Originally published in Podioracket Presents – Glimpses
“I was working at this stim joint, a place called Ultra-Sissons. It’s not where I’m working now — I wasn’t a bartender then, just a busser. Cleaning up the used cartridges, tidying chairs, occasionally tossing out the odd rowdy. Anyway, I wasn’t important or anything, it was just an entry level job. Nothing special.
“This doesn’t even have to do with me, though. It was one of the regulars. Guy who called himself Johnny Burling. I don’t know if that was his real name or what, but that didn’t matter much. We never cared about that kind of thing too much at Ultra. Johnny was a regular — in most every night. He wasn’t one of the troublemakers; you know the kind I mean: those folks who shoot cartridges all night until they can’t even piss straight, and you have to slip them a sobriety™ round at closing time just to get them out the door. Every stim place I’ve seen has those kind of regulars. I guess they pay the bills.
“But that’s not Johnny. He was strictly a Red Zinger man — it was always the same for him. Two Red Zingers over the course of a few hours, and by the time he was starting his second he was off in his own little world. He told me once that he was creating a cooperative narrative, if you can believe it. He’d come in, take his hits of focus™ and creativity™ and zone out. He’d spend the next three hours busy working away in his onboard system – eyes all unfocussed but zipping back and forth, like he’s dreaming or something, you know? I guess he got a lot of work done that way.
“He was plenty friendly, though, before the stims really got into him. Liked to talk to the other chatty cathies in the joint, and talked to me plenty, too. Bussing was a pretty boring job, and to tell the truth most of the other regulars were no fun, so talking to Johnny was often as good as it got. He was a funny guy.
“Anyway, the point is that I liked him. He was nice — harmless, you know? Never did anything mean to anyone. He just didn’t deserve what happened.”
“I never knew what it was about Johnny that caught old man Doherty’s eye. Doherty was the manager; at least that was what it said on the org chart. Really, he only ever showed up when the new shipments came in from the factory. He always took a box of euphoria™ out of inventory, and told us to make it disappear over the next month. Spillage, breakage, you know. ‘Spoils of war,’ he called it, whatever that was supposed to mean.
“Most of the time I worked there, we only ever saw Doherty on shipment day. Then, all of a sudden, he started showing up nights, sitting with Johnny. I don’t know if Johnny even knew that Doherty worked at the bar, since he’d be buying Doherty rounds every once in a while. I got the evil eye every time I tried to hang around when they were together, so I don’t know much about what they would talk about. But I know that one time when I was cleaning up after one of the usual troublemakers at the next table, I heard Johnny telling Doherty about the story he was writing.
“I was under the table, picking up cartridge shards when I noticed that Johnny didn’t have his usual Red Zinger on the table. He was shooting something else, something that looked like Sunbeam or Buttercup. It was yellow, whatever it was, and that meant that it was full of sociability™. For a guy like Johnny, that much ’s’ might as well have been a truth serum.
“But I didn’t think much of it. None of my business what the customers want to feel, right? We’re all grown ups here and all the stuff does is amplify whatever we naturally have to begin with; at least that’s what they say. What do I know?”
“Of course, I should have known something was wrong. A few weeks later, Johnny didn’t come into the bar. No one thought too much of it — he’d missed a night or two before, it was no big deal. But when he’d stayed away for almost a month, it was pretty clear that something was wrong. I asked around, but no one seemed to know anything about it. Then one night, it’s my day off and I’m at one of the liquor bars down in green sector. And who do I see walking by but Johnny Burling. I swear, I almost didn’t recognize him; he looked terrible.
“I flagged him down, and offered to buy him a drink. He seemed sort of suspicious, but he took my pint and sat down.
‘So, I guess everyone down at the bar has heard about what happened,’ he said, sounding miserable. I just shook my head and told him that no one knew anything. As far as we all knew, he just disappeared off the face of the earth.
‘But Doherty…’ he said, a strange look on his face, like he was scared or something.
‘Doherty never said anything to anyone,’ I told him. ‘He’s hardly ever around and no one really talks to him. He’s the boss — you don’t just have a chat with the boss.’ I smiled at Johnny, wondering what the hell was going on. He would hardly even look at me, and I didn’t know what to say. So after we’d sat there for what seemed like forever, I just asked him if he was going to tell me what happened or not.
“And he did.”
“‘Remember that narrative I was writing?’ he asked, and I nodded. ‘Well, it was going pretty well. I was posting chapters to a board I was running and I was getting a lot of hits. I’d opened it up for public access; people were acting out the parts, making up new stuff for the story. It was kind of like a game, you know? I was even starting to make some money from it — you know, people paying for instant access, licensing the characters and whatnot. The usual thing. Of course what was important was the community, the fans, you know? It was becoming a proper story zone, a real solid group was forming. Taking on a life of its own.’ He paused and breathed deep. ‘I guess that was the problem.’
“I didn’t really know what he was talking about — I don’t read much — but I smiled and he went on. ‘You saw how Mitch Doherty was chatting me up at Ultra-Sissons, right?’ I nodded again, hoping he’d hurry up and and get to it.
‘Well, we were mostly talking about The Sunshine Parade — that was the name of my story — and he seemed really into it. You know, talking about the process, about creating — all that. I don’t know a lot of other writers in the real world, you know? So it was really nice just to have someone listen, someone who seemed to understand. I thought we were friends, that he was just interested in me, in my story…’ He broke off, and I swore I saw him wipe a tear away from his cheek. I didn’t say anything, though. It was pretty intense.
“After a while he started talking again. ‘I didn’t know anything was going on until one day I tried to log into my admin account on the story’s board and I couldn’t get in. I figured I just forgot the password or something, you know, but it was Doherty. He didn’t even try to hide it.’
‘Hide what?” I asked.
‘He’d stolen the board, the story, the whole community.’
‘But how?’ I asked.
‘I still don’t really know,’ Johnny said, looking miserable. ‘From the little I got out of the hosting service I used, he somehow made it look like he owned the rights to the intellectual property of the plot and the name of the boardspace. I don’t know if he just bribed them or what, but they kicked me off and that was the end of it.’
“I asked him if he could complain or get some Security to deal with it, but he said no. ‘I went the whole way through the server’s complaints process and when I asked the Security at my employer, they just laughed. It doesn’t have anything to do with my work, so they didn’t give a shit. There was nothing I could do.’
“I didn’t know what to say. I’d never liked Doherty before, but I had no idea that he could do something like that. That it was even possible. That if it were possible that anyone would do it. It made me sick. But that was only the beginning.”
“Of course, Johnny didn’t just crawl off into his apartment and give up. He hung around outside Ultra-Sissons for a week, waiting for Doherty. Johnny’s a typical guy — young, skinny, a little ripped from all the pharma in the cheap food, but he’s not into physical stuff, not like me. But Doherty isn’t a scrapper either, so Johnny probably figured he had a chance. I bet he would’ve tried to make a play for Doherty even if he had no chance at all.
“I don’t think Johnny was lying when he said he didn’t do the old asshole a that much damage. I know how much it hurts to hit a guy, but I doubt Johnny was prepared for the knuckleful of pain he got when he decked Doherty on the chin. He sure as shit wasn’t prepared for the damages order he got a week later. From his own employer’s Security, no less!
“It turned out that Doherty had been recording when Johnny confronted him, and of course he turned in the vid to the goons at Ultra-Sissons Security. They sent it up the corporate chute, and somewhere near the top it got side swiped over to Johnny’s own employers. I guess the corporate higher-ups look after each other, because Johnny got his wages garnished for five years as a financial settlement to Doherty.
“That’s five years of no spending money beyond the minimum for food, water and transport to and from work. Of course he got an apartment with his contract, so he’d have a place to live and enough for food, but that was all. And he couldn’t even quit his job or he’d be liable for paying the full settlement out of pocket. He was stuck. Stuck paying a crooked settlement with his time and his money to the guy who fucked him over in the first place.
“Oh. Um, sorry about the language there. I guess it still makes me mad.
“Anyway, beyond buying him a round or two, there wasn’t anything I could do for Johnny. I didn’t have the kind of cash that would help him out, and I didn’t even know of any under the table work he wasn’t already tapped into. It was terrible.
“So I did the only think I could think of. I quit my job at Ultra-Sissons. It was time anyway, but I couldn’t bear to have to see Doherty’s face again. I ended up tending bar at the place where I’m working now. There’s no-one like Doherty there as far as I can tell.
“And one night on my day off, on delivery day at Ultra-Sissons, I was waiting for Doherty in the alley. You know I mentioned that I bareknuckle fight — for fitness and self-defense, right? Well, fighting’s good for more than just that. I pounded him good in that back alley, took all his ‘e’ too for good measure. Didn’t want him to waste all the pain I’d worked so hard to give him.
“I know it didn’t help Johnny any, and probably won’t stop Doherty from pulling that stunt on someone else. But it was all I could do. So it’s what I did.”
The applicant took a deep breath, and leaned back in her chair. “You asked me about some time when I saw or felt injustice and what I did about it? Well, that’s it. I know there’s probably worse stuff going on all the time, I’m not blind or stupid. But what happened to Johnny Burling, well, that was the end of the line for me.
“I know I can’t get by not working for the firms, and I also know I’m never going to get high enough up the corporate ladder to change the way they operate that’s for sure. But if I can help some other guy like Johnny, even if it is just by giving those dirtbags a taste of their own for a change, then I’ll be happy to do it.
“There’s no real law for guys like Johnny, no justice for people like us. Except your outfit, from what I hear. And I want to do my bit, if you’ll have me.”
Pat Malone looked hard at the applicant for a moment, then his eyes blinked rapidly a few times without closing. He accessed his onboard system, the display overlaid on his vision so that only he could see it. He made some notes on the interview then quickly sent a message to his boss. Captain Zahara Zhang made the final call on all new hires for the team, but he knew his recommendation counted for a lot. After all, he’d be responsible for this Melissa Vonruden for at least a year if she was taken on to the squad. Given her particular qualifications, probably longer. He could use a brute like her out on the streets. He refocussed on the small room, noting Vonruden’s efforts to appear patient and confident. He did his best to hide the smile he felt creeping over his face.
“Thank you for your candor,” he said in his stern interviewer voice, then gave up the effort and let the smile out. “I’ll have to confer with some other people,” he continued, “but I’d appreciate it if you would try to be available on Wednesday evening. Our next training session begins then, and I think there’s a good chance you’ll be asked to join the group, Ms. Vonruden.”
Melissa smiled then, a full real grin. “I’ll make sure I’m free, Mr. Malone, sir,” she said and stuck her hand out for the man to shake. “And please, call me Melissa.”
“I’m sure I will,” Malone said, shaking her hand.