‘Embedded’, A.J. Fitzwater

Illustrations © 2016 Miranda Jean



 [ Plugged In, © 2016 Miranda Jean ] A sleeper roach chitters victory seconds before the tonal recognition program cuts in.

“Welcome to Reality. Whose life would you like to live today?”

Slicing through the three-sixty sensorium clutter of the cell, I beckon forward a view of the mark from the dot-cam secreted above Xan’s desk.

Score. The facial and credit recons match. Brandon Gaytes the Younger has earned a level up into a dose of true reality. International Net Neutrality Council—the INNC, or Ink to us black channellers—had sent us an empathy mark direct.

Objectively, only one minute forty seconds passes before Xan’s official ping flourishes in-ear, but by then I’m squirming in soda-stiff jeans against the rips in my coffin couch.

“Ugh, starving. What does a girl have to do to get fed around here?” comes Xan’s sub-vocalization disguising the intonation beneath. Hey Click, this guy’s security pigs are legit unhealthy. Get Switch, we’re on.

As per usual, the Ink’s watchdogs lag by fifteen seconds. If anyone is listening in, legit or black channel, they are seriously S.O.L.

I shuffle my in-views, peripherals, and stacks until I have the perfect balance that won’t dry out my eyeballs. For someone who bleeds ones and zeroes, you sure do rely on the unreliable a lot. Damn eidetic memory; Xan’s honey and whiskey voice is on me at a crucial moment. I scrabble the bio-wire into my neck, shuttling the sensorium somewhere useful. And quiet.

“Yo Xan, sup in the real world. Thought you were credit diving today.” Click here. Don’t forget to cycle your tones like I taught you.

“I am, but I just got a client for the tank so I’m set for the fourteen-forty. Could totally do Mexican.” Look at this rich bastard’s bio. He’s a walking nightmare. He’s skeeving just looking at me. I say he’s waste material.

“Bonus. I’m bored. Let me find out if our favourite delivery boy is up.” Slow my delivery, mimick a real time parse of the infodump she’s flashed me. Don’t want her to know I had Gaytes pegged by my sleepers before he walked through Reality’s back door. Receiving loud and clear. Prepping all the pigs and whistles. Agreement on all fronts.

I tongue open another audio channel, sweating the nano-seconds it takes to snake through redundancies. “Yo Switch, we’re going for tacos. You up?” Yo Switch. Operation Ink Burn is a One. Got squealers?

Switch gives it just the right amount of nano-seconds of connection lag. “Fucking now? I’m totally not hungry.” He doesn’t hesitate with his intonations. Right on. Security good to go.

“Would you stop pwning those Battle Mage noobs and get yourself a whiff of true reality? Don’t let your tax-payer funded air go to waste.” Checkit. A sitter for Soweto, Detroit, and Pyongyang. Let’s see what he thinks of the Dispense of Information Act when it’s happening to him.

Switch’s laughter is quite genuine. “What you talking about. You never leave that coffin unless your piss bag and tortilla wrappers are going sentient.” Security pigs are stacked to follow your roaches in. Ready to crack Ink wide open for all to see.

It’s not the first time I’ve felt compelled to flick a few cockroaches Switch’s way. He’s wetwared but off the grid. Though we’ve dosey-doed with the Ink and other black channellers wanting to clock us for bragging rights, I’ve never had a face to face with the guy. The dot-cams in the vicinity of his nodes never show me anything of worth. Trust him, sure, to a point. I have to take this situation as is. Paranoia, staying alive; both part of the ones and zeroes. If all goes well, this’ll be my first relocation in six months.

If all doesn’t go well…

“There you go sir, you’re all set to visit the true wonder of Reality. Marilyn Monroe is a fine choice. Just lie back, relax, and your tank will come online in just a few moments. Today’s guide cat is calico.” Xan’s warmth throws a blanket over my mind, and I up the input on the vault. Will you two losers quit with the love-in. Meat is about to go la-la in sixty secs. You better be riding the back of purgatory or we can pack up our toys for another six months. We’ve too much to lose.

“C’mon Switch, you know you’re always up for some Coyotes,” I say. A test breadcrumb roach flicked at the hole in Reality’s firewall slips through clean. God, what is it about the tits with these jagoffs?

“You sure do love them tacos,” Switch complains. His calling card, a bright pink pig in a frilly skirt, nudges in-view and begins setting trip wires beyond the battalion of roaches poised on the peripheral of Reality’s core. “You’re always chowing down on ’em. Anyone would think you’re addicted.” Ninety percent playing with themselves, the rest mugging that damn birthday song with whoever’s riding shotgun as prez.

“Mmm, fish tacos,” Xan croons. Hey! 30 secs!

“Heading out,” says Switch. Time aplenty.

He adds a background of street sounds to his audible so smoothly I can’t ascertain the lack of authenticity on first pass. We’ve played this game for fifteen years chipping away at Ink, our reputations only as good as the last job. Other black channellers play too hard too fast, and end up on a comfortable coffin couch on the inside. Not us. We’re in it for the long haul. Martyrdom is never my style.

“Busy on the street, Switch? Don’t have much time to waste on traffic,” I say. Ink’s recon patterns are slow. You getting any suspicious pokes from your end?

The hesitation lasts barely a second but it’s enough to throw me back into the stark consciousness of my cell. I nudge the audibles closed with my chin, and allow myself the luxury of closed eyes. The shunt in my neck rubs hot against a tear in the couch, and the dappled sound proofing covering every surface absorbs my breath. I count the steps once more to the prepped duffel by the emergency exit.

“Yeah, lunchtime crowd is on the up, but I can flash Coyotes the order once I’m in range,” Switch says, pulling me back into the cascade of information. Yeah, they’re dealing with a random treasury attack. Black channellers don’t have a clue how to shoulder ride.

Time crunch. I’ve catalogued every nuance of Switch’s voice over the years. He should know the treasury attack was a unit of my suicide roaches.

Switch is obfuscating.

Seconds to spare. “Is the pulled pork back on the menu at Coyotes?” I’m in the zone, but there’s still time to pull out.

Xan hums her favourite pop tune as the sounds of tubes suctioning into place come over her channel. The image of the client naked and slathered in conduction fluid is grainy but serviceable. No fucking way, Xan’s intonations say. This client is the perfect mark! I didn’t hire you two to screw me over at the last second! I’m sick of Ink shitting on our civil liberties!

Switch huffs like he’s jogging through a crowd. “Nah, they only got tank pork that tastes like chicken.” Chill, we’re on schedule. Click’s got this, isn’t that right, bro?

Don’t call me bro.

One second never feels so short. Why would Switch waste time and tones on useless pandering?

Fuck it. There’s a reason why I’m the oldest black channeller still going hardcore. My roaches with their suicide redundancies have proved time and again to be better than people.

I throw extra roaches into the tunnels after Switch, and scoop Reality intel into my face. I can get out of this if it all turns to shit. I can.

“Fish tacos, then,” I say, infusing decisiveness into my tones. Let them read what they will; my voice is the only part of my personality I dare show. I’m going in.


Riding roaches on the shoulder of a human suit is never as immersive as a deep Reality, but they’re enough to approximate the sensorium. Wetware is too much of a risk—most fibre tattoo artists are too easy to bribe. I’ve spent too long fighting against full immersion as a way out. Dying people don’t have the luxury of lying to themselves about receding coastlines and water wars.

I stretch Reality’s purgatory around my senses as far as I dare. It helps the Monroe skin sags from overuse. A roach scuttles away with incriminating photos to share on the Undermere. That should keep the Monroe estate’s lawyer busy enough during the fourteen-forty I have at my disposal to work over Gaytes. Rewire your chemistry in anticipation of any temporary insanity charges will you, rich fucker? You think you’re fast, but I’m faster.

The client hovers, Marilyn face frozen in red-lipped ecstasy as he loads into the skin. Switch’s pig stalks the perimeter throwing up an efficient picture of respectability. It helps Reality’s security protocols are old and clunky—huzzah for employing ex-black channel narcissists.

Gaytes-Monroe opens his eyes and stretches the red lips wider. The first syllable of the damnable bad singing peters out like they’ve been punched in the gut. Which, in effect, they have; the client would have been expecting to open with a fake audience, not an overview of the walls of Detroit.

“You’re not the Reality guide cat,” Gaytes whines.

I’m barely aware of my body as I tongue open a new tight audible and take over puppetry of the cat’s avatar. “Your usual guide is unavoidably detained, Mister Gaytes. Please make yourself comfortable. We have a long journey ahead. I assure you, you will not be harmed in any way if you co-operate fully.”

Gaytes thrashes and whines causing the skin to cycle through the five standard poses of the tutorial. He makes grandiose claims about his personal security.

Nudge him to mute, run a tongue over the feedback from the roaches tunnelling through Switch’s nodes. Still nothing. Still just as legit. Still doesn’t feel right. Even the coldest black channeller gives off some heat. I sacrifice another roach to the tapestry of dot-cams and tone recognition programs I’ve left dormant in certain halls of power.

Xan checks in. “Can I bum a feed off you Switch? I’m short on credit.” Heart rate and delta waves elevated. Tweaking the jagoffs public feed.

“Don’t be such a stinge, Xan. This is the second time this week. You can go without real lobster for once,” says Switch. Pigs are relaxed and your mask is running smooth this end. Might wanna tweak output for the client’s fan club.

Curiouser and curiouser. Switch never reminds me how to do my job, it’s a waste of a good tone cycle. There are always Rule Thirty-Fours clumsily plugged into the system and Ink keeping an eye on their members’ sexual fetishes. No one has died while in a deep Reality. Not officially, anyway.

Lying AND nervous.

I’m halfway out my coffin couch before the sensation cuts through the bio-wire numbness; a trickle of sweat down the side of my face. I take a deep breath and shuffle the system kill within easier reach. It pulses a gentle red counterpoint.

“Changed my mind. Want a beef and bean burrito,” I say. Reading you loud and clear. All systems are in-view. Committed and non-committal at the same time, just how Switch would expect me to use my tones.

The Monroe skin ceases thrashing.

“So, Mr Gaytes. I have absorbed your attachment to the outside world.” I choose strange phrasing to keep enemy pattern recognition crawlers at bay. “You’re locked in to this Reality and your check-ins with your personal security are set at random intervals. I can assure you your bank accounts are quite safe, that’s not what I’m interested in. Are we ready to talk?”

The red lips pout, but Gaytes-Monroe manages a stiff nod.

“Good. Now, no protests about how Reality or Ink are the most impenetrable systems on-world and off, or your inalienable net neutral rights. I know the holes you built into your wall for you and your friends. Hell, I built them for you. Your house is made out of sticks and sand, and it only takes a small trickle of water to undermine it. That trickle has been a torrent for a very long time. I am everywhere.”

Gaytes-Marilyn folds his arms. “You can’t fool me with this lone wolf language. It would take far more than one person to hack Reality.”

I make the cat roll its eyes and the Marilyn skin shudders. “I do not do something so last century as ‘hack’, Mr Gaytes. I simply curate.”

“What, chaos? I bet you’re one of those, with your freakish body mods, wasting away in coffin couches in desperate attempts to pretend the Undermere belongs to you. You need me, to make the net a safe place for everyone.”

Back in my cell, my body winces, but I force the cat avatar to laugh. “Would you like a moustache to twirl Mr Gaytes? Do you actually listen to the things coming out of your mouth? Sounds to me like you’re parroting your daddy in a desperate attempt to keep your family’s seat on the council.”

The Marilyn skin finally glances around at their tenuous perch atop the spiked Detroit walls. “What are you? A Green? Ink Blotters? Killroy Mashram?”

Xan chokes on her pop tune. At least the shunt is doing its job; I’d forgotten she was there.

“At the front of the Coyotes line,” Switch says, voice steady. Christ these jagoffs are out of touch!

I manip the cat into a head tilt. “I have no political affiliations, you misunderstand the intent of the Blotters, and Killroy was just rich kids thinking they could ante up to my table. I work for no one.” A slight lie, but Xan doesn’t need to know; like with all my marks, I’d been dropping breadcrumbs for her for months. “I’m certainly not interested in creating clickbait.”

“Then what are you interested in?” The vocal algorithm centred on Gaytes picks up his true desperation. He’s stalling. I have to give him credit for a few Reality smarts; once a skin takes their first step out of purgatory, it can be bounced anywhere.

But he wasn’t smart enough.

“The truth.”

With a nudge of a paw, the calico shoves the skin off the Detroit wall. Gaytes screams all the way down.


Switch is silent, ostensibly to let me do my part of the job without interruption. He’s always been good like that, but now I just don’t know.

Though I can read the client’s vitals, I have to allow Xan’s regular updates so she feels like she’s taking part. Shunt gain stays way up.

In Reality—True Reality, not that shit that passes for the rich playground—Gaytes-Marilyn slumps on a broken brick wall, the fresh white skirt unstained by the muck we’ve tracked through pulled up above wide spread knees, bleached hair clenched in delicate hands. Despite his obvious love of the skin, he doesn’t know how to operate her well.

“Would you please stop.” He exaggerates the sweet lisp in a bid for sympathy.

The calico rubs against the skin’s ankles. “But Mr Gaytes, we’ve barely begun.”

Gaytes-Monroe swipes at the cat, but the nails only find the stink-laden air. I’ve paid special attention to getting the overpowering funk of death exactly right. “You think I don’t know all this—” Gaytes-Monroe gestures at the bloated bellies, the flies collecting in the corners of eyes. “—doesn’t exist?”

The grinding boredom of Gaytes incessant whining gets shunted away too, so my replies are always smooth, calm, annoying. “Your tax deductible is put to the best possible use by the charity corp it’s stolen by. And the yearly photo op with plucky kids you’re maniped into is truly a work of genius.”

“But it’s real!”

“As real as you want it to be.” The calico’s tail lashes.

“As real as all this,” Gaytes-Monroe sneers back.

“Oh, I forgot.” I make the calico do an ‘aww shoot’ gesture, and the skin looks away. “You thought third world poverty and famine was eliminated by your daddy’s generation.”

“But it was! Africa is a great and thriving country now!” Gaytes-Monroe stretches out a hand towards the listless bloated people in the tent, as if trying to convey his helpless need to help.

“Uh huh. Dude, this is a real time eyes on—”

“Oh.”

“—from the refugee camp outside what remains of the levees of Brisbane.”

“Huh?”

I bounce him a few kays further towards the sagging levees and encroaching brackish swamp. The skin freezes, and back at the tank Xan reports in an undertone Gaytes had thrown up. Geezus. This skin is so old, making bounce lag all the much worse. I can almost see the pixels chipping off.

Gaytes comes back coughing and cursing. “Alright, I get it! Ugandan famine riots. The PNG wireless dead zone. Moscow plague centres. The Palestinian exodus. All very handsome Shakespearean tragedies, cooked up with a few tweaks of Reality. I don’t know what line you’re being fed, but I bet you’re one of those who barely sets foot outside some roach hole to put actual real eyes on a problem. You’re more content just to sit there in your coffins and stretch the truth to suit your reality.”

Reality, with a little r.

“With all respect, you wouldn’t know true reality if it bit you on the arse,” I say. “Why bother breathing tax payer air when you can take a corporate shuttle down to the Reality tanks or some skin joint.”

“Now look here, you little shit—”

“No, YOU look. Really look.” An exhausted roach drops an alert across my tongue before dissolving to nothing. I section off more to run algorithms over the data packet while I put the calico up in Gaytes-Monroe’s face. “I know, deep down, you’re not stupid. You only put on that front for your daddy. Believe me, I know what it means to leave no footprint. But your credentials aren’t some made up bullshit to get you on a convenient committee. I know a much younger you was on the way to being something very much like me, but you were scared straight by threats against your trust fund and your boyfriends. You have the tools to see the truth, to pick apart the programming. If you’re just willing to maybe, maybe, admit there’s a different truth to the one you’ve been fed, the one in service of the net neutriality—”

It’s not a prepared speech. I didn’t expect to get this far. But Gaytes looks like, for a moment, he is truly listening.

I pause long enough to ascertain the skin has frozen again. As I tongue open the audible, the deep thought roaches I’d set chewing over the suicide packet rumble against my tongue. “Xan?”

“Busy, yo.” Her spoken protocols are making me proud; she’s gotta be tired. Running diagnostics.

Pull back from the calico avatar, blink dry eyes over the three-sixty: the Thirty-Fours have grown bored by the mask broadcast and dropped off; Ink are still ten paces behind; Switch’s pig still flutters freshly pink.

That can’t be right. The pig should be showing signs of the planned obsolescent decay like I program into my roaches.

The tingle on my tongue turns from the of-interest soft caramel to the imperative of acidic lemon.

Never any face time to Switch. Nodes are squeaky, bouncing round the globe and orbit on a perfectly irregular timetable.

Too clean.

“Fuck!” Xan drops all pretence of tone. “Shit, fuck! He’s seizing.”

The kill switch throbs prettily.

“Xan?” Protocols!

“Shit! I’ve never had a seizure. What do I do!”

I have to make a decision. I shake clients down, but never deep-six them. Dropping my tones for one phrase is a risk, but I have to keep Xan on the level or we’re screwed. “It’s all there in your training. Blink it up on your visor.”

“He’s fucking dying. Brain waves all over the fucking show!”

A grainy picture: Xan hunches over the tank’s controls as the body slow-ejects from the tank. “Breathe. It’s going to be okay. I’m listening if you need help.” The medicos are coming. I’m going to flash which button to press.

“Don’t fucking tell me to breathe!”

Grabbing a simulacrum of the Reality tank screen, I tap in a variety of codes and flash them to Xan. I can’t do this for her, can’t put my fingerprints on the ware without a ready roach.

 [ Roaches, © 2016 Miranda Jean ] Xan groans, and her hands shake. “If he dies I’m gonna—”

If he dies, I’m gonna … “Yo, Switch.” Dammit, Switch!

Silence.

I throw everything away but the in-view of Xan working over Gaytes’ body.

Rare green cockroach pinched in the fingers of my left hand, skull-and-crossbones flashing nebula hot beneath the right.

A deep thought roach completes flaying the data pack.

Ink aren’t ten paces behind after all.

On the in-view, medicos rush the reality tank, shoving Xan aside. Gaytes splutters as he’s pulled from the conductive gel.

Kicking off the coffin couch, I flick the green cockroach at an open portal. It shatters into thousands of tiny offspring, barrelling down any tunnel they can find from the rapidly narrowing choices, carrying the message to anyone black channel enough to read it and care:

Switch is radioactive.


Could be the hipster red-head surfer. No. The fibres in his precise shag are two generations old.

Definitely not the painfully obvious guy in the sunglasses to hide Ink quality retinas. Jagoff would never spot a black channeller, even if I danced a jig and sang “Touch my pus filled shunt if you dare.”

The woman in the head scarf has possibilities. Her traceries show the inflammation of recently upgraded tattoos. I’d have to wait for her to subvocalize within ten metres. Battered handheld cobbled together from pawn shop parts is giving me lazy haptic. Without white noise filters or access to a vault, the night food market is a mess of stimuli, stinking of canned air and too many bodies in close proximity. Lucky I don’t have to live out my nightmares too often.

A tall Pakistani with a carefully curated beard and expensive denims blocks out the hazy Vitamin D lamp. He’s probably mid-forties, maybe early fifties; newer generation wetware tends to be infused with rejuv.

He holds out a hand tattooed with a fine tracery mimicking veins and freckles. “Hey, can I bum a charge?”

The handheld rumbles deep in my pocket. I squint up. Matching heights would qualify as a challenge.

“Sure.” I touch index fingertip to the prime spot between the bearded guy’s index and middle major knuckles. He pretends to flinch on receiving the flash charge, nodding thanks.

He closes the gap in height by taking a seat at my table. “You look nothing like how I imagined.” He switches dialect and tone to an innocuous surface level conversation.

“Who’d you expect? Thomas A freaking Anderson? Sorry to disappoint.” I grin and do opposites with body language for the benefit of anyone watching two friends sharing shawarma in real time.

Switch grunts a laugh. “So you’re a woman.”

“I’m not.”

He tilts his head, holding my gaze, not giving me the once over. Okay then. “Didn’t figure you for a guy.”

“Wrong again.”

“Huh.” He taps his fingers on the scarred plastic table top. Not even a code this time, just thoughtfulness. He clenches his hand to a stop. “You look good in Armani. Though I thought you’d have blue mod eyes, not real green.”

“I wasn’t shitting you when I said I don’t do wetware.” I allow a little humour to colour my tone. Fuck you, you handsome bastard.

With a chuckle, Switch pretends to look anywhere but at the Ink suit. He’s good. Not falling into the blank-eyed stare of someone registering multiple feeds and running a mask to keep the convo on the down low.

I thumb the handheld from running vocal recons over to taser mode. It’ll waste the piece which cost me most of my broken horde, but it’ll buy me precious seconds.

Switch’s tired gaze finds me again. “How’d you know?”

“That Gaytes was implanted with mal to flush me out?” Puff of the chest, search for a good lie. “Come on. It’s my job to know these things.”

Switch actually drops his eyes in respect. My fingers itch. I imagine him pulling feeds; wet-wared dogs, a couple of handlers walking true reality skins, fibre-optic jugglers, Ink nodes keeping a close eye on their white knight he’s somehow blocking while we talk. “So how’s this going to happen?”

Blink. “How does Ink want this to happen?”

“I’m not here on Ink business.”

The pause of only a few seconds is a lifetime of processing time. My thumb wavers over the taser button.

“You wasted me, Switch,” I say, pretending to show off a tattooed hand. Only minute close inspection would discover the raised tracery as fake. “That’s not cool. I’ve already been off grid for a forty-three-twenty. People will notice the Jack of All Trades has gone dark. My roaches are chewing Reality right out, and making good in-roads on Ink. Any kid with their first shunt is joy-riding that shit. I can guarantee your fingerprints are over everything whether you like it or not.”

Switch examines his well-kept fingernails. He wants me to see the single-use EM pulser disguised as an embedded jewel. I crack my knuckles in my pocket. He looks up and nods once in understanding. He could take me out and maybe a few others, but I’d take him with me. I’d be stunned long enough for the Ink suits to grab me, but his wet-ware would be fried for life.

A cool, tall, obsidian woman walks out from behind an old-school fibre-optic fountain, licking taco sauce off her fingers. A bodyguard dogs her heels, and I have to imagine the Reality logo flashing over her head like a beacon for everyone to see in the enclosed market.

Switch can’t contain his gaze. It’ll be the first time he’s seen Xan in the flesh too. His smile slashes a grim line, and he flexes the hand with the pulser. I knew him too well for his own good, and I’d gambled right; he won’t risk taking out Xan too.

“I’m sorry, my friend,” he says. “It was strictly business.”

“For almost fifteen years? Watching people suffer under the yoke of Ink’s ‘truth’? What’s that quote? ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice,’ and all that. Shit. Double agents. Can never get your priorities square.”

I watch as his eyes drink Xan all in. I came for her, and only her. Making sure no one dies on my watch is a promise I see through to the very end. I can’t afford to be sentimental, not any more. Huh, that’s something I might have said twenty years ago. Glad to know I’m not entirely roached out inside.

Small twitches of the lapels and hem of my silver suit jacket soothe the suffering of my busy hands. “If you try to touch Xan, I’ll fucking burn you.”

“More than you already have?” Switch’s eyes drop. It hurts me, it truly does to see someone I thought as my equal so humbled. I must have something on him deep in my hibernating roaches that Ink doesn’t. The promise tickles me.

“You have no idea.”

“What are you gonna do? Your system was slag once we traced your real node.” Switch’s free hand wafts to indicate thousands of miles away and forever ago.

Xan swipes her ebony hand across a soda dispenser screen three times before it drops a bottle for her. Frustration angles her mouth at the lock out from even the most basic of amenities. Damnit. I’ll get you your life back, I promise, Xan. It might take a while, and you won’t know who or how, but I will.

Click is a person of their promise.

“Click is dead,” I say. “But Click is a survivor. Don’t come looking. You won’t find them. The Undermere doesn’t belong to you anymore. I’ve made damn sure of it.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Switch sighs.

With one hand on the handheld and the other on an already too hot passport, I take the risk of turning my back on Switch. Passing within metres of Xan and her shadow—she doesn’t even blink at me—I saunter out the market gate without a backward glance.


© 2016, A.J. Fitzwater

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