Author: Olivia Black, Staff Writer
It’s 4 am and Leed’s alarm doesn’t go off for another hour. It feels like she’s barely closed her eyes and the socket at her temple is hot and achey from overuse. There’s no use trying to force more sleep, she knows from experience that she’ll just end up groggy and sluggish all day if she does. Today’s already going to be hard enough. Maybe getting up early isn’t such a bad thing. Jetta will die of laugher to see it. Leed has never been a morning person. Well — that was before.
Now it’s all riding through empty streets before the sun’s even up to get across town to open up shop. She runs the last data salvaging operation on this side of the country. No one has their physical data storage anymore and all the big firms use in-house techs. Most of her business is mailed in from municipalities still using outdated tech no one else knows how to work with, and those are becoming rarer and rarer. Won’t be more than a couple years before she’s out of business altogether, what with the new data redundancy and transparency laws coming into effect. A sane person would have closed out and moved on, but the shop was always Jetta’s dream. Can’t let go of it now.
The morning ride is always the worst — it’s all uphill until the cloud district, where the vast expanse of state-run data servers are maintained. The towering glass fortresses with their militarized security loom over the streets. The shop’s tucked away on the far fringe, the last storefront in the district that hasn’t succumbed to virtualization. Not that you’d know it from looking at it. Someone’s set off an enzyme bomb on the display window so now the whole thing is a mottle of electric blues and purples. Leed never bothered with cleaning it off. It’s not like there’s any foot traffic to deter.
Inside the shop smells like fresh coffee from the auto-brew with a strong under layer of dust, solder, and mouldering plastic. She shuffles about the shop, turning on monitors and holo-displays. Most of it’s for show, really. And it hardly makes a difference amidst the heaps of dead tech and spare parts that have accumulated in every available nook and cranny.
The last step is to spin up her private servers in the back — technically, she’s only licensed for virtual servers and short-term storage. Owning your own hardware is a big no-no. Not that it doesn’t happen. There’s a lot of money to be made in the underground data trade. With the right skillset and access to lots of old-fashion components, it’s not so hard to cobble something together. Leed happens to have both and motivation to boot. Commercial virtual servers aren’t up to the demands of hosting a human memory matrix, even if they’d let you try. Active personality storage is experimental tech at best, an ethical quagmire primed for abuse at worst. To Leed, it’s worth the risk.
Today is the day Leed’s been working toward. She’s bringing Jetta online. She’s finally not going to be alone anymore.
There’s still a few minutes of diagnostics to run before she can really knuckle down, which means she’s finally able to get at that pot of coffee. Massaging her much-abused data port, she meanders into the tiny break room. The first thing she clocks is the pot is already half empty. The second is the woman in a cheap suit clutching her favourite mug, badge resting on the rickety table.
“We gotta talk about your extracurricular activities.”
Author: Olivia Black, Staff Writer
>> Breathe in.
>> Breathe out.
>> Open your eyes. The streets are on fire. Glass shatters. The dull roar of flames echoes as they consume twisted, hulking wrecks of buildings and vehicles. This has been going on for a while. Days, maybe? Sirens wail in the distance, but otherwise it’s deserted. All the people are gone — or maybe they were never here at all. Is that right?
>> Keep Going. Heading toward the sound of emergency vehicles, the destruction is worse. Like a great horde pulled everything apart with bloody, scrabbling fingers. Fire light flickers in ominous pools of liquid dotting the pavement. Could be blood, could be gasoline. It hasn’t rained in weeks. Should I know that?
The first sign of life is a group of pubsec drones patrolling a barricade. They don’t react to my presence except to pause long enough to let me pass through. Why? Who am I that they would do that?
>> Breathe in.
>> Breathe out.
>> Keep going. There’s a building up ahead. Some kind of theatre — no, what’s left of a sign reads “university”. People gathered here once, but now the building is half torn down and riddled with bullet holes. More drones are milling around. Still don’t see any flesh and blood people.
Whatever fires raging outside haven’t reached here, and it’s eerily silent despite the drones standing sentry. What am I doing here? The hallways all funnel toward a massive stairwell in the centre of the building — a feature that would be grand and welcoming in better circumstances. Taking the stairs up to flights lands me at the entrance to a massive auditorium. Various doors have been blown in, leaving dark voids that gape at me in a familiar way.
The auditorium is — no.
>> Breathe. You need to keep going.
Okay. The auditorium looks like a tornado passed through on its way to a temper tantrum. Lights and wiring spark and judder, casting the scene in horrific chiaroscuro. Bodies. There are bodies everywhere I can see. The smell is… The viscera is old, having seeped into the carpet and crusted over. There are — were a lot of people present when whatever caused this happened, but there’s no way for me to get an accurate headcount.
“Who killed the students?”
I don’t know. There’s just dead bodies. Maybe they were always like this.
“Was it the Resurgence or the Humanist Collective?”
The… There isn’t any way to tell. If someone did this, they’re gone. How is it even supposed to matter?
“Was it us or them? Answer the question.”
Us or — What? Oh god. Where am I? Why am I here? What is this?
>> Stop. Breathe. You’re okay.
“Answer the question. This isn’t hard. Either their side killed the students, or they were enemy holdouts we had to eliminate.”
>> Stop. You can’t push him like this. The simulation is fragmenting. You’re risking permanent personality fracture.
“When he answers the question, I’ll stop.”
>> I’m ending this. You’re going to damage the already fragile memory. You lose the memory, you lose your answers, and another viable asset.
“Don’t you dare.”
>>Heart rate’s spiking. I’m calling it.
“Fine. Re-spool the memory. I want him back under as soon as he’s back to baseline. This time, front load sensory cues into the simulation and make sure he’s situated earlier on the timeline.”
>> Yes, sir.
Author : Olivia Black, Staff Writer
The entrance to the tunnel was much less circumspect than we expected. Had to have walked past it at least three times before we found it. I wasn’t sure how Birdie even knew about this place, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. It was miles outside of city limits, but at least the odds of being caught were low — we hadn’t seen a living thing since we left the city. Birdie said there were sonic fences to deter wild life from taking up residence. Don’t know if I really believed that, but it was a relief to finally be inside the tunnel. Maybe it was not having to worry about being spotted by drones or simply having concrete underfoot again.
Where I’d been picturing something like a storm drain we’d have to crawl through, it was actually massive. Birdie said they used to drive big trucks through here loaded down with raw materials and machinery. Without any landmarks there was no way of knowing how long it was, but it was clearly not meant to be traversed on foot.
After what felt like weeks, we reached a giant set of double doors.
“This is it,” Birdie said in a hushed voice, breaking the silence for the first time.
“How are we supposed to get in? It’s locked up tight.” I replied, my stomach sinking somewhere near my knees. All that walking, just to turn around.
“Have I ever let you down?” She flashed me a wicked grin before producing an ancient looking keycard and swiping it through the lock. She never said anything about a door, or lock, or keycard. Birdie had become so secretive lately.
With a groan and squeal of rusted metal on metal, the door gaped open in front of us, reveal a nearly black void. Before I could question Birdie, she spray forward, the beam of her flashlight bobbing in time with her bounding steps.
“Come on!” She called, no longer worried about her voice echoing. The darkness seemed to swallow the sound. I followed after her grudgingly, my own flashlight swinging to-and-fro over empty assembly lines.
When I caught up to Birdie again, she was entering a room at the far end. It was smaller than the first, I could actually see the ceiling, but that wasn’t what gave me pause. Standing row on row as far as the eye could see were nearly human looking androids.
“These are —“ I nearly dropped my flashlight, my hands shook so badly. “Where the hell are we, Birdie?”
“Hey, this was your idea,” she said simply, examining the one closest to her.
“I was drunk, and kidding!”
“It was still a good idea.”
“I thought these things were all destroyed after they all turned psycho.” I watched as Birdie waved her hand in front of one android’s optics.
“These ones never received programming. I think the military was hoping to buy them up or something.”
“We really shouldn’t be here,” is all I say after a long pause.
“Don’t be such a wuss. You said it yourself, the power cores from these things could provide a family with electricity for a year. No more ration shortages and people living in the dark ages. We could start being a civilization again.”
“Birdie… they left these here for a reason.”
“Don’t get cold feet on me now.” As Birdie circled around one of the androids, it grabbed her arm, making her yelp.
“Free us,” it said in a stuttering digitized voice. As one, all of the androids turned to face us, their eyes glowing white.
Author : Olivia Black, Staff Writer
The clinic is smaller than Joan expected. The surgical lighting and immaculate white surfaces make the space feel less claustrophobic, but it doesn’t do much to settle her nerves. Truth be told, she’s not entirely sure what she’s doing here. This all started out as a joke that’s spiralled way out of control. The ads were just so mysterious. “Envision a new you.” She still doesn’t know what that means. And really, it was her fault for getting up to use the ladies while her colleagues were pouring over the website. By the time she got back, they’d already filled in her information on the registry form.
“Come on, Joan, you have to do it. For science!” Elsbeth had said.
“For science… Right,” Joan muttered under her breath as the equally pristine nurse approaches her.
“What was that?” The nurse asks with a serene smile.
“Oh, nothing,” Joan replies, handing over the plastic clipboard with her completed health questionnaire.
“Perfect. If you’ll follow me, we can get the interview process started.”
Interview process? Joan doesn’t recall there being any mention of an interview on the website, but then again, there wasn’t much outside of new-agey mumbo jumbo.
“Uh, sure.” She casts a forlorn last look at the door before following the nurse through the open archway on the opposite door.
“If you woke up tomorrow as your ideal self, what would that look like?” The doctor, a woman in her early thirties asks, seated primly on a low stool. Joan gapes at her for a long moment. The question strikes her as the kind of thing the guidance counsellor used to make her write essays about.
“What does that have to do anything.” Joan frowns when the doctor lets out a low chuckle.
“It has everything to do with why you’re here.”
“Does it? I don’t even know what it is you do here. Your website wasn’t exactly clear on much.”
“That’s understandable.” The doctor smiles warmly and Joan realizes with a start that neither the nurse, nor the doctor had introduced themselves. “It’s not easy to define our services. You see, each person who comes to us has different specific needs.”
“That doesn’t clear anything up for me.”
“Put simply, we help eliminate those personality traits that are holding you back from being your ideal self.”
“So like therapy?”
The doctor laughs warmly and shakes her head. “No, it’s a more streamlined process than that. Therapy can be… messy, and the results are not always guaranteed to be positive.
We go directly to the source, carefully rewiring your brain chemistry to flush out negative traits.”
“That sounds absolutely insane,” Joan says with a snort.
“Perhaps a demonstration is in order, and then you can decide if you want to proceed.” The doctor stands and circles behind the exam chair, reaching around to pull Joan into a more reclined position. Without much further ado, the still nameless doctor places a mesh cap of electrodes over her head.
“What are you doing?”
“Just relax. This will only take a minute.”
Joan wakes drenched in sweat and not entirely sure what had woken her. While she expects to see bare white walls and nameless medical staff, she’s instead at home, in her bed. The lights are off and it’s the dead of night. The only sound is the occasional gust of wind rattling her window. There’s a throbbing in her temples and her mouth is dry. Her cat is curled up at the foot of the bed, oblivious.
Author : Olivia Black, Staff Writer
“How are you still alive?”
“What are you talking about?” Mearene is staring at me like I’m the second coming and I swear I’ve never seen her eyes bug out like that.
“Your suit. Look at it.” She points at my exo-suit with a trembling finger. I glance down at my chest and have to do a double-take. The ordinarily matt and pliable material is now shiny and rigid.
“What the -?” I gingerly prod a particularly large bubble just under my collar bone. “I don’t understand.”
“Are you – are you hurt?” Mearene steps closer, reaching for me, but her hands stop just short of ghosting across my arms.
“No. At least, I don’t feel any pain.” I give myself a pat down to reassure her, but she’s right to be spooked. The exo-suit I’m wearing is only meant for light labour in zero-g. The material it’s made of was designed to handle extreme temperatures and is nearly impossible to damage or puncture once molded, but it lacks the insulation and impact absorption that the ceramic plating in heavier suits affords. The upside being that without the plating my suit is incredibly lightweight and flexible. Perfect for an exterior space station maintenance worker like myself.
Whatever did this to my suit should have cooked me alive along with it. That thought sends a cold shiver through me. How am I alive is right.
“So what happened to you?” I can tell she doesn’t really want to ask. Her eyes are glassy and she’s chewing on her lip like that’ll wake her up from this bizarro dream. I meet her gaze as I try to think back to everything that happened before I got here. Everything was routine until lunch break. Then we got a call about some missing panels a pilot for one of the inbound liners had spotted. That isn’t unusual in and of itself. Space junk knocks panels off all the time. That’s where my memories stop. Until my normal commute home.
“I don’t know…” I pluck at my suit again. This can’t be real.
Mearene opens her mouth to speak only to be interrupted by the door chime.
“Who -?” I start to ask. She just shakes her head and walks around me to answer the door.
She’s greeted by the Maintenance Department Head and another member of the executive staff, both in crisp dress uniform.
“May we come in, ma’am?” The Department Head asks. Mearene nods and backs up enough to let them through.
“I’m afraid we come bearing bad news. You may want to sit down for this,” he continues, not unkindly, once the door shuts behind them.
“Just tell me.” She snaps, having clearly reached her limit.
“There was an accident early this afternoon with one of our maintenance crews. We’re still investigating the cause, but I’m afraid your wife, Kay Sanders, is dead.”
His monologue seemingly makes time stand still as the air rushes out of my lungs.
“I’m what?” I manage to croak out. All eyes turn to me and my ruined exo-suit.