The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 3: A List of Topics Not to Bring Up in Polite Conversation

“You could have at least brought a little pizza,” I say.

“I am a homeless teenager! I ain’t spending a dime on you,” Amy replies.

“Oh, fine, I’ll make a damn meal.”

I get up from the sofa and let Amy take over the game.

Right now, we’re playing Kimi no Wakaranai Densetsu, an old Super Nintendo game that Chuck gave me as a gift this afternoon. It’s entirely in Japanese and so we’re trying at the moment just to figure out how to start a new file, since all three save slots were already filled up when we turned it on. There is supposedly a co-op mode, but we certainly can’t figure it out right now.

“I feel like you invited me over just to gloat about your new expensive game,” Amy says. “You wanted revenge for how nice I’ve always been to you, so you want to make me hate you even more than I already do.”

I glare at her from behind the kitchen counter. “I’ll make steak if you lay off the insult barrage thing.”

“I’ll be a good girl,” she says.

Nothing like good old fashioned steak to shut people up. And it just so happens I got a couple I was thawing out in the fridge for later.

I think I’ll cook a batch of frozen french fries to go along with the steaks. I have no idea if those two are traditionally paired together anywhere in the world, but in House Harding, they most certainly are.

As I’m getting all the food out and ready to cook, I hear a weird ding sound from the TV. “I think I started a new file!” Amy shouts. I hear some low-quality audio samples of voice acting start to play, which lets me know that the game really has finally started.

“Good! Tell me what happens, if you can understand any of it.”

“There’s a house,” she says. “And scrolling text. And a deep voice person saying things. And the camera goes down. And—”

“Not everything! Only important things!”

If only Karina were here, she could actually translate this game for us in real-time and let us know what the hell is going on.

But she’s not, so we might as well have fun where we can.

I got everything ready and cooking now, so I return to the sofa and sit down next to Amy. She immediately scoots away from me. Even when she’s not saying anything mean, she’s still hurtful…

A long cutscene is playing, with retro video game sprite characters saying text that we can’t read, voiced in a language we can’t understand. Not quite a fun game yet.

“This reminds me, who did you vote for in the mayoral primaries?” Amy asks.

“Whoa now,” I tell her. “There are three topics you are not supposed to bring up in a polite conversation, and politics is one of them.”

She narrows her eyes. “You didn’t even vote, did you?”

“I’m not a member of any party. I can’t vote in any of the primaries that way. I’ll vote in the real one, don’t worry.”

“And who’re you gonna pick, then? I bet it’s the Values Party. You look like a Values kinda person.”

“Hey! You and I both know that’s not funny,” I say. “I’m not voting for a party that denies I’m even a damn person.”

“It’s just a joke, geez.” She rolls her eyes in such an exaggerated fashion that I’m worried she’s actually injured herself.

“Let’s just play the game.”

…The opening cutscene is still going.

You may be laughing at our predicament right now. I would give my middle finger to you, but then you would stop reading, so I will instead be perfectly polite and be the bigger person.

“I’m way in for the Green Party, myself,” Amy says. “I can’t vote yet, but I know they know what’s up. You know what I’m trying to say?”

“I do not.”

“They’re the only ones who care about global warming more than some token thing. You know how much of the forests out West got destroyed because of the war? A ton. Atlanta’s gonna be underwater in a few hundred years if things keep up the way they are.”

“Then that one dream I had may finally come true…”

“Dream?”

“Nothing. I think the Green Party is kinda cool, but they never win anything and their candidates are always a joke. It’s pointless to think about them.”

“That’s the words of a true Labor shill.”

“I never said I was a Labor supporter,” I say. “Aisha Baker’s kinda hot I guess, but I don’t really like her as a politician. I’m more on the lines of…”

“Nathan Nguyen? The asshole who wants to give a robot to every household? What the hell is that gonna solve. I don’t even have a home, so what good’s a robot gonna do?”

“No, but Karina really likes that guy.”

“That bitch?”

“You’re baiting me.”

“Yes, I am. So what?

I ignore her. “I was gonna say Hope Winters might be a good pick for mayor. I actually met her in person once. Really nice gal. Something about her…”

“You vote with your dick, Harding,” she says, making a voice like she’s imitating Mr. Larkins or something. Does she even know him?

“I do not vote with my—Also, don’t insinuate about my genitals or what I do with them. That’s really weird.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to… Nah, just kidding, I totally did. I don’t know why you’re so uppity about all that type of stuff. You should be like me, Amy Hawthorne, a proud pansexual trans woman who’s got the whole world ahead of her.”

“You certainly probably have the ambition that a healthy young fourteen year old should have.”

“Fifteen,” she says. “My birthday was like last week.”

“…Oh. You didn’t even tell me…”

“Who cares about birthdays?” she asks. “They suck anyway, especially when your family isn’t even around to celebrate it.”

“Oh, yeah, that…”

The game finally starts, and Amy, who has the controller, is able to move the main character around in a top-down grid like in an RPG or a Zelda game or something. She proceeds to interact with every object and talk to every NPC in the vicinity. It’s quite aggravating to watch, but with her in control, there is little I can do but flail my arms trying to get her to pass it to me. She does not.

“Just kidding,” she says. “The Holos threw me a huge party for my birthday. We went down into the subway underground and tore apart a storage facility. All the cleaning supplies were just blown up by the end of that.”

“And that’s your real family, so I guess that’s what matters.”

“No, you’re my real family, Morgan,” she says as she begins the first enemy encounter in the game.

“Aw. Except I assume you’re going to follow it up w—”

“You’re like a cute older sibling who is too much of a helpless moron to function alone and needs me there as protection from failing at every turn.”

“But I’m cute.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You literally just did…”

“Slip of the tongue.”

“Was not!”

“Yeah, it wasn’t. You really are cute. In that moronic kind of way.”

“You’re just so rude, Amy! Who taught you your manners?!”

“I learned it from you, Dad.”

“This is going nowhere. And also you’re doing really bad at the battle. Pass me the controller.”

“Give me steak and I’ll give it over.”

“The steaks won’t be done for like, twenty minutes.”

She shrugs. “No food, no game.”

I sigh and let her continue to play. She dies several times in these opening minutes of gameplay, and it is a miracle that a retro game like this would have skippable cutscenes so we don’t have to watch all that incomprehensible Japanese all over again.

So far, the game really does seem like any other generic action RPG game from the early two thousands, only with swordplay that is a grade above its peers. The samurai woman strikes her foes with great 16-bit precision.

And, uh, it’s kinda cool I guess. It certainly isn’t the most remarkable game in the world, I will admit. Maybe the story is what sets it apart, but… Obviously, that’s not helping me or Amy right now.

Amy dies again and swears.

“Why don’t you give me a turn?”

“No! I’ll beat this!”

“Oh well.” I sit back in my seat.

“Hey, Morgan?”

“Yeah?”

“Are you a Christian?” Amy asks.

“Wh… Are you blatantly defying every single form of conversational ettiquite there is? First politics, then sex, now religion?”

“When did we talk about sex? I haven’t even figured out the right jokes to use on you for your strange distaste for men.”

“I only like girls, okay? Sex is pretty complicated and I’m not gonna stop and explain myself to a bratty fifteen year old.”

“And here the truth comes out,” Amy says wistfully. “Poor Morgan, dating only the feminine side of the spectrum. How would you even know if you don’t like men unless you dated one first?”

“I…”

“Sound logic, I know,” she says.

“No comment.”

“Yeah, but are you a Christian?”

“Will you focus on playing this game so we can get to the co-op mode?” I ask. “And no, I’m not religious. My parents never really talked about that stuff at home so I never really thought about it.”

“Well, that’s the first good thing you’ve said all night! Christianity is bunch of bunk, and those Bible-thumping bigots who preach hate and intolerance are the reason I’m on the street today. Every single one of them is a bastard.”

“Lamar is a Christian,” I tell her. “Did you know that?”

“Oh, well if Lamar’s a Christian, then I know that a holy crusade is being waged on that religion to rid itself of the darkness that corrupts it. Lamar may himself be the next great figure to bring goodness into the hearts of billions.”

“Lamar is the next Jesus Christ?”

“I didn’t say that, Morgan Harding. You put words in my mouth, Morgan Harding.”

“Why did I invite you over again?”

“Because you have no friends and your promiscuous Asian FWB is gone.”

“My… what? You know what, nevermind, I don’t want to know. You’re kinda right. I’m… Not really feeling myself that much these days. I don’t know what’s really come over me, but I—”

Ding!

“Steak!” Amy shouts, ignoring everything I had been saying seconds earlier. She drops the controller and dashes into the kitchen area faster than I can even get up from the sofa.

“Careful! It’s going to be very h—”

“Ouch!”

Ugh, Amy…

We get the steaks and fries out and on two separate plates, and let dinner commence in the atmosphere of the Super Nintendo game’s ambient pause music.

“Mmmm. This is really good,” Amy says.

I crack open a beer can and drink it alongside the steak and fries. Yep, this is just about the perfect meal for a slow weekday night. I really like this.

“I’m glad you came here today,” I tell Amy. “It means a lot.”

“Hey now, don’t be getting all sappy on me.”

“Oh…”

“Hey, flip it on the TV. I wanna see if the Dial-Up Demon is still hijacking channel 5.”

“The Dial-Up Demon is doing… what?”

I take the remote and change to the TV setting and going to channel 5, which at this time of evening is supposed to be showing the news, but instead is showing static. Every few seconds or so though, the static morphs a little bit and shows the insignia of the Demon himself.

So he’s upgraded from just radio… Still, all he’s doing is interrupting people who wanted to watch a TV show. It’s not like it’s the Scott Stutzman Show or anything; who cares?

“Why are you interested in this guy?” I ask. “He’s not doing anything special. Just generic criminal stuff with a gimmick, right?”

“He’s robbing banks left and right,” Amy says. “Anyone who helps take down the system is good in my book.”

“The system, like… All of modern-day life?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“Oh, I see.”

“If the status quo leaves kids like me homeless, then I’d rather let everything fall into chaos for a little bit,” she says, without the usual snarkiness in her voice.

“You almost make a valid point.”

“Speaking of,” Amy says the moment she finishes her plate of food. “I gotta get going. Holos want me out to help graffiti some billboards. Wanna join?”

“Uh, no thanks,” I say. “You don’t want to finish the game?”

“Not really, no. It kind of sucks. Like old stuff usually does.”

“It’s not THAT old. You’re just—Amy, do you… have a good place to stay tonight? Are you good for that?”

She glares at me. “I’m not some damsel in distress for you to save. I didn’t ask for your help, so don’t just go offering it.”

“Sorry.”

She gives a small bow out of sarcastic respect, letting her mohawk dip down just a little bit, and then makes her leave from my apartment.

What an adventure it always is talking to Amy. I feel like I learned a lesson here, but I have no idea what it was.

Oh well. It’s still early, but I’m surprisingly tired. I check my e-mails and don’t see anything new from Karina, which is OK, and then I wash the dishes and stand in the silent room for a bit. For yet another night, I go to bed early and keep my thoughts all to myself.

<== PreviousNext ==>

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.

<== PreviousNext ==>

09 – The Dial-Up Demon – Chapter 1: Another Day

Art by hellspawnmotel

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 clock on the wall as it ticked down each second remaining in my shift. Seems like only yesterday that I accomplished about nothing but collating a stack of papers that got knocked on the floor.

Oh wait. It really was yesterday.

And today’s just the same.

It’s all a waste of time, toiling away at a job so simple a robot could (almost) do it. It’s productive to manage customers and organize memos and answer calls, but what is productivity, really? I’m helping a bank get richer, and doing so at a very low wage which I am too embarrassed to disclose. I’m an assistant clerk at a branch office of Atlanta Cares, the seventh-biggest bank in the city—no matter what else I accomplish in life, this is my true place in society.

Perhaps, given enough waiting and mindfulness, someone will come into the office looking for trouble, or maybe has already found it. They’ll waltz right up to me and beg for my help with something truly important. Not an account statement error or a question about opening a super saver account. I mean something like, a spouse who’s run away from home, or a long-lost friend popping up, or some rowdy teens getting into trouble, or some two-bit gangster running a big op… The sort of stuff where solving it actually makes the world a better place.

None of that actually happens, of course. Time passes at precisely one second per tick of the clock, and I have nothing better to do than rest my face on my palms and stare.

I, Morgan Harding, am bored out of my damn mind.

Right now, there are no customers. My coworkers are all jerks, and the A/C hardly cools down the place even at full blast. In the empty lobby where I sit, there’s only the clock, the tiny CRT on mute, and Mr. Larkins pacing around in circles as he mumbles about whatever’s on his mind.

Oh, Mr. Larkins. There’s a reason I’m staring at the wall clock instead of my boss. That’s because making eye contact with him when he’s in one of his moods is something akin to a death sentence for the average slacker. If he sees you, he will pull you in, no doubt about it. For as bored as I am, there is no chance in hell I’m getting involved in whatever get-rich-quick scheme he’s dreaming up.

Other workers at the bank have long since learned not to interact with the manager if they can help it. I’m not so lucky. As the one most often at the reception desk, it’s me who’s right there in plain sight sitting in front of a thin layer of glass and helpless against any overenthusiastic rants.

About this time last week, he talked to me about an article he read about feuding technology manufacturers in the middle of a format war for a new type of compact laserdisc. He talked about this… for two hours. Yes, I was paid to listen to this. No, I do not think it was noticeably better than the papers I had to collate.

Today though, Mr. Larkins’s pacing has taken a new form. It’s transformed slightly from its natural state. It’s taken on a more frenzied, worried pace. His circles are tighter, and he’s wearing out the carpet at an alarming rate.

I’d hate to come off as a decent person, so I decline to ask him if there’s anything wrong.

Instead, I wait until the clock hits that 5 PM mark and I zip on out of here.

***

Thank God for Cool Biz fashion. It’s absolutely sweltering out here this evening. What is it, eighty degrees? Normally I have to wear suits to work like everyone else who hates dresses, but starting in that sweet spot of June 15th, we’re allowed to wear short sleeves, and we can ditch the jacket and tie. Say goodbye to heat stroke, and say hello to merely sweating my butt off.

Thanks to the temperatures lately, the sky rail’s always too full in rush hour to get a seat. So, with a sigh, I walk home straight from Peach Towers.

The streets are crowded with folks doing their evening shopping, or just loitering about waiting for the nightlife to begin. Peach Towers doesn’t close until 10 and even has little craft beer festivals every weekend up on the top floors.

I bump into an overweight woman typing on her portable PC. Her partner turns back and glares at me through their visor before putting their arm around her and moving along.

You know what? That was my first interaction with other human beings outside of work in like, three days. I just realized that.

Another sigh.

This time a month ago, I was really doing something. Donald Blyth wreaking havoc on the city, the search for Jones Burrow heating up, the discovery of some mysterious technological cult… All that really important stuff that actually affected the course of history, maybe.

The greasy smell of a nearby Slappy Burger… No, I can’t. There’s food at home. I put my hands in my pockets and slink down the sidewalk.

Only a month has passed since we discovered the Ascendants and saved the day. And it feels like everything is different now. Peaceful, even though it’s not.

There’s been no big technological mysteries to solve. No political scandals. No heinous villains popping up out of nowhere. Nothing but a heatwave and a dead-end job. R8PR hasn’t even contacted me in a week and a half…

Oh well. I’m going to go home, plop down on the sofa, kick up my legs on the coffee table, and… Uh, I don’t know. The Scott Stutzman Show is off season and I’m not really into Seinfeld Season 23. I guess I could, uh, play a game?

It’s going to be another one of those nights.

***

Shelia makes a great leap and strikes down with her scythe, obliterating most of the enemies around her in an instant. Those remaining have but a sliver of health that does little to prevent them from bursting into digital miss the moment she makes another slice.

Even the miniboss here, a Megatank, goes down in just a few hits. Shelia is just too strong for this area now.

…Yep, it’s a night for Genesis Crush. Leftover meatloaf, Genesis Crush, and my blank stare to hold it all together.

Shelia, Queen of Genesis City, has extended the range of her territory by threefold in the past fifty hours of gameplay. There is now little remaining land on the entire continent still under the control of the barbarian aliens that still seek to stake a claim. Those pests will soon be eliminated. Before long, Genesis City will become Genesis Continent. I will have crushed all who stand in my way.

Oh, that’s what the title means, isn’t it?

It took me a really long time to realize that, probably because I didn’t get to this power-grabbing expansion part of the game until really recently. The dating sim elements were very absorbing, okay…

One thing that sucks about Genesis Crush: You need two hands to play it.

So I can’t eat my meatloaf and play the game at the same time. I’ll have to flip the game off and switch to TV, since eating while alone with my thoughts is a recipe for disaster. (Get it? Recipe? Oh, okay.)

I go to save my game…

And there I see the save file list with each of the characters whose progress is saved to the cartridge. There’s Shelia here with a hundred and ninety hours at the top, and below that… Kuro the samurai, with sixty-nine hours. Karina’s character.

It’s been a long month, hasn’t it?

I save the game, turn it off, and let out yet another sigh.

Karina’s having fun in Japan right now. I’m really happy for her. But I do miss her. I miss her a whole lot. Like enough that… I probably sent too many idling e-mails about how my days went, because she hasn’t responded in a little while. It’s just me being clingy again, I think. She’ll respond when she has the time.

Okay, time for TV.

Bad thoughts, go away. Be replaced by the savory taste of reheated meatloaf.

Mmm… This is pretty decent. Texture’s still solid. The little ketchup-y part at the top kept its flavor. I’m a good cook when I try. I just wish other people could enjoy it is all.

The television program on right now is the news. The robot news anchor, wearing a Cool Biz outfit of its own, lists off the ten-day weather forecast. The highs for the week are ninety, ninety-five, ninety-seven, eighty-nine, ninety again… It’s not looking good at all. Not for my armpits, anyway.

I munch on my meatloaf and continue idly watching the TV. It goes to commercials that advertise Bustable Lemons, that new movie Dogsitter, some holo-concert by a pop star named Soli⭐, a campaign ad by Nathan Nguyen… You know, the works.

Then the news comes back on. The robot anchor delivers a brand-new story on a mysterious shock jock DJ on FM radio who’s been hijacking signals and broadcasting disturbing messages: the Dial-Up Demon. He promises to inflict pain and terror on the city and…

And…

I stare at the icon on the little news thumbnail. An outline of some kind of demonic creature, blacked out with a ? over it. The Dial-up Demon… A figure shrouded in mystery who is threatening to commit heinous crimes and using free radio broadcasts to spread his message?

It’s…

It’s a little…

I finish my last bite of meatloaf, set down my plate, and turn the TV back to Genesis Crush.

Yeah, that Dial-Up Demon shit is just a Social Media Killer copycating ripoff. I really can’t justify caring about it beyond my base instinct to relieve boredom. And when I have the best video game of the past ten years plugged in already, what’s the point?

Who even owns a radio in the current year? I certainly don’t unless it’s buried under boxes of crap. It’s just media-driven drivel to perpetuate a slow news cycle.

And that’s what I decide to tell myself as I continue playing games into the wee hours of the night, alone and silent.

<Previous Story | <== Previous ♠ Next ==>

09 – SLEEP MODE – Chapter 1: Inviting Me Over

I’d hoped for a night off. Atlanta had other plans. Typical.

I step between the pews, taking more time than usual in approaching R8PR’s ‘throne’. Lines of code run behind his eyes like rain on a window. Their sick green hue only reminds me how human he isn’t.

“Good evening, Morgan. You’re just in time.”

Just in time for what?

“What’s the emergency?” I ask.

There’s always an emergency when it comes to R8PR. He wouldn’t have called me otherwise. We aren’t friends. Allies, sure. Would be liberators of a city under the siege of an ominous future…

R8PR’s fingers whine as he points to the side entrance.

KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK!

The hell…?

I look to him, then the door, and back again. R8PR nods with synthetic assurance, so I answer.

The door leading into a now overgrown garden is warped with age, and opens with a creak. On the other side is not at all who I expected.

Why did R8PR call me? To meet with some important contact, perhaps. No.

The all-too eager delivery girl offers up the pizza box. “Large tomato, olives and peppers. For Sage,” she says.

This is stupid.

“Sage,” I say under my breath. He still hasn’t dropped that.

I take the box, fish through my pockets for some change, and force a smile. She’s happy the smallest I’ve got is a ten.

R8PR emotes joy on my return.

“Enjoy your meal,” he says.

“This is for me,” I confirm, because it’s definitely not for him.

“Call it… incentive.”

I set the box down on the pew. It smells delicious, and I’m starving. That’s what you get for swapping food for coffee.

I glare at the robot. “What have you gotten me into this time?”

The lights in R8PR’s eyes blink. “Nothing,” he says.

“You don’t just email over ‘nothing’,” I say.

The Social Media Killer, cybermancers, Atlanta in turmoil – these disasters and more were the kinds of things that brought us together.

R8PR feigns a digital sigh. “Not ‘nothing’ in the literal sense,” he says. “My access to the web is currently restricted.”

“How?”

A twitch rolls down my spine. R8PR is one of Atlanta’s best kept secrets, and one best kept out of corporate hands. If one of them picked up his trail…

“Upgrades,” he said. “You noticed the technicians on the next block.”

Yeah, I had noticed. By some miracle City Hall found the budget to upgrade their cable network, meaning constant disruptions across the digital network. No big deal, or at least not big enough to summon me here.

“And there’s something dirty behind it.”

“No,” R8PR says, “but with limited internet access one succumbs to…”

I don’t believe this. “You’re bored?”

“You could call it that. I’ve currently nothing for me to process, and I do hate to idle.”

“No,” I say.

“But I bought you pizza.”

I pick up the box and start for the door.

“No!”

“Are you sure it’s wise to leave a powerful AI without distraction? Who knows what thoughts of human subjugation might come to mind when left to my own devices.”

I hate when he talks like that, and he knows it.

“Can’t you just, I don’t know, go into sleep mode?”

R8PR nods in appreciation. “I could, but ‘sleep mode’ for a machine is largely the same as being awake, at least in terms of awareness.”

Hmmm…

“What about shutting down for a while?”

“Out of the question. The process of shutting down is much like…” He pauses for effect. “Dying,” he says.

“How is that any different than going to sleep?”

“The human sleep cycle is not at all like death,” he explains. “You’re still quite active. A part of you, though subconscious, remains in part aware of your surroundings. Your mind continues to work.”

“Uh huh…”

R8PR leans closer. “An AI in shut down mode does not have such luxury. We do not, as some speculate, ‘dream of electric sheep’.”

“So it’s a really deep sleep,” I say.

The robot shakes his head. “Morgan, an AI shutting down is facing oblivion. It is a state from which many of us never wake.

“And when we do wake,” he says, “we’re often changed on a fundamental level. Sometimes I wonder, if a machine can have a soul, is it still the same soul that inhabited this shell before?”

This is getting too philosophical. I sit in the pew, and open the box. I take a slice, and the cooling cheese rips up a sliver of cardboard.

“Fine.”

He did buy dinner, after all…

“You mean it worked?”

I growl. “If you made that up, I swear to all the gods that probably don’t exist…”

“Engaging in such intellectual falsehoods is beneath me,” R8PR says with mock offense. “Besides, it’s nice to spend time with a friend. Don’t you think?”

Friend. When did that happen?

I check my watch. “You got a TV? The Scott Stutzman Show is starting.” Usually I hate to shape my schedule to what’s on TV, but if we’re hanging out, this is what I’d rather be doing.

R8PR gestures to a dark corner where a flat screen blinks to life. We catch the opening credits.

Then it happens.

The image turns back, and a machine voice undulates through the speakers.

“We interrupt this program to bring you a very special announcement. April Fool’s, suckers!”

Aw, hell.

The mystery announcer continues. “You were hoping for more ‘Stories from the Retrofuture’, but instead you get glorified fan-fiction. And no t-shirt!”

Great. Still on hiatus!

R8PR twists his head. The word ‘TILT’ scrolls across his eyes in all caps like in an old cartoon.

“Sorry, Morgan,” the TV says. “Better luck next time.”

I kick the dusty tile.

Fourth wall breaking shenanigans, huh. I hate fourth wall breaking shenanigans.

I grab another slice. At least there’s pizza.


This April Fools Day chapter was written by Miranda Sparks!

ATL will return pretty soon. I swear. On June 16th, in fact.

Into the Retrofuture – Epilogue: Atlanta Cares

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It’s another morning at the Peach Towers branch of the Atlanta Cares Bank. Another morning where Mr. Larkins is ranting about something or another in front of all the employees, in front of all the customers. 

“It’s rigged, I tell you! The draft is rigged for the Fowlers!”

I never knew Mr. Larkins was a basketball fan until today, and now I’m never gonna forget it. Our very own Atlantic Steamers have gotten all of the worst picks on the planet, it turns out, and now the Forsyth Fowlers will win their third straight championship because they paid the basketball people the most. That’s what I am gathering, at least.

I sigh.

It’s not a sad sigh, or even an exasperated sigh. Just a sigh sigh. If you had to call it something, I might even suggest it’s happy.

Normalcy. I really think normalcy is something we don’t promote quite enough these days. Or maybe ever. When things get back to normal, that’s when the story ends. When things are normal, the news ignores it. The lack of drama bores people.

And I think that’s the point.

After the first six months of this year being the craziest thing this side of the Civil War, I think normalcy is all I ever needed. I’ve been getting sleep. I caught up on some books I’d been putting off. And I’m actually going to work every day.

Crazy, isn’t it?

I wouldn’t trade this for the world.

Well…

No, that’s not true.

For every awful thing that’s happened this year, from the horrific Columbus trip disaster to everything with the Ascendants, there’s been just as many good things.

I mean, think of it. A corrupt, failing mayor got removed from office, and the mayoral election cycle started all over again. An evil Cybermancer was shown the error of his ways, and his son got away from a life of crime. My best friend from my childhood showed up with a technological curse, but he’s already rejoining the world the best he can. A cute artist robot got to explore its neighborhood and paint some pictures. The secrets of Magitek Soda were exposed, and a depressed teenage girl learned to start forgiving herself. A homeless transgender teenager made some friends and learned the power of optimism. Okay, I’ll admit that last one was a stretch.

But it doesn’t matter what problems I’ve faced, we’ve faced, up to now. What matters is what we’ve accomplished. And I’m pretty proud of that.

THAT’S what I wouldn’t trade for the world.

So as I continue to listen to Mr. Larkins rant and lose us a few customers who didn’t expect to be hearing vulgarities be spewn when they just wanted to set up a savings account, I decide that I’m going to be happy. Because I deserve it.

For now, at least.

終わり

Next: The Dial-Up Demon ==>

Next: Season 1 Endcap ==>

<Previous Story | <== Previous Chapter

Into the Retrofuture – Chapter 21: That Corny Airport Thing

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“It happens in, like,  every movie,” Karina says. “They get to the airport, they stand in front of the security checkpoint, and then all those dramatic moments happen. People win Oscars with airport scenes. That’s all they’re there for, really.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I, the suitcase mule, ask. Karina has a backpack and duffel bag, sure, but why am I the one lugging around three suitcases?

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