Thursday, April 3, 2008

Chapter 6

August 30, 2028
2:07 a.m.

"You look like shit, Artie. Is that blood?"

The crackling static of Angela’s disembodied voice was a painfully welcome reminder of past days. Bridge stood at her door, disheveled and battered, staring up at the camera above the door, which was no doubt displaying his sorry self on a window in Angela’s crèche. "You should see the other guys," Bridge quipped. "They look like a million bucks."

"You always were a cream puff. Door’s open." Bridge heard the latch on the door click and pushed through quickly, keeping an eye out until the door closed. The latches and bolts slammed back into place automatically as soon as the door was shut. Even so, Bridge flattened against the wall and edged up to the front window, overlooking the apartment complex’s deserted pool. A pricey place like this likely attracted a 9-5 corporate clientele that would rarely be up this late on a work night. Angela had done well since ditching him.

"Nice place you got here."

"Business is good." Angela’s voice came from all around Bridge. Her wispy body materialized out of thin air, the perfect holographic representation of one of her avatars. Her real body looked almost nothing like this. Seven feet tall, bleached-bone white skin and jet hair flowing to her knees, with fingernails just short of being claws, this was Santhariya, the queen of the night realm, Orphonus.

Bridge raised an eyebrow. "Very good, apparently. Those holo projectors aren’t cheap."

"Kim got me a got a good deal on them. This guy wanted me to steal some prototype designs, so he gave me the old models for like half price. I can’t resist a bargain."

"Especially when it involves a run, right?" Her avatar nodded quickly, that cute mischievous smile Bridge was so familiar with in the flesh transferred to this apparition perfectly.

"So where are you?"

"Back in the bedroom," she said, indicating a room past the open kitchen. The apartment itself was so sparsely furnished Bridge could barely tell it was occupied. An expensive, barely creased couch was a deserted island in the middle of a desolate living area, positioned directly in front of the wall screen. The kitchen was the only area that appeared used, and badly used at that. Dishes caked with crusted food piled in the sink, used cardboard food containers left torn on the filthy counters. He’d seen this type of thing in so many different hackers’ homes that it might have been its own interior design style for the cyberpunk set. Most of the dedicated hackers spent more time in the crèche than the flesh, and as a result, they needed little furniture and cared even less for homemaking.

"Can I at least talk to your face?"

A tiny frown creased her lips. "I’m hardly decent," she joked. "I’m deep in, Bridge, I don’t have time to swab off and be a hostess. There’s food in the fridge if you want, the couch is as good as a bed. Now what the fuck happened to my hacker?"

"I told you, something he found got him killed. You said he was hitting pedofarms. What did you do?" His accusatory tone sounded harsher than he intended.

She put her balled fists on her hips, the first signs of her obstinate attitude emerging. "I didn’t do anything. I sent a few guys on some fun runs, a little harmless griefing." Bridge’s frown caused Angela to point her finger accusingly. "You used to enjoy that."

"That’s the kind of shit got Margie killed."

"Margie got sloppy. You don’t shack up with the guys you’re griefing. Look, all we did was put some recorders on these ageplay sims. Find a few pervs paying for cybersex with underage avatars, record their escapades then send it to their wives. We didn’t even ask for blackmail money. We just wanted to fuck with them."

Bridge sighed and rubbed his forehead. "And if one of those guys happened to be connected, he’d damn sure not hesitate to pop a cap in Kira’s ass." Bridge’s mind raced despite his exhaustion. "Kira sent me an attachment, but I’m not looking at it without a clean room and a backup ID. Can I borrow a crèche?"

Angela frowned. "I have an old one, but it’s slow." To Angela, if it wasn’t built last week with firmware upgraded last night, it was a decrepit dinosaur slogging through a primordial swamp.

"How old?"

"May? April? I kind of lost track after I got this one." Bridge was impressed, and a little bit proud. Angela really was doing quite well, as none of the stuff she was purchasing was cheap. Holo projectors and a new crèche every season cost major cash. Of course, never leaving the apartment meant she didn’t need a car, and the crèche’s nutrient drips meant she probably ate one meal a day if she was lucky. A hacker’s life was a series of tradeoffs normal schlubs never made. "It should do for watching a run replay. Just don’t use an ID that could connect with me."

"Got it. Now, where is this thing?"

"Bedroom. Come on back." Bridge shuffled hesitantly down the apartment’s central hallway. Angela wouldn’t come out of the crèche to greet him, and he was certainly unsure he wanted to walk around in the room while she lay unmoving in the little pillbox. Even proximity to her avatar was enough to bring back painful memories.

The bedroom was as sparsely furnished as the rest of the place, and just as messy. A few takeout boxes lay on the floor. The bed was simply a mattress thrown haphazardly on the floor, sheets tousled and unkempt. The low hum of the crèche’s cooling unit filled the room. The shiny black surface of the coffin-like device was decorated with lines of neon green LED strips, a sign of heavy modification both on the exterior and the interior. "It’s that one over there," Angela said, pointing in the corner at a dusty plain crèche. Bridge wiped his finger through the thick layer of dust. "The maid is off this year," Angela joked.

"Has it got the basics? Security package, mail, etc.?"

"Do I ever work with the basics? Hell, no, that thing has custom warez. I think the defense package even has your codebase. I abandoned that tack when Freeman put out his Plat Series." Bridge was postponing the jack in, running his hands over the console at the base of the device. He powered the crèche on, looking at the lights for entirely too long in an effort to forestall the inevitable.

He didn’t want to jack in. He’d sworn off the whole life. Like a recovering alcoholic, he marked each day without a jack in as an accomplishment. It was an exciting life, cutting through databank security and pilfering whatever he could, battling live Net security agents in some liquid mercury duel with programs he built from the ground up. The full-on speed of a crèche run was so different from just jacking into the front of the crèche. If a regular jack run was a sprint, a crèche run was a drag race, an intense compression of time and speed and data folded into every erg of consciousness. That kind of intensity couldn’t be easily put down, and once Bridge had removed himself from those runs, he’d felt their absence every goddamn day.

"What are you waiting for? Get naked!"

Bridge scowled back at the avatar and began to strip off his clothes. "It might help a bit if I didn’t have the Virtual Voyeur watching me."

"It’s nothing I haven’t seen before." That didn’t help Bridge’s nervousness much.

"It’s cold in here," Bridge joked as he dropped his shorts, turning quickly to lift the lid.

"That’s what you always say." The bubbling, mischievous giggle brought a flush to Bridge’s cheek, and a pang of nostalgia to his heart. The crèche’s soft plastic interior was chilly, its flesh-like embrace surrounding him with a womblike familiarity. Fitting the urine catch caused more jokes at his genitals’ expense. The nutrient drip into his arm was a bit more difficult than usual. It had been a while since he’d tapped that vein, and he’d had the easy-access cap removed. He closed the lid firmly, cutting off the teasing and encasing him in the silence of a tomb. The breathing apparatus covered his face and eyes as the saline solution flooded the chamber, a brief cold snap before the internal warmers kicked in. Within seconds, the interior of the coffin was a dimly-lit liquid paradise, his body covered with a slick fluid as his senses were one by one deprived of input. The jack began to do its magic, booting up the interface sequence. The last physical sound he heard was the beep signifying the bootup sequence’s completion.

And then he flew headlong into a wall of white, a bright onrush of euphoric experience that seemed to permeate every cell in his body. That one instant of elation was what the real hacker lived for, that sensation of flying warp speed into the great overmind, the digitization of consciousness that signaled immersion in the waters of the collected knowledge of humankind. The feeling was as close to being God as Bridge had ever thought his frail human mind could experience. The process was instantaneous, but it stretched the mind so hard that time elongated, eternity compressed into a single intense moment.

His NetBody rezzed into the crèche’s foyer, and the sensation was gone like gossamer on the wind. It was replaced with the liquid motion of his NetBody, a shiny slick humanoid-shape with the properties of liquid mercury. The programs he chose to carry with him would reshape the NetBody in various ways, some offensive, others defensive. Accessing one of his backup ID’s had equipped the NetBody with his favored weapon, a dual-edged spear and his personal defense, a buckler-shaped shield. He tested the programs, swinging the weapons and running through a few Net-fu forms, a kind of martial arts based fighting style that hackers had adapted to Net combat. He hoped not to see any Net combat, but his paranoia about the situation caused him to prepare. Checking a few of his data gathering and analysis programs, he proceeded out of the foyer. The inky black space between data nodes was an infinite expanse of beauty, an empty void filled with the twinkling stars of billions of data nodes, web sites, chat rooms, virtual worlds.

His first steps were to hide the trail of his NetBody, sending the packets bouncing around the world in the blink of an eye, leaving traces of its passing in hundreds of random locations around the globe. Someone trying to backtrack to his physical location would need to unravel the mass of dead-end IP addresses and false trails before finding his vulnerable body, and their detection would alarm Bridge in enough time to allow him to jack out safely. Once assured his trail was sufficiently obscured, he rented a "clean room," an off-the-shelf data location on the GlobalNet that contained no previous data, no programs, and only one entrance. He could control data access to the room, making sure that whatever he brought in could not leave without his knowledge, as well as ensuring that someone attempting to find him would have only one avenue of attack.

He marveled at the speed with which he worked. Not for the first time did Bridge consider dropping his work in the meat world and going back to hacking. The rush of adrenaline was real, an ever present euphoric call.

Putting aside the desire to backslide into his previous life, he sent out a request, a backdoor call to his Bridge ID’s mailbox. The request grabbed the email from Kira and sent it flying around the Net, obscuring it’s destination as surely as he’d done for his NetBody. The message appeared in the clean room as a blinking envelope icon, vaguely three-dimensional floating in mid-air. Bridge sighed and opened the message.

The body of the message was brief. Kira had sent it with his last breath, and all it contained was the plaintive cry, "Watch me!" Bridge felt like kicking Kira square in the junk. The attachment was large. Bridge extracted it from the message, analyzing it with one of his data-sniffing programs. It was dense, likely a room recorder. Much like a hidden camera placed in a physical room, a room recorder captured all the data of a NetRoom, creating an exact duplicate of the room, its occupants and their actions that could be experienced again. Viewing the recorder’s contents in the proper program would give the viewer a voyeuristic experience from any angle but without the ability to alter the proceedings. The viewer could even take the place of one of the participants, hitching a passive ride in the participant’s mind, feeling every sensation the person felt during that time. Such recordings were popular on the Net, most being pornographic.

Bridge dropped himself into the recording as a spectator. The room was not surprising, given the nature of Kira’s targets. Bridge could only describe it as a stereotypical little girl’s room, posters of teenage heartthrobs on the wall, stuffed animals neatly placed in a parade around the walls. The single bed was festooned in pink and puffy lace, the walls even painted a girly pink. Fake sunlight flickered through a window, and one door led out of the room. The room’s occupant rezzed in, and Bridge’s gorge rose.

A little girl, no older than twelve years had appeared, sitting on the bed, chewing gum and blowing bubbles while twisting her finger through her pigtails. It was a painfully stereotypical scene. Bridge immediately accessed information on the avatar. According to the room, she was actually a twenty-six year old virtual escort who worked out of Colorado. Despite knowing that this underage avatar was a consenting adult, he still felt queasy about what he knew was coming next. The door to the bedroom opened slowly, an adult male sneaking into the room like a thief.

The accompanying rape fantasy was by the numbers, the adult forcing himself upon the child in a disgusting display of oedipal dominance. Even though it was an act that didn’t involve an actual child, it still made Bridge’s stomach turn. This kind of ageplay sold well on the porn market. It wasn’t illegal, though most courts frowned on virtual escort services as well as the disgusting implications of virtual child rape. It would be extremely damaging for anyone caught partaking, causing divorces and firings at the least. Bridge felt no remorse for closet pedophiles like this one whose life would be upended by the revelation of such predilections.

As he watched the scene, the doughy face of the man started to seem familiar. Had he not been so disgusted by the acts portrayed, Bridge would have recognized the man immediately. The avatar was almost the spitting image of Mayor Oliver Sunderland. That in itself was odd. Participants in these types of rooms typically chose attractive avatars, and Sunderland was hardly that. He was a pudgy man in his early 50’s, the kind of nondescript pudding of a man that would be no one’s ideal fantasy. Bridge began to get a sinking feeling and reluctantly accessed the identity of the man. All he could do was shake his head in disbelief. The person running the avatar was by all accounts exactly who he appeared to be. It was the Mayor of Los Angeles, Oliver Sunderland.

Bridge cursed a blue streak. This was exactly the kind of thing that could get a hacker killed. Powerful men with embarrassing secrets guarded those secrets with the violence of a cornered tiger. Their handlers would not hesitate to disappear someone as insignificant as Kira or Bridge to keep this kind of thing quiet.

Bridge’s first thought was to delete any trace of the file, but he hesitated. Paulie and his employers likely already knew about Bridge. They had tracked Kira to the Arsenal, going so far as to install Paulie in a job there to make sure the hacker was caught and killed. Deleting the file would remove what little leverage Bridge had. And after what Twiggs’ guys were likely doing to Paulie and his flunkies this very minute, Paulie’s employer wasn’t likely to balk at killing Bridge even if the file was gone. No, Bridge was stuck with it.

So he had to find a way to use it.

He could blackmail Sunderland. But like he’d told Sid earlier, a blackmail scam was the last thing he wanted to get involved with, especially if he was the blackmailer. Blackmail money was hard as hell to collect. But Sunderland’s place in the public eye left him vulnerable. He had enemies.

As Bridge pondered his next move, he failed to notice that the entrance to the clean room had opened. If he’d been in his physical body, the sensation that warned him of the coming attack would have been an itching at the base of his skull. Luckily, he had the room wired to alert him of any entrances, authorized or not. Bridge kept still, presenting as easy a target as he could without leaving himself completely vulnerable. A moment before the first blow struck, Bridge twisted his NetBody to place the shield arm between him and the attacker. Losing the arm was a screaming white light of pain in his brain, the limb dissolving from the forearm down in a mist of mercury droplets.

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