"Baby, did you forget to take your meds?"
Cigarette smoke wafted in front of pale lips lacking the deep shade of lipstick that marred the filter. It twisted in the air, mixing light gray into the pink and purple tinted light of the sunset. At the soft words spoken through the tinny speakers of the phone, two slender fingers took the cigarette from between those lips and stabbed it into an ash tray resting on the cafe table.
“No.” A deep sigh exhaled into the phone, eyes closing from the effort of having to speak the solitary word. Light gray eyes opened after the frustration passed, greeted by the open pill case on the circular table. Two lone chalky pills sat in the square case, the stark white of them almost burning into the eyes taking them in as they stared. Fingers tapped on the table beside the case, neon blue nails clinking against the wood audibility.
The cafe was nearly empty at this hour, so close to closing time that even the barista had disappeared into the back to start the final tasks of her shift. The coffee beside the pill case had grown cold several minutes before the phone had even rang, still as full as when it was brought to the window side table. The sun had been high in the sky then, more people present as well, but those tapping fingers and the pill case had remained unchanged since their owner had sat down.
Two white pills. That went unchanged as well.
“No. I didn't forget, Disma.” At the sound of their name, the other fake alias was returned in kind. Disma. Only a code name for the mousy woman on the other line and the only name known to Zinc. They had been together for a year, only romantically for Disma was not interested in sex, and yet they had never exchanged true names. Zinc hadn't even exchanged proper pronouns with her, too caught up in their own mind to care much for something so trivial. Disma had gone on to only use they and them pronouns, flustered and asking quite often if that was okay but she was only ever shrugged off by Zinc.
Zinc. It was the main element used in the medicine distributed and mandated for every citizen to take. The person sitting in the cafe took on the name to mock the drug that the entire human population was tethered to. The very same two white pills sitting in front of them now and turning the tables to mock in return.
Zinc kept their fingers tapping on the table as their other hand held the slim black ear piece implanted in their ear so the sound would come in clearer from the other end. The device was one of many body modifications Zinc had taken on over the years, the double labret on the left side of their mouth, short dyed blue hair that was slowly growing out into its natural blonde at the roots, and a full sleeve of rose, skull, and flame tattoos on their right arm in red, blue, and black ink to name a few of the more noticeable features. There were several others under their preferred baggy white tank top and loose black jeans that hung off their thin frame, one being the black binder across their chest that held tight to their unfortunate gender defining attributes to better serve their androgyny.
“Baby, are you sure? You sound on edge.” Disma's loud worried voice came through the connection feeding directly into Zinc's ear. They sighed at the thought of the brown haired woman who was most likely on her way home to their shared apartment right now.
Petite, bold, and in your face, Disma was someone that mislead you with her size and tight fitting sweaters. When Zinc had first met her, they had thought they had stumbled upon the most feminine ske girl in the whole Absinthe network. The few moments of sending requests along the network to speak in the corner in the digital center had made Zinc believe that they would be holding the conversation for the most part, but that had been nothing more than judging on appearances.
Zinc's eyes flickered over to the lipstick stain on the cigarette, put there that morning by Disma yanking it out of their mouth to place between the stark crimson of her lips to taunt Zinc. Cigarettes were becoming a rarity and where Zinc smoked as often as they could, Disma always disapproved. She always went off about how the medication was keeping humanity from dying because of their shitty lungs, why on earth would someone cancel that out with another toxic substance? They had fought over it so often that Zinc no longer participated in the repetition of the topic. They only smiled, took a drag, breathed it out, and listened to their lover ramble on about the state of the world and stupidity of who she loved. Then they would kiss and set aside the topic again to say goodbye to each other before they disappeared off to their respective routines.
Disma was a ske girl in the Highske network. She would take the metro downtown to a large database that connected the main network to several others across the city. Her job was to monitor and keep the data feeds within the networks flowing so those plugged in wouldn't get trapped or stuck. Getting stuck usually ended rather poorly for those who froze in the data feeds, but sometimes it was intentional.
Disma was also in charge of keeping those cases in check and prevent any consciousness who wanted to be stuck in the feed forever from succeeding. Mostly plug junkies, and those who feared what the two white pills in front of Zinc prevented, were behind the intentional sabotage of data link implants and data feeds. Most would rather live in the virtual worlds rather than in the real world. The problem was that the fix was never permanent. Disma and many other ske agents had to follow protocol and wipe the system of overflow data like that of those trapped within the data feeds every few weeks. It was a short lived escape. The fact that some deemed it worthy spoke wonders of the state the physical world was in.
Zinc stayed home and plugged into the Absinthe, a small and dirty network that was typically associated with pirates, plug junkies, and other digital unsavory types. They made a living there, selling data clusters and digital connection jumps that were the drugs of the virtual world and eaten up by any and all plug junkies. Connection jumps could cause a temporary freeze in the data feeds undetectable to the Highske network, making those who downloaded them into their implants have the rush of a few hours time in what was essentially a digital coma. The software burned out after two hours of use and then forced a restart in the data feeds, waking up any plug junkie instead of letting them freeze forever within the feeds. It wasn't illegal, just unethical. It eased Zinc's consciousness more that it raked in quite a lot of credits that they could transfer into real money within the world of reality.
Disma didn't know what Zinc did on record. From roundabout conversations they had about the topic of digital connection jumps, she didn't much care for those who sold or used them so long as they didn't straight up tell her. It would risk her job as a ske girl if she actually had confirmation on a connection jump seller. Again, it wasn't illegal, but dating and living with someone who induced what you were supposed to prevent was often considered a compromise of interest. Disma needed to keep her job to keep her own supply of those two little white pills coming in. It was literally a matter of work or risk dying. She openly chose the obvious and merely kept her silent understanding of what Zinc did under just that, silence.
Disma always worried despite not officially knowing what Zinc did. Often times, hours or days would pass with no physical contact between them while Zinc was plugged in and selling. Those long periods of absence were becoming more and more frequent as of late which landed Zinc with several phone calls like the one they were on now. Questions about the two round pills were usually the main topic.
Did you take your meds? Are you sure? When are you coming home? Are you feeling okay?
They usually translated into Disma panicking in her own silent way. Loud, but always avoiding what she knew was really going on. Zinc was showing symptoms that a lot of plug junkies did before they turned to connection jumps or took the big “jump” into permanently freezing in the data feeds. Zinc was pulling away from reality, staying in the feeds longer and longer. The two white pills went down their dry throat rougher and rougher until taking them seemed like a death sentence in itself. But so did not taking them.
So they landed in this dimly lit cafe. The sun was dropping further in the sky, disappearing behind the tall skylines of the towering buildings of the city until the trail left behind it turned into a murky purple. It was soon black and Zinc found themselves alone in the cafe. Zinc turned to glance back behind the counter and into the small office to the side behind it, noticing that the barista was throwing off her apron and wrapping herself in a big jacket. The temperature outside did drop to be so cold when the sun hid behind the blackness of the night.
“I'm alright.” Zinc's lips parted and the words spilled out of their own accord. Fingertips finally went still on the table. A choice was made when they entered the cafe. “I'll be home in an hour. I just have a few errands to run, Disma.”
Absinthe was accessible from the cafe and wasn't monitored from this access point thanks to public places being deemed a no-go for even the shadiest of digital unsavory types. The barista was already leaving, grabbing her purse and keys before checking to make sure the front door was locked. She passed Zinc and nodded her head.
They had paid her off before entering the cafe. It wasn't hard to find a plug junkie willing to bend some rules for a fix. She had no idea what the pay off was for, Zinc had purposely omitted the reason for wanting to be in the cafe after closing, but considering the amount of the pay off was good enough for the barista to quit and disappear, she had to have an idea. It wasn't uncommon. People were found all over in the same way. Zinc would just be one of them.