>P47[killing_machines]

Skrimp turned his face up as he exhaled. The plume of smoke mingled with the snowflakes above, killing them off.

He had never really liked these things, truth be told. As he tapped out one for Dag, he noticed the label. Lucky Strikes. Frode had been the smoker and, with enough time, it would have killed him. Though his heart and head had been racing to do it first.

Taking his cig, Dag lit up. They were walking under the streetlights on the roads beneath the rumble of the highway. They passed a redlit brothel and a hole-in-the-wall shop, each step one more down the path Frode once wandered. These dark paths had been his way of coping with insomnia, Skrimp knew. They had always been pressuring him to dream with them more, to just jack in and let the body sleep on its own. Never thinking just how tired the mind could become. Tired of it all.

It was the only thing he could think about.

Since then, none of them would dare go back to those fantasies. Frode had known their sickness first, but it had only been a matter of time for the rest to learn. There was more to life than the immediate game, sex, and freedom. A sucky thought if he had ever known one.

Finally, Skrimp said it. “I can’t g-go on living. Not on these fucker’s terms. If just for a second, man, I want to change something. Make something real.” Continue reading

>J29[better_luck]

They were already putting her to good use. It was a clever reskin. Holograms were not cheap.

The man stepped off my bike.

“Oh hell,” I swore.

I stopped in place. From that moment I was counting the heartbeats.

How stupid could I have been? Even one was enough. And there was someone who knew I was an easy mark.

“Fuck me. Do we have to do this?” I pleaded. My gaze turned back the other way. I may have been exhausted, but I could still outrun this bitch. I was always one of the fastest.

Just then a white van came to a stop at the mouth of the opposite passage exit. Its side door suddenly rolled back.

I couldn’t take my time, here. I had to work fast.

My hand found the gun stuffed down my pants and everything slowed down. I carried out the motions, unpracticed and unprepared. As I drew mine, so did the motorcycle rider.

I didn’t think, I didn’t wait. I squeezed the trigger.

The kickback forced me to take hold with both hands. I kept firing, each gunshot as jarring as the last. Bright flashes took my sight. So I just kept firing, hoping. With his partner approaching behind me, he would hesitate.

It was over before I knew it. Empty clicks sounded. The motorcycle rider had fallen back, one out of nine had saved my life.

Then, she bashed me over the head.

I cried out as the extendable baton connected with my skull. My knees impacted the pavement and I fell over, hard. With instinct, my roll put me on my back. I was able to hold up my one arm to take the next swing, cradling my head with the other. Steel met steel, deflecting her blow and letting out a terrible clang.

I could actually feel the deep dent she struck.

“Fuck!” I kicked randomly, managing to hit something with a crack.

She screamed and stumbled sideways into the tight alley walls.

Without the strength to stand on my own, I could only crawl and try to brace myself against the corridor to work my way up.

Halfway to my feet, I saw her limping towards me, raising back her swing.

I threw a punch in the dark. My fleshy hand tagged face and pain shot up my limb. Again, I yelled in surprise.

Backing up, my glance caught empty air where the motorcycle rider had been. Taken off, perhaps just grazed and cowardly. My eyes were darting, trying to track everything in the unlit alley.

The woman mechanic had recovered, her black baton just a glint in the dark. On her face was a rubber mask, I finally noticed. A snarling black bear with glossy eyes.

We were deadlocked. She wouldn’t approach, I wouldn’t run.

She yelled at me. I would forget what exactly.

The white van honked twice. The limping woman began to back away. When I realized she was giving up, my legs nearly gave out. A steady torrent of insane obscenities and threats had been streaming out my mouth and I hadn’t even realized. Blood thumped in my ears. I had been screaming yet again.

She flipped me off as she threw herself through the door.

The van tires squealed, the taillights quickly disappearing.

God bless being more trouble than I’m worth.

I didn’t stay another second, first retrieving an empty gun, then getting cat and head in hand. The elevator ground door was so near.

I’d been mugged before, but nothing like that. I should have known.

Adrenaline caused an eerie quietness to fall on the world. At this time of night, now, save for the rainfall and gunshots’ lingering ringing, there was nothing.

But I had made it.

Blood streaming down from my scalp stung as it entered my eye. Half blinded, I still had the last stretch of walking ahead of me. I needed to get out of the rain, collect my things, and steal an hour of rest if I could.

If secret demons and muggers couldn’t kill me, fuck if another mile would.

//////////

When I had opened the door to my apartment, the first thing I saw were the red numbers on the wall. An inlaid clock ticked down to forced repossession and the beginning of the cleaning process. I had taken the time I needed to pack everything up, finally sitting down.

The cat was wandering about the room when I’d finished. He’d taken a shit under the bed. I considered taking one on the bed myself. They were going to burn everything anyway.

Beside me, the box of my few possessions was shallowly packed.

Just clothes, a laptop, some equipment, and food. When I thought of what I had to my name, digital achievements came to mind first, honestly. I’d beaten the Tetrarun on the hardest difficulty. I almost could have gone pro at one point, before the panic attacks and cold sweats caught up to me.

But I could never jack into the commercial system again. The sync up would immediately tell Smiler the naughty things I’d done. All of that was behind me.

“Come on, Cat.” I patted the bed. She turned her head but made no motion.

I sighed. Delilah came back to mind. I had never gotten her to come to my apartment, though I had really wanted to give it a try. Now I dreaded telling her about anything which had happened. But I would have to call her back eventually.

Unless I just… ghosted. The thought brought a deep uneasiness. That wasn’t something I wanted or could ever bring myself to do.

But I wasn’t sure where I would go from here. Beyond anything, I had wanted direction, but that direction was now pointing straight for hell. I had been homeless once before, back when I’d known Uriel. But that was so long ago it might as well have been a dream.

This is real.

The red countdown carried on and I had fifteen minutes left. Fifteen minutes just to stare at the glow, to shower or simply crawl into my covers and squeeze out the last moments of respite I could cling to.

Shaking out my odorous jacket, I started after my miserable tabby cat. There was nothing for me here.

I was done waiting around.

 

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>J28[mediocre_ideas]

From rock bottom, it can only get better, right?

That bike had been with me through thick and thin. When it had all been too much I would ride out, put myself in the hole for a few months, work off the insurance debt, then do the dance again.

But it was gone now and I was walking the streets alone. Over a thousand in Bits burning in my pocket.

My building was somewhere up ahead. I had tried to track down a garage within a reasonable distance. But with my heart and sedentary lifestyle, the trek was killing me. I had reached the point that my mind slowed to a dull rumination while I carried on, unsure if I was even going the right way.

The highway was over my head, rumbling and squealing. Under its coverage, I was dry enough, so I had followed it by memory. Every mistake would be just another toll on my muscles for the morning.

I stepped over people lying in the street. Navigated around blockades of garbage.

Even with the money in my pocket, I wasn’t really afraid. Theft was an uncommon crime in this era. If you could call it that. Nothing singled me out, so I was safe. Safe because petty theft stood to gain no one anything.

Every homeless person on this road had a phone on their person. They were dispensed from vending machines like cheap candy, free on every street corner. An ear in every pocket, the currency of privacy a price they were blind to.

They want our secrets.

The vagrants’ grimy faces and absent stares were lit by Smiler’s enticing eye in their palm. Even in the grim darkness of the underpass, the candied glow remained.

I grimaced.

Looking up and around, I had to admit it to myself; I wasn’t sure where I was. All the concrete looked the same at this hour. Every shop was a chain, every piece of architecture the same repetition. There was no such thing as a landmark.

As I kept walking I stayed on the lookout. As much contempt as had just been on my mind, I couldn’t deny it. I needed a phone.

At the next corner, a white vending machine stood out. I ducked through a patch of open air to drop my hand down on its faceplate.

Somewhere down the next few blocks, a gunshot sounded.

I didn’t like the implication. My paranoia surpassed my placating rationality.

This isn’t a high crime area. It was supposed to be subdued, bleak, and docile. I had paid to live it. There was seventy-percent camera coverage in this district. I knew it for a fact.

But I was missing something obvious.

The clear glass phone dropped into the bin at the bottom of the machine. I took it out and swiped my thumb. My data was there already from the cloud. The map came up without request.

Goddammit. I had been going the wrong way.

To get home I would have to cut through an alley, take a street elevator, and then hop the next train. I’d only just be able to arrive and collect what I could before instant eviction at dawn. Sleep was nowhere in that plan. The creeping exhaustion I felt boded ill, but I didn’t have a choice.

I had taken the cat out of my shirt and wrapped her in a jacket. The smell of piss lingered, but I had given up caring. She was snug in my arms as we entered the next unlit passage. Continue reading

>I27[last_ride]

Focusing on the bike rumbling beneath me, the sound of heavy traffic was all around. I put out of my mind my newfound joblessness, the gun, and soon to be my homelessness. This focus thing was something I had to get used to.

Now, what I needed were tranqs.

But not for me this time.

I followed the offramp and from there took an opening into the next structure below. Hidden beneath an overpass, a jungle of rickety metal formed the tall canopy of an open market. Easily thirty feet above, the arch of my entrance hung with Christmas lights.

Inside, the drug bazaar was heavily guarded. As I rolled through I saw it. The open market, pills like candy in big glass boxes all around. Men clad in black stood with rifles hanging off the strap on every corner. A private security force.

Petering to a stop, I set my feet down, beginning to waddle my bike forward. The area wasn’t so crowded that I couldn’t ride between stalls.

Night had fallen some time ago. Overhead the red-hot engines of a police cruiser drifted forward through the tight interior of the high ceiling space, its sleek exterior skimming the haphazard light works above. Its figure left a shadow and wake of wind which warmed the cold slog. Blue and red flashes quickly faded with the hovercraft moving on, and the chill resettled.

I held my dismembered head tight. Jerry garbled some talk about coordinates, lost beneath the ambiance. With my other hand, I steered for where they had what I needed.

We parked.

The man with the goods was pale, his upper face masked by a glowing blue material. A cybernetic third eye shown dimly. He leaned by the edge of the wall where it met the hall, his shop filled with boxes and jars on shelves and counters behind him.

“Whatever it is,” he immediately spoke, cigarette on his lips, “cash will make it right, my friend. What can I do for you?” Continue reading

>mr_sandman24.exe

Chen groggily sat up in bed, crawling to the hatch at the foot of his coffin box. He slid out legs first to lessen the drop. He was in nothing but boxer shorts as he fell. The hallway his bed let out onto was obnoxiously cramped. Not just by foot traffic, either, but by chatting loiterers and all those who couldn’t even afford a pod.

He pushed his way through.

On both sides, walls of sleeping pods stacked four high rose up to meet the roof. They were marked occupied, mostly. Sleepers in their movies.

He could hear heavy foot traffic coming through the ceiling. Cars going over. They were tucked just below the ground, here. Moisture penetrated the concrete floors, the air hot and humid. He had to try not to slip.

With one more turn, he came to the open doors for the shower rooms. Steam filled the room. A naked man went walking by but he paid him no attention as he approached and opened his locker.

Chen made sure no one noticed the gun tucked into the bundle of clothes he withdrew. He caught his own eyes in the mirror of the locker. Dark and tired.

He headed out. There was somewhere he needed to be. Continue reading

>G20[fallen_construct]

‘You come here on your motorcycle, Frode? Good. Let’s go for a drive.’

Chest pain and anxiety were razor butterflies in my chest.

After waiting in Dag’s apartment long enough for the cat and I to dry, we had headed out again. Deep into the lowest, ugliest districts. Deeper into the blackout zones than the Orpheum, by far.

The road conditions and cat in my jacket would have been enough, but my state of mind alone made driving almost impossible. My eyes were wide, weaving this low-lane traffic. There was a specific back route he had in mind.

The rain was ongoing but at this point I had gotten tired of complaining.

‘There’s something you need to see.’

Very soon our two motorcycles had only rubble and derelict vehicles to dodge. Even here, though, the vending machines glowed, vandalized as they were.

All told, I’d never left my sector before. This was three over.

Dag’s tail light led the way in front of me. I slowed as he did, taking an unexpected turn into a downsloping alley. The walls grew uncomfortably tight as it went on.

Suddenly the alley dropped down into an arched tunnel. Part of the old underground, back when the city had been built on actual ground. The black depths swallowed us.

The cat’s claws dug into my flesh with every major bump.

Up ahead there was a singular light. We slowed to a stop underneath it. There were old gas pumps standing in its halo, static playing on the video screens above them. Dag hopped off and turned them on. No card swipe.

“These pumps are just here?” I asked, killing my engine.

He didn’t answer. “Fill her up.”

As I hooked up my bike and took in the visual and audio static the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. There was a kind of smell on the air. A sound. An indescribable sensation that fell on me. Continue reading

>G18[accomplish_mission]

Surreality.

I ran downstairs to find a box stacked on one of the couches. I overturned it, throwing out the pile there of old clothes onto the floor, and put the cat, coat and all, inside. With the top flaps of cardboard folded over each other, I looked to my bike.

The cardboard would melt in my lap as I drove.

I had a second coat as I usually did, waterproofed as well. I slipped out of it and wrapped it over the box. Just a black tee covering me now, my arms burned on the air.

Man, I loved winter.

Couldn’t think about that now. My bike groaned to life with the rustling cat-box snug in my lap. I could manage this. No light, low fuel, bare skin on the frozen rain. I would be fine.

I rolled until the front door was in my path. Then, I rocketed out.

Let’s make it fast. I was going home.

//////////

After a few miles of rain and road, I slowed down in front of the apartments.

They had cleaned up since I lived here. The homeless had been run out from near the apartment entrance, I noticed. As I pulled in and parked, I made a dizzy dismount. The automatic space lowered my bike into the asphalt behind me. With the box in my hand I approached the locked rotating gate.

I swiped my card and received a loud buzzer.

“You are not permitted to enter this building, Frode,” the Smiler replied. His little face appeared on the card reader. Continue reading

>F17[yes_hate]

A tremor ran through me as I stared up at the building, getting drenched. Lit by a towering sexual advertisement above and behind me, its derelict and candied presence weighed heavy.

This is where he died.

I cut my eyes down. The rain was picking up massively and it was sapping every ounce of heat.

I was going to be sick. I already felt it. All this because I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t envision a future to love. To hell with hope.

What but disgust is there?

Say something.

My teeth grit.

I’m asking the right questions, you Bastard.

What!?” The phone crackled in my metal hand. I threw my eyes in every direction, searching. “What am I supposed to do!?”

I chucked Wally’s phone.

What?!

I kicked over my bike, the headlight cracking and snuffing out on the flooded asphalt.

Every muscle in my body was taut, the shivers becoming almost violent.

“Fuck!” I yelled, realizing.

I’d fucked up my bike. The water nearly submerged it. I had to snap out of my stupid fit, rushing to stand her back up. I managed, breathlessly.

I needed to get out of the rain. Continue reading