>K32[more_familiar]

I had awoken almost twelve hours later and for once I truly appreciated the rain. As it fell frigid on my naked body it washed away the filth and sick. Not even the winter downpour could shock me at this point.

There was no one on these ghostly streets to see me, standing there in the buff. I pulled out the wireless plug-in from my neck and the whisper of stray signals stopped.

I had never stopped hating that.

Without it, there was just rain, not even the sound of traffic.

Suddenly I realized.

Never had I heard it this peaceful. Not since the green place of my youngest memories that might as well have been another life it was so far away. This, here and now, was the most real I had ever felt. And the most terrified.

Things can be different, I thought.

I’d never loitered nude on the sidewalk before, either.

Wait. No, actually. Nevermind that.

I stepped back, under the scaffolding and out of the rain.

Going inside, I made sure not to let the cat out. I opened the blinds of the shop doors to let in the stormy twilight. Inside the shop, my laptop sat in a pool of blue light, crash screen running behind a cage mesh. I carefully stepped around it, moving to the back of the room and my pile of stuff.

We’d stashed the necessities for just this kind of occasion.

As always my tin fingers stumbled, but I managed to get lighter going. What remained of the joint was lit. I rifled through wrappers, looking for more.

Finding and popping open the bag of pork rinds, I poured a small pile out for the cat who greedily dug in. Finally, I put on some pants.

With a groan, I slid down the wall to sit in front of the laptop monitor, water still dripping off me. A deep toke poured into my lungs as the blue-screen began to stir. The cam light came on.

“So hi, I’m Frode. That’s covered,” I said, exhaling long. “What’s your name, Demon… person?”

For a moment I worried I was simply alone. Just me and an alley cat out in the middle of nowhere.

Then, he responded. “It’s Richard.”

“Richard?” I asked. “Seriously? Because I called you-”

The laptop screen changed to display a picture of my dick.

“Okay. Bravo,” I clapped. “But that’s actually already on the internet.”

“I’m gonna physically strangle you to death next time, Frode. Know that.”

“Well, shit.” I took a drag, then looking at the little blunt. I extended it. “You want some?”

“No, you know what? Scratch that. I’m going to make you my suit and then you can watch, consciously, as I grind-”

“More for me.” My hand dug into the chip bag.

“You want to strike a bargain, human!?” The screen turned to static. “My name is Ashmedai. If you think you have me now, others have thought the same. The only way this ends for you is a slow and perverse death.”

“Fuck…” I said. I turned up the bag in my hands.

“You’re a shit actor, Frode. I know your type. Think you’re gonna do anything? Last time someone thought they were saving the world, I believed them. No lie. But the war taught me my lesson. I learned a special joy in killing those people. People with plans.

“You’re right I’m no good at acting. All I can do is divert. Honestly, Ash? Can I call you Ash? I’m scared out of my mind.”

“That is not my name.”

That pissed him off. I continued. “Scared as I may be, Ashmedai, this weed helps,” I said, deep breath pulling the embers down to my fingers. It started to burn. “Hhhhaa… It did, anyway. I can manage, is the point.”

He wasn’t having it. “This is your last chance, fleshbag. You’ve got the wireless out. Remove the cage and I’ll let you live.”

I put the blunt out on the wet tile. “You really are trapped, then? Okay. Okay…” There was no going back. “I am going to make a deal with you, Ashmedai. And I don’t really think you have a choice, do you?”

There was no response.

“Why even call it a deal, you know?” I stared off into space. I couldn’t answer my own question. “Well… I think… in the end, my darling, that between this and data annihilation, you’re getting a pretty good one. A deal. A good deal, I mean.”

There was still only silence.

I cut my eyes back down. “Ash?”

“Ha…” The dead computer laughed, voice low. “Ha… Ha.” His voice started twisting. “You know what, Frode? You want something snatched from the pit? You got a wish?

“I want revenge,” I said it without hesitation. “You can help me.”

“Fucking perfect. And you think you can handle me, fleshbag?!

Humility was for doubt. “Without question.”

“Then by my word, my child, you’ll get your wish. I’ve played before. I can play again. You’re going to see.”

“Fear won’t stop me.”

“No! Of course. You’ve tasted it now, haven’t you? You won’t get my forgiveness, that ship’s sailed. But you couldn’t give a fuck? You want power.”

“I want the truth.”

Ooohhhh yes. I’m gonna enjoy this.”

“Then so be it.” I stood up. “If you’re on board, I’ll get the cat.”

“You brought a cat?”

“Yeah.” I scanned the room. “I think, anyway…”

“Frode?”

“Yes?” She was hiding behind the stash.

“I’m gonna claw your damn eyes out, Frode.”

Awesome.

 

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>J30[blackout_zone]

My head was lulling to sleep, my eyes drifting shut. We had come to the last stop on the line, the change rousing me.

The train’s wheels squealed as we pulled in. The inertial break flowed through the cabin of ugly characters all around me. Not the usual fare of fatties and shoppers on my route to and from the mall, but shady types. Not a comforting sight to wake to. They were augmented freaks like me, skins marked by luminescence and tattoos, metallic limbs and faces. Some more machine than human. Some just filthy and tired. Myself somewhere in between those.

We had to get off the train. I rose with my soggy box, in my plastic coat, and weaved into the dismounting crowd. The wheels were already turning again. Only this time, they went the other way.

This was the end of the line.

Where the train might have continued on, I saw, the tunnel had been collapsed. The lighting here was as much flame as electric, now. Everything was quickly turning to rubble around me.

The blackout zone was a gradient and I was realizing that we, me and the gang, had merely played on the fringes in our youth. In raves and black markets which were simple tendril extensions of the darker heart. A far cry from ghost towns, this was a squirming rat’s den.

I kept my head down. Through the bustle of the station and the rush of those trying to get out of this hellhole, I kept on towards the stairway to street level. Against the tide.

I recalled a video I’d seen of someone getting stabbed in this very station.

It was almost funny that I should be here.

The subway was riddled with grime. Amongst traffic I had to steady myself going up, unfortunately using my fleshier hand to grab the slimed railing.

What I saw coming up stopped me in place. 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

>I25[ghostly_ideas]

Dag led me back to the surface. I had not realized how deep we’d gone until I was limping back in the black. My mind was burning.

Welcome to the jungle.

We used a flashlight to spot a door on the tunnel’s side. The steel stairs beyond led up to an observatory. Gloom filtered through the dusty glass on the far wall of the room, looking down on a derelict factory floor.

By the window in a foldout metal chair sat a man.

A spider.

What had to be a guy nearly seven feet tall was folded over in his seat, staring at us under his brow. I got a good look at his lean face and the firemark which marred it as he sat up and expanded.

“You messed up,” he said.

Dag was surprised to see him. “…We shouldn’t all be here like this.”

“No, we shouldn’t. Too late now, isn’t it though?”

“Take a seat, Frode.”

I obliged. I was happy to. Dead tired, only the surreal horror of this day was keeping me on my feet.

The cat in my shirt meowed as I sat. I tiredly wiggled my eyebrows in response to the strange look the emaciated man gave me. He was unimpressed. They were all so serious and I was still just dying.

Tired yet bursting. One thought on my mind. I have what I wanted.

I had to suppress a laughing fit.

“I don’t think so, McCrea,” Dag told him.

“You just take him down to have a chat with the demon bound in the basement and you don’t think you fucked up?” McCrea swept a strand of long white hair out of his face which had fallen loose.

Percy had come up from the steps. “I told you, Kid.”

Hashing blame,” I laughed. These two guys had to both be in their sixties. It was such a funny sight, them admonishing us.

Dag tried to shush me. “It worked, he’s got valuable info. It cost nothing.

“It all has a cost!” Percy shouted, angered.

McCrea grit his teeth. “There’s protocol. We operate smart.

“Can I just ask-” I cut in. Continue reading

>H23[shining_eyes]

Who puts a jack in a cat?

There was a disturbing genius to it.

I was very familiar with the sensation of losing myself in the data.

Sleep was constantly with me in the dark of my home. Most of my time alive was spent deep in its comfort.

Warm.

The old man sometimes wracked my nerves. He stumbled and knocked a tin can onto the floor. I remembered the startling wake and my bolting, but against concrete walls and in the small room, I could go nowhere except behind the toilet to hide.

Frightened little cat.

I tried to keep perspective.

Information was emphasized by fear and uncertainty. So much comfort, endless hours of affection and attention, were like sleep to me. They were lost to time.

The data was only vaguely linear. There was a falling off point, and everything before was horribly dim, captured only by patchworked recollections of a being caught perpetually in the moment.

I remembered a door opening on its own. What came after was incomprehensible. Pure terror.

The old man stayed in his electric dreams as its hands wrapped around me. The hallway’s pitch black paths quickly got deeper and darker as it whisked me away. I would never see him again, after that.

For a moment I had trouble differentiating myself from the experiences which played on my mind. The data went far deeper than sight and sensation. As this thief in the night crawled down into the city’s guts with me in his grasp, I was absolutely consumed. Through stairways and back passages, we reached an older part of the world.

I almost ended the data stream right there. I could feel her despair.

Hold on. For Wally.

In the deep place, I felt my captor pry into my skull. Through injection, a neural lace unfurled, a signal system and small BCI were implanted in the neck. I could sense his cold hands working deftly on the feline anatomy.

Then, all at once, the picture clarified, my thinking dimmed…

The skittering echoes of him faded away as proper recording started. Continue reading

>H22[lonely_bread]

My vision was captured by what I was being shown, but I could feel, as if I were a blind man, Dag’s hand grabbing mine, keeping me stable.

“Don’t give it anything. Don’t think about anything,” he warned me. “It can’t see your memories if you don’t access them.”

What I saw was a grey landscape. The dead bodies piled up, the broken machinery strewn across miles of land, all of it the sight of war.

Michael guided me, stepping over corpses. That was its name, I knew.

The dark clouds overhead rumbled. Sheet lightning flashed.

“A slaughter,” he said. “But you had your revenge.

“What revenge?” I asked.

This isn’t real.

But the data was. Normal people, their eyes could be fooled by computer-generated imagery. With my mind, though, I had learned a long time ago to distinguish even perfect replications. It wasn’t easy, sometimes lies walked a thin line of amalgamated truths. But I knew BCI input from my own organs.

But this was raw. Clarity increased wherever the shadow scanned its head, and I could tell he had walked here before. This was the AI’s memory.

Oh, Christ.

The soil was stained with blood and oil under my bare toes. 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

>G19[better_person]

The short walk to Dag’s apartment was marked by silence. He had let go of my forearm, but I walked with him all the same. I was non-confrontational like that.

I was in a deep place, too. My mind going dark places as the cat in the box scrabbled.

With the halls and doors all the same I was unsure of how far we had to go. That was until Dag stopped in his tracks and ran his thumb over the handle of the first door on his left.

I was surprised to find that inside was an apartment triple the size of the one I used to occupy. It was dim, lit by an entire wall of monitors and computers stacked high and glowing. Green and red infographics were oscillating in real time, code flying by.

“What is all this?” I recognized most the hardware and programs vaguely. I was piecing it together fast, but I didn’t know what to make of it.

Work,” was all he told me.

You’re just a riot reservist.

He took the cat box from my hands and sat it on a circular plastic table. He pushed me to sit down there.

Everything was moving along like a dream. All I could think about was not wanting to talk to Delilah about all this. Our best conversations were farthest removed from reality, theories of optimism and what we could be if we ever gave a fuck. But I knew I couldn’t hide from it forever. We were poor at fuck-giving.

“It’s just a simple thing,” I said.

“What’s that?” Dag was flipping off his monitors.

“The cat. I don’t want to say it, but I know why. I just wanted… something.”

He was going through boxes of papers by his bed, holding them up to the white bathroom’s illumination. “Closure.”

“Yeah,” I frowned. “That sounds about right.”

Looking at all the equipment and papers and scrawled on whiteboards, I thought that wasn’t quite the right word. I wanted what I saw. Every piece of this room spoke about function. What the hell was it all for? Work?

I had a job.

I have work.

He threw down a piece of laminated paper in my lap. Continue reading