Mind fields 3

The third chapter from my science fiction manuscript Mind fields in which I introduce the last of my three central characters. Feel free, as always, to comment or critique. Your feedback is very much appreciated.       

Chapter one

Chapter two

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-three-

            An unpleasant writhing lives in the belly of Rachael Lynch. Standing in her true-silk wrap staring at the glittering web of the city laid out a mile below, she is grimly aware of it. She is also, however, very used to the sensation. This serpent has been her constant companion for as long as she can remember. Rachael has learned to accommodate it.

               The glass wall of her exclusive level ninety apartment affords her a view of the megalopolis that stretches from the river, with its huge sprawling industrial complexes, to the Tokyo end of the old financial district. From this high up, it all looks so vast and  bright. The traffic flows in a ceaseless, quicksilver stream between gigantic, luminous towers of glass as, high above, swarming aircraft hover like an electron charged cloud. It’s certainly beautiful but also distant, unreal.

               She sips slowly from her brandy glass, trying hard to luxuriate in the smooth liquor that cost the equivalent of an average weekly wage. She tells herself that items like this are her reward for being one of the very best in her field, compensation for all the thousands of hours spent ‘ghosting’ the market. Somehow, though, it just doesn’t seem to help. The writhing remains.

               The problem doesn’t stem from work, of course, she loves what she does. You have to love what you do to be as good as she is. Rachael rides the data streams as if she were born in cyberspace. This talent is recognised by the top corporate executives from all over the world who queue up to have her analyse their financial interests. It’s said she can track a single digit glitch, by eye, in a ten billion digit stream. She never finds it necessary to contradict this kind of hype. The fact is if it needs doing Rachael can make it so.

                At the end of the day, though, upon emerging from the matrix, she finds herself in her very plush, very secure and ultimately empty apartment. She can, of course, walk out through the door at any time. Nothing bars her, and the city offers a million distractions for citizens with her kind of cred. Attractive and rich, the world literally belongs to her and her kind. Yet she is trapped by a strange feeling of inertia.

               In the final analysis, Rachael is afraid, afraid of the seething mass of humanity that fills to overflowing every corner of this crazily over-peopled planet. It’s a phobia not uncommon in the later part of the twenty-first century. The pundits are calling it  Critical Mass Syndrome and predicting a massive upsurge in incidence. All Rachael knows is that any trip outside is inevitably accompanied by anxiety so overwhelming that it is physically debilitating.

               So Rachael stays in. And why not? From this apartment she can order up any item she might desire, from food and clothing to casual, anonymous sex, all via the matrix. From here she can work, socialise and travel and never be forced, even for a moment, to experience the discomfort of actual physical contact. In truth, Rachael cannot clearly recall her last face to face, same room encounter with a flesh and blood human being, what’s more, she doesn’t care to.

                 And yet Rachael feels -lonely. She paces her expensive carpet oppressed by the apartment’s nanobot cleanliness and air scrubbed sterility. It’s a cage of her own making and one she yearns to fly from. For Rachael, however, there can be only one way out.

“Jesse,” she calls, addressing the room at large.

“Yes, Rachael?” a soft-spoken, very human, voice replies.

“Could you do a little surfing for me? Find me a good A.W. agency.”

“No problem Rachael,” the voice of the apartment’s EnTT unit replies, and then adjusts modulation slightly to convey mild concern, “Rachael?”

“Yes Jesse?”

“I feel I wouldn’t be doing my job effectively if I didn’t point out to you that you’ve already spent twelve hours in the matrix today. This is four more than the advised safe quota, as laid out by the-“

“Thank you, Jesse. I appreciate your concern -as always. I’ll be fine. Please don’t trouble yourself. Have you found one?”

“Yes, Rachael.”

               “Good. I’m going in.” Rachael steps over to the Bel Sony VR capsule and slides into its bodyline stimcouch. She presses her head gently back against the rest and the interface jack slides gently home into the custom Hitachi plug at the base of her skull. She doesn’t wince. A quiet, soothing voice in her mind calmly counts down. Three, two, one -interface.

           “Good day Madam. My name is Sarah.” The woman standing before her is beautiful in the way that only cyber EnTTs can be. A billion megs of processing power have scanned the neural pathways of Rachael’s mind and thrown up this composite image based solely on her own very personal aesthetic.

              The striking and yet reassuringly flawed EnTT stands perfectly poised in a vast field of swaying, tulips stretching from horizon to horizon under a cobalt, cloudless sky. This too has been constructed for Rachael by the agency, an environment judged the most suitably simpatico with her tastes.

              “How can we please you?” the smiling, cat-like, girl asks without a trace of irony. Rachael is reassured to see that the EnTT has been placed at a respectable distance of about three meters from her own ghost. It’s not that she really feels the same anxieties within these digitised environments -far from it. But it shows a certain level of courtesy on the part of the agency, and Rachael appreciates the little touches that mark a company of quality.

           “I’m looking for a place to spend a little wind-down time,” Rachael answers, knowing full well that the agency has already scanned  her mind and are fully cognisant of her reasons for contacting them.

“Very good, we’ve taken the liberty of preparing a few samples that we feel may well meet your requirements. If Madam will just turn her head to the right…”

           Rachael looks where the girl indicates and sees three doors standing conspicuously amongst the tulips. She smiles appreciatively at the little touch – added simply to appeal to her own sense of the surreal – and walks towards the nearest door.

“How much time do I get to sample each?”

The girl’s smile widens a little. “One hour Madam. You can, of course, exit at any time before that if you find the environment, not to your taste. We understand that your time is valuable. Do you wish me to give you a brief synopsis of each world before you enter?”

“No that won’t be necessary thank you. I like surprises.” With that Rachael steps through the door and into another reality altogether.

              The faecal smell is almost overwhelming and her mind reels at the unexpected assault. Processors monitor her adverse reaction and adjust the olfactory input gradually downwards. Slowly she becomes used to the appalling stench, impressed however at the shear bite of the reality. When her stomach has settled a little she attempts to get her bearings. Tudor style houses, small, strangely deformed, most of them looking as if the beams supporting their roofs are made of rubber – very strange – surely unsafe. The streets are unpaved and filthy, as are the people that go about on them, such people, though.

               Capes, plumes and bucket top boots are everywhere. Swords swing at the hips of rakish young gentlemen, whilst the ladies of quality fairly drown amongst the froth of their lace gowns. Romantic, but just a tad too ridiculous for comfort.

           She’s pretty sure where she is now, though. Rachael studied fashion as a sub-major at university and easily recognises the clothing around her as mid-seventeenth century – probably English. Oh Oprah, cavaliers and roundheads. Cromwell and Charles I slogging it out over conflicting interpretations of religious dogma. No thank you.

“Extract please.” Instantly the door appears before her and she steps through without a backwards glance.

            The EnTT is still standing amongst the tullips, still smiling serenely. “Our apologies Ms Lynch. that period was rated an 85% match. It was considered most likely to engage you on both an intellectual and emotional level. Perhaps the program gave your perceived propensity towards the romance of the period more weight than was justified.”

             “Well, actually the period has always appealed to me, in literature. It’s just that…well I really wasn’t prepared for the sheer… filth. It detracted a little too much from the spectacle. I actually found that I couldn’t phase into character at all.”

                  The girl’s face takes on a look of empathy. “I understand. It can come as quite a shock. Our customers demand reality and we strive to provide it in every detail. But there is no denying that in a world where even dust has been largely eliminated some aspects of these ‘realities’ can be somewhat…confronting.” The feline face turns towards the second door. “Perhaps this will be more to your liking.”

Rachael looks hesitant. And the smile becomes reassuring.

“Don’t worry Ms Lynch. We feel more than confident that this sample will serve you far better than the first.” With a

With a shrug, she moves towards the door and…

            For the next hour, Rachael lives a dream. It begins with her exhausted and battered body washed upon the swirling waterline of an unknown beach. The water is warm, tropical, the sands baked by an equatorial sun. Her name is Delores ‘change please.’ Gwyneth, Lady Gwyneth Greyson. She had been travelling from England to New Zealand aboard the liner Britannia when, somewhere south of Singapore, the typhoon they’d been trying to outrun for three days had finally caught them.

               The ship went down with appalling speed, and in the confusion of the evacuation she had lost Francis, her husband. She’d searched frantically for him until she was finally bundled, protesting hysterically, into one of the lifeboats. The burly seaman who had carried her to the boat had screamed into her ear words she couldn’t hope to hear above the rage of the storm.

               They’d pulled clear of the ship fearful of the undertow dragging them with her to the bottom. The storm, however, had been too fierce for the tiny boat and it had soon capsized, pitching its hapless occupants into the wild foam. Heaven only knew how Gwyneth had stayed afloat. Her desire to survive must have been very strong indeed for a lady of such drawing room delicacy. She fought the waves all night and the morning found her here, washed upon a lonely shore.

               As her strength begins to return Gwyneth drags herself to her feet and makes her way, staggering, to higher ground. The ebb and flow of the waters drag at her long skirts making the effort doubly difficult. she tears at the sodden fabric, shedding its weight not caring a whit about the amount of pale flesh thus exposed. Who is here to see?

                 At the treeline she collapses again and lies heaving, no longer able to rise. The air is full of strange, disturbing  sounds. Unknown birds call across the green. Monkeys chatter inanely amongst themselves, no doubt perplexed by the bizarre, hairless sea creature that has invaded their forest home.

               At last Gwyneth, her strength slowly returning, turns back towards the sea, hoping to spot some sign of the Britannia or at least one of the boats. It is then that she sees him. He is emerging from the surf, a weary, leaden-limbed, Adonis. The tattered whites of his officer’s uniform clinging sodden to his slim, muscular torso. His fair hair is sea-soaked and dishevelled. She has never seen a more beautiful sight. He is life. She begins to weep with the joy of her relief.

                The man, whom she recognises as Carson, the Britannia’s first mate, staggers as he makes his way from the waterline. Halfway across the beach he finally collapses and Gwyneth’s heart leaps into her mouth.

“Oh please let him be alright,” she prays to a god she’s never believed in. With the last of her energy, she pulls herself to her feet and lurches drunkenly across the sand. As she reaches his prone body she too collapses, her face inches from his, all strength spent.

               Slowly, the man’s eyes open, steely and blue, to regard her with confusion and wonder. “An…angel?” He mutters, and they sink together into unconsciousness.

               Rachael opens her eyes and the EnTT Sarah is standing before her the eternal smile seemingly a little smugger than before.

“I see that we were a little closer to the mark with that one,” she says regarding the fixed smile on Rachael’s own face.

“Yes it certainly had some very…appealing elements,” Rachael admits a little annoyed at her own coy tone. “A little cliché though, a bit…old school. Still satisfying for all that.”

“Does Madam still wish to see the third sample?”

“No I don’t think that will be… Then again… Alright, it can’t hurt to give it a look.” She steps towards the final door.

               “I feel I should warn you, Ms Lynch, this world is something very different. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste. The programme, though, felt that someone of your calibre might well be engaged by its sense of …challenge.”

“Well, now I am intrigued,” Racheal replies, stepping through the door.

                 The door has become a shoji screen. The room she has entered is in her father’s house. It is the room used for entertaining honoured visitors. Her name is Jiru Kurato. Today she meets with the Lady Ogami, wife of the great Lord Tonaga , Daimyo of the clan Ogami, her father’s clan, and her own.

                  Jiru moves gracefully towards the tatami mat and kneels delicately upon it. Her every movement is a study in considered aesthetics even though she is alone in the room and unobserved. Her life has been a preparation for this moment. This is the day that will reward her father for all the years of sacrifice he has given to his Lord.

                 Today she will enter the service of the Lady Ogami as a handmaiden of the second rank. If that is, she passes the ordeal of this final, personal interview with the great Lady herself. She will pass, she is determined. A samurai does not fail.

                 As she waits in the expectant silence she allows her eyes to slide over the familiar features of this room. The area is large and spacious, six tatamis in diameter. There is a raised platform at the opposite end of the room. From here her Lady will conduct the proceedings. It is the height of bad manners for a vassal to sit on an equal level with a Daimyo or his consort.

                  The only other feature is placed upon a small black lacquered table in the corner of the room. It is a sprig of cherry blossom from the tree in her father’s courtyard. Jiru plucked it herself this morning and placed it as artfully as her humble talents would allow. She chose the simplest vase in the house, a gesture of humility to her Lord and Lady.

               At last she hears the approach of her father and the great Lady herself just outside the shoji. Her heart pounds violently in her chest like a bird seeking escape, but she forces herself to remain calm. “You are samurai.” She whispers as the screen slides open and her most beloved father, bowing low, gestures to the Lady to enter.

               Four samurai enter first, hands on sword hilts, taking up strategic positions within the room. Jiru knows that many more warriors will be stationed outside -these are, after all, most troubling times. Then the Lady herself enters, taking her place upon the platform. She is dressed simply in a grey homespun kimono. Jiru silently commends herself upon her own sombre choice, how dreadful to appear before this austere lady in a garb of silken finery.

               “This is the child?”Lady Ogami asks Jiru’s father, her eyes never leaving the girl before her.

“Yes my lady,” the old warrior answers, barely able to conceal his pride, “this is my most unworthy daughter Jiru.”

“How old are you child?” the lady asks, addressing Jiru directly, “you seem little more than a girl.”

“So sorry, I am nineteen years honoured Lady,” she answers without a trace of the nervousness she feels.

“Nineteen, you look younger. Are you sure you are ready to leave your father’s house? It is a very different world at my Lords castle in Edo. Will you not miss your home?”

              Jiru keeps her head bowed. “Oh yes my Lady, very much. But the honour that you will bring to this house, if you choose to accept my unworthy self, will be more than compensation for the foolish sentimental longings of a silly girl who loves her father too well.”

The Lady smiles, “it is well said.” She turns to the old man, Jiru’s father.

“You have taught her well honoured servant of my husband. She will, I am sure, make a valued contribution to my Lord’s household.”

                 Her father is close to tears as he bows to the Lady before him.

“She is unworthy of the honour you bestow upon her, and upon this house. I know, however, that she will ever strive to attain the standards that you will, rightly, expect of her.”

“It is agreed then, the girl will accompany me in the morning upon my return to Edo.”

“Yes, my Lady. Thank you. You have honoured an old warrior beyond his worth.”

                 Her father looks upon his only living child, he knows, for the last time. His heart is filled with sadness and joy. This position will ensure that his beloved daughter will be able to live well after he has joined his ancestors. She is the last of his line, born so late in his life. If he had died without attaining a suitable position for her then her life would most likely have ended in a monastery. The old man knows how very unsuited his vibrant little bird would be for such a life.

              Jiru watches her father’s face, reading his thoughts. As their eyes meet she smiles a silent thank you. She will miss this stern old warrior far more than he knows.

“Child..”

“Yes, my father?”

“You must leave us now to discuss certain details in private. Go to your rooms and prepare for your journey.”

“Yes, my father.” She bows low and backs toward the shoji. Then, bowing again, she steps through the door and out of the world.

“That’s the one,” Rachael tells the smiling AI.

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Words and images are my own.

©2016

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Mind fields 2

 

The second chapter to my SF manuscript, Mind fields. In this chapter, the second of my three main characters is introduced. I’ve chosen to shift from the first person for this character’s segments. Again, any suggestions or criticisms are encouraged.

 

 

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 -two-

               The cop wakes to pain and confusion. gazing about, he tries desperately to make some sense of his surroundings. A dark, tiny space, red lights flashing overhead, no sound but his own ragged breath.

Escape pod? There’s something wet at his throat. He reaches up with a shaky hand to touch it. It’s slimy and a little crusted in places. Blood. I’m hurt? that explains the pain.

               He strains hard to pull up a memory, a reason he’d be here like this. But his whole life seems a jumble of non-sequential images that make no sense at all. Reining in his panic he fights to gather what’s left of his wits. What’s your name? “Hanson, John D, Sergeant 1st class, Midtown Enforcement. Serial number 9975 1100.” That’s good, things can’t be too bad if I can remember my serial number. I guess the rest will come.

               He tries for a moment to remember the procedure for self-release from a pod and is relieved to find the block of information still intact and in place. First, he checks to see that he’s activated the distress beacon during the descent, negative. Hastily he hits the stud and a light shows green on the tiny panel above his eyes. Still working, thank god. That should bring a retrieval unit running.

               After checking that his side-arm is in place, he hits the three emergency switches in correct sequence blowing the seals on the hatch. It falls away with a crash and dim light floods the tiny capsule, night.

               Releasing the clasps on his harness, the cop drags himself painfully through the hatchway, falling heavily onto the road outside. Oh shit, the blocks. The effort almost causes him to pass out, and He lies there on his back, breathing hard, waiting for the tide of agony to subside. Through a glaze of pain, he stares at the high towers of the upper levels, wishes he was up there now instead of deep in the bowels of this hell-hole.

               Checking the Bio-metre in his wrist set, he sees that blood loss is becoming critical. If the retrieval cops don’t show soon,  he’s not going to make it. The pain’s awful, he yearns to remove his restrictive, uncomfortable flack shell but no longer has the strength for it.

               Finally, he hears the approaching sirens of the retrieval squad and breathes a sigh of relief. This would be a shitty place to die.

               The extraction team shows up in full ‘hard shell’ body gear, snatching him up and bundling him into the AFV; observing strict combat protocols. This sparks a clouded memory, and at last, he knows what brought him to this.

               There was a call. Another flair-up in Downtown. He was in a gunship with his squad, on route, when the ship suddenly lurched off course and started veering towards the side of a stack. The cop could hear the pilot screaming crazily through his helmets feed as he and the others scrambled for the pods. The next thing he remembers is waking on the ground in a sea of hurt.

               Now, splayed on the floor of the armoured transport, the cop grabs weakly at the arm of the medic working on his shattered shoulder. “Have they brought in any of the others?” The medic looks blankly at him for just a moment, then, “not yet,” but the exhausted cop is already slipping into unconsciousness.

             “Just as well, poor bastard,” the medic sighs, returning his attention to the work at hand, then curses out loud as the car takes a corner too fast, almost pitching him across the limp form of his fast fading patient.

               The next time the cop opens his eyes he’s in a hospital bed and three days have passed. Hope, the precinct commander, is standing over him. His cap’s in his hands and the long, pale fingers are fiddling nervously with the peak badge.

               “H-how long have you been here sir?” the cop asks, his voice strange in his own ears. “Just got here. The med-techs paged me, said you’d be coming around any time now. How’s the shell john?”

“A few dents in the chassis, nothing a good hammer-man couldn’t fix.”

“Glad to hear it, trooper,” the old man replies warmly but he looks decidedly uncomfortable.

“How about Steve and the others?” the cop asks and notes the poorly concealed wince this evokes.

“Well, that’s why I’m here son. I’ve got some news of a… distressing nature. Ah,  John, Steven and the squad didn’t… that is. You’re the only one that made it son. I’m… sorry.”

            The cop’s silent for a moment, processing the information, then, “I… understand.”

“I really am sorry john. I know you and Steven were… close. I… Christ, I hate this part of the job.” The cop notices for the first time that his commander looks old, weary. He feels sympathy remembering that most of the squad had families.

“How’d they hit us?” he asks.

“I’m sorry?” The commander looks phased.

“The Downies, how in the hell did they knock down a state of the art, hard shell gunship?”

“Oh, I see. Well, of course, they didn’t.”

“Rewind that?”

             “Your ship wasn’t shot down John. You know as well as I do that the Downtowners don’t have anything like the firepower required to bring down a bird like that.”

“So what was it? Tech failure?”

“That was what we assumed at first, it seemed the most logical explanation. But the ship checked out fine when we ran the black-box analysis.”

“So… what then?” He can see Hope’s discomfort is growing by the second.

“Yesterday we autopsied the pilot.”

“And?”

“Turns out he was a user…Reality.”

           The cop slumps back onto the pillow staring at the ceiling, remembering those crazy screams in his earpiece. “Reality,” his fists clench, shaking a little, then, “what about the checks? How does a goddamned combat pilot slip through with an obvious monkey like that on his back?”

         Hope looks pale, apologetic. “Guess he found a way to bypass the testing procedures. We’re… looking into it.”

The man on the bed turns cold. “Someone wasn’t doing their fucking job, and now eight cops – good cops – people we couldn’t afford to loose, are dead. We’d better be damn well looking into it-Sir.”

             “Take it easy Hanson. Don’t over excite yourself. I’m every bit as pissed about this as you are. And if I find that someone’s been negligent, I’ll have their genitalia for stress balls, you can count on it.” He pulls on his cap and takes a step closer to the bed.

              “John, you just worry about healing and let me take care of the housekeeping. I assure you there’ll be a full and thorough investigation into this matter, because…well you’re right, damn it, these were people we couldn’t afford to loose.” He lays a hand lightly on the cop’s shoulder. “Now get better, hear? You’re needed more than ever, son. I’ll talk with you again soon.”

            With that he turns and walks towards the door but pauses, those pale fingers lightly resting on the handle. “I’m going to miss Steven too,” he says, his voice suddenly weaker. “He was one of the finest officers I ever knew, great combat instincts. It’s a terrible blow to us all.” He says this with his eyes fixed on the door then, after a second’s pause, walks into the bustling corridor.

The cop keeps staring at the ceiling for a long time after he’s gone.

1248 words

Chapter one

Words and image are my own.

©2016

Mind fields

 

Today, I’m posting an excerpt (one chapter) from a manuscript I’ve had on the back-burner for several years. I’m offering it up here for comment or criticism. Anyone who is so inclined is welcome to give feedback.

                                                                         – one –

             The natives are itchin’ tonight, there’re fires all over. I can see giant shadows flit across the block fronts – long bodied monsters bent on mayhem. Ten meters down the street one of those old plastic Googles is cheerily melting down to a shapeless, crackling blob. It’ll take a cutter to separate it from the tarmac by mornin’ – not that anyone will bother. The thing will still be there in a month’s time, another piece of ‘urban art’ to add to the growing collection – fuckin’ Downtown man.

               A big cop gunship tumbles slowly from the sky, splashing itself vividly across the front of one of the Meg-blocks. Rule one here is never look up but the sheer spectacle takes my breath and I stare impressed, despite myself. “Very pretty,” I murmur so the shotgun mics won’t grok. There’ll be cops of one sort or another swarming all over here in ten, though, and I sure as hell don’t want them showing me any special love. Move on.

               The game plan is simple, don’t, under any circumstances, get involved. This riot blew up quicker’n most, overtaking me on my way home from the Traders Mall. Wouldn’t have minded so much if the rumour about cheap Soyggets® down there hadn’t turned out to be total web-truth.

               There’s a quick burst of gunplay somewhere up ahead and screams too, I’m pretty sure; reason enough to shift course. At the next intersection, I cut east along Snowden and a bunch of hopped-up ‘sumers stumble past in a wild-eyed jostle, their arms full of real-world loot. Trouble here always starts with moral outrage and ends in ‘sumer-goods and pharmaceuticals -funny that.

               All along here the windows have had their security screens torn out, and their ImpervSpex® beaten to jagged shards. All of ‘em are pretty much gutted. Just the same, I find myself scanning the tech stores, thinking I might spot a decent quality game deck, least ways better than my crappy-ass JayBo® back home. Nix, they’ve all been stripped to the paint.

               Then, right at my feet, I see somethin’ that makes me gasp. Some wasted booter musta dropped it. It’s a new chip, still, in the blister, a fuckin’ NightWing® no less. My heart’s beating fit to bust my cage. A top-shelf chip like this would really give my shitty deck a kick – truly.

               Zoning wildly, I reach down for an item four weeks’ worth of ezee-creds wouldn’t buy. I stop, though, my fingers centimetres from it, feeling weirdly conflicted. This isn’t fiving from some uptown chain. The vendor this comes from just lost everything tonight. I can’t do it. Shit, a NightWing®, though. I can hardly believe what I’m doing as I straighten up leaving the chip still laying on the ground. My mind’s spinning, convinced I’m playing some stupid game with myself, dead sure I’ll reach down again and snatch it up. But after a half-beat pause, I walk on, not daring to look back.

               It feels surprisingly good. Guess I just made the jump. I’ve been talkin’ loud for a long time now about not being one of the herd, ‘bout having Bushido. Well, tonight I’ve proven – to myself at least – that I wasn’t just full of shit. For once I’m standing tall. Maybe not Samurai but, shit man, least I can hold my head up. Sure gonna feel like an asshole next time I fire up my deck, though.

               Another block up, my head still spinnin’, it’s time to cut north again. With any luck, the worst of the insanity‘s behind me, least that’s what I’m hopin’. Then up ahead, half in shadow, I spot something -odd, a shape that doesn’t quite fit, I’m almost on top of it before I realize what I’m looking at. It’s an escape pod, I’m guessing, from that downed gunship. The seals are all unbroken so I figure the cop inside is probably dead or busted up pretty bad. Either way, it’s nothing to me, I fuckin’ hate cops. I give that unhatched egg a wide berth.

               Ultimately, after another two detours, the twenty-minute walk takes me over an hour. The elevators in my block have gone schizo again, naturally, so there’s nothing for it but to climb the twelve flights to my box. By the top, my legs are sacks of sand and I’m breathing like the old patchwear vendor on my corner with – whaddayacallit? – emphysema.

               I take out my swipe and remember, for the umpteenth time, that the data strip is lifting from the plastic. If I’m not real careful, next thing I know, I won’t be able to access my own place. I really have to get my ass down to the Housing Center in the morning and hustle a replacement. Fucking things never last. I hold my breath as I swipe the card but the door’s in a good mood tonight and snicks open smooth as you please.

               Be it ever so humble. Box is a good name for these places, a Fibrelite® cube, barely big enough for a decent sized bed, the kitchen a recess, off to the side. They usually don’t come with windows, just a big plastic wall screen spewing infotubes ‘round the clock. The bathroom at the end of the hall’s a time-share with the rest of the boxes on the floor. Spartan, I’ve heard ‘em called, that must mean shitty. At least they’re affordable, though only if you know how to scam a little.

               The climb’s got my head spinning and I flop down on the bed until my screaming lungs can claw their way back from the edge.  When I can more or less stand up again I go over to the bench, flip the switch on my trusty electric jug, and squeeze a blob of miso paste into the tiny ceramic bowl. The bowl’s my favourite possession. I found it in one of the trash markets down South Tunnel way. I know the guy stiffed me but I just couldn’t resist. It was so perfectly Japanese, pre-corp Japanese that is. Shit, there’s no such place as Japan anymore. There’s hardly any actual countries left now, that’s kind of an unprofitable way to do business.

               The jug comes to a boil and adding water to the paste, I stir them slowly together. The smell’s got my juices goin’ as I carry the soup back to my bed. Sitting cross-legged, I begin to sip from the bowl, breathing in the steam, going internal. When the soup’s all gone, I wash the bowl in the dinky sink and dry it carefully, placing it in its proper space on the shelf. As always, this little ritual brings its own kind of pleasure.

               Feeling replenished now, I return to my bed and my eyes settle on the dust filmed JayBo® on the floor. Instinctively I reach over and pick it up, placing it across my lap. The weight is familiar, comfortable. Smiling a little, taking slow, deep breaths, I draw out the interface line between thumb and forefinger. Adrenaline’s already flooding my system as I insert the tiny jack into the uplink socket behind my left ear. It’s funny, I can never feel it sliding in, but I always wince. I brush the initiation pad with my fingertips and…

I’m ghosting.

The night is bright and ferociously hot, filled with the incessant chirping of cicadas. A few light clouds scurry across the sky so high up that it looks as though they may collide with the moon; brilliant and full. They pass, however, far below her, failed challengers to her ascendancy. This is not real.

               Itto Yoshitaka strides confidently, almost arrogantly, down the perfect path that wends between the precisely manicured trees. The only sound he makes is the delicate swish of his silk kimono. His left-hand rests lightly on the pommel of his killing sword tucked securely into the sash at his waist. He knows full well that he is entering the jaws of an ambush but walks on unafraid.

He pauses a moment by a small pebble garden, unable to pass by a thing of such beauty without marking it. He admires its order, impressed by the complex perfection of its raked patterns created, surely, by some master gardener. There is an ancient stone placed simply at the center of the spirals. It is covered in the most exquisite lichen; truly perfect. The enemy strikes.

Yoshitaka’s sword sweeps free of its scabbard and sings a perfect arc. At the end of that arc, he stands ready in an immaculate killing stance as an arrow, sliced in twain, tumbles right and left past both ears. Another arrow speeds towards him and is as quickly dispatched. A third shaft, released almost simultaneously with the second, pierces his sleeve harmlessly.

Attack now.

He flashes across the garden, feet soundless on the mossy ground. The enemy samurai springs from concealment, throwing his great bow to the ground and drawing his sword in one, fluid, movement. Too late, Yoshitaka’s blade slices him in a diagonal from collarbone to hip and his face takes on an almost comically startled look. Then his body slides apart in an explosion of darkest crimson. Yoshitaka’s kimono remains unsoiled.

Another assailant drops from above. He has been hiding atop the high garden wall to catch him unawares. But Yoshitaka has been aware of him from the start, This one always hides here. He’s dead before he can raise his weapon and the unruffled samurai runs on, vaulting the wall effortlessly, and landing in the courtyard of a modest house.

               I become aware of a random element here, a guard dog I’ve never seen before. The dog’s lips peel back from its, bared, teeth in an impressively menacing snarl. Saliva froths and drips from its jowls – a nice touch. The animal, however, offers no real challenge and Yoshitaka takes it out easily with a single downward thrust of his blade. The thing yelps once and slumps, twitching, to the ground.

He moves forward to the shoji of the house.

               The shadow movement on the screen’s translucent surface is intended to alert me ‘subtly’ to the danger inside, redundant, irritating. I choose the most blasé approach, sending us crashing through the paper screen and barreling into the would-be assassin. Realistic weight and momentum carry us to the floor, and I hear the enemies breath burst explosively from his body -another nice touch. 

               The man’s hands lock around Yoshitaka’s throat as his face takes on a convincing portrayal of fear-driven desperation. I draw this moment out awhile, studying the beads of sweat on his brow, fascinated as always by the craftsmanship that went into this. Then the life meter begins to flash red on the edge of my vision.

Yoshitaka drags his short sword free of its scabbard, quickly plunging it into the other’s abdomen. The enemy’s hands fall away from his neck as the body twitches a little then falls still. Yoshitaka stands over the corpse breathing heavily and watching the spreading, dark, pool pattern the wooden floorboards.

It’s all so intricate, so beautiful.

A movement back in the shadowed corner of the room catches his eye. In the dimness, he thinks he see’s the pale oval of a woman’s face. What’s she doing here?

The arrow that slams into his chest is a complete surprise. He gasps and shudders backwards, going into shock. There is a perfect, tiny hole in the shoji screen in front of him, and a reed-thin beam of silver lances through it creating a perfect duplicate at his feet. ‘Perfect.’ He coughs and tumbles sideways to the floor.

As the scene begins to fade around him a sympathetic voice announces ‘GAME OVER.’

 

               “Fuck,” I murmur, gingerly pulling the jack from my skull, “where’d that come from?” I’m rubbing at my temples, trying to ease the dull ache that always comes with ghostdeath. I try hard to believe that this time felt real, but, as always, it fell just short. The intricate synthesized reality didn’t jack my disbelief – it never does. That’s the kind of experience I want, it’s all I’ve ever wanted. Yeah right- like I’m ever gonna have that kind of credit.

               The box feels stifling tonight, and sleep’s still way off. I feel edgy, and start thinking about maybe heading outside again. Surely the riot’s moved on to some other hood by now. Maybe I can vector one of the crew and catch the latest G. That’s it then, I drag my heavy jacket on again and trade the claustrophobia of my box for the claustrophobia of the streets.

               ‘Sumers, thousands of them. Night and day, the streets are jammed with them. The noise, the smell of them, it overwhelms and suffocates. They flow about me like a toxic spill, vacantly stirring, looking for something, anything to relieve the mind-numbing tedium.

               Almost nobody in Downtown has work and only the push-pimps have any real cred, that leads to a lot of agro. There must be at least a hundred fire gutted blocks around here. Neighborhoods burned down to the dirt by their own inhabitants, too blind to see they’re only hurting themselves; too empty to care.

               The only real form of expression we have here is rioting. We riot because the best food we can get has almost no nutritional worth and tastes just a little too much like shit. We riot over the brutal methods employed by the cop tribes who treat Downtown (not without reason) like a war zone. FOX help us, we even riot to vent our frustration over the damage caused the last time we rioted. And each time more die or are made homeless, and the whole stinking place gets a little uglier. Still, what ya gonna do?

               It’s cold, as usual. I shrug deeper into my jacket but it still finds me, biting through four layers of clothing, working into my bones and joints. I’m barely twenty, but cold like this makes you feel ancient. It just has to be endured, though, another fact of life that can’t be changed.

               After a  few minutes, I reach ‘The hub’, an open-air canteen surrounded by a chaotic, jumble of tiny stalls selling food, beer, pills to the bored, the homeless, and the lonely. The MicroMac® multiplex is the focal point of the whole mess, of course, but at least it’s not the only option.

                I wander over to a vendor I recognize. The small, leathery woman is stocked up again. She looks OldGreek or something but her sushi’s the best I’ve been able to find around here. I pick out some Toona® rolls and, as an afterthought, a pretty nice looking Kalifornia® I spot at the bottom of one of her bamboo baskets. “Was saving that one for my supper,” she grumbles without looking up but drops it in the tray with the others all the same.

               The woman scans my proffered wrist and I’m ten milli-creds lighter. I’ve visited her stall at least five times in the past month or so but she offers no recognition, just a perfunctory “enjoy your meal consumer. Come again.” I thank her with equal enthusiasm and make my way, tray in hand, towards one of the long trestles, already packed with diners.

               After a while, I find a space reasonably close to one of the big fire drums placed at the end of each row. ‘Sumers keep these well stocked with wood scraps and other bits of flotsam found among the burnt-out shells of their former homes. As well, the sanitation guys drop stacks of compressed paper bricks off to them twice a day; a gift to the masses from ‘Admin’, whoever the hell that might be these days.

               Actually, since the weather’s gotten progressively worse, these drums have been multiplying rapidly. You see them now on just about every street corner, in the parks, anywhere you find people and that’s everywhere. Always with a huddle of dispossessed misery crowded around trying to keep the eternal chill from sorry-ass bones.

              Taking my seat, I pull the little, scratched up, plastic pencil case from one of the pockets inside my jacket and place it on the table before me. Lovingly, I take out the small laminated chopsticks I’m never without. I’d be a tool to admit how much I paid for them, but they’re so much nicer to use than the cheap shit that most places give out for free.

         Fitting them between my half-frozen fingers, I tap the ends together experimentally, then dip them into the green smear of wasabiSim® at the edge of the tray spreading the paste carefully onto one of the Toona® rolls. When it’s just right I pick the tiny roll up between the sticks and pop it into my mouth.

               As usual, the ritual draws curious stares from the surrounding patrons busily shovelling their own food into their holes. This is a MicroMac® neighbourhood, most of the ‘sumers around here have trouble dealing with a knife and fork. I ignore them, savouring the textures in my mouth, feeling the sting of the wasabi high up in my nostrils; bliss.

               I quickly follow the first piece with another and then, just as I’m about to eat the last of the Toona® rolls, a hand lands heavily on my shoulder. I stifle my start and turn with studied slowness. “Hey, Kev.”

             Looking up, I smile a greeting, as my oldest friend Simon squeezes his long skinny frame onto the seat beside me.

“Si, how’s with you?”

“Yeah, Halo,” he answers as he begins to unwrap a small grease paper bundle, his habitual burger meal. I wrinkle my nose at the smell of it, he notices smiling.

“Still jumpin’ a dead culture I see,” he smirks. Ouch, preemptive strike.

“Least it’s food,” I offer back. It’s always been this way with us for as long as either can remember.

“Oh really?” he drawls, one eyebrow raised to Upside, “reconstituted rice, tuna substitute, questionable vegetable matter, Fake green goop…”

“Wasabi,” I interject.

“Er, synthetic wasabi,” he corrects, “the only real thing on that tray is the seaweed, and that was grown in a vat.”

I shrug, unmoved, but he’s just warming up.

             “Seriously, the only difference between your food and mine is the shape. This thing’s just minced seaweed, rice and meat sub, all squished together into a convenient patty by the good folk at MicroMac®. Mine pretends to be a burger, your’s sushi. So what’s the diff?”

“Yours smells really bad.”

              “Well duh, it’s an MMBurger®. But face it, consumer, the only reason you eat that barely sushi crap is that it makes you feel all Jappy ‘n’ shit. And you just love that ‘cause you feel like you’re in-game instead of out here in the grey with the rest of us.’

I feign indifference. “Your point being?”

“Don’t really have one. I’d just like you to admit that your shit’s fundamentally no different to my shit. It’s all just shit.” He smiles and waves the offensive clump under my nose.

“That may be so, but you’re missing my basic point.”

“Which is?”

“Ritual – enjoyment of the act – the food’s a means not an end.”

“Oh fuck, not the Zen crap again. You know, you could try a little external living every other day.”

             I don’t really want to go down this road, it’s been well and truly trampled. “You’ve got your way of getting through the day, I’ve got mine,” I answer hoping, that’s the end of it – nope.

“Yeah, only mine’s gonna get me the hell out of here someday. You just use yours to blot the reality out. You’re living in denial consumer.”

               Now I can feel my hackles coming up. “Well tell me a little denial doesn’t come in handy living in this shit hole. Tell me the knowledge that you’re owned, mind and body, by the MicroMac Corp® ain’t worth a little denial.”

               He sighs a concession, “yeah, I hear you.” It’s a big step down and, for the first time, I notice how much darker the dark circles around his eyes have become.

             “How’s work going?” I ask, suddenly a little unsettled. Simon scored a gig with TransUrb®, one of the big Uptown body-courier outfits, a few months back. I have no idea how he did that. He’s been working his ass off ever since, though. It’s all part of his master plan with a place at MacMed® as his eventual end goal; a one-way ticket out of the blocks and out of Downtown.

           “All Halo,” he chirps in reply, “but I gotta admit it’s pretty full-on down there. Fuck up once and you’re use-by is history. No excuses accepted. There’re thirteen million uncontracted consumers just hanging for a shot at what I got. And the dispatchers make sure ‘n’ tell me that at least ten times a fuckin’ day.”

“Yeah, you’re looking kind of beat up I have to admit.”

“Fuck man, they’ve got us all pullin’ double shifts now. The cred’s good but it doesn’t leave too much ass-scratch time.”

“Least you get to cruise ’round on those sweet wheels all day.”

               I remember what a screenshot he was when he first turned up with the blades. He’s never told me where he got the cred for them and I’ve long since given up asking. He sure was bustin’, though, Street Ninja® nano blades; top shelf. Probably the single most perfect thing I ever grokked up close. They look just like a pair of extra-techy running shoes. Touch a small heel stud, though, and a set of inline micro-discs snap down into place. That’s it consumer; you’re outta there.

               The discs are a blended hybrid alloy; Kevlar and Nanolight® ridiculously thin and unbelievably strong. The sort of stuff they make the hardshell riot gear the cops wear out of. And the nano-bearings are almost totally frictionless. The result, well that’s somethin’ to see. The blader just seems to glide on the soles of their shoes, looks really freaky. And the speed! I’ve had a bit of time on Si’s pair and I ain’t ever gettin’ over it. On a good surface, you can bend space.

               Simon’s about to launch off on another rant when the godawful digi-pop ringtone of his Paytalk® implant crashes his train of thought. He brings his glowing palm up and EyeDees. His whole face sags as he listens to a voice only he can hear. Then he mumbles a “kay” and closes his fist on the call with undisguised disgust. “Shit, fuck, shit!”

“What’s ya malfunction?”

“The assholes want me back in for another shift – right now. I gotta go. Shit! I just came off a double.”

“Man, that’s cold. They really are jamming you hard. Hope it’s worth the butt-hurt.”

         “Oh don’t you worry, It’s worth it. I’ve seen some amazing shit in Uptown since I’ve been running their stupid crap around. There’s life like you can’t imagine going down on the upside, and I’m gonna get me some of that sweet, sweet stuff. This little block monkey’s gettin’ out.” He all but sings the last part, standing up and slinging his bag over his shoulder. “Anyway, I’ve really gotta go man. Keep it encrypted, Kevy boy. I’ll see you round ‘n’ round.”

         He meshes with the crowd before I can even remind him how much I hate being called Kevy.

3387 words.

©2016