“The Darkest Friday”, a short story

The Darkest Friday

 

They hire me for the savings. I do it for the money.

I never wanted to be one of these people. Hard not to feel like a trained circus monkey, poised on the balls of my feet, looking skyward at that cookie that’s dangled just out of reach, and there’s only one cookie, but I’m in a box surrounded by other monkeys that see it too, and here we are, armed to the teeth, ready to jump the moment the master of ceremonies says “GO!”

You know what the sad thing is? Out of a hundred people, I bet only two or three of us is really cold-blooded enough to go through this process based on initiative. Not that many people are sick enough in the head to elbow a stranger in the teeth so that they can save fifty bucks on a plasma screen. That’s how humans are, though. Oh look, I see a few people over there! They’re fighting! What for? I don’t know, let’s check it out. Ooooh, a sale? Well, they’re fighting, so it must be worth it. I’d better join in or I’ll miss out!

Monkey see, monkey do.

That’s the sentiment that’s at the core of all this. That’s why I’m standing in front of DigiLoad at two in the morning on a Friday, the Friday, the most notorious and feared Friday on the calendar. It’s why I’m armed Matrix-style under two layers of sweaters and trench coats, with enough automatic weaponry to bring down a federal bank building.

The fact that it’s twenty below gives me a good excuse to bundle up. Let the layers conceal my toys. I know there are others in the crowd who are packing like I am. I’m counting on it. So are my sponsors.

I sigh, letting the mist cloud up in front of my face. Last year I had to do this with riot gear on, and breathing heavily just fogged up the mask. Fifteen, maybe twenty guys in the crowd are rocking those masks right now. I don’t feel bad for them. I was in their shoes a year ago because I was stupid and thought I needed the money. I don’t pity the stupid.

That stupidity is what made me the star of the feeds. I had sponsors pouring offers in all December long, trying to get me aboard for this year. Initially I told them all to get bent. Said I wasn’t doing Black Fridays anymore. But in the end, I took the money. We always do. That’s how it is with Friday Fighters: you get desperate enough to try, and you either die, end up in the hospital with bills stacked to the moon, or worst of all, you succeed, and well, there’s no such thing as just one, is there? The money’s too good.

And besides, my stupid uncle needs help. He’s got medical bills to the moon.

A commotion ripples through the crowd like the first wave of an incoming tide breaking across the soft sand of a flat beach. I saw a nature doc on the streams once, said that humans still pick up on changes in their surroundings like prey do on the African savannahs. I can’t speak for the prey. Can’t afford to think like them.

I’m the predator in this environment.

The commotion is due to the lights flickering on inside DigiLoad. Green-shirted employees scramble to get in place; they’ve been prepping their joint all night long, ten acres of the newest digital gadgets and gizmos that have been the stuff of ad campaigns since June. “Hottest” this and “gotta-have” that. Bah. It’ll all be outmoded in two months, but there are still enough rich folk out there with spoiled grandkids that they have to please.

I take a final sip of coffee, drain the Styrofoam cup, crush it, and toss it onto the frozen parking lot surface. Law says the companies only have to salt the pavement ten feet from the door. Guess it makes the spectacle more interesting for the streams. I look up at the lampposts and pretend I can see the micro-cams watching us, see the invisible streams broadcasting to the towers all through town, up into the satellites in space, then back down into the pay-per-view boxes of homes all across America.

It’s sick. But it’s legal. You get enough money in the right criminal senator’s pocket, and it’s all legal. Black Friday’s critical to Q4 GDP stats, and previous attempts to legally curb the violence ended up hurting those stats in an election year a few cycles back. An incumbent president lost when he should have won. I mean, that’s not the only reason, but it don’t gotta be true for people to fall for it. The dumb ones called their congressmen, the laws were passed, and well, here we are. It’s Black Friday. Anything goes, including televising the mayhem, so long as there’s a price, and a fee, and a tax. Sure, there’s piracy, and they factor that into the taxes on the streamers, who then factor that into the low prices of their goods. Rumors go out into the darknet, hyping up the prospects of this store and that store. Imagine the 1849 Gold Rush, only everyone knows where the gold is, and everyone’s got guns with motors on them, bullets with uranium tips on them, and operators with no morals on them.

Gentlemen, start your engines.

The doors open. The greenshirts jump back clumsily, dressed in little more than baseball pads, like fat catchers with boxing gloves on. There’s no law dictating their apparel, but no big-box store would allow its employees to come to work armed on Black Friday. Defensive gear only. Yeah, they get hazard pay. That’s why they’re here. I’m here because I get paid to make the hazard, and because the folks with money gotta have their stuff, they just don’t want to stick their necks out to get it.

Time to please the bosses.

I tear off my outer trench coat. It snaps apart perfectly along the breakaway seams, revealing the first layer of my arsenal. A slap on my chest activates my personal force-field, and a click of my heels sends my Zero-G boots into high gear. The first three seconds are what separate the men from the boys.

I vault up into the air, six, eight, ten feet, clearing the heads of the crowd by a solid yard, and land right at the edge of the crust of salt, rolling perfectly to lessen the impact as I come to my feet. The force-field keeps me from getting covered in that nasty blue salt, and conveniently burns a path through it for the crowd behind me. I notice four other shoppers who are similarly outfitted, but they land half a second after I do. We’re the first five through the door.

I shut off the shield and yank my goggles down into place. A remote sits in my mouth between my back molars and I chomp down on it to activate my shopping list, which pops up on my HUD in full color.

First item is a set of haptic gloves with a neural headband that beams video games directly into the wearer’s mind. I remember hearing about these—the first several tests killed their subjects, miked their brains right out of their heads. The second generation only gave the subjects chronic nosebleeds. Third gen worked, but were hackable, and well, some embarrassing stuff happened to those subs. These are fourth gen, supposedly the bugs are worked out. Not my problem. I just know they’ll fetch me eighty large a pair, and the boss man wants six of them.

Two more hops, and I’m in the right section of the store. There’s a table stacked with the gaming system, all boxed up, but there are only ten of them. Idiots. But at least I’m first. I touch down next to the table, shove four into my bag, and am reaching for the other two when a blast of kinetic energy upends the table and sends them all flying out of my reach.

One of the other shoppers drops down next to me, wearing the same pair of ZG boots, but a flash-scan from my HUD tells me he’s not wearing a force-field. I trigger mine back on and in an instant I’ve got a full-auto machine pistol popping rounds into his chest armor, throwing him back across the tile. Before the clip runs dry I put four into his left boot, hoping I hit something critical. I can’t afford to give him any more attention than that—scruffier shoppers are showing up to grab the gaming system and I’m still two short. I ditch him, hop over to the scattered boxes, and pick up the last two, then chomp on the remote.

Second item is this year’s model of an AI for a self-driving car. It includes a holo-projector that plays movies in the cab of the vehicle. I’ve never used one, mainly because I don’t own a car and I’m not rich. I’m just a guy who fights people for toys, for money. This gizmo isn’t where the HUD said it was supposed to be, and as the plebs start to fill the ten-acre store, I’m getting a little frustrated. I keep having to jump high, rapid-scan the bar codes on several shelves with my HUD, and then hop into a throng of consumer zombies who only clear a path when I bludgeon them with my ForceFist 290s.

Hey, not every problem needs an AK-47 solution.

Finally I spot the shelf where the AIs are stored…behind a locked case. As I fall toward it, I test the glass with my machine pistol, and yeah, it’s bulletproof. I stow the gun and draw my vibro-knife, thumbing the trigger as I press the edge of the fat blade against the glass. It takes a second to heat up, but then it cuts like butter.

I don’t waste time slashing the whole thing out like the apes in the movies; instead I cut a half-moon around the latch and rip the glass aside. I’m reaching in with my other hand when four guys run past my aisle, see the case open, and charge toward me, anxious to get what I’ve opened up for them.

Part of me wants to shoot them. A larger part of me wants to finish the list and get out of here.

I drop a foam grenade, grab two AIs—Boss Man only needs one, but I’ll need the distraction in a minute—and bounce into the sky, kicking the ZG boots into overdrive so that I can hover a minute while I get it all stored away. My fellow high-tech competitors are all over the place, like ninja grasshoppers, picking the best things for their sponsors. I have a few generic things on the list, but I bump them down to the bottom—I can always take them from someone in line, and the plebs are gathering up the easy stuff like chumps. The final big-ticket item is actually a newer model of the ZG boots I’m wearing, but they come with a belt, bracers, and a vest, plus a substantially longer battery life. The tech isn’t the main appeal of this year’s Hot Item, but rather the fact that it flaunts its defiance of the FAA’s anti-personal-aviation laws, allowing the wearer to travel up to a hundred miles on a single charge. From my vantage point in the air, I scan the floor and spot the ZG Suit in the center of the store. There are three of them.

And each one is locked in its own safe. A big safe. A safe big enough to fit me inside it.

I chomp three times on the remote. My earpiece chirps, and the Boss Man comes on the line.

“What is this?” I demand. “Why are they locked up?”

“Streams are on. Make it a good show,” he says flatly.

“You gave me a vibro-knife, not a laser-blade! I’ll never cut those open.”

“I didn’t hire you so you could make excuses, Harvester,” he says, using my radio-safe call sign. “There are excuses and there are facts.”

“Look at this man,” says Boss Man. New info pops up on my HUD, tagging one of the other four high-tech shoppers. The tag identifies him as ‘Jester’. I narrow my eyes, and I can practically hear Boss Man grinning in my ear.

“You knew he’d be here,” I hiss.

“Heard it from a friend of a friend. There’s an extra five hundred large in it if you take him down, and make it worth watching. I have it on good authority that the combo to the safe is the same as the serial number on his force-field belt. Get to it.” The line goes dead in my ear.

I drop, bounce, and shoot all the way to the ceiling, where I tie my loot bag to the rafters, arming it with a pressure-sensitive grenade. Of the remaining three high-tech shoppers who could reach it in the next few minutes, one will be too busy fighting me, and the other two will be too busy shopping. The loot’s not worth their lives.

I hope.

I drop down just as Jester reaches the safe in the middle of the room, riding a wave of gunfire and broken bones. He could easily hop over the crowd, but it’s not his style. He doesn’t just sell his services as a shopper; he sells the spectacle of his style. People pay good money to watch him inflict real pain on other people for their greed.

He’s looking down when I land behind him, reading the serial number on the back of his belt buckle as he spins the dial on the safe. I don’t wait for him to turn around before I draw my machine pistol and my AK, level them at him, and squeeze the triggers until they run dry.

Naturally he’s got his force-field up when he’s on his feet, but the force of the bullets shoves him against the front of the safe. More importantly, it wears down the power of his shields, and they’ll take precious time to regenerate. I discard my guns and reach behind my back to grab the handle of my Beating Stick.

Jester turns around and does a move I’ve seen him perform a hundred times on archival footage of Black Fridays immemorial: he throws a spider-mine at me, but I bat it away with the force of my Beating Stick. It soars up and away before it explodes in a tangle of electrical bolts, designed to fry whomever it lands on. Then I’m closing in on him with the Beating Stick, coming down on him with the force of a rockslide with every blow, wearing down the integrity of his shields. Unfortunately the effort of repeatedly swinging tires me out, even though I’m in good shape, and after a half-second lull in between swings, he plants one ZG boot in my stomach and fires it off. He’s up against the safe, which is bolted to the floor, so he’s not going anywhere. The force throws me backward, and I activate my own shield as I fly back, smashing into merchandise and greedy shoppers all the way.

“Harvester, huh? I knew a man with that tag once. I retired him, by force. You’re tough, but you’re no Harvester,” he says, his voice the same gravelly growl that it’s been for years on the archive footage.

“Oh, he’s retired all right. Still suffers from the bio-chem sauce you doused in his eyes. Has night terrors at random times of the day. Doctor says his liver is slowly melting away, too,” I say.

“I don’t care. I needed that holoscreen,” Jester says, all haste gone. He’s circling me. He’s allowing his shields to recharge.

A crowd has gathered around us, giving us space, but wanting to watch. Rookies. Anyone with more than one Black Friday under their belt doesn’t hesitate. Grab stuff, grab stuff, grab stuff. That’s the first rule of Black Friday.

“So you’re family of his, I take it?” Jester asks.

“Nephew. But he’s like a father to me, since mine’s dead,” I spit.

Jester taps his chin in thought. “Harvester had a partner, that’s right. I never learned his handle. Funny you didn’t take it.”

“He never had one. It was his first Black Friday, and you killed him.”

“Ask me if I feel bad, kid. It’s just a job.”

“You got that right.” With my left hand I punch a button on the back of my right wrist. Jump-jets explode on my shoulders, launching me suddenly forward at a hundred and fifty miles per hour. Boss Man calls this toy the “gate crasher.” There’s no crowd in the world that can hold you back when you engage this beast. Jester’s good, the veteran of twenty Black Fridays, but he’s not invincible, and his shields aren’t even back up to thirty percent. I smash him up against the safe at full power. The jets die out seven seconds later. He’s not dead, but I hope I broke his ribs. Then I back off and twirl the baseball bat-sized Beating Stick in my right hand, and draw the Vibro-Knife with my left.

“I’ll make you an offer, Jester: you tell me the serial number on your belt, and I’ll only paralyze you from the waist down. You’ll live to watch many more Fridays from your wheelchair until you die, but at least you’ll live,” I say.

At this, the veteran shopper pauses. “Sounds like there’s a leak in my employer’s organization. He won’t like that.”

“Better hurry, this offer is good for Friday morning only, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” I say, imitating the old adverts.

“Pass,” Jester says coolly. “You’re not on my shopping list.” He draws a ray gun from behind his back.

I throw the Vibro-Knife. I know I won’t hit the ray gun. It’s not a throwing knife and I’d be no good with it if it was.

But I know I broke his free hand with the Beating Stick. And what’s the first rule of Black Friday?

Jester, by reflex, drops the ray gun and snatches the knife by the hilt, realizing too late his error. I’ve already thrown the Beating Stick right at his torso, and it’s too big to miss. Just as he lashes out to kick the ray gun away, the fully-charged Stick catches him in the groin, and even with his shields on, he’s folded in half and thrown backward half a meter. I somersault forward for the second time this morning, snatch up the ray gun, and rise to my feet, pointing the weapon at Jester’s face.

“For the record,” I say, “Dad’s name was Jim. Better than any handle he might have taken.”

“For the record,” echoes Jester, gasping as he clutches at his ruined groin with his broken hand, “I did regret ending him. I’ve never enjoyed taking a life. It’s just…part of…the job.”

Those end up being his last words. When it’s done, I discard the ray gun, take his belt, and retrieve my cargo from the safe.

This is what Black Friday makes us. As I grab my loot bag from the ceiling and battle my way to the checkout stand, part of me agrees with the late Jester, as I too don’t enjoy taking a life. I have plenty of time to mull that over on my walk through the parking lot, back to the car, back to the rendezvous point with Boss Man. I hand over the goods, take my pay in digital credit, and return the gear he lent me for the job.

“Keep it. Most of it will be good for next year. I’ll send you the latest models in the summer,” he says.

“No. I’m out,” I say.

“Excuse me? You don’t have that option.”

“Legally, I do. In fact it’s the only law in all of this that’s still ironclad. See, the lawmakers thought this whole thing had to make some kind of sense, have some kind of rules, so they put in the Impulse Purchase Clause when they drafted the Black Friday Establishment Act. I’m sure a smart man like you recalls the details,” I tell him.

Boss Man snarls, but knows he’s beaten. “Jester wasn’t on your shopping list.”

“And you made money off of my fight with him. That makes him an impulse buy. Whole world saw it. So I’m out. Don’t call me again, and have a Merry Christmas.” I get back into my car without awaiting a reply. As I start the engine, he calls out to me.

“Believe it or not, it was a pleasure doing business with you, Jim,” he says.

“It’s James,” I say. “Jim was my father’s name.”

And that was the last time I ever took part in Black Friday.

 

__________________________________________

Copyright 2016 by Graham Bradley, DreadPennies USA, All Rights Reserved

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