The Network Revenant
Fia saved her evening walk for stress relief; a time outside. Outside. Capital letters, quotated, in parentheses, as a wise man once said. Her Inside life would tug about her hips in shapes of nanoform carbon fiber and light metals, hanging off her body, leeching, self-assured as only symbiont can be. She would cover it with sweaters when the air was cold enough, or with artfully draped carrybag if not; sometimes the belted gear sulked beneath scarves or shawls or - God forbid her 'nan see her - windbreakers tugged down past her shoulders to ride around her hips. Still, it was there, always with her, the speed and grace compact and held within to taunt her while she looked up to breathe the air.
Her apt was small. She needed very little. Her long dark hair, which used to cause her mother such clucking delight with the tortoise brush, spilled past her shoulders in a blur of small tight braids, each tipped with its own small charm to hold the ends in tight. She'd found the cracked, dead phenol slab outside an abandoned office block, dark since before the Downtime from the looks of it. Even then, it must have been antique; the chips weren't surface mount but socketed, long rows of black and slightly glittering enigmas on their acid-etched home. She'd taken it up, admiring the regularity of it. Nanoform logic had none of the art deco looking lines and corners, the artistic-seeming grids at pains to fit their cryptic meaning into the piece's lines.
At home, she'd pulled the chips out of it one by one, carefully, with a pair of tweezers scavenged from the hulk of a drugstore ten blocks over that was under reconstruction as the reurbanification wave passed her neighborhood over in a plasteel flash flood surge. The half-burnt, once-soaked piles of rotted waste, mostly mulch and trash, had been tossed out of the sterilized ruthless cube of the store, which now sat awaiting the robots and the nanoform cleanercoaters to renew it from an empty place into one just eagerly waiting to be. The tweezers, though, had survived, the cheap electroplated chrome protecting them against the years of Downtime rains.
With eighty-three chips sitting on her coffee table (five had broken off at the antique aluminum legs, an amazingly small number) she pondered for a time before opening a jar of crafting plastic and dipping each in carefully. Their little steely tines thus clearcoated, Fia had sat and braided her hair obsessively into exactly eighty-three braids, securing each by bending the I/O pins of an ancient 74LS series packaged circuit into the ends where it would hold on tight, a tiny crystal tick of logic and stubborn resistance against entropy and dissolution.
Sometimes she thought she could feel her chips ticking quietly around her head, transistors in them flipping states in secret patterns as energy flowed around her.
Today she walked from the subway to home, as always; the sixteen blocks that brought her from the scarred plascrete bunker of the train to her door would frighten most of her downtown co-workers but were what she was used to. She was of this place, and it knew her; the eyes that lurked behind fences and around corners knew her, too. They saw her every day, and while that wouldn't change their nature, it would change hers when they lit upon her form. She was a person to their owners, not just a shape or movement-signals-prey. Sometimes, she'd see the jackpacks gathered round the corners, see a face or two she knew from younger days, and nod, get a nod back in return - no condemnation, here. Folks did what they did to keep the power on.
Downtown, that was someplace she had a day pass to. A salary that was massive by the standards of her home, but she left it Downtown when she clocked out, in a bank and not in coin. It came with her only in those strange shapes on her belt that marked her out when she walked. But most folks here would look at them and shrug, not knowing what they meant, nor caring, when more urgent matters called in voices of small children, hungry, cold and ill.
Fia walked on.
She jumped, startled out of her routine by the unexpected direct address. Nettled to realize she'd put her back to a hulked car without thinking, she cast her glance across the sidewalk at the voice. "Como?" The Portuguese was reflexive. "Yes?"
A small girl moved timidly into the fading daylight. She was probably around thirteen; her skin was the same dark gold as Fia's, but the tone was poor. Malnutrition, Fia thought clinically. It was a familiar pang. At least it wasn't acute in this case, however; although sallow, the young girl was alert and active. She stopped once she'd reached the edge of the sidewalk and stretched a hand tentatively out, fingers splayed, to Fia. "You are...you are the witch?"
"Girl, I'm not a witch. Who told you that?"
The child's upper lip trembled. Her face crumpled slightly in what Fia recognized with despair as hope, faint, crushed. "He...the spirit. He tell me you can help me and my sister."
"The spirit? Where you talk to spirits, hon?"
"In church. Durin' day. When Mem no' home and Irinha tell me to go find help I go to the church still workin' and I look for help. The spirit man find me and he say talk to you. He give me this." She reached a hand into her shorts and came out with two slips of 'fax, one of which she passed to Fia, who took it and looked.
It was her picture. Straight off her Downtown lockzone pass. She hissed, caught herself as the child shrank back, and forced a smile onto her face. "Sorry. Sorry, girl...what's your name?"
"Brisida." Small voice.
"Brisida. Sorry. You surprise me, is all. That's all. Can I ask you a couple questions?"
A nod. If Brisida's form shrank into itself any further, Fia wasn't sure her face would even be visible, so she stepped closer to the girl and squatted down, patted the sidewalk after giving it a dubious look. The old concrete was weathered but clean; they sat.
"Brisida, when you say you went to church, what church you go to?"
"Oh." The small face brightened at something she could answer. "Not church like Mem say we go on Sunday, but the church on the corner. We call it that 'cuz it still talk to us, even though none of the others do, an' you can see Heaven in it sometime. Sometime spirits talk to you, but not usually - usually bad ones yell at you, so you have to come home and try later. I only went 'cuz Irinha need help bad, and I pray real hard, and a good spirit talk to me. I know he a good spirit 'cuz he see me, and talk to me, and ask my name and everything. Then when I tell him what I need, and that it not for me, he tell me to find you and that you help me. He say you a witch who can help with things on earth. Well, he say a lot of things first, but I don't understand all of them; he finally explain you a witch and you can tell me what you need to make it right."
A terrible suspicion was growing in Fia's brain. She caught herself gripping one of the carbon fiber modules with painful intensity and forced her hand away. "I see. Brisida, can you show me this church?"
"Sure! It's only a couple blocks. But it maybe not talking now. Probably not. They're sun spirits and it's night."
Fia pulled herself up and offered the girl a hand. Together, they turned off the dilapidated but familiar street and onto an overgrown trail that moved off at an angle, snaking between the hulks of old buildings and weaving down into low areas. It took her a few moments to see a nearly hidden sign with a bicycle glyph on it to realize what it must have been.
After a few hundred meters, the bike trail opened up into a small glade which, it turned out, was caused by a concrete surface where the trail had passed under a bridge. The bridge seemed to have fallen in, but the rubble and the concrete roadbed that had lain beneath it had prevented wholesale reforestation of the trail, and the industrial origins of the site were plain.
Brisida pointed and pulled at Fia's arm. "There, senhora. There."
Along one ivy-creepered wall was an enclosed box, roughly the shape of an upright coffin. Kudzu and ivy had almost completely covered it, but Fia knew. She swept the vines away from its side to expose industrial metal etching still visible these years since the Downtime which read PUBLIC NETWORK ACCESS POINT and knew, without looking, that even if the batteries were long dead the solar panel on the roof was still working. She sighed and turned to Brisida. "Brisida, who was the spirit who told you to see me?"
The young girl dug in her pocket again and silently handed her the other 'fax. Fia took it, turned it over, and looked at the dark, inhuman planar face that regarded her from the picture, mirrorband across its eyes somehow searching and glittering winglets behind its ears cocked.
Mikare. You son of a bitch.
* * *
Later, as Fia followed Brisida into the smell of frying and met her suspicious mother, she was still seething at Mikare's fucking gall. But there was nothing she could do about that now, and she was needed here. It took all her native assurances to calm the mother into letting her meet Irinha, and then her worst fears were confirmed, because Irinha was hiding in the girls' bedroom. She bore no scars, and Brisida swore up and down that their mother had no boyfriend or husband - so it wasn't domestic abuse. But Fia could read the fright and shame in the arms that hugged themselves, and in the knees locked tight together when the eleven-year-old finally was coaxed out of her bed. In that moment of rage, she gave word to the thing that she had sworn she never would, and - she realized in a slice of clarity - that Mikare knew she already had.
"Hello, honey. It's okay. My name's Fia. I'm gonna help. You can talk to me, and maybe I can help things happen."
The witch's words.
* * *
It took two days. Two days of full vaca, precious paid time off from her job, taken for health reasons - fortunate, then, that she had a week and a half accumulated with the Bank. They asked no questions; she couldn't complain about her employers, for as employers went, the Bank was impersonal but very, very fair. Since she had the days to take, there was no fuss; since she called in sick the night before, approval was murmered for her thoughtfulness. She was urged to recover fully before coming in for her sake and for her co-workers', and - wonder of wonders - her doorcom blipped that first day out to reveal a nervous delivery man holding a complete decadent lunch, from her supervisor, with a commiserating note.
Meanwhile, she teased the story out of Irinha. It was familiar, tawdry, and all too predictable, and it involved a man (of course) from Downtown with a shiny car. It involved (she could have wept at the cliché) a box of candy. And it involved things that made her eyes turn flint hard, that made Brisida quail back from her until she patted the girl's arm awkwardly while Irinha cried into her breast.
"Irinha, honey, now, you need to do something for us, okay?"
"What I need to do, Fia lady?" Irinha was sniffling and hiccuping.
"First, you gotta tell your mem."
"I can't, Fia, she scream and she...she think I'm dirty...I..."
"Ssshhhhh. No, flower, no. No she won't. Here's why. You going to tell her, you and Bri. And you going to tell her that you took care of him, okay? You going to tell her that you told me and that I'm going to work it."
"It's okay honey. When you tell her, then she know that you didn't do it because you wanted; she know you were made to do it, and she know you fought. Right? She know you brave, and that you telling her after you already done something on your own."
It wasn't that simple. But, of course, it was. It just took time.
"Bri, listen to me, girl."
"Yes, Lady Fia."
"Now, you know how all this works?"
"That's right. I'm going to tell you. I need something from him."
Her face split in a grin that would, Fia thought, have men surreptitiously checking to make sure their testicles were still in place for years to come. "Yes, Lady Fia. Something of him, right? Something you can show the spirits."
Fia winced, but kept it to herself. If that was how it had to be, that was how it had to be. One thing at a time, she thought, you can fix the world. "That's right. Something of him. But listen good, girl. Its gotta be something that talks to the spirit world, you understand? Something he use to talk to spirits too. That way they can know his smell. They don't live in our world, and they can't smell in it. But if it's something that touches their world, then they can find him."
A nod. "I understand, Lady Fia."
"Fine. Get your sister home. Don't let her tell your mom until after you get me the thing, now."
* * *
It only took a day, and that made her grind her teeth. He was probably coming out here every day, looking for his little candy eater. It was all Fia could do to avoid walking the neighborhood looking for Downtown cars, but she realized that whoever the predator was, he probably wasn't stupid enough to bring his car into the neighborhood. She forced herself to wait at home until the light blip came. She opened the door.
Brisida stood there, a look of shuttered triumph on her face. In her outstretched hand was a pen.
"Where is he now, girl?"
"He's at some restaurant over near the train. He think I coming to get Irinha for him. I told him I need the pen to prove to her he waiting."
"Smart girl." Fia took the pen. "Sit." She pointed at the couch. Brisida clambered up onto it and sat, eyes wide and solemn. Fia looked at her for a moment, then sat across from her and looked at the pen in her hand before looking back at the girl and nodding once. Turning away, back to her desk, she closed her eyes and shuddered as the carbon fiber shook itself fully awake, reached out into the air and laughed. Like it always did, it touched her lightly at the temples, and took her back Inside.
The pen was still there, hanging in the edge of her consciousness. It was a slight flicker, datastreams merging from it to the localnet of the apt as it sat quietly, waiting to perform its sole task of signing and applying its owner's private cryptographic key to whatever document or device it touched. Whoever the owner was, the key was still encrypted. They weren't a complete fool. Clotho watched the thin dribble of binary into its space for a moment, stretched taffy thin Inside but microseconds out in Realtime, and then dove into it, 'fingers' fluttering delicately across it. The pen squawked in electronic indignation and then gave up its virtue, device address and authentication keys unspooling across the secured link to her desk and into her flickerjack. She wrapped a finger around the crypto spilling from the pen and drew it in, applying tools from her 'jack to it. Ticks later, a private key and device address lay before her, glyphs of clean white, and armed with those, Fia-who-was-Clotho looked Inside, leapt-
-into the Street. She felt the bodyrocking click as her desk made contact with her local Tile, socketing into place, and then she opened the door to her apt and stepped out into crazyquilt madness. She looked back at the frozen face of the child sitting on her couch, unmoving, and then jumped through five passing avatars (two of whom startled at her flight) and skipped nimbly across the top of a passing autobuss. Her code contacted solidly with its hull as she clipped clean, flew up over its roof and went feetfirst through the familiar Door of the Vibank branch across the Street from her. Ignoring the nearly imperceptible delay as her desk contacted the Vibank server and opened a stream, she continued into a tuck-and-roll across an incredibly excessively high-resolution lobby (she could see grain in the virtual marble as she pushed out of the somersault. I mean, really) and hit the reception desk with both feet, pushing her right back out the door again to the surprise of the six patrons who were waiting to talk to the staffbot. At the doorline, her flickerjack interceded and she popped out in Downtown, the angled sides of the Entryhedron visible in the distance. Instead of Doorhopping, she turned and smoothly ran down the Street, letting her avatar stretch its not quite legs, feeling the packetstream smear as her flickerjack began to play its games. Scenery and avatars blurred past, but before she could really begin to enjoy it like she always did the black shape of the Bank loomed up and she leapt for the walls.
She wasn't here to work, and she wasn't here in her work clothes.
The defenses came online as she crossed the Wall boundary, the Bank's private server cluster realizing it wanted no part of her, but it was far too late. She was scaling the wall of the Bank's representative gridscraper already, and her client had a firm grip on the Bank's gridspace - ports had been opened, even if only long enough for the computational network equivalent of fuck off, that was just too long. Like a drunk for whom that insult is an invitation, Clotho's flickerjack had cheerfully begun gabbling its tissue of lies and bullshit to the Bank's servers already, and as they staggered at its breath she slipped right past.
It was over before it began, and the poor thing never had a chance. The problem with having Government getting its mitts into corporate transactions, Clotho reflected as she ambled away from the Bank's gridscraper and watched interestedly as the flashing iconography of a major Enforcement action began to converge, is that it lets anyone who can fuck with the Company fuck with the Gov.
Fia opened her eyes with an imaginary click
, feeling the chipstate of her hair settle into a new equilibrium. Brisida was still looking at her with an air of quiet expectancy.
"Bri, it's okay. You can go home now."
"What did you do, Fia lady?"
Fia smiled. "I didn't do anything. A friend of mine did. Her name is Clotho. Do you know who the Greeks were?"
Brisida shook her head. "They was a long time ago, right?"
Fia smiled wider. "That's right. They were."
"So is she like a ghost?"
"Yes, Bri. She's like a ghost."
Outside, there were flickers in the cobalt sky. Red and saffron descended, lawcraft settling from the privileged Heavens in their search for the owner of a pen about whom they now knew an awful lot. Some of it was even true. Some of it was not, but that was Clotho's fault, and she weaves men's fates.
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