Connection: Keep Alive

This short story takes place between the events of Under the Amoral Bridge and The Know Circuit.

Connection: Keep Alive - Part 3

Connection: Keep Alive - Part 1
Connection: Keep Alive - Part 2

The first thing he saw with his real eyes was a blinding green light, mottled and distorted with months of sleep crusting his eyes. He could feel the whiskers on his face stuck to his skin, the saline solution that filled the interior of the sensory deprivation inner chamber of his crèche feeling like a thick layer of mucus covering him from head to toe. He heard the whoosh of the crèche’s lid opening. Mu could barely open it, his arm filled with lethargic fatigue. As the lid swung open, its lights shut off and he was bathed in a muted darkness, like a bedroom whose only illumination came from a tiny night light. Every muscle ached with lethargy, but he managed to sit up. The gorge rose in this throat, and he promptly threw up over the side, a wracking spasm of dry heaves that shook him for long minutes.

Mu carefully crawled over the side, avoiding the puddle at the foot of the crèche. He could barely stand, but every second he stayed awake brought more feeling into his legs, dispelling the needles that crawled up and down his veins. He leaned over to steady himself. Underneath his hand sat another crèche.

The room he found himself in was probably forty feet square, unadorned and dark, like a prison or barracks. Crèches filled every inch of the place, all dimly lit, their inhabitants unaware of him. The room’s lighting flickered and Mu finally noticed the source of the illumination. One wall of the room had a gigantic hole blasted in it, the edges of the hole still smoldering with tiny flames.

Mu saw something then which led him to believe he might still be in the GlobalNet. Hovering in the hole, oblivious to the impossibility of his being, sat a man. About the same age as Mu, the levitating man was Chinese, dressed head to toe in dark clothing that glinted here and there in the light, golden runic shapes barely visible in the flickering light. A hooded cape draped over his back and fell to the floor. “Ah, you’re awake,” the man said, his legs dropping to the floor.

Stunned that the man actually existed, dismayed that he might still be in captivity, Mu replied, “Fuck, I’m still under aren’t I?”

The Chinese man flashed him a bemused smile. “No, you made it out. This is as real as real gets. Though our perceptions certainly cloud our grasp of reality, and perhaps trick us into believing this is the real reality, the quantam reality we all expect, but the math on that isn’t quite solid yet.”

“What?” Mu asked. His head buzzed.

“Sorry, I ‘m getting a bit ahead of myself. Congratulations are in order. You managed to break the program all on your own.”

“Are you the asshole that put me in this box?”

“Didn’t you put yourself in the box?”

Mu recoiled as if struck. “Ok, technically that’s true. But I didn’t do it expecting to be there six months straight.”

“More like eight months I think. No, I’m not the one who kidnapped you. I am, however, the one who is going to ensure that you are able to get out of here. As well as the rest of your fellow prisoners.”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Wong. I represent a special order of scient… I mean, wizards. We’re wizards. That’s right. I’m a wizard.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Have you heard of the technomancers?”
“What? No, what the hell is a technomancer?”

“Oh right, eight months. Yeah, you probably haven’t heard of us. We don’t have a lot of time. I’d rather not fight the Chinese army that is probably even now headed our way. I just need to…” He began to gesture, his hands dancing in front of him. Mu stared at him in surprise, unable to figure out just what kind of crazy this stranger was inflicted with.

His surprise grew as Wong’s fingers began to glow, a dazzling shower of sparks that danced and dipped around his hands before spreading itself over the entire room, a fog of light that settled to the ground before disappearing. All at once, the crèches shut down, their lids whooshing open, their lights winking out. “Now then, shall we go?”

“How? Where?”

“We’re in Mainland China. Your captors were some very powerful people.”


“They resisted.” His face got very sad for a moment, a fleeting glimpse of vulnerability. “We technomancers had heard of a secret cabal of underground arenas that were using captive hackers to fight against their will. We decided to find you and set you free. Though you didn’t need my help for that.”

“Is that why I’m coming with you?”

Wong nodded. “You were the only one to spot a flaw in the programming and exploit it. Very good work, by the way. I’m impressed.”

Wong had been leading him quickly through a series of hallways, many of them charred and smoking like the room they’d left. His eyes grew wide as he began to see bodies as well, many of them still smoking. Suddenly, Mu stopped in his tracks. “How do I know you didn’t set me up, that this whole thing isn’t some elaborate scam?”

“You don’t. Would you rather go back in the box?”

“Good point.”

“You survived.  Revel in that. And if you are interested, how would you like to be able to do this?”
Again Wong’s fingers danced. But instead of a soothing glow, his hands exploded with a ball of fire that shot from his grasp and exploded against a wall, burning a hole through it to the outside world. Stinking industrialized air blew in with a hint of sea salt wafting across Mu’s nose.

“Are you recruiting me?”

Wong nodded. “No pressure. I’m taking you to safety no matter your answer. You have a gift. Fifty hackers are stuck in this place, all of them in the same situation you were, all probably wracking their brains to figure a way out of that trap. But you did it, you wrote yourself out of it without any help. That kind of creative thinking can be channeled into magic. The things you can create are limitless. Or, you can go back to hacking, waiting for them to try out version 2.0. Your choice.”

Mu didn’t take long to decide.

“Do I get to wear a cape?”

“If you’d like,” Wong replied with a smile.

Mu’s sticky beard split for a grin wide as the sky. “Kanpai, motherfucker.”

Connection: Keep Alive - Part 2

Connection: Keep Alive - Part 1

Once he’d learned how to store information in a separate memory block from the normal avatar processes, Mu managed to create a clock and calendar program to keep track of the time that had passed. Every time he woke, he tinkered in what little bit of meditative time he could find, creating all the pieces of a new avatar interface that he hoped to eventually connect to his previous shell. Mu was counting on the programmer of the kidnap software not to have expected an attack from within.

Though a slow moving slog, the creation of the new avatar proved to be therapeutic. It kept Mu sane. His captor let slip a number of details during that time. Some corporate account in Hong Kong he’d hacked last year had actually been a dummy account used to launder money from Los Angeles to China and back. The owners of that account had hired his kidnappers to take care of the problem, and rather than whack him, they’d decided to enlist him in an experiment. The kidnap software, in the alpha stages of production, scared the shit out of Mu. It could infect his system from specific GlobalNet interactions, forcing his connection to the GlobalNet to remain open. That allowed the kidnappers to trace him back to his roost, no matter how many anonymizer hops he took. Once they’d found his crèche, they broke in, replaced his nutrient drip with the SomniTrip, hooked up the crèche to a portable generator and moved the whole shebang out under the cover of darkness to some remote facility with a bunch of other boxed up hackers.

The physical part troubled Mu. Even if he managed to get his new avatar interface working, even if he could kill the connection so that he woke up in his crèche, what then? The place had to be guarded, and his body would take some time to recover from the effects of the drug. He would need to shut off that feed hours before he severed the connection with his avatar, and that little module required weeks more programming than he first expected. But once he escaped the box, he would have to rely on his physical skills to escape whatever bodyguards were strewn about the place. He had no chance of that in the best of times. He knew the outcome of that scenario but it no longer mattered. Better the guards put a cap in his ass than his brain burn itself out from overuse months, maybe years into the future.

Finally the day came. His clock informed him that he’d been captured for at least six months. His friends had likely given him up for dead. His family probably believed that his lifestyle had finally caught up with him, and he realized with chagrin that they would actually be right.

By the time his escape plan was ready, he’d decided on calling his handler Liàn, which was Chinese for chain. She provided him with a katana for his battle, a fairly straightforward sword clash between himself and three plate wearing assailants wielding claymores. Despite their obvious advantage in numbers and equipment, he’d bested them easily with his maneuverability. Along the way, he’d cloned the katana’s code, storing an exact duplicate in his new cache. Standing over the bodies of his victims, he knelt to the sword, awash in the cheers and jeers of a full house. Then without acknowledging the crowd, he walked confidently back to the prison where Liàn waited.

“Weapon,” she said coldly. His chance had come. He tossed her the sword, and while it flew through the air gleaming, he summoned his copy of the sword and a shield from a previous battle, diving through the air as she reached up to grab the sword. To her credit, she avoided his killing stroke and grabbed the sword out of the air in one motion, catching the blade and slicing downwards at him, a blow which landed harmlessly on his shield. He rolled into the antechamber and sprang back into a fighting position just as the portcullis slammed shut behind her. She pressed her back against the bars in a practiced stance.

“Very nice,” she said with obvious admiration. “How’d you do that?”

“My little secret,” he hissed, feinting with the shield before spinning and landing a blow that she parried hard enough for sparks to fly from the blades. “I’m leaving. Do you want to tell me your name before I go, or should I keep calling you Liàn?”

“Chain. Cute. It’s as good a name as any.” Three lightning quick slashes drove him back a few feet, the last a fatal mistake. He slammed her arm with the shield, causing her to drop the sword. He popped her in the face with the shield, then slashed her from shoulder to hip. She derezzed immediately.

Time to leave. He knelt quickly, triggering the kill program stored in the sword. His avatar drove the sword into its belly and sliced across, severing his connection with the GlobalNet.

Connection: Keep Alive - Part 3

Connection: Keep Alive - Part 1

Time had lost any sort of meaning in this place. Albert’s only method for determining how long he had been in this sandy shithole was counting the number of fights he’d been forced into since his virtual self “woke” up here. Sixteen fights since then, sixteen opponents he had somehow bested by improvisation, tenacity and dumb luck. Between the fights, Albert could only remember pain followed by drinking binge style blackouts full of merciful darkness. The pain, as intense as any he’d ever experienced, wasn’t exactly physical pain. His GlobalNet avatar could transmit pain to his brain, of course – that ‘feature’ was part and parcel of the full-sensory experience of the crèche connection. His brain knew somewhere deep, in some primal animal place that this avatar’s body was not his own, which muted the pain but providing no opportunity to soothe it with normal physical reactions, such as rubbing a bruise, or scratching at an itch.

His avatar had lost arms twice, and his left leg below the knee once, and the mental pain had been indescribable. The soothing darkness had swallowed him and upon waking the limb had been regrown. His screaming mind had told him the limb did not, could not, exist, and it had taken what felt like hours to calm his thoughts enough to use the new virtual limb. No sooner had he regained his mental balance than he’d been thrust into battle once again by his captors. 

No stranger to GlobalNet arena battles, Albert had enjoyed the adulation of the crowds, the rush of virtual danger made more real by the pseudo-pain, and most importantly, he’d enjoyed the winnings from side bets he’d place on himself. Though his freelance hacking paid the rent and kept him in a crèche, the cut from his arena battles covered the luxuries on and offline. The underground GlobalNet arena scene thrived despite violating the GlobalNet terms of service in every net-connected country. Albert knew enough to avoid the scummiest arenas, the places where real-life physical damage and even death were not only possible, they were frequent. He flitted through various standalone arenas and the gladiator scene of many of the multiplayer virtual worlds run by commercial enterprises and private enthusiasts. From Ars-Perthnia to RealerLife, from Carnivore to the Mountains of Mars, Albert’s gladiatorial pseudonym Mu had become known as a fierce competitor. Like a long-lost memory of someone else’s life, he recalled his last victory in the Silverine Caverns of Demonia. He had stood swaying unsteadily as the crowds cheered his triumph over the Bastard Twins, a pair of chimerical conjoined monster twins with two heads on one mythical body. His foot pressed against the stilled lion-like chest of the beast, the crowd wild with bloodlust. His virtual vision had derezzed to blackness.

Dusty light had filtered down through the bars of the arena entrance as he woke, causing him to blink and cough even though his virtual body drew no real breath. Every sensation he might have normally felt on the GlobalNet was amplified, as if the input feed on his connection had been boosted exponentially. Virtual life had never felt so real. The heavy chains on his arms caused his back to bend, and it ached with the weight. His hands were mangled nightmares, bloody stumps with blades sewn into the wrists. His normal avatar, a wiry muscular humanoid body with the dexterity of a dancer and the power of a martial artist, had been replaced with the bulk of a giant, a beast of barely human strength. When his mind had finally become adjusted to the enhanced sensory overload, he had noticed her standing behind him, clad in all six foot two inches of leather. Her mysterious, vaguely Asian good looks were completely destroyed by the detached cruelty in her eyes. She had prodded him in the back with something that felt like electric fire, forcing him out the door and into the bloodiest arena battle he had ever seen. The victory had taken forever, and it had hurt more than any battle he’d ever faced. After every victory, every defeat, no matter the location, no matter the arena, she had been there, prodding him forward into battle.

Today, she woke him with the prod, searing him to life with angry fire. “Wake up, Albert,” she said with a hint of a Cantonese accent, a singsong nature to her words that would have been endearing were it not on the end of a cattle prod. “You have fighting to do.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m awake, Angela,” Albert had been trying name after name on her, to see if any seemed to fit, but none had. “And don’t call me Albert. You’re gonna treat me like a fucking slave, at least call me by my gladiator name.”

“Moo?” she said, stretching it out to sound like a cow.

“Mu,” he corrected, struggling to his feet.

“Cute. That hacker speak?”

“Chinese actually. Figured the Chinese word for ‘nothing’ described me better than Albert.”

“How’s a pretty China boy like you get a name like Albert in the first place?”

“White American daddy gets yellow fever, refuses to name his only heir some chink character he can’t even say.”

“Sounds like a douchebag.”

Albert shrugged. His father wasn’t really that bad a guy. Cold and distant, probably a father much too young and unprepared for all the baggage of his very traditional Chinese wife. Albert had been almost happy when the old man had split, at the very least relieved. 

"So what am I fighting today? Giant centipede with scorpion claws? Giant rape robot?”

“I think it’s a gorilla with robotic arms. About twenty feet tall.”

“Do I at least get a size increase for this one?”

“I think we’re giving you a rocket launcher or something,” she said with an evil smirk.

He knelt in the dust, still amazed at how real the ground felt. He put his head to the ground in a prayer pose, kneeling his head five times to the ground. Albert didn’t believe in any religion, but it made for a good show for his captor while he concentrated on his attempts at escape. 

Escape had been on his mind from the minute that she jammed that prod into his back. He had attempted to access his root menu, to bring up the logout screen, severing his access to the GlobalNet and causing him to wake up in the saline-covered interior of his crèche. Every option on the root menu had been grayed out, inaccessible. Somehow, he had no control whatsoever over the state of his avatar, no ability to jack out, no ability to alter his location, no ability to run, not even the option to change his appearance. Whoever she was, she had trapped him on the GlobalNet, forcing him to stay connected, to go where she wished against his will.

“You think Allah is going to get you out of this? We’ve got you cold.”

“There’s all sorts of gods in the machines. Maybe one will come along and wake my body up.”

She sneered, her attention diverted to the dusky arena outside. The bars of the gate cast ominous shadows on her shiny, plastic skin. “Yeah, that won’t happen. You still think your body is sitting in your apartment, stewing in the soup?”

“Isn’t it?”

“Hell, no. We moved your ass first night we captured you. Your nutrient tube is cut with enough SomniTrip to keep your body immobile for the next century. It’s one nasty drug that shit. Like a liquid coma, only instead of dreaming, your mind is totally 100% clear, sharp enough to work the GlobalNet like you were tweaking on Trip.”

He paused from his mock prayer, staring up at her with horror. “How long can my brain sustain that much activity before it burns itself out?” She shrugged. “Seriously, how long do I have?”

“Don’t ask me. I ain’t no doc, I just handle procurements. I don’t think they know. None have burned out yet.”

“How long have I been under?”

She seemed to weigh her options, perhaps checking a clock on the HUD only she could see. She might actually have felt some bit of sympathy for him, but remained wary that any nicety might form an exploitable bond with his captor. Finally, she made up her mind with a sigh. “Three weeks, I think, maybe four. You all kind of run together.”

He stood, his lanky avatar a foot taller than her lithe frame. “Who did I piss off to deserve this?”

“Oh come on, Albert,” she said, emphasizing his Anglo name evilly, “we both know what you do to make your paper. You hack. Hackers make all sorts of enemies, corporate and criminal. Pick one.”

He had her there. Mu crossed his arms across his waist, stretching his virtual muscles in preparation for the coming carnage. “Ready, Mr. Nothing?”

Mu nodded. A rocket launcher twice as large as she should have been able to bear appeared in her hands. She tossed it casually. As his hands closed on the weapon, he felt the interface connect his avatar program with the launcher’s software. That little glimmer of connection, that little nanosecond flash of code across his vision became the sliver of light in the pitch black box they had trapped him in. The gates rattled upwards. Every step he took into the arena, his mind processed that scrap of code, probing it for weaknesses.

His opponent entered the fray with a thundering stride, the ground shuddering underneath Mu’s feet with each step. Mu used that intense level of concentration the drug had given him to write new code in his head, code that allowed him to store his writing in a separate cache from his normal avatar’s storage space, bypassing the need for his internal HUD. “Kanpai!” he screamed in rapture as he fired off the first shot from the rocket, smiling for the first time since he’d been captured as the smoke trailed off towards the giant gorilla with robot arms.

Connection: Keep Alive - Part 2