Still twitchy, but he had to go to work. And, now that he’d arrived, swiped in, got his black coveralls on, printed a soy-tuna sandwich in the break room and put it in the mini-fridge, Donny almost felt normal. The pills would prevent the chip from communicating with his body for three or four days, but the inhibitory drug’s side effects would last a whole week. He wouldn’t be able to smell or taste anything and his pounding headache wouldn’t go away no matter how many vending machine painkillers he took. Felt like someone dropped a heavy weight straight down on top of his head. And then there would be the dangerous period when the pills wore off. The lingering side effects prevented Donny from taking more, leaving him completely vulnerable for a few days before he could dose up again.
The code didn’t always run on those unprotected days. There was no telling exactly when it would. But it did once, right in the middle of his shift. He barely survived that night. So he now kept a pair of handcuffs from the equipment locker with him at all times. There was a spot in the sub-basement where Donny could lock himself to a pipe coming out of the wall if he felt the chip coming online. Unlit hallway. Nothing else around. Even Loach, his supervisor, wouldn’t look for him down there. Because if Loach ever found out, that would be the end. And what better job was there for someone in Donny’s situation than as a night guard? Better to pass out down there in the dark and tell Loach he’d gotten drunk, overslept, something.
He made Postum in the ancient tin percolator and poured it into his thermos. The tiny break room had caged red lights in the ceiling to discourage sleeping on the job and it smelled like a rubber tire. Donny spent as little time in there as possible. Tonight, especially since he was feeling on edge, he wanted to get out and do his rounds, just be out there in the dark with the heavy flashlight and the motion detector, where nothing ever moved and the only sound was dripping water. He stepped into the dark and swiped his key card through the magnetic reader, locking the break room down. Old tech, but there wasn’t much of value in the tiny closet apart from the filthy printer. The red light at the bottom of the door faded, and Donny clicked the strong LED flashlight on, did a sweep around what had once been a synthetic play-garden for children. The beam lit up a 300-meter cone, made the distant shop windows flash and the drops coming down through the dome ceiling far above glitter like falling diamonds.
The Shung Building was gigantic, deserted, partly flooded on the ground floor. By the time Donny made his first round through the dark shopping levels with wires hanging from the ceilings and the old silver mannequins still posed in shattered storefronts, he’d be ready for his sandwich and second thermos. He didn’t remember being hired for the job at Bug Security. It, too, was from before. But he supposed it couldn’t have been hard to get. Most people probably didn’t enjoy being all alone in such an enormous dark space. Then again, Donny wasn’t most people. It suited him just fine. Even if he’d never been chipped, he felt he would have sought out a job like this.
As he passed, the smooth chrome eyes of a mannequin stared at him from a shop that used to sell synthetic canaries. He had no idea what use a canary shop would have had with a mannequin, but the whole place was like that. He noticed strange details now and then on his rounds—enough that he no longer questioned why a mannequin head might be staring up out of a broken toilet, why a half-skinned animatronic cat might be hanging from a snare in the one of the vacant bedrooms on the hotel level, or why the steel hatch to the jump pad on the roof might be banging open in the storm when it had been supposedly welded shut. Maybe normal people would be unnerved by things like that, things that didn’t have answers. But not Donny. The world was too much, too broken, too sick and evil for him to ever feel like it owed him an explanation.
The motion detector hummed softly, occasionally making a set of quiet pings when it sent out a pulse. The semi-circular display had a glowing grid he could use to pinpoint exactly how something was moving and how far it was from him. It never picked up anything bigger than a rat. And he’d killed the last rat weeks ago. He hooked the motion detector on his belt and took a sip from the thermos, panning the cone of light over the broken shop windows like jagged translucent fangs and then out across the vast ground floor. Far off in the dark, the constant rain had collected in a stagnant puddle that seemed more like a small lake. Loach said it was draining, but Donny didn’t see how it could. The rain never stopped.
Still, Loach was the man. You didn’t argue with him. Donny climbed the dead escalator, listening to the motion detector ping and then answer itself. Somewhere, on the other side of the dome, in an area where the subcrete floor had partly fallen into the basement level, there was the rubble of an old-fashioned 20th century glass elevator. Loach showed it to him on his first day, shining the flashlight at the shards of chemically treated glass, lighting them up like rainbows. Loach chomped on his cigar and said, “Look at them lights, man. You ever see anything like that?” Donny said he hadn’t. But, to be honest, maybe he had.
The mezzanine level was mostly broken equipment and piles of garbage. It overlooked the ground floor and was the real reason whoever owned the property still paid for Bug Security. There wasn’t much to steal, but if people wanted a quiet place to squat or smoke sand, this was it. Through Loach said he’d caught some junkies once, there was never anybody when Donny did his rounds. The motion detector pinged as he shined the light between piles of broken furniture, shredded paper, packing cartons, useless machinery brought down from the hotel level and dumped here long ago, the burned torso of a mannequin protruding from the side of a junk pile like it would crawl away if it only had arms.
There were 32 empty levels, part of a corporate arcology that never took off, and Donny’s job was to check them all three times during his shift. The Shung Corporation disappeared 30 years ago. Loach had told him all about its history, how the entire workforce lived at the top. When the company went bankrupt, everyone got chipped for a one year lifespan. The big tech corporations did things like that back then. And though it was still legal to contractually agree to a post-termination death date, technology had improved. Now an employer could reliably erase a worker’s memories without having to cause a fatal aneurysm, rendering corporate espionage and data insecurity a non-issue. The Shung Corporation had been notorious for a number of things. But they were long gone, just another ghost in a city of ghosts.
Still, someone was paying for the power. The whole building was jacked into the greater metropolitan grid and could be turned on from a control room in the basement. Donny found the access hall to the freight elevator. The two-meter-wide hallway was totally hidden unless you knew to turn right at an enormous urn that must have once held an equally large plant, maybe a shrub genetically engineered to grow as large as a tree and emit relaxing pheromones whenever anyone stood close to it. Now the urn was full to the brim with rain water. It was directly under one of the holes in the dome, which sat like a five story high blister at the base of the tower block. If you took a drone from LAX to Griffith Admin Center, the Shung Building resembled nothing if not an erect cock and ball. At least, that’s what Loach called it and now Donny couldn’t look at it any other way.
He reached the end of the access hall and swiped his key card on the elevator’s call panel. A distorted male voice said, “Thank you. The elevator is approaching.” It had an antique AI. Donny could talk to it, but what was the use? Its firmware hadn’t been updated in three decades. It never said anything interesting, though it might spontaneously offer inaccurate weather reports and the incorrect time. If he asked it a human question, like “Do you like it here?,” it would respond with “The Shung Corporation is on the cutting edge of biotechnological innovation.”
Donny stepped onto the elevator, pulled the steel doors shut, and told it to go to level three. Then he glanced, as he always did, between the safety bars that crisscrossed the top of the elevator car. Tiny points of light set in the dome twinkled like stars, some of them caught in an endless cycle of sputtering and flaring, and there was something beautiful about that—unintended beauty, like the shards of the old glass elevator or the silver eyes of the mannequins in the shops staring into the dark.
“Do you like it here?” he said to the elevator.
“The Shung Corporation is on the cutting edge of biotechnological innovation,” the elevator said.
Donny nodded and looked back up at the artificial stars.
< Read Ch. 4 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Iw >
< Read Ch 2 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Ir >