Realize that I had been on the run for several days by now.
How many, exactly, I didn't know. Time tends to jumble when you're deep into the Experience. All I really knew was that the
bottle of Tyger Thai was cold, the plate of Curried Beef was steaming and the two crew cuts in suits and mirror shades were
zeroed in on my table.
Scrambling from my seat, beer in one hand, a handful of
steaming chinese burning the other, (Okay, this wasn't the greatest choice of a restaurant for the old eat-and-run.), I scanned
the place for a way out. Somewhere in the mass of red velvet and gold leaf wall decorations, I spotted the faint flicker of
the Emergency exit that all such public places are required to possess and have available. (Just not for this particular purpose,
per se.) Twisting towards the back door through the crowd of tables, I momentarily locked eyes (such as I could) with the
slimmer of the two uglies at the front. She (at least I think it was a she; crew cuts are hell on femininity.) stiffened and
pointed at me, growling something at her companion. The two immediately began shouldering their way after me.
As I fought my way towards the slight glimpse of firedoor
under a tiny stuttering neon EXIT sign, I found myself able to sort of surf along on the waves of noise radiating throughout
the place. The standard crash and roar of the kitchen staff mingled with the rolling drone of a hundred-plus conversations.
Add in to that the shrill cacophony of so-called music spilling out of the overhead sound system. The wait staff prattling
on in their singsong voices, plates rattling as they were moved to and from tables. And above it all, oh so important, were
the grunts and thuds (not to mention the muffled cursing) of my two pursuers forcing their way after me.
As I reached the fire exit, (like the man said, "The local
authorities seem to have taken an unhealthy interest in you boys. May I suggest the back door, gentlemen?") I gulped the last
of the Tyger Thai, flipped the bottle over my shoulder (hoping to somehow nail one of these yahoos with it.), and smacked
the latch release bar.
Nothing. No click, no shrill alarm, no smell of open evening
air. Also no sound of a glass bottle meeting with a crew cut wearing skull. But I could hear said crew cut units closing fast
I next used my hip to entice the magic egress to freedom
into opening. I quickly found out that the city's fire inspection personnel were up to their usual high standards, and the
door hadn't been serviced in quite some time. In severe desperation, I kicked the bar with everything I had. The door finally
sprang open with a crash, the emergency alarm finding it's voice in a blaring scream that cut short every conversation in
the room and startled most of the waiters into dropping meals to the floor across the restaurant.
I leaped through the doorway, my occupied hand leaving a
smear of Curried Beef across the doorframe as I reached desperately deep within myself for that mystical Zen level commonly
known as Maximum Sprint Speed. Alarmingly close behind me, the two crew cuts were clearing the last few tables and rushing
the door like a pair of really ugly bastard Rottweiller/freight train offspring.
Cool night air kissed my face, (how do bars and restaurants
always get so hot?) as the brick and glass alley borders around me began to blur into the classic comic book "speed" lines.
Puddles splashed around me as I went running for the streetlights I was glimpsing at the alley's end. Deep within me, that
little warning voice most of us ignore in high stress situations began to get louder and louder, mentioning something about
how easy this seemed. For all their cold-hearted enthusiasm for their jobs, my two pursuers were pinning everything on their
ability to outrun me in a flat-out sprint. And while I may not be in the best shape, I did have a decent head start on these
neanderthals. And once around a corner, either alley corner, I would be into a maze of old alleys and virtually impossible
to catch up with. This didn't strike me as indicative of the level of professionalism expected of their jobs.
As I neared the end of the alley, my suspicions were confirmed.
Yet another of these suit-wearing, near-shaven head, mirror-shaded bundles of muscle appeared out of the shadows, one hand
sliding out of his jacket in the classic form for drawing a concealed sidearm.
I hate being right.
Taking a cue from the fact that I was in an alley, and that
the gorilla ahead of me bore a striking resemblance to a black wrapped bowling pin, I tucked my chin to my chest and barreled
straight into the goon.
Have you ever thrown a billiard ball at a cement pillar?
The result is roughly similar. About all I really did was spoil his aim, causing him to fire wildly. I was mildly surprised
to note that his sidearm didn't buzz, zap or bang, but instead hissed as it sent a compressed air charge propelled dart off
into the night. And now, as I was pondering my next move, Thug #3 was re-aligning his pistol's sights on my chest. Plus, just
to add to the fun, the echoing footsteps behind me had scuffled to a stop about twenty feet back.
Calling upon the most ancient wisdoms ever spouted by blind
Master Po or the Hong Kong Book Of Kung Fu (what, doesn't anyone ever remember those old Vid series?), I struck at the weakest
link in the chain. Figuring that anyone built like this must have spent time either as an athlete, or in a sports simulator,
I lashed out with the heel of my foot at his inner knee. Something snapped wetly, and he howled. I ducked under one outstretched
arm and dodged around him. From behind me, two more of those air pistols hissed, and the screaming goon's cries of agony suddenly
tapered off, followed by a meaty thud as he met the pavement. Once more, I opted for speed, trying desperately to lose myself
in the darkness ahead.
Twin icicles slammed into me, one in the upper back, the
other high and tight in the back of my thigh. (I figure the second shot must have been from the woman. No man would shoot
another in the back, at crotch level without a damn good personal reason.) The Narcozine darts did their work quickly and
efficiently. My limbs turned to rubber and the world started spinning. Colors exploded in my eyes, and I nosed into the puddle-covered
pavement. Part of me was horrified, as always, by the loss of sensory input. I felt no pain as I hit ground, barely heard
or saw anything coherent. My last impressions before the big checkout suggested that the two gunners were turning me over
so I wouldn't drown in the puddle.
Some time later, I came out of the fog. I didn't need to
look around to know where I was. I'd woken up like this too many times before. Once more I was in the liquid-filled metal
and plastic womb. Back in the tank.
Tranked, skanked and tanked. Again.
Once more, here I was, hardwired into the collective Upper
American consciousness. Getting to relive the Experience for the glory of the "Haves" in their nice little sterile Habitrails.
Being allowed the honor of being spiritually raped for the pleasure of the coddled masses, just so some people could feel
like real human beings rather than little hamsters living in plastic tubes and domes.
Ok, you're confused. I can see that. Let me fill in some
of the important parts that you may have missed. You see, after the big crash the various world financial systems took with
the Y2K computer glitch (they weren't ready for it, even after two years of work), the income brackets took a serious blow.
No more upper, middle, lower, etc.anymore. Now, there were only the Wealthy, and the "Nots." The Wealthy got it all: comfort,
safety, medical coverage, personal transportation, clean air and, of course, top entertainment: The "Haves." The Nots didn't.
That's not to say that they are huddled masses living in fiberboard shacks, but they're not that far above. We've got basically
the same lives we had before, (minus steady sources of fresh supplies, reliable power, recognizable government, higher learning,
accepted currency, medical skill superior than, say, the Civil War, and any sense of decency and self esteem), but now we're
separated from the Wealthy by walls of plastic and transparisteel. Each now has their path, and never the two shall meet.
Of course, with nothing allowing the two classes to interact,
the first thing to leave the lives of the Wealthy was excitement. Everything was safe and sterile in their world, and nothing
gave them any reason to be afraid. We had the same old problems of life in the World Below: poverty, disease, jealousy, gangs
of eight year old kids with fully automatic weapons roaming the streets... you know, the usual.
Thus, the entertainment world went nuts. A simple holo-vid
wasn't enough anymore. The new drive was to give the Wealthy the belief, not the illusion, that they were there in the middle
of whatever they were being shown. Virtual reality chambers were tried, but they didn't have the lasting control over the
senses. They could only affect so many of the senses successfully. The old adage about what the eyes see and the ear hear,
the mind believes didn't hold up when the nose didn't smell and the tongue didn't taste. Something bigger was needed. Something
that you didn't play or take part in, but experience.
The good people at Turner Entertainment Inc., Research and
Development Division came up with the answer: The Experience. Why bother go to the trouble of preparing a simulated or computer
generated fantasy environment when you could tap directly into someone's brainwaves and feed the package right into their
head. The only problem was that there wasn't a computer in the world that could simulate brainwaves with any degree of success.
And these people were paying for realism. Paying a lot. Enter people like myself. People who were willing to leave the life
of the street for a chance at moderate wealth and luxury. Or so it seemed.
You see, in order for the system to work, a subject is given
an implant, one that increases the efficiency of the memory process. Everything the recipient sees, feels, smells, hears,
or tastes is saved at a super realistic level, and is retrievable later, thanks to a more organized RNA coding system. The
installation process is nasty, lots of saws and drills and bright lights, cold tables and white coated figures. Plus, in order
to make sure that the implant is functioning correctly from the get go, the subject is kept awake during the operation, sedated
only enough to keep from blacking out or thrashing about during the procedure. There's nothing fun about it.
Next, because no one really wants to experience the life
that they already know, or the joys of life in the slums, an arena had to be built. One in which the world was less dangerous
than the slums, less sterile and boring than the habitrails, and can be adjusted to reflect the interests of the people paying
to take part in the Experience. So they built a city, far away from anything else, based on the old vids of what life was
like before. They started a population for this city, kidnapping the helpless and homeless out of the Sprawl, giving them
a full run in the Medical centers and tossing in a mind wipe for good measure. These poor people woke up in a new world, without
memories, but with available work and housing, and a low crime rate. (All carefully controlled, of course.)
Now, you add the people like me. People who enter this world,
and live in it for a while. We don't know for how long. We're given a wad of actual cash money to spend, a bank card with
a massive credit account, clothes, and whatever they feel we might need to keep things interesting in there, such as a weapon,
a vehicle, or a living area. We can pretty much do as we please, since they send in others like us to set up activities that
the paying customers like. There's all types doing this; soldiers, criminals, family types, hooker wannabe's, anything that
might get someone's juices flowing. You stay for a while, then get brought out and dropped in the tank, plugged into the Experience
so that all the customers can link into the implant and relive your time in the arena. Myself, I tend to get to simply enjoy
life for a while, spending money on anything that catches my eye, going to concerts, eating at a variety of restaurants, bingeing
on booze, sleeping around, whatever I want. Then the corporate soldiers show up and reel me in. I try to evade them, just
to add to the excitement. Sometimes I'm successful longer; sometimes I'm not. Then I get to float in the tank, letting other
people into my head, getting to stay there until my memories aren't interesting, then I'm cleaned up and dropped in again.
And once I have trouble keeping public interest, I can count on a mind wipe myself. And then finding myself soulless in either
the arena or back in the Sprawl. Until then, I keep running. And living for the kiss of the night.