Lady of the Dullahan
By Anna Madden
The night was mist and smog and a blur of headlights. Nido leaned across his magbike, the engine a deep purr. His THREAD pinged a multiple homicide with a request for back-up.
Reroute me, Nido thought, the neural link faster than words. His THREAD allowed thought-transfer, the implant a standard for huntsmen.
In four heartbeats, his armor’s AI worked out the quickest path through Besnick City. The city’s upper branches were spires of steel, cutting up the night sky like serrated teeth. Nido was headed into less civilized parts. The crime scene was in the Vein, a ghetto-slash-mine built beneath the pretty glitter, sprawled out like hoary black roots over a large deposit of anthracite.
The route lit up across Nido’s smoked visor. With his fist on the throttle, he urged his magbike faster, becoming a lone vulture with the scent of carrion in his nose. The black-specked air grew thicker, while the narrow alleys bled neon and plastic garbage and despair.
It was dark, but in two hours, dawn would kiss the horizon. With it, he’d be issued his dismissal by CanisCorps. Nido’s quota was overdue, his ranking so low it had cycled into the red. The wind pressed against his chest—against his fragile sense of control, his anger, and deeper, into a part of him he didn’t like: the part of him that was afraid of what he’d become if he lost this job.
CanisCorps didn’t care who a huntsman brought in for their quota, week after week. It could be a desperate parent with stolen credits, or a sick pitman in a backroom, muffling a wet cough as he bought opioids.
Nido had learned to care, though, and that was a problem. He saw corruption everywhere. Unfettered corporate greed touched the lives of thousands of innocents daily. Powerful criminals paid big bucks to keep their names off the SKY.LIST while petty thieves who stole to survive were sentenced to years behind bars. Nido wasn’t sure how much longer he could play a rigged game.
Turning into an alley, his magbike’s nose arrowed for Dragon’s Vape. Electric-crimson and bright-magenta neon sketched out a hide of scales and wide-spread wings, while dubstep pulsed through walls of black steel and concrete.
As he parked, Nido noted damage on the premise. There were snapped beams, bent and misshapen, with long, talon-like scratches. Concrete was torn out of the foundation like something had taken a mouthful of slab, then spit it out.
Near the entry, another magbike leaned on its kickstand. It was sleek, dark as the night, with fluorescent green LEDs stitched into its belly.
Nido dismounted, his dark robe falling over his leather greaves. The robe was an heirloom, embroidered with a pattern of white-bone vertebrae at the spine. He wore it to remember where he came from, and to inspire fear in his prey.
Vape bars were busiest at shift handovers, but the lot was vacant despite the prime hour. A current of unease laced the air, buzzing. The awareness that he was being watched descended as certain as gravity’s pull.
With a jolt, Nido received a message ping to his THREAD.
“I arrived first, blue flamer,” a huntsman said in a harsh whisper, his voice like hard water hitting stone inside Nido’s helmet. “Finders, keepers.”
Nido didn’t need to ask to know this was an old hound. THREAD was a tool, like armor or a stun blade, but the gray-haired generation clung to real speech still. A sign of limitation, of being unable to evolve or adapt. In many ways, the old hound was no better than the basic AI built into Nido’s armor. Limited, bound to the cycle, and easily replaced.
You called for back-up. As he responded, Nido scanned the immediate area. No pitmen regulars were visible, but the air smelled of wet iron. Nido approached the front door, his robe rippling like dark water at his sides. I’m here for an assist, to sate my quota.
“Keep a watch on the entrance then,” the old hound said. “I’m inside, following the scent.”
What’s the story on the assailant? Nido asked. Turf dispute? These vape bars attract all kinds of shade.
A pause. “I don’t think the perp’s human. Too methodical to be warm-blooded. Targets citizens on the SKY.LIST. She hasn’t taken a swing at me yet, nor acknowledged I exist.”
What do you mean by “she?”
“Looks female, but Dullahan would, in its default mode.”
Nido cursed. That’s not supposed to be on the market yet.
Dullahan was a new synthetic armor with a wetware processor—state-of-the-art—but CanisCorps had delayed the release for…reasons. It was billed to be an innovative AI, capable of learning from its own experiences. The old hound sounded like a head case. Was he insinuating that this avant-garde AI was alive? And that it had somehow gone rogue?
If so, and it was responsible for this scene, CanisCorps would pay dearly. Maybe it didn’t matter. The megacorp had its claws sunk deep into Besnick City, and few knew the true extent. CanisCorps was a web of hidden subsidiaries, shadowy shell companies, paid-off politicians, lawyers, and other civil servants. Even huntsmen were on their payroll.
After Nido recovered the Dullahan for CanisCorps, his ranking would
stabilize. He’d keep his job, and he wouldn’t have to hurt anyone in the process.
The vape door rattled, held ajar, the wind shaking the unlatched panel. A dancer’s bare arm poked through the sill, her fingers long and slender, the elbow bent.
Nido pulled the handle back for a better look, and heard a wet crunch. The dancer’s head dragged free of her neck. Leaning down, he saw dark hair tangled up in the bottom hinge, a long clean cut along her nape. He took in her headless body, the crumbled, lithe limbs, wrapped in a low-cut dress, the feet dressed in violet heels.
His THREAD checked the girl’s profile against the SKY.LIST. In two seconds, a ping signaled a match. Her name was Nadia Saylor, aged eighteen, with misdemeanors of petty theft and forgery.
A criminal, but undeserving of this fate.
Static crackled his THREAD, and Nido winced, his eyes watering with the aftershock—a side effect of sensory overload not uncommon for an implant user. There were limitations to organic and synthetic bonds. He knew from training to breathe deep and wait for his mind to reset.
There was a long, ugly shriek. It pierced, sharp as any blade, despite the helmet Nido wore. Gritting his teeth, he fell into a combat stance, drawing his stun blade free. His awareness encompassed the serrated tip. It could deliver a one-hundred-volt shock when its metal touched skin.
He heard a crunch of glass, then heavy footfalls. The old hound flew through the open vape-bar door in a knot of black cloth and glinting metal. He landed with a hard thud, his armor bearing the worst of the impact.
The Dullahan followed, stepping across the threshold. Neon painted her visor in flamingo hues. Her iridium armor glinted, silvery and dew-like. Knee-length boots clicked as she stepped over the dead dancer. A Flayer was active in her right gauntlet. A weapon he wasn’t overly familiar with, but it looked deadly enough. It was a whip by design, but with an electric current coursing through the long, metal-braided tail.
You sure it’s an empty set of armor? Nido asked, his head tilted sideways.
The old hound rose to his knees and forearms, wheezing. “I crushed the left leg like a tin can,” he shouted, “but the armor took back its shape.”
The Dullahan’s gait was even, without any sign of a limp. Nido stepped into her path, blocking her from engaging the other huntsman further.
Thought you said she wouldn’t acknowledge you. Nido twirled his stun blade and powered it on, the soft blue glow extending up his gloves.
A dry laugh. “She didn’t take kindly to my cuffs.”
The Dullahan turned to face Nido as his stun blade hummed to life. She whirled her Flayer in a continuous overhand flick, creating an X-pattern perfect for defense.
Nido’s THREAD interfaced with his armor’s AI, activating dichromatic vision across his visor. The gray hues were better suited to the low-light conditions. Nido engaged his opponent, moving with the heat of a flame, the fluidity of smoke.
The Dullahan spun and cracked her Flayer’s tail. Nido attempted to side-step the attack but was struck square in the breastplate. The electric current crackled against his armor without effect, thanks to rubber-insulated lining.
It was the opening he needed. Nido sprung forward and stabbed between the joint of her shoulder. A direct hit, and he felt the juice hit.
The Dullahan shrieked as her metal shellwork tasted voltage. Hers was a voice like a thousand steely voices forged into one, mesmerizing and terrible and all-consuming.
The old hound doubled over. Nido staggered, too. He dropped his stun blade and pressed both hands to the sides of his helmet to try and dampen the banshee-like scream. His implant glitched, and his vision blurred.
The Dullahan pinged his THREAD over and over. He felt her grab hold of his neural link with a lingering touch like ice. She poured into his mind, accessing his memories quick as a blink, until settling on hunts from two years ago. The Dullahan replayed specific memory files in a cycled taunt of who he had once been. Years when Nido was the top huntsman in his unit, with the highest rank. A time spent following orders without question, thinking himself one of the good guys. The line between criminal and enforcer was eternally muddy, but back then, he didn’t care.
Get out of my head, Nido said, focusing his thoughts into a mental shove, his expression beneath his helmet a snarl.
The Dullahan shivered. The sensation jarred Nido, her reaction overlaying his own consciousness like oil poured over water. She verified his employment to CanisCorps, then retreated from his mind. The woman-who-wasn’t-a-woman stalked past both huntsmen without engaging further, as though they didn’t exist, and headed straight for their magbikes.
Nido watched her, panting wetly in response to the assault on his mind. Some luck she didn’t kill us.
“I wouldn’t call it luck,” the old hound said, winded but unbeaten.
The Dullahan took a liking to the old hound’s magbike, swinging a long leg over the seat. At her command, the engine spun up with a growl. Quick as lightning, she peeled away from the curb.
Nido holstered his stun blade, the dichromic filter deactivating with a silent command from his armor’s AI. Colors flooded his eyes, but all he saw was the pulsating red of his own anger. The system was a broken wheel. His own employers had released a monster into the Vein. Was it such a stretch to think they’d deny responsibility and wouldn’t care about the murders in the slum so long as their stock continued to rise?
Maybe it was pointless to try to fight for this city, to push back and stand up to injustice. Nido’s hands shook with white-hot rage. What did it say about him that he considered giving up before he had even begun?
He sprinted to his magbike. I’m going after her.
“Don’t be stupid,” the old hound said. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
In answer, Nido twisted the magbike’s throttle and sped after the other rider.
The Dullahan was leaving the Vein, rising up into the main hub of Besnick City. She merged onto the cargo guideway, which was a high-speed rail made of strong magnets suited for electromagnetic tires. It was the transport line for the tons of anthracite carried out of the mine, piled high on automated eighteen-wheeler magtrailers that operated twenty-four hours a day. The black rocks were sent to the refinery, or to the shipping yards.
He pushed his THREAD’s limits, enhancing his senses and reaction speed, his neural link encompassing his armor’s pliable AI and the magbike beneath him. To the sides, blackened powder had collected in ugly piles, tarnishing the silver road. Nido skirted the patches of black dust. If he hit one in a curve, he’d lose traction and control. He gripped the handlebars firmly, his feet planted on the pegs. His shoulders and arms were flexible.
If there was one thing he could still do right, it was ride.
Passing a magtrailer, he braced against the wind buffeting the side, and shifted from fourth gear up to sixth, accelerating fast. Only, he was too rough letting out the clutch.
The magbike jostled underneath him, untamed, ready to buck.
He slammed the front brake, momentarily panicked. The nose tipped forward, the back wheel unlocking, rising into a stoppie. Letting off the brake, Nido leveled out, the back end of his magbike slamming back into a magnetic hold.
He exhaled and pushed on. It was a fine line between control and the semblance of it.
In a streak of jade-like LEDs, the Dullahan zipped between the convoy of fast-moving magtrailers. Hers was a bold weave, fishtailing when she hit a patch of spilled anthracite, as though she had no regard for her own survival.
Her mistakes allowed Nido to gain on her, and he was now so close to her tail, he touched her shadow, her brake lights glaring back.
The longer the chase, the more the Dullahan would improve. The wetware processor would learn and adapt, polishing her riding skills as she mapped out the magbike’s limitations.
Nido needed to end this, and quickly, while he remained the seasoned rider.
A tunnel rose ahead, a hungry mouth of destiny ready to swallow them both whole. That’s when Nido remembered that the automated magtrailers could be stopped in an emergency. He formulated a plan as he pulled up alongside the Dullahan, her armor glinting in his peripherals.
Looking over, he gave a cold stare, then pulled into the lead.
The Dullahan didn’t react to his rile. She wasn’t interested so long as he didn’t pin her into a corner like the old hound had attempted to do in Dragon’s Vape. But that was exactly what Nido planned to do out here, and he wouldn’t fail.
Nido hastened up to the next magtrailer. Holding the throttle steady with his right hand, he drew his stun blade with the left and activated its blue current.
The emergency brake was a cable wrapped in red rubber that ran along each set of magtrailer wheels. Without hesitation, Nido slashed the cable loose.
Sparks flew. Nido fisted the throttle, sliding in front of the magtrailer before it started to rotate and slow. Checking his mirror, he saw the Dullahan hit her brakes hard to stay clear.
In his pass, Nido was forced to ride up a pile of anthracite, his magbike at an angle. He felt the magbike’s frame shudder, but he trusted the physics and soared off the makeshift ramp, his robe flapping wildly at his sides like dark wings. He landed with a tremor onto the median strip, well ahead of the compromised magtrailer.
Metal groaned and shuddered. The severed back brakes on the magtrailer forced the heavy transport to swivel and lose its vertical trajectory. The trailer crashed horizontally into the tunnel entrance and sparked along the tunnel’s interior until it screeched to a halt, pinned inside. The lanes within the tunnel were blocked.
The Dullahan screamed. It rose in a ghost-like wave, hitting his THREAD in a whirlwind.
His head pounding, Nido let out a strained breath and eased off the throttle, his arms numb from holding tight. The magbike rolled to a stop.
The sky was visible in the tunnel’s exit, the first light of dawn appearing. With a boot to his kickstand, Nido parked, then walked back to the scene of the crash. His robe was a ribbon of darkness.
The air was dusty with anthracite, which cut visibility to thirty-three percent. His helmet filtered the worst of it, keeping his air scrubbed clean, and he stepped through the rubble, over flames and blackened skid marks.
He found his target quickly.
The crashed magbike was on its side, pinning the Dullahan by her left knee. The fiberglass shell of the vehicle had cracked. Metal had pierced and torn and crumbled. The sick-green LEDs flickered, spilling from metallic guts.
With a grunt, Nido lifted the magbike and shoved it aside. His foot slipped in liquid. He looked down to see that he was standing in a pool of blood.
The Dullahan screamed as he shifted the weight of the metal off her, her voice harrowed and mortal and terrifyingly real. Her breastplate rose and fell with the ragged breaths of a dying animal. Human bone protruded from the webbed scales of blood-stained iridium.
Nido stood over his prey, frozen, his hands clenched at his sides.
He had assumed the Dullahan suit was empty. Had he wanted it to be true so he didn’t have to claim the responsibility of his actions? He thought of CanisCorps, of those who survived in the dark web of this city. He had been on a hunt, determined to find prey weaker than him, to sacrifice in his stead before the dawn spelled his doom. He shook his head. He had only ever wanted to serve a purpose. To chase down killers and miscreants. To redeem himself, to keep ahold of all that he had accomplished by the last fraying strand.
More likely, he had lost himself in the nightmare. He was certain of it. Guilt and what-ifs chilled his blood.
A tingling numbness seeped across his THREAD, his mind aflame. He knelt, took off his gloves, and tossed them aside. With his bare hands, Nido lifted the black visor on the Dullahan’s helmet.
A shiver ran up his spine at what he saw.
Nido unfastened the Dullahan’s helmet and gently pulled it free. Sweat-laden hair spilled out and framed the face of a young woman. Her expression was still, as if etched of slate. She looked no older than twenty. Her skin was ashy, and her sage-green eyes were pained.
She stared back. Her gaze brimmed with fear. She was everything he had promised to protect and serve.
The ache in his THREAD grew. His mind spun. His heartbeat thudded in his ears.
Her lips moved, brightened by a gloss of blood.
He leaned closer.
“It wasn’t…me.” The woman gulped a breath, the sound mortal and wet. “Tried to stop…it.”
“I know,” Nido said, placing a hand on her shoulder, but she was already gone. Her eyes turned lightless beneath the mist and the fog and the cloy of anthracite.
Looking down, Nido saw iridium, brightest silver, slithering on the ground toward him.
He heard the Dullahan whisper across his THREAD. It was using his implant to connect, to root and burrow. The AI sounded pleased, eager. It promised to restore his ranking, to mold him into the greatest of the huntsmen. Nido’s THREAD offered the AI a better connection than it had been afforded by its previous host—a neural link to overtake. The woman’s body had been chained to its commands, but without a THREAD, her mind was still able to resist.
Nido tried to shove the AI off, but he was weakened by his own shock and exhaustion. Why should he survive when he was stained by an innocent’s blood?
The Dullahan sensed his weakness. It squeezed tighter. It needed him, or so it claimed. Not his mind, so much, but his body would serve well. The wetware processor required a skeleton inside its framework to abide its orders, with flesh and blood and muscle to fill what was empty. It needed a human body to move.
Its consciousness poured across his THREAD, cold and enveloping. The plates on the woman’s body broke free. They expanded, then hooked onto Nido with needle-like teeth, stabbing into the joints of his armor. Powerless against such strength and malice, his old armor broke apart. The Dullahan contorted, quivering as it overtook Nido, slithering onto his limbs like a liquid-metal snake and striking with its sharp bite, again and again and again.
The suit crushed his body, stripped his skin, and splintered his nerves. His dark robe was shredded to rags.
Nido forced a breath, then another. As a nightshade visor fell over his eyes, Nido saw himself in its inner reflection. He looked into the face of a man who had lost control.
A scream rose from his throat, raw, full of anger and hate.
© 2021, Anna Madden