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by Thorsten Küper

The guy crouching at the café table, looking up at me, seems like an inflatable homo-sapien imitation made of light rubber, deflated after somebody let out most of the air. „Really, I’m fine,“ he assures me again with faint mumbled words, whilst tiny saliva bubbles burst between his lips. „I just wanted to inquire.“ A nervous gesture with his right hand that holds a half-burned cigarette. The ash comes off and falls on the table. „I mean…I wanted to ask if…“

It’s his third attempt to utter the same question, again ending in mid-sentence.

Above the café’s counter somebody has lined up a number of ancient black and white tube TV sets of varying sizes, displaying a blurred video fragment. Dervishes revolving around each other in an endless loop. Supposed to be art, I guess. The guy across from me could also be regarded as an artwork, then. In this case the artist would be me.

I drink another sip of my triple espresso from an acid yellow plastic cup with a radioactivity warning sign and help him along: „You wanted to know if…“

„Oh well.“ His fingertips don’t just move over the tabletop. They play an inaudible composition on an invisible keyboard. And a saliva thread sticks to his chin. „I’ve wondered if this stuff… Well, if there are some risks after all.“

There are not just dark rims under his eyes. These are steep jagged canyons that have trenched themselves deeply into the scarred planetary surface of his pale face. It looks like a 3D map of the surface of Mars. His mind is probably almost as jagged and fissured. I smile at him over my espresso. „There are no risks, trust me. It’s all a hundred percent safe.“

His left knee bobs to the beat of a speed metal song. „You know I take a damn lot of this stuff. That’s why I started to wonder if this Hap… Hap… Hapti…“

„Haptocin,“ I help him and wonder if he, a lawyer, has always had trouble to memorize difficult technical terms. Maybe he’s just a little out-of-phase today.

„Yes, if this Hapto..“ The last syllable overstrains him again. „Well, if this Hapto really has no side effects. I mean…“

„No problem, I understand. But I can assure you,“ nodding to him soothingly, „nobody allows this to be marketed just like that. It has been checked in countless series of tests. There have been tens of thousands and the side effects are… well, negligible.“

To be honest I know rather well how these tests were conducted. The small Korean who first brewed up the stuff in grandma’s kitchen in Seoul used parrots to test it. If the birds didn’t drop dead from the perch within an hour he scribbled OK on the vial.

On the old black and white boxes the camera zooms grotesquely close to the eyes of a dancer. He stares down at us in eight copies. Cut to his mouth: It is spread to a wide laugh. I notice a price tag on one of the TV sets. It seems that you can buy the whole installation. For an incredible price. I guess the whole thing will stand here for quite a while before someone with a spark of taste removes it.

My dialog partner rubs one of the larde bruises on is arm with his right hand. The fingernails are long and yellow, not cut in weeks. I guess he’s been having more bumps and falls recently. He gapes at the bruise as if he’s just seen it for the first time. „I stumble, faint and my sense of time…“ He looks at me. „Tell me, what day is it?“

I smile at him sympathetically. „Wednesday,“ I declare and thus generously transfer today’s Monday 48 hours into the future. Why overstrain him with facts? It does not matter to him anymore.

I look at my watch. „Are you not supposed to be in your office? Or in court?“

He hesitates, ponders and tries to grab my wristwatch but needs three attempts to succeed. The failures in physical interaction which come with growing spatial desorientation. In view of the time he slowly nods. „Yeah, I guess,“ he says. „What day is it?“

„Thursday,“ I assure him.

He scratches his head and in doing so falls into a kind of meditative rigidity. With his sticky, wildly protruding hair and the distinctly outgrown grey hairline he has nothing in common with the slick guy who showed up in the Nostromo Rocketeer three months ago to ask for „Korea Soup“. You knew at first sight that he couldn’t be a cop. Too smart, too snooty, with too autocratic a smile. He didn’t even know who to ask. Fuck knows why ReLife attracts successful people such as him. Usually it’s some secret desire that would send you to prison rather soon on this side of the universe while a few simple tricks can provide the protection of complete anonymity in ReLife.

I watched him the whole evening before I invited him to a „Korean Cocktail“, and even then he thought that I was hitting on him. He had heard of Haptocin in ReLife. Where else?

Haptocin was a legend for ReLifers. Only very few would dare to ask for it and still less could even afford it.

ReLife is a three-dimensional virtual universe that is projected on an array of microscopic LEDs immediately in front of your eyes. You can log into this virtual world from home or mix real and virtual life. Take a walk through a park with another ReLifer who is actually only an image in front of your pupil. I see one right here in the café. At the other end of the room. A tall guy with a bold head and thin arms, but a tremendously fat belly talks, gesticulating wildly, with an interlocutor who is only present as a projection on his retina and may be two or three continents away in another café, as grimy a this one, and also talking insistently like a madman to an empty chair. I’m sure that neither he nor the other person show their real faces in this conversation and have replaced their natural appearance with some deluxe avatar. Most of them do this. Why accept the merciless reality of your own plain reflection in the mirror for one more day when you have full control of a much more convincing virtual universe? This is the philosophy of the ReLifers.

ReLife is for some the chance to live the life they never had. You get the looks, you get the house, you get the women and the men. You are what you want to be. There’s only one thing missing.

You can’t touch any of it.

At least it was this way until a Korean student of biochemistry stumbled across Haptocin – actually a new remedy for epilepsy, under a different name – and its strange side-effects. There are times when, after all, I’m grateful for having studied pharmacology for nine terms, which seemed useless to me at the time. But the network that I established then has payed off in retrospect. Especially when one microbiologist or another still owes you a favour.

It’s easy to get Haptocin. Much easier than I thought. It’s illegal because it is traded as a weapon of war. The Americans are said to inject it to the operators of their combat drones. Their rate of reaction is much higher this way and they control their machines with a precision that can’t be achieved without this stuff between their synapses. When somewhere in the world a terrorist leader is blasted to his 70 maidens you can be rather sure that the remote control operator has been on 20 milligrams Haptocin. They probably even swallow the stuff when celebrating their victory. Their ‚Korean Soup‘ is, of course, much purer than all that we can produce. Our methods are not that refined since we have to improvise. But it’s good enough for customers such as my lawyer friend here.

At least for a while.

„Come on, have a bite of your sandwich,“ I call upon him. And he eats. He has trouble chewing. Swallowing too. That’s why he drinks a little from his small bottle of beer.

„Really,“ I assure him. „You don’t have to worry. Nothing can happen.“

He nods slowly and in doing so the crumpled napkin slips out of his hand. He has just teared a big part of it with his teeth to chew it laboriously and choke it down. It seems to have been a great help to drink the tabasco – I couldn’t resist inviting him to this „beer“ -, for he smiles while tears roll down his reddened cheeks. The glow of the cigarette between his fingers has by now burnt down to his skin. He has two small burns on his index finger and his middle finger. He doesn’t feel them. His brain regards such little pains as unimportant. It waits for more intense stimuli.

Our cheap variant of Haptocin allows you to feel the virtual world of ReLife – but with time you don’t feel the real world anymore and you lose your bearing. You run against tables, door frames, walls, you fall down stairs, you pour hot coffee on your lap and you smell it but don’t feel it anymore.

Your sense of time has long gone and even the word „long“ has become meaningless to you. You’re not just open for hallucinations but for almost hypnotic states of mind – as if the brain, as soon as there’s no computer anymore to feed in a prefabricated reality, requires another authority.

„Go home now. But take the bus. You’d better not drive with your own car now.“

I saw him parking it outside of the café. With his giant limousine he had first knocked down the parking meter, compressed the bicyles that were chained to it into a wire sculpture and then heavily pushed the closed Asia Snack pickup behind it to make room for his luxury car. Its body is covered with bumps and scratches anyway. I wonder if he has only bumped into inanimate matter so far.

„I better take the bus, yes.“ He stands up slowly. Heads are turned jerkily as the half-naked man rises from the table. What had once been a lawyer in the media business now sways from one leg to the other, wearing only a torn T shirt and disgustingly stained underpants.

„What day is it?“ he asks.

„Friday,“ I say. „Better hurry or you’ll miss the bus.“

He nods and turns around. Then he’s gone.

I’m sorry that I will lose him as a customer. He was extremely solvent. But this is to be expected. By my personal statistics there are usually 76 days between the first consumption and the final state. Either they end in some addiction hospital or someone finds them in their bathtub, inflated like rubber life raft.

At least he takes the bus. Or maybe you should say the bus takes him. It’s a matter of interpretation.

I pay my espresso as the first sirens can be heard and a crowd of sensation-seeking gapers gather on the street. It seems to be a good day for them.

Translated by Michael K. Iwoleit

First  published in: Nova 18

Copyright © 2011 by Thorsten Küper

Thorsten Küper was born 1969 in Herne where he still lives. He studied physics and is school teacher. He published about fifty articles and Cyberpunk-influenced short stories in anthologies and magazines such as c’t and Nova. He also produced a number of short films and is active as blogger and as organizer of cultural events in Second Life. Numerous nominations for all German sf awards confirmed his status as one of the leading contemporary German sf story writers.

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