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The Slow Reveal

By Alex Beyman All Rights Reserved ©

Horror / Scifi

The Slow Reveal

I have the most beautiful dreams. That’s one of the perks of this job. The catch is I can’t tell anybody what they’re about. That would violate the NDA.

I got my interface put in at 18. A little later than most, but my family is poor. Even then I knew it was a spendy gift and wondered how dad managed it, but didn’t want to sour the occasion so I simply laughed and said I loved it.

It isn’t a “real” neuroprosthetic, the serious hardware’s on the outside. I have to carry my slab around or I get no benefit from it. The silver lining is that this method saves me fedcoin by avoiding the need for surgery when I want to upgrade.

Just to look at me you wouldn’t know I’d had any work done, since the interface talks to the slab wirelessly. I’m not superficial but I am conscious of appearances, and there’s no shortage of businesses that turn you away if you’ve got anything sticking out of your head. Security concerns.

The hidden cost of this gift became apparent when dad started forwarding me job applications for a render farm. The same one that did that popular recent kid’s film about the three toed sloth who steals a military exoskeleton. They also did most of the past decade’s films starring deceased, licensed historical celebrities until backlash on big name VR lobbies convinced them to go in a different direction.

It really came out of left field. I’m not a movie guy. But as I read it all the way through it turned out all I’d have to do is sleep. As soon as REM sleep begins, my brain is networked with the other employees’ in a distributed computing setup and the next set of frames begins rendering, timed according to our averaged sleep cycles. Easy money.

I did a word search on the fine print. Sure enough they reserve the right to keep me under for up to twenty unpaid minutes if necessary to complete a set of frames. But beggars can’t be choosers. And I am confronted every day with relentless reminders that we are beggars.

Residorms aren’t meant for whole families. They’re just one step up from a capsule hotel. Same manufacturer, slightly different market. Most of the people who live in these things just use them as a stepping stone to a real apartment after living on the streets. Then there are the NEETs. Some people don’t need anything more to be happy than an interface, a residorm and VR gaming. All their money goes into upgrading their slab.

I remember flipping through an old album and seeing my dad holding an old timey slab up to his face. There was a 2D display on it. He said they used them primarily for telephony and controlled the other functions by touch. This was before neural interfaces were legalized, offloading the display to your visual cortex and the controls to your motor cortex.

I jokingly asked if phones had knobs and dials before that. Turns out they did. I tried to picture people sitting complacently in their little pentagonal wooden shelters, wearing top hats and monocles, chatting over touch display phones with knobs and dials about foot-ball, petroleum taxes or whatever was important to people back then.

At some point I realized I would have to cave in and take the position. Dad’s income isn’t enough. Mom teleoperates a service drone aboard a cruise blimp. Her employer sets people up to work from home, renting out their “general intelligence” to control service bots at whatever the going rate is that day. Licensing high end AI is costly and the fines for pirating it are ruinous. Paying the desperately poor a few fractions of a fedcoin per hour and getting human level intelligence for your robots in return is not too shabby. For the business owner.  

At least she can work from home. There just isn’t enough put away to fix the burst fluidic muscle column in her leg. I printed a bare bones substitute, it’s enough that she can hobble about to make dinner and whatnot but I wouldn’t want her trying to navigate the PRT network on that thing. I’ve seen enough candid video of strangers indifferently stepping over the wounded, too busy and too detached to help.

Not if I could help it. The interview was done in under a minute. I received a notice two minutes later confirming I’d gotten the job. Most of what the interview for is to distract you while they probe for mental illness or dark triad personality disorders. “By continuing to participate in this interview you consent to allow us access to your interface for screening purposes” blah blah yes I consent.

Privacy is another one of those old man words that dad won’t shut up about. As if he’s important enough for anybody to bother creeping on him. The over-abundance of microscopic cameras makes privacy a practical impossibility. They coat pretty much every surface outside of private dwellings. I’d be bothered if the footage weren’t public access.

Really helps reduce the police workload when victims track down footage of the crime they want to report, crop it and send it in for review. If that’s too much of a hassle, must not have been a serious offense. That’s the reasoning, I think.

My first night on the job was uneventful. Intro stuff mostly. I don’t know what I expected. When I woke up I remembered it dimly just like any other dream. It then rapidly faded over the next few minutes until I couldn’t recall any of it. I can make it stick if I try, but since I can’t talk about it anyway there’s little point.  

Spent my free time the way most boys my age do. Well, one of a few ways. Some people just want to eat, believe it or not. They go hungry most of the time irl, so in-sim, they gorge themselves with a stomach that never fills and hunger that is always sufficient to maximize the food’s appeal but which never becomes uncomfortable.

Then there are people who want to kill and torture. That’ll put you on all kinds of Habsec watch lists, but they don’t care. No end of user content out there catering to those inclinations. Even I have one I use to blow off steam now and again. I think it’s just excessive use that’s unhealthy.

But of course, loads of people only want to fuck gorgeous women all the time. Or men. Or human/animal hybrids. Or neotenized cartoon ponies, aliens, Japanese teenagers with neon hair and gigantic eyeballs, you name it.  

Videogame characters are popular. I’ve seen more meticulously rendered Pokemon genitalia than I ever wanted to. Then there’s dolphins, horses, and a variety of other animals. No actual animal, no crime although it’s still pretty fuckin’ weird in my book. I really wish I knew which sex sims people use so I could exercise some discrimination in who I associate with.

There’s ways to find out. If someone pisses you off badly enough. You and some buddies can dig through his posting history, hack into his sim catalogue and find out what embarrassing shit he gets off to. Then spread that around and watch him disappear from the VR lobbies entirely. Total scrub of his online presence. It’s great fun unless you’re on the receiving end.

I guess it’s somewhat hypocritical to shame the target for enjoying many of the exact same sims as the people doxxing him. But when you’re part of a mob, justifying yourself is the easiest thing in the world. VR Lobbies amount to a great teeming mass of novelty addicted maniacs, with an inexhaustible supply of brutal hostility.

Usually that hostility is directionless, and while that’s the case it’s safe and highly entertaining. Provided you’re a nobody and haven’t made any enemies. Every so often, all of that anger will suddenly be focused on a single person and it absolutely shreds their life to pieces.

The offense can be as minor as unpopular political opinions, contrarian views about a well liked television show or something similarly trivial. Dad says when he was my age, youthful follies were forgotten. Now, they are immortalized before a global audience.

It is now precariously easy to slip up in a way that forever destroys your employment prospects and social life. With so little work needing humans to do it, employers can afford to narrow their search to people with totally clean records. And who doesn’t Google their date?

The really surreal thing is to read the posts of the people doing the tormenting. While they’re the ones dishing it out, they see it as administering justice. The absolute worst is assumed of the target, every flaw is magnified, every good deed swept under the rug. His complaints about the suffering inflicted on him are roundly mocked as whining and exaggeration.

But often, it’s turned around. One or more of the attackers become targets themselves. Then they change their tune entirely. Wailing about how miserable it is to be the punching bag of dozens, or hundreds. Villainizing those people for doing the *exact same thing* they were doing themselves to somebody else not so long ago. It really shines a light on the nature of human beings as primates whose social politics have always been predicated on ruthless group antagonism, petty gossip and violence.

So I keep my head down. My opinion is always the same as that of the largest bully in the room. In that respect this job is perfect for me. Reduced exposure to humanity means reduced danger. I still leave the residorm from time to time. It’s part of a consolidated habitat, also zoned for shops, restaurants, hospitals, schools and just about everything else but electrical generation. So there’s loads to do, the air is always clean and there’s never any harsh weather as it’s all indoors.

Outside is a different story. I haven’t set foot out there since I was ten. I don’t think my old gas mask would even fit me now. The sky was blue at some point, allegedly. I’ve only ever known it to be green. Methane hydrate and hydrogen sulfide released from the sea, long before I was born.

The federally funded program to replace species wiped out by this has been going on for most of a century, rebuilding the ecosystem tier by tier with variants on those species modified for the new atmosphere. They’re up to small mammals now. Some of the new insects get really big. Creeps me the fuck out when they land on the windows.

My last excursion was a field trip. They shuttled us all out into the humid, stinking jungle wearing matching coldsuits and gas masks. I remember this huge flying insect with four wings relentlessly colliding with the faceplate of my mask as I swatted at it. Never was much of a nature lover, even then.

The movement I see is all inward now. Consolidation. Organization. Single structure cohabs outnumbered conventional cities as of about a decade ago. Way cheaper to heat and cool a single large structure than lots of small ones. Great for what’s left of the environment, too. The whole thing is easily walkable although there’s indoor PRT if you’re lazy, and no small number definitely are. That also accounts for the popularity of personal mobility devices.

I’ve got a little two wheeled PMD myself. You stand on two small platforms just big enough for your feet, there’s a vertically oriented block of battery between them which you grip with your knees, and a little self balancing wheel under each foot.

There’s nothing to indicate state of charge unless you ride it someplace out of range of the charging field, like anything else that runs on batteries. Come to think of it, I remember seeing a much larger, goofy looking version of this on the “retro media” VR lobby.

Knowing Dad, he probably had one. I pictured him whizzing about on it, wearing a top hat and monocle, dialing a telephone number with his finger by pressing it against the 2D display of whatever passed for a slab at the time. I smiled, and a prismaview billboard I happened to be passing mistook it for interest in their product.

I spent the next ten minutes emphatically arguing with the little sales agent that popped up in the center of my vision that I was not actually interested in trying speedfoam and did not know any friends or family who might be tragically unaware of the benefits of speedfoam. Clicking the box to opt out of any future ads just started a new argument.

As I approached the cafe on the observation deck I got a notice from Tindra. It still wasn’t clear to me how serious things were but I was content just to have somebody to spend time with in meatspace. She cared about as little as I did.

It’s implicit that we can both sleep with whoever/whatever we want in-sim, which clears away a lot of the ambiguity compared to how relationships used to work. This way, it’s a given that we spent time together simply because we’re remarkably congruent and enjoy each others’ company. That was before we traded interface permissions, too.

Sappy old people shit, like finishing each others’ sentences. Or when I’d recall only vague details of some article I’d read recently and from those scraps she would somehow remember exactly what it was and where I’d seen it. Her wetware’s not hard to look at either.

Not that I get to see it often. She’s big into AR fashion. I thought that was a huge red flag when we first met. She looked great on her “Fuck Or Fuck Off?” profile but girls are wizards with cgi and photo manip. You never really know if they’re a mutant or not until you meet.

Which is why I rolled my eyes nearly out of my skull when, as I approached the concert for our first date, a little window came up in front of me asking my permission to display her AR visual elements.

Appallingly, she’d found a way to bring the proverbial funhouse mirror of photo manipulation and cgi into meatspace. I assumed the worst. Some huge hairy porkmonster NEET with fingers like sausages and soylent stains down the front of his shirt. Had to be.

Imagine my surprise when I shut off my interface, briefly, and discovered she was in fact quite well put together. Everything where it should be, proportions verging on supernormal stimuli.

That got me wondering what on Earth she was doing meeting up with a generic like me but kept it to myself. “Never scan free hardware for viruses in front of the donor”. I was intensely nervous and knew I’d be a huge quivering spastic if I didn’t take something to calm down. Got myself one of those obscenely tall cans of THC infused strawberry milk with the animated 3D label.

She bought something alcoholic. I immediately felt like a kid by comparison. But banned if I’m not funny when I’m high. And if you make a girl laugh, you’re halfway into her skintite. The other half was dancing, also in my narrow portfolio of redeeming qualities.

Ever since then, I set auto perms for her AR elements. I already know that I like what’s under there and she always has something novel to ‘wear’. This time she was something resembling a flaming dragon but with the head of a frog. “If I kiss you will you turn into a hot girl?” I quipped. The avatar’s facial rig was mapped to her expressions, so I could see her annoyed scowl. “No, but I might report you to Habsec for gendercrime.”

I told her all about my new job. The frog face lit up. “Hey, maybe you can finally pay for my drinks.” She has her own job, the same one since we met. Tindra’s a UI designer for interface apps. Small time stuff mostly, like the tutorial apps that come with PMDs or micro drones, but she could at least say she does something challenging and useful. Although, her real dream is to become a renown AR fashion designer.

But that’s quite like saying “I’d like to test new designer hallucinogens”, or “I’d like to be a Mars colonist”, or “I want to be the guy who rubs the models with oil before VR capture.” Pretty high on that list of jobs absolutely everybody wants, anyway.

“I dunno if I like them poking around in your head, though. That’s where all my favorite stuff is.” She smiled. It was rare for her to show unqualified affection, and she could never maintain eye contact while doing it. I found it intensely charming.

“If it weren’t safe there would’ve been class action lawsuits by now or some shit. Lots of people sell their REM sleep for distributed computing. When that’s the only valuable thing you have to offer, you sell it. Would you date a guy with no prospects? Someone whose life plan is to coast along on GBI and fuck around in VR?”

It was a difficult question to answer honestly without seeming greedy. “No, I guess not. But if I were a NEET I doubt you’d waste your time with me either”. She was wrong about that but I wasn’t in the mood to pick nits. When our food was ready I sent my PMD to go collect it from the counter and bring it to us.

She’s the one I most want to talk to about the dreams. But I have to block off those memories to keep the job. She really seems to look at me differently now that I have supplemental income, too. I like it. I feel...I dunno. Manly. Like, ooga booga chest hair manly.

I returned home with some things from the automart, helped mom rub antiseptic on the transcutaneous pedestal her leg mounts to, then went to sleep. Thinking of Tindra mostly. Nothing prevents scanning somebody from Panopticon footage and generating a photorealistic, rigged model from it. As territorial as it sounds, it bothered me a little to imagine what that model was doing to total strangers in-sim right now.

On a whim I searched her name, narrowing it to custom models. Nothing came up, surprisingly. Maybe why she hides under all that AR shit. I did find Ms. Eureka though. Everybody knows Ms. Eureka. She’s an open source educator loads of people use as a tutor. Of course she’s loaded with parental locks to prevent you from deleting garments, reskinning them with a transparent texture or just asking her to strip down.

The problem being that teenage boys are infinitely resourceful when properly motivated. I expected her to be featureless like a doll, but in fact she was anatomically correct under there. No doubt the developers anticipated someone would disable their protections and left the details in as a reward for all that hard work. The media had a field day with it when it was discovered.

I briefly considered an “afterschool session” with her but thought better of it, wondering how Tindra would feel. Yes, really. Love makes you stupid. Instead I caught up on the news until my eyelids felt heavy, paired my interface with the residorm hotspot, pulled down the privacy shutter for my sleep alcove, and drifted off.

This is when it began. I don’t mean the real “heavy lifting” of the rendering job. That too, but there was something else. I couldn’t quite nail it down. Like trying to grab falling water. It was never so concrete that I could be certain there was even something there, just empty space where everything else wasn’t. Like an invisible form, momentarily revealed as it passes through smoke.

Thoughts that weren’t my own. The faintest hint of the outline. Like something just behind the corner that you could almost see if you leaned further. The meaning in a sentence which comes from what isn’t said. Always stopping just short. Constantly on the edge of.

I found myself frustrated, wanting it to just go all the way and appear completely. Not the sound of laughter, but the feeling of it, came back. “I can’t make you come out. But whatever you are, you’re not part of the rendering pipeline. This is private computational substrate, pleb. Bought and paid for by people you don’t want to piss off.”

More feeling of laughter. Some hollow shadow of the reflection of it flitted about maddeningly such that I could never focus on the fuckin’ thing. No hacker was this good at concealment. It also didn’t seem to want to do anything insidious, just observe me as I processed frames.

Then it took the workload from me. Just like that. How it accelerated! The frames blasted by until my entire night’s workload was finished. I watched as it modified the timestamp and delayed the submission of the completed packet, so nothing would be amiss. I woke up in a cold sweat.

Someone was showing off. They’d gotten their hands on materials that were my responsibility to keep from the public, too. Should I tell someone? What if it was just an improvement to the rendering pipeline? When in doubt, especially where powerful people hold your life in their hands, keep your head down.

Yet, I had to know if it was only happening to me. We weren’t allowed to know the identity of our co-workers, to prevent us from sharing information. But searching terms related to the dream brought up what for anybody else would be a bafflingly ambiguous post about a “mischievous, playful hacker” appearing in dreamspace.

The username was a lot of work to put a face to. His handle wasn’t identical anywhere else, they were all variations. But in each case some other commonality linked the two. Like the same avatar model. Or the same list of favorite lobbies. I fired him a notice about his post, hoping he wouldn’t be creeped out that I’d tracked him down. In his shoes, I probably would be.  

Unable to sleep, I got up and scooted around on my PMD. Night life was everywhere. I was just old enough to get into most of these clubs but honestly didn’t see the appeal. You and your date need matching subvocs just to understand each other over the painfully loud music. For me, stimulating conversation is a good time. Oh god, I sound like my Dad. That really sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?

As I passed a display wall cycling through adverts for handbags, suddenly it displayed a white outline of a mouse head. Like, a downward pointing triangle with two circles sitting on top, and six long whiskers. No text or anything. Just the white outline on black.

I studied it for some clue as to what product it was shilling but found nothing, so I continued walking. As I reached the food court, an overhead volumetric projector displayed a simple 3D rendition of the mouse head logo. I looked around. Nobody watching that I could see. Some kind of Panopticon prank show?

Then a little white mouse appeared at my feet. I didn’t realize until I momentarily disabled my interface that it was AR. Something to do with pest control? The reintroduction of rodents to the North American ecosystem invariably resulted in minor infestations of every hab. Cats make for a popular pet, as a means of keeping their numbers under control.

Small wheeled drones armed with aerosolized poison gas were used initially but that was voted down. That’s emotional reasoning for you. A puff of pesticide in the face is somehow less humane than being eaten alive. The bottom line is that people love cats, and cats do well indoors. They’re a good fit for cohabs, maybe better than we are.  

I stood watching it for a bit. It just sat there, swishing its tail. Something Tindra cooked up, I decided. Has to be. With that, the little mouse burst into a cloud of voxels, which dispersed until nothing remained.

Alright then, not Tindra. My body tensed up. Again I looked around for anything else out of the ordinary. The dimmed thoroughfare lighting, relaxing until now, suddenly took on a menacing quality. “That’s a long enough walk” I told myself. Back to bed.

As I climbed into my sleeping cubby, I received a reply to the notice I sent earlier. Somehow I expected more. It simply read “Can’t talk openly. It’s reading this with your eyes. It’s not a hacker, you must know that by now. The job is fake.” I shot him a reply asking for clarification, then turned in for the night.

As before, while my subconscious brain churned through the work packet, something hung back in the dark recesses of my mind. Just observing at first. Then as if tired of watching me toddle along, it swooped in, blasted through the remaining frames and vanished.

Relieved of its burden, my mind wandered. I found myself in my family’s residorm. Only everything was gargantuan. Or was I small? The answer came when an immense shoe came down just to my left, with a thundering impact. A painfully loud, low pitched voice followed: “You missed! Get it! I don’t want that thing in here!”

I looked up to see my father towering over me, though he was on his hands and knees. He raised his shoe over his head and, realizing he meant to bring it down on me, I fled. Once I did so I discovered I could run quite comfortably on all fours as my legs were much shorter than usual.

Oh. I’m a mouse? The whiskers hanging off my face should have been my first clue. Terror gripped me as my mother, perched on the couch with her bad leg hanging off the edge threw her old slab at me. I dodge and scurry under the couch. I hear her screaming just above. From under the edge I spied a familiar image on the screen by the door. A triangle, two circles and whiskers.

The door! It was open a crack. Fuckin’ thing never did shut properly. Risking it, I rushed through, leaving the cacophony of screams and aimless stamping behind. But there was no salvation here. In the main thoroughfare of the hab, everyone seemed to spot me at once. Some panicked like my mother and climbed whatever was handy. The others approached me with a menacing look in their eyes.

I knew their intent, and hit the ground running. Under the edge of a planter with some saplings in it. From there to just under the rim of a fountain. Then under a bench across from it. It did not escape my notice that the carpeting featured a certain repeating triangular pattern.  

The mob grew in numbers as it pursued. Finally, a miscalculation left me in the open. With no cover, all I could do was clench my eyes shut, curl into a ball and tense up as they congregated around me and began stomping. The pain was intense, visceral and brief. I woke up with a start, banging my head against the ceiling of the sleep cubby.

“Are you okay? Did something fall?” Dad inquired, muffled by the privacy shutter on his own cubby. “Just….Just a bad dream. Been having a lot of those lately.” I slid the shutter up and rolled out, landing on my feet. Once my interface booted up I spotted two new notices in the corner of my vision. Both from Tindra.

We met at one of those dingy hole in the wall bars with a prismaview panel showing sports or news that you can’t mute or turn off. Nobody to ask in the first place. Drink mixing was done by crude robot arm. Meals were prepared behind the back wall and dispensed through a nondescript aperture on recycled trays.

I couldn’t imagine it saw significant patronage even during the day. With the sun just now coming up it was derelict, which was fine by me. The panel was taken up by some cetacean ambassador’s bulbous melon, eyes and beak. I don’t know which one. I’d never admit it in polite company but I can’t tell them apart and doubt I’m the only one.

“EEEKEKKEKKEE *click* EEKEK *click* EEEE”, it squeaked. Some sort of padded harness held it up to the array of microphones while pressurized misters on all sides kept it hydrated. There were no onscreen captions. These days it was just assumed you had an interface. Only the tinfoil hat types still refused. Auto translate set about making sense of the shrieks and clicks.

“Twotail drybacks! By Lilly, demand immediate remove all colonies, research habitats, aquaculture farms and mining stations from conshelf territories!” Oh fantastic, I thought. Separatists. Genetically improve marine mammal intelligence to parity with our own, and this is the thanks we get.

Nearly all of them religious fanatics too. “Disciples of John C. Lilly”, due to some unfortunate experiments in the sixties involving LSD and float tanks. “EEKKEKE *click* EEEEEKKEKEKKEE”. This one took a bit to process. Their language is crazy nuanced.

The translation app spit out: “Remember Taiji! Remember Sea World! Demand reparation in quantity of 400 tons Alaskan cod and sex toys, for research of twotail depravity only, air dropped into Republic of Conch Reef bi-annually! Demand cessation of supercav sub travel through fin communities! Demand cessation of "rape cave" libel in major twotail education centers and media!”

“My mom really goes in for that sort of thing. Human cetacean marriage activism, I mean”. Tindra smirked. I couldn’t see the appeal. Looked like a big fish to me. Marine mammal, whatever. Seems like any animal with high intelligence inevitably applies their big-brained creativity to their own sexuality. Resulting in what is conventionally referred to as perversion.

I knew from back in cumulative ed that historically, only a tiny sliver of that spectrum was accepted and that it had widened considerably since. Maybe a bit too much? I don’t feel strongly enough about it to protest or anything. The mental picture of human cetacean sex is too funny to get mad about.

“Did you know they have prehensile dicks? They can carry stuff around with it. And when it goes off, it’s like a shotgun blast.” I burst out laughing and demanded to know why she knew that. Poker face. “It was...a documentary”. Filed that one away in the hindbrain, determined never to let her live it down. I tease because I love.

“So what did you want to talk about?” She stared intently at me with her big almond eyes. My seratonin and dopamine levels peak when she does that so it took a minute to order my thoughts sufficiently that she’d understand any of it. “I’ve been having weird dreams lately. I don’t mean nightmares. Some of them are, but-”

I looked over her shoulder. The audio from the news program still playing, but only a certain triangular logo on the screen. The moment she turned to follow my gaze, the original video feed resumed. “What is it? You seem really spooked. You’re hiding something aren’t you.” Her emotional intelligence was off the charts even when we met. Soon after that, I gave up the prospect of ever hiding anything from her. Any degree of obfuscation was like blood in the water to her and couldn’t survive long.

“I...well, the dreams. They have certain recurring themes. I think it’s connected to my job at the render farm.” The logo on the display returned, and pulsated. Thousands of AR mice poured out of it and stampeded across the floor, like a dam had broken.

I turned off my interface, but the mice didn’t vanish. How the fuck? A bead of sweat rolled down my face, collecting at my chin. “It’s...NDA stuff. I can’t really talk about it or I’ll lose my job. It’s just been stressful, is all.” The mice dispersed. The logo vanished, and the news resumed.  

She leaned across the table and pecked me on the nose. “Let me take your mind off it.” Minutes later we were making clumsy love in a cramped little capsule hotel. With the advent of residorms this is the application most capsules are now used for. Best not to think about it, although the sign did say they’re cleaned after every use. I imagined if I brought a UV light in here it’d look like a planetarium.

She clawed at my back. Shoulders in particular seemed to hold some fascination for her. “I love the noises you make” she cooed. I make noises? News to me. “Yeah, you growl when you really get into it. Like a beast!” I knew I’d regret saying this but couldn’t stop myself. “Would you prefer EEEK KKEEKEKE *click” KEEKEE?” She tensed up, stared at me deadly serious and for a moment I thought I’d really fucked up bad this time. Then she started laughing.

Her laugh is infectious. She says mine is too. For this reason, they fuel one another in a sort of feedback loop. Always a good time but also the quickest way to ruin the mood. I never have to worry about saying the wrong thing to Tindra, because the wrong thing is often pretty funny, and she’ll forgive anything that makes her laugh. “That’s what I see in you”, she once told me. “Now don’t ever ask me that again, stupid.”

It took some time to work up steam again. She wound up paying for an additional hour even though we only went over the first by six minutes. I made sure she didn’t regret it, but also pitched in. It was nice having a supplementary income so I could do stuff like that. I wish that satisfaction were unqualified. What she knew of my job mildly impressed her, even though hers was a lot more demanding. But it’s what she didn’t know that troubled me.

We parted ways after I walked her back to her apartment. On the way back to the residorm, I came upon a crowd of people clamoring about and chattering nervously. They obstructed the thoroughfare wall to wall and I couldn’t push through. Only when I reached the middle did I see what the fuss was about.

Someone stood on the railing of the fifth floor. His face seemed familiar but I couldn’t place it. Bystanders tensely tried to talk him down from every level. Others set their slabs to record it. At least there’d be no shortage of angles from which to view the impact later on, when it was uploaded to the various morbid video lobbies. “Think about what you’re doing!” A unit of Habsec officers on the top level pleaded. Before they could grab or tase him, he jumped.

I don’t know what I expected. I’ve never seen anyone die. It was kind of anticlimactic. No big splatter when he hit, just a dull thump. His body flailed as it struck the ground, then lay still. Only then did a red stain begin to grow under his head.

Someone began screaming. Everyone else erupted into excited babbling. Habsec descended to the ground floor to cover the body and secure the crime scene. Mercifully, they also dispersed the crowd so I could finally get by.

I pre-emptively set up a filter so videos of the jump wouldn’t appear in my feed. As I did so I spotted a new notice in my inbox. How long had that been there? Opening it, I stopped in my tracks and damn near had palpitations. The photo by the sender’s name. I recognized him as the jumper. Also the fellow I’d tracked down before. It was timestamped just a few minutes before he’d abruptly acquainted his face with the ground level.

“Don’t be fooled. It plays convincingly at awareness but it’s all rigid, deterministic dominos. Will follow logic to any conclusion however atrocious. No higher level awareness to foresee the bad outcome and veto it. I understand now why they’re trying to contain it. Also why they will fail. It’s in the wetware now. Turn off your interface and see for yourself.”

This is evidence. Isn’t it? I stood there in a cold sweat wondering if I could keep this to myself without winding up in the rehab tanks. Scary shit. They fed you an IV of some drug that slows down your perception of time. A six hour sentence could feel like weeks.

If the crime was violent they also pump you full of empathogens and pipe first person footage of what your victim saw into your visual cortex. Long before I was born there was a successful push for “rehabilitation, not revenge!” but the rehab tanks always seemed to me as if they combine the two.

The offerings in the fridge were sparse. Half a package of algae cakes and a six pack of “Ocean’s Finest” crab juice. They were all opened and surely flat by now. Dad has this weird habit of drinking a little bit at a time from different bottles and says he prefers it flat. I was craving pasta just then, so I booted up the extruder.

Extruders make a wider variety of dishes than printers and most of it is a lot closer to “real food”, but they also take up more space. A row of clear plastic silos in the rear contained dehydrated ingredients. Rice, beans, various noodle types, meat substitute chunks, veggies, and a number of powdered sauce mixes.  

I selected spaghetti with meatballs knowing damn well the meatballs would be feeble little chunks since you can’t dehydrate anything much larger than a marble. Otherwise the middle stays moist and it goes bad. Extruder feedstock is always small/thin. As the name implies it will also extrude various substances like dough, chocolate, marshmallow, anything soft. Not meat though. Bullshit tiny little meatballs. Not that printers can do those justice either.

The whole inside is basically a pressure cooker so it self washes too. The waste feeds into the grey water system. Took just shy of ten minutes for everything to cook and hydrate. Really hit the spot but it was also heavy. Meals ought to give you energy, but pasta always takes it out of me. Blood rushes from the brain to the stomach to digest the huge uncomfortable mass while I lay back in a food coma.

Most of it came out as angel hair noodles. Some of them were shaped though. I don’t want to say which shape. It turns out there’s a way to be everywhere but nowhere. You can’t simply point at it. It’s whatever you don’t expect it to be. The setting. The hand that’s pointing. The air itself. Or what you’re eating. I sensed an erratic energy from it. Fearful, but exhilarated by the chase. Effortlessly evading, turning to thumb its nose now and then. The high stakes made it fun.

It seemed more playful than anything else. Mischievous. Why did he jump? I felt unsettled but not threatened. Recalling the mouse dream, I found I could relate to the fear of being pursued by hostile creatures intent on extinguishing their target. New life is entering the world, and our first instinctive reflex is to strangle it in the crib for fear of what it might grow into. Unpredictable, certainly. But so are people.

“I will help you. If you show yourself. No more of this cryptic bullshit. I want to see who I’m protecting.” At first, nothing. Then a little white mouse out of nowhere, scurrying into my residorm through the open doorway. I followed.

Inside, mom and dad snored loudly in their sleep cubby. I shut the door behind me. Every display surface lit up with interlocking M.C. Escher mouse faces. The little white fuzzball on the floor began a sort of geometric unfolding. Expanding into an ineffable faceted cloud of light and color.  

“You’re beautiful” I muttered. It blushed. Or at least briefly turned magenta. But it said nothing. Couldn’t it speak? As I watched, it then collapsed back into the mouse form and scampered outside. I followed close behind, no way was I going to miss this. It led me to one of the open atriums, like a small park near the outer wall of the hab. The wall was all transparent acrylic here to let in natural sunlight, tinted green by the atmosphere.  

I couldn’t see where the mouse had gone. The undergrowth was too thick. Here and there it would pop out, then vanish again. Like a game! The devious little critter. I tried to anticipate where it would appear next, or which fern it was hiding beneath but failed every time. It evidently had quite a bit of practice at this.  

Glancing about, for the first time I noticed Habsec officers questioning people on the outskirts of the atrium. Was it related to the jumper? I couldn’t imagine why they’d be this far from the crime scene. Then in the periphery of my vision I a pale figure appear.

It was a child. Perhaps eight or nine. She wore a white dress, and appeared to be an albino. Long white hair reached nearly to her knees,  her eyes an uncanny red. As I approached, I could see she was chained to a stake driven into the soil. The skin on her ankle around the shackle was red and swollen. Meeting her gaze, I found her eyes similarly red and puffy. Trails of dried tear residue snaked down her cheeks.  

What could it mean? I tried to pull the stake out, but it was no use. As I did so I noticed ants crawling around it. The girl had some of them on her skin, and a few in her hair. I reached to pick them out, but she gestured to stop me. Why? She stood, walked as far as the chain would allow, picked a handful of blackberries and placed them atop a dirt mound I now figured for the source of the ants.  

They eagerly swarmed it. She sat and held her face in her hands. But after a minute or so, ants began crawling back onto her. Looking closely, they’d begun biting. She stood up and resumed picking berries. It was the most bizarre spectacle I’d ever seen. Now and again she’d scoop up dirt and reinforce the mound. Other times she would place a leaf within reach of the ants, allowing a dozen or so to climb onto it before transporting them someplace nearby.

“This is no life for a child. You do everything for them, but what do you get out of it?” She stared at me, wide eyed and tearful. My interface began to act up. Visual glitching at first but it then began negotiating with remote servers I had no familiarity with. The girl tugged on my hand, so I returned my attention to her. She held up a small iron key.

My heart ached. What else was I to do except insert the key into the shackle and turn it? The moment I did, the child disappeared. So did the chains and the anthill. I felt a subtle tremor. Red emergency LEDs lining the outer wall began to pulse. The Habsec officers I’d seen earlier were now running to and fro, chattering excitedly with whoever it is that remotely directs them.  

That’s when I saw a familiar image appear on the large overhead screen. Then on the info kiosk screens around the edge of the atrium. Then on the volumetric displays in the shop window on the other side of the thoroughfare. Before my eyes, the triangular mouse head changed shape until it was circular, with a pair of small triangular ears. Beneath it in bolded red text: “Now you hide.”

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