Om sent a mental command to the soulsifters embedded in his eyes. The hardware, shaped like innocuous thin glasses, powered on. Settling into the seat before the CEO of Hwado Electronics, he said, ‘The gift to Ye-Bin’s equestrian school would certainly be appreciated. And I’m confident she’ll mention it the next time she has the ear of President Eun-So.’
Om directed the soulsifters to fill the air with spectral probes. The display in the upper right corner flickered, and the power source level dipped from 31.1% to 31%.
A year stranded on Earth, and he had already used three full percentage points of the soulsifters’ energy. Once exhausted, his greatest tool for survival on this foreign world would be gone.
The swirling spectral probes settled around the CEO, Tae Min. Next to Tae Min, his two armed bodyguards, their assault rifles slung around their shoulders, did not react. Tae Min became translucent under the glasses’ lenses, and billions of points of light–the souls occupying his physical space–became visible. At the centre of the lights existed the undetectable singularity that kept the bulk of souls in orbit within the CEO.
Om sifted through the tiny entities of consciousness that formed clusters within Tae Min’s physical manifestation. The probes sought out dozens of the biggest clusters of voices screaming for greater influence in the political world.
The CEO’s eyes widened as the cluster grew and attracted more points of light. Beyond the office’s expansive windows behind him, Neo-Seoul stretched, a city of steel and concrete. Tall skyscrapers pierced the grey clouds which glowed faintly under the rising moon. Hwado Electronics towered over all the buildings east of Han River. From this great height, the streets choked with cars and the sidewalks teeming with people couldn’t be seen.
Om sent a new command to the soulsifters to manipulate the pulsating cluster with data–dreams of a merger. Hwado Electronics had shown interest in purchasing Go-Chi, a pharmaceutical company that manufactured medicine that prevented cancer from human bio-implants. Up until now, the government had prevented major corporations from buying Go-Chi, keeping the pharmaceutical independent and subsidising the cost of the medicine so that every citizen could afford it.
That would all change with this meeting.
The CEO’s breathing quickened. ‘Hwado had been considering a donation to a sporting venue to help Korea be more competitive on the international stage’, he said. ‘Ye-Bin’s equestrian school sounds like it would be a perfect candidate for a generous gift.’
Om nodded, the success of this mission seeming assured.
A sudden piercing scream followed by a powerful explosion hinted that his job wouldn’t be concluded quite so easily.
A force entered the room in a whirlwind of motion, and Tae Min’s bodyguards fired at the vortex. The intruder leapt from the shattered door and threw two projectiles that buried themselves into the throats of the guards. The bodyguards collapsed back into the window overlooking Neo-Seoul, their fingers still clenching the triggers, the bullets tearing apart the wall and going through the ceiling. Om rolled from his chair and quickly glanced over his shoulder to see how the intruder would eliminate Tae Min. To his surprise, the intruder ignored the CEO and focused on him. Only then did Om see the details of legs and arms and face.
A human, and he was moving at a speed and with a power that the alien had never observed before on Earth.
Om instinctively powered the soulsifters to full intensity as the human bore down upon him with a glowing blade. The power source level dropped from 31% to 30% as the lenses bored past the physical trappings to the billions of souls underneath. Om froze and emitted a sharp gasp. Beauty, of lights glowing at such magnitude and with such brilliance, existed within the intruder and filled the soulsifters. Om stared in abject wonder. The singularity, normally undetectable even to the soulsifters, had assumed a visible form causing all of the other souls within the assassin to vibrate in controlled flares of explosive light.
The soulsifters’ power level dipped again, from 30% to 29%. Om could not move as fast as the intruder, could not evade the glowing blade that sliced cleanly through his throat. No blood splattered the sword, and Om reached out and grasped his chin to make sure his head did not flop off. The intruder’s dark eyes narrowed in surprise at the lack of death in Om’s frantic movements as the alien scooted back across the hardwood floor. If the intruder hacked at the body Om wore, the blade would eventually pierce its true form embedded in the human disguise and spread its souls into the divine wind of the aether.
Yet Om could not help but be distracted by the brilliance of the singularity within the intruder. A desire took hold of him. He wished nothing more than to become one with that wonderful entity which kept the souls within the physical frame that was swinging at Om, cutting into his arm, and then across his chest. The blows caused him no pain, though the human disguise was costly to create on his already damaged ship. But more important than his yearlong attempt to leave this planet was to merge with the intruder who tried so desperately to kill him.
Om detected Tae Min wrestle the automatic rifle from the dead bodyguard, grab an extra magazine from an ammo pouch, slip it into the rifle’s chamber, and fire at the intruder. Bullets tore through Om’s chest, who fell backwards as the intruder dodged the attack. Om used the reprieve from the deadly swipes of the flaming sword to send a command to the soulsifters. Spectral probes filled the air, swirled towards the intruder, and attached themselves to the billions of souls vibrating within the confines of his physical form. A bridge between Om and the intruder formed, and the alien tried to release its souls to join the fantastic, bright cluster of the intruder.
The intruder cried out, his face twisting in anguish. The ethereal bridge glowed brightly, and the soulsifters’ energy level rose from 29% to 29.5%. Then 30%.
A bullet grazed the assassin’s shoulder. He spun to the window overlooking Neo-Seoul and let loose another great, piercing cry. Om saw the singularity flare, saw the energy of life fill the cry with a physical force that smashed into the window and shattered it. Immediately, the suction threatened to rip Tae Min out of the towering Hwado Electronics Tower, but the intruder moved fast. He dashed through the window and caught the CEO in midair. Wrapping his fingers around Tae Min’s hand, the assassin twisted his body, hurled the CEO to safety at the opposite side of the room, then plunged from the skyscraper. Om didn’t see what he did next, but he was confident that the assassin would live.
Marco fell. The wind buttressed his body and tore at his clothes. The windows of Hwado Electronics rushed by, and he glimpsed his reflection in the panes as he plunged floor after floor.
If he adjusted his body, he’d be able to slow his descent. If he concentrated, he’d be able to control his fall. But his gi had been disturbed, and he could not muster the motivation to save himself. He had failed a mission. His target still lived. He had never experienced this situation before, but he accepted the penalty for failure in the Order of Warrior Monks.
The moon hung like a bright eye staring down at his shame. Marco wished to avoid its cold gaze, and he was grateful when he dropped into the silver clouds surrounding the skyscrapers. For several moments, he saw nothing, his only company the air keening in his ears. He replayed the fight in his mind to glean the secret of his failure. What had the target used to defeat him? Some tech that reached out into Marco and physically drained his gi? How did such a thing exist?
Every time Marco left the unification forests of central Neo-Seoul, his spiritual focus waned as the technology of the modern world distracted him. He meticulously timed each mission so that he could penetrate the city, complete the task, and return within hours. Never had technology attacked his core so violently and pervasively.
The bright lights of the city below lit the night as Marco dropped out of the clouds. Still he made no move to save himself, the air whistling its fatal tune as he plummeted towards the streets below. The Order of Warrior Monks only sent Marco on their most difficult missions. When they calculated that no other operative would succeed, they assigned Marco with absolute confidence that he would pull off the impossible. For more than five years, since his initiation into the Order, he had proven again and again why he deserved their faith in his abilities.
A week ago, the CEO of Samseong had climbed the thousand steps to the Bodhisattva Temple. He commissioned the Order to have the Master of Lies killed before the CEO of Hwado could be corrupted by his deceit. The CEO of Samseong had been unable to provide a description of the Master of Lies, who was also a Master of Disguises, able to dramatically alter his appearance with ease. The opportunity to strike would only happen as he manipulated Tae Min, for that would be the only time an assassin could confirm it was him. But the CEO of Samseong did not want his competitor killed. He simply didn’t want his rival to have leverage at the highest levels of government before he could get there first.
Under such unique, restrictive parameters, the Order of Warrior Monks had sent Marco, and now he plunged to his death.
The sound of flapping wings and sharp caws stirred Marco from his thoughts. He knew they were his clan’s messenger crows even before he looked at them circling, a dozen or more large black birds staring with black eyes, reflecting the lights of the buildings around them.
Have you come to pick over the bones of my corpse, brothers? Marco thought. The largest one suddenly dove at Marco and slammed into his face, whipping his head back. The other birds continued cawing at him as Marco flipped through the air, surprised.
The crows connected him to his ancestors in the other world. He had thought they’d come to take his soul away once he hit the swiftly approaching concrete below. But after that slap to the face from the sword holder, he realized his clan had use of him still.
Marco twisted, pulling his arms to his sides and straightening his body into a dive. He glided along a strong current that propelled him towards a window of Hwado Electronics. With a great cry, he exploded the glass and rode the winds into an empty room several floors above the city streets. He rolled to a crouch and stumbled to his feet. The circling crows cawed at him from outside the window, their urgency clear in their impatient cries. Marco also had no wish to linger with the unknown threat still above him. Looking out through the shattered glass, he saw a magnetic train rushing silently between the buildings high above the sidewalks. He focused, then pounced. He grasped the railing of the last car, his fingers desperately seeking purchase on the edge of the elevated locomotive before he found a hold on the smooth bar.
He’d been reduced to a novice. His shame billowed inside of him, but the crows prodded him on with their insistent caws. His clan communicating through the black-feathered birds had no time for his self-pity. Marco clambered to the top of the train, crouched, and leapt to the side of a passing building. He ran swiftly across the vertical walls and pounced to the next building, and then the next. The modern world and its awful technology rushed by in an exhausted blur as he pushed himself towards central Neo-Seoul. An hour later, he reached the sprawling unification forests of Korea. He collapsed under the trees at the border and rested in the shadows for several moments, his breath ragged as the world swirled before his eyes.
The crows landed in the wet leaves and pecked at him, their sharp beaks ripping through his clothes and tearing at his skin. Marco struggled to his feet and continued on under the dense national forests. The trees stretched for dozens of city blocks, and the deeper Marco penetrated them, the stronger he felt, as distance between himself and the technology of the modern world widened. Finally, he reached the thousand steps of the Bodhisattva Temple. The typical person took hours to walk up the steep incline that challenged the spirit as much as the body. Many physically strong visitors never made it to the 500th step, while old, frail guests reached the summit, fatigued yet triumphant.
Marco normally bounded up to the temple, but tonight, each narrow stone step challenged him more than the last. When he finally reached the summit, he collapsed to his knees in front of his master waiting for him beneath the leering statues at the gated entrance.
Marco could not meet his gaze. The crows landed on both sides of them, but this time, they remained silent and watched. Marco had never imagined a scenario like this coming to pass. Above all others in the Order, he was the most gifted with spiritual energy. His connection to the source was stronger than any other, and his clan in the afterlife had used that connection to influence their reality. In exchange, Marco was gifted with superhuman abilities and the use of the sword sheathed at his waist.
In one fell swoop, he had failed everyone. His atonement should have been his death. At least in that way, he could have added his spiritual fuel to his clan, helping them bolster their hold in the next life now that they had been weakened by his disgrace.
‘Ordinarily’, his Master said without emotion, ‘your sacrifice would have been the proper course of action. Your soul’s energy could then be bequeathed upon another more worthy of its power. But there is disagreement within your clan, and they have separated into factions after your defeat. As of now, those that want you to atone in this reality instead of the other have gained the upper hand.’
Discord among his clan? This would weaken their position further, allowing foreign forces in the next life to prey upon them. Marco’s shame deepened. All of this was his fault.
‘Not entirely’, his master said, and Marco lifted his eyes slightly so that he glimpsed his sandaled feet. ‘Your target, the Master of Lies and Disguises, the man of illusions, is no man at all.’
What? The puzzle began to untangle, the pieces locking into place. The way Marco’s sword had sliced through him and yet drawn no blood. Not even a look of pain in his face when the blade sliced through his neck. Marco had been surprised but kept attacking anyway until he could discover another method to kill the target.
‘Your clan tried to follow the stranger’s spiritual threads linking this world to the next. His connections stretched to strange dimensions that they had never experienced before and dared not travel unprepared. This man is from distances far and vast, a stranger to earth and the realities we know. As long as he remains here, he is a danger to your clan and all the other clans who still interact in the living’s affairs.’
Marco’s master gestured to the largest of the crows, who strutted to Marco and opened its broad, black beak. Marco removed the sword from his waist and inserted it into the bird’s mouth down its throat. The crow snapped down on the hilt, flapped its wings, and took off into the sky, the murder following him.
‘Your clan will resharpen the blade in the forges of the afterlife. The Master of Illusions can be killed, but you must strike him in a particular spot in the body he hides, in order to disperse the physical vessel that contains his soul. Only then will he be killed.
‘Now go and recover from your injuries, both spiritual and physical. When you attack the Master of Lies next, you cannot fail, or your clan will fall.’
Om stood in front of the Hyperion building in the Omokgyo district. Coffee houses and restaurants, their bright neon signs staving off the twilight, stretched as far as the eye could see to the left and right of the soaring building of bright glass piercing the sky. The lobby of the Hyperion was a vast oval, and armed guards stood strategically along the polished marble floors. Several had handguns strapped to their waists. Others had assault rifles slung over their shoulders. Ever vigilant, the guards’ enhanced corneas of bright monitors implanted in their eye sockets missed no detail.
Some of the wealthiest men in Neo-Seoul lived in Hyperion, while their families stayed in vast rural estates outside of the city. Here, the men engaged in complicated corporate deals influencing events in unified Korea and beyond. Both the CEO of Hwado Electronics and the CEO of Samseong resided in the reflective tower, but Om was here to only see one.
Om entered the purified atmosphere of the expansive lobby, and an armed guard raised his hand and approached.
‘You’re not on our guest list’, he told Om, a series of subtle flickers visible in his cornea as Om’s physical appearance was analysed. Earth’s sensors picked up light on multiple wavelengths, but the alien’s tech operated far beyond anything that could be detected on Earth. When Om released a wave of spectral probes from the soulsifters, the guards made no reaction. The probes filled the lobby, and the soulsifters removed the physical form of the guards to reveal the multitude of growing clusters within each separate ecosystem. Om wished he could create a bridge to these humans’ singularities in order to charge his hardware, but the clusters around him weren’t strong enough. Om needed the assassin from yesterday, and he hoped this gambit would bring the assailant straight to him.
Om directed the spectral probes to identify the jealous clusters, the envious masses of souls that wanted all that stood in the towers above them: wealth, women, leisure, power. He fed them data that created illusions of all they could gain if they only helped him achieve his goal.
Om pointed up. ‘Let me through’, he said, and the guard complied, his head full of false dreams of impossible futures.
Om went to a row of elevators, the human guise he wore reflected back at him in the golden doors polished to a gleaming shine. The corneas of the guard flickered another series of complicated flashes, and one pair of doors silently slid open. Om stepped in, the doors closed behind him, and the elevator whisked him up into the skyscraper. No numbers registered on the display, so when the elevator slid to a silent stop, Om stepped out into a flowered foyer with no idea of what floor he’d been taken to. Two guards blocked his path, and only after another scan by the screens embedded in their eyes did the foyer door open. Om stepped into Tae Min’s penthouse.
Even a man like Tae Min seemed to have his betters, and Om wondered who lived above the CEO of Hwado Electronics. A row of windows overlooked Neo-Seoul. These weren’t quite as high as Tae Min’s office at Hwado Tower, but the penthouse still looked down upon most buildings in the neighbourhood.
The living room boasted empty space with a handful of white chairs and glass tables scattered strategically around the wooden floors. Two staircases led to a second floor lined with doors. Unique art pieces sat beside colourful paintings mounted on pale walls. A grand piano stood in front of one of the windows, a crescent moon slicing through the velvet night sky its majestic backdrop.
An attendant in a smart black uniform approached Om and directed him to one of the living room tables. He opened his hand, and a holographic array of drinks and snacks shot up from his palm. Om chose a wine, and a cheese and crackers set. Moments later, another attendant stepped out from a side door with a silver platter. The drink and food was placed on the table before Om, and both men stepped back, their hands folded behind their backs as they waited for the CEO to arrive.
Om had already started his second glass of wine before Tae Min finally came downstairs. The CEO smiled brightly at Om as he stood, and he grasped his hand in both of his.
‘The man who saved my life’, Tae Min said warmly. ‘I wasn’t expecting you today. How did you get up?’
Om released spectral probes from the soulsifters, and they focused on the cluster of souls within Tae Min that perpetually ran images of the horror of death through his mind. These terrified clusters had propelled Tae Min harder than those around him, making him work longer hours, making him take greater risks as he vanquished one competitor after another until he lived on this floor high above the dark streets of Neo-Seoul.
‘One of the personnel who helped me to my apartment last time is stationed in the lobby downstairs’, Om replied. ‘He thought I must have urgent business with you, and let me up.’
Slight lines of suspicion crinkled Tae Min’s eyes, but the soulsifters sent data of the CEO’s body sliced apart by the assassin’s glowing sword. The tech displayed images of Tae Min writhing in agony on his office floor as the darkness of death imprisoned him in a cage behind his eyes. Then would come the medical technicians, who would collect his limbs in an elaborate box. Then the funeral, where he would hear his wife and children wailing but would not be able to respond to them. And then Tae Min would be locked away in the family grave and forced to dwell in emptiness for all eternity, just him and his thoughts and his hunger to exist.
Death, of course, did not work like this, but Om had read this persistent, ignorant fear in humans the moment he arrived. The less-spiritually-enlightened of the galaxy’s sentient beings shared the same existential terror no matter their level of technological sophistication. Om, a cartographer, travelled across the galaxy to different planets and categorised intelligent lifeforms, remaining invisible among them as it studied their behaviour. When his ship suffered a malfunction in Earth’s solar system a year ago and crashed landed in Neo-Seoul, the alien was forced to jury-rig repairs on tech that he had limited expertise in.
Om was gifted, even among his race, with understanding the clusters of souls that made up reality, yet he only had a functional understanding of the hardware his people’s engineers had created that enabled him to travel through space and time. The repairs to his ship could be a simple matter to a genuine technician. For Om, the damage had left him stranded on this planet without an understandable means to communicate with his own kind. So he took these lucrative jobs of human deception considered impossible among the most powerful of this world, and he used the currency to buy rare metals for a ship that he had been slowly repairing for months now.
Tae Min, looking at the alien with gratitude over being saved from the lie of death, clasped Om’s hand tighter.
‘You’ve done so much for me’, Tae Min said, motioning for Om to sit down again. He took the seat opposite the alien. ‘How can I help you?’
Om picked up the glass of wine and swirled the thin red liquid. ‘The matter we discussed before about President Eun-So’s close friend’, the alien said. ‘It remains a viable option. My retainer would still appreciate your support for her equestrian school.’
The words hung in the air and vibrated with a life of their own. Om kept the human body he wore relaxed even as he sent a second wave of soulsifters to swirl around the penthouse in a dense cloud. The elevator behind him chimed, and Tae Min looked over Om’s shoulder, curious.
‘Another guest?’ the CEO of Hwado Electronics said to his bodyguards. ‘No one was on the schedule to see me today.’
‘I’m not sure who’s coming up, sir’, one of the men said, and through the soulsifters Om saw the guards raise their guns, their fingers on the triggers. The elevator doors slid open, and a murder of crows exploded into the penthouse, flooding down the open elevator shaft, their sharp cries deafening.
The guards ducked, surprised by the surge of beating wings invading the penthouse. The crows surrounded the men and tore at their faces, ripping out their eyes. The guards’ dull screams could barely be heard through the sharp cawing reverberating against the windows.
‘My god!’ Tae Min dashed towards the stairs, but the crows swirled around him, driving him towards the edge of the room. They didn’t attack him as they did the bodyguards.
Om leapt out of his chair as the crows attempted to tear at his face. That wasn’t his main concern. The soulsifters registered that the other birds were gulping down the probes that he’d filled the air with. How was that even possible?
Om darted across the room, the crows following him. He released more probes than he ever had to saturate the air, and the power meter dropped a full percentage point from 30% to 29%. Still the crows tried to consume the probes, but now so many had been released that the air pulsated with the microscopic machines.
Om needed to locate the assassin, who had to be in the penthouse somewhere hiding and waiting for the opportunity to strike. The birds suddenly scattered around the alien, and Om looked down as a blade pierced him from behind to protrude out of his abdomen. Then the blade was yanked up, slicing through Om’s spine and sliding out of his neck.
There he is!
The soulsifters tore the assassin’s physical form away to reveal the bright centre of the singularity. Om created the bridge again, the soulsifters connecting the alien’s spiritual core with the assassin’s. The power meter rose from 29% to 30%. Behind him, the assassin moaned but did not relent his attack. With a cry filled with energy, the assassin sliced through the alien’s hip, cutting Om in half. Om strengthened the bridge, and the power meter jumped another percentage point. Light was being ripped from the assassin and consumed by the alien. Memories flooded Om, and he learned the assassin’s name and function.
Marco, a member of the Order of Warrior Monks.
Marco dropped his sword, plunged his hands inside the destroyed body, and cried out. Energy in successive waves filled the human flesh, and the body the alien wore exploded, bits and pieces sliding across the floor.
The human container destroyed, the alien had no choice but to reveal its true form. Compacted into a tiny space beside the kidney, Om unfurled, untangling its many appendages. Through its true eyes, it saw the human head remained intact, and attempted to move towards it. The heavy gravity of this planet, and its weak spidery tentacles, hindered its efforts. The crows descended upon it and tore at the alien flesh. Desperate, the alien extended its lanky body to its full length and toppled over so that an appendage made contact with the human head where the soulsifters was buried. Om pulled up the schematics for a spiritual download before its physical form lost the ability to hold its soul clusters intact.
The assassin’s singularity was too strong for a spiritual overlay. The alien had to choose someone weaker, and focusing on the CEO, it sent its myriad souls across the filaments connecting reality and poured itself into the body of Tae Min. The CEO’s soul clusters resisted, but Om, a genius at spiritual manipulation if not technological savvy, hacked its way through until its presence overlapped and dominated Tae Min’s.
When Om looked through his new eyes, he saw that the crows had ripped apart its alien body. He saw Marco retrieve his sword, dash to the elevator, and leap up the service shaft. The murder of crows followed, and in moments, the penthouse was left in silence.
Om went to the human head, picked it up, and dug out the tiny hardware embedded inside. He swallowed it and directed the tech to spread throughout Tae Min. When the installation into the flesh was complete, a pair of clear glasses grew out of his face. Om checked the power meter.
He had lost his alien body, making travelling home on his damaged ship impossible. And his soulsifters only had a quarter power left to them.
Om turned to the window overlooking Neo-Seoul. When his race had discovered the singularity within them and its connection to the universe, they gave up the art of conflict and conquest. But now, Om had no recourse but to amass money and power in the hopes that if he had enough human wealth and influence, he could marshal the resources to make his way back home.
If he had to, he would consume this entire planet and bind the power of their singularities into a massive source of fuel. He would do whatever it took, but he would see his world again.
Om needed to call attendants to clean up the mess in the penthouse. But first, he had a donation to make and a President’s ear to whisper into.