This week’s Free Fiction Friday story from UnWrecked Press is “Unplugged.”
UPDATE: Now that the free week is over, you can read the rest of this story by downloading an ebook from Amazon or Smashwords. Then you can read it on your laptop, desktop, Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone, or whatever device you use to read ebooks.
The first version of this story was “Where I’m Jacking In From,” which I wrote while at the Clarion Writers Workshop in the summer of 2006. It was the last week of the workshop, all of us burnt out, but I had to get this story written. The response was mixed, not the raves I was hoping for, which just made me more mad. I didn’t realize how mad things made me back then. So I reworked it, retitled it, and sent it out to publishers.
“Unplugged” was first published in SpaceWays Weekly, January 2000, reprinted at ShadowKeep, September 2000, and then reprinted again in Gunning for the Buddha.
“The details are sharp and unsentimental: we see the ex-cowboys jerking and twitching, hear their mumbled, brain-fried conversations, but the view is compassionate, not scornful, and the inward battle is viscerally real.” — SF Site
I’m on the front porch of Rubin’s place, staring across the lawn at the silent cars slashing past, feeling old and empty inside, when the new guy walks out. He’s got the cowboy twitch, the uncontrolled jerk of the head to the right or left, that all of us have when we first arrive here. I suddenly want to scratch the back of my head, down at the base, but I fight the impulse. The new guy sits next to me, sighs, then pulls his head up suddenly. It goes down and up again three times before I look away. Nobody likes watching someone else short circuit.
“Hey,” he says after a few awkward seconds. His hand is held out to me, close but not touching. “My name’s Jonathan. My two weeks just started.” He gives a quick laugh, and I shake his hand. His palms are dry and cracked, but his grip is strong.
“Mickey,” I say, watching him. The first two days are the worst here at Rubin’s non-tech health facility. Staying unplugged is not an option for a lot of cowboys, but the alternatives –- stims coursing through the nervous system or triggering the built-in lightning viruses just about every system has nowadays, not to mention the unnatural act of plugging metal into the back of your head –- the alternatives aren’t so tasty, either.
Jonathan relaxes slightly next to me. At least he’s stopped twitching. “I knew that flack would catch up to me,” he mutters. His voice is high, unsteady, and his scalp is bright white under buzzed black hair. “That’s what got me here. I had the cheap stuff put in me when I was sixteen, just starting out. How was I supposed to know it melted after prolonged use?”
“Yeah,” I say, the veteran cowboy trying to clean up his act. For the second time. The treatments after my first interment at Rubin’s held for about six months, then I started sneaking trips to Lia’s com line for a fix when she was asleep. Pretty soon I was popping her stims and jacking in every time she was gone. Lia found me in the bathtub, the stripped com wires attached to the miloprene plugs in the back of my skull jolting me with enough juice to cause paralysis. “Should’ve left you in there to dance yourself to death,” she’d said. To break the connection she’d had to prop my head up with an antique wooden chair.
“What’s your story, Jonathan?” I say. I keep my gaze away from him, following the traffic instead. Rubin’s is surrounded by transparent soundproof baffles at the edge of the front lawn, so the silence is complete. Rubin likes the rustic feel, even though there isn’t much peace and serenity left to spare these days. Behind the baffle, the ten lanes of satellite-guided traffic are only a few feet away.
After a few seconds, Jonathan flicks his gaze over to me. “My story?”
“Talk, man. We’ve got to talk to get through this, to pass the time.” A wave of nausea passes through me, and I fight off fresh, unfamiliar panic. “You know?”
Jonathan gets up and leans on the porch railing. “Yeah. Guess you’re right.” He adjusts his white jumpsuit with a quick, smooth arc of his hands. Despite the erosion that must’ve hit his synapses when the flack at his brainstem melted, I can tell he still has some of the old moves left in him. “I started jacking in back when the weather controllers started malfunctioning, and everything went cold for a couple years.”
“I remember that. You’ve been in that long?”
Jonathan shrugs, smiling. “Oh yeah. Had the best rig in the New England systems, which isn’t saying a lot. But it was something. My buddies from the old webscapes helped me get the specs right. It was rock and slide, grab and go for about five years. Then I met Marta.”
“She Russian?” I ask. The west Europeans and Russians had a stranglehold on the sturdier old-tech that had outlived the flashy plastic-and-laser tech from the past decade. Once the flack was installed inside your head, you no longer needed to worry with virching lenses and rings on your fingers; all you needed was your head, and lots of adrenaline. Flack had landed most of us here at Rubin’s with battle scars melted into our heads. Prolonged use was what we were all about.
“German,” Jonathan grins. It takes me a second to figure out what he’s talking about. “But she was a real girl, no prosthetics on her or in her. She made me go back to my old face.” His skinny hand flicks toward his chin, where I can make out a tiny white line that sweeps back to his ear. “Anyway, she came over to get away from the old ghosts in the eastern corridor. Her family was wiped out by an old nuke in Berlin that detonated by accident. Some baby cowboy, thirteen years old, thinking he was downloading some American Defense Department holos, activated it with his rig.”
Jonathan’s voice stops abruptly, and we turn back to the front yard, silent. Something itches at the base of my skull. Electric two-man coaches and Japanese ginsu bikes rush past on the other side of the transparent baffle, a world of speed and motion and tightly-controlled energy. On our side, a black squirrel pats the ground with tiny fingers, trying to jack in on some acorns. Rubin’s quiet world of healing and silence exists alongside reality like a dinosaur in rush hour traffic.
Jonathan’s head has started twitching again. “Must be about time for the circle-go-round,” I say, clapping him on the back. He tenses his shoulders, and his head stops moving. “Let’s go back inside and talk to Rubin.”
* * * * *
There are ten of us at Rubin’s this week. We sit in a circle on gel-filled bags in the muted lights, staring at each other without meeting eyes. The cowboys at the end of their treatments — Penny, Chase, and Marsden — sit and watch with their hands on their knees, trying to convey a sense of cool in their non-descript jumpers. The rest of us twitch or scratch ourselves in varying degrees of intensity. We’re a sorry-looking bunch, out of date and out of circulation.
“Eddie,” Rubin says, nodding toward a kid in his mid-twenties next to Jonathan. “Why don’t you start us out today.” Rubin’s voice is soft, almost inhuman in its monotone. But his eyes are pure intensity under his shaggy eyebrows. Rubin used to be a cowboy, too.
“Oh, okay,” Eddie says. He’s a short, fat kid, sideburns down to his chin, and he won’t stop turning his head around the room, as if he could get all of our attentions by a simple glance. “I told you guys about the time some anti-intelligence agent laced my stims with metal shavings, right? Least I think he was some government agent. And how the next day — I swear to you it’s all connected — the plastic in my head melted?”
Jonathan shifts next to me, both his legs tapping on the floor in discordant rhythms. I cough and catch his eye: take it easy. He lifts his chin a fraction of an inch.
“Yeah, so, the next day I woke up,” Eddie says, scanning the room with his head rocking like a metronome. “And some tall skinny plugger was in the rig room with me, watching me. This guy sticks something into my matrix simulator, without even jacking in, and then clears my rig’s memory.” His voice rises and becomes a warble. “The whole time I’m trying to get the hell up, but I can’t lift my head, like my head weighs a ton. He knocks over my snort, knocks it into my rig, and leaves. It took me all day to get up and read what he burned into it.” Eddie falls silent, staring at the floor in front of him. His sideburns look like a grotesque smile.
“Eddie,” Rubin murmurs. Rubin’s voice is so cool it makes me shiver, and when I start shivering I don’t know if I can stop.
“‘Sleep the sleep of the extinct and obsolete’,” Eddie says, his voice cracking on the last word. His face is white and empty. He doesn’t move.
“Eddie,” Rubin says, louder. “Eddie, keep talking. You’ve got to talk about it.” But Eddie’s not home. He’s jacked in, a surfing cowboy high on a noseful of stims and metal shavings. And he’s seizing.
The gel bag splooshes under Eddie, giving a flatulent honk as his legs kick out in front of him. His stubby body stiffens, synapses hungry for more stims. He cracks his head on the thinly-carpeted floor behind him. I hear Jonathan’s gasp beside me like an interrupted sigh, and I feel a sharp kick of sympathetic pain for Eddie from the plugs at the base of my skull.
Rubin is at Eddie’s side in two seconds. He has something in his hand, a small black Tazer-like gun, which he touches to the back of Eddie’s head. Whitish-blue current shoots out of the end. Eddie punches out with both hands, barely missing Rubin, then he lies still. Only his feet move, his heels drumming on the floor weakly. When I look back at Rubin, his hand is empty again.
I gaze around the room. Nobody else wants to look at Eddie or Rubin. Jonathan’s eyes are wide open like a double-lensed dronecam, recording everything as his mouth drops open and his head jerks spastically to the left. Some playback that’ll be, my mind laughs crazily: a blurred shot of Eddie’s feet kicking at the floor as the perspective teeter-totters around the room, capturing the blank faces of worn-out cyber-cowboys, suddenly aware that at any instant, this could happen to them.
* * * * *