New Ishvara, as a designated party city, maintained its celebrated image by making the streets dance 24/7. Tether slid easily through constricted masses of dancers glutting Nysta Street, his hands floating belt-high to brush knuckles lightly on the people he passed. He wished he had somewhere to go, someone to see. Still, freshly home from offworld business, he basked in the comfort of bone-vibrating music.
The music, micro-bursts of bomb-bass gabber, slipped like daggers through his iso-shield, bombarded out of ever-present wall speakers. Sheets of nano-amplifiers made every building a subwoofer, every window a tweeter.
The pummeling noise slowly helped him unwind. Other planets were disturbingly subdued compared to the crazy visual assault of Ishvara. His polarized eye lenses adjusted constantly against thousandfold neon colors and epileptic flashes from sidewalk billboards and floating holograms. Every light synchronized into a billion suns going nova, winking out, in, out, in, to the four-four drumbeat of bomb-bass gabber apocalypse.
He didn’t have any friends to look up, but one hour off ship he already had a job: find and apprehend–specified alive–one Dirvis Ejiri.
Ejiri was a reincarnation manager at the cognitive backup center. The job was beneath Tether’s considerable talents, but someone wanted Ejiri found and would pay good lucre for it. Back in the day he would have shopped all his jobs through the community, but he had driven many of his old friends out of the business. He told himself it didn’t matter.
He shopped thirty percent of his wet-ware to the scan, leaving enough attention open to, well, drift around in hot human funk and be bored.
He loosened his face into a lazy mask of feigned drugger slack, contrary to the hyper-amphetamine mix stewing in him. He fingered sub-dermal keys on the sides of his thumbs to control micro doses of cyclo-xylamines and altered phenethylamine into his brain stem. Each tap an acrobatic adjustment, maintaining the thin and precarious balance of quantities of psychoactives, amphetamines and psychedelics prodding and burning his brain.
Unlike posers with their blood-surfing nano drug-systems, Tether drug-surfed manually. He took absent pride in squeezing an extra twenty micro-grams, constantly poised on the edge of overdose.
Even though he was the go-to person for physical presence infiltration, these days it was still hard to garner enough lucre to maintain his high-ticket tech and drug systems.
His ankle-length coat twitched fitfully like a cat tail, its woven AI flagging Tether’s attention to something amiss. He thought-triggered a weapons sweep when cool mist blurred his vision. His retinas burned and his heads-up display flashed as his defense system failed. The airborne nano-virus caused his defense bots to congeal over his body in a fetid silver lather. Before his fingers even brushed his burner’s holster, he had three brain scramblers pressed against his skull.
The guns’ owners, two genblurs and a testo-male, formed a tight orbit, almost muting the constant dance assault around them. One of the genblurs pocketed a palm gun, probably what had delivered the virus that had fried Tether’s defense system. Pedestrians flowed past the group like water around a stone.
A periphery systems check told him his secondary defenses were also dampened by a suppressant. Some new sys-virus. His wetware was a mess. The def-shield would cost him thousands to repair. At least his drug system still worked. He thumbed calming THC derivative into his bloodstream.
The right-side genblur leaned close to Tether’s ear, fizzing past the iso-shield. He/She whispered silkily through pouting lips, “No trouble or we’ll wet you right here.” His/Her breath hot on Tether’s ear. “Billy-Billy wants to see you.”
Tether’d done a share of work for BB, most of it after ditching the community, but tried to keep his face-to-face time to minimum. Billy-Billy was intense, especially now that he’d found God.
Rumor had it that he had a new thing about purity and cleanliness, following the one path of divine righteousness. It didn’t sound like any of the peace and love ideals had gotten through, though.
Tether scraped his incisors against his lower teeth, blew out a hot breath and thumbed Ecstasy into his system. Empathogen fought with testosterone, unwinding his muscles.
Herded through the crowd, he slushed dead nano slime off his jacket, movements slow and deliberate so as not to spook his captors.
Too much downer, he felt slack and dopey. Lacking a meaningful escape strategy, he continued the scan and match for Ejiri, flicking jittery eyes to each face he passed. He bumped his staticy AI to put seventy percent resources onto monitoring his peripheral vision. It was hard enough for him to identify anyone when one-in-five pedestrians ran flashing adverts across their faces. He cleared the buffer of nearly constant low-level false positives.
Ejiri had disappeared a fortnight ago; Tether’s guess was he’d flipped from the utter tedium of his managerial job. The reincarnation process was intensely complex, but entirely managed by AIs. He was sure all Ejiri managed was machines and his own boredom. Yet, the stat-sheet had only been posted an hour ago and six hundred had already signed on for the search.
The genblur on his left said, “You was supposed to be hot shit.”
Hard to tell genblurs apart. It was the one with the lips. “Jet lag,” Tether said.
The testo-male prodded Tether in the ribs. “Shut it.”
Tether ventured a smirk. “It’s shut.”
The genblur smiled. “Name’s Pat.” Of course.
The guards marched him to the black-tech district. The testo-male ducked Tether’s head under the arm of a neon goddess-statue. The three guards followed and pushed him through sticky debris to the back of the alleyway. He’d been here many times but played dumb and let them do the work to lead him to the hidden door.
The genblur named Pat stuck his/her hand up a broken pipe. Red laser light played over his/her fingers and a door appeared amongst the dirty brick.
The three guards led Tether down crumbling stairs and parked him in a darkened basement room. He could smell mold and rat, maybe real, maybe just for effect; it was hard to tell with Billy-Billy.
Then he was alone in pitch black, the outside world silenced.
Like anyone in New Ishvara, Tether wasn’t used to quiet or darkness. He started to sweat after a few seconds of disturbing quiet. Then panic, irrational and encompassing, flooded through him. A tiny rational section of his brain thought of sub-sonic hysteria-inducing waves. Billy-Billy liked to soften folks before granting audience. Tether’s thoughts reduced to lizard brain. Urine trickled down his thigh. He fumbled an excess of Diazepam till he floated back to low level panic. Any more and he’d OD.
A voice formed in his head. Small and itchy as if from Tether’s own subconscious. “He’s coming,” said the voice.
He fingered the thumb dermal again.
“Coming. He’s coming.”
He pulled in the last bit of calm he had and faked a sigh. “BB, can we cut the floor show?”
Immediately in front of Tether was Billy-Billy, illuminated by spotlight high above Tether’s head. BB wore a tailored suit, ash grey. From the way the fabric stiffened with BB’s movements, Tether could tell that it was interwoven with kinetic reactive fiber. Anything hit Billy-Billy faster than a pat on the back and the fabric would be hard as diamond.
Nice suit. Expensive. BB had come up in the world.
He was more surprised to see human eyes in Billy-Billy’s head, blue and young. The last time he’d had an audience, BB’d been sporting cyber-eyes, expensive ones, too. It was even more pricey to go back to flesh.
Tether blew cool he didn’t feel. “Nice eyes.”
A chilly organ chord covered the discomfiting silence. BB’s eyes weren’t the only change. Nine chrome crucifixes, three evenly spaced on each wall, circled the room. Each cross was one by three meters and reflected light like a mirror. The workspace was in its usual state of messy distress, the walls lined with antiquated wooden tables piled with outdated tech: touch screens, keyboards, magnetic storage. Tether knew the antiques were real, but Billy-Billy kept his space hermetically clean. The dust and mess were for show; holographic projectors calculated mote paths, painted everything with a coat of virtual particulates. Everything, that is, but the crosses, which gleamed purity.
The old tech itself was just museum theatrics, even the aroma of dust manufactured by neural fakery. Billy-Billy was classically paranoid and kept all his business on his person.
Tether walked two meters behind him, more unsettled by the crosses than the sub-sonic panic waves. For all his light casual manner, BB must have been pretty intent to drag him here. With Tether’s defensive systems fried, he couldn’t afford to make BB jumpy, especially in his own lab.
Tether kicked a wooden chair to test that it was real, pulled it to the center table. “So, what’s the caper? I’m working.”
“S’right, working for me.”
He took a breath to parse that. “You’re looking for Ejiri?”
Billy-Billy smiled. “Partially, mostly looking for you.”
Tether thumbed THC, just a tap. “You could call.”
“Got something coming down. Need you now, fast.”
Tether swallowed pride and anger. “We talking about real lucre?”
“More than you can imagine.”
Tether let his arms loosen. “I’m listening.”
Billy-Billy leaned back on his heels, smiled like Tether had just hooked himself on bait. “Ejiri had some important data he wasn’t supposed to. I believe he was appropriated for the systems knowledge in his head. Some new reincarnation folks on the block.”
Interesting. The reincarnation industry was locked tighter than the lucre-guild. Someone must have botched big for Ejiri to have downloaded prime secrets. If Billy-Billy wanted Tether to dig up reincarnation industry data, he must be playing a big power grab. Dangerous to take on the reincarnation monopoly, an all or nothing game.
In concept, reincarnation was simple. A vat-grown clone of the client was infused with their personality backup from the grand database. In emergencies, computers scanned what was left of the deceased and traced their neural pathways, the cognitive-immunal system, and redundant cell memory. From this the AI built a complete holographic being, this was run through a series of checks and balances and compared to the backup from central memory before being inserted into a new clone.
Occasionally someone died without a recent backup. For those unlucky souls, the process of comparing their current, damaged, neural makeup with a distant copy, often produced a holographic being who was, at best…unique. Rich folks kept a constant wi-fi updater in their stem, always downloading into their backup.
So did Tether.
He fingered just a dash of clarity stim. “So another con-glom is moving in to take market share?”
Billy-Billy sat back in his chair. “Not exactly. More of an open source thing. Group calls themselves Namasté.” Said the word like it meant excrement. “Want you to find them.”
Tether’d heard the name, a fancy tag for a bunch of low level hackers.
BB reached into the inside pocket of his suit coat and pulled out a puter, a nicer model with a silver case about the size of his palm. He held it over the tabletop and fingered the inlaid button.
The gelatinous mass of the processor slid to the table, unfolded and inflated until it formed a translucent screen and keyboard. The screen lit as it stiffened.
Tether got up and circled the table. No doubt Billy-Billy purposely oriented it so he’d have to walk around. He caught a glimpse of a blood-soaked heal-pad affixed to the back of BB’s neck. He’d removed his wi-fi?
Tether sat at the table and pulled the puter closer. The document on the screen looked like gov-conglom internal memo. Level one stuff. Tough ice to crack to get at this.
Hot pixels wove the myth of Namasté. Soul hackers. Kids forced out of the marketplace, with nothing better to do. Hearsay of tech-phreaks stealing backups of celebrity personalities, to keep as virtual slaves.
Tether barely heard BB say, “I can’t upload this to you. This document’s so hot I can only show it on screen.”
He’d never gotten into the soul scene. Online trades of big name DJs or movie reviewers, altered to function as databases, a backlog of every piece of media the original person had been exposed to. Same for particularly interesting dreamers. Some companies’ whole business was mini-chip computers for junkies to trip on mined dreams.
According to the gov file the name Namasté appeared around the time “tape-ups” came into fashion, the merging of multiple stolen souls. The richest hackers were the ones who could merge copies, primarily to be downloaded into richies who wished to experience multiple things at once. Tether shuddered. There was still great conjecture about what became of a personality after a tape-up.
He sighed for real. “You want me to find a bunch of kids.”
Billy-Billy touched the case to the puter. It deflated as the case vacuumed the rubbery processor into itself with a wet slurp. “Be a bit harder than that, I think.”
“I got some middle man type action to offer. Business.”
Tether thought about acting coy, like he had better prospects. Truth was, he was intrigued. He shrugged. “Okay, whatever. This pays well, I assume.”
“The search for Ejiri is a smoke screen–but I’ll take him if you can get him. Find Namasté, get me in, and I’ll drown you in lucre.”
Actual sums were agreed upon quickly, Tether acting breezily about lucre he’d have to work twenty years to raise.
“‘K, boss.” He looked at one of the crosses, couldn’t help but poke at Billy-Billy. “Before I go, you need a stim-pack or something?”
BB shrugged. “No thanks T-man, I’ve got God.”
After acquiring a new defensive screen―top of the line, on Billy-Billy’s credit–Tether took the light-train crosstown to the hacker slums, train buzzing with slamming trance music. Might as well start asking around the Blood Bar; the best of the made hackers would be hanging there this time of night.
The Blood Bar was outwardly a gargantuan wooden shack, an expensive reproduction of an abandoned warehouse covered in replica twentieth century wooden boards. The local smell of oil and burnt plastics was real enough though. Even the pulsing dance music of the city center was distant.
He’d spent three fourths of his life in this place, building his skills, altering his body, learning from his betters. Now he was the best and didn’t need anyone anymore. He laid fingers on the familiar door. Some claimed it was real wood. The door creaked as it opened, its sound quickly lost in blaring reggae from inside. His nostrils burned with the stench of ethanol-infused liquor.
The Blood Bar earned its title from millions of red LED’s embedded in Lucite shaped to form pulsing red tables, walls and bar. Dim and dead LEDs created a sullen texture, like veins in a junkie’s skin. Hackers and thugs sat amongst floor-embedded tables, their faces black shadows in demonic light.
The music cut like a stale joke and Tether heard the door behind him bolt with an electric click, simultaneous with a snort from the bar. Darvy, bar owner, ex-hacker, thug, inclined against the faded red surface. His PVC dreadlocks flicked like agitated snakes. Every face turned toward Tether. He thumbed a light THC mix into his system, just enough to give him some cool.
“Hey, Darvy.” His voice cacophonous in the new silence.
Darvy’s dreads slowly rose, as if with static electricity. “Got a question for you, scab. Just one.”
Tether stood immobile. A back-step toward the door might touch off a nasty piece of tech.
Darvy rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Rumor is you working for Billy-Billy.”
Hackers and thugs rose from their tables almost as one. Faces lit as they stood. Not happy faces either. Tether’s defense system red-lined with warnings. A number of lethals were gearing up. His new system might keep him alive for a few seconds if this mob went at him.
He restrained himself from dumping more Ecstasy into his system. “What the hell? Just doing some contract work.” He raised his hands. “When did everybody get political all of a sudden?”
Folks were looking back to Darvy, as if for permission. He said to Tether, “Maybe you should have stayed off planet.”
Tether considered and abandoned plausible lies. Something big was damn well going down about Billy-Billy and Namasté. Tether had never mixed with the soul hacker crowd, but remembered umpteen folks had by the time he’d gone off planet.
A trickle of sweat ran down the back of his neck, pooling against his wi-fi nub. “Check. I took the wrong job. Let’s make this good.” His voice reverberated off the walls.
Whatever business deal Billy-Billy was planning, it had pissed off a lot of hackers. Sides had been drawn. “Darvy. Maybe someone should clue me in about this Namasté thing.”
He swore he saw a few people flinch at the name. Stillness. His system registered a few lethal systems stand-down. As his fear dampened, Tether felt a vacuum in his heart. These weren’t exactly friends, but he’d grown up with some of these folks; these were people who wouldn’t have been seen with soul hackers six months ago. His computer triggered on someone sub-vocalizing, “Are the Krishnas secure?”
He shook off his surprise and pressed his–perhaps illusionary–advantage. “I think I just quit my contract job, you want to correct my world view?”
Darvy’s snake dreads softly deflated. Maybe he was considering whether, or how best, to kill him. People looked back to Darvy, waiting. Tether sweated it. If this went south, he considered pushing his defense system to meltdown. This crowd looked like they’d slag his wi-fi anyway. If he was going to die, maybe take a few with him and hope the backup center had the sense to reincarnate him.
Darvy’s dreads snapped back, pulling his face tight. “Might be good to look into another trip.”
Tether wove a chaotic path through tight alleyways, blocking his net transmitters, spiraling away from the Blood Bar. He’d been off planet six months. Six months! Everyone was suddenly crazy.
His local career was dead now. His name and ID tags no doubt spun across a thousand hacker blogs. In whatever crazy hacker war that was building, he was branded Billy-Billy’s boy.
He made the genblur blocks later, just as he’d become sure he’d lost the hackers. No big talent, he/she didn’t seem to be hiding. The lips. Probably Pat. Tether slipped on some casual and sauntered to him/her.
He didn’t stop though, assumed Pat would pursue. Best to put a few more casual blocks between himself and the bar. What did Darvy meant about the Krishnas? Why are so many hackers suddenly into Namasté?
Pat, bouncing to distant music, keeping pace with him, had his/her cool on too. “About time. I was about to go in there and get you.” His/Her smile belied knowledge. Or implied threat.
Tether’s drug systems warned he was way above safe dosage levels. He’d need to sit in some peaceful darkness soon, before his heart seized from a stress-drug meltdown. “So.”
Pat slid a data chip out of his/her pocket. “Billy-Billy scammed some new intel, wants you to follow it.”
Pat maneuvered to block Tether and crossed his/her arms, clearly not about to leave until Tether accessed the data. Maybe Tether was Billy-Billy’s boy now. His only option now was to finish the job for BB and take his riches off planet. He faded sideways till they were both in a chest-width alley.
He winced as he pulled out his data reader, accidentally tugged on the skin implant, ridiculously close to his overly-sensitive nipple. Whoever had designed the damn things had made the ribbon-cable too short.
He slid in the data chip and ran a battery of diagnostics. Pure data, no executables. A few clever proto-AI’s could theoretically slip by his anti-virals. Not much choice with Pat glaring down at him.
The moment he initiated play, his visuals blacked and he drowned in silence. He was in nothing, so deep it could only be virtually generated. Simple text scrolled across his vision: You are tapped. Block your thoughts. Billy-Billy intends to use you to bring down Namasté. You are very expendable.
The message blipped out and he felt the data shift into normal play mode. Obviously, the message had been hacked on post-send. The scene resolved into Billy-Billy’s workspace, filled the silence with a single eternal chord. Billy-Billy sat in a chair at his bench. His arm draped over his knee as if he were holding court. One of the chrome crosses glittered in the background.
“Drop the Ejiri search. Found his body at the reclamation plant. His backup is apparently missing from the reincarnation center. Find me something quickly. God be praised.”
The scene froze, waiting for him to leave a message. Should he tell BB about the Krishnas?
Screw him. He’d give BB a report when he felt clearer about his own safety. The scene winked out and he was back in the alley with Pat. He shook digital webs from his head. With his body spiraling toward drug funk, it didn’t help much.
Pat locked eyes with him, looked noncommittal. “Message received?”
He paused long enough to give Pat a meaningful look. “Check.”
“You leave a message for BB?”
“Gimme the data-chip back.”
Tether dug the chip out of the data-reader and handed it over. Pat palmed it and scooted out of the alley. “Be in touch.”
Tether leaned against blackened concrete. Did Pat give me the message? He certainly didn’t trust Billy-Billy, but what would BB gain from screwing him?
If the secret message was correct, then Billy-Billy didn’t want to form an alliance with Namasté, he wanted to destroy them. BB had the resources to do it, too. If the soul-hackers had become some sort of movement, Tether didn’t want to be around for the fall out.
He shook his head. Either way it didn’t matter, as long as he came out okay, and got paid.
First order of business: get somewhere private and relatively safe, away from genblurs.
He lay in a damp cardboard box with a hired homeless standing bodyguard. A Goog-map of local New Ishvara gave three Hare Krishna temples within an hour’s light-rail from the Blood Bar. News feed scans eliminated two as old, established and non-techy.
One had good possibilities. A quick hack into low level gov data showed it was suspiciously close to a T5 hub. He slipped back into reality and got up to pay his guard. Answers now, sleep later.
The temple sagged, a newer skin built with little lucre over an old grungy prefab. Plaster columns held minarets above the original crumbling brown plastic.
Tether scoped it for an hour, hidden in a pile of debris in a doorway. Definitely intense amounts of tech and wiring around the building, but it was hard to tell if signals were coming from the temple or the surrounding businesses. The building to one side listed as data storage, the other a micro-filament company. Heat scans revealed thirty live bodies in the temple.
He slouched across the street and tapped the buzzer. It was broken, so he knocked. Moments later a human-shaped heat signature approached the door. The fake wood retreated to show a stocky guy in Hare Krishna robes.
“I’m thinking about changing faith. Can I get a tour?”
Chipping faux-gold and murals of dead Buddha-looking people filigreed the main hall. They kicked up choking dust as they walked, the dust too fretting to be manufactured theatrics. The Krishna guy droned on about vegan meals and prayer days.
Tether couldn’t get a solid fix on anything. There were tech signals all around, maybe originating in the side rooms his guide was dutifully avoiding. They passed through thick faux-wooden doors. Their surroundings dripped with vivid chalk murals, creating an illusion of depth beyond the walls. The mural depicted garish scenes of what he could only imagine were trees and lakes and disturbingly open plains.
Something was very wrong. His system spiked with sub-audio vibration. There were terabytes of data flowing through this room. His systems couldn’t snag anything solid but some astronomic signals emanated from here.
The Krishna took a single step to the side and swung a hand toward the back of the room. “Through the archway is the temple. Please feel free to wander.”
Two more steps and he was positioned behind Tether. The monk beamed expectantly.
A knee kick brought the Krishna to the floor. Tether amped his defensive systems to lethal.
“Stay down, baldy.”
Heat scan showed at least five guys crowded at the thick doors behind, between him and the front exit.
The Krishna held his knee, his eyes wide with pain. “Tether, don’t be alarmed.”
They know my name.
The archway was the only exit. He was being herded. Sank in the walls around the arch were metal poles shaped to match the stonework.
Possibly a nerve system. Time was dragging with the coke in his blood. He needed an exit strategy before the guys in the doorway made their move. Either run at the mob of Krishnas or chance a possible lethal system in that archway.
The monk on the floor said, “There must be a misunderstanding.”
Tether jerked him up by his robes, thumbed a second dangerous level of stimulant into his muscles and hoisted the guy over his head. The Krishna sailed five meters across the room and through the archway.
The monk hit the ground, slid through. He looked shocked and winded, but none the worse for the wear.
Not a lethal system after all. The guys at the front door hadn’t moved yet. Riding the testosterone/coke high, he stalked through the arch, planning to grab the toady and make him point out a back exit.
A half-step through the arch, his world shattered into fractal patterns, smaller and smaller and then nothing.
He was in a field. Golden sunlight pricked his eyes through his eyelids, burned and choked him. He gasped and dug his fingers into dry dirt.
“Tether, it will be all right. Just focus on your breathing.”
He started at the voice, opened his eyes. A mistake. The sun bored into his skull and he cried. He flicked his thumb dermals for Ecstacy, THC, anything.
A low itch covered his skin, began to burn up behind his eyes.
“Oh God.” His own voice sounded like a lost sob.
“Please, just breathe.”
He lifted his hands to cover his eyes. In the blinding sunlight he saw his hands flow like gelatin, light glittered through them. “What’s happening to me?”
The voice, behind him somewhere, was kind. “You’re acclimating to the system.” Concern drifted into the voice. “Although the process is not usually so traumatic.”
His body felt as if electricity were surging through it. As if his veins were flowing with fire.
“My drug-maintenance system isn’t working.”
“A blood surfer?” The voice sounded shocked. “They never should have digitized you.”
Hands scooped him up as if he weighed nothing. Suddenly he was in cool shade, next to a river running with rainbow liquid. Even in his delirium, he could see it was not water. The man holding him was balding, maybe in his forties. He lowered Tether into the rainbow. Tether’s skin burned cold and he screamed.
The man stepped into the not-water and held the back of Tether’s head. “I’m not going to lie to you. There’s a decent chance you’ll discorporate.” He spoke slowly and enunciated, as if Tether were a child. “But it’s up to you. I want you to concentrate on your body. Remember what it is to be you.”
Cold and fire clashed inside Tether. “Where?”
“You’re in Namasté. We’ve digitized your psyche.” A hand held the back of Tether’s head. “Your consciousness is trying to cope without the drugs.”
Tether’s whole body quivered, on the edge of shaking apart. “What do I do?”
“You only exist as your identity. If you don’t synthesize yourself, you’ll fade into the general consciousness.”
An idea, like a lighthouse in the fog, formed in his lost mind. “Why can’t I just imagine I have my drugs?”
“Theoretically you can create drugs here. You can change your clothes, make yourself drunk, whatever. But that’s not you; it’s not your core.”
“Who are you?”
“My name was Dirvis Ejiri. Just rest for now. I’ll be here.”
The pervasive quiet tore at him, no sound but water and breeze. Even Billy-Billy’s hysteria-inducing waves hadn’t caused him so much paralyzing fear. He sobbed. “Please talk to me.”
Ejiri stroked the top of Tether’s head. “Namasté, isn’t it beautiful?” Tether tried to look beyond Ejiri but couldn’t focus his eyes.
Ejiri said, “They didn’t start it for altruistic reasons. The project was originally born to create an intensely recursive processor, or a giant encyclopedia, or both. No one remembers. It started with them cramming hundreds of personalities together.”
Tether’s hands felt as if his fingers had melted off. He couldn’t lift his arms. Pain floated away, washed down the stream.
“Eventually they realized what their project could be. You could say they caught religion. Soon hackers were stealing thousands of profiles, tapping into backup signals, all to create a single unified mind. Namasté.”
He still felt Ejiri’s hand on his head, or imagined he did. What did it mean to be touched in a digital world?
“Lacking the processing power of major corporations, they linked multi-processor torrents on the web. Millions of machines across the planet.”
The warmth from Ejiri’s hand slowly melted down Tether’s brow.
“The last step is to infect the wi-fi network in people’s wet-ware, to run Namasté in real time in people’s brains. Imagine, heaven running in the back of everyone’s subconscious.”
As Ejiri continued, Tether calmed. He could feel the water that wasn’t water. It was warmer, felt good on his skin now. He had skin, he could feel it. He lifted his arm from the wet. It was an arm, his arm, naked. His skin looked young, as when he was a teenager. Then it changed to older than he’d ever been. The skin grew and lost needle scars. Clothes grew over his arm.
He reached up, squeezed Ejiri’s hand, then pushed up from the water. “Where are the other people?”
“Oh, here. Some wish to be seen, some don’t. This water is people, the dirt, the rocks, the sky, the sun, it’s all people’s consciousness.”
He wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. “Why would anyone want to be dirt?”
Ejiri was looking into the blue, blue sky, “Why choose to experience anything?”
Itchy waves of drug-need rolled through him. His clothes had re-formed. He and Ejiri walked across a blazing field of flowers and watched the sun fall behind iron mountains. The ever-present openness and silence still made him want to curl into a ball. The air smelled in turns like perfume or at other times like chemical burn.
Ejiri walked easily in plain clothes. Tether was convinced Ejiri’s face was changing from moment to moment but couldn’t remember how it had looked previously.
Tether said, “I’m still out there, unaware that my consciousness has been copied in here?”
Ejiri nodded. Looking at this simple, calm man, Tether felt an unfamiliar feeling: empathy.
Tether wanted to reach out and touch the man’s shoulder. “Sorry to tell you, your body’s dead.”
Ejiri’s face flickered like a like a bad vid feed. “I know.”
They walked a bit more before Ejiri said, “I killed myself.” He grimaced and his form wavered. “My corporal form had too much information on Namasté.”
Tether squinted toward the reddening sun, no longer as painful on his eyes. A thought occurred. “You hacked yourself?”
Ejiri walked ahead, following a path toward the mountains “We’re slowly starting to break the encryption on primary reincarnation systems.” He tapped the back of his neck. “The wi-fi that connects people’s brains. That’s what I brought to Namasté.”
Tether thought about Billy-Billy’s amputated wi-fi hub. A breeze sifted through his clothes and he shivered. “Couldn’t we just, uh, teleport around here?”
“Sure. But I like to walk sometimes.”
Ejiri tripped over a stone. He stopped, went back, and carefully placed the stone back where he had kicked it from. After raking the sand around it with his fingers, he brushed his hands.
There was something about Ejiri, this place, that made Tether want to sit down and watch the sun setting. He’d known Ejiri for just a few hours and he felt safer with him than hackers he’d known his whole life. He stood and breathed till Ejiri broke his meditation. “We’re almost there. It’s probably time to start the pitch.”
Tether tensed, absently tapped at thumb dermals that were no longer there.
Ejiri said, “We need your help to stop Billy-Billy.”
Something that had been nagging Tether found voice. “Billy-Billy found God. Namasté doesn’t just threaten his financial interests, he thinks it’s trying to replace heaven.”
“When a dangerous man finds something to believe in, most of us would do well to get out of his way.”
Tether thought about his drug systems. Ejiri had said he could recreate them if he wanted to. He scratched at his arm. “Why don’t you bring BB in here. Show him how cool it is?”
“We already brought a copy of Billy-Billy into the system. He discorporated.”
Around the next bend, the path opened into a flat valley. Past a sandy depression was a cave covered with symbols that Tether couldn’t read, like letters from disparate languages randomly thrown together. Somehow he knew the symbols represented him.
Ejiri said, “You’re still out there, working for Billy-Billy. The miserable drug-you. With your help, he might just destroy Namasté.”
Tether scratched the back of his neck. “You want me to hack his mind?”
Ejiri shook his head. “The human brain is the ultimate encryption. Sure, Namasté can infect wet-ware and run systems in the background,” He tapped his head. “But each of us is the only one who can get into our own id.”
“You want me to kill my physical body.”
“We want you to hack yourself.” Ejiri looked at the cave. “Get your old self to stop Billy-Billy. No one else with a wi-fi can get close to him.”
Ejiri picked up a pebble, handed it to Tether. Its texture felt rough, like a thousand stories had been microscopically written on its surface. Touching the pebble, Tether felt like he’d just met someone new. He felt warm.
“Billy-Billy’s genblur, Pat’s been hacked, right?”
“Pat is here, yes.” Ejiri smiled sadly again. “Even if you stop Billy-Billy, you probably won’t live through the attempt.”
Tether thought about hacking his own head. Not a pleasant prospect. Of course, if he didn’t hack himself, his digital existence would end with all of Namasté.
A cynical spike pricked his heart. Maybe he could double-cross these Namasté zealots. Find his way back to his systems, his drugs. If he ran BB the right way, he’d drown in lucre. His form rippled and he feared Ejiri would know his thoughts.
Ejiri said that Namasté went on practically forever, said Tether had forever to explore it.
He took a step toward the cave. Old life, or new life? He was going in the data-stream either way.
With each step, he felt a magnetic pull. He could already sense harsh digital information. His hacker mind clicked with recognition, hard cold logic of his old mind. The thoughts felt seductively ugly. More steps and strategies formed, methods of attack, ways to avoid traps, battle plans.
He’d imagined there would be a sensation like drifting down a tunnel or white light, something. But he was just there, in his own head. But muffled, distant, “he” not “He”. He felt jarred by rumbling dance music. He was a hitchhiker, carried like a child in the back of his own brain.
Sticky half-thoughts drifted just out of reach, sometimes colors or context for unspoken words, almost but not quite discernible. He could sense the skin in his body, the drugs coursing through his veins, but removed, symbolic, distant. The drugs called and he urged his physical self to dose another hit.
A sharper feeling brushed him, the metallic taste of computer systems. He set aside the drug need and reached with non-existent fingers for the wet-ware.
What am I doing? Was he here to integrate with his body or to stop himself to save Namasté? He didn’t know. Either way, he needed to synchronize somehow.
A physical hand, his hand, rose to scratch his body’s nose. The nails had blood clotted around them. What had he done in the temple?
Why did he care?
His body passed through the black-tech district, certainly headed for Billy-Billy’s. Whatever he was going to do, he didn’t have much time. His body was clearly going to download the location and specs of the Krishna center. With the information, Billy-Billy would have the building destroyed before they could set up the wet-ware network.
Tether’s body stuck his hand into the broken pipe and bloody laser light played across it.
He perceived coherent thoughts now, sequential images and text, slippery like an advert. With the thoughts, the drug need pulled at him all the more. His body was contemplating how to bid up BB, score an extra 100K. The wall became a door and his body stepped through.
Billy-Billy stood stiffly in his workspace. The theatrical systems off. Without dust on everything else, the crosses looked less impressive, just polished aluminum alloy shaped by machines. Clearly BB wanted to get to business right away.
He caught more of his body’s thoughts, sharp, quick jabs. The door shut behind him and he felt a dampened panic, in sync with his body for a moment. A low hum that he hadn’t sensed before rose from the floor and walls. He detected his body’s fear levels rise. His body’s defense systems clicked into standby.
His body said, “What’s with the power grid, BB? We here to do business?”
Tether felt his way to the on-board computer, could just feel the defined edges of wet-ware and defense systems. But if he concentrated too hard, they slipped away, fell through his “fingers.” Still, he noticed, before his body did, the many unfriendly systems spinning up.
Two testo-males, sheathed in stealth suits, grabbed his body by the neck and arms. He sensed what could only be a hand-held neural interrupter at his body’s brain stem. If he could just control his body’s vocal chords, he could talk to Billy-Billy.
And say what?
He was about to grab harder at the wet-ware when he remembered what Ejiri had told him. Integrating with his body and systems couldn’t be done by force.
Letting go, surrendering, he melted into the computer. He ran virtual fingers across the rough edges of the tech systems, more real than his body, which felt like a cloud at the edge of his peripheral vision.
Billy-Billy looked away, toward a darkened corner, fingered a set of rhythmic taps on the pads of his fingers. Tether sensed lethal systems locking onto him.
His body finally noticed. “The hell you doing?”
Billy-Billy rotated and smiled. “Thing is, I’ve discovered a disturbing new wrinkle. Seems you have a ghost in your machine.”
The testo-male tightened his grip on Tether’s neck. He felt his body try to trigger defense systems, but something blocked his body’s access to the wet-ware.
Billy-Billy strolled over. Tapped Tether’s forehead. “Hello? You hear me in there?”
BB stepped back. “Just so you don’t die not knowing.” He snapped his fingers. A spotlight illuminated the dark corner. There lay Pat, or what was left of him/her. The back of his/her head was messily open and his/her wet-ware system lain out on an adjacent table.
Billy-Billy crossed himself. “I thought maybe I could isolate the virus, but, ah well.” He raised an eyebrow at Tether. “Maybe I’ll have better luck the second time.”
Tether wanted to run, to abandon his body and soak in the rainbow stream for a year.
As if Billy-Billy were reading his thoughts, he said, “I’ve created an electromagnetic field around my lab. Can’t chance that rat in your head getting out.”
It was true. Whatever path had been available before was gone. He screamed, trapped in his old mind.
Tether’s body shook, unable to even access the drug system. His body said, “Slow it down, boss.” He could feel his body’s thoughts go shifty and jagged. “I got crucial data up here. Maybe you should cryonic me, do a backup comparison. Root out the virus.” He felt sweat tickle down his body’s arms.
Billy-Billy scratched his head, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him. “Tis true, if I wet you, I’d have to hire a new infiltrator and they’ll have time to move their facilities. What the heck. For old times sake.” He motioned behind Tether. “Knock him out.”
In a moment, one of the testo-males would clock him or taze his head. He’d be extracted and Namasté would be destroyed. His consciousness pulled into a tight diamond of frustration.
His body couldn’t access his defense systems, but Tether realized he could. Wanting to panic and claw, he brushed gently at the systems, nudged pieces together.
Painfully slowly to his digital senses, the defense system amped a non-lethal shock across his coat. The testo-males fell in a rattling heap behind him.
His body said, “Whoa, shit. Stand down.”
Billy-Billy snapped his fingers. The chromed crosses twisted in unison, revealing a pack of steel tubes. Silent darts glittered through the light and sliced through Tether’s body. The pain was distant, and all the more horrible for that.
His body drained and folded and Tether felt, like a splash of cold water, his old consciousness die. The wi-fi in his neck tried to signal the backup center, but stalled at the electromagnetic field.
The on-board computing systems were suddenly clear and solid to Tether. With panic he clawed through them. His first thought, lasting for an eternal microsecond, was to release a full payload from his drug system, drown in hallucinogens and hope for a pleasant trip that lasted forever.
His consciousness just brushed the drug system when he noticed, through sluggish and dying components, the defense system’s meltdown sequence, red and jagged, surrounded by safety codes. In the next few microseconds, he could drug himself or he could save Namesté.
Billy-Billy smiled down at him, as if he had just given Tether a beautiful gift.
It took a few long microseconds to brush the locks away. Another to convince himself. He connected two final pieces of code and the HUD red-lined. Micro-nuke batteries overloaded. His defense systems flashed, spiraled to meltdown with exponential speed. Tether thought of Ejiri and Namasté. Part of him smiled. Through the dying synapses in his body’s eyes, he saw Billy-Billy raise his hands to the ceiling lights, a look of rapture on his face. Tether felt time shift. His body inflated and popped, sending a furious wave of energy and heat. Tether’s dispersed holographic self’s last image was Billy-Billy, the room, and everything vaporize in a snow storm of absolute white light.
Tether stood confused at the cave entrance. He had thought he was walking through, but now he stood a few meters back. He even saw footsteps leading in.
The cave was different somehow. Maybe the symbols had changed. Somehow they didn’t seem to represent him anymore.
He shook his head, looked back, was almost surprised to see Ejiri still there.
Ejiri wavered. “It’s done.”
Tether looked back at the cave. “But I never left.”
Ejiri walked around Tether and brushed away the footsteps that led into the cave. “We are now digital beings, my friend.” He put his hand on Tether’s shoulder, squeezed him. Tether felt a painful warmth in his heart.
Ejiri said, “Everything that leaves here is a copy.”
Tether turned to the sunset and let the wind push his hair from his eyes.