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.