Thursday, April 17, 2008

Chapter 7

August 30, 2028
3:34 a.m.

The loss of a Netlimb was a queer sensation, a kind of panicked tickling as the brain strained to maintain its binary illusion that there actually was a limb where a limb no longer existed. The reptile brain wanted the body to feel the pain, to feel the warning that pain symbolized, yet the logical brain refused to allow the NetBody to lose its cohesion. Bridge knew he was in for a real bruise on the arm when he left the crèche, as his physical limb thrashed around wildly to reassure itself of its reality. For now, his immediate thoughts were on reforming the arm into a shield and setting himself into a defensive posture.

The attack had come swiftly, and Bridge’s practically antiquated software package had given him too little warning. He quickly sized up his opponent while dodging the second strike, a vicious spear stabbing inches from his side as his body flowed around the thrust.

The attacker was much faster than Bridge could hope to be with this setup. His silvery body held a barely humanoid shape with animal-like feet. Hooves, as a matter of fact, the guy had hooves. His entire lower half reminded Bridge of a shaven billy goat, as if the body was modeled after a satyr. The right arm was an elongated axe, the left a spear. At the top of his smooth head was a gigantic pair of horns, dripping with a virus-injector’s poisonous code. Bridge was in serious trouble. His opponent was built for all-out attack, and Bridge’s defenses were slow and outdated. He dodged another slice of the axe and tried to circle around towards the exit but found his path blocked by the spear.

Bridge aimed a quick sword thrust at the attacker’s midsection, but found it easily parried by the axe. Only a quick twist of the shield protected his chest from another spear thrust. Bridge retreated a moment. The attacker had the advantage of reach, and despite being on Bridge’s turf, the room afforded no particular advantage to either combatant. Any attempt to make it to the door would likely end with Bridge skewered and gored. Once caught, those horns would likely deliver a virus that would flatline his real heartbeat.

"Who are you?" Bridge asked, breaking arena protocol. No one talked in arena battles, at least not until they had won. The smack talk would begin in earnest afterwards, of course, provided both parties survived. But it was bad form to speak during combat.

The voice that replied was heavily synthesized, a devil-reverb effect applied for maximum intimidation. "I am your DOOM!" Bridge really did not like this guy now.

"What a douchebag," he said. The insult drew the attacker in like a lightning bolt, the spear diving straight for Bridge’s center. Bridge launched one of his better trick programs, the meat trap. His body opened at the point of attack, the deadly spear passing harmlessly through the hoop that Bridge’s chest had become. Bridge then closed the loop, chopping the spear arm off at the wrist. A follow up sword swipe was parried easily by the intruder’s axe, but Bridge had made some needed breathing room.

He quickly packaged the recording into a peer-to-peer rocket, breaking the bits up into unrelated junk data and encapsulating them in a sort of cluster bomb. Firing the rocket off sent the packets hurtling through the exit, where the rocket would "explode," scattering the junk data all over the GlobalNet. The data would latch itself onto bigger data packets like barnacles and ride those packets forever until Bridge sent out the recall order. The packets would then return and condense into something usable, provided Bridge survived the fight. Now Bridge had to hope he had time to enact the other part of his desperation gambit.

Bridge began dancing about the room, twisting and turning like a snake, flying from corner to corner dodging attacks, buying time for himself and the rocket. The walls shook with the axe swings that just barely missed contact with Bridge, the room beginning to lose cohesion as bits were chipped off. The rocket seemed to be moving in slow motion. Just as it reached the exit, the door opened to allow another player’s entrance. The new entrant dodged the rocket with ease despite being surprised.

Bridge initiated his jack out sequence as the dancing continued. Had he any other choice, he’d have taken it, but the attacker had him in a corner. Bridge would jack out the hard way, without returning his consciousness along the path he’d taken to get there. It would be akin to pulling the plug on his crèche, a jarring return to physical consciousness that was painful in the extreme. Rather than the gradual return to his body of a normal shutdown procedure, this would be a shocking snap, and he would suffer for it. Headaches, nosebleeds and the choking claustrophobia of the coffin were the most common side effects.

The sudden jack out still took nanoseconds, and he was defenseless the whole time. He could see the killing axe blow swinging toward his head. He flinched from the blow that never came. The axe arm was dissolved with the swing of a scythe blade, the droplets of NetBody floating weightlessly away. Bridge’s last visible image was of Angela’s liche-like avatar swinging her impossibly large scythe through the attacker’s neck with ruthless efficiency.

And then he was alive, the crèche’s inky black interior suffocating him. He flailed inside the pill-shaped coffin, the saline solution splashing, his muscles twitching in uncontrollable spasms of solidity. His mind was a bubbling cauldron of fear, thoughts sizzling inside his skull, burning his light-starved eyes. He couldn’t move, couldn’t run though his every nerve was on fire, his cells raging with the desire for motion, for the surety of existence in activity. Finally, decades later, the crèche’s latch opened and he threw back the lid, flopping out onto the floor like a fish out of water. His muscles still weren’t working right. The arm he’d lost in the GlobalNet was there, but he could see bruising up and down the forearm area, and he couldn’t force it to move no matter how hard he concentrated. His entire body refused mental commands, the jack out seizure in full control.

He wasn’t sure how long he lay like that, twitching and flopping uncontrollably until the tremors finally slowed, crashing then ebbing like the waves at high tide. He was still twitching slightly when Angela’s holographic form appeared above him.

"You gonna die on me?" she asked with a tinge of real concern.

He swallowed hard and tried to reply, but nothing would come out but a raspy exhalation.

"Take it slow. You haven’t done this for a while, remember." He nodded.

His voice returned weakly. "How did you find me?"

"It’s my crèche. I can track it anywhere. Plus your trail wasn’t exactly hidden well enough. That’s some old shit you were running."

"I haven’t kept up."

"No, you haven’t. I figured you’d get in some shit, so I followed you. Just in time, too." She held something in her ghostly hand, which he finally realized was a head. "Do you know Ub3rM3^^?" He shook his head. "He knew you, apparently. Looks like whatever you got yourself into was worth hiring a hitter."

"He’s a hitter?"

"According to his creds he was. Not a very good one, obviously. He didn’t even bother credcrashing you. Sloppy dip shit. He probably did tag your accounts, though, so I wouldn’t use your creds if I was you."

"I haven’t used cred since I quit hacking. It’s why I only take 5-year." His strength had returned enough to sit up, though his left arm was going to be sore for days. "Crashers don’t fuck with the cash vendors. Those boys will fuck back."

"So what did you find that’s important enough to put a hit out on you?"

Bridge relayed the sorted story of Kira’s big find. Angela seemed genuinely angry that the Mayor of the city was a closet pedophile and even more so that his proclivities had gotten her hacker killed. By the time he’d finished, her jaw was clenched so tight he could imagine her cheek muscles twitching with the exertion. Her eyes were flaming red coals.

"What are you going to do to nail this son-of-a-bitch?"

Bridge hadn’t gotten that far. Nailing Sunderland, while certainly a tempting prospect, wasn’t his first thought. "I’m less concerned about nailing him than I am about keeping his bastards from bumping me off."

"You’re going to let him get away with this?"

"Get away with what? The guy playing his little girlfriend is a 26-year old grad student in Colorado. He hasn’t broken any laws, and even if he had, he’s the goddamn mayor. He has Chronosoft on his side. You don’t think they could cover this shit up?"

"So what, he just walks? He killed my hacker."

"And that’s fucked me up just as much as you. I got clients ready to beat me blue again if I don’t get them somebody. So I either gotta find another guy or pay money I don’t have to keep them from breaking my legs or worse." Bridge’s mind was in overdrive now that his body was more or less normalized. He was examining angles and profit margins, analyzing risks and thinking on his feet. "But there is a way I can get rid of this thing and recoup my losses on the deal."

"Your losses? What about my losses?"

"You’ll get your cut too. If I take the footage to Sunderland’s folks, they’ll probably just kill me to cover it up. Since he didn’t technically do anything illegal, I can’t go to the cops with it, and they don’t pay for shit anyway." He looked up at Angela’s avatar with a kind of puppy dog helplessness. "You know, you could sell it for me."

"Don’t even get me more involved in this than I already am."

"Come on, Angie, do me a solid. You’re the best broker I know."

She cut him off with a dismissive wave of her ghostly hand. "Save the sweet talking for your clients. I know you too well."

"No sweet talk. Seriously, you could sell this shit before I wake up in the morning."

"And we’d both be dead by the time we were done with breakfast. No deal, slick. I’m not ending up like Kira."

Bridge set his jaw with the grim realization of his predicament. "Well, there is one person who’d give his left nut for something like this, especially right now."


Bridge shook his head, shutting off his audible rambling. "If you ain’t selling it, better you don’t know. The less people involved, the less targets they have. You sure you don’t mind me crashing here for a few?"

"Just crashing. No business in the house."

"I just need a place nobody knows about for a few days, then I’ll be out of your hair and I can compensate you some for Kira. How’s twenty percent sound?"

She thought hard for a moment before replying, "Not as good as thirty."



Bridge wobbled to his feet. "Right then, I’m going to shower this shit off and crash on the couch. I better get moving early tomorrow. Don’t want to sit still too long." The shower did wonders to loosen the stiffness in his muscles from the emergency jack out seizure, but his head was splitting. Popping an Aceto™ tab, he flopped on the couch, trying to sleep through the dancing fireflies of pain behind his eyes. The plan raced through his head threatening sleeplessness, but his body gave up consciousness before he had a chance to toss.

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