The sky above the port was Ernest Cline blue, buffering. I brought up my HUD and stepped into the Squid and Mashed Potato. The decor was all straight lines and battered sofas.
The barman had Bart Simpson hair and a Tim Curry smile. “What can I get you?” he asked.
“Just a beer,” I said.
“The Squid and Mashed Potato don’t do ‘just a beer’,” said a girl perched at the end of the bar. She wore Terminator mirrorshades and a Tank Girl tank top. She sipped her beer.
“We have our own microbrewery,” the barman said. “We’ve got a new beer on draught we call the Steve Guttenberg Project.”
“Fine,” I said. My HUD flashed as seventeen credits vanished from my account.
The barman pulled the wooden beer tap slowly as the glass filled with nut-brown beer. A Huey Lewis and the News song blared through the bar’s hidden speakers – not The Power of Love, the other one.
“Thanks,” I said. I pulled up a barstool with a warm leatherette seat and tasted the beer. It was okay.
“How’s the beer?” the barman asked.
“It’s okay,” I said.
I turned to the girl. She was reading one of those analogue books with the words printed on paper. “What are you reading?” I asked.
“Neuromancer,” the girl said.
“Like Duran Duran?”
The barman smirked and rolled his eyes.
The girl closed her book. “What?” the girl asked. Her tone was short, impatient.
“I’m Kevin,” I said.
“Like that kid from Home Alone?”
I sighed and sipped my beer.
“Do you enjoy being confusing?” the girl asked.
I shrugged. “When I can.”
The girl smiled, her lips sex-doll pink, her teeth like chrome. “What do you do?”
“I’m a self-contained multimedia node: blogger, vlogger, vrogger,” I said. I reached for her hand to send her my channel, but she moved it away before I could touch her. “I’ve got a lot of followers,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. She reopened the book.
“Oh?” I asked.
“Oh,” the girl repeated.
“Because we’re all the same,” she shrugged. “We’re all multimedia nodes: doing new media, remixing old media, shifting paradigms. It’s always new. It’s always boring. It’s so 2020.”
“Oh,” I said. I snapped a video of her sighing over her book and posted it onto my channel.
“What’s the book about?” I asked.
The girl shook her head. “It’s cyberpunk. It’s about computers and cyberspace and stuff.”
“Cool, that’s what I’m doing my piece about.”
“What?” she said.
“Cyberpunk, speculations on a pre-singularity internet, that kind of thing.” I gave my best warm smile.
“And you’ve never heard of Neuromancer? Don’t you think you should have done some research first?”
I rubbed the back of my neck. “Well, I’ve only just started,” I said.
The girl snorted.
I’d already got thirty likes on my video of the girl sighing over her copy of Neuromancer.
“Can I see?” I gestured to the book.
She passed me the book and I felt its weight. It bore the pallid elfin face of a woman with blank white eyes. “She’s got your hair,” I said, passing the book back.
“It’s the look I’m going for.”
“I take it you’ve still got your pupils, though?”
The girl lifted her mirrorshades to show her big manga eyes, Ernest Cline blue. I saved the image.
“Do you want to help me hunt ghosts?” I asked.
“Not really. What kind of ghosts?”
I sipped at my beer. “The ghosts of cyberpunk: Compuserve, MS DOS, Word Perfect, the information superhighway, Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, Nokia 3210s, Bolt, floppy disks, the Millennium Bug, Hamster Dance, AOL CDs with thirty hours free internet. You know, cyberpunk.”
The girl sneered. “That’s not cyberpunk.” She touched my hand and sent me a barrage of content: Gibson novels; a guy with a green mohawk; a Nintendo Power Glove; Stephen Hawking saying something about space; a picture of Ronald McDonald wearing a Nazi uniform; the dog from Duck Hunt; a Commodore 64 covered in mud; a bag of amphetamine sulphate; the video to Wired for Sound by Cliff Richard; and wires – lots of wires.
I jerked my hand back as the opening lines to A Little Respect blasted through the bar. “This sums it up,” I said, gesturing vaguely to the hidden speakers.
“It’s all about erasure. It’s all about the traces of the past that linger, even if you think they’re gone.
“We’re just building on old foundations, but they’re not up to the task.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” the girl said. Her tone was flat, listless.
“It’s like Derrida‘s ghost is hovering at the sidelines, flickering in the shadows, sailing in and out weeks. He’s not here, he’s not there. He’s gone, but he’s still somewhere. Always out of reach, always slippery.” The girl hesitated, went as if to say something, then sipped her beer instead.
“You can’t see it, but it exists,” I said. I downed the rest of my beer and got up from my stool.
“Can I get you anything else? Have you tried the Mark Wahlberg salad?”
“No, what’s that?”
The barman grinned. “Inconsistent.”
I nodded at the girl and stepped outside. A semi-translucent DeLorean DMC-12 sped by. At 141.622 kilometres per hour, the car disappeared with a bright flash of electricity and dodgy special effects, leaving two parallel trails of ignited lighter fluid in its wake.
Accessing my HUD, I replayed the scene, but the DeLorean was never there. It was another ghost, another spectre, another mirage of my subconscious overlaying my subjective perception reality with outdated references: this wasn’t my nostalgia.
The video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer was now at almost a thousand likes. Things were looking up.
I turned and the girl was standing next to me. “Did you see that?”
“The DeLorean?” She shook her head. “No.”
“Oh,” I said. “Fancy getting something to eat?”
“Okay,” the girl said.
The ghostly triangle of a Star Destroyer rumbled above us.
“Now I know you can see that,” I said.
“I can see the ghosts,” she said.
Reality shuddered as my mind autosaved to the cloud. “Sorry, what?”
“The ghosts are getting brighter, more frequent. Don’t you think?”
I nodded. “But why?”
“Maybe that’s what you should do your piece about,” the girl suggested.
I shrugged. “Every time I rewatch a scene, the ghosts aren’t there. Look at this guy.” I gestured toward a semi-opaque T-1000 as it ran by with quicksilver flesh. “Now rewind.”
The girl waved a dismissive hand. “I know. I’ve tried it so many times, but they’re not real.”
“If they’re not real, how can we both see them?” I asked.
“Just because they’re not real, it doesn’t mean to say they’re not real.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“None of it makes sense.” I sighed. “Where shall we eat?”
“I know a place,” the girl said.
“Cool. Lead the way.”
The girl turned as she walked back into the Squid and Mashed Potato. “You need to try the Mark Wahlberg salad,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
We returned to our stools. I pulled up the image of the girl’s manga eyes for a second. Beautiful.
“You never told me your name,” I said.
“I know,” said the girl.
“Same again?” the barman asked.
I nodded. Another seventeen credits left my account.
“And you?” the barman said, turning to the girl.
“Same for me,” she said. “We’ll probably be ordering the Wahlberg salad.”
“To share?” the barman asked.
The girl shrugged.
“Do you see ghosts?” I asked the barman.
The barman glanced up as he placed a beer in front of the girl. “Like those?”
I turned to see four blocky, two-dimensional ghosts flicker past as they chased a see-through Pac-Man through the wall.
The girl and I exchanged glances. “Did it record?” I asked.
“They don’t, do they? They’re just echoes.” The barman frowned as he placed a beer before me. I took a sip. It was okay.
“Where do they come from?” the girl asked.
The barman shook his head then turned his back to us.
The girl sipped her beer. As she placed it down, the faint trace of her sex-doll lipstick remained on the rim of the glass.
“Maybe that’s it,” I said, gesturing to the pink smear.
I reached over and picked up her glass. I held it up to the light and showed her the lipstick. “Semiotic ghosts,” I whispered.
“It’s like the ghosts: They must come from somewhere – they must be some kind of residue. Do you see it?”
The girl sighed as she grabbed her glass back. “I see it,” she said. “I don’t see how it helps.”
The barman cleared his throat and placed a large bowl between us. He laid out a pair of forks and napkins.
“Thanks,” I said, reaching for a fork.
The salad smelt good. There was the scent of lemon and a vinaigrette dressing. I pushed my fork into an area heavy with leaves and a cherry tomato and took a mouthful.
“This is good,” I said.
“It’s okay,” said the girl.
I took another mouthful then spat it into my napkin. “That’s disgusting.”
The barman chuckled. “You don’t get consistency with Mark Wahlberg.”
I checked my HUD. The video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer was approaching seven million likes. I called up those manga eyes again for a second then watched the other end of the bar at a flickering ghost of Ralph Macchio working on his crane kicks.
“This is ridiculous,” I said. “There must be more to this. If I’ve learned anything, there must be some conspiracy, some evil corporation, NASA, the government, the CIA.”
The girl sighed and opened her book. “Maybe it’s David Icke, risen from the dead.”
“This is serious,” I said.
“This is stupid,” the girl said.
“Fine.” I rose to my feet and downed my beer.
The barman looked at me with a raised eyebrow, his Tim Curry smile still fixed. “You’re not joking about these ghosts are you?”
“No I’m not,” I said. I clenched my jaw as the hairs on the back of my neck prickled.
The girl turned her back and picked around the tastier parts of the salad.
The first notes of Rush‘s Tom Sawyer blasted through the bar. “This is real isn’t it?”
“Of course,” the barman said. “Can I get you another beer?”
I shook my head then slunk back onto the stool. I held my head in my hands as the barman poured the beer. Seventeen credits left my account.
“I really thought you were joking about the ghosts,” the barman said.
“It’s okay. I just need to get my head around it.”
“It’s a bug with the latest update. They’re working on a patch. Don’t you check the newsfeeds?”
The girl laughed.
“Oh,” I said.
I checked my HUD and deleted the video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer. A dead channel, buffering.
This text is copyright 2016 by Jon Cronshaw, released under a BY-NC-ND Creative Commons Licence.