I wake up in the throws of a blinding narcotic hangover, and it takes everything I have not to throw up all the nothing in my stomach. Stupid.  Should have known to halve my dosage, what with all the blood loss—but hindsight is twenty-twenty.

Starving. Unsure of what my insides can handle, I consider Bright's lectures on the virtues of the meal replacement capsules— but at the moment I could care less about guaranteed levels of nutrients and efficient uses of time. I shuffle out to the kitchen, start making coffee on autopilot, working myself back from the edge of sickness through repetition and routine.

I manage to choke down a miserable breakfast of synthetic eggs and flavorless toast. Water. Lots of water. An hour later I'm sprawled on the couch, still feeling awful. With nothing to occupy it, my mind wanders back through the last twenty-four hours, fixating on the uncomfortable gaps in memory, running over them repeatedly, like a scab I can't stop picking at. 

I hate blackouts. Rotten holes in the fabric of time; they all seem to lead to the same cavernous space, that dark uncertain hollow that swallowed up a few decades of my life. It's all there, it's all still there, and sometimes I feel like it's so close I can touch it—

Stop. I sit up, shaking my head, telling myself no. The memories aren't there, they're never coming back. It's too easy to get wrapped up searching for them, and the time it wastes is just more lost time. Move on. Sometimes it's hard to stop obsessing about it.

Sometimes my brain needs a manual interruption.

I manage to wrap my mind around operating my internal systems. A self-diagnostic says my ‘machines are back up to speed. Sighing, I flip through my date book. There's nothing on the schedule.

In the bedroom I sit on the floor, cross-legged, the case of contraband in my lap, and sift through the assortment of vials. Daytime, nighttime. Heavier on synthetic opiates, heavier on hallucinogens. Something for everyone. It's a respectable stash, but a lot of it is holdovers from when I was still figuring out what worked best for me. Funny thing about cultivating a drug habit; it's important to play the field a little before you decide to settle down.

I mix half a dose of the daytime shit (mostly stimulants) with a generous amount of painkillers (a little something to take the edge off), and load it into the syringe. I tie my left arm off, and wait until the vein surfaces reluctantly under the bruised flesh. I make a mental note to give this one a rest until it heals. Shouldn't be more than a day or two, thanks to the 'machines. 

Line the needle up. Take a deep breath. Exhale. A pinch, as the surgical steel stiletto penetrates. Release.

In the muddled rush of the following moments, I pack everything up and tuck the case neatly away, moving on autopilot. Time turns to mush briefly, but nothing is forgotten.  Here, alone, there's nothing to worry about forgetting. My body, my apartment— both are so full of tangible constants that memory is practically a given.

I lay down, waiting for the initial dissociation to pass. Ten minutes later, I’m right as rain. Better than good. I wash the dishes from breakfast by hand, avoiding the weird waterless sanitization machine under the kitchen counter, and then send Bright a notification. I'm pleased that I don't have to struggle too much with the tech. The uppers tend to help. I don't know if I'm really evolutionarily behind— but I'm pretty sure people's brains have gotten a bit faster in five hundred-some years I was out.

“Reilly. You’re up.” She's not impressed. I glance at the clock for the first time today. It's well after noon.

“Yup." I don't bother trying to think to her.  There's something pleasantly grounding in the sound of my own voice, in the physical effort of talking. My anxiety is gone, replaced by curiosity. Bright could help fill in the blanks, I'm sure, but that's not really what I'm interested in any more. "So—about last night—”

“Finally got to see the cleanroom. Was it everything you’d hoped for?”
Her voice is cold and confident, as always, but there's something else there, a coyness. It's a tone I wonder if she uses with anybody else.

“What I remember, yes." The harsh, sterile light, the smooth, cool surface of the tile. Bright incarnate. "I’m sorry I was in such a bad state—”

“You’ve always known how to disappoint."
The words resonate, like a mental slap. I realize I was pacing. I stop. "Don’t worry. I’ve decontaminated everything. It’s like you were never even here.”

Everyone has a dirty secret, and Bright’s no exception. We all hit hard times, we all do things we’re not proud of to get through them. When I met her— how I met her— she was working as an operator on a neurocomm sex line for technophiles and guys who are into robots. Being new to the future I was, shall we say, robo-curious?

Eventually, she got fired for being too dominant, too “kill all humans.” Turns out guys who like robots are mostly creeps, just looking for a programmable thrill. But before she singed off for the last time, I'd given her non-encrypted link number. I’ve been playing gun-for-hire for her ever since.

For the record, I’m not a ‘bot guy.

“If I hadn’t been bleeding everywhere, would you have let me in?” I know the answer but I ask anyway. Maybe I ask because I know the answer.

Her words are sharp, contemptuous. “Of course not.”

But there’s something about condescension that does it for me. I don’t know what I was like before the big freeze. Maybe being shut in my own mind for so long screwed with my sex drive. Maybe I was always like this. I don’t really think too hard about it.

"There aren't enough decontamination cycles in the world for you, Reilly. Besides, I don't know what the point would be in letting you inside. I have everything I need here already."

Damn. She knows exactly what she's doing to me. Bright has an impressive way of reading people on her own, but in my case she has admin privileges on all of my systems. She could look right at my autonomic responses if she wanted. I close my eyes for a minute, and take a deep breath.

"Was there something you wanted? You know how busy I am." She's giving me a choice. And yeah, there's something I want, but its just as good to have her cut me off like this. Like I'm not worth the time.

I pause to collect my wits. "Uh, yeah." I think back, and there hadn't really been a point, other than I was feeling a little chatty. The drugs do have their drawbacks. "Wanna talk shop?"

It's not the answer she was expecting. I feel the briefest flicker of surprise and skepticism over the neurocomm link. Still, she shifts tracks with brutal efficiency, and she's back to being all business. “How high are you right now?”

I frown. “What makes you think I’m on drugs?”

“One: you’re in a good mood. Two: I don’t have you running a job today. Three: It’s you. Do I have to scan your vitals and send them back to you?”



I think about my answer. “Very. And I think I’ll probably stay this way for, oh, two or three days—given the brush with mortality—”

“You don’t honestly expect me to believe you’re all shaken up about almost dying—nice try though.  Excellent excuse.  You have one day. You stumbled onto something big, and I want you to follow up ASAP.”

“Seriously? I’d chalked that up as a botched job.”  I wasn’t even expecting to get paid.

“It was. But I took a look at that slug Tosh pulled out of you—oh hell, I’ll just brief you now. Hit record.”

“I’m fine. I’m listening,” I say, as I lay back on the bed, fiddling with a bit of paper I’d picked up somewhere. There isn't much in the way of decoration in my place, save some odds and ends that almost qualify as archeological relics— some books I've never read, sheets of lined paper in a neat stack, a few CDs from bands I think I hated. There's no way to find out now.

“Reilly. Hit record.”

I do what she says, and like always, it’s for the best. She starts going on about technical crap. Something about algorithms and viruses. I can tell it’s all very exciting to her.  She’s broadcasting at a mile a minute.

“Bright, seriously. Dumb it down. All this machinespeak is giving me a headache.” I stifle a yawn.

“You couldn’t get a headache right now if you tried.”

It’s probably true. “Just tell me what you need me to do.”

“Now that I know how these bullets work, I can develop a countermeasure for you—so if you get shot again I won’t have to call Tosh to save your ass. But I need to know where these things are coming from, if they’re being mass produced, and if whoever is making them has any other little projects going on.”

“Sounds good. Where do I start?”

“Back in the lower city. I’d like you to try to have a word with the guy who shot you.”

I grin.  “I’d like to ‘have a word’ with him myself.”

It’s not a nice grin.

The End

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