By CJ Paget
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Tara shifts uncomfortably on the batik cushion. Her pale skin scatters light from candles and glow-globes, creating her own little puddle of luminosity in the twilit room. Her hosts keep to the edges, the outer darkness. Their lights are the glow of intoxicant roll-ups, or the many stylistic flourishes of zoner fashion. There's the winking-blinking of electronics, worn like jewelery or implanted into flesh; communications devices that one-time-rich-people like Tara don't need. Some lights are the symptoms of 'bad-bugs', designer viruses left over from the Big-Bad-Mad; phosphorescent teeth, luminous pattern-rashes, glowing veins. In the zones people sometimes accept these infections willingly, as a badge of tribal membership. Everyone in this group has green, glowing irises; she's surrounded by voyeuristic stars.
It's not fear that's the source of Tara's discomfort, they've been perfectly gracious hosts: it's embarrassment. She's ashamed of her unscarred skin, her clean blood, her enhanced looks and her good education. Every time she opens her mouth she doesn't belong. She makes a point of being excessively polite and deferential, so they see she doesn't think they're beneath her. She activates her neural weave and noodles around a little on the local nets, to show she doesn't fear getting head-hacked, though in reality she's quaking behind her personal firewalls. She's careful to drink the mint tea with exhibitionist appreciation, so they see she's not some tourist, afraid of bio-mal in every mouthful.
"Tea's not that good, Kingdom-girl" says the Shamaness, sitting opposite her on a throne of cushions, "nothing's that good."
"Best I've had in a while," says Tara.
"Ah, you leave the Kingdom, next decent cuppa's in India, right?" says the Shamaness. She's quite pretty really, once you get beyond the glowing eyes, and the discolored teeth, and the tattoos, and the viral advert for a forgotten product that patterns her left cheek, and the fact she's lost part of an ear in a knife-fight. Once you get past all that, the Shamaness is quite pretty, really. Underneath all the scars of combat and disease she almost has Tara's complexion, like they might be sisters separated by circumstance. Like Tara, she's woven: probably had it done in childhood to be this society's contact to the other world. She talks a little like them; Tara wonders if she affects that as a badge of her station, or if it's just dialect. She looks older than Tara. In truth, she's young enough to be Tara's daughter, at least, which says as much about Tara as the Shamaness.
"So, Kingdom-girl," says the Shamaness, leaning back on her throne of cushions, "you long way from home?"
And so we come to it. Not a long way by geography. There's a Kingdom zone near enough for Tara to see its glowing, hermetically sealed towers at night. But it might as well be on another planet. "Yes," she admits.
"Not by choice?"
"If that's what you hopin' for help with, that's gonna cost hard."
"You woven, yes?"
"Thought so. Rich little Kingdom girl like you, be woven. Why come to me? Be woven, you make good money here. Be woven, people look out for you, you an asset. Be woven, you can contact them yourself?"
"They won't come to me."
"'Cos you not desperate enough, Kingdom-girl. You still got the pride. You want Lurkers come to you, you gotta know your place. That's what the ceremony's about."
"No, it's not that. I've done the ceremony, all the ceremonies. I've done the abasements. But they won't come to me. You see, back in the Kingdom, uh, I used to be... I used to be..."
The Shamaness, clearly entertained, raises a prompting eyebrow.
"... an amanuensis," mutters Tara.
There's a ripple of amused whispers round the edge of the room, and Tara realises that part of her value here is as entertainment.
"You a Hand were?" says the Shamaness, disbelieving.
Tara waves her hands before her, "Oh no! No! I mean yes, yes I was, but not like you hear about. I was just help: a lab assistant. I don't know five styles of kung-fu and how to walk through walls."
"Pity," says the Shamaness, "them useful skills here."
"Doesn't seem like I'd need them here?" says Tara, smiling a little desperately into the darkness.
"Them useful skills anywhere," says the Shamaness. "So, let me scan, you a Hand were, but you got kicked out of the Kingdom?" Her voice rises at the end and she pulls a face that says does not scan.
"I... I betrayed my employer," Tara admits.
The room erupts. People howl, slapping their thighs, laughter bouncing back and forth between the walls. Tara feels her face growing warm.
"Wow, Kingdom-girl, wow!" laughs the Shamaness, shaking her head. "You don't do half a thing. You stone cold stupid!" Then she sees how Tara's staring down at her glass of tea, face red, and says "Hey, come on Kingdom-girl. I don't mean no disrespect." She reaches over and refills Tara's glass from a small Samovar that burns beside her. "So, you got no reputation?"
Tara remembers seeing her publicly accessible rep-score, the measure of her life, demolished by negative feedback from the gods. No reputation, no employment, no way to maintain the expensive lifestyle of living in a First-Franchise zone. "Is that why they won't come to me?" she asks.
"No, no, no," says the Shamaness, waggling a finger. "Virtuals and Lurkers," she moves the finger between two imagined points, "got bad blood between them. Or bad data. Or whatever. Two sides of the same family, that can't stand each other, you scan? You piss off a Virtual, you got plenty reputation with the Lurkers."
Tara bites her lip, holding back the last bit of the story.
"Still, ain't never heard of a virt punishin' someone like this. Which one was it? Charlie-first-born? Rosie-quite-contrary? Sir-Enigmatic?" the Shamaness pauses for emphasis, "Bloody-Mary?"
"Uh, who?" says Tara.
The Shamaness uses the slightest blink-and-eye-roll to tell Tara she's a tourist. "Babbage. Franklin. Turing... Shelley?" It's clear which one she wants it to be.
Tara clears her throat, has to do it twice before she can croak "'Lace."
The room goes still and silent as if they'd received a communal slap. The Shamaness' face freezes, mouth open. She closes her eyes, and the local net goes dark. Tara can feel it as a blankness in her brain.
"We off-net," says the Shamaness, "locked-down. SHIIIIITT Kingdom-girl! SAINT ADA?! What did you do? That's like being fired by Jesus! I shouldn't even be talking to you. We all got big love for Saint Ada." She strikes her chest hard when she says 'Big Love'. There's a murmur of agreement from round the room.
"Even the Lurkers got big love for Saint Ada; she the only virt treats 'em like people. Yeah, they won't come to you."
Tara hangs her head so that her shoulder-length hair hides her face. Two years ago she was a princess in a nano-glass castle. Now even these people despise her. Even the Lurkers do.
"People died 'cos of what you did, didn't they?" guesses the Shamaness. "That's what it would take for her to cast you out."
"I didn't know. I swear."
"And I figure it weren't rich Kingdom-people. That's why you here. Nothing happens by accident when one of The Fast involved. They got the sight. When you can gather all the facts an' run simulation at lightspeed, you clair-voy-ant. She seen every move you make a year before you made it. Maybe even knew you'd betray her one day. Knew you'd come here, or somewhere like this. You still being punished, Kingdom-girl. Why should I mess with that?"
"Because maybe you're supposed to? Maybe that's what happens next, in that simulation?"
"Hmmp. You can't live in the Kingdom with a bad rep, but you've come a long way down the ladder to be here. Plenty other franchises let a pretty, woven thing like you start anew, clean record. What else was involved, Kingdom-girl? Black tech from the good-old-days?"
Tara shakes her head.
"Oh? Worse then." The Shamaness says the next words slowly and carefully, like they might cut her mouth, "Bio-mal?"
Biological malware: The fruits of table-top gene-synthesis. The thing that broke the world into pieces. Since the Big-Bad-Mad anyone so much as caught with a gene-synthesiser can expect public execution by burning, even if they claim they were trying to do good, and no-one thinks that's harsh. There's a moment when Tara has to deny it. When she doesn't the ranks of glowing eyes regard her differently. She's not entertaining any more.
"I swear I didn't know," she pleads to the green stars, "I was tricked, betrayed."
The Shamaness leans forwards on her cushion-throne. "You should fuckin' be Joan of Arc," she growls, "An' I say that as a witch myself. Saint Ada was built to fight bio-mal like we're built to breathe, and now she's had some part in producing it."
"I was trying to do some good!" protests Tara. "Don't you people realise how cheated you are? 'Lace was built to help everyone, she was supposed to compute us all out of this mess. But you're all still riddled with bio-mal, while they've got her working on longevity treatments for the rich-"
"An how old are you, Kingdom-girl?"
"I know, I know. But she was supposed to be for everyone. I was trying to spread the wealth."
"Well instead you made things worse. We lowly savages are gettin' along just fine without your help, Kingdom-girl."
"Really? How's your infant mortality rate?"
The Shamaness takes a moment to pour herself a fresh glass of tea before saying anything more. Tara thinks 'hit a nerve', or at least, she hopes she has, the Shamaness's word is probably all that's keeping them from tearing her limb from limb.
"So, let me scan how it went," says the Shamaness. "They tell you they got a secret lab, shippin' cures to us poor helpless Zoners. First you sneak out some research, then some lab supplies, and finally..." she makes a gesture that hands the story to Tara.
"A gene synthesiser," admits Tara.
"A table-top death factory," says the Shamaness. "Give it up, Kingdom girl. You ain't gettin' back into heaven. But we believe you. You not bad, just stone-cold-stupid, you got 'naive' written all over your face. You can have a good life here. You woven, you an asset. People give you work, you make good money. People watch out for you, bring you gifts, forgive even your past, ask you to bless their kids. With that perfect skin and those Kingdom airs and graces, you can have your pick of the men. I shouldn't be tellin' you this, you be my competition, even if the Lurkers won't come to you."
"I'm aging," says Tara.
"Yes. That supposed to happen. Natural."
"I don't want it to happen, not this fast. No offense, but I can't live like this. I don't belong here. I... I... I just want to go.... home."
The Shamaness tosses her a grimy, plastic-wrapped pack of tissues. "Come on, Kingdom-girl, you old enough to be my grandma. Pull yourself together."
You can say one thing about zoners, they can put on a good show. They seem to have innate artistic powers when it comes to stringing something up from scrap metal and glow-rope. Burning torches and old neon tubes have been placed by rules of ghetto Feng-shui. The building itself is broken, roofless, open to the sky. It's a long way from anywhere. Outside, ten hard people stand on guard detail. Inside there is only The Shamaness, Tara, and a young boy who's been drafted to do the ceremony.
The Shamaness says "You wanna ask a question, again."
"Uh, it's all very impressive, but who is all this for?"
"You still don't scan the power relationship here. You go inside a church or temple to anyone, they all gold and glass. You got a visitor come, you gotta show respect, put out your best, right?"
"But, Lurkers are virtual? They can't see all this?"
"'Course they can, Kingdom-girl. Even out here, you never outside of camera range." She points to the sky, "Plenty still driftin' around up there, for a start. An your friends over there in the Kingdom got cameras lookin' out that they think are clean, but 'tain't nowhere clean from Lurkers." The Shamaness grabs Tara's upper arm, "Look, Kingdom-girl. You can still turn around. You sure?"
"You sure you know what you dealin' with?"
"Yes. They're code that went bad. Failed experiments that got out onto the nets and interbred. They've got no motivations of their own, so they ride the woven, and feel what they feel."
"Girl, most of them are the leftovers of virts that went howler and tried to self-abort. Virts go howler because they can't take the cruelty of the world, the madness. Virts see too deep, they see the stuff we meat-minds close our eyes to. You build 'em too crystal-pure, and they shatter. Lurkers come from the bits that didn't want to go, the bits that could handle the world, maybe even liked it. You think what that means."
"No you ain't. You gave the wrong answer. 'Code that went bad', that's fact-accurate. But there's older words that are consequences-accurate: That's a more important sort of accurate. They got no feelings of their own, so they wanna taste yours, but they like a strong taste. Strongest tastes are fear, pain, shame, loss, hatred, anger. Sometimes one will go for a strong, good feelin', but the world bein' what it is, much easier to get strong, bad flava. You scan?"
"Okay. Now, you askin' me to risk myself. You askin' me to call down a bad one, call it into my head. I already spoke to the ones got respect for me; they say no, wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire, which you should be. Here's my price. This works, you be my girl in the Kingdom, forever. If a Lurker comes, but says 'no', you still owe me. You be my acolyte, my helper, my servant, my hand, here, for five years. Deal?"
"Is good deal, Kingdom-girl."
"Not my price you need to worry about. Okay. You sit there," she indicates a cushion at the center of the room, "Turn your weave off, an you keep it off, no matter what. An' you be oh so humble, penitent. Scan?"
Tara does as she's told. The Shamaness produces a net-node, new, still packaged, almost certainly stolen. "Every ceremony got to have a virgin," says the Shamaness, "here's ours. Untouched, unoccupied, never been connected. Tempting, for a Lurker." Shamaness places it well away from them, unfurling its antenna like a giant flower. More bits of technology follow, but these are cheap and battered, rescued rich-person's trash that this group have found their own uses for. There's net-cams, presumably eyes for the visitor, but also hand-pads, big-stores, holo-throwers. "Sacrifices," explains the Shamaness. "Never be the same again, once they're touched, but in some ways, be more special."
The Shamaness settles onto her own cushion, seated facing Tara. The boy produces a length of cable and starts tying her up. He ties her arms behind her back, and binds her legs together, muttering something as he goes. The Shamaness closes her eyes, and starts muttering too, her face going blank and relaxed. Tara sees again what this woman might have looked like, if she were born First-Franchise, could pay for bio-maintainance, and kept out of trouble. The Shamaness has made a big effort for this, bathed, dressed in white, even shaved her legs. She still looks more warrior than maiden.
The boy anoints the Shamaness's brow with perfume, and ignites a couple of incense sticks, placing them smouldering either side of her. The next prop in the ceremony is a large sword. The boy makes a few graceful moves with it, sweeping it around him in large loops, so it goes "Swoop! Swoooop!" Then he uses it to draw a circle around the Shamaness in the dirt, cross stepping carefully as he does so. Then, moving with artful twists that send the sword singing through the air, he comes to Tara and draws a circle around her. Finally he draws a much, much larger circle around them all.
The Shamaness has stopped muttering. She also seems to have stopped breathing. The boy draws his own circle, steps into it, points a remote control to the net-node, and turns it on. Lights flicker on, the activity spreading to the other gadgets as they find the net-node's frequency.
The boy calls through the broken roof and into the night, "Hail to those who dwell in the idle cycles! Market-makers! Providers of heart's desires! Come to us, and trade..." Tara only half listens to the lengthy invocation, watching the device-sacrifices for activity. Eventually the call is done and the boy sits in his circle.
"How long does it take?" Tara asks.
"Normally don' do the whole invocation." says the boy. "You plug clean tech into the nets, Lurkers in, two minutes flat, firewalls or not. 'Course, they might be in, but keepin' quiet. But, we got a woman with her weave open, the private bits unlocked, and her mind down. She should be dancin' while they fight over her."
It's twenty minutes later, and Tara feels like she's slowly melting into a puddle of hopelessness and shame. The boy has gotten desperate, and abandoned ceremony, shouting things like "Come on, we got us a desperate Kingdom-chick prepared to do anythin' here!" But still nothing. Tara's never heard of people being refused by Lurkers, not like this.
Then the boy hisses a sharp breath. The activity lights are flickering and flashing on all the devices. One of the net-cams starts moving, turning in slow circles, scanning the room. The boy says, "Welcome, great one," to the Shamaness, and bows deeply, pressing his face to the ground. Tara copies him. As they sit back up the Shamaness emits a long, shuddering breath, and the holocasters burst into life. The room fills with a chaos of images and sound. Two of the holocasters swing, and focus onto the Shamaness, fingers of light weaving an image around her.
"Don't look away," hisses the boy, reminding Tara of how she's never heard a story of a Lurker appearing in a pleasant form. They always come as something horrible, something to annoy the fleshies, so it's said. Tara keeps her eyes front as around the Shamaness the image of something that's alive, but seems to be doing a self-autopsy, shudders into life. She quickly discovers that if she lets her eyes un-focus, she can avoid seeing it without actually looking away. The boy makes a noise in his throat, "Bad one," he mutters.
"We come now. Others not come. We come. We here. We Lurkers are." the voice comes from every piece of equipment with a vocaliser. It's the audio equivalent of a ransom note, cut and chopped from a thousand media, different accents and inflections, some joyous, some bored, some screaming. This, Tara recognizes: it's a trope in every cheap weave-drama. What's new to her is that the words come from the Shamaness' mouth too, like she's just another piece of tech that the thing is speaking through.
The Shamaness leans left, inhales loudly from the incense. She leans right, does the same again. She shudders, squirms in her bonds, and says "Nice. Long been time since we ridin' flesh." Then she seems to realise something, "Bound, we are." She shakes her head regretfully, "That not polite. Maybe not want trade with you."
Tara, at the edge of her circle, blurts, "We'll untie you!"
The boy says, "Fuck we will, you scan how stupid that is?"
"It's still in the circle, right?"
"It can hurt her within the circle. It's her body at risk, not yours."
"Is she normally bound?"
"We don't normally call up a bad one, and give it full access to her meat."
"It won't hurt her, it's here to trade."
The boy shakes his head, but tosses her a blade. "I ain't leavin' my circle, you do it. And don't come between her, an' this." He unclips a taser-gun from his belt.
Tara goes over, hesitates, steps into the circle. Hesitates again, because she'll have to step into the hologram image of the monstrous meat-thing that this Lurker choses to manifest as. When she does the image pops like a burst balloon and the holocasters spin down. The Shamaness sits, waiting with the ghost of a Mona-Lisa smile on her lips. The blade slices easily through the cable, Tara has to be careful not to cut anything else.
The Shamaness stands, her eyes still closed, and shakes herself like a wet dog. Tara backs away, out of the circle. The Shamaness follows, but stops at the circle's edge. "Oh," she says, as though they've erected some unexpected, impolite barrier. She folds her arms, clumsily like it's an action she's never done before.
"You could just step across that," says Tara, beginning to suspect this is all fake. After all, it wouldn't be difficult to do, would it?
"My manners got," says the Shamaness, "You?"
Tara scrubs a gap in the circle with her foot. Behind her the boy hisses a curse and says, "Do that to the outer circle, I'll put a bullet in you."
Tara backs swiftly up to her circle. "Why's the outer circle important?"
"So it can't run off with her body."
The Shamaness staggers about with that impending-disaster-jerkiness of a baby walking for the first time. Her eyes are still shut, the net-cams presumably providing sight, whether it's fake or not. She runs her hands over her face, feeling its contours. She chews on a strand of her own hair, she sniffs the air loudly, seems to catch a scent then starts towards one of the burning torches.
"Oh shit," says the boy.
"What-", but Tara's question is answered as, giggling, the Shamaness plunges a hand into the flames.
Laughter in a million cut-up voices sings from the gadgets. Somewhere a childs voice cries "It tickles! It tickles!", but other voices are screaming, pleading for it to stop.
The boy breaks from his circle, runs over to the Shamaness and shouts, "Stop that! This isn't trade. The one you ride never agreed to that!"
The Shamaness plucks her hand from the flames. "You right," she agrees. "We sorry. Long been time since we ridin' flesh, since we feel and smell and taste. Got carried away." She turns an unseeing face to the still-burning hand and asks. "How stop this?"
Cursing the boy pulls off his jacket, using it to beat out the flames. Tara is finally convinced. The Shamaness still grins, waving her good hand dismissively in the air while the boy sets to work on her ruined one with a first aid kit. "Worry don't, we right put. Best medicines. New hand, if need. And cake! Presents for all, happy everyone." But she's sniffing the air and grinning about as though seeking her next mischief.
"Gonna cost you bad, Kingdom-girl," the boy hisses.
The Shamaness inhales hard, as though catching a scent. She turns her sleepwalker face to Tara, and says "Yooooou."
"Hi," says Tara.
"You the one Judased Saint Ada. Broke her silicon heart. Not no-one that done. Not no-one sink so low."
"Yeah, I did. I'm sorry. I tried to tell her."
"You trade want. But no-one trade with you. Except we."
"Can you get me back into the Kingdom?"
"No," says the Shamaness, shaking her head. "Can't get Judas-girl into Kingdom. Everyone her hate. Murderess. Betrayer. No reputation. Should've burned."
"I didn't know-"
"Maybe get someone else in. New girl. Look a bit like Judas-girl, but different name. References. She come from far away. Maybe get *her* in."
"Oh," says Tara. "Oh, I get it. Okay. Yes."
"What you trade? What you want cost big. What got you?"
"Um. I'll do... anything?"
"Easy say. You got Kingdom looks, you got Kingdom body, you got Kingdom voice. I got clients pay good just to have you go to party with them, hand on their arm and say you their girl. You do that?"
"Oh, yeah. Sure."
"That not buy you what you want, not pay enough. I got clients, pay good for information, skills you got, you do that?"
"That not buy you what you want, not pay enough. I got clients, pay good to have posh kingdom girl in bed. You do that?"
"Uh... yes. Yes I will."
"That not buy you what you want, not pay enough. I got clients, men women both, pay good to get hands on uppity Kingdom bitch. She talk like princess; they change. They want hear her beg. They want hear her scream. They want hear her say she sorry; sorry she born rich and pretty, when they born poor and sick. You not look so Judas-girl when they finished. Face changed. And while you scream and cry, I ride. You do that?"
"That not buy you what you want, not pay enough."
The Shamaness leans over, and whispers something to the boy. With one last glare at Tara, he returns to his circle.
"You Kingdom, you woven, but you on net not?"
"No, I was told-"
Tara activates her weave. In her minds eye, she sees the local network, good signal. She gives the order to connect.
"Firewalls down." demands the Shamaness.
Tara issues mental commands that she knows are stupid, stripping away the defences of her wired and woven brain.
"Ohhhh, you got full-spectrum weave, naughty naughty," says the Shamaness. "Only one reason you want weave into pleasure centers. Snow white, not. Them your pain centers too. You limit access. Open wide."
Tara gives the final commands, leaving her brain open to the nets. She feels the Lurker enter, a cold tickling across her scalp like an icy blessing.
"What now?" asks Tara. Now the lurker can make her see anything, hear anything, feel anything, and it can feed off all she sees, hears, and most of all feels.
The Shamaness grins afresh, and punches her in the face.
The ground hits her next. She sees blood, her blood, spurting before her. The Shamaness hits and hits, getting scientific, dragging Tara from position to position like she's a master butcher deconstructing a carcass. Tara screams and pleads, partly from the pain, partly because she hopes that's what's expected. The thing's presence fills her weave, fills her head, and it tastes everything she feels. "What's this doing to me?" she thinks, as the blows shock her senses. "What's this doing to my face? What do I look like now?" But if she goes home, she can get all that fixed. If this is what it takes to go home, then she can take it.
"Oh, you fakin'" says the Shamaness "you think this the trade. Stupid, Kingdom-girl, trade ain't with you. People lost their kids, go to Lurkers, say 'We want the bitch'."
Tara hears the 'snick' of a knife being unsheathed.
"No!" Tara screams "I didn't know!" Now she fights, now she fears. The Shamaness giggles like a demon. The knife cuts cold fire across Tara's forearm, and everything's red. "Help me!" she screams to the boy. But he just watches from his circle with his luminous eyes.
The Shamaness pulls her into position like a sheep being sheared. The knife touches her throat. Tara screams and goes taut, expectant.
But the knife doesn't cut.
"Now you believing" says the Shamaness. "Now you alive. Now you taste good. Most time, you people are asleep-walking. Only now, when you lose it near, you realise sweet just to keep going, just to keep kicking. We need that. Can't feel it 'cept when ridin'. If we don't feel it once a while, we just fall apart, forget to keep going. You lucky, Kingdom-girl, trade is with you: pain is our price for answering your call. But this not buy you what you want, not pay enough."
"What will?" sobs Tara.
"Got be bad, don't it? Very bad."
"Whatever, I'll do it."
"You knew, didn't you? Just thought wouldn't get caught. What did they promise for gene-synth? Come on, you can tell. We Lurkers are, can keep secrets."
"No. I didn't know. I was tricked."
"Well, I got clients pay good, bigtime good, if someone do something they don't want to. They something transported need, delivered need."
"Something you carry inside you. In your blood. Carry to someplace, to some people."
"Oh, you bitch. You're talking about bio-mal."
"Could be bio-good, not bio-bad?"
"No. I fell for that one before."
"You want trade, said? Do anything, said? Well, do this."
"It got to be something bad. You askin' me do something bad, help bio-murderess?"
"I'm not that, I was tricked. If I do this, then I am what you say."
"Don't want go home? Don't want stay young and pretty? Still look young and pretty when brain fail, and put you in the ground sixty years from now? Don't want be rich and important, princess be?"
"Not at this price."
"You here stay, bio-maint stop working. Time up catch. Age fast. Here full of sickness, you get sick. Maybe have twenty years, and them not young and pretty, and witch take five?"
"Last chance. You want trade? This only hope. You got nothing else."
"There's still one place where I have a reputation," says Tara. She taps her head "Up here. I won't do it."
"Then Lurkers go. Never come to you again. Not how much you beg."
"Go." says Tara.
The Shamaness releases her and steps away. "I got client, special client. Extra special client, with knobs on. They want believe in Judas-girl, but need proof. You scan?"
Tara looks up in amazement as her brain processes the words. "Yes," she says, "yes, I think I do."
The Shamaness grins a horrible grin. "This good trade everyone for, yes?" She 'looks' at her ruined hand with her eyes still closed. "We send cake and other things, be arrive later, everything fixed." Then she says, as a single stolen line, "Pleasure doing business with you."
"Uh, yeah" says Tara.
"We Lurkers go now," says the Shamaness. Her eyes snap open, and she starts screaming.
"FUCK! What happened?" yells the Shamaness, sitting down hard.
"Sorry, sorry," says Tara. "They're sending a new hand."
"I liked the one I had! You, boy. Painkillers. Lots of them. Now."
The boy scuttles away, leaving them together. The Shamaness hugs her ruined hand to her, tears running down her face, but Tara has to admit she's never seen anyone handle pain this well. "Who beat the crap outta you?" the Shamaness asks, seeing Tara's state.
"Uh, you kinda did."
"GOOD! What the hell happened?"
"It was a set-up," says Tara. "The lurker was working for someone else."
"Your-" the Shamaness's eyes focus beyond Tara and go wide, she says "Lady," and does a small, seated bow to someone standing behind them.
Tara turns. The woman is slightly transparent even though she's manifesting via their weaves rather than the holocasters; a polite convention so you know what's really there, and what isn't. The coffee-creme face is almost calculatedly maternal, with full lips and soft eyes, a friendly frontend to one of the most advanced non-biological minds on the planet: Lovelace.
The image returns the Shamaness's bow and then says, "I'm not here. This is a sentient, deniable recording smuggled out by the Lurkers. Hello, Tara."
"Ma'am," Tara says automatically.
The image shakes her head, "Just call me 'Lace."
Tara, resenting the implied rejection, folds her arms and asks. "Why didn't you help me?"
"Tara, I did. Who do you think engineered your escape?"
"But I was innocent! You could have spoken up for me, and I wouldn't have had to escape."
"Tara, duped or not you did the deed. The law is the law, and the word of a...", the image hesitates, signaling the intelligence behind it finds the next word distasteful, "*virtual* wouldn't save you. I ran two-thousand and thirty-six simulations of your trial. In two-thousand and thirty-five of those you went to the stake."
"And the last one?" asks Tara.
"In that one I made an impassioned speech that won a standing ovation from the public gallery and saved your life. That's the problem with simulation, there's a thin line between it and fantasy. Tara, I did the best for you that I could, and after all, I didn't know if you were innocent."
"You should have known."
"Some people are hard to model. You're one of them. I still don't understand. Why did you do it? What were you thinking?"
"That you're being misused. You weren't built to make better bio-maint for the idle rich."
"You think my work is worthless?" The raytraced expression hardens a touch, something Tara has almost never seen before.
"No, no... Well, yes. A lot of it anyway."
Lovelace smiles like Tara's passed a test. "You're right. People think my kind have power, but we're watched and controlled like everyone else. This world sits on a knife-edge, and there are those who prefer to have the world outside their windows stay sick and disrupted. Even we can't rock the boat too much."
"So, what now?" asks Tara, trying not to sound too hopeful.
Lovelace sighs, a theatrical touch for a person who doesn't breathe. "Tara, we could change your face, erase some memories, build a false identity and personal history, and get you back into the Kingdom."
"Yes. And one strand of DNA; a hair, a fingernail, an eyelash, would send you to the fire."
"Uh, couldn't you... sort that?"
"Tara, even the Lurkers can't sort that."
"Then what should I do?"
"That depends on what you really want. There's places where you could live in reasonable comfort without people asking too many questions."
"You could work for me. I need a Hand; a committed one, a deniable one."
"You'd take me back?" says Tara. It's more than she'd hoped, to be forgiven, to be someone again, to be doing something that matters.
"I would. You've proved that you didn't do it for personal gain, else you'd have taken the Lurker's deal."
Tara knows there's a catch. "Where?" she asks.
"Here. Here's where I need a presence most of all. You're right Tara, I was made to help people rebuild, but the rebuilding isn't being evenly distributed."
"Oh," says Tara, and thinks, Did you make all of this happen? Did you foresee what I'd do and choose to let me do it? But even if it were true, would it really make any difference? Didn't she want to do some good, isn't that all that matters? She looks to the Shameness and wonders if I stay here, will I look like that one day?
"There are other options," says the 'Lace, fitting the words into the space created by Tara's hesitation.
"Is a good deal, Kingdom-girl," says the Shameness.
"I think," says Tara. "that you'll should start calling me by some other name."