Story and UI Art by Lordess Foudre - Character Art by Hitrisisters
Black night swaying beneath red light beams
The phone vibrates, then the phone rings
Hands de-interlace, cold sweat buffers and streams
Red lips trace the warm black folds in the sheets
Follow the curves and part the curtain seams
Feel inside the sleep and pull out the dreams
But the phone still vibrates, the phone still rings
Message sent, message not received
Unknown caller, will you check your private inbox please?
Harsh white light explodes from the small screen in my hand, a gunshot to my subconscious. Rubbing my eyes, I try to highlight the scattered fragments of last night’s events, but it’s too late. Chat clubs. Drinks. Chemical plug-ins. A beautiful anon girl… The corrupted memories degrade into abstract images and neon splatters, just meaningless shapes smeared across the darkness of my room. Oh well. Easy come, easy go. I yawn, pulling loose strands of blonde hair out of my mouth as I toss the glowing, taunting Net-Ex Mobile. I don’t need to look at the screen to know what it says, anyway.
No Available Digital Space Connection Points!
The thin tatami cushion sighs beneath me as I prop myself up, struggling to soft jack my brain back into consciousness. Even though I can’t really remember what I got up to last night, my body has clearly logged every second of whatever stupidity I put it through. I scan my skin with my hands in the dark, tracing the dozen minor scrapes and bruises, but my mind only draws a blank. Fuck. I press the radiating sore spot on the side of my neck, sliding my fingertips across a set of shallow teeth marks. Whoever that girl was, she certainly knows how to post a helpful reminder…
I slide off the cushion, pulling the G-string out of my butt as I cross the small space in a single, elegant motion. Running my hand along the wall, I find the Settings Panel and slide the brightness halfway up, switching my room out of dark mode. Time to get going, but why? I snatch the wrinkled carton of knock off AC1D-One Eleven chem-stim off the shelf and push the start key on my full length Mirror Screen. For one wretched split-second, I see the reflection of my miserable face before the Vanity Filter warms up and shows me only what I want to see:
SETTINGS AUTO-LOADED FOR USER: ECHO66_00_0L
Skin Clarity: 100%
Eye and Teeth Whiteness: 100%
Soft Focus: 22%
Slim and Contour: 8%
Emotional Recognition: “Miscellaneous Contempt”
Much better. I squeeze the last few drops of the stimulant into my mouth and grab the hanging Synth Suit, yanking the long power cord out of the wall socket. The rubbery crinkling of the translucent fabric makes my skin crawl as I push and pull my limbs further into the impossibly tight suit. To higher profile users unacquainted with the ways of the slums, this routine would seem pitiful and ridiculous. I know because I used to think that way, too. Up in the relatively glamorous Private Partition, we wear high tech Digital Space-integrated filters to appear as whatever we want to be, limited only by our connection speed and memory budget. But things just don’t work like that down here, as I very quickly found out. Without that stable Private Partition Digital Space connection, a high level Persona Filter Suit is nothing but a flimsy plastech garbage bag.
In the slums, we have to rely on our analog ingenuity to make up for the lack of digital connectivity. You can buy or obtain semi-legal, buggy softwear devices, or you can undergo expensive body mod procedures to permanently alter your appearance; albeit with equally janky results. The third option is to just drug yourself into not caring about what you look like. Me, I prefer the softwear. For starters, it’s extremely rare for suits or masks to melt into your skin or explode. It basically never happens unless you try to crack them or install black market warez. The other plus is that if you forget to charge a Synth Suit, it can still be equipped as clothing; even if it is damn near totally transparent. The way I see it, no matter which appearance-altering option you choose, the end result will be fucked up in some serious way; so go with the one you can remove without having to hack your body open.
After a brief and familiar struggle, I’m dressed and pounding the sensor on my shoulder; switching the suit into Auto-Response Mode. I focus on my filtered reflection in the Mirror Screen and the Synth Suit’s emotion engine scans my raw personal preferences. It takes a moment, but then a weak electric current spreads through the suit, the clear material constricting even tighter to form a second skin. As it darkens into an opaque black shade, I turn back and forth in front of the mirror to make sure my restricted areas are fully covered. Looks good enough. I take a step towards my console and the engine whirs again, elevating my heels off the floor; the suit forming dagger-sharp stilettos. Why? As if to answer to my question, neon accents spiral around my breasts and rain down my stomach in glitchy strings, highlighting the curves of my hips. So I really want to go back to the adult chat clubs, this late, or early in the morning? That’s crazy. I don’t think I feel like doing any of this kinda bitshit, but I’m not gonna stand here and argue with softwear AI.
Fully suited up, I reach under the console rack to grab my pistol, feeling the inside of an empty holster slot. Not good. I search and destroy my room to find my gun, the cheap chemicals pumping and spitting adrenaline into my brain, projecting rapid-fire images of some lucky slumbag waving it around in the street. My genuine SGC MENACER… Gone. Exchanged for a night of pointless, low level degeneracy. You’re fucking unbelievable, Echo. That ban gun was a stroke of random luck, and totally irreplaceable. Looted it off a deleted Priva-Sec Member around 4 months ago. Found the guy bluescreened on the ground next to his phreaker client in the shortcut behind Opus Sex-Chat. I had my hand on the grip of the pistol before I even noticed the hole punched into his helmet. But I got the piece out of there clean, and even spent the 350 pix to wipe the registry and get an authentic license key. What a waste.
I sit on the edge of my tatami, watching the room flex in rhythm with the sharp impacts of the chem-stim, sweating it out as it finishes loading. Good and bad thing about the cheap stuff is that it never lasts long. After I’m reasonably sure I’m not gonna suffer a seizure or anything, I drag my next-to-useless Net-Ex Mobile off the mattress and drop it into my inventory; checking my load out:
Several nasty pops bounce around inside my shoulders when I strap the inventory onto my back. I lean forward and check my reflection. Look at the state of you. Mirror Screen beauty filters or not, you’ve obviously become a bottom-tier girl in the slums. Just another consumer of products, rapidly becoming a product of consumption. But it was only a couple years ago, wasn’t it? When you were working as an elite, Dedicated Server up in the Private Partition. At Mode Seven Heaven, no less. Had a buddy list filled with top level donors and subscribers, all of them loaded with pixels to throw around. They signed on every night just for a chance to private chat with you. Fuck. Sitting here in this cheap Synth-Suit, in this rundown, low-res room; the perks of the old life seem so far away, don’t they? Whatever happened to, “Give me a month and I’ll be upgraded, reloaded, back on that fiber-optic glory road”? I tilt my head back and close my eyes, running my mind over the burn scars where bright lights used to shine…
All-night private party raids through advanced dungeon clubs with hi-res models, snatching up secret invites and just throwing away pixels on expensive beauty filters. Getting corrupted on designer pharma plug-ins in the back of overclocked concept cars, fucking at 300kbps down the high-speed subscription hotlines… An unskippable life stream of loud sex, quiet schemes, high fashion, and downlow violence. You saved so many premium experiences to your memory, but got so little progress to show for it now. When you get kicked this bad, it’s not like you can just transfer an easy mode life to the slums and expect it to run smoothly. You have to start over from the beginning, like any other loser down here. And sure, you could say I was a loser the whole time I was living it up in the Private Partition; and you might be right. But up there I never cared, never had to, because life was just one free play after another. So that’s exactly the way I played it. Until the g00gol Republic froze my game for good…
I wait for my sad little memories to slow down, float and fall, then sink beneath the stable frame rate of the fully plugged-in stimulant. Gotta get out of this room before it embeds me. I rise and fling myself across the space, pressing my palms and forehead against the hollow metal door; pushing it open with my body. The rusty hinge screeches its mechanized death howl, reverberating effortlessly through the long empty hallway. In the dark, I wobble past the long row of locked doors leading to the logout, grinding the permanent NovaChrome Liquor stains deeper into the carpet tiles beneath me. Leaning against the spiral escalator’s throbbing engine processor, I feel all 68 floors vibrate through my spine on the way down, watching the orange beads of light overhead blur into streaks as we pick up speed. The escalator abruptly cuts the power when we reach the ground floor, violently ejecting me from the steps into the chaos waiting beyond the lobby walls.
I stagger out of the building, my swollen pupils struggling to adjust to the thrusting neon hell that is Geo-City One. Almost immediately, my foot gets snagged and I have to drop into a kneel, grabbing the wet plastech railing to stop myself from tumbling down the staircase. The charging cable I forgot to unplug has tangled itself around my ankle, still connected to the back of my Synth Suit. Shit, there’s no way I’m scrolling all the way back up there just for this thing. I tie the cord several times around my thigh and take a deep breath. The free-flowing stench of charity-grade kimchi and incense oil is overpowering, and is not optional. Tears flood my eyes, bringing the Vesa Linkway into sharp focus. It’s still clogged with hordes of roaming drunks and filthy e-beggars, moaning and crying about their overdue Life Subscription payments. They all squirm and writhe over each other like maggots in a coffin. Suddenly feeling much better about myself, I descend the stairs and enter the flesh zoo.
Welcome to the Public Access Zone. Some users call it The Paz, the Lower Levels, or simply the slums. The more cynical among us have started calling it The g00glag. But the one thing no one ever wants to call it, is home. A sprawling patchwork of angular frames, jagged edges, broken images. A strobing, 2 frame loop of pain and pleasure, a city eternally under construction yet going nowhere. Anything you could ever want is right there, just barely out of reach, in shining windows atop a jet-black background of misery. In this corrupted network, millions of lost users will spend their sad lives following beautiful streams of low-res advertisement gifs; scrolling down dead linkways deeper into hell.
I do my best to avoid any kind of physical connection with the scum as I weave around a well-memorized pattern of jagged concrete and grease puddles surrounding The Altair Tower. I’m casing the perimeter of my own building like a thief, browsing for a Solo Cycle to rent so I can get out of here. I’m playing it cool, trying to not look desperate in front of the sneering, high level gang guild anons posted in the docking lot. If they figure out I’ve got no quick escape option, and that I’m currently unarmed, they’ll definitely try to pull an easy raid on my ass. But by the time they finish party chatting and begin to make their move, I’m already gone. There’s not a single fucking bike around this dump, anyway.
Scrolling further down the Vesa Linkway, I still can’t find a ride but I do come across an open NEWS-NET Update Terminal. Normally I wouldn’t even bother to stop, as there’d be a dozen late night hustlers lined up at the small metal box, potentially waiting hours for their turn. But just this once, it looks like I’m lucky. Glancing over my shoulder, I type my stolen 36 digit Power User key into the greasy punch pad and call 99.213X.66.
NOW CALLING RIKKARD’S PHANTOM UNDERGROUND… PLEASE WAIT…
These days, Rikkard’s is the only NEWS-NET I dial up, specifically because it doesn’t allow its neurotic users to fight over politic-protocols. It’s fucking ridiculous. Ever since Dante_Hex came back to Geo-City One and got himself re-elected as the Web Master, every single one of his announcements sends the community into a branching series of pointless flamewars. What starts as a minor disagreement on some low-pop board will become a full-blown, system-wide inferno within hours, guaranteed. It’s fucked up, but the NEWS-NET service is probably going to die because of you line junkies who still believe you can save the city with a bogus admin account and unlimited public messages. Listen. The average Public Access user dials up the boards to get free invites to adult chats, find weapons, or discover where the cheap drinks and plug-in sites are. No slumbag is gonna pay 5 pixels per minute to dig through page after page of your worthless opinions just to find out if ‘NeBuLa-Nasti’s Pump Box' is accepting visitors tonight.
Yeah… Kitan Club… Why is that place jumping out at me? It’s one of the most savage adult chats in the city, even certified sex freaks have trouble with the difficulty level. Discipline protocols, hardcore input/output play, electronic submissions, wireworks; not to mention whatever nightmarish business goes on in those secret subspace blackbox rooms. For a casual like me, Kitan Club is not the kind of site I would normally log into. But what about the anon girl I was with? Maybe it’s her kind of scene. I press the sore spot on my neck, the bite mark, as if the dull pain might help me remember. Could we have gone there last night? It would explain all the scratches and bruises all over my body. But then again, so would too many drinks and chems.
At the final corner of the Vesa Linkway, a rusted Nu-Bus rattles and creaks to a stop at the deserted access point. The ugly faces of the passengers seem to warp and bend behind the rows of dented LCD plexiglass windows, mutating their expressions of indifference into a horror show of wild emotion. The driver cranes his neck, squinting nervously through the small gap in the doors, trying to assess my threat level before letting me in. I absolutely despise Public Access transport because of shit like this, but I’m out of options. The city isn’t gonna spawn more Solo Cycles tonight. I carefully pull the doors open a little further, just enough for my lips to get through without touching the filthy metal.
“Hey. I’m unarmed. Just wanna ride.”
His beady eyes slowly scan what little of my body he can see, his hand hovering above the door release switch. Drivers get nervous in The Paz this late at night, and for good reason. I get it. I’ve had some very bad random encounters of my own on the Nu-Bus, but c’mon. I reach into my inventory and pull out my pixel pass, pushing the corner of the thin card through the crack.
“Are you gonna let me log-in or what?”
Money talks. He finally presses the door release and I spring up the ramp, scanning my pass along the payment reader. I spin around to find an open seat, only to collide with the driver’s palm.
“Sorry, little miss! 32 Users. We’re at full capacity.”
“Then why’d you open the damn doors?”
“So I could tell you!” The driver turns his head and starts adjusting his rear-view monitor, pretending to ignore me.
“Well. I already scanned my pass. Let me ride or give me a refund.”
"I never told you to scan. Besides… Got no idea how the pay terminal works. I just drive.” His shabby uniform and hoarse voice says he’s just a simple user doing his job class, but his smiling grifter eyes tell me something else entirely. He slouches deeper into his seat and pulls a small Voldemelon plug-in from his inventory, huffing a aerosolized shot of the purple fluid. He’s just gonna camp like a bitch, and comfortably wait for me to finish playing my role in this scam, huh?
I grit my teeth and wrap my arm around the vertical safety pole, squeezing it tight against my ribs. I focus on his smug expression, letting it piss me off long enough for my Synth Suit to pick up on it. When the corners of his mouth uncontrollably curl into a self-satisfied grin, it pushes my softwear and I over the benchmark. Rippling cords of synthetic muscle explode out of my shoulder and slither down my bicep, almost doubling the size of my left arm. With my now-massive hand, I grip the pole and wrench it loose from the ceiling with ease, its cracked outer coating spewing chips of rust and lacquer into the driver’s lap.
“The pix.” I say, gesturing ominously with the pole. “Didn’t count on me being smart enough to jailbreak the suit, huh?” He doesn’t answer, but one of the cretinous riders in the back of the bus goes full volume, her thick tongue slapping against the wet space where her front teeth used to be. She screams:
“Shuth up and justht log off th’ Nu-Busth!”
The other users join in, shouting over each other in a chorus of phlegm and angry gibberish. Now I get it. All the driver has to do is refuse to move until I get off the bus, and the passengers will do his dirty work for him. I turn my head, inspecting the load of furious, low-res users. Now that I can see them clearly irl, I actually think they looked better from behind the melted windows. Wait, what the hell… One of them is bugged out and totally frozen, his head thrown over the back of the seat. He’s faded grey, clutching a dry, gaping wound in his chest. I tighten my grip on the crumpled pole and point it at the deleted user:
“Are you aware that you’re hauling a corpse, pal?” The driver squints into the passenger monitor screen, rubbing his chin. He quickly wipes the shock before it finishes loading on his stupid face, then blurts out:
“Ehhh… That uh, it’s not my problem. He was alive when he paid. Now, listen, girl… It’s real late. And as you can see, these fine users just wanna get home and sign off for the night. I’m doing my best here, but I can’t guarantee your safety if you keep this up. So, why don’t you do us all a favor and- -”
“Give me the refund and I’m gone.” I say coldly, cutting him off.
The driver sighs, then wags his fat finger at the large blue button on his dashboard console. I read the chunky block letters: COMMUNITY GUIDELINE ENFORCEMENT. He watches my eyes, waiting for the big reaction. I don’t give it to him. The words crawl out from the gravel in his throat:
“I swear to g0g I will press this button and sic the fuckin’ dogs on you.”
“Yeah? I bet no one even comes.”
“You wanna try it, girl?”
He lowers his finger closer to the button. Sneering, I back away, scrolling slowly down the short ramp. He was probably bluffing. I doubt he could afford the security subscription fee, but I don’t have the guts to find out. The Synth Suit lets out a defeated sigh as the thick strands of muscle unravel and shrivel up, returning my arm to its usual emaciated size. The pole falls out of my hand, denting the ramp floor with a heavy thud. The passengers cheer and spew insults as the driver slides his hand up the length of the long brake lever, pulling it towards his chest with a grunt. He grins again, nodding at the floor.
“Sure you don’t wanna take your new stripper pole with ya?”
I ignore him and push through the already closing doors, dropping back down into the access point. The engine roars online, sputtering and chugging, laughing at me. I kick the side of the giant Nu-Bus as it accelerates onto the hotlink, my heel leaving a deep gash in the oxidized metal crust. Coughing, I swipe the battery acid fumes hovering in the air and look up at the info screen:
Estimated time of arrival for the next Nu-Bus is… 15 to 650 minutes…
I exit the access point and plop down on the crowded linkway in frustration, balancing my forehead on my knees. This is what it’s come to… Fighting with degenerate bus drivers over a measly 50 pixels. I watch the thin streams of neon light thread through my Synth Suit, encircling my inner thighs and radiating outward in pulsing waves. The colors fuse and separate, forming animated abstract patterns, hinting at sexual interplay. I scream into the suit:
“Why the fuck do I want to go to an adult chat club at 3 in the morning??!”
A raspy voice calls out from behind, in an all-caps tone:
“Echo??” I stand up and turn around to see T-Kai, his bulky body propped up against the shuttered entrance to his chat bar. Normally, the gigantic animated gif above his head would read, ‘ZeD-XXX’ in laser green neon, but it’s already switched off for the night.
“What are you doing? How the hell are you still signed on??” He asks, genuinely bewildered.
“Hey, T…” I mutter as I drift over to him, dragging my heels and kicking at the pavement. The ornate green and yellow ANSI art tattoos, coupled with the collected sweat from 10 hours behind a bar counter, gives his muscular arms the appearance of wet pythons as he digs around in his inventory belt. He pulls out a hard cartridge of cigarettes, sliding one out.
“Good evening. Or morning…” I say to the dirty concrete under his boots.
“The fuck difference does it make, right?”
He flicks the fresh cigarette upwards towards the Sky Stream, gesturing for me to look up. I don’t fall for it. He smiles, and the wrinkles under his mirrored shade goggles spread across his cheeks in deep, dry ravines. He clicks his burner, lighting the cigarette, checking my status in disbelief. “All dressed up and ready to go at it again? You fucking dialpunks are all the same. Never know when to cancel… What happened to you earlier?” I answer:
“Nothing. Wait, what do you mean?”
“Before you got here, is what I mean.”
I think to myself, passively watching T-Kai’s smoking animation routine. I follow the glowing red ember between his tattooed fingers as it moves up to his lips, back down to the street; over and over. Then he leans back and blows like a dragon, spewing out a swirling, opaque cloud of white mist above his head. I let my mind wander inside it, and the pixelated memories of last night begin to load…
It was late, I was feeling sick, oversaturated with drinks. We log-out of some random adult chat, into the cool filtered air of the city. The anon girl balances herself atop the railing, kicking her legs up. I can see her face more clearly, she’s beautiful. Some trash users stop, try to get her profile. When she laughs, thin red lights drip along the ruched waves of her wet black, expensive Synth Suit. She slinks over to me and DM’s something into my ear. Her arm slides around my waist, her fingers climb the notches of my spine… A bottle of 99 proof Diazehol falls out of my hand. Crash. Her lips move from my ear to my mouth, down to my neck. Then? We started scrolling again, continuing the long destructive sequence of clubs and private chat rooms, finally ending here. Under the laser green ZeD-XXX gif…
The smoke rises higher above T-Kai’s yawning mouth, dissipating into the dark, taking my corrupted memories with it. Snapping out of my little trance, I respond to his question. “I went home, is all. Wasn’t feeling too well, I guess. Didn’t happen to leave a Solo Cycle in your lot, did I?”
“Nah… Way I remember it, you came scrolling up the linkway on foot. With some posh anon girl. Gorgeous. Looked true blue, but I never got her ID. Anyway, she was kinda like, keeping you from falling over. She mighta been a little laggy, but you… You were real fucked up, Echo. The worst. Your legs were glitching out and practically clipping through the floor.” A spurt of jagged white noise, a sound stuck somewhere between a cough and a laugh, rumbles out of his mouth. “Never seen you corrupted like that before. It was crazy…”
What’s crazy to me, is that I can feel embarrassment for events I can’t remember ever happening. Chewing the inside of my cheek, I try to sound cool and disinterested:
“Oh yeah? Can’t really ROM shit from last night.” My hand moves automatically from my waist to the bite mark on my neck, making sure my Synth Suit is fully covering it from his view.
“Not surprised, with the state you were in. You been huffing Memory Wipes or something?”
“No”, I declare emphatically. But who knows, maybe I was. I ask, “Who was the girl? The one I came in with…”
“You’re asking me? Like I said… Looked gRP, real high class. Here. She passed me an attachment, wanted me to give it to you when I saw you again.” He bites what’s left of the cigarette and digs around in his inventory, producing a small grey memory card. He lazily tosses it into my palm and continues:
“At some point you logged off without her, poof. She was clicking all around the lobby, searching for you, a little frantic. Became the center of attention quick, all the visitors started huddling around her, simping ugly. That kinda girl, in that kinda outfit… You know how it is. These slum rats don’t know how to behave around high level girls. So I stepped in, took her behind the counter and told her not to worry. Said you were a friend, a regular sign on, you’d be back. And, shit. Here you are.”
“People” I say.
“You called her a ‘high level user’. If she’s g00gol Republic, then she’s not a user like us. She’s People.”
He scratches the black and grey whiskers under his broad, angular chin. “Huh. I suppose that’s so…” Not even gonna bother asking him about my gun. He drops his stubbed cigarette onto the linkway and pushes himself away from the bar entrance, stretching his long, colorful arms. “Anyways. It’s way past my bed time, kid. You girls have fun, whatever game it is you’re playing…”
“Yeah, thanks. Good night, T.” I wait until he scrolls all the way inside the thick layer of fog and denizens at the corner before I insert the memory card into my Mapper. After a few seconds, a new destination marker pops up. Fuck, of course. Right next to the Private Partition escalators. The absolute last place I wanna go, especially when I’m looking like this. I think about escaping the whole situation, about tossing the memory card into a trash bin. But then my Synth Suit responds to the Mapper screen. Seemingly from excitement, it coils and constricts tighter, as if to pull me away from the Vesa Linkway. Toward the location of the girl. Maybe it remembers something about her that I don’t? Oh well. I guess the suit wins again. Same as before, I’m not gonna stand here and argue with softwear AI…