A cyberpunk short story, by Rio Wulfmare
Coffee yawned, then regarded the voice inside her head. For a mental construct, Nikos actually had a half decent taste in tattoos. But bloody hell that droning, iron voice had some nerve, running an abusive occupation of her mind, day and night, as though he never slept. Every word was like a tattooist’s needle, frantically jittering as loud as physically possible, given the cybernetic parameters of the twenty-second century. Nikos was trapped in Coffee’s mind. Coffee was trapped in her parlour every waking hour, between the black walls and chequered floor, under the oppressive look of different portraits and other old designs hanging in plastic picture frames, cracking with disinterest. But her desk gleamed under the bold lights, always well-polished and free of loose papers.
When Coffee was young, The Parents were addicts. like everyone else’s, really; even named their children after their faults. Coffee was named after piping hot coffee and had bundled around the playground with Bloodletter and Bingo without any thoughts about what their parents’ thoughts on espressos were. Nowadays, she only kept the tea bags by the kettle: the coffee was at customer discretion.
But Coffee now had Nikos, and that was certainly something.
Yes, about earlier: for a mental construct, Nikos certainly had a half-decent taste in tattoos, half of the time. Not the standard lions, roses, skulls, what have you. Nikos helped Coffee pick out an extinction emblem, the geometric hourglass a faded grey in the diffused sunlight over the city of Kugelpark. The smog sank heavier than last Tuesday over Kugelpark. Otherwise, you could pick out fizzled red infusing the shapes of the hourglass, a veined marble Coffee was practically famous for on her street.
Oh, and a human skull. The rest of the time, Nikos was a dumb drone, hovering through Coffee’s prefrontal cortex, with perhaps one good idea a fortnight, if that. For all his faults, ink was a real weakness. After Coffee got the tattoo, waking from the anaesthetic rollercoaster of the latest block-buster films, Nikos had little to say beside displaying smug looks in Coffee’s peripheral vision.
“Pukka, innit?” he had said.
The cheek on him! No, it was not bloody pukka. Getting a human skull was only popular last ‘Troubles’, a few months back, when dying by addiction was the new yellow, and even The Parents got themselves ‘plugged in’. Coffee sighed. So much for that. She never touched a coffee bean since.
One skull was Nikos’s triumph, back then. Over the last few days, in between running the tattoo parlour and taking inventory of the one hundred and twenty-eight hues of tattoo ink, Nikos had been moaning for a second. Coffee supposed, after much thinking, that getting the second skull would make the first look a little less tosh.
“Coffee,” Nikos whined. She had only just sat at the desk, boots on table, hands typing at the keyboard during the least busy hour of the day. Or rather, night: the sheer number of lights and signs on the street had made the stars homeless, leaving the sky altogether.
Coffee yawned, slumping into the thick armchair (a small creak being the only reminder that the bearing still had not been re-oiled). “Wot?”
“I fancy a fault.”
“Oh yeah? An’ I fancy ‘going shopping’,” said Coffee, standing from the chair and pacing in a zig-zag movement towards the door. The computer still glowed on the desktop, open to a website about the habits of the past.
“You don’t even know what that means, do you? ‘Going shopping’.” Nikos appeared over Coffee’s vision, arms crossed, as though he would lecture her about the country’s Sunbed Politics. She had seen him worse.
“I do!” she scoffed, “coz’ once, yeah, I heard it on side 981. Y’know, the history side. Those people would surf ‘round, looking for some’ing on their old computers. Clothes ‘n’ stuff.”
Nikos snorted back a laugh, walking around Coffee’s sight. She stopped pacing, in case she tripped over something behind the image of the mildly agitated Nikos.
“Well Nikos, is it addictive? Can it be a fault?”
Nikos laughed. “Can be.” He disappeared from Coffee’s vision, but that intrusive giggle still echoed inside her head. “We used to go shopping in shops, with a selection of the stock, and we would talk to—”
Coffee sighed, the sigh morphing into a yawn that she stifled with the back of her hand, the tattooist glove still stained with tea. “Fine. Wotever. I’ll go get us our fault, then.” She traced the parlour’s edge and faced the street, bright with spasmodic lights beaming in all directions at stupid-o’clock in the evening. Not quite night yet. Then, Coffee scooted out of the narrow porch, out into the tide of tired Swedish Architects shambling around. They read the ‘closed’ sign and scratched their chins or shook their heads, talking to one another in confusion. Coffee rubbed her bleary eyes, indifferent to the sudden flurry of furious noise from all directions, flooding her ears as the door swung open. With the music from the function-rooms (shops that sell experiences, promises, or advertise the Sleep Doctors), Nikos began his dance around Coffee’s skull, circling her mind like an empty amphitheatre. She was not impressed.
“Actually, Coffee, speaking of faults, back when I was stationed up the North Side … ”
Coffee yawned, emphasising the noise and pulling a face at Nikos, then pressed her ’buds deeper into her ears. Nikos’s voice was unaffected. Coffee groaned, then continued Nikos’s story, hoping he would stop. “Yeah, back when they sen’ up that hella big explosion tha’ you hid from in that piddly fort—I’ve ‘eared that story before.”
Nikos spoke on, smiling in Coffee’s periphery, “ … and our munitions were low, the only solace we found was in strong ouzo, back when we never had to name our faults, and we could have as many as we liked!”
“I am not getting us ouzo,” Coffee murmured, emphasising each word. “That’s not our fault.” Thought, she did wonder whether she could procure a bottle or two next she moved apartments (more often that she liked).
Then, walking past a pop-up Sleep Doctors, its lights blasting an acid green and sickly yellow, Coffee caught a whiff of sedative, general anaesthetic, and good dreams beyond that—the kind that sent the tingles talking and perked the muscles up, all jumpy and quivering. The other Sleep Doctors sat around the corner, dingy little cubes of dank walls and decades-old screen doors (almost antiques!), with a mighty orderly queue trailing through the wash of Swedish Architects. Its lights were the only recent invention, just as sickly in its colour.
“Not just that! I used to kill for halloumi, too, back when I stood in—”
“Shut up. I wanna sort out the mind-chest.” Coffee searched with her nose for those whiffs of good (expensive) dreams. At the words, spoken louder than Coffee meant, two architects turned her direction, breaking indifference, and mild horror taking over their faces. “Not yous, bozos.” The pair turned away, bleeding back into the hubbub along the street, slightly disturbed by a person that would talk to themself. How uncanny, they must have thought. How modern, how chic! So up-to-date.
Coffee escaped to the eponymous Kugelpark, at the street’s end, where the square was filled with artificial trees (birch, aspen, and the spindly like) that did not dapple incoming light quite like real broad-leaved trees, the kind with thick canopies and very green leaves. Under those fake trees were hundreds of prefab, plastic benches, all around a central lake, where architects lounged and mingled, going abouts fulfilling their cravings for their faults, be it drugs, drinks, coffee, videos, violence, hanging upside down and letting blood pool at the top of the brain in endless pursuit of the final, inaccessible ten percent of the brain, etc.
None of them would sleep. Have slept. Will ever sleep. It was not a fault to go to the Sleep Doctors and shed your tiredness.
One architect laid along a great (fake) bough of a thick oak, with their big coat and big sleeves limp in the windless air (the blood-pooling type). Coffee assumed a spot in Kugelpark to watch the (probably fake) sun descend, just under the blood-pooler she named ‘Paul’ in her head, and even as night came over the park, that architect was still high as a skyscraper: a strong dose of smack (mixed with, as Coffee learnt the next day, the juices from the eye of a kind of snail) sent him visions like those from a kaleidoscope.
Paul, despite his bleary demeanour and infrequent visits to the Sleep Doctors, never slept. And why should he? A waste of time, all that sleep business, when fulfilling one’s fault, one’s vice, was far more productive.
Coffee left with the rest of the twilight, wandering from the crowded, musty park and squeezing (with less concentration and more frustration) back into the ebbing biz-talk of the Swedish architects. The entire left arm of the street, this side of The Kugelpark, was busy with business suits queuing for the Sleep Doctors. “Give us your money, and we will take your sleep.” In the windows were endless electric squares announcing various new offers, sleep-walker package deals, snore-inclusive guarantees, the lot. Coffee wondered whether the Sleep Doctors all had one joint safe, grand and towering, brimming with hundreds on hundreds on hundreds of good dreams. What a good fault. She walked past the queues.
“Coffee,” Nikos whined. Coffee sighed, facing down the crowd. “I fancy a fault.”
“You said tha’ earlier.”
“But I really fancy a fault now.”
“We’re nearly there now, Nikos. Unlike most, our fault don’t have no expiry date.”
Turning from the main boulevard—two lefts, then a right—Coffee could spot her apartment, towards the top of an apartment-block imitation of the famous Betol Brut tower, great block capitals carved into its shell:
—THE TOWER THAT BREACHED HUMAN CAPACITY—
Hardly! The building they raised next door was far taller, far cleaner, even smelt far nicer. More like, ‘breached human imagination.’
An automated voice bleated out from the toes of Discount Betol Brut (though no less expensive to live in than the real lab-tower), a tinny speaker ringing over the top of the door. “Welcome home, Ms Coffee. How can I—”
Coffee held a hand to her brows, the lights of the city flashing inside her closed eyelids. “No shhh, I’m tired, my ’ead ’urts. Er, decrease volume. Please?”
“Welcome home!” Nikos mocked in his whining, iron voice, laughing in an awkward set of unsettling, unnatural guffaws, all whilst dancing around the bizarre phosphene snakes twisting against Coffee’s eyelids.
“Not funny, Nikos,” Coffee whispered. She yawned again. The door’s lock clinked, then the metal slab wheezed open. Coffee made to step inside just as a silhouette was making to leave. She froze in the foot of the lobby, refusing to match the look of that shadow: Coin Collector. You could guess what his fault was. Actually, the coin collection had shrunk after the tenement state of floor six meant CC was sharing with another whole family; the name had stuck.
“Coffee!” rasped the thick coated silhouette from the darkness.
Coffee groaned, murmuring, “Go away.”
“But hello, nonetheless.” His voice was gravelled and awkward, distinct in its accent: north from Coffee’s place. Though Nikos spoke a broken kind of talk, Coffee could not work out why he had no accent. “How are you today?”
Coffee yawned, mute.
“Oh, speaking of feeling … tired (at which CC shivered the word off of his shoulders), I’m just heading to the SDs before I attend the Fifty Hour Auction: something Celtic in their stock, apparently.” CC smiled. “You wanna come and rid that look about you? The … tiredness?”
Coffee blinked hard at that mottled, grinning face. The smile faded.
“Nevermind, Coffee, nevermind. Don’t let me keep you.” CC moved to the side of the doorway, and Coffee made to step inside. “Although, hey, y’know, you never told me what your fault is.”
“And I’m not gonna.” CC’s face dropped, his eyes falling weary under wrinkles and watery old age, his arms hanging loose against his thick coat.
Another new tower-master. Great. And this one charged even more than the last. Lots more. The receipt was pinned to Coffee’s door, or, had been: the red orb pin was still fast in the smooth wooden door, but the tattered notice rested on the unvacuumed carpet, a footprint spread across one side.
“Evicted again?” Nikos moaned, sulking in the corner of Coffee’s vision. “So much for a quiet life.”
But inside, Coffee’s bed had not been removed. Good. The eviction guard had probably not seen one in their entire lives, nor knew how to think about picking it up, let alone how to strip a mattress of its protector. Otherwise, Coffee’s apartment was a clean cube, with well-mopped lino floors, pendant lights with yellow cones around them, and little else besides. The walls were a faction-based kingdom, part-ruled by a cockroach family, part-ruled by a colony of cretins of some kind, and partly dominated by Gildor’s Mouse from upstairs (but only on the days he injected: Faulted). After three meals a day, seven days a week, four weeks a month for three months, well, Gildor’s Mouse was Coffee’s Mouse now. But she ought to check on him, when she was not so tired. He was quite funny to speak too.
Nikos was not a fan of the new pet. Nevertheless, Coffee named him Bean, after the last item to be taken by the eviction guard. A baked bean.
“Almost there, Nikos. Caw, I’m famished. I’ll just quickly fix up some small dinner, and then … ” but the microwaveable rice packs hidden behind the panelling on the walls were all out of date and the air-frier curry had more than fifteen different kinds of fungus. “Manky rice for dinner, then.” A dull ache festered in her stomach, groaning as it turned. “ … or we can keep the manky rice for breakfast tomorrow morning. I’m not that hungry after all.” Her belly growled. “Faulttime, Nikos?”
Did this get Nikos excited! Though he was programmed to want to fulfil faults, he still buzzed around Coffee’s skull, yippeeing and laughing and hullabalooing, loud as ever. What she would pay to have him uninstalled sometimes. But he made more talkative company than Bean the mouse. Her mouse.
For the first time that day, Coffee laughed too. “Nikos, you know what my fault is. Shouldn’t you be telling me to change it? To choose another? Maybe try a Coffee fault, as a name-sake? How can you get so excited about me falling asleep, and you not existing for a while?”
“Whatever your fault is, I am programmed to support you, just like how the infantry supported us when our backs were pressed against…”
“One day you’ll learn.” Coffee sat on the bed’s edge, kicking off her shoes, then swinging her feet up. Oh, they had taken the pendant light, too. The light was from a hole into upstairs. Smiling, Coffee laid her shoulders back against the mattress. Perhaps she did cheap out with her Nikos, but she did not actually remember what deal she cut: actually, she did not remember ever not having Nikos. He had always been there. Her head sank into the pillow, the fluffy kind that lets you slowly sink back. “One day.” Her feet found the duvet and hoicked it into the air, then she pulled it close with one hand, resting under her chin. “See you later, Nikos.”
“Fault time! Fault time! Fault time!” The iron voice cheered, childish. As the lights receded, the good dreams slowly swam up, and for a little while, Coffee could have her mind back. Reclaiming her Sunbed, for the night, away from state, away from sight. Nikos quietened, then faded, and Coffee caught a pang, a small twinge, in her mind, before silence descended.
Laying, submerged somewhere within the noise and ongoings of Discount Betol Brut, Coffee found there, as every night, a little place—a nice spot—with lots of real trees: a sanctum, of a kind, hidden in a tall clearing, where a swing hung from the elbow of a willow tree branch, over a rivulet that wet your toes, the swing itself made of a soft cotton that was smooth underhand and flexed in a way that you could sit back and read, or lay further back and, with a good story in your lap, fall asleep. Where good dreams dwelt.