The Rules of Ragatanga

elliott-engelmann-53566

On the outskirts of The Rag, in a part of town colloquially known as Glitchville or Bugberg or The Overflow, Ricky Carrillo and a group of his friends stood on the south bank of Arroyo Blanco and threw rocks into the milky water. Sometimes the rocks splashed, sometimes they actually made a sound, but more often than not, the rocks simply zapped out of existence as they passed through an unseen barrier somewhere in the middle of the river.

For boys Ricky’s age, the forty yard swim to the north bank wasn’t something to fear. For one, there was no danger of drowning since the depth of the river was only four feet at its lowest. Secondly, they would only have to swim half the distance before reaching the barrier, at which point they would join the rocks in limbo for a short time before resetting to a spawn point. They would lose their inventory—the river would wash it away—and their experience points, but for the most part they would be unharmed. There was no shame in being reset, at least not when it was intentional.

“It’s your turn today, Ricky,” said Jason.

Jason and his family lived in the neighborhood one level up from Ricky’s, and as such, enjoyed a few more privileges like discounted shop fees and on-demand transportation. It was Jason who had requested the extended golf cart that had carried the group from the transit station out to The Overflow.

Ricky took a step back from the bank’s edge. It towered six feet over the surface of the water, a consequence of the river cutting ever deeper into the earth. He wasn’t scared of being reset, and it wasn’t against the rules, but it wasn’t exactly celebrated. After all, a reset wasn’t just limited to the user; it spread out in ripples that touched the entire Rag.

A reset required resources. Processing time. Re-allocation of experience and skill points.

Then there was the time spent in limbo, a place not of pain but of discomfort, where sounds were a little too loud, lights a little too bright. Ricky had been to limbo only once before, when he was six. He’d wandered too far into the Southern Wash and got bit by a snake. The poison took two minutes to kill him, but the time in limbo felt much longer. An hour. Maybe two. There were no references on which to gauge the passage of time, and maybe the clanging and the aching caused minutes to stretch longer, but Ricky was convinced it was not instantaneous as others had claimed.

None of his friends knew about his brush with death. And among them, only Jason had ever reset in front of their eyes. As the group’s de facto leader, he’d volunteered to be the first one to swim out to the barrier. The remaining order had been decided by tense rounds of Onesie-Twosies. Like a fool, Ricky had thrown out a one while everyone else showed a two.

Following him, it was Matt, Bear, Shawn, and finally Moises.

To hear Jason describe it, limbo was a magical yet empty place beyond the borders of The Rag that served as a transition between the world they knew and Terrareal, a world they had been told about but never seen. It was Jason’s contention that by visiting limbo, one could find a way out to Terrareal, and thus be free of The Rag forever.

Why anyone would want to do that, Ricky couldn’t understand, but then lots of things he and his friends did made little sense. Just a week before, they’d come across a demolished home and found boards lying around with nails sticking out of them. Shawn hadn’t even hesitated before slamming his foot down on one of the nails. In his mind, he was sure he could get the nail to come up through his shoe exactly between his toes. Instead, the rusty nail drove itself into his arch and came up through his shoelaces.

As a pre-teen, Shawn’s pain thresholds were set pretty low, but they were still enough to make him howl. Add to that the indignity of having to get a tetanus shot to prevent something horrible called lockjaw, and the whole thing just seemed stupid.

About as stupid as jumping into the Arroyo Blanco to touch the border of The Rag.

Ricky suddenly realized everyone was looking at him.

“I can hold your stuff if you want,” said Moises. “I promise I’ll give it back.”

“It’s okay,” said Ricky. “I left everything at home. The only thing I have are my nunchucks.” He tossed the two misshapen sticks into the dirt. “I’ll do it. Hashtag yolo.”

The initialism only made sense in the canon of Ragatanga; for Ricky and his friends, there was no such single-use limitation to their existence.

“You know what to do, right?” asked Jason.

Ricky nodded. He remembered the story Jason had told.

The sensory overload.

The paralyzation.

“You have to try to move,” Jason reminded Ricky. “There has to be another barrier or a door or something. It’s really hard to see, but if you just reach out, push as hard as you can, you might hit something.”

“Yeah,” said Ricky, swallowing hard.

Something about the way the river flowed, the way the white water foamed and swirled, made his stomach fold over on itself. Sweat broke out on his arms; the wind carried it away and made him shiver.

Ricky approached the edge of the gully and sat down. His feet dangled over the steep bank, over the rocks and dried roots and loose dirt. More than likely, he’d enter the river the same way Jason had, by tumbling head first into it.

“Help me down,” he said.

Bear and Moises put out their arms as Ricky turned around onto his stomach. The boys let him down slowly until they could get no lower. Ricky nodded and they let go.

His feet dug into the sand and came to a quick stop. Inside the gully, the noise of the river was deafening, amplified not only by the steep sides but the barrier somewhere out there in the middle of the water. Several feet away, rocks began zapping out of thin air; his friends were throwing smaller pebbles to show him where The Rag ended.

Ricky stepped into the water, lower and lower, until it was splashing around his shoulders. He kicked off, began swimming. Behind him, cheers urged him on.

Swimming to his ostensible death, Ricky thought of his family, specifically his father. Albert Carrillo meant everything to Ricky. In his eleven years of life, he’d never once encountered a problem his father couldn’t solve, a fear he couldn’t assuage, or a monster he couldn’t slay. Above all things, he yearned for his father’s approval, and now, drenched to the bone and heading for limbo, Ricky knew approval would be the last thing his father would give him.

But that was okay.

The world was changing, and Ricky was changing right along with it. Some nascent directive was taking charge inside his body, making him see The Rag and all of its inhabitants in a different light. The girls whose hair he’d pulled seemed more attractive now, and the bonds he’d formed with his friends were taking on more violent and aggressive overtones. Disagreements that would have led to name-calling now led to shoving and sometimes, punching.

Change washed over him, just as the river sloshed around his face.

“You’re almost there,” called Jason.

But he was wrong; Ricky was already there. He could feel the heat coming off the barrier, simultaneously foreboding and inviting, like the hum of an electric fence that you knew would hurt but you wanted to touch just to know what it felt like.

He reached a hand out and felt his fingers sizzle. Drawing them back, he saw they’d disappeared, cut clean off at the second knuckle.

Ricky cried out despite the absence of pain. At the same time, the ground below him gave out, causing him to sink beneath the water. His shoes searched for purchase, sometimes finding solid riverbed, other times sinking into a vast abyss. Water splashed on his face one moment, then fell from it in sheets the next. He was simultaneously above the water and deep below it. Sinking further down, he passed through the riverbed, and suddenly he saw it from below.

There was nothing but gray darkness below him and a sky made of terrain above him. In the distance, he could see tunnels drifting down into the gloom, places where residents of The Rag had dug into the simulated earth. But Ricky was outside the world now, glitched out of bounds by the barrier.

Was this what Jason had experienced? He hadn’t mentioned seeing The Rag from underneath. He’d only reported death, limbo, and a reset.

There was no air here, Ricky realized.

As oxygen dwindled, panic increased. Even though he knew the pain would not be much, the prospect of asphyxiating drew out a primal reaction. He thrashed, kicked, and flailed his arms through what appeared to be empty space but felt like thick oil.

He swallowed it large, frantic gulps.

The oil filled him up, slipped into the crevices of his biological machinery, and brought everything to a stop.

The world dimmed to gray.

Letters appeared as if typed into a computer, uppercase and drenched in cartoonish blood.

YOU DIED.

A familiar sensation rose up from the soles of Ricky’s feet, clamping down with a firm touch on his ankles, shins, calves, and so on, until his entire body seemed confined to a form-fitting vise. The gloom of The Rag’s underworld brightened to a harsh white. Ricky shut his eyes, barely dimming the oppressive light. Clanging sounded from all around him, like a steam engine chugging to life, like metal gears slipping teeth around couplers.

Metal on metal.

Modulated electronics whining and beeping.

Jason’s words came back to him.

Try to move. Find the exit.

Ricky focused on his left hand, on the tips of the fingers, and tried to curl them into his palm. Nothing happened. He tried to wiggle his toes, but the vise held him. Even though he couldn’t see his body, he felt himself to be laid out straight, with his feet together and arms by his side. He arched his back, trying to pull away into a different position. Pain—real pain—built in his neck.

He cried out; the clanging swallowed up the sound.

The bottom dropped out of the vise, and Ricky fell twelve inches onto a soft bed. A dulcet melody, a string of five notes increasing in volume, played in his ears.

A blink wiped away the infinite emptiness of limbo.

Another brought the light blue walls of a Spawn Center.

“Welcome back,” said a woman standing next to his bed. She had deep green eyes encircled with gray shadow. Her hair fell in waves on the pink shoulders of her nurse’s uniform.

Ricky didn’t respond.

“I’m Marie,” said the nurse. “I’m just gonna run a few tests to make sure things got put back where they need to be. You’ve always been a Japanese girl, right?”

“Um…”

Marie smiled, tapped a machine next to the bed. “I’m kidding, sweetie. You’re still…” She hesitated, consulted the palette hanging from the bed. “An 11-year-old boy with slight asthma and perfect attendance at Bullock Middle School. And you… that’s strange.”

Ricky turned his head, tried to see what was written on the palette.

“What?” He asked.

“You still have 859 experience points.” She frowned. “You should have zero. I’ve never seen anyone respawn with…” Trailing off, Marie studied Ricky’s face.

He felt her eyes look through him, to the hot white confines of limbo, to the glitched underworld, all the way to the Arroyo Blanco, where a group of kids were likely placing bets as to whether Ricky had drowned or passed through the barrier after all.

Ricky checked his inventory. The few odds and ends he’d left in his pockets were still there; a pencil from school, wrapper from a piece of gum, and a small gold bell tied to a piece of yarn that Alisha in Ms. Claire’s class had given him.

It hadn’t seemed important before, but now he was surprised to feel relief at not having lost it.

More than relief, he felt proud, emboldened.

He’d passed through limbo and come out untouched on the other side. Same XP, same loot. Not a scratch on him.

The rules of Ragatanga didn’t apply to him.

 

 

Photo by Elliott Engelmann on Unsplash

The Rules of Ragatanga

A Cry in the MESH

gab-pili-154696.jpg

The store had been slow all day.

Not since before the toll road bypass had customers filled the aisles of the small convenience store on Highway 277 just north of Sonora. In those days, Nelson had worked for his father, manning the cash register as the old man sat in the back office and leafed through porno mags that always ended up back on the shelf. After the toll road, the old man’s health declined right along with business. Eventually, both he and the customers stopped coming to the store, and soon it was just Nelson sitting behind the counter on a stool with cracked leather padding.

Mornings in the store were quiet, with only one or two locals dropping by to fill up deisel drums for their ancient combines and tractors. Mid-day, Nelson rotated the stock in the coolers, tossing out the milk that had gone more than three weeks past its expiration date. He spent time cleaning the spotless floor, wiping down the untouched glass doors, and rearranging the undisturbed bags of chips. In the afternoon, when the sun was low enough to bounce off the 277’s blacktop, Nelson retreated to the back office to dial-up to the handful of Bulletin Board Systems he frequented. He read news stories, played a few games, and downloaded the latest celebrity nudes, all while keeping a watchful eye on the security cameras.

Evenings were the worst. The front windows turned into an oil painting of a West Texas sunset that filled Nelson with dread. The sizzle on the horizon, the pink hues streaking through the clouds, and smooth, flat desert thrown into sudden relief hinted at a deeper meaning for his life, that its true purpose lay somewhere beyond the gas station and his trailer behind it. But in his heart, he knew there was nothing out there for him and that the sum of his life would play out right there on Highway 277. He’d die in the store or in his trailer. He secretly hoped it would be in the aisles, so his body would at least be discovered before it began to rot.

Nelson stood at the front door and placed his hand on the back of the neon OPEN sign. It was well past nine o’clock, and the odds of anyone else dropping in for a newspaper or bottle of water were too low to keep him in the store. The locals knew to honk if they needed him, and he’d come running out of his trailer. Just as he was pulling the string to turn off the sign, headlights appeared on the highway. A moment of unchecked hope fluttered in Nelson’s chest. Maybe they would turn in. Maybe they’d want to buy a few sixpacks and all the FunYuns they could carry.

“Sedan,” said Nelson, to himself.

Picking out cars at a distance was one of the many games he played to pass the time away. He could only see the headlights and a single fog-light on the left side. The headlights were rectangular and not bordered by LEDs or HID enhancements. The fog light was yellow, having dimmed from its original white. It would soon join its brother.

“Late-model Acura or Toyota. Don’t get many of those around here.”

His fluttering hope took flight as the headlights slowed a hundred yards out from the station. A fast-blinking indicator turned on, and the car took a wide right turn into the parking lot. It made an immediate left and started down the row of charge stations. Bypassing them all, it pulled up alongside the lone gas/diesel pump and stopped. The door opened slightly and a boot hit the evercrete.

Over the glare of the headlights, Nelson couldn’t make out the man sitting behind the steering wheel. It wasn’t until they timed out that he could finally see the profiled shadow speaking to someone in the back seat. The man gestured to the store, shook his head, and climbed out of the car.

Nelson retreated as the man approached the doors, pretended to busy himself at the coffee maker even though he’d already emptied and cleaned it hours ago. A soft, melodic chime announced the door opening, and in stepped a rough-looking man in his mid-thirties, with a week’s worth of beard and hair that looked like it spent most of its time under a hat. His eyes were dark and bloodshot, as if he hadn’t seen sleep in a day or two. When he noticed Nelson, he gave a weak smile and motioned to the coffee pot.

“Got any fresh?”

“Let me fix you a pot special,” said Nelson. “I’ve got Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts blends.”

“Dunkin’, if you please.”

“Size?” asked Nelson, holding up a small and large cup.

“You got a pail?” The man chuckled to himself and held up two fingers. “Two large, please.”

Nelson tore open the packet of Dunkin’ Donuts-brand grounds and set the coffee maker in motion.

“Anything else I can do for you, Raymond?”

“Ray, and yes, I need twenty on pump…” He turned to look for a pump number.

“On the pump,” said Nelson. He walked around to the cash register and started keying in the order. “Don’t get many folks filling up with gasoline these days. Most gassers I know are either junked or retrofitted with electric engines.”

Ray eyed the display of novelty pens on the counter. He picked one up, turned it over, and watched the clothes drain from a pinup’s body.

“It was my Pop’s. He gave it to me when the gas shortage hit.”

“This store was my father’s. He gave it to me when he couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore.” Nelson looked around at the ceiling. “I’m starting to understand how it happened.”

The cash register beeped.

“Two cups of coffee and twenty gallons of Emarat Misr’s finest,” said Nelson. “Is there anything else I can do you for?”

“How are you on meds? Some Aspirin or Aleve?”

“Sleep’s the best remedy for headaches, son. But come on, I’ll show you what I have.”

“Thanks,” said Ray, following Nelson down the aisle by the windows. “It’s not for me though. My wife’s had them pretty constant since she came down with the Bleed.”

Nelson stopped in front of the medical display and looked at Ray’s car. In the backseat, a continuous lump moved–a person writhing under a blanket. He felt around in the MESH for her, but there was nobody there except Ray.

Ray must have seen him concentrating. He nodded to the car. “We were able to buy some blockers across the border before we left. Toronto has a lot of people willing to treat the disease, but none with a cure.”

“Is that what you’ve come all the way down here for? A cure?”

“Something like that,” said Ray, picking up a small tube of Aspirin. “We kept hearing stories about a place in the MZ called Lakon. They said they’re curing the Bleed there.”

Nelson shook his head and shuffled back to the coffee pot. He’d heard the stories too. Lakon. A fountain of youth for those who had lived too long in the MESH. A veil of silence to blot out the incessent chatter.

A honeypot for the desperate.

“You’re not the first people to come looking for Lakon,” said Nelson, pouring out two large cups. He affixed the white, plastic lids, dropped a stirrer into the opening, and took them to the cash register.

Ray joined him and put the tube of Aspirin on the counter.

“That’s not going to do much.” Nelson pushed the medicine aside. He pulled a bottle from the shelf behind him. “Here’s how we treat the Bleed down in Texas.”

“My wife doesn’t drink,” said Ray, examining the bottle of Tequila.

“It’s not for her, son.”

Ray laughed. “I can’t afford–”

“It’s on me,” said Nelson. “I had a nephew who got the Bleed a few years back. My brother never would have made it without Tito.”

“And your nephew?”

Nelson shrugged. “Blew his brains out on his twenty-third birthday. Left a note saying he couldn’t take the voices anymore. Now my brother drinks for a different reason.” He pushed a photo of Trace into the MESH, felt Ray pull it in. “That’s me and him working in this very store when we were younger than you.”

The MESH pulsed, dissolving the photo into another. In his mind’s eye, Nelson saw a dark-haired woman sitting on a dock, her bare legs hanging over the side, her arm wrapped around a blond labrador. The dog was licking her face while she smiled at the camera.

“Your wife?”

“Melissa, and Gatsby. He’s no longer with us.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Nelson. “He looks like a fine animal.”

Static tore across the MESH, shattering the photo and replacing it with an out-of-focus map of West Texas.

Ray touched his head and looked to the windows. “Sorry about that. Mel can be pretty pushy sometimes. It’s not really her fault.”

“No harm,” said Nelson. “Trace’s boy used to spew profanity night and day. The MESH was downright unusable when he was around. The Bleed doesn’t just infect people, it replaces them with something else. But you want to know the God’s honest truth about it? Those people are still in there.”

“You’ve seen it cured?”

“No. But I’ve heard the same stories you have about Lakon. And maybe they are curing people down there. Maybe they’ve found a way to disinfect the MESH, but I doubt it. What I do know for sure is that people who go looking for it never come back. Once they go in, they don’t come out.”

Ray sighed, let his head fall forward. The MESH took on a bitter, mournful smell.

“We don’t have a choice. It’s killing her, and it’s killing us.”

When his eyes came back up, they glistened in the flourescent light.

“By all means, you have to take care of your own. Like you said, Canada’s only going to treat the symptoms, and Uncle Sam has both thumbs firmly planted up his ass, so it’s really up to you. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I tell people there’s no good reason on Earth to go into the Machine Zone. But if that’s the only place an operation like Lakon can exist, and if you’re willing to give up everything for it, then by all means. Just keep following 277 south. Once it meets up with 377, you don’t stop for nothing. Drive that beater right up to the gates of Lakon and wait for them to open. I don’t want my MESH dream interrupted tonight by a report of a decent couple being torn to shreds by some renegade soldados. Those MX synthetics have no regard for human life.”

“Thank you for the advice,” said Ray. “And for the medicine.” He slipped the flat bottle into his jacket.

“Anytime,” said Nelson. He tapped the cash register’s screen to wake it. “That’s twenty-three even.”

Ray glanced at the cash register momentarily. A green check mark popped up on the screen.

“Thank you for your business, Raymond. I wish you and yours the best of luck.”

The MESH crackled, flashed red. Graphical data flooded the network, overloading Nelson’s vision. Voices with accents he’d never heard in person bubbled up through the white noise, coming from every direction at once. He took an involuntarily step backwards. Amongst the many speakers, a feminine voice whispered across a chasm.

“Help me.”

Nelson felt his heart collapse in his chest.

“Dear God, please. HELP ME.”

Ray nodded as if unaware of the disturbance in the MESH.

Nelson watched him trot back to his car and hurriedly get inside. The beater growled unhappily as the engine came to life; its headlights seemed to wink lazily as if waking from a long nap. Ray put the car into gear and spun it around back onto the highway. The taillights flared and disappeared into the Texas night.

The noise lingered. Nelson fought the urge to put his hands to his head. He knew it would do no good.

Gradually, as Ray and his wife got further away, their MESH connection to Nelson disappated into nothing.

The voices quieted, but the echo remained in Nelson’s head.

“Help me…”

“God dammit,” said Nelson, striking the counter with his fist. He stared at the pumps outside the store.

The damn fool hadn’t even gassed up.


Photo by Gab Pili on Unsplash

A Cry in the MESH

The Coker Job

 

aldric-rivat-311335.jpg[Note: This is an alternate version of Johnny’s Loop.
Sometimes, it takes several tries to start a story.]

 

“Peep this view, Danny.”

Tanzy placed her hands on the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the Atlantic City boardwalk. From the 78th floor of the White Dragon Resort and Casino, the people below were mere specks on a thin band of polluted sand. Choppy water filled most of the view, stretching out into the distance under a blanket of twinkling stars. She pressed her forehead against the glass and tried to look down the building.

“We are way the fuck up here,” she added.

Danny “Guns” Montreal nodded and reached into his pocket as the bellhop dropped two suitcases onto the luggage racks by the door. He pulled out a fifty and held it out.

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” said the boy. “Mr. Coker said your money was no good here. He assigned me to your room for the duration, so if there’s anything you need during your stay, please don’t hesitate to ask.” He gestured to a vidscreen on the wall. “Just tap the concierge button and it’ll ring my sliver.”

He made a half bow and left the room, shutting the door softly behind him.

Danny walked further into the suite and dropped his bag on the coffee table next to a rectangular black box. A stencil of a white dragon adorned the top, along with a card that read /to Mr. Montreal and guess, with our compliments/. Danny nudged the lid opened and let out a chuckle.

“What’s that?” asked Tanzy. She bounded over from the window and sat down on the couch next to the table. “Oh wow.”

Neatly arranged in the box were no less than a dozen code cards of various synthetic cocktails, ten perfectly rolled joints, two baggies of indeterminate white powder, and a sheet of tiny smiley face stickers.

“Jesus, Danny. Who does this guy think you are?”

Danny shrugged in response, pushed the box towards Tanzy. It was obvious Bennet “Benny” Coker had no idea who Danny was, least of all how he liked to get down when the lights were low and the bass was thumping. He had probably done the same for every zero-bit hacker he’d hired over the years, bringing them to Atlantic City, pumping them full of drugs, and then paying them dirty money for a dirty job. Maybe that was the kind of life a Margate Musher aspired to, a fantasy world an Umbrat would kill their own mother for, but it did nothing for Danny.

All he cared about were the zeros and the ones, particularly a one followed by six or seven zeros. Coker had thrown all sorts of perks at the deal, but Danny had held firm to his requirements: dollars only, half on acceptance, half on completion.

“At least let me bring you out to the coast,” Coker had said. “I’ll put you up in our presidential suite. Not part of the deal, just a place for you to stay while you work.”

If the job hadn’t required physically being in the AC, Danny would have refused. As it happened, Tanzy had been listening in on the conversation, and when Coker mentioned the White Dragon Resort, it was as if she could see past the eternal rain of Portland, past the mountains and the plains, to the very edge of the continental U.S., to bright lights and loud music, to a place where people were fueled by greed and driven by lust.

“I’d love to get away,” Tanzy had said. She’d gone on to demonstrate how long it had been since she’d had a proper vacation and how the day-to-day operation of the I.C.E-1 cipher den was slowly driving her insane.

Danny agreed to the job mostly for the money, but a non-trivial motivator was the happiness on Tanzy’s face when he told Coker he’d do it. She’d been wildly happy the last few days, bouncing around I.C.E-1 HQ, calling Danny every few hours to tell him how excited she was. Even on the plane ride over, even in the car Coker had sent to collect them from the airport, she’d been nothing but smiles.

It was almost too much.

Tanzy leaned back on the couch and shuffled through the code cards. “I’m starting to like this guy, Danny. I mean, I never thought I’d say that about a feed monger, especially after that whole thing with Perion, but damn, he really knows how to make a girl feel welcome.”

Danny looked around the suite. Dim lights ran along the perimeter of the room, making the couches, desk, and bar look like they were floating a warm glow of amber. The walls were painted in a dark gray, and long, verdant landscapes stretched across them, all done in the same blacks and reds. A wide doorway led to a darkened bedroom.

The shadowy outline of a bed beckoned him. As he crossed the threshold, runner lights came on, showing the floor descending into a sunken area where a king bed sat ready to take him out of this world for a few hours. He checked his sliver for the time, found it was nearly midnight. Tanzy would probably want to go down to the casino and blow some money at the blackjack table.

Slender arms wrapped themselves around his waist.

“Thinking about bed already?” she asked.

He nodded, reached behind to put his hands on her hips.

“You’re quiet today.” Her chin pressed against his shoulder blade. “You’re thinking about all the people down there, aren’t you? It’s okay if you are. I’m not gonna make you go out in a crowd if you don’t want to.”

Danny sighed, turned around in her arms. He smiled at her.

“But,” she said, putting a finger on his chin, “just because we’re not going downstairs doesn’t mean you get to hit the sack already. You’re on Tanzy Time now.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the bathroom to the left of the bed.

A thin plate of glass separated the bedroom from a room covered from top to bottom in white tile. Every few feet, a tile bore the White Dragon emblem. On the left, the wall pushed back, providing two sinks and a shelf with a handful of towels.

Tanzy paused at the edge of the carpet, spun Danny around, and started unbuttoning his shirt.

He reached up to touch the side of her face. There was a stereotype about cipher dens that their suits all had to be strikingly beautiful to counteract the inherent techno-grunge of their business. Tanzy, for her part, lived up to the hype. She had long, black hair that curled at the tips. Her large eyes glowed from within dark eyeshadow. It was there he saw the one thing that truly attracted him to her: a sense of understanding emanating from her eyes, staring past the accolades and the talent and the anxieties to see the person he was inside.

“Take off your pants,” she said, tossing his shirt onto a nearby dresser. She woke the vidscreen on the wall and touched a glowing START button. “Now that is cool.”

Danny followed her gaze to the rain shower in the middle of the bathroom. Water poured down in a three foot diameter; it flowed to the opposite of the room where it trickled over an unseen ledge into a sunken bathtub that ran the entire length of the wall. He watched Tanzy take down her dress and step into the bathroom. She gave the shower a wide birth and sat down on the lip of the bathtub. Spouts on the wall sensed her presence and began filling the tub.

“Come sit with me,” she said. “It’s warm already.”

After glancing over his shoulder at the bed, Danny sighed and stepped out of his pants and boxers. He stepped on the toes of his socks to pull them off. He held his hand out under the shower as he passed it, felt the soft, warm water envelope his arm.

Tanzy patted the tile next to her. When Danny sat down, she revealed a code card she had been palming in her hand.

“Soda Crush,” she said. “I’ve heard stories about it, but I’ve never…”

Danny took the card from her, used the back of his hand to brush her cheek again. Such a beautiful smile. So full of love. She deserved everything she wanted in the world.

Something sparked in the back of his mind, some recognition of a diminished mental state. Danny searched his memory, tried to figure out what was causing him to be so protective of her tonight. He wasn’t able to pull anything out of the ether, just some vague feeling of danger, nothing more intense than the natural background violence of his usual life.

So why the intensity tonight? More than that, why was he powerless against it?

Danny slipped his hand behind Tanzy’s head and pressed the code card to the back of her neck. Her eyelids fluttered rapidly as she gasped.

“Jesus in a toaster,” she muttered. Leaning forward, she allowed gravity to pull her into the rising water. When she came up, her hair clung to one side of her face. Her breasts glistened in the warm light. Tanzy put her hands on his knees. “Your turn,” she said.

Danny hesitated, turned the card over in his hands.

Tanzy rubbed her breasts against his legs, let her hands wander. “It’s okay. It’s just this one time. I promise I won’t let anything happen to you.” Her hands settled at his hips, her thumbs venturing closer to his growing erection.

Synth had never sat right with Danny. It had taken too many of his friends and addicted the rest. Reality was a constant, and anything that altered it was just an artificial layer pinned to a very real world. When the synth was gone, the bills would still be there, the shitty job would still be there. The same went for virtual reality; there was just no point in trying to escape what couldn’t be escaped.

Tanzy pushed Danny’s legs apart and knelt on the second step. She put her hands on sides of his face. “Hey, look at me,” she said. “It’s just you and me in here right now, just us enjoying this time together. There’s no casino downstairs, no job for Coker. There’s certainly no country spiraling into darkness. None of those things are real at this moment. I’m real.” She took his free hand and placed it on her breast. “You’re real. Be real with me here.”

He nodded, kissed her lightly on the forehead.

Her eyes jumped to the card and back. “Whenever you’re ready,” she said, sinking back into the water. When she was level with his legs, she leaned forward and took him into her mouth.

Danny shuddered at the sensation and quickly put the code card to the back of his neck. Purple sparks exploded from the grid of tiles behind Tanzy, blotting out the lights in the ceiling. The floor fell out from under him, and though he could still feel Tanzy’s lips rising and falling, the rest of his body felt as if he were falling through an infinite void. Warmth ran up from his toes, pulling him into a cradle of the softest Egyptian sheets he had ever felt.

The code card slipped from his fingers and landed with a splat on the tile.

Tanzy came up for a moment to ask, “Intense as shit, huh?”

Her eyes were changing color with every blink of Danny’s owns. Brown to blue, blue to gold, gold to white. Even after the initial hit of the synth, the world seemed to be out of focus. He watched the tile around him undulate, its surfaces teeming with ones and zeros. Complex equations scrolled along the grout lines; some fell forward, pushing off the tile to land in the tub below. The wall began to bulge, as if some great monster behind it were trying to push its way through.

Danny tried to back away, but Tanzy held him in place.

Thin wisps of black reached out from the wall–smoke from the inferno raging behind it. On the air was the smell of dread that had been with him all day. At least the now the anticipation would end.

“God, I love this drug,” said Tanzy. She stood and ran her hands up her body until she was grabbing the sides of her head. Leaning back, she let out a low moan.

The wall exploded behind her, sending shards of tile flying across the bathroom. Danny closed his eyes against the intense heat, saw the silhouette of Tanzy’s body on the back of his eyelids. So beautiful. So lovely. He pictured her face, stared lovingly into her eyes, until all at once it began to morph.

Pain tore through his skull as images poured in from some unseen source. Videos, stills, and endless reams of data pooled at the back of his skull. Bank accounts, passwords, where to score a free coffee in Umbra; disjointed bits of information flowed into him unbidden. Danny’s muscles locked up; in the distance, he heard Tanzy screaming.

The face morphed into a thousand different people until finally settling on dour eyes he knew as well as his own.

In a blink, the feed cut out, leaving a ringing in Danny’s ears that made him squirm on the tile. He opened his eyes, found Tanzy screaming into his face. Around her, the bathroom was pristine, undamaged.

“Oh, thank God. Oh, thank you, Jesus.” She grabbed Danny’s head and pulled it into her lap. “Are you alright? Talk to me, Danny.”

“He’s dead,” said Danny, tasting blood. “Johnny San Vito is dead.”


Photo by Aldric RIVAT on Unsplash

The Coker Job