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.”