The port was a gallery of greys. Heaps of boxes sat like graves scattered between the slow procession of ash-stained men filtering from squat concrete warehouses and into the industrial fog. I assumed my typical post-shift position, one arm strained against a failing lamppost as the other worked rhythmically at an e-cig. A man approached through the fog, the tattered yellow bandanna under his hood giving away his affiliations long before I saw his pock-marked face.
“Jacob.” I nodded to the newcomer as I pulled another mouthful of sweet vapor from my false cigarette.
“E-cigs now? That shit fries your head, dro.” Jacob tapped at his temple.
“Heh, you’re looking out for my health now? I’ve done way worse – you sold me most of it.” We set to motion, heading off down Wayside Street.
“Yeah, but I was making a profit off that. Hardly counts.” We wound down an alley.
“Plus, I can’t make any money off you if you get that fuckin’ brain-C and die, can I.”
“You could harvest my organs. Although you’d have to leave the brain, and a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” There was a van, bright yellow beneath layers of dust, crouched in the darkness. As we advanced I noticed the three men guarding it. Larger men than most, riddled with scars that, somehow, made my skin itch. “Why the extra guns?”
“Shit’s getting rough out there, you know how is. We got some new stuff in, too, and the Boss wants us to keep it safe.”
“New stuff?” The guards evaluated me with that look of slight distaste paid killers always have, opening the van’s backdoors and allowing us entrance.
The van seemed more of a storefront on the inside. Powders, lacers, needles, bottles, pills – anything that could kill a man willingly – lined the interior. I was familiar with the setup, and immediately noticed the new addition: a bulky ring of metal designed to hang around the neck, a crude LED display dimly blinking opposite the clasp. Jacob retrieved the necklace with the most delicate movement he could muster. “New stuff,” he confirmed, “designed by the Boss himself. Some high-tech sci-fi shit.”
“..I don’t think I could snort, shoot, or smoke that. How’s it work?” I was intrigued by the possibility of a new high: who wouldn’t be?
“I don’t even pretend to know, dro, I just sell the thing. There’s this jack in the back, looks like you could hook speakers into it or some shit, but you can’t – you hook these little boxes in, and then it does some kinda quantum shit. I mean, like, waves and vibrational photons or whatever. Next thing you know, you’re someone else.”
“Someone else?” My eyebrow crept up. Shit, he knew he had me.
“Yeah, just for a bit. You don’t really become someone else, not physically, but you are them. Like, your feelings and thoughts are them for a while.” He placed the contraption, along with one of the small boxes he had mentioned, into a hard plastic case. “Only three thousand for this one. It’s a real good deal.”
“Can I test it first?” He already had the necklace bagged – I must have been very predictable in my habits.
“..Test? No. I’ll throw in one of the lil’ boxes – Boss calls them nodes – since you’re such a good customer and all. How does ‘Despair’ sound to you?”
“Despair? Like sadness? Who the fuck would want to take a drug that makes them feel sad?”
“Shit man, there’s tons of way to get high, especially getting low. Lis’sen, these nodes get pretty expensive. This Despair one is normally a few thousand itself, I’m doing you a big favor here.”
“Fine, fine, I’ll take it. I just put it on and plug the node in, then?” I exchanged the bills for the package, and stuffed it into my rucksack.
“Yep, that’s about it. There’s a little adjustment thing you’ve got to go through, but the screen on the front should guide you through. Take some professional advice though, and do this alone. You won’t be you while you’re on the Empath.”
“Empath? Is that seriously what it’s called?”
“Yes. Boss thinks it’s snappy.”
“Sounds like a fuckin’ nineties movie title. Whatever, thanks for the deal, Jacob.”
“No prob. We’ll be back on this route in two weeks. Seeya then.”
The guards resumed their ever-souring glare as I stepped from the van and made my way back through the narrow alleys, back to Wayside Street. It was a broad street that originated deep in the city and stretched levelly out to the dockside, and it was nearly entirely unusable. Cracks ran deep through the concrete, hidden by the shifting industrial ashes. It was quite useful once, or so the older dockers said, but I’d never seen a car or truck attempt to travel the crumbling road. Lines of workers filed down the road, away from the warehouses and factories, broken toys shambling back to their boxes. I followed until the station, then boarded the subway – waited near a half hour – and was deposited much nearer home.
The streets of the inner city saw actual traffic, which made them dangerous. Cars swerved in and out of their lanes constantly, occasionally veering into the truck-lanes too slowly and colliding with the automated hulks. It takes a certain kind of person to drive in the city, and I’ve always much preferred to live. Along the main road, dilapidated skyscrapers swayed ever-so-slightly in the breeze. That’s where I was headed, to the former headquarters of Velbank.
Velbank Tower was a monument to 102 floors of modern capitalism, 102 floors once teeming with high-wage workers, replaced by a 6-by-6 computing cube somewhere in Monaco. I lived on the fifty-sixth floor, in a room with walls made of plywood. It was the nicest place I’d stayed since college, a fact that burned in my gut, but at least Kat was there. She worked as a delivery-woman for eCafé, and was normally back much sooner than me. I picked up my pace, treading faster down the sidewalk, turning into the lobby of the tower.
Something was wrong – noticeably wrong. Three men were surrounding a couple; the woman was on the floor and stifling tears, the man was on his knees and pleading, blood snaking down from his nostrils. The trio turned to me as I entered the door. They seemed wild, whether by drugs or by nature. I nodded my head and they turned back to their victims. I loped over to the elevator, keeping my gaze straight ahead, and clicked the call button. There was a wet crunch from somewhere behind me, and muted sobbing. Another crunch, then a slick popping. No more sobbing. The elevator chimed- I entered quickly, hit the button for 57, and was headed home.