2. Fried Pickles

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My bare foot slips on the mixture of blood and dew coating the grass as I step toward a downed and moaning man. I right myself easily, watching his eyes widen and his mouth tighten as he shrinks away.

"Get it," he croaks, intending to scream but only managing a hoarse whisper. I don't know if his voice has been stolen by fear or injury, and I don't care. My smile expands like an accordion as he throws up his hands for futile protection.

"Stop! Stop it!"

He finally finds his voice. As I listen, something warm nestles into my belly, stretching my lips even wider, like a furnace forcing smoke through its clogged chimney. I'm the only one left to hear him.

I raise my hand and curl it into a fist.

* * *

At the heart of every operating system is a kernel. It has complete control over the system, handling the interaction between software and hardware. It sets priorities, schedules jobs, and manages resources so that the software can focus on its purpose.

It's not unlike the job of a lead developer in the week leading up to a big release like the one planned for this year's SynCon. I fix bugs, weigh risks, and prioritize critical issues. I track down the last few missing icon files. I brief the upper levels of management, all the company executives and investors. Sven gives me a reassuring smile as I finish my update, but it's not enough. It's never enough.

By the end of the day, I've worked myself into a trancelike state, and the sinister dreams start to lap at my consciousness again. The bodies, the blood, the smell of pennies. My foot skidding on the slick, sickly warmth....

I gasp as a clunk reverberates from the other side of the desk. I jump, jerking back to full consciousness. The bodies still swim in my vision, their blood painting the ground at my feet. I hear the man's pleas like a dying echo in a closed canyon. No escape.

"Yo, Ronnie."

Someone taps on my head. Not my shoulder, my freaking head. I yank out my headphones and glare up at Davis, but I still feel the rattle of my own breath as it trembles and sticks in my lungs.

"You okay?" He tilts his head, oblivious to the fact that normal people don't go around knocking on heads like doors. Brings a whole new meaning to head banging.

I run my hands over my face. I've never seen that man—the one begging for his life. The dreams have never moved past the initial scene, until this morning. Now I'm inexplicably standing free of the horde, while they expire on the ground around me? I take one long breath and hold it, wishing the lingering shakiness would recede.

"It's getting worse," I whisper into my palms, closing my eyes.

"What?"

I blink, remembering Davis. "Sorry. I must have fallen asleep."

"Maybe time to go home, yeah?" he says, concern written into the lines of his forehead.

I shake my head. "Sven texted me an hour ago. He's going to be home late, so I think I might just stay for a bit."

There. That's more like it. Focus on mundane things. It's just another day.

I swallow and reach for my keyboard again as Davis sits back down on the other side of the desk. The code on the screen is the same that I stare at every day, but nothing looks real. An unbearable itch, like tiny glass shards under my skin, has taken hold of me. The brick walls feel more like steel bars.

I notice Davis hasn't started typing yet, and when I glance over at him he's tilting his head at me with a reproachful stare.

"What?" I ask.

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