By George Mitchell
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
It was dusk, in a purple way, and the bar was full of picksies. Tommy Lyle was old, his mind atrophied and his knuckles arthritic. Despite the fact he had lived a life that made him long for death, he was unaware that he wouldn't see the dawn. He would die twice this night.
"Happy hour has just begun, from now 'til close, two drinks for one." Chimed Merv. Over and over he repeated the rhyme, like an ill-defined loop. He polished a glass -- declared happy hour. Cleaned a spilled beer -- declared happy hour. His voice was the ambient sound of an old juke box or slot machine. It was built to entice, to entrap, to wither will, to sell. "Happy hour has just begun..."
Some new guy came in and took a seat at a table across from Tommy. The guy lifted a menu and started browsing. Meanwhile his t-shirt transformed from sky blue to steel grey. Then to red. Then it stopped being a t-shirt altogether and became a shirt, with buttoned collar and folded sleeves, a plaid of brown and grey. The torso settled and the legs began their tinkering. Blue jeans. Sand colored cotton pants. Pink linen. Black jeans with gold trim. The guy was a classic picksies. Spent all his hard earned dolbits on stupid clothes, to then waste half his time trying to choose with too much choice. As if that's what all this was about.
Tommy looked down at his empty jar and wished for a couple of inches of whiskey. As if by magic, his glass was suddenly full, though he knew his account was three dolbits lighter. He felt a sharp scratch on his left wrist, he worked his sleeve up and gave it a firm rub. Probably just a bug bite. The night's purple haze creeped through the street windows, and with it, the bar changed. It went from McAleer's Bar, an old wooden whiskey joint in the style of those New York Irish pubs that used to exist, to Ally Macs, a next gen, psychedelic strobe fest where the youth could take acid, drink themselves unconscious and have open sexual congress. The lights went dim and everything became a different shade of shadow. It was ripe time Tommy was leaving. He was sad that Mary hadn't shown, though not too sad; she hadn't shown for the last fifteen years, ever since they were parted when Iniquity went live. Tommy could only wonder where she was, what she was doing, who she was with. The thought of her was like an old book on a shelf that Tommy couldn't help but pick up and peruse every time he walked past. She'd gotten to him in those old days, with that smile, even made him forget about his dead wife for a while. Anyway, he'd be back tomorrow to wait for her, and who knows, maybe she'd show. "Finish this and I'll be off." He said to no one. He sipped his whiskey and spun the glass in his hands. Deep, thudding music blurred throughout, though it was muffled, as though Tommy was hearing it through the walls. He looked around and realised he was the oldest guy here. He saw flashes of faces as the picksies flicked through new clothing, dancing in the darkness like fireflies. He emptied his glass and returned it to the table with a clack. He was about to leave when a young girl entered. She had long black hair that glistened neon blue, falling all the way down to the small of her back. She wore a tight green dress that morphed to her slender, gracious movements. She was young. Her fresh face told as much. Tommy almost felt guilt for staring, but remembered his guilt was wasted here. In this construct. Nothing was real, or truly real, it was all meretricious. Following her was a clan of four young bruisers. The kind of boys that were typical when the lights went down in Segutter. They were ragged, loud and infectious. They carried small guns and knives around their waists, and a dozen other weapons invisible to the eye, tucked inside their clothing. They had dark leather jackets and chips on every shoulder. To them, this was all a game. They could do anything they wanted here. Rape. Murder. Steal. For boys like this, Iniquity was a dream. Tommy rose from the table and began limping toward the door.
"Headshot." One of the boys called. The same bruiser pulled a gun from his holster with boyish insouciance and fired a shot through the temple of the new guy, the picksie. The man was dead long before his body hit the floor. Hot blood fountained from the wound, specking his newly donned white and grey Henley. The boys laughed in the aftermath.
"Welcome to Ally Macs." Merv said to the four young men and the girl. From seemingly nowhere, the AI bartender manifested a mop and began to mechanically clean the spreading blood. "Anyone care for a drink?" The bar slowly emptied. Not in panic or fear, but orderly and quietly. Everyone knew the story. One by one the picksies drained out like workers clocking off from their shift.
"Four shots of vodka and whatever she wants." Said the shooter, pointing to the girl in the green dress with his revolver.
Throughout this Tommy had been staring, indignant, teeth jarred into his bottom lip. Every. Fucking. Time. What had become of his country? Where these the fruits of Veerfort's presidency? He felt betrayed. If he'd been thirty years younger, and armed, maybe he would have done something. But now? In this place? What was the point? He swallowed his frustration and turned to the door.
"Your turn, James." The shooter said to another of his clan. The shooter was tall and lean, one would say reedy. His face pale but full in the cheeks, with dark green eyes and brown hair cropped at the sides. Tommy had known his like before, a sinkhole for trouble and a source of torment, always suborning other boys into his chaos. The shooter lifted his glass and emptied the contents down his serpentine throat. Merv poured him another glass and made a cocktail for the lady, involving a sea shell and a variety of little pebbles. A shorter boy, spongey faced and built like a sandbag, began to scan the room. His fleshy brown eyes met Tommy's.
"You there. Old Man." The boy, presumably the one named James, lifted his pistol and stepped toward Tommy.
"Now, now, boy." Tommy groaned. "Get back to your fun. I'm on the way out."
"Headshot." Called the taller boy, whom Tommy decided to nickname Snake. The other two boys whistled and made sucking noises.
"S-s-sorry about th-this." James said, raising a shaking pistol to Tommy's face. "J-just a bit of f-fun, you know?" Tommy leaned forward and rested his forehead on the cold metal. The boy looked like he was the one staring down the barrel.
"In future, boy," Tommy said. "if you're ever holding one of these for real, you're gonna wanna shoot the guy before you get talkin' to him."
The boy's eyes widened. Snake straightened at the bar and mishandled the girl in the green dress. Suddenly she was being passed around like a football. She resisted, though almost respectfully. Tommy caught her eyes.
"Let the girl go, boys." He said. "She's done no harm." He tried to beckon her but she seemed disinterested. Perhaps she didn't trust Tommy to treat her any better than the mongrels. Or perhaps this had happened so many times that she'd lost the will to fight.
Tommy went to speak again when he felt the cold steel barrel on his brow once more. It rattled with the shaking of the anxious boy.
Snake called out. "Come on James. Just fucking get it ov-" And that was the last thing Tommy heard. His vision went black, though his mind persisted. Fucking next gen scum thugs. For half a second Tommy sat in the abyss, before white text pooled his view:
A small bar ran below the writing, steadily gaining colour from left to right. When it had completed its journey, Tommy found himself sitting in his familiar kitchen, far away from Ally Macs. He pounded a fist against the table. He thought of the girl and what was happening to her right this second. He thought of Snake and his sickly face. He thought of the sixty-four dolbit respawn tax he just paid to Dell-Intel-Sandbox. It wasn't much of a sum to most, but Tommy Lyle was an ex-cop living on his state pension. And what's worse, his killer didn't have to pay a single bit. A tax for murder would be deemed detrimental to the purpose of Iniquity. Like a sugar tax in a sweet shop. He put the night's events to the back of his mind.
Tommy wanted coffee and so his machine began brewing. The television was on. Some advertisement for miracle spring water. The hot smell of the fresh roast coffee beans filled his head and sent him delirious. These days, it was like a drug.
His rooms were small and square. One room in fact, divided with short walls into a living room, kitchen and bedroom. He didn't have a bathroom, since in Iniquity he didn't need one. Though he knew people that saved up their dolbits to furnish their apartments lavishly, and even waste their credits on a bathroom that no one would use.
He stroked his sharp whiskers with his crooked hand and daydreamed of a time he had been young and happy. He stumbled out of his youthful reverie and noticed how calloused his hands were. Or perhaps it was his chin that was so rough and hard. Or both. He'd stopped caring about his reflection long ago, when the disparity between what he remembered his face to be -- a strong jawline, sharp blue eyes, high cheekbones and a thick brow -- and what it was -- a tired weathered face, the texture of old leather boots, the only sharpness in the eyes being the crow's feet -- grew too far apart.
He rested his feet on his pine coffee table and squinted at the television. He'd suddenly become lethargic. So much so, he fell inside himself. He looked around the room and let his mind wander. His afghan carpet and diamond patterned mustard wallpaper reflected what he remembered of his childhood home. Back when things were, different. Was it nostalgia of childhood that made him see those days in a warm haze? Probably. But at least back then, things were hidden. The problems of society brushed under the carpet and stashed behind closed doors. Now the world was an open wound. The worst of his kind came out at night, when everyone's skin was sleeping in government issue pods, their minds wandering freely through the wild terrain of Iniquity.
Tommy sat for a while, sipping his coffee. He grew tired. It was strange. He'd never felt tired in Iniquity before. In fact, he didn't realize it was even possible to feel tired in Iniquity. Perhaps they'd made an update? He closed his eyes for just a second, letting the darkness wrap around him like a warm blanket. When they reopened, his spine was cold and there was a sharp knocking on his door. That was curious. The door was just lines of code, as far as Tommy knew. It was a placeholder, a mirage. It was there to subdue the senses. It had never knocked before.
Tommy loosened the needles from his numb legs, labored to the door, opened it, and saw nothing more than what he had expected to see. Two columns of three handles, floating in a darkness, the handles that he turned to enter the different districts of his sheaf of Iniquity. Segutter, Ralley, Galdrain, Verynice Beach... He read them one by one, their names glowing beneath each handle. Tonight, he had been in Segutter. Last night in Ralley. Verynice Beach was still locked, he needed sixty thousand dolbits for the key to that locale. He closed the door, turned back to the living room, and saw something he hadn't been expecting. He recoiled backward, startled by the artifice of the tall, slender form that stood before him.
"Are you Thomas Henry Lyle?" The figure asked. Its voice was deep, low and mechanical. Altered, no doubt. Tommy blinked several times and rubbed his eyes to clear the shadow from his view. The figure remained, and was easily over six feet, but thin as a wire. It wore a black suit upon a black waistcoat and shirt, the collar of which was buttoned closed but did not hold a tie. Its feet where digitally buried into Tommy's coffee table. Its legs seemed to end in a slice, disappearing into the unaffected table, giving the figure the effect of floating several inches in the air. That told Tommy whatever this thing was, it didn't belong here. Malware.
Another oddity, and perhaps most disturbing of all, was the blurred, pulsating cloud that was its head. Tommy couldn't take his eyes off it. A nebulous array of shimmering light and pixilation, hovering around the face. It made identification impossible, which was itself supposed to be impossible, or at the least, illegal. That's how the government officials in Iniquity tracked you. Everything else could change but your face was your own. It took Tommy a long second to recognize what stood before him, then he mouthed silently, Blurface.
"Are you Thomas Henry Lyle?" Blurface repeated, preferring a more aggressive tone than before. "Formerly of the New York Police Department?"
"Y-yes." Tommy stuttered, still in shock. He'd heard the stories like everyone else, of the malware that could kill, that couldn't be identified, and that reeked chaos everywhere it went. "That's me." He continued. "How did you--"
"Then you of all people should know the dangers of opening a knocking door." Blurface glided through Tommy's sofa and stood a yard away, casting his long shadow over Tommy. "You are famous, Mr. Lyle." Blurface mocked him with the humour of a ghost. His digital laugh was haunting.
Tommy's limbs were suddenly numb. He was frozen in the hallway, only able to move his eyes, and even that was a strain. He realized he could no longer speak. Blurface continued in the silence.
"You're the last to take a life? Aren't you? That of Kelvin Bryant, a student from what was then known as the Bronx, shot twice in the head during an anti-government rally in midtown, New York City, seventeen years ago."
Hearing the name made Tommy wish his mind was as numb as his body. The poor kid. They'd been ordered to open fire on the crowd. Tommy had fired longer than everyone else. He had been different in those days, and he hated every aspect of his younger self. So stupid, so naive. He had not forgotten the boy's face, or the way it had been savaged by the two bullet holes passing through his left cheek. It had haunted Tommy for decades.
"You were the symbol of Veerfort's movement," Blurface continued with an accusatory tone. "the line in the sand. 'After you, no more.' They said. 'You will be the last.'"
The malware stalked around the apartment, interfering with the structure. The walls and ceiling deformed toward it, like it was a black hole, sucking the code and distorting the virtual reality.
"They used to protect you, long ago." Blurface said. "Now they've left you to rot. They didn't realize the opportunity they've given someone like me. I want to inherit you." Tommy realized he was in the presence of something more than a faulty piece of code. Behind Blurface was a living, breathing, conscious human.
"Where are all the trees, Tom?" Blurface asked, suddenly. There was a shrewdness to his mechanical voice. It was aged. He must have been aware of Tommy's paralysis for he continued: "Where are all the birds in the sky? Or creatures in the soil?"
Tommy hadn't noticed until now, Iniquity had none of those things. How strange he hadn't noticed. Tommy's eyes fixated on the pixilating mess of Blurface.
"And so it brings me to why I am here." Blurface's words cut right to Tommy's core. They ran through him, rang in his ears and pinballed in his brain. "We live in a world out of balance. We spend our days in castrated monotony, serving no great cause with no great fire to drive us. We spend our nights in a digitalized reality built from the dreams of sadists and psychopaths. Nothing is real and everything is for sale. Picksies march instead of protestors. And what of Southee, and his so-called Rebellion? Just digital dust."
Tommy's world went dark at the edges. His little apartment began to melt into Blurface's pulsating head. The abyss grew around him.
"They think us neutered." Blurface said. "They think us disarmed. Commit your crimes in here to stop them out there. Live your lives in here, sleepwalk out there." Blurface's voice grew more toxic. "Can I ask you a question?"
Tommy felt nothing. He watched as the world bent to Blurface's will.
"What is left of life, but these four walls?"
For the second time that night, everything went black. This time was different. No loading, no respawn.
Tommy woke into darkness, the moon casting the faintest glimmer through his window. He couldn't move. He felt weightless and empty. He recognized the room. He was realside. His pod was open around him. The time-lock shouldn't have opened for hours? Why was he awake? Why couldn't he move? His eyes wanted to close. He couldn't hold a thought. His chest was frantic. His eyes closed. What were those words spinning in his head? He was freezing. A breeze kissed his face. A deep voice met him in his slumber, "What is left of life, but these four walls?"