From the author: Originally published in Penumbra, the now defunct Musa Publishing magazine. The issue theme was Alice in Wonderland, but this story is emphatically in the very heart of cyberpunk.
Neon lights flickered in Katya's head as she walked down the street. Some of the lights were external, but some had wormed their way into her brain, falling into some grey area between imagination and hallucination and reality.
She hadn't even taken anything. Yet. Maybe tonight was a good night to stay sober, to accept only the mind alterations that came from her world's reality. There certainly seemed to be plenty. She turned her head to avoid an ad directed right at her retinas for something that only a corporate possession could afford.
Oh, that wasn't what they called them, wasn't how they thought of themselves, but for street people like Katya, oh, yes, the reality was quite visible. Possessions, walking in lockstep, eating what the company approved of so that they wouldn't use as much company provided healthcare.
None of them would ever touch drugs or even alcohol, or anything that might damage company property, but she walked into the Wonderland club without any further hesitation, into the darkness and the sound, the roar of sound that she called music but her parents called noise, a pattern that might well date back to the successors to Bach. The Wonderland Club, they called it, and it was done up accordingly, with the female wait staff dressed as Alice and the men all carrying pocket watches.
Off with her head, Katya thought. Off with their heads, off with all their heads, all the oppressors and the people on the top, sitting on those who lived off government assistance.
Who lived as she did, in pocket apartments, buildings that had once held 500 households now supporting 1500, 2000. Who ate what the government said they could eat, which was never enough. Who earned cash on the black market to buy the drugs that would send them down the rabbit hole, down and away.
Corporates never came to this place, never set foot inside it. It was illegal but tolerated as a safety valve for the huddled masses, and there were plenty of bottles labeled Drink Me here.
Off with her head, and if they knew, Katya's head might be forfeit, sent into rehab, coming out as a brainwashed goon, but still sent back to the pocket apartment, marked as forever unemployable, useless for those few jobs still done by humans.
She took, thus, one of those bottles, the top already removed by the barkeep. The beer went down her throat with the smoothness of hops and head. Tonight, beer was all she needed, the neon flickering in her head once more, perhaps planted there, they could do all sorts of things now, with remote induction.
Carroll had satirized Victorian society, its hierarchies, its traditions, the endless teatime of England's soul. What would he write of today, here?
Would the Red Queen walk these streets, and the neon lights flickered again, then went out. The club plunged into darkness, and she finished her beer quickly, drinking the evidence and casting it aside.
Dregs didn't get alcohol, weren't supposed to, and if this was a raid then heads would roll, and she knew where the back door was even in the dark, but she felt as if she were shrinking and growing, both at the same time.
Something in the beer. There had been something in the beer, something she hadn't ordered or asked for. Someone had spiked her drink, and the floor rose and fell as she stumbled out the back door, wondering if the lights had really gone out or if she had been blinded, if all she could see was the backs of the cards, but no, there was light in the alleyway and the card backs she saw were the backs of the police.
They were raiding, one of their periodic crackdowns, off with all of their heads, how dare the dregs of society have any fun. Alcohol, barely allowable. Stronger stuff? No.
End of the tea party, for now. For a few weeks; then it would start up again, but the ground was still moving. Whatever had been in her drink was still getting to her, still affecting her. Probably would for the rest of the night, and there was no other way out of this alleyway.
It was over, then. Soon she would have had all of her anti-social impulses erased and wiped out, unless she could find a rabbit hole to vanish into.
There. Was it real? She wasn't sure, but it was a partly open door. She pushed it open, closed it silently, into the building next door, which was empty, but was that an illicit printing press, producing hard copy documents for something or somebody? Only criminals did things that way, so old fashioned—few had the skills now, to set type—and this would be raided too, if the police found it.
A rabbit hole, leading her only to the Red Queen's court, the bloody queen, off with her head, off with her head, and the world distorting around her. She wasn't picking up another beer somebody else had opened any time soon. Knew better, most days. Should know better, should know completely, should just know, but she kept moving, her footsteps echoing off the machines, because there might be a door on the other side,.
She looked at the stack of pages that flowed from one of them, but she couldn't read them, her brain garbling the words into jabberwockian nonsense, or maybe it was some forbidden language, banned because it wasn’t English or Mandarin, the standard languages of the world.
It was Spanish. She recognized it slowly, thinking of heritages lost or commercialized, bought by the corporations, owned by them; the world becoming more and more one, more and more the feared New World Order and maybe she was mad, maybe she was the hatter or maybe the hatter was somewhere in here.
She stumbled on a hidden entrance and almost fell down into the basement below. Down into the basement, into darkness. In the pitch black, she could wait out the raid and the drugs, still not sure what was in her system. Not wanting to know, not really, but she couldn't use spiked as an excuse; the carelessness was still her responsibility. Drugs interfered with the ability to find a non-existent job.
But she waited, waited until the glowing screen of her watch told her it was 5:00 a.m. The police should be gone by now.
They hadn't raided the printing press, but the Wonderland Club was already boarded up with Closed By Order notices. Health code violations, they claimed, but she knew it was for serving alcohol to minors and strong drugs to dole recipients. The club had never been careful about age checks, not here, not when they were already on the fringes of the law, crossing over the line when nobody was looking.
She gave it a month before a new club opened, but it would be a long, dry month. And she couldn’t be seen getting back to her apartment, no good reason for her to be out at 5:00 a.m., and any cop who saw her could arrest her for prostitution on no more evidence than that, but at least her head was clear now, no more neon flickers.
Maybe it hadn't been the beer after all but something else. Some drugs could be sprayed on somebody from a distance, and that kind of prank would not be beyond…some.
Or somebody who disliked her enough to think her ending up in rehab was a good thing. Katya couldn't think of anyone, but that didn’t mean there wasn't anyone.
She slowly made it back to her room. Not apartment, room. She was single, all she was viewed as needing was one room, a microwave in one corner. A bathroom, shower stall, sink, toilet.
Virtually no possessions. Futon. Dining table, two wobbly chairs she might be able to get approval to replace. Maybe. They were only a little wobbly, after all.
Nobody spent except on essentials and drugs and the lubrication of this society, the ban on alcohol making it more desirable, more sought after. The employed and the dregs alike whirling around the flame that drew them, the flame of mind altering chemicals and unpleasantness. Of sex and violence. Of crimes that excited even as they made people cross the street. Most people who sought prostitutes were employed.
Many of them wanted that violent fantasy—men, even some women, for whom rape was a reasonable way to relate to others—and Katya flopped down on the futon. She should be looking for a job, but first she needed a few hours sleep.
An awakening with foggy eyes from a dream that involved card backs and drink me and the memory of the interrupted party, the Mad Hatter dragged off by the police. How many people she knew had been arrested? People who wouldn't talk, of course, by the code of the underworld.
She was probably safe. They could brainwash, they could change, but they hadn't found a way to actually force the truth out of people and, besides, the cops would be content for now. They didn't really want to arrest everyone, just to remind them that they were nothing, were unimportant. Had no rights.
She walked over to the window. She had to be seen looking for a job. Hungover, she walked out into the dusty streets. Her head throbbed. She'd taken an old-fashioned aspirin as most suited to ease the pain without making her want to go back to bed any more than she did.
What had she been given? She didn't know, but it didn’t matter as long as nobody pulled her in for random testing before it was out of her system, and even then she could quite honestly say she didn't know, it had been given to her. Sometimes they'd let you play that card. Sometimes not, but even then, if they weren't sure? A warning, a temporary dock of food money, a few missed meals as a reminder of her dependence. The system had been set up to empower people.
The corps hadn't let it. She could maybe let them buy her, become a corp, but she didn't have skills they would want. Couldn't do anything a robot couldn't do was the truth of it. Except write bad poetry and she was too hung over to try that right now. So she wandered through the shopping district, saw a measly three help wanted signs. Made a great show of checking them. They probably didn't even have available jobs. Some businesses, some of the few survivors would put them out and take apps just to help people prove they were trying. Toss them in the round file, let the person try again in six months…more often than that would be suspect.
No jobs and people still having babies, and the eternal argument for sterilization of anyone who was unemployed for more than three years. Katya wasn't sure it wasn't happening. She knew some women who had given birth to three children in quick succession and then no more after a C-section. Knew and suspected, but there was no proof. Ancient precedents.
Which was why she avoided doctors. Got her birth control pills from a clinic, no questions asked, probably the same people supporting sterilization, but at least they didn't want to look at her, didn't make her put herself in a position where she could be sedated.
If she never had children it would be her choice, not theirs, her fault for never finding the right man. And she found herself wandering back past the closed Wonderland, which always seemed small and insignificant in daylight, the signs already gone. Next to it, the building with the presses.
No signs on it, but when she stepped down that back alley she heard their faint sound, producing literature the government could not censor or control.
She stepped inside, feeling the rabbit hole close around her. Feeling the presence of others, glimpsing shadowy figures in the dark. "Hey. You guys want any poetry?"
This story originally appeared in Penumbra.