A Mind So Dark in a City So Bright
By Sean Grigsby
“If you’re still here at the end of the summer,” she said, “I’ll know you love me.”
As far as postcoital statements went, that had to be the strangest thing I’d ever heard, especially coming from a woman I’d been dating for three months, a woman I’d just professed my love for.
“What?!” I rolled onto my side and pushed a strand of hair over her ear. “Emmy, of course I’ll still be here. What are you talking about?”
Standing, she put on my robe. When she lifted her dark hair over the collar, I caught a glimpse of the implant on the back of her neck. I’d seen it before, felt it during intimate moments, but I’d never asked her about it. Modifications were personal and that was something you didn’t do. If a guy wanted to flaunt a new pair of Boren Corp titanium arms, that was one thing (and someone would eventually find the guy armless and pulseless in an alley).
It was the window Emmy headed for, but first she had to fumble past the labyrinth of augment body parts piled up in my apartment. If my clients ever saw that mess, I’d have had to get in line for a real job.
Emmy pressed a button to raise the blackout curtain and that’s when the night broke in. Fusion City is the only place I’ve ever known that was darker during the day and brighter at night. Folks could go blind from the neon glow—a real cluster of incandescent geometry that pointed you one way and then another. This way, this way. No! This way. We have what you want, what you need. You won’t live without it.
It’s why I wore my dark goggles if I ever had to go out at night. But the lights never seemed to bother Emmy.
She pressed her forehead against the window and blew a foggy circle. When other people would have marked a smiley face or a four-letter word, Emmy just stood there and watched it fade away. “You’ll get tired of having to deal with me. And then you’ll leave.”
“I know you get sad sometimes, but it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t change how I feel about you.”
She turned to me. Even in the shadow Fusion City made of her face, I could see tears rolling down her cheeks. “You haven’t seen how bad it can get, Darren.”
Out of bed and in the buff, I took her in my arms. “I’m not like any other asshole you might have been with before. I don’t turn tail when things get tough. Who else would have let the entire city peek at his junk, just so he could hold you?”
That barely got a weak smile.
“Seriously.” I kissed her head and brought her in close. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I don’t know what it was that woke me later that night. Maybe it was the absence of something. When I sat up and looked at Emmy, her eyes were open. Staring, but not at me. She lay in the fetal position, stiff to the touch.
“Emmy?” I shook her gently. She didn’t respond. It was like pushing against stone, and I’d touched enough dead bodies to know what rigor mortis felt like.
She must have gotten into the pill box I kept in the kitchenette. Pain killers for clients who couldn’t deal with the pain of surgery. She’d overdosed and I hadn’t heard a thing. Damn it, Emmy. I never thought she would do something like this. Why didn’t she let me help? Why didn’t she let me fix it?
You can’t fix everything, she’d once told me.
Tears stinging my eyes, I bolted onto my knees and checked her for a pulse. It was weak but present. Her chest didn’t rise, but when I put my ear to her nose a slow exhale blew warm. She was alive but… petrified.
“Talk to me, Emmy.”
I scooped her into my arms and carried her to a chair, kicking off a box of hyperlink eyeballs. She remained stiff, frozen in the same position. It was like carrying a piece of cold metal. I sat her up—or tried to. She fell to the side and I had to catch her.
This wasn’t an overdose. Nothing in my pill box would have turned Emmy’s muscles to stone.
I suffered a moment of weakness, thought about calling the medics—no. I loved Emmy, but I couldn’t be any help to her if the cops also came along and found all the black market augments in my place.
But there was someone I could call.
Emmy wasn’t in any shape to sit in that chair, so I put her back in bed and covered her with a sheet.
“Darren, m’boy!” Elmer Rickshaw’s green hologram filled my field of vision within the VR phone helmet. He wore glasses with frosted lenses I could never see his eyes through and the part in his hair implant looked like it might have been combed with a razor.
“I’m in trouble, Elmer.”
“Then why the hell are you calling me? Get off the line before you drag me into it.”
“It’s not like that. My girlfriend, she’s frozen or something. Breathing, pulse, everything is normal except that she’s turned into a damned mannequin.”
Elmer tucked in his lips, thinking. “Where’d you meet this girl?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Do you want my help or not?”
I reached up to rub my face but my hand struck the phone helmet. “A few months ago. It was a… VR mixer or something. For singles.”
“Didn’t think you were the type to get involved with something like that.”
“It’s legit. More than anything else I’ve got my hand in. Emmy, that’s her name. Works at a cryo clinic. She’s got this implant on the back of her neck, too, but I never—”
“She get blue?”
I shook my head even though I knew he wouldn’t be able to see it. “No, she’s breathing just fine. There’s no sign of cyanosis.”
“No, dummy. I meant, does she get depressed?”
“Oh. Well, yeah, sometimes. She was really sad before we went to sleep.”
“She’ll be back to normal. I don’t know when. Might not be today. Tomorrow? No telling, kid.”
“So, you know what’s going on?”
“Nope. And that’s the story I’m sticking to. Brain augments are a special area of illegal. Cops find out you didn’t report a neuro job, whatever they’d do to you for your surgeries would seem like a walk in the park. Listen, your girlfriend will be just fine while you go handle our business—you got that maintenance appointment with Jumpy Legs later today?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Jumpy Legs” was a woman named Marley Sandalwood who’d had me install new legs with hydraulic propulsion. Apparently, she’d always wanted to leap twenty feet into the air. But they’d been giving her problems, leaking hydraulic fluid. I had to go fix them to keep my good name intact. People who used the black market might be breaking the law, but that didn’t mean they expected shoddy service.
“And some advice, kid?” Elmer said.
“Act like this never happened.”
When I got home from fixing Marley Sandalwood’s legs, Emmy sat in the chair in which I’d previously failed to keep her rigid body.
“Hey, babe,” she said.
“Hey. Are you okay?”
She lowered her head. “You saw.”
I could have lied, listened to Elmer’s advice and just pretended none of it had happened. But although I might have lied to my suppliers, my clients—hell, even Elmer sometimes—I couldn’t lie to Emmy.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “That implant on the back of your neck. Is that what made your body go stiff? I’ve never seen anything like that.”
She tossed me a device and then a small pod. “Sit down.”
I looked into my hands and saw it was an insta-coffee mug and the pod was a Colombian roast. I plugged in the pod and let the coffee brew in my hands. Sitting in front of her with my legs crossed, I took a sip through the insta-mug’s straw.
“Couple of Christmases ago,” she said. “Me and my family show up to my father’s loft to surprise him. Our relationship had been pretty shaky for years, but I wanted to change things. I remember walking through his door holding a whole stack of presents I’d wrapped terribly. Nothing expensive. Just some shirts and a used VR phone, so he could talk to us. Instead, we found him… I found…”
She took a deep breath and looked toward the window, as if she wanted to jump out and soar into the never-ending lights.
“You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to,” I said.
“No,” Emmy said. “You have to know. I just have to stay calm enough to stay… here. Present. Sometimes it’s like I’m reliving it all over again. Anyway, my dad, he’d gone out and bought himself a Christmas gift the day before. A laser pistol from some back alley. Tiny gun. Cops called it a JI something.”
A JI-349. Sneaky little bastard with a punch. You’d never see it coming if a supplier decided he’d rather take your money and keep his augments.
Emmy gave a small laugh. “I was a little late on the reconciliation, huh? It was me who found him. I kept telling my husband to keep our son out of the room so he wouldn’t see. Would have ruined him. It’s bad enough I still see it when I close my eyes. Well, until I got this.” She tapped the back of her neck.
“Holy shit,” was all I could say, until it clicked that she had a kid and a husband. “You’re married?”
“Was. I got to where I wouldn’t leave the bed. Doctors diagnosed it as PTSD, but it always feels more than just four blocky letters bunched together. More than the “D word.” It’s like this entity that gets into me. Possession, if I believed in that sort of thing. My ex couldn’t cope. Divorced me and got custody of our son. Ethan. That’s his name. Was his name. I don’t know where they are.”
“Don’t be. Like I’ve told you before, everyone leaves.”
“I’m not going—”
“When I lost everybody I started taking anything I could get my hands on to break free, to feel anything close to normal. Prescriptions at first, then when they weren’t doing the trick, I tried stuff the conglomerates don’t look very kindly on. Same story there. I confessed to another cryo aid that I was considering suicide. I don’t know why I told her. She isn’t a friend. ‘I know a guy,’ she told me. Said he might have something to help.”
“The implant,” I said.
Emmy nodded. “He said he could make it to where I didn’t have to experience the depression when it hit. When the implant senses it coming on, it shuts down everything besides basic life functions, slowly reworks my brain chemistry until I come out of it.”
I was no one to judge black market dealings, but the thought of Emmy having to go to some grubby-handed butcher who promised a cure really twisted my guts. It wasn’t helping the problem, it was only burying it. A fast-forward button whenever things got rough. I wanted to cry, to scream at her. But that was stupid. She was just trying to find some peace. Still, I wanted to wring the guy’s neck.
“That’s no way to live,” I said.
“At least it’s living. You wouldn’t know what it’s like. Your life is so perfect.”
I looked around at the veritable junkyard my apartment had become since I’d dropped out of medical school. Yeah, I was living the dream all right.
“One of my clients,” I said. “Her new eye wasn’t taking. It happens sometimes. The body rejects it, no matter how many drugs you push. I offered to put the old one back, free of charge. Elm—my partner keeps them on ice for a month after, just in case. She didn’t want that. She wanted her new eye. I never found out why it was so important to her. I’d check in on her from time to time, trying to convince her to let me put her back the way she was. She’d just cry. Tears from one eye, blood from the other. She jumped from the top of the neon cowboy off Morgan Street.”
I thought of that client before every surgery, wondering if I’d fail again. Not in my augmenting skills, but in making someone feel that they deserved to live. I might not have finished my medical degree, but I took the Hippocratic Oath seriously.
Placing a hand on Emmy’s thigh, I said, “I’m not going to pretend I know what it’s like, but I want you here with me. Even when it’s bad, I want to be the one to hold you. I want you to know I’m holding you.”
“Sometimes I’m aware when the implant kicks in. It’s not a conscious thing, just shapes moving around. Other times I relive that moment when I saw my dad’s body. A nightmare on repeat. Bloody walls closing in on me.”
She swallowed as if straining anything more from getting out. It was visible in her wincing face, a constant struggle to keep the beasts tucked into the back of her mind, where only their shadows might flicker across her thoughts every so often. It had to be hell.
“The good times are when I don’t know anything happened, a blackout. I just wake up and go about my life. Although the cryo clinic has written me up a few times for being late or not showing up at all. It’s not like I can tell them.”
My coffee had gone cold, so I threw it toward the kitchenette.
“Who did the surgery?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It does to me. I want to know if this guy is a quack. You could have brain damage.”
Under low lids, she rolled her eyes, as if she was telling me a pointing finger came with four more pointing the other way. “His name was Birchum. I met him at the arcade on Gibson Avenue. Does that satisfy you?”
I grabbed my goggles and coat as I headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” Emmy asked, following me.
“To talk to this Birchum. We’re going to get that implant out of you.”
“You can’t.” Emmy grabbed my arm, but didn’t pull. “Just leave it alone, Darren. It’s not your decision. Just… stay here with me. Like you said you wanted.”
Strapping on my goggles, I sighed. “You’re one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. The shit you went through. Brain surgery, even. But you don’t need that implant. We can work together to make you better.”
She let go of my arm, and instead of feeling relieved, I felt rejected.
“It’s never going away,” she said. “It’s a part of me. So, either you love all of me, or you don’t.”
“You haven’t even said if you love me, too.”
Emmy turned her back on me and I was out the door. As far as I know, she was still standing in that position when I hit the street.
A group of zurgheads gathered around one of their own, watching as he shot lasers at a holographic monster stomping through the digital city in front of him. A woman among them pulled a zurg cartridge from her leather pants pocket and plugged it into the slot grafted on her right forearm. When the drug had done its job, the cartridge ejected itself and fell to the floor with the rest of the expended.
The guy at the door said I could find Birchum playing Galaga in the back. Someone was back there punching buttons, but he didn’t look like any kind of augment surgeon I’d ever met. He was a foot taller than me and wore a dirty tank top that showed off pale arms packed with large but flabby muscle. His bald head was covered with scabs.
“You Birchum?” I leaned against the next game over.
His eyes never left the screen. “Not now, I’m almost there.”
“You install an implant on a woman? Something that turns her stone-still when she gets depressed?”
His fingers hit the buttons and wiggled the joystick. My presence had completely vanished from his radar.
I reached behind Galaga and ripped the cord from the wall.
“What the fuck!” Birchum turned to me, huffing through his nostrils.
“I asked you a question.”
“I almost got the high score,” his voice jumped to soprano. “I should kick your ass.”
“I just want to talk.”
He stepped forward. “I know nothing. You must be some kind of stupid, coming in here accusing me of doing a neuro job. Do I look like a night surgeon to you? I’m a law-abiding citizen. Got that? Now, get outta here before this conversation turns into Mike Tyson’s Punch Out.”
I removed my laser pistol, a Dretzle 99, not as compact as the JI-349, but it fit in my coat okay. The zurgheads a few games down watched, eager to see if I would defeat this new monster attacking the city.
“Jesus, man.” Birchum raised his arms, keeping them tight to his body. “I was just angry. No need to shoot someone over a game.”
A sudden wave of embarrassment hit me, but I kept the gun where it was. “This is important.”
“Well, let’s talk it out. I’ll buy you a soda.” His eyes gestured toward the fountain bar.
I sighed and returned the gun to my coat pocket. “I’m not thirsty.”
When Birchum finished topping off his drink, he took a seat at one of the tall tables by the window. I remained standing.
“Yeah, I remember her,” he said. “This was like, a little less than a year ago. But what do you care?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but closed it to consider the question.
“She’s your girl,” he said, nodding as he sipped his straw. “That’s what this is about. When the implant kicks in, you’re left with a human paper weight. I understand, man.”
“No, you don’t. You can’t go messing around with someone’s brain. Arms and legs are one thing. But this… how do I remove it?”
Birchum spit his drink at me, laughing. “You can’t. Not without killing her. Sorry to give you the bad news, champ, but maybe you should cut your losses and get another girlfriend.”
“I don’t work like that.”
Birchum held his empty palms up. “Then deal with it. Those are your only two options.”
“There’s got to be something I can do.”
I’d said it more to myself, but Birchum hummed as if I’d given him something to chew on.
“There might be something.” Birchum slurped his drink until it made that annoying burbling sound. “Depending on how much you really care about her.”
I told Emmy I’d be gone for the next two days, but made it up to her with a nice dinner and a magic show. We walked home that night, talking and laughing, kissing. Fusion City’s lights didn’t even bother my eyes. It was the best night we’d spent together since we first met.
“I want to say it,” she said. “I’m just scared.”
“I love you. That’s why I tell you. Not to get some automatic response. You don’t have to say it. I feel it.”
She hugged me and in my ear whispered, “I don’t deserve this.”
What she didn’t deserve was bottomless pit swallowing her and preventing her from being loved. I didn’t say that, though. I wanted to keep the night’s vibe as bright as the corporate greed surrounding us. I’d be fixing it soon anyway, the only way I knew how.
Two days later, I came home and found her on the floor, stiff and staring. A note lay beside her that she’d written with deep purple lipstick. It simply read, “I love you, too.”
I carried her to the bed and came back with the double-ended cord Birchum had given me. After I undressed, I got under the sheets and cuddled close against Emmy’s back.
“I don’t know if you can hear me,” I said, “but I’m doing this because I love you.”
The cord plugged easily into her implant like Birchum had said, and was just long enough to reach the back of my neck. Two days earlier, I had him install the same device in me, giving him extra cash for pulling a gun on him. Unlike Emmy’s, though, my implant would only engage if both of us were linked and Emmy was in the catatonic state.
As I plugged in, I wondered if I’d be aware, awake but immovable until Emmy came up from the darkness. How long would it be until I could look in her eyes and see her there, looking back?
“You’ll feel everything she feels,” Birchum had told me. “It’ll be like it’s happening to you. Whatever it is. Are you prepared for that?”
I thought of the bleeding walls closing in. The pain I would feel seeing her father dead as if it was my own father—if I’d loved mine as much as Emmy loved hers.
“She’s worth it,” I’d told Birchum.
Either way, we were together, and at the end of the blinding night that’s all that really mattered.