Mark was putting away his gear for the day. The oscilloscope was tucked away in the corner with inputs empty; all its cables neatly wrapped and ready for whatever analysis needed doing in the morning. His microscope was already swung out and away from his station, his soldering iron tinned and properly stowed. He’d just finished the addition of some status LEDs to a breadboard for the benefit of engineers who weren't blessed with oscilloscopes, or the wherewithal to use them. Say what you would about management and their prejudice, stuffing him in a dark corner, repeatedly passing him over for promotion, but Mark made the prototypes that kept the company running and any engineer in ‘the know’ came to him when things got muddy.
He paused a moment at his workstation, debating if emails could wait until morning. There were a lot of issues with the iris recognition modules in the new security drones: ICs in brown out, IO lines with impedance mismatch. The little things the amateurs missed. The little things that make and break projects. Leaving things unfinished was not in Mark’s nature. The unanswered mail would rest all night like a splinter in his mind, but it was late and Mark had to admit that he was done.
Most of the office lights were down and the hallway echoed the familiar clip-clop of his own tired feet. The security door beeped pleasantly to acknowledge his departure as the magnetic lock disengaged, and the hydraulic rams gracefully swung the heavy door outward. Mark took the short elevator ride to the the parking garage and nestled comfortably in his car a moment later.
“Home.” he said, the long day making his voice flat and affectless.
“Going Home.” The car replied in its pleasant synthetic voice. Mark had always hated that voice. Atvia Motors had buried keyboard input for the built in GPS when they expanded voice control in the new model year. Typing may seem archaic to some, but even a short conversation with your car was more irritating to Mark than a long conversation with an actual person. Once again, power users had been forcefully relegated to the realm of the lowest common denominator.
Every year the garage became less relevant as more citizens normalized to the growing fleet of affordable driverless cabs. Even more scarce were cars with good old fashioned rubber wheels. Mag Lev was the way of the future and a service Delphi offered publicly on all major roads, but Mark didn’t spend all his time in the city, occasionally visiting relatives in the outskirts far beyond the range of Mag Lev. Plus, rubber still gave the best feel when the accelerator was down. It had survived with the connoisseur much like the standard transmission. No enthusiast would be caught dead without it, regardless of inconvenience.
Oberon Corporate headquarters loomed over Mark’s departure. Where the building would block the sun in the day, the lights in and around never let proper darkness encroach on its territory. This edifice was weight pressing on Mark’s back until the car finally pushed into the welcome repose of night, beyond Oberon’s domain.
Now, the word ‘night’ in Delphi was not synonymous with ‘dark’. White diffused light beautifully illuminated the clean city streets. Tiny lantern drones with bright glowing bellies hovered over the road, piggybacking on the Mag Lev system. Even now pedestrians strolled the tiny shops and restaurants of the Uptown district. The nooks and crannies that radiated like little veins between the holdings of the various megacorps were filled with life. In other parts of the city these thoroughfares would have been nothing but dirty little alleys, but here they thrived with couture fashion and rave 4-seat restaurants. High profile executives and noted scientists, flush with cash, fed the sprawling micro economy. Young engineers, full of love and hope, escorted interests on their special days. In the more sparse areas, between the little alcoves, lantern drones would occasionally break formation and follow directly overhead, faithfully providing clear personalized light to supplement the tender ubiquitous glow that hung persistent, like a blanket, over the entire district.
Shit peddlers. Most of them, anyway. All decorated and polished, glittered and shiny. Mark could see through the fakeness, through the veneered and gussied exterior to the septic brown. First adopters enabled the flow of garbage by purchasing buggy, overpriced gadgets and hideous impractical clothes. They dined on impossibly perfect, photo worthy meals, made with techniques they didn’t recognize and exotic spices many of them couldn’t even taste.
Then there was Old Town. Almost like falling off the edge of the world. The bright illumination gave way to a patchwork of antiquated streetlights. Perfectly paved roads transformed into serviceable asphalt. A coarse gravel sound under the tires replacing the oh so gentle hum of the manicured thoroughfares in Uptown. The apartments and shops here had a strange, ageless sensation. The vinyl siding on the ‘newer’ buildings was indestructible and would have been utterly ignored by time if not for the thick oily dust that had sloughed over them in thin greasy sheets. Windows were foggy and unwashed. Alleyways were dark and impenetrable in the night.
As Mark moved deeper into Old Town, the buildings were brick and steel, sweeping Art Deco corners and crowned tops, designed to match the vintage aesthetic of the 1920s. This was Delphi’s first heyday, before the Great Depression ended the age of the skyscraper. Reclaimed bricks and wood pushed the boundaries of the illusion, but anyone familiar with the architecture of the period could see the influences of modernism and postmodernism, revealing original from counterfeit. Although the point was largely moot, since virtually nothing built before 1950 was still standing.
Street by street, Mark glided through the stucco and painted concrete into a place of comfort and security. All the inane questions of his managers, all the interruptions of his peers, the million inconveniences of occupation were left behind in the short jaunt from Oberon to Old Town.
The car settled to a stop at a red light behind a few other late night commuters as a small slew of hovering cars glided along the cross street. Mark watched them pass with some small interest, meditating on the inevitable infiltration of the corporate monster.
Mark turned his head sharply as the loud crash sounded in the alley to his left. Squinting, he peered through the window into the darkness at a classic steel and chrome scooter, draped in a distressed, feminine form.
Unmistakable, especially to the more discerning gearhead, there it was. Laid over on it’s side, the 2010, GTS 300 Vespa. Restored to the iconic canary yellow, the chrome of its side mirrors and trim winked in the flickering backlight of the alleyway. More impressive still, wrenching at the machine to pull it upright, was a woman.
Even from a distance, in the rather poor light, the silhouette was enough to make Mark’s jaw go decidedly slack. In that moment Mark beheld what seemed a contradiction - an antique scooter and a contemporary female. Her pants had to be painted on, with patterned webbing along the legs to expose skin of an almost iridescent white. Her riding jacket was much the same, tight and form fitting in a way only diet, exercise, and doctoral augmentation could provide.
It was a bad place to break down and a bad time of night to do it. That Vespa weighed over 300 pounds dry and by the way the girl was fumbling it was clear she’d never laid it over before. Mark couldn’t leave a damsel in distress, especially when he was so perfectly the man for the job.
“Car, pull over and roll down driver’s side window.” The car quickly reversed and parked against the curb. As the window came down the young woman dropped the scooter the few inches she’d managed to lift it from the ground.
“Miss...do you need any help?” Her head jerked up and Mark thought he’d frightened her, but her face split into a smile of perfect teeth, white as her skin in the flickering light.
“Would you? I was trying to take a shortcut when this died on me.” Her hand splayed open indicating the Vespa. “I’ve never laid it over before, and turns out I can’t even lift it.” Her head bobbed downward with her hand coming to rest at the back of her neck. Her posture was shy, embarrassed even. Mark couldn’t believe his luck.
“Of course I’ll help!” Mark said, a little louder than intended, pulling open his door and making his way toward the woman.
The particulars may have changed, but the art was the same. The tiny Mark, moving to complete his quest as the noble hero.
The movement. Life, even the facsimile of life, was incredible.
The damsel, lovely in the moonlight.
...a little cut…
Mozart, even Beethoven, couldn’t move their fingers so deftly. So poetic as to inspire bravery and romance with a tug this way, and a tug that. Dance, the bait danced and her partner danced too.
The Mark was so plump with answers.
...a little string…
From here everything was small.
Patience. Always patience. A moment, or a hundred.
To strike too soon was to fail.
The illusion will not hold forever.
Soon he will be suspicious.
Small things were beautiful and they never looked up.
As Mark drew closer to the mysterious woman the stench of the alley grew more palpable. His nose was flooded with the scent of decay, probably emanating from one of the many rancid piles of trash. The sweet, sharp fragrance of her perfume was dramatic, mixing strangely with the rotten smell. Her lipstick was dark, almost black in the dim light of the alley. From this distance he could see thin lines of it moving from the corners of her lips, across her cheeks, up almost to her ears. It gave her face a strange costumed appearance, like she’d fallen out of a Victorian masquerade.
As Mark moved into the alley she backed away to give him room, her motion smooth, almost gliding.
She turned her face sheepishly as he watched her. Mark understood. Getting stranded in a dark neighborhood in such sparse attire would feel awkward for almost anyone, he imagined. As she began her next phrase he saw tiny white glints emanating from the deep lines of her lipstick and Mark thought for a moment he could see the tips of her teeth peering out from the sinister makeup. Whatever she said, Mark did not hear it. Her shoulders, just visible beneath the deep neck of her tightly fitting jacket, were unnaturally thin. When her arms moved they raised slightly, as if she were shrugging with every gesture. The thick, black choker around her neck seemed jagged and too tight, like it was eating into her. For a moment, Mark imagined the thinnest ray of light shining through her neck. Mark’s gaze became uneasy and he moved it to her deep round eyes for the comfort he thought he would find in the acknowledgement of his chivalry, but there was no comfort. The eyes stared unblinking. Their size, far larger and rounder than he had ever believed possible. What eyes he had imagined as almond and lush under the shadow of her hair had the sickening sheen of an old, peeled grape.
The girl leaned down again as if to retrieve something from the ground, but at the last moment she collapsed like a ragdoll, her arms and legs twisting in on themselves to create a disjointed pile of clothing, skin, and bone.
Up to this point Mark had, with some success, been able to relegate the inconsistencies of the situation firmly behind his desires to be a ‘good samaritan’, ‘help a damsel in distress’, and the optimistic hope for a little reciprocation. But with the literal collapse of his muse, the urgency of those more base impulses were screaming at him to GET THE HELL OUT!
Mark twisted to run, every muscle poised to launch toward the car and safety...but the alley was blocked. There was no street behind Mark anymore, no car, no safety, just a massive hulking something that stretched the breadth of the alleyway. Mark wondered how he hadn’t heard it. Something that big didn’t move without being heard. Whatever it was, it was black. Not a familiar black. Not the black of a raven, or ink, or asphalt. It was a nightmare black. A hungry black. A place where light went to die. Suspended in that voided space was an outline. A rorschach arrangement of thick yellow lines. Was it a face? A skull? Elongated and grotesque, Mark couldn’t tell.
Before he could take another step, another breath, thick limbs, hard and strong as steel hooked under his arms and legs and began lifting him into the air. It was not a forceful gesture. It felt almost loving as he was pulled toward the creature. Mark began to wriggle in the things grasp, only to find two impossibly sharp points had been fixed at his temples. Mark’s body jerked instinctively and he found that, while his lower body flailed about, his head was held fast. Mark didn’t realize he was screaming until the sound of his voice was gagged by the force of something darting into his open mouth. It scraped against his teeth, prying his jaws apart.
In a way Mark didn’t understand, that he would never understand, the needle end of the thing in his mouth jointed upward and punctured just behind his uvula. It pushed into Mark’s cerebellum and with a jolt Mark began to remember… and then remembered no more.