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NORMATIVE FREE by CITRUS CREED

He finished dressing quickly, all his clothes shades of grey in the flickering glow. Someone whistled outside, down the street, two short rising calls, and the dusk around him spat out a quiet chorus of low hard hups. The short slithering shuffle of bodies rising swiftly to their feet tiptoed through the murky evening air.

Knowing he had almost left it too late, he rammed two rucksacks inside a third and then squashed that into a fourth which he hastily shrugged onto his shoulders. He could hear the hissing songs of friction now, the twilight whipping with sudden tension. Bumps, irregular thumps pulsing lazily through the walls and floor and falling away.

The candles sizzled under his thumb and ink flooded the room, pale fingers prodding through at the edges of the netting that hung in place of one wall, shadows clotting profoundly opposite. Lifting a corner of the heavy, leafy mesh he slipped under it and out on to the ledge, glancing up reflexively as he did.

Immediately he felt the rain on his face, too insubstantial to have made any sound, a fine drifting fog of moisture like stale steam. Without conscious direction his hand sought and found a dangling rope, tugged it once, held it. Inches from his toes a void plunged almost two hundred feet to the pavement where his brothers and sisters, his comrades were gathering. One of them was looking up at him. A small specimen of hardy local flora had found a place to take root in the traumatised stonework of the ledge beside his foot and was pushing stubby green limbs up to the groaning sky. Something about its colour or shape spoke of home to him, though there had never been any such things there.

The city lay sprawled below, prone and ruined, its architecture in brutal doubt. Corruption bloomed in cracked and crippled structures, rubble and debris clouded every artery. A sick river coiled inside it like an ancient, addled parasite. Most of the decay was currently indistinct beneath the strata of wet mist, bleeding into inky obscurity well short of the horizon. As he watched, from somewhere just beyond that penumbra a flare lurched upwards to hang uneasily over the broken roofscape, a spherical aurora afloat in the occluding tide of vapour.

"Final. Move it brother." The woman's voice murmured into his mind. He lifted one finger for forbearance, intent on the distant halo. The light seemed to buck once, a ring rippling outwards from it through the fog, almost too fast to see. Final blinked. A faint shockwave tickled his inner ear and he clipped the rope into the claw mounted on his torso just as the ledge under his feet shrugged. By the time his ears were found by the howling crash of some massive impact of metal, like a battleship being used as a battering ram, the far-off flare was jerking again.

Four more slams boomed out across the suffocated city, shuddering back again from the shattered faces of other stricken high-rises. Between impacts he could hear the dancing of mountains of long-broken glass. Without waiting for the echoes to die away, he jumped off the ledge.

The rope ballooned away from the building, his outward momentum carrying him well clear of the narrow ledges snapping past him. The claw whispered sweetly as it acted on the rope to slow his drop just in time for his feet to meet the wall in a solid contact and spring off. Again he spiked into freefall velocities before the silvery song of the braking kicked in and he landed hard, crouching low on cratered tarmac. The nanosigil springs they'd grafted deep into the tissues of his legs absorbed most of the kinetic energy, feeding on it, but his ankles still stung a little, enough to make him grin. His guts had stayed where they were meant to. He remained bowed for a moment longer, savouring the fading neural crackle of the impossible accomplished. The Godless' doctrine of Free Motion did have some ramifications that were just, well, fun.

It had been an archist name for them originally, Godless, intended as a derogatory term implying pitiable moral degeneracy as a result of simple scientific scepticism. They had relished the irony and over time it had become their own most commonly used name for their leaderless, distributed, nomadic web of cells, the tag for their collective identity. This particular group was the field team of one such cell, the Normative Free, and this would be Final's first run with them.

His comrades looked at him expectantly as he approached. Zena, this rotation's mission facilitator, spoke up first.

"You see what, who?"

"No. There was a flare, right before they got bleached."

"Adventurers then, enthusiasts. Where?"

"Looked like Queen Street. West."

"Ok, we're still good. Better in fact, long as we stay sharp. We need to move fast now though, having waited so long for your highness King Individual." This drew sly smirks from a few of the others though she had delivered it with all the levity of someone resigned to witnessing a kitten drown.

Still smiling, he fenced back easily, "Sorry sister, I let my ego run wild. I had paused to reflect that it is sad that the monetarist propertarian vultures who built and lived in this wretched place failed to devise some means to better ensure its total annihilation, rather than the half-done botch job which is all they could apparently be bothered to cobble together. That's when I saw the flare."
Zena simply cocked an eyebrow. Dend abruptly chimed in from beside her, a goofy smile muscling its way onto his broad face,

"In fairness, it was rather short notice. The clarity of their vision was likely somewhat limited by circumstance and the utility of such a technology may not have been immediately apparent."

Zena's head had begun to turn towards Dend, then stopped, then continued by microscopic degrees as he spoke, the corners of her eyes crinkling subtly with something like disbelief.

"What happened to them anyway?" asked Final quickly, "Do we have no information about the locals from the locals?"

Dend proved only too happy to adopt the didactic mode, "The details are obscure because the different archist remnants tell different lies to themselves and to each other and to us. But as far as we can determine, anthropogenic ecological disruption correlates with a collapse of their inefficient monetary system of resource allocation causing widespread famine and drought. The resulting tensions were exacerbated by conflict between different archist ideologies, they spiralled into war, then nuclear exchange and then ultimately someone or something tore them a new transdimensional arsehole... It's not an atypical scenario actually, fairly common outcome in places that fail to achieve a type nine revolution pre-nanotech. Anyway, what it comes down to is: I reckon it'll turn out they brought it on themselves somehow."

"And the volcanoes? The meteor strikes? They brought those on themselves too? Almost sounds like karma in action." replied Final.

"Do you two need to stay here and thrash this out?" asked Zena in cool, corrosively even syllables. But Dend was rolling,

"Look brother, I'm not saying I have answers for everything," Dend waved his hands to more clearly indicate the undesirability of such a confusion. "I'm just saying this was an obnoxious, toxic society ruthlessly programming idiot greed and destructive selfishness into its doomed, sightless spawn. It wouldn't surprise me one bit if they were pissing off some major player at the transcosmic level. Of course, if they could only have recognized and embraced soli-"

"Enough." Zena's voice was fresh as a newly-cleaned guillotine. Her head twitched sideways once and she blinked. "Yes, that's enough now." She shifted pitch fractionally to address the silent assembly waiting patiently in the damp, failing light.

"You all have your routes loaded, but we have a new body along today, so let's go over the routine: Zeds we avoid, repeat Koth, we do not engage Zed. Yes? Saurs we also avoid, unless they're ptera, in which case we fucking kill them straight away. Rats, we stay up high and burn them out if we need to go down. Mechaflora or fauna we scrap for parts - call in support for big works. Also call in support if you encounter a hero, then stay in cover until we can plant a leech on them. If we start seeing transplanar phenomena then just keep your wits about you, try to get some distance but keep an eye out for any extra-dimensional artifacts that can be lifted. If there's anything larger than a class five breach then abort and proceed directly to endpoint. Geo-tag anything that merits a return trip sometime but avoid 'casting on skullnet outside of the veils unless it's urgent, we don't know when or where the archists are listening. Salvage-wise, today's word is metals. The rarer the better then copper then ferrous for preference but any metals is good, pretty much. Anything not easily portable, bring up to the rooftops and tag for collection later. Finally, our network support unit is there to assist you, not to tell you what to do - please utilize them, it's egoistic not to. Endpoint is at the bridge, the Possible Worlds team are there now. I spoke to them less than an hour ago and they're expecting us to be coming in hot so we have to get going right now, no more time for talk.” She hesitated, “Questions anyway." Nobody spoke.

Zena turned, sparking a cascade of motion that flowed through the group, then half-turned back from the pack of departing runners towards Final, her face starkly real against the deepening gloom.

"Final, you hold this team back ever and you will be off it, we move fast, all the time, and even the new body has to keep up. Especially the new body. Dend, I hear any more of that implicit moral relativism as regards the mystic basis of the hegemonic tendency then I will devote the rest of my life to denouncing you as an authoritarian esotericist manipulator and crypto-patriarchal theogogue. And none of us wants that. Not really." She beamed suddenly, as though by surprise, then snapped a bulky pair of goggles down over her eyes and, still beaming, spun quickly and loped off down the street. Dend followed, grinning at something on the ground.

Final fastened his lower jaw and spurred himself into a run, the alien matter stitched into the meat of his body seething and quickening with restless energy. Ahead of him the looming high-rises gave way to shorter, squatter structures. Already the first lean grey form was at the nearest of these, hopping onto the bulky charred skeleton of an abandoned vehicle then springing to get one foot on top of a perimeter wall, rebounding up and backwards, torquing in the air to grab the edge of the roof with both hands and swinging fluidly up on to it to disappear out of sight, dissolving into liquid shadows.

The outraged screaming roar of some giant animal in its death throes sawed the air, but it was too far off to deflect them. In the sky above the mutant river, a masked figure trailing long ribbons of bright fire and moving almost too fast for the eye to follow darted violently around and among a flock of bat-harpies encumbered by their sacks of scavenged crystals. One tumbled, pluming stinking yellow smoke from burning fur as the billowing folds of a splintered membranous wing twisted its fall into a cruel spin, its ultrasonic shrieks of terror too high to hear. A gleaming armoured tentacle as thick as a bridge cable lashed up and smartly plucked the creature from its wheeling dive, then was gone. A brief, dense hail of shiny stones punctured the slick film of iridescent sputum crawling by below and then they too were gone.

To either side of Final, other Godless running ahead were fanning out rapidly into a long loose line. Vanishing over and through the wreckage, their progress was irresistible. Forging extraordinary paths from ordinary obstacles, they burrowed their way unseen towards the poisoned heart of the city.



Lenin Square, Pripyat. Original photo by Timm Suess, remixed by author.

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