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While heading back to the unit I shared with Eddie, I tried not to cough. My throat hurt from Svati’s crazed wringing, and the scratches stung. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention from Security. Due to his entrepreneurial line of work, my brother was familiar with the floor’s monitoring systems. He claimed the closer one got to the high twenties, more efficient they got. Not all the cameras were for show.

On the way to the main corridor that circled the entirety of the floor, I met eyes with Marcus Parsons. He looked as tubby and jolly as ever. However, his eyes were bloodshot, and the bags under them were darker than usual. I always liked Marcus, he wasn’t as parental as his wife, but he always treated me well. The man worked hard for his family and wanted to get them into the thirties. He spent eight hours a day in the Cyber Plains and then eight more in hydroponics maintenance. It was time for the midday shift change, and he was on his way home like most labourers.

After the encounter with Svati, I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t recognise me. All I got was a polite nod of acknowledgement, the greeting he offered most strangers. I returned the gesture and hoped the foot traffic was dense enough to end up as another face in the crowd. People rarely went missing in the Tower. It was supposed to be an impossible occurrence. The perpetrators almost always got caught. Before the terrifying encounter, I didn’t think memory tampering was a possibility. Surely, if anyone found a Krystal containing the knowledge of such techniques and technology, it would be big news. Keeping it quiet would be a challenge and a half.

Due to it being peak traffic hours, my trek home was much shorter. I wasn't afraid of taking detours through the otherwise perilous corridors and gangways. Though the temptation to look over my shoulders was a constant, I resisted. In the Tower, those looking for a tail would eventually find one. Paranoia was a sign of having something to lose.

When passing through the market district, I changed my mind. Maybe going home wasn’t the smartest thing. What if I was seen? What if Svati and her husband used my name to track me down or set whatever force had taken Maya on me? If anyone could help me find my dearest friend, it would be the Spider.

The inhabitants of the floor didn’t fear the Spider’s Alley out of fear of getting mugged or murdered. They avoided it because Security’s employees knew what went on in there but never reported its existence. Eddie could probably tell me whether he bought their silence or they were too scared to move against the Spider. However, in an attempt to distance myself from his world as much as possible, I never asked.

The rotund guard at the alley’s mouth was too well dressed for an ordinary thug, even though he was just that. He carried a portable HoloScreen and anyone that needed to pass got looked up. However, when I approached Spider’s Alley, he only smiled. The man’s teeth were too perfect for someone in his line of work. I’d seen him take a pipe to the face for Eddie, but somehow his nose wasn’t crooked, and he didn’t have any missing teeth.

As expected, he didn’t stop my advance when I approached him. Instead, he nodded and stepped aside so I wouldn’t have to squeeze past his giant shoulders like the other visitors. I returned the courtesy. No matter their rank and attitude, always be friendly to anyone bigger than you - Eddie’s lesson had gotten me out of countless scuffles over the years. None of his subordinates checked me for hidden weapons and recording devices, even though most of them had never met me before.

Unlike most of the back alleys on the floor, the one that led to the Spider’s Lair was immaculate. The floors were stain free, and there were no scratches or dents on the walls. Every door looked precisely the same as every other door, and there was not a vagrant in sight. When I knocked, the metal shutter slid up without a moment’s delay.

Walking into the waiting room, I was welcomed by dozens of tired eyes. Most had to make appointments to get past the door, let alone visit with the only Spider’s Leg within five floors. The scantily clad woman that rarely smiled welcomed me with an ear to ear grin.

“He’s been expecting you,” she said.

“Of course he has.” I had to resist shaking my head. “Is there much of a wait?”

“For you, love? As long as I’m on duty, never.” In front of the room full of people, she pressed up against me, and I felt her heavy breath on my neck. “Maybe this time I’ll get a thank you?”

“We’ll have to push that back to my next visit, Ariana. ” Her touch always sent shivers down my spine, and she knew it. The young woman's alabaster skin was flawless, unlike most other addicts I knew. It was the pink eyes and the occasional hand tremor that gave Ariana away. I was sure it was Eddie that put her up to it, he claimed I needed to spend some time with a real woman instead of an avatar. I disagreed. I had heard enough horror stories regarding the Tower’s faulty birth control and the penalties for unsanctioned pregnancies.

“That’s unfortunate,” Ariana stated through pouted lips. She returned to her desk against the wall and twisted the lever under it. The door behind her slid open, and she waved me through.

The Spider’s office threw most people. When I visited one for the first time on the sixth floor, I expected to either walk into a grand affair or a dingy torture chamber. The room was neither of the two. It was minimalistic. The floors and walls were bare, and there were only three pieces of furniture in the room: A metal workstation, a high-backed chair and a much better quality SynchPod than the one in the family unit.

An hour passed before the cylinder hissed releasing the pressure trapped within. The metal cover slid apart, and Eddie, the Spider’s Leg sat up. He stretched and cracked his joints as the pod’s viscous contents slid off his skin. My brother’s physique had improved since he upgraded to the new immersion unit. It made sense his organisation had invested in it. Eddie spent more time conducting business in the Cyber Plains than he did in the physical world.

“Good morning, brother!” Eddie smiled swinging his legs out of the SynchPod. He took a moment to orient himself before standing up. His haptic suit clung to his body like a second layer of sin.

“You’ve been watching me again,” I replied, choosing not to reciprocate my brother’s cheerful greeting. He didn’t ask me to evacuate the chair he had worked so hard to earn but claimed the uncomfortable abomination on the other side of the work station. “You know I don’t like it when you’ve been watching me.”

“Can’t a man keep an eye on his beloved little brother? I thought you’d come to me sooner.”

“You know why I’m here?”

“Of course. I knew something was off when the Parsons showed up in my office requesting a rewrite-”

“You erased their memories?” I asked. It was no secret the Spider had access to technology beyond comprehension, but I didn’t think tampering with the human mind was possible. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or angry about what had become of Svati and her husband. “How?”

“It's the SynchPods,” Eddie answered. “You’ve only experienced one avatar death. Am I right?”

I nodded in the affirmative.

“Don’t you think it's odd how you bounced back from it so quick? You recall the death, but do you remember any of the sensations?”

“I still have the death sequence saved in my video logs-”

“Exactly! You saw it in the video logs! If you remembered the pain and trauma of being gored by a giant boar, you would be too terrified to go back to it. The SynchPod wipes away memories of death and traumatic events. One of the Eyes found a Krystal that lets us manipulate that.”

“Wait, does that mean you can tamper with anyone’s memories?”

“No,” he said. I was sure he looked disappointed. “We need their verbal and biometric consent, and access to the pods used for long term medical stasis.”

“How long ago was this?”

“A couple of days ago.”

“And you didn’t think to tell me?” I demanded. If there were anything but the inbuilt HoloScreen on his workstation, I would’ve thrown it at Eddie. “You know how important Maya is to me! I was worried sick.”

“Just because I’m a Spider’s Leg doesn’t mean I’m free to do whatever I want, Rowe. I figured you’d eventually come to me. There is only so far you can go on your own.”

“How can you be so calm about this, Maya’s gone! All I’ve got is a Plain ID Code and a meaningless word! What the fuck happened to her, Eddie?”

“I don’t know. Her folks wouldn’t say, but it's probably the same reason why most people on the lower floors go missing. They chance upon a precious Krystal and forget to hide their personal pod number when showing it off. I imagine someone tried to coerce Maya to sell it, but she used it instead. So, they looked up the SynchPod’s location, synched it with her avatar data, and then snatched her to extract the data packet.” Eddie’s explanation terrified me. I pictured Maya shackled to a wall while inked thugs tortured her. “If that’s the case I’m surprised she managed to leave behind a message at all. What did it say?”

“CP1264. Golden Scales.”

“Give up, brother," Eddie said almost instantly. "I don’t want you anywhere near there.”

“Why the hell not? I’ve read workers are in high demand and the Topfloorsmen pay exceptionally well up there!”

“That’s because it’s dangerous,” my brother said. “The SynchRate for the world is astonishingly high. The pods struggle to draw a boundary between what’s digital and real. People that die in Intemus either wakeup damaged or never at all.”

“But I have to find Maya. If you want me to survive, you’re going to help me with a character transfer. Or I’m going in with a basic avatar, and starting from nil.”

“That won’t be possible, Rowe. The world doesn’t allow complete transfers.”

“I can put up with some randomisation.”

“Fine,” he said after an entire minute of staring me down. I was glad to have won the staring contest. My brother knew better than to test my resolve when Maya was concerned. She was more important to me than he. The harsh realisation had come at a very young age, but he never put me down for it. Instead, he encouraged me to spend time with her and pursue my dreams. Though almost as dangerous as organised crime, Krystal Hunting had lower mortality rates. “I’m going to have to keep an eye on you though, and you’re going to do this my way. Running around the woods with a piece of shit bow and an old axe isn’t going to help you get close to the Golden Scales. They’re a merchant guild.”

“Can’t you get me in?”

“Not without getting you on the organisation’s radar. You’ll either have to get yourself noticed and then earn their trust yourself.”

“But that will take forever,” I protested. “There has to be something you can do!”

“I’ll try to get you a skill boost. You’ll want to pursue an Artisan Mastery or Merchantcraft. Probably the former, the latter needs capital you don’t have.”

“Anything, I need to find Maya.”

“Very well, anything else you need, brother?” Eddie sighed. He reached over the workstation and rotated the HoloScreen. He powered up applications I had never seen before. Their rough UI suggested they weren’t official design but homebrewed. “Maybe an hour with Ariana while I make a few calls and make arrangements?”

“Yes. I need to move to a different floor. Maybe, change my identification code too.”

“What did you do? Assault Maya’s parents?”

“Just her mother,” I replied. Eddie’s glared at me with an expression somewhere between horrified and impressed.

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jpuntuned

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