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Candido, reloaded [part 4]

Back to part 3: x


He had tried to dress inconspicuously, leaving the suit home, and putting on sweatpants and a badly assorted combination of t-shirt and hoodie jacket, both worn. The rate of violent crimes lowered if one was able, so to speak, to blend in. Yet, as the cab dropped him on the 205th, five blocks before the designated junction, Nick felt the back of his neck prickling. He was certain that most people – those who were paying attention, at least – could smell he had money. Something about his shoes, or the way he moved around. He tried to shrug it off and started walking towards the department store.


Picture by ndc880117. https://www.deviantart.com/ndc880117/

The 205th was a peculiar street, a residual of a previous era when the city planners hadn’t segregated NC by wealth yet. Most buildings had at least four floors and were connected by green terraces and aerial bridges made of reinforced acrylic glass or metal. They were called skywalks. The upper floors hosted respected establishments and medium to high income facilities, and one could go around his day without ever needing to get down to the street level. Nick tried to not look up much, thought for sure he would have been safer up there. He pulled his hood over, even if he that restricted was his field of view. Anything below the fourth floor was fair game. Landowners didn’t bother renovating or repainting. It looked like someone had passed a fast-aging filter from the ground up to the fourth floor, where things were still clean and decent.


People mostly kept to themselves at that hour. He passed over a couple of street vendors, two beggars who sat as stone, and an old man with an implanted metal jaw, intent at roasting three skewered rats on a trashcan fire. The meat smelled as bad as the smoking garbage and he had to fight to not cover his nose. Nearby, a discolored poster from the Taste of Kathy hamburger line watched from a wall, Kathy’s eyes green and melancholic, struggling to capture the irony.


Some shops were open. They had prices exposed outside and the doors shielded by metal grates only half up. The alleys on the 205th either glowed of neon signs, promising tantalizing nightclubs, or were completely left in the dark. The background music from the skyways, upbeat and repetitive, sounded like an eerie reminder of the life of better people.

Nick arrived at the department store without incident. It was one of the few buildings with less than four floors. The first two were filthy and in disrepair like everything else. An opaque skyway passed right over the third floor, which was just a ruin of broken cement pillars. Overall, the building looked like a stunted, unfinished construction project, grayed walls still plastered with the shops that used to be inside. The smell of gasoline lingered in the air, coming Gods knew where.


The entrance was a gaping rectangular mouth into a badly lit corridor. He peered inside. A scrawny kid was sleeping on the stairs – could have been anything between seven and fourteen. His neck itched, irritated by the fabric of the hoodie. He wanted to look at the time but didn’t dare take his PerTer out of its safe pocket.


Ceyla appeared soon after, sporting the same worn jeans of the day before and a black top with fishnet sleeves, her bright green lock of hair being, this time, the only note of color in her outfit. She looked at him and almost nodded.


“Well, that’s sensible clothing.” she said.


“I figured.”


She came close and tapped on his arm. “Let’s get in.”


Nick could still smell the faint scent of flowers on her. Oddly comforting, something to hold on to against the street’s stinking backdrop, and a memory of years past. The main corridor of the department store reinforced the impression of things gone by. He could tell it used to be a place meant for crowds of people to come by and window-shop, but now it lacked both the people and the shops. Most stalls were empty or rather emptied by whatever economic collapse had befallen the owners. Some had become sleeping places, marked by the traces of old fires on the floors and the trash that usually gathered around hobos’ camps. Further ahead one of the stalls was walled up, exception made for a black plastic door engraved with the letters SALLY’S. Ceyla gave it a wide berth.


“Happy to see you, by the way.” she said.


“You live around here?”


“Upstairs.” She winced. “Mostly… apartments, there.”


They found their way to a broken escalator ridden with rust. Nick massaged his neck as they rose. He was surprised to see that the upper floor was cleaner. The floor had been swept recently and the graffiti were only mildly offensive to the eye. Some could even be called artistic. A group of face-covering rioters giving the middle fingers and moonlighting an ever-army’s firing squad. A long, happy-faced dragon serpent portrayed with an open mouth, caught in the act of swallowing soldiers and rioters alike.


Most of the stalls on this floor had been repurposed and walled up, sometimes with bricks, sometimes with sheet metal. Not a door was like the other.


“How many people live in here?”


“’round forty, I’d say. The stable residents. More come and go.”


Nick had questions. Why did she live in such a place? Did she have running water? Was it safe? But he did not have a way to ask them nicely. So, he kept his mouth shut, until they reached a door in the left end of the hallway. It looked sturdier than the others, but maybe that was wishful thinking. Ceyla opened it up. An aroma diffuser near the door greeted them by puffing up a cloud of the same flowery fragrance he could sense on her.


To Ceyla’s merit, the place had at least a sense of cohesiveness. Nick could stretch as far as saying that it had a feeling of home, maybe because he reminded him of the cramped room he had at the Tutelage. A single bed with a faded yellow duvet occupied most of the space on the right side. Two desks were pushed against the back wall, one occupied by a secondhand terminal and the other by kitchen appliances. Then there was an actual sink, half covered by a plastic curtain that hid most of the space on the left side. He presumed it had to be some kind of bathroom arrangement. The wall was littered with posters and a map of the city, and three light bulbs hung from the ceiling: one red, one green, one blue. There was enough free space for two people to stand up in the center area. Maybe four, if one didn’t mind rubbing elbows.


“Yea, it’s not much.” Ceyla kicked away her shoes. She wasn’t wearing socks. “But it’s cheap.”


“You pay rent for this place?”


She raised an eyebrow. “Thought you knew. Nothing is free in this city.”


I can’t say it doesn’t make sense. Near an electric stove, on the desk, he recognized a boiler she used to have many years before. It had been new, then.


“One last thing before you make yourself at home,” Ceyla said. She bent over to pick a black box from beneath the bed, then turned to face him. “Got your PerTer?”


“Yea, why?”


She eyed towards the box. Nick struggled to follow, then saw there was an opening on one side big enough to slide in a couple of personal devices. A portable Faraday cage? That really brought him back to the Tutelage years. He halfheartedly reached for his device, strapped close to his chest. As soon as it was out of the safe pocket, Ceyla snatched it, shut it down and shoved in the box.


“One never knows,” she sighed, letting herself fall on the bed.


“You contacted me through that.”


She shoved the box on one side, then looked back at him. “Through a secure channel and an untraceable account. You might have sleeping listening bot running in background.”


“I work in software security, you know. It’s our job.”


“So those things don’t happen to you people?”


Ah. Her cheek marks had a way to underline her gaze, especially when she was going for a jab. “Well. They still do happen, to be honest.”


“Then the cat stays in the box,” Ceyla said. She stretched over the bed. Nick slowly resolved to take off his shoes as well, but he couldn’t bring himself to sit with her. He pulled a stool and sat, resting his elbows on too high up knees.


“Well.” His voice sounded fake. He cleared his throat. “You have a bit of explaining to do.”


“Suppose so.” Ceyla sat and straightened her back. “What do you remember about the Girl under the last Willow?”


Nick frowned. “We watched it together. Then we went back at the Tutelage and we had sex.”


Ceyla bit her lower lip. “I meant the actual movie.”


“Not much. Something vague about saving beauty against the base interests of greedy corporate sharks.”


“Well, that’s a way to put it.” She crossed her legs. “The willow tree does get cut down. But there’s a last scene at the end – the girl and all the people she met during her fight have a dinner together. They put flowers in their hair, they laugh, they share experiences. They have hope.”


Were those the flowers she was speaking about? Maybe his memory about petals coming through the window was a fabricated one – his brain collapsing the movie into a real life event. It didn’t matter. Nick nodded, even if he couldn’t recall.


Ceyla went on. “I never forgot that scene. I guess… it struck a chord. And well, it’s the best way to describe what we’re doing with the IY here. Hope in the face of adversity.”


Adversity was written all over the neighborhood, he could see as much. He could sympathize, but still he missed the general picture. “You managed to modify the device to connect multiple people. Why? What would be the point?”


“A punch hurts less if you’re not alone.” Ceyla’s gaze was searing with conviction. Nick almost had to look away, but then she sighed and turned towards the wall, as a moth attracted to the colorful lights. “People want to share, the good and the bad. Sometimes the struggles is all they have, and it’s still better than nothing. We… live a hard life, Nick.”


He almost answered I know, but stopped in the nick of time. That was the kind of automatic response to show a secondhand, surrogate empathy. With Ceyla it wouldn’t fly well.

Nick paused, unable to really process how he felt on the matter. Weren’t some experiences better left forgotten? He couldn’t imagine broadcasting his pain across a network of emotional repeaters, but well, in the latest years his definition of pain had been hitting a toe on a corner. Nick wasn’t the same boy that clung to piss-stained bathroom tiles while black boots kept kicking his belly. He had shut the loneliness of pain deep in his mind, in a box that he needed not to open. Was crying better, if someone listened?


Expressing those doubts would derail the conversation into a philosophical debate, or worse, a political one. After his prolonged silence, all he could come up with was:

“I can’t say I understand that, but…”


Ceyla didn’t have any doubts. “It helps a lot of people.”


“Alright.” He clasped his hands. “Even so, where do I come in?”


She sucked in her upper lip. “To make our modified devices work, we’re exploiting a bug in the IY’s software. Word is, AX Medical is going to fix that in the next release.”


Word is? Nick doubted that a company like AX left their software development plans out in the open. Ceyla’s last sentence hung out in the air of the small apartment, taking up what little space was free.


“Why do you care?”


“I’m sorry?” She furrowed her brows.


“Whatever you did to your devices, I’m pretty sure you’re not running official software. You must have a modified version that allows many-to-many connections, right?”


She nodded. “That’s more or less it.”


“Well, there’s no issue, then.” He tried to rest his hand on something, accidentally brushed against the bathroom curtain, and then found the sink. “You just need to keep running your cracked version. You won’t have the latest features, but...”


Ceyla shook her head. “Not that simple. Our devices need to be online, or they wouldn’t be able to connect to each other. Fact is, as soon as they connect to a public network, the software will try to download the latest version. And just like that,” she brought her hands up, mimicking an explosion, “we’ll be disconnected and alone.”


Ceyla stood up. The cramped space made her close, almost unbearably so; he could see the discolored patches on her cheeks in full detail. He also noticed she was wearing makeup – eyeliner, at least, a thin line that just attracted more attention to her gaze; pupils so deep they seemed to have their own gravity well. Nick became even more aware of the lack of space in the apartment. He couldn’t back down, unless he wanted to slam against the makeshift bathroom.


“Bennet is auditing AX Medical’s software. We need to look at the files in advance to work on a fix.”


“How do kno-” She stepped forward. For a moment Nick thought she was going to hug him, but her arm reached further back.


“’cuse me for a sec,” Ceyla said. She was picking up something from the small drawer on the sink. Her head almost brushed against his nose, the scent of her hair overpowering everything else for a moment. Finally, she stepped back, a package of old looking nicotine band-aids in hand. She gave him a frail smile. “I’m trying to quit.”


Nick felt a gathering of bugs buzzing in his stomach. He could handle the discussion, and he could handle the constant flows of memories she lit in his brain; he just couldn’t take both. Ceyla pulled one band-aid from the package and unceremoniously slapped it on the side of her neck, right below the hairline; then she sat on the bed again, crossing her legs.


“You were saying?”


Nick grimaced. “Never mind how you got the information. You’re asking me to steal proprietary software.”


She started scratching at the side of the band-aid, then thought better of it. “I was gonna say leak, but yes.”


“I could get fired over this.”


Ceyla twisted her lower lip in several unrecognizable expressions, then finally bit it, taking a taste of the pink-reddish lipstick. “I realize. I really do. But… maybe you can cover your tracks, provide deniability. Nobody has to know, and we will never release the data. You could be just the latest overzealous employee that brings his work laptop home.”

Nick’s mind, unprompted, quickly listed all the ways to make the deed possible. Because she was right; it was possible to accidentally copy what you weren’t supposed to. There were guidelines, of course, but like most companies, Bennet’s valued speed over safety.


“Ceyla…”


“I know.” She jumped to her feet. “Come, let’s go get some dinner.”


She opened the door, which only pushed him more against the wall. Nick gave a last long look to the apartment, shuffling his feet. His PerTer was still inside the portable Faraday cage. Shaking his head, he took the cage and tried to fit it in the secret pocket.

When he walked out, Ceyla closed the door behind him. “I’m just asking to think about it,” she said, her tone a little dry.


“I cannot promise you anything.”


“I know.”


For a while they traced their steps out of the rundown building in silence. The complex seemed less dead at that hour – hushed voices could be heard behind the makeshift doors, alongside with the sound of dishes being laid on plastic tables. A deep, layered smell of curry and other spices crept along the whole hallway. His stomach turned; he had an appetite, despite everything.


“I’m bringing you over to Merine’s,” Ceyla said, as intercepting that line of thought. “She’s part of the community. Since she joined, we were able to start a communal dining project. A canteen of sorts.”


“I wouldn’t intrude,” Nick muttered.


“Don’t worry.” Ceyla’s smiled and it even reached to her eyes. “Everyone gets hungry. Everyone is the same.”


It looked great on paper, but Nick would rather have picked a restaurant, or even a street-side food stall. Still, maybe he owed Ceyla that much; indulge her in that at least, since he couldn’t fulfill her other request.


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.

Credits to ndc880117 https://www.deviantart.com/ndc880117/ for the picture.


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