stop staring at the stubby fingers her client had draped over the side of his
polished dress shoe. Everything about Randall Cochrane suggested a middle-aged
man with just enough wealth to afford his bespoke suit and pressed shirts. He
had short, salt and pepper hair cut close to his head; wireframe glasses sat
atop a slightly crooked nose.
May 5, 2010 Frank Gattis for Banks Media Productions, Los Angeles
Living in America means taking things for granted. We assume there will always be water to drink, food to eat, and electricity to keep the lights burning. We expect roads to be in good repair, buildings to remain standing, and VNet to keep humming along. But what happens when the foundation upon which we build our lives is shattered by an act of terrorism? What happens when we look to the sky and see planes diving for the ground?
The more things change, the faster they change. At no time in our history was that more true than in the years between 2018 and 2026 when America and most of the civilized world was almost brought to a technological standstill by a group of hackers who valued privacy over regulation and freedom over democratically elected control. This is the story of how the Margate MESH brought us to the brink and how the men and women of this great country brought us back.
Those Prying Eyes
LANGDON HUBER (Engineer, Perion Synthetics): I never saw the value in it, if we’re being honest here. Dealing with the telecoms meant encryption, and after the changeover in 2015, we started developing our own secure messaging in-house. Eventually, we were running our own fiber lines from the PC to the west and east coasts. So no, sending our data down AT&T Street or Comcast Avenue was never an issue for us, nor was it something we ever wanted to do.
WADE VUNAK (CEO, Nixle Chronos): It was definitely a concern for us heading into the tenth anniversary of OcularAR. Not only was BT inspecting every packet that crossed their network, they were taking their sweet time doing it. We were developing a multiplayer game built around augmented reality that required bandwidth beyond what BT was providing to the average user. With OcularAR already costing hundreds of dollars, we couldn’t very well ask the user to shell out hundreds more each month for the so-called Internet Fast Lanes. We needed another solution.
RAUL GARZA (SciTech Contributor, HowItDo): Oh yes, the Margate MESH. Uppercase M, E, S, H, like it’s some kind of acronym for something bigger. It’s not. It’s just a word held over from the early days of networking, a wild idea that maybe communications didn’t have to be centralized. I’ll tell you where it started: P2P. Kids looking to trade software they couldn’t afford who stopped leeching from servers on the Net after they started getting sued. And yeah, that was a big nuisance on its own, but it made everyone realize something: they were being watched. Not by the SysOps, but by Time Warner and Verizon. Every bit they sent down the line was being intercepted and cataloged, even those that weren’t expressly illegal.
TANZY (I.C.E-1): No, anyone with a basic education could find the tools to secure their data, whatever that data was. We knew the telecoms were listening in, we knew they were telling on us to the NSA, FBI, and local law, but we didn’t worry about that shit. If you were dumb enough to let someone listen in on your private conversation, you deserved to get busted. No, what really turned it around were the fucking moles. Media companies had been leaning on the telecoms for years, sending takedown notices and subpoenas to every file sharer they encountered. After we got smart, and the telecoms told them their hands were tied, they started flooding the scene with bogus files. Sometimes they were harmless, other times they had viral payloads. You couldn’t call them on it without admitting guilt, so the whole thing just stalemated.
This is an A-B conversation
GARZA: The collective attitude towards security and privacy hit a tipping point in 2016. Do-gooder companies like Miranda Enterprises and BreezeNet spent their advertising revenue on end-to-end encryption programs with ciphers strong enough to keep all but the best hackers out. Plexadigm launched their own satellite late in the year to provide an alternative network; it was slow, but it was supposedly free from inspection. You still had to worry about what happened when the data left Plexadigm’s network though. Whatever people tried, they kept running into the same walls. That’s when distributed computing really began to gain traction.
TANZY: We’d been using distributed comms for a while before we came up with the MESH. Our phones had apps that spoke directly to each other through NFC. Our slivers had limited broadcast capability that allowed us to trade small bursts of data with nearby users. It was a good start, but a truly robust wireless mesh required hardware far beyond a simple phone. Besides, developing for those platforms meant planting seeds in someone else’s garden. One of our earliest requirements for MESH was that it couldn’t be dependent on Motorola or Samsung hardware. We had always planned to release MESH as open source, so we knew we needed an open source platform.
HUBER: It’s no secret anymore that our initial synthetic prototypes were reliant on a centralized system for communication and updates. After what happened, we really didn’t have a choice but to look into distributed systems. A wireless mesh offered a way for our synthetics to talk to each other without having to rely on a third party to translate. Funny enough, the first few iterations we went through worked so well that our synthetics stopped talking to each other verbally for almost a year. It was pretty unsettling not knowing what our products were discussing, and I imagine that’s how the telecoms felt when MESH started taking off.
VUNAK: What we got wrong was relying on the rig architecture to deliver peer to peer communications. We were still dealing with lowest-bidder fabrication companies, and God only knows where the original parts came from, or what government agency had gotten their hands on them before arriving in our warehouse. The rig itself had the horsepower and broadcasting abilities, but we couldn’t trust the security of a system that we didn’t build ourselves. We were in the design phase when MESH popped up. Three months later, we started porting.
Reach out and touch someone
TANZY: We released MESH 0.1 for the Margate biochip on the first of April 2016. It was a full dump: executables, source code, and even some shitty documentation I was volunteered to write. A year later, we were up to version 2.05 and quickly approaching telecom speeds. More and more people made the switch; in one week, we received over two thousand photos of neck scars. Margate biochips were going in as fast as Guardian Angel and Ayudante chips could come out. We had a user base that rivaled FriendSpace and BreezeNet put together, but we wanted more. I can’t tell you who came up with the “killer feature” for version 3.0, but we all signed off on it. We all left the barn door open.
VUNAK: Leave it to a bunch of hackers to promise one thing and deliver another. Tighter integration with other platforms sounded like a great idea, and I admit we were really excited about it. MESH had been a godsend up to that point, but we still had latency between our biochips and the rigs. And yeah, 3.0 changed all that. Life was good. The future was as bright as ever. Then one night I’m closing up shop and I pull a rig off the shelf, one we hadn’t used in weeks. I booted it, and can you guess what greeted me? The Margate MESH. Version 3.0. It infected everything, and our only option was the nuclear one.
HUBER: If you believe I.C.E-1’s story, the MESH was never designed to run on anything besides the Margate Mark 4 and higher. Certainly no one actively ported MESH to the Guardian Angel chip. Something like that would have had to come from inside Vinestead, and they have no interest in people talking amongst themselves. They’d rather we not talk at all than to be cut out of the conversation. Break room gossip says MESH ported itself to the GA chip. I understand how that might be hard for people to believe, but I’ve worked around synthetics long enough to know that sometimes evolution just can’t be stopped.
GARZA: Oh yeah, it’s a total emergent A.I. scene — very sexy, very provocative. No one besides Perion crackpots actually thought MESH was sentient — though who knows, maybe it was — but even I.C.E-1 freely admits that the program’s only goal in life was to spread, to seek out other nodes and expand the MESH. To reach more people, to spread more data, and to do it all at light speed, the MESH needed to be in every biochip and compatible hardware platform throughout the world. In its infancy, it had been stymied by the closed architecture of the Guardian Angel and Ayudante biochips. And then one day… through some security lapse or stroke of luck or grace of God, it found a way.
On the outskirts of The Rag, in a part of town colloquially known as Glitchville or Bugberg or The Overflow, Ricky Carrillo and a group of his friends stood on the south bank of Arroyo Blanco and threw rocks into the milky water. Sometimes the rocks splashed, sometimes they actually made a sound, but more often than not, the rocks simply zapped out of existence as they passed through an unseen barrier somewhere in the middle of the river.
For boys Ricky’s age, the forty yard swim to the north bank wasn’t something to fear. For one, there was no danger of drowning since the depth of the river was only four feet at its lowest. Secondly, they would only have to swim half the distance before reaching the barrier, at which point they would join the rocks in limbo for a short time before resetting to a spawn point. They would lose their inventory—the river would wash it away—and their experience points, but for the most part they would be unharmed. There was no shame in being reset, at least not when it was intentional.
“It’s your turn today, Ricky,” said Jason.
Jason and his family lived in the neighborhood one level up from Ricky’s, and as such, enjoyed a few more privileges like discounted shop fees and on-demand transportation. It was Jason who had requested the extended golf cart that had carried the group from the transit station out to The Overflow.
Ricky took a step back from the bank’s edge. It towered six feet over the surface of the water, a consequence of the river cutting ever deeper into the earth. He wasn’t scared of being reset, and it wasn’t against the rules, but it wasn’t exactly celebrated. After all, a reset wasn’t just limited to the user; it spread out in ripples that touched the entire Rag.
A reset required resources. Processing time. Re-allocation of experience and skill points.
Then there was the time spent in limbo, a place not of pain but of discomfort, where sounds were a little too loud, lights a little too bright. Ricky had been to limbo only once before, when he was six. He’d wandered too far into the Southern Wash and got bit by a snake. The poison took two minutes to kill him, but the time in limbo felt much longer. An hour. Maybe two. There were no references on which to gauge the passage of time, and maybe the clanging and the aching caused minutes to stretch longer, but Ricky was convinced it was not instantaneous as others had claimed.
None of his friends knew about his brush with death. And among them, only Jason had ever reset in front of their eyes. As the group’s de facto leader, he’d volunteered to be the first one to swim out to the barrier. The remaining order had been decided by tense rounds of Onesie-Twosies. Like a fool, Ricky had thrown out a one while everyone else showed a two.
Following him, it was Matt, Bear, Shawn, and finally Moises.
To hear Jason describe it, limbo was a magical yet empty place beyond the borders of The Rag that served as a transition between the world they knew and Terrareal, a world they had been told about but never seen. It was Jason’s contention that by visiting limbo, one could find a way out to Terrareal, and thus be free of The Rag forever.
Why anyone would want to do that, Ricky couldn’t understand, but then lots of things he and his friends did made little sense. Just a week before, they’d come across a demolished home and found boards lying around with nails sticking out of them. Shawn hadn’t even hesitated before slamming his foot down on one of the nails. In his mind, he was sure he could get the nail to come up through his shoe exactly between his toes. Instead, the rusty nail drove itself into his arch and came up through his shoelaces.
As a pre-teen, Shawn’s pain thresholds were set pretty low, but they were still enough to make him howl. Add to that the indignity of having to get a tetanus shot to prevent something horrible called lockjaw, and the whole thing just seemed stupid.
About as stupid as jumping into the Arroyo Blanco to touch the border of The Rag.
Ricky suddenly realized everyone was looking at him.
“I can hold your stuff if you want,” said Moises. “I promise I’ll give it back.”
“It’s okay,” said Ricky. “I left everything at home. The only thing I have are my nunchucks.” He tossed the two misshapen sticks into the dirt. “I’ll do it. Hashtag yolo.”
The initialism only made sense in the canon of Ragatanga; for Ricky and his friends, there was no such single-use limitation to their existence.
“You know what to do, right?” asked Jason.
Ricky nodded. He remembered the story Jason had told.
The sensory overload.
“You have to try to move,” Jason reminded Ricky. “There has to be another barrier or a door or something. It’s really hard to see, but if you just reach out, push as hard as you can, you might hit something.”
“Yeah,” said Ricky, swallowing hard.
Something about the way the river flowed, the way the white water foamed and swirled, made his stomach fold over on itself. Sweat broke out on his arms; the wind carried it away and made him shiver.
Ricky approached the edge of the gully and sat down. His feet dangled over the steep bank, over the rocks and dried roots and loose dirt. More than likely, he’d enter the river the same way Jason had, by tumbling head first into it.
“Help me down,” he said.
Bear and Moises put out their arms as Ricky turned around onto his stomach. The boys let him down slowly until they could get no lower. Ricky nodded and they let go.
His feet dug into the sand and came to a quick stop. Inside the gully, the noise of the river was deafening, amplified not only by the steep sides but the barrier somewhere out there in the middle of the water. Several feet away, rocks began zapping out of thin air; his friends were throwing smaller pebbles to show him where The Rag ended.
Ricky stepped into the water, lower and lower, until it was splashing around his shoulders. He kicked off, began swimming. Behind him, cheers urged him on.
Swimming to his ostensible death, Ricky thought of his family, specifically his father. Albert Carrillo meant everything to Ricky. In his eleven years of life, he’d never once encountered a problem his father couldn’t solve, a fear he couldn’t assuage, or a monster he couldn’t slay. Above all things, he yearned for his father’s approval, and now, drenched to the bone and heading for limbo, Ricky knew approval would be the last thing his father would give him.
But that was okay.
The world was changing, and Ricky was changing right along with it. Some nascent directive was taking charge inside his body, making him see The Rag and all of its inhabitants in a different light. The girls whose hair he’d pulled seemed more attractive now, and the bonds he’d formed with his friends were taking on more violent and aggressive overtones. Disagreements that would have led to name-calling now led to shoving and sometimes, punching.
Change washed over him, just as the river sloshed around his face.
“You’re almost there,” called Jason.
But he was wrong; Ricky was already there. He could feel the heat coming off the barrier, simultaneously foreboding and inviting, like the hum of an electric fence that you knew would hurt but you wanted to touch just to know what it felt like.
He reached a hand out and felt his fingers sizzle. Drawing them back, he saw they’d disappeared, cut clean off at the second knuckle.
Ricky cried out despite the absence of pain. At the same time, the ground below him gave out, causing him to sink beneath the water. His shoes searched for purchase, sometimes finding solid riverbed, other times sinking into a vast abyss. Water splashed on his face one moment, then fell from it in sheets the next. He was simultaneously above the water and deep below it. Sinking further down, he passed through the riverbed, and suddenly he saw it from below.
There was nothing but gray darkness below him and a sky made of terrain above him. In the distance, he could see tunnels drifting down into the gloom, places where residents of The Rag had dug into the simulated earth. But Ricky was outside the world now, glitched out of bounds by the barrier.
Was this what Jason had experienced? He hadn’t mentioned seeing The Rag from underneath. He’d only reported death, limbo, and a reset.
There was no air here, Ricky realized.
As oxygen dwindled, panic increased. Even though he knew the pain would not be much, the prospect of asphyxiating drew out a primal reaction. He thrashed, kicked, and flailed his arms through what appeared to be empty space but felt like thick oil.
He swallowed it large, frantic gulps.
The oil filled him up, slipped into the crevices of his biological machinery, and brought everything to a stop.
The world dimmed to gray.
Letters appeared as if typed into a computer, uppercase and drenched in cartoonish blood.
A familiar sensation rose up from the soles of Ricky’s feet, clamping down with a firm touch on his ankles, shins, calves, and so on, until his entire body seemed confined to a form-fitting vise. The gloom of The Rag’s underworld brightened to a harsh white. Ricky shut his eyes, barely dimming the oppressive light. Clanging sounded from all around him, like a steam engine chugging to life, like metal gears slipping teeth around couplers.
Metal on metal.
Modulated electronics whining and beeping.
Jason’s words came back to him.
Try to move. Find the exit.
Ricky focused on his left hand, on the tips of the fingers, and tried to curl them into his palm. Nothing happened. He tried to wiggle his toes, but the vise held him. Even though he couldn’t see his body, he felt himself to be laid out straight, with his feet together and arms by his side. He arched his back, trying to pull away into a different position. Pain—real pain—built in his neck.
He cried out; the clanging swallowed up the sound.
The bottom dropped out of the vise, and Ricky fell twelve inches onto a soft bed. A dulcet melody, a string of five notes increasing in volume, played in his ears.
A blink wiped away the infinite emptiness of limbo.
Another brought the light blue walls of a Spawn Center.
“Welcome back,” said a woman standing next to his bed. She had deep green eyes encircled with gray shadow. Her hair fell in waves on the pink shoulders of her nurse’s uniform.
Ricky didn’t respond.
“I’m Marie,” said the nurse. “I’m just gonna run a few tests to make sure things got put back where they need to be. You’ve always been a Japanese girl, right?”
Marie smiled, tapped a machine next to the bed. “I’m kidding, sweetie. You’re still…” She hesitated, consulted the palette hanging from the bed. “An 11-year-old boy with slight asthma and perfect attendance at Bullock Middle School. And you… that’s strange.”
Ricky turned his head, tried to see what was written on the palette.
“What?” He asked.
“You still have 859 experience points.” She frowned. “You should have zero. I’ve never seen anyone respawn with…” Trailing off, Marie studied Ricky’s face.
He felt her eyes look through him, to the hot white confines of limbo, to the glitched underworld, all the way to the Arroyo Blanco, where a group of kids were likely placing bets as to whether Ricky had drowned or passed through the barrier after all.
Ricky checked his inventory. The few odds and ends he’d left in his pockets were still there; a pencil from school, wrapper from a piece of gum, and a small gold bell tied to a piece of yarn that Alisha in Ms. Claire’s class had given him.
It hadn’t seemed important before, but now he was surprised to feel relief at not having lost it.
More than relief, he felt proud, emboldened.
He’d passed through limbo and come out untouched on the other side. Same XP, same loot. Not a scratch on him.
Not since before the toll road bypass had customers filled the aisles of the small convenience store on Highway 277 just north of Sonora. In those days, Nelson had worked for his father, manning the cash register as the old man sat in the back office and leafed through porno mags that always ended up back on the shelf. After the toll road, the old man’s health declined right along with business. Eventually, both he and the customers stopped coming to the store, and soon it was just Nelson sitting behind the counter on a stool with cracked leather padding.
Mornings in the store were quiet, with only one or two locals dropping by to fill up deisel drums for their ancient combines and tractors. Mid-day, Nelson rotated the stock in the coolers, tossing out the milk that had gone more than three weeks past its expiration date. He spent time cleaning the spotless floor, wiping down the untouched glass doors, and rearranging the undisturbed bags of chips. In the afternoon, when the sun was low enough to bounce off the 277’s blacktop, Nelson retreated to the back office to dial-up to the handful of Bulletin Board Systems he frequented. He read news stories, played a few games, and downloaded the latest celebrity nudes, all while keeping a watchful eye on the security cameras.
Evenings were the worst. The front windows turned into an oil painting of a West Texas sunset that filled Nelson with dread. The sizzle on the horizon, the pink hues streaking through the clouds, and smooth, flat desert thrown into sudden relief hinted at a deeper meaning for his life, that its true purpose lay somewhere beyond the gas station and his trailer behind it. But in his heart, he knew there was nothing out there for him and that the sum of his life would play out right there on Highway 277. He’d die in the store or in his trailer. He secretly hoped it would be in the aisles, so his body would at least be discovered before it began to rot.
Nelson stood at the front door and placed his hand on the back of the neon OPEN sign. It was well past nine o’clock, and the odds of anyone else dropping in for a newspaper or bottle of water were too low to keep him in the store. The locals knew to honk if they needed him, and he’d come running out of his trailer. Just as he was pulling the string to turn off the sign, headlights appeared on the highway. A moment of unchecked hope fluttered in Nelson’s chest. Maybe they would turn in. Maybe they’d want to buy a few sixpacks and all the FunYuns they could carry.
“Sedan,” said Nelson, to himself.
Picking out cars at a distance was one of the many games he played to pass the time away. He could only see the headlights and a single fog-light on the left side. The headlights were rectangular and not bordered by LEDs or HID enhancements. The fog light was yellow, having dimmed from its original white. It would soon join its brother.
“Late-model Acura or Toyota. Don’t get many of those around here.”
His fluttering hope took flight as the headlights slowed a hundred yards out from the station. A fast-blinking indicator turned on, and the car took a wide right turn into the parking lot. It made an immediate left and started down the row of charge stations. Bypassing them all, it pulled up alongside the lone gas/diesel pump and stopped. The door opened slightly and a boot hit the evercrete.
Over the glare of the headlights, Nelson couldn’t make out the man sitting behind the steering wheel. It wasn’t until they timed out that he could finally see the profiled shadow speaking to someone in the back seat. The man gestured to the store, shook his head, and climbed out of the car.
Nelson retreated as the man approached the doors, pretended to busy himself at the coffee maker even though he’d already emptied and cleaned it hours ago. A soft, melodic chime announced the door opening, and in stepped a rough-looking man in his mid-thirties, with a week’s worth of beard and hair that looked like it spent most of its time under a hat. His eyes were dark and bloodshot, as if he hadn’t seen sleep in a day or two. When he noticed Nelson, he gave a weak smile and motioned to the coffee pot.
“Got any fresh?”
“Let me fix you a pot special,” said Nelson. “I’ve got Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts blends.”
“Dunkin’, if you please.”
“Size?” asked Nelson, holding up a small and large cup.
“You got a pail?” The man chuckled to himself and held up two fingers. “Two large, please.”
Nelson tore open the packet of Dunkin’ Donuts-brand grounds and set the coffee maker in motion.
“Anything else I can do for you, Raymond?”
“Ray, and yes, I need twenty on pump…” He turned to look for a pump number.
“On the pump,” said Nelson. He walked around to the cash register and started keying in the order. “Don’t get many folks filling up with gasoline these days. Most gassers I know are either junked or retrofitted with electric engines.”
Ray eyed the display of novelty pens on the counter. He picked one up, turned it over, and watched the clothes drain from a pinup’s body.
“It was my Pop’s. He gave it to me when the gas shortage hit.”
“This store was my father’s. He gave it to me when he couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore.” Nelson looked around at the ceiling. “I’m starting to understand how it happened.”
The cash register beeped.
“Two cups of coffee and twenty gallons of Emarat Misr’s finest,” said Nelson. “Is there anything else I can do you for?”
“How are you on meds? Some Aspirin or Aleve?”
“Sleep’s the best remedy for headaches, son. But come on, I’ll show you what I have.”
“Thanks,” said Ray, following Nelson down the aisle by the windows. “It’s not for me though. My wife’s had them pretty constant since she came down with the Bleed.”
Nelson stopped in front of the medical display and looked at Ray’s car. In the backseat, a continuous lump moved–a person writhing under a blanket. He felt around in the MESH for her, but there was nobody there except Ray.
Ray must have seen him concentrating. He nodded to the car. “We were able to buy some blockers across the border before we left. Toronto has a lot of people willing to treat the disease, but none with a cure.”
“Is that what you’ve come all the way down here for? A cure?”
“Something like that,” said Ray, picking up a small tube of Aspirin. “We kept hearing stories about a place in the MZ called Lakon. They said they’re curing the Bleed there.”
Nelson shook his head and shuffled back to the coffee pot. He’d heard the stories too. Lakon. A fountain of youth for those who had lived too long in the MESH. A veil of silence to blot out the incessent chatter.
A honeypot for the desperate.
“You’re not the first people to come looking for Lakon,” said Nelson, pouring out two large cups. He affixed the white, plastic lids, dropped a stirrer into the opening, and took them to the cash register.
Ray joined him and put the tube of Aspirin on the counter.
“That’s not going to do much.” Nelson pushed the medicine aside. He pulled a bottle from the shelf behind him. “Here’s how we treat the Bleed down in Texas.”
“My wife doesn’t drink,” said Ray, examining the bottle of Tequila.
“It’s not for her, son.”
Ray laughed. “I can’t afford–”
“It’s on me,” said Nelson. “I had a nephew who got the Bleed a few years back. My brother never would have made it without Tito.”
“And your nephew?”
Nelson shrugged. “Blew his brains out on his twenty-third birthday. Left a note saying he couldn’t take the voices anymore. Now my brother drinks for a different reason.” He pushed a photo of Trace into the MESH, felt Ray pull it in. “That’s me and him working in this very store when we were younger than you.”
The MESH pulsed, dissolving the photo into another. In his mind’s eye, Nelson saw a dark-haired woman sitting on a dock, her bare legs hanging over the side, her arm wrapped around a blond labrador. The dog was licking her face while she smiled at the camera.
“Melissa, and Gatsby. He’s no longer with us.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Nelson. “He looks like a fine animal.”
Static tore across the MESH, shattering the photo and replacing it with an out-of-focus map of West Texas.
Ray touched his head and looked to the windows. “Sorry about that. Mel can be pretty pushy sometimes. It’s not really her fault.”
“No harm,” said Nelson. “Trace’s boy used to spew profanity night and day. The MESH was downright unusable when he was around. The Bleed doesn’t just infect people, it replaces them with something else. But you want to know the God’s honest truth about it? Those people are still in there.”
“You’ve seen it cured?”
“No. But I’ve heard the same stories you have about Lakon. And maybe they are curing people down there. Maybe they’ve found a way to disinfect the MESH, but I doubt it. What I do know for sure is that people who go looking for it never come back. Once they go in, they don’t come out.”
Ray sighed, let his head fall forward. The MESH took on a bitter, mournful smell.
“We don’t have a choice. It’s killing her, and it’s killing us.”
When his eyes came back up, they glistened in the flourescent light.
“By all means, you have to take care of your own. Like you said, Canada’s only going to treat the symptoms, and Uncle Sam has both thumbs firmly planted up his ass, so it’s really up to you. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I tell people there’s no good reason on Earth to go into the Machine Zone. But if that’s the only place an operation like Lakon can exist, and if you’re willing to give up everything for it, then by all means. Just keep following 277 south. Once it meets up with 377, you don’t stop for nothing. Drive that beater right up to the gates of Lakon and wait for them to open. I don’t want my MESH dream interrupted tonight by a report of a decent couple being torn to shreds by some renegade soldados. Those MX synthetics have no regard for human life.”
“Thank you for the advice,” said Ray. “And for the medicine.” He slipped the flat bottle into his jacket.
“Anytime,” said Nelson. He tapped the cash register’s screen to wake it. “That’s twenty-three even.”
Ray glanced at the cash register momentarily. A green check mark popped up on the screen.
“Thank you for your business, Raymond. I wish you and yours the best of luck.”
The MESH crackled, flashed red. Graphical data flooded the network, overloading Nelson’s vision. Voices with accents he’d never heard in person bubbled up through the white noise, coming from every direction at once. He took an involuntarily step backwards. Amongst the many speakers, a feminine voice whispered across a chasm.
Nelson felt his heart collapse in his chest.
“Dear God, please. HELP ME.”
Ray nodded as if unaware of the disturbance in the MESH.
Nelson watched him trot back to his car and hurriedly get inside. The beater growled unhappily as the engine came to life; its headlights seemed to wink lazily as if waking from a long nap. Ray put the car into gear and spun it around back onto the highway. The taillights flared and disappeared into the Texas night.
The noise lingered. Nelson fought the urge to put his hands to his head. He knew it would do no good.
Gradually, as Ray and his wife got further away, their MESH connection to Nelson disappated into nothing.
The voices quieted, but the echo remained in Nelson’s head.
“God dammit,” said Nelson, striking the counter with his fist. He stared at the pumps outside the store.
[Note: This is an alternate version of Johnny’s Loop.
Sometimes, it takes several tries to start a story.]
“Peep this view, Danny.”
Tanzy placed her hands on the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out over the Atlantic City boardwalk. From the 78th floor of the White Dragon Resort and Casino, the people below were mere specks on a thin band of polluted sand. Choppy water filled most of the view, stretching out into the distance under a blanket of twinkling stars. She pressed her forehead against the glass and tried to look down the building.
“We are way the fuck up here,” she added.
Danny “Guns” Montreal nodded and reached into his pocket as the bellhop dropped two suitcases onto the luggage racks by the door. He pulled out a fifty and held it out.
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” said the boy. “Mr. Coker said your money was no good here. He assigned me to your room for the duration, so if there’s anything you need during your stay, please don’t hesitate to ask.” He gestured to a vidscreen on the wall. “Just tap the concierge button and it’ll ring my sliver.”
He made a half bow and left the room, shutting the door softly behind him.
Danny walked further into the suite and dropped his bag on the coffee table next to a rectangular black box. A stencil of a white dragon adorned the top, along with a card that read /to Mr. Montreal and guess, with our compliments/. Danny nudged the lid opened and let out a chuckle.
“What’s that?” asked Tanzy. She bounded over from the window and sat down on the couch next to the table. “Oh wow.”
Neatly arranged in the box were no less than a dozen code cards of various synthetic cocktails, ten perfectly rolled joints, two baggies of indeterminate white powder, and a sheet of tiny smiley face stickers.
“Jesus, Danny. Who does this guy think you are?”
Danny shrugged in response, pushed the box towards Tanzy. It was obvious Bennet “Benny” Coker had no idea who Danny was, least of all how he liked to get down when the lights were low and the bass was thumping. He had probably done the same for every zero-bit hacker he’d hired over the years, bringing them to Atlantic City, pumping them full of drugs, and then paying them dirty money for a dirty job. Maybe that was the kind of life a Margate Musher aspired to, a fantasy world an Umbrat would kill their own mother for, but it did nothing for Danny.
All he cared about were the zeros and the ones, particularly a one followed by six or seven zeros. Coker had thrown all sorts of perks at the deal, but Danny had held firm to his requirements: dollars only, half on acceptance, half on completion.
“At least let me bring you out to the coast,” Coker had said. “I’ll put you up in our presidential suite. Not part of the deal, just a place for you to stay while you work.”
If the job hadn’t required physically being in the AC, Danny would have refused. As it happened, Tanzy had been listening in on the conversation, and when Coker mentioned the White Dragon Resort, it was as if she could see past the eternal rain of Portland, past the mountains and the plains, to the very edge of the continental U.S., to bright lights and loud music, to a place where people were fueled by greed and driven by lust.
“I’d love to get away,” Tanzy had said. She’d gone on to demonstrate how long it had been since she’d had a proper vacation and how the day-to-day operation of the I.C.E-1 cipher den was slowly driving her insane.
Danny agreed to the job mostly for the money, but a non-trivial motivator was the happiness on Tanzy’s face when he told Coker he’d do it. She’d been wildly happy the last few days, bouncing around I.C.E-1 HQ, calling Danny every few hours to tell him how excited she was. Even on the plane ride over, even in the car Coker had sent to collect them from the airport, she’d been nothing but smiles.
It was almost too much.
Tanzy leaned back on the couch and shuffled through the code cards. “I’m starting to like this guy, Danny. I mean, I never thought I’d say that about a feed monger, especially after that whole thing with Perion, but damn, he really knows how to make a girl feel welcome.”
Danny looked around the suite. Dim lights ran along the perimeter of the room, making the couches, desk, and bar look like they were floating a warm glow of amber. The walls were painted in a dark gray, and long, verdant landscapes stretched across them, all done in the same blacks and reds. A wide doorway led to a darkened bedroom.
The shadowy outline of a bed beckoned him. As he crossed the threshold, runner lights came on, showing the floor descending into a sunken area where a king bed sat ready to take him out of this world for a few hours. He checked his sliver for the time, found it was nearly midnight. Tanzy would probably want to go down to the casino and blow some money at the blackjack table.
Slender arms wrapped themselves around his waist.
“Thinking about bed already?” she asked.
He nodded, reached behind to put his hands on her hips.
“You’re quiet today.” Her chin pressed against his shoulder blade. “You’re thinking about all the people down there, aren’t you? It’s okay if you are. I’m not gonna make you go out in a crowd if you don’t want to.”
Danny sighed, turned around in her arms. He smiled at her.
“But,” she said, putting a finger on his chin, “just because we’re not going downstairs doesn’t mean you get to hit the sack already. You’re on Tanzy Time now.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the bathroom to the left of the bed.
A thin plate of glass separated the bedroom from a room covered from top to bottom in white tile. Every few feet, a tile bore the White Dragon emblem. On the left, the wall pushed back, providing two sinks and a shelf with a handful of towels.
Tanzy paused at the edge of the carpet, spun Danny around, and started unbuttoning his shirt.
He reached up to touch the side of her face. There was a stereotype about cipher dens that their suits all had to be strikingly beautiful to counteract the inherent techno-grunge of their business. Tanzy, for her part, lived up to the hype. She had long, black hair that curled at the tips. Her large eyes glowed from within dark eyeshadow. It was there he saw the one thing that truly attracted him to her: a sense of understanding emanating from her eyes, staring past the accolades and the talent and the anxieties to see the person he was inside.
“Take off your pants,” she said, tossing his shirt onto a nearby dresser. She woke the vidscreen on the wall and touched a glowing START button. “Now that is cool.”
Danny followed her gaze to the rain shower in the middle of the bathroom. Water poured down in a three foot diameter; it flowed to the opposite of the room where it trickled over an unseen ledge into a sunken bathtub that ran the entire length of the wall. He watched Tanzy take down her dress and step into the bathroom. She gave the shower a wide birth and sat down on the lip of the bathtub. Spouts on the wall sensed her presence and began filling the tub.
“Come sit with me,” she said. “It’s warm already.”
After glancing over his shoulder at the bed, Danny sighed and stepped out of his pants and boxers. He stepped on the toes of his socks to pull them off. He held his hand out under the shower as he passed it, felt the soft, warm water envelope his arm.
Tanzy patted the tile next to her. When Danny sat down, she revealed a code card she had been palming in her hand.
“Soda Crush,” she said. “I’ve heard stories about it, but I’ve never…”
Danny took the card from her, used the back of his hand to brush her cheek again. Such a beautiful smile. So full of love. She deserved everything she wanted in the world.
Something sparked in the back of his mind, some recognition of a diminished mental state. Danny searched his memory, tried to figure out what was causing him to be so protective of her tonight. He wasn’t able to pull anything out of the ether, just some vague feeling of danger, nothing more intense than the natural background violence of his usual life.
So why the intensity tonight? More than that, why was he powerless against it?
Danny slipped his hand behind Tanzy’s head and pressed the code card to the back of her neck. Her eyelids fluttered rapidly as she gasped.
“Jesus in a toaster,” she muttered. Leaning forward, she allowed gravity to pull her into the rising water. When she came up, her hair clung to one side of her face. Her breasts glistened in the warm light. Tanzy put her hands on his knees. “Your turn,” she said.
Danny hesitated, turned the card over in his hands.
Tanzy rubbed her breasts against his legs, let her hands wander. “It’s okay. It’s just this one time. I promise I won’t let anything happen to you.” Her hands settled at his hips, her thumbs venturing closer to his growing erection.
Synth had never sat right with Danny. It had taken too many of his friends and addicted the rest. Reality was a constant, and anything that altered it was just an artificial layer pinned to a very real world. When the synth was gone, the bills would still be there, the shitty job would still be there. The same went for virtual reality; there was just no point in trying to escape what couldn’t be escaped.
Tanzy pushed Danny’s legs apart and knelt on the second step. She put her hands on sides of his face. “Hey, look at me,” she said. “It’s just you and me in here right now, just us enjoying this time together. There’s no casino downstairs, no job for Coker. There’s certainly no country spiraling into darkness. None of those things are real at this moment. I’m real.” She took his free hand and placed it on her breast. “You’re real. Be real with me here.”
He nodded, kissed her lightly on the forehead.
Her eyes jumped to the card and back. “Whenever you’re ready,” she said, sinking back into the water. When she was level with his legs, she leaned forward and took him into her mouth.
Danny shuddered at the sensation and quickly put the code card to the back of his neck. Purple sparks exploded from the grid of tiles behind Tanzy, blotting out the lights in the ceiling. The floor fell out from under him, and though he could still feel Tanzy’s lips rising and falling, the rest of his body felt as if he were falling through an infinite void. Warmth ran up from his toes, pulling him into a cradle of the softest Egyptian sheets he had ever felt.
The code card slipped from his fingers and landed with a splat on the tile.
Tanzy came up for a moment to ask, “Intense as shit, huh?”
Her eyes were changing color with every blink of Danny’s owns. Brown to blue, blue to gold, gold to white. Even after the initial hit of the synth, the world seemed to be out of focus. He watched the tile around him undulate, its surfaces teeming with ones and zeros. Complex equations scrolled along the grout lines; some fell forward, pushing off the tile to land in the tub below. The wall began to bulge, as if some great monster behind it were trying to push its way through.
Danny tried to back away, but Tanzy held him in place.
Thin wisps of black reached out from the wall–smoke from the inferno raging behind it. On the air was the smell of dread that had been with him all day. At least the now the anticipation would end.
“God, I love this drug,” said Tanzy. She stood and ran her hands up her body until she was grabbing the sides of her head. Leaning back, she let out a low moan.
The wall exploded behind her, sending shards of tile flying across the bathroom. Danny closed his eyes against the intense heat, saw the silhouette of Tanzy’s body on the back of his eyelids. So beautiful. So lovely. He pictured her face, stared lovingly into her eyes, until all at once it began to morph.
Pain tore through his skull as images poured in from some unseen source. Videos, stills, and endless reams of data pooled at the back of his skull. Bank accounts, passwords, where to score a free coffee in Umbra; disjointed bits of information flowed into him unbidden. Danny’s muscles locked up; in the distance, he heard Tanzy screaming.
The face morphed into a thousand different people until finally settling on dour eyes he knew as well as his own.
In a blink, the feed cut out, leaving a ringing in Danny’s ears that made him squirm on the tile. He opened his eyes, found Tanzy screaming into his face. Around her, the bathroom was pristine, undamaged.
“Oh, thank God. Oh, thank you, Jesus.” She grabbed Danny’s head and pulled it into her lap. “Are you alright? Talk to me, Danny.”
“He’s dead,” said Danny, tasting blood. “Johnny San Vito is dead.”
Danny looked up from his palette and surveyed the landscape through the Audi Q7’s tinted windows. The SUV was creeping along the elevated lanes of the 130 tollway; a sign indicated an exit for the 290 tollway. Although they had passed Austin proper, the proximity of Old Downtown meant an influx of traffic coming from Houston, mostly old beaters without toll tags who would rather chance a run-in with the police than sit on the access roads for hours.
“There wasn’t even a toll road then.”
“What?” asked Danny.
The driver looked at him in the rearview mirror. “It was just empty. Austin didn’t extend this far out. When they first built the toll road, you could bypass 35 for a flat ten bucks. Save you a good hour or two on the worst days.”
“Sorry,” said Danny, lifting his palette in explanation. “I’m trying to prepare for a meeting.”
“Ah,” said the driver, nodding. “Apologies. I’ll leave you to it.”
Danny nodded and swiped at his palette. A small dot flew up from the bottom of the screen, hit a couple of squares, and then exploded in a dizzying array of pixelated fire. The squares quivered and disappeared. With the last of the squares cleared, the field reset and the next level appeared.
The last thing Danny needed was a history lesson on Austin, Texas. He knew the city’s love-hate relationship with the tech companies that had built it up only to abandon it in its time of need. He knew hundreds of disheveled engineers showed up on its doorstep every day with their student loans and CCNA certificates hoping for a job with one of the few tech companies that remained. They flocked to the campuses of Dell, Pattrn, and Nixle Chronos, but more often than not ended up in Old Downtown with all the rest of the unused talent.
Network Engineers worked the serving line at Subway.
Developers wrote code for lighting systems at cyberpunk night clubs.
IT guys worked backend systems at VR brothels.
There were still a few tech jobs to be found outside of the Big Three, but the startup culture that had quenched Austin’s thirst during its period of growth had mostly dried up, leaving the city parched. The few startups that did try to break through the concrete soil rarely passed the Vinestead benchmark; that is, they were either acquired or run out of business when Vinestead stole their ideas.
Danny thought about the streets of Old Downtown, its potholes and long-abandoned construction signs, its abundance of zombie-like pedestrians shuffling from one synth fix to the next. What the city really needed was a day of MotoSlaughter, a one-time event to help rid Old Downtown of its infection. The skyscrapers that had been built there in there 90s were still standing strong. Places like the Austonian and Monarch could be used again if the right people came in.
Not that that was likely.
Nobody bought home computers anymore, and though Dell had tried to shift into consumer-grade immersion rigs, it seemed to be following in the footsteps of IBM and HP. Pattrn was new and growing, but social media itself was a dying industry now that feeds were the primary form of sharing. And if Nixle Chronos’ augmented reality tech was going to take off, it would have done so already.
Austin was dying, and in some wonderful way, that gave the city a small-town feel. Local businesses outpaced the national chains by 5 to 1. Corporate didn’t sell in Austin, and that suited Danny just fine.
“Would you like me to take the Express lane?” asked the driver. “I don’t think we’ll make eight o’clock without it. There’s a small uncharge.”
“That’s fine,” said Danny.
The Audi lurched to the left, cutting in front of an eighteen-wheeler that was doing its best to maintain a constant speed. The blast of its airhorn hadn’t even died out by the time the SUV slipped into the far left Express lane. The small surcharge the driver had mentioned came in the form of dynamic tolls that rose and fell depending on the traffic. Electronic signs set along the toll road updated like stock tickers, showing times and distances and costs.
Time to ABIA: 28 minutes.
Express Lane to ABIA: 4 minutes.
Express Lane charge: $19.22/mi.
With less traffic in front of them, the driver pushed the Audi up to the 90 mph speed limit and hugged the left shoulder in case some distracted commuter decided to cut into the lane. Gas stations and rest stops scrolled by, as did burned-out husks of cars that had been foolish enough to pull over and stay overnight. Nobody knew how or why abandoned cars got torched, but they were a common sight and had been readily assimilated into Austin’s lore.
Danny felt his body lean as the SUV took a banking right turn towards the airport. The Express lane carried them over the main toll road, over the fools on the free roads, right to the entrance to ABIA.
“It’s a private hanger,” said Danny. “Whichever one has the jet with the flames painted on the sides.”
The driver navigated the narrow roads and took a hard right at the cell phone lot. They passed through a secure gate where the SUV was checked for explosives, and onto a private tarmac where the morning sun was already boiling the accumulated rubber. In the second hangar, a fire-red Gulfstream idled just inside the massive doors. The driver pulled up to a shaded area and put the SUV in park.
Danny stepped out as his door opened.
“I shouldn’t be too long,” he said.
The driver nodded and returned to the front seat.
Two men in black suits with thin ties approached Danny. They were tall, thin, and much like Pyrosius, very Asian.
That wasn’t just Danny’s assessment. Years ago before they had ever met in person, Guns had asked Pyrosius what he looked like, to which the flame-winged hacker had replied, “very Asian.” In reality, Pyrosius was Asian (Chinese, to be exact), but there was nothing over-the-top about it. His bodyguards, on the other hand, were quite the sci-fi trope, with slick-backed hair and dark sunglasses.
They greeted Danny with a slight bow and led him to the open stairs at the front of the jet. There, standing in the threshold, was the very Asian hacker himself.
In virtual reality, Pyrosius imagined himself as a god of fire and often mixed elements of the mythical Phoenix with old-world Chinese imagery. His avatar stood nine feet tall in most constructs, though when he was on a private server, he dialed himself down to a respectable six foot even. In reality, Pyrosius was five foot four at the most. He wore wire-frame glasses and a long ponytail that reached down the middle of his back.
He wore his typical outfit: a starched white button-down tucked messily into black slacks.
Few would have guessed his net-worth rivaled that of an NFL star or a rapper.
“I’m not coming down there,” said Pyrosius. “These shoes do not set foot on Austin soil. Come inside and have a drink. And if you tell me what time it is, I’ll punch you in the nuts.”
Danny climbed the steps in the Gulfstream and turned away from the cockpit. Pyrosius stood near a table with a small cardboard box and gestured to its contents.
“I can’t remember how you take it, so I just got one of everything.” He read off a few entires from the Starbucks menu before Danny stopped him.
“Nothing for me.”
Pyrosius shrugged, extended his hand. “Thanks for coming, Guns.”
Danny nodded, sat down on one of the plush leather seats facing the table. The chair was more comfortable than anything in his condo.
“I’ll be brief. We’re wheels up in forty minutes.”
“Roger, captain,” said Danny. “Forty mikes for chow and muster.”
Pyrosius sat down opposite Danny and folded his hands on the table. His eyes narrowed, as if he were peering directly into Danny’s soul.
“How are things?” he asked.
“Make with the ask, Pyro. I’ve got things to do today.”
“I want to talk about the work you did for Benny Coker.”
Danny shook his head. “Who said I did work for Benny Coker?”
“He did,” said Pyrosius, smiling. “Said you helped him recover some photos an employee had stolen from his wife.”
In truth, Eileen Coker had been having an affair with Dylan Carter and when she tried to break it off, Dylan threatened to sell an extensive photo catalog of their private moments to a rival media feed. It had been Danny’s job to make sure every last copy of those photos was erased.
“An easy seek and destroy job,” said Danny. “I used off-the-shelf code to hunt down the signatures on his drives.”
“And,” said Pyrosius, tapping his head, “up here, too, right?”
“You think I hacked his brain?”
“Well, no, but his biochip, right? Margate third generation? That level of encryption is supposed to stop even the spooks in Langley. But you got through it. How?”
“Fine,” said Pyrosius. He reached for a cup from the box and pulled out what looked like a frappucino. “But that means you have to do this job for me.”
“Who said I wasn’t?”
“Huh, I don’t know. I guess I thought you’d be reluctant. You know, dick me around for more details or money, refuse to do it so I’d have to beg you, that sort of thing.”
Danny shook his head. “Not really my style. You’ve got work. It pays money. I like money. Simple.”
“Good, good,” said Pyrosius, turning on the palette.
“But I do have some demands.”
“You don’t even know what the job is yet.”
“I know it’s something beneath you. You said you didn’t have time for it, so it must be some kind of shit-work owed to some rich elite who needs you to make a problem go away.”
It was always the same thing for celebrity hackers. They started out doing what interested them, then what benefited them, and finally what benefitted those who could afford them.
“You’re half-right,” said Pyrosius. “The client is an elite, but he’s a nice guy. A small-grade philanthropist.”
“No elite is a nice guy.”
“You need to expand your world-view. Maybe this job will help you do that. In any case, his ‘problem’ as you call it is actually quite interesting. Two days ago, a person or group of persons unknown broke into the Orange County Municipal Morgue #17 at 3 o’clock in the morning. The official report says they were looking for augments and to that end, many of the corpses had been rummaged through. The police aren’t sure how much the thieves made off with.”
“One of the smaller cipher dens, LA Knights, I think. It doesn’t matter. They were busted trying to unload their haul at the swap, and among the items recovered, police found six biochips.”
Danny frowned. “They ripped out their chips?”
“No, it was a professional removal, probably by the morgue doctors. All the grow-wire had been snipped and the chip was clean. I don’t know what they thought they were going to do with used biochips, but my client ended up with them. He brought them to me, and now I’m handing them off to you.”
The questions about the Benny Coker job suddenly made sense.
“You can’t get into them, can you?” asked Danny.
“Into? Yes. But there’s data there that we can’t seem to touch. Something extra. I need someone who’s adept at breaking encryption. I don’t know how you do it, but you’re the best in the field.”
“No, you’re the best. I just don’t get why you’re bringing this to me.”
Pyrosius leaned back in his chair, smiled.
“Johnny already said no, didn’t he?”
“He said he was working on something big,” said Pyrosius. “Wouldn’t tell me what it was. Wouldn’t even take my call, just sent me a text saying not interested.”
Danny chuckled. If there was one thing you could count on with Johnny San Vito, it was his unbreakable focus in the face of even the most attractive distractions. Whatever he was working on, it had to be worth more than the intrigue and the paycheck of what Pyrosius had to offer.
“Did you bring the chips?”
No,” said Pyrosius, shaking his head. “Those don’t leave LA. My client has them in a secure building. You’d have to travel.”
Danny looked around the cabin. “You gonna give me a lift?”
“I’m not going to LA, but my client—.”
“What’s the client’s name?”
Pyrosius seemed to hesitate, but he knew as well as anyone that Danny would eventually figure out who was financing the job.
“His name is Frank. He runs the Kagan Group out of Los Angeles. One of the biochips belonged to his son.”
“Oh,” said Danny.
“So it’s personal, huh? If this Kagan guy is connected, then I don’t really have a choice, do I? This is gonna be lucrative.”
“Mid six figures if you can decrypt the data,” said Pyrosius. “Double that if you can figure out how the kid died.”
“And your cut?”
“Zero. I’m doing this as a favor… to both of you.”
Danny nodded, reached for a random cup in the box. He took a sip of something foul and resisted the urge to spit.
“Get me a proper drink, and I’m in.”
“Deal,” he replied. “I told the client you’d meet with him in Los Angeles tomorrow night. I’ll message you all the details.”
Goddamn Pyrosius. Always thinking he knew the future.
When he was fifteen years old, Johnny San Vito logged into a military-sponsored, virtual reality BBS using his dad’s account and threatened to beat the shit out of an Airman who went by the ultra-cool handle Raw Dawg. I was right there along with him too, using my dad’s account, but to this day I’m ninety percent sure it was Johnny who started the whole mess. And when Raw Dawg went crying to his superiors, it was our dads who got called in for disciplinary meetings. I don’t know how or if Johnny ever got punished for getting his dad in trouble, but I had my immersion rig taken away for three months.
I was so pissed at Johnny that first month offline. In the second month, I turned that anger towards myself, and finally, as my punishment came to an end, I seethed with rage at Raw Dawg for being a little bitch.
Ultimately, it was our stupidity that got us in trouble. We thought because we were using our dads’ accounts that we were anonymous, when in fact, it was quite the opposite. Not only were our dads’ names attached to the accounts, but since we were on a military base, it was trivial to find them if someone lodged a complaint. We realized that we’d taken a shortcut in getting access to the BBS, and that the next time we threatened to kick someone’s ass, we’d do it behind the veil of true anonymity.
That was the second stupidest thing we (but mostly Johnny) had ever done. The topper was Johnny actually creating a true Dead Man’s Loop, or DML, a program that would automatically delete all of his personal files and transfer his assets to a specified target, which turned out to be me. The loop could only be triggered by Johnny’s death, since it relied on the biochip embedded in his neck. If an hourly ping went unanswered for twenty-four intervals, the code—distributed throughout VNet and various darknet servers—would activate.
Johnny had always been fascinated with the idea of a Dead Man’s Loop even when we were kids, though I bet he never though he’d actually use it. The topic first came up a year after the Raw Dawg incident, when we stumbled upon the number for an 18+ BBS that had a sizable stash of VR porn shot in first person and with 360-degree head tracking. It lacked much of the sensory input that would come later with the higher bandwidth of the Net, but at the time, it was better than swiping through Victoria’s Secret ads on our palettes. For a time there, we spent most of our night in those simulations—separately, of course—marveling at the naked women who stared into the camera, into our eyes, with a lust we had never seen in real life before.
It became necessary to hide all that porn; after all, they weren’t magazines to be hidden under my mattress. And in a pinch, we needed to be able to dump the incriminating evidence directly into the ether. Overwrite the bits. Zero everything out.
We worked together on the first iterations of the DML, which at the time were simply triggered by a duress password. If our parents ever asked us for the password, we could just give them a special passphrase like tacotime92 and the computer would know to dump all the data in /home/danny/jubs. It wasn’t until we got older and started messing around with a tougher crowd that we began discussing what would happen if we actually died.
I don’t remember ever reaching an agreement on the subject. My intention was to dump every piece of data I had into a sea of cleansing zeroes and leave all of my money to my wife. The wife never materialized, and for the last decade my accounts have been payable on death to my mom. Moving the money to someone else, that I understood. If it went unclaimed, it would just end up in the hands of the government to be spent on building the border wall with the MX. But the data, all my documents, photos, music, and yes, pornography… that wasn’t meant for anyone else.
Evidently, Johnny San Vito considered all of his data to be of vital importance. I knew this because when the Dead Man’s Loop triggered while I was in bed with Jane, it dumped a lifetime of happy hackery directly into my Syzygy biochip.
I remembered holding Jane, kissing her lips, smelling her faint perfume, when everything just went white. The Syzygy does so much to regulate everyday functions that when it gets overloaded—which is rare—it shuts down all non-essential functions. The problem with Johnny dumping his entire databank into my biochip is that the Syzygy was never designed to hold that much information. When the data started coming in, the biochip tried offloading it to a secondary host, which meant bandwidth in both directions went to 100-percent utilization.
A denial service attack on my biochip. Only Johnny would accidentally invent something like that. Perhaps if he knew how much pain—true, physical pain—it would cause, he would have left me out of it, or better still, dumped the data to a respository and simply sent me a username and password.
As it happened, I writhed on the floor for a good ten minutes, gritting my teeth against the pain in my head and blubbering like a lost child. I wasn’t embarrassed to be crying in front of Jane; whether she judged me or not, she would never say anything openly about it. It wasn’t unprecedented for me to shed tears at pain; I’d hurt my back a few years before and to date, that had been the most painful thing I experienced.
This was pain from another layer of reality, and the only way through it was to wait until enough data had been offloaded so it could resume its normal functions. I did have the option of cutting it off completely, but at the cost of all the data living in RAM. No, my only choice was to weather the storm and hope I didn’t go insane from the flashes of photos and text popping in from the periphery.
It took Jane some time to realize I wasn’t crying because Johnny was dead—or supposedly dead, at any rate. Once she did, however, she switched roles from counselor to nurse.
“Are you alright?” she asked, placing her hand on my forehead. She was kneeling beside me at the foot of the bed. The lights were low but I could see her face plainly, see the concern in her eyes. “Should I call someone?” She reached for my left arm, for the sliver embedded in my wrist.
“No,” I said, taking her hand instead. The Syzygy drove the sliver anyway, so there was no guarantee she would be able to use it to call for help. And it didn’t matter; there was nothing a standard hospital could do for me. If we were in Umbra surrounded by gray market butchers then maybe. But here in Vail where the rich and powerful owned million-dollar homes they only used two weeks out of the year? No way.
“Your forehead’s on fire. Let me get you something.” Jane ran to the bathroom, grabbed a washcloth from the shelves by the shower, and then held it under the faucet.
I felt my eyes wander over her body, which was good because it meant some of my normal functions were coming back, but the moment was short-lived. I couldn’t even appreciate her naked form as it hurried through the darkened cabin to my side.
The cold cloth barely made a dent; there was nothing but heat all around me.
“How do you know your friend is dead?” she asked.
“Johnny. You said he was dead.”
I shook my head, felt needles prick my neck. “I don’t know if he’s dead.”
It always felt hollow explaining technical things to Jane. As I laid out the details of the Dead Man’s Loop in simple terminology, she remained engaged and even nodded every once in a while. But at her core, I knew none of the information was sticking. And I wouldn’t have expected it to. Her interest in computers and technology was superficial, an add-on feature chosen via a check-box on a web form.
“Maybe it was an accident?” she suggested. “Like, he was just cleaning it and it went off in his hands.”
“Maybe,” I replied. “Maybe. Could you—” I paused as a hot needle passed through my eyes—first one, then the other. “Could you grab my palette from the bar?”
She got up without replying, grabbing her Spurs shirt on the way to the kitchen. I rolled onto my stomach and sat back against the bed.
So much data.
Every time I closed my eyes, I saw more if it streaming past me like the Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace, only these weren’t stars but rather complex equations cycling through letters and numbers, trying to find a sequence that made sense. The Syzygy’s on-the-fly decryption couldn’t keep up with the incoming stream, and it looked like there were some batches of data that it couldn’t even touch. Others were simpler though, bits of meta attached to files and photos, with names that were almost recognizable as words, except that they flew by too quickly, deforming at the speed of light.
Jane returned with the palette and handed it to me. She sat down on the bed, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“At least you can sit up,” she said.
I nodded, unable to unclench my jaw to speak. The palette woke at my touch and presented a grid of applications. I brought up an app I’d put together to manage my personal servers—most of them were in-house, with redundant backups buried beneath the foundation of the cabin. A select few were located offsite in a darknet, protected by firewalls and honeypots and generally inaccessible to all but the most elite hackers.
My first task was to follow my biochip’s lead and cut all non-essential programs—anything that would eat CPU or fill up the pipe. I shut down a farm of VMs that were running integration tests for Lucas Cotton’s MESH project. It would be a pain in the ass to restart all the tests, but I didn’t really have a choice. I took the house offline as well, shut down transcoding services that were pulling movies from supposedly secure servers owned by Paramount, Lion’s Gate, and the newly reborn New Line Cinema. Every feed aggregator and parser in my arsenal went silent, and the cabin followed suit.
Upstairs, the fans on my suite of video cards slowed to an inaudible hum, bringing a quiet to the cabin that even Jane noticed.
She looked up, as if suddenly aware of the world again. I wanted to tell her what was happening, but at that moment, it was if someone had pulled the plug in the bathtub of my agony. I felt the data seep out, faster and faster, as the Syzygy used the full breadth of available bandwidth to chunk out the dump to local servers. I leaned my head back, felt Jane’s hand on my forehead.
“Better now?” she asked.
“Getting there.” And it was true. With every terabyte the Syzygy offloaded, its utilization fell by a small fraction. “Just give me a few minutes.”
“Sure,” she replied. “You want some water?”
Jane pushed herself off the bed and walked to the lower dresser separating the bedroom from the living room. She opened her drawer, and after rifling through the contents for a minute, extracted a sheer pair of black underwear.
“That Johnny,” she said, her tone suggesting she actually knew my friend personally and not just through my stories. “It’s just like him to interrupt us at the worst time, right? I mean, you could have been watching TV or playing a video game. For the last six months, you’ve sat here alone with your toys.”
She paused as her head disappeared into the fridge.
“But no, he waits ’til I get here, waits ’til we’re in the throes of passion, and then gives you the headache to end all headaches. Some friend.”
I took the water bottle when she held it out to me and ripped the cap off. Between sips, I told her, “Johnny’s more than a friend. He saved my life. I saved his. We did time together, did you know that?”
Jane shook her head.
“Folsom Minimum Security in 2007. We got jumped by a group of former MX soldados that had overflowed from Max. Neither of us were great fighters, but we stuck together and came out of it on the other side.” I laughed. “I remember Johnny saying to me, and it was funny because he had a mouth full of gauze, but he said we’re connected now… brothers. He said it like we hadn’t been friends since junior high.”
The Syzygy snapped back online. According to a monitor app on my palette, it had reduced the data dump’s memory footprint to a manageable size. Most of the data had been offloaded, and now the biochip was going line-by-line trying to decrypt the data. I adjusted a few sliders to kill the decryption process and focused energy on managing my body.
It wasn’t as if the Syzygy wasn’t up for the job, but a decryption task as big as this one needed a proper environment, like a self-contained construct in VR where the server and my immersion rig could double-team the data.
The headache began to subside, only to replaced by intense fatigue. I climbed up the foot of the bed, and Jane followed me back to the pillows. She pulled the covers over me as I stretched out, my forehead still covered in sweat.
“Good,” she said, patting me on the chest. “You need some rest.”
“I just need to send a quick message.”
The sliver in my wrist had come back online, and I noticed there were no keyword alerts for Johnny San Vito—a search I’d had running for nearly a decade now, just so I could always keep tabs on him. Johnny didn’t always share the details on every job he took; sometimes I learned about a new hack from the feeds, and it would only be later in a protected construct that I would get the full story.
I used the quick keys to compose a simple message to Johnny.
What the fuck?
It disappeared into the ether, and I used the same arm to reach above my head for the box full of code cards. Jane snagged it before I could.
“What do you want?”
She shuffled to the back of the box and examined the labels on the cards. Finally, she pulled out a sleek silver card with a wisp of light pearl running its length.
“Turn your head.”
I did as I was told, turning my gaze to the clear walls of the bathroom and the serene forest beyond. Snow fell in the moonlight, as it had all winter, and the world turned, as it had for all of human history.
Jane pressed the card to the back of my neck, initiating a wireless transfer of synth code directly into the Syzygy. Vanilla Sky was a cocktail of synthetic sleep aides that came on quickly but softly. Within a few blinks, I would be asleep.
I turned back to her, watched her climb beneath the sheets before pressing the card to the back of her neck. She smiled at me, mouthed the words, “Sweet dreams.”
The cabin began to fall away, but a light buzzing in my wrist kept me from going over the edge into sleep. I lifted my arm, hoping to see a message from Johnny.
What the fuck? asked my sliver.
It was my own message. Not bounced, not returned. It was forwarded.
Vanilla Sky pulled me down, but not before I understood the gravity of the situation. The messaging service wasn’t some random account Johnny owned; it was tied to his core identity and hidden from most of the world. It was the way he communicated with his best friends and most treasured contacts.
It was a basic part of Johnny.
He could do without his data for a couple of hours, and the money could be easily returned, but if he was still alive, he wouldn’t have waited for me to return his messaging account.
To understand the scope of Applied Harmonics’ work, you have to look at the startup scene in Austin, Texas around the mid-90’s, back before the scene itself had a name. Around that time, Austin was seeing an influx of Californian money, most of it by way of rich West Coasters who fled the high cost of living for the laid back, BBQ and beer lifestyle of the Live Music Capital of the World. They took the foundations of Silicon Valley and started rebuilding it here.
Austin never achieved Silicon Valley 2 status, but we did have our share of success. Dell, which sold personal computing devices to the common man, began its life just up the road from us. The city attracted giants like Borland, SolarWinds, and Tivoli Software. AMD, Intel, and Samsung had a huge semiconductor presence as well. Couple all of this technology with the University of Texas, and you’ve got a city ripe for cutting-edge theoretical research.
Applied Harmonics (abbreviated AHI thanks to a tacked-on “Inc.”), started as a thesis project by a UT student named Arthur Rubens. One of the major shortcomings of string theory at the time was that it didn’t explain particle behavior in all circumstances. In terms of gravity, the model behaved one way. In terms of space-time, there were gaps that just couldn’t be explained. Rubens, in his own words, stumbled upon a unified string theory after a night of heavy drinking during which he overwrote his boson equations with fermion equations on the same whiteboard.
History was never the same. Our history, anyway. Evidently, you people can create technological wonders that boggle the mind, but string theory is a bridge too far.
I don’t pretend to know anything about string theory, though perhaps if I did, I could return home a la Sam Beckett. All I know is that in the fall of 2016, Rubens and his team had a breakthrough, which would ultimately lead to the destruction of countless universes.
A little about November 2016. Life as an American in my world was about separating the micro from the macro. Our media companies weren’t as pervasive (and invasive) as yours, but they were no less harmful. Owned by rich, entitled white dudes who themselves were owned by political parties and larger companies, skewed the news to push whatever agenda they deemed most profitable. And when they had the opportunity to keep a self-proclaimed bigot and sexual predator from being elected president, they failed miserably. Protests, hate-crimes, and general anxiety pervaded the landscape.
For most of us, we kept watch on things closer to home: our family, our friends, our cozy little job and cozy little car. I was never the protesting type, nor was I someone who believed a president could do much of anything except drag us into another recession, for which my positions were prepared anyway.
All of this is to say that no one was really paying attention to the things that mattered: science, technology, medical developments, etc. They were too focused on a buffoon demanding security clearance for his children, as if his nepotism was a surprise to anyone.
That year, I’d been married to Maisie for about five years, and had worked at AHI for more than ten. My focus had been on her, on our attempts to start a family, and our never-ending quest to lose weight. At work, Monroe and I kept busy writing scripts to parse the massive amounts of data Rubens was pulling in from what he called other “shades” of universes. These shades had to be compared to ours on the atomic level, which meant our best computers (tinker toys compared to yours) needed to be told how to make that comparison.
Monroe had only been with the company about four years. He’d replaced a sharp guy named Han who quit to move back to Korea to take advantage of their burgeoning tech scene (of which I was completely unaware). Monroe and I became fast friends, mostly due to our hatred of Austin drivers and mutual love of the Dallas Cowboys football team. That year, they had been on a hot streak behind two new rookies, which meant Monroe and I would spend most of Monday reliving the highlights from the previous day’s play.
A little about Monroe. He’s the coolest black dude I’ve ever met, and though he prides himself in being a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off of nobody, he looks like a strong gust of wind might carry him off at any moment. I guess that’s why he wears his gold chains, to weigh him down. None of that matters though, because Monroe always has a smile for everyone. He’s a genuinely nice guy in front of the suits.
But in the lab? When the doors are closed? He’s just as depraved as the rest of us.
It was Monday, November 14, if I recall correctly. The week before Thanksgiving. Maisie and I had been dreading the holidays since both of our families were getting a little too pushy with their demands of grandchildren. The Cowboys had just pulled off an insane back-and-forth victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers and I couldn’t wait for Monroe to get in.
It was after nine before he finally rolled in complaining about the traffic.
“She saw me put my blinker on,” he said, dropping his backpack onto his desk, “and she sped up anyway. What the hell is wrong with people?”
“At least the Cowboys won,” I replied.
“Hells yes!” Monroe leaned over for a high five. “My man Zeke is killin’ it!”
I won’t bore you with the specifics of the conversation, but suffice it to say it ended with us agreeing that Jason Witten was the best thing since sliced bread. By the time we’d watched all the replays and discussed the playoff picture, it was close to ten.
“I’m gonna get some coffee before the data pushes,” he announced. “You want anything?”
“I’m good,” I told him, turning my attention back to my computer. I had a bunch of browser tabs open to various sport sites, so after one more replay of Ezekiel Elliot slicing through the Steeler defense, I closed the entire browser and launched SecureCRT.
Buried deep under the rolling Lakewood hills, AHI’s server cluster churned in the LED twilight. Environmental systems kept the cavernous data center at a brisk 64 degrees. The racks were protected by steel cages, and only a small team of engineers were allowed physical access. Everyone else had to go through multi-factor authentication to get command-line access.
I typed in my various passwords, consulted my keyfob a few times, and eventually got access to Pylon 18, which was due for a data push at exactly 1000 hours.
When I joined the company in 2006, Rubens and company were running tests manually, compiling the data by hand, and then offloading it to the software devs for analysis. Ten years later, the tests were all automated, and ran 24/7 but favored the evening hours when electricity was cheaper. Sometimes, Monroe and I could hear the Tuner in the next room popping on and off as it pushed particles from our universe into the infinite void.
They came back changed, and it was up to us to figure out exactly how.
Pylon 18 was running slower than usual that morning, though “top” didn’t show anything out of the ordinary. I finally figured out it was the disks. Despite having SSDs in a RAID array, the network throughput was overwhelming the file system, slowing down the entire server. I changed into the newest directory and watched a tar.gz file grow with every refresh.
Tests typically generated between 6 to 8 gigabytes of data per Pylon, but the archive file I was watching was already well over three hundred gigs. At five hundred it split (what developer saw that scenario coming?) and began writing a new file.
By the time Monroe returned with his coffee, Pylon 18 had sixteen archives, comprising just over 7.3 terabytes of data.
“Sweet Lady Gaga,” said Monroe, as an alert flashed on his screen. “You seeing this? Pylon 17 just absorbed an 8 terabyte dump. I didn’t know it could take a punch like that.”
“Yeah,” I told him. “18 just got the same. What the hell happened overnight?”
Monroe had no idea, and there was nothing in the logs, but as we began to comb through the data, certain anomalies began to emerge. We shared the same general library of scripts, but Monroe and I were always trying to outdo each other when it came to making a discovery. I ran my scripts, setting off a dozen of them in unison now that the server was running faster.
“Offset,” said Monroe.
I tabbed through my screen session until I found the offset script. It was generating a rudimentary scatter plot with standard deviations showing all of the harmonic offsets from previous tests.
Harmonic offsets aren’t hard to understand if you think of them in terms of piano keys. In the middle of the keyboard, A is defined at 440 Hz. One half-step up is B-flat at 466.2 Hz. Think of the keys as universes. A tone in universe A vibrates at 440 times per second. In universe B-flat, it vibrates at 466.2 times per second. If you could reach into a grand piano and deform the string, you could push the A key into the B-flat range.
That’s essentially what the Tuner does. It deforms the harmonic frequency of matter, pushing it from our dimension to another.
“Someone keyed this in wrong,” said Monroe. “I thought offsets were supposed to be plus ones.”
We’d figure this all out later, but what we were seeing at the time was a scatter plot of harmonic offsets between 1 and 1,000. On the very left of the graph, as an obvious outlier, was the offset from the previous night’s test.
“That’s…” I had to pause to do the math, but I wanted to start talking before Monroe shouted out the answer. “Two by ten to negative sixteenth power. That’s almost nothing.”
If it helps, you can think of a tiny–nearly microscopic–key between the A and B-flat key on the piano. You can’t see it, and God only knows how you’d press it, but it does produce a tone that is distinct–at some level–from the A.
I looked over at Monroe; he was staring back at me, some kind of freakish smile on his face.
“I want to send the email,” he said.
“We don’t even know what we have yet,” I reminded him. “Just because someone fat-fingered the offset doesn’t mean the experiment worked. It could just be an anomaly.”
Monroe stood and walked to the interior window. He stared at the Tuner in the other room.
“No, it’s not an anomaly. It’s like just like I said. The offset was too high. They were pushing too far too fast.”
That got me laughing. “Like you knew.”
“I’m the smartest motherfucker you know, and I saw this shit coming a mile away. White people and their manifest destiny mindsets can’t settle for anything less than a grand slam. But you know what, man? Sometimes a single is all you need. Bunt that shit, and go from there.”
“We should really wait for the scripts to run. Let the computers tell us if there’s anything worth passing on to the suits.”
Monroe shook his head. “Thirty-six Pylons. Six to eight terabytes each. Two hundred and fifty terabytes total. That’s gonna put us into overtime. What are we gonna tell them when their results don’t show up in their inboxes at COB?”
He had a point. If Rubens had truly broken through to a new dimension, it wasn’t something we wanted to sit on. The prospect of raising a false alarm was nil in the face of the greatest discovery our universe had ever known.
“Let’s see where we are in a couple hours,” I said. “If anything looks promising, you can send out the email.”
“Fuck yes. I’m gonna bring the other Pylons online.”
I left him to his work and started thinking about the day to come. I’d been too excited from the football game the day before to get any real sleep, which meant I hadn’t worked out in the morning like I’d wanted to. My body was tired and already achy.
Sensing a late night, I texted Maisie to let her know she might be on her own for dinner tonight. She wrote back that if I ordered food in, I should get something healthy. I sent her an emoji of pizza and fried chicken.
“The Monroe-Ortega Offset,” muttered Monroe. “Discovery of the century.”
I backed out of the conversation with Maisie and found the thread with Elena below it. I asked her if Angel had watched the game yesterday and whether she finally understood why men loved Jason Witten. She wrote back and implied that I was a homosexual.
On the screen, output from my scripts scrolled in thin columns.