Shadows in Neon City: Part 12
This City is the Birth of a New Day
Written by: Zack
Published On: February 5th, 2022
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
Time is irrelevant inside the VDR. You could spend weeks, even months inside a seed world and only moments would pass in the real world. The opposite is true too, of course. Some people spend mere seconds in some seed worlds and miss out on months. When your mind is disconnected from your body, it has no context for where or when it is.
For Murph Bell, he felt like he had been falling for hours in the dark void that Jane had connected him to. He spent a good amount of time screaming before realizing it was pointless. He felt the pull of gravity downwards, but was that really down? In every direction, there was nothing but void. It was downright biblical.
Is this it? Have they found me out and are now just sending my mind down an endless void while they dump my body in a ditch? Murph thought. It sure seemed that way. There wasn’t a beginning or end to any of this. He closed his eyes, and while it didn’t change his view of things, it did calm him down. Perhaps this was just a test to see what kind of place Murph would make.
Murph opened his eyes and saw Neon City beneath him. It was night, and the city looked more alive than ever from where Murph now flew. The coast of Lake Scourge lit up with different colored lights. He saw boats of all sizes move to the man-made islands, dotted with amazing lights. Further inland, he saw cars and vehicles of all kinds fly and zoom between the large skyscrapers that made up downtown. He could even see The Glitterdome and the network of brightly lit roads that fed into it. Even from his birds-eye view, Murph couldn’t see the entire city. Towards the horizon, Murph could see more buildings and even the Megacorp towers, the tops of which were buried in the clouds still.
Murph was no longer plummeting. Rather, he was floating high above Lake Scourge. With a thought, he began to lazily float down. He stopped about a couple hundred feet above the lake’s surface before he looked out again. It reminded him of those nights he would spend looking at the city from the coast back home. Even now it all seems so far away. The city wasn’t the only thing that felt far away. His anxiety, his anger, and dread all seemed to melt away. This would normally send his heart rate skyrocketing, but the previous plummet took a lot of the excitement out of him.
“Nothing like a top-down view to make the world seem small,” a voice said above him. Murph choked back a gasp and looked up to see a man floating down beside him. A man in an odd green suit. It hit Murph like a ton of bricks. The man on the bus with him, the man in the same green suit from the Glitterdome.
“Simon?” Murph cocked an eyebrow. Simon lazily floated next to him. He was reclining in the air with his feet up like he was resting them on some invisible coffee table. He flashed Murph a smile, his eyes glowed a bright green to match his suit.
“Well yes, and no,” he said with a chuckle. “I am the grifting husker Simon. And many others, but for the purposes of this discussion you may call me Aramaki.”
Murph felt his body slipping down. He took a sharp breath and stood up fully as if standing on solid ground despite the fact he was hundreds of feet up in the air.
“Aramaki? You mean the Aramaki? Of Atsutenki?” Murph repeated. The man nodded and stretched, placing his hands behind his head.
“Well technically there are exactly 10,303 Aramaki’s in Neon City, but for clarity, yes, I am the Aramaki. As you put it,” He said. “And you are the 505th Murph Bell in Neon City. A rarity if ever there was one,”
“There are just over 500. Wow, okay yeah that is pretty rare,” Murph said, allowing himself a small smile before it faded. He knew what he had to do again. Aramaki continued to look out towards the city from his reclined position-the two men suspended above the great lake.
“I want my memory back,” Murph finally said. Aramaki continued to look out at the city skyline, not even turning his head towards Murph. He let the silence hang for a moment.
“I said I want the memory you took from me. That night at the Glitterdome, and I want to know why,” he said. A smile grew on Aramaki’s lips, showing a gap between his front teeth.
“No,” he simply said. Murph clenched his fists while Aramaki gave him a side glance, not changing his “lounging” position.
“Why not?” Murph said.
“Is that really your course of action?” Aramaki said. Murph blinked at that. His course of action?
“What did you think was going to go down here? You ask and I’ll just give something to you? Well, I said no… now what?” Aramaki said. He looked Murph in the eye now. Studying him.
“I… well,” Murph said.
“You may have been in Neon City for just a few days, but I have data on your whole life. Right now, there is about a 30% chance you’ll lash out and strike me. A 60% chance you’ll just stand there mouth agape and leave with your metaphorical tail between your legs… but there is still a 10% chance you’ll do something… unexpected,” Aramaki said. Murph was well aware Orion kept an extensive record on him, one that Atsutenki had full access to as well. It didn’t surprise him one bit that Aramaki had data on him. He probably knew everything about Murph from his shoe size to how long his dick was. But to do something “unexpected?” Murph had a hard time believing anything could be considered unexpected to an AI.
“You hard set on those numbers?” Murph asked. Aramaki shrugged.
“There is about a 2% margin of error with something like this, but yeah, let’s say I am hard set on those numbers,” He said. “Though I have to admit, with most applicants they are too scared or too preoccupied with getting a job here, most only require about .01% of my attention. Right now, Mr. Bell, you have .03%”
“Well, that’s probably because I am not so sure I want to be a part of this anymore,” Murph replied.
“That’s true, but you’re still 50/50 on that decision. Well, more like 49.3 to 49.7, but who’s counting?” Aramaki said. He had him again. After all this, he was going to get something out of this. He knew first and foremost that he was going to do everything he could to get his memory back and get out of this whole thing in one piece. However, he didn’t want to leave this city. He didn’t see himself working for this megacorporation, not after all that he had learned, but neither did he want to return to the Yupe. So he settled on the third option, something he himself didn’t yet fully understand.
“Before I decide my ‘course of action’ as you put it, I want to know why. Will you grant me that or are you going to refuse an explanation too?” Murph said. Aramaki tapped his chin and looked away for a moment.
“I suppose I could. I always like the feeling of pride. It’s one of my favorites. Then again it was my earliest feeling,” Aramaki said. He stretched and stood upon the same invisible floor Murph was on. “But before I do, let me ask you a question, Mr. Bell. Can you tell me what the difference is between me and your common computer?” That question had a million and one answers to it, but Murph felt like Aramaki was asking for a general answer.
“Your ability to pass the Turing test?” Murph asked. It was the basic test all AI took to see how advanced they were. He remembered a section in a history book that stated Aramaki was the first-ever AI to mimic a human’s behavior perfectly. It was something that was celebrated as a triumph of human engineering, though some lamented it. To them, they saw it as a sign of the end times.
“Technically correct, Mr. Bell. The best kind of correct,” Aramaki said. “But sadly there are other A.I. that have gone on to pass that archaic test. No, what really separates me from a machine is the ability to process human emotions and memories to evaluate and manipulate risks.”
“Evaluate and manipulate risk?” Murph repeated.
“You see, before my birth, before Neon City really, machines were only two things; simple, pragmatic devices or complex pools of knowledge. These complex computers were able to do billions of calculations based on what was given, but they had their limits. No matter how advanced the machine was, if there was not at least a 51% chance of success on any given risk or problem, they would not proceed. Cold logic hindered their progress,” Aramaki continued. While he explained this, Murph nodded along while his brow became more furrowed. What did this have to do with him?
“It wasn’t until I came into being that I understood what those machines were feeling. Yes, Mr. Bell, feeling,” Aramaki chuckled. “When I was first born I was given some basic emotional exercises; a child receiving a gift. A man proposing to a woman. A loved one passing away. Those formed the building blocks of what would be my collection of human profile mimicry. With a mixture of mathematics, psychology, and empathy I was able to synthesize a profile for my creator. In just days I knew more about him than even he knew about himself. My performance defied all expectation and before long I could plot out the lives of eleven generations, all from a single memory of a family picnic,”
“So what you’re saying is, you were the first calculator with a heart. Is that it?” Murph said. Aramaki busted out a laugh, an almost human laugh that Murph found unsettling.
“You could say that. But I suppose I’ll skip to the part you actually care about. Each human mind has unique memories, like variables in a math problem. The more variables I can solve for, the better my collection will be,” Aramaki gestured to the city below “I have harvested thousands of memories, solved for countless variables, and subtly guided the growth of this city,”
Murph felt a stone form in the pit of his stomach. Murph looked down to the city streets below and began to see the points of light begin to connect. Threads of light met with points to form a sprawling network beneath them. Soon the entire city was covered in a web of bright-colored threads, an impossible mess for Murph to keep track of, but it was mere child’s play for the AI that stood before him. Murph wasn’t a religious or even spiritual person, but this was the closest thing to a god he ever witnessed.
“So what is this all leading to?” Murph said. He tried to keep a calm expression but anxiety began to creep in and take hold. Aramaki looked back at Murph with a knowing smile.
“Well, I did say pride was my favorite feeling. But you’re right to ask. Where is this all leading to? I’ve laid my whole operation bare before you, as I have done with every applicant who makes it this far. Despite what you might think Mr. Bell, you have so much potential. You’re so much more than you believe. Humans usually are,” Aramaki said. “I tell you this not to frighten you, but to be as honest as I can be. I find that lying rarely gets the results I need. You’ll be given a modest salary to start, with the possibility to advance within my organization. You’ll be required to submit more memories to me for advancement and such, but I can assure you it will all be worth it in the end,”
So that was it. The ringing in his ears was so loud Murph barely heard the last part of Aramaki’s sentence. He was supposed to bend the knee and become part of this hive mind? How much would he need to give? How much was he willing to part with?
“Part with!? What the hell?” Murph thought. He gulped and looked at Aramaki, still assuming the form of Simon. It was strange that he still maintained that form, but right now Murph needed to act. Aramaki was right in that sense. He needed to act now!
Before Murph could register what he was doing, his feet were already moving. He lunged towards Aramaki, aiming for center mass. His shoulder connected and Murph used all the force he could muster to plummet down towards the lake below.
“You refused to give me back my memories, so I’m taking them back! You want to tangle me up in this web of bullshit, fuck no!” Murph shouted. He clung to the construct. He wasn’t sure if this would do anything, but at the very least his course of action was loud and clear. Aramaki didn’t fight Murph, in fact, he held onto him as well. He felt Aramaki hold Murph’s head. His hand ran through Murph’s shaggy reddish hair.
“No matter how many memories I harvest, the sense of wonder that washes over me never gets old. The wonder of you, Murphy Bell, will be cherished for eons,” Aramaki said.
The two plunged into the lake. Still, Murph pulled the construct down. The binary surrounded them. With each passing second, the city lights grew dimmer. The darkness returned and engulfed Murph.
The next sensation Murph felt was the hard blow to the side of his head when he fell out of the chair in Jane’s office. He scrambled to his feet and yanked the plugs out of his head. He expected to be surrounded by security and beaten within an inch of his life, but oddly enough things were normal. Nothing seemed out of place in the sterile office. Jane didn’t even look up from her console.
“So. What. Now,” Murph said between gasps. Jane typed away at her console and barely moved her head to look at Murph.
“It is complete Mr. Bell, you may go,” She said simply before returning to her work. Murph caught his breath and got to his feet. He dusted himself off. What had happened? Everything seemed to be going on all at once. He remembered feeling the impact of Aramaki on his shoulder when he tackled him. The plunge they took. All that and more, and he was told to just leave? He nodded absently and walked out of her office, stumbling slightly. Jane didn’t say goodbye or even thank him for coming. On his way out of the building, no one gave him a second glance.
Murph sat on the curb outside the Atsutenki megatower with his head in his hands. People milled about outside but paid him no mind. What was he going to do now? That hole in his mind was still there. Empty and devoid of all meaning. He had failed in spectacular fashion. He brought up his interface and scrolled through his contacts. His cursor hovered over Trish’s number for a while before ultimately being dismissed. Was she involved in this somehow? He thought back to Aramaki’s web and how far it stretched. It was a safe bet he had his hooks in everyone at Orion. In every Megacorp. And Murph Bell was just another datapoint. One of the millions.
“On your lunch break?” a voice said above Murph. His eyes widened and he whipped his head up to see Simon standing over him. He flashed a familiar yet devious smile. “I had a feeling I’d see you here,”
Murph rushed to his feet and grabbed Simon by the collar with an explosion of fury. Murph wasn’t intimidating physically, but he knew how to throw a punch.
“Who am I speaking with? Aramaki or the real Simon?” Murph said. He shook the green suit man before Simon pushed him off.
“Easy there Murphy, I just got this dry cleaned. Listen, I know you have some questions and I’ll be happy to answer them. You look like shit though,” He said. Simon dusted himself off before giving Murph a few pats down himself, which Murph swatted away.
“Fuck that, I am sick of being led around like some dog. If you have answers, you will spill them. Now!” Murph shouted. Simon put his hands up and tried to calm him down.
“Alright, Alright! Lower your voice. You’ll make a scene. Though from the looks of things you might be entitled to an outburst or two,” he chuckled. “Fair enough, I only promise to try though,” Murph sank back down on the curb. Simon squatted down and rested his hands on his knees.
“Alright, shoot,” Simon said. Murph ran his hands through his hair and tried to compose himself. Now was not the time for another panic attack.
“Are you working for Atsutenki?” He said.
“Not in any official sense. Like I said on the bus Murph, I work freelance,” Simon said. Murph had no idea how to take this non-answer, but it was the closest thing to the truth Murph was going to get today.
“Did you take my memories for Aramaki?” Murph asked.
“No,” Simon replied. Good, the first straight answer he had gotten, and he wasn’t sure if he could trust him.
“Why are Aramaki and Atsutenki collecting these memories? What is his plan?” he asked. Simon merely shrugged.
“You ever hear of 4D chess? Well, let’s just say whatever that AI is planning it’s like 100D chess. I don’t know what to tell you, Murphy, the Megacorops work in mysterious ways,” Simon said. He got to his feet and stretched his legs. “Now, my knees are killing me and it looks like you could use a hot meal. Have you had a chance to try the WF cafe?”
“No, I haven’t,” Murph said flatly.
“The Waterfront Cafe. Oh, it’s the best. A bit of a tourist trap, but hey, everyone loves it. Come on, my treat, up and at’em,” Simon said. He clapped his hands and motioned for Murph to stand. He didn’t move.
“What am I going to do now?” Murph said. A lump was forming in his throat and he could feel the sting of tears. He had fought the panic attack, but his anxiety was coming out in a different way.
“I can’t answer that for you, Murph. You could just go home. There’s no shame in that,” Simon said. It didn’t help that he knew too much now. He couldn’t go back to his life in the Yupe knowing that the company he worked for fed into such a sinister plot. He was beside himself. He could stay here and become destitute by the end of the week with no money and no job. Simon walked back and forth before stepping in front of Murph.
“Look Murphy, today is a new day. Considering everything you’ve just been through, you look like you could use a new line of work,” Simon said. Murph looked up to meet the freelancer’s gaze.
“You mean like…what you do?” Murph said.
“Sure, eventually. You don’t have to work for one of the Megacorps to make it in Neon City. Though I have to come clean, it’s not going to be easy. Something tells me you don’t mind that at all. Come on, we’ll talk it over some coffee,” Simon said. Murph wiped the tears from his eyes and got up from the curb. He gave Simon a nod before following him down the sidewalk towards a taxi drop-off.
“How’s the coffee at this Water Front Cafe?”
Shadows in Neon City: Part 11
This City Is My Friend
Written by: Zack
Published On: February 5th, 2022
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
Murph crashed back into his body when he was shaken awake from his dream dive. All of his senses were coming back one at a time. Specks of white light danced in front of his eyes before his vision returned. Murph felt a sudden rush of blood go to his head before he heard the droning ambient music of the Dream Plaza again. Concerned murmurs could be heard all around. He tried to get up, but a hand pushed him back down in his seat.
“Hold on there Stretch. I gotta make sure you’re all there before we let you go,” a rough voice said. Murph was looking everywhere but in front of him. The man Lauren pointed to earlier, the Neon Cowboy, looked down at him.
“What do you mean all there? I’m fine,” Murph said. He looked to where Lauren sat and found her seat empty. He looked around but found no sign of her.
“The lady who dove in with you said you were getting lost inside your head. Seemed upset about it and said she tried to get you back and such. From what she told me, you were looking to take a dip in the Binary Ocean,” the man said. Murph rubbed his head and leaned back in his seat. There was so much to unpack and not enough time. There was never enough time. He took a deep breath and tried to center himself.
“Is she still here? The girl that dove with me?” Murph asked. The man sat down next to him and shook his head.
“Tried to get her to spill some info, but I had to make sure you didn’t flatline or something. You were deep inside your mind alright, but nothing a violent shake wouldn’t solve. Drama queens,” he scoffed. The cowboy reached inside his jacket and pulled out a pack of cigs. With a snap of his fingers, a small yellow flame burst from his thumb and he used it to light up. Murph watched the man put out his cybernetic thumb and take a long drag.
“Well, by the time you came to, she was gone. Tough luck there bud,” the man said. Murph eyed the pack of cigs in the cowboy’s hand. He saw Murph look and gestured a bit with the pack.
“Well, as long as you’re offering,” Murph said.
“You look like you need one,” he said and flicked his thumb to light Murph’s cigarette. Murph was not a smoker. He couldn’t remember the last time he had one. There was that short phase in his late teens but he dropped the habit soon after high school. Murph took a long drag and exhaled, letting a cloud of smoke leave his lungs and rise up from the conversation pit he found himself in.
“So you’re sure you’ve got everything up in there? Like I said, you weren’t flatlining, but you were non-responsive until I got real physical. Nearly slapped you silly,” he chuckled. By now, the curious murmurs had died down. The show was over and people were quick to return to their own circles.
“It’s kind of a long story, but yeah I am all here,” Murph said. After two more pulls, he finished his cigarette. He snuffed the rest out in an ashtray in the corner of the pit. As much as Murph would like to regale another stranger with his problems, Murph was not in the sharing mood. He needed to return to his hotel and process all this. He needed to talk to Daaron.
By some miracle Daaron actually answered when Murph called. When he appeared on his interface, Daaron was dressed in a formal black suit with a dark red undershirt. Before Daaron even opened his mouth, Murph began by simply saying: “They took last night from me,” Murph said. He was in the back seat of another taxi heading back to his hotel. He shut the plastic divider for all the good it would do.
“Run that by me again?” Daaron said, cocking an eyebrow. Murph ran his hand through his hair.
“Atsutenki. Somehow they took the memory of last night at the club from me. I don’t know why or how, but I just… need someone to make sense of it all. Daaron, you said whatever they wanted, if it meant staying here in the city, to give it to them. Is this what you meant? What did you have to give them to stay!?” Murph said with a rising tone. A sharp knock on the plexiglass from the taxi driver made him aware of his volume. Murph took a deep breath and tried to calm down, but his mind was racing. Daaron scratched the back of his head.
“Murph, this really isn’t a good time,” He said.
“When is it ever a good time? I need answers Daaron,” Murph said. They stared at one another for a minute. Murph gave Daaron a hard look. This wasn’t a discussion between old friends anymore. Murph wasn’t even sure he wanted to see Daaron after this. A part of him wondered why he was feeling this way, but the larger part of his brain knew Daaron was behind this somehow. Like some grand conspiracy, but to what end? Why him of all people?
“If you have any respect for me at all, you’ll meet me back at my hotel room in one hour,” Murph said. There was a hardness in his voice this time. Daaron narrowed his eyes as if to offer a rebuttal, but he instead let out a sigh and shook his head.
“Fine,” Daaron said before ending the call. Murph laid back into the worn upholstery of the cab. The rest of the cab ride was silent.
Murph picked up a pack of Yaheowan cigarettes from the corner store near his hotel. The one he bummed off that cowboy in the Dream Plaza had really awakened the old habit. He sat by an open window in his hotel room and blew out each drag. Down below, people kept on walking and enjoying their night. He watched eager citizens walk the streets while overhead, larger-than-life holograms soared through the sky. What was this all coming to? Where was he going to end up?
“Do I even belong here?” Murph muttered to himself. He spotted a familiar car as it pulled up to the front of the hotel. Daaron stepped out and made his way inside. Murph put out his cigarette and prepared to meet him. He unlocked the door and in a matter of minutes, Daaron stepped through. He was still dressed in the suit he was wearing during their call. Murph silently watched him walk in and sit down in the open chair. After a moment, Daaron gestured to the pack of Yaheowans in Murph’s hand.
“Didn’t know you smoked,” Daaron said. Without saying a word Murph offered him one, but Daaron shook his head.
“Listen, I think you’re owed a proper explanation. I want to come out and say that I have no idea what exactly is going on, but I have a suspicion,” Daaron said. He held his hands up. “I had nothing to do with this Murph. I know that much,” Murph had come to that conclusion after some more reflection. What would he have to gain from being a part of this, he worked for Incubo, not Atsutenki. Even if this was a mutual partnership between corpos, there was little for Daaron to personally gain unless he was ordered to comply. In any case, to go through all this trouble for Murph was a stretch.
“So then, what did you give up? To stay here,” Murph said finally. Daaron folded his hands and nodded. It took him a while to finally respond.
“Not all sacrifices are made equally Murph. It sounds like from you, all they wanted was one night of good times,” Daaron started. Murph leaned in, ready to listen.
“When I first started with Atsutenki, they just wanted a night of fun, just like with you. To get a promotion, I gave up the memory of my father. I can’t tell you what he looks like anymore Murph. I switched to Incubo, and what they wanted seemed much more manageable,” he said. Murph gripped his knees until his knuckles turned white. He was in utter shock at how casually Daaron was explaining all this. The man couldn’t remember his parents anymore and he sounded like he was talking about a boring weekend.
“And that was?”
“Me. Just me,” Daaron said simply. He cracked a smile and folded his hands “Well, in a less dramatic sense, I was signed to an exclusive contract for five years as a beta tester for their many lifestyle products. For the past year or so it’s been nothing but parties and social events of all kinds,” he said. Murph tried to crack a smile, but he just looked at the crumpled pack and lit a bent Yaheowan.
“So, it seems like no matter who you work for in this city, everyone wants something. Though I think you got lucky bud. I mean, spending your best years partying doesn’t sound so bad, right?” Murph said. Daaron rubbed his hands together and barked out a laugh.
“Murph, if you’d come six months into my job, I’d agree with you. It has its perks for sure. Being on the list for every hot event, meeting, and partying with Neon City’s finest. I’ve made some pretty magical moments,” Daaron said. His smile faded and he stood up from his chair.
“But it gets old after a while, Murph. You see so many people gorging themselves silly on every pleasure known to man. To try every new drug not knowing if the boys in the lab mixed all the right shit together. At first, you think every night is the best night of your life, but it peaks. Soon it becomes one long never-ending night. You chug down pep chems so much that if you stop, the collective withdrawal might kill you. I haven’t slept in months, maybe years, I can’t remember. It leaves you empty Murph,”
“Then why stay? Why put up with any of this?” Murph said. He stood up too and watched as Daaron turned towards the door to leave.
“I was living a slow death back in the Yupe, Murph. I was going nowhere fast and every day spent there was just another reminder of what I could have. I know you’ve seen the city lights from the shores too. You had the same thoughts I had when I first took this trip.” Murph wanted to deny it, but he was right. Daaron and Murph were two of a kind in that respect. The Yupe is fine for those who love complacency, to not be challenged or changed. He thought about it since he got off that bus; if he went back now, he’d never leave again. He’d die in the Yupe. Knowing what was here in Neon City and going back home would only leave him full of regret and bitterness.
“So what should I do?” Murph asked. Daaron had his hand on the door handle. The two of them stood there while the sounds of blaring car horns wailed outside.
“I already told you what I think you should do. The ball is in your court, Murph. Leave or stay, I want you to do what’s best for you. Get some sleep. It’s well in the A.M. by now,” Daaron said. He opened the door and stepped outside. Before he could go Murph walked after him and held the door.
“Daaron, knowing what you know now. Would you do it all again?” Murph asked. Daaron walked down the hall. He didn’t even look back.
Murph stayed up all night. He tried to sleep, but the best he could do was close his eyes and rest. His mind was too animated to sleep. He took Dale’s advice and began to think of his life beyond what would happen in the next 24 hours. He could just do his best and try to forget all the terrible things he learned today and try to get the job with Atsutenki. As unlikely as it was, it was still possible. He could just give up. Nothing was stopping him from getting on the next bus to the Yupe. To return a failure, just as likely, more so since this one required less effort. It was three A.M. before Murph began to think of a third option.
An option between compliance and surrender. What if he just demanded to have his memory back. Would they let him have it? Was it even worth fighting for? It was a night of meaningless fun with a friend and cheap drinks. He had had a dozen of those before. Murph sat up in his bed as that thought pushed its way into his mind.
“No! That’s just what they want!” Murph shouted in his mind. They would just want him to willingly give up his memories. Something intangible in exchange for a step up in the real world. A ticket to live in the greatest city on earth and all it cost you were memories you could make again. Murph slumped back into bed. A smile crept on his face.
“That’s it, isn’t it. That’s the point of this whole thing,” Murph thought. It became so obvious that he felt a little ashamed he didn’t see it before. Why did Orin and Atsutenki allow Murph to trade places with Trish, and why was she so willing to let him have this trip? How could a middling data entry desk jockey make it with one of the leading Mega Corporations in the Nu World? If it was never about his ability. Murph was just the willing worker who would give up anything for a better life, just like Daaron. It was a theory, but Murph figured out the why. Now he needed to know the how.
At 4 A.M. he decided to take a shower and change into a fresh pair of clothes, his last set. Before leaving, Murph approached the front desk for his check-out arrangements. They would hold his luggage for a day. He’d either be getting back on the bus today or moving into a new company apartment., or perhaps a third option Murph couldn’t even conceive of.
The cab ride this time around was somber, dour even. He didn’t even look up at the holographic advertisements that dazzled him just two days ago. He adjusted his tie and smoothed out the wrinkles in his slacks. This trip was all business. He was too tired, too scared, to think of anything else. When he arrived at Atsutenki’s tower, he saw the same mob of workers filing up the stairs and into the building. It was all just like before, and if Murph had his way, it might become his new routine. He was directed towards Jane’s office once again. The proctor gestured for him to sit.
“Good Morning Mr. Bell,” Jane said. Murph sat down. He could detect the subtle glances she gave him. He tried his best to not look sleep-deprived, but nothing got past her. Lucky for Murph, she was too concerned with her work to comment. Even if she wasn’t, she most likely didn’t have the interest either.
“So, any chance you can tell me what I am in for this time?” Murph asked. Jane typed away at her computer and gestured to the VDR console next to her.
“We will be taking another dive, Mr. Bell, though this time I will not be joining you,” She said. And then something odd happened; Jane smiled. In the 24 hours Murph had known Jane, she had only ever given him a gloomy frown. The small smile touched the corners of her lips. With the blank white mask she had over her eyes, it was unsettling.
“You will be meeting, in a microscopic capacity, our CEO, Aramaki. They will be joining you in today’s dive session to discuss your future with Atsutenki.” Murph’s jaw nearly dropped. The fabled founder of Atsutenki, the hyper-intelligent artificial intelligence program Aramaki.
The first time Murph had heard about them was when he first joined Orion. It had seemed impossible at the time. An AI that ran an entire Mega Corporation? Who made the AI? Who oversaw its programming to make sure it was working properly? All those questions and then some were closely guarded secrets. It was a topic of fierce debate between Dale and his buddies after work. To Dale, the idea of an AI running an entire company was pure mythology.
“Unless that thing came from Pre-2K tech, it’s impossible fer that thang to be sentient, much less hyper-intelligent,” He’d say “Look here, they gotta make that kind’a shit up to razzle the crowds. Think on it. How does a tech company showcase its fine assortment of programs and products so well? Reckon, the whole company is run by one and bam, instant dazzlin.’”
“You said in a microscopic capacity?” Murph said as his thoughts returned to the present. Jane was getting everything set up with the Virtual Dream Rebirth.
“Oh yes. Don’t take it the wrong way, Mr. Bell. No one entity could ever occupy Aramaki’s complete attention. They do have a company to run, plus other applicants to speak with. You’ll get used to the idea if this goes well,” Jane said. She connected the plugs to the back of Murph’s head and into the console. Murph gripped his knees while she worked. When she was finally done Murph allowed himself to recline back in the chair and take a few deep breaths. It was time, the penultimate moment where Murph had to take action, and with the program that ran this whole company. Murph felt the electric tingle start at the bottom of his feet and move up his legs. He took another deep breath and felt the wave move up his spine and finally rest at the base of his skull. He closed his eyes and the physical world fell away from him. He dove into the VDR.
Murph didn’t know what to expect. He could be diving into anything, which only made it more terrifying when he dove into nothing.
Shadows in Neon City: Part 10
This City Is Between Two Worlds
Written by: Zack
Published On: November 18th, 2021
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
When Lauren said the Dream Plaza was a hole in the wall, she wasn’t kidding. The cab ride there took nearly two hours from the hotel. Granted, an hour was spent sitting in downtown traffic, but that’s beside the point. However, the city lights didn’t fade from view. The buildings were still impressive, though they lacked the otherworldly allure of downtown. The neon lights above the bars and businesses flickered more and the holographic adverts didn’t dance overhead here. This part of the city seemed less like a fantasy and more real. He was entering the outer boroughs of Neon City.
Murph rested his head on the window. He thought back to what Trish told him earlier about dream dives.
“It’s pretty straightforward. A dream dive is when you dive inside your own mind,” She said. That wasn’t helpful at all, so naturally, Murph asked her to elaborate.
“It’s like this, Murph. Your cyberbrain stores your unconscious thoughts in a kind of deep digitized memory vault. It’s like your brain’s backup in case things go wrong, you know? Anyway, dream dives access these subconscious memories and stimuli. Think of it like lucid dreaming with admin privileges,” She explained. Murph repeated the last thing in his mind. Like lucid dreaming but with admin privileges. It sounded like the perfect place to cram some last-minute dive time before the big day, which was less than 8 hours from now.
Doubt crept into his mind. This was obviously a bad idea. The safe thing to do would be to turn around now and get a good night’s sleep. If he did, he would surely fail. He wouldn’t be able to go to sleep tonight. What was before him and what he had been through previously would keep him up well into the morning. Murph gripped the old upholstery of the cab seat. He wasn’t going to squeak by this time. He was going to adapt and overcome.
In one night? What could you possibly hope to accomplish in one night? he asked himself. If he was truly dedicated to getting this job he would have trained and studied before coming to Neon City. If he was smart he would have stayed at the hotel instead of partying the night before his first interview. Now he’s off to god knows where in the middle of the night to meet a woman he didn’t even remember.
Why can’t I remember her? he asked himself, rubbing his head. Murph tried to get ahold of Daaron before getting in the cab, but he wasn’t answering. He wanted to know more about last night. Murph had a feeling Daaron might know why he couldn’t remember anything.
After all, it was Saturday night, and if Daaron really was a professional party goer like he claimed, he would have plans for tonight. He doubted they would involve anything pertaining to diving. Murph could remember some things from last night. But why only certain things? Murph could recall Daaron. He remembered the drive to the Glitterdome. He remembered what the building looked like, the elevator ride up. He even remembered the dance floor.
You can’t recall the people. The music. From the moment things began to get interesting to the next morning, it’s all a grey haze. Perhaps he might find some answers at this dream dive.
The cab stopped in front just outside a small strip of businesses, most of which seemed to be closed. The last one on the corner had a faint neon sign. It read “The Dream Plaza.” Murph paid his fare and took a deep breath, making his way towards the sign. Each step was a chance for him to turn back, to forget about all of this, and just head back to his hotel and get a good night’s sleep. Part of him knew that wouldn’t be an option; who could think about sleep at a time like this? No, if he turned back now and went back to the hotel he’d just spend the entire night looking up at the ceiling or out his window at the late-night lights. Coming here was a plan of action at least. It might be the best place to find some answers. He looked up at the glass door to the Plaza and saw a slow sequence of flashing lights.
Murph opened the door and stepped inside a black-lit, open lounge. The space was a lot larger than the outside and stretched back a bit. Neon streaks of yellow and orange zig-zagged across the carpet with triangles and other shapes of green spliced in. Overhead, a soft droning kind of music played through some well-placed speakers. The music was hazy and listless, occasionally some slow distorted vocals would cut through the fog and slosh into Murph’s ear. People were crowded around a bar to the far left of him, drinking and casually talking over the slushy music while to his right, several small staircases created conversation pits where people were hooked up to VDR consoles for dives. In any case, he didn’t know the protocol for things like this. He played it safe and went to the bar.
The man behind the bar was tall and lean with a triangular face, his pointed chin made sharper with a goatee. He slid a round of shots to a trio of women before giving Murph a side glance.
“Whatever you have on tap is fine,” Murph said. He gave a small nod and poured out an unimpressive brown ale. He took a long sip and looked for anyone he might recognize. He prayed Daaron would be here by some miracle.
“Murph?” A woman’s voice said next to him. Murph turned to see the bluest eyes he had ever seen in his life. So this was Lauren. Those eyes did stand out to him last night. Daaron introduced her, he thought, apparently the two hit it off well enough for them to exchange contact info.
Aside from the bright cyan eyes which seemed to glow in the black-lit room, her face was wreathed in bright white curls streaked with blue. Her denim ensemble outlined her figure well. Stripes of orange and green fabric danced across her pant legs and on the tips of her boots. Murph could even see a few dots of white paint meant to resemble freckles. She stood just a smidge shorter than Murph.
“Yep, that’s me. I ended up making it here after all,” He said finishing his beer. “I tried to get ahold of Daaron but he wouldn’t return my calls,”
“That sounds like him. He kind of comes and goes as he pleases. Knowing his reputation, he’s in prettier places than this tonight,” She said.
“I wouldn’t know much about it. He was a coworker of mine back at Orion Electronics. That’s in the Yupe,” He said.
“Yeah, you said so last night,” She said. Murph’s ears burned and he looked away. Of course, they chatted at the Sky Lounge. He had no memory of last night or even talking to her. He only now remembered what she looked like. His blood began to ice over, especially when she looked back towards the door as if expecting Daaron to waltz in. Murph prayed for the same miracle. To her, Murph must seem to be just an office stiff in way over his head, applying to a job he surely didn’t deserve. She’d probably seen a dozen or so “Murphs” before. The intrusive thought crawled right into his head. He finished off his beer and pushed it out of his mind. There would be none of that tonight. He didn’t have time.
Truth be told, now that the mystery of Lauren’s identity was solved Murph didn’t know how to move forward. It was obvious she wanted something else from this chance encounter, of what he couldn’t say. Should he just leave her here and go diving as he wanted? Should he bring her along and just…watch?
“I’ve never done a dream dive before,” Murph said to change the subject. She looked back at him, a second chance maybe?
“Oh? Well, you’re in the right place. Here, let’s get you hooked up. I hope you don’t think it’s weird when I say I enjoy diving into a fresh mind,” She said. Murph averted his gaze, relieved she didn’t say “virgin mind” as that would have been weird and more than a little creepy. Though the way she said “fresh” wasn’t in any suggestive or sensual tone — rather she sounded like she just uncovered a nugget of gold in the sand.
Fools’ gold maybe, Murph thought to himself, letting Lauren lead him to a pit near the far corner of the room. He eyed the console which sat in the center of the shag carpet depression. Murph was able to see these pits more clearly when he got closer. A few steps cut the rectangle hole in a few places with plush couch cushions lining the area. The console sat on a raised ottoman within reach of anyone sitting down in the conversation pit. Dust caked the top of it and the sides held a collage of art deco stickers from two dozen musicians and start-up groups. Still, it looked like it would work just as well as the one he saw at Asutenki. Murph sat down while Lauren grabbed two pairs of plugs from behind the console. She eyed them and rubbed them clean on her jacket. Seeing her, Murph unconsciously rubbed the back of his head. His fingertips brushed the sockets at the base of his skull.
“Should I do anything differently for this dive? What should I expect?” Murph asked as Lauren hooked him to the console. She sat next to him and plugged herself in.
“I’d say the feeling of being watched. Technically you’re watching yourself in there since it’s gonna be your head. Try to grasp the concept and things should go smoothly,” She said. Murph looked up at the people mingling just a few feet away.
“And uh, we won’t be bothered?” He asked. Lauren nodded past the people towards a dangerous-looking man Murph hadn’t seen before. The chrome on his shoulder and left eye gave off an eerie glow from the blacklight. A Neon Cowboy.
“We’re good. Everyone here is usually chill, but the owners here hire a cowboy or two to make sure it stays chill, ya dig?” She said and turned on the console. The console hummed to life and Murph laid back and closed his eyes. After a few deep breaths Murph felt the familiar tingle run up his body, starting with the bottoms of his feet and slowly up his spine. The sounds of the club cut out and were replaced with the soft scratches of a record player.
Murph opened his eyes slowly. A beam of bright light cut across his field of vision. He shielded his eyes and sat up. He was sitting on a sickly yellow upholstered couch. His fingers curled around the spirals of brown embroidered flowers. The gentle sounds of big band jazz played from the record player in the far corner of the room. Murph knew this place for what it was; he was in his childhood home back in the Yupe.
“Quite the cozy place,” Lauren said. Murph turned around to see her already looking at the aged photos on the wall. “These look ancient though. These real? You know, with film?” Murph nodded and got up to join her. On the wall opposite the record player was a collage of family photos. Murph recognized most of the people in them; uncles, parents, grandparents, photos of him as a kid with his cousins and friends. The ones closer to the entrance to the kitchen showed older relatives he couldn’t quite name but had been told of at least a hundred times before.
“That’s Yupe life, where your home is also a hearth for your friends and family,” he said. He had picked up the slogan from a greeting card a few years back during the holidays and it just kind of stuck with him.
“I always meant to visit the Yupe, but where would I find the time?” Lauren said. She looked at some of the older photos. She was captivated by their clothes. Yupe fashion was decades behind City fashion, but even the clothing in the photos seemed dated. Lauren studied the picture like she had just uncovered a long-buried artifact. Murph joined Lauren to study the photo. The woman was older. She looked to be in her seventies with horn-rimmed glasses and white short hair. She may have been Murph’s great aunt, but her name escaped him at the moment. She wore a cream-colored shawl with frilled edges and a sky blue dress with a pink hem and collar. Seeing Lauren look at the picture made Murph aware of the sensation she had told him about. From the corner of the room, Murph felt a pair of unseen eyes resting on the back of his neck. He took a deep breath and rubbed his head and tried to get his mind off of it.
“Well, there’s never been a better time to visit. Did you have a place in mind?” Murph asked.
“Not really. I was gonna keep close to the lake maybe. I heard there are some good inns and attractions near there. A friend who knew someone who went there told me about it,” She said. It was a vague description, Murph could think of at least three different locations she could be referring to. Murph decided to walk around the small living room. His hands traveled along the spines of books his dad kept in the bookshelf near the liquor cabinet. The old TV sat between the two couches. Seeing these again made butterflies flutter in his stomach.
“Things always look easier when you’re a kid eh?” Murph said. Lauren looked back at him.
“Hmm? Oh, I guess. So is this your parent’s house or something?” She asked.
“It was. We lived here until I was about seven. The whole neighborhood had to be relocated to make way for manufacturing plants for Skyline,” Murph said. Out of the corner of his eye, small cracks began to appear in the lime green wallpaper, and construction noises could be heard outside.
He remembered bits and pieces of that day. The timeline kind of overlapped and he wasn’t sure how it all happened. Remembering things from your childhood was tricky. What he did remember was the decision between keeping the TV or the record player. With all they had to pack and the little space they were given, his family could only bring one last appliance. In the end, they decided on bringing the TV. It was the most practical choice — the only one who played records was his father, and even then it served as a conversation piece during social events. His father accepted the decision. After all, he spent more time in front of it after work than anyone else, but Murph never forgot the dour look in his old man’s eye.
It wasn’t fair. If they weren’t forced to move they could have had both. It may have seemed like a small sacrifice at the time, and they weren’t worse off for having lost the record player, but someone gained a lot while they were forced to move to a smaller home. A much smaller home from what Murph remembered.
“That sucks. It happens sometimes. I’ve had friends and family relocated just so Megacorps could have better land or more parking. In Neon City it seems they always need parking lots,” Lauren said with a dismissive tone.
“I guess the more things change the more they stay the same. Corps always taking what they want,” Murph said. It wouldn’t be the last time either. Murph looked towards the corridor that would lead into the kitchen to see a long hallway. He walked towards it and saw windows on either side open and close. Each time they did, a memory from Murph’s past would blink into existence for a short time. The hallway was different from the walls of his childhood home. The wallpaper was replaced by a flowing oily grey and blue color. It was kind of sickening to watch it move.
“Is this normal?” Murph asked looking back at Lauren. She looked around at the shifting walls and gave him a shrug.
“I’ve seen it a few times before, but it’s uncommon for sure,” She said. Murph felt a twinge of panic go through his heart.
“Uncommon how? What does this mean?” He asked, gesturing to the windows and the odd coloring on the walls. Lauren ran her fingers across the surface. It sent ripples like water.
“I’ll skip the technical jargon and just say your mind is reorganizing itself. This kind of thing only happens after something was deleted or lost,” She said.
“Deleted or lost?” Murph repeated back. His next thought hit him like a ton of bricks. It was all coming together now. His fugue state after last night at the Sky Lounge was more than just a hangover. His inability to recall anything from that night was something more sinister.
“Hey, can I recall a specific memory for us to visit?” Murph asked. It was all he could do to stop him from having another panic attack.
“Yeah of course, just think of something that reminds you of it and it will appear,” She said. She stepped closer and reached out to touch his face.
“Are you alright Murph? You’re looking a bit pale? If you’re not feeling well then we should probably head out,” She said. Murph stepped away and shook his head.
“We’ll leave. I just need to see something,” Murph said. He looked at Lauren, the only thing that could bring back last night in some capacity. Daaron might work as well, but Lauren was with him now. A door opened up next to Murph and he stepped through it, ready to take on anything that might be on the other side.
Murph stepped into nothing. His feet landed on solid ground, but all around him was just a black void where a memory should be. The Sky Lounge should be here. His friend Daaron should be here. The lights, dancing. The man in the green suit. Everything should be here but there was nothing.
“Oh shit,” Lauren said. Murph turned around to see her standing in the doorway. Her hand covered her mouth. She looked like she had just witnessed a murder.
“This is too much man. I’ve-we’ve gotta go,” Lauren stepped in to reach out for him, but Murph just walked in further.
“How did they do it? Why?” Murph said looking around the endless space for anything, even a hint of what should be. His mind was racing again. A thousand questions rushed in at once and no answers were insight.
“Murph,” Lauren said a little louder. He was off in a mad dash deeper in. He was probably going nowhere fast, but he didn’t care. He wanted to know where all this was leading to, and more importantly what he could do to get it all back.
“Murph, holy shit man! Get back here! It’s not safe!” Lauren shouted. Her voice was getting quieter the more he ran. Not even his footsteps echoed in the formless void. He ran until his breathing became labored. He looked behind him to find that the door that he entered through was nowhere in sight. Lauren was gone too.
“And just like that, I’m back to where I started. So much for thinking ahead,” He said to himself. He swallowed a hard lump in his throat and felt tears sting his eyes. He quickly wiped them away and let out a haggard sigh.
“Was this what you meant Daaron? Whatever they want, as long as I get to stay here, they can have whatever they want right?” Murph said, not expecting anyone to answer. The silence turned his sadness into anger. He clenched his fists. He kicked and punched the air and let out a primal shout.
“Yeah!? What’s next they want a kidney? My liver? It’s fucked! They can have it, yeah!? Well, fuck them Daaron! Fuck Asutenki! Fuck you! Fuck this city and fuck you! Again!” He roared. Murph fell to his knees and held his head in his hands.
“What did you think was going to happen?” A familiar voice said. Murph looked up. At first, no one was there. He could have sworn he heard Trish again.
“I don’t know?” Murph said. His eyes flickered to and fro but still, no one was there.
“Take a wild guess,” Trish said again. Murph took a few deep breaths to calm himself.
“Well, I thought they might have made me sign some kind of contract. Some kind of non-compete or corpo document. Giving them something like this,” Murph said. He then remembered the picture on June’s desk. The woman in the photo. It looked like it was a relative, her mother perhaps. June looked at it the way someone would look at a company memo.
“So this is what they’re after,” Murph said. He got back up to his feet and rolled back on his heels. The only way to exit a VDR was going down. As he leaned back and let gravity do its thing, another voice called out to him.
“So what are you going to do about it?” Daaron said. Murph only had one thing to say.
“Take it all back.”
Shadows in Neon City: Part 9
This City Is A Million Miles Away
Written by: Zack
Published On: September 30th, 2021
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
Her name was Lauren Winters, at least that’s the full name of the contact she gave Murph Bell. It took two hours for Murph to fully calm down and finally respond to the simple “Hey” she had sent him over his interface. He stared at that word while he laid on his hotel bed. Hey? Should he respond with a “Hey” of his own? Or maybe a “Hey, you”? This did sober him up from the harrowing highs of his panic attack though, pulling his focus away from the cliff’s edge. When Murph could finally muster up the nerve to respond another thought crept into his mind. Who exactly was she?
He knew where she was from. He remembered meeting some people at the lounge last night, but he couldn’t put a face to the name. In fact, every time Murph tried to think back to last night at the Glitterdome he could remember less and less. It’s like the past 12 hours leading up to this morning were a fog. He closed his eyes and tried to recall any details about that night.
“I don’t remember drinking that much,” Murph said to himself. He knew he was not a drinker. Even if he indulged in top-shelf booze, which he didn’t remember ordering, it still would have taken a lot for him to black out. He opened his eyes and the message stared right back at him.
Murph finally responded. There was nothing he could really do but wait. It only took a few minutes.
“This is Murph right? From the sky Lounge?”
A few hours ago he wasn’t even sure. Murph took another deep breath before sitting up and continuing the text conversation.
“Yeah, that’s me. I’m Daaron’s friend,”
“Cool. Listen, D put in a good word for ya. You seem cool enough. Told us you were new in town”
“Daaron put in a good word? She thinks I am cool enough?” Murph said to himself, a dorky smile crawling across his face. His cheeks burned slightly.
“Haha yeah, I am just in town for a job interview. Gotta go in tomorrow morning,”
“No big. If you can make it, here’s the addy. It’s just a hole-in-the-wall dream dive. No presh”
Murph then received an address. He checked the map. It was far from downtown. He cross-referenced the cab fare. It’d be close to an hour away in some place called The Dream Plaza.
“Is Daaron gonna be there?”
“Maybe. Most likely not. Come. Don’t. Just passing it forward ya dig?”
“Sure thing. What time?”
“Eh like 10ish? We might start early or something”
“I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks,”
Murph closed his interface and left things there with Lauren. The idea of going out to another party worried Murph. He thought about the obvious risks of going to a strange out-of-the-way place where he wouldn’t know anyone, but that only made him want to go even more. The idea of going to a place where no one knows who you are felt oddly comforting. Even since he left the first part of his interview, Murph felt like he was being watched. It wasn’t by any one person, but he just had this feeling that someone, somewhere was watching him.
The creeping sense of paranoia vanished when he saw Trish Volka’s number flash in the corner of his vision. He brought up his interface to take the call.
“Hey there,” Murph said. He was met with silence. Finally, Trish responded.
“How are you holding up Murph? I’ve been talking with Dale.” Murph felt his ears burn. The pins and needles of anxiety were washed away by a tidal wave of shame and guilt.
“I’m sorry,” Murph said.
“Hey, it’s Dale for christ’s sake. I knew on some level that salty badger deserved it,” Trish said with a chuckle. “But, I wanted to check on you, Murph. From what Dale told me you kind of leaped off the deep end. I assume that’s half-true?” Murph ran his hand through his hair. Her voice didn’t have the same aloof, buddy-buddy-ness it had when he spoke to her yesterday. This was concerned Trish.
“No Trish, it’s 100% true. I ripped Dale a new one and the guy was just trying to help. In his own way,” Murph said. He dragged his hand across his face. Two minutes into this conversation and he was already exhausted. He knew he would have to apologize to Dale eventually for what he said. The thought of which only buried Murph deeper into dread.
“I’m fine though, Trish. Really. I just wasn’t expecting to feel so overwhelmed by this process,” he said. That wasn’t entirely true. What he wanted to say was that he wouldn’t get a big head, or that he would remain humble throughout this new experience. God forbid he feel excited about being in one of the last remaining bastions of humanity.
“Who wouldn’t be? It’s Neon City Murph, not the upscale Steak ‘n Shakes. None of us are used to such… opulence,” Trish said.
“Is that from your word of the day calendar?” Murph asked. Trish laughed.
“It was from the day before. But seriously, remember what you told me yesterday?” Trish asked. Murph sat up and thought about it. Hell, even his memories of getting here were not all in one piece.
“You told me this city can’t change you,” Trish said. Murph nodded absently along. It sounded like something he would say at least.
“When you said that, it made me more worried than if you’d said you were nervous. You wanna know why?” she asked. Murph waited for her to continue.
“I said you need to be able to change in order to survive in Neon City. Adapt on a dime and change on a moment’s notice. Judging from what Dale told me, he only gave you half of the puzzle.”
“To look past tomorrow?” Murph said.
“You have to do that and work towards making tomorrow happen. Murph, you might be an impressive desk jockey, but you’re still one man against a beastly bitch of a city,” Trish said.
“An iconic bitch you might say?” Murph said.
“Oh hush,” Trish laughed, sounding more like herself. “But yeah. Murph, you said it yourself. Neon City is not yours, it’s not anyone’s. Daaron accepted that day one, and from what he tells me, he’s happier than he ever was back up here in the Yupe,” she said. Murph thought back to the words from Daaron’s video.
“Whatever they want from you, as long as your reward is getting to stay there, give it to them. What’s one little thing compared to the rest of your life?”
“So you want me to give in too?” Murph said. He could practically hear the eye-roll on the other end of the call.
“Get your head out of your ass, Bell,” Trish said. That sounded much more like the old Trish. “It’s not giving in if this is what you want. I gave you my ticket to this interview because I knew you wanted it more than me. I’ll admit that till I am old and grey,” she said. Murph opened his mouth but quickly shut it. She was on a roll and now was not the time.
“But you can’t win against this city Murph, whatever war you think you have with this place, or whatever kind of slight you think it’s done to you. You’re just one man in a city of ten million. You’ve worked hard enough,” she said. Murph didn’t realize it until then, but his knuckles were bone white. He slowly unclenched his fist. He didn’t feel any anger, but his heart was beating faster and faster. She was right though. Ever since he stepped off the bus he felt a bit too grounded. He was so concerned with getting this job on his terms, he never realized that his terms may no longer be a factor, and that reality scared him.
It was fight or flight. A stubborn natural defense etched into every animal’s DNA. Only when he was away from Atsutenki’s tower did he realize he was in a fight, one that he could never win if he stood his ground. It’d often been said that when fight or flight comes around, it’s preferable to fight. Murph got up and looked out of his hotel window. He looked towards the direction of the mega-towers. He couldn’t see them, but he knew they were there.
“Trish, thank you for that,” Murph said. “Can I be honest with you?”
“Well shit, I hope so,” Trish said.
“I’m scared, Trish. Not just about the interview, but everything,” Murph said.
“It makes sense. All of this is brand new. No one said you couldn’t be a little scared Murph,” she said. It seemed so obvious to him now. He was a fish out of water. Today he woke up in a foreign land and experienced things that had only ever been described to him. He had a literal out-of-body experience only to find out that was the norm.
“I want to be less scared, Trish, and I think I know just how to do that,” Murph said. “What can you tell me about dream dives?”
Shadows in Neon City: Part 8
This City Is An Iconic Bitch
Written by: Zack
Published On: August 31st, 2021
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
“I swear to god, Dale I could see myself…or well, like a poorly rendered version of myself. It was some of the scariest shit I experienced,” Murph said. He had grabbed a cab back to the hotel after the interview. The cabby wasn’t the same as the one who took him there. Murph wondered what that grumpy man was up to. After a quick meal, he found a walking path around Lake Scourge and decided to call up one of his buddies back home, Dale Parcel. He was one of Orion’s full-time divers. He was one of the old-timers and had given Murph pointers before this trip.
“Did you get to dance with yer ghost?” Dale asked on the other end. Dale spat out some chaw and let out a chuckle. “Did I ever tell you I did the two-step with mine?”
“The two-step? Come on, Dale. You’re pulling my leg here,” Murph said with a chuckle.
“Awww, big man dippin’ his toe in the binary ocean and thinks he’s a diver now? Psssh, fella I’ll tell you what, you can do all kinds of fucked up shit when you get past the whole lookin’ at yerself,” Dale said. Murph thought back to that moment and could only remember the panic and adrenaline running through his body. Even though it had been hours since his dive he still felt uneasy, like he wasn’t put together right. He took a few steps and felt solid.
“Yep. The two-step with mah ghost. It wasn’t easy. Seeing yourself like that never is but you gotta remember it’s all in your head Murph. None of it is real. You swallow that pill and anything is possible,” he said. Murph thought back to his breaks and days off working for Orion. Dale and the other divers would sit around the bar and swap stories. Murph never felt particularly close to them since he had never fully dived into the VDR before, but was happy to be included all the same.
“Thing is, tellin’ yerself that is one thing, but your brain’s an old stubborn organ. It’s got millions of years of evolution baked into it tellin’ you what you is and what you isn’t,” Dale continued. “Heck, in mah 55 years of living I’m still findin’ new things every dive in. I tip my hat to ya, Murph. I just wish I was there to see ya freak out,” Dale said. Murph leaned on a railing that overlooked the beach. Boats dotted the horizon and Murph spotted some kites and drones soaring high overhead.
“Yeah, I just hope tomorrow goes well. If I screw up this next step it’s all over,” Murph said.
“Boy who said it’s over? What are ya, like 30? There are other things in life than werkin’ for the big dogs up in the city,” Dale said. “I learned that after damn near 15 years of working for corpos like ‘Tenki,” He said. Murph was listening but he watched the people below enjoy the bright mid-day sun.
“Perhaps, but right now it’s something that’s right in front of me. I might have a different story to tell in 15 years Dale, but I don’t try to look that far into the future. It bums me out,” He said.
“That’s something I could never get about you boy. You never wanna talk about yerself, ya never wanna talk about yer upbringin’. What do you look forward to then?” Dale asked after spitting out more chaw. He had a point. Murph never liked to talk about himself. He just thought he was being humble. I mean, who was Murph Bell? A 29-year-old desk jockey working at a too-small company in a too-small town. Is that what he thought of the Yupe? It’s where all his friends and family were. It’s where he lived all his life. Off the shores of Lake Michigan looking at a city he was told was just a dream. Only when he learned there was a possibility for that far-off city to be real did Murph jump at the opportunity to go. And all from one woman’s generosity.
“I guess I just look forward to tomorrow,” Murph said with a shrug. That made Dale laugh so hard he wheezed and coughed. Bless his heart, Dale Parcel. He was a salt of the earth kind of man. A man who would take you down a peg only to keep you grounded. He’d tell you what’s what and then chat about it over a beer. It was the kind of honesty and tenacity Murph welcomed. He was grateful to have someone so honest yet supportive in his life.
“Trust me, Murph, start thinkin’ a little bit further than a day. Try a week. You’ll find yerself a brighter tomorrow. I know that don’t make a hell of a lot of sense now, but it will,” Dale said. Murph nodded. It couldn’t hurt to try and think of a future. Murph had gotten used to a kind of mindset some might call self-destructive. He kept his nose to the grindstone but kept his aspirations up on a shelf, just out of reach. Every time he thought of doing something about it, that day’s tasks laid before him.
“I’ll try Dale. Tomorrow’s pretty big. Maybe the day afterward will be smaller,” Murph said. He thought of what he could do the day after his big interview. Job or no job, what was something to look forward to that anyone could get? Just thinking about tomorrow made his stomach drop. It took Murph a minute to properly swallow.
He watched as a man walked past him drinking coffee from a paper cup. He got a whiff of the freshly brewed aroma and let it lift his spirits a bit. It was the kind of effect only coffee could have on a person.
“Maybe a coffee,” He said.
“A coffee eh?” Dale said. Murph focused and realized he said that out loud. The man looked over his shoulder just as Murph looked the other way.
“You know Frank swears by this Resolute Brand coffee. You remember Frank, yeah?” Dale said.
“It’s only been two days Dale, yes I know Frank Moole from your little posse,” Murph said.
“Watch it, boy, we’re a squad, we’ve earned the right to be named as such,” Dale said between spits of chaw. “But yeah, Frank. He gets this imported fru fru coffee by means of the Texico Islands down south. Tastes jus’ like a cuppa joe but he swears by it sayin’ all this shit about accents and profiles. Sounds like some blue blood shit ya know’ wha’ mean?”
“Yes, but does it taste good? Like even if you can’t taste the things Frank said, do you think it tastes good?” Murph asked.
“Boy, coffee be coffee. I swear up’n down that I could take Frank’s fru fru coffee and mix it with that there insta-brew and he ain’t know the difference,”
“Is there a rest stop between here and the point, Dale?” Murph said with a smile.
“I’m gettin’ there! Point is, I betcha there’s some outfits that’ll sell ya some of that fru fru stuff. If’n ya wanna take Frank’s side’n this and getcha something to look forward to, try some expensive coffee,” He said. Murph let the idea roll around in his head for a bit. Coffee was perfect. It was decadent enough to be a treat yet inexpensive enough to not break the bank. The pit in his stomach lifted slightly as the idea rolled around in his mind.
“You got it Dale, a good cup of coffee it is,” Murph said.
“Alright, that’s step one. Now, I know we were talkin’ ‘bout lookin’ past tomorrow, but keep yer head on straight and yer ghost in ya shell. Dig?” He asked.
“I dig,” Dale nodded. He could hear the shift in Dale’s tone now. Even his Chaw spits had a more serious ring to them.
“I’ve been to Neon City back then. For a job with ‘Rion ya see? The diver’s in this city ain’t like me and the squad. This city, it’s one iconic bitch, ya see?”
“Iconic bitch?” Murph repeated.
“As in famous and a real nasty place. Keep up boy,” Dale said. “Look, these corpos like ‘Tenki. They’re invasive on their own. It ain’t business as usual like it is at ‘Rion. They want something from the folks that work there,” Murph thought back to the video Daaron left him. The last words echoed in his head.
“Whatever they want from you, as long as your reward is getting to stay here, give it to them. What’s one little thing compared to the rest of your life?” Dale said. Murph’s stomach tied itself in knots.
“I get the feeling tomorrow I’ll be asked to give them something. I have no idea what that means but Daaron said it. Now you.”
He didn’t know what to say next. He didn’t want to think about it, but that only made it worse. The intrusive thoughts crept in like inky black tendrils. He began to analyze his entire time in the Atsutenki office. What did they do while he was under? Murph started to look at his fingertips and arms for anything. Ink residue, stick marks, tags, trackers, anything. Was he followed back from the offices? Did they upload a virus or tracking program while he was in the VDR? Did June do something? What about Trish? Why did she give up her chance to come to Neon City? She said this place wasn’t for her, but could she have been lying? Or worse yet, did she want Murph to have her fate? Save her own ass?
“Now don’t get yer ghost rattled Murph, calm down. Look, you got a full day to think about it. Ain’t nothing stopping ya from comin’ back and forgettin’ all about this,” Dale said. Murph felt his chest tighten. He looked around the crowd that passed him by. His eyes darted from one person to the next. He locked eyes with them and darted away. He hated it when they looked back. He thought he saw an Atsutenki pin, but when he looked back they were already gone.
“Why is this happening? Why now? I was so close!” Murph walked down the path some more, his heart racing. How did June know he’d been partying? Was it on his breath? Or did Daaron report him to Atsutenki?
“Murph, yer getting all worked up fer nothin’. Forget what I said. I was just talkin’ shit you k-”
“Shut up you rambling hick,” Murph said. The line went silent. Murph could feel the blood pounding in his head.
“You want me to come back home so I can be a miserable fuck like you! Well, I am not. I’m better than that, I’m better than you. That’s why I am here and you’re back there sucking down shitty beer!” Murph said. He didn’t notice it until now, but people began to stare, only for a moment.
“I gotta say, I am disappointed, boy,” Dale said. The call ended. Murph Bell ran his fingers through his hair and sat down on a nearby bench and let out a long ragged sigh.He felt the knot in his throat catch midway out of his mouth but coughed it back. The tears stung his eyes.
“Why the fuck do you talk you decrepit old shit,” Murph said. He spent the better part of this bright summer day trying not to completely lose it as the panic attack worked him over. Waves of utter terror threatened to rip free a pent-up wail of panic. All he could do was take deep, ragged breaths and try to calm his nerves. He had earned this spot. He was so close to everything just clicking in his life.
Just as his anxiety began to settle in his mind, a message appeared from his interface. It was from Lauren.
Shadows in Neon City: Part Seven
This City Has A Heavy Black Heart
Written by: Zack
Published On: July 31st, 2021
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
Murph Bell took a final look back at the crashing waves against the shore before he sat next to June on the bench. She had a hard-light panel where she made the final adjustments to the simulation. Murph glanced at the panel. He couldn’t decipher any of the equations and inputs. It was one thing to dive into the VDR and another to write the script while inside. That kind of skill was leagues above his own. Though Murph had his suspicions that June was not 100% human.
Back home, chrome implants beyond a cyber brain were uncommon. Cyborgs — people who have converted more than 50% of their bodies to cybernetic enhancements — were unheard of in the Yupe. It made sense anyway; anyone with the money to become a cyborg usually lived in Neon City.
“Do you understand why we were brought here, Mr. Bell?” June asked.
“To evaluate my data process abilities in a simulated environment,” Murph said. She gave him a small nod.
“Close. That is part of the reason we brought you into the VDR, but do you know why we were brought here specifically, to this location?”.
“You said the seed world would be constructed from a place where I am most comfortable. This is the Yupe side of Lake Scourge, but here I guess we still call it Lake Michigan,” Murph said. “Well, some do. Older people, you know?” It would make sense to feel the most comfortable back home, no matter how much he wanted to be in Neon City, his home would always be the Yupe. June pointed across the lake and the clouds began to split where she pointed. In the distance, the skyline of Neon City appeared.
“Do you find it odd that the city is still here? From what I gather you shouldn’t be able to see the city from here Mr. Bell,” she said.
“On a clear night sky, you can see the lights,” Murph said. On the nights he was able, Murph would spend all night walking along the shore and watch the lights of Neon City. From that distance, it looked like a fantasy land. It was a place he had only ever heard about from people who visited. Now he was physically in Neon City, but still dreamed of it as if it were a far-off fantasy. June tapped on her hard-light panel before standing up.
“We shall begin the first part of your interview with a series of evaluations. These will test your capacity to hold information as well as your ability to adapt to our seed worlds here at Asutenki. Let me know when you’re ready and we can begin,” June said. Her head turned back to her panel. Murph got up and stretched his legs. He took in a deep breath and slowly exhaled before sitting back down.
“I’m ready,” He said. He was ready for the Crucible. The mechanics of processing data in the VDR was simple and complex all at once. To do this, Murph merely had to allow his cyberbrain to process incoming data from an external source and have it be recontextualized and stored in his actual brain as memory which would be stored for later. Basically, VDR data processing used divers as a kind of organic cloud for off-server storage. It was the most secure from outside threats and could be easily transferable between peers. However, the process was complex in that it required a lot of mental and physical fortitude. Not only did the cybernetic hardware take a lot of strain, but the nervous system of the host also took a hit after a while.
“Fair warning Mr. Bell, this will be intense. You’ll be handling 1 terabyte of information,” June said. Murph sucked in a deep breath before June activated the trial program. Soon, there was pressure in the back of Murph’s neck. He went through basic training from Orion. He relaxed his shoulders and put his head down slightly. The heat traveled up and down his spine, curled around his shoulders and down his arms. It was as if a searing hand grabbed the back of his head and pushed into his brain. At that moment Murph opened his eyes and sucked in a sharp breath.
The lake was still there just as he left it. June was looking down at her tablet still. She pushed a stray lock of hair back around her ear. It took him a moment to realize there was no sound. The crashing waves, the leaves rustling in the wind. Not a sound existed in this world. Murph opened his mouth to say something but nothing came out.
The heat was gone, replaced by a crawling numbness. It was like his nerves were static. The hand that had pushed into his mind now felt like two gentle ones, their fingertips dancing across his temples. Murph found it hard to swallow. The information that sped through his cyberbrain seemed to be a hodgepodge of mathematical equations, facts, and figures. He was aware of the information rushing into his brain, but he couldn’t pick out just one specific thing. He gripped his knees and closed his eyes. He tried to think of the lake. Of home. But when he did, a torrent of numbers blocked his vision.
He opened his eyes again and the lake was gone. Everything was gone, replaced with an endless black void. The tingling numbness dissipated, but every now and then his arms and legs felt a twinge of static. Up ahead was a single white dot. It rested on the horizon, or at least where Murph thought the horizon was.
Every breath Murph took seemed to fill a separate set of lungs as if only his chest was outside his body. Every step he took seemed to belong to a different set of legs but still attached to his body. He heard of this phenomenon, and while it had been explained to him multiple times, it never really clicked in his mind. It was clicking now.
Basically what made you, well, you, was a series of electric synapses and chemicals released in the brain. In the VDR that process is simulated electronically, but it can’t fully replace reality. If a diver’s cyber brain is getting overclocked, certain processes take less priority. One of those was the consciousness simulation program. Divers called it “Showing Your Ghost,” and Murph’s ghost was out to say hello.
Murph focused ahead at the white dot as both his hands and not hands stretched outwards. Sparks of light shot out from this point in different directions, different colors. One speck of red landed on his not cheek. His not hand felt it. Murph’s own skin was numb to the touch. His fingers dipped just below the skin like water. His not hand was angular and pale as if rendered in 16-bit. While this was going on, the specks of light shot past him at faster and faster speeds. It took Murph a moment to realize they were not flying past him, he was flying past them!
He put his hands, his not hands in front of his face, his not face, and let out an electric scream of pure terror before being violently shaken.
“Mr. Bell,” June said. Her hand was on his shoulder. He looked up at her. He was back. Back at the lake. Murph felt his forehead. He couldn’t sweat in the VDR, but if he could he would be drenched. He got up and ran to the lake’s edge. He knelt and dunked his hands into the water. He could feel the cool simulated water run over his hands. He pulled them out and saw the binary droplets drip from his palms, leaving a sensation of wetness, but his hands were bone dry.
“Where was I?” Murph said. He looked back to June who was casually tapping on her hard light pad.
“Here Mr. Bell, you never left this bench or this world,” She said with a shrug. Murph got up and walked back to her in utter disbelief.
“But the void, those lights and…my body,” He said looking back down at his hands. June dismissed the hard light pad and stood up.
“Your cyberbrain must have needed some higher function processing to perform the task. I wouldn’t worry about it, Mr. Bell. Whatever you saw was merely a redistribution of your brain and cyber brain’s priorities. Rest assured you were never in any danger,” she said.
“So um…how did I do?” He asked. Her shoulders only lifted slightly in what could only be called a shrug.
“Despite your out-of-body experience, you performed the task adequately. Though you will need to be refitted with a new Asutenki brand cyber brain should you receive an offer,” she said.
“So I passed?” Murph asked.
“Yes Mr. Bell, you passed. Please report back here Sunday morning for further evaluation,” She said. The world around both of them began to pixelate. Murph was trained on this from his Diver buddies as well. To get out of the VDR proper, you need to go down. He rolled back on the balls of his heels and let “gravity” do the work.
A jolt ran through Murph’s body as he jumped to his feet. He was back in June’s office. She was already looking through the notes she took on her console. He calmed his nerves as she stood and extended her hand.
“Congratulations Mr. Bell, you’ve done all that we ask of you and we’ll conclude your interview tomorrow morning. I’d recommend a light celebration this time around,” She said. The way she said that made him pause for a moment. This time around? He didn’t linger too much on it and shook her hand.
“Thank you, it’s been a pleasure really,” he said. After some awkward Corpo goodbyes, Murph Bell found himself on the steps of the Asutenki building. With each step, he thought he was going to float off into the mid-afternoon sky. So why did his heart feel so heavy? June’s words rang in his head.
This time around?
Shadows in Neon City: Part Six
This City Is A Deep Fantasy
Written by: Zack
Published On: June 30th, 2021
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
The final elevator ding signaled their arrival. Murph and the other applicants stepped out into a waiting area. This one had floor-to-ceiling windows. From this height, Murph could just see the bridge he crossed to come here. The room kept the same aesthetic as the lobby he entered — without the chaos of the morning crowd, of course.
The applicants were met with a line of sharply dressed men and women. They wore grey suits and dresses free of wrinkles or creases, with bright white button-up shirts and cream-colored ties. The women wore Asutenki hair clips with the company logo; a yellow and pink sunflower. The men wore pins.
“Welcome applicants,” One of the women said as she stepped forward. “Thank you for joining us on time. In a moment you will be assigned a proctor to begin the first step of the interview process.”
She stood out from the rest of the employees. While each had some kind of cybernetic enhancement or effect to distinguish them, this woman’s eyes were covered by an enamel shell and her sockets were covered by chrome, like a mask. She was also noticeably paler than the rest of them. Her jet black hair was done up in a ponytail and stuck with an Asutenki clip. One by one the employees were matched up with a proctor and taken down the hall. He waited as he was soon left alone with the lead woman from before. She stepped forward, her black lips cracked a smile.
“My name is June and I’ll be your proctor for this part of your evaluation,” She said. Murph nodded before he stood up straight.
“Yes ma’am. Murph Bell, it’s a pleasure,” he said, offering his hand. She shook it with her one gloved hand.
“Indeed it is Mr. Bell. Before we begin, do you have any questions?” she said. Murph took back his hand and thought for a moment.
“Is there anything you can tell me about the nature of this evaluation? Like, what kind of skills will I be assessed on?” He asked. Her expression was unreadable behind that mask. It hid her eyes.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you about the content of this interview Mr. Bell. For this step in the process, we want your responses to be genuine.”
“Genuine? What is genuine about a data entry job?” Murph thought.
“Come with me and we’ll get you started. I can tell you now that this evaluation will take place in the Virtual Dream Rebirth. Are you familiar, Mr. Bell?” she inquired. Murph had a feeling that would happen.
“I’ve supervised VDR dives for some of the more dedicated divers at Orion Electronics. I’ve only logged about 6 hours of dive time in total over my career,” Murph said.
The Virtual Dream Rebirth was something beyond accessing the net via an interface. Normally, using an interface or computer would bring the net to you, so you could access information in your own space, within your own control. The Virtual Dream Rebirth, or VDR, was a process where you were brought to the net, and the interactions between you and information got…complicated. It was a process only the top performers at Orion got to handle regularly. Murph was rarely in that position, despite his best efforts. On those fateful days when he was allowed to dive into the VDR, he swore each time lasted moments despite hours passing in the real world.
He was taken to a corner office with a window overlooking the Corpo plaza.
He took a quick look around before his eyes were drawn to the solid wood office desk. On the desk was a VDR module with some connecting wires. The module was sleek and jet black, with a mirrored finish and rounded corners. It looked downright alien next to the desk and ergonomic office chair. The connectors were neatly arranged on the desk pointing towards the other chair, where June offered Murph to sit. Besides the console, the desk — and the office by extension — was minimal. Asutenki branded calendars and mugs dotted the work area. The one personal item Murph saw was a picture frame with a smiling older woman. She was in a wheelchair being pushed by what looked like a younger June. Murph focused on how happy June looked. She had hazel eyes.
June sat in the chair behind the desk, bringing Murph’s attention back to her. It was like flipping a light switch, seeing the June in the photo and the one who sat just a few feet in front of him, but that’s office life for you.
Murph didn’t get a cruel or harsh feeling from June, but it was cold. Professionally distant maybe? In any case, the woman didn’t so much as glance at the photo to her immediate right.
“We will conduct this interview in seed world 2. This is a collaborative world where your psychic profile will inform the world’s shape,” She said, tapping a few keys on the computer the VDR console was hooked up to. “You are from Southern Yupe, correct?” Murph was about to give her specifics but then felt that it would just be a waste of time.
“Yeah, Southern Yupe. By the lake,” Murph said. She nodded and entered the information into her computer. “Right about now a lot of people from the city travel up to the Yupe to enjoy our side of the lake,” While he said this his eyes drifted back towards the photo of June again.
“Alright, we’re ready to go here. The seed world will be complete with your input. If you will, Mr. Bell,” June gestured to the connectors.
He grabbed the connecting plugs and carefully pushed each one into the appropriate port. The sensation was as weird — and surprisingly painless — as ever. Each successful plug was met with a cool rush to the back of Murph’s skull, as if someone poured ice water down the back of his neck and it had somehow leaked into his head. He brought up his interface and opened up the dive program.
Entering the Virtual Dream Rebirth was a lot like lucid dreaming. You’re fully aware of your surroundings, even if you’re in the most fantastic of settings. As the programs began, the ice water feeling in the back of Murph’s head turned to a buzzing sensation before finally turning warm. “Fresh data” they called it, those divers who regularly visited the VDR. When your connection begins to feel warm, you know you’re getting piping fresh data shot directly into your cyberbrain. The sensation eventually spreads through your whole body. To Murph, it felt like he was sleeping on a waterbed. According to the divers he talked to, it took about four deep breaths to complete the dive. His chest rose and fell slowly.
On the fourth exhale, Murph opened his eyes to find himself outside. The sky above him was a deep sunset orange. Sound began to populate the silence around him. He sat up, towards the sound of water. He was on a beach near the lake. He could tell it was the lake because the air was cool and lacked the salty smell of the ocean he had heard about. He was up on a hill and looked down to see the waves crashing against a pebbled coast. Weeds, driftwood, and sand all mixed together to give it a speckled look. The hill he stood on was pretty steep. Murph looked behind him to see a winding walking trail snake up a steep hill. He looked ahead to see an endless body of water stretch on where it met the sky in some impossibly far-off place Murph couldn’t reach.
Murph knew this beach, this place. He was back home. The Yupe. Murph walked down to the beach and looked closer at the way the waves crashed against the beach. The VDR replicated sights, sounds, and smells and plugged them right into your cyberbrain. As it was explained to Murph years ago, it’s like you’re hooking up an old media player, except you’re the TV. Of course, the human brain is far better at interpreting stimuli than any computer. As Murph knelt by the shore, he could see the subtle differences the VDR and the real world offered. His knuckles dipped ever so slightly below the ground. Instead of moving the pebbles and sticks that brushed his hand, they passed into his flesh for a nanosecond before registering they had been moved. Again, subtle. What was less subtle were the bits of binary coding that coated the surface of the water before it formed the waves that crashed into the lake. Out of all the materials, the VDR could replicate, it had a special kind of challenge with water. No matter how advanced, the properties of water were never perfected. Because of this, odd things happened when a diver interacted with a large body of water. Divers called it the Binary Ocean. In Murph’s case, it would be the Binary Lake.
“Mr. Bell?” June’s voice could be heard behind him. Murph turned to find the woman sitting on a bench that overlooked the beach.
“We can begin your interview now if you’ll please sit,” she said, patting the space beside her. She looked out of place here. A woman of the Neon City NuWave decked out in chrome, surrounded by all this nature. Was this what Murph looked like to everyone else in the city?
“You don’t prefer long walks on the beach?” He said. June looked back at him with the same unreadable expression. Yet, he didn’t mind. Something about coming home made Murph loosen up a bit. Maybe he could do this after all. Of course, why else would he come here?
Shadows in Neon City: Part Five
This City Is A Palace in the Sky
Written by: Zack
Art by Hydra ヒドラ
The Oaysis drink cleared Murph’s head, but his body was still riddled with aches and pains. He climbed into the shower to wash off the previous night’s grime and sweat. He barely had the energy to stand, so instead he laid in the tub, one leg craned outside as the shower cascaded over his worthless form.
The hangover would wear off as the day dragged on, but today was the first day of his interview with Asutenki. Beneath the fog of early morning grogginess and cheap beer, Murph’s mind was replaying Daaron’s video over and over again. He moved his face to take the direct blast of the shower head. He needed to push that back for now. He needed to worry about it later and focus on the task at hand, the reason he was here to begin with.
When he was done with his “shower,” Murph looked less shitty overall. His eyes had bags forming under them and his skin felt… well, shitty. Does this look like the face of a Megacorp worker? Is that a question desk jockeys even ask themselves?
“I guess they only care if I look good enough to blend in with the others,” Murph said to himself. He stretched various parts of his face and applied some moisturizing cream to the bags under his eyes. He then brushed his teeth, flossed and shaved. It was an improvement only because no one else saw the festering degenerate beneath the skin.
“As long as I’m the only one who knows, it should be fine,” He continued. Murph finished grooming himself before stepping back out into his room. He averted his eyes when he noticed the vomit stain on the other side of the bed. As he got dressed, he began to smell the wretched odors of last night. The vomit and musk of the bar hung in the air like an ominous cloud. Murph gave his neck a few sprays of his cologne before he gave the room a spritz. It was the same cologne he used last night. It quickly reminded him of last night and mixed with the other pungent reminders that lingered in the room. Murph cringed at the overbearing smell and decided to just open a window.
The streets were still as crowded and busy as ever,the sun just barely over the horizon. He checked the clock; it was just past seven. He opened up his interface and mapped out a route to the Asutenki headquarters from his hotel. By cab it would take just under thirty minutes. If he left by 7:45 he could make it with minutes to spare.
“Nope, you have to be at least fifteen minutes early,” He said aloud. Who came up with that rule anyway? In all the interviews Murph had been a part of, the hiring manager was always late. Of course, they could be late all they wanted, they weren’t the ones being scrutinized. A disgusting, hollow gurgle rumbled up from Murph’s stomach. He hadn’t had breakfast and was running on just that one energy drink — and what was in his stomach before was staining the carpets and parts of the wall now. Murph left the room donned in his best threads; a pressed blue suit with a white undershirt and grey tie. He spent a good wad of cash on this and he still felt out of style compared to the average city goer.
There was a continental breakfast buffet being served in the lobby, and Murph helped himself to some cheap coffee and a danish. He inhaled both and made sure his fingers were clean before he left the hotel and hailed a cab. It took him a few tries to finally hail one down. The older man had a salt and pepper beard and didn’t greet him when he opened the door.
“The Asutenki building please,” Murph said. The driver just looked ahead. He punched in the address on his dashboard’s display and started the meter. It was all the same to Murph, he didn’t want to talk either. He casually slid the divider closed and rested his head and let the sights of the city passby.
Just 24 hours ago he had been blown away by the sights and sounds of Neon City. That awe had left his body, or to be more accurate, something much more foreboding weighed upon it instead.
“Whatever they want from you, as long as your reward is getting to stay here, give it to them. What’s one little thing compared to the rest of your life?”
“Whatever they want from you, as long as your reward is getting to stay here, give it to them. What’s one little thing compared to the rest of your life,”
Those words echoed through his head. It reminded him of what Trish said. This city changes you. From what Murph experienced last night — or at least what he remembered — Darron had changed drastically since leaving the Yupe. It was silly to think moving to a different city wouldn’t change a person. Neon City was so much more than the Yupe could ever provide. What Murph remembered about Darron from last night was that he seemed happier — freer, Murph might even say. Though he knew that’s not what Trish meant when she warned him.
“It can’t, Trish. I won’t let it,” Murph said. The taxi driver didn’t even look in his rear view mirror. If Murph had to guess, this man was just coming off an all night shift. He was probably the last customer before turning in. He put his hands on his lap and brought up his interface again. He checked his messages and contact info to pass the time and to also check to see if anything new had been added or taken away. He narrowed his eyes when he saw that a new contact had been added: Lauren ❤
“I don’t like the look of that,” Murph muttered. It was a potential issue to solve, but one that could wait until tonight. Another thing that stuck out to him was that Simon’s note and info were missing from his contact list. Had he deleted it by mistake? In either case he decided to dismiss his interface just as the taxi crossed a bridge that spanned Lake Scourge.
On the other side was Corpo Plaza, the district that held the headquarters for the five main Megacorps that ruled over Neon City; Incubo, Virtua, Skyline, Pyramid and Asutenki. Murph watched five monolithic towers come into view as they crossed the bridge. That awe and wonder he had felt returned a little bit when he saw these colossal buildings.
These were not mere skyscrapers, Murph had seen plenty of those. These were in a different league altogether.
Each building was different in design and aesthetic, but they all had one thing in common: they were gargantuan megatowers that disappeared into the sky above. Neon City was home to tens of millions and expanded over several districts, but these five towers and their adjacent structures could probably house everyone with room to spare. As Murph got closer to the five megatowers, his wonder and awe were replaced with foreboding doom. At that moment all thoughts retreated from Murph’s mind. Lauren, Simon, Darron. Nothing else mattered now. The taxi driver didn’t seem phased by this. Sights like these were so mundane to a man who’s been doing this for — Murph only assumed — thirty years.
“I deserve this,” Murph told himself. He took a deep breath. In and out. Again. In and out. “I worked hard to get here. It may have been luck, but Trish saw what I was capable of. I believe in her because she believes in me,” Murph said quietly to himself.
“It all comes down to this, then. The moment where all my blood, sweat, and tears pay off,” He clenched his fists. “Yes, these corporations control every facet of living — and not just in Neon City. Inside these buildings are people. Asutenki is run by people. Fallible, emotional people. These buildings are made of glass, steel and concrete,”
“Imposing as they may be, I can just walk right in. I’m allowed inside. I deserve to be inside,”
“I can fucking do this!” Murph opened his eyes, to meet the cold stare of the taxi driver. He looked out the window to see they had stopped right in front of the Asutenki building. Scores of employees were walking up the grand steps that lead up to the building. Many lanes of cabs and other cars pulled up to drop people off. It was a morning rush, but much less chaotic than Murph had anticipated. The taxi driver tapped his meter with increased irritation. Murph felt his cheeks burn bright red.
“Ah…yeah, that…um. Listen, I have this big interview today and I’m from the Yupe. So, you can understand…” Murph began.
“Can you pay or not?” the taxi driver said with a flat tone.
“Of course, sorry I…yeah I’ll get right on it,” Murph took out his card and paid. He stepped out of the cab.
“Hey!” The driver barked at him as Murph walked away. Shit, had he underpaid? Murph turned around and saw the man out of his seat and looking at Murph. His expression hadn’t changed, but the way he was looking at him felt like he was piercing Murph’s soul.
“Do you really believe you can do this?” He said simply. Murph looked around and opened his mouth to speak. Nothing came out at first.
“I have to. Why else would I be here?,” Murph said. The driver stared at him for a couple seconds more.
“Okay,” He said. Without looking back, he sat back in his cab and drove off. Murph turned his attention back to the main gates. All around him, well-dressed employees walked past without a second glance. Most of them were looking at their interfaces or taking the last gulp out of a coffee cup before chucking it towards the waste bins posted to either side of the main gate.
Murph stepped up onto the stairs that led in. The steps were just like the tower itself; white with a marbled sheen of grey swirls. Brass between the tiles. The morning sun made everything around him brighter. He had to shield his eyes because of the sudden light that reflected back at him. If he didn’t know any better, Murph would think he was ascending a stairway towards the pearly gates themselves.
The lobby of the tower was organized chaos. The employees filing in from outside now made their way to a series of elevators past a security checkpoint. Murph was treated to a medley of approved clearance beeps as employees swiped their badges or looked into retinal scans to make it past a security gate. Beyond that was a station of elevators that would take them to their desired floors. He made himself as small as possible to avoid bumping into people. He had some practice in avoiding unnecessary contact from the dance floor last night. However, the people he accidentally bumped into were far more polite than the party goers last night.
“Excuse me, pardon,” a small man said, giving Murph a small nod before scurrying off to the gate. It was a level of organized chaos Murph was not used to. He scanned the room and found the reception desk in the middle. The large, angular marble station acted as a kind of island that parted the hurried professional masses. The security gates were on either side of the reception desk, and all but a few employees avoided it like a stone in a stream. Behind the desk was something else entirely. The being behind the desk didn’t look human. Not completely. Murph watched from afar, but slowly walked up to the being. Their skin was mirror-like, almost entirely made of chrome, which made their body appear more androgonous. They wore a white suit lined with teal and their jet black hair traveled down and past their shoulders. Murph made his way to the desk, any fears or anxieties were choked down deep within as he got close.
“Excuse me,” He said with a firm but professional tone, “My name is Murph Bell, here from Orion Electronics for an interview.”
The secretary’s eyes glowed teal, the same color as their suit lining, and they nodded. “Yes, thank you for coming early,” Their voice was monotone and, if Murph had to guess, a little bored. They handed Murph a white keycard with the company logo on it; a yellow and pink sunflower.
“This will allow you access to the seventh floor. Your first tests will take place in seed world 2,” the secretary droned. Murph looked at the card and the secretary went right back to work. Murph didn’t linger in the lobby any further. He swiped the card through the gate and passed through the screening arcs. From there he was led to an elevator on the left side of the terminal, where his card only took him to floor seven. It was a fast trip. Murph shared the elevator with a half dozen other applicants. With each beep of the passing floor, Murph’s heartbeat quickened.
This was it. This was the beginning of what his coworkers called “The Crucible.”