Story and UI Art/Animation by Lordess Foudre - Character Art by @Hitrisisters
This episode is rated INTERNET-18 for harsh language and adult situations


I hear the emotion engines inside our softwear suits hiss and moan favorably in reaction to our mutual preferences; to each other’s touch. She whispers:

“Want to reload our progress from last night?”

She slides her lips up to my ear and bites softly, taking me with her as shifts up onto the seat of the Solo Cycle. She clenches my lower back while we kiss, using handfuls of the rubbery Synth Suit fabric to push me closer between her legs. Then my endorphins answer her question:

“Yeah, I do. Tell me… How far did we get?”

“Hmmm, let’s see….” Halo releases her grip and reaches down, pressing her fingertips hard into my inner thigh. She pauses when I wince, refusing to continue until I look at her. Until I see the way she’s looking at me. So I take a deep breath, and open my eyes to meet her surprisingly vulnerable gaze.

“… I think we got as far as…”

She starts moving her fingers unbearably slow, methodically climbing the pulsing beams of light streaming up the thigh of my Synth Suit. My stomach muscles tighten in anticipation, she’s so fucking close. Sensing the tension, taking control of it, she pauses again. Her eyes scroll back and forth between her hand and my lips, baiting me to ask for it. I bite my lip to stop myself before I make a sound, but that tells her everything she needs to know, anyway. She smiles and softens her grip, tracing a small swirl into my softwear, drawing concentric rings of animated light. Then she points, whispering:

“… Right Here.

A small section of my Synth Suit instantly separates below my waist, like it’s opening for her. What the hell? She playfully flicks my twisted underwear string, not really trying for anything but I grab her wrist anyway. Her stifled, sharp laugh cuts through the dark alley, ricocheting off the walls. In disbelief, I hunch and pull my softwear over my restricted area, feeling ridiculous for almost giving out free nudes to a Social Influencer. I glance back to the entrance of the alley, half-expecting a crowd of her viewers to be there. In a soothing, but slightly pompous tone, she says:

“Don’t worry, it’s just you and I.”

As my suit fuses itself back together, she extends her legs and locks them gently around my waist, resting her head on my chest. But before she can cross her ankles, I push her knees open and backspace a few steps, hoping to regain some kind of control over the situation. Or over myself. She doesn’t try to follow, she just leans back and watches me; breathing hard.

“I had a feeling you’d be worth waiting around for.”

Might as well phish for more info. “Why? Do I still owe you some ad revenue or something? A premium subscription fee?”

She folds her arms and laughs again, her eyes moving like cursors over the earnest expression on my face. “I can’t tell if you’re serious.”

“Me either” I say.

“Echo. Do you really think I would stay signed-on in Geo-City One all night, just to collect a tip from you?”

A quiet “No, not really” emerges from the blank spots in my memory and tumbles awkwardly out of my mouth. I gesture at her expensive Promo Suit. “But you are a jump-cutter, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, and?” She looks at me with puzzled amusement, genuinely awaiting my response.

“Social Influencers only visit Geo-City One to work. That’s why you’re here, right?”

Halo lets out a defeated sigh, smoothing out the fabric creased around her hunched waist. Either we’ve already had this conversation, or she thinks I should simply know better.

“What?” I ask, frustrated more with myself than with her.

She pulls a small flask from her inventory and spins the cap. “Nothing. You were just a lot more playful last night.” I bet I was. “Less truculent, too.” Pressing the nozzle against her curled lips, she speaks into it before taking a sip. “Well, until you randomly cut our connection without so much as a word…”

“Sorry about that.” I reply. I do actually feel bad about leaving her at T-Kai’s, but maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe this is all part of the grift. It’s impossible to tell what’s authentic with Social Influencers, especially when they’re from the g00gol Republic.

“I can’t believe you signed off. Right when our session was getting good.” she says, sloshing the small container.

“Maybe too good” I reply. “Your high level chems… Got me a little oversaturated.”

“Mhmm. But sobriety doesn’t suit you so well, either.” She tosses me the flask and I drink, savoring the now-familiar taste of her high level plug-in. She seems pleased, carefully studying my reaction. Then she asks:

“Still… I hope our connection last night wasn’t purely chemical? Artificially chemical, I mean.”

“No…” I say, wiping my mouth. “It wasn’t.”

I was fucked up last night, certainly. But not enough for a total character reset. I take another sip and look at her features burning beneath the huge glitching gif above our heads. The red light seems to drip down and merge with the targeted advertisements flowing along the ruched waves of her Promo Suit, bathing her body in liquid fire. She shifts her posture, watching me as I watch her, without the slightest hint of the insecurity I’m feeling. No… The attraction I felt for her last night is probably exactly what I’m feeling right now. And I don’t know if it’s natural, or pure, but it’s definitely not the product of some hallucinatory chem-fueled sex episode, either. I continue:

“I tried to find you. It’s why I came here.”

“Me too. What took you so long?”

“Told you, I was oversaturated. Respawned back in my room but my memories were glitchy, half-merged with a dream. I got out of there before I passed out again, didn’t want you to get Rule 24’d. I caught up with T-Kai eventually… He’s the bartender you met when I - -”

“Dumped me in his dive and disappeared?” She says with a sly smile, tongue clenched between her teeth.

“Yeah… Anyway, he helped me to defrag. And gave me your memory card. Do you want it back?”

“Keep it.” She says, pointing at the drink in my hand. “In case you get lost again.”

I close one eye and stare into the nozzle of the flask, into the pool of milky, iridescent liquid. A smooth euphoria is rolling on, and I decide to just accept the little white neurochemical lie. I’m happy to be feeling calm, at ease. In control again. Halo straddles the seat and bends down, reaching inside the bike to retrieve her inventory. Her long limbs mix with the glistening chrome Solo Cycle as she digs inside it, making her look like some bizarre physical extension of the machine. I nod, admiring it. “That’s a really rare bike. Is it yours?”

“This?” Halo separates her thighs and looks between them, glaring at the Solo Cycle like it suddenly materialized beneath her. She swivels around and drops her bag onto the street. “No, it’s a just rental I found up top. But hey, listen.” She grows serious, holding out her hand; gesturing for me to take it. I take a drink instead, pretending not to notice the request. The small distance between us is doing wonders for my confidence, not to mention my self control. She drops her arms and rests her elbows on her knees, narrowing her eyes. “I’m sorry I let you get so corrupted last night. It really wasn’t on purpose. I suppose… You’re not yet accustomed to the potency of the real thing.”

“I’m fine now.” I reply, tossing the flask. She swipes it out of the air, pulling it to her lips with a single flick of the wrist. Eyebrow raised, she points at my feet.

“Oh. You might want to fix your, uh…”

I look down and see the Synth Suit charging cable dangling between my legs, coiled up on the street. I quickly snatch it off of the ground, accidentally unplugging it from the back of my suit. She doesn’t even pretend to look away as I struggle to insert the prongs into my tailbone, her muffled laugh echoing inside the rapidly emptying flask. I give up and just tie the janked-up cord around my thigh again. Keeping my eyes off of hers, desperate to shift the focus away from my pathetic softwear, I ask:

“Alright. So what are we supposed to be doing?”

She smirks at me, her mouth like a curved blade. “Wow, you really can’t remember anything, huh?”

“I remember you. Plans, not so much. Care to sharpen them for me?

“We didn’t get to finish our date. We were supposed to go to, what was it called? Kitan Club, right?” She leans back and tilts the flask up, her long legs swaying in the empty space between us; openly amused with herself. “Still think you can handle it?”

Not a chance. Couldn’t handle the extreme difficulty of that brutal sex-freak scene right now, if ever. But I play it cool. “Pass me that drink again and we’ll see…”

“Nuh-uh”, she says, wiping her hands on the seat before screwing the cap back on. “I need you to be at least half sober. There’s still some important business we need to discuss, since we didn’t get that far last night. A premium offer, of sorts.”

“Like what? An invite to become a Social Influencer? Sure. We could partner up. Jump around the M-Tel Roselight District, do paid pop up ads for bogus STD Antivirus patches. Maybe scam a few pixels out of some desperate, infected phreakers.

“Now you’re being playful again. I like it.”

“You know, you’re lucky I was dumb enough to scroll into this deathtrap. I almost didn’t even see it. Listen, Halo… If you have serious business to discuss with me, you could’ve picked a less sinister meetup location.”

“Really?” She asks, glancing around the decrepit alley with an inquisitive expression. “But I wanted you to see my favorite spot in Geo-City One.” The simple, childlike way she says it, I think I might actually believe her. Before I can reply, a long shadow stretches over the alley from far behind me, blanketing Halo in darkness. Looking over my shoulder, I see two lumbering gRP Community Guideline Enforcers marching towards us in clunky lockstep rhythm, their verified badges glowing like the cold blue eyes of some predator beast in the night. Oh, fuck this…

“Don’t worry. They’re my followers” she says with casual annoyance as they post up near us. The neon gif on the burned wall behind Halo sparks and spits embers, highlighting the sharp angles of their bright blue polygonal hardwear. They’re silently checking my status, awaiting a command from their master. Trying to ignore the massive auto-ban rifles strapped across their chests, I turn my gaze back to Halo. She scoffs:

“Should’ve never given them mod privileges, I swear to g0g.”

“I agree. So can we please just hurry up and finish this? I’m tired and I don’t like being surrounded by a gang of g00gol Republic assholes. No offense.”

“I’d rather not discuss the details here” she replies through a clenched jaw, rolling her eyes at the Guideline Enforcers.

“Then where? Fucking Kitan Club?” I ask, exhausted.

“That’d be hilarious, but no. It’s too late for that kind of site now.” She covers her mouth with her forearm, stifling a yawn. “I guess we should probably just get out of here and get on with the business.”

“What business?” The Guideline Enforcers lean in, excited by the possibility of possibly obtaining some restricted gossip.

“I told you, not here” she replies, shooting an evil glance at her followers as she hops off the bike. “Let’s upscale to the Private Partition first. How about ‘The Hotlink’?”

Ah, Hotlink. Exclusive adult chat club. Where spoiled premium users go to play dress-up in designer slum attire, rent a few sexy Dedicated Servers and role-play as hardcore Public Access dialpunks for a few hours. All from the safety of the Private Partition, of course. Used to go there with low key clients and drunkenly LARP from time to time, embarrassing as it is to admit. Now that I know what it’s really like to live down here in the slums, the idea of glamorizing it makes me sick. Though, I’m sure Halo has no idea. Being from the gRP, she wouldn’t know that Hotlink is just a glitzy emulation of a really bad scene. This scene.

“Echo? Is something wrong?”

“Nothing. Hotlink is fine.” I say, muting the mental replay of my shameful previous lifestyle. “But listen… I’m uh, not exactly welcome in the Private Partition anymore. Know what I mean?”

“I know”. Did I say something about it last night, or does she have access to my dox? Probably both. “I told you before, Echo. I’m with the g00gol Republic. True blue. We know whatever we want, and go wherever we want. And wherever I go, you can follow.”

My anxiety snarls and tries to take hold, but is quickly drowned beneath the flood of soothing chemicals coursing through my system. This is starting to go exactly the way I’d hoped and it’s making me very nervous. If you’re the kind of sucker who believes a high level anon is going to treat you special and give you everything you want, you deserve what you get. Halo unequips the flask and holds out her hand, again gesturing for me to take it.

“Listen. You can help me, and I can help you, Echo. And I know you won’t believe it just yet, but I’ll say it anyway. You can trust me.”

There are no saviors in this world. No one is going to show up and undo all the mistakes you’ve made, and magically restore you to some previous, better version of yourself. The user you could have been, the user you once were, before all the self-inflicted damage and downgrades. I tried to do that for someone once, I thought I could be a hero. The Public Access Zone has since cured me of those delusions. I don’t know if Halo can help me, and I’m damn sure I can’t help her. But who knows… Maybe there’s a chance I can help myself. Question is, can I work with her long enough to do it before I get fucked over worse than before?

Halo gives up and just snatches my palm. “C’mon. You can make up your mind after you hear my proposal.” Before I can pull my arm back, the glove of my Synth Suit syncs with hers, fusing ours hands together as she drags me out of the alley.

I could dig my heels into the pavement to stop her, and stop myself, but I don’t. So here we go, I guess. I’ve spent hundreds of sleepless nights imagining hundreds of different ways I could get jacked back into to the Upper Levels, but this was never one of them. At least Hotlink is pretty close to the elevator platforms. Should be a quick escape if things get bad and I end up having to force quit my way out. Halo suddenly stops in front of the Authentication Checkpoint, spinning around to catch me before I trip into her. She moves the tangled strands of hair out of my eyes and gently slides her thumbs across the oily Diazehol residue on my lips. My mouth opens, but I manage to turn away, auto-correcting myself before I lose control and kiss her again. Oh the things I’d let her do, if she were anyone else… Unfazed, she wraps her arms around my shoulders and scrolls backwards onto the escalator, taking me with her.

I grip the guardrails and stare at the rapidly shrinking slums below, easing into the once-familiar ride up to the Private Partition Elevator Platform. Halo is focused on me, watching the stream of raw emotions I’m not even trying to mask. As we near the end, she squeezes me tight and DM’s into my ear:

“Been waiting a long time to take you to the next level, Echo…”