its myriad wounds leaking ethereal blood. It punched the construct the ICE had been guarding, a towering obelisk of dark crystal, its fist not just making contact with the crystal but smashing through it, leaving a gaping hole straight through the construct.
Ivan felt a chill even as he marvelled at the power on display. He understood what this was, now. Deadheads couldn’t normally muster this kind of strength in while Flatlining - the mortal mind could only interface with so much information at a time, and something on this scale would be overwhelming. There was, however, one exception. If you knew you were never going back to the other side, if this was your final Flatline, you could draw on the very last dregs of your life for a brief, spectacular burst of power in ONEiros.
“A swan song. I didn’t think we’d see one this soon, Z.” A voice came from close behind him, familiar on some level even through the layers of encryption and distortion she put around it.
“Hey, R. You know them?” He turned to face her. ONEiros rendered them both as statues of frosted glass, humanoid but featureless like the colossus above. Still, he recognised her, though he’d only ever known her as R. They went way back, all the way to his first forays into Flatlining.
“...Him. And no, not really. He reached out to anyone who would listen a couple of days ago, said he was planning something big today. I didn’t think he meant this.”
“A swan song attack on the Phaselook central server?” He thought he recognised it from previous Flatline runs. Corporate databases were goldmines, and most deadheads had tried breaking into at least one at some point. But corporations could afford to spend a lot more on their ICE, especially big multinationals like Phaselook, hence the murder-serpents. “Shit. I mean, there’s always talk about it, but nobody would really throw their life away for this.”
Behind him, the rainbow light flickered and faded, lost beneath crumbling shards of dark crystal.
“Except him, I guess. You didn’t get his ping?”
“I haven’t Flatlined recently, R. Been kind of busy with… relocating, and all.”
He couldn’t read her features, but her form seemed to brighten slightly. “So that was you on the news!”
“You didn’t hear it from me.” He mentally shuffled through his pockets and produced a globe of crystal. “Oh, yeah. I never did get round to thanking you for your help. It’s not much, but I wanted to give you this. Should be worth something to someone somewhere.”
He handed the globe to her, dense concentric lines of light whirling inside it. It held classified Hegemony documentation he’d gleaned from the police database - not the primary objective of his run, but a nice side bonus. He’d originally intended to fence it elsewhere, but he knew R was an information broker of some sort, and he did owe her a great deal.
“Hey, seeing you get out of that shitstorm safely after the Lychenko job was reward enough for me, alright? You really don’t need to, Z.” After the betrayal in Nocturnov, Ivan had been forced to flee the city - the country - he’d grown up in. He’d reached out to a few trusted contacts on Flatline, but R had been the only one to respond.
“I really do, alright? And stop calling me Z. I’m done with that name. Those days are behind me now.”
He could tell from her posture that she was taken aback, but she quickly covered it with a challenge. “Is that so? Because it sure looks like you’ve gone back to your old antics already.”
“I had to improvise. Play to my strengths, you know? Anyway, I really am done with all that. Gotta keep a low profile here. And I’ve been meaning to ask - why did you tell me to relocate to this police state, anyway? Guy can’t scratch his nose without the government getting up his ass here.”
“It’s not that bad, Z. Also, most guys have the sense not to scratch their noses upside-down on a highway while firing on an Enforcer.”
He gave her a flat glare, knowing that even if his expression didn’t come across, his body language would. She shrugged, making a show of relenting.
“Alright, fine. You say you’re done with all that, then you’re done. One thing, though.” She produced a glowing chip of amethyst, holding it out to him. “Take this.”
Curious, he took the chip. “What’s this?”
“New Phaselook tech, some experimental feature. I slipped past their ICE while it was preoccupied and grabbed it. Maybe it’ll change your mind. Install it on your phone and get a filter earring.”
He was about to thank her again when he felt a phantom contraction in his chest and ONEiros shuddered before him, the night sky suddenly luminous with sparking electricity. “R, I don’t have time to upload this to my phone! My pulse is here!”
“So slot it the old-school way! You have a transcription app, right?”
As ONEiros disintegrated into blinding white, Ivan swallowed the chip, pulling the information into his form.