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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Nightmares in an Electric City

This was a submission for the Sword and Laser short story anthology...I don't remember when it was, but it was quite a while ago.  I did not get into the anthology, but I thought I actually did a pretty decent job on this story.  Let me know what you think!




 There are times in my life when I know that I've made a wrong decision. It is a feeling that, no matter what happens next, the choice I just made will come to nothing but trouble and regret. Like when I drank that tenth shot of expensive whiskey at my father's retirement party, then found myself dancing on a table without a shirt on. Or the time that I told my boss to go fuck himself for trying to feel my ass and I found myself getting shit for cases for a month afterward. Going into the warehouse a year ago...I'd felt it then, as well.

But today, here and now in my office, I ignored it, though it may have been the cheap bottle of scotch I had consumed the previous night. Either way, as she walked in I felt nothing but a desire to throw up and throw her out, in that order. Instead, I pulled a cigarette out of the pack on my desk and lit it. Taking a long drag and feeling the delicious burn of the smoke and nicotine, I asked, “So, can I help you?”

The woman had a distraught look about her, yet it didn't feel genuine. I'm not saying that her distress was feigned, just that it had a cultivated look to it. She looked like what actresses on the cheap hologram vids look like when they want to look distressed but still pretty. She made me feel slightly ashamed that I had slept at my desk and hadn't put any make-up on or taken a shower yet, then I remembered that I don't buy make-up. I also disconcertingly found I couldn't remember if I had made enough to pay my water bill last month. What can you do? Taking pictures of men with their illicit lovers only pays so much and it's the only steady work I can get around here.

She was dressed nicely, I'll admit that. Clearly I'll be using the rich client pay scale for this case. Which was nice, cause maybe it would mean something more to live off of than cigarettes and cheap booze. Maybe it meant the expensive booze for once. She dabbed at her perfect eyes with a delicate lace handkerchief then said in a quavering voice, “Are you Maria? Maria Sandoval, the detective?” I let out a sigh, exhaling a cloud of smoke as I blithely responded, “It's the name on the door, isn't it?”
If my sarcasm offended her, she didn't let it show. She simply pressed on, “My name is Ariana Mortannin. It's...it's my sister, Analya. She's gone missing.”

I took another slow puff on my cigarette before answering. “Ma'am, I can understand your distress. How long has she been missing?” As I asked it, I felt the beginning of a mistake. At the time, I simply read it as revulsion at the fact that in the world that we live in people can go slipping through the cracks of society and no one in authority will give a damn. If you have enough money, then they'll care. But the poor or the minorities? It's someone else's problem then. I suppose that's why people like me still exist in a time where most of your problems can be solved by either computers or tech implants. I take a certain amount in pride in only having the minimum required tech to function in our city, my ID code in my hand and a tele-jack behind my left ear. I'd had some more back when I was on the police force, but they had required I give them back when I quit.

“She has been missing for a little over a week now.” Ariana answered in her mewling tone. It was really starting to grate on my nerves, and being out of alcohol meant not being able to tolerate it for long. I said what I say to all my clients, “I am required at this point to tell you that you should take such matters to the police. They have official jurisdiction over such things and I'm simply a freelance investigator.” I say it as a formality at this point. Most of my clients have either already been to the police and lack the funds to pay for an investigation, or are in some trouble of their own and prefer to not get the cops involved. I don't care, either way I typically get paid.

“I already talked to the cops,” she continued, “They told me that she hadn't been missing long enough, but that if her body turns up they'll be sure to contact me.” here she paused and looked at me.  I could sense that she was holding something back. I didn't care. “I charge 100 creds a day, plus any expenses accrued in the course of the job. I'll need information if you want me to search for your sister. Any embarrassing family secrets, any shameful pasts...I don't give a fuck. You pay me, you give me honest answers, I find her. You decline to tell me everything, well I get paid either way.”

Her eyes widened slightly as I spoke: evidence of my winning personality charming her, no doubt. I had finished my cigarette and begun to light the second when she answered, “My sister was a prostitute.” I sat back in my chair and asked, “Licensed?” As I suspected, she dropped her eyes and murmured, “No.”

Damn. That was going to make Analya a shade harder to find. Licensed prostitutes at least were documented and tracked. It was required to get a GPS chip inserted, though the kind of creeps willing to take a street-worker were also typically willing to cut a chip out. But the corporations that run things like to keep consistent in their bullshit. Ever since the synths being put out were life-like enough for lonely people to get off on, they decided why not get their taxable cut of the working girl on the street?

“So, that's why the cops wouldn't touch it. No sensible person would.” I drew some more airy death into my lungs and enjoyed it. “Lucky for you I was never sensible. I will require an advance, but I'm willing to take your case. Just know that what I come back with may not be happy news.” I could be more tactful here, but fuck it. I'm hung-over and grumpy.

Ariana nodded assent and dropped a cred card down. “It is tied to an account set aside for this. The daily limit is 200 creds. If you need more, text me and I'll authorize a higher limit for the day.”
I raised an eyebrow at this. 200 creds a day could get me quite a bit of life necessities, maybe a little extra. I took the card and slid it into my pocket. I asked her to torrent me the bio file on her sister, and told her I would contact her with any information I find. I watched her let herself out as I enjoyed the last bit of my cigarette then got to work.

I pulled out the battered and chipped tablet, finding myself thinking of others better off than myself. Most people simply used the retinal monitor and interfaced directly with the net. I, being old-fashioned, still preferred a solid touch screen over such foolishness. I'll give Ariana credit, she's fast. The torrent file is sitting, ready for download. As I waited for it to finish, I decided that it was time to test the creds of my new client and also put something more than bile and cigarette smoke into me. I put my tablet into its travel case and donned a large, out of fashion overcoat. I grabbed my hat and locked the door behind me as I left.
***
Stepping outside in New Angeles is a bit like stepping into water. Ever since the pollution level hit critical mass ten years ago, it hasn't stopped raining. Seems the corporate solution to the pollution was to simply fill the air with a cleansing chemical, and that the side effect of that chemical was a constant downpour of rain. Most didn't care and I was certainly among that crowd, but it did depress me to think that there were kids running around who had little concept of the sun except what they saw on the holos. But who am I to judge? At least we can breathe the air now instead of using bulky respirators.

I made my way down the crowded street and towards my favorite diner. The streets are full of people on foot and people in cars. Above, I barely registered the constant hum of those rich enough to afford aerial transportation. Feeling the ridges on the card in my pocket, I realized that I am one of those people. For now. I've always found that walking gets me exactly where I need to be. Taxis were useful, but not cheap. Hadn't been since they started flying.

Flickering neon signs lit up the streets as I made my way to the diner, Titan. It's own sign proclaimed “Good Food Here!” and “Best Sandwiches in New Angeles!” Both were lies, but I'm not picky. As I sat myself, a young man who looked barely old enough to shave walked towards my table. He had the vacant expression of a person staring through the net to look at you. Most people have that look now, and it bothers me. Is it too much to ask for undivided attention?

“The usual, Maria?” he asked distractedly before laughing at something only he could see and hear. I simply nodded and lit up another cigarette. I got some frowns from the other tables, but I ignore them. None of the regulars bother me about it, not since I punched in the face of the last person who did. And Titan was only ever filled with regulars. The food was shit, but it was cheap shit and it was usually empty enough that I could sit at my table and relax as I drank tepid coffee.

As I pulled my tablet back out, I saw that the download had finished. I began flicking through the information available to me, my fingers danced and slid in quick patterns as I read. Age: 18. Lived alone and separate from her sister. I note her address and sent an email to a taxi scheduling a pick up in an hour to go there.

As I continued skimming the information, the kid brought out my cup of coffee. Distractedly, I picked it up and quickly took a large drink from it. I let out a yelp of pain and set the mug down. “Fuck! Jack, what the hell is this shit? The coffee is actually net-damned hot today?” A large man wearing a greasy shirt and pants covered by a brown apron that was supposed to be white at one point comes out of the kitchen laughing. “I do it just for you, my darling Maria. You always complain coffee too cold, too cold. Today I make it extra hot just for you!” I flipped him off in outrage and he simply laughed and wandered back into the kitchen. Jack is about the closest person I have to a friend and I think it is mostly due to him barely understanding English and thinking everything I do is absolutely hilarious. I can't tell if I love or loathe him for it.

I finished reading Analya's documents and the feeling that I won't be finding her grows deeper. I finished my coffee and hastily ate my usual plate of eggs, bacon and toast. Once finished, I slid the card through the reader built into the table. It works, and I have to admit a feeling of relief that it does. I stubbed my cigarette out on the worn in burn mark on the table and headed out to the waiting taxi.

The driver barely noticed me when I stepped into the vehicle, he simply waited for the door to shut and he took off into the sky lanes. Looking down at the streets passing by beneath me, I feel a moment of existential malaise. This happens to me sometimes, more frequently when I'm not drunk, and I know it all started after that last case. The case I left the force over. All those people down there moving about, all those lives. When you move around a world filled with vehicles and no faces, you don't think of them as anything but cars. Yet each car has a person looking out and observing the world and having hopes and dreams. All meaningless to a world run by corporations.

The mega-corps took over about fifteen or so years ago. The world had been changing, and unfortunately, this was part of it. It didn't take long really, especially not here in the good old U. S. of A. Then again, what else could we do? Economic recession, the government failing to pull us out. We thought the solution would be private enterprise - the free market. So they got rid of the president and his cabinet and replaced it with a CEO and shareholders. What they forgot was that whoever has the money has the power. And we don't live in a nice world where the good guys win.

Corruption took over and the country seemed to be on the brink of collapse. That was when Silver Key Industries showed up. The company specialized in what was considered science fiction at the time. Which rapidly became non-fiction as they released a wave of products designed to help us recover from the recession. They were the first to start tech implants. And the first to start producing working robots on a mass scale. Few bothered to question how they were able to do these things; they just accepted it.

The jobs created by the new robotics industry helped swing things back to prosperity. Silver Key seems to be an alright corp, though I don't trust any of them out of principle. From what I've heard, almost all mega-corps use Silver Key tech, so I get the feeling they're holding more cards then they let on. But such things are the machinations of a world I don't belong too, nor hold any particular interest in belonging too. Maybe that is how the corporations took over in the first place, too much apathy amongst the citizenry.

And now, here we are. A world where your life means less then a machine if you don't have creds to your name. Such is the price of success maybe. Maybe there are no good guys, only shades of villainy. Either way, I cut my musings short as I realize that the taxi is landing. Again, I slide the cred card through the scanner and pay my fare. It feels kind of nice to afford things for once.
***
The apartment building I'm standing before looks like shit. No, scratch that. It looks like something shit turned down because it felt it could do better. I had seen better kept abandoned buildings. But I checked and the address was the correct one. And I occasionally saw a person or two coming and going through a door barely holding on to its hinges.

I went up the flight of stairs to Analya's room. I didn't particularly trust the elevator, nor the kind of fry-heads I'd find in there. I spotted several in a room I passed, their front door a distant memory of times ages past. They all look to be about fifteen or so, and I can see the small pile of stims they have gathered around. All of them are lying on their backs, a thin wire going from their heads into a quietly humming net box. An excellent combination, if you were feeling particularly suicidal, mixing stims and the net. Me, I like to play the odds. I just over smoke and over drink.

Analya's room at least has the decency to still have an attached front door. I have to remove points, though, when I tried the knob and there proved to be no lock. Things aren't looking good for Analya. Looking good for my cred account, though. I sighed and opened the door, readying myself for the chaos of the living space of an unlicensed call girl.

However, upon opening the door I discovered a fairly neat apartment. There is only the one room, and an attached bathroom, but I have to give her some credit; she makes it look like a home. I began searching through her things, not a lengthy process since there isn't much to search. A dresser with various outfits, most of which I assume are for her job. A bed and a small closet, nothing of interest in either of those places. I do find it odd that she doesn't have a net box or tablet of some sort. Perhaps she just carried it around with her. I made a mental note to ask her sister about it.

I started going through the accumulated mail and papers that litter her desk. Most of it is junk, but I noticed a small memory card sitting under all the refuse. I looked at it and am surprised that it is a rather sizable amount of memory on it. I'm about to pull out my tablet, when I heard a noise from the doorway. In one smooth motion, I let the card drop into my case and I spin, reaching down to pull the small pistol I keep under my coat out from the holster. When I saw who was there, I almost shoot anyway.

“Oh, it's you,” I say as I lower the gun. A man like Patrick Ruthers isn't worth wasting creds on new bullets. I smile as I remembered that someone else would be paying for those bullets. He mistakes my smile for a fond greeting and returned it. “Maria Sandoval...wouldn't expect to see you here. Aren't there some pills you should be taking? Oh that's right, how is good old Doctor Jack Daniels these days? I'm guessing you're ensuring he's got a nice retirement fund by now.”

Patrick was the aforementioned boss that I told in no uncertain terms to go fuck himself. I think that might be why he doesn't like me, but it could be my myriad other charms. I decided to ignore the jab and return his quip with one of my own. “I'm not surprised to find you here at the home of an unregistered hooker. Unfortunately, she's not in right now. If you give me minute, I'll carry on with my job and have her back here for you in no time.” Patrick frowned and flipped me off. It doesn't bother me all that much. I let out a sigh and asked, “Why are you here, Patrick?”

He moved across the room, his slick demeanor left a trail of slime in the air. “Missing persons case, my dear. If you recall, the real cops handle this sort of thing. But I'm also here for you.”
I can't resist, I take the bait. “Sorry, Pat. I'm not on the market to replace your normal whore. I'm a classy broad like that.” Patrick shrugs and says, “I don't think I'm interested in cold fish. No, the chief sent me here. Said I was to send you back to him if I found you here. And I did, so I'm telling you that I'm taking over and you are going back to him.”

It's then that I noticed the uniforms behind him in the hallway. I shrugged and went along with it. The uniform took me out to the squad car and I sat myself in the front. He paused and seemed to wait for something before seating himself without a word. The entire trip to police headquarters, he didn't so much as make a noise. “Talkative, aren't you?” I muttered as I exited the vehicle and entered the building I swore I would never to see the inside of again.

I soon found myself seated before my old boss, Chief Montana Carrerro. What a fucking name, is all I can think of every time I see it. He was a friend of my dad's, and he'd always been nice enough to me. Today, he looked like I'd pissed in his cereal. “Maria, I heard you took on a case recently.”
I nod. There is little point in lying to a man who so obviously knows exactly what is going on. “Yeah, a woman came to me to find her sister. I did my due diligence, I told her to talk to you guys.” Chief Carrerro nodded. “Yeah, I know. She talked to a rookie who wasn't aware how seriously we take missing persons. We contacted her and let her know that we would do everything in our power to find her sister.”

Mentally, I began to sweat. He just lied to me, possibly for the first time in my life. Don't ask me how I knew he was lying. Maybe it was years of him always being honest. He continued though, “I appreciate that you were willing to take the case, and I am sorry to take over like this. But the good news is that for the inconvenience, I was able to get authorization from the higher ups to pay you this.” He slid over a cred card. “On this card is 2000 creds. We apologize for the loss of employment and so are paying you out for two weeks of work, plus 600 extra for assumed expenses.”

Son of a bitch. Son. Of. A. Bitch. He's paying me off. My net-damned mentor and idol was paying me to avoid a case. I could feel my anger rising and did the sensible thing; I lit a new cigarette. “So you want me to just take this 2000 and go back to my office?” He nodded and replied, “Look, Maria. I know things have been rough ever since...” I cut him off with a gesture and said, “Fuck that noise, Monty. I know what this is, I'm not stupid and I'm not blind. The only real question is whether or not I care why you're paying me off to avoid this case.”

Carrerra gave me a cool look before he said, “Blinds close and door lock.” I'm slightly impressed that they finally got around to automation and voice activation here as the blinds closed and the door locked with an audible click. “Look, Maria. Here are the facts. You don't work here anymore. I can't protect you anymore. You shot that kid...”

Him saying it caused my mind to shatter. I must have visibly reacted since he stopped talking and ran his fingers through his thinning hair. That one sentence encapsulates why I quit. It's why my life was in shambles and I've never had a particular interest in pulling it back together again. It's why I crawled into a bottle and never bothered to come back out for air. I inhaled sharply and coughed slightly as the smoke from the momentarily forgotten cigarette flooded my lungs.

“Fuck you, old man,” is all I can get out. I'm nasty when hurt and don't care much who towards.
He took it in stride and continued talking. “You quit. You drank away any chance of getting any other employment at a desk and distanced yourself from anyone who actually cared about you. This is big, though. This is something you don't fuck with. I just got an email from on high about this. From a fucking suit, Maria. I don't know why, and I didn't get this close to retirement by asking questions when the corporations tell me to do things. Their offer is very generous and I think it would be best for everyone if you just walked away.”

I looked at him with all the scorn and contempt I could summon and spat at his desk. “So you've sold out, like everyone else. Great, I'm sure my dad would be glad to know that his best friend decided that comfort in his old age was worth selling his soul to the corporations.” Carrerra looked nonplussed as he simply shrugged and said, “Maria, you think you are so much better then us down here. But I'm not here to question how the system works. I'm just here to make sure the system does work. Now either take the damn creds or you can just leave here without them. Just know that this is about the only warning you'll get about this. Keep poking around and you'll find the suits on you. And I know you don't want that kind of trouble.”

With that, he barked out the command for the door to open and said, “Now make your choice.” I grabbed the cred card and stalked out. My principles are quickly over-ridden by the need to make some money off this debacle. Plus, I figured since Ariana wasn't cred-rolling me anymore I would need some source of income to facilitate my investigation. Because if there was one universal rule to this world, if you tell me to back off of a case then I am going to go after it harder than ever.
***
Sitting in my office, I held the memory card from Analya's apartment and thought. I had made the decision to pursue the case, but how? I didn't have many leads and Carrerra's mentioning of the suits did give me pause. The suits were a modern day bogeyman that most didn't really believe in. Some of us knew better. The suits were owned by the corporations, and worked mostly like a private security force, except they had access to everything and seemed to be able to find you anywhere.

There must be something big behind this case if the suits could get involved. But in for a penny, in for a pound, as my grandfather always had said. I slid the card into my tablet and accessed the information. My eyes widened slightly at the sheer amount of files on the card. It seemed that Analya kept all the records from her activities on this card - which makes the absence of any sort of tech in her apartment more unsettling. It all pointed towards having a card reader implant. Maybe she got it before her falling out with her sister.

The newest file on the card is an e-vite to an event, some private party some guys were throwing. A smart girl would have said no, but the cred offer was fairly generous. Suspiciously generous, if you asked me. Unfortunately, it looks like Analya took the bait, as she'd replied with a confirmation. They gave her an address, and I was fairly shocked that it was in the very nicest neighborhood of New Angeles, Beverly Hills. I scheduled a taxi and headed out. I have to figure out what happened to her before the police do, because I get the feeling that if they find her first, no one else ever will again.
***
As the taxi pulled up in front of the address, I felt a momentary sense that I was making a rather large mistake. I couldn't explain it, other then something telling me to stay in the taxi and simply go back to my office. Luckily, I've gotten good at ignoring my common sense and I exited anyway. Looking at the house, I'm fairly impressed. It's an extremely large mansion, though definitely old. Most new houses that are made today look very uniform and functional. This house seemed to have been designed by a crazy person. Or someone whose architect was crazy.

There's a large iron gate that blocked the driveway, and the long lane up to the house was shadowed by large willows. The lane was also flanked by large hedges, trimmed into something that loosely looked like a design. It made me think creepily of long, slithering tentacles reaching out from the house. The house itself looked to be about two stories tall, with several large windows and more than one chimney. Most of the angles seemed sort of off on the sides and roof of the house. They almost seemed to bend in odd directions, but upon a second glance, they seemed completely normal. Maybe I had just gone too long without a drink, or maybe it was just a trick of the light. I shrugged and approached the gate.

It looked old and rusted upon reaching it, and the rest of the grounds looked fairly abandoned, as well. An odd place to set as a meeting for a hooker for the night. I tried the gate and was surprised that it noisely swung open. Well, no point not checking it out. Maybe it was abandoned and I wouldn't get arrested for trespassing. Maybe.

The lane leading to the house had looked to be straight from the road. But as I walked down it, I noticed that it was curving slightly. I would have thought I'd have noticed that before, but I must have missed it. Walking further down the lane, I began to hear a noise coming from the hedges. It seemed almost as if something was moving through them...or possibly that the hedges themselves were moving. I hesitated, thinking of suits bursting through and ending my life in an impressive shoot-out. When nothing happened, I shook my head and pressed on.

As I reached the front of the mansion, I could feel a sense of power and prestige emanating from the building. Clearly, whoever had owned this place before its neglect began had been someone worth knowing. The large front double door was clearly made of some thick, sturdy wood. Probably very expensive. I tried the knob and found it locked. Well, time to see if I still had any skill with hacking. As I connected my tablet to the electronic lock on the door, I began to run the hacking app I had gotten off the net for cheap.

It turns out the creds had been well spent, as I soon heard the satisfactory sound of the lock as it clicked open. I put my tablet away and looked inside. Most of what I could see was shrouded in both dust and shadow. I pulled out a small flashlight and stepped inside. I left the front door open, more out of a need for light then anything else. Looking around I could see that it may take me some time to search the entire house. Luckily for me, I noticed rather swiftly that there is a clear trail leading through the dust on the floor.

Several sets of shoe prints led off through a door into a side room, and one pair of shoes clearly were stiletto heels. This looked promising. I followed the footprints through a door and into a large, mostly empty, room. There were a few sofas scattered about, and I saw the tracks led to one of them. At the sofa, I could see that a struggle of some sort had occurred, as indicated by the disruption of the dust on the ground.

Peering at the ground, I saw a glint of light reflected off of some surface beneath the sofa. I knelt down and reached under, feeling my hand grasp a small metallic object. Pulling it out, I was surprised to find a small metal needle, like those used to insert or remove an implant from a person's body. The only warning I got was a soft dragging sound, then a sharp stabbing pain as a blow landed on my head. My vision blurred and I was able to turn partially to get a view of my attacker before blacking out. Patrick stood over me, leering and holding a sap. “Should have kept out of corporate business, sweet-heart.”
***
I awoke in a cold sweat. I was still clothed, and was grateful for that. Looking around, I found myself seated on a chair in a stark white room. The light was piercing and painful to my eyes, magnified and reflected a hundred times off of the white walls and furniture. There was no discernable door, which made me feel a growing knot of panic deep in my stomach.

Suddenly, a holo flared to life across the table from me, revealing a man wearing a black suit seated calmly. I tried to move, and discovered that I was cuffed to the chair. I struggled briefly, then stared at the holo. The best way to describe the man depicted was to say that he was nondescript. There was nothing about him that stood out as a feature. He was what people think of when they use the term “normal”. It creeped me right the fuck out.

“Who the hell are you? Why do you have me tied up like this? What the fuck is going on?” were all questions that leapt from my mouth as I indignantly struggled in vain against my restraints. The man opened his mouth and in an odd sort of tinny voice responded, “I apologize, but we have no choice.” I rolled my eyes and replied with my usual charm. “Yeah, I'm sure you have no choice, asshole. Let me go!”

He chuckled, and it gave me pause. His laugh was the sound of a something that had no concept of what laughing was, but was attempting to replicate a the sound of a laugh. It was dry and harsh; the tinny tone became more pronounced. His face did not reflect any of the chuckle, either. He simply looked at me and said, “You have become a problem, Miss Sandoval. And we make it our business to remove problems. You should be a particularly easy problem to rectify.”

With that, the holo reached over and I felt the restraints loosen on me. I stood up from the chair and looked with shock at him. Holos can't interact with physical matter, they are just projected light. Suddenly, his voice took on a more ominous tone as he said, “That is correct. We at Silver Key are much more advanced than we let on. Though, frankly, this is one tech that the outside world will never see.” With that, the holo flickered out and disappeared.

I kept myself calm. I reached for my cigarettes and was annoyed to discover that they had been removed, along with most of my other possessions. The only thing they left on me was my tablet. I opened it and turned it on, then slammed a fist against the table in frustration when I receive no connection to the net. I hadn't thought it likely, but had hoped it might work.

I then noted that my message center showed a new message received. Connecting myself to the tablet through my tele-jack, I opened the message. I was startled to see the room I was currently in, though now through the eyes of a different person. A soft, sad voice began talking and I simply sat in quiet contemplation and listen with a growing sense of horror.

“My name is Analya Mortannin. I don't know where I am, or what they are going to do to me, so I'm leaving this message in the local net of this house. Maybe if another girl comes along after me, she'll get this message and escape. Get help. These men invited me here. When I got here, they all looked alike...they grabbed me and did something...I can't remember. But I woke up here and they told me that I was to be a sacrifice to the greater good. I...I don't understand what's going on...” her voice cracked with emotion and she sobbed quietly for a good amount of time. Suddenly, a slit opened in the room and I hear Analya screaming as the man from the holo walks in and grabs her arm. “Come along Miss Mortannin,” he says in his flat, tinny voice. “It is time for you to meet your god.”

Analya let out a strangled noise of fear, but was dragged from the room with little effort. Outside, there was a large catwalk suspended over a dark, mist-filled cavern. There was several egg shaped rooms that I could see through Analya's eyes, I assumed that my current room must be one the same. Soon, he brought her to the end of the catwalk and into another larger room. This one had a massive set of steps that led up to a large platform. On the platform was a large statue of a creature beyond description. It appeared to be made of nothing but a roiling mass of tentacles, eyes and sharp edged teeth. No discernable body structure at all. Beyond it lay only darkness and mist that was punctuated by tiny bursts of light out of the darkness, too dim to illuminate anything.

There were several other robed figures standing on the platform as the holo led Analya up the steps. I recognize Patrick, as well as several other prominent business men from New Angeles. The CEO of Silver Key also stands on the platform and he seems to be a central figure; his robes looked to be slightly different than the others. Once Analya was brought to his feet, he reached out a hand to her and said, “Behold! She who goes to our god in exchange for the knowledge. The knowledge that keeps Silver Key in control and will forward our plan for his greater good. Behold, she who must be sent into the darkness so that we may know light!”

Analya was babbling at this point, screaming in terror and fear, incomprehensible requests for mercy or forgiveness. I watched, feeling the terror and horror of Analya and beginning to wonder if I would share the same fate. They led her to the edge of the platform, looking down into the dark swirling mists and I heard a noise, as if a thousand mouths were whispering all at once. Analya screamed again and I saw them push her off the platform into the darkness. The video feed ended abruptly there, and left me alone in silence.

I unplugged and found myself curling up in a ball on the ground. No tears fell from my eyes, no sobs wracked my body. Yet I feel myself falling apart, I felt Analya's tears and the sobs just as if they had been mine. I know at that point that I will die down here, and there is nothing short of a miracle that will save me from the same fate as Analya. The only point of clarity that I can focus on is that Patrick is getting a swift kick in the balls before I go.

I disconnected from my tablet and mechanically brought my hand up to my mouth to take a pull from my cigarette, then remembered I don't have one and let my hand fall back to my lap. I regret my life. That is the only idea I can think of as I sat in this horrid room. I guess I only regret some of my life, I suppose. This past year was pretty awful, when I get right to it. And it was mostly my own fault. I let myself become a raging, functional alcoholic. No one will mourn me, except maybe Jack at the Titan. Not that he'll know I was fed to some...thing underneath a mansion in Beverly Hills.
Which makes me chuckle a bit at the thought. The chuckle slowly grows until I'm laughing hysterically, tears streaming down my cheeks as the utter pointless absurdity hits me. Manic laughter slowly becomes less laughter and more sobs, until I finally force myself to calm down before I completely lose it. It was then that I heard the door open.

The holo stood before me and I rose up from my ball on the ground. I waited for him to say something. I had experienced my one break-down and it wasn't going to happen again. Now was just the time to think about getting mine before they got theirs. He raised an eyebrow and smiled, emitting his horrible sounding chuckle as he said, “After you, Miss Sandoval.” I left the room and saw the catwalk, just as Analya had seen it. I moved along to the end of the catwalk and watched the holo open it. I proceeded up the steps and saw the robed figures standing beneath the bizarre and horrifying statue.

As I walked up, I saw Patrick leering at me from under his hood, and I judged the distance between us. Smiling, I positioned myself fairly close to him before standing still at the top of the platform. I could see the CEO, and for the first time it strikes me as odd that I can't think of his name. I know I had seen him in news articles, everyone had. But I can't think of his actual name, other than just “The CEO”. He smiled at me and I shuddered.

My voice steady, I raised my head defiantly and said before he could get a word in, “One quick thing...” With that, I spun and swiftly slammed my knee into Patrick's groin. There was no more satisfying sight than seeing him drop to his knees and hearing him let out a gasp of pain and shock. I turned back to the CEO and saw him smiling at me. I simply said, “There, now go ahead and kill me or whatever it is you crazies do. I got what I wanted.”

Patrick rose and spoke, his voice filled with pain, “Fuck you, you bitch. I should have just shot you in the mansion above.” The CEO made a gesture and Patrick fell silent. I quipped, “Nice trick. Wish it worked for me, I've been trying to get him to shut up like that since I met him.” The CEO simply continued to smile and said, “Oh, so brave, Miss Sandoval. So brave and strong, even to the end. Well, we shall see how well that holds up in the light of the truth.”

I rolled my eyes and said, “Look, I don't care. I can read the odds and I know when the house has it stacked in their favor. Just hurry up and throw me into the volcano as sacrifice for your god or whatever. I was a shitty person and frankly, no one's going to mourn my death.” I hoped my bravado would hide the utter terror that gripped me. Fuck I didn't want to die like this. The CEO simply laughed at me and I couldn't help but shudder at the sound.

“So defiant, Miss Sandoval. But, I wonder. What if we did not kill you. What if we let you go? In fact, I think we should let you go,” He paused here and a grin flickered upon his lips, “Once you have seen the truth, that is.”

Puzzled, I looked at him with a blank expression. “Why would you let me live? I've seen all this, I can...” I stopped and the horrible truth hit me. He knew it too, damn him.

“Yes, Miss Sandoval? You can what? Tell everyone that the CEO of Silver Key is kidnapping young girls and sacrificing them to a monster in the dark? That Silver Key industries is simply the front for a much darker and more insidious plot? Yes, I'm sure they'll all be excited to hear the tales of an alcoholic ex-cop who left the force for mental distress brought on by the accidental shooting of a young boy.” His smile oozed triumph and it made me sick to my stomach.

He grabbed me and I tried to resist. However, his grip is unbelievably strong and I let out a whimper of pain as I felt his fingers dig hard into my arm. “Come, take a look, Alice. Then it is out of the rabbit hole and back home for you.” He pulls me to the edge. I don't want to look, but I had no choice because he gripped my head and made me stare into the darkness. The mists swirl and began to part, light began to fill the room and I could feel my mind beginning to unravel. At first, I couldn't focus on any one thing; it all stretched the imagination to the breaking point. The writhing mass of tentacles, slick and covered in a dark slime, pulsed and squirmed within the pit. Then I saw the mouths, gnashing and chomping, all whispered dark secrets that my mind couldn't dare to process. They dripped black ooze and sprayed steaming streams of spittle about. Then, I saw the eyes...so many eyes! All staring and blinking and piercing into my soul...the very core of my being!

I couldn't take it, I screamed. I screamed from the very bottom of the soul I doubted I had. I screamed until my voice turned into a ragged, hoarse cry of terror and insanity. I screamed until I don't even know that I'm the one screaming anymore, it has taken on a life of its own and refused to stop. I stared at it with the horrifying knowledge that it stared back at me. It will never stop staring back at me!

Then I saw the implants, the mechanical anchors keeping it from moving. I saw the data lines snaking up from its body and into the ceiling. The CEO laughed again and said, “Yes, you see now, don't you? You see!”

And I did. I saw it all so clearly now. The net...this creature was the net. This was the god of our age, the god of our time. Tears streamed down my face as my mind began to wander and I remembered the last thought I have before I completely lost all shred of sanity and coherence was, “There is no escape...there is no escape.”


I don't remember how I got back to my office. I don't remember anything much after seeing...no. I can't forget it, but if I think about it now I'll never finish. I can't think back on it. I've written all that happened up to it. Even now I feel my sense of self getting displaced and disjointed. I'm looking at a picture of my father, and I weep. I'm across the room now, staring at a book I had started as a young girl and had never bothered to finish, I wonder – I'm at my desk again, I feel – crossing the room now, staring out the wind – the gun feels cool in my hand – place it in my mouth, the barrel – my god, the eyes! Staring at me still – I can't...I can't... – my finger on the trigger – whispers of dark promises and delights...whisperswhisperswhisperswhisperswhispers – my father couldn't see me as I ended up – I pull...

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