I submitted this to Tor magazine, and wisely, they declined it. But here it is, in all its messy gory glory for you to read.
Midnight is filled with freezing synthetic rain. It splatters the greasy city streets like trillions of icy needles, the kind of angry driving rain that can make you think the weather itself hates you and wants you dead. Anyone smarter than you is inside, nestled in their grid beds somewhere, dreaming of electric Santa Clauses bring joy to the white world tomorrow. Well, almost everyone is inside. Except you and the dead guy whose head you’re holding. Surprisingly heavy for such a skinny fellow.
You? You’re just a woman who thinks about herself in the second person because you hate talking to Nons and there is no one else to talk to besides you, talking to yourself. Who doesn’t hate talking to Nons, really? Perfect skin, shiny polysteel SUVs, epidermis-deep thought patterns, habitual grooves left by the hoof marks of the mindlessly blissful types who’ve “got it together.” Nons have nothing to do with you, and you return the favor. With prejudice.
Still, you really should get out of the fucking synth-rain before it dumps enough infected ice on you to kill you. Or, you know, before Amp traces your damp ass and ventilates it with a few thousand rounds of Kemi. Sharded is a bad way to go, and there are no save points in The Real, remember?
Amp? Who is Amp?
Every rejack loads up new memories, new lives still popping and flitting about from neuron to dying neuron. Amp was your dealer. Correction, Amp was this rejack victim’s dealer. Poor Amp. He’s not gonna get payment from this one any more.
Rejacking in through the wet wall is easy enough. There’s the weird shock of merging your personality with the memories and after-image, (the echo) of the other person’s mind, body and soul, but the actual technique is easy enough. One second you’re on the street in downtown Fucksville, Nowhere holding a still-warm wifi broadcasting corpse, the next you’re data stitching yourself a nice light bridge to Somewhere Else, fast as you can. Shame that you have to thump people to rejack. That’s not cool at all, but pity isn’t part of the plan. Survival is, and ever since the day you stopped having a name and a life, survival has been priority one.
Things where going pretty well until that shit went down in Busan, right? You were skimming data apace to make a few billion won, solving problems and taking names and helping orphans and shit like that until one day, things just went white out. Supernova snow storm. Disconnected from server-mind. Blammo.
That was the day you got disconnected from you. Either you died or you didn’t, but damn if it didn’t feel like it. Your body is probably a stinky corpse somewhere, because when you finally got your shit together to go looking for it, it was gone. Duh. You’ve had to rejack a lot of people just to get this far. Five corpses. Including the two bastards you just left in the Synth-rain, in the alleyway of the GS25 convenience store.
Still, it was your body. You liked it. Maybe it wasn’t grade A Hollywood sim-flesh, but it certainly wasn’t skeezer like the poor bastard you just booted back into the Net through. Fair’s fair, your organs were worth at least a few thousand. A Kemi-free body like that? Maybe even ten grand.
Your stomach’s grumbling.
Being hungry when you’re out of body is a weird song to sing, kiddo. But yeah, a steaming cuppa soba noodle strings would be good right about now. The Net sprawls before you like warm spots of air in a cold night. Each website burns with hits, vibrates electric with pokes, radiates warmth from likes and retweets. Porn sites are the warmest, but hello, it’s porn. As you drift there in the dark between the bright spots of heat, you wonder what the fuck you’re going to do now. There is no sense of seeing the Net. Not for you. It’s just warmth and cold.
Sometimes the data is freezing. Other times it feels like sun on the sand on Kailua in August. That soft as silk feeling of tiny micro pearls, warm beneath your toes, unless you dug down to where the water seeped in, and cooled the sand into clumpy handfuls perfect for ruined sandcastles.
Shake that brainpan. You haven’t been to Hawaii since you were little, so how did that memory replay in HD like that? Forget it, you have work to do. Pushing your way towards the warmth of the news sites feels like crawling back from the bathroom at three A.M. into a bed with a heavy comforter at night. You can’t see anything, but you know where you are. It’s muscle memory. Only, logically, it shouldn’t be. Pushing towards the news sections about reported murders and kidnappings, through an endless cocoon bed, none of this is logical. Yet here you are. You run your hands over the spheres of heat, and stories form from the warmth, piles of molten text become discernible words as you run your hands over them, like a strange sort of Braille paragraph.
Of the new corpses reported recovered in the last week, there’s no females. Which means you’re either bodiless because your internal organs are now on the black net being sold to the highest bidder, or your rotting corpse was taken away by crazies and never reported as missing. Or, (and this last possibility is one you cling to despite vanishingly small odds) your body is alive in some charity ward hospital, just another anonymous Jane Coma Doe.
Hospital records are hard to get to. Not because they are hidden behind layers and layers of the latest technology in security barrier firewalls. No, that would be a joke, given the state of the healthcare information industry right now. More than likely the records are still paper only, filed away in an outdated metal cabinet on a basement shelf, or if they are on a computer the records are likely stored in an ancient, overloaded database that always seems like it could collapse at any moment.
But it’s not like you have many choices. Parsing the web search of the closest likely hospitals takes seconds, even in the suffocating darkness, but figuring out how to access the databases are different. Websites give hints and clues about who is in charge, and a little cross referencing on deep web search engines like PIPL allow you to trace those names to the person behind them, including email addresses, cell numbers, even home addresses. The hard part is deciding who to rejack. You could go tunneling into the minds of every hospital director in a twenty mile radius on the list of likely places, but that’s condemning a lot of innocent-ish people to die just to try find your body, and even if that weren’t morally repulsive to you, it’d be harder and harder after the fifth person connected to the net falls over dead while searching the morgues and the coma wards. Did you just say morally repulsive? Ha! Who knew you’d be so funny as a disembodied electric consciousness?
Still, it’s not like you can just call up your ex and say, “Hi, can you please do me a favor and help me find which hospital my body is in?” Yeah, that’d go over really well. Considering how you and she left things the last time you saw each other...
Stop that. You have work to do. Yes, you miss the feel of her cool, soft, small arms wrapped around your neck. You missed it the day she left you, and you miss it now. You miss the dumb arguments about whose turn it was to clean the bathroom. Her body next to yours in bed at four A.M. even on days when you both hated each other. But she’s gone now. And you? You’re really really gone. And you need to stop thinking about her, get your brain back, and find your meatshell. Or at least find out what happened to it. So stop dodging the question.
You have to figure out who to kill.
That’s the unfortunate part of this mess. Yes, rejacking meth-heads and child molesters is frighteningly easy, but those unsavory types are unlikely to have access to the information you want. When you weigh the complex nature of who is likely to have the information you need you’re left with hospital administrators, head nurses, and doctors. If you restrain yourself by moral boundaries like “criminals deserve to die more than innocent(-ish) people” you then need to decide just who is more or less worthy to live or die. Things get tangled into an impossible knot.
Sure you can tune the scales of judgement to the picometer level and start weighing the misdeeds of white collar criminals, developing a complex pro and con point system that assigns life of death to an individual based on who was stealing office supplies or diverting funds to their own bank accounts, but at that point the question that bubbles to the surface is: Who the hell gave you the right to make that judgement call? You made your living hacking through digital iron and stealing secrets from corporate and political fortresses filled with corruption, but you were still stealing.
And in a few cases, killing. Even before needing to rejack, you went out of your way to take matters in your own hands, when the perpetually ineffective justice system of your country let known murderers go free because they couldn’t guarantee a sure fire prosecutorial victory. What were the words you used? “Do what had to be done.”
And here you are, fingers threading through the text files of warm Braille-like code, looking for the names of the most likely people who can help you get back to your body, and whom you don’t mind killing to do that. Doing what you have to do, right? Of course you are. Explain that to the horrible feeling in the back of your mind.
Suddenly a string of Braille code twitches under your fingers, and the bell rings clear. Someone does have something you might use after all. He’s not a high level hospital administrator, but as a pharmacist he has access to patients’ records. And it appears he’s under investigation for possibly selling pharmaceuticals under the table--according to the Human Resources Department file note on why he was suspended from work last week.
It takes a few more tugs of Braille text strings to find local news clippings on him, and an hour or so more of using old connections to the police department servers via an inter-agency request to pull up the relevant data. Following up on his bank records shows a man in near constant debt, despite the case files record of larger and larger amounts of drugs going missing. Gambling? Maybe. If he had gotten in deep with the local Kkangpe gangs (literally translated to “thug”) then it’d make sense that they were tapping him for drugs to supply them with. Still, being hawked by the Korean version of the Yakuza didn’t exactly mean he was exactly a killer worthy of death.
But the pharmacist has made a little name for himself as being a brutal debt collector when his addicts couldn’t pay up. According to one file in the investigation he had followed a woman home, demanded she pay, and when she refused him, he cut off a finger. This of course, was after beating the woman for awhile.
He did the same thing to a young male college student. Both the college student and the woman refused to file charges or even make a report to the police on their own. “A dog bit it off,” the woman had said.
“And the bruises?” the nurse had asked. Hard to explain that.
You lean back into the claustrophobic darkness of the net to think about this, but instead of that cold choking feeling you get when you pull away from the bright white hot data you suddenly find yourself splashing backwards into a deep pool of water. The sky overhead is that beautiful blue hydrangea color, and the clouds look like Everest sized mountains of popcorn kernels stopped mid explosion, piled high atop one another.
You’ve never been one for nostalgia, but then again you’ve never had an out of body experience before, either. That scene of you floating in the water with the thick puffy clouds far overhead is a memory that seems like a star from a distant galaxy now, visible to you only as a smudge of light in the night sky.
The next thing you know you’re pushing yourself through the darkness of the net, towards his workplace, looking for access codes to his neural connector port. Stealing his access keys is easy enough, that was kindergarten work even when you did have a flesh mainframe. Now you just have to wait until he logs on somewhere.
If he does. If.
A large bloom of heat reaches you from a distance. That’s him, his access codes lighting your hands up like someone handing you a charcoal briquette straight from the fire. You tug the searing hot piles of Braille and within seconds you swim through his access defense barriers, and suddenly you can see what he sees. He’s logged into some low rent virtual reality sim chat room, his clunky generic avatar sporting the minimum number of details to be allowed to res into existence in this dingy universe. It’s a simulation of a cafe in Paris, or at least as many stereotypes of a Paris Cafe as the virtual world’s programmers could fit in. A woman sits across from him in a black bikini top and a miniskirt. Her hair coils about her head like Medusa dreads held at bay with chopsticks.
“Here, take my card. It has my new number.” the woman is saying. The man takes the card in his hands. Cotton card stock, fancy.
Cigarette smoke fills his nostrils, and yours too. He’s chain smoking, just putting the pack of Airirang cigarettes in his/your breast pocket with shaking fingers when you rejack him. The murder is instant, as gentle as someone sitting down in a recliner. You “sit down” in his mind, and he’s gone before he even knows what happens.
You take the cigarette out of your mouth and crush it on the table. “Time’s up,” you say to the woman. She blinks but can’t say anything before you log out. You wake up in an internet cafe, Gangnam Style techno remix pulsing in the background. Incense burns the back of your senses. A few linkheads, those mindless net addicts are sprawled on a couch across from you, playing Starcraft II. They look like corpses in front of a bank of LCD screens, a shrine of pixels, a heaven of Zerg alien swarms piling on top of Terran Marines, blood and guts everywhere. You just murdered a man and life goes on, such as it is.
You’re moving him out the door, checking his wallet for clues. Several thousand won banknotes, not a bad bit of liquidity for a man in debt. A list of telephone numbers, the hospital ID and pass card to his pharmacy offices. Three photographs. Him and a woman, then a picture of a boy, and another of a little girl. Also, a used ticket book for a Tokyo “soap land” sex shop. Pictures of a family next to the coupon book for his favorite brothel, huh? There’s a Hanaro transit card, and a basic check at a terminal at the entrance to the cafe shows enough in the account to get you to where you need to go on the subways. You file everything back into his wallet as you leave the cafe, glancing in a mirror overcrowded by karaoke fliers to see a middle aged man, too thin, bags under the eyes, balding. Everything about this guy says he’s soft core when it comes to violently beating people.
Something about the pharmacist doesn’t feel right. For a tough guy, there’s too much nervousness in his blood stream There’s too much conveniently damning evidence against him. You need to ponder this more, you tell yourself. He hasn’t been formally charged yet, but there’s maybe hours ticking away until he is. So, you have a little time. Very little time.
The sunlight burns his/your retinas, and for a moment you inhale the Busan air with a desperation born of hunger to be back in the living world. Smog never tasted so good. A group of kids see you as you walk towards the subway line, teenage boys who look like they practice the art of being tough guys after class but haven’t mastered it yet. They slap each other on the arms and chest and quickly take off running away from you. You’re not quite sure you hear it right when one of them shouts out.
“Holy shit, it’s Amp! Go!”
Now isn’t that weird? Suddenly you go from being the dealer’s client to being the dealer himself, and from what you can tell he’s not the type of guy to inspire fear of the devil in a bunch of after school bullies. The pharmacy ID has a home address for you, and there are keys in the thin wrinkled nylon jacket pocket. You stop by a convenience store for some ramen cups and a beer, and an hour later you are sitting in his apartment.
Shelves full of white plastic pharmacy boxes are everywhere, each box filled with pills. A rainbow of all the prescription drugs anyone could want, you think to yourself. Junk food wrappers on the floor, and the whole place smells like a cigarette factory exploded and burned down inside. You pop the lid on the cup of noodles and put it in the microwave, drinking the beer standing in the tiny kitchen as you wait.
The computer he uses to access the Net is an older cheap model flatscreen iMac, minimal security or capacity. You almost expect it to have a 56k modem. It does have a neural net connector port cable, at least. You log back into the net, and browse the data on the whining hard drive, the cooling fan sounding like a turbo prop barnstormer plane from eighty years ago.
First things first you tell yourself, and that means checking to see if he still has home access to the hospitals he worked with. If that’s shut off, all this is for nothing. The login request seems to take forever, and you keep waiting for the jolt of dread that an “Account Locked” message would bring, but at last you have access to all the scheduling systems for the hospital patients and their drug deliveries.
You perform a blood type check first, filtering out anyone who isn’t Japanese, female, early thirties, and a certain weight and height. Three possible results. Narrowing the search down to Busan, and you have found yourself, or at least your body. Comatose Jane Doe, in the Dong A University Hospital’s neural trauma ward. Jackpot. You check the man’s bedroom, and under the pillow is a Daewoo DP-51 9 mm handgun, with a full magazine. A stack of two hundred 10,000 won banknotes neatly taped in a bank envelope is beneath the gun. His cellphone in hand, you’re out the door, back into the fading sunlight. The gun feels heavy in a coat pocket, but no one seems to notice it. Then you’re on the subway, just a tired man in his fifties with a gun in his pocket. You take out the cellphone, and start reading his email while the train glides to its subterranean destination across the city.
Lawsuits dominate the majority of his emails to and from a lawyer, and you browse those quickly, happy to read the words on the screen even if that’s slower than feeling through lines of cyber-Braille typography.
Court records show that the man is divorced from a wife of ten years, and that he had two children. One child was killed in car accident several years ago, a hit and run that despite the large number of CCTV cameras around the scene, was never recorded or solved as a criminal case.
“Shit” you mutter under your breath.
The surviving child lives with her mother in Japan. The mother works full time as a corporate branch manager for a Tokyo office of a Korean investment bank. The girl is in a hospital, in the same coma she’s been in since the car accident that killed her brother. A series of treatments were recently authorized to try to bring her back. Expensive treatments.
He was going to make the final payment today, according to the last email in the Sent Messages folder. Was that the woman he was meeting with in the Paris Cafe simulation? You call up the card the woman had given to him in the sim cafe through his email client. Turns out her name matches the name of the owner of the soapland brothel listed on the ticket book in his wallet. A quick web search also shows her as being a partner in that same Korean investment bank where the mother worked. Great. Fucking shit.
You flip the cell phone over and remove the battery, and then the sliver of the micro SIM card underneath. The next stop, that one goes into the trash and you replace it at a street corner vendor’s Kyocera SIM card before hoping back onto the train to the hospital. It takes five minutes to reset the SIM cards access signal and generate a new one from your cell network. It would be a faster hack online or with even a netbook, but you have to admit cracking it with a hiptop smartphone is pretty damned cool for a dead woman in a dealer’s aging body.
Don’t say dead, you tell yourself. Not yet.
The phone pings with the accepted signal response code, and within a few minutes you’re browsing your home network in Japan. Looks like someone else has been browsing it too. Maybe the person or group involved with your disconnection. You can deal with that later, you tell yourself. You transfer the brothel owner’s phone number to your home system and make the call.
“Who is this?” says a voice.
“It’s me.” you say, hoping that the person recognizes the voice and doesn’t decide to do a security check.
“Oh. Hi.You know, I went through a lot of trouble to set that meeting up today-” the voice says. You interrupt her.
“Right, I know, I’m sorry, something bad came up and I had to leave before it could get back to you. My apologies.”
“Fucking Christ, Hong, this line is secure right? You know I can’t talk to you exposed like this.” she says.
“Check the line. I promise you it’s secure. I’ll hang up and call you back from the same number if-”
She interrupts you. “No, no. You wouldn’t lie about this. So why did you call me now? Why aren’t we setting up another meeting?”
You sigh and lean back in the seat of the subway train, the hard plastic edge biting into your shoulder. “I wish I could. But things went south during our meeting. As it turns out, I’ll have to make the final payment and say goodbye after that.”
“Goodbye?! Why? Dammit Hong what happened to you?” Her voice is frantic now. She sounds scared.
“I just, have some things I need to take care of to do this for her. To make sure that it gets done, and doesn’t get back to her. Or you.” You say, playing the card.
Her voice quavers. “Jesus Hong, what the hell did you do?”
“What I had to.” Somehow saying that fits nicely with you, and you’d like to think, with the man desperate to help his daughter. The line is quiet for a few seconds.
“I understand.” She says this, and the image of her lips against your/his neck flares out from the middle of nowhere from the dead man’s memory. That was the night she complained about you/him having the hip bones of a girl.
“Can I email you the account number where the rest is coming from?” you say, unnerved by the unbidden memories.
“The rest?” she says, “Yeah, sure. Please, be safe.” She sounds pretty brave, almost nonchalant.
“Goodbye, Lili.” And with that you hang up. You need a drink. Not him, not Amp, or Hong, or whoever he is. You do. Afterwards, if there’s time. You send the the account number to her email over the phone’s secure connection to your office in Tokyo, then wait. The amount requested for the final payment is ridiculously small, and you authorize your bank to transfer that amount, and then to send two billion won a month later. Some for the girl, some for Lili. You yank the sim card from the phone and trash it at the nearest stop for the hospital, catching a cab the rest of the way.
The hospital of the university is a huge twenty-eight billion won gesture of modern luxury, and it strikes you as more of a posh shopping center inside a sleek airport as you walk through the lobby. There’s actually an older woman playing a grand piano in the corner next to the espresso bar. Thankfully the hospital’s stairwells are less pretentious, and once past the first floor the showy nature of the place gives way to the familiar chemical smell of an efficient place to be sick, heal, or die. You take out your hospital ID card and wear it by the lanyard around your neck, but the people who pass you on the stairwell don’t even bother to look at you. Sweat beads at the back of your neck under the hairline, but you smile and nod to everyone who glances your way.
A security guard at the nurses station of the neural trauma unit takes the card, swipes it through the reader and hands you a visitor sticker before turning back to his game of Angry Birds on his phone. You say goodbye to him anyway, and he waves at you like you weren’t really there anymore. Around the corner your check the patient status whiteboard, quickly scanning the names. There, in room 921, is Jane Doe. NAME UNKNOWN. Dr Park Dae Hyun.
“Hong?” a woman asks you from behind. You turn and smile. You don’t recognize her, but she knows you, and her face tells you that she isn’t expecting to see you here. “What are you doing here?” She looks nervous, and suddenly the weight of the gun in your jacket pocket feels immense. Smile, dammit.
“Oh hey, long time no see. I came here to see if I could talk to Doctor Park about my case.” you say, rubbing the back of your head, smiling as though you’d been caught.
“You mean the investigatio-” she asks, but you shake your head, interrupting her.
“That’s pretty much out of my hands. No, I wanted to talk to him about my daughter’s situation before, well you know.” She frowns at this, but nods. “I’ll go tell him your here. Wait right here, ok?”
You nod, “Sure, sure,” then wait for her to turn the corner before you start walking down the hallway. Room 914, 916, 917, 919, there! Just at the corner.
“Hong?” the girl calls out. You take the gun out of your hand as you open the door to 921, just as she screams.
“Stop him! Call the police!” That voice must be Doctor Park.
The electronic lock on the door will hold for a few minutes, but you shoot it anyway. You push a chair in front of the door, then another, just before turning to the patient in the bed.
“Well,” you say, looking at the huddled shape connected to the pulse/ox monitor, the ventilator mask and the various wires around the head, “I certainly do look like shit.” You move quickly over to the woman/yourself and turn her/your head to the side, looking for the neural port. Sure enough, it’s there, and the Sensemit brand med machine neural cable snakes out from her/your neck.
“Christ I look fat,” you say, laughing nervously as you connect a secondary port cable to your/Hong’s neck. By the sounds of it there are people banging at the door, and suddenly there’s a loud alarm going off. You plug in to the system, and throw the gun on the floor.
You rejack into yourself, just as the sound of an explosion slips past your/his mind. Then you fall away into darkness.
The sky is so blue.