Candido, reloaded [part 3]
Updated: 4 days ago
Back to part 2: x
That night Nick’s sleep was troubled. The mattress had forgotten the shape of his body and opposed a fierce resistance at every turn, as if a cruel God was slowly replacing the foam with blocks of concrete. Stranger things had happened, in Neon City. He turned over and over, in search for some shuteye-time between the dark blue walls of his square bedroom.
He did manage to sleep for a few hours, but nightmares awaited at every corner.
He dreamed of looking at himself in a mirror and finding Ceyla’s white patches of skin on his own face. The more he watched, they more they spread, turning his body into a pale shadow of itself. In the end he even lost eyebrows and hair, and his skin started glistening like wet plastic. His reflection stared with the unquestioning neutral expression of a crash-test dummy.
Then he woke, with a fistful of saliva stuck in his throat like a condensed scream.
He didn’t need a shrink or some other kind of brain-reading fuckery to understand what the dream meant. Ceyla’s condition had never scared him. The issue was her, or rather whatever scheme she was trying to run with those modified IY plugs.
Is it even possible? His reflection stared blankly from the mirror over the bathroom sink. What he felt at the cafe seemed real, but sensations couldn’t really be trusted when you had a device spoon-feeding your very brain. He pressed the faucet on the left and watched as the basin filled up. The IY-protocol was supposed to be secure; the plugs could only connect to one another over a short distance and all the traffic was encrypted with a device-specific key.
They reviewed it at Bennet’s just a month before. Encryption could be dealt with if you tampered with the plugs, but the connectivity issue remained. IY plugs could only connect to each other in a range of ten, maybe twelve meters. There could have been a relay hidden in the cafe. Sending me fake data, for… for…
Nick plunged his face into the sink.
The water hit hard, the steel-cold temperature hit harder, forcing his pores to shut suddenly and his heart to beat faster. It was a brutal way to wake up, but it was effective. More than twenty years before, the petty bullies that pushed his head in a toilet stall couldn’t imagine they were giving him a gift; since then, Nick had always been able to find clarity in a puddle of icy water. As his skin tingled, Nick stared at the darkness of the basin and felt the sleepless night finally loosening its grasp. It was there, sure, but it wasn’t in control of him. And his fears had subsided as well for a similar, fleeting, precious moment.
Air bubbled under his nose and tickled his cheeks while escaping. He remembered how Ceyla’s leg twitched when he accidentally poured hot coffee on his. The devices had to be connected. The encryption keys could be in a shared, peer-to-peer database. His nose had desensitized to the cold, and soon his eyes as well. Assuming it was real, how far were the other people? Did they find a way to send IY through the internet? That was… scary, but on second thought, a secondary issue.
The need for air was pressing against his throat and his survival instincts rioted, making it more and more difficult to keep still. Nick resurfaced. Droplets ran along his jawline, coalesced, and fell. Ceyla never mentioned why she needed me. She had plenty of time to ask for money, plead, even, but that apparently wasn’t her concern. Apart from getting a free treat of tea and biscuits, which of course was laughable.
He grabbed a towel and delved in it, rewarding his cold skin with the soft polymer-silk. I freaked out. Homelessness made him queasy. Just mentioning the topic sent an itch up his arms, not to mention having to look some unfortunate hobo in the eyes. It was hard to remember that they weren’t evil, just a result of poor choices. Theirs and those done for them. In the end, the only difference laid in a bad toss of the dice.
He went to the living room, barefoot, finding the Jaybot still knelt near the couch table. Out of the window the neon lights were turning to more mellow, condescending tones, leaving space for the first light of dawn.
“Go find my PerTer and then get a cleanup,” he said. The bot whirred to life and nodded, returning with the device soon after. Fighting the shame for the previous day, he reopened the chat with the anonymous account.
- I am sorry. It was a lot to take in, and I wasn’t ready.
He didn’t expect an answer to come through that early in the morning. Yet Nick waited for a bit, sitting on the couch, PerTer in his lap like a particularly inert pet. Light was becoming more and more insistent, washing away the night. Another day had risen on the realm of the Neon Gods. Eventually, he had the Jay bring him a fresh suit and resorted to check in early.
At Bennet Consulting, middle-managers were rewarded with their own cubicle, with paper walls high enough to shield one’s privacy from the productivity drones. One flew by, its propellers whizzing. Most of its body was covered by its visor — a thin, reddish membrane that pulsated softly and was able, supposedly, to record everything in a 300 degrees radius. In the corporate slang, they had dubbed it eardrum, which made sense in more ways than one. After all, he was pretty sure that drones listened to conversations in the office as well.
Nick hurried on.
Most of the office was empty, exception made for some low-paid workers who had pull a night and were sleeping; hunched backs on the desks or pairs of feet popping out from under them. He let them be, reaching the three-and-a-half walls of his cubicle and the anatomically correct chair that fit his back like a glove. The office terminal blinked to life as soon as his face was in range of the optical recognition sensor. Few mails littered his inbox; corporate daily noise, by the look of them. He almost read one, forced by the gravitational pull of his daily routine, but he stopped before the white glow of the screen could entrance him. After all he had extra time. Nick brought up Bennet’s database instead, a nifty, poorly organized system where the management kept track of ongoing and past projects. Entries were often incorrectly categorized and unreliable, walking a fine line between order and chaos.
The patent for the IY tech had passed from a small research company to AX Medical, which was under the overbearing shadow of Axiom’s conglomerate. And AX rang a bell. Shifting through the database, Nick found that the company had hired Bennet’s for a software security review just the month before. The project had been given to DeVita’s team and apparently, they were still working on that.
Nick glanced at what few files he had access to before losing focus. There wasn’t much to see, anyway. Plus, he had learned that sooner than not, what wasn’t written was as important as what was. He switched to AX Medical website and browsed through their products, that ranged from the IY to the fucking aspirin, then closed the tab with a nod.
There was no guarantee that the AX’s contract regarded the IY, and yet he felt restless on his chair. Ceyla was convinced I could help. She had come out of the shadows just at the appropriate time. But then again maybe he was getting paranoid.
He started dealing with his daily tasks, absentmindedly, as people slowly trickled in the office waking up the survivors from the night’s overtime. Amanda Wan came to his cubicle – she was just in, the jacket still on her shoulders.
“Hello N-nick. Working f-from the office t-today?”
“Hm-mm.” She was one of his senior analysts, and yet she still hadn’t got rid of her stutter. He rotated on the chair to face her. His screen obscured as soon as he turned his head. “Remote working for managers isn’t as good as you might think. Plus, I start missing the old Bessy.”
A productivity drone perked up, buzzed, and then shooed away as it understood that Bessy was just code for the office’s coffee maker. “Would you l-like to grab a c-cup?”
“Sure thing.” Nick placed both palms on the armrests, preparing to spring up. Amanda was probably going to talk about the weather – or some other triviality – in her best attempt at conversation, but still. Part of the job. As he stood, his PerTer bipped. Nick’s eyes glanced at the icon of a new inbound message.
“Sorry. Got to take this,” he said.
Amanda nodded and hurried away. Nick sat, turned back to the screen, and placed the PerTer between him and the desk. Ceyla had seen the message.
- I understand.
A knot of guilt unmade inside his chest, just to tighten up again a second later. For a while, despite all his staring, no new message came up. No clarification, no excuse, apparently no remorse for putting him through that borderline-absurd experience. That was also uncharacteristic for Ceyla, who had been a prolific texter, at least in his memory.
He was about to close the PerTer and try to forget the whole thing, when she deigned to write a second message.
- I think some things are better experienced first-hand.
- What do you mean?
- I showed you the devices. I didn’t show you the community. The people. How we live.
He bit his lip.
- You still think I can help.
- 100% positive. The PerTer showed that another message was being written, then the icon disappeared, then it appeared again. - I know we’ve drifted. But I also know you’re a good person.
That doesn’t have to do with anything. Good or bad were increasingly abstruse concept in Neon City, and for sure, they didn’t apply to most of his life. Sure, he didn’t buy tickets to the Entertainment Zone. And that was all he could say. He was almost about to reply, but the words sounded hollow, and bleak, and he was afraid of the consequences of spelling them in the chat’s text-box.
- Ok. He wrote instead. - What are you planning?
- Meet me at the department store on the corner between 66th and 205th. We can go to my place. This evening?
He didn’t remember those streets. Pretty sure they weren’t near the center. According to the map services they were in the northern part of NC, east of Cradlehill. The reported crime rate was only 30%, which after all was way better than he had assumed. A little higher than he was comfortable with, but there were contingencies for that.
- Deal, he finally replied. The anonymous account Ceyla was using grayed out, meaning she had disconnected.
Nick rested the device on his desk and took a deep breath in. Now he only had to dredge through the hours until his shift ended.
On to part 4: 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.