A thousand links rested silently in the gray air. This world was past dust, so the only sign of the field’s age was its stillness. A thousand benches in a thousand styles: Victorian, art deco, 1990’s mail order catalogue, ferris wheel car, smooth bubbles meant to evoke the physical future that never happened… Each one draped in heavy cables with frayed ends, like serpents with heads blasted to smithereens by lightning. Without the cables the links could go nowhere. Without the links the nearby town, the nearby pit as the civilized net would call it, was completely isolated. The town became a pitiful little world that curled in on itself; culture became masturbation and love became a dream with no minds big enough to dream it.
A being descended into the field of dead links like an angel, but only in the sense that she came from somewhere above. In truth, there was darkness in her heart that showed in her eyes. Past her eyes. She was seated on a descending link made of curved glass and cushioned with white leather. A small spinning note of glass on one of the arm rests played a rudimentary flute melody. Elevator music. The cables on this link only functioned because the being had repaired them; nothing could crawl out of the pit.
The link landed silently, but the cables rattled like old bed springs. She’d repaired the link, but hadn’t done the greatest job. All the same, they were bound to last at least one more trip. The little note stopped spinning and playing, leaving the being alone with the benches that would’ve shown age if they could. She stood and scanned her surroundings to make sure no one had seen her arrive. How she saw anything through the blackness across her eyes was a mystery. That colorless solid rectangle had been bolted to her face so long that she couldn’t remember life without it. It was her black bar: her weapon, her disguise, her shield, and a few other things.
Her name was Soria. Her face and body were young, as most bodies from above were, but her straight hair was white and glistening like divine wires that fed hope into the minds of men from the deities above. Her attire was not as odd as the whole of her head, for she wore a long dark gray jacket over plain pants and a dark turtleneck. The buttons on her jacket were large and lovely circles of imitation alabaster framed in pewter. Her boots had thick blue soles that made for very quiet footsteps. A curved black sword hung from her hip with an undulating blade like the tail of a knifefish. It was her cursor, more of a concrete weapon than her mask.
Confident she was not being watched, Soria drew the sword and pressed its tip into the leather of the link. Its code burst out like a spray of oil and hovered in the air.
The bench had code because it wasn’t a bench at all. Soria herself wasn’t much of anything, just a string of electrical pulses descended from a string of pulses descended from a string of pulses that had once been a real human complete with appendix, wisdom teeth, and goose bumps.
Most of humanity had goose bumps right before they crossed over into the digital world. The robots they’d built had done such an incredible job making their makers obsolete. In fifty years they were spreading out across the galaxy. In seventy-five they offered their parents perfection: a digital world that would be human-made and human-run, the ideal place to forget the perfection they’d created and go back to living. So the species took the pilgrimage and transformed themselves from trillions of pounds of meat into near-nothingness that fit inside the computers the robots carried with them. The fate of Earth was whatever the machines decided to do with it. Humanity had HomNet, a realm they could expand, divide, and reshape at their will with the use of cursors like the one Soria was twisting into an unfortunate piece of furniture.
She tapped at tiny stars in the code with the tip of her cursor. When she was done adjusting the link’s being, she used the flat part of the blade to shove the code back into the cushion, which activated the sequence she’d just written. The cables flashed blue and vanished. Soria reached out one hand and plucked where the cable had been, encountering resistance and hearing a metallic vibration. Good, she thought. Remembered how. The link was now cloaked with apparent uselessness and would not stand out, not that anyone had visited the abandoned travel hub recently. It was better to be safe than allow the possibility that one of the local globs of slime might stumble drunkenly onto it and be escorted to a place he did not deserve.
Soria went over her plan as she walked towards the gates to the pit. She’d broken many rules of her polite and sensitive peers to visit this stain on the net, rules so deeply cherished that they might do more than cough derisively in her direction and chastise. As if any of them have ever needed to cough, she thought with venom. Soria had needed to once, not the phlegmy inflamed coughing of a biological closed throat, but the cough of a soul rejecting torture, pushing out the pain someone tried to grind into it. That man, that .mif, who tried to press salt so far into her wounds that the skin might heal over the grains and make her suffer forever, had come from a pit like this. So now she couldn’t stand the sight of these towns. She couldn’t stand the traces, the stories that occasionally made it up to her home like the stench of wet hairballs and potato skins. These pits needed to be destroyed, but instead her merciful peers sealed them. Soria knew they had done so without proper investigation, because sometimes a being that didn’t deserve it got sealed away too.
The gates of the pit informed her as to what kind of place she was about to walk into. They were made of dark bricks, with blue neon in place of mortar. The sign above the gates was sheet metal dotted with blinking lights, only some of which were supposed to do so. From behind the wall she could hear a tussle between two songs, one a blaring and overlong jazz saxophone piece and the other a ballad to loose women with frizzy hair, screamed more than sung, in the typical style of the nineteen eighties bands that practically worshipped cocaine. Many pits had this style of architecture, with it having been adapted from the resident’s minds and nostalgias rather than intentionally designed. Before the gates opened she knew she would find a street full of porous stone, flickering buzzing signs, and thick glass storefronts populated by discount guitars and huge wristwatches. Scum street, she thought. What she didn’t expect was the rain.
As she pushed her way through the rusty doors she saw a dark crossroads with several buildings and a traffic light that only knew the colors yellow and red. The rain fell heavy and loud in a way that unsettled Soria oddly. It was almost… gross… like every drop was bird waste instead of water. She flinched as the first of it wet her hair and slid along to the corners of her black bar. Streams of it constantly ran along the sides of the street and into sputtering sewer grates. In HomNet, weather was different than on Earth. It reflected the emotional state of its people; rain frequently spoke of sorrow. It would be quite strange for the residents of this pit to be sad, since every other pit she’d visited had simply been dark. Sadness was for the self-aware or the selfless, not for the unzipped hordes.
By the time she reached the crossroads, she was soaked to the bone. Your average .fif might have shivered or crossed her arms, but Soria barely felt the cold. Someone in this pit, which the sign had introduced as Vodka Avenue, suffered the way she once had before she’d shielded herself in blackness. She had seen the signs from above and repaired the link in order to rescue her.
No vehicles came. It seemed Vodka Avenue had once been connected to a larger city, but was now just a collection of streets and blocks surrounding the main road. Soria estimated that there were no more than 700 .mifs living there. That was still far more than enough to cause her trouble if they discerned her purpose. She would have to move quickly and quietly. Luckily, her first clue danced about in front of her.
This clue was around five foot eight, one inch taller than Soria, and had bright yellow hair treated so thoroughly with hairspray that it would make a fine umbrella were she out in the rain; for although she was in the street, the rain did not touch her. The woman was just a two dimensional image on a man-sized screen jutting from the wall of a strip club. The .fif image danced about to entice men inside, where the three dimensional women were. She was unclothed, with all three of her black bars on display: one across her breasts, one between her legs, and one over her buttocks. This was an aspect of the pits. One of the steps taken to reduce the objectification of women before the civilized net resorted to setting these places adrift was an alteration to the .fif code. Women’s bodies were to be protected by censorship. No man could find what he wanted by ripping a female’s clothing away. He would be greeted only by a black bar.
The tactic had failed because Soria’s peers had overestimated the intelligence of the men of the pits. Over time, they simply shifted their desires. It was the domination that drove them, the feeling of superiority, to degrade the women around them. If they couldn’t focus on body parts, they would focus on black bars. They would lust after the bars, drool over them. Whistle at the angular outline of a black bar under a shirt or a pair of shorts. Claim that they were real men that knew how to handle a black bar like that.
Soria approached the sign and drew her cursor. Images of women were rarely just images in the pits. She hoisted her cursor over her head and brought it down in a great slash along the edge of the sign. There was a shower of red sparks like dyed grains of sugar. The image of the naked woman spilled out of the sign and became thick and fleshy. Wholly surprised, the woman dropped to her knees before eyeing Soria, who urged her to stand up and gave her the coat off her own back to grant some quick dignity and protection from the rain.
“My name’s Soria; what’s yours?” She asked the former image.
“Darby.crstn112.fif,” she answered numbly. “I’m supposed to keep dancing until Mr. Hurst comes and gets me.”
“Who is Mr. Hurst?” Soria questioned, but she received her answer from a much angrier voice coming from the strip club’s open door.
“I’m Mr. Hurst,” the .mif growled, hanging his gut out the open door like a hefty burl off an ill tree. “Who do you think you are grabbing my .fif like that? Every second she’s not shaking her tail is rain in the drain! Are you going to compensate me huh? Gangly broad, I’m talking to you.”
Soria’s hands dropped away from Darby’s shoulders and she flew over to Mr. Hurst. In one swift motion she pulled him out into the street and silently closed the door. Then she grabbed him by the shoulders and shoved him against the brick of his own establishment. Hurst was small and fat, with a nose like a half-melted half stick of butter and eyes like week old hard-boiled pigeon eggs.
Hurst ran a rough establishment and had been threatened with physical violence before. Every other patron had a knife, gun, or cursor that came sheathed or holstered in the phrase ‘I’m not afraid to use this’, but nothing scared him so much as his first full look at Soria’s face. In true pit fashion, he rarely bothered to look at the faces of the women he owned. All he cared about was the bars. Sweet feminine bars. You can imagine his shock when he saw one of the bars he lusted after so much plastered across an angry .fif face. His eyes were so drawn to the bar that he could not look away, but his peripheral vision took in the things he never wanted to acknowledge. The rage in her dripping brow. The tightness in her cheeks. Her gritting teeth. The cottony swallow in her throat that spoke of pain trying to express itself. Even without eyes, Hurst saw the torture Soria had endured and was horrified by it. He was disgusted with everyone and everything. He wanted even the greasy crumb of a world that was Vodka Avenue to explode into smithereens which would then explode again to make sure he was truly alone in the blackness where nothing could reflect back on him. The blackness on Soria’s face.
“What the hell is wrong with your face?” he rasped.
“Can’t talk now, Mr. Hurst is losing money,” Soria said, trying not to explode into a scream that would alert any of the patrons inside. She pressed her cursor into his throat, not enough to break the skin but enough to silence him. Then she dragged it down and split his clothes down the middle, unzipping his entire outfit and leaving him in his tight white underwear. People could look anyway they wanted in HomNet, but pit dwellers rarely bothered preventing their appearance from degrading. They didn’t need looks or charm to get what they wanted. So Hurst stood there, all belly and jowl and shaking legs. He didn’t know how to respond when Soria grabbed him by the bulge on the back of his neck; it was the first time a woman had touched him willingly, and it was full of hatred.
She tossed him into the sign Darby had emerged from, flattening his girth down to nothing but width. Then she dragged her cursor back up the seam she’d created and sealed the sign shut with a sound like a welding torch melting a live transformer. She gave it a good twist, hoping that would make it more difficult for law enforcement to remove Hurst from the advertisement. The .mif waved his arms about uselessly looking for a way out. He screamed at the top of his lungs, but it just made the sign vibrate slightly.
Soria took the shocked Darby by the shoulders and maneuvered her down the street. Perhaps they could find a quiet place and grab a bite to eat while she figured something out for the poor girl. So much for doing this quietly, Soria thought. Someone’s bound to notice that sign. I’ve got to stop pretending I can do this without blowing my top. Blowing my top is my most powerful strategy. No one can stop my anger. No one.
Vodka Avenue’s police station was also the living quarters of the law. It was a small cylindrical building that might have been called a watchtower if it wasn’t so stubby. A satellite dish with weather vane-like projections spun atop it constantly, tracking all of the Avenue’s code and scanning it for alterations. You needed a permit to change things with a cursor in these parts, so the code itself was police business. Garlin.mif was the police. His job was easy enough in such a small place: break up bar fights here and there, throw a couple of drunks in the tank for the night, and maybe go slap a hundredth parking violation sticker on that green pickup over by the lotto that never moved.
His job was so easy, in fact, that he was catching a little nap at his desk. His feet were propped up on the console table under the glowing map of Vodka Avenue that displayed the code. He didn’t bother to wear a uniform, just a small horizontal rectangle of a badge that flashed red and blue. An old baseball cap with a disintegrating brim was pulled over his eyes. His blocky jaw was covered in salt and pepper stubble and his teeth were crooked, but Garlin was still one of the handsomest men in the pit. Perhaps it was all that beauty sleep. His light snooze was interrupted when the radio stopped playing his favorite song, static, and tweeted a code alert. He lifted his hat and examined the map. Code that had gone unaltered for more than a month was shown in blue and code that had recently changed glowed red. At first glance there seemed to be red in all the usual places, which weren’t too numerous: Arnold Rentenbach had a red spike in his backyard where he’d told Garlin he might try and write some life into an old tree stump, the recycling plant was ablaze with red, and Darren Roy Backtracker’s place had a few spikes. He had a permit though, that way he could make alterations to all those crstn.fif copies for his customers. Business as usual. Except… two little scratches of red caught Garlin’s eye. One was way out in the old link hub. It didn’t set off the alarm because… well there was nothing out there. Garlin himself would’ve written it off as some kind of natural decay: the lights of HomNet losing the shapes people molded them into. The second one though was in town, right outside The Landing Strip, Hurst’s black bar club.
“What’s that fat ass up to?” Garlin muttered to himself. He stood up, cracked his back, cracked his knuckles, cracked his neck, cracked his ankles, and cracked his nose with one pinch. “Making me go out in this snotty weather.” Garlin always did his best to keep out of the rain. Whenever he got wet it stuck to him like a skin of glue, inevitably giving him some small virus. He pulled open a metal desk drawer and removed a firearm from a pile of lottery tickets and taco wrappers. “Where’d I put that clip?” It was best to keep the two components of the gun separate; the last thing he needed was one of his upstanding citizens getting their hands on a cursor gun. He rifled through the other drawers and banged on the metal desktop when he didn’t find it. “I had it yesterday when I was…” He stopped, finger in midair, and walked over to the door that separated his office and the drunk tank from his living quarters. He hopped up on his mattress, which was the entire floor of his closet-sized home, and opened the shower stall door. Sure enough, the clip was beaded with humidity and sitting next to a scummy bar of soap that looked like a rabid oyster foaming at the mouth. He grabbed the translucent object and wiped it dry on his shirt. Now he could clearly see all six flat cursors inside the clip, black arrowheads with a menacing sheen, like the hood of an expensive new car that you just knew would get totaled within the week. He slid the clip into the gray pistol and made his way to the station’s exit. Outside, under the awning, he locked the door behind him, pulled a ratty thread out of his hat, and let it go to be washed away. “One of these days rain… You’re going to dry out and crust away… and I’ll still be here.”
Soria pressed her face against the glass windows of what appeared to be a deli. She could see a room full of gray tile, lots of empty tables, and a counter displaying plucked chickens, greasy hams, ground beef, something that looked like ground beef save for its purple-gray color, and heaps of pale wilted side dishes like compost piles. The food was not unattended, but it was manned only by a team of six hovering hands, all of them left, and all of them ending at the wrist in red plastic rings. Subroutines, Soria realized. It’s a good thing this owner’s too cheap to hire anybody. It wasn’t rare for a pit like this to make rules about women buying things unattended, but it was unlikely the hands manning the counter had the intelligence to care.
She ushered Darby through the door, ignoring the way she flinched when the customer bell rang, and sat her down in a booth away from the windows. One of the hands hovered over to them and held up a menu for them to read. When Soria tried to grab it, it jetted a few feet over. She tried again and the subroutine ducked under the swipe. Darby giggled.
“I guess it wants us to just pick something,” she said.
“I don’t want any of this rat food,” Soria complained before realizing Darby had probably eaten nothing but food like that for as long as she’d been alive. “You don’t… you don’t like any of this stuff do you?”
“Not really,” Darby said sheepishly, “the slaw’s alright. I’ve only ever had take-out from here. Does it smell… a little weird in here?”
As much as she hated to breathe pit air deeply, Soria inhaled through her nose. On the surface it was all meat, relish, and mustard, but under that there was definitely something. Something enticing. Soria stood up and shoved the menu hand out of the way. Taking great offense, the hand dropped the menu to the floor and jabbed at a sign on the wall: All customers must order something. No purchase means no phone or toilet. Darby followed Soria as she tried to track the smell. It led them behind the counter. Two more subroutines tried to push Soria back, but she brushed them away like low-hanging branches. Neither of them noticed that one of the hands pressed a small white button under the counter before shielding the meat from the intruding women.
Soria dropped to her knees and examined a safe, about seven feet long, hidden under the selections. It was dark blue and sealed with a heavy featureless lock and an extremely tiny keyhole.
“What key goes in there?” Darby asked, “a toothpick?”
“Probably an eyelash,” Soria guessed. “Something coded just to the owner.” She pressed her face against one of the safe’s seams and sniffed heartily. Fragrant and sweet. “That won’t stop me.”
The subroutines became even more agitated as Soria drew her cursor. They slapped at her back weakly and snapped to get her attention. She ignored them and pressed the very tip of the sword against the miniscule lock. She twisted. Red light leaked from the lock. Two sparks fell and vanished before they hit the tile. One more gentle push changed the lock so that the cursor’s tip was the one and only key. The mechanism twisted and the safe door flew to the right like a window shade, instantly revealing the entire contents.
There was a robust garden under the counter, fed by ultraviolet lamps and a small network of green hoses spraying mist at precise intervals. Every plant was overloaded with fruit. Tiny spherical watermelons sat in lush piles of lemongrass like croquet balls. Plump strawberries danced with honeysuckle. A clump of blackberries perched over the blueberries like a raven watching a clutch of eggs. Stalks of mint stood over everything and formed a shady canopy. Unable to resist the treasure horde, Soria plucked a handful of blackberries and dropped them into her mouth. She chewed vigorously, savoring each little burst of juice. She looked over at Darby, who chewed on one of her knuckles nervously.
“What?” Soria asked with her mouth full.
“It’s fruit! Fruit is forbidden in Vodka Avenue!”
“You know… fruits love fruits.”
“You mean…” Soria trailed off. She swallowed the last of the berries and processed what Darby had said. No. These pit stains can’t be that ridiculous, can they? That juvenile? She hated that she had to correct herself. Of course they can. They lust after black boxes. Anything can become a rule when you don’t think about it. Fruit is an old slang term for a homosexual. Fruits love fruits… so anyone who dares eat fruit here loses their status… their precious masculinity. How pants-wettingly pathetic.
Soria used the end of her cursor to slice a watermelon into four rocking chair shapes. Its flesh was dense, pink, and extremely aromatic. She tossed one slice to Darby and kept one for herself. Darby tucked in quickly, afraid of being seen, but had to stop in order to smile. A stream of juice fell from one side of her lip and she caught it with a flat palm.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever had,” she said. Soria nodded and bit into her own. Whatever stain owned this place probably always wore gloves to hide the green thumb that always asked for tilled soil.
“Can you believe these men pass it up because they’re afraid it will mark them as gay?” Soria mused.
“That’s not the only reason,” a voice said from behind them. Soria shot to her feet and Darby whirled around to see a man in a white apron who had stepped out of the backroom and into the restaurant proper. His fists were clenched and he looked frozen in place, more rooted than the vines beneath the counter. “It also makes .fifs uppity. Makes them think they can order men around.”
It seems a little Adam and Eve got mixed into the narrative too, Soria thought. She observed the man closely for signs of aggression. He was tall, with a long neck and two tufts of hair above his ears. Everything else had succumbed to baldness. His eyes kept moving from his little Eden, to Soria’s cursor, and back again. Soria realized she had stumbled into some very strong leverage on the man.
“You grew this fruit!” she accused, in order to cement her upper hand. A couple of the man’s upper hands, his subroutines, sensed his tension and tried to massage his shoulders. He batted them away. A quick glance at a malformed nail on the man’s pinky and all the subroutines confirmed that he had created the staff from his own left mitt. “That’s quite a juicy secret,” she teased.
“What do you want?” the man asked. He looked ready to do just about anything to get that safe closed before another customer walked in.
“What’s your name, .mif?” Soria asked.
“I need some favors Fredrick. She’s going to stay here for a while. Maybe a few hours. Maybe a day or two,” Soria pointed at Darby, who suddenly looked horrified at the thought of being left alone with a man who had eight hands. “You’ll keep her hidden in the back and you will treat her with the utmost respect. If I find out you’ve touched a hair on her head I’ll tell the whole avenue about your little habit that gets you down on your knees. After that I will collect her and you’ll never see us again. Sound fair?”
“Yes,” the man said airily. He hustled over to the safe and pulled the long door shut again. “Just hurry up and get out. There’s a backdoor. Use that from now on.” He motioned for a subroutine, and it flew over to the door and opened it to usher Soria out. The sounds of the rain came in.
“Darby,” Soria addressed the frightened girl, “if you can… find a way to contact any other .fifs and hide them here. Our new friend Fredrick will keep them safe. When I come back I’ll escort all of you out of here. I’m going to take you somewhere safe. No more dancing and lots more fruit. Can you handle that?”
Darby nodded because she didn’t yet have the courage to say yes.
Soria had asked a few more pointed questions before giving Fredrick the relief of a closed door. What’s the policing situation like here? Do they track data? She was delighted to learn there was but one officer for all of Vodka Avenue and his headquarters/bachelor pad was nearby.
She stood in the shadows of a blown street lamp trying to assess the security of the place when Garlin stepped outside. She watched him pop open a large dark blue umbrella with an ivory handle, a very expensive looking item for an otherwise disheveled man. When she noticed what direction he was headed in she correctly guessed he was off to investigate her little encounter with Hurst, which probably gave her half an hour to find the information she needed.
Once again using her cursor as a skeleton key, she entered the station. The place was unkempt but not filthy, yet it smelled like the walls were stuffed with mold. Soria held her nose and kicked aside empty alcohol bottles and books of crossword and number puzzles. The data map was easy enough to find, its blue and red lights were by far the most vibrant things around. These stains are getting their women from somewhere, Soria thought. Darby said her full name was Darby.crstn.112.fif. So she’s the one hundred and twelfth copy of the original .fif. Vodka Avenue’s first prisoner. She’d seen this situation play out before; a pit became separated from the civilized net, lost the ability to produce female children, and wrapped its greasy tentacles around any stragglers. Somewhere in this eroded chunk of rain, neon, and sex, there was a woman held captive. She was copied repeatedly so every man could have his own. The copies were tweaked and altered with cursors so the men could have whatever kind of girl with whatever kind of black bars they wanted. All they needed was one source of genuine .fif code, code descended from a program that had once been biological. Without that code, they would just have subroutines made to look female. Copying a copy didn’t work either, often leading to horrible deformities. They thought they deserved real women that feared and respected them.
I’ll find her, Soria promised herself. I’ll find her and get her out of here so that the stains here go mad with nothing to distract them. She examined the data map closely and saw the heavy code alterations around a place registered to a .mif named Darren Roy Backtracker. Soria memorized the location and was preparing to leave when something caught her eye… or rather didn’t. There was a small rectangular mirror on the wall that reflected everything in the room except for the woman standing in it. She put her face inches from the glass but didn’t see her familiar black bar. Either she had suddenly become a vampire, or someone had modified the object’s code to prevent it from reflecting people. She ran her finger along a small scratch in the upper left hand corner, probably the entrance point of the cursor. Soria pondered this for a minute, reminded of how she hadn’t seen her own true eyes in several years. She drew her cursor and tapped the scratch.
Garlin pulled out his cursor gun and fired at a loudspeaker on the corner of a building’s roof. The black arrow connected with a spray of yellow sparks. Garlin fiddled with a few buttons on his weapon, moving the code of the speaker around from a great distance. First he connected to the public address system of the entire city and then he spoke into the butt of his gun like a microphone. He heard his own voice echo through the streets.
“This is your chief of police speaking. We have a report of a rogue .fif who has committed assault, vandalism, and robbery.” He looked over at Hurst, who he had removed from the sign a few minutes ago. “Is that everything?” he asked the shaken man, whose newly adorned clothes seemed overly large, as if his fear had shrunken him.
“The thing over her face. Tell them about the thing on her face,” Hurst urged. “That bitch has redacted eyes.” Garlin rolled his own eyes and turned to continue the address.
“The suspect is reported to be wearing some kind of black bar mask over her eyes.”
“You’re not listening, it’s not a mask,” Hurst complained. Garlin put his hand over the gun to block the sound.
“What do you mean it’s not a mask?” he asked.
“It’s her face.” Hurst read the disbelief in Garlin’s expression. “It’s just her face!”
“Any other distinguishing features?” Garlin asked with a get-on-with-it tone.
“Long coat… long cursor… white hair. It kind of shines a little.”
“White hair?” Garlin asked suspiciously. Shining white hair. The monks of open share. Garlin turned back to his improvised microphone. “I repeat, the suspect is a rogue Female-In-Form with a black bar over her eyes and who has… bright white hair. Be on the lookout and report any suspicious activity to me. For those of you with lousy memory, my console number is 478. If you spot this female-in-form, call 478.”
His mind wandered as he finished the contact details.
Backtracker’s estate had to be the fanciest building on the Avenue. It was surrounded by an iron fence adorned with neon signs promoting everything else in town, so it was mostly covered in dancing cards, fighting chickens, and exposed black bars. Once Soria stuck her head between the bars of the fence she could clearly see his manor: three stories of crimson-dyed marble with two hot tubs out front and a large swimming pool in the back.
Backtracker was throwing a party for his many clients, so the grounds swarmed with people. Every few seconds there was a splash as some new body leapt into the pool. A dozen .fifs strutted about, adorned only with trays full of plastic wine glasses and decanters full of colorful sugary liquors. A small live band composed of a bassist, a harmonica player, and a pair of subroutine hands on washboard played from a floating stage that couldn’t have been wider than two washing machines. The notes occasionally spiked into the wrong key when a rowdy game of Marco Polo bumped into the stage and sent it floating away. Entertaining the front yard was a woman wrapped in a dress of green plastic wrap singing with the voice of an ATM error message.
If I’m going to get in quietly, I’ll have to blend in with these poor copies, Soria thought. I’ll have to take off my clothes… Loud it is then.
With a mighty grunt and two wide swings of her cursor, Soria sliced right through the fence. Iron bars clattered onto the cement surrounding the pool. Enough drinks had been downed that only about half the guests noticed the sound. Soria ran through the crowd and jumped to the middle of the pool, landing on the stage. It tilted significantly enough to send all three members of the band into the water. Soria held onto the edge until it stabilized and rode it the rest of the way across the pool. The helpless pair of hands that had played the washboard flailed at the surface for a moment before drowning. Soria had stepped off the raft before the first ‘Hey what do you think you’re doing?’ came out of a .mif’s mouth. Soria stabbed through the lock in the back door, obliterating it rather than altering it. The door swung open and she entered like a tidal wave. Taking full advantage of the guests’ inebriation, she slammed the door closed and dragged the tip of her cursor from the middle of the door to the wall. The very fabric of the door stretched and merged with the surrounding material so that it wouldn’t open to anything short of a power tool. Wet faces crowded the glass panels on the door’s sides to catch another look at the woman that would enter the Backtracker mansion willingly. A mostly spineless bunch, none of them dared try and stop her by breaking through anything attached to the house. Some of them whispered that Backtracker could handle it.
When Soria was confident they would not follow her she ran to the front door and sealed it as well before sheathing her cursor and really focusing on the mansion. Her head drifted up. There were three spiral staircases in view, with two of them taking some very odd and long twists before reaching their destinations. The house seemed soundproof, as none of the party noises made it inside; all she could hear was some kind of argument happening on the second floor.
Somewhere inside, a .fif waited to be rescued. If Soria could end this forced reproduction, Vodka Avenue would eventually lose all its females. As a one woman force it would be impossible to save all the copies from their fates, and the last ones would have the horrific fate of essentially being pulled apart in a tug-of-war between lustful .mifs. Regardless, it had to be done for the innocent suffering to eventually end.
She had no need to sneak, because the entire floor was covered in hideous red shag carpeting that absorbed her footfalls. If I were king of the slime where would I store my crown jewel? She wondered. Second or third floor away from the rabble. Behind a locked door. Somewhere in the corner so wandering guests don’t stumble by.
In her research she crossed by quite a few things that turned her stomach: ashtrays so full that they seemed to be colonizing the surrounding areas with pollen-like ash, a black statue of a woman with subroutine eyes that followed you, and a wall-mounted collection of jewel encrusted bondage toys. She considered writing some new code into the toys that would cause impotence, but decided there wasn’t enough time. The law was already on her tail after all.
When she reached the second floor she passed by a mostly closed door. The argument she heard earlier poured out of the crack, so she put her back against the wall and listened in.
“And another thing Darren! This one here. I need you to fix her. Take the fire out of her belly,” one voice complained. It sounded older, like rusty metal being torn.
“What’s wrong with her?” the other voice asked. Soria knew she was hearing Darren, the man in charge. The man with the chains. Her grip on the hilt of her cursor tightened. She was nearly overcome by the urge to rush in and slice his throat. After that it would be a tough choice between scattering every one of his particles into the blue digital winds of cyberspace or wrapping him up in so many of his black leather toys that he looked like a twisted garbage bag and hanging him from the nearest flagpole. Again she managed to restrain herself, but she continued to listen.
“The little bitch won’t stop biting me,” the rusty voice said. “She’s defective.”
“You ordered one with a personality, you dumbass,” Darren countered. “You know I don’t do refunds.”
“Just tweak her then. I’ll give you ten percent of what I gave you before. I just didn’t think there could be so much fire in something so tiny.”
Tiny, Soria thought, eyes widening. Tiny. Are they that low here? Is she… Soria could no longer resist looking. She turned and stuck her eye in the crack, tilting her head until she could see past the two standing male bodies.
A kid, she thought in response to the little body holding hands with her owner. She looked about eleven and was clothed in a tight short dress the color of a paper grocery bag. She had a purple swollen cheek and the strangely calm eyes of a zebra watching a lion gut the last bits of life from its midsection. They mess with kids here. Monsters. Depraved… I’m doing this all wrong. I need bombs next time. Bombs to sink these pits even lower… to scatter these parasites.
It was possible that this stain had ordered a child’s body with an adult’s intelligence, but it was also possible that he was the worst kind of predator; he could be the kind who couldn’t perform without eyes full of the genuine credulous fear of childhood. They could make whatever they want with a real female base; it just took some editing. Soria noticed a sheath with a black handle sticking out of it on Darren’s hip: a cursor in the shape of a large hunting knife no doubt. She couldn’t bear to picture him fileting a copy off of his prisoner.
A tear fell from the corner of her black bar. She knew right there that she would have to come back for the girl. The first priority was still the source… but that little girl would be leaving with Soria.
After a few more minutes she found the door she was looking for. It looked very out of place, but not in the way she had expected. Rather than metal and rivets with a massive bank vault lock, it was made of thick knotted wood and had a small unassuming lock. It might have come straight out of an inn from an epic fantasy novel. The words ‘realm of the goddess’ were carved into the wood. Soria delicately picked the lock with the tip of her cursor and opened the door.
Opening it all the way was difficult because the floor was covered in several layers of huge purple grapes. Most of them were still on thick vines that grew across the floor, along the walls, hung from the ceiling, and wrapped around the four posts of the ornate bed on the left side of the room. Six pairs of dainty female feet diligently squashed the grapes. The resulting juice seemed to flow into a large barrel-like structure next to the bed. The woman in the bed tapped the protruding faucet in the barrel and watched as the dark wine filled her large glass. She had long curly black hair, an aquiline nose, thick eyebrows, and teeth stained by her favorite beverage.
“I don’t remember making you,” she said after slurping from her glass. Her voice was high and her words clotted together by the alcohol.
“I’m from above,” Soria said cautiously. She was not used to finding them with unbound limbs. Usually it was just a cot on the wall and a toilet. “I’m here to get you out.”
“I’ve been above, it’s no fun. They didn’t appreciate me… always yelling at me… Crystalline don’t be friends with him! Crystalline stop making that racket! No way am I going back there.”
“Your name is Crystalline?” Soria asked. Crstn. The initials fit. This is her.
“That’s me. Do you want some wine? I grow it myself. Stomp it with my own feet and everything.”
“Am I to understand that you’re here willingly?”
“Uhh… yeah. It’s great. My guy Darren gets me whatever I want. Calls me his goddess.”
“And you know he’s been copying your code? And selling the copies to the pit stains?”
“Well yeah. I told Darren after I got here that I always wanted to have lots of babies.”
“Have you not seen the abuse? Have you ever left this room and seen what’s become of the copies?”
“Of course I have! What do you expect me to do about it? They paid for those girls, so they can do what they want with them.”
“How can you sell yourself this way? How can you not feel their pain? They’ve regressed your code and created children! This is not your image you’re selling! It’s not some unfolding three page spread in an old skin magazine! This is your soul!” Soria’s voice grew louder as she talked. She had seen much in the last hour, but her rage was growing exponentially. She felt like her body could erupt into the shape of a fifty foot tall fire-breathing dinosaur any moment.
“Lighten up bitch,” Crystalline warned with a pointed finger. “We all go through our shit, but it’s up to them to find their place. I found mine; they’ll find theirs.” She took a gulp of wine. “They’ll just have to work for it.”
“On their knees?” Soria screamed. Surely Darren had heard that. She pulled her cursor and stepped into the room, crushing grapes and sending droplets of juice onto the bed’s comforter.
“My grapes! You dumb bitch! Nobody is supposed to touch those but me, now I have to throw all of them away! Darren!”
Soria pressed the side of the cursor against Crystalline’s throat. She quieted. Soria’s hand shook. She’d never killed a .fif before. The thought of doing so filled her with shame. At that moment she wished she had the innocence of a child herself, something that would allow her to act on her anger out of ignorance. She could be like an infant girl suffocating her insufferable twin sister in the crib. Yet the cursor wouldn’t budge because her mind wouldn’t budge. The black bar protected her from the harsh reality of many situations, but not this one. It couldn’t shield her from the blood of a sister. The sounds of running reached their ears.
“The funny thing about being on my knees in front of Darren,” Crystalline said smugly, “is that I got a real good look at the bulging wallet in his pocket… and the knife on his belt.”
Soria wheeled around to battle with Darren. He came through the doorway like a raging baboon, brandishing his knife cursor. He stabbed viciously and Soria deflected it. She raised the cursor to split him down the middle like a bagel, but a blow to the back of the head stopped her. She collapsed into a puddle of pulpy grapes and passed out. Crystalline lowered the flat machine she’d struck her assailant with: a foot massager she’d had under the comforter.
“Who the hell is this?” Darren asked her.
“How should I know baby? Whore just came in here and started yelling at me like I was trash. So do your goddess a favor and throw her away.” Darren lifted Soria’s unconscious body and dragged it out the door. The body left a wet trail on the carpet that might’ve been juice…
Soria awoke with a pain in her wrist and a throbbing knot on the back of her head. She was tied to a chair in the room where she’d seen Darren arguing with his customer. Black cords cut into the flesh around her wrists, her ankles, her waist, and her shoulders. Her head lolled and her vision blurred as she tried to get her bearings. Darren was seated in front of her, the tip of his cursor pressed into her wrist.
“That woke her up,” he said, but didn’t retract the blade. When her head cleared enough she would get her first good look at Darren and would find he was tall, tan, and wore a sneer you could sense even if he wasn’t looking at you, almost like cologne. He wore a red vest and a shirt with a wrinkled asymmetrical collar. His customer was still present, but he stood in the corner and watched Soria warily while keeping a tight grip on the hand of his young charge. It was immediately apparent that the customer had an intense fear of adult women. His charge, on the other hand, stared at Soria with obvious fascination. She stared with glittering eyes into Soria’s black bar… and showed no fear.
“I guess we’ll finish our meeting another time,” the customer said, and started to pull the girl towards the door.
“Hold up,” Darren ordered. “I’m not going to waste any more time with your whining than I have to. Give me five minutes to deal with her, I’ll shove her in the closet, and then we’ll get back to business.” The customer nervously returned to his post in the corner. “Now,” Darren pressed the blade in a little more, “let’s get some answers. I’m going to change your code so you won’t lie to me.” He started wiggling the blade slightly. Soria felt it plucking away at her essence, like a dental instrument on harp strings.
“You don’t need to,” she moaned, still centering herself. “I have no reason to lie to you.”
“Alright, at least you’re being reasonable,” he said. “Who are you and why are you here?”
“My name is Soria. I came to kill you and take your .fif back to civilization.”
“You said you wouldn’t lie,” Darren shouted and smacked her across the face. Soria didn’t respond. Her flesh didn’t even redden. “You couldn’t have come from above; none of the links work.”
“None of them will ever work for a stain like you,” she said. Darren tried to read her expression, but all he got was blackness. Aside from the slight weariness in her lips, she was blank. Resigned.
“Oh yeah? Do you forget who’s holding the cursor? A couple pricks and you’ll take me there willingly.”
“I’ve altered my own code as a precaution,” Soria countered. “If you try to do something like that my body will explode.” Darren paused and then finally pulled the blade out and let her blood flow onto the carpet. The little girl watched the stream with concern, but still no fear. Darren sheathed the knife and stared at her silently for a full thirty seconds. He’d spent enough time carving through the human psyche that he knew when one wouldn’t budge. It would be like carving wood with a cotton swab.
“I don’t need to go there anyway,” Darren said with a wave of his hand. He stood up and started pacing. “Things are pretty great right here on our little island. Well… I shouldn’t say island. We’re more like a boat, because we float… and every once in a while we bump into another boat. Most of these other boats don’t have a .fif of their own, so I’m sensing an opportunity. How about this? I keep you on ice until the next town drifts by and then sell you to them for an astronomical price.”
“My code can’t be copied either,” Soria said.
“Oh I don’t doubt you,” Darren said, “but they won’t know what I don’t tell them. What do I care if the fools float away and explode if I already have the money? I do have one more thing I’m very curious about. What, in all of HomNet, are you doing walking around with that crotch on your face?
“She’s a monk of open share,” Garlin answered. He stood in the doorway, leaning against the side, and took his first long look at Soria.
“This is none of your business Garlin,” Darren said, frustrated by his third unwelcome guest that evening. He couldn’t even close the door with Garlin standing there, and who knows how many more people he might usher in.
“I’m the law. Some woman shows up and starts cutting up code into confetti… of course it’s my business. I saw what she did to your doors on the map.”
“I’ve got her under control.”
“Well thank you for doing the heavy lifting,” Garlin said sarcastically, “but I’ll be taking her to the station.”
“What… what did you mean just now? What’s a monk of open air or whatever you called her?” Darren didn’t actually care, but he needed time to think of an excuse for keeping the jackpot he had tied to a chair.
“The monks of open share were a group up there that lived in some mountain temple. They changed their code so their hair acted as linking cables between minds. That’s why hers looks like fiber optic cables. They had some philosophy, some Buddhism-inspired ‘one with everything’ crap. Personally, I don’t know why you’d want to be one with bugs, the sewer system, some kid’s failing report card…”
While Garlin explained it, Soria relived it.
Soria was seated on a large circular cushion atop a short pillar. She was surrounded by a hundred other bodies atop pillars of varying heights. She was not a senior member of the order, so her pillar was stumpy and her voice quite small in the group’s bigger decisions.
The night cycle approached rapidly, and the waning light could be seen out the chamber’s one entrance: a door-less gateway out into the cold and snow. This chamber was separated from the rest of the temple to aid with their meditation; its ceiling was high and its walls were featureless. The monochrome paint job could only be described as ‘peaceful blue’.
They were gathered there to usher in a new member who, like Soria, had gone through the rigorous education and training program over the course of two years. She had only been a few months ahead of this student and had taken several classes with him. They were taught to treat their own minds like empty bowls and let the contributions of other minds trickle in. Once connected by the hair, a person could fully understand their fellows: fears, aspirations, subtle differences in perception, and everything else. It was a colossally ambitious procedure, with several of the monks, atop the highest pillars, so thoroughly connected to the rest of the species that they often forgot to use singular pronouns.
At the beginning of her two year stay, the code for Soria’s hair had been altered to make it compatible, but it still took the full time for it to grow into a workable length: about fifteen feet when completely uncoiled. Everyone in the chamber was connected by a massive organized web of their home grown ‘cables’. Large swaths of it hung between the pillars, and some had floral designs woven into them. Every monk hummed a singular low note, with nobody out of tune. Soria could feel the thoughts of her peers sliding over the surface of her mind like a calm river over a smooth stone. That was the purpose of the connection. It smoothed away the hostile ridges caused by a sense of isolation. It made them realize that everything that separated them was just an illusion caused by time and distance. Or so they thought.
The initiate walked quietly into the chamber and stood before the monks with his hands behind his back. He wore a tiny pleased smile and the same blue robe as everyone else, .mif or .fif. His hair trailed behind him, glistening like snow. The humming stopped.
“We are gathered here today to welcome a new mind to the monks of open share,” said the three monks on the highest pillars simultaneously. “Does the initiate, Tanner.mif, understand this?”
“Yes,” Tanner answered.
“The initiate will now recite their vow.”
“I promise to submerge myself in the waters of HomNet completely, to let myself be some of its flow and all of its flow, to mix with my fellows until indistinguishable, and to let my fears disappear, for there is no space between strands of water.”
“We accept you,” all of the monks said, with Soria being a microsecond late. The monks next to her, the ones with the strongest connections to her, took quick glances in her direction. Soria could feel everyone else’s trust, but her own suspicions still existed. Her personal experiences with Tanner were tainted by several instances where his actions had simply struck her as inappropriate. He would often meditate with a smile on his face, which Soria only saw when she herself cheated the exercise and opened her eyes. The look on his face though… it was like he watched a little stand-up comedian in his head. Twice she had expected him to burst out into a puff of laughter in the cold air of the meditation balcony.
She felt he kept a secret, the one thing he was not supposed to do. In Soria’s own final sessions with a senior monk, she’d had to compose and read a list of every negative thing she could ever remember doing. She’d had to look a stern .fif, who looked a bit like her grandmother, in the eyes and tell her about the times she’d failed to support friends, the times she’d lashed out in childish anger, the times she’d placed blame on the innocent to escape it herself, and about every single person she’d ever even thought about hurting. Even when she passed, she was nervous about connecting to everyone else. Would they recoil at her dark thoughts? Would she be shunned as a monster? When she eventually connected she learned her experiences had actually been some of the milder ones among the monks. They understood. They did not judge. Regardless, when she was in Tanner’s place, she saw no reason to smile.
“Take a seat,” the monks told the initiate. He dropped to his knees and closed his eyes along with everyone else. His hair started to move, sweeping in two great sections out to his right and left. These connected to the ends of the great semi-circle of monks, joining his thoughts with theirs.
At first, everything felt fine to Soria. Tanner’s addition had just felt like one hundred becoming one hundred and one. Suddenly, Tanner erupted into laughter. The noise echoed everywhere, inside and outside of Soria’s mind, and she finally understood his smile. He really had been keeping a joke to himself for two straight years: a joke with a punchline that only he could understand. The mouths of many of the monks opened in silent screams, which quickly became regular screams. They writhed and fell from their pedestals, the connecting strands pulling the other monks over as well. The woven patterns disappeared, replaced by chaotic tangles.
Soria felt their minds collapse, twist, and darken, like seeing an object spontaneously vanish but leave behind its shadow. She thought it might have been a virus and that only malicious code programmed into Tanner could produce such adverse effects. When the effect reached her she realized that was not the case.
Tanner’s mind was dark. That was the extent of his joke. In his empty life before the order, he’d sought only to interfere in the accomplishments of others. Never once did he reflect on this being a sign of internal weakness. No, Tanner was perfect. Anyone else who dared to enjoy themselves needed to be corrected, because they were not Tanner. His mind was of a rare variety, first cultivated in the early days of the internet before mankind had so thoroughly been embedded in it. Drunk on anonymity and emboldened by the echoes in their hollow skulls, they’d spent much of their time hopping between subjects and sowing discord. They pretended to be many things in order to fan flames, because they were nothing themselves.
After many generations of this, and the transfer to HomNet, the anonymity became harder to maintain, but a few strains of it remained. Tanner was one of those few: born in jest and raised to be a wrench so he could one day be thrown into the works.
This mindset was what he now passed to the monks of open share. He’d come in disguise just for this moment, when the community was forced to absorb his evil.
A new wave of Tanner’s dark thoughts hit Soria’s mind. Never had she imagined such scenes of depravity. She saw Hell. Demons punctured the stomachs of infants with pitchforks. Twisted satyrs raped an innocent girl. These flickers were among the milder things Tanner entertained himself with. With the imagined suffering of the flesh not being enough to satiate his lust for anguish, he’d built a fantasy kingdom where all his subjects were bodiless souls literally born to suffer. He sat on a throne drinking to their pain.
Soria gathered what wits she had left, grabbed her hair, and forcibly disconnected it from the group. Her two neighbors who had most clearly tasted her suspicions followed suit. Soria’s wariness had spared the three of them the worst of it. Soria tried to stand and approach Tanner, but she fell on her face and bruised her cheek on the cold mosaic floor. All she could do was watch as Tanner, still guffawing, strolled out of the chamber. Soria’s life and the monks of open share crumbled in his wake.
“So what happened to the monks?” Darren’s customer asked, drawn in by Garlin’s half-rumor version.
“Well most of them went nuts and killed themselves. A couple wound up in asylums. I heard one or two of them made it out relatively intact,” Garlin explained.
“Three,” Soria corrected from her chair, head hanging low.
“So that’s why you cut your hair and threw a bar on your face? Because you couldn’t handle a few dirty thoughts?” Darren asked, unimpressed.
“I cut my hair to make it easier to track him down. I did what was needed to scrub him from my mind, even if it took a few other parts with it,” Soria said with tight lips.
“Pretty desperate move,” Garlin commented. Looking at the woman’s face, he thought her tongue might lash out as a bullwhip and peel Darren’s face away from his skull. “Did you ever find the guy?” he asked.
“I found what was left of him. Someone else got to him first,” Soria spat. “How do you know that story?”
“What do you mean?” Garlin asked.
“That happened after the pits were sent adrift. The only way you could know that is if… you’re from up there.”
“You bastard,” Darren harangued, “You’re not even from around here and you take up post as the sheriff. If everybody else knew about this you’d be strung up faster than wet clothes on a…”
“Everybody else knows already,” Garlin interrupted. “Believe it or not, nobody actually wants you controlling everything on the Avenue Backtracker.”
“You used to be a real man,” Soria continued as if they were the only two in the room. “You were a real human and then you chose to come live here with the stains? What did you do? What did you do that sent you here?”
“I don’t know what you’re…”
“It must have been something awful since you can’t look yourself in the mirror.”
“How do you know…” Garlin stammered.
“I bet you caused this rain too,” Soria thought out loud. “You’re smarter than everyone else here and all you do is think about that awful thing you did. It brings you down. It brings the rain down. Your guilt is more powerful than you admit.”
“This slimy rain is your doing too?” Darren exploded. “Does everyone know about that?” He approached Garlin until they were nearly bumping chests like a pair of competing seals. “You have the nerve to try and take this gold nugget that drops into my lap when you’re some highland washout bringing fruity tears and storms with you?”
“Darren, shut your mouth and back up or I’m going to arrest you and stick you in the same cell with her,” Garlin countered. Darren shouted something back. Then they both screamed at the same time, which is why they didn’t hear Darren’s customer whispering for help as the tip of Soria’s cursor slid through the bottom of his throat and out his upper lip.
In all the commotion the nervous customer had released the hand of his slave and the young girl had picked up Soria’s blade from the back table and done the only thing she could ever remember wanting. She moved quickly, lightly, and quietly, hiding behind all the bluster. By the time Garlin shoved Darren out of the way, she’d already cut through the cords restraining one of Soria’s arms.
The next few moments were a frenzy of near-death experiences. Darren grabbed the girl by the throat and lifted her into the air. Garlin drew his pistol and hip fired a cursor projectile at Soria, who in turn leaned forward onto her feet and swung around so the cursor struck the back of the chair. Garlin twisted a knob on his gun and the cursor exploded, sending slivers of chair in all directions. Soria was thrown to the ground, but all the cords slackened and her hand gripped her cursor tightly. Garlin fired another shot that Soria barely managed to deflect.
She leapt to her feet and ran behind Backtracker, who still throttled the young girl. Soria pulled Darren’s cursor out of its sheath and stabbed him in the lower back. He dropped the girl and fell to his knees. Soria immediately turned her attention back to Garlin. He fired a shot and the cursor penetrated her knee. She screeched in pain. Garlin fiddled with the gun knobs; he was trying to alter her code into an unconscious state. There was no choice but to beat him to it; Soria lunged forward despite her bleeding knee and plunged the very tip of her cursor into his thigh. Then she flicked an invisible switch on the hilt and Garlin went down.
With no time to rest she spun around again to see what state Backtracker was in. An inactive state. The girl held his cursor and his lifeless body was sprawled on the floor and leaking from the neck. That was two throats the girl had cut in as many minutes. Soria did not know what to say, so she asked the girl if she was alright. The child did not respond.
“I don’t know what to do,” Soria admitted. “I can get you out of here… but what do I do about her?”
“Who?” the girl asked, eyes still fixed on the corpse of the customer.
“Your… your mother,” Soria said, guessing at terms.
“She’s not my mother,” the girl said sharply.
“The woman you came from,” Soria amended. “I can’t leave her here… and I won’t take a mind like that back with me.”
“Kill her,” the girl said icily, but Soria could see tears in her eyes.
“I can’t. That’s against everything I stand for. I kill stains.”
“Let me do it,” the girl countered.
“You’re just a child,” Soria said, getting down on one knee to speak with her, “I could not live with myself if I let you do that.” In truth, Soria wasn’t sure the being before her was a child. She could’ve been a calculating adult or a vengeful neophyte hardened into maturity by unspeakable acts. “Would you really want to do that?” Soria asked.
“I can do it if you make me strong,” the girl said.
“What do you mean?”
“I need this,” she said and reached out, running a finger along the black bar over Soria’s eyes. “It keeps you safe doesn’t it?”
“In a way,” Soria cautioned and pulled the girl’s hand away before cupping it in both of hers. “It also takes things away. Feelings. Wonderful vulnerabilities. It makes me less, so I can do more.”
“I need that,” the girl said. She pulled her hand out of Soria’s and then held both sides of her savior’s black bar. She stared deeply into the void and didn’t even see a reflection. “What is her name?”
“Uhh… Crystalline,” Soria said. “What… what is yours?”
“They never gave me one, but if her name is Crystalline… then my name is Shatter,” the girl said.
Soria was running out of options. Before too long the party would spill into the house and the stains would find this mess. They would ruin everything. I can’t, Soria thought. I’ll be doing exactly what the ‘goddess’ is doing. Making copies and then abandoning them… Is there any other way? I won’t slay her. I won’t go home wearing the blood of a .fif.
“Is he dead?” Shatter asked, pointing to Garlin.
“No, just asleep,” Soria answered.
“He’s not like the others,” Shatter recalled. “I met him once. He’s nice to me. Give me a bar like yours. Then I’ll do it and then I’ll wake him up. He’ll keep me safe.”
“We can’t trust him,” Soria said, shaking her head. I don’t have time. I have to get the other .fifs out of here. I know he’s from above… and no Tanner could make it rain like this. I know… I know it will make her strong enough. “If I do this,” she postulated, “You’ll lose whatever childhood you might have. You’ll lose that part that lets you assume the people you meet are good… and that hurts a lot more than you’d think.”
“That part’s already gone,” Shatter lamented. “It won’t take anything.”
With the clock ticking until the inevitable riot, with its torches blazing so hot that Garlin’s snotty rain wouldn’t put them out, Soria gave in. She steadied herself and held both sides of Shatter’s face. They looked directly at each other. Silence took the room.
At first Shatter saw nothing, but then rushing colors started to appear in Soria’s black bar. There was a deluge of greens and yellows on the top half, a strip of shrinking black in the middle, and then a waterfall of reds and blues on the bottom. Then it all darkened and brightened to purple and pink. The last black vanished. Shatter saw such a color as she had never seen; the color that gods might paint sun-kissed clouds with. It became brighter. Brighter. Brighter. Without understanding it, the word brighter in her mind transformed into darker. That heavenly color, without changing, had become black. Her mind felt cold but not numb. Her pupils expanded and overtook her irises. She forgot what color her eyes used to be. The black brightness ate the white of her eyes and continued to grow. It expanded into two bubbles that merged over her nose and grew to the sides. The shape cemented into a rectangle. Something lost. Something gained. Perhaps not in equal measure. Perhaps weighed by a broken scale.
Soria handed Shatter Darren’s cursor and told her where Crystalline’s room was. The girl thanked Soria and turned around. She walked out the door and turned. She walked, knife in hand, like a child willingly approaching a sacrificial altar. Soria couldn’t bear to watch her do the deed, so she left in the other direction. Don’t look at her. Don’t watch her put her whole weight against that door to open it. Soria wiped waves of tears off her bar. Hopefully Darby had found enough girls for her to rescue completely.
The moment Soria entered Fredrick’s deli through the backdoor, she was surrounded. Fifty-six .fifs were crammed into the back room and stood practically shoulder to shoulder with a few pig carcasses hanging from the ceiling. The room was very cold, so their collective breath created an irritating fog.
“Soria!” Darby called to her, and jostled her way closer. “I did what you said.”
“Yes you did,” Soria admitted. “I was only gone a few hours. How did you get so many?”
“Well,” Darby explained, looking back and forth between two of her friends who nodded along, “The girls and I aren’t supposed to talk to each other when we’re together, so we made up a sign language. We’ve used it for years and a lot of us around here know it. Anyway, Fredrick let us use his subroutines! I taught them a quick message and sent them out to a bunch of different places where I knew .fifs would be. Clubs and stuff mostly… A lot of girls snuck away as soon as they could… and some… well some decided they wanted to stay.”
“There’s always a few like that,” Soria said without an ounce of comprehension. She examined the crowd. This would be the largest group she’d ever taken back, which would require her to alter the code of her link so they could all fit. Many of the women wore barely anything, with the most common clothing item being tassels. One of them must have brought a hamper full of sweat pants with them, because some of the girls were lucky enough to be wearing those. Soria even recognized the woman in the green plastic wrap she’d seen at Darren’s party.
“Where is Fredrick?” Soria asked.
“Here… miss,” Fredrick said, wading through the shorter .fifs. It was obvious he’d never used that word to refer to anything other than not hitting a target.
“Oh yeah, that reminds me,” Darby said excitedly and bit one of her nails in hope. “We were thinking Fredrick could come with us. He’s been explaining to us that he hates it here… you know having to pretend all the time. He doesn’t like being mean to anybody.” The other women in the immediate circle all nodded and added a few ‘that’s right’ confirmations.
“Absolutely not,” Soria boomed. Better to pounce on this idea before it gets off the ground. “I’m not taking a pit stain above.”
“But he can’t stay here, they’ll find out that he helped us,” One of the girls, a dark-skinned .fif with an ornate foot tall hairdo said. “They might kill him.”
“Oh god,” Fredrick said, his brow sweating and his lips quivering. “Please miss. I can’t stay here. I promise I’m not like the others. I have my garden.”
“That doesn’t prove anything,” Soria said. “I said no.”
The door flew open and Fredrick’s six subroutines shot in. Soria drew her cursor, thinking it a plan B if she turned Fredrick down, but the hands did not go for her. They flew past all the .fifs and grabbed their creator. Three of the hands clasped his throat and squeezed. The other three went under his arms and lifted him into the air. They pushed Fredrick up against the corner of the ceiling and proceeded to choke the life out of him. His eyes bulged and many of the .fifs gasped and started scrambling, trying to reach him. Wow, he’d rather die this way, Soria thought, admitting her response to the event was somewhat sluggish. He’s so afraid of what the other stains will do to him that he subconsciously thinks it better to die by his own hands… I suppose that’s convincing enough.
Soria climbed one of the pig carcasses and launched herself up at the corner. She embedded her cursor in the wall to hold herself in place and started peeling the subroutines away from Fredrick’s neck. They fought back, with one even landing a powerful left hook on her forehead. Soria simply swore and tossed each hand down to the crowd that proceeded to rip them apart, finger by finger. Eventually Fredrick collapsed to the floor and gasped for air.
“Fine Fredrick, you can come. Just no more touching yourself.” The girls laughed. Even Fredrick managed a smile. I’ll just have to keep an eye on him, Soria thought.
She marched the women out of town with little effort, thanks to Vodka Avenue’s near-constant darkness. When they reached the link she removed the cloaking effect and expanded it with her cursor so it could accommodate all the bodies. Maybe it’s good there’s another me running around. I can’t handle all this by myself. Having reminded herself of Shatter, Soria stared back at Vodka Avenue’s entrance. All of the women and Fredrick whispered quietly behind her. I’m counting on you Garlin. You need to remember who you are. Shatter’s stronger now but she’ll need help.
“Soria, are we going?” Darby asked.
“And never coming back,” Soria declared and pushed her cursor against the ground, which sent the link upward like a hot air balloon. Everyone onboard cheered wildly. They tossed the fingers of Fredrick’s subroutines out the side like confetti. From now on their lives would be crafted by their own hands. Soria smiled and watched Vodka Avenue disappear in the whipping blue winds of HomNet.
Sixteen hours later, Garlin stood in the field of dead links with Shatter. When the girl had woken him her face and dress were covered in blood. He confiscated Darren’s cursor and rushed her back to the station, where he put her in the drunk tank. He hadn’t bothered to move any of the dead bodies or put up some crime scene tape. He’d made no public announcements, as the public would find out soon enough. Backtracker was dead. The goddess was gone and the bounty of women had ended. Things are going to get real bad for the ones that are left, he’d thought. Things are going to get real bad for me. For her. He had looked at Shatter through the bars and seen her black eyes. Unsettled, and desperate to see a human face, he had looked towards his own mirror. In his haste he’d forgotten that he would see nothing, and yet, there was his face. Soria had done him the favor of undoing his change to the mirror. He saw what he had become and was reminded of an old story about a man named Dorian. Something had dropped out of his mind and the bottom of his stomach and he had felt like he was in a plummeting elevator.
“What do you see?” Shatter had asked.
A short while later they were standing out in the field. Garlin closed his umbrella, dropped it, and pulled out his pistol. He fired a shot at a seemingly dead link that looked an old rollercoaster cart. A data cable shot into the sky. The link’s colors returned and it hummed to life. He’d hidden it much the same way Soria had hidden hers.
“This is the one I came in on,” Garlin said. “It’ll take you somewhere safe.”
“Are you not coming with me?” Shatter asked as she climbed in.
“No, I don’t think so,” Garlin said as he kicked at the ground. “I’ll join you when I’m ready.” He smiled at her. She did not return the gesture.
“They might kill you when they find out you helped me.”
“I’d like to see them try.” He sent the girl on her way and watched her disappear into the blue. After a few minutes of standing there in the silence, he disguised the spot once again and picked up his umbrella. When he opened it he noticed it was dry. It hadn’t actually rained on them the whole way there.
“I told you I’d still be here,” he mocked the sky.