Neon streetlight shudders like a dying halo above the silhouette of an old-fashioned detective. Even the city knows what’s about to happen to him next. The low brim of a fedora and the high collar of a trench coat frame his emerald eyes shimmering like mirrors ready to shatter. Vision blurred with tears, he peers into the liquid glass and faces his guiltiest memory: Cat standing by herself in a doorway on that cruel night when they first met. He’d wipe the regret from his eyes, but he’s so sure this is the last time he’ll ever see her face.
It was only a matter of time. How many different masks has he hidden beneath all these years? Too many to remember, but not enough to forget the only one he regrets. The “old-fashioned detective” was his most desperate disguise yet, his last roll of the dice to see if there was any good left in this world. Mostly, if there was any good left in him. He named this disguise Private Detective John Stack. This was supposed to be his shot at redemption. That chance will never come again, for night has fallen in the Leviathan and with it came a monster.
The detective first noticed it at twilight. Through the swarming Midtown crowds followed a strange figure, less like a man and more like a stain in the shape of a man. That same silhouette stalked him from the tree line in Holo Park and then again beneath the Electric Way. Every time it was veiled in darkness. Every time it was closer.
Anxious to lose the tail, Stack slipped into the labyrinthine alleyways of the Old Downtown. Only his shadow followed him through the claustrophobic corridors, but he couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that something was still right behind him. When he stopped to listen the dark shape behind him kept drifting closer. The black stain bending up the wall wasn’t his shadow.
Now gasping for air from his brief escape, he stands marooned under the waning light of this broken lamp. Its dim flicker just barely holds back the veil of darkness on all sides save for the blue glow emitting from the mouth of the alley Stack just fled. Soon that abyss will swallow him whole. Soon he will be one more forgotten memory, like so many in this city. Like the one that brought him here tonight. That’s how Death found him. Stack remembered the wrong secret. Of all the things to finally kill him. A memory.
Tonight, in the darkest corner of his consciousness, deep underneath every psychic mask he’s ever worn and every memory he’s ever cherished and reviled, far below his regrets and guilt and all his fragile hopes and dreams, lingering in some ephemeral chasm where thoughts barely whisper, he found two pale blue eyes staring back at him. Stack remembered he was being watched. Not just tonight, but his entire life. Not from afar, but from inside his own mind. As dozens of those same disembodied blue eyes open in every direction, now they’re watching from the veil of darkness surrounding him, too. Stack saw something he wasn’t supposed to see. Now that something has come to make sure the secret dies with him. Though Stack doesn't know who these eyes belong to, somehow, he still hears a name, like the spiteful answer to a riddle growled from the depths of his flickering soul.
As if summoned, the stalking shadow reappears, tall and jagged, bending out of the mouth of the alley like a raven stain in the shape of a man. Stack gazes into its inhumanly curled body and sees nothing. That’s what awaits him now. If he doesn’t run the oblivion will swallow him whole. His mind will cease to remember all the fear. All he has to do now is give up…
But when his eyes close there is Cat again. This time she’s smiling.
Down the road scrambles Stack as quickly as his legs can carry him. He still has one chance to see Cat again. It’s an impossible, wild gamble of a chance, but a chance, nonetheless. He must find the Doctor.
Fleeing through the night he loses all sense of time. Block after block he sprints, so desperate to escape the grip of Death that exhaustion catches him first. Falling to one knee, shaking with weakness, he doesn't know how much more his body can take. He buries his face in his hands to focus, trying to remember where he needs to go, but it’s so fleeting. All the while, Stack can feel that shadow driving closer, always right behind him, this very moment reaching out with its cold, illusory fingers…
Stack peeks out between his own. Set along the side of an anonymous black tower is a red door behind a small, curved lamp post. Rummaging through the inside of his trench coat, the detective retrieves a small piece of creased paper. Hastily sketched in black and red ink is a nearly identical drawing of the doorway and lamp post. Surging rain bleeds the ink across the image, but the match is already clear. Opportunity resuscitates his heart like a jolt of electricity. A gust of wind whips the paper out of his hand, but he doesn’t care. He knows the Doctor is real now. He just can’t explain why.
In all his time in the Underworld, he doesn’t remember ever being here before. Stack’s spent half his life in Syndicate circles, but no one in them ever spoke of this red door or the Doctor behind it. He didn’t hear about it on the Net, nor any of the black markets either. Stack only remembers the Doctor from a nightmare. It didn’t feel like one at the time, though. It felt like déjà vu. From it he recalled a door, a lamp post, two red lights hovering in the dark…and pain. Unbearable, excruciating pain. Unexplainable as it was, the pieces were still there, as real and fleeting as any other memory in his head. That’s why he’s betting his life that this can work now, because in that nightmare the Doctor defiled him with a torture he so desperately needs right now. Memory deletion.
A small electronic keypad meets him above the doorknob. Ripping out a length of thin silver fiber from his left sleeve, the detective thrusts one end into a pin port, wraps the other end around his left hand and bites down on the slack with bared teeth. Stack furiously pounds away at the keypad with one hand while deftly rotating the fiber near his teeth with the other. It’s a technique entirely of his own invention. He’s always told Cat that with enough time he could break any lock, electronic or physical. He doesn’t have the luxury of time tonight. As skillful as he is, this will come down to luck. Eyes wide, breath held, fingers shaking, Stack knows he only has seconds to get through this door.
The nanofiber’s invisible vibration splits the air with a piercing, high-pitched ring. He can't hear it, though. His heart is pounding too loudly. Nor does he sense the cold sweat sliding down his temple. Only when a bead of it falls to his shoulder and he thinks he’s felt the final tap of death does he gasp. The nanofiber falls from his mouth just as the keypad beeps three times. The electronic lock audibly clicks, and the entranceway falls open to reveal a dark staircase descending below.
He’s not dead yet.
With no time to waste, Stack bounds down towards a second door and a thin outline of light peeking through the gap in the frame. He places his palm on the door and pushes forward.
Inside a smoky, under lit bar sit three large silhouettes at a card table. Small panels of floor-recessed light glow a dusty yellow. A tiny lamp hangs from a chord directly over the center table, just barely illuminating various playing cards, chip stacks, whiskey glasses and decanters of neon liquids. A snow white-skinned marionette tends the bar counter along the nearest wall, her unblinking, pale blue eyes already calmly locked on Stack as he enters.
The door hinge creaks. Red sparks glow on a cigar beneath a pair of beady, black eyes. Rising smoke seems to hover in place, as if time itself has halted in anxious anticipation. The detective is frozen in this stolen moment, suddenly forgetful of his purpose of even breaking in because a voice in his head is teasing him with the impossible: he’s peering into his own past. He has been here before. There’s no denying who's in front of him because he used to be one of those silhouettes. The whispers on the Net are true. The Syndicate lives.
"Who the hell are you?" growls one of the gamblers, his voice like the teeth of a saw tearing through the silence.
A second heart beats awake in the detective’s chest. The answer to the question is not John Stack. A phantom is stirring and it’s about to rip John Stack off its face like a party mask.
"Where’s the Doctor?" Stack frantically urges.
An airy chuckle drifts through the smoke.
"The Doctor?" repeats the amused voice. "Pal, you don’t know what you just got yourself into."
Light gleams off a switchblade as it rises above the table.
"Please," begs Stack.
Because he knows exactly what he just got himself into. It’s not the knife he’s afraid of.
"You know we’re here. And you know about the Doctor. So, you know too much," warns the harsh voice.
Stack has a warning of his own, loathe though he is to make it.
"You’re all going to die..." he whispers.
In this moment, he’s not even the shadow he’s afraid of either.
"You walked through the wrong door tonight, jack."
The threat hangs in Stack’s ears as something else writhes beneath his skin, claws through his muscles and wrestles back control of his body after ten years of exile.
The gambler lunges forward and buries his blade into the wooden door where Stack just stood. He's too slow. Far too slow. Leering behind his new prey, Stack curls his lips into a sadistic grin.
For the first time in a decade, Black Jack smiles at the world.
Jack reaches for a carafe of blue liquid on the bar top and smashes it into the face of his attacker. The glass shatters and the victim bellows in pain. To Jack it sounds like laughter.
Still holding a jagged shard, Jack slashes into the shielding forearm of the second gambler as an arc of blood splatters across his face. Grabbing the chuckling man by his collar, Jack flips him over his shoulder and down hard on the table. Cards and chips scatter across the room as the hanging light swings wildly off center, casting stark, roving shadows in all directions. The laughter swells louder.
The third man dashes forward with a longer knife. Jack grabs the wrist of the knife-wielding hand, stopping the blade several inches from his own chest, but the momentum of the dive knocks both against the bar.
The two men grapple along the counter for control of the weapon. From the scrap, Jack glares up at the preternaturally calm, blue-eyed robot silently standing in the shadows. Glass, it seems, is still watching.
A swift headbutt into the gambler's temple stuns him enough to land a more powerful uppercut. Dazed and hurt, the gambler collapses across the bar, grabbing the countertop to support himself just as Jack plunges the dagger cleanly through the back of his hand, pinning him in place. He doesn’t scream, though. He only laughs.
Winking at the marionette, Jack turns just in time to catch an attacker in mid-air leaping off the card table. The two men tumble to the floor, turning over one another several times. Jack sits up just as a hard punch cracks across his jaw. His vision goes white. He tastes blood. By the time color returns, Jack’s flat on the floor, his fedora lying next to him. The gambler hesitates.
Maybe he’s confused by Jack's suddenly shoulder-length hair. Or that his emerald eyes are now sapphire. Or maybe it's because his lips are instantly rounder, his cheekbones taller and his nose thinner.
Jack chuckles. Doesn't matter. The secret’s out now.
“You wouldn’t hit a woman, would you?" she asks, wiping the blood trickling down her chin.
A second punch answers that question. Jack rolls with it. The gambler recovers to find his arm tightly wrapped in silver nanofiber. His mounting confusion is met with Jack’s harsh scowl. This will be messy. She squeezes the fiber tightly with both hands. A shrill vibration rings out like a surgeon's drill. Deafening guffaws shatter the air beneath the wide spray of blood.
Back at the bar, the impaled gambler grits his teeth, barely holding back his laughter as he slowly extracts the knife from his hand and the countertop. Jack smashes it back into place and hastily wraps the silver fiber around her next victim’s neck.
"Where's the Doctor!?" she demands, her voice now a roaring inferno, coercive even without the weapon.
"What?" comes the confused response.
"Where is he!?"
"Y-you’re dead! Dead! They'll sell you for spare parts! Y-you won't--"
The threat ends as Jack cracks the gambler's head into the bar counter. The fiber lightly hums as a ring of red blood slowly oozes from his neck.
"Tell me where he is! Now!"
Before Jack can get her answer, the outside door creaks on its hinges.
The laughter fades away. Stack’s face drains of color. Fear boils in her gut once more. She’s run out of time. Time. She wasted so much of it tonight. She wasted so much of it her whole life…
The door explodes off its hinges to reveal not a shadow, but a giant of a man--bald, rippled with muscles, dressed in black slacks and wrapped in full-body tattoos. He storms across the room, metal teeth gnashing above clenched, cybernetic limbs. The detective quickly releases her hold to defend herself, but a punch to the gut from the tattooed thug crumples Stack to her knees. She grimaces in pain, struggling to breathe, struggling to even raise her head before one more stiff blow knocks her out cold.
Stack’s blue eyes flutter open as she’s dragged down a narrow corridor. Muttering nonsense, she weakly attempts to break free from the metal fist clutching her trench coat before her numbed limbs fall to the cold floor once more. Mind foggy, all she can sense are the pangs of instinctive dread twitching in her gut, begging her to get up and run as fast as she can.
The shadow. It’s coming for her. It’s coming…
Stack’s eyes close again.
Harsh rain beats down on her shoulders, stirring the detective awake a second time. Her fingers slip through wet grass as she rises to her knees, shaking violently from the chill soaked into her body. Her eyes slowly focus on an encircling crowd of silhouettes holding umbrellas against the storm. Anonymous voices drift through the rain.
"--the eyes first."
"What gen are her nanos?"
"Start with her teeth."
After several cranks, a nano-saw screams to life. The tattooed thug emerges from the crowd with the surging industrial tool at his side. The detective briskly shakes her head, sharpening her dulled senses just as the giant plants his foot on her chest and knocks her back down to the sopping grass. With only seconds left she reaches for her ace in the hole. The saw briefly roars in the air before diving toward Stack’s head. A loud crack echoes through the night.
The saw crashes next to the detective, hopping dangerously close before settling on its side in an idle hum. Grabbing at his throat, the thug collapses to his knees, choking on the blood that leaks out from between his fingers. Stack rises from the brink of certain death, drenched, but alive, her retribution burning as the wisp of ozone rising from her old-fashioned revolver. She trains the weapon on the crowd.
"Now...will one of you please tell me where the fucking Doctor is!"
The crowd immediately kneels beneath the click-clack of heeled shoes. Stack spins to confront a tall, slender woman with long, blonde hair emerging into moonlight. She’s wearing a black overcoat, red-tinted circular glasses and Stack’s own fedora. Two massive bodyguards, each neatly dressed in a suit and tie, follow on either side with shielding umbrellas. When the mysterious woman slides the red-tinted glasses down her nose, Stack aims squarely between her exposed emerald eyes. The tall woman merely smirks, tracing the rim of the fedora with her fingers.
"I like your hat," she says.
As she lifts the fedora off her head and passes it down across her face, her green eyes are suddenly grey. Stack peers into the sharp, narrow features of this woman. Why does she seem so familiar?
Stack’s fedora slowly spins on its rim from the tip of the tall woman’s index finger, as if she’s making it levitate. No one’s ever realized it’s a fake before, to say nothing of how quickly she figured it out, too.
“What black magic did you weave in this thing to disguise yourself like that? And then the ancient steel? I’m not sure which mystery interests me more, the one in my hand or the one in yours. You make a strong first impression," the woman declares.
The detective lowers her aim. Those glasses. The red lights from her nightmare…
The mysterious woman turns her head towards the kneeling Syndicate.
"Leave her with me. I’m on call tonight."
Stack’s found who she's looking for. Why doesn’t she feel any safer?
"I want to find out exactly what she’s hiding from."
A naked light bulb hangs low from a hidden ceiling. The detective sits on a stained mattress beneath it. She squints through the harsh glare above trying to make out the details of the room, but save for the red glow of a virtual monitor illuminating the Doctor next to her, everything else is darkness. Metal contacts are held in place on both of her temples by tight elastic bands, each sprouting thick, multi-colored cables that coil down to the floor.
The Doctor peers quizzically into Stack’s eyes as if struggling to recall a face from long ago. Her previously cool demeanor is already warping under the strain of Stack’s enigma.
“Who are you?” she adds with a guarded whisper.
There is concern on her face. Anxiety in her voice. And strangely, the smallest glimpse of yearning in her eyes.
“There’s no time!” says Stack. “Please! You have to do this now!”
"How long has it been since you started remembering it?" the Doctor asks, her fingers dancing over a virtual keyboard as blocks of code rapidly scroll down a command prompt on the monitor.
"I don’t know,” Stack answers, impatiently shaking her head. “An hour. More."
"Then it has likely already entered into your long-term memory and beyond my reach."
"No! You have to get it out!”
The Doctor stops typing to scrutinize Stack more closely. The detective shifts nervously on the mattress, leaning away from the darkness as she searches for the shadow, but it's impossible to make out anything beyond the monitor.
“What are you waiting for! Do it!”
Circular glasses still perched low on her thin nose, the Doctor glares silently at Stack.
“How did you find me here?”
"You wouldn’t believe me if I told you," Stack insists.
The Doctor slides her glasses back into place.
"Doesn’t mean it's not true. Not in this city."
With no more time to waste, Stack blurts out the answer, inexplicable as it sounds.
"I dreamed of you. A nightmare," Stack explains.
A prompt on the Doctor’s virtual monitor dramatically flashes against her glasses. The edges of her lips curl into a tight, but satisfied grin. In that brief instance, she looks more dangerous than anything else Stack has seen tonight.
"What exactly did you remember tonight?"
“A woman with blue eyes. Staring at me,” says Stack.
If she could explain more beyond that she would. The glint of recognition behind those red-tinted glass tells her there’s much more to the Doctor’s story as well, but none of these things matter to the detective right now. One way or the other, Stack won’t long remember the answers. She won't even remember the questions.
“There is a devil hiding inside of you and every so often, it possesses. That’s how our memories work. Something you saw tonight--or heard, smelled, maybe even touched--something triggered the matrix of thought woven around that memory. Something reminded you of what you tried so hard to forget. I can help, but there’s a cost. I’m not an exorcist. I’m just fire.”
"Then burn it," demands Stack.
“Heh...you know what? People should be more ambiguous,” the Doctor declares with a smirk.
With a harsh thrust, the red cable pierces through the contact and into the right side of Stack’s head. Gasping sharply, she squeezes her eyes closed to ride out the pain. It feels like boiling water is coursing through her nervous system. Her entire body convulses.
"Will this...k-kill me?"
"Kill you? Please. I’m already anticipating our next appointment.”
Stack pries her eyes open through the pain to see the Doctor plunging a cable into her own temple.
"W-what? I'll remember?"
She rattles off a final string of commands on her floating keyboard. The overhead light flickers wildly before failing completely. The room goes pitch black, save for the subtle glow of the Doctor's glasses, hovering like red orbs in the dark.
An invisible motor surges. Electricity crackles, ozone burns, and white-hot fire devours the detective in a breathless instant. In the brief flashes of current arcing up both coils toward her head and through the silent tears pouring down her face, she spots the shadow once more, closer than she's ever seen it before. It leans directly overhead, reaching down to grab her. Stack squeezes her eyes shut and braces for the end.
Cat is gone now. Only two pale blue eyes stare at her from the darkness of Stack’s own mind.