Candido, reloaded [part 1]
Updated: Oct 1, 2022
The fool sets things in motion. Fear not failure, since motion is far better than stagnation.
As Nick climaxed inside the Jaybot’s warm, rubbery mouth, he felt the usual mix of release and sadness washing over every fiber of his body. Maybe an early onset of post-coital melancholy, maybe something else. He slid his already softer dick out. The Jay licked its lips and smiled.
“Thank you,” it said.
What a stupid thing to say after a blowjob. Nick couldn’t remember if he had programmed that kind of behavior or if it was a factory default. Regardless, in that moment it felt a tad out of touch. Then again, it’s a sexbot, he slouched on the synthskin couch. Anything would be creepy.
Was it really, thought? Nick had spent three months of salary on the bot, and it wasn’t even the latest model. A hefty sum for a sex toy that could do some chores on the side. His colleagues would have ridiculed him, but he suspected some of them spent as much in visits to the Entertainment Zone. Even the most tame of the red-tier tours could bring you to a score of real people who would do pretty much anything for some credits.
Nick sighed. Before the Jay could ask if he needed something else, he sent it away with a gesture. Ever true to its artificial obedience, it rose and walked back to its charging dock in the bedroom. Alone again (or rather, still) Nick let his body sink deeper, naked skin adhering to the couch.
The sun was shining through the twin SeVa skyscrapers. A slice of sunlight caressed his body, warmth coming in waves. As the feeling of guilt evaporated from his soul, Nick was finally free to doze off. His PerTer flashed and chirped with the sound of an incoming message, but he was already sinking deep into a dreamless sleep.
He woke up a couple of hours later, when the sun was bleeding out on the horizon after having been stabbed repeatedly by the city’s skyline. His body was cooling off. Goosebumps popped up on the upper side of his arms, while his back and the couch’s synthskin had been glued together by sweat. Shouldn’t take naps. His apartment was silent, far enough from the streets to be safe from the never-ending cacophony of life. It was also well insulated; too well, in fact. It felt like a boat adrift in the middle of nothingness.
He saw the PerTer flash on the table and panicked from a moment. But it wasn’t a call from his workplace, Gods willing, Bennet’s Consulting could survive without him for a night. No, it was a message.
- We should meet. I need to talk to you.
The PerTer was unable to show the sender. It was supposedly impossible to enter the Personal Terminal Communication Network without a verified account, and yet. Neon City had its way of coupling each law to an appropriate way to evade it. To each software its own backdoor, to each rule the way around it if you had credits and connections.
Nick stared for a while to grayed out picture of the unset profile, on a side of the screen next to the message, feeling a shiver that did not have anything to do with the room’s temperature and his cooling body. He knew how the world spun and that anonymizing services existed. But there was no foreseeable reason why someone would want to use one to contact him, a lone, middle-aged middle manager.
It’s a scam. He hovered the finger on the conversation, ready to delete it, when another message popped up.
- Arthur’s Soybeans Tutelage program. We watched the Girl under the Last Willow together. Remember the flowers?
His finger froze mid-air, his brain brought back to many years before, something not quite forgotten. For obvious reasons, he didn’t like to talk about being a AS Tutelage ‘s student, but that was information you could find up with ease with a quick web search. The HR at Bennet’s knew, of course, and there probably was a convenient data trail to follow. The rest was… a little more personal.
Nick tried to remember, shifting his memories like sand between opened fingers. No, he didn’t tell anyone about the flowers. What had happened had been a dear secret, shared only with the other person involved. Ceyla.
- Is that you? he typed, and then quickly deleted. Maybe she had sold the information to someone else, just to get to him… a middle-aged middle manager. That didn’t hold water.
- I’m not sure you are that person. I don’t know this account.
The other end answered immediately.
- Constitution Park’s cafe. Tomorrow in your off-hours.
He knew the place – a fancy, open air bar with white iron tables and baroque chairs in the park, which itself was in a quite rich neighborhood. At seven PM, it was bound to be full of potential witnesses – office workers going in and out of their shifts. Not a good place for a mugging, he thought. But he didn’t answer. Answering the message could mean complicity if someone ever scanned his PerTer. Besides, he had to think.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
The new day hadn’t brought new messages, just renewed obligations. Nick, dressed up in his polymer-silk two-piece suit, had joined the morning stream of office workers to his office. Bennet’s Consulting rented a space on Axioms’ Tower, floors 230 and 231, just in the shadow of SeVa skyscraper A. An attempt had been made to soften the office hard functionalism with light brown, pseudo wood furniture.
“Tomorrow is Employee’s well-being day”, stated a partially torn poster in the open office area. A woman smiled at him, all glossy white teeth and cheekbones so high you could grate an apple on them. She was giving her thumbs up to the viewer with all the confidence a digitally generated image could muster. Under her, in a smaller font: “A happier person is a better worker”.
Happy or not he had to go through the day, which included several meetings he couldn’t give a crap about, but as a manager his presence was always required, like the occasional, perfunctory kindnesses in broken marriages. A dull job to be sure, but at least he was no factory worker. One could learn to live with the boredom. Except Nick’s gaze was constantly drawn to the PerTer, and his hands would shake at each of the device’s beeps. The anonymous account who claimed to be Ceyla didn’t send any more messages, but Nick’s mind kept going back, ensnared by a past so distant that it felt like as nebulous as daydreaming.
The Girl under the Last Willow was an auteur movie, filmed by one of those stuck-in-the-past directors who refused holographic, multisensorial and 3D experiences like a super-virulent STD. It had been born into obscurity and it was going to be remembered just by a small niche of movie enthusiasts and know-it-all college students. Nick had seen it more than twelve years before, while still studying for his bachelor under the sponsorship of Arthur’s Soybeans. The plot followed a high school dropout recently moved in NC and trying to make it on her own, eventually having to work as a day-dancer. She eventually got involved in a protest against the planned destruction of an old willow tree on a junction in Saltskin Hill. At the end of the movie, both the tree and the girl vanished, as if they had never been there.
To be sure, few things sounded as pretentious as claiming that a willow tree ever was in NC in the first place, let alone complaining for its uprooting. And yet he held that arsty movie close to his heart. The point had been the experience. He and Ceyla watched it together while testing out the IY – back then just a prototype under the improbable name of Interpersonal Synchronizer. After the movie they had made love for the first time. He remembered rolling on the bed, exhausted, while pollen and petals floated around them, carried from some fancy roof garden to their room by unseen air currents.
Why did we fall out of touch? Probably it had been one of those fade-out situations. He started to work, while Ceyla didn’t. Enough to bring their closeness to an end, or at least he supposed so. The twelve hours shifts of a new arrival eager to prove himself had eaten away much of the memories from that time.
When it was finally time to get out, he walked like someone high on speedcoke. Constitution Park was in walking range. It opened between the bellies of company-owned towers and bloated buildings, appearing as a patch of land where the asphalt had forgotten to take hold. Sad cypress trees, along the perimeter, tried to compete with the skyscrapers in height, never mind how hopeless the task was. As soon as Nick stepped on the park’s white gravel pathway, Neon City’s weather turned into a sudden rain. Either the meteorological service had messed up or the sky was showing its discontent.
He ran towards the cafe, water slapping his shoulders in waves. A young couple with fluorescent hair and an old man in a factory jumpsuit were fleeing from the outside tables as well, to take cover in the small shop. When he crossed the door, Nick’s hair was drenched. Big water droplets attempted to pass through his jacket’s polymer-silk and fell on the floor, defeated.
The inside had the warm rich smell of a place that probably sold real caffeine alongside cheaper surrogates. Nick sat at an empty table near the window, where he could watch the park at a comfortable distance from the giggling couple. The old man lingered at the entrance, trying to squeeze off the water from his jumpsuit, his face reminiscent of those dogs so used to beatings that they no longer flinch.
Nick ordered a double coffee from his PerTer, paying in creds from his company-issued account. The waiter drone served him immediately a hot paper cup covered in advertisement and pro-army mottos. The downpour was turning into a storm, drops hitting the ground with so much force that they sent the stones from the gravel path jumping. Looking outside filled him with a sense of misplacement. He could not even imagine Ceyla running towards the cafe or trying to take cover under a thin plastic umbrella.
I shouldn’t be here. Truth was he could barely remember her face, much less the shape of her body. She was shrouded in a fog that would, occasionally, part to reveal disconnected details. A bright wrist bracelet. A crane tattoo he couldn’t really place.
A faint scent of flowers, mixed with the dampness of rainwater, rose to his nostrils alongside the steam from his coffee cup. Before he could place it someone grabbed a stool near his and dragged it on the floor.
“Gods, when it rains it fucking pours,” said a feminine voice.
Go to part 2: x
Candido, Reloaded is one of the short stories on my forthcoming project - a cyberpunk-weird collection set in Neon City, where you are equally liable to be screwed over by greedy megacorps and complacent eldritch Gods alike.