Temporal

a M E T R O P O short story
by Magnus Aspli

Illustration by Vivian Truong

On the bed sat an android and it was female. The room small, the window tinted.

The android sat on its knees, in a posture that spoke of relaxation, anticipation and a welcoming attitude. The orange light trickling from the firmament-like ceiling specked its white skin mesh, which almost glowed, in contrast to the matte black sheets. Its skin mesh was soft, smooth, and expensive. It was grown and imbued with imperfections, just like the real thing, yet no blood flowed below. Its legs were thin and long and its thighs were of normal proportions, yet its waist was — due to customer preference — five percent narrower than the human equivalent. A milky-yellow buttoned bodysuit covered its crotch and breasts. Its shoulders were narrow and its arms slender. Its frame a facsimile of a fit eighteen-year-old human female and its face was moulded after some famous game character. It had freckles below its slightly enlarged green eyes. Above, strong and dark eyebrows. Its hair colour for the night was burning red.

Three men entered the room with white bathrobes on, which they quickly hung up by the door.

The android’s lips tightened into a smile.

The smell of alcohol mixed with the sweet smell coming from the ventilation system, a long-gone type of orchard that none of the men had ever seen, known or heard the name of.

Two of the men were still chuckling after a dry “break-it-you-buy-it” joke from the third man out in the hallway as they came in. Their naked bodies, tanned, tightened and fixed, were facing the bed like a middle-aged wall. Smiles were shared before one of them spoke, the one who was quite certain they had gotten an artificial one.

“Come here, baby. I know you ain’t shy.”

This was her third mission tonight.

A few quadrants off, further down in Metropo, the bulky SecForce Station H3 jutted out into the airlanes with its security measures as the organic building shield shifted and grew around the impenetrable fortress. Every SecForce officer working at the station felt the shield was overkill, but the company’s PR heads wanted to show off.

Trisha was coming off her six-hour shift, just as her chemical boosters were wearing off. The juxtaposition of her freckled face inside the ugly and heavy uniform and surveillance helmet tended to make her colleagues smile. Though they’d learned since she started a few months back that her face told a lie. Underneath was a cold and often unwelcoming personality. Trisha felt her body ache as she got out of the drone cruiser and pulled off her helmet. Officer Rennoi was waiting, at ease.

Trisha handed the helmet to Rennoi without a word and he fixed it on tight in one precise move.

“How was the shift?”

“The usual.”

Officer Rennoi eased himself into the drone cruiser and glanced at the three security robots in the passenger seats.

“No maintenance needed on the Cops?”

“Sys will tell you.” Trisha was already heading across the platform towards the main building. Her mind feeling numb as the remnants of the chemical boosters faded.

“Did you upload the stat files?”

“Of course. Sys will tell you that as well.”

Trisha hadn’t bothered turning around to look at Rennoi. His failed attempt at small talk made him feel dumb. He turned on the system and off the cruiser went.

Trisha stopped for a moment before entering the organic station wall with its scanners and medical check-ups waiting inside. She let the warm rain fall on her face in an attempt to wash her mind, to ease the heaviness.

Her shift had been usual but also unusual.

Her mind was swimming with a sombre sensation, and she was quite sure it wasn’t the chemical boosters’ rigor mortis, but rather the accumulation of gnawing memories of the day.

The hole she’d ripped in her favourite t-shirt that morning as she recklessly put it on. The archaic blurry beach image and interlaced 3D text reading “Waves” on the shirt was annoyingly vivid in her mind.

The coffee she spilled, which wasn’t half bad this morning, despite her having downloaded a new brand on the machine.

The haunted and stricken expression on her friend Mioa’s face — a special tactics officer at the station — when Trisha came in for her shift. An expression Mioa had carried since the final medical treatment of her daughter had shown little result a few days ago.

The mission on her shift where they had done a routine check on a production facility and had found a batch of androids too human-like, which Trisha had her Cop Units incinerate in front of the company scientists. With the Metropo Codex severely breached, the fine was high, likely enough to shut the company down forever. The Codex was heavily enforced down here, but often overlooked in the lucrative upper tiers of the city.

It wasn’t so much the whole mission that had seared itself in Trisha’s memory, but the details. The skin that bubbled and melted away on the faces of the androids before the heat had forced Trisha to step back and look away.

Years of ingenious engineering and, yes, artistry, vaporized in seconds.

These and older memories had stirred a sensation in Trisha, a potpourri of emotions that had tried to formulate themselves into one concise feeling. A feeling that welled up in her now. A feeling she couldn’t quite articulate, but the word that came crawling through her mind was…

She squinted upwards through the neon-lit pink rain, as if the word would materialize up there, and it did…

Temporal.

The temporal nature of all things.

Everything was like outdated code that others could and would rewrite… Trisha felt a sense of futility but mustered up the energy to move her body forward towards the platform entranceway, widening organically as she walked closer.

What the rain couldn’t wash away the shower did. Trisha felt lighter and downright better after going through the automated scans and medical check-up and letting the steam shower rinse her clean and warm for fifteen minutes.

Soft retrowave played over the speakers in the locker room. A soundtrack of some classic game that stirred old and pleasant memories in Trisha, of her grandmother playing and little Trisha sitting in her lap.

The lull of the pleasant memory was cut short by the voice of Morgan and Fuk coming out of the sauna. Morgan was close to fifty, but still just of the second order, likely due to his annoying and immature personality. He was always, and desperately, trying to act below his age. Way below. Fuk on the other hand was twenty seven, about the same age as his personality. A personality that his bulky body could barely contain. He’d applied to every social media show he could think of, starting on the top of the list and eventually going down to the bottom drawer to shows like AltFact, Clickmeister Chickmeister and Fiverr Daterr. He’d been on one show, but Trisha didn’t stream it. Five minutes in Fuk had been thumbed down and then thrown off frame due to his less tempered response to his non-fans.

“I was all ready to head into Restless solo, but Sys put their foot down.” Fuk’s voice always tuned in to his brag frequency.

“That woulda been radical… barging down there! You’d nail whatever wrongdoer, I’m sure!” Behind Morgan’s words lay insecurity. “What… what was it? What was going down?”

“Sys had reported gunshots and homicide, but pulled the seek order of course. Didn’t have the balls. They don’t dare to stir up shit in Restless. Poor woman, eh?”

“What woman?”

“The one that got shot! Sys claimed she was part of some bad gang, bioenhanced fighters, so not to bother. Kay-owardly, if you ask me!”

“Yeah!” Morgan blurted out, but didn’t agree. He was glad he never had to go into Restless or other hate-filled anti-SecForce territories.

Fuk spotted Trisha half-dressed by her locker.

“Hey! You’re Trisha, right? You need to have fun tonight, right? Spend those hard earned credits.”

“I’m her, but I’m not so sure about that second bit.”

“Come on! Chan and Ice are coming too. Payday after all. How long you been in that SecForce uniform?”

“Six months. Why?”

“And not one beverage with us! That is wreckshit! Right, Morgan?”

Morgan drummed up a “totes” as Chen came in, uniform still on, a handsome and squared faced, flecked with blood and a confident smile.

“Shit, Chen! Where was your shift?” Fuk seemed irritated.

Chen delivered a nonchalant reply about Fuk’s mother’s genitals and Morgan laughed. Trisha even pulled a smile and so did Fuk, yet inside he was desperate to come up with a retort.

“Yeah? I did your sisters last week, so I had to deal with your mother today too.”

Morgan was the only one who continued his laugh but it became a weak chuckle. Trisha caught a little smile from Chen and gave him a tiny one back.

“Heard you were coming with us to Generative Brew tonight?”

Trisha replied with a hmmm, but one with a lot more agreement to it than her reply to Fuk.

“What else should you spend your hard-earned credits on?”

Both Fuk and Morgan waited eagerly for Trisha’s reply to Chen’s question. She didn’t want them to know about her vague plan to save up enough to put her sickly father in cryo when the time came. Partly because cryo was viewed as the last desperate rites of the rich, and now, with today’s thoughtpaint about the temporality of all things, perhaps she wasn’t meant to give him this potential second chance.

The realization made her stare right through Chen to somewhere beyond.

Chen waited for his answer.

“Oh, I guess… we’re all gonna die right so why not… why not?”

There was a little cheer from the guys and Chen offered her a high five.

“Now we just have to wait for Ice…” Fuk stated with a tint of disappointment in his voice. Not for the fact Ice was coming with them. That always happened. But they never knew when Ice decided the shift was over. Ice was a loyalist way beyond your average please-your-employer officer. Fuk was pretty sure Ice had been some devoted knight in a previous life, refusing to leave the queen’s side, dying in a futile battle long after the cause was lost. But just as he was about to voice his annoyance, Ice came out of the shower.

She was naked, her milky white skin almost translucent, the veins visible over her whole body, from hard legs to round breasts. Yet she looked vibrant, not sickly. Trisha had wondered many a time if Tamisha, which was her real name, had some nano-enhanced or biohacked skin and body, or if it actually was just the albinism.

“Shit… looks like you’re the slow one today, Chen.” Fuk was surprised.

Chen didn’t answer and instead stripped down in a hurry to get a shower to wash away the blood.

Ice had a tendency to just waltz around naked in the locker room. Not that Ice was showing off, it was all about practicality and efficiency. Trisha thought it was because Ice had decided she wouldn’t worry about her bodily privacy, as some kind of rebellious and defiant act due to her skin condition. The truth was that Tamisha didn’t care about such things as privacy and vanity. Such emotions were simply not there. There was a reason her nickname was Ice. Neither Fuk nor Chen had ever seen her betray any emotion, except a vague hint of pain during combat training and torture endurance. If any of them had been with her in the simulator they might also have detected a vague gleefulness when Ice shot and killed sims. When she began working with SecForce there were jokes and rumours about her being a state of the art prototype android SecForce and their mother company the Deus Initiative were testing, but no one believed even Deus were bold enough to pull a move like that. Such a severe breach of the Metropo Codex might down even the mighty Deus corporation. And when Ice had been severely wounded — a long bone-deep cut in her thigh due to a Red Blood terrorist-operated bomb drone — the robot rumours and jokes soon faded. Even if Ice didn’t show pain or shed a tear in that incident, the picture of brutalised muscle and meat mixed with gushing blood had humanised her.

Yet, they all surprisingly enough enjoyed her company after hours.

Ten minutes later they were gathered outside the ever-shifting station walls and made their way towards the main airlane between the towering structure the station was part of and the one opposite. Chen made up the rear of the group, still adjusting his impeccable hair, cursing the moist drizzle in the air. He wore a slick, fashionable sweater and beige leather trousers. Style over comfort. Fuk looked almost business-like in his raincoat blazer, except for his light-enhancing shades to combat the dreary evening darkness. Morgan wore his usual camo-pattern trousers and leather jacket. Ice stuck out, not just because of her skin, but her tight milky grey zip-suit, which was both tactical and fashionable all at once. Trisha walked among them with baggy comfortable sweatpants and a long and thin green raincoat that matched her eyes.

They were discussing last week’s murder of two SecForce officers at the Sacrament auction house while Morgan was pinging a drone taxi. Fuk claimed people were cheering the attacker on, while Chen pointed out that was just social media spins with voice and facial manipulation.

“Whatever, people are glad when we get the boot stomped on our face, not seeing that we’re keeping the same boot off of their skulls. Downright hate. Misplaced hate.”

“Well…” Chen shrugged. Neither agreeing or disagreeing. Always the diplomat. Not wanting to get Fuk riled up on politics and policy before they even got drunk. The drone taxi came blinking and hovered to a halt beside the walkway.

“Hate is a tool,” Ice said before she got in.

The others looked at each other with amusement, even if they were used to Tamisha’s sporadic comments. Chen gestured Trisha to get into the oval acrylic glass dome before him. Once all were inside, the drone taxi slid methodically into the slow airlane. Once Fuk had told the vehicle to head to their destination, it sped up and surged into the main airlane with the rest of the traffic. The speed and droplets of rain on the dome blurred the shapes of the people and robots walking and rolling to and fro on the walkway they just stepped off. A tide to and fro up a blurred beach of urbanity, only lacking a title in 3D.

The ride over to their usual waterhole would have only taken about 20 minutes, but Morgan and Fuk had demanded they stop and pick up some fungi to get a bit spored before they arrived. Chen wasn’t pleased, but inhaled it too. Ice refrained. Her lungs were sacred. Chen laughed at the irony of the statement in this constantly polluted world they lived in. Trisha passed too, said she only wanted traditional brew, and the guys left it at that after a few prodding questions about her stimulation habits.

A new conversation, about the tightness of their work uniforms, was just beginning as Trisha noticed a stray vehicle swooping towards them at full speed. One of its engines had been smashed by something and smoke trailed behind. Trisha and the guys only managed a glimpse and didn’t have time to scream or speak before the damaged vehicle steered clear of them just in time and rammed into an adjacent retro drone car.

From the safety of their dome the collision was muted and seemingly in slow motion. The damaged car folded into the side of the other drone car and stuck to it as both machines careened into the nearby building. Both their anti-collision systems were working hard to lessen the impact as the wrecks hit the façade and slid down in a rain of sparks to the walkway below where people were already scattering to make room.

“Shit, that was close!” Fuk laughed as his adrenaline surged.

“Hope there wasn’t anyone in that car…” Trisha muttered, but the fungi had already started to affect the boys and they were laughing and heading back into conversation about their uniforms and their own stimulation habits.

The devastation left behind was soon just a column of smoke shrinking and Trisha tried to get back to the present.

Morgan was spored long before they got out of the taxi and had already talked about his last sexual escapade and Chen had said he was surprised Morgan could remember that far back and Ice pointed out that memories never vanished. Trisha stayed quiet, the sombre feeling still lingering in her mind. They stepped out of the taxi and onto the walkway. The surge of life and machines was the norm, the noise a soundtrack to your life. For a split second Trisha remembered a mission she worked on a couple of weeks back that took her all the way down to the waste canals. The bottom of the city wasn’t silent, but that particular zone was eerily quiet. It was bliss. Only the slush of waste murmured there, if one disregarded the echoes of her commands to her Cops. Trisha had felt alone then. Wonderfully alone.

“Thank fuck for noise-cancelling headgear,” she blurted out without intending to. The boys were busy steading Morgan who was now laughing for no apparent reason, but Ice gave her a nod and an “amen”.

Chen gestured Trisha into Generative Brew first. She hadn’t expected much and there wasn’t much to expect. It was part of a generic pub chain with LED displays and menus that rarely changed. The usual Toko service bot behind the counter. The fake memorabilia of a decade long gone. The one loner by the door who would be better off attempting to socialise in a virtual environment. The bouncer browsing social media with one eye while using the other to survey the place like those extinct eagles you saw at the Gen-Ark.

“What the fuck?” Fuk and Chen spoke in unison.

What wasn’t so generic about the place was the fact that about fifty robed and hooded figures occupied most of the space with their gathering. A few of the monks glanced at the newcomers and the one without his hood up, a big long-haired fella, put up a pleasant yet ominous face. The noise of conversation died a little, letting the classic rock song take back a bit of the air.

“Why the fuck are they here?” Fuk demanded of the bouncer.

“Got as much right as you to be here, Yimyim.”

“We’re SecForce officers, this is our place.”

“This isn’t anybody’s place ‘cept the woman who pays me. Plenty of tables available to the left there. What’s the problem?”

Chen stepped into the conversation with a more diplomatic voice.

“Chief… they’re Red Bloods… I bet several of them are wanted and I could call in a sweep right now and get half of them off the grid in a heartbeat. Or you could ask them to leave the premises peacefully? What do you say?”

“A robe and a hood don’t make you no terrorist. Secondly, I don’t need to take orders from the likes of you. Come back with your uniforms, and I’ll comply.”

“Wreckshit!” Morgan steadied himself by the door and likely had a lot on his mind, but none of them wanted to find out. Ice, who had been standing defiantly looking at the group of monks stepped outside and pulled Morgan with her. Trisha wasn’t sure what to do, so she just kept her eyes on the leader of the monks. The Union of the Red Blood were a notorious group, growing in number, out to cleanse the human body and spirit from encroaching or subjugating technology. That meant mobs of them picketing corporate meetings and commercial spaces, to branches that hunted and killed people who wore or spoke positively of the latest gadgets or apps that would — in their eyes — machinificate the human spirit. Transhumanism was the end of humankind and the Red Bloods were the guardians of humanity. A running joke by many, but a real life threat to some.

The leader took a confident step forward. But Trisha spoke up before he could say his first word, throwing him a bit off balance. Tactics.

“Are you celebrating or are you planning?” Trisha cut a tone that demanded an answer even though it sounded friendly enough.

“Uh, we are simply talking and drinking, and this here bar happened to be our bonfire tonight.”

“A bonfire to burn things?” Trisha asked. Chen and Fuk now paid close attention. None of them were armed except a few tactical blades, so if fifty monks decided to attack the best option would be to run.

“No, no. Just to keep warm in a cold world. Does that metaphor get us off the hook?”

“I don’t have a hook. But I know how to summon one.”

“Not necessary.” The leader smiled and demonstrably sat down among his monks. Trisha could see all the hands ready to pull hidden blades and weapons from their hiding places in the robes, but she calmly escorted Chen and Fuk outside.

“Tell your owner I have a good memory,” Fuk hissed at the bouncer as Trisha shoved him out the door.

She bowed in adieu to the Red Bloods, but before she vanished out the door the leader spoke up.

“Your friend. How many nanobots and gadgets hide beneath that milky-white skin?”

The tone in his voice gave Trisha pause. She sat fierce green eyes in him and made him wait for her reply.

“Fuck. You.”

Several monks got to their feet as Trisha slipped out the door. The leader inhaled a second to see if the anger in him grew, but it didn’t when he saw that the bouncer himself had a surprised smile on his face. Surprised at the audacity.

“Not tonight, Cleansers.” He gestured them all to sit back down.

Five minutes later and Trisha and her colleagues had gone up the walkway towards the cross section on C5. They weren’t aimlessly heading in that direction, but no one was actually taking the lead. All but Trisha were too busy talking about, and cursing, the Union of the Red Blood. Ice lived in a studio apartment right opposite to one of their stone slab temples. She had nothing but a short warning to utter about the monks, as if she was addressing them and not her colleagues. Trisha pushed past a small child out selling plastic flowers, shaking her head as the pleading eyes of the kid locked onto hers. Fuk was loud and angry and Morgan was coming off his spores and joined in, forever Fuk’s nodding sidekick. Chen played the devil’s advocate, as usual.

“Next monk fucker I see when in uniform, I am going to shoot and claim self defense.”

“And virally it’ll go, again, about a tech-merged officer gone wild, who was meant to uphold safety.”

“I don’t fucking care!” Fuk retorted to Chen.

“On gene modded stimulants too. The corporate superhuman oppressing the masses.”

“Shut the fuck up, Chen!”

“I’m just stating what’ll happen on the instanet.”

“The net is the net. Just big mouths and empty words.”

“If I were to wipe out Red Bloods, I’d just get a similar robe and hood, infiltrate a temple and poison them. Pin the blame on one of their elders. Sow doubt, reap chaos.” Chen was dead serious.

“Clever. And Machiavellian of you.” Ice shot in before she nudged her way through a throng of people gathered around a synth food lottery establishment. Desperate low tier dwellers were up here hoping to win, and among them were bored teens out for a thrill or food sharks out to score some goods for easy credit.

“Where are we going?”

It was Morgan who actually came up with the pressing question. They all squeezed over to the walkway railing to escape the constant stream of people and machinery. The suggestions were drowned out as Trisha looked out into the airlane, the unending traffic, the unending movement of urban humanity. She wondered if anyone here even knew of anything other than Metropo life. Her eyes followed the gigantic structures plummeting into the hazy bottom tier and waste canals. Somewhere down there, beneath the hazy, polluted air and the concrete pillars and the sludgy waste and the cemented canals, under the iron foundations and pressed gravel, a century old, beneath all that, was solid ground.

The idea comforted Trisha for a moment, like a hand pressing down her anxiety of temporality as it constantly tried to emerge from the sea of her consciousness.

Yet the helping hand quickly vanished, as all she really saw was mist and maybe that was all there was down there. Morgan said something about a strap-on as Trisha let her eyes travel upwards instead, to the towers reaching to touch the sky. Babelonian projects brought to fruition by the insanely rich. Eventually they would fall.

Fuk brushed by Trisha, snapping her out of the philosophical moment. Trisha and the others followed. His annoyance of their lost waterhole still lingered and every movement and step was angry and demonstrative.

“I know where we’re fucking going.”

He was on his wristcom to bump another taxi to them as he walked over to the nearby drop-off area. The others came up to him and he let out a sigh.

“Fucking two minutes.”

“Wreckshit,” Morgan shook his head, pretending to be equally frustrated.

“I gotta take a leak.” Fuk looked around and spotted a narrow walkway leading into a passageway between a clinic and a dodgy repair shop for synthetic pets. “Who wants to hold?” He grinned at Ice and Trisha.

“Classy.” Chen gave Trisha a glance that was meant to be an apology.

“I gotta go too,” Morgan stomped after him.

“Of course,” Ice rolled her eyes.

“Morgan’ll help you out!” Chen called after Fuk who answered with his middle finger high, pushing through the crowd.

A minute of small talk — Chen trying to figure out if Trisha was single — went by when suddenly there came a call from the passageway. It was Morgan.

“Hey, guys! Chen! Ice! Come! Hurry!”

Ice and Chen traded sceptical looks but all three of them went through the stream of people to find out what Morgan wanted.

Deeper inside the passageway, where steam from an automated laundry business below rolled through the steel grates and danced into the darkness, stood Fuk. He was silhouetted by a struggling violet neon light trying to brighten the alleyway, but only adding to the eeriness of the place.

“I haven’t caught one of these in quite a while.” Fuk grinned.

Trisha came up last to see what he was looking at behind the inactive drone dumpster.

“Fine work!”

“Thanks!” Fuk said genuinely and grabbed the thing they were looking at.

“I meant the machine,” Chen added.

Morgan helped Fuk hoist the android up. It looked like an adolescent boy. But the gash in its throat exposed the tubes and electronics beneath. A Loved One model. Fuk spent thirty seconds bragging how he noticed the boy had a bit of a jolted walk passing by behind him, and with one hand on his private part — large and wild as he claimed it was — he tripped the machine and the distinct sounds the boy’s joints made rid him of all doubt and he had slammed the android into the dumpster and kicked it in the head but missed and struck the throat.

Ice grabbed its head and inspected its skin. It was impeccably natural.

“Customized. True craftsmanship.”

The android boy spoke of letting him go and leaving him alone, but his throat speaker was busted due to Fuk’s boot so the words came in mechanical glitches.

“Please,” it mouthed, making eye contact with Trisha who stood behind the others.

Fuk and Morgan pulled each of the arms of the too-human android, and counting down to zero Chen and Ice delivered a unison kick to its torso, sending it slamming into the moist wall by the dumpster. Fuk and Morgan each stood with an arm in their hands, sparks and fluid spilling from where they had been ripped off their shoulder sockets. The fingers twitched as they threw the arms in the dumpster and Morgan complained about spilling “robojuice” on his camo-trousers. Fuk and the others laughed. The android stood by the wall, armless, still pleading as its algorithms were meant to do. The usual words came in glitches and once again it made eye contact with Trisha, who seemed to be observing the situation as if she wasn’t physically present.

“They never change.”

The words were soft and human, and they took Trisha out of her passive trance. She was certain they came from the Loved Ones model, but now that she focused again the boy was back to glitching out pleas to stop.

Fuk kicked the feet out under the android and told the others to hold it down. Chen and Morgan held the robotic creation in a sitting position as Fuk tore at its head. Ice claimed he wasn’t strong enough, but Fuk persisted. Morgan cheered him on and suddenly the head let go. Skin mesh tore, tubes snapped and liquid and sparks flew as Fuk ripped the boy’s head off.

Trisha was still trying to process the soft words she’d heard. Her colleagues’ laughter and the smell of nanolyte milk made her dizzy and she turned around and steadied herself.

They tossed the remains of the android in the dumpster and a few minutes later they were back at the walkway and were waiting for the taxi. A small crowd had gathered nearby because a man had jumped to his death and Ice had bid them goodbye because she was meeting someone and the guys had joked about a lover but she remained her cold self, not revealing anything. If she was excited to meet this someone, Trisha doubted even Ice herself knew. In the drone taxi a feed showed there had been an incident between SecForce and the Babylon Group and Fuk had used some quite creative words about the other security firm, but Chen had eased him down by stating that he’d heard that Babylon paid better wages.

“So where are we really going?” Trisha wanted to tell them to drop her off.

“Surprise,” Fuk grinned.

“You’re not pulling an Ice on us!” Chen nudged Trisha.

She lied, and the thought of lying down in her soft bed and closing her eyes was a desperate plea inside and it yelled at her from the back of her mind.

“Great!” Chen smiled. “I don’t even know where we’re going,” he added.

“Roots?” Morgan asked Fuk, but he shook his head.

“Roots turned shit last year. Just beep-jazz and inhalers there now. The place we’re going to is class!”

“How class?” Chen kept his eyes on Trisha.

“Way class.”

“So Morgan won’t get in?”

“Shut up!”

“He’ll get in, just like you, if you pay up.”

“Shit, is this going to ruin me?”

“With your camouflage you might slip in.” Chen fist-bumped Fuk and they laughed.

“Fuckin’ funny!”

“You’ll prob get in for free.” Chen smiled at Trisha.

“Because?”

Fuk stuck his face between them.

“Because you’re smoking sexy!”

“I was gonna say… well, that… and, I don’t even know what place this is.” Chen trailed off.

Trisha smiled, but it was autopilot.

“I’ll pay, thanks.” She said matter-of-factly, to end the conversation.

“Oh, we’ll see…” Fuk grinned.

There was a moment of silence between them. Morgan was drumming along to the music from the speakers and Fuk was checking his wristcom with a broad smile. Chen tried to make eye contact with Trisha, but she was gazing outside at the rain strumming the dome they were in.

She broke the silence.

“You could have let that android walk.”

“They’re illegal,” Morgan stated.

Fuk and Chen waited for Trisha’s reply but it took a while.

“Yeah.”

She hadn’t looked at either of them, as if her initial comment wasn’t really meant for anyone but herself.

“Didn’t take you for a soft one,” Fuk snorted.

“I’m not.”

“We’re off duty, so, actually, we could’ve let it go.” Chen showed his support, but it was also meant as a joke.

“Might be off duty, be we’re not off fun.”

“Yeah! The fun must never die!” Morgan almost shouted.

“Still spored?” Chen asked, smiling at Trisha.

“Isn’t he always?” She smiled back.

As if whomever controlled the weather had noticed the shift of mood in the taxi the rain stopped.

“We’re almost there. Better zip down that raincoat if you don’t wanna pay.” Fuk smiled.

“You couldn’t handle it, Fuk.” Chen grinned.

“Neither could you.” Trisha threw out there.

A cacophony of howling erupted between the guys and high fives were dealt. Morgan hadn’t heard Trisha’s comment, but he joined nonetheless.

Trisha looked at her wristcom. It showed 2:59 on her skin and as she watched the hour died and gave way to a new one. A moment later the drone taxi swerved upwards into the first prominent tier, as people called it. Ironically by everyone living below and quite seriously by people living there.

The establishment they arrived at was a façade of mirrors and optical illusions. All sensual. The walkway broader, cleaner and with soothing light. People here were dressed in suits, glimmering gowns and tight silken dresses. The robots and androids spotless and expensive. SecForce guards and their Cop units stood in clusters at each intersection, assisting whomever came up to them while keeping a watchful eye on anything suspicious.

Trisha and the guys looked suspicious.

A SecForce officer, a tall and muscular woman, came up to them before they reached the entrance to the establishment. The lush red glow from the Inner Gaia sign painted the officer’s face with an unintentional sensuality.

“Who are you and what are you doing up here?”

Fuk slipped out his scannable ID on his wristcom and the officer’s stern expression eased.

“Undercover report on this place,” he nudged his head at Inner Gaia.

“A report for Station H3 on tier 5?”

Fuk played along with a shrug.

“Yeah, I know. No idea why your station couldn’t do it. Probably some department egos down there wouldn’t let it go.”

“Tune my channel and chime in if you need assistance.”

Fuk nodded and their wristcoms tuned channels and a soft beep confirmed it.

“Good luck.”

“Thanks.” Fuk turned and let his grin slip as his face was out of eyeshot from the officer. Morgan grinned and put his thumbs up but Chen slapped them back down before the officer noticed.

Fuk led them towards Inner Gaia, setting his wristcom to mute, as not to be distracted by the officer or vice versa. Trisha took in the myriad of reflections of herself as they came under the looming and delicate entrance. Mirror images in 360. Holographic lush lips and voluptuous curves danced around them as they slipped through the revolving door which was a hologram itself.

Chen’s hand on her back didn’t allow Trisha to pause and decide.

Inside, false pink rain greeted them. The holographic drops twinkled like stars as they hit Trisha’s skin. Water ran down the walls behind the bar counters lining each side of the room. Glowing flowers and bowls of translucent water balloons, for digesting, stood on the softly pulsing counters. Naked bartenders — light projections tracing their moves censored their breasts and private parts and made them glow bright and divine — served a few fashionable ladies on one side and an old but smooth man on the other side. Lovewave streamed gently from hidden speakers with its sporadic sounds of pleasure whispering into the room. Straight ahead, opposite the holographic entrance was a dark but welcoming passageway down to a pool area. A host, more androgynous than Ice, ascended the few steps up from the pool to greet them.

“I know this tongue, Rosemary,” Fuk mimicked a famous line from a classic and walked confidently to the host. A soft, whispered conversation ensued while Morgan gazed at one of the female bartenders, hoping to catch a glimpse and Chen looked a bit surprised at Trisha.

“Didn’t know we were going to a spa…” he feigned.

“A spa?” Trisha stated the obvious and Chen smiled and looked over at the bar.

“Still want that traditional brew?”

Trisha eyed him suspiciously and pretended she liked this game he was playing.

“A metaphor?”

He shrugged.

“I’ll have a beer. And you’re buying.” She nudged him towards the bar. “I can’t afford this place.”

Chen bought four beers and Morgan came up and took the first one and then saw that the naked bartenders weren’t actually human. Yet up close, he could vaguely see the censored secrets through the bright projection.

Three middle-aged men came from the pool entrance, freshly showered and preened and dressed for business. They eyed Trisha with a frown of disbelief at first, before they saw her face. The pink fake rain spattered their smiles, adding to the hint of lust as they joked amongst themselves and vanished out through the revolving holographic door.

Fuk came over and took the last beer and gathered them in so he didn’t have to speak up. The host watched them.

“So, I made a special arrangement.”

Morgan leaned in eagerly, invading Fuk’s private space, which wasn’t that big a bubble. Fuk looked at Trisha with a wink.

“I’m owed a favour by the son of the guy who runs this… hollow earth. As long as we stiff up the bill with cocktails, we can share a room for free for two hours.”

Trisha waited for more, but when it didn’t come she understood. So did Morgan who responded with a grin.

Chen eyed Trisha as if to say “you don’t have” to with his glance, but also “why not?”.

“If we want a god or goddess… or both… we have to pay one thousand.”

Morgan gulped at the price.

“That’s fifty percent off, just so you know.” Fuk assured them.

Trisha backed out of the conversation and looked at the ladies opposite in the other bar. They were eating synthetic strawberries, but seemed bored. As if they were waiting for something or someone, or perhaps abandoned by someone or something.

“Trisha… what if… you had the room first, and you got to take a… god — “

“I’m not wasting my hard earned credits on a penis, champs.”

Chen smiled and tried again, patiently.

“Okay… what if we paid then?”

“Then we’ll have to pay again for a chick afterwards?” Morgan’s voice was almost distraught.

“Not if our goddess here wasn’t satisfied after the first run…” Fuk winked at Trisha.

Morgan waited with an involuntarily gaping mouth for Trisha to respond, but she just drank her beer and wandered away from them. Chen caught up with her and walked backwards to face her, with one big flirtatious smile. Trisha took in the room again and tried to lose herself in its vivid optical illusions so she didn’t need to address the awkward situation at hand.

“I can make sure those two don’t come in.”

Trisha stopped and let the false rain sprinkle her, the ceiling above a cosmos unto itself.

“If I’d wanted to have sex with you, Chen, we’d already be having it.”

He held on to his smile for a couple of seconds before it gave way to his true state. A mask of irritation, near anger, flashed.

“I take care of you and I get this…”

“I take care of myself.” Trisha set her disappointing eyes in his fierce black gaze.

Chen mustered his composure again and smiled. “You’re already regretting this.”

He headed back to the other guys and Fuk led them to the patient host and after a few words they disappeared into the pool area. All three of them cast a glance at Trisha. Disappointment, irritation, or both.

Now that she was solo, the ladies with the strawberries followed her every step. She finished her beer and set it on the disk and a circle glowed around it and an automatic claw came up and removed it while the naked bartender touched his lips sensually and made eye contact with his now drink-less customer.

Trisha let the android do its thing, leaning closer to study it. After a few seconds that had started out with a sexual tension but quickly became a comedic moment, the bartender spoke.

“Care for something else?”

Trisha snickered a little too loud. All heads turned.

“Oops, sorry.” She tried to stifle her laughter.

She looked at the bartender and whispered.

“You’re illegal. You know that, right?”

“We don’t discuss unpleasant stuff here at Inner Gaia. Here we only deal in pleasure.”

“You’re lucky you’ve got rich owners.”

“In here, everyone is lucky.”

Trisha smiled at the acute marketing algorithms.

“Luck is fleeting. Just like an orgasm.”

“We have experts here who could make your orgasm last until the sun rises again.”

“Now, that’s false marketing, mister… Bright Dick.”

She looked at his crotch, obscured by glowing spotlight.

“What are you hiding beneath that light?”

“We’re not hiding anything. We’re revealing your imagination.”

“I’m imagining a wee matchstick…”

“Whatever pleases you.”

Trisha laughed again, but this time it didn’t turn heads. The host was already watching her from the steps to the pool. With a gentle smile he approached.

“I see you are curious…”

“Another android to tell me I can get lucky?”

“Just a man, offering you to look around the premises if you’d like.”

He gestured to the pool area.

“Anything you like to see, you can behold here. Within ethical boundaries, of course.”

“Sorry, but I think I’ll save my credits and go home.”

“I cannot stop you, but perhaps I could give you an offer you would consider?”

The holographic raindrops made his face glitter. Trisha glanced at him, genuinely intrigued. He leaned in, so not to let anyone else hear him.

“It’s maybe a bit cheeky, and naughty, but I could let you have one of our rooms, for the rest of the night with one of our expert companions…”

Trisha was about to object but he foresaw it and held up a hand to indicate his proposal was only half made.

“…and by some minor slip-up, on my part of course, I could charge everything on your colleagues. Without them knowing.”

“I’d prefer they’d know, actually.”

“So that’s a yes?”

Trisha smiled at the bartender as if the android somehow would either encourage or try to talk her out of it, but it was touching its breast muscles in a slow sensual manner with its eyes on her.

“Fuck. Okay. I’ll need one beer then.”

The bartender produced it right away.

“On the house,” the host smiled and took her hand and led her towards the pool area.

“One caveat I must inform all patrons of, though. You may pick between a goddess, a god or something in between, but here at Inner Gaia you will not be told if your companion is artificial or human.”

Trisha looked at him with some surprise as he led her and her beer down the steps into the warm darkness.

Inside the small cubicle of frosted glass Trisha was meant to store her clothes and slip into something more comfortable from a selection that was displayed to her, but she didn’t and was occupied with doubt. A Buddy panel on the wall, tuned down to a more sensual low voice than their usual chirpy voices, spoke gently to her.

“Have you dressed comfortably?”

Trisha ignored it, but when the question came again after some seconds, she murmured a yes.

“Good,” the panel said and two options presented themselves on the screen. “Would you like to enter the room before or after your companion?”

Trisha tried to conjure up all scenarios but her mind was buzzing due to the beers and the situation she’d put herself in. She landed on her SecForce training and posed that any scenario where she was closest to the door and closest to escaping from danger was the best one. The danger here, she assumed, would be mind crushing awkwardness. Nothing else was likely on the line, but damn, she concluded, her pride was the one thing she had left. Or was it?

She pushed the button that indicated she wanted to enter after her companion.

“You may now open the second door and follow the lights to your Inner Cave, where your companion awaits.”

A soft click of metal indicated that the second door, which was sturdy, now was unlocked.

Trisha touched the handle and this prompted the Buddy panel into one last announcement.

“Whatever you will feel inside your cave, arousal, lust or love… know the feelings are you and they are allowed, but they will pass.”

Trisha didn’t quite catch the last words as the voice glitched, but she was pretty sure the Buddy had said exactly what she thought it had said. She pushed open the door and went in.

A narrow corridor with water running down the walls. Trisha was quite sure it was holographic but she didn’t dare touch.

She crossed the corridor in less than thirty seconds, but her mind had run a marathon.

Whatever was behind this door, she was prepared to turn around. She was sure it was a man much like the bartender, or an android like the bartender, or the actual bartending robot itself. It was a high tier establishment, but the reason for the holographic doors were probably face recognition, or the bartenders ran facial recognition and everything that Trisha had ever uttered or typed or searched on the net — even though she was good at restraining herself there — was siphoned carefully, creating a profile they could use to say the exact words to lure her in. But she hadn’t really been played, had she? Even if she had, it was really her colleagues that had been played. Doubly so.

She wondered what Ice was doing. If she’d ever been here. If by some strange twist, she worked here. She would open this door at the end of the watery corridor and in that room Ice would be standing, stark naked. Trisha had seen her naked many times, yet the thought of meeting Ice here was wildly erotic.

Then a thought struck that made her hand pause right before she was about to push the door open. What if this was Chen’s idea? What if they had talked the host into this, and they were waiting for her behind the door, to make her regret blowing them off. Her rational side started fighting her fears. They’d been nothing but nice to her before, though Fuk and Morgan had always brought their brotalk out of the showers and not tried to hide the fact they sometimes, at least in the beginning, had stared at Trisha changing with keen eyes, but Chen…

She looked over her shoulder. The door was right back there. The water running down the walls tranquil and soothing mixed with the lovewave music.

Trisha took her raincoat off — something to distract whatever waited for her behind the door, by throwing it or concealing her attack — and slowly pushed the door open.

Little by little the room revealed itself. It had a tinted window and a bed. On the bed sat a young woman.

Trisha surveyed the room quickly before she stepped in.

The woman sat on her knees, in a posture that spoke of relaxation, anticipation and a welcoming attitude. The orange light trickling from the firmament-like ceiling specked her white skin, and made her glowed a bit, in contrast to the matte black sheets. Her skin was soft and smooth, and clearly taken care of. Her legs were thin and long, her thighs strong and her waist lean. A milky-yellow buttoned bodysuit covered her crotch and breasts. Her shoulders were narrow and her arms slender. Perhaps nineteen or twenty. Trisha immediately thought she looked like a famous heroine she’d once played in a classic game.

Trisha let the door close and hung her raincoat on a rack nearby, keeping her eyes on her goddess.

“Uh… so… are you…?”

The goddess smiled in response. A small smile that was a gesture for Trisha to step forward. As she did the woman got up from the bed in one soft move and came closer with innocent yet confident steps.

There was a sweet smell in the room of a long-gone type of orchard that Trisha had never seen, known or heard the name of.

“Are you real…?”

The woman took Trisha’s hand and held it to her face, to let her touch her skin. Her hair was burning red. Her eyebrows dark. Trisha let her fingers run gently over her mouth, over the freckles she had under her large green eyes.

Eyes that matched Trisha’s raincoat.

As the goddess opened her lips to speak, the notion that had haunted Trisha all day was clear as false rain. Everything was temporal except one thing. We never change.

“You can hurt me if you want.”

The woman with the green eyes smiled.

This was her fourth mission that night.

Temporal is one of the stories in the “slice of cyberpunk life” short story collection METROPO, coming in 2017. Facebook or Tumblr.

Illustration by John Jamtli