Fiction


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HEX by BRAM E. GIEBEN (AKA TEXTURE)

Sara treads the damp pavement warily. Peering past the translucent wash of GPS data from her UrbanLayers app, a glowing green tracery laid over the rain-slicked avenue, trailing off into the impenetrable darkness of obscure alleys, she breathes in shallow, nervous gasps. UrbanLayers is almost pointless this far into the Zone. At a certain point, the information stops, and there is just rain, brick, flesh: all indistinct in the gloom, un-illuminated.

Streetlights flicker, revealing glimpses of spoiled, abandoned product: torn sofas and broken Holoscreens; mysterious tangles of fractured tech bleeding wires and circuit boards; ruptured trash bags vomiting their rotting guts across the empty sidewalks. Solid goods: the paradigm of a century dead three decades now, but still refusing to lie still in its grave.

On tenement steps sits an octogenarian bum. His temples are locked in his shaky grip as he tries to hold fast the burned-out connections in his rusted, corrupted wetware. He mumbles to himself incoherently, words lost in matted beard flecked with dried vomit. Sara hastily downloads and executes a freeware app for tracking and neutralising network intrusion packets, scanning the degraded viral code that trickles wetly across her retinal implants, emanating from the bum in waves of incorporeal light.

The bum is writing a suicide note of sorts: an infectious piece of fuck-you executable code which tries to sink its encrusted barbs into the background processes of her AppleCortex operating system. Her retinal feed darkens defensively as her antivirus package spews golden light into the bum’s informatics field. A few strands of his sticky, ultramarine code leak through, but her prefrontal firewall lobe disembowels the viruses effortlessly. Sara laughs. The old man gasps in sudden pain, his ancient implant feeding back white-hot neural static. His ears scream with sussurant, atonal noise.

As she passes the moaning, keening bum, Sara sees the sign up ahead, pink neon flashing epileptically through the mist and rain. The sign says ‘Voudoun Jacks.’ Below the neon, in flaked-off paint, a list of services: ‘Hexes, Fortunes, Charms and Potions.’

The entrance to Voudoun Jacks is below street level. Sara descends the steps, kicking aside piles of trash, and presses her thumb against the biometric reader beside the dust-streaked glass door. The small device flashes red, then turns green, recognising her thumbprint and DNA. The door slides open, but no light emanates from within. She peers dimly into the gloom.

The place is a labyrinth of cables. As her eyes adjust, they come slowly into focus. A pale wash of light emanates from a bank of Holoscreens at the back of the room. She watches the familiar descending lines of hypertext and green ASCII scroll past in silence, a dead sea of code tumbling over a stark cliff of darkness. There is an acrid smell in the air. Cheap clove cigarettes and sweat.

“We’re closed.” A voice like gravestones, the accent pure swamp Cajun.

“I have credit.” Sara squeezes her long, plaited black hair, rivulets of extruded rain soaking the black wifebeater she wears beneath a faux-plascrete-print parka. “Besides, you owe me, Jacks.”

“Fuckin’ Sara.” The voice sounds deadened, resigned. “Who’s pissed you off this time, ma chere? An’ why the fuck you gotta involve me?”

Sara steps into the sour milk reek of the room, eyes adjusting still further. In the back she can just make out Jacks, supine in an old leather dentist’s chair. His skinny torso is encased in a filthy pinstripe waistcoat and a white shirt stained yellow with old sweat. The arms and legs of the suit are sawn off and pinned up – Jacks has no need of them. All four of his limbs were amputated as punishment for a business deal gone wrong a few years back. Now Jacks is just a body, crowned with a small, lined face with beady, rat-like eyes. They peek out from beneath the brim of a battered felt bowler hat which has seen better days: greasy and dented, it is coated with a thin film of dust. Jacks stares at Sara piteously. “It's late, little girl. Tell me who you want to hurt or get out of my shop, comprende tu?”

Sara doesn’t answer the crippled warlock’s weary request verbally. She sends the profile she boosted from the Clarion servers earlier that day over a closed-channel peer-to-peer beam to Jacks’ wetware server.

The abomination in the chair sighs with a mixture of pleasure and trepidation. “This has got serious tags, kitten. You know I don’t fuck with this corporate spook shit any more. I can’t afford bionics for the bits of me they hacked off the last fuckin’ time.”

“Thought you didn’t miss your arms and legs Jacks? You told me you liked being a free-floating torso.”

“I’d rather keep my original dick and balls – I’m kinda attached to ‘em.”

Sara gives Jacks a sharp, loaded look, sending him a stream of obscene Hentai avatars of tiny, bowler-hatted, limbless cripples being stump-fucked by miniature Godzillas. Jacks grimaces. “Cute. But unless you gotta lotta credit, you are shit out of luck, sister.”

Sara streams her last three hundred credits into Jacks’ banking chip. “Choke on it, you Cajun fuck.”

Jacks grins as he watches his balance rise. “What’d this dumb fuck do, rape you? Spike you with a neuro-trojan? What?”

Sara spits on the floor. “He’s my father.”

Jacks grunts. “Enough said.”

Talk and payment dealt with, Jacks summons up a holographic workspace. It shimmers in front of him, a ghost-echo of the faulty neon beyond the store’s entrance. The workspace solidifies. Two hard-light appendages coalesce around the ruined lumps of flesh at Jacks’ shoulder sockets. The holographic arms type and hack and slash at the workspace, blurring and degenerating in the rotten air as he works the magic of his spell.

His face is bathed in pale green light: beads of sweat drip from his face. His tiny pupils dilate, his mouth twists into a frightening leer. The hex appears in midair – a cubic structure with protruding spikes on each surface.

“Done,” growls Jacks. The workspace and his virtual arms flicker back out of existence. The cube remains hanging in midair, slowly revolving, half artefact of ancient tech and half membranous, cell-like cancer prion.

Sara taps her temples, absorbing the code into her Cortex. It glides effortlessly past her firewall. At first, she grins in triumph, but the expression soon curls up and dies on her face, becomes an awful rictus of terror. The urine in her bladder explodes violently from her, trickling onto the filthy floor. Blood runs from her nose and eyes. She screams, and drops, twitching and spasming.

The face of the man from the Clarion profile shimmers into being a foot from Jacks’ pinched, drawn face. He is a clean-cut man in a sere grey suit, face impassive, as though carved from rock.

He says one word. “Sitrep.”

“It’s done,” grunts Jacks, a spindly robot arm coming down from above him and placing a cigarette between his thin, anaemic lips. “Send a garbage truck. I got customers coming in the goddamn morning.”

“It will be taken care of.” The voice an even, measured baritone.

“Get this cunt off my floor, patron.” Jacks sneers defiantly.

A look of malice crosses the spectral figure’s hard, serene face. “Understood.” The grey ghost flickers and dies.

Jacks exhales. He is shaking. He looks down at Sara’s body, and draws deeply on the greasy cigarette.

Outside in the rain, the bum coughs blood into a handkerchief, takes a long swig from the bottle by his side. With drunken eyes, he watches his balance increase incrementally, and sighs with satisfaction. The streets are empty except for his hunched form. He revels in the rain and the cold in his bones.

Tomorrow he will buy another bottle of vodka, and return to his step to wait.

Photo by Stuck In Customs. Under a Creative Commons License.

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