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Reality Testing by Grant Price - Book Tour + Giveaway

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Cyberpunk

Date Published: 01-27-2022

Publisher: Black Rose


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Welcome to Berlin. Population: desperate. In the throes of the climate crisis the green tech pioneers are king, and if you aren't willing to be their serf then you're surplus to requirements.

Carbon credit for sleeping on the job. That's the offer a dreamtech puts to Mara Kinzig, and she jumps on it. After all, the city ain't getting any cheaper.

Then somebody changes the deal while she's dreaming in the tank.

Now Mara has a body on her hands, an extra voice in her head, and the law on her tail. Only the Vanguard, a Foreign Legion of outcasts seeking an alternative path in the dust between the city states, might be able to help her figure out what went wrong. First, though, she'll have to escape the seething streets of Berlin alive.


Excerpt

A CITY TO LIVE IN

The man’s blood was on her skin and now she would have to run.

Grid lines on powder-blue walls. Metallic warmth from inefficient tech. Light too soft for the horror of the room. She staggered back, away from the man. Limbs clumsy, adrenaline spiking, breath loud. A shake of the head. No trails, no blurred vision, nothing to suggest she’d been pumped with cybins and this was only grim illusion. It was too sharp, too immediate, for her to still be dreaming in the tank. There was a wetness on her hands, and when she brought them to her eyes she saw fingers dipped in red.

One word struggled to the surface: Where.

She turned away from the body, saw a cylindrical rig hanging from the ceiling. MR chamber. That explained the grid lines; they aided the neocortex as it painted pictures. A stack of moulded objects in the corner, their purpose unknown. Educational, sexual, leisure. Too much to process. She probed her eye with the hand that wasn’t bloody. A thin membrane sitting atop her iris. Glass. So she’d been sharing his mix. She removed one from each eye, dropped them on the ground.

More questions. How long. What district. What city. What day.  One step at a time. She wore a jumpsuit, expensive, the kind a bleeding-edge NK advertorial would flash. Pockets all over. Only one turned up anything useful: an old denbar stick, not hers. She unrolled the razor-thin film, pressed her finger to the screen. It displayed a balance at the top. In the minus on carbon. How was it keyed to her touch? She couldn’t have been conscious when they did it. Who was ‘they’? All so unclear.

Nausea took her in the legs, made her shake. The man on the floor.  She didn’t want to check him; touching the body would make it real.  But without carbon she was going nowhere. With a dry throat she  crouched beside him. She didn’t recognise the face. He was white,  thickset, senior, no features to help him stand out in a crowd. He’d  crisped his skin more than once, which meant he had money, but the  lines of age still showed through like cracks in concrete.

No pulse. Head resting in a pool.

She turned her head away as she rifled through his suit. A newer model denbar was tucked into an inside jacket pocket. Expecting  nothing, she lifted his hand, pressed a finger to the end node. The  screen fired up. In a second she’d swiped his carbon—barely a stack—and snapped the denbar in half.

Leave.

She stumbled to the exit, her body still refusing her, and pressed  her hand to the panel. Two squares of a Torggler rotated out and she  left the chamber and the dead man behind.

***

A corridor, the same powder blue as the room, deserted for the  moment. At its far end a camera blinked a single red eye at her.  Security could already be on its way up. She needed a way out.  Vertoo.

The command echoed around her head, unanswered. She tried  again. Nothing. They’d nixed her chips before she went into the dream  tank, but they’d said it would take only a thought to get them back  online. Then again, they’d also said she would wake up in a clinic bed,  and that hadn’t happened.

She dragged herself to the end of the corridor and stumbled down  a set of stairs into a lobby, also empty, with a ceiling-to-floor lightwall.  As she threw out a hand to steady herself, she saw how the skin there  had become thicker, more wrinkled. No longer the hands of a  mechanic. More like a fixer.

The lightwall flickered on when it clocked her and an impression  materialised on the screen. Glossy bodysuit, large, glistening eyes,

peroxide stubble cut, erotic pout. It gave her a good idea of what kind of place she was in.

‘Welcome to the Mardi Marquis.’ The impression bowed. ‘How may I assist the master of the house?’

High-end system. She didn’t recognise the name of the place. ‘Show me the way out.’

Her voice was husky. Maybe a side effect of breathing perfluorocarbon for so long.

The impression blinked and a map of the building appeared below it. A red pulse pinpointed her location. The exit was close.  ‘Follow the arrows, please.’

Pale yellow darts in the floor, barely there so as not to disturb the ambience. She lurched after them, out of the lobby and through more corridors in the same infantile blue. Still no other customers or employees. Could be the place was closed. Could be the man in the room had been the owner. She drew up the hood on the jumpsuit to hide her face as best she could.

The arrows ended at another Torggler door, the two squares already rotated out. She peered around the frame. Compact foyer, muted floating screens with MR ads playing on a loop. Standing at a welcome station was a man in a bronze dashiki, his mouth and nose obscured by an air purifier, who was using a set of tongs to tease out the leaves of a small biotope. Micro-greening. Cheap propagation tech to rapidgrow miniature forests that—when cared for right—were supposed to suck ten times more carbon out of the atmosphere than a normal tree. His looked like it was fresh out the jar.

She ducked back behind the Torggler. No way to bypass the guy without being seen. She could handle herself well enough, but he would be carrying and he’d fry her before she got within ten paces. She needed another way out. The longer she stuck around, the more likely he’d pull up his room links and find the body.

Then a voice. Automatic, flat, broadcast from a wall screen: ‘Check refrigeration unit one-nine-alpha. Possible malfunction of diaphragm valve.’

She pressed her face to the doorway, saw how the welcome station glowed a soft red. The man frowned at his biotope, then muttered a confirmation. The station returned to its soft white. He dropped the  tongs, ran a hand through heavy dreadlocks, and left through a service  door under the floating screens.

Go now.

As she entered the foyer, the screens flipped to graphic ads for  near-death experiences and her adrenaline spiked again. The welcome  station greeted her in Chinese. Ahead, the exit rolled open. No security  loitering outside. She slipped through the door.

The bullet between her shoulder blades never came. 

***

The GenuSstadt couldn’t have been mistaken for anything else.  Poolers, parlours, head shops and 24/7 clubs, all part of a labyrinthine  kiez frequented by suits, futurists and fringe elements. It made her  uneasy to find herself so far away from the Lichterfelde dream tank  she’d dropped into before lights out, but at least she was still in Berlin.

The air was hot and dry despite low-hanging clouds. She joined  the manic press of people moving as one over rubberised paving strips  that turned kinetic feet into hot current. The walls of every building  spoke, sang, became amorphous strands of colour. GLISTEN: aural  hydration . . . . . Grafts, Plants & Augs, 500 M . . . . . Linghai Algae  Industries is Hiring in Nanhui – your chance at a sustainable future . . . . .

CasiNine Flavour DJ Tour – SOLD OUT! . . . . . Next Left: Thebes House  of Ruin. The fervid odour of fried insect mash drifted out from the  doorway of a restaurant and made her stomach flip.

A few people eyed her, making her either for a junkie who’d do  anything for carbon or one of the women who’d been kicked to the  curb after Klaus Koje and Athos had changed the world with their  announcement. Some, the suited ones, pushed past her like she didn’t  exist. Despite how cheapjack the GenuSstadt was, most of the citizens  on the streets were growthers who took the maglev from Potsdamer  Platz to the kiez for a little entertainment in between work, sleep and  more work. Growthers had no respect for anyone who wasn’t on their  level; it came with the territory.

Then she was out of pedestrianised zone and into a street packed with bikes, boards and shuttles. Motors whining, lightwalls glowing. ‘Gravemaker,’ said a hypnotic voice. ‘Unwind the mortal coil and drift into the Eternal. Apply today, expire tomorrow.’ A woman sitting in her own filth raised a cracked tablet and begged for neweuro. A man, naked from the waist up to show off a designer body, called out to her. ‘How much for an hour, obsol?’

She continued on, crossing a bridge that had once carried trains across the city but now heaved with bordellos, hookup banks and implant resellers. At the next corner was a bullwagon, dark blue with a wide white stripe down its centre. Three bulls flanked it. Their features, approximately human, were blank, their augmented eyes forever scanning. The inhabitants of the GenuSstadt gave the spot a wide berth and she did, too, slipping back into the warren where no transports were allowed. Not that she could lose herself in here; cameras were everywhere, recording everything. Still men kept looking her over, leering, approaching. ‘Come with me, lost one,’ said a religious head who walked beside her for a few paces. ‘Tenfive minutes get you threeten,’ said another. A rail-thin kid wearing a cracked technicolour jacket brushed past, his message delivered in a whisper. ‘Cybins, blitz, krokodil, salts.’

She ducked into an unlit alley clogged with refuse, kicking aside paper, plastic, rags, things that had once had a purpose, until darkness shrouded her. She stopped. No mutters of human beings living in the waste. No sounds of pursuit. If anyone had seen her enter the alley, they hadn’t trusted themselves to follow. Dizziness hit and she fell against a wall splashed with anti-gov graffiti. She sucked in dirty air, overcame her desire to empty her stomach. Far above, an air conditioning unit spat condensation.

They must have found the body by now, and the bull unit responsible for the Mardi Marquis would be running the vidlink. They would identify her and if it turned out she hadn’t killed him in self defence then she’d be scooped, wiped and pressed into HPU servitude alongside the other perps underneath Potsdamer Platz before morning. She thought back, but her first memory was of her standing over the man. No way to know without seeing the footage for herself.

In a panic, she rubbed at her hand where the blood had dried. She’d  have to go underground. And then? Find a surgeon willing to work  for the scant neweuro she could scrounge, have them put her under  the scalpel and cut her until she couldn’t be recognised by sight. What  about prints? Eye veins? Hand geometry? She couldn’t afford work  like that. Few could.

She tried to get online again, but the response was the same as  before. She balled her wrinkled hands, pressed them against her  stomach to stop the nausea. Then she rested against the cool brick,  concentrated on the dripping of the air con unit. Get a grip or you’ve  already lost. Remember who you are.

Your name is Mara Kinzig. You’ve been dreaming in a tank.  Now you’re awake.

And you’re a killer. 

 
2

The carbon Mara had taken from the dead man’s denbar was enough to get her back to her neighbourhood. She hopped a grimy S-Bahn train heading out of the GenuSstadt and hunkered

down for the hour-long ride to Zossen district. End of the line. Refuge of nongrowthers, neutrals, the downwardly mobile. People not vicious enough to carve out their corner in the city nucleus, but lacking the grit to try the survivor’s life in the dust.

On a screen in the roof of the carriage, protected by a thick layer of plastic, a newsgram flashed images of a factory in flames on the outskirts of Dortmund. The city cabal was placing the blame on the Vanguard, a group on the Steppe that’d been making a name for itself in recent months. Mara kept the hood drawn tight around her in case she appeared next on the screen. What she didn’t need right now was some penner trying to sell her anything. The denbar was as good as depleted, and she didn’t have enough carbon even for a cup of matcha. At least the ancient carriage’s security camera had been smashed. Small comfort.

The S-Bahn screamed as it took the curves and the wheels scraping along the tracks sent vibrations down Mara’s spine. Through a window that had been tagged in the black and red of the Doomsday Troop, she could see the scrapers of Potsdamer Platz with their rotating stack plates. Tower-to-tower gliders took off from pads close to the top, while further down Maglev lines spat bullet trains in all directions: to the Brandenburg Celestial Link, to the cleantech incubators in Frankfurt, to Munich, crypto city, way down in the south, to the crescent-shaped Conurbation that encompassed the

hyper-districts of Düsseldorf, Cologne, Essen, Bonn and Dortmund.  Mara had never been on a bullet train. Off-limits to no-hopers like her.  After the scrapers came the tiered blocks carpeted in plants and solar  film, populated by workers who did jobs Mara didn’t understand.  Then the S-Bahn passed over Auto 1, the artery that pumped the road  trains with their mutant crops from the superfields to the Marzahn  Drive Yards.

As the train shook, Mara took stock of her situation. Her last  memory before waking up to find the guy’s body was the door of the  dream tank coming down and the gas being pumped in. The question  was why she was no longer on Ahe+d’s premises. Why had they  chosen a sleazy MR chamber to put her back in the world? Nothing  about it added up. She saw a whole lot of mafan on the horizon.

Jema would know what to do. But there was no guarantee Jema  had waited for her.

She’d warned Mara not to do it. No, not warned; begged. LINK  programmes couldn’t be trusted, she’d said. Too many stories of  citizens signing up, climbing into the tank and disappearing. Yeah,  some did their time in the programme and made it out, and those were  the ones Jema had tried to interview as part of her stringer gig, but no  dice. Their wrists were bound with red tape, their mouths stuffed with  NDAs. The dreamtech companies weren’t baichi. They covered their  bases. Plus they had the support of the city cabals and the national  government. LINK programmes were big business, with tons of  carbon riding on their outcomes.

Competitive, too. Candidates needed an IQ of onedredthree-O just  to get an interview. Mara still remembered being approached as she’d  drifted through a pooler, searching for a cheap game that would settle  her after a long shift. The advertorial had been a tractable kid with  kinky blue-pink hair that stood out for miles. Sidled up to her, gave  her a spiel about how LINK helped society and paid more carbon than  she could burn through for a year, then spun away, eyes glazing red,  her face already forgotten to him. On the way out a lightwall had  tuned in to her frequency and played an ad for Ahe+d. Because four-O  minds are better than one. The message did its job, following her out the  door and all the way back to pod she shared with her lover. When she’d brought it up, Jema had gone feng feng. Why set a match to the wood when it’s at its driest? Mara had had no answer except that she was slipping down the ladder and didn’t want to see what that bottom rung looked like.

Now she wasn’t on the ladder at all. Someone had pushed her off.

***

The S-Bahn dribbled through the nu-crete belt that drew itself tight around Berlin’s midriff, flitting in and out of the shadows of huge structures that looked like bulbs of garlic. Built during the green boom and left to rot after nobody wanted to live in them. Nongrowthers and neutrals couldn’t afford the rent; growthers wanted to be closer to the centre. The antiballistic glass fronts were cracked and sprayed, and ugly wounds showed from multiple forced entries. They were guarded by drones that put holes in anyone baichi enough to be found squatting there. When the train pulled into the station closest, nobody stepped off.

Mara’s eyes burned. Drugged, not drugged. She couldn’t tell. Head heavy against the plastic seat, every tremor going through her as the train dragged itself along the tracks. She eyed passengers with ashen skin. Low-level startup gophers whose faces still bore the faint mark of hope that they, too, would make the jump one day. Exhausted workers spattered with dirt and grease and dust. Tractable kids with eyes clouded red as they sucked down content from all over Vertoo. Two real freaks wearing lip plugs that interpreted the wearer’s subliminal thoughts as colours. No danger from any of them.

The S-Bahn howled in a language from a different century. More stations, more high-rises, more lights burning in the semi-gloom. Mara allowed her eyes to rest. She wanted to be home.

***

Wake up.

Mara stirred. A voice had been talking to her in her sleep. Giving her instructions, reassuring her. Memories from her time in LINK.

Unsure. The contract had said there might be side effects. Nothing  about coming back online to find a dead body in front of her.  The view from the window told her she was close. Surroundings  as green as they got in the city. Most engineered in a lab. The idea of  trees rolling off a conveyor belt had unsettled her once upon a time,  but no longer. The insects had come up from the south, waged their  war and won, and so now the city had to create trees with bark tough  like an Oranienburger skinwalker if they were to survive. Between the  patches of green were towers, each one bearing pods that hung from  sturdy plastographene branches. Zero-carbon living over a few  miserable square metres. Airtight, insulated, all-over solar film, oval  design allowing rainwater to cascade down and collect in troughs that  funnelled into a chamber for recycling. An external biotope for  offsetting, built-in waste processing, a simple node to connect to  district heating.

The biotecture design for the pods had come out of a LINK  programme.

The train pulled into Prierow station, named after a lake that had  dried up long ago, and Mara jumped out. Head down, eyes keen,  stalking past street hustlers looking to roll a mark, hawkers selling  gristle on sticks, HPU fodder that had so far managed to evade the  utility men and made their home where the shadows were loudest.  Fifteen minutes later she was standing at the entrance to her tower,  and the relief was strong enough to make her skin itch. Part of the first  wave of nu-crete biotecture that had washed through Berlin after the  Preservation Act, the outer surface of the tower was coated in quick

growing moss that kept the air around it cooler. The tinted hexagonal  glass panels that leapfrogged their way to the top were layered in  scum. No way inside other than a security door in the base. Not the  kind of place that could afford a sentry drone for overwatch.

Mara went to the vein reader next to the door, opened her eye  wide. The screen blinked red. She tried again with the other eye. More  red. Junk tech, only ever worked half the time. Shuffling closer, she  touched the scanner with the tip of her index finger. NO ACC flashed  on the screen. She couldn’t have been out of the loop long enough for  her prints to be erased from the tower’s system, not unless Jema had moved in the meantime and scratched her from the records before she left. She swallowed her nerves. Keep cool, Mara. Maybe this is what happens when there’s a warrant out on you.

She stabbed the button for her pod. The screen crackled into life, but remained grey.

The voice that answered was soft, but alert. ‘Who are you?’  Mara could have rested her head against the door in relief. ‘Jema, it’s me.’

‘Identify yourself.’

She threw back the hood. ‘It’s Mara, Jem. I’m back. The scanner won’t open the door for me.’

The response was quieter. ‘Mara.’

‘I’m in trouble. Real mafan situation. I have to get off the street.’ ‘Mara.’

‘I know you’re sore about how I left, but I need your help. Right now.’

The com broadcast dead air.
‘Jema?’

‘How did you get this address?’

Cold pins pricked at Mara’s chest. It was like she was in a dream. But that couldn’t be, because she was tired and hurting and scared. Three of reality’s favourite calling cards.

‘I live here. With you.’

The response was fast this time. ‘How do you know me?’  Humour her. If it gets you inside, do it. ‘We met when you were investigating the disappearance of a group of mechanics and technicians from the hire pool at the Marzahn Drive Yards. We’ve lived together for three years, and we’ve shared a bed for two. Want to scotch me some more?’ She paused, sighed. When she spoke again her voice had no edge to it. ‘I want to see you.’  Again the silence. Now she did press her head to the door. If Jema didn’t let her in she would be lost. She’d turn herself in to the nearest bull unit, throw herself on the scant mercy of the law. Nothing else for it.

The com crackled. ‘What were Soléne’s last words?’  Mara shivered, moved away from the com. ‘Why bring that up?’

‘Answer the question or the screen goes dead.’

She breathed through gritted teeth. It hurt, even now. ‘She told us  our bones are already dust and this existence is a shadow burned into  the path of time. Then she threw herself off a walkway because she  was whacked on cybins. There wasn’t even enough left of her to scrape  into a box. Satisfied?’

More silence. Then a mechanism clicked and the security door  rumbled open. Mara slipped inside before Jema could change her  mind. The air tasted metallic, but cool.

When the elevator deposited her on branch two-O-five, Jema was  waiting in the pod doorway, her crisped skin pale and clean, and Mara  was already prepared to forgive her for Soléne and take her in her  arms. But as she moved underneath the branch’s spotlight, Jema’s eyes  became wide, her body rigid. A ceramic knife appeared in a porcelain  hand.

‘Christ, mausy,’ said Jema. ‘What have they done to you?’

 



About the Author

 Grant Price is the author of three novels: Static Age (2016), By the Feet of Men (2019) and Reality Testing (2022).

He has lived in Berlin, Germany, for too long.

 

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Instagram: @mekong_lights

 


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