Haight and Pierce | Sep 15 | 11:36pm
I got home from work, walking into my ex-girlfriend’s place, and I found her working on her laptop. She was a familiar sad sight in that harsh blue glow, but I had plans for the evening.
“Can I borrow that?”
“I’m working.” Alli didn’t look up from the screen.
“I can see you’re working.” It’s something I’ve seen too much of this past year. Making all the sacrifices to get the nerds out of their situation seems pointless if the same situation is gonna pop up here too, but I can’t give up. “I need to try to contact someone.”
She looked up, and I saw the playfulness in her eyes. “You even know how to use this thing?”
She was making fun of me. I returned the favor. “Just close your porn and give it to me. What are you doing that’s so great?”
“A design. You know, like I do for work.”
“I work too, but do you know who you’re really working for?”
She shrugged. “Whoever pays me, usually.”
“What if you don’t wanna do what they want you to do?”
She gave a frustrated sigh, finally giving her full attention to the conversation. “Like what?”
“If they stop paying, where would you be?”
“Doing my own stuff.”
“Well, why aren’t you doing your own stuff now?”
“Because I did some this afternoon. There’s time in the day for both, as long as someone doesn’t steal my laptop in the middle of it.” She handed me the laptop anyway. Its speakers played some punk-sounding song I never heard before.
I saw the tattoo design she was working on, a fire-haired skeleton on a boat. “This is pretty cool. Who’s it for?”
The word cut into me, but I took a deep breath and made the effort to shrug it off. “Well, then I hate it.” I sat on the armrest of the couch and plugged in the flash drive with Ivan on it. Tinkerbell failed to get the access The new underground network could have used to rewrite that program and get all the programmers talking to each other, but it still works for one-on-one video conferences, while the network recruits people using the note in the car system.
Alli leaned over my shoulder, watching the screen. After a year under surveillance, that made me nervous, but I had to trust her after she let me in to stay on her couch while I worked. I had to trust her computer not to have some kind of spy software, trust that Acid and the new underground knew what they were doing to stay off Harry and Mike’s radar. Being a semi-responsible part of society takes a lot of trust.
My company phone is back turned on again. If Alli’s computer told Mike anything, I though Harry might brag about it, but so far Hans the program and Hans the guy only really send me message about work.
While I was waiting for Ivan to connect, the laptop played another punk song I didn’t recognize. “Who is this?”
“Whatever’s on Pandora.”
I felt Alli over my shoulder but didn’t turn. “What’s that?”
“Are you serious? It’s a program. You type in a band you like, and it tries to guess what you want to listen to next.”
I felt my blood start pumping hard. “That already exists? You have that in here?”
“I keep forgetting, you lived under a rock the past year and a half. Yes.”
I turned. Her face was inches from mine. “No, that’s the system. That’s exactly what it’s designed to do.”
“What system?” She reached over my lap and held the volume down button until the music was at a whisper.
I raised my eyebrows. “And it lets you do that, just turn down the music someone worked so hard to make?”
“Now you’re angry about the radio?” She rolled her eyes.
“Not the radio, machines picking music and acting like they understand how humans think. We can’t act like that doesn’t matter. Do you remember our shows? You could get your nose broken or your wallet stolen, but we got in people’s faces. You couldn’t turn that down. Casimir wouldn’t let an audience not participate.”
“True, your sound in those venues was too loud to hear my own thoughts. And do you wanna have that fight again?”
I shouted. “I don’t care. Things used to mean something. There were heroes in the world. Music made me feel good. I had you. Now it’s all just shit.”
“There’s the punk I used to know.” I looked down, and Acid Burn‘s face was on the laptop screen. I smiled. At least something was going right.
Alli stood up. “Okay, I’ll leave the two of you alone then.”
Fighting with Alli for no reason didn’t have the excitement it used to. I have too much else that actually matters.
Acid Burn was curious. “Who was that?”
“Oh, well, we still can’t find the Dude. We know he’s out there, but the only one who could be hiding him that well from us would be–“
“The Dude.” I knew that logic. “So we’re back to square one.”
“Not quite. The network decided, in the absence of other leadership, because you have more freedom, we want you in charge.”
“What?” That didn’t make sense to me. “You don’t have to listen to me. You don’t have to listen to anyone.” Still, it could give me the chance to score with Acid. “But in theory, what could I tell you to do to me?”
Natalie, the girl they call Acid Burn, blushed. “Nothing we wouldn’t both enjoy.” Something else went right. I was on a streak.
192 min later
Later, after Acid went to sleep, I stayed up to see how far the streak could take me, chatting with Tinkerbell. “I was trying to find the power behind the throne, and that’s led me to these investors, but I need your help dealing with them.”
She shook her head. “Well, Harry’s doing it wrong. The Dude knew that keeping the system secret made it more valuable.”
We agreed the leadership was the real problem with the system. I could use that common ground. “Harry doesn’t care about value. He just wants to be in charge of things, keep his empire going.”
“That system of yours would be pretty valuable in the right hands.”
“Yeah, but it’s too dangerous to let exist.”
“You want my advice? Those investors are going to be pissed at whoever kills the project they’ve been backing. This is a bigger game you’re playing, a lot of money on the line. Watch out.”
“I don’t care what they want. I can disappear if I need to. I learned a lot from that time I spent in the office. That has to be good for something. Let them try and find me.”
“Are you still up? Why are you shouting?” Alli was standing at the door to her bedroom, half asleep. It must have been late.
I don’t think I was shouting, but I didn’t say that.
Alli was wearing a sweatshirt, her legs exposed. She always slept naked when I knew her. “I said you could crash here, not use my computer all night. I have a client meeting in the morning. Fuck!” She disappeared into the kitchen.
“I have a meeting tomorrow too.” I looked at Tink on the screen. “I have to go.” I logged off and closed the laptop.
Alli must have thrown that sweatshirt on because I was there, but she was probably still naked underneath. Being around her again reminded me how we used to be, and how much it hurt to lose that. She had a new boyfriend, but he wasn’t the one alone in the apartment with a half-naked Alli. I wasn’t sure what a member of a society would do, but I knew what Effective Disorder’s drummer would.
She came back in with a bottle of wine. That was it. My heart got warm. Some things never changed. She took a swig and gave a smiling exhale. “Want some?”
I really did. I understand a bottle way better than I know women, but I shook my head. I had to figure out a whole new set of rules. What did the investors really want? “I’m playing a bigger game. You don’t get to…” I knew what would happen if I did what I wanted. I pointed at her. “You don’t get to break my heart a second time.” Out of nowhere, the flush and pain of her kicking me out was back.
She stuck the knife in deeper. “I didn’t know you were so vulnerable. My new guy is so much more stable.”
I tried to get her back. “Then where the hell is he?”
“At his own place, which he pays money for.”
“And you still have this place. What happened to the stick and move?” We met and first fell in love at a time when we were at exactly the same level of crazy unstable.
“What happened? I stuck. You kept moving.” It’s true. Alli grew into my lifeline, and I wanted so bad for her to put her arms around me and say it was all gonna be okay. She stood there, and the bottle taunted me, but it wasn’t a game like the bullfights I tried to have with Tink. Charging at her would get me nothing. Why do I have to treat everything between me and women as games?
I relaxed and tried being honest with her. “You hurt me. You kicked me out when I needed you most. I was so pissed, but I’m not anymore.”
She held out the bottle again. “Drink up, young man. You need to relax.”
“I can’t. It makes me too tired.”
“It’ll help you sleep.” She took another sip. “You make me nervous when you’re this sober. Don’t know what you’re going to do.”
“I hope Harry and the system feel the same way.” I stared at the bottle, and the longing overpowered me. “Give me some of that.” That night, I slept in the embrace of my true love.