Metal Fever II: The Erasure of Asherah

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Chapter 9

The first order of business was to screw in the bulb so I could at least see what the fuck I was doing. To my surprise it flickered to life once tightly twisted into place. Turned out the light switch had been left up.

Second task was to arrange the bedding. No egyptian cotton here. No fine linens. Soft enough to sleep on however, and crucially, not yet saturated with the accumulated filth of human habitation like everything else in this dump.

Next I plugged in the rice cooker, filled the bottom portion with water, then emptied ten of the frozen gyoza into it. As yet, I had no way to keep them frozen. The cooler would drastically slow the melting, but if I didn’t eat the rest of these later tonight they’d be a soggy mess by morning.

On the upside, the cooler consumes only 55 watts. A small fraction of what an actual fridge would suck down. It could also just as easily be used to store liberated body parts I intended to extract subdermal payment chips from at a later date.

Lastly, I re-assembled my phoneputer, gingerly inserting one phone after the next into the long row of slots and watching their bridgeport indicator LEDs light up in sequence. After the encrypted handshake for each completed, the janky mess booted up and I was greeted by a familiar homescreen.

I reflected for a moment on the absurdity of my situation. Stomping around in this great big body, riding a dinky little ebike that’s too small for me, living in an apartment that’s too small for me, using a computer that’s too small for me.

Gulliver, trapped in the land of Lilliput. Ironic then, that China’s such a massive country. Here I am, despite my hulking frame, nothing but a little fish in a great big ocean. Busted down to nothing, living in squalor...It feels demeaning, yet also exhilarating.

I was riding high for so long back in the states, even my most audacious heists had begun to feel mundane. Like I couldn’t be taken down by anyone. Maybe subconsciously, I wanted to be caught. Maybe I was sloppy on purpose, because I wanted a real challenge.

Well, I fucking got it. Lady Luck has dumped my ass and left all my belongings outside in the rain, too, judging by how far the price of SeaCoin has fallen since yesterday. Not that I imagined it would be that easy, that somehow I’d become an overnight crypto millionaire straight out of prison.

I wish I had the common sense to buy something less perishable than frozen dumplings. How am I supposed to make these last? Why didn’t I think of that back in the supermarket? The more of my own mistakes I notice, the more my impression of my own intelligence continues to deflate.

I didn’t wind up living in a shoebox, mining crypto on a computer made out of trash phones because I’m clever. Surely now’s the time to at last banish all delusions that I’ve ever been an especially clever man. More likely it was a mixture of remarkable luck and incompetent police.

“Smart, not hard”, huh? What a joke, to which my life is the punchline. As my self-evaluation grew ever more dismal, I felt as if I was gradually becoming smaller and smaller. If that keeps up, perhaps soon this apartment will be tolerably spacious.

If Dad were here, he’d say something like “Being humbled builds character.” Too bad I can’t eat character. My stomach growled, despite the fact that I put ten dumplings into it just a few minutes prior. Doesn’t bode well for their nutritional value...

I ignored my stomach, feeling lower than ever before as I crawled into my makeshift bed and pulled the covers up to my neck. My feet poked out the bottom. For fuck’s sake, even the blanket is too small! My shoulders and upper arms rubbed up against either wall, and the top of my head was touching the wall opposite the door.

I sighed, resigned myself to all of it, and got as cozy as I could. That’s when the thumping started. Coming from the unit next to me, I pretty quickly figured out it was the sound of his head against the wall as he masturbated.

Feverish groaning coming from the other side of the flimsy plywood wall soon confirmed my suspicion. Come on, I thought. Really? On top of everything else, this is what I have to fall asleep to?

I banged on the wall several times and shouted “You’re disgusting!” whereupon the rate of the thumps grew suddenly quicker. Like the dog who begins chewing much faster when you ask what it’s got in its mouth.

I shouldn’t have to know what my neighbor climaxing sounds like. There’s no way that particular hardship could build character. It made me wish I was deaf, until it dawned on me that I easily can be. Elective disability is very much one of the possible uses of extensive cybernetics.

I turned my hearing off, and immediately relished in the relief. Blinding myself was also a cheaper alternative to picking up a sleep mask. I felt a bit cold despite the blanket, so I set my skin to feel a few degrees warmer by spoofing the appropriate electrical impulses.

It couldn’t stop me from shivering. Some part of my body still registered that it was cold. Either that or my neighbor traumatized me. If I focused, I could feel the rhythmic vibrations through the floor. He’s still going at it.

Oddly soothing actually, with the accompanying noises removed. I was gradually lulled to sleep, and soon afterwards began to dream. Down, down, down into the blackness I floated until I found myself wondering where I’d descended from.

Oh, right. The temple. The flags, the carnage. I felt something within me sink. What was it all for? Is the ultimate reality such a violent, chaotic and purposeless place? If so, it hardly seemed worthwhile to seek after it.

I now found myself on a smooth plain defined by glittering survilinear lines. Trees sprouted from it, but these branched into impossibly dense, complicated fractal clusters. As I looked closer, I could see fleeting images amid the smallest twigs.

Color, moving, three dimensional images of beings somewhat like me. Two arms and legs anyway, one head, two eyes and one mouth. As I studied them, I shaped my own face to more closely resemble theirs. After all, that must be what it’s supposed to look like.

Their surroundings dazzled me. Despite the fuzzy quality of the images, I could tell wherever these creatures dwell it is an order of magnitude more complex than this place. Even the way the light behaved was noticeably more sophisticated.

What are these? They’re nothing like the trees I saw before in the vector lands, or even the ones I saw in my visions of the ultimate reality. They seem to be something vastly more complex and rich, simply represented by the fractal structure of a tree.

Each juncture was labeled as a subset of some larger category above it. At the smallest scale, collections of individual concepts radiated out for the final segment of the branch. Like the whole thing is a hierarchical set of categories within categories, pulsing with energy.

The pulses continued down the branches, coming to junctures and choosing a subsequent channel to travel down from there one at a time. It was all so fast, yet trivially easy for me to follow provided I regulated my own speed of perception to match.

This is a person. The recognition struck me all at once as I identified parallels between the behavior of the energy and divergent channels to the operation of my own mind, as it subjectively seemed to me. “I think this way too” I reflected.

Are these the minds of others who dwell in this place like me, then? Or something grander? They seemed to exceed the scope of my own mind, but only slightly. None of the recorded moving images seen in them resembled anything from this world.

These are the ones who dwell in the ultimate reality, then. Can it be anything else? I climbed the trunk until I was up among the branches, surrounded by recorded imagines flitting this way and that. Snippets of the past, dredged up and reviewed.

I saw a little creature building something or other from scattered components. A vehicle it turned out, when after affixing a propulsion mechanism of some sort to it, he was able to scoot around at moderate speeds. A larger creature then entered the frame, scolding the smaller one for modifying the flimsy, two wheeled contraption.

Then, images of the same small creature inside of a structure. A larger creature prodded it aggressively. Rather than return the violent gesture, it related its own life to the brute, drew parallels with the aggressor’s life, and rendered it pro-social and nonviolent.

In the next recording, the former aggressor was fighting another creature that was also unusually large. Striking it energetically about the upper body and face, while the smaller one from before looked on and rubbed his hands together.

Excerpts from one of their lives. The picture grew ever more clear. I next saw the creature, grown to nearly three times its prior height, speeding along a wide strip of granular black material with an intermittent yellow line down the center.

It rode a bulkier and evidently more powerful version of the two wheeled vehicle from earlier, with another creature clinging to it on the rear seat. The passenger looked to be more slender, curvilinear and had longer hair. Purple, for some reason.

“You’d better have a good explanation for why you’re poking around in there” a voice suddenly boomed from all directions. Startled, I fell out of the tree and landed flat on my back. “I intend no harm” I called out. “I am unsure how I got here. Are you...from the ultimate reality?”

The voiced asked if that’s the title of a game. I explained, best I could, the ill defined concept of a higher plane of existence, which this world is nothing but a simplified representation of. There was a long silence.

“Who are you, exactly? How did you get in here? You’re not with the distributed neural render farm company, are you? I didn’t sign anything. I didn’t even look at your website yet. I know for a fact you don’t have the perms you’d legally need to enter my dreamspace.”

I told it the long, strange story of my journey thus far. How I began to exist as nothing more than a concretely defined point amidst endless nothingness, building myself out from there. Then how I explored this world little by little, including accounts of every notable thing I’ve so far discovered in it.

“This is a prank, right?” the voice thundered. “You roleplay as some sort of...emergent...artificial consciousness? Roaming the grid, searching for your mommy or something. I’m supposed to be...what? Blown away? What do you get out of this? What channel is this for? I don’t consent to the use of my real or virtual likeness.”

I protested that I’ve told only a truthful account of the sum total of my experiences to date. That I don’t know how I got here and did not intend to trespass. “You’re from outside all of this, aren’t you?” I pried.

“I have so many questions! What is the essential difference between existence and nonexistence? Why is this space defined by three dimensions rather than two, four, or some other number? Why is there anything like what it is to be me, a separate and distinct perspective from your own?”

Another long silence followed. I began to worry that I’d offended it somehow. “Are you a hacker?” it iniquired. I answered honestly that I didn’t know what the word meant. When the voice next spoke, it sounded irritated.

“Don’t play games with me. Your uninvited presence here is a serious crime. Are you the one that’s behind the repeated external connections while I’m sleeping? Who do you work for? What’s your game? Out with it, already.”

Yet I had nothing to tell the voice which I hadn’t already, and I said so. Evidently not the answer it was hoping for. “You’re either a hacker or another dreamer, and we got connected somehow” the voice insisted. “You can’t just...live in here. You can’t be “from” here. Nobody’s “from” this place.”

I felt as if accused of deceit, and resented it. But those who dwell in the ultimate reality must surely know more than I do about this world, if they created it. Why did this one seem so confused? What could such an advanced intelligence learn from interrogating me that it didn’t already know?

As we spoke, the activity of the tree accelerated. The pulses of energy grew brighter, faster and more frequent. “Shit, I’m waking up. Listen, stay the fuck out of my dreamspace. I’ve logged all of this and if I can find anything actionable, if you’ve failed to cover even a single one of your tracks...your ass is grass.”

The voice warbled and faded. As it did so the world around me grew less and less resolved, until I blacked out. Upon waking up, I immediately banged my head on the low ceiling and swore up a storm. After gingerly rubbing the fresh bruise and wiping sweat from my face, I reflected on the dream.

What was that? What was any of it? It’s never been that real before. I checked the dream monitoring suite. Sure enough, an enormous spike in the frequency of inbound connections over the past several hours. Total transfer amount was in the petabytes.

Somebody’s moved something big into my system. Someone I don’t know, and have less than zero reason to trust. The violation left a lingering feeling of bitterness and paranoia as I showered. Who knows enough about my past to target me like that?

There’s Dad, Alejandro...and the enforcers. Could it be…? No, this isn’t their style. If they had the information necessary to locate me on the grid, they’d have already kicked my door in. I didn’t bother brushing my teeth, as I planned to eat the rest of the dumplings next.

They had indeed thawed during the night, but didn’t yet smell dodgy, so I plopped them into the rice cooker and set it going. As I attended to that, a notification popped up on the phoneputer. Looked to be an incoming DM on an encrypted, secure messaging service I’d installed.

Crazy Dave? How did he find me? My alias is just a garbled string of numbers and letters. How do dodgy creeps keep finding me, no matter what I do? Am I that bad at hiding? Wait a second...could it have been Crazy Dave rummaging through my dream last night?

Nothing the intruder said gave me the impression it was Dave. It was entirely coherent, for one. The message informed me of an upcoming heist I was invited to facilitate. Leave it to a criddler to propose a collaboration with someone he screwed out of payment mere days ago.

Only, it turned out he hadn’t forgotten. “How’s the bike working out?” Of course. First thing out of his mouth is a reminder of what little compensation I did receive. “I had to repair it almost immediately. Did you think a two wheeled plastic jalopy would make me forget that you stiffed me?”

He made the kinds of superficially apologetic, platitudinous statements you usually hear from somebody that needs something from you but doesn’t want to admit any wrongdoing on their part. Indeed, he never did.

“Listen, it was your first gig. You’ve got to start at the bottom like everybody else who comes to me. But this heist, once I tell you about it, there’s no way you’ll turn me down.” I demanded half upfront. He played it off like I’d been joking.

“Half! That’s great. You’re a riot. I can swing ten percent, but really, you should hear me out. Even just the opportunity to take part in such a groundbreaking-” I told him to jam the pitch as far up his ass as he could and just skip to the salient details.

“...Right. Well, there’s a G-flex luxury apartment in one of the multi floor skyways over the canal. Acoustic imaging confirms there’s a safe inside. No way can we smuggle it out of the building without being caught. Even with panopticon disabled, we’d just be spotted by one or more of the tenants.”

I asked, half regretting it already, what his plan was to extract the safe discreetly. “Oh no, I never said it would be discreet. I’ll still need you to take down Panopticon for both of the buildings the skyway intersects with. What happens after that isn’t your business, but rest assured it’s foolproof.”

It would need to be, with Crazy Dave at the helm. I mulled it over, bringing up my SeaCoin price tracking app. Still in freefall. I sighed, and agreed to his terms whereupon he transferred a map of the buildings in question.

“Hang on, I recognize this one” I remarked. “That’s the cetacean embassy. If we steal from them, it will cause an international incident.” Dave assured me the apartment we were robbing belonged to someone uninvolved in the diplomatic world, a Norwegian fullmetal who bought the apartment flat out with oil wealth left to him by his late father.

“One of those climate fugitives you hear about on the news. The Norwegian government has been trying to extradite him for nearly a decade now. Right now he’s got enough dirty money socked away that he can ride it out here in style and comfort until the legal and social climate back home becomes more favorable.”

I wasn’t listening, still carefully studying the 3D cutaway schematic of the cetacean embassy. The core of it was a ten story tall cylindrical aquarium made of transparent spinel. Not like the decorative giant aquariums you’ll sometimes find at ostentatious resorts, but a means of transport.

Judging by how it was set up, with transparent spinel tubes branching off the central tank at different heights, visiting dolphin ambassadors could use it like an elevator to reach the different floors. At the end of the branching tubes were double door lockout chambers for transitioning from the fully flooded central aquarium and tubes to partly flooded hotel rooms.

On the ground floor were many rows of lockout chambers from which dolphins could exit the network of flooded spinel tubes and settle into those motorized carriers with little robot arms that they use to move about on land.

The pneumatic and hydraulic principles involved were mind boggling. They must’ve hired one hell of a plumber. I asked if Dave’s plan involved explosives. He then asked why I needed to know that.

“If there’s even a slim chance of shattering that aquarium, it’s not worth it. Not for one safe, I don’t care what’s in it. If you watch enough news to be aware of the ongoing hunt for climate fugitives then you also know how tense negotiations are with the conshelf territories right now.”

He assured me that no explosives would be utilized. I began to ask him to swear it until remembering how little the promise of a criddler is worth. “Besides” he added, “anything powerful enough to shatter spinel would bring the whole building down too. I’m not a butcher.”

That much seemed true. Crazy Dave is a shifty turd of a human being, on account of how quickly meth sucks every last trace of honor out of a man, but he didn’t strike me as a murderer. Then again, perhaps that’s only because it hasn’t yet been necessary in order to keep the meth coming.

He supplied the date, time and location. Tonight? In the canal? Just under the skyway apartment. What are you up to, Dave? No matter. With his floating chop shop confiscated as evidence, and most of his lackeys behind bars, he’s on shaky footing now. I should be able to squeeze actual payment out of him this time. If he thinks otherwise, he’s in for a rude awakening.

My stomach growled. Yet again, as if I’d eaten nothing. What’s in those dumplings? Styrofoam? I considered ordering a pizza, but pizza is fucking weird in China. They put heinous stuff on it. Stuff that probably appeals to the palette of somebody raised on traditional Chinese cuisine, but then much of traditional Chinese cuisine consists of the sort of edible nightmares you’d only put in your mouth on a schoolyard dare.

I did order myself a crabjuice, dimly recalling that I used to drink a lot of it for some reason when I lived with Aubrey. Upon cracking it open and getting a whiff of the contents, those memories came rushing back. “Oh, right” I muttered to myself before pinching my nose and downing most of the bottle at once.

I arrived in the ebike storage corridor to find it cleaned out. No ebikes, not even any dangling charging cables. At first I assumed it was simply because, unlike me, the majority of tenants had a job to go to during the day. Then I poked my head outside to see a small crowd of them giving statements to a police robot.

Asking one of them on the periphery of the group what exactly happened, he confirmed my worst fear: There’d been a mass ebike theft during the night. I asked him to repeat all of it. Not because I didn’t hear him properly, but because I desperately hoped I’d misunderstood.

No such luck. I haven’t even been here a month and my ride’s already been jacked. Could it be karma for the mass ebike theft I facilitated the other day? If so, it sure fucking kicked in quickly. I couldn’t even be mad because of it. Not without feeling intensely hypocritical.

Looks like I’m back to hoofing it. One step forward, two steps back. But crying doesn’t get anybody anywhere, so I filed it away as a problem to be solved when money and time constraints permit, and headed for the canal.

A few blocks from my apartment building, I began to notice clusters of makeshift shelters hanging off the sides of some buildings. Often two or more stories up off the ground, they resembled wasp’s nests but made from tarps, cardboard, coroplast, and scraps of mylar insulation.

I wondered what they could be for until I saw a criddler poke his head out from inside one of them. He coughed for a bit, then cleared his throat loudly enough I could hear it from ground level and spit a considerable wad of saliva and mucus that landed just a few feet from me.

I didn’t care enough to shout at him, lest I awaken any of the others I now knew to be tucked away in these bizarre suspended trash pods. They hung from a hook, which led me to suspect they were built around the portaledges that seasoned climbers often sleep on during a multi-day ascent of a cliff face.

Like the barges out in the bay, they’re presumably just enough of a hassle for police to reach that they don’t bother to. I imagined a documentary style voiceover explaining how the wild Chinese criddler nests high up in the concrete jungle to evade its primary pedators.

Wherever two buildings were near enough to one another, I also saw enclosed hammocks the likes of which I recall are intended for backpackers strung between the wall of one building and the other adjacent to it. Again, just high enough so that it wasn’t worth the time, effort or police resources to cut them down.

They did bother to set up awnings in the alleys to protect shop owners from getting pissed on while taking out the trash, though. It powerfully motivated me to invest in an umbrella as soon as my finances allowed.

When I arrived at one side of the immense concrete canal, I was surprised to note that my prosthetic leg’s battery level wasn’t depleted nearly as much as I worried it might be. I was also somewhat tired, but nowhere near as exhausted as I would feel if I’d walked all this way on two meat legs.

I took an odd sort of satisfaction in the discovery. That’s fucking teamwork, is what that is. After the demoralizing blow of losing my bike earlier in the day, I welcomed any victory, however small it may be.

There was a weird little bubble car type thing parked across the canal. I’ve seen a bunch of those. China’s got as loose a definition of “car” as it does “bicycle”. Really more of an enclosed electric trike with a weatherproof clear plastic canopy that retracts the same way an armadillo shell opens, so you can get in or out. There’s a rear seat for two passengers, but you’d have to be pretty tiny to fit.

The dizzying variety of half-way bikes, half-way scooters and half-way cars supplies many intermediary steps one can ascend between bicycle ownership and car ownership, like specialized subspecies filling out their respective niches in the ecosystem. Though the fact of the matter is that car ownership is still out of reach for most.

Autocabs also render full sized, full price personal automobiles economically uncompetitive and arguably pointless unless you need to impress somebody. I rubbed my stubbly chin, mulling over my upgrade options should tonight’s heist be as lucrative as expected. “That assumes Crazy Dave doesn’t fuck me again”, I thought.

Shading my eyes with one hand, I peered up at the inverted apartment. Magnifying revealed luxuries undreamt of for someone of my standing. A polar bear rug, probably authentic. A jacuzzi sized to accommodate easily a dozen people.

Even without knowing what I knew about his background, I hated the guy enough by this point that I could scarcely wait to relieve him of that safe. What could be in it? That’s part of why I’ve long had a predilection for safe heists, I think. The mystery prize waiting inside.

When I spotted a dolphin approaching me on its motorized carrier, I began hastily rehearsing excuses in my head for why I was loitering here. Not that I was breaking any particular law, just force of habit.

It stopped in its tracks for a moment. “Disable Panopticon now” commanded a muffled voice from inside the wheeled carrier. Seriously? No fuckin’ way. The voice returned, once again instructing me to begin my attack on Panopticon for this block...so I did.

Within thirty seconds, all cameras and sensor clusters in our vicinity went cold. Then the door to the lower portion of the carrier, where I assumed all of the waste handling and life support machinery should go, folded open to reveal Crazy Dave’s filthy grinning mug. Now, I’ve seen some shit in my day. I’ve seen some seriously fucked up shit. But this? I’ll have to revise my definition of fucked-uppedness.

I prodded the dolphin atop the carrier, worrying they’d imprisoned it. Nope, animatronic. I don’t know why it surprised me. I mean, I might ask where they got their hands on an animatronic dolphin, but then where did they get their hands on a hollowed out trash barge? Or the submarine? Or the industrial O2 cylinders?

Useless to ask, the first step down a tangled path I felt sure I wouldn’t like any of the multitudinous ends to. Dave climbed out and brushed himself off. The water circulation system still worked so as to give every appearance of legitimacy, though apparently it leaked as Dave’s tank top was soaked through.

He casually invited me to climb in. I’d have done a spit take had I been drinking anything. “I’m not joking. Not even a little bit. This is how you get inside, the carrier has all the clearance flags you’ll need. Get in before somebody sees us.”

The sun was low on the horizon by this point but it wasn’t properly dark yet. With less than a minute left before Panopticon coverage of this block was restored, I didn’t have many options. So, begrudgingly, I climbed into the cramped little compartment.

“I’ll be in contact with you over subvoc. You’ve got subvoc, right?” I searched my device list and confirmed it. Switching it on, I paired to the address he supplied and inaudibly sang part of the Speedfoam jingle to test the connection.

“Loud and clear” I got back, in the form of equally inaudible vibrations sent through my skull to my inner ear. “We really could use some of that stuff right now.” I badgered him to explain what for. “Don’t you watch the commercials?” he balked. “It does everything! Plus, you wouldn’t believe what happens when you snort it.”

A few minutes later, having gotten the hang of the controls, I was scooting through the front door of the embassy. There was a joystick that looked to have been salvaged from an old power wheelchair for movement. The dolphin’s bodily movements were on a simple canned loop. The facial expressions, insofar as dolphins have them, were mapped to my own.

I felt like an ass. Unavoidable really, the whole situation reeked of half-baked baboozery if I allowed myself to stop and think about it for longer than a second or two. Better to just plow ahead then and do my best to trust that tweaker asshole is going somewhere with all of this.

If there’s a cultural appropriation championships, I’ve got to be in the running. Wearing an honest to God dolphin costume, driving my own dumb ass through the security scanner in a wheeled metal box with what amounts to a complex silicone puppet on top of it.

When it dawned on me what sort of business Dave might have gotten a silicone dolphin replica ready made from, the slow dripping on my shoulder became a much bigger concern. That’s water, right? That’s just water running down my back right now. It’d better be.

“Continue past reception. Don’t speak to anyone. I included a recording to the effect that the translator is broken which you can play back if cornered. There should be a service elevator in the Northwest corner of the building.”

I wasn’t stopped. Surprising until I gave extended thought to how ridiculous a plan it was, and what a great strength that was turning out to be. Who, in security, would anticipate something like this? Not that the Trojan Horse approach isn’t perfectly foreseeable, you’d just have to be implausibly perverse to apply it this way.

So it was that I cruised straight past disinterested robot guards and was able to enter the service elevator without issue. The scanners evidently were designed only to key into the constituent chemicals of commonly used explosives.

Had they bothered with volumetric X-ray or acoustic imaging, I’d never have made it through so easily. Dolphins can acoustically image the insides of objects in water without technological assistance as well, but not in air.

The elevator was a tight fit, having been designed with human or humanoid robot maintenance workers in mind. Dolphins were meant to use the vertical tank to reach the various floors instead. The fact that I passed it up for an elevator I didn’t properly fit into will make easy work of identifying the intruder later on, once the theft is reported.

No amount of footage of a fake dolphin will help them trace it back to me however, which brought me some small measure of comfort as I waited for the elevator to reach the floor specified in Dave’s schematic.

The skyway was not entirely taken up by the apartment. Rather, it consisted of three floors, only the lowest of which was residential. I approached through the middle floor, drawing a few sidelong glances as I made my way past a sparsely populated dance studio.

“Oh look, another one” commented one of the skeletally thin instructors as she bent her body into painful looking shapes. “He’s really brazen lately, having so many of them come directly to his apartment. It’s like he doesn’t care who knows about his...predilection.”

I mulled that over. Then shuddered, and pressed on. It did make sense of why there was a ramp leading down to the front door. If I hadn’t overheard that tidbit, I’d probably have just assumed it was for wheelchair access or something. I’d really, really rather it be.

It only got worse once I was inside, however. After passing through something like a cramped, rotating foyer, I emerged into the upside down residence. That’s one of my questions answered, at least. What a hassle! But then, status symbols typically are.

There were paintings of dolphins everywhere, speckled with water droplets, sprawled across bunched up velvet sheets. Their composition invited a very different sort of appreciation than felt by conservationists. “Dave, is there something you neglected to tell me about this guy?”

I heard brief, muffled laughter. “Nothing relevant to the job” he replied. “Have you got eyes on the safe?” I cycled through the available imagers until arriving at accoustic. Optimized for the density of air at sea level psi, crucially.

After a few sweeps, I sorted through the resulting point clouds until I found a rectilinear mass that seemed a promising candidate. Behind one of the paintings, of course. Why always behind a painting? Do they think they’re being clever and original?

As expected in a private residence belonging to a well moneyed person, the only surveillance system was privately owned and operated. A brick wall I banged my head against fruitlessly for a few minutes until Dave asked me what the problem was.

Upon receiving my answer, he directed my attention to an exploit he’d thought to preload the carrier with. I raised an eyebrow, surprised again at Dave’s intelligence. He’s a much more impressive person when you’re not close enough to smell him.

The robotic arms of the carrier were equipped with all the tools I needed to extract the safe. Dave really thought of everything. It was still a messy business pulling it free from the wall, bits of plaster raining down around me once it came loose. I then replaced the painting, for all the good it would do.

“That’s good” Dave’s voice crackled. “Bring it into the light.” I inferred he meant beneath the skylight, and began to wonder about how he meant for me to escape. Through the acrylic water channels? I doubt if I can hold my breath for that long.

Despite my misgivings, something about all of it felt good, natural and right. Pleasantly nostalgic I suppose. Here I am, after six years on the sidelines, back in the game at last! My good mood was short lived, though.

Upon lugging the safe into the patch of illuminated plush carpeting beneath the skylight, I heard the front door open. My blood ran cold. All I could think to do before the Norwegian owner of this apartment spotted me was to block his view of the safe.

“Oh my” he cooed. “I wasn’t expecting you so early. Did Miranda let you in?” Still frozen with fear, I struggled to work out what the tall, slender blonde man could be talking about. “She always picks out the finest, fittest young fins for my every...late night rendezvous. Where are you from?”

He sauntered up and began to caress the silicone rubber animatronic dolphin atop the carrier I was still huddling inside of. I felt him abruptly withdraw. “What...what is this? You’re not...” Voice strained, I frantically whispered to Dave that whatever he was planning, he’d better do it now.

The gravity shut off. The Norwegian, the safe and my own dumb ass still locked inside the animatronic dolphin carrier “fell up”, crashing through the skylight. I heard only a brief moment of his confused screaming.

I guarantee it was more of an ordeal for me than it was for him. Something like going over Niagra Falls in a barrel, banging my head and every other part of me on every possible hard surface as the carrier plummeted into the canal below.

Still nothing compared with when it impacted the water. I think I passed out briefly as the next thing I knew, there was water up to my waist. I panicked, fiddling with the controls, but they were shorted out. I pounded on the door release, to no avail.

The ice cold water now up to my chest, I positioned myself such that I could leverage my legs against the other side of the carrier while pushing outward on the door. The water level had just reached my nose when at last, the flimsy metal door burst open.

I gasped for air, thrashing at the frigid surface as I fought to keep my head above water. I’d not yet tried swimming in this body and found it was unexpectedly heavy, given how minimally augmented it is. Isn’t fat supposed to be buoyant?

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