He finds you like they always find you: through a friend of a friend, a number scrawled on a bathroom wall. First names only, smoke in the air, music he doesn’t like pounding in his head. It makes you smile. You try to hide it with your hand, but kind of don’t care, too.
“You’re taller than I figured,” he says.
You settle your eyes on him, say it: “That supposed to be some kind of code, man?”
He opens his mouth but there’s no words.
It always catches them off-guard, not trading lines back and forth like they’ve been told to expect. For an instant you see it in his eyes, that maybe you’re the wrong guy, that he was about to ask some complete innocent to do the dirty thing he needs doing. But then you shrug, tongue your lower lip out to keep from smiling more—he is a client, after all—and give him the line he’s been told to expect: “The stature of a man isn’t measured in feet or in inches, but in acts.”
The muscles around the guy’s eyes relax.
“Tweak,” you say, extending a half-gloved hand.
The guy smiles, makes up a name for himself on the spot: “Ash.”
This is business.
If it didn’t happen at least twice a week—some loser lurching from the shadows of the bar, his fingers clenched around a grubby little fetish—you’d be back to stamps, probably.
Not that hand-to-mouth doesn’t have a certain appeal to you, of course.
It would be nice to pull a client that you could actually talk to, though. Just once, anyway. Talk bands and gear and then slope off into the night, to the next place.
But this one, he’s the same nobody as they all are: grey hair neat and trim, hands soft, neck twitchy. If you put a scope on his heart, you know it’d be thumping like a rabbit’s, too. He’s burning a week’s worth of calories just standing in this place, so far off his beaten path that it’s like stepping into a movie.
A wad of cash under the sole of his shoe, too. Or lined in his belt.
Because, of course, this might all be a scam.
In the handicapped stall in the bathroom he shows you what he’s into.
Your laptop is balanced across the seat, ready to tip into the water should Vice or somebody crash down through the ceiling.
Instead of a domain, he feeds you an IP.
You nod to yourself, key it in. Don’t know it specifically, but make a few of the early progressions for mirror sequences, which is where most tracers get lost, bouncing back and forth like a pinball, their dendritic cavities filling with noise and light until the signal iterates back into the kaleidoscopic filth of the off-shore data sinks, where nothing gets washed.
According to the news feeds, the drain at the bottoms of those sinks opens onto hell. For others, it’s just the opposite.
“William,” the guy says from above you. “That’s my name.”
“Don’t,” you tell him. “I don’t need to know, man.”
The screen pops, the IP trying to hiss off somewhere else, but you know this protocol: it’s a test. Only the faithful wait it out. The junkies, the deviants. The Williams of the world.
Behind you, too close, the toe of his shoe’s going like his heart, now. The knees of your jeans so deep in the sludge around the toilet that you’re going to have to burn them, probably.
“How do you know I’m not—not a cop?” he says.
You focus deep into the screen, something glimmering there now, like the blue-black outline of some rough beast, waking—or, no: rising. From whatever it had been bent down over.
“What?” you say, only half with him.
“I could be a cop.”
“Your real question, I mean.”
When he doesn’t answer, you look up to him.
“You’re too nervous,” you say, shrugging your own challenge off. “Vice never gets that right. They just go through, like, the nervous checklist, never really improvise.”
“What was I really asking, though?”
He locks eyes with you and for a moment something different flashes in him, like there’s an actual intelligence in there, behind the hunger, and the shame that hunger brings. Like, if just one wire in his head could have stayed where it was instead of rubbing itself raw, crossing its juice with some other, darker wire, he might have done something with himself. Not been a freak.
If he wasn’t a freak, though, then he wouldn’t need your services, either. And if that ever happened . . .
Not that that makes it any easier, standing this close to one of them.
The main lie you tell yourself, just to keep from shivering, is that if it wasn’t you mining for him, spoonfeeding him that bad stuff he thinks he needs, it’d be somebody else, who’d probably gouge him for even more.
Which isn’t to say you don’t have a couple of built-in, last-minute expenses lined up. But that’s just business. You could both be wearing suits and that part of it would still be exactly the same.
You just manage not to smile. Again. Feel him shuffle a step closer, so that his body heat radiates off him, and then, suddenly, his breath is sharp and hot on your ear, his whisper more controlled than you would have given him credit for, at this point. “You have to think I’m a cop, though. If you don’t then—then that means you’re one.”
You nod, disappointed. “And I’m supposed to have a kit all ready to go here, right?”
To test for vaccine in the blood. The only way to know for sure if somebody’s working so far undercover even they don’t know it: the city inoculates against all the hepatitises.
William just stares at the back of your head. You can feel it.
“All right then,” you say, “You’re Vice, I’m Vice—that what you want? This is entrapment. I’m just checking my messages here. Calling in the birds. Go ahead and assume the position if you want . . . ”
For too long, William just watches you, then finally shakes his head no, giving up, his eyes flicking once to the screen, on accident.
You turn to it, lay your fingers over the keys like a kid doing his ten-thousandth piano recital.
“Say you are Vice,” he says. “Everything you need to prosecute me, it’s on that computer, right?”
Nobody says ‘computer’ anymore. Instead of laughing, you manage a cough. “For half-extra, you can lug the drive with you, man. That work for you?”
Behind you then, the crisp sound of bills unfolding.
The trick is not to give in and look. But maybe he can tell how soft you’re pressing the keys now, too.
The directory he wants is one door in a maze of halls. Though you don’t stop to listen, you know the sounds that would come through if you did: screaming, tearing, sobbing; worse.
It’s why you keep the volume punched down.
The directory William wants isn’t even that hidden.
“This?” you say.
He nods, his breath thick, humid. His hands in his pockets too, probably, but you don’t want to know.
You go in together, and know from the jittery stream down at the command line you’ve forced open that this is a rider room: the eyes you’re looking through aren’t your own, but whoever’s had the unit surgically planted in their head.
Not the harshest bit out there—some of these nights, you dump the laptop just to forget—but, tucked away at the end of the hall like it is, it’s going to be more than just a run through the girls’ dorm, too.
On instinct, you burrow down under the command line, into the room’s code, go just deep enough to see that the feed is looping, not live.
“A recording,” you say, for William.
On-screen, whoever’s got the unit wired into their basal ganglia is running hard and fast through a thick stand of grey-looking trees. You smile, shake your head, look up to William.
That he doesn’t even notice you says everything you need to hear.
You turn back, hate that you ruined a pair of pants to open a page you could have opened at a table out in the bar.
From the speed the thing’s eating up the ground, this is a fantasy-plant, not even that illegal. Pirated code, maybe, but customized enough that it’d be a hard case to make. You jack the sound up, so the breathing you knew was going to be there can come through.
“You know this is—” you start, then just open the code up in a sidebar, so William can see for himself: the image is flat, is faking what depth it has. On a better screen, you probably wouldn’t even need the sidebar to tell. It’d just look like what it is: animation.
And then you see what William’s probably embarrassed about, here: a girl, jogging. Fully clothed. The only sweatsuit on this server, probably. In this whole godforsaken sink.
Like all the ani-girls, she sees whatever’s running at her too late, does the standard scared-girl shriek—a wave signature you could copy and search and find in a thousand other clips, probably—and then is under the teeth, diving headfirst into the foodchain.
When it’s over, you look up to William.
“Jasmine,” he says, like the punchline to some joke that’s sick only to him.
You narrow your eyes, automatically scanning the code for the name. It’s not there. You almost ask, but then decide you don’t really want to know, either. Some of the the freaks, if you talk to them, their disease just gushes out all over you, and you end up just standing there, nodding.
Just business, then.
“Why would they hide a game all the way over here?” you ask.
His one-shoulder shrug is half a breath too late. Slowly he checks back into the bathroom, this transaction.
You try not to smile, have to look away to explain: this wolf-thing or whatever it is, it’s obviously just some routine lifted from a shooter game, grafted onto some other closed course.
“Shooter . . . ” William says, tasting it. “There’s no gun, though.”
“Teeth, guns—it’s a genre, yeah?”
He nods, and it’s a lie.
“It’s not the—the game I’m interested in,” he finally says.
“Hey man, that was the directory you told me to—”
He shakes his head no.
“The girl, then,” you say, your fingers finding the keys again. It’s not an impossible job, finding the girl who supplied the original body mechanics, even the girl who’s voice is on that track. But it’s not a short job, either. Or a cheap one.
“It’s just—I recognize the camera work, I mean.”
Now you can’t help but smile.
“Listen, I told you, there’s not a real camera, it’s all just bits and bytes, that image is as flat—”
“The programmer, I mean. Coder, whatever. Like you.”
You shrug it off.
“You can find him?” William says.
“Not if he’s like me,” you say, “no.”
William smiles, looks to the screen again.
“It’s a. . . I don’t know if you would understand. Jasmine. He was what you might call a disciplinary case. I treated him too harsly once. As a result, we’ve lost contact over the years. This—these, they’re all I have.”
“And you know it’s him,” you say.
William tongues his lower lip out, smiles with his eyes.
“I know his work,” he says back, then holds your eyes in his long enough that you go back to the screen. It’s still the recording—animation, you correct. Because, why would somebody flatten a real visual feed, make it look fake?
The thing, whatever it was running through the woods, is swallowing the girl down in great lumps, moaning with pleasure.
“It’s got good sound,” you say. “I’ll give your friend that much.”
“To nab the whole directory?”
“And a street address.”
You stare at the inner parts of the ani-girl’s torso.
“You are a tracer, right?” William says. “Isn’t this what you do?”
The pants you’ve just ruined cost eight-five, used.
William unrolls enough bills for ten pairs of them.
To do it right, you have to take your rig out to the parking lot, let William stand guard over you so you can tunnel in. Your fingers know more code than you do, but it burns you up too, giving yourself over to instinct like that. Letting the expressions and strings and recursions just flow through you. What you feel like, plugged in, is a pipe that thousands and thousands of gallons of slush are slamming down, from some impossible height. And it all comes out the tips of your fingers, so long as you keep them moving.
To handle coming back down, you swallow two of the yellow tabs on the way out of the bathroom. They won’t slow down your session any, but the next twenty four hours will be soft around the edges, to say the least. Like floating in syrup.
That’s all later, though.
Now it’s the command line, the cursor cycling bright and dim, bright and dim, systole-diastole, systole-diastole.
“You’re sure he wont—?” William starts.
“Nothing,” you tell him, cutting his words off with the side of your hand.
Your pupils have already contracted, your breathing amped itself up.
What the clients don’t know is that you’re every bit the junkie they are. That you’d be doing this whether they were paying you or not.
With no more words to William, you fold into the corner by a shiny new dumpster, let the light from the screen collect against your bare chest, and start chewing your tongue, your fingers arcane and liquid on the keys, a blur of maneuvers you know you’ll never be able to reproduce, because you’ll never be in exactly this directory again, at this time in the life of this particular data sink, with this specific set of code and anti-code swirling through the ether.
It was your handle when you were thirteen, because you used to change everybody’s grades in the school’s antique system. The year you had to go on vitamins, the year that your dad finally split for good. The year you crashed the boards that led to the early versions of the string of servers you’re on now, and fell down a slick tube into a netherworld so intense it made the muscles at the base of your jaw tremble.
Behind the code, so the directory will think you’re just a petty thief, trying to snag the stream and redirect it, you’ve got all the recordings playing back to back, at machine speed. Three years of kills, it looks like. Legions of the animated, ground to pixels.
You laugh to yourself, feel William turn to you, and then, for two hours, you’re checked out, plugged in, your chin shiny with saliva, capillaries bursting in your eyes, each tiny rupture breathing out a mist of blood that hangs suspended in white space for what feels like a lifetime.
When you can stand again—not talk yet, but move without twitching too much anyway—you pull William’s arm to you, turn it over, write down the fixed IP you finally uncovered.
He starts to ask some old man question, but you shake your head no.
If he pings this IP, Jasmine’ll know, and turn to smoke.
There are ways, though.
You open your mouth to try to tell him one of them but throw up instead. It’s pale brown, strings away from your mouth, making your fingers look—look . . .
You laugh at yourself, shrug for William.
He doesn’t follow. His nostrils flare from the smell of your vomit, though, and stay wide.
It’s getting hard to focus on the right things.
“Like this,” you manage, your voice piping right into your inner ear, and thread his phone up from his jacket pocket , enter the hack to get the chipset to recognize you’re about to dial an IP.
“You mean—?” he says, taking the phone like it’s dirty now.
You nod, keep nodding. Hold your finger up once, for one ring: that’s how long it’ll take for the display on his end to read back the phone number associated with the IP. Then it’s just a matter of matching that number to a street address.
It’s all very funny and complicated.
He stuffs money into your numb hands, then more, for the hot drive, then backs away, and, you think, watches you for a long time from behind the wheel of his car. Either that, or he pulls away immediately, and you stand there for a long time.
Not that it matters.
Like you expected—like you wanted—the rest of the night smears past in clumps: one drink at the bar dilating out and out, then the next four hours just slipping past.
You make it home with most of William’s bills, though.
No laptop, but rigs are cheap. You could build six of them from the parts on your counter, you’re pretty sure. Or two good ones, shotgunned together like that time . . . you laugh at yourself, don’t even finish the thought.
You need some new pants is what you need. Not a new rig.
And to sleep. For a day.
And for there to be a line of Williams waiting for you the next time you step into the bar.
It was nice, for once, not having to worry if Vice had tracked you, either on foot or in the system. It was nice to just do a legal job, earn some legal tender. Not have to do anything over-the-top-stupid just to forget.
Maybe the business is changing, you tell yourself. Maybe you’re turning into something decent, even.
With the good rig by your bed, you spike the cache you made of last night’s session while William wasn’t looking, and let it drain onto your hard drive, leave the channel open in case anything’s changed.
It’s just good business, making a back-up. That way if the client doesn’t pay right, or if you decide later that he would have paid more, you can resell whatever he had you track down for him, get the books even that way.
What’s he going to do, report you?
You take a jar of jelly and a spoon to the bed, use voice to cycle through the directory you cached.
It’s the same stupid stuff: kill kill kill.
If the original distributor still exists, there’s probably a reward of some kind for returning the pirate code, logging where you found it. But to collect, you’d have to explain what you were doing there in the first place, unlicensed.
So it’s not your fault you’re going to have to sell it at the bar, double your money.
You fall asleep watching a different version of that same girl die, and when you wake there’s a skin on your jelly and it’s nighttime again.
You shake your head no and then hear, like a glass ball dropping on an anvil, down miles of hallway, a delicate little ping.
It cycles through your system, flushing out the last of the yellow tabs, waking you all the way up: a new file in the directory you’re only still tethered to by way of the cache, that connection elastic enough that all the protocols the data sink’s using to shuffle the room from place to place can’t lose you, quite.
You one-hand down to the file, force it open.
New files can only mean William let that IP ring twice, gave himself away.
You try to break the skin on your jelly but it’s rubber, has forgotten all about the history its kind has with spoons. With a dry mouth, then, you watch the new recording. It’s the only thing on.
Again, like everytime, the wolf-thing’s blasting through the woods at what was probably marketed ten years ago as ‘inhuman’ speeds. The word you think of is ‘bound.’ It bounds through the forest, eats up the distance, stops at nothing, etc.
You smile, shake your head at the memory of William—the idea of him, even, pretending to know the coder, when all he really wanted was to be the wolf-thing. It’s not your job to ask uncomfortable questions, though. Just to find, retrieve, trace. Mine out a certain set of goods and then forget you were ever there.
Or, forget as far as the client knows, anyway.
Caching last night’s session, it took exactly three keystrokes, and never even flashed on the command line.
Like it would have mattered, though: if William even knew what ‘cache’ meant, he hadn’t been looking at the command line to see it anyway.
But now you’re getting caught up in the action on-screen again, nevermind how stupid it is. The wolf-thing’s gathering itself for that last floating bit of the hunt.
“Go for it,” you whisper, leaning forward in spite of yourself, maybe breathing a bit deeper. But then the jogger turns around. Not twisting at the waist like all the other girls, but more of a look down, behind, around the shoulder. As if just confirming.
And then the eyes settle, are looking right at you.
The wolf-thing you’re inside scrabbles to a sliding stop, is spinning out on the gravel, whimpering—whimpering?—your field of view cutting across trees and ground and grass.
Without meaning to, you’re standing on your bed, turned half away from the screen.
This isn’t how games work. Not even the good ones.
On-screen now, you’re running back through the trees. Not the graceful, liquid weave of the predator, but a desperate pace, your field of view jarring each time the thing—you, it—slams into a tree, careens off in some slightly modified direction, so that you know that it’s less about where it’s going, more just about that it’s going.
And then all at once you’re rolling, and in that roll you can see behind you for a smeary frame or two.
With both hands now, you stop the feed, back up a few seconds at a time, and then push away from the screen.
Standing there in the velour jogging suit, it’s William. But not.
He’s—he’s in the game, his eyes all black now, the pupils blown wide, his mouth too full of teeth, and pushing forward from his face, into some kind of snout. He’s partway between man and—and not man. Something else. Something wrong, its new nostrils flaring, tasting the air.
You shake your head no, let the recording catch up with itself, and flinch: William’s got the other one’s head in his clawed hands, is looking directly into it, studying, his head angled over to the right, like a dog will do.
You look away, just to prove that you can, that it isn’t you he’s holding, but then, with a nod, he pulls you back.
He’s more wolf than man now, but still, something about the lips, the mouth. You can tell he’s smiling, and that something’s happening to . . . to Jasmine. Not to you. To Jasmine.
The focus is changing. Not just from the pressure of William’s hands on the side of his head, either. This is more basic, a deeper shift—
And then, when the image that William is on your screen narrows and blurs for a long second, you understand: the eyes, the orbital sockets. They’re moving, stretching out, the brain slow to adjust to the new settings, to its two eyes drifting maybe a quarter inch out, where they would go on a human face.
Jasmine is changing, changing back.
It’s a form of surrender, of apology.
His pale, wet human hands wrap around William’s corded wrists, and he’s talking now: “No, man, c’mon—it was. Nobody knew, man, it was all like a . . . nobody thought it was real, man. Nobody knew. These—the girls. I checked them out, man. None of their people hit these sinks . . . there was no chance, really—”
William doesn’t have to say anything. If his throat can even make words anymore.
The fact that he found this room, these recordings, dummied up to look like animations, it’s enough. Anybody else could have as well.
Jasmine tries to fight, but he’s human now.
Caught in his head like you are, looking through his eyes, you almost throw up.
“No, no,” he’s saying, pleading, and then, just as William’s leaning in as if for a final, deep kiss, his head even tilted over properly, Jasmine tries one last thing: “Wait, wait—this is. You’re doing it too now, man. There’s . . . the camera, man. In my head, like. It’s got a little—you can . . . somebody’s watching, man. Somebody’s logged in right now . . . ”
This stops William.
Jasmine’s lie is of the same order as your three keystrokes that cached the whole session, last night. It’s taking advantage of what William doesn’t know: those units, they’re one-way only.
Not that this makes you feel any less like you’ve been caught.
You make yourself smile, shake your head no, and, just for the familiarity of it, open up the sidebar, confirm that, yes, this is a recording.
But then William pulls you back—pulls Jasmine’s head back, so they’re face to face again.
Jasmine’s stammering something, but it’s just sound.
“Tweak,” William says, boring right through Jasmine’s eyes, then lunges forward, all teeth.
You cut the tether, find yourself up against the wall on your pillow, breathing hard, pushing your bangs out of your eyes because they keep—
Because they keep blowing down.
Outside, closer than it usually is, the street.
After counting to three over and over, you feel your way into the living room.
The sliding door onto the balcony is open.
You pull your hand to your mouth and your hand is trembling, and you say it to yourself again, that it was only a recording, only a recording.
But now you wish it hadn’t been, that it had been live. It would mean William was across town. That he was far away. That there was still time for you.
Like it has to, then, the drive from last night’s rig lands on the floor in front of you, slides to a stop against the wall.
Instead of turning around, you watch the drive like it’s the last thing in the world.
“It was just business,” you say out loud. Because it’s true. Caching that session, that’s all it was: good business. A thing you’ve done a hundred times. And—this would be the funny part, if laughter still had any meaning—if not for Jasmine’s last-ditch lie, William never would have found out.
A low growl rumbles behind you.
You shake your head no, close your eyes, your fingers dancing on the sides of your legs, trying to burrow down to the right keystrokes that’ll shut this room down, but it isn’t a game anymore, you know. For him, whatever he is, this is just business as well. A thing he’s done hundreds of times.
Not that knowing that keeps you from running hard for the balcony, to dive off into the night, run through the streets faster than any human’s ever run in the whole history of humans.
What’s behind you is older than that, though.
You don’t even make it to the sliding door.
by Corporal Robot Lips