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about the author…
Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and at 23 now writes from Edmonton, Alberta. His speculative fiction received the 2014 Dell Award and 2012 Rannu Prize for Writers of Speculative Fiction, and has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon Prize, while his literary short work has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Journey Prize. He was a semifinalist for the 2013 Norman Mailer Poetry Prize, and in 2011 his novel Devolution was a finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Alongside writing, he enjoys soccer, basketball, foreign languages, travel, sketching, and pool..
about the narrator…
Nathaniel Lee is Escape Pod’s assistant editor and sometime contributor. His writing can be found at various online venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and all of the EA podcasts. He lives somewhat unwillingly in North Carolina with his wife and son and their obligatory authorial cats.
This story, like teenagers, contains copious amounts of profanity.
Motherfucking Retroparty Freestyle
by Rich Larson
So the semester’s wickest wildest party, bar none, is happening at the straight-up palatial house of Hamza Hydri, AKA V3rsetyle, whose way-too-trusting parents are currently scuba-diving in Venice. And I’m not only going to be there, I’m going to Be There, as in, running shit, because I just dropped all my savings pirating the baddest Socialight personality module on the market: the freshly-leaked Maestro 2.0.
This thing is like, borderline AI, the kind of mod billionaires and celebrities are going to be running. I never would have found it by myself, but my uncle is a huge data-criminal sparkhead who caught the leak and agreed to ship me a stick copy in exchange for every last bit of my blood-sweat-and-shears summer landscaping income, and also me not telling my mom.
Not that I would. She would want to know why I was wasting my savings on digital charisma, because she read on ZenFeed that those new mods are way too invasive, and besides, she didn’t have a Socialight or a personality module in high school, everybody ran freestyle 24/7, and they all turned out just deadly. I love her and all, but Christ.
She’s got a late one at the hospital, so she’s not around when the little yellow drone careens off the backyard trampoline and scares the piss out of our cat.
Dyl shows up around the same time all sweaty from a skate sesh. He always forgets to ping when he’s coming over; I think maybe because he got his Socialight so late. Before fifth grade he actually hung with the freestylers, the religious wackos or kids too poor to get even the basic-basic. He’s still my best friend since forever, so whatever.
“What’s good, Shad?” Dyl says, snatching up his board with one lanky hand and raking through his orange hair with the other. He spotted the data stick in my fist. “Yo, you ordered the Buttafly trial on stick? I thought we were going to download it on the way to the party.”
“This is no Buttafly,” I say. “Something heaps better, bru.”
Dyl shrugs. “Raw, raw. Can I use your bathroom?”
I lead the way down to my basement and flop on the couch, rolling the two Maestro sticks over and over in my fingers, while Dyl takes his sweet fucking time in the shower. After fifteen minutes I start pinging him, but sometimes the old ways are best, right, so finally I haul off the couch, bang my hand on the door and politely shout:
“Yo, Dildo, hurry the fuck up.”
The shower squeaks off and Dyl comes out with the guest towel around his waist and his middle finger raised. “Antsy, boy,” he says. “You been spamming Wendee like that?”
Dyl’s got one of those slack sort of faces and he freestyle laughs like a hyena, but he’s no shitwit. I am antsy. And it is because of Wendee.
I start cleaning out my Socialight port with compressed air, getting ready for the upload, while Dyl takes his frayed backpack into my room to get ready. He comes out dressed and holding the Vancouver Whitecaps hat I borrowed from him and never returned.
“Fucking bandit,” he says, settling it on his head.
I’m too antsy to feel guilty. My leg is like, jumping. I hold up the stick drives to the crooked solar lamp, checking the contact points one last time.
“Yo.” Dyl frowns, flopping down on the couch beside me. “What exactly are we running here, Shad?”
“Maestro two-point-fucking-oh,” I say, grinning way wide. “Leaked.”
Dyl looks suitably impressed, but the tips of his ears go lava red how they do when he’s nervous. “Bru, that’s some serious black market shit.”
“It’s safe as houses,” I say, not actually knowing, and hand him his stick. “Got it from my uncle. You ready?”
I hold up my Maestro, solemn-like, and he does the same, still looking a little sketched. The plastic clacks together.
“Uh, cheers,” he says.
“See you flipside.” Then I touch it to my Socialight port, sliding it into the cheekbone under my eye, until it gives a thick click.
Imagine dumping a 2-liter of shook-up fizzy pop into a birthday balloon, and that’s your brain implant downloading Maestro: this huge rush of crackly code tsunamiing your skull, swelling and sparking and feeling like it’s about to spew out your fucking ear canals. When it settles I’m just keeled back on the couch, totally boneless, blinking code, and I see Dyl beside me looking equally skull-pulped.
Then it turns on, and all that fizzy pop crystallizes all at once into cold sweet ice. It feels like, whoa. You know how your average personality mod, it’s a little niggle in the back of your mind? Like, hey, bru, maybe don’t wear that shirt again. Maybe don’t tell that joke until you have the punchline down. Someone mopped the gym hallway, maybe don’t slip and fall like an idiot.
Maestro 2.0 is like: I’m the You you always wanted to be, and now you’re Me. And this is How We Do.
I swivel to Dyl, who’s swiveling right in synch, and we give each other the slickest quickest finger-twisting handshake I’ve never seen in my life, along with hugely shit-eating grins.
“Yo,” I say. “This is going to be good.”
And for the first time, I think I absolutely have a chance with Wendee, who is basically the whole reason for why I’m going to the party, and also for why the universe exists.
Let me back up.
Wendee Rosch is ungodly beautiful, ambidextrous, and in my design class, where she mostly looks bored (I’m guessing she runs a basic ChillGirl module on her Socialight–no need to upgrade with bone structure like that).
It took a whole week of scoping out the glossy black back of her headfor me to build up the courage with my old UnderTheRadar personality module to ping her non-anonymously. I flipped her an animated image-capture of Mr. Pacquette digging around in his nose, but edited so he pulls out something different every time. I sent it, then sat tight and sweaty and trying to guess by her posture if she thought my shit was tolerably funny.
At the bit where Pacquette yanks out a miniature version of himself, bald head and all, and gives it that look of grim satisfaction, even a ChillGirl module couldn’t stop her shoulders shaking.
Her pingback scrolled across my vision: Oh my fucking god. It’s like an Escher painting. Then she turned in her seat and flashed the whitest smile and sexiest thumbs up I’ve ever seen.
She has these ice-blue irises, so I was barely comprehending when she asked if I was going to Hamza Hydri’s party on Saturday.
“He just pinged me and Kolette in the caf yesterday with an invite,” she said. “I think he latched some kind of mixtape to it. But it must be, like, a joke rap thing?”
Of course she’d gotten pinged yesterday; yesterday she was wearing tight tight ciggy jeans and this strappy shirt that scrolled Abercrombie slogans down her bare back.
“Yeah, I’m going with my bru Dyl and some, uh, other brus,” I said, rubbing my buzzcut, hoping the fade still looked sharp. “Should be raw, right?”
Grody lies. Hamza Hydri, AKA IllConsci3nce, is the swankest kid in the twelfth grade, rich enough to excuse his shitty glitch-hop mixtapes and the truly taintly jumpshot he displays whenever he plays a pick-up game. Rumor has it he’s running a top-notch SilverTongue module, which couldn’t hurt either.
Me, I’m running UnderTheRadar like every other broke motherfucker whose parents won’t/can’t spring for a swanker personality module. And I mean, UnderTheRadar works fine. It edits out stammers and helps deflect teacher questions so you don’t end up sounding like a shitwit in front of the whole class. It even autopatches to MovingOnUp when we hit eleventh.
But at the moment, I’m a tenth grade scrub, and tenth grade scrubs do not roll up to twelfth grade parties unless they’re connected. Or, you know, a good-looking girl. Case in point being Wendee. Back to that.
“Yeah, should be heaps raw,” she agreed, looking impressed, or maybe just relieved. “I was sketched it would be all seniors, you know?” She smiled, then gave me an up-and-down. “You going to run any add-ons? I might go Flirty.”
Holy. Fucking. Shit.
Right after class ended, I gave Wendee what I hoped was a smooth guy nod, then split to go find Dyl. There was no way I was going to slip a chance to get with arguably the most supermodel girl of our grade, but also no way I was going to crash the party of Hamza Hydri, AKA YungMon3y, without backup.
Which pretty much brings us to now, which is me and Dyl riding the bus crosstown because Hamza Hydri, AKA HizzyB3ats, lives in Signet Cove, right up on the new artificial lake. The bus drops me and Dyl about a block off. It’s 9:48 and November, so the sun’s long gone. The burbs are lit up with those spindly Glowtrees that rich people seem to like, even though they never survive the first hard frost.
Me and Dyl follow the traffic, which is split between inherited junk cars and shiny gifted pick-ups with lift-kits and tint, most booming the same Top 40 mash-up. You can tell who’s been pregaming hardest, because they all hang out their windows cussing at the autodrive, which always goes level with the speed limit and never tries to drift icy corners.
The parade of cars gets thicker and thicker as we get closer and closer, and I feel like I’m going to burst my skin, I really do. The air’s chilly, electric; me and Dyl are talking shit in small packets of steam as we walk, not about any particular subject, just animated shit-talk that Maestro 2.0 is suggesting will loosen up our jaws, calibrate chest voice, get us amped up.
Maestro also vetoes pinging Wendee an are-you-there-yet.
As we join the stream heading for the big behemoth house, Dyl says what we’re both thinking. “Time to lamprey someone, bru.”
We spot our target simultaneously: a twelfth-grade girl coming back from a booze run, whose face I recognize from cafeteria wallscreens: Ash Rigsby, captain of the girl’s soccer squad and star player on the volleyball team. She’s got sun-blonde hair and muscly calves and is repping an Edmonton FC jersey. Normally I don’t try talking to seniors, never mind heaps popular ones, but Maestro says go and we’re already moving.
We close up right behind her, watching her balance a sixer of Coors and a bottle of Moscato, Socialight buzzing away to someone inside. Then Maestro kicks in and all of a sudden I can not only see what mod she’s running, which is LifeOfTheParty, but the whole of her digital life is laid out in front of me. Last Eyespy she recorded, last MLS highlight she posted, last flick she downloaded, everything.
Me and Dyl swap this look, like, this shit is so illegal, then I airtalk, loud: “I cannot fucking believe you’re sleeping on Edmonton again, bru. They got the best backline, best keeper, best coach. Simple as shit.”
Up ahead, Ash’s head turns just a bit.
“Overrated,” Dyl says, equal loud, flourishing his hat. “Vancouver all the way.”
I flick back to Ash’s sports feed and find the highlight reel from last night. “Did you not see Exum make that fucking save yesterday? He flew, bru. Flew.”
Candy from a baby, motherfucker. Ash Rigsby spins around, eyes shiny with booze and emotion, and evangelizes the whole way up to the step about Edmonton winning the Western Conference for sure this year, for-fucking-sure. Dyl rolls out token resistance; I keep the conversation snapping with quick-wiki win stats. By the time we’re at the door, facing down one of those short-but-wide gym monkeys who always nominate themselves bouncer, Edmonton FC’s biggest fan has an arm slung around each of us like we’re the three best friends in the whole fucking world.
The porch is vibrating with glitch-hop as the faux-bouncer looks us over, and it feels like my internal organs are shaking right with it. This is the moment of truth, and if we get bounced here then I dropped all my money for nothing and Wendee will flit off out of my league and stay there forever. Or at least all school year, which is the same thing.
“Let ‘em in, Mack,” Ash beams. “They’re chill little shits.”
And then we’re inside, and I can breathe again. There’s a whole sea of shoes and coats filling up the entryway wall to wall, and when I tune into the general VR channel I see most people remembered to tag their shit. Someone also did up guide ribbons snaking off into the house at chest-level, a bright red contrail to the Beer Pong, amber to the Kegs, lime green to the Barf Bathroom, et cetera. I have to turn down the music in my head to a tolerable level.
“Okay, Romeo,” Dyl says, slapping my shoulder half for emphasis, half to balance while he kicks off his Osirises. “You go find that star-crossed vagina. I’m going to go tool someone at pong.”
“Whoa, hey, what if I need a wing?” I ask.
Dyl smirks, taps his Socialight with one finger. “You got one.” Then he’s off, reeling himself along the red ribbon into the crush of people. I lean down and unlace my shoes while Maestro 2.0 takes electronic stock. Everyone’s running at least a Kameleon, with a good sprinkling of ChillGirls and ChillBoys to balance out the LifeOfThePartys and Buttaflys.
But nobody’s got what I got.
Before Ash jaunts off to Fridge For Drinks, she tells me how Hamza’s parents left a little housekeeper module in their home security system, but he had someone hack it before the plane even took off. Now all kinds of fun shit that would fry a babysitter AI’s innocent little mind is going down in the living room:
Stoners posted up rolling kites on the coffee table, people fucking upstairs sending fleshflashes right to the wallscreens so anywhere you look you see shadows humping, the little cleaning robot scurrying around with sixers of Stella taped around it for anyone to snag.
The party’s loaded with twelfth grade brus, tall with semi-beards, and a shitload of good-looking girls, too. Usually under those circumstances I’d be beelining for the kitchen, UnderTheRadar, right, but not tonight. Tonight I dive right in, with Maestro raking names and interests off social sites and feeding me the right lines, the right body language, the right handshakes.
I’m hopping groups, sliding in smooth and then taking off at perfectly-timed peaks, leaving some motherfucker laughing their ass off, or some girl trailing a hand on my arm, sloughing them easy and hitting the next circle. I’ve never seen the party so clear before, so laid out, the bonds and chains of social molecules, and the more I move the more amped up I get, like what I always think doing cocaine might feel like, everything so fucking tight and clear and sharp.
I even meet the host, Hamza Hydri himself, AKA BoothSay3r. Maestro lays out a karaoke file so I can pretend to know the words to his bonus track (Binary, bitches, you a zero I’m the one / and I’m hung like a horse so you know I’m gonna get it dun) and mostly locks down my wince. Before him and Wendee’s friend Kolette go upstairs, they point me to the last place they saw her.
On the way there I pass Dyl at the plasticoated beer pong table, arm slung around a loud-laughing girl, and I can see the same look on his face, the same electric storm behind his smirk, his Socialight a hot pulsing blue at his temple. We give a perfectly-synched bru nod, the nod of a Maestro messing with mere mortals, and right when everything’s at this hard heady peak, the crush parts for a millisecond and I see her.
Holy fucking shit, she’s beautiful. Short skirt, stripy socks, hair done up, chatting with a circle of mostly basketball players. Even without scanning, I can tell she’s running Flirty, tilting her head and her hips at calculated angles that make me want to slam right in there, like, into the conversation.
Maestro points me to the gaggle just behind her instead, and since it hasn’t steered me wrong yet I cruise past her, and I’m doing my best not to look even though my palms start sweating. She’s saying something about Neo Cubism, but somehow making Neo Cubism sound sexy, as I slip into the next convo over. I’m about to introduce myself to a shitfaced 12th grade girl when sharp nails grab the back of my arm and spin me.
“Shad!” Up close, Wendee smells like grapefruit shampoo and lemonade vodka. “I pinged you, shitwit.”
That’s news to me, but I check my Socialight and see she’s right. Maestro must have masked it. “My bad,” I say, nailing the sorry-not-sorry inflection. “Getting heaps pinged in here.”
“Yeah, no doubt,” she says. “It seems like you know pretty much every motherfucker here?”
“Just making new friends,” I say, like it’s not a thing at all.
Wendee slaps my arm. “Well, don’t forget about us little people.” She bats her electric blue eyes kind of mockingly, which gives me heart-swell, and then her fingers creep back to my arm, which gives me the other kind.
Maestro is breaking down the little bit of lip bite, the hand sliding on my arm, and telling me it’s on, on, on.
“Let’s snag some drinks,” I say. “Then you can try jogging my memory.”
The little cleaning robot rolls past right on cue, so I crouch down to tear two Stellas from the duct tape. As I hand her one I can’t resist pinging Dyl, just to tell him it’s really happening and this was all so, so worth it.
I get a weird fuzz back, so I look over to the beer pong and see Dyl laughing, elbow cocked, set to throw. Then, as he opens his mouth to say something, his Socialight sputters right out. Through the sea of articulated shit-talk, what comes next hits like a feedback squeal on the world’s biggest woofer.
“I actually pissed my pants the first time I got high,” Dyl says, no trace of irony in his voice, and the instant he does his pale face goes red like his hair. Heads swivel; the shaky are-you-kidding laughs quiver through the air. His Socialight flickers on and then off again.
“Motherfucker,” I whisper. He’s glitching. Our stupid fucking pirated version of Maestro is glitching.
“I mean, it’s not a big thing,” Dyl chokes. “Used to wet the bed all the time as a kid, so it was probably, you know, related to that, I guess.”
I can tell from how people’s heads stop bobbing that they’ve cut out their music, and from the subtle winking that some of them are recording Eyespys. I stare at the burnt-out Socialight on Dyl’s flushed face, trying to will it back on, but it’s not working.
Dyl goes to grab his beer, to fill in the stillness, but there’s no mod double-checking his proprioception and his long lanky arm knocks over one of the cups. It splashes everywhere. More people stop and stare.
“Didn’t he come with you?” Wendee asks, lips twisting frowny.
Maestro says no, of course not, never seen that motherfucker in my life. Flow with the night. Cut him loose. This is How We Do.
“Nah,” I say, feeling like slime. “Nah nah nah. Don’t know him.”
“He’s really tall,” she says, like that’s relevant.
Dyl blinks slow, owlish. “Shit,” he says to the silence. “Sorry.” His eyes are terrified shiny, how they were when he had to give an oral report in fourth grade, the only kid in the whole class without a Socialight to help him out.
Wendee pushes her cold Stella can against my arm, rolls it up and down. “I feel bad watching,” she says. “Wanna bounce outside?”
Yeah, I want that. Like, I probably want that more than anything. But Dyl’s still frozen there, looking like he might straight-up faint, and I’m the one who gave him a black market mod in the first place, right?
Maestro is telling me to grab Wendee’s hand and go, go, go.
They need to make 3.0 less pushy.
“No, I do know him,” I say, handing her my Stella. “He’s kind of my best friend. Sorry.”
I ping every single person I’ve met at the party, from the bouncer bru to Hamza himself, with a slow-clap request, and then I reach up to my Socialight and switch it off. My head fizzes, then stops. Empty. No more Maestro. No more How We Do. Just me.
My palms are so sweaty I’m envisioning a spray when they smack together. I raise my hands, which are heaps heavy all of a sudden, and start it off. The sound is loud, so so loud, and at the same time the silence totally fucking swallows it.
“Fucking yes, Dyl,” I shout, trying to keep my voice steady. “Motherfucking retroparty freestyle!”
Clap. Heads turn.
Clap. Some hands leave pockets or beers, slow, hesitating-like.
Clap-clap. Wendee’s shoved the Stellas off on someone else, and she flicks her Socialight off and joins in, rolling her eyes but kind of grinning, too. The slow-clap picks up around the room, building, fading, not quite getting there. I clap harder, trying to keep it alive, staring across at Wendee and probably looking like I’m about to be sick.
Then Ash Rigsby slams around the corner, dragging her shirtless boyfriend in tow. “Retroparty!” she hollers. “Everyone turn off your fucking Socialights! We’re doing it freestyle!”
She drapes her boyfriend’s shirt over her head and starts clapping, furious-like, and he does too, kind of grudgingly, and this time it catches for real, and everyone starts hard applauding. Ash kisses her boyfriend and flips off his Socialight while her fingers are all wormed in his hair; he gets the idea and does it back. They bash noses in a totally freestyle mess, and all around the room people are switching off and joining the retroparty.
Dyl, looking dazed as fuck, raises his bony arms in a victory V, then wades over to slap me on the back. He’s smiling, Wendee’s smiling, I’m smiling. I spot Hamza leaning on the faux-oak stairway, holding two champagne flutes full of Jagermeister and post-coital smiling even though he doesn’t know what the fuck just happened to his party. It’s heaps cinematic, and for a blissy millisecond I think everything’s going to pan out perfect.
The timing goes first, like, whoa. Some bru starts talking at the same time as three other people, then they stop, then they all go at the same time again. Nobody’s dancing anymore because we’re all desynched from the party playlist, and then the quiet goes viral with everyone kind of just standing there, even Ash, who looks like she might need the Barf Bathroom soon. I turn back to Wendee and we look at each other with zero shit to say.
“Retroparty,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says, but kind of smiling.
“Yo, all you hellacious hedonists!” Hamza yells from the banister, raising one of his Jager flutes. Everyone looks up. “Got an announcement for all my gorgeous guests. My new mix, HoodF3els, just dropped. Synch up, motherfuckers!”
Suddenly bad glitch-hop is a life preserver in a big old ocean of awkward. The Socialights come back on in a wave, blinking calm blue, illuminating people’s faces, which are no longer creased and hard worried about what to say. Hamza gives me a look from the stairway, not a meanmug, just sort of a “wick effort, little bru, but maybe don’t try to retroparty until you have the ending down.”
Then I notice Wendee’s looking at the stairway, too, Socialight pulsing bright again, Flirty engaged, and from the color of her cheeks someone just pinged her one wick, wick fleshflash. She grins that white-ass grin. “Hey, Shad, I’ll be right back, okay?”
I think Maestro might tell me to grab her, maybe tell me the only thing to try is a last ditch kiss, but I end up just watching her slither up the stairs. Hamza hands her one of the flutes. He smiles, she smiles. I don’t wait for the toast.
I tune into the VR, and since none of the tracking ribbons say Suicide Cliff, I have to settle for the Porch.
It’s only halfway snowing when I go outside, the little flakes that don’t stick on the ground, but I’m still wishing I brought a jacket along for the sulk-fest. Some people are peacing out early, stumbling back down the long row of cars. A couple brus are pissing on the nearest Glowtree and telling it to grow. I plant my bony ass on the steps and look out at the burbs, all the big cubic houses and manicured lawns, and want them all to catch fire at the same fucking time.
The front door heaves open. “Hey, sad Shad.”
I listen to Dyl hip-check the door shut behind him. He comes over and sits in my periphs, clinking down a couple cans of Molson between us.
“I’m still freestyling,” he says. “So I don’t really know what to say.”
I tap my switched-off Socialight. “Same. Didn’t feel like getting apology-pinged.”
“Bru, she’s just running Flirty. So what if they dock up?” He tap-tap-taps the top of his first beer and pops it open. “Sometimes a girl just wants some, you know, general genital proximity. Flirty goes for the sure thing. Don’t mean she don’t like you.”
“Yeah. I know. It’s just, you know, it’s fucking shitty.” I grab the other beer and dig my thumb under the tab. It’s cold enough that the aluminum stings. “How the fuck can I compete, Dyl? We run UnderTheRadar for a reason, you know?”
“Not tonight we didn’t.” Dyl clanks his Molson down for emphasis. “Tonight we ran shit, Shad. You almost turned Hamza Hydri’s big fest into a fucking retroparty. And I don’t know about you, but I met heaps girls.”
“Heaps,” I admit.
For a while we just slug from our beers and watch the smokers stamp and shiver in a little circle on the sidewalk, sending little white tunnels up into the air. Some of them point down to the end of the block, where red-and-blue lights are flashing out of the gloom. All good parties end in cops. I wonder if someone inside pinged 911, just to make sure it happened.
“You wish you’d cut me loose when the glitch hit back there?” Dyl asks, quiet-like.
“Yeah,” I say, but it’s a lie and we both know it.
“Nah nah nah.” Dyl swishes the last bit of beer around in the bottom of his can. “You know, now that I got some experience, I think I could get used to freestyling at parties. Could be kind of wick. Not UnderTheRadar, not Buttafly, not Maestro two-point-fucking-oh. Just. Freestyle, you know? Like when we were kids.”
I hard think about it for a bit as the police cars ease up, whooping little bursts of siren to scatter the gun-shy bru still trying to piss on the Glowtree. “That’d be fucking awful, Dyl.”
Dyl does his stupid hyena laugh that always kind of gets me, and slings his arm over my shoulder. I sling one back.
A cop gets out of her car and stomps up the walkway, no doubt running VoiceOfAuthority or some shit like that. “Is that open alcohol I see?” she asks all weary-like, strobing us with her shoulder-light. I blink. My face and hands and feet are just finally starting to feel warm from the cold beer.
“Here’s our first chance, bru,” I say. “Let’s talk our way out of it.”
Dyl nods thoughtfully. Then we both hurtle off the side of the porch, busting toward the fence and the dark empty lot on the other side, and the night feels pretty wick. Pretty wild.