by Addison Smith
Addison Smith (he/him) is an author and laborer living in Upstate New York, where he spends most of his time at libraries. He is a member of the Codex Writers Group, and his fiction has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Fireside Magazine, and other publications. You can find him on Twitter @AddisonCSmith.
An eternity passed before the spent shell hit the pavement. The distant tink of metal on asphalt and the pounding of rain on trash cans barely registered at all. The man standing in front of Josh stared in disbelief.
“Oh—” he managed before folding to his knees. Rain and blood dripped down the front of his shirt. Josh stared at the pistol in his shaking hands, his fingers refusing to loosen their grip. A little red LED blinked from the butt of the gun, sending the signal to his comrades. Telling them that an officer had discharged his weapon, and to respond.
A crack of thunder shook him from his reverie. The rain continued to beat down around him. His gun clattered to the ground as he rushed to the fallen man.
“Shit!” He took his friend by the shoulders, rolling him onto his back. He was breathing, but blood began pooling in his lungs.
“Oh, God. Nick! Can you hear me?” Josh shook him, but all Nick did in response was stare up at the gray clouds. His lip twitched into a smile, and his eyes went still.
Josh checked his pulse, but knew he was gone. Scuttling to the safety of an awning, he watched his friend’s motionless body.
It was only a few minutes before the red and blue lights flashed down the alley, finding him staring at the brick wall across from him, willing his mind to be anywhere else.
There was the solid thunk of a car door, then a voice shouting, “Josh! You alright?”
He ignored the voice and concentrated on the bricks. There were four hundred and twenty-seven in his sight. He could only see six-point-two percent of the building. That’s 6,800-7,000 bricks total, allowing for deviation of gaps. He let his mind do the senseless figuring to avoid thinking about the body that lay before him.
“Jesus Christ,” the voice said, “It’s Nick.”
Josh looked up at the officer as he put his finger to his temple and made the call. Officer down.
“What the hell happened, Josh?” the man asked.
“He got him,” he said, his own voice sounding wrong to his ears. “The son of a bitch got him.” He didn’t need to explain. Everyone knew what case he was on. It had been offered to all of them, and Josh was the only one stupid enough to volunteer. The whole force had implants. The human brain just wasn’t enough these days. Cops needed an edge. There’s an advantage to doing all of your thinking with a blob of gray matter, though. You can’t hack meat.
The officer looked around the alley.
“What were you doing out here?” he asked.
Following a lead. Josh wasn’t sure if he said it out loud or not, but the officer didn’t ask again. He walked off to his car, holding his jacket over his head to keep the rain off. When he came back, he draped a blanket over Josh’s shoulders and led him back to his car. Josh looked back at the body in the alley. Nick was always smiling, but not like this. It was unnerving, the twist of his lips. It was like there was some cosmic joke that he finally got.
He ducked into the back of the squad car and stared straight ahead, into the tinted glass divider. The car dipped as the other officer took a seat up front. All he had to do was push a button and the glass would clear. When he didn’t do it, Josh realized something. Something that had somehow escaped him.
He’d just shot a cop. His career was over.
The inquiry lasted three days. Three days of dirty and confused looks from people he’d known half his life. They didn’t know what to do with him, but the public sure did. They wanted him lynched.
Josh walked over to the counter in the bastardized kitchen/living room hybrid in his apartment. He dropped two individually wrapped packets of coffee grounds into his coffee maker, and a minute later was sitting down with a steaming cup of wake-me-up.
He booted up his dinosaur of a computer, waiting for the OS to load. It wasn’t a very useful machine. He’d made it from spare parts that people had thrown out as bigger and better things came along. He didn’t need it for much, though. He’d never even connected it to the network.
He grabbed his Procedure book from beside the keyboard. “You’d better study this,” one of his friends had said, “they’ll be looking for any excuse to get rid of you.”
He flipped through the pages until he found what he was looking for. A thin datastick, tucked up against the binding, a copy of what was in Nick’s head when he died.
When I killed him.
He inserted the stick into one of the myriad open ports and began to dig.
He couldn’t bring himself to look through the man’s life, so he stayed out of the memory partition, except to run a quick search. An empty query sorted by most recent, limited to 10 results.
It was the same as the others. A mess of cheap hacks, a full frontal assault on the pleasure center of his brain. All rainbows and unicorns, so to speak. He went back further, sifting through more of the same until he found it. The last real memory before the bastard got into his head.
It was a door. He recognized it from the memories of others, but didn’t know the place himself. An olive-green door set in a red brick wall. He tried to look back at how Nick got there, but, also like the others, it was blanked out. It was as if everything before the door had been discarded, like it didn’t matter anymore.
His implant noted his mood, and offered to stimulate endorphins. Josh disregarded it, never comfortable with mods that affect brain chemistry.
It was a game. He’d never told anyone else, but he was sure of it. If they could blank out the way there, they could blank out the door, too. Someone wanted him to see it. Someone wanted him to find the place.
Josh flitted through the memories of the other victims, all men and women who had snapped, just like Nick, and began attacking people. He went to that last coherent memory of each, before things started getting weird. Eight images, different views of the same door. He stared at each in turn, but still couldn’t find a clue as to where the place was.
He sighed, then made copies of each of the files and dragged them to the side. He grabbed a cord and plugged one end into an open port, the other into the jack on his implant. Physical connections were practically archaic, even the datasticks were relics from a time passed, but he’d never trusted wireless connections. All of his important data traveling through the air, up for grabs. No thank you.
He opened the folders of his own implant and navigated to a folder marked Obsession. He smiled as he dragged the copied files into it. He may be an old fogey when it came to computers—the things kids did with them boggled his mind—but he had learned a few tricks. Like this folder, labeled Obsession because he’d jacked up its system resource consumption.
He unplugged the cord at both ends, then leaned back in his chair and stared up at the water-stained ceiling. Closing his eyes, Nick’s face filled his vision, smiling as he lay dead on the wet pavement. Who the hell did that to him?
He let his chair call forward and tried to banish the image from his mind. His gray matter seemed to have an obsession folder of its own, because he couldn’t shake it.
He looked for something to fill his time while his brain worked on those photos, and a business card taped to his monitor presented itself. Staring at the card, he wondered if the opportunity was still there.
“Hell,” he said, “It’s worth a try.” Then he dialed the number.
The restaurant was busy. Conversations flowed around him, coming from every direction imaginable. Except right in front of him. Clara hid behind her menu, under the pretext of deciding on the proper cut of steak. Only a few strands of blonde hair peeked over.
They’d been close, her and Nick. They’d even dated for a while. Meeting was a bad idea. The Clara he once knew belonged to a different time. When she wrote her number on that card, and suggested he give her a call, he was just a cop. Now he was a murderer, and that curious glint was gone from her eyes.
“Find anything?” he asked.
She nodded but kept her silence. At last she lowered the menu a little, and he could see her eyes, set in a face that was too beautiful for him to have a chance with.
There was no avoiding it, then.
“How are you holding up?” he asked, waiting for the storm to come.
The menu dropped to the table. She gave him a conflicted look. Grief mixed with worry and embarrassment in the few lines of her face. She wore it well. Her eyes glistened, though, telling him what was on her face was only the surface.
“What happened?” she asked, and there was a thin crack to her voice. The kind of crack that gets a lot bigger if you make a wrong move.
“You saw the report, Clara. I—”
“No,” she cut him off, “What happened to Nick. Before you—” she cut herself off now, unable to say the words. “Did you know?”
Josh shook his head. He’d had no idea. “He was acting a little funny. Like he was stuck in his head. He was smiling a lot, but that’s just Nick. He was always smiling.”
“Not lately,” Clara said.
“What do you mean? He was always smiling.”
“Josh, I haven’t seen Nick smile for over a month. You wouldn’t know that, though, would you?”
A month? It had been a while since he’d seen Nick. He’d just gotten caught up in the case, was all.
“And then?” she asked, stretching the words to breaking point.
“He snapped.” Those frantic eyes appeared in his mind. Searching for something. “Shouted at me. ‘Give it back!’” He looked for words to fill the silence. “You know I didn’t have a choice, Clara. He was a friend, but he drew a knife. He was coming at me.”
Clara touched his hand, but he could see the tension, the readiness to recoil. “I know, Josh. You did what you had to do.”
Silence surrounded them both, even penetrating to some of the tables around them. “You should take a vacation. Even when they let you come back, it won’t be the same.”
She was right. He’d always be treated differently.
She stood from the table and grabbed her coat from the chair. “I’ll see you around, Josh.” Then she left.
Josh sat alone until the waiter came by to take his order.
“Just wine,” he said. “Cheap.”
Josh hated to admit it, but Clara was right. He needed some time to get past what had happened; the whole department did. It would be best if he wasn’t hanging around the office.
Chief Alton thumbed through the request form, nodding. “I was going to suggest this anyway,” he said. “You could use a vacation.” He stamped a big red “APPROVED” on the form, and looked at Josh.
“You remember when you started here?” the chief asked.
“Yes, sir. Eighteen years ago in September.” Nick joined the following year, a rookie fresh from the academy.
“Yeah, I remember. We had you in record keeping back then, right?”
“Yes, sir,” Josh said.
“It just happens we have a spot open in record keeping,” the chief said, and Josh’s eyes glazed over. Memories of paperwork flitted through his mind like so many dry, dull pages. “Just something to consider.”
“I—” Josh started, but held back his snappy response. “I don’t think it suits me anymore, sir.”
“Maybe not. But you’re getting of an age. Mull it over.”
“Yes, sir.” Josh said. As he was leaving the office, he turned to ask the question that burned in his mind, “What about my case?”
Chief Alton stared up at him, too intently for Josh’s comfort. He stood, walked around the desk and put a hand on Josh’s shoulder. “I’ll get someone on it. We’ll get the bastard who got Nick.”
He didn’t say as much, but Josh could read between the lines. He’d just been knocked off the case.
“Enjoy your vacation.”
Josh didn’t resist when the two burly men led him out of the bar. To be fair, he couldn’t put up much resistance with the world spinning around him. They set him on the concrete step behind the bar, next to the garbage, he realized. It seemed fitting.
“Come back when you’re sober, pops,” one of the muscle-shirted men said, then tousled Josh’s hair. Inside, Josh fumed. Treating me like a kid. I’m a grown man. I’m a goddamned cop.
He turned to the heavy metal door to vent his frustration, but the men were gone. He slammed his closed fist into the concrete step, reveled in the release and the pain it came with. His knuckles were scraped, little bits of rock digging into the skin. A red tinge of blood came to the surface.
He looked out at the alley, littered with refuse, bathed in the red glow of a neon sign. I have to get out of here.
He knew he couldn’t drive, so he walked toward the back of the building, and turned what he figured was the right way to get home. It was no short walk. He’d picked a bar far from home so he wouldn’t run into any old friends. That’d happened the day before. He’d shrugged off their downcast eyes, comforting pats on the back. That’s not what he needed. What he needed was an answer. He needed to know why Nick was dead—why someone had done that to him.
He walked for a while, doing his best to stay in the middle of the alley, between the backs of the various seedy businesses. Before he got to the end of the alley his implant started giving him the electronic equivalent of a nudge. He ignored it. Something more pressing was brewing in his stomach and working its way up his throat.
Hanging his head over the side of a dumpster, he threw up. The tang of bile filled his mouth. That nudge in his brain persisted. He spat several times, then sat on the ground.
If only it were raining, he thought, looking at the bricks across the stretch of pavement, I’d be back in that alley again. Watching Nick’s blood washing down the drain.
He banished the thought. Whatever he needed that night, that wasn’t it.
The nudge from his implant persisted. He gave in to it, letting his mind focus on what it was showing him. Something he had seen, just a moment ago.
He looked up across the alley at a door. An olive-green door set in a red brick wall.
A clamminess overtook him, goosebumps raising to nubs on his arms and legs.
It looked just like it had in the memories. An olive green door, a post on each side. The rest of the building was different, though. It was a motel. He’d seen it a hundred times. It had white vinyl siding on all sides; all sides except the back.
He hobbled over to the door. There was a flyer taped to it. He tore it off as he steadied himself.
He’s in there. The bastard is in there.
He reached down to his belt. Damn, he cursed when he didn’t find a gun at his hip. There was no way of knowing what he’d find inside. Maybe the hacker wasn’t even there. Maybe he wasn’t even dangerous. Could be some pudgy kid sitting at his computer.
But maybe he was.
Either way, he couldn’t wait. He couldn’t let more people fall victim while he tried to talk the station into sending backup. He walked back to the dumpster and pulled out a length of wood, wadding the flyer up in his other hand. He tested the club’s weight. It would have to do.
The door was only feet away; the answer he was looking for would be his. He was irrationally happy, finally closing in.
He raised the wood above his head and slowly turned the knob. It was unlocked. He’s mine.
He pushed the door open.
The wooden club fell to his side, as he took in the scene.
It was a large room. He wasn’t sure what it used to be, but it had been repurposed for conferences. A couple of teenagers sat on the floor, staring at something sitting on the table. There was a body seated there. Josh covered his mouth to block the week-old rot that assailed his nose. A pencil stuck out of an eye socket, and a skinny arm was reaching toward something, the thing the kids were staring at. A wireless transmitter.
The signal intruded on Josh’s mind. He couldn’t help but smile as the pleasure infected him. It was just like the clueless smiles of the teenagers, but he knew the horrible truth behind it.
He picked up the flyer that he’d dropped with his club and read it. Key words and phrases leaped out at him. “Depression treatment,” “electronically assisted minds.” He dropped it and laughed out loud, grinning at the transmitter.
This is it.
He walked toward the transmitter, about to turn it off, when it stopped.
The pleasure lingered for a moment, but it was just another virus. His implant fought it off quickly. He grasped at the feeling as it washed away, and wanted to claw at the emptiness, to save what he could of that perfect feeling, that absolute euphoria. He clutched at the table, trying to steady himself.
The kids on the floor were looking around, still grinning broadly. How long had they been exposed to it? How long before they would fight it off? He’d only had a taste, and the emptiness it left was an unbearable ache. How would they react?
He stared at them, at their familiar smiles, and knew exactly how they’d react.
Just like Nick did.
Give it back! Nick shouted in his mind.
The teenaged boy stood and helped the girl up as well. They looked lost, but happy. They were heading for the door. He couldn’t let them out, not into the city. They would hurt someone.
“This way,” Josh said, and they followed his gesturing hand without a care. He led them to the closet and closed the door as they smiled out at him. The girl even laughed.
Josh looked at the body in the chair. It didn’t have an implant. Someone probably killed him when he tried to turn off the device. He was just trying to help.
There was no hacker.
He’d been chasing someone that didn’t exist. It was just some guy trying to help people.
Josh reached for his phone and was about to make the call to the station. They needed to know, to see if they could help these kids.
The undeniable pleasure washed through him again, filling the emptiness. The green LED on the transmitter blinked at him from the table.
He walked toward it, grinning widely as it infected his implant. His Obsession folder stopped sending him information about the door as the files were overwritten, and the system resources were devoted to that perfect euphoria.
He reached a hand out to the device, skin tingling with excitement, mind numb with joy.
His hand touched it, then stopped.
Nick, he thought. Clara. My job.
He dropped his hand and took a seat on the floor.
His lips twitched into a smile.
Maybe just a few more minutes.