Fiction


Nonfic


Staff Writers






      


HYDROPOP by BRAM E. GIEBEN (AKA TEXTURE)

The sky above him was a monochrome film of rain and cloud. No kind of morning, more like an endless anteroom for a dawn never expected to arrive. Under the autumn pall, the building was more monstrous than ever, a sheaf of dulled, dirty glass that towered into the clouds and beyond, hundreds of storeys. The entrance was a featureless metal door some five feet thick, guarded by grim-faced eastern Europeans. They negotiated entrance by means of passcard and biometric scan; red epaulettes and stiff woollen bomber jackets their only badges of office. He joined the queue of inmates as they shuffled towards the entrance. Sullen, not talking. Huddling into his inappropriately light mac, he pulled his ID card out and submitted to the brief and tangible burst of radiation from the guard’s handheld scanner.

Quit holding it so fucking close, he thought, I’ve got enough to worry about. I don’t need cancer in my eyeballs too.

He said his name and job for the guard, dutifully enough.

“Jonathen Throat, data fisher, first class.”

The guard grunted noncommittally and ushered him inside with a shrug, the thick steel parting to admit him. Guard number two briefly hoisted his automatic rifle, looking for vagrants in the ruined parking lot across the street, beyond a chain-link fence.

No vags keen to use a humble fisher for target practice today. Besides, it’s early for gunfire.

The guards were more for recalcitrant workers than to keep the vags away, and they’d be paying the vags protection. Most vags took credit chips these days. It eased the transaction somewhat if you could jack a motherfucker for plastic as well as bills.

There was another radio-scan in the doorway, an embedded weapons-detection beam that filtered for metal munitions and ceramic blades; imported guns that blanked the usual metal scans. He didn’t know why they bothered. Nobody who worked in the building could leave anyway, their employment wasn’t exactly optional. It was, however, steady work. Mostly, those who would carry weapons or explosives into a heavily guarded place like this were destined to be vags themselves. Very few people who were vags at heart accepted the Offer.

People like me, mused Throat. People with no feral cunning and no strength of will: we accept the Offer. We keep the corporation running.

He walked through the lobby to the elevator and punched in the co-ordinates for his desk in the bullpen, up on the hundred and fourteenth floor. He braced himself for the extra G the lift applied as it began its rapid ascent, trying not to lose the meagre lunch he’d managed after last night’s quote-unquote late shift in the office.

Well, there had to be some perks, even if you had to bend the rules a little to arrange them. What did they expect? He was a hacker by nature, from birth and by design. They could call him a fisher if it made them feel any better about what he did for them. They could restrict his access to the BadNet and monitor him, but to expect him not to find a way around it? That was absurd. It wasn’t in his nature not to at least try. There wasn’t a system out there he didn’t feel a need to understand and defeat. It was like breathing.

Like most men, Throat had soon come to feel that simply breathing was not enough. Like most men, he had found something that took his mind away from the monotony of breathing and existing. His job put him in the way of temptation - hacking for the Government in the BadNet and seeing all the flashing, glittering things from the past that hung there in the dark like chandeliers liberated from gravity and place, spaceships in thick fogs of antimatter clouds.

At least, that was how they looked to him. The fisher rigs worked that way, worked on your perceptions. You saw what your frontal lobe saw, once it was enmeshed in the complex data patterns. Just as your eye tricks the two-dimensional shapes it records in the meat world, and encodes them in the brain, constructing a distinctive shared reality.

Throat pressed his hand against the cold glass of the elevator mirror, regarding his unshaven face and matted, dark hair, his collar hanging baggily around his neck. In the BadNet, consensus reality was much less solid. Data is less fussy about how it is perceived than humans are. The mind’s eye didn’t so much play tricks as just go properly over the ledge, detailing vivid subconscious hallucinations on the malleable, three-dimensional canvass of the fisher rig’s visual interface. It took a lot of control to bring even some coherence to their forms, and perceive them according to their nature, rather than the whirlwind of related links and meta-data that obscured them. It was like reverse-engineering a Manga that had been scribbled over, while it was still playing.

Throat entered the bullpen, the lift doors snapping shut swiftly behind him. He saw his colleagues making their way to their stations. Jenkins was still plugged in from last night. Sloppily, he was lurched back in his chair, spilling out of the cubicle. Soon daywatch would be round and he’d get a swift crack of a truncheon.

Eyeing the security cameras, Throat altered the course to his workstation slightly. As he passed Jenkins. he deliberately tripped over the man’s chair leg, jolting him awake. Jenkins sprang forward, fingers of his right hand hastily keying in co-ordinates, his unseeing eyes now stuck to the eye-pads with crusty silicon gel.

Throat didn’t look back, but continued to his workstation. Once inside he pulled the sliding door to, and sat down in front of the screen. It was glowing a soft blue: the warm-up phase. A soft feminine voice - that of the floor’s supervisor, Marlene - spoke from the wall speakers.

“You changed your route to your desk, Throat. Why was that?”

“Sleepy,” replied Throat cautiously. “Slipped and fell, nearly.”

“I don’t like deviation Throat, you know that. And Jenkins will still be put on reprimand for his all-night session. I may even have to terminate his employment.”

“Jenkins who?” asked Throat as nonchalantly as he could.

Marlene didn’t reply. Computerised bitchslut, thought Throat. Probably plotting to bag and tag Jenkins before the shift starts. He won’t know what hit him.

He wondered what Jenkins was into, what had kept him so enrapt last night that he’d nodded off at his desk. Probably just a dose of bad booster synths, not mixed right – too little of the ephedrine-subs and too much mescaline analogue. Nice dreams but a nasty hangover, and no great start to any working day.

He copped his own dose from a tiny plastic cup, which was instantly swallowed up by the waste chute in his desk. Still slightly buzzing from his own late-night excursions, he felt the pseudo-tingle of a dose taken, as the pill hit his belly. The State Dose – for work hours only. Pure uncut K synth.

Glancing back through the smoked glass door of his cubicle he could see only bowed heads, caps on, monitors shining dimly with subdued vital signs. Across from his tiny cubicle sat Wierzbowski, the bear-like Pole. Wierzbowski was flexing his meat-slab forearms and administering a fresh hit of K synth into his vein, casually, as though lighting a cigarette. Mainlining is so macho – yeah right, thought Throat.

Wierzbowski tilted his head back, removed the tourniquet, and saw his colleague staring. Scowling, he took his own cap and put it atop his skull, faintly comical there, popping the eye terminals into place.

Ignoring Wierzbowski, Throat returned back to his own terminal screen, musing how much easier this would all have been if he had never got caught in the first place. Never gotten this rotten job, and instead been eligible for a Seven upgrade like the rest of rampant humanity.

Jacking in had always been a kick, pre the job. Pre everything. The man and the machine joined in a simulacrum. It was copulation. Male and female leads, ports and terminals. Being inside the Net, before the Division of the Realms, before the Seven. K synths or Mescaline analogues or whatever, just washing into his synapses. He was… augmented. The feeling was a dirty rush. But the Seven was different, so they said. A permanent augmentation. It was voluntary evolution. He wondered if it would feel at all the same; knew this was a question that all fishers pondered daily.

On his 2-D cubicle screen, he saw his tools arrayed in cathode green. Scalpel-diallers and chisel-worms, flashing as though substantial, but unreal. Only on the BadNet did they become manifestly real: three-dimensional cutting and welding tools, polygons of light that hacked and burned through information. And his tiny fleet of modem decoys, like a faithful pack of hounds, buzzing around the bottom of the screen, keen to get online, get inside, and start throwing up defences and shrouds. Drones awaiting Throat, their drone commander.

He put his glove on and fastened the first and third fingers, testing the sensitivity pads for any irregularities. The rockers moved smoothly beneath his fingertips, sensing each momentary change in direction. At last, he placed the cap on his head, rolling it over like a second skin, the eye terminals plopping into place with a wet suck.

The visual matrix began to swim into focus. Holoscreen above the right eye, keypad under the left hand. Full immersion. He let himself go into the vision, and the cubicle disappeared, only a faint shimmer behind the translucent eyepieces – the vagueness that was the real world. The mescaline from last night left vague traces of glowing, intelligent light inside his eyelids. They resisted the DataStream. They mocked up silhouettes of the planet Earth receding as the Seven Realm loomed into place, glacial spaceships rotating in geometrical ballet above him. He felt vertigo for a second, then the Earth-image disappeared, and there was only the Seven Realm, its’ infinite architecture of light.

As a cur and a thief, he was forbidden to assail its walls. Yet another reason why the Seven upgrade was just a fantasy for him, an idle wondering. He was forever chained to drugs, and the BadNet.

Beneath him was a murky, grey and black mass that churned; occasional icebergs of data breaking through the black cloud cover to reveal faded logos and cracked ice, pirate websites dripping with all manner of data-spikes and outboard firewall guns. Programs meant to defend twisted into barbs for offence and assault. The modems hummed behind him, making him insubstantial, and Throat plunged once more into the BadNet, music and mescaline glittering behind him, a faint afterimage of a squid-shaped Ego: his presence in the matrix.

He ceased to be Jonathen Throat, left that name behind with the meat. His ego was named Montaigne. Its glittering contrails shimmered for the briefest of seconds, and vanished.

* * *


Coming out of the net after a successful run on a European banking cluster later that day, Throat had time to reflect. With faint awe, he remembered the trip he had had last night, hidden in a dark recess of the BadNet.

He had waited until the office had gone quiet, the last few fishers gathering up their effects and running to make the last connection home on the Monorail. When he was finally alone, he had played the file that D had given him, and it had seeped into him with the same blood-borne efficacy as the drugs. It had swelled inside him, a growing, living thing. Following the link, Montaigne’s squid limbs dripping with golden trails and blurring the DataStream, he had found the file’s location and thrown up his shroud.

The music began slowly, unlike any of the hip-hop or techno that D had introduced him to. The violins were a deep, dark brown, the sound become flesh, or perhaps wood. An oaken thing, they glided effortlessly across the black abyss of silence, warm and inviting. They cut through it like the prow of an ancient, sea-bound ship. He came as the kettle drums announced a coming storm, his physical body spasming in some far, far-off place. There was only the music. The horns exploded in a riot of golden spheres, rushing by him like a vast armada, this time gleaming against the vacuum of deep space. He turned to face the black, absent silence, riding a wave of gold.

Metallic tones became the wings of primitive angels, gilded and chromed, polished to reflective perfection. The darkness disappeared once more as the wind instruments took up the refrain, flutes breathing a hot, sweet unreality across the whole spectrum of his senses. A heat-haze, an after-tremor, an uncontrollable moan escaped his lips to die soundlessly against the bright barrier of the music. It consumed him. He felt the teeth of the tubas - no longer content to passively mesmerise him with colours and sounds - gnashing against his skin, which was taut like a drum.

He was the splayed surface, the skin with which the stick was united in agonising rhythm. His flesh pounded and thundered with it, ecstatic. The sound reached a crescendo and the rich, sweet smells of pine and oak that had accompanied the violins returned, overwhelming his vision in a blur of green. The tendrils curled about the periphery of his awareness, gently probing every sapient nook and cranny, soothing. The orchestra was silent, the recording was finished, and the mist and the smell receded like ghosts into nothingness. No longer the rich nothingness of suspended melody. No more wonderful. Just the silence of nothing happens.

Shaking, he had peeled the cap from his head, his eyelids coming free of the silicon reluctantly with a wet, sucking sound. The cap was moist from the orgasmic sweat that dampened his crown. He had winced as he stared down at his stained trousers, looking cautiously over his shoulder. Changing was not an option, so he spilled cold coffee across the stain for good measure. Wiping inside his underwear, he realised he had come without even getting hard. His dick had retracted as though cold, the semen oozing out of it reluctantly. Strange, that the meat would cling to the physical effusion but not the precursory rise from death to life. The orgasm was real enough, but the meat that was Jonathen Throat was cold and alone. Meanwhile the squid-like digital self he called Montaigne had come in a burst of drawn flute-breath and hypercolour drumbeats. Throat was merely the vessel that took him to the place where reality became bearable. By the time he reached his Nirvana, the meat had slumped in its’ chair, no longer a fellow traveller. The meat was replaced by the music.

He had returned his glance to the screen, the cold coffee soaking into his pubic hair unpleasantly. The window of invisibility was closing. His blackout shroud was a miniature singularity, a closed timelike loop of code within the portal here at his workplace-cum prison, Municipal Data.

Above the abbreviated plastic walls of his cubicle, a security camera’s red light had winked on, and the camera resumed an arc that had ceased exactly six minutes before, when Throat had thrown up the shroud programme and uploaded the file marked ‘BACH’ into his Ego-server, from the location D had passed him on the BadNet.

D had not lied. The data had been prime, the absolute and most vital - his terms too precise to describe such delicately ordered anarchy. The cocktail of triptamines and Mesc analogues had been a perfect compliment.

Throat was coming out of the BadNet again now, slowly returning to human form. Back in the meat, and the present, once more. Remembering last night, a smile played across his face, and he quickly suppressed it, hid it from the camera’s electronic gaze.

Now it was work time, and he had just fifteen minutes until the next raid. Taking off the optics, he watched a warning red light flash on his cubicle screen. He rolled a measly cigarette from his folded pouch, got up and moved towards the canteen along a pre-programmed vector. A drone yes, but inside his mind, the memory of music.

* * *


At the canteen, Throat waited in line with the other drab inhabitants of Municipal Data, Floor One One Four. Everyone was dressed in the regulation uniform – black tie, white shirt – although many, like Throat, had their collars loose, the ties hanging slackly to one side or another. Throat inserted his ID card, which also recorded his company Nourishment Credits, into a slot by the chef’s cubicle. The chef hummed briefly, and a bank of lights on its front panel flashed from red, to amber, to green. The serving hatch opened, and Throat accepted a tray with a filled roll of processed meat and a half-cup of orange juice. He made his way silently over to the farthest table in the room. There were two other occupants. They eyed him suspiciously as he sat down, giving him an intense glare with two sets of hooded, watchful eyes. Throat carefully avoided their gazes, noticing out of the corner of his eyes that the men were fishers, first class, just like him.

The larger of the two men, balding, with a sweaty face and a worried appearance, seemed to decide that Throat was a non-entity, and struck up the conversation they had put on hold when Throat had approached.

“This enclosure business is just rumour, can’t you see that? Who says this region’s even going to be affected?” The bald man’s voice was a whisper with a hint of panic in it. His eyes flicked furtively back between Throat and his companion.

“It’s a matter of public record.” The second man was younger, dark haired, staring down into his food. He spoke calmly. “Just because I’m a fisher, doesn’t mean I don’t have friends with Seven Upgrades.”

The bald man lowered his voice even further. “So you heard from someone that watched the Seven Proclamation? You heard this from a Seven?”

“There are places on the BadNet, too. News sites, real-time transcriptions in hexameter-coded HTML. Not everyone in Seven Heaven believes in the separation of the Realms, you know. Many voted against it.”

Pretending not to listen, Throat strained harder to hear their hushed conversation. The Realms they referred to were the BadNet and the commercial sphere, or the Seven Realm, only accessible to people who had been allowed to participate in the Seven wetware upgrade process. All hackers had been classed Suppressive Persons, and banned from going beyond the BadNet or receiving Seven grafts. It was the reason they were forced to work here at Municipal Data, trawling the BadNet for information to feed the business-streams of the Sevens above.

Throat speculated that the dark-haired man was an idealist, perhaps someone who believed in destiny. To think that any of the Sevens – rich, free, creators of their own glorious realities – would give a fuck about hackers from the BadNet, was just naïve. Fishers were as bad as the vags in their eyes.

Even in the meat world, they know us, can smell us, thought Throat. We’re just console jockeys. Meat with delusions.

“What happens to us? If they go ahead with it?”

“There is no if,” replied the dark haired man. He raised his eyes from his food and looked at his companion. “The enclosed zones will be autonomous. No sevens, no vags, no fishers. They’re going ahead with the enclosure, you mark my words. There’ll be no net, Seven or otherwise, allowed inside. All residents will be latent Sevens, whose grafts didn’t take... or voluntary reversals.”

The smaller man shivered, and Throat sympathised. Reversals of the Seven process were anathema to fishers. How could you throw away an opportunity like that? It was insanity. But for many people entitled to the Seven upgrade, the heightened, information-rich reality was too much. They had their grafts spayed, so they could passively receive but not interact.

“So they’ll transfer us somewhere?” The fat man was pleading. “Up in the MidCities. I’ve heard there’s a Municipal Data in Little Manchester…”

“Keep dreaming,” said the dark-haired man. “The people behind the enclosure want a meat-only zone. Fuck knows why, but that’s what they want. They’ll leave us at the gates with the vags.”

As he said this, a guard appeared, circling the canteen. Each guard was covered with recording equipment of all kinds – sonic mics, field distortion plugins that picked out keywords in overheard speech, and concealed cameras at every impact point – fist, elbow, knee, boots, forehead, chest, back. The two men fell silent, but the dark-haired man had noticed Throat listening in. He locked eyes with him, waiting until the guard passed.

“Help you with something?”

“Nothing,” said Throat. “What’s this enclosure thing you’re talking about?”

“You’ll find out soon enough,” replied the dark-haired man, smiling. He lifted his tray and nodded his head at the bald man. They got up and left, giving Throat a few suspicious backward glances. After a while, he got on with eating and tried to forget about the incident.

The rest of the day passed without incident, Montaigne jetting endlessly through rank, black data that was mangled beyond repair. Unlike his earlier bank run, an uncommon success, this afternoon brought the familiar feeling of entropy, his ego floating alone in and endless but penetrable mass. However hard he struggled, however fast he swam, he just encountered more blackness, seeping into his brain as his nasal firewall began to haemorrhage and tear.

He pulled out of the BadNet, un-sticking his eyes once more from the silicon optics, barely hearing Marlene berate him for rupturing the firewall. His ego would be repaired overnight, but as he finished work, he felt that he still had a head full of bad, sticky black code.

As he passed out of the Municipal Data building, he could see the vags moving in the half-darkness beyond the chain-link fence opposite. They were starting the first trashcan fires of the evening, huddling themselves into their ragged army-issue blankets and drinking to take the edge off the bitter cold. He hurried along, knowing that the vag snipers would pick off anyone who stood too long on a border street such as this one. As smoke began to rise from upended oil drums, he could just make out the sweep and play of red crosshairs scanning the sidewalk for suspicious targets.

Strange, that all that separates the vag world from the world of us fishers is a chain-link fence and some snipers, thought Throat. Similar to the divide between the Seven and the unSeven. It was an apartheid of mental space, rather than race or religion.

Throat looked around the crowded Monorail as he boarded. Any or all of these people could be Sevens. Probably all.

He could spot his fellow fishers – like calls to like – but everyone else was a mystery. Not just in the sense that they were richer, lived in nicer apartments, had loved ones and families, all that crap. They were ellipses to him, because of the Seven. These people shared the awful commute and the grey city with him. They shared the dismal, repetitious nature of work. Throat didn’t kid himself – although his labour was forced and guarded, it was in all likelihood no less or more like drudgery than the job an average Seven did. The only way to tell the Sevens was their uniformity. They wore one face – an expression of absence, distraction. They dressed the same – the same pale, understated fashions and neat, close-cropped hair. In terms of the meat, Sevens were almost identical to one another.

But when Sevens went home and logged on, they were in Seven Heaven. They could participate in any number of infinite permutations of consensus realities – self-authored, corporate, classic, participatory, solo: as they chose.

Throat had tried to visualise what it must be like to have the Seven graft. You could access real-time data on an instant link, connecting you to thousands of users and databases worldwide, and countless AIs. You could massively parallel process the most complex data just by wishing. And when you got home, you could sink into Full Immersion. Swim in Heaven like a blissful little fish.

He imagined it as a watery element, like the BadNet but crystal clear, hanging with light sources of every kind and intensity. For Sevens, Full Immersion was nothing short of being a god. You created your own reality, experienced matter forming and interacting with you in total, five-senses reality.

Throat wondered why Sevens would ever unplug and come back to meat world. Perhaps it was for their own good that hackers were confined to the Bad Net, forced to get high to approximate the dissociative responses necessary for performing complex data manoeuvres in simulated four-dimensional image-space. Because if they had the Seven, hackers would leave the meat world for good.

This didn’t seem so bad to Throat. He was a transhumanist. He knew that if the meat just died in the chair, it would be because he had ceased to hunger, ceased to thirst, ceased to breathe. He would have no need of it. He would be a little squid-shaped angel, swimming in the waters of his Godself.

But that wasn’t meant to be. He watched the Sevens on the rickety monorail carriage rock to and fro, eyes scanning data as it appeared above their right eyes - checking the newsfeeds, participating in democracy by voting in the daily online elections, real-time thought-mailing with their cousins in fuck-knows-where – they were anywhere but here. Anywhere but present.

He had a head full of sludgy data from the BadNet, but they had a shimmering infinity constantly perched behind their shoulder, waiting to be called into being. Pocket universes.

He coughed, huddled into his jacket, feeling the cold aboard the draughty train. They had pocket universes, and he wasn’t even allowed to read the news. Knew nothing of other countries, distant lives, the communal. All he had, after leaving the prison of his job, was this train, his apartment, and sleep.

Descending the monorail platform and making his way to his basement flat, Throat wondered again about the mysterious conversation he had overheard. Stopping at a local market, he picked up the basic essentials of dinner – bread and some fruit – and returned home. After a meagre meal, he ran himself a bath, spending extra credits he couldn’t really afford on the meter, just to keep it hot and full. He submerged himself to his chin and smoked the end of a joint he had rolled to get himself to sleep the previous night. The conversation about the enclosure refused to leave his mind. It was like a problematic piece of code. He wouldn’t be free of it until it could be deciphered. He drew deeply on the joint, letting it numb him, hoping his brain would simply uncurl and allow him peace, but it refused.

“The people behind the enclosure want a meat-only zone,” the man had said. What was the point of that? The world was run by the Sevens. Without the Seven Realm there would be no banks, no data storage, no commerce. As for the fishers, they fed the Sevens. They linked the Sevens to the past by trawling the BadNet for important data left behind after the separation of the Realms. Without the Sevens, without the fishers, surely the population of the enclosed zones would effectively be vags? Disconnected, abandoned, tech-free. Throat could not imagine it.

As he dried himself and changed into jeans and a vest, the phone rang in the communal hallway. It rang twice, stopped, and rang again once. This was D’s code, to let him know the call was for him. He ran out to the landing with a towel around his neck, holding the door open with the back of his foot. He dialled D’s number, slipping his card into the slot beside the receiver.

“Montaigne.” Her voice was thick, gravel-harsh, inhuman.

“D. Are you using a voice scrambler?” Throat was apprehensive. The voice was definitely not D’s, it sounded digitally altered. Was this a sting of some kind?

“Never mind that. It’s me.” A pause, heavy breathing distorted by digital filters. “So. Did you like the clip?”

“Shit, D. It was the most beautiful thing I ever heard. What’s Bach, were they a band?”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it Montaigne. It’s your last hit.”

Shock hit him like a slap in the face, his skin going cold and breaking out in a sweat at the same time. “What do you mean?”

“You sold dead links to some Phreakers. We traced the filepaths. We know it was you Montaigne.”

“D, hold on, I can explain. I needed - ”

“The money, yes, I know. But those kids are blacklisted now, thanks to you. Under investigation. Bound for Municipal Data. You just created two more fishers for the corporation, you fuck. I have to hide them now, which makes things… difficult.”

“But D - ”

“No buts. I can’t have a traitor riding with us, not now. Not anymore. Not ever, motherfucker.”

Panic fried his circuits, immobilized his tongue. His mouth dry like paper. “The music… The music - ” he stuttered. “D, the music’s all I have.”

“You should have thought of that. Changes are coming, Montaigne. Changes I hoped you would be a part of. But you failed us.”

“I’m sorry. D please, I’m sorry, I - ”

“I’d keep away from Municipal Data too, if I were you. Goodbye, Montaigne.”

The line clicked, went dead. Montaigne smashed the handpiece against the wall as hard as he could, but it simply rebounded, cheap Plascrete piece of shit. His neighbour came out into the hall, regarding him with barely disguised contempt. She was an older woman, in her seventies – no Seven for her. She was in the first wave of reversals. Fear of change held back her kind. They turned the Seven down, when it was offered to them on a plate.

“You’re a piece of shit, just like me!” Throat yelled at her, but she remained impassive. As he began to weep, she simply spat on the floor and returned inside. He was already beginning to fiend for some music. He needed a rhythm: any kind of beat, something solid to keep him alive. Even a fucking metronome. But his flat was empty, the walls bare. He lay down on his bed, and cradled his head in his hands.

* * *


Throat walked along hugging the walls. Despite the cold, he was sweating; drawn lines on his face and bags under his eyes. The sky was still a featureless grey. Weeks had passed without any weather. He was on the run. Running from Municipal Data, who had put out an Orange Alert the first day he had failed to turn up for work. Running from his guilt, at having pushed it all too far, too fast. D was right. He had burned those kids, burned them good. Hadn’t even stopped to think about what might happen. Had assumed D wouldn’t have given a fuck. He had been wrong. Dead wrong.

D supplied links to the unearthed music files she and her crew had found, and then hidden again in the BadNet. Each location was programmed to stay concealed if accessed by an Ego with the right shroud codes. In that way, each music file was unique, a one-time offer. However, because the programming required for the double shroud was complex, the location links were embedded in the BadNet. If a second Hacker visited the location with an expired shroud code, it was like a red, flashing beacon going off. Copyright Control would be immediately alerted that a shrouded location on the BadNet containing illegal music of organic origin was being accessed, and the meat world location of the Hackers would be transmitted to the Moral Surgeons.

Throat remembered his own arrest, not for music offences, but a comparable experience. The Moral Surgeons had arrived within fifteen minutes of his raid on a library of Banned Knowledge, and had blown open his apartment door with a plastic explosive charge. They looked fearsome: cylindrical columns on jets of superheated air, their top halves bristling with antenna and tactical weaponry. The Moral Surgeons were the least human wing of the Municipal Police. For Moral offences, the presence of an organic Officer was deemed too volatile – the rage and disgust that an ordinary policeman might feel towards a perpetrator who had illegally downloaded music, art or literature of human origin could lead to violence, and claims of brutality. To avoid this, the Moral Surgeons were sent in – offenders were neutralized by means of a suspensor beam, and carried in stasis to the nearest Police Ward.

Throat had leapt from his computer, pulling his face free of the eye terminals. He made the mistake of reaching for his ID card, and took a stun beam right in the chest. He remembered blacking out as his heart stopped momentarily, and the awful, rising fear as he came to rest on the suspensor beams the two Surgeons had extended to break his fall. There was no trial. He had been placed at Municipal Data three days later, sitting dazed in his Entrance Interview, in a blank, windowless room, the soon-to-be-familiar voice of Marlene emanating from an invisible position of dominance, making him the Offer. That had been, what? Four years ago?

A moan escaped his lips. He was hurting now. It had been days since he had heard music of any kind, and coupled to this, the withdrawal from contact with Montaigne and the BadNet was manifesting itself in unpleasant and startling ways. Although he now existed solely in the vale of tears that was the meat world, he kept catching shimmering contrails in the corner of his vision. He would turn his head expecting to see Montaigne floating by, and when there was nothing he felt an infinite sense of loss, as though his ego had abandoned him, ascending perhaps to the Seven realm, but without him.

Realising he was hallucinating, he tried to keep his mind clear by repeating phrases of music D had introduced him to in his mind. Half-remembered lines from rap songs; basslines he could hum to himself; even basic techno drum patterns – these kept him briefly sane, but inevitably he would forget a phrase or a word, or would lose his rhythm, until all of the half-remembered fragments became a jumble. As skilled as he was at transubstantiation in the digital world, his own, internal mental space was in ragged disrepair. He could not become anything other than himself - lost, trapped in the meat.

Throat was approaching the centre of the city, and as the buildings got taller he imagined himself in a primal forest, trees bunching in around him on all sides, shutting out the light. There were billboards on this street; the main vector of approach to the city’s central square – huge three-dimensional holographic projections that moved and spoke, directing their elephantine attention at individual passers-by.

Throat had managed until now to keep his eyes averted, and the images had remained almost static, and silent. But now he startled with fear, seeing on a billboard what seemed at first to be a fifty-foot Moral Surgeon. As the animation registered his attention, it sprang to life, and he could see that it was not in fact a Surgeon, but a famous popular music star.

This was Jay-Zoid, the most famous Hydropop A.I. model of all. Directing his performance solely at Throat, the robot began to rap a stream of synthesised, feelgood platitudes. It was all memetically-coded Self Reinforcement, an accepted subject for Hydropop songs; instructing the listener to obey the law and feel good about themselves. The rhyme was in hexameter, and it seemed to babble and skip, lodging itself in Throat’s brain.

He stopped, pinned in place by the huge projection. Jay-Zoid was accompanied by a syncopated, thunderous backbeat that defied the logic and precision of the music D had shown him. It trampled all over that music’s delicacy. As the giant holographic robot rapped on, the beat clanking and clattering behind him, Throat began to weep. He could feel all his memories of music begin to slide out of him.

He had experienced all of his most beloved music virtually, in the void of the BadNet. It was illegal, hidden, something sweet and forbidden and oh, so pure. This was loud, brash reality. Jay-Zoid was the most popular performer in the Seven realm – even Throat and the other fishers knew him by name and appearance. The holographically projected robot stamped all over his dreams, telling him not to worry, to be happy, that everything would be okay. Throat wept on until the clanking, obstreperous noise abated, and with it, all the joy he had ever known. Hydropop was meat world music. It was Seven music. It was legal, sanitized. Hypnotic in its idiocy. This was all that was left to Throat now. He was frozen in place, rooted to the spot with terror.

People walked around him as though he were a rock, and they the stream. Not one person broke the flow of morning traffic to stop and ask him what the matter was, and why he wept. Finally, Throat gathered himself together, stopped trying to recall elusive beats or phrases or melodies, and walked on, losing himself in the stream of meat bodies. Seeing the Sevens as they muttered subvocal conversations and right-eye flipped through data and newsfeeds, he felt a new violence rise in him, a sense of injustice. They were all the same. The same clothes, same suits, same hair… No creativity, no difference, no imagination! He wanted to gouge out their eyes, cut off their hands. It wasn’t fair. They didn’t deserve it! He didn’t deserve this.

Arriving in a strange and unfamiliar district of the city, he checked the address on the scrap of paper in his pocket and looked around for a street sign. He hoped he had the right place. Hackers were almost impossible to track down in the meat world. This was the fifth address he had tried today; each one providing nothing but a slammed door and a fuck-you.

The area he now entered was another border district, and in the distance he could hear the drunken argument of two vags who had started drinking or drugging early. Their voices echoed form a dark alley to his right. He turned away from the source of the noise and entered a grey, drab tenement building. The lift looked like it might work, but the building itself was so decrepit that he decided not to risk it. It could be rigged to stop only at certain floors, where men with knives lay in wait. He saw shadows around every corner, his mind eaten by paranoid what-ifs.

He climbed six filthy flights and came to the door he was looking for. He knocked, waited. After a while, the sound of locks being opened and unfastened could be heard, and eventually the door opened a crack. Two anxious eyes looked out.

“What do you want?”

“My name’s Throat. Jonathen Throat.”

“I know who the fuck you are.” The voice was female, bitter. Throat had been expecting a man.

“You may have met me online. I’m also known as Montaigne.” Throat tried hard not to stutter, the worry making him sick, making him shake. He needed music. Music would make it all better.

“I know who you are, fucko.” The door began to close, but Throat pleaded.

“Wait! Wait. D told you I was coming?”

“Yes.”

“I want… I want to… I want to apologise.” He took a deep breath, continued. “I sold you some bad data. Expired links. You’re not the only one, either… I fucked up, see. I fucked up really badly, and now D’s cut me off. I mean, I can’t get anything, from anyone. I’m scared to go into work, in case she’s exposed me to my boss. I’m breaking down here. I’m nearly a vag, for crying out loud…”

“Cut to the chase. Why should I do you a favour? You said yourself, you ripped me off.”

“Yes, but I’m sorry.” Throat couldn’t help it: the tears came thick and fast. “You’re a Hacker, right? You’re the only one I could find. You know D’s crew. I know I screwed up, and that could have been dangerous for you, but D helped you out. You got away. Same with the others! But I’m a fisher. Don’t you get it? I’ve got nothing else. I’m already screwed, see?”

For a while the girl behind the door was silent, but the door remained ajar, on its’ chain. “So you think I should help you, have I got this straight?”

“Yes.”

“Because although you fucked me over in the BadNet, leaving me at the mercy of Copyright Control, I got away with it. Thanks to D.”

“Well… yes.”

“And you think I’m going to understand, because I’m a hacker. Right? You think I should be loyal. Like there’s some kind of code we all live by. Am I right?”

“Please… yes.”

“No dice. I’m closing the door now, Montaigne. D warned me about you. I’m closing the door and I’m calling the Police -”

“No!” Throat screamed, pounding on the door.

“I’m calling the fucking pigs, and I’m telling them that a Suppressive Person, probably a fugitive, is pounding on my door in the middle of the afternoon, asking me to give him shelter!”

“You bitch!” Throat sobbed. “Can’t you see I’m just like you? Please. All I need’s some music, just a little mus-”

“Shut the fuck up,” she hissed. “D warned me about you, Montaigne. You’re a liar, a criminal, and you’re weak. Go be a vag, you piece of shit. It’s no less than you deserve. Traitor.”

The door slammed shut. Although he suspected she wouldn’t call the Police, he couldn’t risk it. He dragged himself back down the stairs and out into daylight, but the weak sun was too much for him. He shielded his eyes against it, scraping away tears. As he staggered away from the building, he crossed a line inside his mind, and stopped fighting the hallucinations.

All around him, glittering contrails of egos, his and a million others, began to vibrate and shimmer. Off in the distance, beneath the sound of the continuing argument between the two vags, he was sure he could hear violins. Playing… playing… playing Bach!

Joy passed across his face, like sunshine breaking through storm clouds. Throat staggered down the alleyway, across the border, and into vagrant territory. Crossing the borderline, he was vaguely aware of bullets cracking the pavement by his feet. He ignored the shots and ploughed forward drunkenly.

As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he began to see the vags, huddled in doorways in groups, or clustered around open fires lit in upended oil drums. They gazed at him, but instead of the hooded, bloodshot eyes he was expecting, he was shocked to meet stares that were open, clear, receptive. They looked at him mournfully, but in their sadness he could sense not one trace of jealousy or hatred. Their eyes were pure sorrow and pity, and they shone at him like beacons. He used them as guide-lights, staggering drunkenly from wall to wall, following the music as it increased in volume.

Rounding a corner, he passed a young girl with bright blue eyes and dark, curly hair. She walked towards him, palms outsretched.

“I don’t have anything for you,” moaned Throat.

“I’m not asking for anything,” the girl replied, smiling at him eerily. “You’re one of us, aren’t you? What can you give me that I don’t already have?”

Stunned by the question, Throat slumped against the nearest wall. He turned his eyes on her, and although his stare contained an awful, un-named longing and hunger, she did not flinch.

“Consider this, Montaigne,” the girl began. Throat opened his mouth to ask her how she knew him, but she silenced him with her look – depthless blue, impossibly old for a girl so young. “The Sevens are always watched. Always. Even their fantasies begin to merge into one long, collective dream; recorded and stored in the higher Realms. In the BadNet, you can conceal yourself from the eyes of the Sevens, you understand? Not for long; mere seconds. But you can hide, at least you have that.” She smiled mischievously, her nose twitching. “As a vagrant, you become invisible – nobody sees you and nobody cares. Which is best, then? To be watched? To be hidden? Or to be… invisible?”

Throat tried to think, but his brain was on fire, each neural pathway blazing with the pain of withdrawal.

“Music. Please. Music.” That was all he could manage. The girl came closer, a wisp of her dark hair tickling his nose. She touched his forehead and smiled again, disappearing: leaving him slumped there in the darkness of the alleyway. After what seemed like an eternity, he heaved a ragged sigh and hauled himself to his feet, limping further into the gloom, following the distant sounds of the Bach refrain.

Finally, he came to the end of the alley, and saw the source of the music. Flickering in the light of an oil drum fire was an old man in ragged clothes. In his hands he held a strange contraption – a wooden body like a figure eight, and a gently sloping barrel protruding from its’ top, laced with some sort of wire. The man drew a stick back and forth across the wires, making swooping, elegant motions. Throat stood hypnotized by the sound emanating from the device. Only when the old man held and sustained one long, agonising note did it hit him – it was a violin.

With a start, Throat leapt forward, hands outstretched. Gently, the old man smiled. Silently, showing his decrepit teeth and gums, he mouthed the words: ‘You play?’ He offered the violin, holding it out in his wrinkled, ancient palms.

With trembling hands, Throat took the violin, tucking it underneath his chin as he had seen the old man do. He took the stick the man gave him and drew it across the wires covering the front of the instrument. The violin moaned: a harsh, atonal caterwaul that jarred the air.

Throat shuddered, stifling the urge to vomit. A tear rolled down his cheek, and he quickly passed the violin back to the old man, a question burning in his eyes that he dared not ask. All he wanted was to hear the man play once more – to hear just a fragment of melody reverberating in real air; decaying and hovering in the atmosphere between them. The sound of the old man’s playing was the purest thing he had ever experienced. Raw, unfiltered, real. He would have killed to hear it just once more. Would have died for it. The old man took the violin and shook his head.

D stepped out of the darkness behind Throat. Beneath a rough hessian cloak, she wore a dark black catsuit, her raven hair luminous blue in the pale light. With infinite tenderness, she drew a Stem Gun from her cloak, pressed it to the back of Throat’s head, and pulled the trigger. His face exploded outwards, spattering the rough pavement with gore and blood.

D touched her earpiece delicately, speaking in real-time to all her friends and associates online in the BadNet. Their egos hovered, shimmering, inside an infinity of individual consciousnesses.

“I only have a few seconds before our shrouds collapse. I hope you all saw what became of Montaigne. This is what happens to traitors.” She knelt down next to Throat’s body, the lens across her left iris taking in his ruined face in macroscopic detail. “If only he had known. Soon, none of this will matter anyway.”

“The enclosure is coming,” she said to the assembled, invisible crowd. “There’s nothing here for us anymore, you see. Nothing in the BadNet left to find – all the music will be gone soon. And no Seven for us, not ever.”

She rifled through Throat’s pockets, taking his ID card between thumb and forefinger and burning it in the fire of a silver lighter.

“Vagrants and fishers. The illuminated and the dispossessed. We’ll be left behind, outside the walls, with only the Sevens for company. And while the Sevens become less and less human, more and more the same as one another, we will simply die out. Mark my words, there is a war coming, and we aren’t on either side. We’re merely collateral damage. Genocide victims by default.”

She stood, kicked Throat’s body so it rolled over, face down.

“Right now, you fishers think that the Seven is something you want, something denied to you.” D smiled.

“That’s what Montaigne thought. Never heard a man say: ‘It’s not fair’ as many times as he did. But he was wrong. You were spared the fate of the Sevens. To become one, to merge… Everyone with the same data… That’s a death sentence, you understand?”

The old man nodded gravely at her from the flickering shadows, caressing his violin.

“If we can get inside the walls when the enclosure comes, we can have more than just these temporary autonomous zones. More than back alleys and shrouded files. We can have real life again, real music, real people. In a place with no net, there can only be the meat world. And all the things we have been taught to forget, we can remember together. But the ones who will build this enclosed space, they don’t want people like us inside the walls. We’re going to have to infiltrate.” She smiled at the old man.

He began to play once more, and the gentle sawing of his bow made the instrument sing and weep. The noise was picked up by D’s microphones, and passed instantaneously to the watching, shimmering Egos of the fishers.

“This is what music sounds like in real life. No file, no shroud. Just a man, and an instrument, and air. This is not hidden. This has been forgotten. Do you understand?”

The shrouds began to chatter nervously as their lifespan neared expiration. D broke the connection with a flick of her fingers. The little girl with the blue eyes came out of the shadows then, and took D’s hand. They went around the corner, deeper into the maze of alleyways, with the old man playing softly behind them.

“What will it be like, mother?” asked the little girl. “In the new city? Who will we be there?”

“We’ll be the music makers,” replied D. “And the dreamers of dreams.”

The little girl smiled, comforted by the familiar phrase. She squeezed her mother’s hand, and they both vanished into the filthy darkness.



Original image by Stuck In Customs, some rights reserved.

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