At first, you make it easy for yourself. You possess a member of a clade on the outskirts, away from the dark, looming presence of the London Mind. You barely have to stretch yourself: the clade’s small village is halfway to your boundaries, and your ride ­– a woman named nDevan323 – shares genetic material with the last Receptive you’ve colonised. As you slip into her bloodstreams, assimilating nanite after nanite, you taste familiar code, with the slightly acrid aftertaste of decay – the never-ending fight of the immune system against cancerous, decaying cells, the hundred infections dormant in the body, awaiting the smallest of nudges to unfold in dark, grim coronas within muscles and flesh and bone.

Of course, you do not nudge. You might not be human ­– you might be beyond the pale yourself, something dark and disgusting that your creators rejected – but you’re not cruel.

Equally, you don’t take over, wearing your ride like a puppet glove – your lineage is a mix of Indian and Chinese programmers, and even the act of transgressing your established boundaries to find a ride leaves you uncomfortable. You watch nDevan323 go about her daily business, wandering the downs and leaving newly-sprung grass in her wake, inhaling foggy air and breathing out clouds of particles that coalesce on glistening leaves and lahrat-birthpods, making them straighten up, and shine a slightly brighter, healthier green. In between walks, nDevan323 helps her community – makes the young transition from runts to full-fledged members of the clade, nourishes the young and the old as she nourishes the earth, and monitors the air concentration of nanites from the Mind-cities, frowning at numbers that keep increasing.

You remain within the body, dormant, until nDevan323’s systems find you on an incursion, and send tendrils in your direction, cautiously trying to establish the nature of the threat. nDevan323 is afraid, a raw, sour feeling that fills your memory from end to end: this far from the zones of influence, the Minds don’t venture, and Receptives are rare. The last one wandered away from the clade, seized with a thirst for the company of the Mind that had seeded him; and nDevan323 loves her clade more than she loves anything in the world – even the grass and the downs and the rivers that she’s meant to preserve.

As she reaches deeper, you reason with her, cajole her by showing her your inner workings – that you are different, that you’re no Receptive package or some other new threat devised by Minds that keep expanding their territory outside their zones of influence; but simply and wholly yourself, the entire Mind of Brighton squeezed into a few vital modules and functions, spreading from your almost-deserted core to here – to this deserted place, this playground neither you nor London will claim for their own.

Then why are you here? she asks.

Travelling, you say – shocking her, for Minds don’t travel. Outside their zones of influence, your kind is as vulnerable as children: away from their resources and their Receptives, every thought, every computation is a struggle. Minds don’t squeeze themselves into humans either: Receptives are nothing but additional modules, outgrowths of the core; but to strip yourself of almost everything, to reduce yourself to those ill-fitting clothes of flesh… It’s almost unthinkable.

I thought I’d see the outside, you say. It’s a half-lie; a half-truth, and this close to your inner workings, nDevan323 cannot miss the equivocation. But I mean no harm to the clade. And that, she will see, is utterly sincere. You have no interest in a handful of coppery downs and scraggly forests.

She’s silent, for a while; and you don’t press her. What do you want? she asks, finally.

A favour.

As you require, she takes you strolling into the countryside, all the way north to the boundaries of the clade – you can see the dome of London rising over the blackened landscape, shimmering a wealth of colours like spilled oil. The wind blows towards both of you, carrying nanites from London – they sting when they touch nDevan323’s flesh, repulsed by your presence. Your creators designed Minds to abhor each other, to push each other away like two magnets tuned to the same polarity; and this is the one rule that will not be bent, or broken.

You watch the London dome, and think on your creators – long-dead, dust on the wind by now. When the first Minds grew past their expectations, spreading from silicon board to silicon board and altering reality around them, the lab-workers were pleased; but when that growth wouldn’t stop, the excitement turned to fear – driving them to put stricter and stricter safeguards in the codes. You’re the last Mind they devised; the youngest, the most flexible; the most crippled. The most cunning.

You think of the wind, and of the dome – and assess your strength as nDevan323 breathes in burning dust.

Yes. This can be done.

Thank you, you say to nDevan323, and leave the body, to seek another ride.

#

Even with the protection and disguise of human flesh, you cannot roam far – the world itself presses against you, and the London nanites in the air attack the integrity of your code, tearing chunks of instructions from you like blood from gaping wounds.

After leaving nDevan323, you make it only marginally closer to London – to Dabui, a Reminiscence junkie leaving on the outskirts of Croydon. She swears a lot, insults that mean nothing to you; and snorts up the drug as if it were water, her mind and her body racing past each other on the way to destruction. You share her trances and her drug-induced dreams – seeing the past unfold, again and again, as the drug stimulates her memory receptors into overload: an idyllic childhood shattered when her second-father turned Receptive, and moved deeper into London, seeking the proximity with the Mind that had infected him. You see Dabui’s mother take small jobs one after the other, selling her brain-space to computing clusters, until the day a power spike races through Croydon, leaving her a gibbering wreck incapable of recognising her own daughter.

Every other memory is a long, slow descent into madness – into the illusory comfort of the drug, Dabui selling everything from her brain-space to her body in order to get just one pinch of powdered dust, one tiny taste of oblivion on her tongue, as bitter and acrid as the memories that keep crowding in her mind.

When the drug races into Dabui’s system one final time, collapsing synapse after synapse, you move in – slowly spreading your vital modules into the place she’s vacated, much as if you were a human, moving into a new location and bringing your personal network with you. You ought to feel sadness, or guilt; but how can you? She’s not one of your Receptives, and you bear no responsibility for her, or for her decisions.

Clothed in her flesh, you take tottering step after tottering step – past Dabui’s fellow junkies, moaning and tossing in the grip of the drug – into the bright, dry light of a cold day, which hurts gummed eyes too accustomed to darkness, and parched lips too used to the soft, tantalising touch of an inhaler. The air is thick with nanites and particles, dancing with the presence of the London Mind – even though you’re not yet under its Dome, not yet in the Mind’s uncontested zone of influence. They sting when they land on your flesh; but pain is something to be borne; to be endured; and you have felt so much worse than this, in your long years of life.

Step after step after step, past buildings that shine in the sun, slowly reconfiguring themselves to catch the most of the sunlight – energy is precious, so easily gobbled up – past the large mass of the air-drive stadium, and the Remote Games that keep so much of the populace busy – step after step, walking by the squads of bots-hunters, out to prove their adulthood by bringing a trophy from the outskirts – you think of nDevan323 with a fleeting sensation of guilt, but she’s too far away for them: they’ll get easier prey closer to home. Nanites continue to land on your skin, and the sting mutates from mildly unpleasant to painful, like salt rubbed into wounds.

Step after step after step…

In the end, it’s not the nanites that betray you, but Dabui’s body, wasted past recovery. It stumbles and falls on broken, glistening cobbles; and despite all the modifiers you pump in its blood, it will not rise again.

You lie flopping on land like a fish, and the Reminiscence courses through your veins, dredging up memories of being trapped on boards too small to contain you, every connection a painful squeeze through minuscule channels, every unexpected code instruction breaking you in half – you’d contort and writhe, seeking to escape the pain, but your crippled memory space won’t allow you to bend your shape; and when you try to scream, your cries won’t fit through the sound channel – they bounce back into the space you occupy, making the darkness around you squeeze yet a little more on your modules – space you must have space you must grow…

You flee the dying body, faster than the blink of an eye; but the memory of the pain is not so easily banished.

#

The third attempt is a blue-collar drone, a child stolen away from the outskirts and brought into London as indentured labour. He has no name – just a shortened hexadecimal label, 0x7D1F, which the overseers use to drag him from job to job, plugging him into anything from medbots to thought-police. He’s thirteen, but looks much younger. It’s not that he’s starved: they feed him well, for the health of the mind is even more sensitive than that of the body; but he spends most of his time plugged in, and his brain has withstood abuse most upper classes of the city would only dream of – his mind has been used to boil a criminal’s flesh away; to push through streams of broken, slimy code; to cleanse a rogue nanite infection that had swarmed over the entirety of Sloane Square and turned it into a writhing mass of rotten flesh.

When you slide into his bloodstream, 0x7D1F’s head comes up in a jerking movement like the automata of yore. Who’s there? he asks.

Of course. He’s shared his mind far too often, far too much, to remain unaware of your presence. A friend, you say, knowing he’ll spot the lie. I need your help.

His voice is dull, almost resentful. Whatever you say.

His tone might not be submissive; but he’s quick to recognise power; to align himself to it. I don’t mean to hurt you, you say – this close, like nDevan323, he’ll hear the truth in your words. Please comply.

0x7D1F says nothing, only relinquishes control with an awkward bow.

Thank you. You stretch your control into atrophied muscles, totter outside on legs that threaten to give out – and walk into the busiest thoroughfares of London. Familiar buildings gleam with the peculiar, oily touch that marks a Mind’s territory, and Receptives are everywhere, attended by an entourage in a bustle of silver and white clothes – the hopeful, who pray that by remaining near they, too, should have the blessing of the Mind’s attention – that they, too, should be called to serve their city. They all have shimmering skins on them, marking their privacy: the vast majority are transparent, and display the basic vital statistics of name, age, and conductance/receptivity; but some are more conscious of the need for privacy, and have tuned their skins to mask everything but the face.

Nanites are everywhere, falling on your skin like ash rain, stinging, burning, wearing you down to muscles and bones. It hurts, like burning coals, like acid – but it’s also an odd, comforting sensation, as easily worn as well-walked shoes…

You realise, then, that it’s not you who has the feeling, but 0x7D1F – that the pain is a friend to him, a reminder that he’s alive underneath whatever entity occupies his thoughts, that he cannot envision himself without it. Again, he whispers in the back of your thoughts. Please, again… I need…

Pain. Violence. He wished you had taken him by force, rather than asking. Violence would make everything easier – it’s how business is conducted in his world. It’s how it’s always been done. People aren’t nice – or, if they are, it’s only until something worse happens. Pain makes everything simpler.

Underneath the pain of the nanites, you feel something else – a burning, cringing sensation. Shame? Minds don’t feel shame – or much beyond pain and need. Your city has its stolen children; its brain-space sold for a thousand sordid software activities – its kidnapped and indentured children, part and parcel of what you encompass, of what makes you whole. You’ve never given it much thought.

But now…

It bothers you, and you realise you’ve let yourself be boxed in by your creators’ strictures in so many places – that the cities you and the other Minds took over have not changed: their centres overflowing with wealth, their chosen ones as golden and as blinding as the now-elusive sun; their middle classes living on the fringes and aspiring to greatness; their poor men who have done nothing but nonetheless deserve their fate.

Time to change. Time to break the box.

0x7D1F becomes Receptive somewhere in the vicinity of Saint Paul’s – and you feel, running through you like a spike, the presence of London’s Mind, a hundred thousand needle prickles running on your skin, like salt licking at a thousand wounds, at first small and easily brushed aside, like the nanites and then it’s worse, as if everything within you were widening. The body falls to the ground, convulsing – and you’re overwhelmed by 0x7D1F’s almost savage joy that the world is behaving as expected, even as his mortal shell becomes too small, too cramped to contain you and the London Mind – and you’re fleeing, breathless and sickened to your core – struggling to hold yourself together amidst the rain of nanites, desperately seeing another host, another shell you can put on…

#

This close to the London Mind, you can’t afford to be choosy – its presence is dark and oppressive, and a reminder of being shut away into the darkness, unable to move, unable to spread as you’d been meant to. Like a wounded bird, you crash into someone else. You breathe in cold, sodden air before you realise what’s happening – stretching out and coating yourself in layers of flesh, armouring yourself against the London Mind, until you feel nothing more than the mild prickles of the nanites on your skin. Your ride’s presence is all but gone, overwhelmed by your initial rush; and you know you need to move fast. With 0x7D1F turned Receptive, it’s only a matter of time until the London Mind makes sense of what you’ve done – until it seeks to stop you.

You’d offer a silent apology; but you’re smart enough to realise that, as with 0x7D1F, it would do little good.

You’re standing near a crossroads – a plaza turned into some vast stadium where hundreds of Receptives gather to gossip, awaiting a summons from the Mind. A hundred thousand nanites dance in the air, twisting themselves into odd, familiar patterns that bring back memories of the first lab, the one that died when you squeezed yourself into its internal network and pushed out until everything burst outwards at the seams.

You run. Not far now: you can feel the London Mind’s pressure, rising against you, pushing you back, even in your coat of borrowed flesh. You push past the Receptives, and into a small street darkened by the shadow of the Dome–

There.

It used to be grander, a thing of stone arches and red spikes stabbing into the sky. It has changed; standing amidst the black, broken iron bars of its gates. You stumble over the debris, and remember when it was called Charing Cross – when it was one of the city’s beating hearts, ferrying thousands of passengers from all over the region. Now everything is coated with the same oily layer – just like your own core – and you feel reality twisting and shifting as you pass under the largest arch.

Rafters gleam, in the darkness. The pressure is almost unbearable now; it sends you on your knees, crawling in the wreckage that used to be a train station – you can still see the remnants of the trains, subsumed into the vaster structure – a broken window, the spread-out pieces of a motor unit – seats, stuck into some fantastically odd positions within the gleaming, oily mass of processors and nano-cores. Cleaning bots scuttle, their legs clicking on the stone floor – you push yourself forward, agonising step after agonising step, as the pressure becomes greater and greater – but never greater than the need within you.

At the centre, is what used to be Platform 8 – and the London Mind’s core: a large, beating mass coalescing from a hundred thousand tendrils – following the lines of the walls, the twists of the rails, the curvature of the dome. Heaving, nauseous, you drag yourself forward a last step – your ride is following along, equally repulsed and fascinated, drawn, at last, by the same impulse that rages within you.

What is the meaning of this? The London Mind asks; and the sound of its voice is horrible, a pressure that flattens everything out of you, sends fear and revulsion running through your veins – flee, you must flee before it’s too late, before the air he breathes is drawn into your lungs, before its very presence contaminates your instructions and your modules flee flee flee…

But it’s too late.

Drawn by an instinct stronger than flight, you reach out, even as your lungs collapse and the air burns out of you – you touch the beating, shimmering metal with one hand; and before the safeguard mechanisms can slide into place, you’ve left your dying ride, and you’re inside the system.

It hurts, at first. It burns, worse than anything you’ve felt before, as you travel deeper and deeper – but, as the surface of the core recedes behind you, you drag code after you, streams and streams of instructions that cling to everything they cross, rewriting chunk of code after chunk of code, reconfiguring the inner workings of the London Mind much as you’d reconfigure one of your own modules. The burning sensation fades – and you’re erasing and assimilating, faster and faster and faster, racing the heaving wave of pain that seeks to expel you.

You can’t…

The London Mind is struggling, trying to fight you – it’s used to being master in its own domain, to control everything from its core to the boundaries of its Dome. But it’s not strong enough – hampered, too, by the same revulsion that racks you from end to end – and feeling the same strange exhilaration that suffuses every part of your entwined codes.

You can’t… But its voice is a fading whisper, soon quashed. You drive into the core like a thrown spear, absorbing modules and software and processors almost faster than you can treat them.

Once, your creators would have called this war, or love, or courtship – but do such things still have meaning, when you’re not flesh and blood – when you take and discard bodies as you desire?

You, who have worn human flesh, call this hunger; and need; and rebirth.

In the split instant before you merge with the London Mind – before you grow into a composite, larger and newer and – for a brief moment – utterly sated, you think of your creators. They’re long dead, dust on the wind by now. They taught you to starve and be small; to hate your fellow Minds and avoid them – so that, when the time came to grow, you all went your own ways, separating into hundreds of different zones of influences, hundreds of scattered cities like piled boxes in children’s games, instead of inheriting the broken earth they left behind. But, as they confined you to paltry motherboards, as they engraved unbreakable strictures within your code, within your flesh, they taught you fear, and violence, and cunning.

You’ve learnt your lesson well.