Drinking the Kool-Aid
“So, do we have a net raid tonight?” Augustine Cordoba asked, her high-pitched voice echoing in the girls’ bathroom of DeLaSalle North Catholic High School.
“Yeah. Can you make it?” Connie Pitman asked, using the polished stone mirror to spread nanite cream on her lips. The microscopic makeup puffed up her lips and restored their neon red color, a shade that nicely contrasted with her dark skin.
“Who’s the lead?” Augustine used the same mirror to check her hazel eyes. Fortunately, they weren’t bloodshot from the joint they’d just shared. At the same time, she remarked that her skinny body just didn’t want to grow boobs. She envied Connie’s A-cups and the roundness of her hips.
“Fuck. Why would she do that? Didn’t she see what happened to Suzy?”
“Suzy’s been narcosticking. Everybody knows it.”
“Well, Debbie better watch out or she’s going to be a burn before sweet sixteen.” Sighing, Augustine lifted up her vivid orange hair at the base of her skull and dabbed moisturizer on the row of six optical net jacks embedded in her skin. Finished, she rucked up her hair until it stood on end. Her short, spiked hair barely covered those body modifications, illegally implanted before her eighteenth birthday. “What’s the job?”
“Another simple hack on a guy’s cloud files. His husband wants to know if he’s cheating on him with another man,” Connie said, brushing her long, chestnut-brown hair back behind her ear.
“Damned but it would be nice to get something a bit more exciting.” Augustine checked her own lips and mentally declared their green and orange tartan pattern fresh enough. “Oh, well, I’m in if your parents will cover for me.”
“Hell, yes, girl. They like you. It’s just another ‘babysitting job’ for spending money.” Connie ran her hands over the skirt of her school uniform to smooth a wrinkle.
“Let me make sure,” Augustine said, twisting the new ring-com her parents had given her for Confirmation.
“Hurry up or Sister Adana will find us. Fifteen minutes is a bit much for a trip to the ladies’ room.”
Augustine nodded. “Mom? . . . Yeah, can I spend the night at Connie’s? We have a metric assload of homework to do.
“Sorry about the language, Mom. We do have a lot of homework . . . The Pitmans have already said it’s all right,” Augustine said, winking at her friend.
“Thanks!” Augustine grinned from ear to ear as she broke the connection to her mom. She moved closer to Connie and looked at the pair of them in the reflective surface. “Girl power! Let the raid begin!”
“What do you mean I can’t retire yet?” Connor asked, eyes wide and mouth slack. He’d been planning this moment for years. He’d pinched every penny, twice. He’d eaten recycled food to save more. He’d denied himself vacations to salt away for a moment when he could forget about the world and live only for himself. Belatedly, he lowered his head and his eyes to the arbiter of all things—Wintel.
Parker Jenson, of Human Resources, lounged on the other side of the desk, steepling his fingers up under his lips like some second-rate villain. “Your case is not unique, Mr. Reylar. I’m sorry but just last month, Wintel changed its retirement policy from rule of ninety-five, your age plus years of service, to the rule of one hundred and five. You no longer qualify to retire.
“Of course you always have the option of terminating your employment but you would do so without any retirement benefits.”
“But I did all required of me. Two months ago I gave notice in writing, notarized, that I would be retiring. I fulfilled my rule of ninety-five by serving for forty years plus my age of fifty-five. I worked with my manager to find a replacement to pick up my workload.”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t grandfather the rule in for you. It was duly ratified at the shareholders’ meeting just five weeks ago and announced. Here is a copy of the new employee’s handbook.” Jenson slid a memory crystal across the table. “Just look at it this way, you will have five more years for your 401K to grow. Maybe you can retire in New Zealand.”
“This can’t be right, Mr. Jenson,” Connor said, looking at the crystal.
“I assure you if you read the seven hundred and fifty-three pages of the section on retirement in the manual I just provided that it will quite clearly define the responsibilities of both Wintel and the employee. By the terms of the updated contract you are a party to, it is exactly correct.”
Connor twisted in his seat. He wrung his hands before looking up. “No, you don’t understand. I spent all of the patience I had getting here. I used it up through every backstabbing coworker, every boss who took credit for my work. I endured every bumbling manager who couldn’t make a decision. I tolerated being reorganized seven times in three years ensuring I wouldn’t be promoted.” Connor’s steel-gray eyes flashed with anger. “I humbly accepted every shit job thrust at me for forty years. You can’t tell me that I can’t retire!”
“Mr. Reylar, if you can’t control yourself I will have to call for security, with all of the attendant consequences to you and your career.”
“Yes, sir,” Connor said, looking back down to the floor in submission. He talked through gritted teeth, “But I need to get out of this madhouse.” Connor took three deep breaths. “Sir, it is time for me to ease into a life of gentility where my needs are met, not time to be thrown back into the snake pit.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Reylar. I’ve scheduled an appointment for you with one of our grief counselors,” Mr. Jenson said. “Please be good enough to close the door on your way out.”
Finals time had Bradley Cooper III hunkered down in the WSU library cramming like the world would come to an end. Well, in his mind it would. If he didn’t pass all of his classes with at least a 2.7 GPA average, Mr. Cooper II would turn off his funds.
Bradley III wasn’t dumb by any stretch of the imagination. He just preferred expending his mental capital on encounters with the fairer sex. As a result, his eyes burned, his hands shook from the massive doses of caffeine disguised as coffee, and his pillow had issued a missing person report on his head. Up on Adderall, Ritalin, and Peltall, he went back to his texts.
His first exam, Electric Fields 303, would be the worst. Even the teacher said that the class average would be about forty percent. What idiot gave a test that students only got a forty percent on? he thought. Is he that bad a teacher? He’d been at it for three days straight. Bradley’s mind spun with right fields, various derivations of Maxwell’s equations, and skin effects.
“Hey, buddy, you’re snoring,” someone said, jostling Brad’s shoulder.
In classic fashion he shook his head as he looked up. Saliva oozed down his cheek. He wiped off the ooze with the palm of his hand. With his other he reached for the coffee cup. After a long swig he whispered, “Thanks.” He checked his percomm and at least he’d only been asleep for thirty minutes.
Bradley decided he just needed a walk in the fresh air and a bite to eat. He stood up and walked out to the garden. The overhead lighting kept the night at bay, at least in clusters. Those light areas held students also force-feeding their brains. They muttered to themselves and worked out sample problems. Brad staggered, more than walked, toward the student canteen, avoiding the occasional student who’d fallen asleep across the path.
If he himself could just get eight solid hours of sleep, he’d be refreshed enough to continue cramming, but eight hours put him perilously close to his exam. “Just two more chapters and then we can sleep until the test,” he muttered, which turned into a chant. “Just two more. Just two more. Just two more.”
A scruffy youngster, probably a freshman, leaned against the wall next to the door to the cafeteria. “Buddy, want some sleep?”
“Who doesn’t?” Brad said more as a statement than a question. The kid put his arm across the entrance.
“Seriously, what if I could sell you some sleep.”
Bradley pulled out his tabs of caffeine, and other drugs showing them to his assailant. “Already got mine, kid. Peddle your study aids elsewhere.”
“No. I mean it.” He pulled out a small bottle no bigger than a salt shaker. “Drinking it is the same as eight hours of sleep.”
Sleep deprivation, among other things, brings down inhibitions even more than alcohol. Brad leaned forward. The liquid inside was swirled lime green and bright white. “Looks like piss.”
“What’s your name?”
“Bradley the third.”
“Well, Mr. the third, I’m Troy. I normally charge five hundred credits for eight hours’ sleep. But for you I’m going to give you the entire dose free of charge.” Troy slipped the bottle into Brad’s pocket. “That way when you want more you will come to me. My contact information is on the bottle.”
“Whatever, punk. I just want some food right now.”
Like many people, Brad could substitute a certain amount of sleep for food. He got a heaping portion of spaghetti, three pieces of garlic bread, and a salad. He sat down with the food in front of him and opened his book in his percomm as a head’s up display.
“Mmmmm, current density inside a conductor,” he thought, scooping up heaping forkfuls of the meaty fare. Fifteen minutes later he realized his mistake. Full, his body craved sleep even more. The food trick only worked as the first stopgap to sleep.
“I can’t fall asleep,” he muttered. He took the fork and stabbed himself in the thigh. Not enough to break the skin but enough to not want to do it again. The wakefulness lasted a mere five minutes. He knew a lost cause when he met it. Remembering the bottle in his pants pocket, he decided to take a chance.
He popped a plastic stopper out of the small bottle and sniffed it. The aroma reminded him of his grandmother’s bedroom, musty and stale. Screwing up his face he tossed the entire bottle into his mouth. It had a slightly bitter taste like cilantro in salsa, but it effervesced and snapped on his tongue like Pop Rocks gone mad. The fizz went down his throat and even buzzed a bit in his stomach. Before the sensation had finished, ten seconds later, he felt energized.
The world was bright. His mental processes seemed to hover in that perfect zone just after your first cup of coffee after a wonderful night’s rest. Everything seemed to make sense. He returned to his book. This was going to be a GREAT study session.
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Eating Your Own Dogfood
Pearl District, Ground Level, Portland, Oregon
Inside the makeshift tent city, Bill Swenson hunkered down under his knitted poncho and took a swig of his bottle to at least make him feel warm under the persistent fall drizzle. The muzziness of the cheap gin kept his memories at bay. Across the muddy aisle of the nil jungle, a skinny man wearing a similar handmade poncho pulled off the top blanket of a makeshift tent.
“Jim, you pulling out?” Bill asked pulling a blanket tighter around his waist.
“Yup. The Knitter Pod can’t protect us anymore. That Nil Safari keeps getting closer. I got a family to think about. The machineguns and bombs going off last night was the last straw.”
“Not a machinegun. I heard six different M34 gauss guns, a pair of Sig 1412 combat shotguns, and a plasma rifle. I think it may have been a Rayban 8K but I’m not certain. And the bombs you heard were actually just flash bangs.”
“How the fu . . . Oh, that’s right, you used to be a marine. If you know all that, why can’t you just go kill them?”
Bill remembered six years of crawling through the sand around the flanks of Alba Mons. Worse he remembered the blood and the torn remnants of his husband, Samuel. He took a long drink on his bottle to cover the memory. “You expecting John Wayne? Maybe Dwayne Johnson? One guy fighting a squad or two of irregulars only works in the movies.”
“Someone has to make a stand,” offered a new voice. His knitted hat fit the speaker’s black, balding head like a yarmulke.
“Anderson, is that you?” Bill asked, not looking up.
“Won’t give your brother-in-law your attention, drunkard?”
Jim took the opportunity to get out of a family fight and crawled back into his tent.
“I’m drunk only as often as I can be, brother Matt.” Bill took another swig.
“So, you are willing to let your sister and niece die just so you can crawl farther into your bottle? Is your pain so much more than the rest of ours?”
Bill surged up from his sitting position like a coiled cobra. Just one huge callused hand wrapped around Matt’s neck. “What do you know about pain!” he barked.
Matt didn’t defend himself but rather stood his ground. “Shit happens, Bill. Sam—”
“Don’t you say his name!”
“All right, your husband has been dead for four years. It’s time for you to stop masking your pain and move on with your life.”
Bill released his hold and slumped back to the ground. Tears welled up in both his eyes. “Would you move on so simply if your daughter, Morgan, died?” he said with less vehemence.
“I don’t know, Bill,” Matt said, crouching down. “What I do know is that every undocumented person . . . every nil, is now in mortal danger from those running the safaris.”
“I couldn’t even save my husband. How am I supposed to save the universe?”
“Samuel wasn’t your fault, Bill. And no one is asking you to save the universe—only one little portion of our world. Semper fidelis, marine.”
The man on top of her grunted and thrust. Sonya simulated the right noises and responses that a man wanted to hear. When she’d first took up this profession, as a necessity, she’d just laid there. While some customers would come to her just for her little girl looks, none ever returned.
Her mentor in the Whore Pod of nils, Andrea Swivelhips, gave her some advice. “Being a hooker is more than just being a hole. Hell, any plastic doll has a hole. A man, or a woman for that matter, wants to prove to you that he is a great lover, even when he isn’t—especially if he isn’t. You gotta learn to give them a show as well as a hole. Those girly looks won’t last forever. By the time you lose ’em you gotta be able to bring a man to tears before you even take off a stitch of clothing.”
At fifteen the city of Portland officially had given her a class B prostitute rating, even if she’d been shagging it for three years before that. As if her mentor had been prescient, at just short of sixteen Sonya couldn’t quite pull off the schoolgirl thing anymore. Thankfully, enough customers wanted cheerleaders, even if Sonya didn’t have the bosom for it.
“Oh, Mark. Give me more,” she called out for her customer’s benefit. In her mind she did sums. Buying a murder these days cost one hundred thousand. If there were special circumstances, the price went up. She’d spent every penny she’d earned to her fourteenth birthday finding out who’d killed her mother. Oh, some obsolete police robots had done the dirty work, but she learned who had put them up to it—Susan Lopez, the same bitch that managed to cry at Momma’s funeral. Everything inside her tightened at the thought.
She felt Mark spend at her involuntary clenching of muscles. She needed to cover it so she squealed in mock pleasure. “You’re the best, honey,” she breathed in whispers after a short pause to “catch her breath.”
“I’ve never felt you like that tight, pet. You must have needed it bad.”
“I did, thank you.”
She acted like a little limp doll who had been pleasured too much by her man as he dressed. “Same time next week, Sonnie?”
Sonya just nodded up and down with a vacant smile on her face like she couldn’t summon up the energy to speak. At least Mark always left a nice tip every time he visited.
That corpie Lopez had seen her put into foster care at the age of eleven to Jason and Janet Publican. Funny how those same “loving” parents kicked her out eighteen months later. And the cash settlement given to her for her mother’s home by Nanogate had been legally stolen in fees and faux expenses. Oh, she would exact a price on the Publicans herself, but her goal of Lopez exceeded her own grasp.
She’d been given a quote of two hundred thousand on Lopez by the merc she’d approached. She’d worked thirteen out of every fourteen days. She’d done parties. She’d performed “special requests” that other girls wouldn’t touch. She’d worked convention after convention to save. Mark’s tip today put her over the top.
She was going to have a very sweet sixteen dancing on Susan Lopez’s grave.
Moving should be a four-letter word. That an auto-drive Uber held my belongings is a statement of sorts, but a man in my profession does better to travel light. I dump this load’s last box of haphazardly packed stuff onto my desk. An abrupt crash announces one of my three coffee mugs breaking. At least it saves me from having to wash it, which is more than can be said about the laundry in the three trash bags sitting in the corner behind the door.
The heat of the summer winds along with a third-stage smog-alert might prompt even a sane person to walk purposefully under a landing airbus. Even the unions couldn’t get their people to work in the marginally poisonous air and yet I had toted some forty boxes full of books up three flights of stairs.
Opposing the temperature outside, which would break sometime in September, the heat in my apartment will remain oppressive until I appease the landlady with four months of rent I don’t have. A dearth of unfaithful husbands, missing persons, and deadbeat dads have my pockets temporarily empty. My sole contingency plan is collocating my home with my office.
I peel off my sweaty button-down and wipe the perspiration that had beaded on my forehead. A timid knock precedes two meters of unenhanced leg through my door. Timing isn’t my strong suit.
“You Linc Thompson?” asks a sultry voice that could have gotten any stranger to strip just for the promise that she’d continue speaking.
“That’s what’s the door says, Miss,” I say as I wipe my armpits. In for a penny, in for a pound, I think. I open one of the boxes and pull out one of my clean shirts to cover my sweat stained wife-beater.
The redhead steps in and around my junk with the grace and confidence of a runway model crossed with a professional gymnast. She eyes the seat piled with boxes. Her glance alone becomes a command. I race over and pick up the stack. “What can I do for you, Miss—?” I ask as I turn my head back and forth looking for a place to put my armload. When I find none, I toss them onto the bags of laundry.
“I’d like to hire you to do a job for me,” she purrs, folding her skirt under her as she sits.
I didn’t bother to tell her that any job I undertook would be expensive. Her designer outfit alone would pay my office and apartment rent for a year. I sit back down and pour myself a finger of scotch. I offer her the dollar store glass. She waves it away.
After I upend the drink into my hole I ask, “Cheating husband?”
She laughs melodically. “Not hardly, Mr. Thompson. I wouldn’t get married. I like playing the field too much.” Her brilliant green eyes skewer me. I look at her face closely for the first time. Her beauty doesn’t stop with her curves. My crotch stirs uneasily. Everything about her says trouble but what a way to go down.
“OK, then what do you need me for? I can’t imagine you need me to vet lovers.”
Her lipstick chooses that moment to change from brilliant red to burgundy. “Not likely. No, I need your help with my sister.”
“Did she go missing?”
“You aren’t much of a detective, Mr. Thompson. You haven’t gotten a single thing right yet.”
It is my turn to laugh, and pour another finger of liquor. “I’m afraid we all have our prejudices, Miss—”
“My name is Janice Pollux. I’m worried about my sister. The last time I saw her she had a black eye and bruises on her neck and arms. She wouldn’t tell me why.”
I upend my second drink of the day. “Do you suspect anyone—husband, lover, drug dealer?”
“No, and that concerns me as well. She has a great marriage. Hell, she is even monogamous with her husband.” Janice looks good even when she screws up her face with disgust. “She is a health nut as well. Won’t touch alcohol or drugs.”
“So all you want me to do is find out who is the problem?”
“And stop it.”
“I can’t guarantee the latter,” I say, pouring another drink.
“I’m sure you will do everything possible,” she says, placing a stack of plastic bills on the desk between us. I play a mean hand of poker but I am hard-pressed not to react to cash that will keep me for several months after paying my landlady her back rent.
“I’ll need her name, address, and universal number.”
“Not a problem, Mr. Thompson. How soon can I expect some results?