10. Collectors (D2)

They walked through the halls together, each one holding a bag of severed fingers. He had been quick to hop to the opportunity for more answers. He was glad she was not the type of person that felt the need to talk unnecessarily either. They had made some pointless banter among each other at first but neither had felt forced to carry it on and soon they had left each other to their own thoughts.

JImmy still had plenty of questions for her but since she was in no rush to answer, he felt in no rush to ask. He knew whatever she was attempting to show him would likely answer most. The ones that remained he would ask.

In the end, it wouldn’t matter. His life was more important than his curiosity. He could’t give a worthless fuck about all this if it meant getting out of here alive. Yet here was Patricia, prioritizing answers over everything else. 

Even returning home, to her family.

Switching shoes with her, the moment the entire calamity was going down he’d have bolted. He would have been the first on a life raft and out of this shithole. It’s better to be a coward than be dead.

But is it better to be dead than to be insane?

He hadn’t experienced any hallucinations as of late but his thoughts had always teetered on the verge of question. He was used to analyzing the words and actions of those around him but now it seemed he was beginning to question his own. He had felt a sense of mistrust inside, as if some of his own thoughts flashed through were not actually his own. 

Why else would he had enthusiastically agreed to accompany her on her quest for answers? He knew himself better. He could admit the hard truths to himself, no matter how masked he kept them. He should be laying waste to her need for answers and selling her on the idea that she needs to be getting him off this failed city.

“I’m glad I found you,” he heard Patricia say, forcing his head to turn to look at her. “If I can be honest, I was beginning to feel hopeless.”

He gazed into her eyes and felt an urge to embrace her. She looked so sad, so vulnerable. Like she needed someone to understand her and he was the only person that could. She needed him.

She turned away from him and said, “Careful up here. Last thing we need is a broken ankle.”

He blinked his eyes, feeling dumb for letting his thoughts be guided by his dick. He shook his head and refocused on the path ahead.

There were bodies scattered along the hallway and could see by all the missing fingers that Patrcicia had already made her rounds through here. He was curious how much of the city she had already covered.

The entrance to the labs was at the other end of a nearly pitch black corridor. Even with Patricia around and both of the flashlights on their comm units on, Jimmy still could not shake the eerie sensation of an unknown force hovering over them, watching them, waiting for Jimmy to walk into the dark. He hated that Patricia walked as if there was no worry in the world. Her back erect, hips swaying from side to side, eyes glued to the door ahead. She never strayed from the task at hand.

“A true man never lets distractions get in the way,” had said his grandfather long ago, “a true man keeps his eye on the target and lets the rest pass him by without second thought.” 

The old man had taught him plenty over the years they had together, but it was this experiment that had stuck with him. Jimmy had only been nine and the old man had taken him to a shopping center packed with people. 

“Do you trust me?” the old man had asked. Jimmy had been scared. He didn’t know what kind of experiment this would be and it was the act of not knowing that brought so much fear into the boy, but he knew his grandfather would never let him get hurt. “Good. Then follow my lead.”

The old man had found the busiest section of the shopping center, where throngs of people rushed through without care or attention, and sat. He had stared at Jimmy so intently that it had caused the boy to laugh. It had been fun at first, sitting in front of each other and simply staring, but it hadn’t taken long for Jimmy to begin noticing the eyes of those who passed by them. The judgement that filled their gawking, the cruel sniggering as they ridiculed those that were not like them.

Jimmy’s eyes had quickly lost their focus and he had found himself embarrassed, awkward and vulnerable.

“Look at me,” had said his grandfather as he had leaned closer toward him and took the boy’s face in his hand. “Hey, look at me.”

“I’m sorry grandpa,” had said Jimmy.

“Don’t be sorry,” the old man had said, drawing Jimmy’s eyes back to him to reveal his golden smile, “be something.”

Those words had stuck with him for the rest of his life. Be something.

“These people don’t matter, not in the grand scheme of your life. You matter,” had continued his grandfather. “They laugh and stare because they wish they had the balls to do it themselves. They wish they could live their lives without having to worry about what everyone will think of them. That’s not living Jimmy. This, what you’re feeling right now? That’s not living. It’s better you feel this now, as a kid, than later. Always keep your eye on the prize.”

“James?” Patricia called to him, snapping him out of his thoughts. The door to the labs was wide open with her inside, “You coming?”

He had assumed they would have been outside that door testing fingers for a long while. She tilted her head to signal him to come inside. He nodded and stepped forward, appreciating her use of his real name.

“That was lucky,” said Jimmy, lifting the bag of fingers. “Should I throw these out?”

“The only luck there was that my job allowed access to this room,” said Patricia with a smile. “The labs we want are up there.” She nudged her head toward the darkness.

“Why haven’t you tried to escape?” he asked after a moment of trailing behind her. The room was filled with offices on opposing sides, packed with equipment Jimmy wouldn’t even begin to know how to use. The lights in there were different. Still dim, but the blue tint was coupled with a white glow that illuminated things in a distorted glow. The clash between the white and deep blue was disorienting.

“Why haven’t you?” she said back while waiting for him to catch up with her.

“I did,” he said. He scanned every room, searching for nothing in particular. Most of them contained nothing of attentional value. Some had diagrams or formulas in plain sight. One in particular contained a monkey sprawled out on the floor. He stopped and looked in. It looked like the office had been turned into the monkey’s home.

“And?” said Patricia.

Jimmy saw blood inside the room, drawing his attention further. “What happened to it?”

Patricia walked up next to him and peered inside. She stayed quiet for a while. “Her name was Mother,” she finally said. “She had been bred through genetic modification. She was supposed to be able to feed her young the perfect nutrients from a signal we would send her.” Patricia shook her head and gave a mocking chuckle. “One of the first things everyone forgot about when the lights came down. I came here a few days after, trying to find anyone from the crew and saw how scared she was. She was starving and her little one had died. She looked devastated.”

Jimmy watched Patricia as she continued, “I left, promising myself I’d be back for her a soon as I found someone to open that fucking door for me, but I forgot her too.” She pursed her lips as she bit the inside of her cheek. “When I came back again I found her hysterical, slamming at the doors, blood covering her mouth and chest. I couldn’t see her little one,” she stared at the dead monkey for a long while until turning her head and looking into his eyes. “I was too scared to let her out,” she said before turning and walking away.

He took one last look at the monkey and pictured himself in its spot. He wanted to believe that he would never eat his own, dead or not, but he knew that was a lie. He was an animal, just like the monkey. Worse, he was the type of animal that would survive, regardless of the cost.

He shuddered the thought away and trailed after Patricia. Jimmy could see by the way she walked that she was distressed. He became more interested in finding a way to snap her out of it than exploring the repetitive labs. His mind tried to scour for pleasant questions to cheer her up but kept falling short, so instead he kept silent and followed her down a flight of stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs was a large room with four big tanks. Each tank had a monkey floating in liquid, tubes inserted into their bodies. Jimmy felt his lip curl in disgust. He had never liked the idea of experimenting on animals. He would have ignored it if Patricia had not spoken up.

“Lagos’ assistant told me these were being stored in preparation for the substance,” she said.

“For what?” said Jimmy.

“They were going to try and join the experiments together,” said Patricia. “It’s hard to let go of the things you’ve held on to for so long.”

“Obviously not that hard,” he said, thinking about the way they had abandoned Mother. Patricia stayed quiet, focusing on the containers until she nodded and walked away. He followed her to the metallic-silver door at the end of the room where she dropped the bag of fingers down.

He thought it strange that the door had been built with a solid colored pattern. Clearly the intention had been to keep anyone not intended from peeking inside. It was unlike what Jimmy was used to with Lumis policy. They had always preached transparency. Ask and you will be told.

Patricia crouched over the door terminal and opened the bag of fingers. She dumped them over the floor in front of her and kneeled, adjusting herself until she felt comfortable. She adjusted the bag so the mouth of it would stay open on its own. Jimmy watched her take a group of fingers in her left hand and eject the scanner from the terminal. One by one she began scanning them, each time a sound rang to reject the scan.

“I’ve told myself every time I’m here ‘next time bring a cushion for your knees,’” said Patricia as she turned her head enough to show him a smile. He didn’t know how the woman was able to stay so chipper in the midst of all this hell. He found it almost, nauseating.

“I can do it if you’d like,” he said.

She threw the failed fingers into the open bag with the rest of the rejects and waved dismissively toward him before taking another to be rejected. He watched her keep going for a while until the fingers in her hand ran out and she was forced to scoop up more. He used that as his cue to wander around.

“Aren’t you scared that thing will come after you?” asked Jimmy as he went to the closest desk. He used his free hand to rummage through the equipment.

“I don’t want to die, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Patricia.

“Yet you go collect that shit and bring it here every day.”

“I’ll be dead unless I get in there,” she said.

Jimmy moved on to another desk that had a microscope he toyed with. “There something you’re not telling me?”

“You’re awfully distrusting,” she said as she looked back at him. The lack of sound from the rejected fingers forced him to look at her. “I wish there was,” she turned back to the scanner and finally said, “How did you hack my personal system?”

He glanced at his wrist, debating on whether he should tell her. “Where there’s a will,” he said.

It took her a second before she burst out laughing, causing him to join her. “I’m glad you think me young enough that you want to teach me good ideals to live by.”

“Doubt there’d be much I could teach a woman like you,” he said, placing the equipment down and leading himself to where she would be able to see him.

“I could think of a few things,” she said without bothering to look at him. Jimmy could see her raised cheek from the angle where he stood. He raised his own in a cocky toothless smirk before returning toward the cylinders. “Was it your AI?”

“Nee,” he said, looking up at one of the suspended monkeys, “She’s the newest generation.”

“You named it?” she said. He didn’t bother to reply, he knew by her tone and the question itself that she did not approve. Most people didn’t. “Were they planning on removing privacy restrictions then?”

“No,” he said. He thought about leaving it at that. He didn’t feel the most comfortable talking about Nee with someone else, and he knew it would eventually lead there. “The units they make for us are provided raw, for the most part. If we have more capabilities we can entice our consumers with the potential, even if they’ll never have them as well.”

“And you can hack into their own units to learn everything you need about them,” she said, chuckling. “What should I expect when I upgrade? Should I expect it to try and stop my attackers from hurting me as well?”

Jimmy frowned and turned to look at her but she made no move to look back. He watched her continue to scan the fingers, unable to figure out what she had meant.

“Made me think twice about hitting you again. Almost felt like a real person was watching,” she continued. He stared at her with a puzzled expression. He was feeling toyed with and began feeling the pressure around his temples returning. She turned around and read him in an instant. “When I hit you after you ran at me like a fucking maniac, that thing pleaded with me not to hurt you. It begged me to help you. Started listing a list of ailments you were suffering from.”

Jimmy turned from her and stared at the tubes sticking out of the monkey.

“I wasn’t going to kill you,” said Patricia. “I mean, I hadn’t seen another person in days but it sure as shit made certain I would feel for you.”

Stop calling her an it. She. Her name is Nee. He took the container of pills and popped one under his tongue. “Do you think they’re alive?” asked Jimmy.

“The monkeys?” she asked. “They never were. Those are just empty shells, bodies to experiment on.”

“That’s a cruel way to see it,” he said.

“No,” she responded. “They’re genetically engineered without anything up here.” He pictured her using one of the severed fingers to point at her head. “Their brain functions enough for their organs to work but they don’t feel or understand anything.”

He looked at her through narrowed eyes and felt her analyzing him back. She shot him a warm and inviting smile, “At least that’s what they tell me.” She waved her hand in invitation. “Bring me the bag, will you?”

He walked toward her and placed his back against the wall, letting himself slide down onto the floor. He slid the fingers toward her. Raising his chin and closing his eyes focusing on the numb relaxation around his body. He had never been scared of getting addicted to anything. He had dabbled in plenty over his life, it just wasn’t in his nature. He understood why people did but he was not weak. Jimmy knew he had a strong will, he could never stoop as low as them.

“I thought it might have been terrorists,” said Jimmy. “Probably be dead if it had been, but at least I wouldn’t have felt like I was losing it.”

“We thought the blackouts were attacks at first,” said Patricia. “Wouldn’t have been surprising after the PLOCC threatened to shut down the factories if Lumis didn’t cease animal projects.”

There had been plenty of organizations that had it out against Lumis. PLOCC had become a radical animal rights movement that would take on smaller companies and raid them. They would never go directly after the laboratories. They would instead attack storefronts, workers at their homes, or the factories where the products would be produced and stored. They had shut down plenty of smaller organizations and since they had always won the public eye, the world had allowed them to continue without consequences. 

“They did,” said Jimmy with a grin on his face, eyes still closed. “One factory. Lumis security came in on the same day and everything was back to normal. Bit off more than they could chew.”

“Would be nice if Lumis could do that here,” said Patricia.

“At least you have me,” he said.

“I’ll make sure to make the most of that,” she chuckled.

“Please make sure to leave glowing feedback,” said Jimmy. “Lucky for me, recent events have me next in line for a promotion.”

Patricia laughed and said, “That sure was early. But hey, if we can’t enjoy ourselves when there might be no future, then we might as well be dead already.”

Jimmy opened his eyes and looked down at her over his nose. She caught his gaze and only released it when she returned to the scanner.

He kept on watching her work. So methodical, confident in what she was doing. She was a fine specimen. “How did you…survive?” he asked.

Patricia shrugged. “Luck,” she said as she turned her head towards him. “I really don’t know. I feel I acted the same way everyone else did. I just gave up on watching everyone die, so I locked myself up and stayed in my little home. Then the stations flooded and next thing I knew, I was all alone.” She chuckled, “looks like I’ll be next in line for a promotion too.”

Jimmy laughed with her. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with mine.”

“Plenty of positions to fill here James, I wouldn’t be too worried,” she said, winking. “Who knows, though, I might just make for a proper tradeswoman. I’ve heard I have a way with minds.”

“More than that,” he said in a low, raspy voice. One of her eyebrows raised slightly before she turned back to her work. “Why didn’t anyone think of the exploration pods?”

“Just because there was a panic doesn’t mean people were dumb,” she said. “After we all realized it wasn’t some psycho picking people off, first thought in everyone’s head was the pods. People are selfish sometimes. They feel entitled, especially down here. A good number of them out there died because of a stupid place on one of the pods.”

“Did anyone make it to the pods?” said Jimmy.

“Lagos said it had been watching us for quite some time. Somehow learning about us. I think he was right.” She emptied the next bag of fingers and scooped up a few. “It destroyed all of our ways to escape and then picked us off by the hundreds. It’s as if it knew exactly how to hit us hardest. The comms first, then the blackouts, all of the system malfunctions. This fucking thing knew how we worked.

It flooded the pods, killed everyone who made it in there and then once we had nowhere else to run it came back and butchered everyone. The living quarters, engineering, everywhere, just like you saw out there,” continued Patricia. “At least it hasn’t come after me.”

“A toast to it staying that way,” said Jimmy in a lifeless tone causing Patricia to chuckle. He felt his heart begin to beat faster, anxiety building from the thought that they were stuck here without any form of escape. They could only hope that someone would be sent down to help them. “So the pods are all gone?”

“No, they’re just flooded,” she said, glancing at him as if she could hear the anxiety in his voice.

Jimmy stood, not wanting her to see him in that state. He returned to fiddling with the equipment over the desks in hopes it would distract him enough. In a way, he agreed with Patricia’s need for answers. It would provide them with a reason to stay alive. Not knowing anything made him insignificant. If he knew of the project more, of this creature, he could figure out why Lumis had sent him down instead of a security team. They have to have had a reason. Once he found it, he could just wait for them to rescue them.

Or just die with more answers.

Lumis would never leave him to die, though. He was too valuable to them. He was their golden child, the one they needed to solve all their problems. The one they had all their other tradespeople try to emulate. There was no way they wouldn’t send a security team down for him.

And yet, a few days had passed and they hadn’t come.

“Seems we’ll be going to look for more,” said Patricia as JImmy continued to hear the reject noise.

Fuck your fingers. I don’t need your answers. I’m not dying here, not for you and not for your goddamn answers. “When?”

“Well unless you want to play board games and have a tea party, the day is still young,” she said. 

“All right,” he said as he thought of ways that he might be able to leave her to these tasks. Answers might bring him some will, but he would not die for them. There was no convincing her, and even if there was, there would be no suit for her. She had said it herself, they were dead here anyway. She was a fine specimen that would go to waste.

Patricia gathered up the bags and disposed of them in the waste bins. Jimmy turned up his nose as the faint smell of seared flesh escaped the cover. She watched him and smiled saying, “You’ll get used to it,” as she made her way up the stairs.

“I hope not,” he said, following behind her. He thought about the pods, about how the creature had managed to flood them. He remembered seeing the white outline of it as they had approached the city. How it had quickly disappeared and found itself back inside the city. “Was there more than one?”

“I thought that,” she called back to him. “It seemed to be everywhere all at once, but no. I think it just found a way to exit and enter the station in different spots without having to go around like we do. Just like it uses the vents.”

“Like the air locks?” he said.

“Maybe, but I doubt it,” she said. “Someone would have noticed that.”

He thought about that as they made their way back to the room. Nee had told him his chances of making it out there were high, but it also had not taken into account this, thing, lurking out there in the darkness. Patricia gathered some packets of food and an extra set of laser cutters for Jimmy. Waiting around here chopping fingers was still not his idea of handling this situation but he figured he would humor her until the opportunity arose to leave without notice. Women always handled that better than being told up front, even if they pretended otherwise.

It wasn’t hard to convince her that she should head toward the business district. She had been scouring the living quarters where most of the regulars would reside. She needed to look through where the Lumis elite would stay. Considering the sectors they had resided in where all now gone, it only left one other place where they would mix. The shopping grounds.

He had Nee map out a route to the higher end stores, making sure to avoid having to go through the oxygen systems or living quarters he had originally got here through. The map itself was a reminder of his potentially psychotic nature, he didn’t need to walk through memory lane to relive the same nightmares. 

Patricia didn’t question the route. She seemed to enjoy him taking the lead and treated it as if it were a game. He knew she wasn’t the type to be truly led. She believed herself too powerful, too independent. She was the type to permit the reigns to be held, but never enough to where she couldn’t take them back.

He loved that.

After some time of walking, they encountered their first body. Patricia stopped unexpectedly and moved toward it. It had been a young girl, early teens at most. It wore a regular suit with nothing resounding about it.

“What are you doing?” said Jimmy as he watched Patricia bend down next to the girl and take its right hand.

“What we came here to do,” she said. She pulled out her laser cutter and placed the index finger between the opening. Two bright red lasers flashed together and severed the finger.

“You’re wasting your time,” said Jimmy.

“Am I?” frowned Patricia.

“Why would it ever have access to something like that?”

She could have been someone’s daughter,” said Patricia as she stood, narrowing her eyes at him.

“Since when does Lumis give access to everyone’s family so they can randomly interrupt someone on a project that they clearly don’t want anyone finding out about?” he said gritting his teeth at the thought of stopping every two seconds to further mutilate every corpse the came across. “You’re the fucking doctor here.”

She laughed a deep laugh, throwing Jimmy off. He had expected her to get defensive. “I love how you think our marks will all be wearing a decorated uniform that will scream me, me, me!” she said, turning him on at her lack of offense taken. “If only it were that easy.”

She tilted her head toward the path ahead and took off walking, leaving him to focus on her swaying hips. 

Decorated uniform.

“You coming?” she said, snapping him from his thoughts. He walked toward her, thinking about the man he had seen in engineering but his mind wandered as quickly as his eyes did over all of her.

They made slow progress through the path Nee had highlighted for them. Patricia had stopped at each body they had come across, eventually getting Jimmy to help as well just to help speed things up. Her conversation was easy to be a part of, it was as if she never ran out of things to talk over and yet would also know when not to pry. It made him comfortable talking to her. It was a shame they would be parting ways soon.

It surprised him that she did not bring up her family. She would discuss her job and Lumis, her feelings, but mostly she would ask questions and try to listen to him. If Jimmy was the more talkative type, which he was in more social scenarios, he was sure Patricia would soak up everything without feeling the need to say a word. But considering how close she appeared to be with her family, she should have at least brought them up once.

“I saw you had a family,” he said. He felt strange bringing it up. He had grown so accustomed to ignoring a woman’s emotional ties entirely in order to keep them in his presence.

“Have,” she said, bending down over a body. “Most of us do.”

“Why didn’t they accompany you?” he said, watching her sever the finger and continue on like nothing.

“They didn’t belong down here,” she said. “My career is separate from them.”

As they neared a set of offices, the door leading up to it slid open, forcing them both to look. Jimmy flashed his wrist light inside and saw a number of corpses scattered about. Patricia didn’t hesitate to go in, forcing Jimmy to follow. He went to the opposite end of the room and kneeled over the first body there. He didn’t bother to check what it looked like, he simply raised the hand enough to snag the finger and moved on to the next.

He felt the throbbing at his back from all the crouching and could only imagine how much worse it was for Patricia. He pulled out a pill and popped one but not before realizing that he was already down to his last two. He thought about offering one to her but figured if she wanted one, she would ask. Besides, he was the one truly hurt here.

“Seems hard being apart from them for so long,” he called out to her across the offices. It was the type of thing people liked to hear. He knew if it were him, he would have rejoiced from the escape, but he wasn’t like everyone else. 

“It is,” she said. “But if I’m being honest, It was a relief for a while.” Jimmy raised his head and looked at her, “up until I realized how limited my communication with them was. Then, this.” She popped out of one of the offices. “How about you?”

“What about me?” he asked, knowing the dreaded question he had just allowed her to ask. 

“Who do you have back home?” she said.

No one that matters. “My son,” he said.

She poked her head out to look at him. “I didn’t take you for a parent.”

“Most people don’t,” he said, shrugging.

“I just mean, it can’t be easy keeping a family as a tradesman,” she said. Her expression let Jimmy know that she was not used to reading people incorrectly. He allowed a faint smirk to cross his lips. “Is his mother caring for him while-”

“His mom is a bitch,” said Jimmy. “I was left with him when he was about eight weeks old.”

She bent over one of the last three bodies left. “Who is he with now then?”

“My mother and father,” he said, watching her closely.

“I see,” she said. “At least you have people to help raise him.”

He knew she had meant well, but it still stung. “They do enough.”

“What do you mean?” she said.

“They look out for him,” said Jimmy. “But they don’t think he’s mine. They treat him differently just because of it.”

“That’s terrible.”

He stared at the floor, waiting before answering, “Can’t blame them. He looks nothing like me.” He looked up at her, watching her reactions. She had finished with the last finger and was now paying him full attention. He raised his forearm and put it out for display. “I’m not very hairy, no one in my family is, but my little guy has hair coming out of even his asshole.”

She frowned, thoughts clearly being thrown around in her head as she tried hard to figure out where she had made a mistake while reading him. “And you’re ok with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” he said, feigning confusion. She kept quiet as she gathered her thoughts and chuckled.

“I’m sorry, I guess I just made a mistake,” she said.

He had intended it as a joke but now that she had taken it so serious, he wasn’t sure he should deliver it. He would let it simmer for now, tell her at the right time. For now, it was helping keep him from having to talk about things he wasn’t fond of. It was also causing her to reevaluate him in a new light.

“Shall we?” he said, stretching his arm toward the door. She smiled and once again took the lead, letting him enjoy her figure until they were side-by-side in the hall.

“Did you always want to be a father?” asked Patricia as they walked together. Jimmy realized that he felt surprisingly calm in the darkness of the city. He wasn’t sure if he should attribute it to his brain finally getting used to it, or Patricia’s tranquil demeanor.

“I still don’t,” he said with a laugh.

“Is that why you keep this career?” she asked.

“No,” he lied.

“Then why do you?”

Because it’s easy. Because I’m good at it and I stand out above the rest without having to do a damn thing. Because I’m lazy and I’m a coward and I’m afraid of overstaying my welcome. “Are you conducting a fucking session now?” he snapped. He saw a hint of fear over her that she quickly covered by her stoic nature. He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh.

They both allowed the tense silence to envelop them as they walked with their heads held high, neither willing to apologize to the other.

“I like my job. It’s fulfilling,” he said. “I also like and respect the company I work for.” The second part wasn’t a lie. Lumis had watched out for him.

“Lumis?” she said. “That’s a first. Most people hate the companies they work for. Especially giants.”

“Most people are fucking idiots,” he shot out.

“I’d like to believe most just need a little guidance. That’s all,” she said. “Giants have a tendency to make people feel small. It takes a special type of person to feel comfortable around them.”

He couldn’t shake the feeling that she was somehow testing him. Gauging his reaction to see if she was right all along. He wouldn’t give her the satisfaction. “They’ve always done right by me.”

“WIsh I could say the same,” she said.

“Ever think maybe they wish the same of you?”

He watched her smile from the corner of his eyes. “I’ve never been the type to blame others,” she said, making him want to laugh. He had always felt that when people had to describe themselves, it meant they were the exact opposite of their description. He did it all the time. “But of all the companies I’ve contracted to, Lumis has been by far the worst.”

“I could see why,” he said, causing her to laugh.

“This is just the cherry,” she said. “It could be that they prefer their full-timers, in fact, I’m positive that’s what it is, but I’ve done plenty of work for them in the past and have received no credit for it.” She waved her hand close to him. “I’ve been well compensated, more so than any other company, but money doesn’t take me anywhere in my field.”

“So you needed money?” said Jimmy, bringing Patricia to an abrupt stop.

“What?” she said, an offended expression on her face. “No.”

He felt a sudden urge to please her. He was intimidated and swallowed it down as he had practiced so many times for confrontational clients. “Why take another project you won’t get recognized for then?”

She looked into his eyes for a long while, her own switching back and forth between his. It made him want to say something, anything, just to break the silence, but he had learned that in moments like these, no matter how long the silence dragged out for, he needed to wait until the other person spoke. He raised his chin slightly, a trick he had used as a reminder to stay confident.

“If something you did saved the world, but no one would ever know, wouldn’t you still do it?” she asked.

Jimmy laughed. “You’re an endless fountain of questions aren’t you?”

Patricia smiled and walked down the corridor. “My children hate it,” she said, stopping to look at him again. “Sometimes I wonder how my husband resists not calling me out on it.”

Because he’s weak. “I’m sure he stopped noticing a long time ago,” said Jimmy with a smirk that quickly disappeared as her own expression took on a melancholic look.

He checked the map on his wrist, noticing that they had put a lot of distance between them and Patricia’s room. They were still far from engineering, far enough to where he needed to make sure she wouldn’t suggest they return back. For the next couple of hours he took care of gathering the fingers as quickly as they could, putting even more distance from the option of returning.

Patricia seemed to not notice. She was likely more relieved that her lower back was receiving a break at his expense. He took the second to last pill, allowing the initial euphoria of the stronger dosage to allow him to forget about his own pain. He felt guilty for taking it but knew that once he was off this forsaken city, none of it would matter anymore.

He checked the map repeatedly until he felt comfortable with the distance he would be traveling alone. He was glad he had been able to have some company through the biggest part of it, but it would be time to stop severing fingers and sever plans instead. Patricia had run her course. As nice as it would have been to sleep with her, he was, and would be, exerting too much energy on things that would not matter. 

It was time to live.

They neared an office at the end of the corridor, some sort of massage parlor or spa. He could see how physically worn Patricia was but she was not they type to give up on people, or herself. Jimmy flashed his light inside the parlor. There was not a single body he could see inside.

“I don’t see any in here,” he said, facing her.

“That’s a surprise,” she said. “It was always such a popular spot.”

She was about to walk off before he stopped her, “I could eat,” he said. A look of relief came over her and she nodded in agreement. He requested Nee to open the doors since they refused to open automatically. Once inside, he asked her to seal them. 

He scoped out the place with Patricia at his side until she picked out one of the bigger rooms they came across and sat inside it. He kept on, making sure there was nothing that would spring up on them unexpectedly.

“I’m not sure how comfortable I feel eating here,” called out Patricia. “There’s probably so much sex in the air that every bite I take I’ll be eating some of it.”

He heard her laugh to herself. “They clean everything quite thoroughly,” he said, chuckling to himself. He pulled Nee to his lips and said, “Please check the place for ways in.”

“I take it you frequent these types of places?” said Patricia. He had never visited one of these places before. Another reason why he was so curious to snoop around. He had never had to, women had always seemed to just straddle themselves to his lap. However, being honest with himself, he would have no reservations about using establishments like these. In fact, he found it strange that people in this day still saw it as something immoral.

People love to pass judgement so they won’t look so bad themselves.

“No,” he said. “I dated a girl for a brief time whose job was upkeeping the health and safety standards at places like these.”

“Is that what she told you?” he heard Patricia say as she chuckled. Reaching the end of the parlor, he came across no bodies. He had to figure it was the last place anyone wanted to be caught dying at. He laughed to himself.

“There is an entrance at the rear of the locale. Here,” she said as a map popped up with the layout of the parlor. He had to figure it was for anyone too timid to admit their use of these places, maybe for the studs and mares as well. “There is also a food distribution network here.”

“Could you please lock both?” he asked her.

“I took the liberty of sealing the rear entrance already,” said Nee, “However, the network seems to be jammed.”

“Just my fucking luck,” mumbled Jimmy to himself. He followed the route on the map to the network. It was amusing that a place like this would have a food network license. It made sense, the customer might come during their lunch hour and not have enough time after their pump to get food so they order here at double the cost.

“James?” Hearing his full name disoriented him for a moment. He had grown accustomed to only Nee calling him that. “Everything okay?” continued Patricia.

“Yeah,” he yelled back as he stared down the short flight of stairs. “Just locking the place up.”

There were no backup lights that shone at the bottom of the stairs, making Jimmy wonder if yelling like he did had just alerted anything in the darkness to prepare itself. He felt his skin prickle up. Maybe he should just ask Patricia to join him. At least that way his mind would be distracted and force him to put on a brave face in front of her. He knew himself well, even if he refused to admit certain things.

He cursed under his breath and forced himself down the first step. He could feel the long jagged fingernails tickle the rear of his ankle, sending the hairs on his calves into high alert. He hated this feeling, like he was worthless. A defenseless child ready to be passed around for everyone’s amusement without ever being able to see who or what comes next.

“What happened after she hit me Nee?” he said into the unit, hoping Nee’s voice would calm him enough to get through this quickly.

“Dr. Watts took you to her room where she provided you with nutrients. You then rested,” said Nee, providing him with enough distraction to get down the stairs.

He flashed the light around to all the corners of the open room. It was like a large break room with two communal tables as well as a few individual ones. Flashing the light around brought a strange sense of relief, as well as a more intense sense of terror. Seeing only sections of the room at any given time made him feel as if anything could be slipping around in all the areas his light had just left. Slithering from every shadow as it neared him, knowing that if the light shone over it, all it had to do was pounce.

“That’s not what I meant,” said Jimmy as he slid his feet over the floor, too scared to take a full step.

“You’d like to know about the conversation you had with Dr. Watts about me?” said Nee.

“Yes,” Jimmy said with a trembling voice.

“It was the only way I could make sure no harm came to you,” replied Nee after a pause of silence. “I could not overload her since you had restricted my linking to other units.”

“Couldn’t you have warned me?” he said, nearing the food chute. He could see a fake plant had been placed in front of the chute door. Obviously it was what had kept Nee from being able to lock it herself.

“I tried,” said Nee. “You were not listening.” He flashed the light inside the chute, making sure nothing unexpected would crawl out at him. “I attempted to send shocks through your system but you were-”

“Crazy,” he said as he pushed the faux plant aside, letting it spill to the floor. “I know.”

“You were not crazy James,” she said as Jimmy took hold of the door and pulled hard to pry it free. “You were deprived of oxygen and-”

Jimmy felt big fat fingers grip his right arm and yank him into the chute. He shrieked without thought and placed his left hand over the opening to resist being dragged in. He felt the sharp nails dig into his skin, piercing the surface of his suit and causing his arm to warm as he felt the blood trickle out. He didn’t want to look but he forced himself to only to be yanked harder, smashing his head against the top of the chute and disorienting him.

He regained himself quickly and pulled against the force enough to drag part of the thing’s hand and arm out. He could see the thick appendages enough with the stray light, pale-white flesh torn in sections. Jimmy was scared to yank too hard, scared that if he did, his arm would be taken from him, but something needed to be done. He scooted his feet against the wall and tried to pull harder with the leverage he had gained, only to feel a second grip over his forearm. He looked down at it and saw a unit identical to his own.

He watched as the creature pulled its head out of the shadows just enough for Jimmy to see a barely recognizable grin over melted flesh. It appeared as if its face had been burned in sections, leaving a gooey mess without charring the skin. There were holes through the flesh where the bone underneath could be seen.

“I always looked up to you Jimmy,” said Roberts, the skin on his face tearing as his muscles worked hard to get the words out. “You should have helped me.”

Jimmy screamed and pulled away hard enough to cause the remaining flesh over the hands and fingers to peel off and allow him to fall back. Roberts began to crawl out from the chute, revealing similar patches over his shoulders and neck where even the suit he had worn had melted and fused into his insides. Jimmy refused to flash the light directly onto him. He was already sickened enough as it was. He knew there was no way he could control his stomach if he took on the full ghastly sight of what Roberts had become.

Jimmy stood with trembling legs and gripped the outer handle of the chute door. Roberts spine was twisted backwards in an unnatural position as he tried to slither the rest of him out. Jimmy could feel the fat fuck’s eyes glued on him. He used all his might to swing the door onto the Roberts’ torso.

Roberts shrieked at the top of his lungs, just as he had before. Jimmy pulled the door back and slammed it again. He felt it dig through something and heard a crunch. “Jimmy no! Please help me!” screamed the abomination.

He slammed it again and again, each time hearing the squishing of melted flesh being ripped along with the crack the bones underneath. He kept going until the chute door sealed entirely and Roberts’ torso dropped to the ground, his entrails joining him milliseconds after. He could hear them plopping down one by one as he breathed over the remains of his old colleague.

“Fuck you Roberts,” said Jimmy in between breaths.

He felt nails dig into his legs as he was pulled out onto the ground with barely enough time to put his arm back. He felt it twist back and slid it in time to avoid it breaking. He tried to scoot himself away after his head bounced on the floor. Jimmy saw the face of the melted abomination as it reached higher on his legs. Rage covered the fat man’s face. A rage that left Jimmy petrified with fear.

“You did fuck me Jimmy,” said Roberts, crawling further on top of him. “Don’t you remember? You fucked all of us!”

The chute door opened allowing Roberts’ lower half to be pushed out and behind it crawled out Zoe, Vanessa, Clara, Ahri, all of them just kept coming. Colleagues, exes, old friends, all torn apart in the most unimaginable ways. Some not even entire bodies, just parts he could recognize.

Jimmy shrieked. He shrieked louder than he ever had his entire life. Louder than Roberts had as Jimmy watched the fat man die. Louder than he ever thought possible. He watched them crawl closer, their faces full of pain and hatred until he couldn’t take it and he closed his eyes. He felt them hold him down as they crawled on top.

Their warm arms wrapped around his shoulders and held him tight. It felt more real than anything else he had ever experienced.

“It’s okay,” said a familiar voice, “I’m here.”

Alice? No. Nee.

He put his trembling hands over the arms without opening his eyes. His fingers found her hand and he felt her take them in her own. Even if this wasn’t real, he would take it. He sat there with her for a long while, neither saying a word. He was sure he was dreaming but it was the best dream he could conjure. It was the most comforting experience he’d had in ages.

Jimmy took a deep breath and held it until his fear dissipated. He opened his eyes and took in his surroundings. The faux plant lay over his legs, a badly chopped stump where the top half of the plant should have been. He could imagine where it was. The dirt that had given it support was spilled over the floor, the pot that held it shattered. None of it had been real, and yet, he still felt the warm embrace.

He clenched his jaw as realization crashed down on him. He pried the hands off him and stood up without looking at Patricia. He felt embarrassed and foolish. Weak. She had seen him, she knew. His eyes welled and he gritted his teeth hard, holding everything back. She had seen too much.

Jimmy took the handle of the chute door once more and stared at the top of the plant he had crushed in half. He slammed the door shut and held it tight while holding Nee to his lips. “Seal the fucking thing,” he growled through a still shaky voice.

He heard a faint clink and Nee’s voice say, “Done,” before he turned around and walked away toward the stairs.

“James,” he heard Patricia call to him. “James, wait.”

He ignored her and kept up the stairs. He could hear her behind him, following at a regular pace, unconcerned over his feelings but intrigued over the spectacle. She wanted to ridicule the legend, expose him for the frail and useless creature he was. Laugh at Jimmy until the whole world saw how vile a waste he was. How undeserving of anything but rejection he was.

Patricia placed her hand on his left side from behind. He hadn’t heard her walk any faster to catch up to him. “Hey, what happened?” she said, “Are you okay?”

Jimmy knew better. She just wanted to have some facts so she could tell her story better, prevent him from being able to deny any of it. She wouldn’t have asked that question when it couldn’t be more obvious that he wasn’t. He shrugged her hand off and kept walking away from her.

He needed to get out of here. He was tired of being around her already, following her on her path. He had always paved his own and made it work without effort. He wasn’t here to kiss someone else’s ass toward glory and he sure as shit didn’t need her, or anyone, in his life. He was done cutting meat for her. He just needed her to sleep so she wouldn’t try to stop him.

He sat down on the sofa in the room she had put their belongings into and made it clear through his expression that he would not be talking to her. She walked in shortly after and stood at the doorway for a moment, contemplating something before deciding it best to sit in silence on the tiny bed.

Jimmy could feel the tension and he was fueled by it. He could imagine how much worse it was for her, how badly she wanted to talk. Her thoughts eating away at her as she tried to figure out what the best approach would be. It was a small torment he could take pleasure in, knowing she was sharing even the tiniest amount of his pain. She would try at any moment. Attempt to open him up to her, and he wouldn’t. He would shut her down in an instant, without giving her the opportunity, and revel in her discomfort.

She adjusted herself, letting Jimmy know it was coming. He brought his anger forth, ready to break her down no matter what. She turned and laid down on the bed, facing away from him. He blinked once, twice, his heart dropping into his stomach. All of his anger and hatred, his frustration, gone. He was left with a giant void.

It had all been an illusion. He was powerless.

He had always been alone.

He felt the stinging around his eyes as they teared up, forcing them back as much as he could. It would serve no purpose except further annoyance now. It would only make him appear weaker. She didn’t give two shits about him, no one did, that much was clear. It should have made his decision to leave easier but it seemed to do the opposite.

He stared at her body rise and fall with each breath for enough time to be sure she had sunk into her slumber. His mind was stuck in a loop, telling him he needed to leave and forget it all, while another part of him pleaded with him to explain what had happened to her. To make her understand and sympathize with him enough so he could crush her. Allow her to feel the way she had just made him feel. Show her she was the one that was truly weak.

And then there was the part that asked why she had shown him no sympathy to begin with. There was no reason for her to be so cruel to him when he had been in such a vulnerable state. He hadn’t deserved that. He had never deserved any of it.

If something were to happen to her down here, only he would be around to remember. Eventually even his memory would fade. WIth so many other tragedies, she would become another of his saviors. Just like Roberts.

No one would ever need to know.

He shuddered the thought out, becoming frightened that he had even entertained it for as long as he had. He was not a killer. He had never willed for the fat man to die, hell, he was grateful that he had been able to survive because of Roberts’ sacrifice. He would never have killed Roberts himself.

Not unless it was necessary.

He stood up and quietly gathered two packets of food. She didn’t shift at all, reassuring him that she had not heard him. When he got to the door, he looked at her one last time. He was sure this was the right choice.

He exited the parlor and ordered Nee to lock the entrance to it. Not long after he pulled up the map once again and asked her to highlight the path toward the airlock. She did what was requested of her but Jimmy swore he could feel her holding something back through her tone.

He knew he gave Lumis too much credit for that. She was a computer program. She had been made to try and fool him to a certain extent, but lately he had become beyond fooled. That was not the intention, especially when Jimmy was supposed to know all there was to about her.

He felt comfortable around her. At least she seemed to act and think without judgement. She supported him unconditionally. She always looked out for his best interests, even if it wasn’t what Jimmy wanted to hear sometimes. Nee was there to protect and care for him, which was more than he could say anyone else in his life had done.

He wished he could somehow make her physical without the social stigma it carried. He doubted Lumis would accept one of their top employees to publicly deface the company like that. They had set the limits on the AI’s for a reason. But still, he had to wonder if there was a way.

He shook his head. What the fuck was he thinking? Nee wasn’t real, and even if she was, he was not a freak. He had experienced enough to know he needed none of it. He was happiest when he did not need to worry over anything but his work. 

He was a god, and gods only needed one thing. Themselves.

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