Candido, reloaded [part 5]
Updated: Mar 11
Back to part 4: x
They went down the stairs, still slick from a recent rain, of an abandoned metro station. Nick noticed the old plastic signs grimaced, asking himself if he was finally going to get mugged. Line nine had been shut down years before since it wasn’t profitable for the transport company.
The station had been put to other uses. Merine’s was more like a squatter’s nest than a restaurant. It had taken all the space after the ticket counters, and it was divided from the rest of the station by hanging plastic sheets. Few steps ahead someone had left bags, blankets, cardboard boxes and other trash; by the looks of it there were people sleeping on the rails. The smell at least was better than one could expect; he picked up onions and garlic being stir-fried in saturated fat, alongside to the coarse stench of some food residues being burned through and through.
Ceyla’s parted one of the sheets and gestured him forward. A variety of chairs crowded in the improvised room, all around the same communal table. Some people were already eating from plastic bowls. Nick noticed the shape of IY devices popping up from their neck.
“Pona tawa sina!” Ceyla said, her voice loud and cheerful, causing some heads to rise. What? A booming laughter exploded from behind a red sheet, and soon after a motherly woman appeared. She was heavyset, her shoulders wider than her hips, a round heart-shaped face and a thick bush of unruly hair kept pressed under a handkerchief.
“Kama pona, kama pona, Ceyla!” The stranger smiled widely, flashing more than a couple of brass teeth. She turned her head to him, her beady blue eyes showing a vivid interest.
“And bring a friend?”
“This is Nick,” Ceyla echoed. “Nick, meet Merine.”
Nick stretched a hand forward to shake Merine’s. She looked at it with a glint of hilarity in her eyes, then promptly enveloped his hand in an iron grip that made his finger bones scream. He checked if her arm was prosthetic, but the wrinkles on Merine’s skin suggested natural flesh and bones, and of course a healthy dose of muscle. He tried to return her grip to ensure his own hand’s survival.
Merine let go and looked towards Ceyla. “Moku kepeken mi?”
“Lon, lon.” Then she added, “She’s just asking if you’re staying to eat.”
Nick flexed his fingers. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
They both laughed, then Merine turned towards the kitchen. She was wearing the IY plug as well. “Is everyone in here connected?”
Ceyla grabbed a couple of seats and waved to the people at the table. “Don’t worry. Nobody is going to force one on you.”
“This is not what I meant.”
They sat across each other. Nick mulled over what he meant, but then decided to drop the issue entirely and just listen. It took a while, but Ceyla slowly started a conversation with the other customers, alternating between English and the other language. As it turned out, one of them was a veteran from the ever-army. The guy had lost his house, being unable to pay the mortgage due to the rising prices of his maintenance drugs. Before he could finish, Merine reappeared from the kitchen, carrying three bowls filled by a thick brown stew. She rested them on the table and distributed spoon-forks like it was the holy mass, then sat near Ceyla.
Nick grabbed his and watched as it slowly sank in the bowl. He couldn’t really place the smell or identify any of the chunks that floated in the mixture.
“Gumbo li sin.” Merine explained. “Ala pan. Mi jo ala e pan ni tempo.”
“Gumbo,” Nick repeated. Well, there’s a first for everything. “Well, thanks for having me.”
The woman nodded with vigor. Ceyla clicked her spoon against the table, and they all started eating. Nick began as well, blowing on the first spoonful. The gumbo had a deep, layered taste that forced itself on his tongue and reclaimed his whole mouth. Different spices and ingredients coexisting in a cramped space and bound together by glutinous fats. A little like Neon City and its people, after all. He fished out a cube of something – might have been meat, but he doubted – and sank his teeth into it, encountering no resistance.
As they ate, Ceyla and Merine talked with the ease of old friends. They both used slang and English freely, switching to the second when they wanted to include him in the conversation. As time went on a couple of new customers joined in – a pox-ridden old man, a one-armed kid, a couple of scantily dressed girls, a tin-eyed boy. They all wore the IY. Merine would greet them, smile, and serve them. Not once Nick saw creds exchanging hands. Yet, the food must come from somewhere. He imagined a couple of answers to that silent question; most of them included theft. But it wasn’t the issue. As the dinner dragged on, the first customers would take turns to clean the kitchen and take Merine’s place, leaving her free to chat.
Nick eased more and more in his role of silent observer, wondering if he was going to be able to pay for his meal. Slowly, he emptied his bowl, exception made for a two-fingers high grease residue on the bottom. Ceyla and Merine continued to talk, sometime brushing each other’s forearms. People at the tables were doing the same, sharing the meal, getting in and out of the kitchen, helping each other. They all wore the IY plugs, of course, and that made him wonder. Was the dinner different, experienced from multiple viewpoints? Was that the source of all that kindness? And if it was, how was it? And if it wasn’t, still, how was it? Deep down he wanted, he needed, he ached to be plugged again to the modified IY network; to see for itself if it could provide for the sense of community Ceyla mentioned. And she would have let him. All he needed to do was ask.
But Nick didn’t. He just stared at the people coming in, the whores, the beggars, the peddlers; lost sons and homeless fathers all sharing a spot at that very same table. People he would have avoided in any ordinary moment. He had no right to intrude in that shared moment, to be a tourist of their reprise from misery.
Still, every second he died inside a little more, wishing to be part of that simple happiness that was happening before him, and yet felt unreachable like the most distant star.
Eventually it had to end. Ceyla rose, stretched her arms against her back, and carried the empty bowls to the kitchen. Nick awaited until she disappeared behind a sheet to pull out a credstick from his pocket. He didn’t even remember how much money was on that, but it didn’t really matter. He offered it to Merine.
“For the meal.”
She looked at him for a moment, a quizzical expression in her clear eyes. Then she took the credstick and slid it in a pocket of her apron. She let out a deep sigh.
“Ni li pona. Thank you.” Her voice was deeper when she switched to English. It revealed edges that hadn’t been dulled just yet. “It was not asked; but they will be put to good use.”
Nick nodded. They raised a cup of filtered water, probably gathered from a stormdrain or a condenser. Metallic in taste, but clean, something that was already more expansive than some alcoholic options. Merine squinted her eyes above the cup, the smiled. “She talks a lot about you. Ceyla. I am happy you met.”
That could mean a number of things. “What did she say?”
Before Merine could clarify, Ceyla came back.
“Pots are as clean as they can possibly get,” she said. “Walk you back?”
“Sure,” Nick rose from his chair. “Thanks for the gumbo, Merrine. I’m looking forward to next time.”
They left together, walking back to the exit of the ghost metro station, guided by emergency lights struggling to stay on. The street outside was stuck in a neon painted dusk; the buildings’ lower floors being left in the dark while the upper ones glowed. Street-level residents didn’t bother wasting creds on electric bills.
They walked slowly for a bit, returning towards the abandoned department store. The entrance still looked like the gaping maw of a giant whale washed ashore. Ceyla looked at the darkness hallways inside.
“Hope the food was to your liking.”
“It was.” Nick shifted his weight left to right. “I almost forgot – I was carrying this the whole time. Almost about to bring it home.”
He chuckled and picked up the portable Faraday cage, extracted his PerTer, and returned the device to Ceyla. She looked at it, tilting her head a bit.
“Ah.” She took it. “I guess you are not spending the night with me, uh.”
Nick opened his mouth, closed it without a sound, and started over. “I…”
“I was joking.” She shoved both hands in her pockets. “Look, there’s no need to be dramatic. Just think it over. If you manage to do it, you know how to reach me.”
“Yes. I suppose I do.”
A pause fell upon them, heavy with the low buzz of a distant disco. Somewhere above them humidity gathered on metallic tubes, coalesced in droplets that inevitably fell and sizzled against the anti-mosquito UV lamps. In the distance, tires screeched protesting a sudden brake.
“Well, it has been good seeing you,” Ceyla said, her words rushing one after another. She was looking down and her eye’s lower side looked wet, although that may have been a trick of the lights.
“Same,” Nick said; but she was already stepping inside the department store, letting the darkness engulf her body. He stared where her silhouette had been, wondering if he should have stopped her. Then the fear of being alone at night in that neighborhood got better of him and he called a cab through his PerTer.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Nick wasn’t proud of it, but he had ordered edits for the Jaybot. He hadn’t gone overboard with a full re-customization, keeping the changes small and limited to some details, like chest frame and skin pigmentation. But he knew in his heart of hearts what he was trying to emulate, or rather, who.
On the morning after the order was placed, he felt nauseous, bit he didn’t cancel it. He went to work instead, hoping to lose the ghost of his own depravity in a crowded metro wagon.
Bennet’s was enjoying a relatively dry spell those days, and so less people felt compelled to sleep in. More people hanged around for coffee breaks and inconsequential chats near the cubicles – even the productivity drones looked somewhat lenient, buzzing aimless near the ceiling. Nick’s day was full of fidgeting around the keyboard. A data drive sat hot in his pocket, waiting. It wasn’t heavier than a pebble and yet he could feel its weight at all times. It was still empty.
Any operation done through his console could be traced back to him. If the software leak was discovered, AX Medical was bound to come knocking. Then Bennet would serve his sorry ass on a platter. Nick scoffed at his own internal monologue, but the fear of being put to trial didn’t budge. Then an idea bumped into his mind and he rose from the chair.
Amanda’s cubicle was smaller than his and far more cluttered. The desk barely had space for the monitor, and the cubicle’s walls where covered in printed out files and notes. High up, above all else, a picture of a younger version of herself hugging an old man in a greasy tank top. Her father, maybe.
She felt his gaze and turned around on her swivel chair.
“Oh, it’s you.” Her voice was almost a hiccup.
“I was wondering if you had time for a coffee?”
“S-sure,” she stood. “From old Bessy?”
Nick nodded. He made just enough space for her to exit the cubicle and their arms brushed; productivity drones where not flying nearby. As far as he could tell, they weren’t in range of any eardrum. Nick followed her, just to stop midway. “Actually, do you mind going in first? I need to borrow your workstation for a sec.”
Amanda blinked. “My workstation?”
“Mine is doing planned upgrades.”
“Sure.” Amanda pushed her glasses further up on her nose. “How do you like your coffee?”
“Oh, a little soy milk foam would be great.”
Nick didn’t wait for her to confirm – he sat at the station and tapped on it. Amanda hadn’t locked it, so it didn’t require him to login with his credentials. He opened the project manager’s database with a temporary username and downloaded everything related to AX Medical into the drive. When the download ended Nick unplugged the drive and cleaned up his traces. That was it. They weren’t probably going to look in Amanda’s workstation – she wasn’t even supposed to have access to those files. The old man in the picture squinted at him, his wrinkled face now full of suspicion.
Nick left the cubicle, directed towards a coffee he wasn’t going to enjoy.
Take me to the ending: 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.