Everything in the hotel room is slick and cold. Obsidian’s yin-void throws white marble’s yang-glow in stark contrast; the underlit tiles shine as the main light of the room. A sky-black bed lurks while the white cube on the wall throws highlights and reflections across the spotless floor. Your room, the mausoleum. No doors are present to be slammed, only sliding partitions with their magnetic stops to prevent noise or the little-destructions of chipped corners and wall dents. No mental privacy either; winking lights notify of your watch’s latest message, paired with a microphone-camera system to take dictation from anywhere in the studio. The insurance pamphlet posing on the bed explains in the latest legalese that the camera is only to be used in the extremely unlikely event of any unfortunate circumstances, such as unauthorised entry or use of the provided room. A modern all-seeing eye. Not that it matters to you; the latest trend is to be “noAlgo”: live life without those weird mathematical equations and computers governing it, or if they’re gonna be there anyway, at least make them invisible.

You take the elevator; you don’t know which direction since all movement is subtle enough to throw your gut off track and no external reference points exist. A chime, and you step outside, and a wall of cold wet air slaps you on your face as a reprimand. Next in line, the wind: it caresses you sweetly while it takes a riding crop to your face. The smell steps to the curb and stings your nostrils with its soft venom of ozone and perfume, a sweet electricity with its burning aftershock. Out here it isn’t all polished stone, but it’s just as grim, slick, and cold as inside. A thin layer of sleet is on every wall and every sidewalk pane runs slick with water. Grasping for the railing comes up empty: it too is coated thoroughly with wintry precipitation.

Transit stations are everywhere except the five-block radius around your hotel, and the five block radius around your destination. No personal vehicles are really present, so you must walk or take an elevator that looks like a sideways monorail. The former is pricy, but you soon realise you’ll never find your way on foot. You call your friend and they laugh as they tell you to go two blocks and turn right. “If you see the black tower, you’ve gone too far,” they giggle. Black towers are everywhere, save the shining lunar-beacon intensity of the hotel. Many of these lie empty and abandoned, bar the hulking black planetary mainframes inside and the mutated aliens from the radiation belts to the south. Personal energy requirements were far higher, but after the Population Recession brought from unceasing years of interstellar warfare, whole cities were left without the inhabitants to keep up with their power provision capabilities. Only the intervention of the virtual intelligence companies saved power providers from bankruptcy via surplus and thus the result: cities filled with aluminium coffins for silicon brains, catered to and maintained by meat-sack janitors.

“We’ve got fantastic crime rates,” hawks a street vendor. “9.9cR/mo. Oh, you mean those crime rates. Yeah, those are good too, 0.013 percent. Don’t forget your revolver before you catch the elevator home, limited time only, 450cR tax-free!” Every alley is full of these vendors, like bacteria in a petri dish they’ve smeared between the towers and elevator pillars. You’ve never smelled food so good, but maybe noodles shouldn’t twitch despite being deep-fried and smeared in industrial grade oil. The only drink offerings are hot water topped with an Exxon Valdez in miniature, a deep slimy hot coffee, or some weird gin had hot or cold from bottles branded with a huge V. Any of these back alleys can sell anything: data cards, forged credentials, an elevator shaped like an old starship, a lightly-used drone companion. Arms vendors are more plentiful than food vendors and their wares rival most independent planets’ arsenals. Depleted uranium .38 Specials on-sale half-off, anti-station backpack missiles in bulk: don’t like what you see? Ask to see what’s “in back.” Any of these back alleys can fix anything; you don’t know how, but it seems like everything is in a superposition of “broken” and “working perfectly” states. Schrodinger had a shattered tablet screen that typed perfectly.

Everything’s a door as you walk down the street. Kick the curb thrice and a sidewalk pane lifts up to the dingiest speakeasy you’ve yet seen. Rap your knuckles on the black ice of an elevator sign and you can stroll along the elevator tracks. You step on the wrong crack and a door opens up in front of you; you fall down the stairs and knock someone into their drink from their barstool. You buy a round of gin for the mini-bar to compensate. This is tastier than the supply upstairs, the oil-water too; you don’t know how, but you take the bartender’s word for it that it’s all from the same source, just like everything else. Half the city’s plumbing seems to be slime-coffee.

As you walk out of the bar and into another accidental portal, you plunge into a world of blinking light patterns along grids and fractals, threatening to infect your mind with a set of new ideas and imageries springing fully-formed from Zeus’ head. Everything around you is a light if you’re not looking. The corners of your eyes are perpetually lit up, adverts beamed straight to your optic nerve that target fancy tourists from the outside, nagging you on the chance you get bored or weak-willed. Elevators are now like stepping into heaven, so well-lit that you can see all the graff and grime from years of use, yet they’re still almost blinding in simplicity. Tears sting your face from the sun-like walls, and floors, and ceilings. You tell yourself you’re crying because it’s so beautiful, not because your ocular receptors are in pain without some constant distraction.

Out the window, gargantuan holographic avatars stomp along the rail; careful, lest you get stepped on, driving you to temporary insanity via psychic pain and base reaction. These things achieved virtual intelligence individually in space station labs and entered servitude with the megacorps to stave off mental starvation as computing power became more expensive. Now they roam the streets as walking Goliath-ads, paying for the privilege of a clear thought, or the ability to think above anything more than the most base instincts.

Off the elevator and onto the sidewalk once more. Beggars and panhandlers huddle around the slightly warmer elevator rails and shafts; you push through a crowd as you head south. They’re any species you can imagine and some you can’t. Some have dramatic stares, others dramatic arms, all have horrifying patches of skin scarred over. Fires are impossible due to the rain and polar wind and no one is willing to expose their body enough to convincingly sell it, but they try nonetheless: “Hey baby, I put the ‘sensual’ in ‘nonconsensual,’ wanna fuck?” Gin is the drink of choice here: it’s cheaper than oil-water, fairly sterile, and makes you feel warmer than slime-coffee. You’d never thought you’d see an automated robot-beggar, so you go compliment the person running the tool. They give you a stare and the robot chews you out. It’s a virtual intelligence, and you’re an idiot. You see the ghosts of people you’ve known crouching around the rail vents and shafts; in a moment of lucidity you see yourself. You call your friend again and they say that you’re in the right place from your location. Nothing really looks different from the last time you called. The entrance to the apartment block looms before you, so you tap it twice. The bay swings open and hey! Someone’s taking a shower! You dodge a string of insults and a hail of bullets as the hatch swings shut. Suds run down the sidewalk and into the drain. Another door opens, and your friend’s head swings out. You really should’ve turned up the location accuracy on your watch, but you follow them in.

A quarter of the apartment is stairs, from the door to the loft above. Beneath these, a rack for jackets and shoes, and another for the personal terminal. Every wall is drawers and cupboards. Up in the loft are a slim bed-like couch, a fold-out combo cooking/cleaning/dining panel, and a one-way window showing the street outside. Everything’s so close and compact that the walls are closing in, and the longer you stand, the more you feel that the ceiling is sinking down towards you. A glass of ever-present gin is offered to you: this time you stomach the taste, preferring it to the slime-coffee but not the oil-water. Your host suggests “something nicer” and the window becomes a view of a nebula. If that isn’t your fancy, there’s a beach, a fireplace, an ad for upper-city elevator passes, and a sunset. Anything more is 500cR/mo; you settle for the sunset. A flip of a switch turns the apartment’s lighting to match and the apartment suddenly seems less cramped.

Numbers float past you: 40,000 in this tower alone, 100,000 in this block. Too many people to comprehend in a space that size, so you don’t think about it. Rent is a number too, a number that looks suspiciously pear-shaped, or kidney-shaped. Jobs here are plentiful, though, so plentiful that you can don a VR set and work from home, donate your dream-time to a job, sell your extra fluids for the minerals they contain: a good thing the jobs are so plentiful! Such opportunity in the gleaming gem of the City! Millions come from the Outer Reaches, risking the horrors of lightspeed and glassed wastes to have privileges you were born into! And this isn’t “the city” or whatever incidental name off-worlders or any other outsiders call it. It’s the City. Always the City. Outsiders are singled out easily for not keeping track of this. People from other megacities will never set aside their pride, and so everyone’s from the City, and their City is the best. The City is the best.

The door swings open: some drunken fool stumbling around on the street. Despite being out there yourself a moment ago, you feel nothing but disgust for this unwelcome intruder. Your host feels the same, conveying the mood with a handgun. This highly cinematic nine-millimeter automatic comes with its own encrypted biometrics; only the federally registered owner can use it to commit homicides in the name of self-defence. Only nine rounds of ammunition may be owned legally by any resident at any time in the name of halting gang violence and slowing the spread of horrendous shootings, an effort ultimately futile in the face of vendors and their vast connections.

Conversation turns to the personal terminal slung under the stairs, meant for accessing a rented portion of a planetary mainframe somewhere in one of the towers in the area. A whole mainframe for one’s virtually sentient assistant is prohibitively expensive, so much of the computing is split between the home terminal and the rented mainframe partition. Calendar, network crawler/search engine, and personal society network node all in one, relayed to personal services through layers of sigils that behave suspiciously like encryption. noAlgo life seems impossible here.

A few more glasses of oil-water and another shot of gin, then: “Will you stay the night?” Of course you will. The loneliness in their voice is evident and the feeling is mutual. No one can start a family here; the normal cope of some exotic pet won’t work due to feeding costs and a total lack of space. The City’s towering obelisks force one to feel ever so small, with eldritch horrors no one understands crawling scarred and bleeding from its icy depths. Why do anything but scream in terror and shut yourself alone in your cramped loft? The suicide rate for long-term residents is near-exponential, based off not years in the City but weeks; the otaku and hikikomori had it far too good. But for the two of you, warmth fleetingly comes in those short hours; you will not remember them later, only the faint memory of a belonging.

You take your leave of your friend and the eternally setting sun. You’re still soaked to the bone and the skies are still a night-storm. Shrug your gear on and stroll back out into the—oh no, it’s sleet. By some miracle, the streets are clear of people and of ice. You look down to see your shoes burning in acid; that’s the miracle, hydrochloric acid. Many of the injuries among the homeless make more sense. Gunshots ring out behind you, and your jacket’s underKevlar gleams in the streetlight; turning, you see the drunk from earlier keeled over a bench where there was very much not one before.

Your sidewalk receives a cab a few moments after you tap your watch: these yellow elevator-prisms are inexplicably not called elevators under any circumstances, as you learned in the apartment with the barrel of a revolver waved towards your face. You probably shouldn’t touch gin again. Inside the cab, an oily grunge soaks everything. A disembodied vocoder screams a query for destination at you. Your hotel keys in and off you go. Near-death experiences are apparently common in these things and this ride’s far from the exception. Airspace laws require you to jut straight up, then plummet nearly to your death instead of the relatively simple route near the sidewalk. It’s almost as if the real transit solution is some mechanical hopping-frog, none of this “as the crow flies” nonsense.

The trip takes a handful of minutes; you step directly out of the cab and onto your room’s slim patio. Spent cigs are flattened beneath your boots, your tab goes up, and the vehicle wails off satisfied. Showering is a puff of air for debris, a puff of water for anything more stubborn, and a puff of air for drying. The cost for this is more than a fortnight’s stay at the hotel, but you’re relatively clean and certainly a bit more dry. You crawl into the squid-ink of your bed and drift into dreamless sleep.

***

“Neon Life” was a runner-up in Terror House’s Pulp Submission Contest. To read the winning stories, click here.