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Chapter 7

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Ger stood outside the Babbitt Rehabilitation Center deciding what to do. The grey industrial building was surrounded by a high fence with armed guard 'bots at the main entrance.  Was it to keep people out — or in? Government supported rehab was a costly item and Lorna Freiling had only squeaked by being admitted because of the rad poisoning she had contracted scavenging space junk. There were thousands on the streets of Megacity One who were worse off with crippling Jolt addictions, nowhere to live and rampant crimes against anyone not registered as a Megacity One citizen. Rehab would be a sweet ride for a lotta people.

He fingered his ID — his real ID — as he drifted back to the night before. He hadn’t been surprised when he woke up and found Isla gone. She’d passed out when he used the grotty bathroom in the early morning and he didn’t want to wake her. Even now, he remembered how she looked — peaceful, happy, her long red hair spread out on the Nagatomi pillow, her knees drawn up to her chest as she lightly snored. Ger had never slept with a girl before and he marveled at how — normal — she was. She muttered in her sleep, chasing dreams as Ger turned off the BERSERKER game and laid down next to her.

‘Hey, bud. Gotta credit?’

Ger was torn from his memory by a Jolt addict holding out a dirty comm-link hoping that he would tap in with a credit. He looked old — thirty at least — yet Ger knew from bitter experience that the rail-thin panhandler in front of him was probably about the same age as he was. Jolt was worse than old-school heroin and it was now the drug of choice for those living on the streets. You didn’t feel anything on Jolt. You slept and you dreamed. Lost in a fake life of sunshine, food and constant happy. He’d known a lot of kids who had tried dealing Jolt only to end up users themselves. Jolt was death.

‘You gonna spend it on Jolt?’ asked Ger.

The street kid shook his head. False sincerity written all over his face. ‘Nah, man. I don’t do Jolt. I just wanna get a meal. I don’t wanna get high.’

Ger tracked the air syringe marks coating both sides of the kid’s arm. They were a dead giveaway — not including the fact that the junkie was shaking desperate to get high. He needed a fix bad. He sighed and swiped his comm-link over the kid’s communicator and a cash register sound tinged. He’d dropped a couple credits from his loot. On the sound of the transaction, the kid raced off into the busy street. No thank you. No goodbye. Heading straight towards the downtown core — Jolt Town. Maybe he’s not gonna get high?

Ger splashed across the dirty street heading towards the Babbitt. Yeah, right.

 

Inside the lockup, he waited in a dingy plastic waiting area with metal screens over all the windows. Administrator 'bots operated behind thick plexiglass screens as the cruel sounds of the Babbitt echoed about him. Ger tried not to let the noise drive him back out the front door. According to the records, Lorna had only ten days to go on her cure and then she’d be free. She’d still have the radiation poisoning — but she wouldn’t be addicted to her pain killers anymore. She’d have beaten that at least. Ger concentrated on the writing that Isla had left on his arm. She gave me her real DM.  And she’s from Homewood?!

Grotty as the Babbitt was, and all of the ratholes that Ger and Lorna had known, he couldn’t even imagine what life was like up in Homewood. He’d seen the vid shows on the gated community for the elite and knew that he was from a totally different world than Isla.

<Freiling, Gerald?>

Ger started, not used to hearing his real name called out in public looked about for the source. A green light flashed over a cubicle for an admin 'bot as his name displayed on the message board beside it. He dropped into the chair opposite the robot and put on his best rule-following face, smiling widely at the machine.

‘I’m Ger Frieling.’

<You are cleared for a five minute unsupervised visit with — Freiling, Lorna. Follow the arrows to your destination. Return this unit before you exit under penalty of prosecution for non-compliance.>

A small square plastic tracker popped out of the counter separating Ger from the robot. He turned it over and saw a green arrow pointing left. Following the tracker, Ger was admitted through the guarded entrance to the patient’s area.

A long sterile corridor stretched in front of him with locked anonymous doors on both sides. He tried not to gag at the smell as he moved deeper into the rehab facility. Ger sighed in resignation steeling himself to see his mother. When he had last seen Lorna, she had weighed just over 100 pounds and that had been three months ago. Judging from the grey look of the Babbitt, Ger knew that she probably wasn’t getting the best of care here. But it’s better than nothing — and she won’t be here long. She’s only got ten more days.

<STOP. Please enter here only>

Ger stopped. Twisting the tracker from left to right, a green arrow pointed at a plain metal door on his right. A thumb-pad sat in the middle of the frame.

<Present ID>

He thumbed onto the pad and waited for the locks to disengage. The bolts clanged open as the door swung aside allowing Ger to enter. Gulping, he stepped forward. Determined to not let his mom see just how disgusted he was at the facility.

 

Lorna was strapped to a gurney in the gloomy windowless room with dirty linens piled to one side that stank of urine. A single light bulb hung overhead harshly illuminating the room.

On the gurney, Lorna’s head has secured in a plastic helmet complete with a feeding tube pushed deep into her mouth and throat. Her eyes bugged in panic. Ger staggered as he raced to his mother. He flailed at the straps securing her to the bed desperate to free her.

‘Mom. Mom…. I didn’t know….,’ stammered Ger as he fumbled opening the restraining devices. Her paper-thin smock revealed yellowing skin and the telltale marks of air-pressure needles across her arms and legs. Lorna gagged as Ger pulled the feeding tube from her mouth, throwing the plastic helmet across the filthy room. Tears burst from both as they clutched each other in desperate need. Ger turned away as Lorna spat thick mucous onto her bedspread, coughs wracking her too-thin frame.

‘I’m so sorry… I’m so sorry… I didn’t know…’

Lorna shook her head at Ger’s apologies. Bright red spots livid on her cheeks, her voice was a rumble, drawn deep from the bruising of the feeding apparatus.

‘It’s—not—your—fault, son. This is —all that you get—. Forced feedings and Jolt for the pain.’

Jolt. They’re giving her Jolt?

Ger reeled as he clutched his mother. ‘Why are they giving you Jolt, Mom. I thought you were here to get off the pain meds?’

Lorna sighed. ‘They did get me off the meds. I don’t need them anymore. They don’t want to waste any resources on sickos like me. So they get us stable and just fix us up with Jolt to keep us quiet.’

Ger stared at his mother in disbelief.

‘I’m terminal, son — so all they do is just make it easy for us to die. ‘

Isla sat in her bedroom, buzzing with excitement. She’d been able to neatly bypass where she was all night — and now her Dad was coming home. She fired up her computer and replayed the message from her father for the third time. Communicating in deep space is difficult at the best of times and she had hated how her mother hung on the sporadic broadcasts from her Dad. He always looked so haggard, pale and thin and barely resembled the man she so fondly remembered.

Accessing the playback on the call, her father’s red hair and beard looked freshly cut and combed for the event. As a deep space engineer, he was able to receive perks from time to time and had clearly spruced himself up for the announcement. It still didn’t help the dark shadows under his eyes. He looks tired.

“Marta, Isla… I’m coming home. Orders just came in. I thought I was going to get them — and it’s one of the reasons I haven’t been so available for you. I didn’t want to disappoint you if it didn’t come through.”

Isla beamed at her father, her fingers reaching out to touch the screen as her heart swelled.

Dad’s coming home.

‘I’m a terrible liar, as you both know and I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my excitement off my face, so I’m sorry for not picking up when you’ve been calling.”

Onscreen, her Dad smiled — a real, happy smile and Isla’s heart lurched in joy. Dad’s coming home.

‘We should be dropping out of orbit tonight and I’m hitching a final shuttle back with some of the returning ‘droid troops that were part of the terrible business on the moon. I feel horrible for those guys. They’ve gone through a lot. I don’t know what I would have done in their place.’

Isla sighed as her Dad reminded her of the food revolution that had been in all the news last week. Workers on the moon base project had been cut back on rations due to a processing error and it had turned into a full-fledged riot at the outpost. Equipment had been damaged and military 'bots were sent in to squash the uprising. Some politician had approved the use of space HT’s on the largely civilian population and they’d been a horrible outcry both here on Earth and beyond when the military had no choice but to pacify the combatants once they hacked the HT’s and turned them against the troops. Nobody even knew this was possible due to the encrypted protocols attached to the HT’s - they were supposed to be unhackable - but somehow, moon-based strikers had flipped them and sent them on a search and destroy mission against the armed soldiers.

‘I’ll see you either late tonight or early tomorrow based on the jump protocol. I love you both.’

Isla’s Dad signed off blowing kisses to them as she leapt to her feet. What to wear? What to make him? This is going to be epic! Unlike her mom, Isla’s Dad supported her love of old-school rock n’ roll and made her mixtapes of garage bands from the 1970’s and earlier. He would help her search online for vintage T-shirts and shoes and even help program the replicator to make copies of the fashion from the day. Her mom had been horrified at the punk shirt she sported to school while her Dad had just laughed. He was the one that taught her all about Ramones — the greatest rock n’ roll band that ever lived and helped her get her period-perfect leather jacket, her pride and joy. She wrapped herself in the bruised leather jacket smelling the faint traces of the night before still lingering in the cloth lining. Isla didn't care as she spun in her chair and beamed. Dad’s coming home.

<Ping!>

A message bell sounded on her computer and she quick-tapped it to open. Onscreen, a prompt for connection on her home account was waiting. Maybe, it’s Ger? She didn’t regret leaving him her actual coordinates after the night they had had. She hated to admit it — but it had been one of the most exciting times of her life. Running from the HT, falling off the fire-escape…  I could have been killed.

< GNGR U Up?>

She didn’t recognize the shady return addy but no surprise there. Ger was pretty good at masking his ID so she wasn’t too surprise to see an unintelligible string of letters and numbers as the return.

<Was-sup>, she typed. Might as well keep it light.

She was still reeling from actually sleeping next to a boy — a guy — nothing had happened, but it was still a big first. She’d messed around with boys, of course, but never spent the night out alone like that. Definitely a night of firsts.

< We got cut off last nite. U wanna P2P for realz?>

Isla gulped. This isn’t Ger. It’s Jericho! How did he get my home addy?

Checking her door to make sure it was closed, she pulled herself closer to the terminal and started to type.

< CRZY NITE. Chased by HT. Almost fragged.>

< I Know. Hacked the street CAMS. You and N00b totally pantsed HT>

Isla’s fingers flew across the keyboard typing. Wow, Jericho saw me and Ger get chased? He hacked the surveillance cams? Who is this guy?

<Got lucky. Lost my VPN. Couldn’t get back. Sorry>

<FTS,> came the immediate reply, < I got VPN’s to burn. I’m a tag you with a meet space tonight. K?>

Isla stopped typing. Tonight? Dad’s coming home. This isn’t gonna work for me, maybe.

<IDK,> she typed. <Got plans. Hard to break.>

A IRQ badge popped up on her monitor.

<Sent you coordinates. Come. You wanna see 4Sure>

She pulled her comm-link from her bag and scanned the IRQ symbol and it jumped to life.

A cartoon thrash band hologram started jamming in the air in front of her as explosive text detonated about the band. MUSIC. MEETUP. MADNESS. The words burst in jagged 80’s style type in the air as the discordant rockers kicked out the jams. CODERS. CREATORS. CRAZIES. More text slammed into the air as Isla couldn’t help but crack a huge grin. This looks fun.

< CMON. We can dance. You ❤️ Ramones?>

Her lips pursed in thought. Well, Dad’s not gonna be in until late or even tomorrow so there’s no reason why I can’t go. And Mom’ll be fine cause it’s all about Dad right now. Why not? And it’s not like the cop 'bots are looking for me or anything, really. It took her a microsecond to make up her mind.

< Hey Ho, Let’s Go,> Isla typed.

The IRQ hologram closed asking her to accept the invitation to the party.  She tagged the e-vite and looked back at the screen.

< 1 of US> blinked onscreen and then winked off.

Jericho was gone.

Isla leaned back and took a deep breath. I’ve just been invited to a crazy party by one of the coolest guys I’ve ever seen and my Dad’s coming home — for good, maybe? Can this day get any better.

‘Computer, play ‘Rocket to Russia’

The brash callout out of Dee Dee Ramone filled her bedroom counting down the intro - 1-2-3-4 and the opening power chords of Cretin Hop filled the room.

Isla leapt to her feet and started dancing.

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