The synth didn’t hit until later that night.
Curtis became aware of it in stages as foreign threads in his biochip popped off, executed some quantum change to his mood, and then expired. Over and over, like pop rocks sizzling at the back of his throat. Only this time, the sensation was far more intense than a little tickle behind his nostrils; the synth code ran on his biochip, and the biochip had grow-wire around every major nerve in his body.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
The first sense to heighten was his hearing, and he suspected the synth—of which he could no longer remember the name—had a note of synesthesia in it. The music pouring down from the main stage stalked like wild beasts through the crowd, playful and menacing all at once. The melodic animals ran past him, brushing up against his bare legs, skirting his torso as they leapt through the air. Each contact, however brief, birthed music deep in his brain, as if he alone were the instrument.
Next, the registers in his touch receptors rearranged themselves such that every movement of his clothes across his body poured buckets of sweet prose through his imagination. He didn’t just visualize his shirt brushing his stomach; he saw the words silken caresses teasing the pale skin float through the air, written out in cursive as if by a spectral hand. These sentences, with their blue neon letters, bounced about, pinging off people in the crowd, intersecting with other phrases from elsewhere on his body.
Damp skin bonding to damp skin. Rivulets of sweat dripping from clenched fingers.
Curtis looked to his right. Lasers danced on the face of an MX socialite name Eliana Vasquez, a minor celebrity who Curtis had known of but never in a million years thought he’d ever meet. And yet she’d been there in that tent, fate had thrown them together, and now…
“It’s coming on, isn’t it?” asked Eliana. Though the daughter of an MX synthetics magnate, she had been raised mostly in America, had attended college at Columbia, and as such, had no trace of an accent. She had classic MX features—dark skin, dark hair, high cheekbones—but what caught Curtis’ attention were her pseudo-green eyes. The shone with a light that spoke to augmentation, but with a natural hue that dared anyone to call her on it.
“Yeah,” said Curtis, though he wasn’t sure whether the words left his lips at all.
Smooth nails biting into flesh. A welcome sting, a pleasurable bite.
“It’s intense, like… a heavy blanket or something.” She leaned against him, placed her hand against his shoulder for a minute. “You wanna find some place to sit down? They have those lounge tents by the dining court.”
“Sure,” said Curtis, hearing the deep hissing of a snake in his ears. He followed Eliana through the crowd, past the swirling faces and corporeal scents of the young and lustful. Neon danced on exposed flesh; limbs intertwined and released with the beat of the music.
The venue was at the lowest part of the quarry, so to get back up to the next level, Curtis and Eliana had to climb the newly constructed staircases which were already wet with spilled beer and puke. Trash cans set at each landing overflowed with extra-long beer flutes and dirty plates; flies buzzed excitedly at the influx of new sustenance.
On the next level, a ring of eateries and drinkeries stretched around the entire perimeter of the venue. Each booth sported a familiar American-based food chain, restaurant, or exclusive club. No full menus at the festival; the booths simply filled their display tables with samples of their best dishes. A single plate wasn’t a meal in itself, but a half-dozen were enough to satisfy the appetite of even the drunkest patron.
Here, the smells bloomed into ornate wisps of ghostly flowers, towering above the booths and into the sky. At their most remote point, the wisps took on a cartoon-like quality, bending in the wind and stuttering like an old animation.
Eliana led him past the aromatic garden to the next level, past the water stations and first aid tents there to the next, and the next. Finally, at a level where the treble of the thundering music faded away and only the deep, heart-felt thumping remained, she led him away from the stairs to the nearest white tent.
Inside, the lighting was dim, fed by a few throwback bulbs hanging from wires in the ceiling. No LEDs, no neons, just soothing yellow that brought out the reds in the chaise loungers and muddied the blacks in the leather sofas. A small group near the front looked up from their networked code cubes but said nothing. There was no reason for them to gripe; the tent was big enough to fit about forty people.
A gentle tugging at the palm, eager and plaintive.
Curtis followed Eliana to a sunken table in the back. The circular metal disc was level with the floor and around it, a white shag circle of a couch had been punched into the ground. They kicked off their sandals and stepped down.
A million feathers working in concert; a million cotton tines tearing across skin.
“Better,” she said, leaving no space between them as she sat down. Eliana leaned against him and sighed. “What time is it anyway?”
Curtis checked the metallic sliver on his wrist. “Almost midnight. Why?”
“I’ve been up since Thursday.”
“Jesus, why? Insomnia?”
“No,” she replied, nuzzling against his neck. “I was too excited.”
Vibrations rippling across skin. Hot breath like a strong wind.
“What kind of energy synth are you using?” he asked, knowing there was no natural way she could have been awake for more than 36 hours.
“Something called Railroad. A friend of mine said it takes a while to ramp up but once you’re on the path, it’s hard to stop. I stopped dosing six hours ago, but it’s still with me. Gonna need to flush soon.”
“I might have a few sleepers,” Curtis offered.
Her hand moved to his chest. “Those don’t work on me for some reason. I’ve always had to go natural with sleep.”
Curtis shook his head. “Sounds like hell.”
“It’s not so bad. I’ve got a method.”
Footsteps pulled Curtis’ attention away as a waiter approached. She was young, thin, and beautiful in a smokey sort of way—she might have fit in with the H3D0 crowd herself if she’d had a few million in the bank.
“Can I bring you two anything?” she asked, kneeling at the edge of the sofa. Her black skirt pulled back to reveal stockinged thighs.
“Just water,” said Eliana.
“A pitcher,” said Curtis, “and keep it coming.”
Eliana turned her attention to the knot tied on her chest. She was wearing a red, half-shirt over a black bra, leaving her stomach exposed. A diamond stud hung over her belly button, inches from the waist band of her white shorts. She untied the shirt and let the loose ends fall by her side. Sweat beaded on her chest.
Tensing muscles sliding past each other; blood rushing through veins like overflow from a dam.
For a moment, Curtis stared at the smooth skin of her ample breasts, letting fantasy grind out a sweet melody on the upper registers of a grand piano. Then he noticed her noticing him.
“You were saying,” he said.
“You said you had a method, to get to sleep.”
“Oh, yeah,” she said, pulling his hand onto her stomach where she encased it in hers. “I learned about it in a psychology class, something about visualization of goals. It’s actually kind of hard to explain.” She scrunched up her nose. “You sure you want to hear about it?”
The hue of the room changed with every word that came out of her mouth, all thanks to the synth in his system. Color shifted, as the drug went deeper into his synapses, he found himself losing control of his body. Even the urge to throw himself on top of her was somehow muted. He felt a connection to Eliana, but it went beyond the raging erection in his shorts.
There was something between them, but he couldn’t put words to it.
“Tell me,” he replied. “Maybe it’ll help me get to sleep tonight.”
“Okay, so, you know how you get into bed, turn off the lights, and close your eyes?”
“Well, you do that so it’s dark, because when it’s dark, our minds have an easier time of projecting images, or you know, simulating them. That’s all dreams are, really—simulations. Your brain enters a sleep state and starts pouring those images into your eyeballs and that’s when you dream. But how do we get from here to there? What is that boundary like? How do you transcend it?”
The waitress returned with a glass pitcher of ice water and two glasses.
Eliana ignored her and continued, “Most people think you start dreaming after you fall asleep, but that’s not really true. You dream while you’re awake too. Daydreams, thinking about something else on the subway, stuff like that. All you have to do to get from wake to sleep is to simulate the simulation.” She giggled to herself. “Or maybe stimulate the simulation.”
“That helps me sleep too,” said Curtis.
“I’m sure, but this is different. So, imagine closing your eyes, and you just see darkness. Well, what I do is then try to see light. I don’t imagine things or look for patterns in the blackness. I look for the light. And when I find it, I focus on it, and I get this kind of weird vibration or sensation in my eyes, and I know I’m there.”
“This is outside light?”
“No. My brain is making it. I actually like to think of it like having a black cloth in front of you, and the harder you press your face into it, the more light you can see from the other side. That’s the barrier between wake and sleep, and if you can just push through it by focusing on the light, then you’ll put yourself out in no time. I do it almost every night or I don’t sleep.”
“I’m not sure I get it,” said Curtis, which was true, but then he wasn’t getting a lot at the moment. His senses were blending into each other; lines were crossing at the strangest places. He took a deep breath, let it out.
“Don’t freak out,” said Elaina, “but a rainbow just came out of your nose. Like, a full-on Pride Week rainbow.”
Curtis rubbed his nose, looked at his chest. There was nothing there. He smirked at Eliana.
“I can hear each individual beat of sweat on you. They’re quivering, like um, Jello molds, every bass hit from outside.”
“I heard the blood drain out of your body and into your shorts,” she replied.
“This is the wildest synth I’ve ever done.”
Eliana nodded, her eyes wide. There was something imploring in them mixed with the kind of fear found as a car climbs to the first drop on a rollercoaster. She was thinking something, possibly saying it aloud in her mind. And the funny thing was, Curtis heard the words echo in his own head.
“Probably,” he said aloud.
“I wonder what’s coming next.” She sat up and poured herself a glass of water. She took a long pull, then offered the glass to Curtis.
He waved it away.
“I wonder if this is the best place to be when it gets here,” she said, holding the glass against her chest for a moment. “Maybe we should be somewhere more private?”
“Are you sharing a tent?” he asked.
“Bungalow,” she corrected, “but yes. With those girls you met earlier. You?”
“Not a bungalow, but I’m not sharing. It’s a pretty decent size.”
“Room enough for two?”
“Room enough for ten.”
“Alright, but first, I have to know.” She leaned closer to his face. “What color are your eyes? They have been cycling through red and black and blue and green. Is that one of those augmentations?”
Curtis blinked involuntarily. “They’re brown. Just brown.”
Eliana cocked her head, frowned a little. Her long lashes closed slightly.
“And yours,” he said, “are green, right?”
“All natural.” She sighed, put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m glad I met you, Curtis. This has been a nice surprise.”
“Same,” he said, and meant it. He reached out for her hair, which had turned to satin under his fingers.
Eliana stood and pulled him to his feet. They were face-to-face and inches apart.
Lips of velvet, gliding as water over the falls, taste of yearning with an aftertaste of dread.