[Story] Beta Test

Hey cyberpunk literature fans. This is the latest story I've been working on. It's still a first draft of it and not the final form, but figured I'd give you guys a peek under the hood now that I've finally wrapped it up.

My influence for this piece came from a few places. Kavisky's album Outrun, David Cronenburg's Videodrome, and playing Sleeping Dogs.

Hope you dig it.

~~~

“Kasey,” Hamad sucks air through his gleaming white teeth, “you look like hammered skag.”

A Cantonese Sildenafil pop up dances across his face and into Conference Room #3. HealthStats has been on the fritz, but I don’t need an app to tell me I look like I feel. I want to throw up, and not just from the cologne bath Hamad took this morning.

“It’s just some malware with an ill-timed cold,” I force a smile after a coughing fit. “Nothing a little rest and reformat can’t fix, right?”

“Kasey, buddy, we’re coming up on crunch time. You’re usually a straight shooter, but this,” Hamad arrives at the right word, “compromise, has sunk your performance numbers. We need you fresh for milestones week.” Guilt is a reflex I choke back into compartmentalization. “Roplaxive Pharmaceuticals cares about its family. To show our commitment to that value, we’re advancing use of your PTO for a get-away to our executive health resort. You’ll get some R&R and of course be attended by your own lovely health care professional.”

“That’s very generous of the company, and I’m sure they’re great with the health care, but I’m n—”

“Think nothing of it,” Hamad waves me off, “I need everyone in the department in top working order. Can’t have you under the weather when it’s shareholder season.” He looks over Ocean City, lit in morning orange through shadow casting blinds. “You ever been to Hong Kong?”

“I haven’t been out of the OC.”

“Oh Dorsett, you haven’t lived.” Hamad slides a sheaf of smartpaper over the table, keeping his hands far from mine. “Roplaxive bought a lot of real estate out there. It’s like an amusement park for us corporate suits. Loved my last trip.” The paper springs to life with beaches, dining and night life superimposed on a glittering skyline. Sponsored ads for local flavor and cheap low orbit flights flood my HUD.

Hamad is halfway out the door when he says, “Please, for your sake and ours, treat yourself. You’ll feel better in no time.”

*

“Welcome to Hong Kong,” assaults my senses in thirty different dialects, recycling my headache from the loworb flight. My appreciation for empty business class leg room was left in a full airsickness bag. My graybox loops in and out of airplane mode like it did nine hours ago, so I power down and spare myself the reminder of why I’m here.

Through customs, I spot a Xiaoyu template—complete with ultra-cheekbones and impossible grin—projecting a hologram reading KASEY DORSETT from its palmtop. Its vat-grown enthusiasm is exhausting, but at least it carries luggage.

My company limo ride is quiet besides the Kowloon Synthwave soundtrack I don’t bother to turn off. Waves crash and foam off the retaining walls that stand like legs of a protector god. They wear neon light pollution like war paint against the onslaught of risen tides. I crack a misty passenger window to feel cool night air, curious with salt and smog, as we ride through the city’s backside.

Twenty minutes into the future, I’m greeted in the lobby by more smiling service caste clones of The Gentle Breezes at Discovery Bay: a Roplaxive Pharmaceuticals Property. They take my one suit suitcase and guide me to the elevator with a keycard for room 314. Behind its fauxhogany door lies orange walls and soft curves with a fluffy bed. If I could be comfortable, this would comfort me to death.

“Enjoy your stay, Mr. Dorsett.” The porter says from the safety of the doorway as I cough out a lung. “Your technician will greet you in the morning. Please, settle in, rest up. If you need anything, just ask the room. We’ll have you feeling better in no time.” He wouldn’t accept a tip.

*

As much as I chased sleep, it burned nitro once I got its taillights in my view. I was staring into the bay, through a window that didn’t open, when she walked in with a beep.

“Good morning, Mr. Dorsett, I hope you slept well,” comes Tagalog tinted English.

“I didn’t, but thank you anyway.”

Her eyes read pity above ruby painted lips, “You did not ask the Virtual Intelligence for a sleep aid?”

“They didn’t work.” I currently have four different maximum strength brands in my bloodstream.

“I am sorry to hear that. Let us see what we can do for you. I am Nurse Technician Cruz. You may call me Maddy, if you prefer, many guests do.” Her voice rises and falls like everything is a question that changed its mind. “The American office sent us a synopsis of your condition and I would like to begin our treatment program as soon as we can. Are you ready to begin with for some routine scans?”

No. “I suppose.”

“Wonderful Mr. Dorsett,” a wall panel opens above me, exposing an array of robot arms, “or do you prefer Kasey?”

“Kasey works. It’s two less syllables.” She smiles a practiced genuine smile as multiple light spectrums coast over my body. “Honestly, I don’t know why they had to send me out here. I could have just gone to the company health clinic and—”

“—Oh.” Several negative sounds ping from the room VI. Maddy’s eyes widen, reading off her internal display, before regaining composure. “Alright, Kasey, I am going to run our diagnostics suite on you. Your graybox will reboot automatically, that is normal, please do not be alarmed.”

Before I can protest the world turns into a static of fluctuating code too fast for comprehension. Searing pain ignites my skin, blistered with zeros and ones. I’m certain I’m screaming but I can’t hear anything. A prisoner in my own body with no happy place for retreat. Bit by bit my vision and coherence return. I’m shaking, leaking sweat. The soft orange walls are on fire with tinted sunlight. A surprise orderly feeds sedatives into my arm which spread through my veins like a gauze of indifference at the restraints growing from the bed. Maddy slots a cable into me. Its weight tugs from behind my ear. I hear the orderly and Maddy argue over me from across an ocean. Ruby lips telling me, “Relax,” are the last thing I see before the world fades to a BIOS screen.

*

“Kasey?” Ruby red stands out in the fuzzy darkness above me. Nurse Maddy says, “You slept so long after your diagnosis. Would you like to get some fresh air?”

Upright, I rub my sore IV hole and access port, feeling used up inside. It might be the drugs talking, but I think I’ll live. Graybox isn’t responding. I’m almost glad for that. My throat sticks when I say, “Ok.”

She helps me to my feet and we shuffle towards the door. Sedative residuals tingle in my limbs as my weight leans into Maddy’s tiny frame. A magnetic click comes from the door at our approach.

“Where’s your room key?”

I haven’t changed since I left my place for the airport. My fingers won’t close around the plastic card in my pocket.

“I can’t,” is all I get out before Maddy yanks it from my pants and bends the key until it snaps.

The lock clicks with a confirmation tone. Light rushes in as the door slides open to an empty hallway. We move towards the stairwell along a hall studded in camera bubbles. My feet become my own again so I give Maddy a rest past the exit door. She moves too fast for me down the stairs. I need to sit down, shake the fog from my brain. Emergency lights blip a path towards the nearest exit. Maddy’s face switches from blank care provider to worried protector. She grabs my arm and pulls me onto the landing and her support.

“What’s the emergency?”

Barking shouts behind closed doors come from above in response.

“Don’t talk, just move.”

Through the emergency exit, the sky is heavy with humidity and underlit thunderheads. Maddy steers us towards the parking structure. All my breath is spent on running instead of the questions gathering in my head. A stitch forms in my left side and threatens to rip open by the time we’re at the entrance.

“There they are,” carries from The Gentle Breezes. Roplaxive Blue security guard uniforms rush at us from the distance with admonishments to halt and get on the ground.

“Magkantot,” she says, hitting the sensor with her employee badge. It dings green and she pulls me inside. “Hurry. I’m parked in E-5.”

Nurse flats and Italian half heels echo through the employee structure, joined shortly after by determined security staff. Nausea and sharp pain rub their hands all over me as row E comes into sight. A car alarm chirps from a Teslarosa in ruby red. Its doors lift and engine ticks at our approach. I spill myself sideways into the car. Maddy slides into the driver’s seat and straps in. Shifting into reverse, she scrapes some red onto a neighboring car then whips us around, back into overdrive, and floors the accelerator. Pursuers leap out of our path towards the entrance. Foot on the gas, we splinter the parking gate arm and the top of the windshield. When I unshield my eyes, we’re aimed towards Discovery Bay Tunnel, ready to do a repeat through the toll station.

Klaxons sound over the engine whine. The toll operator, lit in flashes of yellow warning light, hits a switch behind the control booth window. With a mechanical rumble, the mouth of the tunnel shrinks from both sides. Maddy’s ruby lips are a knife slash below focused eyes.

Armed guards take position along a catwalk. One second is all we need and they refuse to give it. A hail of live fire hits the pavement and somewhere in the car body. Maddy zigs, popping us over the center island and onto the inbound side, staring at exposed gate. More weapons fire and screeching tires from a zag. Turning into the skid, Maddy guns it, burning rubber at a slant through a crack of opening. Shouts and sirens chase after us while we fishtail our way to freedom.

*

Half an hour of losing ourselves on the rainy Tsing Ma Bridge, Maddy finally answers one of my questions with, “I know a place to disappear.”

We park in a North Point alleyway beneath a neon 按摩室 sign like the ones in Ocean City’s Chinatown. At the backdoor is Maddy’s twin in a cheongsam.

“Maddy, bobo ka ba? You guys are on HKPD scanner now.” She eyes me with concern, “Your qi is all sorts of fragged up, mister.”

“Nice to see you too, Magdalena.” Maddy grunts, tugging me from the car, “Now help me get him inside.”

“You’re lucky I love you—”

“—And we’re the only family we have. Hurry, he’s even heavier than he looks.”

We struggle through a narrow hallway into a room that barely fit the massage table they spill me onto. Whatever pharmaceuticals I had were long gone, returning me to a pile of feverish meat. Maddy feels my clammy forehead and checks my eyes. Maggy thrices herself and mutters a prayer.

“What’s wrong with this guy?”

Maddy looks between me and her sister, “I can’t believe you work in this place, Maggy.”

“Excuse me? Not everyone can get a free ride through HKU. Some of us need work for tuition. If you want this guy to stay in this place, stop evading the question, sister dearest.”

She answers by opening the buttons of my shirt. Maggy gasps into her hands, wide eyed. I summon all my strength to look at the wide strip of twisted metal and flesh forming down my left side.

“They wanted to keep you under to monitor the progression,” Maddy says with big wet eyes. I can’t muster anything besides one word questions. “You are patient zero for a constructed human computer virus.”

“Were you a part of this?” Maggy’s face is righteous anger.

“No,” Maddy says. “Running diagnostics on his graybox caused a security breach that nearly corrupted our scanning protocol. It spread to other essential systems until finally contained. Roplaxive advised us to observe the virus progression, but,” she gestured to my side, “no one expected this.”

“They, did this to me? But I’m only in accounts receivable.” Maddy can’t look me in the eye. “You’re my patient. To them, you’re a test subject. I didn’t…”

“What can I do to help?” Maggy says, with a calming hand on her sister. “I can’t massage him back into shape, and all the hospitals on the island have been bought out by Roplaxive.”

“Then where, some black cross chop shop? All they’ll do is hack out his graybox.”

“Do we know if he’s contagious? Beyond the computer part.” Maddy swallows hard. “We don’t.”

“No, it’s okay. You gals can keep talking about me like I’m not here.” I’m the only one that laughs. It is not the best medicine for being turned into a human motherboard.

Harsh Cantonese echoes through the hall outside. A knock makes us all jump.

“Maggy, there’s police up front asking about you,” whispers through the door.

Reluctant to make it so, the women stare at each other, knowing what must be done. Maggy hugs her sister close then they collect me from the table. Outside, squad car sirens wail through the night, singing a farewell lament as Maggy shrinks in the rearview. Rain spatters off the cracked windshield as tears trickle on the other side. We speed past signs pointing towards Central in the deepening night. Stopped at a red on Queen’s Road, Maddy punches her steering wheel three times, capped with a furious growl. The cars in front and behind honk back.

“She’s so stupid.” Is all Maddy will say on the subject. I’m not in a condition to do anything but moan.

*

My Nurse Technician dumped me in a capsule pod, telling me to get some rest as if I had a choice. She was off searching for passage to the mainland while I fell asleep on a smartfoam mattress that smelled of spilled beer and body odor. I’ve added a few more to the mix and none of them pleasant.

My guts feel like molten lead that slosh when I turn over. My privacy shell rolls upwards revealing three bodies in blue A-type hazmat suits. They grab my limbs and I slough onto a stretcher like a bag of set gelatin. My vision moves from blurry to sharp to pixel sorted, turning the world into an impressionist painting of shape and light as I’m trundled out into the streets. A strip of yellow caution tape keeps the hordes of looky-loos away from the biohazard that is me. A megaphone voice advises them about disabled recording devices and criminal penalties for unlawful footage.

They shove me in an ambulance and a familiar voice keeps saying she’s so sorry and she did her best. All I see is a ruby red smear on a brown face.

“I’m sorry, Maggy. I’m so sorry. They said they’d let us go, I didn’t know.”

On my other side, Maggy never says a word. If she cries, it’s in silence.

A hazmat suit joins us and shuts the doors behind them as we wail away into the early morning. Maddy goes quiet except for the occasional sniffle. I feel I’ve gone beyond pain as somewhere outside of myself hardens into a carapace for gooey insides.

“I know it’s not much of a consolation,” a speakerbox voice comes from the hazmat suit, “but Roplaxive Pharmaceuticals would like to thank you in your participation in this beta test. The real-world data will be invaluable for synthesizing a retail cure. Roplaxive hopes to roll HCV-1337 out by Quarter 4, with the antivirus ready just in time for the holidays. The company expresses condolences that you will be unable to witness it, but the dev team certainly has been inspired in thanks to your efforts, Ms. Cruz.”

Maggy struggles against her restraints, howling for blood. Maddy doesn’t lift her head, taking the abuse her sister hurls at her for getting her involved. My body deconstructs into trillions of voices, singing from within of expansion and assimilation.

“I’ve been charged to pass on our deepest gratitude to you, Mr. Dorsett. You should be proud.” Plasticized rubber patted a part of our carapace. “Your assistance has been invaluable to the Roplaxive family. Our shareholder projections look to smash last year’s earnings.”

Ambulance sirens and tires over wet asphalt mix with needling rain drops and human emotional responses via paralanguage. No more words are shared between passengers. All that’s left for us is to wait. We have all the time in the world and there are other worlds than Kasey Dorsett.

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