A soft pressure surrounds my body. I feel weightless. A ripple moves over me. I see bubbles floating past my eyes. Small specks reflect the light of the sun above. I can see her swimming away from me. The sunlight sparkles bright on her dark arms. Her tail flows like a ribbon behind her as she beats it against the water. She is surrounded by a cloud of lights. They swarm around and around her shoulders. Each is a different colored entity singing another tune, all of them muffled by the thick atmosphere. They sound so far away. She beats her tail again, moving further away from me. I try to chase her, but I am falling away. I am falling down. Deeper and deeper away. She is getting smaller and smaller. Did she get away from the swarm of spirits? I can't see them anymore. I can only see her sparkling tail. Darkness is surrounding me heavier and heavier as I fall down deeper into blackness. Why can't I move against it? Am I not trying hard enough? It seems impossible to start. She is so far away and I am surrounded by black.

A horrible electronic scream calls over my head.

Bursting out from my steel cube of tepid water, I search for a towel. I knock over 2 half empty bottles of pink hair dye off the edge of the tub. I snatch the towel, spotted with magenta, and scrape the slimy water down my face.

The tone continues to ring through the air.

That black cat meows and slinks through my glassless window and weaves across the steel cupboard topped with books, cosmetics, empty cans, 7-11 cups, a rotating fan, and a rainbow of 7-day candles. It's so fat and its grace and flexibility are a marvel.

I step out onto the floor, just one foot leaving a puddle of grey water on the floor before I dive into the pile of pillows, cartoon sheets, and stuffed animals that inhabit my bed. I find my backpack under the big hamster plush and dig around for my notepad.

"The first Shoutout is from Fluffy to... it says here 'my little hermit crab.' "I love your little claws and your tiny feet. I can't wait to see you at your birthday circus, you confused crustacean!"

Small plastic toys, leaves, and seed pods hang from the ceiling. Gifts from my spirit friends. The lower ones swing from the synthetic breeze produced by the transparent yellow fan rotating in the window. I wish there was a real breeze to help keep them healthy. I always worry that the fan isn't enough.

"The next Shoutout has flown in to us all the way from Las Vegas. It's from Blue Vector and it says, "I know this is your favorite station so I hope you are listening. I haven't stopped thinking about you. I wonder if you think about me. I saw you on The VoxMax yesterday. You looked beautifully bubbly."

I gaze into the single speaker radio handing from a wire in the window.

"Another one from Arto to St. Germaine...."

If I squint hard enough, I swear I can see the words vibrating out of it. Its waves lap over each other across the room.

"A sweet message from Andreas to Selene..." I uncap my pen.

"We met in the middle of the library. You parked your giant yellow lunch box under the table and I fell right over it." I scribble furiously every word. I wish I knew shorthand.

"...Did you know that mercury was retrograde that day?" Someday I'll learn shorthand.

I stare at my handwriting. I wish the letters would just rearrange themselves into the secret message that they held underneath. I flip back through my notepad for any reused terms from past orders.

The transmission is a part of a frequency modulation radio station that plays retro electronica. This is stuff mixed by DJs known to history only through antique media formats rescued from dead collectors. Many of them have been renamed and some experts believe that entire sub genres are credited to one DJ when it may have been dozens of artists from across the world contributing to the same movement, their names lost as they left the scene within 10 years of entering it. But I've got my own music files to listen to. I'm really only interested in hearing The Shoutouts. I programmed the alarm to automatically turn up the volume at 7:15 so I won't miss them. And I recently added the tone alarm at 7:14, just in case I was less than conscious when The Shoutouts came on. Each one is a coded message to another courier like myself revealing where and sometimes when to pick up deliveries for the day. Customers who requested an item to be delivered send their request to a separate party who writes the codes and purchases announcements on the radio station the following morning. Or at least, that's how I assume it works. This is the third incarnation of delivery requests that the directory has used to get requests to us runners since I started couriering a few years ago. The directory organization that connects people who got stuff to the people who want stuff likes to minimize the amount of trackable communication they need to make. There are secure servers for underground communication, but The Directory likes to stay away from Net-Based communications anyway. It's fine with me.

I got rid of my computer and Net connections last year. It felt good to clean away that old part of my life. A lot of people working in the underground just end up living like that anyway. I still have my handheld, but it's hacked down to only send and receive Pigeon Signals which are too primitive to send and receive anythign besides a txt file or open a voice channel. I don't have any internet access in my apartment, any way of being emailed, even my electricity is limited to what runs my mini fridge, rice cooker, and old fashioned stereo. But that was the fault of the building. I was sharing an electricity bill with 10 other renters and we need to keep it low to stay under the radar of the power company. It's easy enough to bribe the police if they notice that too many people are walking in and out of a building that should be housing 0.1 of what has been reported, but automated bureaucrats don't give you the option to bribe them before they file their regular usage reports.

The apartment building is a high rise built over 100 years ago- back when there were people who wanted to live in this neighborhood but required stainless steel bathrooms, laundry service, pet/child grooming, and 4 fire places in the hottest city in the country. But cramming so many people in a small neighborhood filled the restaurants, clubs, and theaters so full that the illusion of a chill, off-beat neighborhood was destroyed. Residents couldn't maintain the picturesque lifestyle that they were willing to pay for. They all left for a new neighborhood that could accommodate their desire to spend money without having to make reservations, and this old neighborhood has since lost it's appeal to the millionaire type, leaving dozens of huge buildings with countless homes empty. With no residents to pay the extreme costs of running a building with luxury amenities like clean water and climate controlled air- they have passed from one owner to another and have finally settled into the hands of a few individuals who saw a need for affordable housing to folks who would live in anything. Each unit was divided into 10 tiny rooms and rented to anyone who paid with CASH- barring, of course, that at least one person per original condo block was paying aboveground with their registered account. I'm the responsible party for my block. I have a small housing allowance registered to me from my spirit-work labor. The city is willing to pay for a few dozen unaffiliated workers in the "religion sector" and I was lucky enough to gain a slot 2 years ago. This meant I was awarded the main bathroom unit, which has the advantage of a private toilet, whereas the other renters that represent condo unit 1024 have to share the other two bathrooms.

My entire rent allowance is deposited directly to the owner of the building who reports receiving it and pays their taxes on it. And apparently this and the registered payment of the few others who pay for their apartments legally in this building are enough to keep it above water. Although we have had one inspection since I lived here.

It was awkward. I helped everyone move all their stuff into one of the rooms, and I had to pretend that the cheap plastic walls slicing the living room, bedrooms, and dining rooms were a "great way to keep the air separate." I think I even made up something about how "the spirits that live with me like different environments and this keeps them happy." Although in retrospect, I wonder if it even mattered at all. I'm sure the owner just paid off the inspector and he was just walking through for his own curiosity. In that case, I'm sure my storage room packed with mattresses, half a dozen pressure cookers and hot plates, and piles of clothes that I claimed were for spirits probably did give him exactly what he wanted. It's always a gamble to mention spirits to a stranger. If they don't know anything about spirits, you can safely assume they will think you are weird, but if they do know a little bit about spirits, or someone in their family does, or if they visit a local shrine- then you may end up trapped in a long conversation and a string of questions and, even worse, "advice." I could never imagine how another religious worker makes these kinds of conversations their life's work. For me, it's the worst part of "the job."

My real job is being a courier. The city is huge and there are countless deliveries made every day but most of those are made by Official Drone Post. I say countless but actually they are very counted. Every package is recorded, tracked, and mapped at every moment of its journey and is reported and archived once it has arrived. This is great if you are buying something legal from a legal seller and you want it delivered to a squeaky clean location. But unfortunately, not every delivery meets all these requirements for the ODP. Sometimes you want to be anonymous. Sometimes you don't want anyone to know that you received something at home that day because maybe you weren't supposed to be home that day. Or maybe, of course, whatever in the package is... eh... sensitive. Sensitive packages are my specialty. And I'm not picky. I'll deliver drugs, illegally imported goods, counterfeit clothes, pirated media- as long as it isn't information. Information delivery is a whole different business. For one thing, it costs a lot more and that price reflects how much of a risk the courier is taking with the police. The police are always searching for illegal information deliveries. They are the top priority of the police, and for good reason. Drugs might make someone not want to get out of bed for a weekend, but information can destroy a person. It can destroy a corporation. And it can certainly destroy a courier if someone wants to intercept an information delivery. That was a lesson I chose to learn the easy way. When I started up, information deliveries were legendary. It was always some sort of high stakes blackmail with big companies and even bigger celebrities. And at the end of the tale was always a missing courier. One day, they would be seen by a hundred people in the underground, and the next day they would be gone. No one could find them. No facial tracker would spot them on any camera, or any images online.

"You'd have to be suicidal to want to take that risk!" Lime would say to me back before I even started deliveries. Sure, we will carry illegal goods, trespass through private property, use tunnels restricted by the city, pay with fraudulent credit cards and IDs once in a while, but information delivery was a whole different level of risk. And once you start, it's only a matter of time before you disappear.

Sunlight burns through the window onto the countertop where the black cat has maneuvered around my junk and jumps onto my bed, settling into a nest of blanket and pillows. An acidic voice pours out of the small radio. She is asking me to take her hand and run away through the stars. I reach over an empty 7-11 cup and switch off the radio.

I poke a key on the small keyboard of my stereo until the small green monitor wakes up. It has 3 drives. One for converting legal files, one for the more popular pirated format files, and a very delicate drive that will play an antique format that utilizes a laser disc to hold the recording of a short list of tracks. I scroll through a few albums and land on a 20th century DJ that I can't seem to stop listening to. Quick synthetic drums fill the tiny apartment as I hop up for a quick wiggle to entertain the cat. His annoyed mrows are drowned out by the ever expanding sound from the tiny stereo. I reach over the cat to dig around for some clean clothes. After pushing around a few books and a box of electronic parts, I find the last clean pair of underwear and a sports bra. I gather up all the dirty clothes and dump them into the grey bath water. I squeeze some more liquid soap into the water and slosh it around. My old pink shorts are still in the bed, and my dirty tube socks are still hanging out of my skates from yesterday. After giving them a whiff to measure their level of filth, I really wish I hadn't. "Need new socks" I mutter to as I scribble on my notepad. Scrubbing the laundry takes a few minutes, and I work up a bit of an appetite.

I drain the tub and run a little bit more water to try to rinse everything out as quickly as I can. I'll do a better job next time. I wring everything out and fill the clips on my mobile dryer with socks and underwear and shirts. It swings over my head on a chain from the ceiling.

I hop up to work on breakfast. I dump a cup of rice into my biggest plastic bowl and empty the remains of a square bottle of water over it. I smash the rice over and over and drain it down the bathtub drain. I empty the bowl into my rice cooker and crack open a new square bottle of water. The bottles I get from the shop downstairs are a couple gallons heavy and I have to swing it over my elbow to pour it when it's full. I reach over to the mini fridge and swing open its sticker-covered door. I have two sausages left. I slice them and a carrot with my pocket knife and drop them on top of the rice. Lid is on. Switch is flipped.

I look back at my Shoutout.

Any reference to sugar, sweetness, candy- that's the tip off that it's for me, since my name is Sugar.

From Andreas to Selene, "We met in the middle of the library. You parked your giant yellow lunch box under the table and I fell right over it."

"Middle of the library" refers to the Los Angeles Public Library's Central Branch. They will want me to get there this morning before they open. And "fell right over it" has to refer to the foot bridge over the Felwright building.

"Parked your giant yellow lunch box" is a little weird. I know there is a high rise restaurant mall that has a multi-floor cafeteria called "Lunch Box." The parking for the building stretches deep underground. They must want me to meet them in that parking garage. At the bottom floor?

"...Did you know that Mercury was retrograde that day?" This one isn't as easy. I can't think of any place called Mercury or Retrograde. I try to moosh some of the words together, "Doono?" "Nota?" "Atmer?" "Atmercu?" "America Wasin?" I'll have to look it up later. The reference to a "day" or "night" is usually an indicator they are talking about an event, and it's probably not until the weekend so I have some time to figure it out. I've never failed to figure out all 4 in time, so I'm not too worried about it. These things have a way of revealing themselves.

A lot of orders want pick ups at public events to retain anonymity which means I have to stay up to date on whatever underground parties and meetings are happening all over the city. It used to be fun but it's starting to get exhausting. I've amassed this pile of party fliers that I keep rubber banded together to look through each morning. I just did a pick up at a metal show last night. It was at this really cheesy historic venue in Hollywood and the bouncers do not understand that I don't need to buy a ticket to the show and there is no sneaking in to these kinds of venues. Everything is aboveground at these places and no one takes CASH. Do that many people try to lie their way in for free that they have to have this absurd policy? I couldn't even buy my way in with a trade. They made me buy a ticket on my actual registered account, which is pretty annoying since I barely have enough money on that thing for food. Then when I found the client, sitting on a nasty leather couch drinking out of horn like some sort of ancient nature tribe chieftain- they refused to pay me back. Said it was included in the original fee. Not sure who gave them that idea. I get paid the same amount no matter what. I tried to make it clear to them that next time, if they wanted to meet at a venue that had a paid entry, they needed to wait outside. Looking back on it, I get so angry. I wish I would have thrown that stupid horn out of his hand.

I reach for my backpack and pull out my stack of party, concert, and event fliers that I have been collecting over the past week. I spread them all out on the bed and look for something referring to Mercury or planets or astrology. Bright block and bubbly letters shine up at me. HAPPINESS KINGDOM... HARD ORE PLATE ARMOR... EMPTINESS PHENOMENA... SNAIL SLIME MASSIVE... but I can't seem to find anything. Well if it's an event, then I'll have a little bit of time to figure it out. Is Mercury in retrograde soon? I never pay attention to that. But that lasts more than a day, doesn't it? It would be easier to figure out if I had internet access but I haven't failed to make a pick up yet.

The rice cooker dings triumphantly and I hop over to open it up. The sausages and carrots have grown plump and aromatic, and I breathe in the steamy goodness with delight. Hydrated air feels like a luxury when you don't have air treatment. A cord running from the back of the room, out the window, and across the alley holds a swinging bucket. I scoop out half of the rice and sausage into the bucket. I usually share my breakfast with my neighbor Mix. I have been getting the feeling they have been staying in more and more lately and I worry that they aren't getting enough to eat. I pull the rope across, sending the bucket out my window and into their dark square of a window in the building next door.

I see Mix's striped hat appear and disappear as they take the bucket off the cord. In a matter of moments, it flies back across the alley and into my room, perfectly cleaned with a note inside that reads, "TY S. If U go 2 FM 2Day HuDi 4-2 $"

I look out the window to see two eyes staring back, waiting. I crumple up the message and light it with a butane lighter and drop it in an empty lychee can on the steel cupboard top so that they can see it destroyed. Mix and I have never visited each other. One time I think I saw them at the corner store buying water, but they were wrapped in one of those super insulated army parkas. It had white lines and shapes painted on it and made a horrible swishing sound when they moved. They were wearing goggles and a striped hat just like the one Mix has but I can't be sure if it was them. We've never talked about it. We mostly talk about work stuff. I do deliveries for them directly without The Directory. They make surveillance avoidance products. They started with hats that have a pattern that confuses cameras, making the wearer's face unrecognizable. Since then, Mix has developed all kinds of clothing to help folks avoid the cameras.

The pink hair dye was my idea after watching an old spy movie. The woman in the film had to dye her hair to keep the police from recognizing her while she escaped the city. I kept thinking about how different it must have been back when there weren't surveillance cameras everywhere. When all a girl had to worry about was avoiding some police officers to disappear. That was a cinch. Running fast and hiding in a crowd is easy. But the cameras can follow you from one side of the city to the other if they want to. They can recognize you in the same place multiple times, and if you don't match with their registry of someone who should be there often, they'll send out cops to search you. So stealth becomes a courier's most important skill, especially when making deliveries to the same places over and over. But there are ways to avoid the cameras. Mix's pixel jumbling hats, glasses, and goggles evolved to makeup that can confuse the facial recognition into thinking you are someone else. But this hair dye, when applied to an extremely high-lifted hair shaft, will reflect so much light, it causes a flare, obscuring any objects within several inches, including her face. Unfortunately this technique only works in well-lit buildings and during the day when the cameras aren't using night vision. But it's good to diversify your coverage. You never know that the police are onto the hacks until it's too late and an entire crew gets arrested.

Right now Mix has been cranking out a lot of hoodies with the same camera obscuring function, but these also hold a power charging pocket on the outside and a few hidden pockets on the inside. I have one of them, myself. Carrying a backpack into a dance club isn't always easy, especially when deliveries to and from clubs are usually ultra small parcels holding one disk of music or a small bottle of pills.

I give them a thumbs up and send the bucket back over. When it returns, there is a black hooded sweatshirt stuffed into it with a note that says $150 + SDF (Sugar's Delivery Fee). I switch the lock on the pulley and hang my laundry on the cord. I scarf down my bowl of breakfast, smear some eyeliner on, tie my fluffy pink hair into two buns, and pull on my goggles and headphones. I shove the sweatshirt into my backpack, and gingerly roll the dirty socks over my feet and shove them into my skates. I grab the square water bottle and screw my belt hook onto the lid and clamp it onto the back of my backpack. It's pretty heavy now but by the end of the day, it'll be as light as a feather. I punch off my stereo and stick my tongue out at the cat before zooming out the door. I made the skates myself with some help from another runner. Couriers used to use bikes but bicycle regulations have gotten more and more strict, and bike couriers suffer from traffic almost as bad as cars. Some runners use boards but you have to be a reckless maniac to want to fly around on a flimsy board. Those things glitch up all the time. It feels like a month doesn't go by that I hear about some young runner falling a couple stories after their board miscalculated the distance they were falling. Fuck that. Skates are definitely the way to go. All I have to rely on are wheels and magnets. And if anything gets hairy, I have my gloves to catch me. No long distances to fall, and I'm always small enough to squeeze between cars if the police see me run a light.

There is a narrow vestibule that stretches across all the inner units of the old condo, to the shared toilet room and front door. One of my block neighbors is standing there in a towel, holding a bottle of shampoo under their arm. I wave and they wave back. I always feel like a jerk for not just saying, "Hey! Use mine!" but

A. I have to get to work and

B. I feel like I need to enjoy my privacy for as long as I can keep it.

Who knows when the city will decide they actually only need 2 spirit workers on the payroll and I have to move in with someone with a registered apartment. I think the only reason why I am getting paid is because someone decided that my work sounded enough like Paganism to be legit. All they would have to do is actually check up on my reports to see some differences but hey, folks are busy.

Out of the front door lies the actual hallway that the former residents would have used. I wonder what it looked like back then. Covered in patterned carpet with art hanging on the spotless walls. Today's version has been stripped down to bones. The paint on the walls has long since peeled away. The carpet has been ripped up, and a hard clear plastic seal covers the metal beams to keep out bugs. I glide down the bare floor to the nearest elevator and slam my hip into the button. I reach in my shorts pocket and pull out two fingerless gloves covered in blue bubble buttons on top, the palms curved with magnetic metal guards.


Level 0.

I scroll through a playlist of songs in my headphones. I end up settling on the same album I listened to yesterday morning.

There is a gate between the elevator area and the front lobby. It has a weighted plate that I need to stand on to unlock the gate. I'm surprised that the building owner still uses it but it's a big building and who knows what else they are keeping in this place aside from hundreds of unregistered residents.

I push though the rotating door onto the sidewalk.

©2018 by Zita