Chapter Five – Adrift
My eyes snapped open and tried to take a giant heaving breath. Pain shot through my entire body in lightning arcs from head to toe. I could not pinpoint one area that hurt worse than any other as every synapse sent pulses of wicked fire through me. A red tinge overlaid my vision and the room seemed nearly pitch black. I heard machines beeping and hiss. I tried to sit bit my arms and legs were strapped to the table. My throat burned and panic set in as I realized there was a tube going down my throat.
“Just relax Mr. Dreary,” a modulated voice spoke, “You have undergone some extreme trauma, but I’m sure you are aware of that. The damage was quite extensive and done with an efficient prowess.”
My eyes darted left and right but I could not see the source. It sounded like it was coming out of a speaker somewhere above me. “Josef, if you would be so kind, please administer the pain killer. A low dosage so as to keep our patient lucid and capable of understanding me.”
“As you wish Herr Doktor,” this voice I recognized. It was the doc that had been watching me up. The one that said he was going to kill me. As he grew closer the beeping began to increase and I knew that it was my heart rate. I struggled to move, to pull away from him.
“Mr. Dreary, again we need you to relax. Josef is not going to harm you. He is going to try and relieve some of the agony I am sure you must be experiencing,” the voice had a calming effect on me. I watched the doc, Josef, inject a syringe into one of the bags hanging next to me. Instantly I felt a cooling sensation sweep through me. The pain was still there but it didn’t matter as much. It’s call was muffled.
“Thank you Josef. Now Mr. Dreary I hope you are a bit more comfortable?” I nodded slightly. “Good. As I was saying, your body has undergone near catastrophic damage. I daresay you should have died multiple times. And the danger of that is still very present. As you are right now you will never walk again. Use of your right arm will be limited to ten percent. Your left lung is collapsed. There is extensive nerve damage throughout your body. And you suffered a litany of micro-strokes. Do you understand what I am saying?”
There was something about the voice that lulled the tension out of his words. I felt tears run down my cheeks as the weight of his words pummeled me. I gave a small nod again, the full extent of my ability to communicate.
“I tell you this because it is important you understand your situation. But hope is not lost. I believe, no, I know I can heal your broken body. My concern is your spirit and your mind. It would do no good to heal your body if you have given up the will to live. Have you given up Mr. Dreary?”
I had. All I wanted was an end to the misery and torture. I begged Josef to kill me. I know the person speaking to me was aware of that. But as I lay there, listening to the machines keeping me alive, I saw Rocky. I heard his voice mocking me, felt his blows rain down upon me. I wanted to hurt him like he had hurt me. I wanted to see him broken and begging for death. I shook my head left to right one time.
“Very good! Very good indeed. Now listen to me, the procedure we shall perform is cutting edge. Your pain is far from over. The first part of the procedure is an experimental drug I myself developed many years ago. One that has a near one hundred percent failure rate unless exacting standards are met. You, Mr. Dreary, are one of the lucky few that fit the criteria for success. Certain genetic markers you were born with will allow you to succeed where so many before have failed. It is the reason Josef, at my behest, rescued from your fate.
The second part of this procedure is the tricky part. Once your body has bonded with the formula we shall inject your system with nanomachines that will strengthen and repair you from the inside out. It shall be touch and go for the next few weeks but I am confident in this procedure. Do you understand what I have told you?”
I didn’t. Not even in the slightest but I nodded affirmative anyway.
“With your consent we shall induce a medical coma and begin. Do I have your consent Mr. Dreary?”
Again I nodded.
“Very good! Exciting! Josef shall begin immediately. Sleep well and when you awaken again you should be much more comfortable. Now Josef, you may begin.”
Josef bent down by my ear and muttered, “Soon this will be over Gear. You shall be more than you ever dreamt. Herr Doktor is brilliant, you are fortunate beyond words that he has chosen you. Sweet dreams Gear…”
“Gear! Gear! C’mon damn it! Wake up you sack of shit!”
I blinked my eyes in confusion and sat up quickly. Big mistake. I looked at Brad who was yelling and grabbed the can I had put next my bed last night. The taste of whiskey, bile and disgusting poured out of my mouth like an open hydrant. After what felt like three hours I finally purged everything from my system. I pulled my head out of the bucket and gratefully took the glass of water and towel from Brad’s waiting hands. That stupid lopsided grin of his plastered on as he watched me.
When I felt like I could speak I glared at him, “What is so important you had to scream me awake? What time is it?”
“Noon on the dot. I’m about to open up the bar and you told me not to let you let you sleep past opening,” he proclaimed as he left the room. “There is a package down here for you. Courier dropped it off ten minutes ago. Get showered first though. You smell like wet dog and puke.”
“You’re an asshole sometimes Brad.”
“Good morning, nope, afternoon to you too sunshine.”
I gingerly touched the fresh pink skin on my side, four long lines that stretched from my arm pit to my hip. The goose egg on the back of my head was nearly gone as well, but the area around it was still sensitive. The nausea was a distant memory but I felt disgusting. I turned the water on in the shower and brushed my teeth as it heated up. My head felt prickly and I needed a shave but decided to hold off until the next day when the contusion should be gone. I hopped into the shower and let the near scalding water beat on my back. Last night’s events played over and over in my head. I needed answers and fast.
My phone buzzed as I was dressing and I saw an unknown number on the screen. A quick glance showed it was a message from Cortney with a link. Must be the info he said he would send about the Fausts. It was an address, one in the deep net. And in a section I didn’t normally venture into at that. Two things bothered me about this immediately. First off, I had never given him my number, as far as I knew only Tommy, Brad and Here Doktor had it. Secondly, nothing went this deep unless it was top secret, Corporation level intel. I will use my normal channels first, this kind of deep dive was high risk for what may amount to little reward. I heard stories of people frying their brains attempting to poke around places like this and I was still relatively unseasoned with my jack. Brad had been doing his best to prepare me with a test right he had developed and I was learning but it had been slow going. I could ask him to go for me, he would without question, but something about asking him to felt wrong. He had spent so long hiding his presence from someone and I hate the idea of him risking all he had worked towards the last couple decades because I was nervous. No, I am a big boy and can handle my own deep dive.
That decided I went to down to the bar to see about the package. I wasn’t concerned about it being dangerous. It would have never made it into the bar if it was a bomb or harmful in any way. The sensor arrays built into the entire building we’re as good as it gets. Brad took no chances after the events not so long ago. He had grown complacent and it took my bringing danger back into his world for him to admit he needed to beef it up. He said it was for my and his customers safety but I knew the self preservation feature was a big factor in his upgrades. He had his secrets and I respected them. Silence knows I have a few myself. Didn’t make me any less curious about his past though. Just polite enough to not ask.
“Thanks for the wake up Brad. Sorry I was grumpy.” I said, proud of myself that it didn’t sound nearly as pouty as I wanted it too.
“No problem kid. The package is on your table. Along with my patented super green shake. Have a feeling you could use it.”
The biggest plus about having your landlord be an artificial intelligence is his ability to read a situation and have a plan. The downside was he had no real idea of what consisted of pleasant tasting. He understood flavor well enough. He has prepared meals that were as fine if not better than the top restaurants in The City, I was sure of that. But his super green shake was utilitarian at best. Disgusting was being polite. I asked him what was in it once and he just smiled and said it was best not to question it, just drink it fast. It was chocked full of everything you needed to kick start every system in your body. And possibly remove rust and be used as an alternative fuel source. I overheard him talking to a regular once about the benefits of cockroaches in the human diet. He swore up and down they had high protein and a set of amino acids that aid digestion and treat different bacteria in the body. Sometimes I think I can see bits of carapace floating in the concoction. I asked him once and he laughed and said cockroaches don’t have carapaces. That did not relieve my concerns at all. But I had figured out a workaround for the taste. Liberal amounts of capsaicin extract. Can’t taste it if it burns like lava. He didn’t mind as it added more benefits to it and he loved to watch me sweat as I guzzled as fast as possible. I steadied myself and gulped it down as quickly as possible. My sinuses began to run freely and the sheen of sweat was near immediate. I drank two glasses of water with barely a breath between and once my eyes stopped watering checked out the package. There were no markings on the plain brown wrapping. I didn’t normally get gifts at all and never by courier. I pulled the corners of the paper apart carefully and unwrapped the box. Plain unadorned cardboard greeted me. I pulled off the tape and was confused at the object within. There was no note at all, just a silver egg shaped object. I pulled it out and held it up to the neon light. No obvious seam or button, just a smooth elliptical and sort of heavy silver egg like thing.
I held it towards Brad, “Any idea what this is?”
He came from around the bar and picked it up. “The scanners didn’t show anything special.” He stared intently at it for a moment. “It isn’t solid but is ninety nine percent pure silver, there is a something in the center but I cannot say what occupies it.”
“So someone sent me a mystery silver egg with no explanation as to what it is or is for? You sure it was for me?”
“Courier said it was for you but could be left with me. I didn’t ask any questions once I determined it was safe.”
“Which courier service?” I hate mysteries. I am no detective despite the jobs I tended to pick up.
“One of the CityWide guys, someone new enough I hadn’t seen him before.” The monitor on the wall switched on and I saw a nondescript Asian guy knock on the bar door. His shirt just said CityWide and as Brad enhanced the image I saw the same logo on the motorcycle as well. I made a mental note to contact them and see if they could give me any information on who hired them. They wouldn’t. It was bad business to give up customer data like that but it wouldn’t hurt to try. The logo was just generic enough that anyone could iron on a patch and print out a sticker for the bike as well. Too many ifs not enough solid answers. This was becoming a trend lately and I am not so sure I like it very much.
“I am going to use the rig downstairs for a couple hours, see if I can find out anything about Frankie and Rae. You want to take this and store it for me?” I handed the egg to him.
He took it and nodded. “Remember what I taught you. I’ll check on you in a couple hours if I haven’t heard anything from you. Good luck in there.”
“Don’t need luck if you do it right.”
“Don’t get cocky Gear. Remember the basics. If it looks sketchy bail. You have raw strength but they have years, decades of finesse. Do you want me to join you?”
Yes. “No, I’m good. You hold down shop here.”
He watched me for a long moment. And then nodded and went back to wiping down the bar with that filthy rag. To anyone else it was the practiced movements of a bored bartender. I knew he was running hundreds of subroutines and probably studying the egg. I went to the closet down the hall, it was filled with cleaning supplies and a mop bucket that had never been used judging by the level of dust and dirt coating it. I turned the cold water tap on and counted to ten. Shut it off for a five count and then turned it on while pulling the mop hanging on the wall. The entire back wall of the closet slid to the side with a pneumatic hiss. This was the secondary option for opening the door. All Brad had to do was look at the wall and it slid open but I didn’t have the neural network interface he does.
As filthy as the closet was, the stairway down was immaculate. The room was sealed and kept contaminants out. A high pressure air stream at the top of the frame blew straight down and kept the purposeful dirt where it belonged. This was his clean room. I know he runs self diagnostics down here hooked up to his rig. Most of this was designed and built by his own hands and he had some serious juju when it came to security measures installed. It was possibly the safest rig I could use in the entire City. And I need that kind of buffer to help build up my fledgling confidence.
Brad gave me a brief history of the net as he taught me to navigate the virtual world. Apparently, back in the past when the United States existed before the Collapse, the internet was a series of computer networks that spoke to each other through protocols. It was literally just a series of ones and zeros that showed up as pages that people scrolled through. As time went on and the centralized governments began to crumble as economies shattered more and more people banded together to build a true virtual world. In the beginning it was really a worldwide web. As it was refined over time it became a real thriving world. As neural interfaces became more robust, moving beyond the clumsy virtual reality goggles and haptic feedback suits to true mapping allowing the ability to ‘step’ into the now bustling community. Rising Sun made their name by designing the first jacks that allowed a direct connection from brain stem to system. Once that tech was released everything changed. Children, of rich or important families, were fitted with top of the line jacks at the age of five. These children grew up in the net, living dual lives in both worlds. Poor kids, most kids really, grew up using homemade rigs with mesh nets that fitted over their heads and connected via dermal implants located around the skull. My family was poor enough we had haptic suits and goggles still. I only knew one kid growing up that had a jack and that was because he was one of those naturals that showed such high skill that the corps showed interest in him at an early age. He received a grant that took care of the procedure and tech. He was running while the rest of us could barely crawl.
I have had my jack for a year and some change. It was part of the upgrades Herr Doktor had installed. I was as shaky as a five year old still. It was top of the line tech I would never have been able to afford on my own. Like giving a kid a rail gun and setting him loose to hunt pirrahnabirds, I was as likely to fry my own brain as anything. Brad has done his best to get me up to speed but his advantages only served to show how far I had to go. And now I was planning on going deep into the dark realms of the net. I was making excuses instead of logging in. My hands were shaking and my stomach was feeling strange but that could have been the super green in my system.
I ignored the trepidation and grabbed the cable and inserted it into the jack at the base of my skull before I could convince myself to make a new excuse. My meat suit collapsed as I my mind was uploaded into the aether. It felt like stepping through a doorway into a funhouse. Everything was slightly off as I acclimated to my avatar. In the real world I am five foot nine inches of angry looking bald man. One hundred and ninety pounds of tattoo and bearded flesh. But here? Pretty much exactly the same. More muscular for sure and my normally hazel eyes were liked etched sapphires burning with wisps of blue flames dancing from them. And a thick head of black hair that fell past my shoulders. I didn’t select this look, Brad explained that this was the image of my ideal self. I don’t know that I buy that. I always imagined myself taller and built like deathballer. Like three hundred pounds of pure death with chiseled good looks. Maybe because of my age I had locked myself into what I knew. I could have my avatar altered but didn’t really see the point. I knew this basic body type and how it worked. That was enough.
The room I was standing in was nearly the same as in the basement of the bar. But instead of the sleek chrome and metal work it was rustic and made out of wood. A dark wood like the bar in the real world. I left the room and climbed the stairs to the bar.
“Good afternoon Gear, I was told you were coming. I have prepared all the information I could find on Franklin Faust and his daughter Rachael. I’m ashamed to admit it is not much,” Brad greeted me from behind the bar. His normal outfit of jeans and t-shirt replaced with black slacks and vest with a white button up and bowtie. A bowler hat sat on his head hiding his silver hair and a monocle defied logic on his left eye. The word dapper comes to mind.
The bar layout is roughly the same, but all done up in wood. Where the juke box normally would sit is a piano that plays itself. If you pay close enough attention you can make out the old time music made even older sounding as the keys dance and a cylinder spins. The normally rocking refrains of The Ramones sounds even classier. A balcony runs along a now open second floor and a bevy of beautiful ladies stand against the railing.
“Good afternoon ladies,” I cheerfully announce to them. A host of giggles greet me in return.
“Got time for a visit, Gear?” a particularly buxom brunette calls down to me.
Don’t judge me.
“Not today I’m afraid Clementine. Have to give me a raincheck.” A chorus of boos rain down. “I’m working today.”
“So are we handsome. At least trying to,” she replied pouting.
The scent of Jasmine wafted down as she fanned herself with a red black hand fan. A trickle of sweat caught the light from the chandelier made of antler that hung in the center of the bar, and I watched it travel down her throat and down her bodice. Her eyebrow arched as she watched me stare intently at the single drop of perspiration. More laughter erupted from the wraparound balcony. I felt the flush in my cheeks as I turned back to Brad. He just shook his head and smiled and set a shot glass on the bar for me. I picked it up and marveled at it. It had weight and smelled like notes of vanilla and citrus, it went down smooth and had the burn I expected. There was nothing here that told you it was all construct. No way to tell my body was slack jawed in a chair in front of the rig somewhere else. I could feel the heat of the drink in my belly. Wriggle my toes in my combat boots, and feel the soft fabric of my favorite black button down shirt, not destroyed here, and fitting like an old friend. Brad set a folder on the bar and I grabbed it and instinctively went to my table, even here it was marked with a reserved sign and sat down.
The bar was packed but each conversation was muffled. Privacy filters engaged by the wary guests looking to do some, most likely illegal, business. It was one of the reasons Brad chose the wild west décor. He told me he has always had a fondness for the outlaws. The crowd was the only part that took you out of the fantasy. The varied avatars around the room, from skeletons to the odd pastiche of Victorian goth and creatures from out of science fiction and fantasy novels. Han Solo sat a table playing Texas Holdem with what I guess is an elf due to the point ears and all hide outfit dyed greens and browns and three knights with flaming skull heads. Not everyone goes fancy with their avatars, the ones with little to prove looked like regular people. Some had camo defense protocols that made concentrating on them difficult. But they all knew to come to Brad’s for his customer service and discretion. I bet most of them were unaware it was a real bar in Deep Ellum. I don’t imagine a lot of these regulars step out of their home mess very often. I shook my head, realizing I was staring like a fool. I opened the console on the table and engaged the privacy filter. To anyone looking it would appear I was sitting alone, possibly speaking on my phone but or drinking in sullen silence.
I opened the dossier Brad had sent the air around me filled with images. Or sort of filled. There were four photos of Franklin, looking roughly the same as when he came into hire me. He looked younger in three of the photos. The fourth was him and a girl listed as Rachael. She looks like she was about fourteen in the photo and it is dated six years ago. Everyone referred to her as a girl but she is around twenty now. Even Franklin made her sound like she was a child. Or did he? He never really said anything now that I think back on it. He told me about her and I agreed to take the job and he promptly left the left the bar after giving me a cred stick. I was so swept up in everything that I didn’t ask him any pertinent questions. Then I barreled out of the bar to ask my contacts if they knew anything. I was an idiot. I had gotten so preoccupied with The Pride that I forgot the actual goal. He’ll, it wasn’t until Tommy asked about her that I gave her a second thought. Like I have said a million times, I am no detective. Apparently I am poor for fix-it man as well. I tapped the photo of father and daughter and the metadata popped up next to it. East Berlin, 2174. East Berlin made sense with the slight accent I had picked up on. The other three photos were from around the globe. The oldest said Melbourne, 2156 while the others were in Vancouver 2165 and The California Free State in 2170. Those are some rather large gaps. Wait. In the Vancouver pic there is something on his lapel. It is some kind of symbol. Enhancing the image shows a five pointed star but it appears to be made out of green lines with gold etchings on them. A quick search using the console shows only the star, a pentagram. An ancient symbol for magic but when inverted as this one it is associated with dark arts and Satanism. Anyone who has every taken the tram knows that Satan was the great Adversary of the Silence. The Knights of Silence carry in the old worship and preach to all who will listen about the dangers of sin. Interesting. And odd. There have been chapter houses of the Church of Satan all over the world, including one here in what used to be Dallas. Digging further in though it wasn’t really a Church of Satan, but more of a community of well intentioned souls that disliked the shackles of, the them at least, modern Christianity. Kind of a let down, I was expecting blood rites and demon summonings. At least some kind of black magic. Instead they seemed like good people with good values that didn’t need an invisible figure to try and affect positive change. A potential clue turned into a dead end. Or did it?
A little more digging shows there were some significantly more hardcore groups across the European City States. Church burnings, ritual sacrifices, something to do with goat blood and defilement. That is a little juicier. Both literally and figuratively. But much like over here they all seemed to have disbanded around the time of the Collapse. I guess it really is nothing. And all the symbols of these old groups while similar we’re made of silver not green. Something about that looks familiar but I can only enhance so far before it gets blurry. The pics must have been taken with a phone or from a distance. No watermarks showed who the photographer was not did it point to some new branch of a Church of Satan.
It’s a good thing I put up the privacy shield. Anyone glancing over and seeing me surrounded by pentagrams and goat heads would probably think I had lost my mind. But there was something to that pin on his lapel. You don’t just put a relic of old religion on and go out without it meaning something to you. And I swear I have seen it before somewhere. And recently at that. It was on the tip of my mind but I could not remember where. It was frustrating me to no end. It isn’t like I get out much. Between the coffee shop and the bar, my normal prowling radius was a couple blocks. But a couple City blocks was a large area with more than enough random images.
Maybe Shandon, my tattoo artist friend that was practically a magician with nano-ink, would recognize it. He was into all that old school stuff. He was gifted with a tattoo gun and harbors an unhealthy fascination with dinosaurs. He made me sit through a marathon of holovids, really old movies about a park that cloned the things and everybody was shocked when the giant lizards started eating people. Or something. I fell asleep during the second or third one and when I woke up he was still glued to the screen. Bit he had a pretty varied clientele. He was an expat from Canada that took a sub-orb tall to The City after tossing a dart at a map. Or so he tells the ladies. He got hammered one night and spilled the beans that he did throw a dart. And then another. After fifty less than hospitable hits he decided to come here and just kind of lied about the rest. But I liked him. And he could drink nearly as much as me, which is saying something. He says it is his Canadian birthright and proudly displays a maple leaf over his heart. Most people think it is a red pot leaf and it never fails to entertain me when he gets all uptight trying to explain it.
This is another reason I hate coming here. I end up sitting in the same spot virtually I would in the real world. Except without the actual booze. I sent the images to my phone and to Brad to see if he could make out the symbol. Then I opened a map and tried to pinpoint the address Cortney sent me. Basically the net itself was modeled after a real city, but one that is of undefined size. I guess it technically stretched out forever in every possible direction. You could jack in and walk the rest of your life with no preset location in mind and never see the same thing twice. Most people found an area they like and sort of stay there. The more people you meet, the more locations to travel to once you knew the address. The address Cortney sent me was in a section I had never gone to. If every city has that one place sane people avoid because of palpable danger in the air, the spot glowing on my map was one of those. But infinitely worse. In a bad part of The City, chances were you would get robbed of all your creds and valuables. Here they would disassemble your mind and sell the good parts leaving your husk connected to a rig somewhere as smoke poured out of your eyes. At least that is how Brad explained it. And this virtual city, Netropolis as the denizens loving referred to it, was all dangerous and filled with millions that had no compulsion frying someone at any time. And nearly all of them were more skilled than I here.
If I wanted answers I would have to go out there. By myself. I was as safe here as I would be in the real world. But out that door? That was another story entirely. But since I had now wasted an entire day with nothing to show for it but the four pink lines on my side I would have to. I shut down the privacy field and approached the copy of Brad.
“I’m going out for a bit. Need to do some research for the case,” my voice barely warbled.
Brad stared at me for a moment, I would guess communicating with the real deal. “Be careful out there kid. Remember what I taught you and stay out of anything that seems sketchy. And take this.” He set a pistol and wrist bound console on the bar.
“Okay. I get the gun but what is this?” as I pointed at the console.
“This is a little doohickey we whipped up to help you out. It contains every program you could need for just about any situation you may find yourself in. The green button on the side will bring you back here immediately. The red one will send you out of the net. Be careful with that, it can be a little traumatic to your system to disconnect that quickly. But you should be fine Gear.” His face didn’t scream you’ll be fine Gear. It screamed he didn’t want to have to clean my burnt out body from his special rig.
“Thank you. And I’ll be careful Dad. Jeez. Did you forget who I am?”
He just smiled and nodded. Neither of us bought the braggadocio. I tucked the pistol into the back of my jeans and made sure my shirt covered it. Then I snapped the console on and watched as it shifted shape into a silver chain around my left wrist. Nice. I made sure to not show my fear as I walked through the crowded bar. Even nodded to Han as I did. And then I pushed open the wooden door and stepped out into the Netropolis.