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?