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Story by Lordess Foudre
Art by @Hitrisisters and Lordess Foudre
This episode is rated INTERNET-18 for harsh language and adult situations
Halo was right. I’m crashing. No stopping it now. I tug my deflated Synth Suit up over my ears and turn my face away from the chat club lights and crowds. What’s the point of having a private booth in public?
I open my eyes and I’m surrounded by users I don’t want to know, close my eyes and I’m right back with a user I want to forget. Enough of this replay and analysis. I need to sleep, to disappear for a while. To stop being me long enough to recover from myself. The cycle is exhausting. Starting to feel like a passive player in some ongoing, procedurally-generated hell. Constantly monitoring and narrating my life as it happens, then processing, editing it all down while I dream. Review then reset, but never rest. Ah, shit. Now I’m whining in my sleep about not being able to sleep. Such a fucking poet…
I’ve done this to myself. Drugs don’t erase bad memories, they just lower the brightness until you can’t see them so clearly anymore. But of course they’re still there, you can always feel them in the dark. All I’ve done is merge my pain with chemicals, and convert my memories into confusing nightmares. You’re gonna output the misery you input, Echo. You’ll never rest, as long as you keep running backwards at full speed. Chasing a version of life that’s no longer supported by reality.
Hey, not so fast. Might’ve taken me longer than I planned, but still… I made it back up here, didn’t I? Just like I said I would…
Sure. But you know it was just dumb luck. You randomly met the right contact, and she got you logged back into the high life. And only because you have something she wants. Chances are, you’re not actually the kind of user she’s browsing for. You’re not special. Only a matter of time before she figures that out, then it’s right back to the Public Access Zone for round 2. My stupidity is the only thing the moderators let me keep when they hard-booted my ass down to the slums. And here I am, about to put it to good use again. Exactly as before.
Cut the past, paste the future.
Update your old mistakes. Underestimate another mysterious, dangerous girl. Ignore the obvious warnings as they pop up all over the place. Swipe them away, pretend you’re above it all as you drown. Go head-to-head against the g00gol Republic again. Why not try a death match this time? Tell yourself you’re gonna win, because you’ve got more experience and a good grip on the controller; too dumb to notice it’s not even plugged in.
The collar of my Synth Suit expands, taking on the general shape of a neck pillow. I think it’s trying to comfort me. Or maybe it’s helping me brace for impact, before I think of a better way to beat myself up.
“Hey, thanks, girl…” I mumble out loud, reclining lower into the padded booth seat.
Wrapped in the sagging, flimsy material of my dying Synth Suit, I feel my hand move under the table; into my inventory. More torture? Shhh, keep going. Just say the softwear is making you do it… OK, sure. It’s the suit, i’s pulling my arm. It wants me to. My fingers cycle through the items until they find the thin photo hidden inside my Geo-City Registration. Then they pull it out. All on their own, of course…
I close my eyes and Katja is right there again. Over 2 years ago. Still waiting for me in the same place. That tiny, bright spot between dull reality and dark dreams. Just give up and jump. Dive into it. The past… It’s so much more vibrant in the Private Partition, isn’t it? It’s like chunks of your old life were saved up here, just waiting for you to come back and access them. Might as well open a special one. I quickly scroll through the important moments of my previous life, releasing my grip on consciousness as I fall down the list. Nearing the bottom, I find the one I want. A really good memory from before the crash, before I found out there was a wall at the end of the tunnel. Load it.
♫ ♪ Easy mode, turbo, cheat codes, slo-mo…
Your story is deep but your gameplay is so shallow
You still missed me even with your unlimited ammo…
The separate audio channels of the Hotlink chat club merge, congealing into a distorted sludge. EVE’s droning voice emerges from the mix. I pull her lyrics out of the sweaty air. Keep singing, EVE. You know how to make the pain hurt so much better…
♫ ♪ You were highly anticipated, now you’re a one star review
From the Alpha build, beta test, and the omega fail, too
But don’t give up, we’re all still waiting on you
Waiting for your promises to come true…
This game won’t end until you want it to
You can always reset or press continue
And replay your death instead of starting something new… ♪♫
My eyes open in my private suite at Mode Seven, our old hiding spot. Pitch black. Then a column of red light comes through the window and cleaves the room in two, revealing Katja right in the middle. She throws her head back, tilting the plug-in bottle straight up before tossing it off the bed. She leans down and crawls towards me, the sheets swaying and slithering around her knees like she’s charming snakes. Then she lunges, pinning me. Her lips open and the Voldemelon falls from her mouth in glowing purple droplets, landing on my tongue.
My fingers twirl and stab into the sheets, drawing abstract pictures in the soft folds as we kiss. She shifts my dress up and pushes my legs out of the way, pressing her weight down on me. We sink. She reaches around her back with one arm and pulls at my chest with the other. Her top falls, the warm fabric sticks to my naked thigh. I reach behind my neck to disconnect the clasp, but I hesitate. Behind Katja, I notice the vague shape of users moving wildly within the multicolored clouds of benzo smoke. On the Hotlink dance floor. Ah shit, I’m still halfway connected to consciousness, aren’t I…
Katja pries the halter strap out of my hand and rips it. Are we seriously gonna do this here, in the corner of this ridiculous chat club? This is some amateur shit. What if one of these janky users see us, what if they get free nudes?
“… And what if Halo comes back?”
“Who?” Katja asks as she pulls at the tight fabric, rolling it over my hips, then up under my breasts. Wait, no. That’s impossible. Halo didn’t know you back then, remember? Besides, you’re not at Hotlink anymore. And those aren’t dancing users, it’s just the lights in the window playing tricks. See? Katja tugs my dress right over my head and everything goes black. This is your old bedroom, just the two of you. Re:Mona, the other girls, Mode Seven internal security; none of them know about you and Katja yet. It’s OK.
I pull the sheet over my exposed body, asking, “This is the past, isn’t it?”
Katja covers my mouth. Her breath slides into my ear, pushing her words deeper into my head. Her numbing, chemical voice drips down into my throat, and I answer, with her words:
“Of course it is…”
She slides her frail arms under my back. I fold my legs around her waist. We push and pull into each other, trading places as we sync. The physical division, whatever distinguishes us from each other, disappears. I touch Katja and feel her response in my own body. The barrier between action and reaction blurs, distinct feelings melt into an overpowering, monolithic sensation. This singular force seems almost sentient as it escapes from within, swirling as it rises over the bed. It rains down onto our skin, passing back and forth between our lips, from our hands. Returning to its place deep inside me, before escaping again from inside her. Pleasure becomes a circular loop, an abstract line tethering us to one another; cycling through our merged bodies.
Eventually Kat disconnects, I don’t know, maybe she was overloaded by the endorphins. Or maybe she never liked sharing, never wanted to lose control. She forces herself up and reaches under the sheets, glowing purple track marks on her arms. Shaking like she’s firing a gun. Violent rhythm. The bright flashes, the shockwave. Recoil and shudder. Big bang. New universe. The sudden blast of sound knocks me back into chat club for a split-second. Don’t worry, it was just your inventory bag hitting the floor. Katja flings the blanket off of us, dropping her face hard onto my stomach. I feel her teeth against my skin as she speaks:
“Hey. Pay attention.”
“I was just fucking time traveling…”
“Shhhhh” Katja says, looking up at me with a proud smirk. She stretches out her arms and grips my neck, pulling me flatter onto the bed. I gasp in pain as her fingertips punch into the bite mark and - - Wait, no, that wasn’t there yet. Halo just did that to me last night or whenever it was… Kat lets go and slowly drags her body backwards over me, bowing her head. The jagged strands of her black hair wrap around my fingers. I hold on, then we go under. Deeper into the comfort of the chemicals, organic and synthetic. Below the the shared endorphins. Spiraling and tumbling as we drift lower, sinking to the bottom…
Hours later, I’m on my back, staring up at the familiar shapes in the pockmarked ceiling. Lucidity is creeping into my mind. The opacity of my old bedroom fluctuates as I breathe in and out, revealing quick glimpses of the chat club beneath the dream layer. It’s taking all of my strength just to hold this scene together now. Damn. I rub my eyes, starting to feel as exhausted here as I am in reality. Katja is hanging over the opposite side of the mattress, her hips bouncing in the air. She’s feeling around for the discarded plug-in on the floor. I can hear glasses clinking, distant chatter and music coming from under the bed. Finally she sits up again, chugging what’s left of the incandescent violet liquid. She sucks on the bottle and coughs like she’s dying, then grins at me with facetious embarrassment. We laugh at our bad habits. They were still funny back then.
This is how I want to remember Katja, I like to pretend this is how it always was between us. I feel like I could stare at her forever, but the longer I watch, the more transparent she becomes. Like she’s a video file being projected out of my brain. Far in the background, Halo moves through a crowd near the bar. Katja looks around the room, confused. She asks, “What’s wrong? What are you looking at?” Sounds sad. It’s like she knows I’m turning her back into a memory. Pouting, Kat crawls clumsily over the bed, a wounded animal. She holds herself up over me, blocking everything else out. I try to cradle her, to pull her close, but my arms phase right through her body. I feel my hands gripping my own shoulders. Rubbery material… The damn Synth Suit. Katja reels back in confusion when she sees it.
As what’s left of this beautiful scene flickers and burns out, I’m able to see how filthy the screen is. All the stains and scratches, the patched holes. And the vast emptiness behind the thin, flimsy veneer. I still try to hold it together, I don’t want it to end like this. It takes all of my concentration, but eventually Katja spasms and reappears in front of me. She turns away like I’m not even here, facing the black space at the end of the bed. I say her name, ask if she’s OK, but she won’t respond to me anymore. The silence starts to terrify me. I feel something ugly bleeding into my memory from the margins. I think it’s been here the whole time, waiting to make itself known. Too late to stop it now.
A hulking body rises up from the shadows and materializes on the far edge of the bed, hunched over like a demon. The red light shoots through the window again, scanning the room. Feels more like a warning this time. It scrolls over the dark mass, illuminating its grotesque, swollen form. It’s Gobo… I can practically see my reflection in his greasy skin. He glares at us with those bulging, wide-set eyes. A thick tongue unfolds and falls over his lips as he speaks in some unknown language. Katja lights up, responding energetically to the bastard. I can’t understand what they’re saying to each other. Then Gobo unlatches his belt. A platinum-tier Pixel Pass drops onto the floor. Katja exhales, biting her lip, shivering in anticipation. Do they even know I’m here? I’m going to be sick.
“Echo”, Katja murmurs, sliding away from me, towards the end of the bed. She lets out a painfully fake giggle when Gobo snatches her. He’s twice as big as I remember him. I tell him to stop. They both laugh at me. She kisses his hand as he covers her mouth. He smiles. Gums growing over his tiny teeth like pink mold. “Echo, Echo…” Katja repeats through his pudgy fingers. Playful at first, then pleading. She waves for me to come closer and join them. “Echo!”
Echo, echo, echo… I’m what keeps hanging around long after the crash and burn, after the horrible moment was supposed to be over. How many nights have I been here before? How many times have I killed these horrible memories, and how many times have they returned to kill me? I’m a bad copy of a bad ending, becoming uglier as it repeats, as it bounces further and further away from where the fantasy died. And make no mistake. This fantasy is dead. Katja swivels around onto Gobo’s lap, his expensive pants stretch to the breaking point as he opens his legs to hold her up. I want to run, to remove myself from this nightmare, but it’s impossible. I’m completely paralyzed.
“Echo” Katja says again, this time with malice, taunting me. She moans my name as Gobo kisses her. His slobber cascades over his chins onto her neck. I can’t take it. They’re watching me with sadistic pleasure, intoxicated by my confusion and fear. He spews saliva over her hand, then takes her whole arm into his mouth; swallowing her up to the shoulder. Kat’s eyes roll back in ecstasy. His jaw unhinges, mouth envelops her entire laughing head. Choking, Gobo speaks with her voice in his throat. “Echo… Come here…” The red light sprays over them, oversaturating the whole room, completely blinding me. It’s a mercy I’m willing to receive at this point.
I clip through the boundaries of the dream, but don’t quite make it all the way back to consciousness. Caught in liminal space, I look up through the ceiling and see myself asleep in the private booth; face pressed into the table. I feel disassociated, the Echo up there feels like an imposter to me. I watch the bottom of Halo’s sharp-heeled boots making ripples overhead as she strides across the Hotlink dance floor. A few premium users follow, still desperate for attention I guess. But they give up as she approaches our seat, stimulants in hand. She rolls her eyes at my unconscious body, then plants the bottles hard. Clack! I feel the rough vibration bounce through my skull.
Halo nudges the other Echo in the private booth, but I feel her hands on my shoulders down here. She whispers. Cool breeze through my wet bangs. She bows her head, eyes tracking from my sleeping body, to the translucent table… then straight through the floor. She’s looking right at me, isn’t she? Somehow she can see me in liminal space. How? Halo kneels and digs into the shadows under the table. Crooked, burning lines spread across my ceiling. A small hand pierces through the cracks, bathed in beams of red light. Just like the ones coming through my bedroom window earlier, in the dream… Could she have been watching me this whole time? No, that’s not possible… None of this is…
“We’re not finished yet, Echo…”
The space above my head wobbles, swirls, and crashes. I can see Halo’s face clearly now, in the center of the fractal whirlpool, as everything around her falls apart. She pushes her arm all the way through. Eyes like searchlights. She opens her hand. Stab of red light in the center of my empty palm as I reach up. She takes my wrist, I hold on. I can feel the subconscious awareness being uninstalled on my way back up to the club. The fantasy, the trauma. The dream and the nightmare. Their revelations and almost-learned lessons. They all retreat to become the hidden processes running in the background of my mind. The malicious cycle remains unbroken.
Better luck next time…