[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