Chapter 1: A Petrified Node In The Sad Reality

The 6th floor adDroids consumed data like pheromones, redirecting their prances and preens to suit airborne desires.  At any given moment they were awash with a din of secret need projected from clients who set their shopping preferences to “Just browsing, thanks” or “Tell me later.”  Well, “later” did not exist in the adDroid program, and, a properly augmented adDroid – male, female, trans or bisex – would shine through a “browsing” filter.

Like a mystic from an ancient age, the shoppe manager set forth her spiders to crawl through cracked firewalls and capture keywords from encrypted conversations.  Then, the adDroids would learn the features and postures needed to create a successful retail experience.  Eight adDroids took position on the 6th floor walkway, ready for the first whiffs of human expectation.

They waited and nothing came.  The hum of data on the floors below thinned and thinned to the merest whispers.  They could feel it. The spiders sifted the emptying air, reporting only seven nodes available to retail suggestion.  And one of those nodes was dashing toward the 6th floor in an erratic but definite trajectory.

Considering the nature of their products and services, his elevated core indicators did not appear extraordinary to the shoppe’s Auto manager.  A solid roll of repeat customers often arrived in such a state.  They just usually took a less circuitous route to relief.  But some fetishists preferred prolongation.  It was not for the Auto manager to judge.

The human manager, Carly, would, but she took an early break and left the shoppe to Auto.  Oh, she’d have a harsh appraisal for the ascending node since he was a colleague within the Mall:

Lexter Adept

Managing Stimuologist, Buckian’s, 1st floor

She would not deny his listed height (6’ 1”), but, she often ridiculed his proclaimed 240 pounds when gossiping over the IM during store hours.  The human interfaces that managed the shoppes in the Mall knitted a tight community with the exception of Lexter Adept.  They knew he stayed over his 14 hour shift to avoid the group commute.  Off time meant off reality for the likes of Lexter Adept.  Such aloofness brought the scorn of his colleagues who only minded off reality when they weren’t invited.

But, what would sadden her secretly and deepen her disdain, should she return to the shoppe and inspect the activity that occurred in her absence, would be the fact that not one adDroid exuded an aspect describable as Carly-esque when faced with the mine of data called Lexter Adept.  The ounces that fattened him failed to dissuade her desires, yet her affection remained unrequited.

The Auto manager lacked this affliction.  It performed its duty, preparing the adDroids for his imminence, concocting a program menu suitable to his system specs.  Protocol stated that Carly remain aware of shoppe activity while on break and that the Auto manager make three attempts to reestablish contact should she fall offline.  Its second attempt proved nil as the soles of Lexter Adept’s black, comfortless Comfort brand no slip shoes touched the surface of the high gloss, scuff resistant 6th floor walkway.

adDroids clustered around the shoppe front in a highly suggestive dispersal.  A female, male, and transex led the blockade.  Two hundred and ninety-three pounds of Lexter Adept bound toward them as the Auto manager’s third attempt at contact with its immediate superior failed.  As per protocol it dispatched a brief missive to the corporate office asking for instruction.

Carried by the high gloss sheen and the velocity of his own inertia, Lexter Adept slid through the legs of the transex and past the shoppe front.  The adDroids muttered, glitching at their failure to elicit even a hint of a sale, as word from corporate reached the Auto manager:

“LOWER THE SHIELDS!!!  LOWER THE SHIELDS!!!”

But, it was too late.  A volley of Smart-but-not-so-Smart fire tore through the adDroids and the shoppe front.  There was an explosion, and Polygasms: Pleasure solutions on and off Reality was no more.  Carly was in great trouble, but nothing like the scope of bad news in pursuit of Lexter Adept.

Hold on.

Back it up…

He woke screaming again, another traumatic disorder flaring that would draw the attention of higher management.  Problematic, corporate was cracking down on memory and trauma.  A whole generation with no experience of Cataclysm was inheriting the workspace, and corporate expected its older employees to keep pace with their unfettered minds.

He remained on his back, considering the traitorous software inside his head that alerted the main office of his malady.  The black fibers of his hair plugs rustled beneath his fingers, causing the synthetics to reorder to the hairstyle he programmed.  It tickled, providing a brief distraction from his looming predicament.

An HR rep would chime in momentarily.  Someone called Chad, undoubtedly, who would spew terms like performance and detail the negativity of memory and emotion on what was honestly a somewhat shoddy state of positivity maintained by one Lexter Adept.

Then, Chad would make the pitch for extraction, reminding Lexter how fortune smiled the day Buckian’s approved his application.  In its benevolence, Buckian’s offered to partially subsidize surgery for any employee whose past, upon recollection, left them feeling less than fresh, consciously or subconsciously.

Really, he owed it to corporate to have those awful memories removed.  The offending impressions didn’t have to be eradicated, but they couldn’t stay in his head anymore.  Designers were doing lovely decorative arrangements, Chad would say, storing memories in crystals.  Wearing them as jewelry had become quite the fashion, though some preferred ornate sculptures for the home.  It was truly making something beautiful out of the most profoundly ugly things.

But, Chad would remind him, that the offer from corporate expires at the end of the year.  Then, you’re on your own.  Amnesty would vanish.  Any alerts related to spiking core indicators due to trauma or undisclosed psychological distresses will be filed with HR.  Three alerts leads to a warning and suspension.  A fourth means termination, and who wants to take a chance at unemployment in this reality?

He rose.  A fury simmered behind his crystal blue eyes.

Fuck you, Chad, he thought.  Fuck you and your Sad Reality.  You’re probably another program or robot.  It would be just like corporate to outsource HR to a robot.

Wire, mesh, and connective tissue adorned his torso and extremities, tattooed along his chest and back in tribal markings of his own design.  Conjoined with the smartware woven into his bed sheets, they formed an interface that fully sensitized him in the game.

Some of us have secrets more precious than your recipes.

Off reality, he walked the 7 Worlds.  There they called him Paladin, keeper of the 6th order, his exploits legend, his devotees legion, but, still, he walked alone.  When the seven High Overlords offered their vision to the gamesphere, he was there.  The popularity of the 7 Worlds spawned imitators pre-Cataclysm.  Decades later, it remained the off reality of choice, a welcome antidote to the Sad Reality.

I will continue to hack my core indicators, employ phantom dispositions, even shield my subconscious before anyone can access my secret knowledge of the 7 Worlds.  In this I pledge.

He noticed the quiet.  No Chad.  No anything.  All the icons and portals that bordered his field of vision stood free of blink, bling, or effect.  The FriendsFeed, NewsFeed, and WorkFeed displayed data, minutes old, frozen like water captured in time.  Hacked he had…and poorly.

Restart: the time tested solution to all glitches.  Lexter made the necessary mental commands.  Reboot in 30-29-28…

A joint self-ignited.  The medicinal weed they smoked in the army was better than this current retail varietal, but he didn’t complain.  The mediocre grade served the business model meant to inspire the disappointed pot smoker to a heavier narcotic or pharmaceutical.  He dragged.  The pot would do nicely.

20-19-18…

Naked, he stood before the window.  Darkness covered the sand and sky outside the Hollywood dome.  Light stretched along the above ground service tunnels and encircled the Mall and its protective sheath.  The glow captured the Antiquity Ghetto adjacent to the Mall.

It was an extraordinary view of the choices humanity made while clinging to survival.  The place that numbed them with dreams and a mall to numb them with endless need persisted.  And, outside it all, foraging their own existence, lived the unwanted, haunting ancient architecture.

Grumbling, his stomach begged attention.  Lexter patted his expansive girth, noting to check the hack on his profile at 3-2-1. It indicated a svelte 240.  The insurers stated he could work at a max of 252.  It only stood to reason that if one was to hack, it was best to hack deeply.

Icons twinkled.  Feeds flowed informatively.  Portals spun three-dimensionally.  He was a petrified node in the Sad Reality no longer.  Real Time had left a message in his absence, igniting an icon labelled “Buck’s.”  The preview said “Brad from HR.”

Phantom pain prickled the bionics in his left knee and every piece of him patched with plastic, fiber, and wire by a doctor contracted by the military.

Brad.

So close.

He dressed, nothing too smart, just all weather khakis and a long sleeve, black polo to hide the markings on his arms.  He thought of Brad and considered localizing a cloud of camera dust to broadcast a more pleasing image to corporate.

Then, Lexter Adept sighed as deeply as a defeated titan forced to bear the weight of heaven.

I bled on foreign sand for this?

It wasn’t called the Sad Reality for nothing.

Wait.

Pause.