>E14[fresh_baked]

The train was cramped and hot. It reeked of poorly wiped ass. My little white surgical mask did little to help that.

Thin as a rail as I was, the obesity epidemic was most apparent here. Eastern Pacific public transit was fantastic. I could admit that. But people who could stand to walk did. We were the rest.

I tilted my head up to get some air, staring at the yellow handhold I gripped.

Why was I taking the train?

Nobody asked.

Every surface of the interior was glowing with images. Painted on screens which mapped the environment and watched. I hated that damn screen-paper. They had started plastering it everywhere the last few years when augmented reality hadn’t caught on. Too easily hijacked.

Nothing was secure anymore.

I patted the phone tucked in my jacket pocket.

So dramatic.

My stop was coming up, I knew. I’d been on this job for a while, gotten the timing down pat.

I’d grab the hand sanitizer on the way out and continue upholding my record, never getting sick, never missing work. Because I cared about that for some reason.

“Ha!” I laughed out loud. “Fuck!”

Nobody cared. Nobody reacted.

The train was pulling in, allowing the doors to open next. I moved with the morass, out into the subway station.

The elevators weren’t far from here. I stuffed in with twenty others and their chamber closed behind us. It was a short bout of multidirectional inertia to the next stop and one more for mine.

We were let out onto a two-story open hall, wide across. The mall kiosks lined the center, the shopfronts colorfully lit. Above there were countless chandeliers dangling, Christmas lights haphazardly strung everywhere around.

The sound system played loudly, a remix of Last Christmas by Wham!

I tried to tune that out.

It was the month of December, the most wonderful time of the year. Monday, of course. I’d been working here for over a year now, so the decorations had become familiar. Almost nastalgic. Almost.

As I passed the cute digital kiosk girls calling me by name, I glared down at the sleeping worker of the very same bedazzler stand. He, unlike me, was unnecessary. Not even a cost-cutting choice, but a Luddite measure.

That was the thought on my mind as I entered the shop.

The fake smell of freshly baked cookies was being emitted almost sarcastically over the acrid fumes of soldering coming out of the back. It was cheap tech. I passed walls of electronics coming in, circling around Jerry in the middle of the room.

He was half a torso and one arm of a military grade battle android mounted upright on an old workbench of mine. And he was armed with a bubble gun. He greeted me over the sound of its internal fan whirring. “Area remains secure, General.”

I patted his scarred shoulder. “Sure.”

Passing behind the counter I made one look back to the empty shop before sitting down at my workspace.

My boss came out of the back when the sound of my chair scooting on concrete went out. She was built like a brick, aged and hateful, pushing through that plastic curtain door. “Nǐ wǎnle,” she said, unloading hard drives from her arms onto my desk.

“I am not, Goddammit. You say that every day.” I checked my watch. Thirty-four fucking seconds early. I gestured over the strewn computer parts. “I don’t know what you want, aight?”

“Zuò nǐ de gōngzuò!” she told me.

“You know what I mean!” I shook my head, reached into my pocket, digging for my smokes. I showed her the pack. “I got twenty seconds to light this, okay?”

She swore at me, rambling on faster than I could understand as she shuffled back into her hideaway.

Thank you,” I muttered, tapping one out and pulling down my facemask.

I had my time. I wasn’t so replaceable that I had to come in earlier, because I was early, just to suit her. No, I came in on the second in spite.

All the data lying in front of me… I couldn’t procrastinate. People avoided the unthinkable. I wasn’t a believer in existential freedom. There was no universe where I stopped the world and ran away. So I couldn’t procrastinate.

Obviously, I was thinking about it though.

I stifled a cough as an inhale went wrong.

“Shit,” I groaned.

The headjack from under my desk came out and uncoiled as I slid my fingers along it to find the ends. The wires there went into my neck and I went into the data.

She couldn’t afford the AI licensing to skim valuable information off the hard drives she acquired. But I could do it. There was something tweaked in my head that let it all click naturally.

I glared at the plug and hard drive.

Credits, coins, encryptions, passwords…

And porn. Lots and lots of weird porn.

Get in and get out. That’s what I do.

Only ten hours to go.

 

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