Page 20: The morning after

Matthias’ eyes opened on a blue pillow, wooden floorboards, clothes strewn across the floor. His memory was staccato. An unfamiliar warmth, a pleasure, an excitement tainted it all. The black seats of their booth at the nightclub, dozens of drinks, he recalled lying against Courtney on the seat, hands swimming inside each others clothes, mouths locked. He saw himself hanging by one arm from the balcony over the floor below, and pulling himself upwards, the crowd watching. Outside the club. Blood streamed between the fingers of a man cupping his face. Screaming. Running through streets in company, scared, laughing, a haze of colour and streetlights. Finally, he remembered lying on a rooftop, watching the sun rise.
He rolled on to his right side. But it was too easy, there was no arm in the way. His left calf felt misaligned. He brought the leg to his chest and attempted to shift it back into place. One arm wouldn’t do.
He gazed over the room. A T.V. was mounted by the ceiling above an old wooden chest of drawers by the end of the bed. Pink sheets lay beneath him, a pile of blankets only half-covered his body. There was a warm depression in the bed beside him, but he was alone. With a burst of radio data, he attempted to ping the arm, hoping it might be nearby. Nothing.
The sound of feet padding across the floor drew his attention. A tongue lapped at his toes. Matthias sat up, peering towards the far edge of the bed. A black and white labrador gazed up at him through a pair of milky blue eyes.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I thought you were Courtney.’
The dog leapt onto the bed and padded towards the centre.
‘Would you care to snuggle? Or have we had enough of that already?’
Without waiting for a response, she lazed in a heap, resting her head against his chest.
‘I don’t mind,’ Matthias answered, petting her scalp. ‘I’m sorry, what was your name?’
‘Martha. But you can call me Em.’
‘I’m Matthias.’
Another pair of feet padded nearby, a pair of taut, smooth, naked thighs emerged from a doorway at the corner of the room
‘Martha..’ Courtney sighed.
‘He said he was good for it,’ Martha answered, her tail wagging just a little.
‘I’m sorry,’ Courtney apologised, approaching the bed, scrubbing at her hair with a towel, another about her waist. ‘She can be a little overaffectionate.’
‘She’s just saying that for your benefit,’ Martha grunted, even as she came to her feet and padded off the edge of the bed.
‘Fall back asleep?’ Courtney smiled. She left a towel on the bedside table and lay down bedside him, approaching his lips for a kiss.
‘Yeah, I guess I did. Did you have a good night?’
‘Amazing,’ she smiled.
‘I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,’ Matthias laughed. ‘I.. seem to have a few gaps. Was in a fight?’
‘He had it coming,’ she dropped her eyes, scowling.
‘He?’
‘A bouncer with a god complex,’ she scowled. ‘Not saying you’ll be able to go back any time soon..’
‘Huh. ..Did we spend the morning on a rooftop?’
She propped herself up with one arm, a quizzical expression on her face. ‘You didn’t forget that?’
‘No, just checking.’
‘Yeah, we did. Spiderman.’
‘I.. carried you up there, didn’t I?’ Matthias sank back against the pillows.
‘You’re lucky I let you!’
‘A good night then,’ Matthias mused.
‘Mhm.’
‘Courtney. Where’s my arm?’
She laughed, sweeping hair away from her face. ‘Oh please tell me you remember that!’
He wore a smile, laughing with her even as he was concerned, ‘No, I’m afraid I don’t.’
‘You’re a massive dork.’
‘Is it.. someplace I can get it back?’
‘Maybe. You left it in a dumpster by the club.. after using it in a sword-fight with Dennis. Do you want my record?’ She drew her fingers towards her temple. ‘I saved it..’
‘No, it’s fine. Thank you. I should probably go and rescue it.’ He moved to sit up but Courtney placed a hand on his chest and pushed him back down.
‘You probably should,’ she said, climbing atop his lap, tugging away her towel. ‘But I’m not done with you yet.’

Page 19: Nanovirus

‘Guys!’ Dennis yelled. Their attention drawn, he extended a closed fist over the table, opening it to reveal four small yellow and black capsules sitting in the palm of his hand.

Matthias watched as the two girls slipped one each from his palm, followed by Dennis himself. Dennis’ blonde companion swallowed hers with a long gulp from a tall glass of dark spirits. Courtney slipped hers between her lips with a sip from a cocktail, which until now had been abandoned.

‘Matthias!’ Dennis resought his attention, extending his palm even further across the table.

‘What is it?’

Dennis met Courtney’s eyes. Her slender arm slinked out to pluck the pill from his palm. She sidled close to Matthias. He leant forwards to speak into her ear: ‘What is it?’ and leant down to receive her reply.

‘Ninety-nine.’

‘Drugs?’

‘Nanovirus. Expands your perception.’

He pulled back to see her enthusiastic expression.

‘It’s safe!’ she exclaimed, holding the pill by his chin.

‘I’m worried about my mods.’

‘Don’t! Who do you think invented it?’

‘Come on, Matthias!’ Dennis chided in the background.

Relenting, he took the pill from her palm and placed it into his mouth. Courtney offered her drink to follow it, and he accepted. Dennis cheered as he swallowed.

While Matthias pretended to take an interest in the broken conversation, internally  he focused on studying the payload. The alcohol and pill sat together in a holding tank in his gut. While he was capable of extracting the potential energy from the food he ingested, there was little of value in a small amount of cocktail, and even less in the pill.

He sealed the compartment and gave the pill a digestive nudge. A swarm of miniature robots raced out and began climbing the walls like bees. He released a small sample of biological material, and observed as they attacked, swamping blood cells with sugars, pumping chemicals to release stored adrenaline, endorphins, and serotonin, a process which in a human might induce a supercharged euphoria. There was something else, dormant and benign, small devices floating like debris. Matthias destroyed the contents of his miniature lab and began constructing a substitute.

A small, smooth hand wearing a single freckle and clean nails caressed his thigh. He looked to Courtney, her pupils dilated like planets, her movements spasmodic.

‘Do you feel it yet?’ she gushed, leaning into him, her face inches from his own.

‘I think I’m getting there,’ he answered. She squeezed his leg and fell against him, resting her forehead on his chest.

‘Are you alright?’ he spoke into her scalp, voice muffled by her hair.

‘I’m fine,’ she answered, returning her face to his.

‘So Dennis says you like guys with prosthetics.’

‘Yeah! Well not prosthetics.. Enhancements! Body mods! He said you have a wicked arm!’

‘Yeah, I do,’ he grinned. ‘I’ll show you later, maybe. Not here.’

She pouted.

‘It would draw a lot of attention,’ he explained.

‘More attention than those?’ she motioned beyond the balcony. Matthias looked to the dancers on-stage. Cosmetic implants boosted the appearance of their faces, lines erased, dazzling eyes, foreign materials strengthening their muscles from the inside, tattoos shifting across the entirety of their skin. Although they were preoccupied with dancing, their eyes were recording everything.

‘It’s a little more dramatic than that.’

Dennis waved an arm in front of their faces. ‘Hey! Guys! Drinks?’

Courtney held up her full glass.

‘Sure,’ Matthias answered.

Dennis’ pupils were also like saucers, his manner confronting, body thrust halfway across the table, muscles tense and energised. He pulled back to depart the table with his friend, leaving Matthias with Stacey who had resumed looking out over the crowd. His substitute virus was ready. A simulation, to carry him into the void.

Page 18: Matthias’ first night out

Matthias found himself standing in the street, metres from the lobby to his apartment building. Hesitating at the lights, he opted to approach the side of the building, and walked around to the rear. Between a chain-link fence and the rear wall, amidst garbage bags and discarded newspaper, he located an exhaust fan connecting to the air conditioning ducts. Kneeling, he pulled the unit from the wall, leaving an open path inside.

A call came through: it was Dennis.

‘Matty!’ Dennis’ voice clipped as he yelled over music in the background. ‘Mecha is having free drinks tonight for those on the list, and guess who’s on the list?’

The breeze swept refuse over Matthias’ feet, his eyes still focused on the hole in the wall.

‘I give up.’

‘You’re on the list, pal. Now get your ass down here, I have a slew of shots lined up for you and I won’t take no for an answer.’

Matthias hesitated.

‘It doesn’t matter about the arm! Chicks these days love that stuff. You can make out you’re in the army. Come to Mecha, right now, or I will disown you.’

Dennis closed the call.

***

The outside of the club was ablaze with coloured lighting, scattered inebriated revellers wandered the streets between two public teleporters. Digital posters glowed from units set into the wall advertising bands and public service announcements. A conspicuous caption warned “DON’T DRINK AND DIAL.”

Matthias squeezed his way through a queue, timid in the face of the loud and drunken crowd. Cash and cigarettes littered the pavement like confetti. He came to the front of the crowd finding a trio of bouncers in black suits guarding the gate. He pressed forwards.

‘Step back.’

‘I’m on the list,’ Matthias replied.

‘I don’t care.’

‘Look my friend told me to come down here, apparently I’m on the list, I’m clear to get in.’

‘Not tonight, pal.’

A fight broke out in the crowd behind him and Matthias was shoved hard from behind. Folding against the gate, the bouncer shoved him aside as the three moved into the crowd. With the bouncers preoccupied and the door unguarded, he slipped the gate and pressed inside.

The doors collected behind him in a dark reception. A bouncer stared at him with crossed arms beside a masked payment booth. Matthias stepped slowly to the counter.

‘Hi,’ Matthias said. ‘Matthias Drake? Apparently I’m on the list.’

‘Yeah, just let me check that,’ the cashier said. Red fingernails scratched at the surface of a keyboard.

‘Paid for by Dennis. You can go in.’

Beyond the bouncer lie a pair of heavy oak doors. Pressing inside, he was dazzled by a massive chamber of shifting coloured lights and lasers, the crowd so thick that walking was like pressing through the sea. Great white lights shot across the room, illuminating dancers on a starfish-shaped stage. In the far corners of the room, barred podiums held women in extravagant synthetic fabrics, a thrashing haze of sweat, skin and tossed hair, eyes glowing, their faces augmented, synthetic tattoos crawling across their skin.

Climbing stairs, enmeshed between patrons, Matthias was studying those faces he could. He was walking along a balcony, a bar by the wall and booth seating by the rail when he noticed Dennis sitting in a booth ahead.

‘Matthias!’ Dennis’ mouth called, inaudible over the thumping beats. ‘Get over here!’

A blonde girl in a faux leather top and short skirt took a shot beside him and coughed, sputtering, throwing Dennis into laughter. Dennis placed a hand on her back and spoke into her ear. As Matthias closed on the table, the face and legs of a brunette emerged from the seat opposite. Her blue eyes shimmered from augmentation, teeth so white they caught the effects of blacklights overhead. She gave him a smile and retreated to the rail, allowing him space to be seated.

Dennis leaned over as he sat down.

‘This is Courtney! She has a thing for guys with implants!’

Matthias gazed on his impromptu date. She smiled and then leaned in to his ear to speak. ‘Hi! I’m Courtney!’

‘Matthias!’

‘You work with Dennis?’

‘Yeah! Natural Robotics!’

‘Where?’

She leaned in so that their torsos were almost touching.

‘Natural Robotics. We make those talking dogs.’

‘Oh, I love those! I have one at home.’

Page 14: Under Surveillance

‘I’m sorry,’ she blushed, placing the purse to one side. ‘You were saying?’

‘I’m wondering who would break into my apartment. I feel like I’m drawing a lot of attention with this arm,’ he raised the bandaged limb.

‘It was kind of hard to miss,’ she admitted. ‘Do you mind if I ask – is the bandage just for show, or..?’

‘I’m resurfacing it,’ he explained. ‘It’s real skin and tissue, just the synthetic arm underneath. It’s supposed to grow back, with some coaxing.’

She stared. ‘Fascinating. Sorry, here you are not wanting attention.. I’m curious.’

‘It’s fine,’ he smiled.

‘I wouldn’t be shy about it,’ she offered.’Prosthetics are pretty commonplace these days. I mean, half of the people here are modified. No one’s going to judge you for it.’

‘I guess,’ Matthias conceded, eyes on the table. ‘I just.. I’d prefer to stay in the background.’

‘I get that,’ she sympathised. ‘Hey, at least its  your arm. I’ve seen people with metal faces, glowing red eyes.. granted, they don’t work in the daylight.’

Nearby, the gray-eyed observer from outside Matthias’ apartment stepped from a teleporter booth. Scanning the bar, he began circling the room, head down, furtive eyes searching.

‘I’d hate to have something like that,’ Matthias agreed. ‘But hey, enough about me. Do you have any pets?’

‘I am a cat person,’ she admitted. ‘Just the one. Erasmus.’

‘I take it he doesn’t talk?’

‘No, no,’ she laughed. ‘He’s the real thing. He eats and poops and leaves fur everywhere.. I guess there would be advantages to having an animatronic version.’

‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you outside of work. What do you do for fun?’

‘Well, I jog, and I read, and I spend too much time on the internet..’

‘Don’t we all.’

Stacey noticed the observer pass by, pausing as he recognised Matthias. Brushing an earlobe with a fingertip, she drew a phone from her pocket.

‘Sorry,’ she explained, ‘I just missed a call from work.’

‘No problem,’ Matthias responded agreeably. ‘Go ahead.’

Unlocking her phone, Stacey tapped out a quick message before locking it again.

‘I’m sorry,’ she sighed. ‘Something has come up..’

‘This late?’ Matthias raised an eyebrow.

‘It’s those damn reports, the files are corrupted or something, I can resend them from home. It wouldn’t take a minute but Chelsea is on my back.’

‘It’s fine,’ Matthias smiled. ‘I don’t mind.’

Stacey rose from her seat but paused at the edge of the booth. ‘Look..’ she hesitated. ‘I don’t want to be too forward, but if you’d like to come back to my place.. we could keep talking.’

‘Yeah, okay.’

‘You don’t mind?’

‘I honestly don’t have any plans,’ he admitted.

‘Well.. okay then. Follow me?’

The observer watched from a booth behind her as they rose from the table and headed out, his head down, but noting every word.

The pair emerged from a teleporter under a high ceiling, in a bright lobby of white walls, and chandeliers. Great glass doors opened onto downtown, the one area of the city that was still busy outdoors. A sharp reception desk stood to one side where a couple were being served by an office girl. Tiled chessboard floors reflected a domed ceiling. Crossing the hall, Stacey led him to a second bank of five teleporters against the opposite wall. Typing a security code into the keypad, she led him inside.

The sunburnt orange of late afternoon shone in bursts through a window running the length of a narrow lounge. A red couch sat to the left beneath the window, against cream walls, white bookshelves on the right held a collection of faded paperbacks and a scattering of polished shells. An open doorway led into a large kitchen and hallway to the right.

‘Take a seat,’ Stacey offered. ‘I’ll just get this email out of the way.’

Matthias approached the couch, as Stacey disappeared through a darkened doorway opposite the entrance, and paused to gaze from the window. The view consisted of a few rooftops shrinking beneath the heights of greater buildings. The sun fell down behind them, twinkling between the gaps in the field of steel and glass.

‘Nice view,’ he called.

‘Thanks,’ she called. ‘It wasn’t cheap.’

He sat down on the couch with his legs crossed, reading the titles of her books and studying the seashells, albeit from a distance. The books were predominantly classics and philosophy, time-honoured tomes from the 18-1900s.

‘Hopefully that does it,’ she conceded, appearing at the door. ‘Would you like a drink?’

‘No, I’m okay,’ he smiled. ‘Thanks. I’m still adjusting to The Commander.’

‘Oh, come on, it’s not that strong. You liked it?’

She ambled to the couch and took a seat beside him.

‘It wasn’t bad,’ he shrugged.

‘Oh! How did your review go, by the way?’

‘I was right.. they wanted to know about the arm.’

‘What did you tell them?’

‘That it wasn’t their business. It doesn’t affect my work, so..’

‘Good on you.’

‘This is a nice place,’ he said, nodding towards the window. ‘Great view.’

‘Thanks,’ she smiled, looking away.

‘Extra hours?’

‘Something like that.’

She seemed unable to look in his direction, preoccupied with the carpet, the bookshelves,  her heart was beating faster. He noticed her hand by his leg.

‘Are you okay?’

She looked towards him, appearing somewhat dismayed. ‘Yeah, I’m.. fine.’

‘No, you’re not.’He took her hand and she leaned in towards him, meeting his eyes, then rested her head against his shoulder.

‘What is it?’

She kissed him, and, unsure of how to react, he returned it, just like so many movie scenes, a palm by the cheek, tender fingertips resting against the skin, sliding across the neck, sensual lips caressing one another, a fleeting gaze into the eyes. She climbed atop him, straddling his thighs, palms by his neck, devouring his lips.

One hand slipped down, brushing a pocket by her thigh, she depressed a button. He heard it first: a faint ring coalescing into a sweeping wave of static, rushing from the air, buffeting against his skin, pervading his limbs. He slipped from consciousness.

Page 13: Date Night

In the bathroom, Matthias withdrew a small, unmarked plastic tub from a cabinet behind the mirror and pulled off his shirt. Using his left hand, he covered the right arm in a transparent viscous liquid, coating from the elbow to his fingertips, paying extra attention to the circle of terminated skin on his forearm. Once the liquid had settled, he took a roll of gauze, and between his left arm and his teeth, struggled to wrap the arm completely.

The following night, he stepped out of a teleporter into a murky bar. The room was circular, the bar a central hub, black stools lined the counter, while around the outside an endless array of booths embraced the shadows. A bartender stared as he paused to survey the room. With a lack of windows, the bar was lit completely from within. With no reference to time or location, the bar may as well have been on the moon for a sense of place. Vibrant blue strips lined the intersections of floors and walls, blacklights shone down from above, dance beats reverberated through grimy floorboards. A scattered collection of strangers with conspicuous body modifications – facial tattoos and piercings, but also false arms and legs, a man with an ear replaced with a mechanical device, another with glowing eyes lined the bar. A few spoke quietly, ear to ear, but most were focused on their drinks, and some their reflection as it gazed back at them from a mirror behind the bar.

Circling the bar, Matthias looked for Stacey among the booths, noticing there were a greater number sitting in the shadows. The readings from the crowd were tumultuous: Bionic arms, legs, hearts, ears, eyes. Enhancement upgrades modified minds, sharpened limbs, others simply elevated the appearance. The air was thick with nanotechnological virii, a host of which were attempting to latch on to Matthias like a whale taking parasites as it navigated the ocean. He found Stacey sitting alone, sipping an amber drink in a short glass, dressed to her usual form: short and sharp. With her vibrant eyes, fluid figure and black locks of hair collecting about a full chest, she needed no augmentation.

‘Hi,’ Matthias smiled, pulling into the seat opposite. ‘I hope you weren’t waiting long?’

‘Not at all,’ she smiled. ‘Would you like a drink?’

‘Isn’t that my line?’

She grinned.

‘I think I’ll just get a latte,’ he answered.

‘Try The Commander,’ she urged. ‘It’s coffee, just with an extra kick.’

‘I thought we were just having coffee,’ he smirked.

‘Oh, its coffee! Just with something a little extra. You’ll like it.’

‘Well, if you say so.’

Stacey tapped a button in the centre of the table, illuminating a tablet built into the table top. With two taps of a finger, she entered the order.

‘Nice,’ Matthias commented, ‘we those at work.’

‘I know, right? It would save on the queues. So how was your day?’

‘Weird.. actually. Someone broke into my house and tampered with my dog.’

‘Really? That’s terrible. I hope he’s alright.’

‘Yeah, he’ll be fine. Still.. more concerned about the break-in.’

‘Of course! Did they take anything?’

‘I don’t think so.’

A bartender emerged beside them and placed his drink on the table before vanishing just as quickly. The Commander was a mammoth coffee in a tall glass, a dense layer of cream at the head. Stacey watched as he drew a taste. Besides the coffee he sensed traces of a benign hallucinogen and narcotic stimulant. Blinking, he feigned a reaction. ‘Damn. You weren’t kidding about the extra kick.’

Stacey smiled. ‘You like it?’

‘I.. yeah,’ he smiled. None of it would have any effect.

‘You said someone tampered with your dog..’ she prompted.

‘Yeah, his name is Berkeley, he’s a Man’s Best Friend.’

‘Really?’ she laughed.

‘..I’m not really a cat person. He gives me someone to talk to, keeps my secrets,’ he grinned, ‘You know. It works.’

‘I’d love to meet him.’ Stacey lowered her hand beneath the table to scratch her leg, knocking her purse onto the floor from the seat beside her.

‘Oh.. sorry, I’m.. just a sec.’

Leaning down to retrieve it, she brushed Matthias leg with a finger, leaving a mechanical flea which burrowed into the fabric of his clothing.