‘The Heart of the Party’, Sarah Day

Illustrations © 2022 Miguel Santos

 [ Ashby, © 2022 Miguel Santos ] I put one hand on the drunk man’s shirt collar and one on his belt and lifted. His toes scraped along the floor, dog paddling against the worn wood. I held him off the ground easily and walked toward the exit.

“She was talkin’ to me—” he tried to explain, gesturing over his shoulder at the person in question and nearly hitting me in the face.

“She told you to go away and you didn’t listen. You know the rules, man.” I maneuvered him around so he faced the small sign hung over the bar, illuminated at all hours by threads of glowing red wire: NO MEANS NO.

“If you’re too drunk to listen, you’re too drunk to be here.”

The door banged open when I kicked it, letting in a rush of cold air. Winter in Burrington City sucked the wind in off the harbor. It smelled like concrete and dead fish.

I put the drunk man on the ground gently and gave him a little scoot away from the door. “Off you get.”

He turned, shoulders and elbows drawing erratic orbits, protesting: “You can’t just tell me—”

Across the street, a half-cohort of Burrington’s Peace and Compliance Patrollers had stopped to watch us, anonymous and identical in their black uniforms. One of them rested a wary hand on the butt of his stunstick.

As a general rule, Patrollers outside a queer bar were bad news. More so since the last election and the softening of P&C oversight regulations. I did not want them to get involved. I squared up, pulled myself to my full height, let the drunk guy get a look at the bulk of my arms and breadth of my shoulders, and gave him time to reconsider.

The drunk man’s gaze wobbled between me and the Patrollers and he decided it wasn’t worth it.

“Bitch,” he muttered under his breath and tottered down the street.

When he was half a block away, I figured he wasn’t coming back and turned to the Patrollers. They were still watching, faces blank. I raised my right hand in greeting, displaying the dark flower of scar tissue blooming across my palm.

All four helmets tilted. I wanted to display some fellowship, that I could be trusted to keep the situation under control. It probably didn’t come across that way.

A flicker of activity wiggled up from the mostly-dead implant nestled in the heel of my hand. I closed my fist, fingers squeezing the nodule of tech embedded in the scar tissue. The gesture should have activated my network, put a shimmering overlay of my cohort’s locations and vitals and equipment across my vision, brought them into my mind like friendly ghosts. But my implant barely worked. A stone-faced technician had deactivated it on my separation day, burning through its circuits and synapses with a strong electrical charge that smeared dark scarring across my palm. Now, all I felt was a tingle of nerve pain, static made physical, the neurological equivalent of reaching out to touch a wall and putting my hand through a doorway instead.

Even with a functional implant, I wouldn’t have anyone to speak to. I had always been too queer, too female, too far from all society’s defaults for most Patrollers to work with happily, so I had been excised at the earliest convenience, nipped off like a suspicious mole from the Peace and Compliance arm of the body politic.

Staring at the Patrollers across the street, I worried at my crippled implant the way I would work my tongue in an empty tooth socket, trying for the millionth time to activate it. No joy. The frizz of feedback in my hand told me they were still communicating, but the hardware was too damaged for me to hear them. I could guess their conversation, though; they were trying to understand why I’d flash an implant scar at them in broad daylight. Use of networking technology by civilians was illegal, and I was clearly a civilian.

My time in the P&C was behind me, the previous chapter of my life, but it seemed that as the days went on, I could avoid it less and less. This district was full of Patrollers, eight-person cohorts roaming the streets, questioning pedestrians, searching vehicles, running scanner wands over limbs and bags at random. This much activity in the district was unusual. They were investigating something. If I’d still been one of them, I would have known what.

In this climate, showing off an implant scar, even a legal one, was a calculated risk. I dropped my hand and tried to look boring. Like a civilian.

After a long moment, their posture shifted. The cohort moved as one body, each relaxing weight onto their left hip as some new intel came into their network and integrated as seamlessly as if they’d had the thoughts themselves. One of them had run me through their database, the implant scar and my faceprint and the familiar bulk of chemically-enhanced musculature totalling up to Harper Ferreira, recently of Overcroft, ex-Patroller. They’d know that my implant was a decommissioned P&C model, not an illegal install.

A cool breeze slipped down the street, pulling a snarl of paper trash in its wake. The lead Patroller gave me a brief nod and just like that, they were on their way. I watched them go, the static from my damaged implant fizzling out as their network traffic moved out of range. Not wanting to acknowledge that the silence felt like loneliness, I let myself back inside.

The Free Rein was the oldest queer bar in the district, a long shotgun room capped by a dancefloor and elevated soundstage. The stage was the big draw in an otherwise run-down neighborhood; lots of local spinners wanted to lay their tracks across its decks and projectors. The full deck array let a spinner create holographic light shows along with their tunes, a full multi-sensory experience far more immersive than basic speakers and strobes. The list of people wanting to play on the decks at the Free Rein was longer than my arm, and Jerimy, the manager, was very selective.

The weight of the Patrollers outside dropped off my shoulders. As much as anywhere in this new town, the Free Rein felt like home. A lot of the local bar management had seen my half-grown-out regulation haircut and gear-accented musculature and told me to fuck off when I came looking for work, but Jerimy had recognized me as a fellow queer person underneath the P&C exterior. He knew I wouldn’t look twice at men holding hands or people who were neither men, women, nor fluid, or polyamorous multi-couples out on dates that included a half-dozen people and who knew how many videocalled additions. Jerimy figured it might be useful to have someone on staff who had experience with gold stars and facemasks and stunsticks, and given how many more Patrollers I’d seen in the neighborhood in the last month, I thought he was probably right.

“He go quietly?”

Jerimy was behind the bar, rubbing a cloth over the smooth plastic in the desultory ritual of bartenders everywhere. He was dressed in black, as usual. A narrow lime-green ring hooked through his lip.

“Pretty much.” I parked myself on a stool next to the person the drunk man had been harassing, who I parsed as a she (although it was always good to hold those assumptions in a loose hand). “You okay?”

“Fine. I told him I wasn’t into guys, but he wouldn’t let it go.” She gave me a bright smile. She was short and curvy, with long pink dreadlocks like organic cables. An iridescent white plastic jacket formed a carapace around her shoulders. Really pretty, I noticed automatically, and then tried not to notice. Bad form to hit on someone at work.

“Sorry about that.”

“Don’t worry about it. He wasn’t shitty, just…” she spread her hands on either side of her glass, holograms flashing off her manicure. “… trying to connect. Badly. But aren’t we all.”

That was so woo-woo sounding, I didn’t know how to respond.

“Harper,” Jerimy said. “This is my friend Ashby Incroyable. She’s a spinner. Gonna play here tonight. Ash, this is Harper Ferreira.”

She stuck a hand out, cool and wet from the outside of her glass, and I took it and shook. She squeezed—then squeezed again, harder, stared me straight in the face. Her eyes were green, unexpectedly light, the color of sea glass. I realized she could feel the implant’s snarl of hardware and scar tissue in the heel of my hand.

“Have we met before?”

My face had been on the newscasts briefly after the accident, but I hoped she hadn’t seen them. “Probably not. I just moved here.” I looked at Jerimy. “More Patrollers out there today.”

His lip curled. “Anyone you know?”

I shook my head.

“Why would you know Patrollers?” Ashby asked.

“She used to be one,” Jerimy said, and the smile dropped off her face like a rock. She pulled her dreadlocks forward over her shoulders.

“You don’t see a lot of ex-Patrollers hanging out in bars like this.” Her tone was cold, pointed, asked what are you doing here the same way I’d have once asked to see the ID of an underage drinker.

Shame knit my shoulder muscles together. Despite the nostalgia I’d felt when facing the Patrollers on the street outside, now that I was back in the bar I didn’t like being thought of as one, even with ex- in front of it. Sometimes I felt as far from the queer community as I did from my days as a Patroller, like I was playing a concert and half the fans in the hall hated the other half.

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Jerimy was saying. “She came over to the right side.”

There was open skepticism on Asbhy’s face. “When did the Patrollers ever care about the right side?”

“When I was on it and they weren’t.” I said quietly, training my eyes on a point behind the bar so I didn’t have to meet hers. “They kicked me out.”

A shroud of silence fell.

“I heard a rumor,” Jerimy leaned over the bar, forcing merriment into the conversation. “that there’s a coupler in the neighborhood. Maybe the Patrollers are looking for him.”

I snorted, glad to have a change of subject, even if it was just to ridicule. Couplers were expert networking hackers who ran illegal networks through groups of civilians, allowing them to link their minds together the way Patrollers and members of the military could. They were a kind of Patroller’s boogeyman, blamed for everything from infosec breaches to power outages. The most infamous couplers were terrorists who organized cells of networked civilians against the government, or political activists who believed everyone should have access to networking tech. The odds of there being one here, in this little backwater city two hundred miles from the capital, were very bad.

Ashby laughed brightly, standing up from the stool. “Yeah, and I rode here on a unicorn.” Brushing her dreadlocks forward over her shoulders, she jerked a thumb at the dancefloor. “Imma go get set up.”

Jerimy twinkled his fingers at her, rings gleaming in the low light. “Make yourself at home, boo.”

As she bounced over to the stage, I curled my shoulders down toward the bar, trying to shake off my sense of melancholy.

“Hey.” Jerimy touched my arm with two fingers. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I said gruffly. “I just—it’s hard, sometimes. Like I’m in between everything.”

Jerimy rolled the rag through a clean pint glass, a sympathetic expression on his face. He didn’t say anything, but what was there to say? I wasn’t wrong.

A belch of sound erupted from the speakers, the opening three chords of a dance track blaring out and abruptly dying. The silence was sprinkled with soft, earnest profanity. I spun around on my stool.

The lights over the dancefloor pulsed once, blinding me for an instant with a dreamy, peach-colored gauze, and when they faded, dimming into a sulky violet, the music started again and Ashby stood up behind the decks. She had ditched the white coat.

In the heart of the city’s drab winter, she stood in a froth of pink miniskirt like a dream of spring. The lights on the decks illuminated her cheeks and collarbones, smeared with iridescent paint like crumbled firefly wings. Holograms flashed off the end of every fingernail dancing over the decks. The jeweled studs in her ears and wire piping her tank top flashed in time with the wave of gentle dreamhouse she sent fluttering through the room and as she listened to the music, she smiled, her mouth stained metallic raspberry.

Posed on the stage, hands working the labyrinth of dials and buttons with practiced ease, she pulsed like the raw heart of the party and I couldn’t look away from her.

“Harper?” she called, voice amplified and blurring eerily into the bassline bleeding out of the speakers. “Can you grab the needle-nose pliers from my toolbox and bring ’em up here?”

Pliers in hand, I crossed to the elevated soundstage. The pressure-pad tiles of the dancefloor lit up beneath my feet, each step blossoming out a Mandelbrot set of stars and lightning. I climbed up beside Ashby.

“Thanks.” Taking the pliers, she got down on her back and rooted around under the decks like a mole. I waited, trying not to check out her legs jiggling under the miniskirt.

“Sorry I got weird about you being a Patroller,” she said quietly, shoving the pliers into a snarl of wire.

“I didn’t notice,” I lied.

She laughed a little. “Thanks. It was rude of me. I try not to prejudge people.”

“To be honest, I’d rather people were rude to my face than behind my back.”

“Yeah, well, Mom said that if you sound like an asshole speaking the truth, it’s not the truth that’s the problem.” She gave me a searing smile from under the decks and my heart contracted painfully. “That should do it.”

She stuck a hand out and I pulled her to her feet easily. The clasped hand became a second handshake. “Sorry again. It doesn’t matter who you were then, it’s who you are now.”

I felt a grin break over my face like waves over the seawall.

“See something you like?” Jerimy asked me as I came down off the booth, his tone conspiratorial, heated, completely uncalled for. I busied myself filling a pint glass with water.

“Dunno what you’re talking about.”

He gave me a sly grin, batted his eyelashes at me. “Then look again. How long’s it been since you saw someone?”

Longer than I cared to admit. I gestured toward the entrance with the glass, sloshing water on myself. “I’m gonna—no one’s on the door.”

I dropped onto the bouncer’s barstool and put myself entirely into the task of verifying IDs and patting down anyone in bulky clothing, trying not to think about Ashby’s curving lower lip, her heels drumming against the floor as she wiggled in the mess of cables.

The bottom dropped out of the evening and the daylight drained away. The bar swelled to capacity. Ashby Incroyable went on at about ten, the stuttering beats she laid across the dancefloor bursting out of the building and into the street. I tucked my chin into my collar and leaned against the wall, sternum rattling in a comforting beat, my toes bouncing against the lower rungs of the barstool.

The songs she played couldn’t properly be called songs. Songs implied a temporality, an inception point and conclusion. Each track she played overlapped with and blurred seamlessly into the next, like emptied glasses on a good night of drinking. When the crowd on the street died down, I gave into temptation, shutting the front door and moving my stool inside, watching the entrance with half an eye and the stage with the other half, my body pulsing.

Ashby was an expert in her craft. She used the speakers, projectors, and algorithms built into the decks to blend light and sound together, illusions of flowers blooming out of the dancers’ arms and shoulders as the beat swelled, bursting into frizzy petals as it crescendoed. The dancefloor pulsed like a sunburst, illuminating bright shoes and sparkling toes.

Ashby looked perfectly at ease as the focus of the dozens of people, grinning and exchanging waves and clasped hands with the dancers on the floor. I thought of how I’d felt in a Patroller’s uniform, how being perceived by the populace as a source of authority had centered me, acted as both a lodestone and a rudder. I remembered feeling a sense of purpose similar to Ashby’s obvious comfort behind the decks. I missed it.

A frizz of static danced out of my busted implant. Someone was transmitting, strongly enough to penetrate the invisible haze of signal that hung perpetually in the atmosphere. I scratched my palm and went back to the music.

The beat shifted and the crowd on the dancefloor responded in unison, moving seamlessly into a configuration of hands and hips and open mouths, forming an organic fractal of their own. Their feet hit the floor in syncopated rhythms, hands reaching up into the cooler air. I could feel the impact in my own feet, the shift in temperature, the euphoria. The dancers moved in perfect unison, an array of psychedelic geometry blooming up out of their limbs, and I rocked to the beat along with them. Their joy and exhilaration flooded through me, all of us here and happy and safe together. For an infinite moment, I imagined myself included.

Ashby gyrated on the stage, her hair sweeping back off her shoulders. She was perfectly framed behind the decks, sweat sheening her skin, glittering with holograms and sparkle like she’d grown out of the dancefloor herself, an electronic goddess with shimmering fractal lights as her raiment. I was staring. I didn’t care. She belonged up there, surrounded by strangers she would say just wanted to connect with someone. The heart of the party.

Then I saw the ports studding the sides of her neck, cables snaking down through her hair and into the decks, and realized what was happening.

I wasn’t imagining what the dancers on the floor were feeling. I was actually feeling it. I recognized Ashby’s ease, that effortless sense of connection, because I had felt it before.

There’s a coupler in the neighborhood,” Jerimy had said. “Maybe they’re looking for him.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw Ashby sitting at the bar, pulling her dreadlocks forward to obscure her neck when she learned I’d been a Patroller. Hiding the ports.

Good guess, Jer, but wrong gender.

Ashby was the coupler. She was, at this moment, networking the dancers on the floor together in the kind of synchronized link that I had had with my cohort in the Patrols.

Panic leaped in my gut. I thought of the Patrollers ambling easily up the street, the fuzzy hiss of their network traffic brushing against the ruined hardware in my hand. If I could feel her broadcast in my implant, anyone else with an implant would too.

I tried to slow my breathing, one long inhalation for every measure of music.

“Harper? You okay?”

Jerimy was staring at me oddly from behind the bar. The music swelled.

“Ashby’s the coupler! We have to cut the power before someone picks up the signal!”

He squinted, cupped a hand around his ear. “What?”

Shaking my head, I turned around and waded onto the dancefloor. The beat surrounded me, caught me up like a fish in a tide, but I kept plowing forward, heading for the luminescent figure on the stage. The concentric rings of dancers parted to let me through and healed seamlessly behind me.

“Harper!” Ashby swayed to the beat flooding out of the decks, loose-boned. She was wired into the table, a spider in a web, the dark cables lacing up over her breasts and into the ports on each side of her neck. She took one hand off the decks and clasped mine. “I’m so glad you’re here! We’re all together!”

Her skin was sweaty, feverish. I was practically liquifying from the sensation coming out of my half-dead implant; I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to jack in directly. She looked high out of her mind.

“Turn it off!” I shouted. “You’re broadcasting on an open channel!”

She blinked at me. “What?”

I held up my hand and tapped the dark web of scar tissue where my implant resided. My fingers were twitching with the beat. “I can hear you!”

Her face went from euphoric to stricken. She slammed a command into the decks and the music faded and died. The pulsing itch of nerve pain in my hand finally quit as a chorus of shouted complaints arose on the dancefloor.

“I don’t understand,” she murmured, weaving her fingers through the cables at her neck and tugging them out with little umbilical pops. “An open channel? I thought I wired it all up correctly—”

“Burrington City patrols. Everyone stay where you are and remain calm!”

The amplified voice rattled through my already-overworked implant. I shook my hand and swore, massaged my trembling fingers.

A flash of light and smoke came from the front door. Someone screamed.

“Come on.” I tugged Ashby’s hand. “They can’t find us up here.”

 [ P&C, © 2022 Miguel Santos ] We climbed down off the stage and darted back to the bar as a cohort of eight Patrollers clomped into the Free Rein.

“They’re looking for you, Ash,” Jerimy hissed. “They’ll want the coupler even more than they want a bunch of networkers.”

They stared at each other across the bar, both so pale I thought they might pass out.

“Don’t panic,” I said quietly. I looked over the cohort and tried to calculate how many hours Ashby had been playing. “They’re here illegally. They need a 409-B order to bring a whole cohort into a business, and they haven’t had time to get one. If we don’t get stupid they might just leave.”

I was just talking to keep them calm. We were fucked. The amount of illegal hardware plugged into the decks right now, and undoubtedly mirrored in ports and implants in the populace on the dancefloor, was enough to get all of us arrested regardless of whether they had the right paperwork.

“Everyone in the middle of the room, now!”

The voice was male, gruff, amplified. My implant buzzed halfheartedly in response.

“You three, step away from the bar!”

Heads down, Jerimy and I joined the crowd of silent people on the dancefloor. Ashby trailed behind us, dragging her feet. Most of the Patrollers had their visors down. The ones whose faces I could see were all men, all white. Great.

My stomach knotted. There had never been a good time to be queer and in prison, but the last election had made everything worse. I surveyed the crowd, which was clearly made up of liminal members of society. Depending on their personalities, they looked terrified, self-righteous, numb.

I checked over my shoulder to see how Ashby was doing. She was gone.


“Here’s what’s gonna happen,” the lead Patroller was saying. He was a burly guy, roped with thick musculature that mirrored my own. His face was half-screened behind a visor. “We’re looking for an illegal networking operation and the coupler running it. We’re gonna screen each of you for illegal hardware. Those of you without implants or ports will be released. Form a line out here, we’ll do you one at a time.”

I looked at the crowd in the throbbing purple light. Some had been dancing barefoot. I watched their toes curl against the floor, reflexively trying to disguise the ports embedded in the soles of their feet.

“What’s your name, officer?”

Jerimy’s voice filled the air above the dancefloor, filled the gaps between bodies, filled every empty space in the room. He shoved past me and stood out in front of everyone.

I craned my neck, looking for Ashby. Did she even care that all these people were about to be arrested because of her? If she did, would she give herself up?

Should I give her up? The thought was a glass of ice water poured down my spine. Everyone in the room was probably thinking the same thing.

Except Jerimy.

“You need a 409-B to bring your whole cohort into the bar,” he said with a confidence he must have sucked directly out of me. “Where is it?”

The Patrollers shifted en masse, all of them refocusing on Jerimy’s narrow frame. I recognized the subtle shifts in posture and my stomach dropped.

“Hey now, princess, aren’t you smart enough to be scared of me?” The lead Patroller stepped forward, his threat as quiet as a shark gliding over a coral reef.

Jerimy drew up taller. “You’re here illegally. All of you need to leave.”

I thought about Ashby, hologram butterflies flinging away from her fingertips. Ashby, who just wanted to help people connect, to build bridges where there were only chasms of empty space. Ashby squeezing my hand.

Even if I knew where she was, I could never give her up.

The Patroller punched Jerimy in the stomach with an armored fist. The air went out of Jerimy like groceries blowing out the bottom of a wet paper bag. He hit the ground on his knees as the Patroller drew his fist back again.

“It doesn’t matter who you were then,” she’d said. “It’s who you are now.”

Seeing my friend on his knees, I knew indelibly who I was. I was songs in two genres played at once, blending together like Ashby’s music. Patroller and queer.

“Stop!” I thrust myself out of the crowd before I had time to make up my mind not to, put two hands on Jerimy and pulled him back toward me. His back crashed against my legs and I looked up over him at the oncoming Patroller. “Fucking stop.”

When the Patroller’s fist came down, I blocked it awkwardly, deflecting it down and onto Jerimy’s shoulder.

“Look at me,” I said before the Patroller could unrack any of his weapons. “Look. I’m Harper Ferreira, from Overcroft. I was one of you once.”

It was a gamble, a hope that my name would be recognized, that I could speak lyrics to his song in my tune and still be understood.

“Please.” I found where his eyes must be and pierced the visor with my gaze. “Be peaceful. This doesn’t have to get out of hand.”

The flicker of recognition went across the cohort’s network, and I saw the man in front of me see me, assess, integrate, decide. The corner of his lip curled up.

“If you were a real Patroller, you’d stand aside. If you’re not in a uniform, you’re the same as the rest of ‘em.”

Animosity was in the air like smoke.

Pigs,” someone spat in the darkness behind me.

The Patrollers reacted to the crowd reacting. I heard the snap of a stunstick activating and shifted my hips to redistribute the weight of a gear belt I no longer wore, wishing for cover.

Music exploded out from the decks, a thudding array of sounds that gave birth to a host of different colored lights. Guns snapped up out of their holsters, scanning across the crowd, looking for something to fire at.

Someone screamed, then everyone screamed, then everyone was running, breaking for the exits.

Except me. I had both hands on Jerimy’s shoulders and was pulling him back across the dancefloor, away from the Patrollers and their guns, as he wheezed and tried to push with his feet. I got my hands in his armpits and lifted, spinning him around, one of his arms over my shoulders, pulling him with me toward the soundstage, toward the relative shelter of the decks, toward Ashby Incroyable.

She was silhouetted by neon green light, lurid and botanical, swaying to the beat instinctively. Her fingers danced over the buttons. She dialed a knob and a bwap of bass nearly knocked me down.

“What are you doing!” I shouted as I hauled myself and Jerimy up beside her on the stage.

“Making a distraction!” she cranked another knob and an explosion of multicolored streamers burst out onto the dancefloor. “They can’t all get arrested ‘cause of me!”

Jerimy leaned against the decks, sucking air back into a collapsed diaphragm. Patrollers were caught in the fracas on the dancefloor, clutching weapons tight to their chests, headed toward the stage. In moments, they’d be on top of us.

A shot rang out and a light behind my head burst in a pop of vaporizing glass. In the resulting shadows and screams, I inhaled a lungful of escaping colored gas and coughed it back out again. The vapor blurred, disappearing into the clear air, and gave me an idea.

There was a knife in my boot, and slicing my palm open only took an instant. I hissed against the pain and shook welling blood out onto the stage. The raw metal nub of my implant’s port gleamed in the low light, a dark carbon-colored wart in the tan flesh of my hand.

Ashby looked horrified. “What the hell are you doing?”

I groped on top of the decks with my uninjured hand. “Give me an inline cable.”

She passed one over, face white. “Harper, you’re bleeding—”

“That’s because I’m the heart of the party,” I grunted, and shoved the cable into my palm.

Connecting to the decks with a damaged implant was a bit like trying to run a three-legged race with a sprained ankle and a crutch. I could do it, but it hurt, and it sure wasn’t pretty. My hand throbbed with current, all my muscles spasming in an attempt to close my fingers. I pressed it against the tabletop and breathed out hard through my nose as Ashby’s illegal network sucked me in.

I felt the dozens of contact points from the people on the dancefloor, the ports on their bodies responding to the network emanating from the decks. They engulfed me and I swam among them, people’s minds flaring around me like lighthouses in the dark sea. Beyond that, I could feel the monolithic hum of the Patrollers’ network, as solid as a bank vault, impermeable unless you had the key.

My P&C-manufactured implant recognized the Patroller network. A flurry of signatures and credentials danced between them, happening so deep in the firmware it felt as minor and reflexive as blinking—

And then I was in, the shouts and cacophonous reports of the Patrollers and their hardware briefly deafening me.

Finding the specs on weapons, gear, uniforms, body dimensions and health checks was as easy as thinking. They opened to me like library books, and fast as electricity I took that information and passed it back through my implant and into Ashby’s illegal network.

I had closed my eyes in the flurry of data, but when the projector lights changed they flared so bright I saw them through my eyelids. The multicolored plants blinked out for an instant and reappeared accented by dark paramilitary black and silver and blue.

When I opened my eyes, the dancefloor was covered in psychedelic light effects, blooming digital plantlife, and Patrollers. The hardware information I’d pulled out of their network fit seamlessly into the projectors’ virtualization software, throwing picture-perfect replicas of helmets and armor and guns over everything it recognized as a limb or a face or a hip. The partygoers looked as much like Patrollers as the real Patrollers did. Everything was covered in blooming flowers and ferns.

A shocked silence fell over the dancefloor.

The crowd lurched to a halt, examining their gloved hands and arms, checking out their reflections in the visored faces of their companions. The riot of light-generated greenery made it hard to tell where one person ended and another began. I’d just been in contact with all the implants in the network, so I had a rough idea of where the real Patrollers were, but even still I had a hard time discerning the real thing from the fake.

Finally someone giggled, triggering a roar of confusion and delight.

“What did you do,” Ashby hissed.

I shoved my bleeding palm up against my mouth and spoke into the transmitter.

“Everyone, run.” It blared over the speakers like the voice of God and chaos erupted in the bar.

It quickly became impossible to tell what was real and what was a projection. I saw a Patroller tackle another Patroller, both of them flashing genuine-looking badges. I saw a person grab another’s gloved hand, only to have the hand blur and melt away like smoke as the projector lost focus. Flowers bloomed out the barrel of a pistol, and birds exploded from the sparks of an activating stunstick. There was a shouting tangle of people down on the floor because someone had confused their real feet with the boots projected on top of them. Everyone looked half Patroller and half organic, their identities as mixed together as my own.

The traffic in the network was overwhelming. I dropped out of it, my hand tingling and brain buzzing as I yanked the cable out of my hand. I staggered against the decks in the astounding silence, the cacophony of other minds and devices lost to me.

But Ashby Incroyable was there instead, her hands on my shoulders, her soft plum-colored mouth covering mine, and for a moment that lasted an eternity, I wasn’t alone.

“That was amazing,” she said. “You hero. Now come on, before they figure it out.”

She gripped my hand and we jumped off the stage to join the throng of people heading for the emergency exit, leaving behind the Patrollers still tangled in projections and their own gear.

“Nice job, Harp!” Jerimy ran past, breath regained. He gave me a cheery salute and pushed the fire exit open in front of us. Ashby and I erupted into the bruise-colored city with everyone else escaping the bar.

On the way out, my implant died, sending a last ghost of sensation crackling up my palm. The loss hurt, but I squeezed Ashby’s hand and, on the other side of the bloody mess of hardware and scar tissue, she squeezed back.

© 2022 Sarah Day

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