Guardian Angels

Sacramento, California

5:45 a.m. PST

 

Somewhere between the gentle rocking of the train car and the soft glow of the amber running lights, Rick Diaz felt himself slipping back into his recently abandoned sleep. It was easy to drift away when the clock had not yet passed six in the morning and the sun was still nowhere to be seen. He always found it unnatural that people should be up and about when the world itself had not yet woken. He held this opinion despite doing just that ever since graduating college and joining the workforce—more than a decade at least while working for Vinestead International. Every day of the week had its own comforting sameness. Monday through Friday, he would wake at five to shower, shave, and dress. Then he'd make the hour-long commute into downtown Sacramento, joining the rest of the woken dead in the perilous journey towards the daily grind. Sometimes, he would make it to his desk before the sun came up; with his office facing the wrong way, he could only indirectly observe the sunrise as it illuminated the city around him.

His eyes drooped, casting a strange haze over the already dimly lit car. The safety lights on the floor bent and twisted around his eyelashes, stretching the golden color across his field of vision. He played with the focus in his eyes, pushing the beams around, making them dance for his amusement.

I control the light, he announced to himself. And whosoever controlled the light, controlled the darkness.

The image of a light bulb switching on caused a sickening feeling to erupt in his stomach. He recalled the day before, recalled one of a million pointless confrontations with the woman he called his wife. It had started with light bulbs, new LED-based technology that the sign at Home Depot said would save him money on his electric bill. He had replaced half of the bulbs in the house when Charlotte arrived home and put a stop to it. Get a better job, she'd suggested, so they wouldn't have to worry about the electric bill.

Rick's head snapped up, jolting him back to reality. The train was still rolling along, speeding between the towering buildings on elevated tracks, a true snake in the weeds. The random strobes on the track sped by at a comforting tempo, casting flickers of light into the car and highlighting the shadowed faces of the other riders.

At the far end of the car, a man was leaning back in his seat, with his hands in the pockets of his trench coat, pulling the sides of it around his body at the waist. His face told the story of a man overworked, of someone trying to sneak in a few moments of rest before the daily chaos started. Slightly across from him, a woman with a makeup kit was applying some last minute blush to her pale cheeks, her strokes seemingly oblivious to the train's rocking. The blades of light crossed her face, sparkling momentarily in her bright blue eyes. Rick rotated his head back to the right.

And saw her.

Sitting across the aisle was a woman in a beige, pleated skirt and a white blouse. In her hands, she held a battered paperback with a bare-chested man on the cover. She had come out of nowhere, must have slipped onto the train while Rick was dozing. How many stops had come and gone while he drifted in and out of yesterday's nightmare? She certainly hadn't been there the last time his eyes were open. He would have noticed her. Noticed those legs.

He had a wide grin on his face by the time his eyes reached hers and found she was raising an inquisitive eyebrow at him.

"Something funny?" she asked. Her voice was smooth with a kind of polished alacrity. It was such a far cry from the woman he shared his bed with.

"What? Sorry, no." He searched for the words, felt the heat in his cheeks. "I was just… The man on the cover there and the woman with the heaving breasts. Just, funny, I don't know." He shook his head at his feebleness.

The woman turned the book over in her hands and examined the cover. "He does look like he would crush her in bed, huh?"

Rick smiled, sensing hope. "Those books always have the worst covers."

"You know what they say about judging books," returned the woman, replacing her bookmark between two pages. "They're trashy, I know, but I love them." She smiled, squishing her eyes into her cheeks. "My name is Bonnie."

"Rick," he replied. Their hands bridged the gap between them. "That's an interesting name. You don't hear it too often anymore."

"Nope," said Bonnie, pushing her book inside her satchel, "not since they stopped naming boys Clyde."

Rick chuckled, his first real lighthearted moment in a long time. He felt the heat of the sun rising behind him, striking him in rhythm between the buildings. Glancing at the sliver in his wrist, he noted that the train was running ahead of schedule. When he looked again at Bonnie, the light had begun to fall on her face and he could see her features more clearly.

She had short hair, light brown, cut just below her chin with a slight curl at the tips. Most of it was pushed back over her ears, drawing Rick's eyes into a semicircle of adornments—rings and studs of various colors and complexity. Her eyes were a light brown, growing darker towards the center in a gentle gradient to black. Her lips—

"Hello?" Her words registered just enough.

"Oh," he chuckled. "I'm sorry. I just can't wake up in the morning. You were saying?"

"What's with the light bulbs?" She motioned to the plastic bag next to him. It had fallen over and the contents had spilled onto the seat.

Corralling the bulbs with his hand, Rick replied, "They're LED. Um, they use less electricity. I have some lamps at work." His words felt disjointed.

"You have to pay for your electricity at work? That's harsh."

"No, I just like the light they put out. It's different from those compact fluorescents, you know? You see the room in a different way, newer or something. I don't know, it's probably stupid."

"Don't say that. It's a good idea, good way to liven things up a bit. God knows we could all use a different perspective now and then."

"Yeah," he replied, looking down.

"I just fill my cube with plants, more and more each week. Soon I'm going to need a machete just to get to my desk."

Rick laughed, imagined her wielding a rusted blade against the green jungle.

"Then again," she continued, "you could probably put the whole damn Amazon in my office, and I still wouldn't want to go."

"What do you do?"

"You first."

"I'm a coder. I work on a project called LyDIA."

"Let me guess, she's a sex sim?"

Rick chuckled as he shook his head. "It's short for Linguistic Data Input Analysis. It's about as unsexy as you can get."

"Wow," said Bonnie, her eyes widening, "that sounds important."

He looked up, got lost again in her lips. "It sounds more technical than it is. Speech recognition has been done. We're just reinventing the wheel so we don't have to pay licensing fees on patents." That's fine, he thought to himself. Just bore her. It wasn't like he had a shot with her anyway.

"Isn't there a quote about no small jobs, only small men?"

He raised a defensive eyebrow.

"Not that you are," continued Bonnie. She paused, took a breath. "Well, I work for a data protection MSP, but I usually get stuck with the client-side interactions. I'm working on an account right now for some big shot lawyer. You ever hear of Duncan Stills?"

Rick shook his head.

"He works those criminal cases where the guy is always totally guilty. We're doing some redundant backups of his files. You wouldn't believe the stuff this guy is into. He's more of a crook than the people he defends, but everything he does is legal! Only in America, my friend."

"When lawyers are outlawed, only lawyers will… have…"

Bonnie smiled, suppressed a giggle. "You want to rewind and try that again?"

"You know what I meant."

"So which firm do you work for?" The casual crossing of her legs drew his eye.

"Vinestead International." He knew no further explanation was needed.

"No way! That means you're in the Vinestead West building off Capital Park, right?"

He nodded.

"That's crazy!" She reached out and slapped his knee. "I'm Meridian Plaza." She smiled at him, pondering the coincidence. "We've been building buddies this whole time, and we never even knew it!"

* * *

They stepped out onto the platform at Capital Park Terminus together, taking deep, refreshing breaths of the cold morning air. The station was mostly empty; only a few people were leaving the train and even fewer were getting on. Rick turned his face towards the sun, enjoyed the warmth. Next to him, Bonnie glanced at her watch.

"The train ran early, didn't it?"

Rick turned to her, poised to speak. He didn't want their chance encounter to end, but part of him was still too timid to simply ask her.

"I still have some time before I have to be in, and I usually get some coffee on the way…" She trailed off, leaving the question unasked.

"Sure," he said, immediately. "There's a place just around the corner in the BSC Tower."

"Bubbling Joe's?"

"You know it?"

"I go there every morning!" She smiled, feigned a suspicious eye. "Are you sure you're not a stalker, Rick?"

He tried to laugh off the question, but all that came out was a nervous giggle that did nothing to confirm his innocence. "For all I know, you're stalking me."

Bonnie nodded. "Good point." She took the inside of his arm with her hand. "Lead on, stalker. Let's see if you really know the way."

They walked down the steps from the terminus and into a city that was blooming like a garden. All around them, people-flowers unfolded and turned towards the sun. The streets came alive slowly, with only a few cars zipping between blocks. That would all change soon, Rick knew. Within the hour, the whole place would be gridlocked. He thought it strange that it should happen so fast, that the whole city could be tuned to the same start time. For now, most of the activity was happening behind foggy glass, in the storefronts at the base of downtown's numerous towers and skyscrapers.

Bubbling Joe's was one of the few remaining coffee shops in the city. As a national chain, it at first seemed immune to the rise of synthetic caffeine and code-based pick-me-ups. But little by little, the number of shops diminished, were shuffled around downtown trying to pick out the best and most densely-packed cluster of coffee drinkers. There were only two other people in the café, and Rick knew it wasn't because of the early hour.

"Can you get me a double super?" asked Bonnie, as they entered. "I need to freshen up real quick."

"Alright," he replied, laughing to himself. So that was her game, scamming a cup of coffee from a random guy on the train.

A yawning young man took his order on a register that boldly displayed the message no cash, no check, no card. A small LCD on top awoke from its black sleep and displayed Rick's personal details. The appearance of his name and a small photo made him smirk. His mind paused for a moment, but when it picked up again, he was thinking of Bonnie. At least he would get to sit down and have coffee with some new company. That was easily worth the price of a cup of joe. He found a table near the front windows and settled into the uncomfortable wooden chair.

A few tables away, an older man was lost in the folds of a newspaper. It was a common sight, not just the newspaper, but the fact that the person reading it was old. Had he been any younger, he would have been studying the fine lines of a handheld palette. Younger than that, he might have preferred the micro-resolution of his wrist-based sliver. Either way, the world was changing and as always, some people refused to change with it. Rick bit his lip. The guy probably wasn't even chipped.

"Well, that was fun," announced Bonnie, sliding into the seat next to Rick. She took a few tentative sips from her cup. Her lips glistened in the fluorescent lights.

"Won't that ruin your lipstick?" Rick didn't know where his words were coming from, but at least he had given himself a reason to stare at her mouth.

Her eyes widened. "Not for thirty-three dollars a stick!" She pulled a compact mirror from her bag and checked her lips. She breathed a slight sigh of a relief. "That's why I buy Revlon," Bonnie explained. "It's that Kissable something or other. Have you seen that commercial where the girl goes around kissing everyone at a party and her lips still look good?"

"I must have missed it," said Rick, even though he had seen it several times while Charlotte watched her evening dramas.

"Of course, the only way to claim false advertising would be to kiss like fifty guys. And honestly, who has time for that?"

Rick stared at his coffee and listened to the elevator music coming from the ceiling. It was some kind of broken down version of Bach, cold tones without the subtlety of the original.

"So, I owe you a finskie, huh?"

"No, this one's on me. My treat."

"Why, that's very gracious of you, sir." She placed her hand on his. "I've been having trouble paying ever since they moved to the GA system. There's only one cashier I know who will take my card."

"You're not chipped?" He tried to hide the incredulity in his voice.

Bonnie shook her head, making her hair move in a flowing curtain. "Nope, I'm all natural, just like God intended."

Rick made a face.

"But I'm no Luddite. I jack in with the best of them. I just draw the line at putting foreign objects in my body."

Rick couldn't help but smile.

"You know what I meant."

Nodding, he gestured to the old man's newspaper with his cup. On the front page was a story about Vinestead International's latest foray into national politics. "You might not have a choice after today."

"How do you figure?" She squinted to read the newspaper.

"They're supposed to announce whether the Guardian Angel bill passed or not. If it does, it means all newborns and naturalized citizens will have to get chipped."

Bonnie put her hand to her mouth. "That's horrible!"

"And once that floodgate is open, how long do you think it'll be before they make it a requirement for everyone?"

"Are you…?"

Rick rubbed the back of his neck. "Standard prerequisite for working at Vinestead. You want a piece of them? They want a piece of you. It used to be voluntary, but then so was everything else at some point."

"But I guess it would be good for your company, right? You guys are the only ones who make the chips."

"Yes," agreed Rick. "It will be quite a windfall for the suits."

Bonnie dismissed the idea with her hand. "Well, I'm never having one of those things put in. I'll do what everyone else did when Bush was elected and move to Canada. Do they still have free health care?"

"I'm not sure." He shrugged. Unconsciously, he began to play with his wedding ring.

"So," said Bonnie, her voice playful again, "what would Mrs. Rick say about you treating strange women to coffee?"

Rick grunted, tried not to imagine it."She wouldn't say anything. She'd yell it."

"Oh, I'm sure she wouldn't divorce you for one little cup."

"Yeah, no. The punishment would be much worse than that." He sighed. "What about your guy? How would he feel knowing you were scamming old fogies like me for your morning joe?"

Her laugh echoed in the nearly empty room, drawing a look from the old man with the paper. "You've got me all figured out, don't you, Rick?" Her tongue darted out to lick her lips. "For your information, there is no guy. And second of all, I could just steal my morning cup from the Red Star break room on fifteen if I wanted to. So your whole theory is what Duncan would call circumstantial and capricious."

"I'd have to spell-check that sentence," admitted Rick.

"Computers do everything else for us, why not that?"

Rick shrugged, unable to find a worthy reply. His gaze drifted to the window, where outside the sun was casting long shadows on the street and sidewalks. More and more people walked by, men and women dressed in their professional best, carrying their laptops or palettes by their sides in expensive-looking cases. Their faces were set in the vacant stare so common of the early morning worker. One man even sported an old fedora, cocked slightly to the left. Rick chuckled as a gust of wind came down the street, making the man put his hand to his head, his trench waving like a flag behind him.

"What's so funny?" asked Bonnie. She blew the wisps of steam off the surface of her coffee.

"Oh, nothing. That guy was doing that walking against the wind thing."

"You think he's a mime?"

"Maybe that's how they realize they have the gift."

"Perhaps." Bonnie smiled again, showing her perfect teeth. She moved her cup in a circular motion in front of her. "You didn't used to see people wearing trench coats this time of year."

"Global warming at its finest."

"If it were global warming, wouldn't it be hotter?"

Rick winked at her. "Just when you think you've got the world figured out, it throws you a curveball."

"Or snowball," suggested Bonnie.

Again he laughed, genuine enough to surprise even himself. As it faded, he caught a tone on the air. He turned to the window. "Do you hear that?"

Bonnie cocked her head, concentrating. The sound of a siren came barreling down the street, accelerated and echoed by the tall buildings and smooth pavement. As the noise grew to a head, a police cruiser suddenly shot by the window, going at least twice the posted limit.

"Damn," said Rick, leaning in his chair for a better look.

"I wonder what that's all about." Bonnie returned to her drink and took a long sip to finish it off.

"Who gets up this early to commit a crime?" He checked his sliver; it was nearing six-thirty. They would have to be getting along soon. In the distance, he could hear another siren approaching.

From inside her bag, Bonnie's phone began to ring, belting out a tinny version of a trip-hop classic.

"Better get that, might be the man," said Rick.

She gave him a quizzical look and answered her phone. "Hello?"

Rick returned to the window and did his best to ignore the one-sided conversation.

"No shit?"

He smiled at her vulgarity. There was something real about it, something true. She wasn't afraid to be herself, to show she could be a real human being even with someone she just met. Not that Charlotte didn't do her share of cussing, but that was usually reserved for when she and Rick were alone, away from their guests or family.

"I'm on schedule," said Bonnie, checking her watch again. "Alright." She compressed the phone with one hand and dropped it into her bag. "Come on, we've got to see something." She stood up and pushed her chair in.

"I'd like to, but I should be getting to work."

"It's on the way. If you're late, I'll buy you coffee tomorrow." She grabbed his hand and for a moment, Rick was lost in the intimacy of simple contact. He allowed her to pull him up and followed her as she rushed out the front door, leaving his cup still steaming on the table.

Outside, the sirens were loud and grating, likely right on the next block. Bonnie pulled him along at a brisk pace, her fingers wrapped gingerly around his. Cars and people flew by him, but Rick was concentrating only on the warmth of her hand. How long had it been, he wondered. He often asked questions like that, even in situations where it wasn't warranted. How long had it been since he had a Big Mac? Or seen a movie that he really liked? Trivial stuff. But this time, he truly didn't know the answer. He searched his memories for the last physical contact he had had with Charlotte, but it always came back to their honeymoon. Surely there was contact after that. There had to be.

He felt like a teenager sneaking a hand up the front of his girlfriend's shirt, all excited and nervous at the same time. Rick then became aware of another condition he was experiencing and wondered how long it had been since that happened. Another question without a definite answer.

Bonnie led him across the street despite the flashing red hand. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he saw her give the finger to a cab that honked at them as they crossed. The sirens grew louder as they turned the corner onto Capital Park and found the Vinestead West building surrounded by emergency vehicles. He counted six cruisers, two ambulances, and one idling fire truck.

"Whoa," he whispered.

They slowed, but Bonnie didn't let go of his hand. "Cool, huh?" she asked, without looking at him.

"What's going on?" Rick looked around for an officer to ask.

"That was Duncan who called. He said they were evacuating your building because of a bomb threat. And ours because it's so close."

"Oh crap," said Rick, the color draining from his face. "I didn't think they would actually do it!"

She turned to him, concerned by his sudden change in demeanor. "Who do what?"

"The terrorists." He looked at her, but saw no recognition in her face. Didn't this girl watch the news? "One of those cipher dens that people are always talking about. It was all over the Banks Media feed about how they're trying to dictate corporate policy by threatening to kill all the suits at Vinestead. They really don't want the GA bill to pass."

Bonnie shook her head.

"Jesus, I could have been in there. The whole place could have gone up in smoke, and if I hadn't taken the train and stopped for coffee…" His words failed him as he stared into the face of his new guardian angel.

She moved her hand to his arm and presented a comforting smile. "I'm sure it's just an empty threat. You know how those whack-job groups are. They'll say anything to get their fifteen minutes on the feed. These days, all you have to do is threaten violence, and you'll have Americans knocking each other over for anything that remotely resembles safety. Sign of the times, I guess."

They watched the scene unfold for several minutes, neither of them saying much, only occasionally pointing to people coming out of the building. Finally, a large black van pulled up with white letters designating it the bomb squad.

"I didn't think bomb squads actually existed," said Rick, pointing out the new arrival.

Bonnie gave him an inquisitive look. "Would you want the same cop who checks parking meters disarming bombs if your life depended on it?"

"Good point."

From the back of the van, two heavily-armored officers unloaded a large tub.

"It looks like a washing machine," said Rick.

Having seen enough, Bonnie moved into Rick's line of sight. "So, what would you like to do today?"

For a moment, he didn't reply. Try as he might, he couldn't find any trace of sarcasm in her voice. She was actually serious. He chuckled a little then and looked back at the building. "What about work? LyDIA won't program herself. At least not yet."

"Oh come on." She pulled his hand once more. "There are over seventy floors in your building. Do you know how long it's going to take to check every office and closet and bathroom? At the very least, we have half a day to kill."

"Yeah," replied Rick, unsure. He lifted his gaze to the top of the Vinestead West building. Barely audible over the commotion was the sound of a helicopter spinning up. He watched as it peeked out over the edge of the building and then headed off to the west.

Bonnie was looking up too, shielding her eyes with her hand. "That was probably one of your Vinestead fat cats, huh?"

"Yeah."

"One day, I'm going to get chauffeured around in a helicopter like that."

"Yeah, me too."

She turned to him, amused. "You're a very agreeable man, Rick."

"Yes." He smiled, showed his teeth. Smooth, he told himself.

"So then what do you want to do? It has to be something special to commemorate our escape from certain death at the hands of domestic terrorists." She strangled the air in front of her and laughed. "It's not like this happens every day."

"I suppose not," admitted Rick. "But it has been an unusually slow year."

"We shouldn't waste this opportunity to live life to the fullest."

"No, we shouldn't." The butterflies started crawling around in his stomach. Just what was she proposing and why was he going to agree to it? He realized she was staring at him, as if she could hear his internal dialogue.

After a moment of silence, she reverted to a smile. "First, breakfast. It's the most important meal of the day, you know."

* * *

They had to cross three blocks to hail a cab, since most of them were avoiding the area around the Vinestead West building. Bonnie sat close to him on the faded black seats, enough so that her knee knocked against his as the cab rolled over the odd pothole in the street. Rick held his hands clasped together in his lap, too nervous to even look at Bonnie let alone ask her where they were going. He swore the cabbie had given him a knowing glance when she told him to head south to Avenue Thirteen. It was almost like a wink, like some kind of joke Rick wasn't in on.

There was one part of him itching for an argument, trying to convince the other that he wasn't doing anything wrong. He was just riding in the back of a cab with a strange woman who seemed to like his company. There was nothing sinister about that. It wasn't like they were screwing. They were barely even talking.

"The day we got Duncan as a client," said Bonnie, over the electric hum of the engine, "he took me to this fancy-shmancy place for brunch, you know, to try to impress me. Long story short, the food wasn't half bad."

The car slowed to a stop in front of a two-story building, a clear marker that they were now well south of downtown. In fact, Rick couldn't remember the last time he had crossed Capital Highway to go pretty much anywhere. It was just as well, he thought. The whole day was about trying new things, getting away from the office and the day-to-day routine. Out on the sidewalk, he scanned the restaurant's aging veneer. It didn't look as swanky as Bonnie had implied.

"That's what I thought the first time I saw it," she said. "Wait ‘til you see the inside."

She wasn't kidding. Unlike its outwardly demeanor, the inside of The Brits was like nothing Rick had ever seen in real life. From the fancy chandeliers to the cloth-covered tables, the place looked more like a six-star restaurant than a waffle house. He was further impressed by Bonnie's familiarity with the staff. They recognized her right away and ushered them to a private table near a window where they had a view of a nearby golf course. Only a few moments after they had sat down, a waiter arrived with a drink tray, offering everything from chocolate milk to dry martinis.

"Good choice," said Bonnie, eyeing Rick's selection.

"I'm not afraid to admit that I enjoy a good chocolate milk from time to time." He bent over and took a long pull from his straw. "As far as vices go, it's not such a bad one to have."

"Certainly not." She took a sip from her orange juice and then ran a finger down the paper menu. "If you don't have a preference, they make a really good steak and eggs. It's a small cut, not enough to get you groggy."

Nodding, Rick eyed the list. Everything, even the simple short-stack of pancakes, cost an exorbitant amount of money. Twenty-four bucks for two waffles and some strawberries? Treating Bonnie to breakfast was going to cost him almost all of his weekly lunch allowance.

"Don't worry about the prices," said Bonnie. She had noticed the panicked look starting to build on his face. "I'm under the employ of one Duncan Stills, Attorney at Law. This morning, I'm consulting with a linguistics specialist to better understand data redundancy and provide more efficient and secure service. So, the way I figure it, this is a business expense. Does that sound right to you?"

Rick took a slow drink, savored the taste. "You really are bright, aren't you?"

She blushed slightly. "I'm sorry?"

He smiled to let her know he was teasing her. "You act all normal, but when you talk about technology, you're smarter than most people I've met. And I work with Indians."

Bonnie laughed, put her hand to her mouth to cover it. "You're too much, Rick." She dabbed at her lips with her napkin to clear away some lingering orange juice. "I'm not actually smart. I just know what I know."

"You seem to know a lot more than you let on. I've never met an attractive woman who was so adept at data protection." There it was, coming out so easily and without regard to what it meant. In his younger days, that very habit had landed him memorable nights with more than a handful of girls. But as an older man, married and going nowhere, it was now more of a liability.

Luckily, Bonnie blushed in earnest. Her face dipped to hide it, but Rick could tell. She looked like she was going to say something in response, but the waiter appeared then to take their order. He looked to her first.

"I'll, um," she fumbled for words, "I'll have the French toast."

"Very good, madam," said the waiter, his voice in a deep English accent.

"Same," said Rick, placing the menu at the end of the table.

"It will be just a few minutes, sir." He made a half bow and retreated.

"You're living risky, aren't you?" Bonnie continued to look at him as she drank.

"Every day you're alive is a risk," he replied. "Or else you would be out of a job."

She shrugged in agreement.

"So what kind of service do you guys do? You take a code card over to Duncan's office every week and download his files?"

"If only," said Bonnie, straightening the napkin in her lap. "It's actually a pretty complicated system. There's on-site backup, five different cards, all of them equipped with the latest Mares Palo encryption. Those coordinate with three different off-site datacenters. One here, just outside Sacramento. We passed by it on the train ride in. There's another one on the east coast, hidden away in some Margate basement. And the third is either in Colorado or Texas, I'm not sure."

"Seems like an important detail," he said.

"You would think." She pointed an accusing finger at him. "But with VNet—burn in hell, no offense—those off-sites have been reduced to net-space coordinates. I mean, when we jack in at home, who's to say we're still in California? You see how that works?" She mimed a globe with her fingers. "People and data and concepts trapped in null space."

"But the first Net wasn't any different."

"I know, it's just that VNet—burn in hell—is all we have these days. I mean, it's different now. Back then…"

"Back then we had a choice," he said, completing her thought.

"Yeah. And please don't take it personally, with you working for Vinestead and all. I can appreciate that everybody's got to make their dollar somehow. I just don't like the idea of involuntary choices, which is all you get with Vinestead." She paused for a moment. "And those really aren't choices at all."

Rick folded his hands in front of him, suddenly aware of how old they looked next to hers. "You do have a choice. Just don't jack in. I've been working for Vinestead forever, and I can't remember the last time I jacked in." He huffed. "I mean, I've got a GA chip in my neck and a rig running full-time back at the office. I could jack in just by thinking about it."

"Then why don't you? Don't you wonder what it's like now?"

"I know what it's like. It's not real. Out here, we play by the rules." He motioned to the golf course in the window. Someone was teeing up. "In VNet, he could make a hole in one just by altering a few parameters of the simulation." He was overcome by a sudden laugh. "In VNet, I could get a girl to talk to me on a train. But out here, I have to make an effort to do things. There are consequences for talking to you, for following you to coffee and breakfast. Those risks make the reward that much better. Without that possibility of failure, this would be no more meaningful than a simulation."

"Following me to coffee," she repeated. "You're really devoted to your wife, aren't you?"

"She's my wife, what can I say? You play the cards you're dealt."

"Those don't sound like the words of a happily married man."

Rick stalled, took another drink. The restaurant was slowly filling up, but the idea that his wife would know any of these Sacramento elite was unlikely. He took a deep breath. "Let's not talk about wives."

"But I haven't told you about my wife."

He broke half a smile. "Your wife?"

"You asked me if I had a guy, not a girl."

For a moment, Rick didn't know what to say. He made an indeterminate gesture with his hand.

"Wow, you really are a trusting fellow. I bet you'd believe I was the Queen of England if I said it in a British accent."

"And we would be happy to have you, Your Majesty," said the waiter. His assistant was carrying two plates, and he set them in front of Rick and Bonnie. He then repeated his faux bow and left them alone once more.

"It's not bad, is it?" asked Bonnie. She cut off a piece of toast with the side of her fork and popped it into her mouth. When Rick looked at her, she licked her lips.

"Definitely not," he replied, though he hadn't had a bite yet.

Bonnie giggled. "So tell me more about your job. Do you have an office, or are you in a cube all day like me?"

"I have my own office, but not an executive washroom." He crossed his fingers hopefully. "Another twenty years or so and I think I'll be able to get one."

"You're a man of lofty aspirations. I like that."

"Naw, my job is nothing special. Most of my work is for the GA chip, making big programs into little programs small enough to fit in your neck."

"Doesn't that scare you a little?" Bonnie trailed several lines of amber syrup on her toast.

"What?"

"Having your own code in your head? I mean, I know there are people who code their own drugs and sims, but that's all superficial. The GA chip is like, built into your body."

"Well, we do have a pretty extensive QA process. And my code is actually mirrored by another group in India. It's a race to see who can build the most efficient code with the least amount of bugs in the least amount of time."

"Aren't you worried about losing your job to outsourcing?"

"Actually, when it comes to coding, Vinestead is pretty patriotic, the—"

Her laughter interrupted him. She raised an apologetic hand while she wiped at her mouth, beckoning him to continue.

"Anyway, if anyone were to go, it would be them, not us. I guess there are certain security concerns when you outsource the world's most advanced technology to a country in a constant state of civil war."

"At least we haven't pulled out our troops yet." She made a face of mock encouragement. "We're staying the course!"

Rick nodded politely. Over the years, he had learned which topics to avoid when talking to new acquaintances. One of those was war, the other was religion, but after being among his own kind for so long, he never thought he'd meet someone who was so opposed to Vinestead. They were just another company like Microsoft or Sony. So they had had a little success with the VNet launch. That was nothing to fault them for. He decided not to press the issue.

Bonnie changed the subject after the awkward pause. "So, did you decide what you want to do today?"

"I've been following your lead all morning," said Rick, spreading his hands. "It's worked out pretty good so far."

"I was thinking maybe Umbra. We could do one of those new interactives or just check out some new hardware. A person could get lost for days there."

"Where is this place?"

She widened her eyes a bit. "You've never been? It's like California's Shibuya, halfway between here and San Fran." Her head shook in wonder. "I can't believe a technophile like you has never seen the Umbra Tower."

The way she spoke so casually about it seemed to elevate her understanding above his and for the first time, Rick felt he wouldn't be able to keep up with her intellectually. It was one thing for her to be more attractive than him; he was used to that. But to be outdone in every category that mattered? He worked for Vinestead after all, on cutting-edge technology that wouldn't make it to market for years.

His heart sank. "I guess I'm just behind the times."

Bonnie shook her head. "There's always a first time for everything. And that's the way to live so long as you keep trying new things. Smart guy like you, I know you're going to love it." She pulled a compact palette from her satchel and examined it. "We can take the Eighty Express all the way there. It's only forty-five miles outside the city."

"I don't know," said Rick. He struggled for the right words.

"What's the matter?"

"You seem like a very nice girl, Bonnie. But leaving town, going to some place I've never heard of? I just don't want you to get the wrong idea about me. Happy or not, I'm still married."

She grinned. "I didn't say we should get a motel room on the outskirts of town. Believe it or not, I don't just pick up random guys on the train and sleep with them. I was just thinking, you know, special day. Once in a lifetime sort of thing. I mean, it's not like we should start hanging out after today, talking on the train, getting coffee every morning." She put her hands flat on the table as if negotiating. "Let's just call it one day. One day of doing the fun alternative to the boring routine we call our lives. I know I just met you, but you seem like the kind of guy who deserves one."

He bit his lip. "You're probably right." It almost made sense, Rick thought. If he started seeing her every day, it wouldn't be long before he did something stupid, made a remark or gesture that would invite disgust or desire. He wasn't sure which would be worse.

Bonnie held out her hand with her pinky finger extended. "To Umbra then? As friends?"

Rick hesitated, but eventually wrapped his pinky around hers. "Friends."

* * *

The Eighty Express was a much more modern train than the one that had brought them from the suburbs into downtown Sacramento. Instead of the old-style steel tracks, the Eighty used magnetic levitation to float above the white railing. It was a smoother ride, but without the usual rocking, it just didn't feel familiar. Were it not for the large observation dome in the middle of the train, Rick would have had a hard time noticing that they were moving at all. He guessed it was probably the same reaction older generations had to the inductive elevator. The doors close, you wait a few seconds, and when they reopen, you're somewhere else. Transparent technology, he had explained to Bonnie, was the most invasive and dangerous kind there was. It was a part of everyone's daily life, but they never knew it was there until it wasn't.

They stepped off the train in unison at the Umbra Terminus and Rick was surprised to see such a high-tech station for a micro-city stuck between two sprawling metropolises. He didn't think this place would get so much traffic, not when most people continued on the line to end up in San Francisco or what remained of Oakland. For a moment, he was tempted to suggest they just split for the coast, but one look at his button-up and slacks told him he was overdressed for the beach.

"You want to get a locker?" asked Bonnie.

He looked at her, puzzled for a moment.

"For your stuff. I don't want to carry this bag around everywhere, and I don't know if I want people getting the wrong idea about us when they see you walking around with a bag full of light bulbs, even if they are LED."

"Good idea," said Rick. He followed her to a bank of lockers in the main terminus and after they had stowed their belongings, they took a curved set of stairs down to street level. The signage in the thoroughfare was overwhelming, a mixture of LED and neon that stung the eyes even in the mid-morning sun. They offered everything from bootleg enhancements to code cards filled with any kind of pornography imaginable. Rick tried not to stare too intently at the holographic images of partly and completely naked women. After all, those weren't real. What was real was the hand wrapped inside his elbow, one that tugged at him when it wanted attention.

"This is one of my favorite spots," said Bonnie, pointing to a banner that read Parlour.

"What is it?"

"They do interactives, like movies you get to be in. What do you think?"

"Why not?" he replied. "It's French, so it must be fancy."

Just inside the door was an anteroom with walls filled from floor to ceiling with image grids. Each little square cycled through its own set of moving pictures, advertising experiences ranging from drama to horror to foreign. He stopped momentarily in front of a Japanese section, entranced by the image of a sullen-faced toddler with his mouth agape. As he reached out for the cover, the loud whine of a cat filled the room. He drew back quickly.

Bonnie laughed. "Oh no, those are too scary. And all the characters speak in Japanese."

"Really?"

"I know, right? They say it's to preserve the heritage of their homeland. Personally, I think they'd get a lot more exposure if they put in subtitles." She pulled him to the other side of the room. "Let's look at new releases."

Rick scanned the covers, but most of them were geared towards the action-adventure instead of the comedy he preferred. Violence didn't seem to do it for him, especially when it was intertwined with sex. Comedies, on the other hand, were the perfect vehicles for topless girls. They just seemed to go together. Rick chuckled at his wandering mind. He told himself to keep it together and not go all grandpa on this girl. She probably didn't realize how old he really was. If he kept his mouth shut and kept the dementia to a minimum, they might get through the whole day without her finding out.

"The Dawn of VNet," said Bonnie, her voice distant. Her eyes were locked on a grid with a flashing border and scrolling numerals. "The true story of the fall of the free Net and the rise of Vinestead." She bit her lip in thought, continued reading the hype card. "The infinity between one and zero? What does that even mean?" She turned to him. "Are you up for a little anti-Vinestead propaganda?"

"A love story like no other," he read. "It's a romance movie?"

"I guess you're not into the chick flicks, are ya?"

The image of a bullet tearing through shiny leather flashed on the cell and then zoomed and dissolved into a massive bamboo forest. "It doesn't look like a chick flick," he observed.

Bonnie smiled and pointed to the static movie cover in the lower corner. "Look at that. See those ones and zeros? It's a binary message."

Rick moved closer and squinted. "Can you read binary on the fly?"

"I'm not that much of a geek," laughed Bonnie. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket and aligned the camera with the numbers. A few moments later, the translated message appeared on her screen. She cleared her throat. "Woman of my dreams, love of my life." She looked up, excited. "Oh, come on! That's so a love story. Please, can we see it?"

"I normally wouldn't," replied Rick, "but as you said, today's not a normal day, is it?"

"I think you're finally getting the hang of this." She pressed her finger to the cell and when a small menu came up, she selected two tickets and waited.

"Does it require a chip?"

She didn't look back as she replied. "This is Umbra, not some Vinestead-sponsored settlement. Your chip won't do you any good here." After a swipe of her credit card, the screen changed to the number seven, indicating a viewing room. "Come on," she said, heading towards the neon-lit door at the far end of the anteroom.

In room seven, they found a row of immersion rigs arranged uniformly on the faux steel shelves. In the center of the room, there were eight chairs arranged in a circle such that all of the feet pointed inwards. There were already two people jacked in, a man and a woman, their hardware whirring loudly. Rick marveled at the different types of rigs and tried to remember the last time he had had to use one. He was tempted to ask if he could just use his GA chip, but as Bonnie had said, it was probably of little use. After selecting their rigs, they sat down in two adjoining chairs and leaned back.

"Three," said Bonnie, counting down.

Rick had done a few interactive movies before, but never without going through his Guardian Angel. The rig he had selected fit awkwardly, and he wondered how it was going to be able to deliver a believable experience with such limited bandwidth. A suction cup over the back of his neck didn't seem like it could transfer much data.

"Two." Her voice was positively giddy.

He braced himself for the switch in realities, not that he would truly notice it. Even though he'd see and experience the interactive as if he were there, the GA chip would prevent him from being fully immersed in a foreign simulation. It would always hold onto the thread of reality, no matter how small it was. In the end, it would be like waking from a good night's sleep, where hours had passed but only a few minutes of dream were experienced and even fewer remembered.

"One." She spoke out of the side of her mouth. "See you inside."

There was a flash inside his rig and Rick felt the bottom drop out of his chair. He was falling head over feet through a black construct, and it took him a few tries to angle his body with the direction of movement. As he did, he noticed letters appearing out of the darkness. They started miniscule, far in the distance, but moved towards him rapidly, sometimes passing to the left or right. Opening credits, he thought. He smiled at the blend of movie and construct. It might prove to be entertaining after all. Rick released his hold on the previous reality and sank into the construct, mingling with the tall trees, the falling snow, and most importantly, Bonnie.

* * *

He knew as the movie ended and faded to black that the shock was coming, but the quick change back to viewing room seven still rattled his nervous system. At the back of his neck, the GA chip ramped up and started delivering the canceling signals to clear any of the remaining race conditions. There were two versions of reality streaming through his nerve endings; it was his Guardian Angel's job to figure out which one was the true reality and sync to that. Rick knew he was back when he became aware of the rig on his head. As he relaxed in his post-immersion haze, he felt the movie come back to him, felt recall slide down his spine like an ice cube.

The movie had been a mix of unrequited love and technology run amok, full of set pieces and shocking images. He felt the need to discuss it, but Bonnie seemed strangely quiet afterwards. She didn't say much until they were seated at the Circuit Diner a few streets over from Parlour. They had lost nearly three hours, and it was nearing one in the afternoon when lunch was finally put in front of them. Watching Bonnie stare absently at her burger and fries made Rick feel uneasy, as if he had done something wrong.

"Are you alright?"

She looked up and there was a hint of a tear in one eye, but she was doing a good job of holding it back. "It's just sad, you know? Sad when people with good intentions are killed for no reason."

"So I'm guessing you didn't like the movie?"

"It was okay, I guess," she replied, shrugging. "It got a little too Rambo for me at the end."

He smiled. "You've seen Rambo?"

"Just the fourth and fifth ones. I tried to watch the first three but the quality is so bad on them. I don't know how people did it back then."

"People are going to say the same things about GA chips a few decades from now. How did we ever get by without them?"

"Or why can't we get by without them?"

During the silence that followed, he examined her features, noted how they had changed since they had come out of the simulation. Her face drifted away.

"They shouldn't have killed her," she said softly.

"Sorry?"

Bonnie looked back, almost as if she were surprised to see Rick sitting there. She blinked and tried to smile again. "Nothing, guess I just got a little too attached to the simulation. Parlour's emotionware is the best in Umbra." Again with the eye flutter. "Stuff like that really sticks with you."

Rick nodded in agreement. "Will you excuse me for a moment?" he asked, motioning with his thumb to the restrooms. "I'll be right back."

"I'll be here," said Bonnie.

"Will you?"

This time, her smile spread wide, squishing her eyes again. "Of course I will," she replied, "the day's only half over."

After relieving himself, Rick stood in front of the mirror for several seconds, staring at his own reflection, watching the scrolling ticker at the bottom deliver the latest news from the Lincoln Continental feed. The evacuation of Vinestead West was complete, and the bomb squad was now going floor to floor checking for explosives. The closing line assured the public that Vinestead CEO Arthur Sedivy was safe and conducting business from the Los Angeles branch.

Well, that's a relief, thought Rick.

It was some kind of madness, of course, that had taken over his mind. He was crazy to think a girl like Bonnie could be so easily interested in him. He fought himself, caged on one side by his hopes for a lingering likability and on the other by his relentless self-doubt. Could she truly like him, he wondered. It was far-fetched, too unlike his relationship with Charlotte.

He splashed some water on his face, tried to wash away the questions that were eating away at him. All he needed to do was enjoy her company for as long as it lasted, take what was given to him, and stop asking stupid questions. After all, it was just one damn day.

Back at the table, Bonnie greeted him with a practiced wink. "I ordered us drinks, to celebrate."

"Oh," said Rick, taking his seat. "And what are we celebrating?"

"I don't know. I was just thinking we've had an interesting day so far, haven't we? Even if it ended right now, I'd still count this a great experience. Much better than spending the whole day with Duncan."

Rick had started to raise his glass but lowered it back to the table. "Are we calling it quits?"

"No, no," she said quickly, shaking her head. "I'm just saying, I'm having a good time. Aren't you?"

"Aside from having to watch one of the most messed up threesome-rapes in the history of interactive cinema? Yeah, I'm doing great."

She laughed and lifted the martini glass full of red, slushy liquid. "I propose a toast then. To unorthodox sexual encounters and domestic terrorists."

"To Bubbling Joe's."

"To public transportation."

"To Duncan Stills' bankroll," he added, winking.

Bonnie paused, her mind hard at work.

"To Bonnie," continued Rick.

"To you," she replied.

Together, they drank.

* * *

Even though they only had a few drinks at Circuit Diner, it became clear after a few minutes in the hot afternoon sun that alcohol and cosmic radiation didn't go well together. After drifting through the shade beneath the colorful awnings of a synth-obsessed cross street, they found themselves at the foot of the Umbra Tower, a fifty-story spire that lorded over the ground-hugging village surrounding it, beating out the next highest structure by forty-seven floors. The top of the tower boasted a multi-level, rotating deck with privately partitioned rooms below an open-access observation level. It was a good place to get some alone time, with or without company. Rick and Bonnie were sharing a double-seater lounge chair in a private room, watching the earth slowly revolve around them, and occasionally sipping from sweating drinks.

On the wall near the tinted window was a plaque that Bonnie had to squint to read. "The Umbra Tower," she began, "revolves three hundred and sixty degrees in exactly sixty minutes. At ten past the hour, this room will be pointed to San Francisco. At forty past, we'll be able to see Sacramento." She turned to Rick and smiled. "Home," she said.

"It's an interesting idea for a watch. What time is it? What city do you see out the window? San Diego? Oh, well, it's half past nine."

"Million-dollar ideas are made just like this."

"What, half drunk?"

"Of course," said Bonnie, tapping his thigh. "How else can you build onto reality without first seeing it skewed by a little sense-depression?"

Rick thought about that for a moment, tried to remember if he had ever had any breakthroughs with LyDIA while tripping on synthetic drugs. Charlotte forbade alcohol, but she couldn't stop the synth, not when the code was already programmed into his GA chip, feeding it into his system covertly.

"Not that it helps in my line of work," continued Bonnie. "At the end of the day, I'm really only making copies of someone else's data." She turned a plaintive face towards him. "There's not much innovation involved in that. Not like with your job."

"Well, as far as innovation goes, I do very little of it." He took a sip, felt his chest shudder at the sudden rush of alcohol. "That's what I don't understand about this bomb threat. You would get nothing from blowing up the Vinestead West building. I don't even think there are more than two executives there at any given time."

"It's a good policy," agreed Bonnie. "Don't keep all of your cheeping creepies in one basket. Multiple copies, multiple sites. That's data redundancy at its best."

"Unless they were to hit all of the Vinestead buildings at once."

"That's why we stagger our data throughout the country, in case Iran decides that three hundred dollars a barrel isn't enough and ends up nuking California from here to the Southland." She cocked her head, considered the scenario. "Though, the blast would probably take out Duncan, so his data would be useless."

"That wouldn't work with Vinestead. You cut the head off the snake and two more will grow in its place."

"To really hurt your company," said Bonnie, devilishly, "they would have to take out everybody. From the mail room to the board room." She put a concerned hand on his chest. "There's your bomb threat, right there."

Rick shook his head, tried to dismiss the scenario of being inside a collapsing building. In his daydream, he saw the LED light bulbs floating in the air beside him, destined to shatter in a no less violent way than his own body when they hit the ground.

"Sorry," said Bonnie, "let's talk about something else. How long have you been married?"

He chuckled at first, thinking she was just messing with him, but her expectant gaze told him she was waiting for an answer. "Long enough to not want to talk about it, if you ack my syn."

"So, too long?"

"I don't know. I guess any marriage is too long. Look at the divorce rate in this country. Only one in eight marriages last ten years or more."

"If you're so unhappy, why don't you leave her?" She turned on her side, brushing her knee against his leg.

He tried not to scoff. "While I do admire your ability to be impulsive, it's not one of my strongest traits. You don't know how hard it was just to go have coffee with you. And yeah, it turned out great and I've had a lot of fun, but I've been so full of anxiety the whole time. Not just because of you, but because maybe Charlotte would walk by or somebody she knew would see me."

"That's your wife's name?"

"I thought I told you."

"No, that's the first time you've mentioned her handle."

"And to think, I almost got through the whole day without saying her name."

"That's a bummer." Bonnie turned her attention to the window where Sacramento was just beginning to peek out from the left side. "I guess that means it's around three-thirty?"

Rick checked his sliver. "Just about."

"What time do you usually get off," she asked, drawing out a pause, "work?"

"Seven to four, every damn day," he replied.

"So when is your wife expecting you home?"

"It's Friday, she has some kind of girls' night out with her friends. I won't even see her until late. Why?"

"I feel like we haven't done anything!" She threw her hands up in exasperation. "Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to sit here and relax, but have we really done anything to make this day memorable?"

She was facing him, and Rick only had to lean slightly to kiss her on the lips. He withdrew, but stayed near her face, hoping for a positive reaction. In the meantime, he analyzed the kiss, the texture of her lips, the hint of alcoholic ice.

"What do you know," he said, "it is Kissable."

She smiled back at him, amused at his recall.

"I could have been killed today."

"Don't say that." Her face turned serious. "It was just an idle threat. I don't think anyone would want to kill—"

"Executives," said Rick, struck by realization. "The memo said the cipher den was threatening to kill Vinestead's executive-level employees. That's why we thought it was a joke when we got it, because the lowly programmers would be spared." His eyes grew distant. "But then why blow up an entire building? That's a lot of people to kill in the name of domestic terrorism. They'd be killing workers who had nothing to do with corporate policy."

"Maybe they didn't tell you the whole story?"

He looked at her again.

"You said it yourself. You're not a frequent visitor to Umbra and you don't keep up with the underground news. How would you know the full extent of the threat if all you got was a memo from your supervisor?"

"They would have told us if we were in danger. Wouldn't they?"

"Dicey," admitted Bonnie. "It's possible they didn't believe the threat was credible. And since we haven't heard any news about the Vinestead West building being taken to the ground, I'm guessing it wasn't."

Rick brought his sliver into view, tried to search for any mention of Vinestead, but the Banks Media feed had moved on. If there had been a bomb, it couldn't have been a very big one.

"They really aren't very transparent with you, are they?" asked Bonnie. "How can you work for a company that cares so little for you?"

"I told you, change doesn't come easy for me. I like routine and predictability and Vinestead gives that to me." He stared into the icy wasteland of his drink. "That's just the type of guy I am."

"But you're not like the rest of the Vinestead congregation. You don't use words like synergy and leverage. I've been waiting for you to use paradigm in a sentence so I could smack you."

"You sound surprised."

She nodded and scooted closer to him, leaning her head on his shoulder. "So maybe I'm just naïve, but I really thought you guys were all the same. Like that Scientology cult but with a basis in reality."

"If we had their numbers, it wouldn't have taken this long to get that bill passed." He paused. "They should have announced it already." He checked his sliver again. In the abbreviated headline, he read the words GA BILL and PASSED.

Bonnie let out a long sigh. "This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a gradual submission to assumed authority, a slow shuffle backwards in the evolution of liberty. Now we have nothing to look forward to except generations of chipped children. And eventually, complete loss of basic freedoms. I hope I make it out of here by then."

"Where will you go?"

"I was talking about death." She spoke with her eyes closed. "I hope I don't live to see GA chips become mandatory for everyone. I don't think I would be able to accept it. I'd rather die than submit my body to the will of tyrants."

Rick noted the change in her voice, the militaristic undertones typical of anti-Vinestead radicals. It would be his luck that the first girl he speaks to in forever should be one of them. Casually, he put his hand on the side of her face to quiet her.

"Probably better this way," she continued. "It's one thing to say we can't see each other again, another to have a wedge like this between us. I'd probably bug you for the rest of your life about quitting Vinestead."

"And I'd keep asking you to get chipped."

"Then you are an advocate?"

"I'm for whatever works the best. I'm for not having to carry around cash just to get a cup of coffee on my way into work. Really, when you get down to the ones and zeros of it, the GA chip is nothing but a springboard to a better life. The applications that could be written, the routines that would save lives and enhance lives. I don't know about the suits, because you're probably right to say all they care about is money and power, but I'm in it for the people. I'm in it for the sixteen year old kid who has a heart attack at nationals and for the code that restarts his heart before he even hits the ground. When it comes to life, you've got to take the good with the bad."

Bonnie looked up, gazing into his determined eyes. "That's why I still like you, despite your affiliation with the greatest threat to humanity since the Black Plague."

"Do you like me enough to let me kiss you again?" Screw it, he thought. He was already in way over his head. Why not go for broke?

"Oh," she replied, lifting her head to him, "we passed that point after Bubbling Joe's."

There was a kind of urgency to the way Bonnie made love, with Rick pausing to take in a moment and Bonnie pushing them along, guiding his hands or pulling him closer with hers. Outside, the arid landscape of California walked slow circles around the room, taking no notice of them, lost in its own set of problems. Out there somewhere, Charlotte had probably already left her office for the day, en route to wherever she and her like-minded friends went every Friday night.

Home felt a million miles away and yet at the same time, he found a previously unknown comfort in Bonnie's arms. She was smaller than Charlotte, but she was well-proportioned. When she wasn't looking, he surveyed her body, tested its smoothness by running his hands over her.

"I lied to you earlier," she said, between rapid breaths.

Rick had his head beside hers and he propped himself up on his elbow to see her face.

She smiled, the sweat beading on her upper lip. "I did want to take you to a motel. Isn't that just some kind of terrible?" She put a hand to her forehead; it landed with a wet smack. "You must think I'm, well, I don't know what you think I am."

"You're perfect," he assured her, kissing her on the cheek. "I don't care about the circumstances, just you."

"I underestimated you, Rick." She grasped his head with her hands. "You're not the guy I thought you were."

For a moment, he just looked at her, tried to interpret the strange expression on her face, but she pulled him closer as her breathing became erratic. Rick put his head back down next to hers, wrapped his arms under her shoulders, and concentrated. It was strange, he thought. She seemed to be outpacing him, getting closer and closer to that elusive climax. Relief swept over him as he realized that concentration wasn't necessary, that he didn't need to dig his thumb into his fingers just to keep from finishing too quickly.

When Bonnie began to gasp, he pulled back just enough to see her eyes. Instead of a face full of unrestrained ecstasy, he saw a single tear, resting just at the edge of Bonnie's eyelid. What exactly it meant, Rick couldn't be sure. But he hoped against hope that it was good.

* * *

The train had just crossed into Sacramento's city limits when Bonnie began to cry in earnest. They were sitting close together on a bench near the back of the car, Rick with his shirt slightly open. He had spent the last few minutes tweaking the direction of the air conditioning vents above him, trying to cool off. It had started when they were together in the tower and had lingered long after they got dressed and headed back to the Umbra Terminus. At first, he thought it was a side effect of the drinks, but when the subtle vibration of the mag-lev train didn't make him sick, only drowsy, he began to get concerned. And now the woman he had just spent an amazing day with was wiping at her eyes, trying to hide her tears.

Rick wanted to say something, tried to recall just how long they had been sitting in silence. It felt like he hadn't said anything in a good twenty minutes or so. Nor had Bonnie. She just sat quietly with her bag in her lap, rocking slowly forward and back. Suppressing a sob, she bent over and put her face in her hands. Say something, he told himself, but his throat wouldn't respond. It felt tighter than usual, probably from the conflicting emotional signals spreading through his system.

Why would she be crying, he asked himself. She had to have known as well as he did that there was no possibility of a relationship. He couldn't just leave Charlotte, no matter how terribly she treated him. The divorce would be messy and she would probably claim infidelity. He would lose the house and the car and end up having to pay her some kind of monthly stipend. It was a lot of trouble for a girl he had just met. But maybe, just maybe, he could convince her it might be possible. They would just need to take it slow. He moved his lips, but nothing came out.

"I didn't know," she said at last, her voice breaking. "How could I have known? You follow a guy around for a while and you think you've got a good bead on him, but you don't. You can't."

He wanted to ask her what she was talking about, what bearing that had on a future relationship, but only a barely audible squeak escaped his throat.

"And it's not like this is my first time or anything. I've done a few before. I've earned my stripes. Why did I have to draw you?"

First time? A few before? The questions swirled.

She looked at him with pained eyes and tried to smile, but her lips sank involuntarily at the edges. "I'm sorry. I truly am. For you, for Charlotte."

Rick was able to make a face similar to a smirk.

"I know," she said, reaching for his hand. With ceremonial reverence, she removed the wedding ring and placed it in her breast pocket. "She doesn't deserve a wonderful guy like you. Let her figure things out on her own for a while, see if it does her any good." She studied the look in his eyes. "I know how she treats you. No man should have to put up with that. She makes you do things that make you unhappy. She lowers your quality of life. It's the same thing we're fighting against. The right to choose what we do." In her bag, she found a tissue and wiped her eyes.

We, repeated Rick to himself. Who is this we?

"We're all in a relationship we can't get out of. You, with Charlotte. Me, with Vinestead. A lot of us with Vinestead, actually. They try to tell us what to do, where to eat, what we can buy and how much. They want to control us the way your wife controls you. And yeah, you may think you're autonomous, but you admitted how hard it was to break out of that control, to come away with me for a day, do things differently than you've been told.

"I understand how tough it can be, I really do, but you needed to break out of it. You needed to do the things that made you happy. We can't allow Vinestead to dictate that. We can't allow Americans to believe they are free when they're really not. You don't even notice it anymore, the way they manipulate you."

A growing discomfort in his stomach spiked, causing a sharp pain that made Rick grimace.

Bonnie touched him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, that'll be the worst of it. It's just going to feel like a hot summer day on the beach. You remember the beach, don't you?" She sounded as if she were reminiscing. "You'll get tired and eventually close your eyes," she continued, punctuating her words with a hiccup. "And that, that will be it."

He really did feel tired, now that he thought about it. The landscape outside seemed to be devolving into one long blur, like the repeating frames in a cartoon. With the proper concentration, he could force his eyes to lock on, but holding them there was a task too great. His head rolled to face Bonnie again and he found her eyes were still on him. He sent an order to his face, unsure if it would take.

"Why?" asked Bonnie, interpreting his expression. "That's a big question." She blew out slowly and clasped her hands together. "You have to know it's nothing personal. Even not knowing you at all, I could say this was not about individual people. It's not Ricardo Diaz the person who we want to put an end to; it's Rick the Vinestead employee. You work for the enemy, doing innocuous tasks maybe, but it's still for the wrong people. What you do, what you think you're creating, is not what gets shipped with those chips. This LyDIA software you've been working on for the last year isn't so tourists can have on-the-fly translation when they visit Rome or Paris. We think it allows the GA chip to process words and parse out your everyday conversations. Vinestead can then run metrics and algorithms on that data and the entire population will be none the wiser.

"Vinestead, and by association, our government, will be able to listen to anything you say, anything your wife yells at you. Why do you think Congress passed the GA bill? What good does it do them to have a chip in every newborn? And don't say heart attacks again because if anyone cared about health care, we would all have it for free. No, they pass a bill, people get their chips, and the secret police get their intel. It's a great big surveillance circle-fuck and everyone's going to take it up the rear. Your kids, for fuck's sake, Rick, your kids would have a microchip surgically implanted when they are born. They would grow up not knowing of a world where their body was free from meddling corporations or governments."

She gestured to his wrist. "Your sliver there is a perfect example. How old were you when you got it? Did you have to ask your mom and dad's permission like I did when I got my first earrings? Remember how you were so happy when it was installed, and you were now just like all the other boys in your class?" Her voice changed, became more aggressive. "Do you even realize how often you checked it today? And not just looking for the time, but for feed updates and stock prices and whatever else that thing delivers. I thought at first you were worried it had a camera and your wife was on the other side, watching. But now I realize you're tied to it, beyond the superficial fact that it's embedded in your skin. You've entered into a symbiotic relationship with the most pointless of gadgets. It's just not right, Rick."

Outside, the buildings began to change, grow taller, reaching for a peak that would apogee in the center of downtown. Bonnie caught her breath, started to speak several times before finding the right words.

"There is no world inside that sliver, just as there is no world inside VNet. Devices like that only separate you from the real world, where people just like me live out our imperfect lives. And it's all real. You couldn't accept that, not even when it grabbed you by the hand and dragged you out of downtown. You wanted to go back to your routine, to the safety of useless information and video-enabled distractions. Public surveillance is going to happen whether we like it or not, but losing people to virtuality is going to kill our species a lot sooner. It just shows you this isn't about you and me or even our country. The people in this world need to be saved. What will happen when everyone walks away from reality, when people stay in loveless, child-less marriages until it is too late, because they can get their sexual kicks from VNet?"

An attendant came into the car and Bonnie stopped talking until he had passed safely by. The momentary break caused a low whine to spin up in Rick's ears. He shook his head in vain against it.

"I don't know how to stop Vinestead. I don't know if we can actually reach our goal of bringing that scumbag corporation to its knees. They're so many and we are so few. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight. We warned them what would happen if they passed the GA bill. We told them we would kill every Vinestead employee we could get our hands on, from the board room to the mail room. Today, people are celebrating the rise of stock prices and the start of the Vinestead Way of Life. Come tonight, they will mourn the dead if they are not dead themselves. People will see what happens when you take up the wrong side of the fight.

"Maybe it will make a difference and maybe it won't. Maybe someone like you working at Vinestead East will see this mass exodus and question whether he should continue working for a company that lies to its own employees, that doesn't give them the opportunity to choose for themselves."

She shook her head and took his warm hand. "They should have told you. I didn't realize until after it was too late that you hadn't been given a choice. I thought you were just stubborn, but you were just like the rest of us, clueless. This isn't the way I wanted to do things. It was supposed to be one small, dissolvable pill in a fancy drink and six hours later, it's all over. But then you had to go and be all likeable." Her voice broke again and she wiped at her cheek. "I wish I could take it back, but I can't. As much as you mean to me, I have a job to do."

Bonnie let her hand linger for a few seconds and then withdrew.

Rick felt the car slow to a stop, felt his body lean out of control and then find equilibrium again. He could barely turn his head, but he saw Bonnie collecting her bag and standing up. She stood in front of him, touched his chin to lift his head.

"The Eighty won't take you home, but it will take you away from here. That may not be what you want, but I think it's what you need."

Rick made a noise that sounded vaguely like her name.

She smiled, put a hand to his cheek. "It's actually not Bonnie." After looking around at the empty car, she bent closer and whispered, "It's Kaili, Kaili Zabora, Calle Cinco cipher den." A pause, a sad look steeled by professionalism. "You were my favorite assignment, Ricardo Diaz." She stole a final kiss. "I will miss you, truly."

There was no recognition in his eyes, no change in the blank stare, as Kaili exited the train. At the base of his skull, his GA chip was still processing data, taking in the various images and sounds from the environment and trying to piece together some understanding of what was going on. It took note as the landscape began to move again outside, but it ultimately meant nothing to the code, to subroutines with no real intelligence. The only thing it could do was watch as Rick's vital signs began to fade. If it had been human, it might have sounded the alarm a little bit sooner, summoned some help for its dying master.

Even as Rick died, even as he slipped past the last moment of precious consciousness, he wondered how he could have been so betrayed by his guardian angels.