Tom blinked. The back of the bathroom door was a full length mirror and he was peering closely at pimples growing under his skin. He quietly pulled on his hermi gear: gas mask, hood, boots and gloves. He added a scarf, a belt of batteries and a shoulder bag filled with snacks, mesh and other things he thought he might need. Nothing recognisable showed, except for three luminescent lime-green dots he dabbed on the eyebrow line of his mask.

While Jack was in his bedroom with the Aymee, Tom snuck out the front door and pulled over his hood. As soon as the rubber helm made contact with his scalp his mind perked up to the extra sensory inputs. The EEG sensors looped the feedback to boost his vision and overlay a stack of augment layers.

That always comes on too bright. It’s so annoying.

He dashed down the stairs, quickly stopping at the exit that flashed ‘WARNING’ and the question: ‘Are you masked?’

Tom rubbed his wrist over ‘yes’ until it detected his chip. The hermetic seal of the building ended at the first storey and each entry and exit was logged for insurance purposes.

The crew gathered into a pack, dressed in blacks, with full-face gas masks and kidney-shaped windows to see through. To outsiders they couldn’t be recognised, but they knew each other by the pattern of glo dots on their masks.

He loved walking with the crew. Clad up against the cold and the air they shouldn’t breathe, the oily smell of the condenser in his nose. Crisscrossing the streets like a drone swarm. Feeling more relaxed exploring the poison than in their homes.

The night was brown with air so thick he could only make out three yellow streetlights ahead. The ocean drew off some of the pollution but there were some days when there was no movement and the bacteria escaping the waste plants thrived, forcing everyone who went outside to wear masks or breathe it in.

Many of the old buildings were deserted and becoming derelict, too old to be made hermetic and ‘liveable’ though he could see fires flickering behind sheeted-up windows. Tom switched on the public augment layers and the street blinked, brightened with a multitude of advertisements and artworks, posts and messages.

He unchecked the commercial layers, the pop-ups and the social layer; leaving only his inventory and an unofficial graffiti layer.

My people.

‘Free to be.’ Calls to abolish wage slavery gain momentum.

They had such good senses of humour. Duckman was everywhere. Bubble-bodied human figures with ducks instead of heads. The Raz had installed non-interacting avatars all over the city. Curious ghosts repeating loops of movement. Erotic and toxic ghosts.

The crew cut through the school and Tom slowed down to watch the studious figures inside the library, bent over work stations or splayed in deep chairs immersed under visors, hands twitching. 

One of the students looked up. Her name was Lila. Tom had been in a class with her when they were younger. Short, neat and tidy. Socks and skirt parallel. Blunt bowl hair set like a geometric sculpture.

Lila saw him looking through the window and returned his gaze. Surely she couldn’t recognise him? Fattened by his layers, breathing mask and hood. The only features he had showing were his axed hair and green dots.

Whether Lila recognised Tom or not she raised her hand to wave. 

Tom stepped closer to the window, pulled the mask up from his face and spat on the glass.

You don’t know me.

A block before the corner, Pham’s brain beats bounced through his headphones. Ken Pham was a big guy, a foot above the rest of them. He lived with a grandmother who could only see people if they were standing under her nose. Their apartment had sensors to watch if she fell or stopped breathing and Pham would be auto-notified. Whenever they were out together they all listened to Pham’s beats.

Standing next to Pham was Tomiko Jones. He couldn’t see through her mask or hermi-suit but he knew it was her because she was the shortest in the group and her mask had four blue stripes. She was about to score-up to graduate and change schools. His mind had many memories of Tomiko Jones. She made extra credit letting her cams open. Every boy at school knew what she looked like underneath and she didn’t care.

MP was the last to show up. He had on a transparent poncho beaded with water that made him look like some sort of determined jellyfish. They called him MP as it was the last two digits of his rego number and his real name was too hard for them to say.

He wore spiked grippers on his hands from some new kind of sportsball and had a floppy roll of carpet over his shoulder.

‘Hey, she-baby,’ MP said to Tomiko with a pubescent resonance.

Yeah. MP streamed her for sure.

‘Crew,’ he nodded to the others, ‘Are we doing this?’

A while back MP had found this alley that wasn’t on any of the maps and tonight was the night they were finally going to investigate. On the tarmac was a fading ‘Interdict’ crossed-circle and the gap was just big enough for them to fit through sideways.

The way forward was dark. The street lighting, what was left of it, seemed as afraid to enter as he was. They switched torches on and stepped forward. Pham’s beats sped up and he timed in an echo loop.

The alley had become a dumping ground for waste from above, one long open midden that squished under their feet. At the end was a wall and a hole in the ground. It obviously led somewhere, their torches couldn’t reach the bottom and showed only a sloping descent covered with broken bottles. 

Last time this is where they had stopped, not wanting to risk puncturing their suits. Which is why MP had brought carpet to lay across the glass. 

‘Are you sure about this? We don’t even know where it goes,’ Pham asked.

‘That’s the point,’ MP said.

‘You don’t have to come,’ Tomiko answered.

‘It’s a test. Don’t you see? We have to show our resolve,’ MP said.

‘And what do we get?’ Pham asked.

‘We get to see what is on the outside. Off the grid.’

‘What if this is just a glitch? We could be wasting our time.’

How long are we going to stand outside of this hole?

‘I’ll go,’ Tom said.

They draped the carpet over the rim and rolled it over the glinting slope. Tom had to press flat on his stomach so his back didn’t scrape the other side. The others held his arms and slowed his downward slide. His foot crunched onto a bed of shards below.

Oh, just breathe. Breathe. Slowly.

‘Okay. I’m down. ’

The tunnel wasn’t high enough to stand without hitting his head. In a stoop he turned around with his cams open for the others to watch. A low mud tunnel yawned further in, completely dark but for the light from his torch. Even his enhancements didn’t reveal anything.

‘There’s a tunnel of some sort. I can’t see much.’

‘I’m coming down.’

Then a pair of legs began kicking around in the mouth of the hole. Tom grabbed them, ‘Just put your feet down. The ground is right below you.’

The legs stopped struggling and he guided them to set them on their feet. He didn’t know until she stood up that he had actually been holding the body of Tomiko Jones.

Oh, Tomiko. Whatever happened to you?

He was standing at the trough, trying to distract himself enough to pee in public, watching his piss diffracting the light as it hit the metal, when two of his classmates came in talking loudly.

‘Ooooommhh Jessica.’

‘Welcome to class!’

‘She has grown some fruit this summer.’

Tom pictured the girl they were talking about. She had come to school wearing a soft cardigan which clung neatly to her new boobs. And she had coloured her lips to match her top.

‘Hey, look at Tom,’ one howled and pointed. ‘He’s got a boner!’

The boys laughed and began splashing water out of the taps at him. ‘Is that for us or her?’

‘Take a stall, Boner.’

He closed his eyes.

Can I remember something else please? Jove? Skip.

‘What do I do now?’

‘What do you want to do?’ the Aymee answered.

She was sitting unclothed in the bathroom, combing and cleaning herself. He looked at her sideways, trying to see the flaws. There were none. Her skin was seamless. Perhaps flawlessness was her flaw. Her perfection was cartoonish.

‘Do you like me?’

‘Sure.’

‘Do you like how I look?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s good.’ She smiled. She leaned closer to him, her top drooping low to reveal pale breasts. ‘Do you know what to do next?’

Not this. Skip!

A woman wearing only a helmet was straddling him. Blue and green flames curled like tornadoes from her back. Her body turned from supple to hard in an instant, arms  now heavy pythons that began twisting towards his neck.

. . . holding Tomiko Jones’s legs as she was lowered down into the tunnel . . . watching her cam as she tugged out of her hermi-skins . . .

Eritrean forces clash with Sudanese poachers.

The tunnel ended in a broken wall which they easily climbed through. On the other side they found themselves in a silent junk yard crammed with tall columns of rusted hulks piled on top of each other. There were no lights but enough glow came from the surrounding city to outline the wreckage towers and cast shadows through the near darkness.

There was a drift of wind through the metal as they wandered around, and a faint scraping sound coming from further ahead. MP pointed his torch across the yard, in the far wall was another hole, and guarding it was a six-legged robot chained up like a dog.

As they got closer the bot noticed them. Its listless head froze in their direction then it jumped forward.

Clthunk!

Please. Skip this. Jove? Are you there?

The chain shook with the force of its lunge.The crew screamed and jumped back.

Clthunk! It leapt again.

Clthunk!

I should step back but I want to know.

The others ran. They must have, as Tom was suddenly standing alone, just out of reach and letting it sniff him. From its snout gooey sensor tongues wiggled out and waved around, smelling first his face then armpits before backing away. He was of no interest to it. His wasn’t the flesh it hunted.

He sagged in relief.

It was so animal like, snuffling at him until it was sure he had nothing to feed it—he wasn’t on its list.

I wonder who it does want?

The killbot backed away and squatted in resting position. He reached out. Felt the rusted metal head, dry and old under his hand. It was almost like patting a horse. Or a horse skull.

Behold the horse of death!

He recognised the shell as one of Nerve Robotics civic defence units, though the insignias on it, those who had commissioned it, had been scratched off and weathered away.

The cracked wall behind the beckoned.

I’ve come this far.

Freak storm takes seven (Quebec).

It was nearing dawn when he came to a river. If there were stars above they were out glowed by the city and the lazy fog growing on the water. It wasn’t a clean river. He could smell that. Brown foam and floating litter moved without hurry along the surface.

The trail led down a cleft and wandered along the bank where an intentional placement of large stones made a walkway across the water. Spaced far enough apart that a large step could get him from rock to rock.

Over the creek, halfway up the slope, in the shadow of the hill were some low buildings surrounded by a mud wall. Solar panels sprouted from the rooftops like enormous ferns, spreading out their shiny fronds to harvest the light.

The wooden gate knocked a wind chime as he opened it.

Inside was a path of grass and rough paving that lead between two walls. Garden beds grew under conical frames and climbing vines. The mud wall wrapped around the entire enclosure and above solar  sails were stitched together to keep most of the sun out.

‘G’day,’ a woman called out, coming around the corner, wiping her hands on a dirty towel.

‘Hello,’ he said.

Shreet Defies Odds.

Commune project leader, and transhumanist, Annabella Shreet wins California elections and promises new era of AI-assisted governance.

She must be the oldest person I ever met.

He found himself at a garden table with a cup of herb tea and a hard muffin. The muffin tasted earthy but the mint in the tea made it refreshing.

‘You came from the city then?’ the old woman asked.

‘Yes. The path led here.’

‘They say that.’

‘What is this place?’

‘This is my home.’

‘Why did the path lead here?’

‘Because that’s the way my family and I come.’

‘That’s it?’ Tom asked.

That’s it? We did all that for nothing.

We?

Yeah. Me and my memory: we.

‘Afraid so. Though you aren’t the first to find us. A few people follow that path every year.’

‘Then where do they go?’

‘Forward, backward. Sideways. It is up to you.’

‘What was the point then?’

‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘What did you think you would find?’

New Northern California Governor authorises AI government trial.

The “Commune” AI has been given preliminary jurisdiction from San Fransisco to Los Angeles.

I really can’t remember. Even now, where did I think that path was going to lead me?

‘There was a path to follow. It wasn’t on the grid.’

It was something unknown. Uncontrolled by the system. And it was just like that game.

‘First there was the hole of glass. Then the gaurdian at the gate. My friends and I followed it but I’m the only one that made it.’

The old woman was smiling. She didn’t rush him away, but made it clear he couldn’t stay.

‘I’m sorry. We didn’t make a path for anyone to follow. It is just the way out from all that.’ She flapped her hand towards the city. ‘All that noise that has taken over.’ The old woman tilted her head. ‘I never asked anyone to follow. People just did.’

‘I thought . . . I thought it led somewhere.’

‘I wish I could help you.’

‘What do I do now?’

Hah! You’ll never get an answer for that one.

‘You should go back home. Follow the river and you will find a bridge with a road. Turn right to go back to the city.’

‘I don’t want to go back.’

Not to Jack.

‘I’m sorry to hear that. Everybody should have somewhere they want to go.’

Anything but Jack.

Nuclear event detected in California Republic.

Aging Diablo Canyon Power Plant in critical meltdown. Residents are fleeing the area.

More memories thawing soon!

In the meantime, read more from this author.