I felt no pain as the skinny punk with a shaved head and twin fiber optic braids attached to dual cranial jacks passed a mono-filament wire through my left bicep but he certainly felt it when I flattened his nose with my fist. The beefiest of the punks, a pale-skinned juicer in a muscle shirt, sat me down with a forearm to the chin and I caught a glimpse of a metallic cylinder implanted in his chest—one of those automatic chem injectors advertised in the back pages of men’s magazines as giving you bigger pecs or a seven hour erection—as he reached down to grab me about the throat. The implant was a recent acquisition and the flesh about it was still healing, pink, and puffy and he released me quickly when I struck it firmly with the palm of my hand. As I brought him to the ground with my arms about his waist he caught me in the ear with a knee and my hearing rang and vision swam. I rolled onto my back, stunned, and the rest of the pack encircled me landing kicks on my head and ribs.
One of the kids was examining my vintage audio gear instead of participating in the melee. Red and white wires running along the frame of his mirrored sunglasses and then entering his skin at the temple may have been for show but somehow I doubted it. Other wires protruded from nerve bundles at the base of his wrist and the back of his neck. He placed a LP onto the rotating turntable, dropped a sharp fingernail into the groove, and, when he opened his mouth, Kick Out the Jams by MC5 sang out, amplified through his neural net.
My daughter stared on blindly; her stylish silver neural braid was attached to an unmarked black aluminum prototyping box and the tangle of ribbon cables pouring out the side were connected to a heavily modified palmtop computer. Through this device the gang had complete control over what she saw, heard, and felt and they had used this to manipulate her into letting them past the biometric security of our apartment building. As I passed into unconsciousness I was comforted by the thought that she couldn’t see the beating I sustained.
I never wanted her to get ‘jacked’. My mistake was forbidding it, no discussion, no objections. If her mother had been alive, she would have talked to her and made her understand that she should wait until she was older. (Although I would have preferred she forgo body modifications altogether.) As a Luddite and a cabinetmaker, someone who works with his hands, I couldn’t understand living in a world where the things you touch aren’t real, the sensations prerecorded and played back through your nervous system like a waking dream.
My daughter hid the optic braid underneath her hair at first but I could tell something was different and it wasn’t long before I caught her ‘jacked in’ to the Network one night. Once I stopped threatening to take her to the doctor to get the jack removed (an invasive, and expensive, procedure) she began to wear the silver braid tucked behind her ear, and as much as I hated to admit it, she looked all the more like her mother before she had died.
My wife died due to a progressive neurological disorder; neuropathy or neurophage or something, I can’t remember the technical term. The doctors said it was a genetic disorder and had nothing to do with the electronics in her skull but I couldn’t believe it. An early adopter of new technology, she had the cranial jack installed before I met her. My wife was as much a proponent of biotech as I was an opponent. Opposites attract I guess. I told her that I wanted to remember her through memories, not an electronic copy but she insisted on being uploaded to the Network before she died; but the neurological disorder had progressed and destroyed much of who she was by the time the technicians hooked her up to the machine. Most families of deceased relatives who have their mind uploaded to the Network have conversations with the ghosts of their loved ones, we were haunted by ours. Six months after her death, my wife showed up in a broadcast of the five-o-clock news. She looked lost as she wandered past the heavily made up newscasters. The week after that the bathroom lights flashed on and off on their own and the radio in my wife’s arts and crafts room, which we hadn’t entered since her death, started playing on its own.
When I regained consciousness it felt like someone had run 50 grit sandpaper over the inside of my skull. The light hurt my eyes and I felt a shooting pain at the back of my head when I tried to look around. My arm was bandaged tightly and throbbed painfully with each heartbeat. My hands were tied around the leg of a table with electrical tape but I didn’t need to feel the wire to know that the punks had jacked me, a hack job; back alley jack jobs weren’t unheard of, maybe the equivalent of 21st century punks driving a nail through their tongue after rubbing it with an ice cube.
The punk who had cut me with his blade unzipped an army surplus satchel and dropped a software case in front of the young man with the red and white wires, I can only assume he was their leader. The case was full of black label software cartridges, bootleg stuff, the kind of thing tech pushers try to sell you as you walk through the bad part of town until he notices you aren’t jacked.
“What should we use to pop his cherry?” The others laughed cruelly. “Mideast snuff, German BDSM, K-Horror? Nah, too obvious—ah, here we go.”
He pulled out a thick black cartridge with a piece of silver duct tape applied over the old label on which “Aby55” was scrawled in black permanent marker. He took the cartridge and shoved it into a black, featureless deck, a custom build by the look of it.
“See you in the Abyss.” He smiled cruelly and flipped the switch.
It was pitch dark, the ground beneath my feet was soft like mud, and the air was cold and smelt of decay. If you’ve never been jacked before it’s like being a homunculus in your own skull. Some amputees report feeling like their missing limb is still attached to their body; being jacked into the Network feels like you’re a brain amputee. If you concentrate really hard you can just about make out sensations from the real world–I could feel the hardness of the table leg on my fingers and a dull ache in my shoulder–but the sensations being fed to me by the Network were hyper-real. I felt like I was sixteen again sneaking out at midnight and buzzed from two beers.
As my ‘eyes’ adjusted to the dark I could make out the natural walls of a canyon about five feet on either side of me. One hundred meters above I could make out a jagged gash where the sky was a lighter shade of deep black; there was no moon. I could hear the thrum of an approaching helicopter in the distance. I slowly made my way to the canyon wall at my left to feel for handholds on the surface. The material crumbled away in my hands, it was slick and soft like a mixture of clay and soil. I chose a direction at random and began walking the length of the canyon keeping close to the wall at my left.
I steadied myself against the wall when I stumbled on a tree root buried in the mud. The sky ahead of me grew lighter as the helicopter glided into view. There was a searchlight mounted on one side and as it swung in my direction I held up my hands and waved my arms in the air. There was a soft ‘whoosh’ from the helicopter, like air escaping from a helium balloon, and the earthen wall twenty meters ahead of me and to my right exploded in flames. I was thrown against the side of the canyon by the force of the explosion and was showered by clods of hot mud. When the searchlight found me again I looked up and was horrified to see a human hand protruding from the mud in front of me. I realized grimly that there were no tree roots in the ground here, only human remains.
“This is not real, this is not real, this is not real.” I chanted to myself as I took to my feet and began running the other way down the canyon. One of the punks began blasting Vaugner’s Ride of the Valkyries from the helicopter’s PA system as they sent another rocket toward the muck ahead of me. I threw myself to the ground before it hit and felt the flames hot on my face. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that this was virtual but honestly did not know what the sensation of being burned to death by an incendiary rocket would do to me. A wall of flames now blocked my progress so I turned back and ran hoping to find my way past the helicopter in the other direction.
The searchlight tracked me as I ran and the helicopter slowly rotated toward me, bringing its launcher to bear. Before they fired again I saw the shape of a figure in the light ahead of me. The figure turned at the sound of my voice as I yelled “Get down!” and I screamed when I saw the face of my wife smiling at me. I closed my eyes as her body was surrounded by the approaching wall of flames and awaited death. I felt heat on my face but the pain I expected did not come. When I opened my eyes again I saw my wife bathed in a golden radiance keeping the flames at bay. I held up a hand in front of me and it shimmered with the same golden light. My wife held a hand toward the helicopter rotating above us and the canyon was suddenly thrown into silence except for the crackling of the flames; the main rotor, searchlight, and music suddenly stopped and the helicopter dropped noiselessly into the canyon. My wife walked toward me as the helicopter crashed and rolled down the walls of the canyon turning into a fireball as its fuel caught on fire. She pressed her lips against mine before the helicopter struck the bottom of the canyon and everything went dark.
When I awoke I was still tied to the table and my shoulder still hurt like hell, but the punks were lifelessly slumped over where they sat and my daughter was looking at me with tears in her eyes.