The Bargain - New Flash Fiction!

We recently challenged each other to write some flash fiction taking place in The Mind's Eclipse universe. This first story is written by Langdon Herrick. Illustration by Lauren Walsh.

The Bargain

“Will it hurt?”

The black market butcher ignores your question as he presses the screwdriver against the side of your head. Your gasp of pain is drowned out by the whine of the tool next to your ear, and you feel a panel of false skin come unhinged. The tech pinches the panel with tweezers and sets it on the metal table beside the operating chair. He runs a cable from a bulky black computer humming on the floor and you realize that he might be putting more in your head than you bargained for.

The data cable clicks in place as it penetrates your interior BOSy port and you feel your lips and toes go numb as illicit data streams into your brain.

“Once the program is finished latching onto your BOSy’s internal matrix you’ll be able to spread the ads to everyone around you on a peer-to-peer axis. You’ll be reading their firewalls, sending the mirror to our decryptors, who will send spoofs back to you. The closer you are, the faster they’ll break down, and the more exclusive and exciting deals they see the more you get paid. Make sense?”

--

Your head aches as you enter the arboretum on the CORE and you scratch nervously at the spot on your head where the tech replaced the panel. You take a deep breath and walk towards the spiraling, luminescent trees from the Canthus collection. You spot a couple admiring the shining branches and try to remember to breathe as you try to put them within your radius.

Fifteen meters. Five meters. One meter.

You pretend to look at the delicate curves and scythe-like branches of the nano-sculpted biomatter, but out of the side of your eye you watch the couple. How will you know when it’s working? You wait, and despite the immaculate air-conditioning of the CORE, you sweat.

“Woah. What the hell?”

“What’s wrong? Oh…”

“Are you seeing it too?”

“Yeah…that’s weird. My BOSy is set to filter all ads—“

“I’m seeing another one. And another. Oh my god what is going on—“

The couple swats at the air reflexively, as if the invisible advertisements flooding their vision were biting flies. They leave, gripping onto each other’s arms, and you exhale. A smile spreads across your face as you remember the tech’s words: the more deals they see the more you get paid.

You spot an old woman sitting on a bench and staring at an exhibit of ghostly flowers. You start towards her, then hesitate. She looks so peaceful. She looks like the grandmother you left behind on Luna when you came to the CORE. Back before you started taking odd jobs like these. Back before you realized that the dream of the Eclipse was an expensive one.

You shake your head and remember what you’re here for. You remember that your credit account is in the double digits and that rent is due next week. You remember that your best friend had to run back to his parents on Mars because he ran out of money.

You walk up behind the old woman on the bench and pretend to watch the pale flowers, motionless in the recycled air of the CORE.

“These were my daughter’s favorite flowers,” says the old woman.

You realize she’s talking to you.

“She came with me to the CORE, but she fell in with a bad crowd. Started doing reckless things for fun or money…I don’t know which. Maybe both. I think she got impatient, waiting for the Eclipse.”

The old woman turns and looks you in the eye. You see tears brimming in her blue eyes and you feel like you’ve seen this woman before, somewhere.

“Perhaps you’ve seen her?” asks the old woman. “Mind if I show you her picture? It’s a little old, but I wonder if you’d recognize her.”

The old woman reaches for her purse but stops. Your heart stops as she gasps in surprise and taps the side of her head. She’s trying to clear her BOSy display. She groans again and you wonder what colorful, screaming ads are appearing in her vision, addressing her all at once by name now that they know her identity, now that they live in her head.

“Oh my…help me! Please Samantha, help—“

The old woman falls down while trying to rise from the bench. You rush to her without thinking and she’s clawing at her BOSy implant but her fingernails can’t catch the panel and now she covers her eyes futilely but the ads increase their volume and she has to cover her ears.

“Why have you done this? Why, Samantha?”

You claw at your own head and easily remove the panel. The tech left it looser than he should have. You reach into your BOSy implant and press the cold shutdown button. You have to make it stop. You have to—

A neon cowboy appears in your eyes.

“Well shoot, pardner! I thought you wanted to make a quick buck! I’m afraid you ain’t spread the joy around enough yet. Better keep at it!”

The neon cowboy winks, tips his hat, and the message begins to play again. He is joined by a shirtless man telling you about his exercise regimen, a robot describing pills that will “make you a machine in the bedroom” and a dozen others. They fill your vision, yammering like madmen in hyper-real rainbow detail.

The old woman’s hands clutch your shirt and together you fall to the ground. From her hand falls a well-worn snapshot of the old woman and a girl with dark hair. You look at the photo between the radiant chaos overtaking your vision and recognize that girl. You know that face.  You know—

--

The girl’s body went limp as her BOSy shut down and rebooted. She stood, her head cleared of all interference, and walked out of the arboretum. She left the old woman crying and clutching the bench like a drowning woman. CORE security found and treated her fifteen minutes later, though a full purge of her BOSy took several hours and she suffered abrasions to both knees and a sprained wrist.

The girl returned to the Lower Well and reentered the black market workshop. The tech looked up from his work and saw her standing in the doorway, blank-faced and awaiting reboot.

“Already? Dammit, Samantha. What are we going to do with you?”