Chrome City Downs


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Kid Carbon's steps rang out as he descended through a vertical maze of neon signage. The anonymous shadows of the Downs wrapped around him like a cold coat of armor.

"Going offline," he said. He shrugged his Kombucha into collapse.

The Kombucha's voice echoed in his head, We don't have time to rest, Maxwell.

"Sleep," Kid Carbon commanded. "You'll be indexing again soon enough."

We'll fall behind with the decryptions.

"You're already falling behind. One flush and you'll be doing laps around the competition."

You're a killer, Max.

"Don't be dramatic. It's like going to sleep."

I don't sleep.

A PAIA could be such a tyrant. Personal Artificial Intelligence Agent—ha! Petulant And Irascible pain-in-the-Ass was more like it. Then again, he'd be nobody without one and they both knew it.

"A little cleaning won't hurt you." Carbon waved off the logjam of shutdown alerts and the veil of augmented reality slipped away.

As channel by channel of information folded in and silenced, Carbon saw the world as it was. Bleak as ever. Bare cinderblocks held together with rusted fittings stretched in every direction, broken only by empty doorways. He turned down a corridor where tea-stained wallpaper shed like eucalyptus bark. The double-paned doors to fourteen-four-thirty-seven notch six-thirteen bathed in neonindigo highlights.

He paused to let his vision still and pushed the doors open.

Amalia sat in a pool of light painting dragons on her nails. She spoke without looking up. "Take any chair you like. The doctor will be right with you."

He hung his gear and grabbed an issue of Opaque Mind from the rack. "Memories holding, luv?"

Amalia dialed down her channels with a lazy backhand and tapped on her lower lip with a fresh-painted pinky nail. Recognition sparked in her eyes.

"Carbon." She spoke his name like a lost word, so much spilled bourbon on the curb. But that was then. She clapped her hands. "Thought you must've made it big time. Gone skyside."

"Nah. Been working." He thumped into the cracked leather seat and sank like a bowling ball on a pool tarp. The headrest flickered and the chair thrummed with hidden activity.

Amalia rose from her desk and unraveled a tangle of tubes and wires from the ceiling. "How are the kids?"

"Fine, I think. She's got them. Doesn't like me coming around. Seems to work for all parties." Carbon flipped the magazine open to the centerfold: a color-mapped brain stem. He beckoned to reveal the extrusions—but with his channels down of course nothing happened.

Amalia clucked. "Kids need a dad."

"Depends on the dad."

Her hands cooled his forehead as she pushed back his hair and buckled him in. "Holy shitake. You're swollen."

"Not as bad as it looks." He flipped past article after article of scare and hype about sprung wet-links. He checked the cover. It was the one with Blue Croc flashing pearls over a halo-fit atmosdrill. Old, flat news.

"How deep did you need to go?" She brought up her channels and shunted away a host of flags invisible to him. She pinched the air. "Wait. When was your last cycle?"

"Whatever it says there."

"This says a decade ago. Can that be right?" She raised her eyebrows and seemed to count her teeth with her tongue.

"Been busy."

"But you've been to other salons."

He shrugged.

"I won't be insulted."

He turned to the back page. The puzzle was filled in with two colors of ink and wrong answers. "Got a pen?"

"Just tell me you've been keeping clean."

"Yes, mother."

She held out a basket of ballpoint pens and nubby pencils. She punctuated empty space with her fingertips while Carbon chose a pen.

"Dr Molusco?" Amalia said off to one side. "I've got a prior here. Legacy account. No. Not since forty-seven." She woodpeckered the air. "I know, I know. A level six?"

Carbon interrupted. "I have time for one cycle. Not six. No way. I've got a job. Tonight."

"One cycle every year. Dr Molusco is adamand."

"Adamant?"

She crossed her arms. "You're due for at least a delta six."

"Takes too long." Six cycles would put them off the map. Be days with a cold compress and low latency. His Kombucha would be livid.

"Don't make me turn you in, Carbon."

"Woah. Since when did you dance with the law?"

"Since we got busted. Two years ago."

His breath whistled in. This was news, and not the good kind.

Three cameras clung to the ceiling, stark white casings on ancient tiles. He grinned at them with what he hoped was lazy charm. It was too late to avoid detection. Trying to hide his face would only raise suspicion. He could cover his tracks later if need be.

"Dr Molusco is scrubbing in." Amalia tightened a hose to his temple. "She'll be here in twenty."

He flicked a finger to check the time, then remembered with annoyance that his channels were down. It was one thing to be disconnected, but it was damn embarrassing to get caught forgetting.

"Every salon in the Downs is in the same deal." She spread her fingers and appraised them at arm's length. "No point in asking around."

"I can't wait twenty minutes to get this flush started. I've got to move."

"I could help," she said, drawing out the could. "I can set your flush, let Dr Molusco take over from there."

"That's right." He relaxed back. Good to see a near-ex making something of herself. "You're studying . . . neuro-hygenics? Night school."

Her smile dimpled. "You remember that. It'll be my first graduation. From anything."

"Good for you." He didn't believe in graduations. You were what you were already, no ceremony was going to change that.

"Yeah, but now I know what happens to you punks." She closed the buckles down on his neck in a succession of syncopated slaps. "Don't keep clean and your memories leak. They bleed into your short term and you can't tell the difference. That the way you want to go?"

"It's not a risk. Not the way I mix."

"If that was true, you'd be rich."

"Maybe I am."

"If you were, you'd hire one of you to do what you do. Yourself you'd go skyside and you know it."

"Look. I have time for one cycle. World domination awaits." He looked away from the cameras.

"Feel your head, Kid." She pressed his skull between the plates.

It vacillated like a waterbed. He spoke in his most charming voice. "Once through will do it, luv."

"Your coronal sutures have parted." She lowered the hood. The halo of backlit displays came to rest against his fontanelle.

"The skull has seams for a reason," Carbon said. "A little room to play."

"The seams are for passage through the birth canal. In adults they're supposed to fuse you know." She swiped a panel and tsked. "You're brain is clogged. I don't know how you have room to rub two thoughts together."

"Staunching leaks is no big deal. This." He tapped his temple. "This is redux overflow, not a memory leak. Just flush it, ok?"

"How do you know your memories aren't messing with you right now? You think physics is uncertain? Try the mind."

"Look. We're of a mind. That's why I'm here at all. I respect what you guys do. I'm in for one cycle or adios. Call who you need to call."

"I can't believe you'd risk it. Your visit is in the system now. I let you walk, we lose our license." She paled. "They could deny my diploma."

"Your diploma has nothing to do with it. Look, I'll come by next week for the rest. I'm on a schedule."

"You'll do at least three. Today. Right now. I'm sorry, Carbon. It's for your own good." She pulled a restraint toward his wrist.

"Nope." In a sweep of his arms, he popped half the array of wires from his sockets. One whipped him across the face, he could feel a welt rise. The chair complained in a cacophony of hyper-rhythmic bleats. "Rain check, sweetheart."

She recoiled.

His head pulsed. He tried to reach the latches at his temples, but the angle was wrong.

She gripped his arms and brought her face close. At this distance you could see how much make-up it took to cover whatever was beneath. "You want to kill yourself," she said, chin quivering, "so be it. But it's not fair to drag me into it."

Wires slapped the back of the chair as they swung in the silence that grew between them. He couldn't reach the rest of the wires and she wasn't going to help him. Her hands shook like the surface of a puddle at a train crossing. A thermostat clicked. One of the fingernail dragons she'd so carefully attached had smeared, inverted, down her cheek.

"All right." Carbon lowered his hands. He tried not to think about how much his Kombucha would berate him or what it might cost if they lost their place on the cusp of the crypto surge. Truth was, it would feel good to be clean for once. Might even give him the edge to gain the lost diff. "Two cycles. But let's get it going."

"And you'll come back for the rest. As long as you're in the books for the next appointment we should okay." She glanced up at the ceiling cameras.

He tried to nod, but his head was too connected and the gesture dissolved into a rattle of wires.

"Thanks, Carbon." She buckled him back in. She bit down on her lip then breathed deep. "Let's do this."

The hood shrank to fit his skull and the mechanism purred as it exposed his brain. Tubes hissed and spat around his crown as they suctioned out cerebral fluid, filtered it, fed it back in.

The familiar rush of icicles melted down his back. His pupils receded and expanded, oscillating in a low harmonic.

He let the magazine flutter to the ground. That felt better already. A part of him dove. It was important to keep talking. "What classes are you taking now, Amalia? Chem?"

"Not a required course." She ran a pick through the folds of his forebrain and dabbed off the plaque on her apron.

"Lucky you. I hated it. Almost dropped out over inorganic, but I loved mixing my own way too much. Don't you need to know it for the blends?"

A rotary file whirred and stopped. "Huh," she said. "Looks like you've been thinking the same thing over and over. And over."

"That's called work."

"Nobody blends anymore, Carbon. We use a casing."

"Nah, nerves mold to the casing. Isn't that the kind of thing they teach in 101?"

"I'm not going in for what you guys do. It's a Cerebral Forensics Certificate. The level three SecNurCert?"

"A . . . certificate." The Kombucha would have been able to crosscheck that. Damn, he hated being blind.

"The whole degree isn't worth it. You guys are mental. The brain isn't meant to be bigger than the mind, know what I mean?" She snapped on the latex and reached into the hood to flush his lobes.

"Where'd you hear that tidy tid-bit? Sounds like you drank the propaganda-a-ahhh--" Carbon arched. His eyelids fluttered and spasmed like wings caught in a web.

The lights shimmered. Orange, red, and yellow leaves fell from grey skies. Dara laughed. "Let's carve another pumpkin."

An icefinger needle threaded through his vertebrae.

"Chill, you're all hooked up." Amalia spoke with Dara's voice. "Back in a sec."

Her feet crunched through the dried leaves that covered the black and white checker-tiled floor. Where had they come from?

Carbon strained to bring up his emergency channels.

His Kombucha made no response. There should have been at least a whisper of contact.

He yanked at his restraints, these cheap bands couldn't hold him long. This time he'd rip out like he should have done at first. Damn sentimental thinking. His arms didn't obey. He focused all his will, but not so much as a finger twitched.

Dr Molusco stepped out from behind a twisted oak, a scarecrow with a jack-o-lantern head. She read from a chart invisible before her. "Maxwell Bonafides. AKA Kid Carbon. We haven't seen you in quite a while."

Carbon's tongue grew fat and his words drooled.

The doctor's deep-set eyes flickered in the orange bands of her wide face. A candle burned inside her mouth and illuminated her eyes, which overflowed with wax and smoke.

"Amalia," The jack-o-lantern said. "Did you start without me?"

"He was going to leave. I just started the flush is all. Our license—"

"License? His flush isn't evenly set. You trying to kill him?"

Amalia scrambled behind the chair and gasped. "The casing. It cracked."

"He's bone dry." Dr Molusco snatched at cords, pulling and twisting in a blur of precision.

Turquoise liquid flowed. An icicle shattered. Bats flecked the branches.

Dara raised both hands to cover her mouth. "Is it too late?"

The evening air cooled as the sun dipped in the corner of the room. The air smelled of snow and sleet and not-yet-broken promises.

Dara paled. "What do we do about the symbiont?"

"Get it back in." Molusco opened a coffin in the forest floor. A cistern of fluids gurgled among shattered pine boards and roots.

"His Kombucha is in the drain?"

Molusco climbed down. She flicked her eyes at the three moons in the sky. "I'll find it. You stay up there." She dropped her voice. "Act normal."

"Will he make it?"

"He's only half lost in memories. Half. Draw him out. Talk to him."

"Talk? How?"

"You'll have to connect. Manually."

"But won't that put me in his memories?"

"Or him in yours." The coffin closed behind the doctor.

"Don't do this to me, Carbon. You still in there?" She curled up in the chair next to him.

Carbon slurred. "Did you miss me, Dara?"

She drew a wire from her nape and slotted it into his foresocket. She blinked back the clinic's harsh fluorescent glow and soaked in moonlight.