Birthdays don’t mean much when you’re on the outside – it’s one the things they say you learn to deal with. I get so confused – and the day I think is my birthday probably isn’t. Technically, I never even had a birth. So when Frost claimed he had a special birthday surprise for me I didn’t put much thought to it. I didn’t look at the code on the screens as I followed him onto the broadcast deck. I never look at it; even just a glimpse puts me on edge.
“What did you get me?” I joked, as he led me to the chair, “A car?”
“You’ll see.” He smiled.
I knew the smile, the secretive one, the one that made his eyes look younger, and remembered how he’d been secretly conspiring with our operator, Virgil, all week long.
I hate jacking in – even when it’s only the construct. Unlike the others, I’ve never completely adjusted to the idea of sticking a steel spike in my head. They say you don’t actually feel it go in after a while, but I still do – I feel the cold chill of metal in my brain. Baud would have liked it. A hacker obsessed with the idea of one day fusing humans and machines. And in some sick, twisted way… he got what he wanted. Poor Baud, the luckless sweetheart from the old life – the life I would never be able to go back to. I closed my eyes, trying not to think on it, and opened them on the endless white of the default setting.
“When you’re ready?” I called, admiring the leather-clad Residual Self Image.
I knew he was watching... listening. Frost always likes to keep an eye on us when we’re in here alone.
[searching for program ‘nEEd_fOr_spEEd’... program selected... loading...]
The white faded to dark. I was deep in amber lit urban territory, the dim light reflecting from pavement that had just been rained on. The flat roof of a skyscraper – it could have been any bustling city of the inside, from New York to Beijing. I saw the expanse of glittering asphalt, the orange cones that marked out my course, and there - beautiful and mysterious in the half light - my present. It WAS a car, sleek and smooth, sex on wheels. The colour of polished iron and moulded into a curvaceous enemy to wind-resistance. The familiar chill of pleasure ran down my spine as I ran my fingers across the chassis, opened the door, started the engine with keys already in the ignition. It purred in a feline way, growling as I revved it a few times – getting a feel for the pedals.
Happy Birthday, Pandora, I smiled to myself as I shut the door.
The squeal of complaining tyres rang in my ears as I pushed the accelerator to the floor, leaving only burnt rubber in my wake. Adrenaline pumped, my heart pounded as the world became a blur, the buzz of excitement in my veins. It’s a sickness, I KNOW that, but knowing makes no difference. When you’re obsessed with fast cars the feeling of power consumes you, the feeling of knowing you have ultimate control over something so powerful. I flattened every cone in the row, swerving manically from side to side until each had fallen. Then a high-speed donut, I forced the car to its limits, willing it to tip over as it spiralled faster and faster. Baud would never have understood – his idea of speed was downloading something on a broadband connection. Poor Baud.
With little care, I made a run for a nearby concrete wall, pinning the brake and screeching to a halt inches away from totalling the hood. I laughed carelessly at how close danger really was. Then I saw it; I saw the edge, and a familiar thought crossed my mind.
Impulse ruled in a split second decision. I raced for it, changing up the gears in a fluid succession of movements, feeling the carpeted floor beneath the pedal. I didn’t deserve such a treat. Closer it sped towards me, challenging me... taunting me.
Baud should be here, it called, He was the hacker, he was the one they were after. He’s the one who should have been saved.
On the passenger seat beside me the cell phone rang, and I ignored it. It was Frost. I didn’t have to answer it to know that, he would only try to talk me out of what I was about to do. Ever the father figure – forever trying to do what was needed.
The car left the edge, spinning aimlessly in the air – and I was falling, falling weightless. The height of the building flashed past me, a blur of darkness with sparks illuminated colour. There was no ground, no safety net; there was no way to turn back time. And the feeling of sudden freedom was exhilarating.
Black... grey... white...
My feet landed on something solid – the white floor default setting. I swore viciously, knowing that he had cut the program short at the last minute. This is why, I realised with sudden clarity, Frost likes to keep such a close eye on the newcomers.
It’s not intentional. I’m sure he’s figured out by now that we don’t do it on purpose.
The temptation is always there; the voice that pushes us to suicidal limits, telling us to keep checking. What if none of it is real? How are we supposed to know which world is the real one when the fantasy seems so much more plausible? Here, living in some tin can with a bunch of people I don’t know, floating through the sewers of a ruined world, chased by monstrous artificially intelligent machines? This whole thing is too much like a nightmare, and I keep waiting to wake up – to see Baud sitting in front of his monitor, scrolling through some nonsense online and telling me it was all just a bad dream. Poor Baud.
Sighing, I smoothed myself down, shaking loose imaginary creases that didn’t really exist.
“Not that I’m ungrateful, or anything,” I yelled, knowing Frost would hear, “But get me the hell out of here!”
As I waited to be taken back to the world of my waking nightmares, I tried to remember the brief joy of seeing that car sitting there, despite the fact that it wasn’t real. No, there hadn’t been a real car like that made for a long time. There hadn’t been much of anything I longed for made for well over 100 years. A new car, the latest fashion, or even a simple bar of my favourite candy… little luxuries that I would never have again. And with that a thought returned, clouding the memory of delight.
Birthdays don’t mean much when you’re on the outside…