Think of us as a lost


All things are possible. Some things aren't probable.

For instance, it's possible the oncoming guard won't see me pressing myself to this wall. In such a narrow maintenance hallway it's not worth triggering the pain circuits by brushing her too close by, so I cue my gloves and boots into gecko mode and scuttle to the ceiling. She passes beneath me, her gait smooth and devoid of humanity. You could draw a vector through her abdomen to match the trajectory of her movement. It would be perfectly perpendicular to the floor within thousandths of a degree: animal balance. These patrollers are wearing exosuits, then. I drop to my feet and move onward at a slower pace. It’s possible that the guard could come within meters of me and not see my body clad in grey-blue secondskin, not notice a fluctuation in ambient temperature, or not scent unfamiliar pheromones. It’s possible. But it isn't probable.

Satan was careless this time. He had foretold an unpatrolled approach path. I call up the building’s blueprint and its overlain ribbons of color snaking between walls and through stairwells. I imagine the useless piece of recon away. The map fades to a duller palette. In this regard my instincts will be more trustworthy than the devil’s reckoning.

It's unusual for his nightmares to bear incorrect prophecy, but I've known them to miscarry the details. Though Satan does not admit to mistakes, accidents happen. I've popped twenty pills since waking on the other side of this event horizon, twenty times dreaming a chemical whirlwind of deaths, dangers, and contingencies. Counting by cotton-candy colored hexagon is a good way to judge the growing distance between me and normality, acceleration measured per pill per pill. The mission briefings are mapped to my neural template. Any other mind would misread the information into incoherence. Satan airdrops his sedatives through a vent in the roof of a derelict tenement at the outskirts of the ghettos that encircle Shinseoul. My nanochem mana from heaven, laced with malice, scattered in a desert of suburban waste. The delivery mechanism is very secure.

I hear noise around the corner; data screaming through wires and over wifi-spectra. I come to a halt. My Imp hasn't caught up yet. If I were to rush past his corridor of compromised sensors and camouflaged signals, the stream of information surging forth from the cameras and thermal tripwires ahead would nail me with a migraine vicious enough to scour my mind clean with pain. I'd be comatose before I could stretch even a toe within their range. So I must wait for the Imp in the networks to attend to the matter. After three minutes and one ambling resident of the building dodged, the screech of flipping qubits I stand at the border of quiets to a murmur. I take the Imp’s cue and sprint on stage to a silence so thick even crickets would refuse to chirp. Astounded disappointment. I glare at the cameras as I pass, though I can't pretend they're staring back. Worse than indifferent. Oblivious.

I am a catastrophic accident in motion. I am the impossible made flesh, Satan's mischief transubstantiated. I can only justify my existence by metaphysical means, given that I wantonly violate one of those newer laws of nature: the Roam protocol for intercommunication between artificial nervous systems does not abide hacking. You alone decide who or what to filter from your selective sensorum, just as all else are free to filter you from theirs. While the world’s other ten thousand public and private networks may still be vulnerable to infiltration, decades of research have refined Roam’s firewalls, countermeasures, viral antibodies and security daemons into a matter of physics. Even were some Icarus-aping hacker so stupid as to attack any given person’s node in the Dreamcatcher system of sensory filtration, Roam would snap its defensive measures around him like an idealized flycatcher exemplifying the perfection of an action/reaction event. The idiot would be swallowed up for digestion in the bowels of an international prison, his trial held as a mere courtesy.

Even Satan does not bend these new laws of nature. He's simply included a massive exception in the small print. “All of the above does not apply to the Schrödinger’s Assassin.”

A certain thought experiment was popular during the twentieth century when they hadn’t yet reconciled quantum mechanics with common sense. Take any old cat. Maybe a black one if you’re prone to pangs of guilt. Cram the animal into a box with a canister of poison gas and a radioactive atomic nucleus. Wire things up so the canister bursts open and kills the cat dead if the nucleus decays. Pick an unstable element that, within the space of an hour, has a fifty-fifty chance of either holding its queasy self together or spewing out subatomic particles in a fit of nuclear nausea. Since radioactive decay is random, the universe alone has the final word on the matter. We can speak of nothing more than possibilities. Until you open the box at the end of the hour, the cat is neither alive nor dead. It exists in a lonely limbo between this world and the next, waiting for a judgment the universe will declare only in the presence of a human witness.

Schrödinger’s tragic cat.

Like most stories, this one is a lie. Atoms do not get sick to their stomachs, nuclear decay isn’t a coin flip, cats would never let you stuff them in strange boxes, and quantum mechanics does not bridge life and afterlife. But lies help us understand truths too complex to comprehend. I find that useful.

I have no access to the net. I am aphasic and mute. My skin burns if I come within a foot of another human being. My body is wired cerebrum to toetip with circuitry ready to exploit a bug in a system defined bug-free a priori. Only a demigod could pluck a thread from the flawless fabric of Roam, code that has wrapped the world the past fifty years. Thus I am a man who exists, for all practical purposes, nowhere but in a private reality all to himself. I can't even see my own reflection. I don’t have one. A computational sleight of hand has stolen it from me

Of course, it's possible that there's no need for magic to explain me. Perhaps it's just another new natural law that I'm enforcing. Someone—I can't remember who, perhaps a stupider version of myself—decided I should undergo this metamorphosis into the perfect assassin. I cannot be detected because every human sense is subordinate to the Dreamcatcher system that I slip through automatically. I cannot expose myself because some shmuck fucks up surveillance systems from across a stretch of comfortably vast network space, not even knowing who he's hiding. I cannot remember experiences, only facts—recall sans reminiscence. I cannot survive without killing, wielding a reaper's sickle indistinguishable from unexpected, but natural death. If I really didn't exist, you'd never notice the difference. It's only that there have been a lot of convenient accidents lately.

Perhaps I am a ghost. Perhaps I’m just very well hidden. Neither is probable, but both are possible. Together they trap me in this hell inbetween.

Schrödinger’s tragic assassin.

I position myself in an alcove that the guards are unlikely to examine. I wait. I can wait as long as necessary. The bright blue dot mapped out down the hall from me is staying cloistered in its austere cell of white lines projected at partial opacity against a lovely view of the stucco wall across the hallway from me. Two hours and three passes later I know the guards' routes. Security here is only mediocre. Were my target someone particularly important, the patrol paths would've been randomized and my Imp would’ve left me to my own devices.

The approach is a sprint up and down glass-sheathed stairwells and along endless corridors in beige and Byzantium carpeting. The nameplates are a jumble of scratches I can't read, like the legacy of some artfully vicious vandal. Persian, probably. Signs of a different sort drip an unreal watercolor down my vision to lead where I need. Here. He lives here, behind this scribble in brass. I let the Imp open the door for me and survey the room. Piles of clothing, some East African projectivist paintings, the smell of tea brewing, slightly over-cooled air, books strewn about with their covers still cycling through seizure-inducing endorsement animations. I grin at the absent-mindedness needed for him to not even bother turning off all those dust-jackets.

I step into the room and correct myself. She is sitting at a surprisingly spotless dining table. Unlike the overenthusiastic Americans, it appears she keeps her head unveiled when around the apartment. Her hair hangs long and loosely braided, with rivulets of red slipping through the streams of black as they take leisurely turns down to the tips of her split-ends. Her back is narrow, rigid, with oddly angled shoulders-blades shoving up ridges in the daffodil spidersilk. She's on the thin side. I stroke my finger across the secondskin layering the side of my thigh to withdraw the jetgun from its pocket. The slit reseals automatically. I indulge myself in sighing as I approach from behind.

The neck will be best for this. I hold the jetgun a few centimeters from her skin and connect my fingertip to the neural stud. The retrovirus will burrow through her dermal layer, snake past the blood-brain barrier, and pick through her DNA, her neural structure, her memories, and her terrors for presusceptibility to some fatal condition. A dormant virus, a broken chromosome, a potential for suicide, a fragile blood vessel. We all have our own little tragedies waiting within us. Sometimes my targets die in seconds, sometimes they die in hours, and sometimes I have to tail them for days before they finally shuffle the hell off this mortal coil.

I notice familiar movement in my peripheral. I disengage the stud an instant later. She's rifling through neat stacks of e-paper, leaving one sheet a little too perfectly centered before her. The diagram is incomprehensible, but the labels are in Chinese. A remnant of memory has left me the ability to recognize the mere shape in space these characters carve, though reading coherent sentences out of the symbols is beyond me. I do my best. "Roam. Concern. Possible...some programmer gibberish...Weakness. Hacker. Disaster. Consequence."

I drop the gun. It clatters against the hardwood floor, a sound to trigger panic. My Savior stands and turns to the kitchen with the impression of aimless movement. I scan the characters again in furious haste, straining to remember how you divide subject from predicate and verb from noun. I fail, but the words are enough. She is a fellow freak accident. She's found the hole in reality. She knows its depth.

Since Cantonese is the preferred language of the Philosophical Programmers Union, I can guess she's an advisor or maybe junior representative of the Persian Republic. Her chance finding among billions of code clusters will call down an information apocalypse if ever publicized. Naturally, Satan cannot abide her to live a second longer.

If I keep her alive, if I protect her, she could be my salvation. She has the key to the gates of hell. What she knows could let me cross back over the line of no hope and exist again in the light of human eyes. What she knows will resolve me into reality.

I raise my foot and slam the sole of the boot down on the jetgun. I back away to admire the shattered vial of Satan's elixir. I spit on his nanomagic.

And in doing so, some cell among the billions in my brain sends its pulse of polarization down a thread of axon, pushing a hundred more cells past the brink of indifference. They relay their own blips of current. Neurotransmitters dance a chemical romance around the spaces between a hundred million synapses. Stimulation becomes pattern. Pattern becomes sensation. Sensation becomes thought. Thought demands action.

All I remember having ever done makes my existence indistinguishable from nonexistence. In this limbo, it is possible I really am nothing but a deluded ghost, disguising his impotence with gestures of power, a show he puts on for a world that's not watching. Not probable. But possible. I am either a man cursed by a spell cast in broken code, or I am a shadow in my own mind and nothing more. Right now, you could even say I'm both, a monumental approximation of a cluster of unstable particles. If in its outrage the PPU tears Roam apart, the universe will call a judgment between these two absurd improbabilities. The universe does not care that my sanity depends on its decision.

No.

Not its decision.

The decision is mine.

I am more than an animal. I get the first move. Teeth clenched in my body's anticipation of what my brain has planned, I kneel to the floor and brush my fingertips through the saliva-soaked poison. I turn and charge My Enemy. In the seconds of approach, pain is splintering bones where there are none and burning places beyond the reach of fire. But I am stronger. With a last explosion of atom bomb agony, I slam into her and slap my hand to her neck as I collapse to the floor. My fingertips brush her Adam's apple. Then only empty air.

She whips her head around, her body tensed from the impact, her pupils wide with fight-or-flight panic. Our eyes meet.

This is the moment of expectation I suffer after every murder, no matter how many I commit.

Her gaze passes me over to the floor, to the window, to the front door.

This is the moment of disappointment that keeps my hope cowed and cowardly.

She rushes away to look for boogeymen hiding in closets or under beds. She is a dead thing flailing through its last unseemly moments, as though life might be shamed into returning to her frenzied body. It’s a mere matter of time you can count in seconds before an unfortunate, natural accident strikes her down.

There might be others now, after her, ones with the same bad luck. The henchman of physics will be there every time, enforcing Satan’s death sentence. If not me, then another.

All things are possible.


Think of us as a lost

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