The Vortigern Jack
When you jack in, it always feels like you’re falling. Falling from so high you can’t see the ground, but then it comes rushing up at you like an asphalt wave and you know when you hit bottom it will break you in two.
I’ve done it a thousand times, and every time I feel like it will kill me. Usually, this is several hours before it actually does.
From on high, as I fall, I see the city. It’s no city I know, but it wouldn’t be, since it isn’t IRL. IRL – in real life - the acronym used to mean something to me, something I thought was significant. But it isn’t important anymore, not the way it was. IRL is the place other people can see. Virt is the place I visit when I jack. Once I thought the difference was that one of them was real and the other wasn’t. I stopped thinking that a long time ago.
There are other differences, though. For one, no one IRL has ever tried to kill me. In Virt I assume everything will try. There isn’t any telling what will succeed. Not before it does.
For now my attention is grabbed forcefully by the pavement I’m about to impact. My falling speed is far too high for me to survive – I’m at building-top, now falling past what look like windows but aren’t, the glare from them a blur, and at the last second, just before I’m crushed like an egg in a junior-high engineering experiment, I stop falling and my feet touch down softly, just stepping off a curb. The nausea passes, like always, and the terror sweat cools and dries.
“We have good jack,” I say into the comm strapped to my head. It’s pinching, and I reach up to adjust it, a wire headdress with a tiny flat mic almost touching my chin.
“Good jack confirmed,” Jolly says in my ear, good and loud. “We have a read on you. Directional heading 94 degrees, which for you is to the right.”
She knows I can never read the directional compass in the HUD. It’s a corneal thing.
I’m in an alley, clean but dark, one I’ve seen before, but not for a while. There is a single building to the right of me, tall, must be three stories high, black and without a single doorway along the alleyway. The left side is buildings of various heights, mostly one-story, and each has a doorway of some kind, some without knobs, and some with multiple layers of security, bars and even a portcullis. Here and there, though, one stands open wide. I keep that in mind as I start jogging forward. You never know.
It smells of rain, far off but coming. I do not understand how this can be, because it will not, cannot, ever rain here. There is no pavement. The buildings do not exist. I do not exist, at least not here. The pack on my back does not, either, but whatever it is, whatever secret it contains, is real; in this place so much more real than I am.
“End of the alley ten paces,” Jolly says.
I count. I will not come out of the alley running – that is foolish and I am not a fool – but I want to make maximum speed until I hit the pavement at the end and peer out around the corner, low to the ground like a snake. Beyond, the street stretches in both directions, cars rolling quietly by, here and there a pedestrian. I wonder how many of them are like me. Not many. There aren’t many left like me.
Chancing it, I step out from the…well, not exactly shadows, but relative cover, and onto the street. Three lanes each way, a major thoroughfare, then. I spare a glance for the cars going by, but I cannot see into the windows. There won’t be drivers, anyway. They are not my concern. Well, they are probably not my concern. If they don’t bother me, I won’t bother them.
For the moment, none of them bother me.
I turn right.
Jolly sighs happily in my ear, as if she didn’t expect me to remember. “Come on, Jolly,” I say. “It’s not that bad.”
“Not every day,” she says. “Clear for a while.”
“How long is a while?”
“Until I say so, someone reroutes, or you get there. One of those.”
It is dark, but not profoundly so. The cars themselves glow, faintly, as do the buildings. They consume energy, so they give off energy in turn. Everything does. I do. That’s what makes me easy to find.
A car veers unexpectedly at a right angle to the traffic and attempts to pin me to the wall.
This is either an old tactic or just a random event. Either way I’m ready for it, and leaping forward before it hits me. But it isn’t just a car, and it cannot actually impact the building, so before the collision, just before, the car turns at a right angle, flattens against the building wall and heads for me. So. Not random, then.
I run. “Jolly…” I say.
“I see them. You’ve still got the package?”
“Si.” Spanish is very short sometimes, and easy to say while running.
I’m headed the way I was originally instructed to go, but now I can see that there is no way whatever that I’m going to get there on this path. Two cars detach themselves from the stream, and head my way, accelerating. I’ve left the first one behind me, but now I need a way out as these two bracket me.
“Turn left,” Jolly says.
“Into traffic?” I say.
“Just do it.”
I do. I always do what Jolly says. It doesn’t always work out, but in here, in Virt, in a jack, nothing works out all the time.
My sudden move into the stream of traffic bisects the two cars coming toward me and they don’t react quickly enough to pinch me between them. For the moment, I’m just sprinting down the middle of the street, with cars coming toward me on the left and up behind me on the right. It can’t last.
It doesn’t. One of the cars behind me bursts forward and slams into the back of me. I feel ribs crack as I somersault over the vehicle and land on my back on the street. My right side feels like someone tore it open with a jagged knife and poured molten lead into it. Another car is coming and I’ll never be able to get to my feet in time. To not actually die in Virt is a law, always obeyed. Nearly always.
“Abort,” I say, and a long half-second passes before I feel myself lift off the pavement and float into the air, ascending at increasing speed, rising above the steaming city and into the gaping black.
And then I’m being hoisted out of the gel and the light of the office blinds me. Across the shallow pool from me Jolly is being lifted out as well, the shining green gel sucking viscously and trailing in melted ropes from her face. My side still hurts. I can feel the pain radiating out from inside my flesh, though nothing is broken there. Nothing ever was. The pain is the only thing that’s real, but it is, absolutely, real.
It’s the reason I have a job. Or, more accurately, it’s the reason there aren’t millions of other people that can do this job. I have a high threshold for pain. Might be my only real job qualification.
Jolly regards me as Thomas unstraps her. The gel runs lightly off her tanned face and coats her tank top, white as always, so that it’s semitransparent starting just above the realm of indecency. “You couldn’t do anything,” she said. It’s meant to be reassuring.
“There is always something I could have done.”
She sighs, and now that her arms are free she reaches a long, beautiful limb out to pluck a towel from the stack at the edge of the gel table. She wipes the gel from her face back into her hair, slicking her dark locks back against her head. I’ve told her it makes her look like an 80’s punk rocker, but in truth I think it’s sexy, and I think she knows it. I think that’s why she does it.
One other person is in the room, clacking away on a computer keyboard over in the corner, and now she calls out, “Package secure. At least we didn’t lose it.”
Thomas arrives at my side and starts wiping off the gel. He could wipe it into my hair if he wanted to, but it wouldn’t matter – my steel-grey hair is cut straight and short in a military buzz and would resist practically any volume of the stuff, standing always at attention.
“Sarge, what’s the plan?” the woman says over her shoulder, never quite taking her eyes from the screens in front of her.
“Rack, you’re killing me here.”
“Just want to know, Sarge. You’re going to have to call the client, anyway. So are we making another attempt?”
I sigh, and wince, putting my hand to my side and feeling the rib structure there, fully intact through the thick cotton of the sweatshirt. The pain is subsiding. I can move. I stand up and stretch, which feels like tearing loose from a cocoon.
“How long were we jacked?” I ask the room in general, because I’m the only one that wouldn’t know.
Jolly shakes her head. “Three, four seconds.”
Rack says, “Three point eight five three three.”
“That’s not very long. Were they laying for us? We didn’t go out the main gate, did we?” I say, wincing and swiveling my torso back and forth to stretch the muscles.
It felt like half an hour. It always feels much longer, time dilation being part of what makes it possible for humans to do. But that wouldn’t have been long enough to do anything but learn the layout of the place, which I suppose I might have done, but I didn’t get close enough to the destination to be able to see what I would face when I got there, and we sure couldn’t use that entry point again. So the jack was worthless.
“I thought we might get away with it – we haven’t used the front gate in months,” Rack says, tapping a key so rapidly it sounds like a snare drum. “Sorry, Sarge.” She does sound like she really is.
Thomas sits down next to me and puts his booted feet up on the rim of the gel table. He holds up a clear crystal between his thumb and forefinger and peers at it with the track lights behind it. It makes a prism on his face. “What is this thing, anyway? I mean,” he says, glancing quickly at me, “What do you think it is?”
“I have no idea, and I’m never going to.”
“I bet it’s illegal,” he says, tossing it up and catching it.
“In the data stream, there is no illegal,” I say, slapping his feet off the table and walking between him and it, over to stand behind Rack and look over her shoulder at her bank of screens.
Her name is Arachne. Her parents may or may not deserve to be murdered for that, but so far as I know they haven’t been. I have made lemonade from their lemons, however, by hiring a reclusive, bullied young goth and giving her tools to become the finest hacker of her generation. I cannot do a tenth of what she can, and I’m old enough to remember when computers were membranes over switches and stored their data on cassettes.
She tilts her head back and looks up at me. “The Missus won’t be happy.”
“Day’s not over,” I say, nodding to the screens, where a patchwork of multicolored pixels moves in what appears to be, but is not, a random pattern. “What did we get?”
“You weren’t in there long,” she says, but points to a section of the screen that is colored bright orange. “That’s the jack point.” Her finger moves up and right. “Here’s where you were going. At your normal rate of run, that’s about two hours subjective time, if nothing gets in your way.”
“When was the last time that happened?” I say, twisting finding range of motion restored. The pain is mostly gone now.
“There was that one time, last month. Milk run for Harvey, Baker and Milton.”
“Which didn’t pay the light bill, if I recall. What am I facing?”
Jolly comes over and stands next to me, almost but not quite touching. She’s close enough that I can feel the heat of her, though, right through my shirt, and down my legs to the floor. She never looks at me, but concentrates on the screen.
“I didn’t see what it was that got him,” Rack says, glancing sideways at Jolly.
“Hack intercept,” Jolly says, “or something dummied to look like it. It was pretty good, I didn’t see it until it was too late to warn Sarge. If it was that close to the main hatch, they’ve got some permanent snoop.”
“He’s gonna get killed in there,” Thomas says, wiping down the chairs, which are slick with sweat and gel.
“He’s not going to get killed,” Rack says, “but he isn’t going to be able to deliver the package without some help. We’re going to need decoys this time, or jack through a reroute.”
“Won’t they spot those, if they’re that good?” Jolly says, leaning over Rack’s shoulder, and the two of them start talking technical shop. I wander back past my chair and up the metal stairs to the hatch, cycle the lock and wait for the pressure to equalize with a metallic hiss. The other three look back at me with questions on their faces. I wave them down. “No, no. We’ll go again. At least once more. I don’t think I can get it delivered today, but maybe we’ll learn enough about what we’re facing that we can make it by delivery date.” Almost involuntarily, I flick my gaze to the calendar on the wall, as if I didn’t know by heart that it was Tuesday, and delivery day was day after tomorrow. Everyone nods and goes back to their tasks, and I push the hatch open and step out into the real world.