Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Run, Part 2

This short story takes place in September, 2026, almost two years before the events depicted in Under the Amoral Bridge, almost a year before the Los Angeles Riots of 2027. Below is the second of two parts. Part 1 was posted on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010.

A coppery stench filled the air, intermingling with the smell of smoke. Singed silicon. The crackle of electricity firing off into sparks as circuits fused or were broken, unable to connect. The sound of static and screeching tires. The shaggy, muck-encrusted legs of a stray dog running into the alleyway six feet three and one half inches from Kris’s face. Scratch of the pebbly sandpaper surface of sidewalk on his cheek. A ringing in his ears that didn’t quite drown out the world. Brick building. Indecipherable gang graffiti. No sirens.

It took him 3.6 seconds to snap into something resembling full consciousness after his connection to the GlobalNet had been severed. It was another 1.2 seconds before he realized what had happened. The street term was a shambles, holes in the screen and power supply. The smart card had ejected, hopefully with money on it. He reached up for the cord connecting him to the term, missing once before catching hold. One hard yank freed the connection with a small pop, another electric jolt to the cortex. “I got som’in’, don’t know how much. ‘mon Krog, let’s split!” he yelled, barely coherent. His fingers clasped the card, pulling it free. He’d scored.

Another crack crack sound and a spark leapt from the side of the term towards his face. A white-hot tracer of shrapnel scratched his cheek. A second went by before he realized what it was. A bullet had skittered off the machine. Someone was firing at him! “Kroger!” he yelled, looking around as he ducked behind the term’s meager cover. A pair of Nicron shoes lay attached to a twitching pair of legs that led off to the other side of the term.

Kroger had loved those shoes. Some 50-year old waitress in Idaho had lost a week’s worth of pay for those sneakers. Now their white leather surface was stained with blood and dirt, and the feet seemed ready to flop out of them. Twitching. Slower now. Another bullet skipped off the pavement next to the shoes. He could use those shoes. Time to run. Run.

“Oh God!” was all he could choke out of his mouth, tears already streaming down his cheeks. The dog had the right idea. Kris followed his lead, dashing into the alleyway as another series of shots rang off the term behind him.

It only took two blocks for Kris to get winded. His hands started to shake so badly he had to stow the card in the pocket of his tattered jeans. No food, no Trip, no sleep. Sleep was a luxury when you were Tripped, and it all seemed to start crashing down on Kris. His blood pumped so heavily in his veins, his vision pulsed with each heartbeat.

He’d tripped something. Some alarm, some port scan had given him away. The account had a lot of juice, more than enough to afford the detection measures Kris had only heard Net rumors about. The hacker might’ve had backup, someone Kris hadn’t seen. Who was shooting at him? Who’d killed… he couldn’t think about that.

The alleyway cut across one street, and Kris barely avoided becoming a hood ornament on an Auto Taxi. The car managed to clip his foot, spinning him around before he set himself back on the right path. He made the next block, and cut a left through another alleyway. Bumping a trash can, his senses were flooded with the crash of cheap plastic and the scent of soy sauce and fried rice as he passed the back of some noodle shop. Six more steps and his feet came out from under him. Kris’s toe had caught a sewer grate, flipping it and him end over end. Gasping desperately, he looked back the way he’d come, only to see the shadows of his pursuers, guns drawn. He heard the revving of a powerful engine behind them, echoing off the alley. He dove into the sewer grate opening, pulling it closed behind him.

The splash of his feet rebounded off the slimy walls around him. He resisted the urge to begin dry heaving from the odors of excrement, soy sauce and mold that smothered him like a steaming blanket. He tried to control his breathing, keep himself still. His hands shook, and sweat poured from his forehead and underarms. The sounds of boots, guns clicking against harnesses and straps and low voices drifted down through the grating. He couldn’t make out the words.

Seconds went by, and the voices were joined by another, louder voice, swearing in what might have been Chinese or English broken by years as a second language. He couldn’t tell which. Kris resisted the urge to crawl closer to the grating to get a better listen. Instead, he gathered his wits, looking down the tunnels either way to see if there was another way out. As he did so, he kicked off a sampling of the data he’d gathered from his run. When his Net connection had been severed, a temporary copy stored in his head had saved what it could. He could access most of what he’d gathered, but connecting it to the wider world of data would have to wait until he could jack in again.

Most of it was standard fare for a bank job. He’d managed to get a few account numbers just on the way in, none of which seemed particularly useful. He couldn’t sell them anyway; the contacts he’d been using were all Kroger’s friends. He’d just been along for the ride. The thoughts of Kroger brought back the darkness building in his head. He swiped at the tears staining his cheeks. Finally, he got to the hacker’s handle, and froze.

He knew that name. D@rkkD@nc3r.

D@rkk was some Hispanic-Asian hacker that Kroger had introduced Kris to on New Year’s Eve at a block party in Boyle Heights. Kris thought he was a poser, a cocky little prick, just few years older than Kroger but all talk and no flash. They’d all Tripped at D@rkk’s house, bragging about scores they’d made and scores they’d never make. The whole time D@rrk had been showing off the crèche he’d just gotten.

The crèche had been sweet, premium gear way too expensive for this poser. It looked like it was worth more than the entire house, a corporate-level crèche in some barrio shithole in Boyle Heights. When asked how he could afford it, he just smiled and talked about some new gig. Kris could barely remember what the guy looked like, but he remembered the apartment. He remembered the neighborhood, which wasn’t too far from where he was now. Maybe D@rkk knew what was going on, maybe he was the one Kris’s pursuers were really after. Maybe Kris could hide with him. Maybe he had some Trip, which is all Kris needed to think clearly and formulate a plan. The sounds of boots pounding the pavement above him lessened. He tried to get a general idea of which direction to follow the tunnel to get away, but in the end, just picked one at random. Taking slow, methodical steps to minimize splashing and keep from passing out, Kris wandered down the tunnel, hoping he could find a sewer exit out into the canal bordering the Heights.

He ended up three blocks west of the street terminal, checking warily to either side of the opening for pursuers. No hail of bullets followed him as he climbed down to the canal. His pants were soaked to the calf but he made it across the canal safely and crawled up the other side. Walking a few blocks took him within a block of D@rkk’s house. Covered in grime, tears leaving trails in the crust of dust and muck on his face, he walked in a daze. Kroger was dead. He’d never lost a friend, at least not to death. Arguments, drugs, girlfriends and games, but nobody had gone and died on him. Maybe they’d used knockout bullets, or beanbags. But the blood… too much blood, he’d been shot, he had to have been shot. The twitching could have been from a taser, but then the last few seconds of twitching played back in Kris’s head, like the slow spinning down of a dying hard drive. Kroger was dead.

D@rkk’s place appeared deserted. He knocked and yelled, but there was no answer. The only light that burned came from the razor orange of the bug-encrusted porch light. He pressed his face up to the window of the front door, looking for some sign that D@rkk was home. Through the grime-covered window, he saw a closed door, with small blinking lights creeping out from beneath it. Something was running, probably that expensive crèche.

Kris crept to the side of the house, where he found a small rock. As quietly as he could, he used the rock to jar free one of the panes on the door. He felt around for the doorknob and turned it slowly. No electric shocks. Maybe the hacker had no security system. Stealing a quick glance over his shoulder, he softly padded into the foyer.

The place was a rat’s nest, made even filthier by the lifestyle of its tenet. Discarded Chinese food boxes, news sheets, code designs, Trip dispensers and various software cases were scattered about the floor. What little furniture there was appeared stained and well worn. The kitchen gave off a funk that curled Kris’s nose hairs, even over his own stench. And right in front of the door, a tiny light blinked.

“Shit,” Kris hissed. D@rkk had a security system of some kind after all, probably an alert tied to his crèche. Kris hadn’t noticed it before. He’d have been lucky to remember his name at the time if it wasn’t hard-wired. D@rkk likely would be waiting for him. The rear bedroom door where the blinking lights originated, was a few steps to his left. Kris heard a whoosh of escaping air, muffled by the door, and a dull thud. He ran to the door and dove through it.

The shot whizzed six inches above Kris’s head, showering him with sheet rock dust. “WHOA! Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” he screamed, falling to his knees, hands splayed out in front him as if to ward off bullets with the open hand of friendship. The second shot never came.

“Shit, Homes, what the fuck j00 doin’ here?” came the weak reply, thick with the Spanish hacker gangsta dialect D@rkk spoke. “J00 come to finish me off?”

Kris finally got a good look at him. His skin had always been a pallid yellow. He looked paler than before, drenched in the green neon light of the crèche’s interior. Still wet with the saline solution, blood ran down from his nose. He was completely naked, dark hair spiked and dripping. He coughed hard, blood creeping over the edge of his fingers, to get lost down in the short hairs of his goatee.

“I did that?” Kris asked, caught completely off-guard now. He’d had a nose bleed or a bruise from Net duels before, but nothing like what he saw now. “How the fuck did I do that?”

“J00 run dis deep, Holmes, wit’ dis kinda gear, j00 takes some big chances wit’ yer health, know what I’m sayin’?” The gun in his left hand seemed forgotten. He looked at it as if seeing it for the first time then placed it gingerly beside him. He leaned back against the crèche and exhaled heavily, coughing again. “Where’s my smokes? I got a nic fit j00 wouldn’t believe!” He reached behind him and grabbed a pack of imported clove cigarettes from the floor, offering one to Kris. “J00 want one?”

Kris never could handle smoking, but it always excited him to see someone else doing it. Smoking was one of those taboo things, and Kris loved breaking taboos. His lungs just couldn’t handle it, so he waved off the offer. The first drag sent D@rkk into another coughing fit, though there seemed to be less blood this time. “Mother Chang always said these things’d kill me. Don’t gotta worry about dat now, doh.” He chuckled. “Don’t worry ‘bout da gun, wasn’t j00 I was ‘pectin’ anyway. Sure as fuck wasn’t ‘pectin’ j00 ta get da drop on me in dat bank.” His mind seemed to clear from the shock of disconnection. “How da hell did j00 get here? An’ why?”

“I panicked. Someone shot Kroger while I was in there, and blew out the term and I just ran,” Kris babbled. “I got in this sewer and tripped over these cans and when I checked my logs, I recognized your handle.” He stopped, trying to get a handle on his panic. “I need help, someone’s after me, I don’t know why, maybe for that job. I was just trying to get some scratch, not get involved in a war!”

“Do j00 know what j00 just fucked with?” D@rkk replied, incredulous. “How big dis whole ting was? Dat wasn’t some 401k fund j00 tipped over, dat was some huge shit! Dat’s da kind of shit knocks governments over, know what I’m sayin?” D@rkk’s eyes bugged to emphasize his point. “Da suits what hired me ta do dat job don’t take kindly to fuckups, comprende?” He looked sad and lost for a minute. His eyes seemed to focus beyond Kris, beyond the room, beyond life.

“Dat’s in da contract, da fine print, yo. And da peoples what pay dis big for a job, dey got no problem blowin’ up half of LA seein’ it gets done.”

He stopped for a moment, mulling over the situation in his head while Kris’s mind raced from one possibility to the next. He could call Dad. Dad had some pull with suits, maybe he could hide him in some damn silicon factory in Bangladesh or some other pissant place. He could go to the cops, confess everything. He’d do a little juvie time, maybe not allowed to touch a computer for a year or two. That could work. He could do a few years without a computer… unless those were the cops trying to kill him. He looked at D@rkk closely.

“Who hired you, man? Whose money did I just steal?”

D@rkk’s eyes got huge. “J00 took money from dose accounts? Are j00 completely fuckin’ mental? Gimme da card. Come on, give it over.” Kris hesitated. That card was all the money he and Kroger had left. All the money he could use to get Trip or food, or break into another term. D@rkk caught the hesitation.

“Dat money ain’t no good to ya now. Every cent o’ dat has been red-flagged from here to Tokyo. J00 buy a stick of gum in fuckin’ Hong Kong, j00 got a gat in yo’ back two seconds after.” Kris handed the card over with a grim sense of despair. “J00 got a backup?”


“Yeah, a backup handle, another ID j00 can switch to when da heat gets on yer ass. Fuck, didn’t Kroger teach you any o’ dis shit?”

“No, he always talked about it, but we could never afford it.”

“Too much fuckin’ Trip, not enough fuckin’ thinkin’ sounds like. J00 always gotta have a backup, shit, have t’ree or fo’. When da heat comes screamin’ around da corner, j00 better be in Budapest or some shit, and the Net better t’ink j00 in da Congo.” He crawled over to a dresser next to the crèche and pulled out a card. He tossed it to Kris. The plastic was cool to the touch, a vibrant metallic blue sheen. Holographic lettering on its surface bore the words Cr@sH3D on it. “There’s yer new j00. It should have plenty of scratch on it, enough ta last j00 a few months. Just don’t spend it all on Trip, or it’ll be worth shit. Dere’s also some good contacts on dere, a Net agent that’ll buy just about anythin’. She ain’t never met me in the meat, Homes, and she don’t care to neither, dig?” D@rkk checked the magazine on the gun at his side. “Meanwhile, I’ll go take dis card and buy me some noodles or sum’in’. I’m hungry.”

“Won’t they know where you are?” Kris asked. The hacker stared back at him dully.

“Dey already know who and where I am, yo. Dat fine print is a real bitch.” Realization began to creep into Kris’s consciousness. “Dese peoples don’t play for funsies, eh? J00 sign dat contract, j00 better know what da fuck j00 sign.” He coughed. “J00 didn’t sign up for it, doh. I did. An’ I fucked it up.”

The finality in D@rkk’s voice gave Kris a chill. This was his last run. “Where do I go?”

“Don’t matter, Holmes. Stay low fo’ a little while. Do some real low-key jobs for that agent, and don’t ever tell nobody dat j00 knew Kroger or me.” He slapped the crèche lovingly. “And get j00 some sweet machinery like dis. J00 think that term crackin’ is a rush. Shit, nut’in’ compares to dis. Nut’in’. It’s like sex, and God and adrenaline and Trip all mixed into one.” D@rkk took a long drag off the cigarette, his eyes hollow with the loss. “J00 don’t need the Trip, dig? J00 just don’ need it.” A sad resignation stole across the hacker’s face.

He pointed to his head. “It’s all up in here, dig! All of it. That shit just fool j00, Homes. That shit… it’s like these suits I worked for. It promises everythin’ and don’t give j00 nut’in’ in the end. Nut’in’.” He jumped as a vehicle squealed down the street. “Get outta here, Homes. ‘Fore dey send da cleaners out. Go.” He took a last drag, and stamped the cigarette out on the floor.

Kris went out the way he’d come in, walking about four blocks east before catching a bus. As the bus rattled down the street, he fingered the card in his pocket. It was a new start. His veins itched for a shot of Trip, for the mingling of the drug’s euphoric adrenaline rush combined with the breathless drop into free fall of jacking in. He wanted to fall so badly, to just let the weightlessness of his NetBody drift with the currents of data. Instead, he ran. He ran to the new name, the new identity that the dead man had given him.

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