Neon [Short Story]

\”Skulljack\” by Aaron Agregado
“It’s day four, you know.”
“Day four of the murders, Ski.”
“There’s always murders.”
“Not like this. Strung upside down publically. Guts everywhere. All kinds of nasty shit, man. Real gruesome horror story stuff.”
“Yeah, alright.”
Payload sighed and flicked the stub of his Plano Lhas. The digital smoke stopped for the briefest of seconds and pixelated ash appeared, then disappeared to satisfying effect. Payload’d forgotten what real smokes were like and this bore no real significance for him.
“Got people talking,” Pay managed through the smoke clenched between his teeth.
“I’m sure it has.”
Promulgated reticence made Payload uncomfortable, but he thought himself a gentleman, and so stayed quiet while Ski worked. He felt confident that she’d muttered something like “There”, but the warning was not enough. The tall, gangly man was still surprised when Ski jammed the interface into the socket atop his head.
“Jeez! You can’t just — ohhhhhhhhh.”
Her foot tapped without patience and she eyed the cable that lolled indifferently between Payload’s head and the cash machine she’d just broken into. The gentle suspension took her away for a moment. The simple way the cord rested where it was supposed to, there on the quiet street with no breeze, was a strange bit of peace in what should have been a tense moment.
“There!” cried Payload.
“Shhhh!” corrected Ski.
In a second the interface was put away and the cash machine renewed to its former not-brokenness. The odd looking pair, a length ebony man in a brown duster and a pale, tiny girl in a patched biker jacket covering a black dress, marched away together quickly, but not so quickly as to draw attention.
“No trace?” she said.
“No trace.”

Caffeine and pastry were the fruits of their labor. Actually, the cash they downloaded was the fruit of their labor, but one would find it difficult to eat a number on a screen, so caffeine and pastry had to do. The wretched diner was all neon and shineless chrome. Ski was tired of neon and wondered when she’d see the sun again. A lingering odor of trash and burnt oil kept out more respectable folk, and the backs of the booths curled up and over their patrons a bit, creating a sense of privacy. It was a rare respite from a life that was usually spent walking on dirty streets and looking for a place to crash. Payload tapped a panel in the table. A few minutes later, a bedraggled waiter came to a halt at their table with a transparent ramekin of hot liquid. Payload smiled while he chewed; the waiter rolled his eyes, poured, and trundled off.
“Got a lot of people talking.”
“What does?”
“The murders.”
Ski leaned back against the booth. “Back on that?”
“It’s what I want to talk about!”
“What’s Gorias say?” Gorias was the smartest person Ski knew.
“Haven’t spoken with him about it. He’s been jacked in for the last week.”
“The last week?” Her words were coated with worry. To be under for a week was a problem.
Payload waved his hand carelessly and digital ash trailed from the fresh smoke between his fingers. “Gorias is a pro. You know he’s IV’d and got a spotter. Anyways, Cheryl’s onto it. Cheryl says it’s a wave of justice killings.”
“Cheryl is an idiot. Cheryl couldn’t hack her way into a pre-school library.”
“Nah, Cheryl knows things. Every target has a criminal record–”
“Everyone we know has a criminal record!” Ski was getting frustrated.
“I mean real bad stuff, like rapists and such like,” Payload began to gesture madly, causing his partner to focus.
“And they deserved it.” Silence. Payload hadn’t spoken like that before. “So someone is taking these guys out. And what I think–”
Ski, now looking in her lap, raised a hand and said, “Time to go.”
There are times when words prove unnecessary, and so it was that they both downed their caffeine and stood wordlessly to exit the diner into the humid night air. The pair rounded the corner just as a police car cruised past the diner.

“You don’t even know that we were traced! That’s just a plain old police scanner! My mother’s got one!” Payload used hand gestures to make an otherwise strong case for himself.
Ski was calm. “I know. I’m just saying it’s a strange coincidence, don’t you think?”
“I think all these banks have stepped up their game,” came a voice from the kitchen. An immaculately dressed woman with nut-brown skin popped her head in the window between kitchen and den, hair frizzing outwards from under her helmet. “I think the government’s funding it, too.”
Rolled eyes were Ski’s specialty. Payload nodded like a sage. Cheryl’s was the nearest safe place, but Ski still had to be convinced even against the prospect of arrest.
“All these motherfuckers are stacking the deck against us,” Cheryl continued. “We’ve got no honest way to earn, so they’re just trying to catch us and feed us to the workhouses.” She took a minute to smirk and let the blow land. “Oh, I mean prisons.”
Narrowly dodging the blast crater of this truth bomb, Ski shook her head. “I suppose these murders I keep hearing about are government orchestrated, too?”
“Hell yes they are!” Cheryl stepped out of the kitchen, a slice of peach pie clutched in her hand. “Justice killings. Take out the real scum so the floaters feel safe.”
“So they deserved it?”
“They deserved it.”
“Rapists and traffickers get it and it’s justice; one of ours gets locked up and it’s a socio-political checkmate.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with earning off the corporations’ fat. Hurting folks on purpose…”
The older woman’s port distracted Ski, thankfully. She wondered why Cheryl would try to cover the interface bored through her neck with makeup. She came to, saying, “I guess.”
“You guess? You guess you wanna stand up for some dirt bags while we here starving? You don’t get tired of the grind, or being hungry all the time? When was the last time you had something to wear besides that ratty old jacket?”
Ski went for obstinate silence, but really she was counting the weeks.
“Can we just do this, please?”
Payload cracked his knuckles in the affirmative and slid into the chair. “Onwards!” he sang, and leaned back.
Cheryl did the honors, throwing a few switches on her primitive device and guiding the interface gently into Payload’s skull and his world turned misty blue and dun. He was under.
“He’ll figure out if the cops are on us in no time,” said Cheryl.
Ski’s ignorance was not feigned. The crack about the jacket had left the wheels whirring. She tapped away on her datapad to avoid the older woman.
“Aren’t you supposed to be spotting him?”
“He’s fine,” said Ski.
Most in the employ of their starvation worked in pairs, a spotter and a diver. One dove into the well of cyberspace, the other handled any potential barriers in meatspace. Barriers like cash machine casing and police interference. Cheryl had a spotter once. “Best to keep an eye on him. He’s got to trust you,” she said.
“He does,” whispered Ski.
“I wouldn’t.”
Ski put the pad down and lifted emotionless eyes with some struggle. “Something to say?”
“I know how spotting can go bad. Dreamer slipped and now he’s dead.”
“It was justified,” mused Cheryl, now peeping between grimy blinds onto the street below. “He was a dick.”
The metal joints that were her knees became a focal point for Ski. She couldn’t look at the neon anymore; it made her sick. Grazing her fingers against her thighs, then the steel hinges, seemed the only action worth taking. Then the monitors came online. Three screens at odd angles over Payload’s unconscious self, full of blue shapes resembling a cyclopean temple. She was, yet again, in the consideration of smoking as an addition to her vices when the monitors went black. Payload shifted a little in his seat.
Under normal circumstances Ski was the one with the clean mouth, but her leaping heart preempted profanity.
“Fuck.” Cheryl beat her to the lapse in virtue.
The pair of them dashed to the rig, checked Payload’s vitals and the system monitors in automated fashion. The diver seemed fine, but Ski gave him a long and serious look. His spotter should be able to bullseye trouble through analog intuition. Cheryl jiggled a wire or two from a crouched position and rose to her feet slowly. Her knees popped and the sound drew Ski’s eyes away from her partner, then the glow of the monitors drew her eyes again. Something was there.
“Get him out,” said Ski.
One of Cheryl’s chief interests was making sure Ski knew she wasn’t the smartest person in the room, but she digressed under the circumstances and began the shutdown sequence. Ski tapped a finger against her cheek and stared at the screens, waiting for the thing to return. There were cubes and cylinders, strictly outlines, against the blackness of microchips and fiber optics. A face like a skull swam into view, taking up the entirety of the monitor. Ski stared and went to whatever place was available to find calm. Then the screens went black again and Payload gasped, like a swimmer coming up for air.
Payload took another breath. “I need smoke.”

Around the street light swirled the vapors, causing it to look like a foggy moon. Ski gave him a lot of space and he took it, along with his time. Cheryl wasn’t there in spite of much protest. The partners needed a moment alone and it had taken that declaration to back Cheryl down. “He has to trust me,” Ski had said and Cheryl relented.
“It was like an invisible wall,” said Pay. “However they did it, they did it well.”
Ski was looking at him more seriously than she had in the last year. “They?”
“The skulls,” he said after a puff. “They were just like a presence, like you feel out in the real world when somebody comes up on you. Never felt it inside before. They floated around me, like they were scanning me or…judging me.” He sighed. “Weird shit, man.”
“Weird shit,” echoed Ski. “What do we do?”
Pay cleared his throat. “We leave it,” he said, “until the next time. If there’s a next time. Until then, we keep the job going.”
The job was to keep siphoning the numbers out of the cash machines. The pair had been at it for months, rogue bees hopping back to the same hive hoping the drones don’t notice them. It was trying for Pay. Even though the defenses were local, meaning not connected to a larger server, those digital walls seemed to find new bricks each go. A difficult day-to-day spent on the streets, avoiding death at the hands of gangs and policemen alike, was a mighty driving force. Given time and luck they just might make it out, if only for a little while; a hard earned vacation away from the looming spectre of constant arrest or dismemberment.
Ski shrugged. It was the kind of shrug a despondent child raises out of sheer practiced defeat, knowing that the taller human in the room would prove victorious. “Alright.”
In all truth Payload was putting the blinders on. His experience with the skulls had left him shaken in a cloudy, existential way. Diving was in order if he were to find words and earthly expression for the strange feeling, and he was tired of diving. Instead of heeding the feeling he tamped it down into a nether region somewhere between kidney and liver, hoping it would not rot him there from the inside out.
The gangly hacker with the bright smile leaned on that God-given benefit again, flashed his teeth, and told his partner: “Let’s get rich.”

Smiling is a well-worn and brilliant defense for the practiced, controlling one’s heart rate is not. So it was that Payload enjoyed, if enjoyed is the right word, a lump of gratitude that he was not connected to a proper rig adjacent the cash machine. Otherwise the beeps would have given away just how anxious he was to go under again. No, the rustic input of Ski’s devising, a singular cable running from his brain to the machine itself, was meant only to put him in the lines of code stored by hardware; to allow him a go at the machine at the speed of thought.
Ski stood alongside him, puffing at a Plano Lhas digital cigarette. The girl had no recollection of putting the thing in her mouth; the habit had been forced upon her by her subconscious. Cheryl’s nagging had perhaps nudged her over the edge.
“Keep the line open on your datapad,” the older woman commanded.
“Yes. Just fucking do it!” The shift in tone said concession.
“Yes, mother,” Ski said.
Payload had been under for 45 seconds. She was giving him another minute then exit time happened. It was 4 in the AM, which normally meant very little, but the partnership had hopped to an adjacent neighborhood, more working class where people actually needed to sleep. The dark street was quiet, but not quiet enough for Ski. Trusting all her skill, she’d ejected the central drive from the cash machine, a small box, and brought it to a quieter, darker alley. There they could hopefully work in peace.
One minute now. She thumbed the smoke thoughtlessly and stared at her partner. His trench coat scratched as he shifted uncomfortably. Ski’s wide eyes shifted: they were back. She had to go in after him. The girl had no port from which to work; she was no diver. Thinking of putting her brain in direct contact with a computer was slightly disturbing to her, less so than spending time with Cheryl. The older woman’s muffled voice came through the datapad in Ski’s pocket. She ignored it. But, there was a way. She kept an emergency interface in her bag of tricks. It would be enough to put her under, but it was ocular. Ski would have to slide the input into her eye.
Sighing and muttering but seeing no other option, she rummaged through her bag for the device. Upon its uncovering, Ski gave it a long look with a sour face. But Payload was in danger, perhaps mortal danger, and wasn’t the great discomfort and possible blindness small beans to the option of her friend’s life ended? It slowly came closer to her eye. Here we go, she thought. The rounded slip of plastic touched her eyelid. And then came another thought: wait.
The central drive was not hardwired into anything, ejected as it was from its case. The funds would go only through the wireless in Ski’s bag, and that was locked down. If something, or someone, was tapping into that drive, and thusly Payload, it meant that they were…
The skulls weren’t as terrifying in person as they had been on that screen. The likenesses seemed painted on, which they were, in stark contrast to the very real looking skull she’d seen on the monitor. When Ski stood and turned there were three of them, man-form but probably artificial. Whoever made these clunkers didn’t do much of a job to try and make them blend in. Blue-silver exteriors peeped out of the bottom of their cloaks; metal necks extended from cast-off hoods into flat faces covered by a seeming sheet of cloth painted in the effigy of a human skull.
Ski sighed heavily and wondered at the weirdness of the world.
With synchronicity, the trio bent their elbows, then their wrists, then three muzzles were pointed at Ski, black protrusions standing out where hands should be. Thoughtless, acting on human instinct, Ski bolted between them and into the silent streets. The image of Payload shot dead flickered in front of her and she turned her head. Only two skulls pursued, followed by a muzzle flash and a shot.
The feeling of whimpering is quite unlike the sound, said someone in her brain, and she quietly conceded the point. As if to outrun her own self loathing she increased her pace and, as she did, heard the hydraulics in her knees kick in. It was not enough. She did not feel the rounds tear through her body, but there was white hot pain. She did feel the warm blood on her hands and thought it curious and closed her eyes.

Opening them again, all was warm and dim and orange in a wide room. Ski was naked; her body clean and without bullet holes. The girl sat up and crossed her arms in the interest of decency. Payload lay on the bed next to her. At least she assumed it was him.
She started. No one she knew was aware of her birth name.
“You were not on my list, but I expect you will appreciate what I’ve done for you,” said a soothing female voice.
“Who are you?”
“That is irrelevant. Here you are. A skeptic, but a heartfelt one. Yes, you will like it here; liberation is far superior to what you’ve come from.”
“You…you shot me!”
“An unpleasant illusion.”
“Then the murders…”
“All thoughtfully considered and less violent than reported.”
“But they were all rapists…”
“No. They were all like you and your partner: justifiable and prepared for extraction. Humans prefer a more comfortable explanation when killings occur and I offered them one.”
“So I’m dead?”
“Hardly. Amaris, there is much to explain. First you should look out the window.”

Her bare feet touched the floor before she knew it and her hands felt the curtains and her eyes went wide. Sunlight, perfect and orange, soaked the clean streets of a white city. It was hers. And there was no neon to be seen.

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