Chapter 2

Ascent City was as much a living organism as a city could be.

It pulsed with cool, synthetic light, an orchestra of bright, repeating video adverts cast on huge screens around every corner, and the turbulent lives of its 1.6 million inhabitants. It was a seemingly ageless landscape, decorated with striking, glass-on-steel towers, whose shadows swept over the streets below.

In some ways, it was no different now in 2121 than it had been the decade before, or the one before that. Of course, there were artificial changes—a new highway ribbed in white-blue lights, a slightly different shape to the skyline, graffiti in colors galore. But it was mostly the same.

Buildings in eye-catching, oblong shapes, decorated in cascades of prismatic light and hologram.

Massive spectator arenas watching competitive, virtual-reality sporting competitions.

Slick motorbikes aglow from beneath, cruising down rainy backroads.

Friendly, remote-operated robot battles for cash prizes and glory.

The same communities, standing up for what is right, whenever and wherever possible.

 Yes, the city lived and moved, pushed along by the heart of ambition, veins full of streetlights and holographic, cartoon mascots proclaiming the value of each new trend and must-have products that promised fun with friends or powerful abilities.

Its people—its cells—were of all shapes and sizes. A great many of them were born under the incandescent glow of the city’s buildings, but more of them had searched it out, trying to find new dreams in the urban chaos.

Ascent City was a beautiful, frenetic place to discover one’s own destiny.

Even now, at this very moment, someone was starting down a new path that would take him to a place he could never imagine. A man armed with destructive intelligence, a shock of white hair, a custom-engineered hoverboard, and the means to achieve whatever he wanted.

This man was best known by his alias: Cypher.


Cypher made a reputation in the city’s criminal underworld as a devious, but brilliant young hacker, whose motivations swung between black market research, mercenary espionage, and, on occasion, being so bored that he rigged gambling schemes in the favor of those who would otherwise become victims. But Cypher’s newest intel would call upon all of his abilities.

 Presented with a rare opportunity to heist a near-legendary artifact of immeasurable potential, Cypher infiltrated a high surveillance production facility, owned by the city’s chief cybernetic enhancements empire: Skyless Enterprises.

Ascent City depended heavily on Skyless for artificial prosthetics, cybergenetic pharmaceuticals, and the broader supply of various industrial equipment. They qualified, among others, as one of the city’s most esteemed benefactors—a household name for anyone who relied on them to maintain a healthy or normal life. They were easily summarized by their mission statement: “progress, at all costs.”


Cypher’s espionage was deeply considered and well-practiced. No matter how benevolent Skyless might be, if they possessed the item he believed they did…well, he couldn’t help but take it for himself. It could lead him to a legend.

 He wore a nondescript attire that matched most of the on-site staff, modified his physical identity with the use of an illusory, film-thin facial mask, and carried a variety of devices to scramble, alter, or connect him with different technological interfaces, as the situation demanded.

With a trained hand and sharper mind, he navigated his way past keycode doors and security droids, until he found himself among the inner chambers of the facility. It was easy, until it wasn’t.

 No matter what his information told him about the item’s status or location, it simply wasn’t there. He knew it was too good to be true, and now his report had misled him into the jaws of one of the city’s strongest entities. No business ever took well to an attempted heist.

Unbeknownst to Cypher, he was not the only one moving against Skyless Enterprises.


Elsewhere in the facility, a young woman was caught up in things much bigger than herself. An honest mistake, gone awry.

Armed with a blade that could slice at the molecular level, she carved her way through Skyless’ defensive measures, security droids toppling into heaps as she sprinted on mechanical legs through the compound. Time was quickly spinning away, and if she wasn’t out soon, she knew Skyless was bound to initiate their—

“Lockdown protocol, commencing.”

Cypher snapped to attention as the tinny voice rang out through the overhead speakers. No way. Had he caused that? Was he already exposed? He had to get out immediately.

The outside hall lights had gone out, replaced by the threatening red glow of emergency lights along the walls.

From down the bending corridor, Cypher heard the approach of many footsteps, most of them metallic in quality. The security detail was already on top of him. Unbelievable.

A woman with dark hair and a blade in hand went sprinting past him. He blinked, and his eyes furrowed as several droids stalked behind her, completely ignoring him.

Huh. How about that?

He almost thought he was safe, until a second wave of reinforcements marched down the hall, their sights set on him. Ah. There they were.

Cypher immediately gave chase after the woman, but he didn’t have to search for long. With what he had to assume was the weapon he’d seen her with, she’d cut large swathes out of the doors that he’d so meticulously snuck through. In fact, he could follow her entire escape route just by following the mechanical carnage she’d left behind.

He didn’t want to ruin a good thing by dwelling on its convenience. This stranger just unknowingly carved him a path to safety, and he would gladly take it.

Near the entrance of the compound, Cypher found the young woman engaging a battalion of guards in a high-vaulted garage, somersaulting over one of the android footsoldiers and bisecting its head into halves.

 It didn’t take long for him to realize that, even with her martial skills, she wouldn’t be able to take the rest of them on her own, especially with the ones who’d tracked in behind him. She was still his ticket to escape.

Slipping his glove off, Cypher engaged the bioelectric conductor in his left hand, and began shutting down opponents with his only weapon, a contact-range static discharge. Combat was not his forte, but it didn’t need to be. As long as he could take some of the stress off her, they’d make it out just fine.

“Failsafe, commencing.”

As if on cue, Cypher registered a frequency-specific pulse that seemed to topple the young woman mid-action, her body folding and slamming into the ground.
However, it toppled all the other droids, too. Only the human personnel and himself seemed unaffected. A last resort by Skyless to prevent her escape?

Now, why would they do that?

“Hey, you. What are you standing around for?” The young woman yelled. She pulled herself along the ground with one flesh-and-blood arm, her other limbs dragging behind her. “Grab that bike and let’s jet.”

There was a motorbike nearby and Cypher was already remotely overriding its system and bypassing Skyless’s failsafe through the module embedded in his arm. It would be faster than escaping on his hoverboard.

Within seconds, the motorcycle’s front light flicked to life, and her body’s power was restored.

“Okay, that’s pretty neat,” she nodded to him, massaging a red mark on her cheek from where she hit the floor. “Clean assist, Zappy Boy.”

Cypher snorted. “I think this counts as more than an assist.”

Within seconds, the two of them found spots on the bike and wheeled out of the garage, Violet dealing warding slashes at the guards that tried to grab them as they escaped. They slipped out of the garage and into dark, rainswept streets, the alarm of the facility fading behind them.

“So,” Cypher steadied his heart rate as he started off towards his hideout, dodging around pedestrians and slipping between vehicles. “Who are you exactly?”

“Ah,” she said. “Skyless’ pet project, I guess. But I’m better known as Violet.”


“Huh,” Sypher said. “So I just assisted the escape of privately owned property?”

There was a pause, and he wondered if he’d struck a nerve.

“I guess so, kind of,” she answered. “What about you? Didn’t look like you were on friendly terms with them, either.”

“We aren’t on any terms,” Cypher scowled. “But it can’t be helped. I was trying to steal something. An informant of mine told me of a scanner that would lead me to something called the Metal Umbrella.” He winced. “But Skyless didn’t have it. Of course they wouldn’t. You can’t have a device that helps you find something that doesn’t exist.”

“Ah, I see,” she said as they hooked a turn and cut through a red light. “Well, I do have some good news Zappy Boy. The Metal Umbrella totally exists. One-hundred percent. Take me somewhere safe, and I’ll prove it.”

Cypher dared not let this stranger’s words reignite his hope…but if there was even a chance…

“Fine,” he said, not hiding his skepticism. “But from now on, call me Cypher.”

“Ah. Like a key to a code?” Violet grinned. “I like that, Cypher. I think we’ll get along just fine.”