The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 2: When the Air Breaks

Sigh.

The loudest sigh I can ever give.

It’s a bit of a hyperbole, saying that it’s the “loudest sigh.”

Seems like only yesterday when I was sitting at my desk at work, eyes stuck like magnets to the cl—

Wait, I said all of this yesterday.

My God, I’m already starting to repeat myself. Someone come put me out of my misery before I begin completely recycling all my jokes. The day Morgan Harding runs out of good sarcastic quips is the day Morgan Harding perishes from this Earth. Please, dear reader, make sure you put them behind the shed before it gets to that point.

Anyway, today’s not as bad as the past few days. Yeah, I’m still sitting at the front desk at the Atlanta Cares bank and running a meaningless existence, but at least there’s some actual customers today.

For instance, I flirted with this girl Jen for like half an hour while we waited for a report to print out. After a month without a single flirt to be had on account of Karina’s absence, it was good to keep me on my toes and hone that fine sword that is my ladykiller skills. I even got her number. Or, the bank got her number, and I typed it down. But that technically counts. I’m going to count it.

Then an older woman came in sniffing around real suspiciously, like she was canvassing the place. I got to throw her off her (possible) game and made some nice small talk that was of that special innocuous-but-secretly-hinting-I-know-she’s-suspicious type. Also I have no idea if she even picked up on it. We may be robbed soon.

Then I helped a different older woman open a super saver account and even gave her a free toaster. Her young nephew was with her, about my age, and I felt really proud about it. That’s not normally my realm of expertise, but when we’re short staffed (as we have been for the entire year), sometimes I have to help out in those ways.

Now that there’s nobody here again, though, Mr. Larkins takes his chance and begins assaulting my senses with his harsh voice.

“Harding! You hear about this Dial-Up Demon crap?” he asks.

I groan internally. “No, sir, I haven’t heard anything about it other than some news report.”

“Ah!” His eyes light up like he’s snared a fish on his line. “Then you gotta take a load of this.”

“Of… what…?”

He plops down an honest-to-goodness battery-powered radio set down on the counter and pulls out its foot-long antenna. “The Dial-Up Demon.”

He turns the power on and I immediately hear a deep, crackly voice cackling through the static of the FM radio station.

“Hoo boy, have I got a real one for you next,” the voice says in a sneering tone. “DJ Demon’s popping off an old 1988 classic, called Rise of the Machines by Lady Coppola. I’d say enjoy, but… It’s a pretty crappy song, I gotta admit!”

The music starts playing and the laughing continues over it. It is indeed a pretty crappy song. Butt rock of the highest caliber.

Larkins looks at me with a devious grin. “He’s the hot new thing. The big new criminal who’s wreaking havoc on Atlanta.”

“So like, the Great Value brand Social Media Killer.”

“No! This guy’s way more appealing,” he says. “He’s hijacking radio stations at random and playing his own stuff. He’s driving the media crazy and he’s just making everything fun.”

The voice on the radio laughs again as the song ends. “And that’s enough for Lady Coppola. I just wanna say thank you to all my lovely supporters, especially those of y’all who’ve sent over generous donations. The First Bank of Georgia, you are my big old number one patron! And I’ll celebrate with a little song I like to call… twenty-four karat magic. I’m talking gold, baby!”

The song that plays is some obnoxious pop tune I’ve never heard of, one designed for a surround sound system, not a mono-speaker little tin radio.

“So what you’re saying is, this guy is specifically targeting banks,” I say. “And you’re excited about that.”

“Ain’t it a nice change of pace?”

“I don’t reckon it is,” I say. “I would very much prefer not to be robbed by a techno-maniac or whatever.”

“And the best part,” Larkins tells me, “is that nobody’s even seen him do it. There’s like a wave of static, then some weird stuff happens, then—BAM, money’s gone. A master thief.”

“Huh…”

“And we could be next!”

“And that’s… a good thing to exclaim???”

Gheb folds his arms together. “No, it’s terrible. But it’d get a hell of a lot of publicity if he showed up and then we beat his ass and captured him! Plus, the money’s insured anyway.”

“We don’t even have that much money…”

“I take it you’re up for whooping an evil villain? I sure am. No matter who he is, I’m gonna take him down.”

I ignore his statements completely. “You know, I did see someone suspicious earlier today,” I say. “An old woman in a suit who looked like she was canvassing the office for a robbery or something. We don’t even keep much money here though, so I’m not sure what the point is.”

“Oh, her?” Larkins laughs. “That was one of those, what do you call’em, secret shoppers. Testing the place out for some business bureau report.”

“Oh, and I harassed her. I wonder what kind of score we got…”

“I’m thinking you’re just fine,” he says. “Those guys are such pushov—”

A faint, almost invisible humming sound that permeates every room in the office suddenly halts.

Larkins is shaken to his core. “…Huh?”

“I think that was… the A/C,” I say.

“The A/C.”

“Like, it turned off, I think.”

“Wh-what’s going to happen?” he shudders.

“I don’t know, sir. I don’t know.”

What happens is that the poorly insulated skyscraper becomes a hothouse, and the Atlanta Cares bank becomes ground zero for a brand-new, localized heat wave.

What happens is that this place gets way too friggin’ hot.

Thirty minutes in, we collectively give up.

***

If I were a salaried employee, I’d probably be cheering right now. I’m hourly, and yet I’m still kinda cheering about it, to be honest.

Air conditioning on the entire floor of Peach Towers malfunctioned and turned off completely. People were sent in to fix it but they found out that the cooling systems had literally frozen over due to overuse these past few weeks. It’ll take hours or more to get things back up and running.

And so the bank is closed for the rest of the day.

That leaves me here, outside the building, now completely free with no plans whatsoever.

The sun’s shining high, the day is young, and my dashing good looks are a consistent source of success in my life.

Also, it’s friggin’ hot out here.

I don’t have any errands to run that I can think of… so I just start wandering through the city.

Can’t get lost if you have nowhere to go.

So I just kind of walk around. I gaze at the beautiful greenery in the micro-parks that dot nearly every city block. I peer deeply into the bright colors and twisting designs of the graffiti plastered up on every brick wall I pass. I stop and watch an auto-conbini drive up and stop on the curb and then a dozen people pour in to buy snacks and drinks and magazines.

It’s this flavor of Atlanta in the day that I wouldn’t give up for the world. I can’t imagine any other city would have the right mixture of trees and plants, of rust and property damage, of high-tech stuff aged by a decade. It’s old and it’s odd, but it’s all beautiful in a way I can’t really describe.

Maybe… it’s lived-in? It doesn’t feel like it’s some sanitized pretty playplace for architects and urban planners and the gentry who inhabit the condos within. It feels like a real place where people live their everyday lives. Except for Buckhead, I guess, Atlanta really feels like the “realest” city in the world.

But I’ve only ever lived in one city my whole life, so maybe I just don’t know enough yet.

Either way, I need to beat the heat. I can’t deal with this wretched weather just beating down on me at all times. I’m already so tan people on the street start speaking Spanish to me (please don’t do this—I don’t know Spanish and I hate people talking to me on the street).

I’ve already walked out all the way to around the Innovation District, which means there’s plenty of cafes and Yum Marts for me to dig around in, but for some reasons, my legs take me to a completely different place.

It’s been a while since I’ve been here… So I think I’ll pop in and say hi, just to be nice.

A familiar jingling of microchips as the door opens—

and here’s Chuck’s Tech Emporium.

…And it’s packed with people! Holy crap!

This modest store is filled beyond capacity with customers, and Chuck Araragi himself is dashing about between different areas of the store to talk to people, haggle with them, and check them out.

He notices me and his eyes light up (as does that little part of his hair that stands up). “Morgan!” he shouts.

“Hey, Chuck…”

“Help me! Man the register!”

I have no idea what’s going on, but I race into the fray with zero hesitation. Without a single word of complaint, I run over to the cash register and begin checking people out.

***

One hour later…

Chuck holds himself against an empty table, pantomiming the panting of someone who just sprinted a mile. “Whew,” he says. “You really saved my neck, Morgan.”

I’m feeling a little winded myself. “What was all that?”

“I don’t even know,” he tells me. He looks up and shows me a crooked smile. “That’s the beauty of a used tech store. You just never know when the etherflows of fate will cross in such a way that dozens of customers will waltz right in at the same time. Real strange, ain’t it?”

“Uh, I guess so.”

“Did I tell you about the time I sold out my entire store’s inventory by accident?” he asks.

“No, you didn’t. What the hell happened there?”

“Uh, it’s a long story,” he says. “You don’t wanna hear it.”

Wait, even Chuck thinks it’s a long story? Now this I want to hear. Well, not really, but I’m curious that he isn’t already blabbing about it like usual.

“So anyway, thank you so much,” Chuck says. “I’d still be running around if it weren’t for you. So I want to give you some kind of reward for helping me out.”

“A reward? No, I don’t need anything. Don’t worry about it.”

He ignores me. “Let’s say… One item from this store. Take it and it’s yours.”

“Wait, really? What items?”

“Anything,” he says. “I’m always needing to clean up around here after all. So if you take it, it’ll help me more than it’ll help you, I think.”

He might be right. The unsorted piles of junk have risen considerably since the last time I visited his shop. But… anything? Surely some of this stuff is worth a whole lot more money than a single hour’s work.

It’s a bit intimidating to look at everything.

“Uh, okay,” I say.

I look around and see what I might want. There’s entire complete computers here, though they’re so old and beat up that they’re probably not worth looking at anyway. There’s a discarded Power Glove, some mysterious pens with a single button, a longbox full of tattered comic books, a helmet from some Japanese special effects show, a big bundle of microchips…

A whole store full of junk. Heaps and heaps of stuff, and none of it attracts me at all.

I’m sure some of this is worth hundreds of dollars, but I’d have to go to the effort of selling it myself if I just wanted the cash. With my last experience with Bidbay, I doubt I would find it very fun to try online selling out…

So I keep looking for something that might actually appeal to me myself. Huh… This is way tougher than I thought. Despite being a cybernetically enhanced superhero, I seem to know nothing about technology. How can I know what sound card is good when I don’t actually know what a sound card is?

Then I see a glass case nestled by a wall near the cash register and peer into it.

There’s… video games here. Super Nintendo games, in fact. A bunch of them I’ve never seen before in person, and some I’ve never even heard of. One of them boasts a samurai woman on the cover art, looking serene as she holds her sword at her side and focuses on something offscreen. I don’t know why this tiny little label on a cartridge is drawing me in like this, but…

I can’t even read the title of the game, since it’s in Japanese. 「君のわからない伝説」, whatever that says. I like the little squiggly guy in the first letter.

Chuck notices me staring at the game. “Oh, you want that? That’s a pretty rare game, you know.”

“What is it?” I ask.

“It’s called Kimi no Wakaranai Densetsu, an old classic of an adventure game. It never came to the West, but it was pretty famous in the Eastern Union. Never got a sequel or anything, though.” Before I can ask what it’s about, he begins his spiel. “It’s the story of a blossoming teenage girl who’s cursed with immortality and becomes bound to protect her clan with the passing generations. So even though she can’t age and she can’t have children, she has a family to protect over many centuries. And so it goes through real life history from the Edo Period in Japan all the way through the Meiji Era and World War II and then ends after the formation of the Eastern Union. She fights supernatural monsters and real humans, but grows increasingly disconnected to her family as each generation goes on, and becomes a metaphor for the way modernity affects tradition and culture. Also, it’s a good hack ‘n slash action game.”

“That sounds… A little difficult for me to follow if I don’t know how to read the text in the game.”

“Oh, it’s fully voice acted!” he exclaims. “They used that fancy Ultra FX chip, so it was the first game to have voice acting for all cutscenes.”

“That doesn’t… help…”

“Don’t worry, though. You’ll have a lot of fun playing the game even without following the story that closely. Trust me, the language barrier is not an issue. Plus, it’s co-op!”

“Co-op. Huh. Maybe I could invite a friend over and try it out.”

“Sounds like a plan!” Chuck smiles and begins unlocking the glass case. “You sure this is what you want for your reward?”

“Eh, why not? It might be fun.”

As long as I can find a friend to play with, it’ll be great. I just… have to find a friend, is all.

I get out my cellular and start tapping through my contacts list.

Lamar… is a no. He’s out for a week for some youth group thing with his church.

Mr. Larkins, no.

Marge… ew.

Kevin O’Conner… Double ew.

I don’t have R8PR’s number, and I don’t think it’d be fun to play with him anyway.

Chuck here… uh, I guess he’s busy or something, or he’d probably have offered.

I’m not enough of a creep to actually call that Jen girl’s number even if she did give it to me with a little heart on the slip of paper.

So… Who am I going to ask?

Why do I have so few friends?

The only option I can think of, the only conceivable person who is sure to be free…

***

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.

…is her.

I open the door. She knocks a couple more times anyway.

KNOCK KNOCK.

“Hey, Amy,” I say to the short teenage girl standing at my doorway.

“What’s up? How’s it hanging? Can’t wait to play some damn games!”

The only expression I can make on my face right now is disdainful regret.

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4 comments

    1. Chuck is the used tech salesman from way back in Trials of the Cybermancer! He only appeared there and in that really long CYOA game so it’s been a while lol

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