>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

>I26[cold_steel]

The cold steel of the handgun was stuffed uncomfortably down the front of my pants. As I tore out into the street and hit the highway, leaving behind the decrepit old-world, I couldn’t block it from the forefront of my perception. Never in my life had I held something this illegal.

And I was deeply happy.

Settled in the world around me was a different perception and focus. I had the long ride back into the oceanic districts to think. And my eyes saw anew.

My cognitive miasma had passed behind me with the veil.

Something Michael had shown me, all the trappings in my head. Embedded in my neural computer interface were subroutines. One of which had been recording memories during moments of high activity. I had shut them down with only a thought.

The implications were terrifying. But worse had been not knowing. Shouldn’t I have known all along? The state of total surveillance had long passed beyond suspicion and into total banality.

So much more was becoming clear. Dag must have been avoiding the system entirely, staying offline, unplugged. Had to keep Smiler out of his head.

But there was more that could be done. Confusion was finally tinged with something else.

I screamed into the wind as it ripped by, anger elated. Continue reading

>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! Continue reading