Candido, reloaded [part 2]
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Nick turned around slower than he would have liked. The woman was hunching over a copy of the menu, twisting the plastic between index and thumb. He didn’t see her coming in. Maybe there was another entrance on the back. “Everything is so expensive up here.”
He clasped the coffee mug tighter. The stranger had dark-hued hair, kept short in a military cut, exception made for a long strand over her right temple and a single, bright green lock. Two symmetrical patches of discolored white on her cheekbones marked her otherwise olive skin. She used to call them wings. Nick remembered in a flash and caught himself smiling. The patches on her cheeks had grown slightly larger, but they did match.
“Well, this was your place of choice,” he replied. What else had he forgotten completely? “I’ll pick up the tab anyway.”
“Lucky me.” More and more details came to his mind now; the tone of her voice, the way she used to twitch her eyebrows up at the earliest sign of skepticism, last and not least the sound of her laugh. The memories were bittersweet, to be sure. “It’s been a while, Nicky.”
He scoffed at the pseudonym. “Here’s something I didn’t miss.”
Ceyla smiled, but it didn’t reach her almond eyes. “Did you miss me at all?”
Nick took a long sip just to hide his mouth. “Kind of a loaded question.”
“You can give me a loaded answer.”
“Fine.” He sighed. “I missed how close we used to be at the Tutelage. I can’t help but think that things used to be easier. It’s the nostalgia effect, of course.”
There was more to that, of course. Nick had traded everything for a predictable life, and all considered, he had it better than most people. He lived in the comforting, dull boredom of never changing days.
“We were younger.” Ceyla conceded. “choke-full of dreams. But you seem to have adjusted well.”
“Adjusted to what?”
She turned her gaze back to the menu. “I’ll take a macha tea. With biscuits.”
“You don’t have your own terminal?”
She just shrugged. He proceeded to order for her from his PerTer, his brows furrowing.
“I remember when they had human waiters. You could just ask what you wanted.”
“It’s faster this way.”
And to be sure, the server drone was back just a couple minutes of silence later, whirring, a plastic tray in its metal arms. Ceyla picked up her food and traced a sleek finger around the teacup. “Did you tip that?”
“What do you mean?”
“The tip.” She grabbed the PerTer before he could even react. Her fingers tip-tapped on the screen, reaching the last transaction made. “See? They kept the old tipping system, even if the waiter is no longer a human. Twenty percent standard rate… as if the drone had fucking bills to pay.”
“You’re right.” Somehow, he had never noticed that. A lot of restaurants, especially in the high-end neighborhoods, were switching to robotic waiters, and who knew how many applied the same policies. It didn’t make sense, but it sounded such a small battle that it wasn’t considering keeping in mind. Bennet’s Consulting gave him discounts on most things he bought through the company’s account anyway. Nick carefully took the device back and secured it in a pocket.
“Is that what you wanted to talk about? The tipping system?”
“Well, no.” She snapped a butter biscuit in two. “I have a problem and I figured you could help. Not so sure anymore.”
It’s going to be about creds. Ceyla looked clean but her secondhand clothes told another tale. She was wearing a transparent, well-worn rain jacket and a faded neon-pink t-shirt underneath, which looked both too thin. Her jeans had holes that had little to do with fashion choices and were kept up by a belt that wasn’t made of liveleather, and even less so real leather, so it had to be plastic. The ensemble made her look like some rave party girl grown up too quickly and too soon without a chance to change wardrobe.
It wasn’t just a matter of appearances. There was an edge in the way she moved, something that you develop by looking over your shoulder a lot. Something you need to learn after you get mugged the second time while buying precooked food at the 24/7 store.
“Well, I’m here now. You might as well spill the beans.” He looked around. The couple of girls were chatting and laughing and doing their best to be a postcard representation of being in love; they for sure weren’t listening on the conversation. The old man was drinking near the bar, probably too far to hear. “And you have some explaining to do.”
“You don’t have a PerTer, and yet you used an anonymous account.”
“Is that enough to ruffle your feathers?” She brought the biscuit to her lips, almost absentmindedly. “PerTers are not meant to be owned, they are meant to own you.”
Nick chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Still deep into left-wing rhetoric, I see.”
“Doesn’t make it less true.” She sipped from her tea, her almond eyes staring at him above the mug’s border. “Besides, I have… security concerns, like most other gals.”
At that point, even someone as green as Nick could pick up the small usage of street slang terms in Ceyla’s speech patterns. If his figurative feathers weren’t ruffled before, they were going to be. He could consider lending her some creds, but he couldn’t get his life in jeopardy. He stood up.
“It’s been a pleasure catching up, but I need to get back home now.” The downpour was still raging outside, but he could face some water.
“You need to?” Her left eyebrow twitched.
He made for the exit. Her expression changed in a split second, going from sarcastic to supplicant. She reached to put a hand on his forearm, squeezing through the suit. “I’m sorry. Please, stay… just a little while.”
The noise of chairs being dragged had caught the other customers’ attention.
“I’m sorry if I acted like a bitch. It’s not easy to see you there and remember how things used to be.” The other customers were watching at them. Even the couple had ceased their annoying tweeting to stare at what hopefully looked like low-quality drama. “I… I have a problem only you can help with.”
Nick sat back down.The rain outside paused suddenly, as if the sky was holding its breath.
"Are you still on IY?"
No, he thought. My most relevant source of connection is a sexbot closed in my bedroom that thanks me when I come inside. Nick emptied his cup and felt the sting of a burning coffee filter overstaying its welcome on the back of his mouth. Ceyla had been his first and last in that regard. As they stopped seeing each other, he had started losing interest in the Interpersonal Synchronizer, despite being bombarded almost daily with newsletters and advertisement about the new, improved version. IY, I-You, makes one out of two; the ad's jingle was carved into his memory. It used to be everywhere. Lately the public's eye attention had shifted to something else, but no doubt it was still a very profitable product.
"No. I really didn't try it with anyone else after you, if you can believe that."
Ceyla's eyes evaded his for a moment, turning down as to check the vitiligo marks on her cheeks. She cleaned off some breadcrumbs from her lips. "I... can."
Being plugged in to the IY system was a little like sex – a lot, actually. The device blurred the borders between two individuals by letting them feel the sum of their experiences. It had been born as project to foster empathy and rehabilitation in the treatment of patients affected by cyber-psychosis, but it had soon branched into a more… commercial use.
"What about it?"
Ceyla reached beneath her neon-pink t-shirt and pulled up a little black bag, held around her neck by a thin safety chain. She opened it and placed the contents on the table, next to the half-eaten biscuits.
“Look.” She moved her hand away, revealing two little half-circles, one glossy white, the other bright orange and scratched on a side. Nick recognized them as IY plugs. If the color was of any indication, they belonged to different sets.
“These don’t match.” Plugs, much like headphones, had to go in couple.
“They don’t need to.” He tried to get her meaning, but her gaze offered no hints. “What if I told you that we found a way to connect multiple IY together?”
Who’s we? He shoved that question in the back of his mind for a bit. “I would say you didn’t know better.”
Ceyla grabbed the orange one and pressed it against the back of her neck. The device stuck. She placed both hands on the table, and soon enough, a shiver shook her body. It was subtle, yet strong enough to evoke the idea of a sudden current electrocuting her head to toes. When she spoke, her tone was deeper, almost down a full octave.
“Try it yourself.”
Nick stared at the white plug, unsure of where it had been before. “I don’t know who is at the other half.”
“I told you there is no other half.” Ceyla sighed. “You can put it on for a second. You’ll feel… my hands around the warm mug. If something is the matter, you can yank it out.”
“What is this about?” He tried to picture all the ways things could go wrong. In theory, the IY acted like a neural overlay, sending additional input up the spinal cord by inducting small amounts of bioelectricity. The current was too low to do any damage.
“Just trust me.”
She was almost pleading. Nick sighed, almost wishing he had left already. Something felt off about the whole thing, but his attention was already piqued by a mix of curiosity and nostalgia. Furthermore, he didn’t sense any hostility from Ceyla. He carefully placed the plug on his own neck and waited for the device to turn on.
Nothing happened at first. Nick simply kept watching at the gravel pathway outside, still wet and messy, as the tree cried the storm’s leftovers. Then he felt the thrill rise up his spine, as it did many years before, when he and Ceyla first tried the device together. Movie night, the Girl under the Last Willow, a cramped bedroom where they explored each other’s bodies, while feeling both, in a confusion of senses and egos. On the windowsill, a small pot of nightshades had decided to bloom.
It was slightly different. Mainly because he wasn’t having sex with her – they weren’t, figuratively and literally speaking, being both at the giving and the receiving end of the same dick. But he started to feel warm around his palms, and the smoothness of a tea mug he wasn’t holding. How? He was sure the plug came from a different set. Maybe she had replaced the casing? Right then he started to feel something else. The busy chit-chatting of a street-market. Damp, cold water from the recent rain splashing in a pair of shoes too worn and to big for his feet. A sore cheek and swollen gums in the aftermath of a fight. Lust, and fear, the smell of nicotine, and a hand clasped around a credstick...
Nick started to tremble. Ceyla was there, with him, immobile; her hands clasping the table and an absent look on her face. What is this? There was no way she was broadcasting all that. It didn’t make sense.
For each new sensation his brain identified correctly, ten new ones poked at the borders of his consciousness. His hand jerked upward in an unintentional spasm and hit his coffee, which dripped from the table unto his leg. Nick couldn’t even focus on the liquid burning his skin, but Ceyla, right beside him, shifted on her seat.
“What… what is this?”
She took his hand into hers. Nick felt the hand squeezing another being squeezed, without recognizing which was his. “Take it in. Big breaths.”
Someone crying. Steaming hot ramen broth. A line of security officers lowering their visors. An acrid taste invading his mouth, followed by the stench of poor personal hygiene. Ceyla’s hands keeping his hand still. His other hand twitching on the table like a demented, five-legged spider. The chaotic sound of someone running in a back alley, and the sound of his pursuers. A male voice saying: “…he will join the fold, in the end.”
Nick finally reached back and pulled the IY plug from his neck. The flood of sensations retreated immediately, leaving behind a shore still wet with leftover impressions, like brain after-images. Compared to what he felt, his own person now seemed a far, disconnected island, constrained in the experience of sitting in a small cafe. Exception made for the stinging of irritated skin on his left leg, where the coffee had spilled, everything else felt dull.
Nick was well acquainted with loneliness, but the absence of those feelings was an absence of different quality. It left a misshapen hole behind, one that could be filled partially just by doubt and unrequited fear. His heart climbed up the walls of his throat, thumping like a drum.
“… what the fuck was that?” He shook Ceyla’s hand away from him. “Who was on the other side?”
She turned towards him, calmly pulling out her plug as well. “Keep calm. Breathe.”
“Breathe your damn ass,” Nick spat. Customers turned towards them again and he struggled to gain control of his voice. “You gave me a spiked device?! What are you trying to do?”
“It wasn’t spiked. I told you, we found a way to connect more than two people.” She picked up both IY plugs from the table and shoved them back in her bag. “We manage a small network across all Neon City. Sharing… experiences. Daily lives. We’ve called it the collective.”
He closed his fists. He risked getting fired for that trick. “If this is some fucking labor union shit…”
“Union? Most of the people in don’t even have a job.” Ceyla blinked twice.
“I couldn’t care less,” Nick spouted. Then, his mind conceived the idea of what it meant to be jobless in Neon City. He was willing to bet she didn’t mean the hereditary wealth kind of jobless. He had to ask, he had to make sure, despite how dismissive he had pretended to be. “What people?”
“Those who were forgotten by society. The ones we don’t wish to see.”
Her gaze was so intense it could cut metal. No hesitation, no wincing.
It brought Nick back to the heated conversations of their youth, between a study session and a shift at the convenience store. Ceyla had always been somewhat humanitarian, but back then being in the Tutelage kept her altruistic impulses at bay. Or maybe it had been due to the chronic lack of free time trying to pass the exams. But that side of her had never subsided; Nick could see that in the way she spoke. He could picture, by heart, what she meant with that, a little like a child can picture the boogeyman without really having a clear concept of it. Just the fear alone was enough.
What Nick pictured was a hopeless cause.
Hobos and street-urchins, trash peddlers and beggars, whores who had seen every illness on the face of the world and lived day-by-day on the brink of humanity. Old-timers who had been fooled, once by time and twice by the empty promises of retirement plans. Thugs that preyed on the weak until their luck turned and found themselves victims. Nick imagined the faceless masses that sang, danced, and crapped in the city’s belly, at the same times scared dead and mortally attracted by the Entertainment Zone and its charms.
“I don’t know what you hoped to get from me.” Nick stood up again. “It’s been… nice to see you, Ceyla.”
For the last time.
“We are doing something good, Nick.” she tried to grab his arm again, but he was quicker this time. “You have no idea how hard it is on the streets. The collective makes life more bearable for many.”
True enough. And in truth Nick didn’t wish to know, subscribing to the shared sentiment in the middle class of NC that misfortune could be contagious. Care too much for who’s under you and you end up joining their ranks. It was never going to be his battle to fight.
“Good luck with that. It’s not something I can help with.”
“You can if you let me explain. Besides, ain’t you tired of corporate hands being so far up your ass that you can smell them?”
“Maybe.” Nick shook his head. Figures of speech, even trite and common as that one, didn’t pay rent. “Still, my ass, my choice.”
He made for the door, trying to keep his pace to the fastest speed possible that wasn’t considerable running away. Ceyla didn’t pursue him. But he could still hear her voice as he pushed the cold glass door and escaped to the park.
“We are doing something good. And I need your help to save it.”
The door shut behind him and the lock sounded final, for no one followed after him. Constitution Park dripped as of sweat all around him, while another uncaring evening fell on NC.
He came home late, his suit still carrying the scent of humidity and body sweat. In his flat, empty and submerged in the neon-tinged shadows from the windows, Nick felt as if the present had nothing to offer over the past, and the future was – and always had been – a lie.
Seeing Ceyla again had left a cocktail of unnamed emotions in his chest, all stained by the purple mark of fear. The IY network had scared him to the core, but that wasn’t the worst.
Because through the anger and the shock, part of him longed for that feeling of connection. Part of him wanted to go back, through the immense load of feelings of unnamed crowds; even if most of them weren’t good, even if they played a symphony of discomfort and pain. It felt better somehow. And he wanted to feel more. Live more.
Instead, he walked to the bedroom to Jaybot's docking station.
"Activate pain mode," Nick said.
To be continued
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.