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 turned to the girl. She was reading one of those analogue books with the words printed on paper. “What are you reading?”
“Neuromancer,” the girl said, not looking up.
“Like Duran Duran?”
The barman smirked and rolled his eyes.
The girl closed her book. “What?” Her tone was short, impatient.
“I’m Kevin,” I said, holding out my right hand.
“Like that kid from Home Alone?”
I sighed and sipped my beer.
“Do you enjoy being confusing?”
I shrugged. “When I can.”
The girl smiled with her lips sex-doll pink and her teeth like chrome. “What do you do?”
“I’m a self-contained multimedia node: blogger, vlogger, vrogger.” 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.”
“Oh.” She reopened the book.
“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 snapped a video of her sighing over her book and posted it onto my channel. “What’s the book about?”
The girl shook her head. “It’s cyberpunk. It’s about computers and cyberspace and stuff. It’s retro.”
“Cool, that’s what I’m doing my piece about.”
“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.”
The girl snorted.
I’d already received thirty likes on my video of the girl sighing over her copy of Neuromancer.
“Can I see?” I gestured to the book.
She passed it over 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, handing the book back.
“It’s the look I’m going for.”
“I take it you’ve still got your pupils, though?”
The girl raised 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.” She gestured a yawn. “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.” I waved a hand. “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 in a robot voice; 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.” 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, and then sipped her beer instead.
“You can’t see it, but it exists.” I downed the rest of my beer and got up from my stool.
“Can I get you anything else?” the barman asked. “Have you tried the Mark Wahlberg salad?”
“No, what’s that?”
The barman met my gaze. “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, two parallel trails of ignited lighter fluid following 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 of the augmented reality construct 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. Fancy getting something to eat?”
The ghostly triangle of a Star Destroyer rumbled overhead.
“Now I know you can see that.”
“I see the ghosts.”
Reality shuddered, glitching for a brief moment 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.”
I shrugged. “Every time I re-watch a scene, the ghosts aren’t there. Look at this guy.” I gestured towards 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?”
“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.”
“Cool.” I said, gesturing. “Lead the way.”
The girl turned as she walked back into the Squid and Mashed Potato. “You need to try the Mark Wahlberg salad.”
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.
“Same again?” the barman asked.
I nodded. Another seventeen credits left my account.
“And you?” The barman smiled at the girl.
“Same. We’ll probably be ordering the Wahlberg salad.”
The girl shrugged.
“Do you see the ghosts?” I asked the barman.
The barman glanced up as he placed a beer in front of the girl. “Like those?”
I turned as four blocky, two-dimensional ghosts flicker by as they chased a translucent 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 and turned his back to us.
The girl sipped her beer. As she placed the glass down, the faint trace of her sex-doll lipstick remained on its rim.
“Maybe that’s it.” I pointed to the pink smear.
I reached over and picked up the glass, holding it up to the light. I showed her the lipstick. “Semiotic ghosts,” I whispered.
“They must come from somewhere—they must be some kind of residue.”
The girl sighed and snatched her glass back. “I see…I just 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.
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.”
“It’s okay,” the girl said.
I took another mouthful and 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 and then watched the other end of the bar as the flickering ghost of Ralph Macchio worked on his crane kicks.
“This is ridiculous,” I said, slamming a hand against the bar. “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 snapped.
“This is stupid.” She angled away from me.
“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.” The hairs on the back of my neck prickled.
The girl 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?” I gestured to the music.
“Of course,” the barman said. “Can I get you another beer?”
I nodded and slunk back onto the stool. I held my head in my hands as the barman poured the beer, seventeen credits leaving 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 checked my HUD and deleted the video of the girl sighing over Neuromancer. A dead channel, buffering.