By Sandra M Odell
"We don't serve your kind here, Willy Shakes," the bartender said.
I picked at the peeling varnish along the edge of the bar. "What? Intelligent or deadhead?"
He pulled a baseball bat with the handle wrapped in worn electrical tape from under the bar and set it in front of me, bony knuckles clenched tight around the handle. "Smart asses."
By the look of his pallid, sunken cheeks and humorless expression, he'd honor his hospitality more in the breach than the observance. Big surprise, I was unwired, the only deadhead in the place.
"Oh, that kind." I gave the dim room a once over. Zombies crowded the tables, wires streaming from the tops of their scabrous heads, emaciated bodies in ill fitting, sometimes dusty, clothes. Slack jawed, eyes rolled back when not in use. Sucking at pouches of Vita-juice and talking to one another in slurred, guttural voices when uploaded. Terminals the uploads called them; zombies by any other name. I found the right one at a table in the far corner - "Well, then you can serve me over there." - and didn't waste any time.
I gambled that the bartender wouldn't bother following me, not with a full house and customers raising empty pouches for refills. He stayed behind the bar, and I slid into an empty chair without a fuss like a good boy.
Alas, poor Siam Johnny, I knew him. Quite the sight slumped unoccupied on the other side of the table. Remnants of glossy black hair now brittle as dead grass, cheeks sunken and pocked with sores old and new, egg white eyes, the once hard body reduced to twigs and sandpaper dressed in a disposable jumpsuit. Smelled like bread rising, and the sidewalk after a strong rain.
Four wires - blue, black, neon yellow, brown - snaked from the back of his head to the table port. Hard to find a better lockman in the D.C. Metro before he opted for terminal wire. "Nobody squats in their own flesh anymore. Uploads are the now, and I want a piece of it," he said the last time I saw him in his own body, saw him in any body. He had the eyes and the slide and the honeyed skin I craved in silence. Siam Johnny only strutted with femmes.
"Thought you walked the deadhead talk." No way was I getting wired; I liked having exclusive rights to my skull.
"That was before Cecil offered a test upload. Life at the speed of thought, no, faster than thought. You got the cred, you pay for someone to take care of your body for you, not like the lowball zombies around here. I wouldn't have to come back to skin at all if I earned enough from hosting fees." He went dreamy for a moment, then flashed his trademark smile. "Deadheads are old time, Willy. When's the last time you had a biz with a decent payout?"
I would have taken his payout, but as for biz I didn't feel like sharing.
"Thought so." He came in close and jabbed me in the solar plexus with a long red-lacquered nail. My mouth watered with the musk of his cologne and sweat, the whiskey pull of his breath. "Upload with me. Think of the biz we can scam when we go terminal."
That was, what?, eight, maybe nine months ago, and now the golden boy of Siam was as withered and wasted as the rest of them. My Brutus brain punched me in the nose with the memory of his white hot rut, and I got a potato-finger. Maybe if I'd had my chance at him. Maybe not.
I keyed my prompt into the table unit, and leaned back. No sense burdening myself with a heaviness that's gone.
The zombie twitched, sat up straight. The eyes blinked, crossed, focused on me. The upload smiled, sneered more like it, and said in a hollow rasp, "Willy Shakes, my favorite bard still in the flesh."
"Long time no see, Cecil. How's tricks?"
Cecil B. DeMillionaire raised Siam Johnny's arm, and motioned for a waitress. The zombie in a mini-skirt, zombies should never wear mini-skirts, stumbled over her own feet and delivered a Vita-juice. As she staggered back to the bar, her wires fed into the spring-reel attached with surgical staples to the back of her head, keeping them untangled and out of the way.
"Can't complain, can't complain," the upload said, breaking the pouch seal. Gray cheeks ballooned like tumors with the first swallow. He craned the neck, flexed the elbows, brushed a hand over the front of the jumpsuit and rubbed the dust between bony fingertips. "Looks like Johnny hasn't seen much action lately. Boy had better arrange for more hosting or he'll have to disconnect and take himself to a med stack."
I didn't let on that I'd noticed the same thing, or that it bothered me as much as Cecil no doubt hoped it might. Must have showed on my face.
"Still the diehard deadhead, eh, Willy?" Another tumorous swallow.
Cecil blew hard about funding the first one-hundred uploads and how he followed them into "our brave new reality" when the process proved viable. Word had it he was behind the current body swap craze, allowing the chronic uploads to spend their hard-earned creds living the high life for a few hours in better fleshed zombies instead of their own wasted husks. Not only did DeMillionaire pull in good cred in interest from each hosting lease, the swap craze strapped a whole new monkey to folks' backs. Uploading and body swapping took cred, and unless you were born with a balance, cred meant flesh time work to fund the next session.
I shrugged. "What can I say? I'm all for the sins of my original flesh."
"Deadheads," he said, and snorted. "Pathetic."
The Vita-juice had lubed the zombie's pipes. Cecil still sounded hoarse but enough like himself that I couldn't hear Siam Johnny any more. My potato-finger went limp fry. "If I'm so pathetic then why'd you set up the meet?"
"Because you're bacteria, Willy boy, and I need you for the shit work." He thumbed the table unit.
My handheld buzzed. I pulled it from my inside jacket pocket, keyed it to accept the download, popping a scan for trojans or weasels. A clean feed. Two seconds later, I scrolled through the file. "Mona Twelve-fifty? An upload?"
Cecil nodded, neck popping, skin flaking to dander on the shoulders. "Yes."
I set the handheld on the table. "Too slick."
Cecil cocked a brow. "Pardon?"
A case of he knew I knew he knew all this, but he wanted to play big man. "What's the angle? A snatch-and-grab on an upload means a total disconnect, otherwise when the zombie -"
"- drops unconscious the upload dumps failsafe back to the net. Immobilize the zombie, the upload dumps back on its own and I'm left with a body and no brain."
Cecil curled those cracked lips in a smile all his own. "Which is why I want you to disconnect her and hold her incommunicado until we find her terminal and can meet for a closed system download."
I worked the numbers. If this Mona 1250 was downloaded to someone else's zombie and I disconnected her, that started the timer flashing not only on her original body but on the body she inhabited. 72 hours max a zombie could manage disconnected before it flatlined. Same for the upload without its original body on the other end, something about coding limits, or physio-neural dependency, or withdrawals. Uploads talked about the holy grail of permanent uploading and leaving the body behind, but they also talked about paying someone to change their sani-pants. Both smelled as sweet to me. "I don't do wet work."
Cecil drained the pouch with a slurp and the crinkle of foil. "I only need you to hold her until my marks bring her terminal for the download."
"And what about the other upload, the one linked to the zombie she's hopped when I disconnect her?"
"So long as you do what you're told, the terminal will be reconnected and no harm done."
Some biz complicated things, made life sticky with damn spots that wouldn't out. Plus I still had it in for Cecil because he arranged Siam Johnny's upload, not logical but true. Still, I needed to eat. I read the file again. "How much?"
He named a figure. I courtesy countered. We settled where expected, half up front.
As I headed for the door, the bartender glared at me and set up another round of Vita-juice.
I spent the next two days scoping the locations and arranging the snatch. Spec had her moving regularly between three zombies: one in the back room of an abandoned tenement in the Whites sector; another in a crack ward cum day spa where uploads could treat themselves to deep tissue massage; the third in a tool shed in the processing district. Cecil's marks put her in the tool shed on snatch day, but no timeframe for when she hopped. Damn. No way of knowing if the zombie would be occupied before she got there, and the failsafe wouldn't allow her to hop if I disabled it before she arrived. The rest of the spec looked solid, but I worked all I could on each location just in case.
I also scoped Mona 1250. An odd one, her. One time neuro-programmer, gave it up when her younger brother died from sepsis after a bad port repair. After that she lobbied for standardized zombie healthcare for hosting leases and purchase packages, enforcing age requirements for uploading, and dismantling mandatory coding that "shackled personality to flesh" and "interfered with freedom of identity". She'd even spoken up for improved deadhead employment opportunities. A real martyr for the cause.
The sleepy grooms now smeared with blood, I hit a sweat crib with a deadhead pretty boy who smelled like orange blossoms and hemp, and looked nothing like Siam Johnny.
Snatch day, I paid extra for another go with the pretty boy to work out the tension, cleaned up, checked my feed. No new updates from Cecil, so I slotted a tip and headed out.
I left early enough to take Metro Trans, arranged three re-routes to throw any possibility of a tail. Didn't think it would be a problem, but it never hurt to be too careful with down low biz.
Lots of seats to choose from, I took one near the front. A dozen or so riders, deadheads focused on their handhelds or dozing in their seats. Fewer of us these days, fewer people to appreciate living in the world instead of wire-dreaming the experience. Never understood the allure of wiring, myself. I'm a body man even with all the creaks, aches, rumbles, and farts. Give me the medicine that quickens a stone and makes me dance canary.
One guy looked like Johnny used to, hair a little longer, but the same eyes and high cheeks. I got off a block early.
The processing district didn't process and wasn't so much a district anymore. It didn't have a rightful name on any D.C. Metro map, not since I came down from the N.Y. Metro, anyway. Five blocks of squat brick buildings from back in the days of cheap energy and materials now served as storage for mom and pop corporations and uploads not yet ready to relinquish all their material worth. Legals didn't patrol the area, and even if there were deadheads enough for the job no one cared enough to pay them. Even the graffiti had seen better days, now nothing more than dull streaks of color beneath layers of dirt and soot.
I took my time on the approach, eyeing for cameras, dogs, or other impediments requiring a taser. Rusted chain link fences hung with battered CAUTION HARZARDOUS WASTE and other useless signs sectioned off the storage yards behind the buildings. All clear this early. You entered the buildings with a key code and cred check, but what I was after took old time picks, a muffler cloth, and a boot heel to the latch.
I eased the gate open far enough to slip inside then wedged it shut. The entry had been as secure as any other abandoned gate, but squatters had their ways so I played it safe and stayed close to the walls. Mona 1250's shed stood by the east fence, more an impromptu shack with mismatched block and plank walls, and windows painted black on the inside. As before, I caught the low hum of a generator coming from that direction but didn't see any sign of a solar feed. Carbon fueled? Couldn't be.
I slipped to the side, listened, the white noise of the generator too loud to make out any movement. Not only that, a deep breath confirmed the improbable, the generator running on carbons. Seemed Mona 1250 had deeper pockets than I thought. One more reason Cecil wanted her out of the way?
The paint job blocked any possible glimpse inside, and reflected any reading so I couldn't get a heat signature with my handheld. I tried a reading through the wall, same result. Well, well. I put the handheld away and eased the air pistol out of my back holster. I preferred a knowledgeable shot, but it wouldn't be the first time I'd gone in blind.
Keeping low, I eased around the corner and set my fingers on the door handle. A cleaner spot in the center suggested regular, if not recent, use, whether from my target or another person wasn't clear. Would she be alone? The neuro-blocks would keep an upload from hopping or a deadhead from moving, but I would have to chance anyone inside also couldn't hear me over the generator. I'd have time for one shot, maybe two. My heart kicked it up a notch, and I pushed open the door.
A dark room lit by dull indicator lights, the walls painted the same black as the windows. The bite of carbon fumes enough to make my eyes sting. A quick look in the space between door and frame revealed no one behind the door. A single gaunt figure in a baggy shift, wires streaming out of its head to a unit on a table behind it, leaned over the generator. I pumped two quick shots into its neck, and the zombie fell onto the generator.
Figuring it best to weigh her more mighty than she seemed, I went in low, hit the bio-feed port safety, and unlocked the zombie's wires. As they snapped back to the spring reel I hadn't noticed, the zombie grunted and slumped. I pulled it off the generator, gently laying it on the floor.
The zombie's eyes rolled in their sockets before focusing on me. "Wut?"
The word came out hollow and slurred from the block, yet with an unmistakable feminine inflection through male pipes. The arms spasmed, hands coming up clenched tight. I grabbed both and wrapped them together in plastic filament.
Male. The zombie had a slight build, better fed than some but still undernourished. Could have been nice looking before the wire job. The eyes darted back and forth. "Whu?"
I secured the feet. "Cecil sends his regards."
The entire body twitched. "Nooo."
"Yes." I flashed a penlight in both eyes to check for pupil response. Good. A quick physical exam. The skin rough and papery, zombie reek, two spots of blood on the neck after I removed the darts, no other injuries.
I keyed Cecil on my handheld, signaling all secure. He responded YOU'RE LATE. in blocky red on the screen.
Pretentious bastard. Let's see him make a snatch in his zombie deluxe.
Satisfied she wouldn't go anywhere, I made a thorough search of the shack. An array of scanners, sensors, and other who knew whats arranged on the table with the zombie unit, all attached to a power cable that ran to the generator. Not wanting to chance an alarm, I left everything in place. A box of freeze dried Soy Joys and pouches of Vita-juice stashed under the table, and beside it a smaller box containing a Match-15 flechette pistol with four extra cartridges. I took the pistol and cartridges. A pile of blankets that smelled like cat piss and rotten onions by the generator, next to that a carton of sani-pants. A knee-high refrigeration unit holding a six-pack of Budrich beer cartons, and a partly eaten vegan kelp wrap. Not much to look at. Still, I had the feeling I was missing something. It would come to me.
I settled beside the zombie, my back against the cold box. "Hey, Mona. How's tricks?"
"Pleez. . ."
"Sorry. We're in this together until the crew gets here with your body."
She turned the head away. Much to my surprise, the upload cried with the zombie's eyes.
"How much is he paying you?"
I named the figure.
"You know he's going to kill me."
I did, but felt it impolite to agree with the dead. I fed her the last piece of Soy Joy. "If he'd wanted to kill you, why not ice your body and leave you to unravel on the net? Or have me secure you and send in a mark to ice you here?"
She mumbled the concentrate between stubby teeth, crumbs caking swollen lips. "Because he wants what I know, and when he has it he'll make an example of me to the others."
Twenty-seven hours in, the hot air of the shack reeked of zombie stink, carbon fumes, and piss. Between the uneven purr of the generator and the poor lighting, I had a proper skull-ache and my skin felt too tight. I'd positioned the zombie, still bound and in a clean sani-pants, sitting up against the wall beside the refrigeration unit.
I held up a Vita-juice. She shook the head, no. I brushed the crumbs into the mouth, crumpled the empty wrapper, and stood to walk off the cramps.
I'd worked the numbers again since disconnecting Mona 1250: about her brother; her shadow files, a few anyway; other habits; her contact with some of the survivors of the Moscow digital killjoy a few years back. The new data came on the down low, taking particular care to keep Cecil deaf and blind.
She watched as I rolled my shoulders and rearranged thoughts. She'd mentioned Cecil's interest before, some kind of wiring tech I supposed; she'd refused to answer the one time I'd asked. Others, though, first time she'd said anything like that. "Others?"
"Like me, who believe we're ready for the next step."
The wistful tone so familiar, my chest ached.
I paced the measure of the shack, my world's stage and myself a player of many parts. Yeah, I'd worked the numbers, and I didn't like how they added up. What to do? Sit quiet and dumb for the cred, or confirm I was the wise man who realized he was a fool. I took a chance, opened the refrigeration unit. "Want a beer?" Held my breath.
Mona 1250 stared at me unflinching over the door. "I don't drink beer."
Of course not. She didn't drink beer. Cecil meeting through Siam Johnny's zombie to get me on his side because everyone knew Willy Shakes saw biz through to the curtain call whether or not he liked the production. I looked from the wrap to the zombie's mouthful of rotting teeth. This zombie couldn't have taken those bites. "How many others?"
"Enough." And with surprising passion: "Not labels or classes, but people no matter how they choose to live."
A big production, indeed. "You unlocked the coding for permanent uploads. That's what Cecil wants from you."
Mona 1250 stared at me, zombie eyes fever bright if such a thing was possible.
"You want to give it away. Offer it up for a smaller cut -"
"Oh, that's even better." I slammed the unit shut hard enough that its stabilizer blinked in protest. "An upload with a conscience. Talk about an improbable fiction." As I made the connections, I laughed, an ugly sound. "Give it away and then what happens?"
"People live better lives."
"Better? You, you think so?" I would die a beggar, and not a comet to be seen. I couldn't stop laughing, the sound echoing off walls of the too deep hole where I found myself. "You and your band of merry thieves even stop once to think about what you're doing? Do you remember what it was like when people first uploaded, how hard it was then? You ever think what this wiring miracle will do to the world, how many lives you'll destroy, or were you too busy wallowing in your own good intentions?"
Mona 1250 nodded the head. Nodded at me, damn her. "You're right, it won't be easy at first, but in the end the coding will allow people the freedom to work, live, and exist as they choose whether in their own bodies, as temporary uploads, or permanently on the web. Or beyond."
Gear lights blinked, the generator hummed, wind whistled through the crack under the door. I hated her calm, even tone, how reasonable she made it sound. I looked anywhere but at the zombie. No wonder Cecil wanted her out of the way. Nothing more dangerous than a fanatic with a noble cause.
My handheld signaled incoming. Cecil. I cued for audio only. "Willy."
"Where are you?" Cecil said from the black screen. Did I hear echoes of Siam Johnny in those pipes?
"Busy. What's the word?"
"Is Mona Twelve-fifty with you?"
"Not right now. She's inside. I'm taking a dump."
"How poetic. We have her body. ETA four hours."
I glanced up at the zombie. "Please," she said without sound.
"I'm good. Remind them to bring clean sani-pants." I terminated the connection.
"What's it like?" I said when I could speak without putting a three punch of flechettes between her eyes.
In spite of the upload's fear, the zombie's expression softened, the eyes unfocused. "It's like. . .flying, only better. No, not flying. Like flying in your dreams, only more substantial, an encompassing reality. You don't do, you are. You, you, and I've. . .gone other places beyond. . ."
I'd seen that expression before, seen it and wished I could be the reason. "Faster than thought."
She came back from the description, back to me, the shack, the disconnected zombie prison killing her by seconds. I didn't do femmes or zombies, but could have kissed her just then. "Eighty-eight thousand, one hundred twenty-three people died last year as the result of improper implants, post surgical complications, or terminal health complications, four-thousand sixty of them under the age of twelve. An additional twenty-eight thousand, nine hundred people were diagnosed with severe psychological trauma and irreparable harm resulting from disconnects or med stack diagnostic error. Over two million total since the first uploads eight years ago. My coding will also serve as the platform for better terminal status monitoring and care. I may not be able to save them all, but I can't sit back and do nothing."
Cecil B. DeMillionaire, millions earned, millions burned. His payout would taste like Siam Johnny's zombie, twigs and sandpaper in my mouth. I put my back against the refrigeration unit, rubbed my face. "I bet you can quote the statistics for every year since your brother's death."
No answer. I didn't need any.
When I could speak, I didn't know what to say. When I knew what to say, I didn't want to. "You were predictable, a closed loop with at least two other uploads if I figure right. Each one of you in a different location, working a different angle. That's how Cecil found you. If they've timed it clean, Cecil's marks disconnected the other zombies about the time I hit you."
A sharp intake of breath from behind, a softer sound of despair.
Tasting honey sweat and whiskey breath, I slipped my snapknife out of my back pocket. I rolled to the zombie and came up on my knees. The eyes were wide. Fear for herself or the realization that idealism could be worse than merely fatal? "The fact that no one's come to check on you after the disconnect is a good sign that he has any local deadheads incommunicado or worse. I don't expect he'll take too fondly to me once he figures things out, but I plan to trip away and make no stay."
I cut the filament around wrist and ankles.
Mona 1250 brought the legs up, tried to stand. I made it to my feet first and gave her a hand up. The zombie's palm was dry and cold, her grip strong.
"I expect an advance mark before your body gets here to scope you out." I jerked my head towards the table. "Do you need any of that?"
Mona 1250 drew back, looked at the table, shook the head. "That's for back-up. The original computations are -"
"Somewhere else, fine. Help me with this."
Not that a zombie could do much, but together we managed to drag the generator to the center of the shack and tip it over. I unscrewed the cap, then skipped back as carbon fuel poured out.
Mona 1250 moved the feet out of the way, not quickly enough to avoid the splash. "What are you doing?"
"How long until you go online?"
The eyes blinked, the expression cagey for a moment, then a quick nod. "Less than twenty-four hours. We need to secure the server and -"
"You have four, six at the most."
"We can't -"
I jerked a length of wire from the reel on her head, released the port safety, and plugged the zombie in. "Tell Siam Johnny Willy Shakes asked how's tricks."
Mona 1250 turned the lips down in a frown, opened the mouth to ask, but something of my expression stopped her. Good, because I no longer had the voice to answer.
The zombie nodded, the eyes rolled back in its head, and it collapsed in the spreading pool of fuel.
I'm an honest Puck. I made amends to the fellow who's body burned with the shack. Maybe he'd like life as a permanent upload.
Good luck, Mona 1250. Good night, Siam Johnny. I'd say good night until tomorrow.