An Evening in the City Coffeehouse, With Lydia on My Mind

by on Nov 2, 2009 in Short Fiction | 0 comments

By Alexsandar Žiljak

This story is part of a special issue of Apex Magazine guest edited by Lavie Tidhar featuring international writers and also appearing in the anthology The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar.

Maybe I shook them off. I don’t feel them breathing down my neck anymore. I turn around, but I don’t see them in the crowd.

The square is swarmed by people. I elbow through the sea of bodies, carried by the current of fear. Conversations, laughter, shouts are everywhere around me. It’s supper time, and crowds gather in front of manna machines. In Gaj Street, the Bolivians drawl El Condor Pasa on their flutes and drums, wood and stretched skin bringing snow from the Andean peaks. Performers are dancing under the clock and in front of the Vice-Roy, not giving a shit about ten degrees below zero. Nanopigments in their skins pour colours across naked bodies writhing through retro-industry at full volume. Hare Krishnas reach me from the Dolac. Their mantra collides with the flutes and ghetto blasters, mixing and merging into a bizarre noise of three worlds melted in the same pot.

I look at my wristwatch. The Underground from Samobor arrived a couple of minutes ago and a new crowd spills out on the square, seekers of evening amusement in the metropolis core. I drown amongst people, one fish in the glittering school that moves to and fro, hiding me from gaping jaws.

A bunch of kids in fluorescent jackets buzz next to me on their roller skates. One of them almost runs down some babe, her skin violet, her snow-white hair reaching halfway down her back. The girl spouts obscenities after them, but the punks don’t even hear her, their players at full pitch.

I walk across the square and find my refuge in the City Coffeehouse, a preserve of the Kaiser-und-König Zagreb tradition in the midst of the nano-Babylon. Also, a relatively good place for taking a break: they will hardly dare to off me here. Absent-mindedly, I order a cup of coffee. The real coffee, expensive: Brazil. Just a few plantations left, surrounded by vast rainforests.

I take a deep breath and calm down. As I wait for the coffee, I run all the possible scenarios through my head. And they all boil down to the same thing: back to the start. New name, new address, as far away from here as possible. Maybe even a new face in the mirror every morning. I already ruled out everything else. My existence in Zagreb is past and finished. When I leave, there’ll be no coming back for some time. Say, to the end of my life.

They won’t forgive. They can’t.

If only Piko wasn’t such an idiot!

Time for some stock-taking. The plastic in my pocket is comfortably fat. Perhaps it could last me two years. That’s good news. Bad news is that every use of the credit card is a public announcement of my momentary whereabouts. That means a new card. It’ll cost me at least a third, maybe more.

I touch an Apple under my jacket, as if I want to make sure it’s still there, in my pocket. A little box with a headset and dataglove that I need to switch to the next level. I feel somewhat better now. I’m still in the game, it’s not over yet. But I need an assembler, ASAP. And I need some time to hack its protection. In the meantime, public places. I’m becoming quite certain that the boys won’t take me out before witnesses. At least, I hope so.

Meanwhilst, the player rewinds and the clip starts from frame zero.

* * *

My name doesn’t matter. It means nothing to anyone, not even to me anymore: by the morning at latest, it will end in a recycling bin, together with all my life until now. What I’m doing is more important. More precisely, what I’ve been doing till a couple of hours ago.

Pornies. Passive, mostly for screen, although I sometimes render them for VR. Depends, it doesn’t work every time…black stuff, quite black. Not what is usually meant, snuff or kids, but still, enough to dress me in stripes for a long time.

* * *

The waiter brings me coffee, puts the bill on my table and leaves. I mutter something that should be thanks. He’s already at the other table, leaving me alone again. The coffeehouse is almost full. I look for them amongst faces under nano-makeup and neon hairdos, but I don’t find them. They’re not here; I’m safe. At least, for some time.

I reach into another pocket and take Lydia out of it. Twelve terabytes of the finest resolution, with flawless sound. Lydia, beautiful, perfect, a dream-girl. If only I had never laid my eyes on her.

* * *

First, I comb citizen register databases. With knives that I have, I cut the CS-level security like butter. I look at the residence registrations, issuing of papers, places like that. I also scan the compulsory reports of the feature changes: all the legal beauty parlours file them routinely. (Once, I stumbled on a chick who changed her look and skin colour every three days: not even fashion changes that fast. But I digress.) The faces are what I need at first. The computer does all the work, skipping the personal data and fingerprints and taking just the holos. That’s a daily job, taking some twenty minutes, half an hour tops. It’s best done at peak hours, when one connection more passes unnoticed.

Then I have to warm the chair myself. If there are many new faces, it takes me an hour, maybe two, to make a selection. It’s clear what I’m looking for: good-looking babes and hunks. But, what does ‘good-looking’ mean in this age of beauty parlours that turn a Quasimodo into a top model in a few hours and with just a few pinpricks? There’s beauty and beauty. It’s impossible to just list the criteria and let it roll. You either know it or you don’t. Something in an eye, a smile, bearing, a little bit of everything, a personality. Yes, perhaps that’s the best word. A personality. And I have the nose to find it. The others don’t.

I know that; I sell my clips better than my competition.

Phase two is detailed selection: more rummaging through databases, this time with precisely defined goals. Address, education, social status, marriage, children, health, age, though that doesn’t mean much these days. I let some victims go by default. Public personalities, for instance, particularly those powerful enough to crush my crown jewels. I prefer singles. I have a mild revulsion toward married couples with children. I mean, we’re shooting a clip, and then whining starts in the next room. Kids have an infallible sense to start screaming when it’s sweetest.

* * *

The coffee is almost over. The pressure doesn’t subside; I order another. I have some cash in my pocket, more than enough to spend some time here. People leave, others enter. Murmuring and soft music surround me.

* * *

Step three is automatic. To the chosen ones—one, two at best—I send a present. A swarm of flies to their home addresses. The flies are the peak of military intelligence technology: a floating camera plus nanocomputer plus video memory, and they are virtually unnoticeable. Don’t ask me where I got them and what they cost me. What you don’t know can’t kill you.

Once inserted, most frequently through the air conditioning, the swarm reproduces by itself. Part of it forms a hive, hacking the network outlet of one of the victim’s nanocomputers. The rest deploys itself in the apartment. If the technical conditions don’t screw me up, which happens occasionally, that’s all the foreplay there is.

When everything is finally green, filmings follow. In simple terms, the moment one fly senses a motion, it informs the others. The swarm is programmed to cover the action from all the imaginable angles, and I usually let it buzz 24/7. Girls often look very inviting on the screen just doing aerobics. Showers and bathtubs are nice spots, too. Some dolls really like to relax when they think nobody’s watching them.

Once their memories are full, the flies empty themselves in the hive. The hive then mails the data to the predetermined addresses. It all works without my interventions. As I said, purely automatic.

* * *

I check my watch. I’m here for some thirty minutes. Nobody drives me, the coffeehouse is open throughout the night, but I should move on. As long as you move, they can’t grab you. But it’s cold outside, and fatigue and pressure won’t relent, won’t let go, pinning me down.

I decide to stay a little longer. I call the waiter, ask for the newspapers, and he brings them. The screen fills with headlines. Airbus closes down the assembly lines, only R&D and nanoprogramming remain. Nothing new, Boeing did that six months ago. Today, every moron builds an aeroplane in his backyard, if only he has necessary programs.

I read on. Politics, business, brief news…a posh apartment totally fucked up in an explosion, cops, fire brigade, blah, blah. I know all about it, the apartment was mine. I look for murdered and killed. Several in the last twenty-four hours, but Piko’s name is not amongst them. One is unidentified; the cops give his picture. The face is not in the best shape, but it’s not Piko. That means they already disassembled his corpse into molecules.

They don’t leave tracks behind.

* * *

Post-production is the place and time to get creative. First, I clean the contents from a dozen sites hidden all over the town, sometimes after sending them through Ndjamena, Kabul, Ulaanbaatar and Yerevan. Then I examine the material and edit the raw clip. So far, it’s routine: some basic knowledge of film editing and that’s it. For the cheap stuff pushed in the flea markets, that’s usually all. For me, it’s only a beginning.

For hours I squeeze the graphic software dry in order to turn a more or less plain shag into a sophisticated aesthetic experience, as Piko used to put it when he wanted to sound educated. I also have to take the demands of the market into account. Piko asked me once for a bald-headed babe, and I didn’t have any in my stocks. So I took this blonde cutie with a hedgehog hairdo and shaved her clean within half an hour.

The sound is no less important. If I’m lucky, it’s enough to filter it and add the music. Usually something jazzy or perhaps classic. Ravel (not Bolero, Bolero is much over-used) or Satie or Tchaikovsky, depending on the mood. If the pigeons on the screen coo as in Bavarian flicks, even the complete dialogues are not much of a problem. Some materials are suitable for 3-D models—I transfer them into VR or holos. But most of my customers are voyeurs, after all. They like to watch, and a screen is the best substitute for a keyhole.

The final step is the sale. Fuck the goods that are not sold, fast and as far from here as possible, to avoid accidental recognition. That’s where Piko came in. He was an expert born, with the knack to sell the stuff.

In short, we were a real dream team. The job was running smoothly and the money just poured in. And one thing led to another—posh place, equipment, car, and a honey from time to time, the way I like them best—the bed beneath, me above, she in between. Without flies, naturally. And that’s how it was until I stumbled upon Lydia—and until Piko proved to be a greedy cretin.

That’s why he’s been dead for the last twelve hours.

And I’m next on the list.

* * *

Lydia was the real thing, I knew it the moment I saw her holo. I forgot all the others that week and concentrated on her alone. Perfect, unique, the one that you search for for years, perhaps never to find.

And I found her, my star. I knew that all the others could go and hide, Jurković from Gajnice and the boys from THC and Joža and all the others. Their clips were shit anyway, and now I was finally ready to put them in their place. Lydia’s charms were all there: beautiful face, sensual lips, long and shiny blonde hair cascading over her shoulders. And it could all be artificial. Above average, true, even top, but still artificial. Until you looked her in those eyes. Cute, coquettish, inviting, slutty. You know, bedroom eyes. But at the same time alert, sparkling with intelligence, piercing. A personality? Oh, yes, you bet. And she was mine and mine only, for me to offer her to the world outside, going crazy with boredom, buried under the avalanche of cheap average.

Phase two should have been sufficient to forget her. The alarms were at full blast, but no, I wasn’t listening. ‘Cause her background was, to put it mildly, strange. Twenty-three years old, on state welfare since she was ten. High school graduate with some useless profession and zilch work experience.

With a bio like that, you queue in front of manna machines three times a day. You are issued a UC cut A (female) every six months and you sleep in a homeless centre. A cylinder, a bed, a dry toilet, and a TV on the wall.

Lydia, on the other hand, lived in the most expensive house in the most expensive part of Zagreb and ordered custom-made evening gowns. She forgot what the manna tasted like a long time ago, and she travelled to the Seychelles in a chartered Ilyushin jet. Oh, yes, I almost forgot the black 1955 Pegaso 102B in her garage. An original, not a nano-replica. Those who know, know what I just said.

In the present-day world, such a dame earns that much only one way: by being an expensive working girl. Which is okay, I didn’t have to worry that I’d have no material. But she certainly would have a protector, and a powerful one at that. It was written in large neon letters across everything I dug out about her, but I wasn’t looking, blinded by the blue of her eyes.

* * *

The warmth seduces and embraces me, caressing me, turning exhaustion into numbness. I’m not immediately aware of it, but when I want to move, I cannot and I fall back into the chair. I wonder what’s the matter with me and I order another cup of coffee. I have to wake myself up. It’s not safe here anymore and I’d better move on.

* * *

I inserted the flies without a problem. Test shots gave me a fine performance in the bathtub and another one, that evening, in her bed. Lydia in silk sheets, body out of wildest wet dreams, a perfectly tuned instrument played by her own gentle fingers.

And then Piko dropped by. It was Friday. Yo, man, let’s go out for a couple of days, he said, I’ve got an empty cottage in Zagorje and two real honey-babies. He hadn’t seen Lydia yet. Now, how can a crow sleep soundly when the figs are ripe? So I left everything running, locked the doors, and went with Piko to enjoy life.

Piko’s couple of days lasted somewhat longer: the fridge was full, the cellar was full, the girls were in top gear, ready and willing. And so it was not before the next Monday that I downloaded the first real Lydia shots. That moment when I started watching them still lingers before my eyes.

Reclining in my armchair, a drink in one hand, a remote in another. PLAY. Waking up, morning toilette, breakfast. Looks like a usual daily routine: FAST FORWARD to evening. Makeup, perfume, black evening gown, jewellery. Impatient glances at the clock, as if she’s waiting for someone. I skip another forty minutes; I’ll return to the foreplay later.

PLAY. Lydia is here, in front of me, her legs spread wide in ecstasy, sighing under fierce thrusts. I drop my glass, spilling the drink on the floor. The picture is perfect, the sound flawless, Lydia moaning and cooing and that thing banging her! I press FREEZE FRAME and stare like a veal calf at the tens of screens before me.

Imagine a body like a tree trunk, brown, spotted black. Two short legs, four arms like branches holding Lydia around her waist. No head, but I see several eyes between the arms and a slit probably acting as mouth or nose or both. The thing. Lydia’s fucker for the night. PLAY again: the fuck continues vigorously. The branches glide across Lydia’s body, lovingly fondling her breasts, caressing her buttocks, taking her to the seventh heaven. It goes like that for the next ten minutes, orgasm after orgasm, until finally both collapse and calm down in an embrace. I freeze the frame again and sit in front of the screens, remote in my hand, with a definitive answer to the big question: Are we alone in the universe?

Another take, two days later. This time it was…the nearest description is a psychedelic beach ball bouncing on two duck legs. I don’t know how the ball did what it did, but Lydia obviously enjoyed being tickled that way.

There was another bole on the third take. At first, I thought the guy from the first clip had returned for more. I would if I were him. But hell, no! I compared the spots; the pattern was different. You know Dalmatians? Each one has different spots. If the same logic applied here, this was another one. Obviously, Lydia’s fame travelled far, never mind the parsecs.

Speaking of parsecs…I mean, Lydia was a real sweetie, but the galaxy is a big place and it means some real long journeys. Unless…I did a little search of Lydia’s house. Using flies, of course.

And indeed, I quickly located a cabinet in her cellar. Three by three by two-and-a-half, walls covered in something opaquely bluish-white. White lights installed in the walls, sliding doors and rows of—electrodes?—on the ceiling. Control panel on the outside and that was all. A teleport, what else? Beam me up, Scotty, stuff like that.

* * *

The next three weeks were exciting; Lydia was a really busy girl.

Two more boles—they seemed to be her favourite customers.

Then, little green men. I mean, some thirty centimetres tall, emerald green skin, nine of them. The gang bang lasted till dawn. Not that Lydia was complaining; quite the contrary.

Then, a snail. A slug, actually, black, about two metres long, weighing perhaps a hundred kilos. Lydia read a book whilst it was doing the deed. Which apparently wasn’t God-knows-what. It just lay between her widespread legs, abruptly turning red every fifteen minutes or so. An orgasm?

Then, there was a Giger monster, the whole works, including teeth and saliva.

And a little pink elephant with large ears. It didn’t take off. It couldn’t, even if it wanted. Not with Lydia’s legs wrapped around it.

And I just produced the clips. Lydia gave me some twenty hours of top material, needing almost no post-production. And then I made the biggest mistake in my life.

I dialled Piko and told him to drop by my place. I told him I had something to show him.

* * *

One more. If I go on this way, I’ll turn into a walking coffee machine. Numbness becomes indifference. Something is happening to me, I can feel it, but now it’s all the same to me. I have no more will to resist the faintness possessing me.

I watch the couple at the next table. A dude with an orange hairdo and a black jacket striped in neon embraces the girl with jet hair. She leans on his shoulder, love me tender, love me do. He whispers something gentle in her ear, and she replies with a warm look in her eyes. I can see it flowing between them and suddenly I’m jealous. In that brief moment of embrace in the murmur of a crowded coffee shop, they have more than I’ve had in my whole life.

* * *

Piko didn’t say a thing. He couldn’t say much with his jaw dropping, now could he?

We played the clips for the whole night and half the following day. Every so often, Piko would ask me to rewind, or he’d freeze the frame and just watch. Then I showed him Lydia’s file. He rummaged through it for two hours. Finally, he just looked at me and asked me if I had a copy.

And I, the cretin, gave it to him without a word.

* * *

Two days later—this morning—beeping wakes me. Still half-asleep, I look at the clock as I try to find my mobile phone. 09.23. Piko’s on the line, his voice full of enthusiasm. Dude, we’re loaded with dough!

“What dough? What are you talking about, man?”

“That broad, you know, the one we watched a couple of days ago, remember? Well, I gave her a call, regarding what she’s doing, right? We’ll meet in half an hour, have to go now.” And Piko hangs up, leaving me in bed like a veal calf, with the phone in my hand, and I guess it takes five minutes for his babble to reach from my arse to my head.

And then I’m wide awake in a second. I curse Piko, the idiot, as my fingers press the keys frantically. Beep… Pokretna stanica je isključena…Beep…The mobile phone has been disconnected…

I jump out of bed, cursing. I walk around my room, not knowing what to do. Then I stop, take a deep breath, relax. Don’t panic! Easy to say, but I’m ear-deep in shit.

I grab the phone again, trying to reach Piko. I don’t make it. I throw the phone away. No use, anyway. If Piko decided to do something like this, it means he’s too much of an idiot to reason with.

To go and blackmail Lydia!

I curse all the time as I dress. I check my watch. Half an hour, he said. I have an hour or two before they come smashing through my doors. And Piko is a dead man. Fuck, it can’t be helped! Lydia’s not a poor little unprotected kitten. Too much is at stake here, and she certainly called for help. Piko’s heading straight into the trap, too dumb to see it.

And then I realise there’s a gap, after all. Maybe I can squeeze through, if I kill all the addresses immediately and forget about the job for some time. Piko was an outside connection; I kept a low profile. I know about the others, but maybe others don’t know about me. As a matter of fact, Piko’s death might be my salvation: the only lead to me goes with him. Sorry, Piko, it was good whilst it lasted!

I check the main deck: systems are ready. My brain works on overdrive as I make the list of other possible leads to me. Lydia first, of course. The swarm is certainly already dusted. And the hive, too. Let’s see….

Suddenly, the phone beeps. Persistently, impatiently. I threw it on the bed earlier; I reach for it.

I don’t have to look at the screen to know who’s calling. There’s a brawl at the other end of the line. Piko shouts as they lay hands upon him. They don’t let him warn me. I hear something sounding like a gunshot and a scream. It’s Piko’s. The body falls down and his phone hits the ground, still working. Silence. Then, somebody picks it up.

I hold my breath. I don’t dare utter a word. Deep, heavy breathing from the other end of the line.

I hang up. So much for Piko. A minute of silence, please!

All right, I say to myself, we knew it would end this way. Back to work! And then I stop and a new wave of panic seizes me. The way I had Piko’s number on my screen, the bloke on the other end of line had mine! And right now, they’re certainly rummaging through HT files. In ten minutes max, they’ll know how long my dick is.

What did I say? An hour? Two? Half an hour. Tops. If that. There’s neither time nor reason to cover any tracks. All I can do is disappear. I take the Apple, a computer for situations like this. It holds only the bare essentials: nanoprograms for the swarm and a few more things and my DNA and the Lazarus. Chill takes hold of my heart when I think of it. Fuck the Lazarus now, I push myself, rather take care that you don’t need it.

I check the account on my plastic. It’s good, and there’s even some cash in my pocket. I look at my equipment, not without a pang of pain. It took time and knowledge and money to put it all together. And all I can take with me is this little Apple.

The clips, I ponder. The shelves stacked with discs, hundreds of thousands of terabytes of the finest stuff. Fuck it! All I take is a portfolio, one disc with one hour of the best, thoroughly sieved and selected. Just in case I decide to restart the business. And Lydia. Of course she’s coming with me, I’m not leaving Lydia, no way, come hell or high water.

At that moment, silent buzzing stops me dead. An alarm! The whole house is covered. Front doors, lift, staircase, everything. I mean, I’m doing an illegal job with illegal equipment. A scenario in which a whole bunch of coppers and gumshoes and spooks busting my joint is quite real. Therefore, a surveillance system and an AI programmed to buzz in case of a possible crisis. Of course, the system’s not perfect; I’ve had some false alarms. Better that than being caught with my trousers down.

And these blokes on the monitor are definitely not a false alarm. Five of them. Three enter the lift and go up whilst two cover the entrance hall.

I switch to the outside image: three more there. I switch back to those in the lift. Dark suits, not black, more dark grey. Shades on their noses, hats. Faces…human. At least, they appear to be: everything’s there, but to describe them…no way! Quite common faces, too common, better to merge with the crowd. Impossible to remember, even if you see them real good.

The fingers work on their own. I press the key, my personal modification, and the lift stops between the floors. A moment of surprise on their faces, then palms hit the control panel. No chance! Monkeys are caged until further notice. One of them takes his mobile phone and tries to call the others, but that doesn’t work either: my electronics suppress all the communications in the building.

I win several minutes. I put on my coat and grab the Apple. Out of the apartment and to the staircase. I hear shoes on the stairs; those down there figured out something’s wrong. I run to the staircase window, a glass panel from floor to ceiling. Normally, it can’t be opened.

I touch the glass with my index finger. Surface nanos read the fingerprint, the glass turns opaque and opens into a slit wide enough for me to step out. Simultaneously, a magic carpet forms beneath me and receives me into an embrace of condensed molecules. A bone-breaking jump from the third floor turns into a gentle descent to the lawn. I look up; the carpet disintegrates and the glass returns to normal. By the time the boys come running, I’ll have vanished in the thin air.

With haste, I exit the yard into the street. There’s nobody there—the three in front of the building also entered. For a moment, I think of my car. But no time to drive it out of the garage—besides, it would be easier to follow me that way. At a fast pace, I get away from the building. With a little bit of luck, I’ll slip away.

Suddenly, shouts. I don’t turn around. Don’t turn around, son, is the golden rule of escaping. My legs switch into top gear whilst the boys run after me, obviously eager to ventilate me like they did Piko. But I have an advantage. I run down and across the street. In the corner of my eye, I see an approaching car, but I don’t stop. Screeching and slamming of bumpers as the car brakes to a halt and is hit by another behind it. I keep running, followed by obscenities. The bus stop is just around the corner.

Somebody up there loves me! The bus is at the stop. At the last moment, I rush through the doors and as they hiss shut I allow myself to look at my helpless pursuers, left behind. I give them a finger, mentally. I’m still the best in business, chums!

It is only then that I look at the people in the bus. Several pensioners, couple of kids, two women. It might even be worthwhilst attaching the swarm to one of them. And a…my knees almost let go when I spot him on the back seat: dark grey suit, hat, shades, undefined traits. And I think it’s game over, but no, the bloke just sits there and stares at me. Then it dawns upon me: we’re not alone, and he doesn’t dare waste me in front of some fifteen people. Piko, as dumb as a dick, must have arranged a meeting in a lonely place.

I run out of the bus at the next stop. The goon does nothing. He doesn’t give chase. But as the bus leaves, I see him opening his mobile phone and pressing the keys. I turn around. Nobody suspicious nearby, but I haven’t gone far and I should move on.

Suddenly, a hollow KA-BUUM! Glasses shudder and alarms go off everywhere. I try to determine where it came from, and then I see smoke billowing into the sky and realise they blew my place up. They want to erase me thoroughly, as if I never existed.

* * *

The rest of the day is a long, cold, and exhausting chase. Whatever they were, and now I’m certain they weren’t human, they were real good. I tried every trick in the book, changing buses, taking cabs, getting lost in the crowd, everything I know. But they were always one step in front of me. Every time I thought I finally got them off my dick, one of them would tap my shoulder. One by one, they cut all my attempts to leave the town unseen, to take a fast ride to Vienna or Belgrade, where I could disappear.

I even wanted to change my phiz. In the black parlour, naturally. It would last perhaps an hour or two, and it would pull me through the dragnet. And I’d have done that, not gladly, if I haven’t found that bloke waiting at the address. Grey suit, hat, shades…I just turned tail and ran.

Then it occurred to me. Maybe they had pinned a tracer on me? I didn’t have the slightest idea how: I’d had no physical contact with any of them, but it wasn’t impossible. And so, a visit to the cleaner’s. I wasted a lot of cash just to find out that I was wrong. Even telepathy came to my mind, but then why would they use mobile phones? I knew they couldn’t buzz around the town that fast, so there was only one explanation left: there was a whole shipload of them, and they deployed at the start to block me. That means they are very keen that Lydia’s business doesn’t leak and there is no possibility I can make some deal with them.

* * *

I’m completely helpless, unable to move, and I should. I’m asking for trouble now; all they have to do is comb coffeehouses in the city. The waiter brings me another cup and I don’t recall ordering it. I lift my eyes and I see him well for the first time. Human face, seemingly everything in place, but to describe it….

The waiter glides on, and I know I flew right into their hands. I want to get up and run, but the legs don’t work. I touch my left leg. I don’t feel my hand on it. I pinch myself; I don’t feel it. I’m fucked. I know it for certain now. There is some nano shit in the coffee, and they’ve stuffed me like a goose with it since I came in here. It screwed my nerves: the connection to my legs is history, and there’s no reason to believe it will stop at that.

That’s why they let me go, once I gave up breaking out of town and turned back. And me, dumb ass, didn’t find it strange how easily I got rid of them in Martić Street and again in Jurišić Street and how I slipped away in the crowd on the square. I mean, why chase a jerk who’s impaling himself?

I recall a party a couple of years ago—there was a conspiracy freak there. He was more fun than most of the others, so some of us gathered and listened to him. I couldn’t believe my ears.

Flying saucers and MIBs and they’re everywhere and Chris Carter was their man. Seriously, they sent him to cloud the truth. Otherwise, he would have ended up under a truck before take one. But that was just for starters: masons and who wasted JFK and Marilyn and why they brought the Soviet Union down and started the war in Yugoslavia. That’s when it became crazy. There was a whole treatise on trucks as assassination weapons; the guy was obsessed with trucks. And why Quebec separated from Canada and how nanotechnology became the ultimate step in a conspiracy to rule the world. Of course, it all started back in Roswell in nineteen-forty-something, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I have nothing to complain about. I can’t say that I wasn’t warned.

Suddenly, I sniff a stench coming from under the table. I don’t even have to touch, I did a number one in my trousers. That went, too. The system is falling apart. Soon I’ll know the answer to another big question. The one about life after death.

There’s only one way out, better than none. The Lazarus.

* * *

I got it two years ago in return for some five hundred terabytes of clips. I open the Apple, turn it on, unfold the headset and put it on my head. I put the glove on. My hands still serve me, but I know I don’t have much time. I plug it all into a connector on my table. VROS unfolds before my eyes, and I touch the Lazarus with my finger. Black stuff, real black. I heard of it before, but it was only then that I saw it for the first time. Two years ago.

The man came to my home carrying two cases of equipment. It took him fifteen minutes just to unpack it all and unwind the cables. Then he put a helmet on my head and recorded with the Lazarus for an additional half an hour. My brain, everything in it, the complete content, memories, everything. He never explained how the stuff worked. He just told me there were a lot of big shots using it, and often, in case somebody iced them. When the session was over, he had me completely downloaded to his computer. I took a look: the machine was custom-built, nothing you would see in shop windows.

The recording was step one, followed by the compression, to reduce it into an acceptable size. Finally, it all ended on my Apple, together with the user’s part of the Lazarus. Theoretically, I should have dialed the man every few months to update. In practise, the thing had remained untouched since the evening he’d first recorded me.

Now, all I have to do is raise the Lazarus, to uncompress me and return me to life, me, two years ago, in the VR, scattered across the sites, but alive. Sort of.

And whilst the Lazarus rises, I choose a site. I know a good one. I discovered it six months ago: an abandoned virtual role-playing game site in Nairobi. I cut the remains of C-level security; the last access was two years ago. God only knows how the site survived that long. Perhaps it went unnoticed when the Kampala server blew up, pulling all of East Africa with it. But the site is big enough, VRPGs need memory, and it will be enough to put me in and unpack. And the black clinics are near, Kampala, Kinshasa, Luanda. Allegedly, they can raise you out of nothing, like Adam out of clay, if only they have the DNA. Expensive, though.

The Lazarus interrupts me, giving me thumbs-up. It’s connected. All I have to do is touch “okay” and we go. But before that, I send all the programs and the DNA and all the materials from the portfolio disc, to keep them handy. And Lydia, my perfect baby, I will go nowhere without her. I place her comfortably next to me. I open a notepad and type several remarks, what happened to me and why. What is past to me is future to my doppelgänger: I have to warn him. Finally, I give the Lazarus a go-ahead and it streams me to the site, me of two years ago.

It’s over in a moment. TRANSMISSION SUCCESSFULLY COMPLETED and the line is terminated. The Lazarus sweeps tracks, leaving me alone in the VROS. With the last touch of my finger, I activate the virus to burn everything in the Apple, whilst somewhere over there, in Kenya, I’m being reborn amidst the roar of lions.

Here, in the coffeehouse, in the murmur, the body loses the last atoms of strength. My hands drop feebly on the table. I lean back, my neck barely holding. I can’t take off the headset. I remain that way, then the head drops, too.

I feel myself shutting down…eyes…as if I drain, dirty water in the gutter…

…darkness…

They say that your whole life passes before your eyes…no time, not even for that.

Fear…somehow, I don’t feel it…worse…could’ve been worse…

Everything around me disappears…

…just one…last…

Lydia…meet you…I’d like to meet you so much…

…perhaps one day…

Lydia…

Alexsandar Žiljak was born in Zagreb, Croatia. He is the author of the short story collection Slijepe ptice (Blind Birds) and is a three-time winner of the Sfera Award for best short story. With Tomislav Šakić he edited Ad Asta, an anthology of Croatian science fiction stories, and the duo currently edit the genre magazine “UBIQ.”

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