Beat it geezer you know the score.” Richard let out a defeated sigh. Yes he did know the score. There was no bartering with a broker. No credits, no Xfactor. He’d know before he made his way to the “spot” early this morning he would be walking home empty handed. Getting Xfactor on the black market was getting more difficult. The spot was one of the few places to get Xfactor without leaving the city limits. Even then you would have to arrive as early as 4am and wait anywhere from 1 to 4 hours. Furthermore the broker would only be around between 5 or 10 minutes selling X to the frantic consumers before he’d disappear quick as a cat only to return the following day. There were other forgotten corners of the city where x brokers materialized to sell x to eager streamers but being well past his prime and out of the loop with whatever new locations were “frigged” with the young people these days, Richard would likely have no more luck finding them than the police. Although the thought frightened him more than he could say Richard knew if the spot ever got hot then his streaming days were over.
Richard allowed himself to be pushed back to the edge of the group by the flood of other streamers. All were younger. Mostly men and women ranging between 16-40 years old though, Richard was sure one kid that brushed past him couldn’t be more than 12. Richard watched enviously as the other streamers, those with enough credits, spent freely loading up on enough x to last the next few weeks, or days, or hours… Richard knew there were cold streamers amidst the group. (People who spent more time streaming than in the real world.) Some of these cold streamers would spend days in a comatose state binging on x, until their supply was used up resupply and repeat. This subgroup barely gave themselves enough physical attention to stay alive and often appeared shrunken, pale, sickly, and hollowed. The term cold streamers originated from the fact that these individuals often resembled walking corpses.
Six seven minutes then it was over. So quick, so smooth. As long as you had the credits you could get your fix. The small crowd dispersed in mere moments, and the spot would once again become a humdrum location in the large bustling city. Richard picked a direction and started walking. The spot was only 15min away from his apartment complex, one of the reasons for his relocation. He would end up their eventually no matter which direction he choose. It was 7:15am the city was just starting to stir. Just a prelude to the buzz and rush that would consume the city for most of the daylight hour and persist long into the night. In an environment such as this one it was easy to fade away into the background. This in fact was Richards’s reality.
Richard, age 68 going on 69, was no more noticeable than a misspelled word in a dictionary. He could disappear for months and no one would notice. Technically he had been experiencing this for the past several years which confirmed his suspicion. No one cared. Richard had lived in this city almost 24 years and he had not a single friend. His wife Gretchen passed away from illness 12 years ago. His family never visited or even called. Not his eldest son Robb or his younger son Andrew. He was never close to his own siblings even when they were younger. His older brother died 4 years ago and last he spoke to his younger sister was at the funeral. Family, extended family, friends, of these Richard had none. At least no one who cared enough to visit him once in a while, call him on a holiday or send a card, picture, or holotone to show they knew, or cared that he was still breathing. He was a ghost, a shadow, and for all practical purposes he was already dead.
There was just one exception, and that was Elisa.
Elisa was Richards’s oldest granddaughter who was 23 now but they’d been close since she was a child. “I want Grandpa! Grandpaaaaaa!” she would often wail when she thought her parents were being unfair. At least that was what he was told by Andrew. She remembered how she used to squeal with excitement when her parents brought her to stay with him when they went out. He remembered how he swelled with joy on the days they spent together. As she got older her interest in spending time with her Grandpa did not fade. Often she made weekly visits and they would spend the entire day together, just the two of them. Gretchen used to joke “don’t go stealing my husband” or “If I was a couple of years younger then it would be a fair competition for your Grandpa’s attention!” This was all in good spirits of course. Gretchen loved Elisa almost as much as Richard did. It was Elisa who got him through when Gretchen passed away. She visited him every day for nearly 6 months before her parents finally put a stop to it. Even so she would call and even write letters though they only lived 20 min apart. “But we’re pen pals!” She would argue fiercely to her parents when they pointed this out. The two remained close even through Elisa’s high school and college days but all too soon the inevitable happened. She got married.
His name was Noah. Richard remembered the elation when she first talked to him about Noah. “I can’t wait for you to meet him.” She gushed. Richard listened fighting desperately to conceal the feelings of dread. 20 is too young he thought, too young to get married. Despite his silent objections 11 months later, he was giving Elisa away at her wedding. That was the last time he saw her. Her new husband was fortunate enough to land a high paying job on the other side of the world. After the honeymoon they relocated and that was that. Richard despised Noah. He was smart, honest, hardworking, handsome, funny, and well-mannered, but he committed an unforgivable crime. He stole his granddaughter.
With nothing and no one left to comfort him Richard turned to Xfactor, the highly controversial substance seen all over the evening news at the time.
Xfactor did the trick like nothing else ever could. With Xfactor, Richard was no longer lonely, no longer unimportant. He experienced the sensation of being loved, wanted, appreciated, and yes even necessary to every bit the same level as when his wife was alive and his granddaughter much younger. The wonders of Xfactor allowed the user to experience a person’s memories. People could relive any experience imaginable and the experience was so potent it was like actually being there. Users of Xfactor described the sessions as being able to experience everything the original memory holder felt while also being vaguely aware of your own feelings. This state of double awareness was a gate way to levels of experiences that non streamers could only imagine. Twice the joy, twice the excitement, twice the ecstasy, twice the intrigue, success, twice the fear, heartbreak and pain, (for those who were into those types of experience.)
For Richard it was family memories he craved. Birthdays, weddings, family dinners, family game nights, family reunions, and the like. He couldn’t remember ever feeling like such an essential part of a family, but he could now. Through the memories he streamed he knew exactly how it felt and then some when incorporating the feelings of being a cared for husband and a well-loved grandfather which Xfactor rekindled. The wonders of Xfactor were still largely enigmatic as were longer term side effects for both users and providers but what did it matter? Richard was not one for complicating things. Streamers get experience, providers get credits. Supply and demand. That’s simply how it worked.
“Credits where can I get more credits” Richard mumbled to himself, hurrying towards his apartment for no apparent reason. There were no credits there. He knew this. Richard was forced to retire 3 years ago. When his granddaughter started seeing Noah and significantly less of him he became so depressed and detached from his work that he lost his job. With no motivation to pursue another occupation, Richard decided it best to just retire. He’d been working all his life and with nobody to support but himself he easily had enough credits to live comfortably for the rest of his life. That is of coarse, if you did not calculate his X usage.
Xfactor was expensive. It became obvious from the start that Richards monthly retirement credits would not be enough to satisfy his growing X addiction. So he began dipping into his savings. Just a little at first, then more. The more Xfactor he got the faster he used it and the more the cravings grew. He kept telling himself. “I’ll ration it this time. One a week is enough to get me by”. Then, “well that was much too difficult I was being stingy but every other day is plenty”. Then, “two a day should be more than enough. There’s no reason I should need more than that”. Now it was all he could do to make what started out as a sufficient month supply of Xfactor last more than a few days. When the savings ran out he began pawning his valuables. It had gone much the same way. He would set limits then break them. Set more boundaries then cross them. “No matter how bad things get I’ll never sell this.” He would say. Then he’d sell it. “If I ever seriously consider pawning this then I know I need to cut back” then he’d pawn it. 2 month prior he sold the last of Gretchen’s jewelry. And hours of sobbing and arguing with himself did not prevent him from pawning his wedding ring last month. That’s why Richard knew without a shadow of a doubt heir was nothing left in his apartment to sell. If there had been anything else he would have held on to his ring. He told himself as much before he sold it.
He arrived at his apartment complex ascended the steps to the 2nd floor and proceed down the lengthy hallway to 28D. Richard had been operating on auto pilot since departing from the spot this morning and was only fully aware that he arrived back at his apartment when the door locked behind him. He stood there numbly looking hazily around his barren apartment. “Richard you fool” he said to himself. He walked across the room and sank into his musty old recliner. Throw up yellow was how Gretchen always described it. It was every bit as worthless as she always complained. It was among the unsellable objects left in the apartment. Head in his hands Richard tried to process what happened over the past week that lead him here.
He’d been stupid, so stupid and shortsighted. It was his birthday in 2 days and 3 days after is what would have been he and Gretchen’s 41st anniversary. This was always the hardest time to deal with. His two wonderful girls would always make it the most memorable week of the year. Now that was all in the past. As a counter measure to this time that brought so much pain Richard planned on spending the better part of that week drowning in a stream of X. But he blew it. He knew that if he got the Xfactor too soon he would be unable to make it last, but he’d been almost 2 weeks without streaming before he finally made the plan to sell his wedding ring that had been almost too much to bear. When he got back with the precious Xfactor he had already decided he would use one or two just to take the edge off. He started off with a beautiful memory of a father holding his new born son for the first time, tears streaming down his face. Then he streamed a long and touching memory of a couple celebrating their 53rd anniversary surrounded by their large loving family. Then it was Christmas, then a father daughter hiking trip, then a day at the lake, then a proposal, then Christmas again. Richard was reaching for his 11th X capsule before he managed to stop himself. And now here he was, barely two weeks later looking at facing the burden of crushing depression without a single X capsule to help dull the pain.
Richard sat there alone going over the situation over and over in his head. Only vaguely aware of the passage of time, he suddenly got to his feet so quickly he almost startled himself. “I need to get my hands on more X, period.” He decided. “But how?” he asked himself out loud. “Any way possible” a voice in his mind said. And Richard knew then and there he would obey. Sometimes he scared himself when it came to Xfactor. When precious X was concerned he found himself behaving in ways he never would have imagined. It happened often. And before he fully grasped what he was doing his hand was resting on the apartment’s front door. I’ll borrow the credits he thought I’ll talk to that boy he’ll understand. He’s like me, no he’s much worse. I’ll promise him double the credits next month. That will give me plenty of time to think of some way to gather more credits. He stood there a few moments building himself up for what he was about to do.
(That boy) was Richards’s neighbor who lived across from him in apartment 27D. Richard didn’t know much about him, in fact he wasn’t certain he had even gotten his name. He lived there before Richard arrived about a year and a half ago. He was young mid to late 20s and was undoubtedly a cold streamer. He had the gaunt unkempt look about him. And he certainly didn’t have a job. He would spend days at a time in his apartment and would be seen hurrying down the hall back to his apartment after a short while. Richard was almost certain he’d seen him at the spot once or twice though admittedly it was difficult to be sure in all the confusion. But his confirmation came several months ago.
Richard was returning home when he saw the young man struggling to open his apartment door. He was burdened with several bags he refused to put down. When he fumbled his keys he made an attempt to grab for them but instead tipped one of his bags spilling no less than 10 xcapsules on the floor. Richard who had reached him by this point was just stooping down to help him when he shouted NOO! Hugging his bags with one hand his neighbor scrambled across the floor quickly reclaiming his spilled contents. Richard was too shocked to be annoyed about having bent down for nothing because from where he stood, he could see that at least one of the young man’s bags was filled nearly to overflowing with Xfactor. Richard didn’t know how he could have possibly paid for all that X nor did he know why he chose to transport it in such a precarious way. What he did know is that this was certainly more X than he had ever seen in one place and that was without even assuming there was more in his other bags. When the man returned to his feet he resumed his fight with the door even then refusing to let go of even a single bag. Now that Richard was standing next to him it was clear to see why he was having so much trouble with the door. He was shaking so violently Richard could almost feel the vibrations through the floor. His gaunt face was dripping with what seemed like an unnatural amount of sweat but his mouth was set with determination, his eyes seeing only the door. Richard gently slide his hand on top of the younger mans and carefully guided the key into the lock. Richard stepped back as the young man unlocked his apartment door and walked into the threshold. Once inside he turned back. “Thank you” he murmured keeping his eyes on the bags instead of addressing Richard directly, then he gently shut the door. Richard remembered feeling genuine concern for this young man. If I ever get that far gone there might be no coming back, he warned himself.
Without allowing any more time to debate himself Richard threw the door open walked up to 27D and knocked. When no one answered he began knocking louder. There was still no answer. “He’s not here” said the voice in his head “this was a bad idea Just go home and think of something else.” Instead Richard found himself calling out loud. “Hello! Is anyone there? It’s Richard, the man from 28D. We’ve spoken before remember? Could you open the door please?” Still no answer. Then he was pounding on the door. “Hey I know you’re there, I just need to talk to you for a minute that’s all!” Still there was no response. Richard kicked the door angrily, and regretted it a second later when pain shot up from his leg. Choking back a cry of pain Richard knelt down to attend his foot. “When did I get so irrational?” he asked himself through clenched teeth. This was indeed a terrible idea. He decided. “I need to collect myself and come up with a real plan.” Using the door handle for leverage Richard began pulling himself up… and the door knob turned. When he managed to get to his feet he saw he’d pushed the door open a few inches. It was done completely by mistake. Richard stared dumbly at the blackness of the apartment through the slightly open door. Then, before he could stop himself he pushed in open and went inside.
It was dark. The shadows of many objects cluttering the room were only visible thanks to the light coming from the hallway. “Hello?” Richard called into the dark apartment. “It’s Richard from 28D. I just came to…” his voice trailed off. There was no response. Richard flicked on the lights and gaped in amazement. The room wasn’t teaming with clutter as he originally thought. Instead it was filled with all sorts of fancy new luxuries. A large plasma sheen T.V. was embedded in the wall. Large fancy speakers were posted in the corners of the room. Heavy expensive looking curtains hung from the windows, blocking whatever natural light would have entered the room. A large pillow foam couch was resting neatly against the wall. There was a shelf filled with expensive looking gadgets and toys some of which Richard did not recognize. And sitting right in the middle of the room was a luxury recliner with an X helm resting on one arm. On the floor looked like a number of used X capsules. Resting on the floor next to the recliner was what looked like an old fashion paper grocery bag, the same type his neighbor had been carrying the day Richard helped him. This was the opposite of Richards’s apartment in every way. Richard closed the door behind him. All this time he had the idea that this young man was struggling but a quick look inside told him his neighbor was better off than most people in this apartment complex.
Well he’s not a broker. Richard thought to himself. Brokers don’t stream. That was basic. He didn’t appear to be employed, so how could he possibly afford all this stuff and still binge on X seven days a week? A criminal? Or rich parents perhaps. Probably the later. Except for X smuggling, crime in the city was pretty low. Besides this young man didn’t seem the type to Richard, not to mention he was a cold streamer so it wasn’t likely he would be able to set aside enough time for criminal activities. Crime? Richard thought to himself. “Isn’t breaking and entering a crime?” But instead of leaving Richard ventured deeper into the apartment moving towards the Xfactor but pausing to examine the contents of the apartment.
Things felt so surreal quite unlike streaming. It was more like a dream. Richard didn’t feel scared or anxious though he knew he ought to be. He could get in serious trouble if he was caught here and yet he felt strangely calm. He touched one of the shelves. A thin layer of dust clung to his finger when he removed it. He reached the fancy glass coffee table in front of the plasma sheen T.V. It was dusty as well. In fact everything in the apartment seemed to be unused except for the recliner and of course the Xfactor products. Richard carefully knelt down and picked up one of the capsules on the floor. No flash. Naturally it’d been used already otherwise the capsule would respond to his touch with blue light. He returned it to the floor and was about to stand when he caught a glimpse of something curious. He paused… then he saw it again. An orange flash. It came from one of the capsules lying on the floor. He couldn’t have seen it right, but then it flashed again, orange plain as day. That wasn’t right.
X capsules had two colors blue and red. Before being used the capsules would lay dormant until touched at which time it would respond by flashing blue light every 4 or 5 seconds signaling it was ready for use. In between flashes there would be a brief description of the memory, such as [Daddy Daughter Dance]. After being used the capsule light would glow red continuously for 1 or 2 hours and afterwards remain off for good. That was it. Blue flash ready to use, red glow shutting down permanently. But this capsule was not only displaying an incorrect color it was flashing without being touched. “Defective” Richard thought dismissively though he’d never heard of Xfactor malfunctioning before. “He probably used it and it is shutting down or it never worked at all”. Never the less Richard found himself reaching for the capsule. The moment his hand touched it, it flashed blue. Richard was so surprised he recoiled as if he’d been jolted by static. The capsule once more resumed flashing its incoherent orange light. More curious than ever then, he reached out once more and picked up the strange capsule. It began flashing blue. Richard brought it close to his face hoping to read a description, but the memory section remained blank between flashes. Richard stared at it for a few seconds then placed it on the table next to the luxury recliner. He moved on to the bag. The sight of its content set his heart hammering as it ought have been. It was filled with Xfactor.
Please be active he pleaded silently stooping once more to reach the contents of the bag. All the capsules brushed by his fingers began to glow blue. His heart was beating faster. “I’ll just take a few he said deliriously. Just a handful”. He won’t miss them. “Even a cold streamer would take weeks to go through all this”. “And I’ll pay him back anyway he added” as he picked up a capsule to read, right after… he stopped short. [Fun at the Strip Club] He picked up another. [Jannies Halloween Party] and another [Totally Wasted] and another. [Sex with Reena Tyreas] No nooo! he moaned in all of these X capsules there has to be at least a few decent ones. [1st high] [Ben at Beerfest] [Spring break with April and Brittney] [The Ultimate Beach Party] [The Girl at the Bar] then he lost count rummaging through the bag till he was literally tossing out the bad ones, which was apparently all of them. Richard became more and more frustrated and desperate by the capsule barely recognizing what he was reading but knowing he didn’t want it. [Sex] No. [Party] No. [Drugs] No. then Richards fingers were hitting the bottom of the bag.
“No!” he flung the empty bag across the room. It landed unimpressively in a heap. The strength left from Richards legs he sank down to the floor sitting amongst the Xfactor that was now littering the living room floor. “So that’s it then”. he though numbly… But no, it was not. He came here for credits not Xfactor. Anyone of these fancy pieces of technology would earn him some nice credits. He rose wearily to his feet. Then his heart stopped when he heard a loud slam seemingly coming from inside the house. Richard was paralyzed he couldn’t breathe. “I’m done” was all he could think “I’ve gone too far and now I’m done”. “Run you fool”! He screamed at himself. Then Richard was at the door and his senses returned to him. There was no one else here. The slam came from 25D like it did almost every single morning around 9:30. It sounded much closer now because it was coming from next door instead of across the hall. Even with the realization, the prospect of seriously being caught had forced Richard out of his craving delirium. I’ve got to get out of here. He decided. But first...
He hurried across the room to retrieve the empty bag getting down on his hands and knees once more he hurriedly began scooping xcapsules off the floor and returning them to the bag. He got almost all of them when he remembered there were some on the floor already. That’s good enough Richard decided. I was never here. He took one last look to confirm he did the best he could to return things to how they’d been when he entered. That’s when the curious flashing xcapsule returned to his attention. There it was just sitting on the table flashing orange where he left it. “That’s supposed to be on the floor.” Richard reminded himself. He picked it up. Instantly it began flashing blue. Richard brought it to his face staring. Still no description. He hesitated a moment, then pocketed the capsule. It was on the floor with the other discarded capsules, Richard reasoned. He won’t miss it. With that Richard left his neighbor’s apartment and closed the door quietly behind him. He walked across to his own apartment and slipped back inside. Once the door was securely locked, he slid wearily into his own old and musty yellow recliner.
Sitting here back in his armchair he could barely believe the last few minutes actually happened. Like it matters he thought bitterly. “Nothing’s changed”. “I can’t believe I took such a big gamble and the only thing I have to show for it is a bad X capsule”. But he didn’t really believe that did he? Why bother taking it if he didn’t secretly hope, that maybe just maybe there was a chance… he pulled the capsule from his pocket. It flashed blue signaling it was ready to use. Richard stared at it wondering. Then he got up and retrieved his Xhelm from his bedroom. “There’s no point in putting it off.” he decided. “I’ll know in a minute if it’s worthless or not” he returned to his chair inserted the mystery capsule into the receiver then slipped the helm over his head. Richards’s heart was hammering. There was something on this Xcapsule he could feel it now. Even if it wasn’t exactly what he wanted just the thought that he was mere moments away from streaming was enough to excite everything in his being. Taking in a deep breath Richard hit play.
Richard clawed the helm off of his head tumbled out of his chair and wretched. On his hands and knees he remained gasping to catch his breath, thick red saliva dripping from his chin. That wasn’t real, it wasn’t real. He repeated manically. It couldn’t be. What would that mean? He struggled to stand his legs, were shacking so badly it was almost all he could manage. How long had he been streaming? He looked at his clock 12:59. It had been roughly three hours, but Richard was so disoriented, someone could have told him it had been 3 minutes or 3 days and he would except it without question.
Deep breaths deep breaths, he chanted trying desperately to regain his self-control. Was that really a memory? If not then what the heck was it? Not a counterfeit surely. A streamer could tell and, nothing about what he’d just experienced seemed staged. With a trembling hand he reached for the helm still on his chair and plucked the xcapsule from the hold. As soon as it was removed from the slot it began to flash blue once more. Gaa! Richard cried dropping the thing like he’d been bit. It fell to the floor barely missing the red wet mess Richard left on the floor. It lay there flashing its ominous orange light. Richard felt like he was about to be sick again. He hunched over, hands on his knees, fighting the nausea. He managed to keep down the rest of his morning cranberry juice and in a few moments, it passed.
Richard stood up. The vile capsule was winking orange up at him. Richard backed away from the capsule as if evading a poisonous creature. “I need to get out of here”. “But where” Richard was at the door once more. “Do I want to go? If what I just saw was real…” Waves of fear and dread washed over him. “I know too” much he thought dumbly’. “People with this kind of information don’t live long and what am I? “Just a worthless old man”. He had no friends to confide in, no one he could go to for help. “there’s not a soul in the world who cares about me he thought bitterly.”
But perhaps… that could be a strength. Maybe I’m so far off the charts no one is watching. Maybe I can slip through the cracks like I always have. I won’t speak out; I won’t tell a soul... “But Elisa!” his thoughts flew to his beloved granddaughter. She has to know. But if I tell her she’ll be as dead as I am. Richard staggered to his bed room and sat down on his old and lumpy bed. “What should I do?” He stared wistfully at the holotone on his night stand one of the only useful remaining items in his house. He never could part with it. The holotone was his icon of hope. He would stare at it for hours hoping Elisa would call one day like she used to, then they’d talk and laugh and pretend to dance like they use to. When he looked at the holotone he could almost see Elisa’s translucent figure standing with arms outstretched for a virtual hug saying how much she missed her grandpa since they last spoke.
Richards’s eyes were brimming with tears. I can’t, he said, tears spilling over. Even if I leave a message when she doesn’t answer, if they come for me they’ll check my contacts”. The best way I can keep her safe is to keep the years of silence unbroken. He would never; Could never hear her voice again. “But the memory, he sobbed into his hands. How long would she really be safe”…? No! Richard stood up angrily. I won’t sit here like some tired old man. If I’m going to die, I’m going to do something that will protect my Elisa even if it costs me my life. My life is nothing. I’ve been living dead for years anyway.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Richard froze his short lived determination replaced by paralyzing fear. Someone was pounding on his front door.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
The knocking came again. And there was no doubt in Richards mind then. In the past 3 years, he had never received a holotone message, a call or a letter that wasn’t related to bills, and it had been even longer since anyone had knocked on this door. That’s why he knew it was related to the Xfactor. They had come for him, to collect the information he never should have received. To silence a voice that never had a chance to cry out. Each knock on the door was a gunshot and Richard knew he was dead.
Boom! Boom! Boom!