The building is both ornate and crumbling; gaudy luxury, slowly succumbing to decay and rot. We ride in an elevator with gilded brass doors stamped with fine scroll work depicting olive leaves, peacocks, poppies. The doors open to a hallway lined with dark green wallpaper stained with mold. Soil-brown carpet plush enough to hide our footfalls. Fake crystal electric chandeliers, waning like dying suns. No other signs of life in the building. We arrive at the entrance to Jill’s apartment; a massive pair of black oak doors that curve inward at the top, then rise to a point. The tarnished brass doorknocker, a demonic gargoyle. Hon shies away from it.
“This girl is okay,” I tell her. “I’ve worked with her a couple of times. She is a little weird, though.”
“It’s a weird night,” Hon answers.
I silently agree. Mong flying like a discarded marionette, going from person to scrap meat in the blink of an eye. Boris dead too. The police questioned us for six hours. Fines were paid for “disturbing the peace,” then they let us go. I grasp the ring and knock it three times against the door. After a brief wait, I can hear the sounds of metal bars being slid back.
Jill stands before us. Still skinny as a kid, but undeniably a woman. Long blue hair and a lollipop. She’s wearing an old-school, black VR helmet with goggles that cover her face, a white tank top and very short pink shorts. What makes Hon gasp are the numerous cords and tubes running from Jill’s neck, wrist and spine ports to a rig on the ceiling, suspended over what looks like a black dentist’s chair.
“Come in,” she says, taking the candy out of her mouth. “Be right with you.”
She turns away, dragging the forest of coils with her. Some of them are semi-opaque and dyed in pastel colors, lighting up in hot pink, baby blue and teal green as electricity courses through them. We remove our shoes and I reengage the locks, then turn to face the apartment.
A small pair of rooms, made smaller by stacks of computer decks and monitors, each one showing something different; coding elements, live chats, Japanese cartoons. There are couches and chairs in a variety of styles from Victorian to Mod. On the floor, dirty dishes, wrappers, half-finished books, discarded clothes. Next to the dentist’s chair, a low coffee table, covered with random items; electronic components, empty bottles, clockwork dolls, a gas mask, tiny animal skulls. Bioluminescent fish flash on and off in a tank and I spot a sheathed samurai sword, an electric guitar and yoga mat in the corners.
Jill lies down on the chair and moves her hands in the air like she’s conducting an invisible orchestra. She’s wearing fingerless gloves that are wired to the rig.
“Almost got it…shoot.”
She shakes her head and sighs, then pushes her goggles up, revealing her large brown eyes with slight epicanthic folds. Touches a panel and hoses began to detach with hisses of chilled air. Stands up and yanks her jacks out by hand until she looks more or less normal, with the exception of mobile, self-modifying tattoos that wander up and down her arms and legs and across her collarbones.
“Welcome to The Chancel,” she says.
“It’s been a while,” I say. I know better than to offer a handshake or a hug.
“Hello,” says Hon.
Jill raises an eyebrow. “Hello! Who’s this?”
“A bystander,” I say.
“Has she got a name?”
“Hon, this is Jill. Jill, Hon.”
“He save my life,” Hon said. “Now I follow.”
“Cute and articulate,” Jill teases me. “Okay, what did you bring me?”
I hold out the object I took from the case. Jill plucks it from my fingers, turns it over.
“This is single use,” she says. “You plug it into a bio port. I can probably crack it and make a copy to work with. What’s on it?”
“We were hoping you would tell us. Some serious players are after it.”
“Oooh!” She says over-dramatically, her eyes widening. “How serious?”
“Chinese Triad trigger man with a 3D-printed shotgun. Several people are dead already.”
Her face falls. “I’m sorry.” She brightens. “Tea?”
She bounces to the kitchen nook and starts filling up a kettle.
“Xin lỗi em gái,” Hon calls after her. “Bạn có nói được tiếng Việt không?”
Jill turns around, smiling. “Vâng!” And the two of them begin chattering away. Bored, I watch the monitors. I never bothered to learn the local language. It’s a matter of holding on to my identity. When you’re debt-exiled from your homeland but you still miss it, you want to preserve every little piece of your culture that you can.
Jill’s story is different. Half foreigner, half local, she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Gets called “spawn of a whore” for being the result of a local and a tourist’s one night of passion. She began to develop agoraphobia a couple of years ago, and now she never leaves her building. Drones bring her supplies and she freelances on-line; coding, hacking, dream-shaping, whatever pays. There’s a faded red scar in the shape of a pair of lips on Jill’s left calf. A lot of locals and not a few expats have the same mark. They call it a Saigon Kiss, and you get it when you accidentally brush a bare leg up against the hot exhaust pipe of a sky bike. Saigon burned Jill too many times and she never got over it.
We sip tea while Jill works with the object plugged into an isolated computer to protect herself and her equipment from viruses or worse.
“No way,” she pronounces, then looks back at us. “Are you being serious with me?”
“What is it?” I ask.
“This isn’t data. I mean, it’s got a protocol on it to deliver the contents to the user, but most of it is a chemical compound.”
“So it’s a drug.”
“Yes and no. It’s a catalyst that stimulates a natural neurological process and then regulates it. You’ve heard of serotonin, right?”
“Sure. Body’s natural pleasure drug.”
“Yeah, okay, so what this supposedly does is artificially ramp up serotonin production but then holds it in a reservoir and then releases it very slowly.”
“Why would you want to do something like that?”
“One of serotonin’s jobs is to give us our sense of time. This configuration–” she gestures at a group of interlocking hexagrams on her monitor that mean nothing to me. “The user is going to experience time at a significantly slower speed than everyone else.” She pauses, wonder creeping across her face. “This is going to be the biggest drug in history.”
“I don’t get it. So it slows down time?” I say.
“It slows your perception of time. Things still happen at the same speed, but for you, they seem to take forever. Think of the uses. Your honeymoon could last as long as you wanted it to. A prisoner could serve a sentence that would take a few minutes in real life but still seem like years to them, so they could get the punishment but still have their life at the end. Are you starting to see the possibilities here?” She is flush with excitement, a glow that gives my heart a sudden, strange ache.
The power goes out. We sit in near-total darkness.
“Generator in the basement,” Jill says. “Give it a second.”
The lights kick on again, albeit dimmer.
“They’re here,” I tell her.
“Dude, don’t worry. I’ve got countermeasures and stuff.” She starts reattaching her cables and hoses.
“What do I do?” Hon asks.
“You might have to go in the garbage chute.”
I can’t tell, but I am reasonably sure Hon is seething in the dark.
“That’s our exit point. If we have to escape, we go down the garbage chute. Stand by it, make sure it’s clear, that nothing’s coming up it,” Jill replies.
“What could be coming up the garbage chute?” I ask.
Jill reactivates the monitors hooked to the security cameras.
“Them,” she says.
It takes me a moment to figure out what I’m seeing. We’re down to emergency lighting; dim red beacons that barely pierce the shroud of darkness. The entire neighborhood must be out of power.
Things move in the shadows. Unnatural shapes. They’re climbing.
They have hands like people. Evolution has yet to produce a better gripping appendage than the opposable thumb, so why not copy it? The things coming up the sides of the building have four of them-one at the end of each of their overlong arms and legs. The result is that they can move very quickly up the side of the building. There are at least three of them.
“Arties,” Jill says.
Advanced Rugged Terrain Robots. With their backward-bending knees and black chassis, they look like some kind of hellish, headless hounds. Once they have reached Jill’s floor, they can employ a variety of tools to cut, drill or blast their way in. Probably they won’t just detonate. Probably. The Cabal doesn’t want to damage their prize. Doesn’t rule out poison gas, though. Jill has one gas mask. I wonder if I can grab it before she does.
“Who are these people?” I ask casually, eyeing the mask. “Boris mentioned a Cabal?”
“Not really a solid entity,” she says. “More like an understanding between shadow governments, private banks, companies with offshore accounts. They work together to pull the strings. They almost never talk about it openly. It’s all done with symbols and codes. They have one rule: eat the sheep, not the other wolves.”
The Arties’ ascension is swift. Hand over hand, they scurry up the side of the building, finding purchase on the lips of balconies, railings, window ledges.
“They’re almost here,” I observe. “Whatever you’re going to do, do it soon.”
“Did you order something?” Hon calls out.
Jill and I turn to look out the window, where a swarm of mini-drones hovers.
On another monitor, I can see that a team of masked men has breached the ground floor. Black bulletproof armor and hand-held rail guns.
“Get down!” Jill yells. “And hold on to something!”
To Be Concluded…
Author’s Note: I’d be happy to credit the art work if I knew the source. Retrieved from http://postadosol.com