It felt like ice water seeping into my brain.
I coughed out of shock and grabbed my head. I’d felt pain before – was intimately familiar with it – but this was different, something else entirely. I shivered and dropped to my knees. The vial of Vert slipped between my fingers.
Would this kill me? After everything I’d been through, after all the times I should’ve died but didn’t, was this really how it all ended? I laughed. In a way, it would be fitting.
Six years later and Vert had finally come back to finish the job.
My laugh turned to a cry of pain. I could feel the cold spread like a stain on my mind, numbing it, clouding my sight and freezing my limbs.
And just when I thought my mind might snap under the strain, the cold ceased, the feeling slowly receding from my head. I gasped for air, marveling in the fuzzy pain-free moment, and felt tears of relief drip from the corners of my eyes. But the break was short-lived. As the intense chill dissipated, it left a fierce burn in its wake, setting my nerves ablaze.
I screamed, opening my eyes wide, as if I could somehow release the pain from my mind.
That’s when I saw it. A layer of blue light resting on top of the room, a second skin sitting just above the surface. The Grid. It sparkled, vibrating with energy. I looked closer and realized it wasn’t just one sheet of light, but instead thousands of tiny strands, all interconnected, pulsing from one end of the room to the other. Certain objects stood out in my mind, somehow brighter than the rest – the TV, the alarm clock, the thermostat.
Unlike the other strands, the strands of light connecting these objects weren’t measly lines, but thick cords. So thick, they seemed almost solid. And while they were linked to each other, they were also linked to me, as if they were spokes and I was the center of some massive wheel.
I reached out with my hand.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was aware that the pain had gone. I didn’t care. Or maybe it was more realistic to say, I couldn’t care. My brain was processing things on a level beyond my understanding. The pain, my thoughts of last night – I’d wanted it all to end and my mind had simply made it happen.
It was amazing, but I was too focused on the lines of light to pay it much attention. The cords seemed so solid, so real. Real enough to –
My fingers grazed the band connecting myself to the thermostat and the light bent under my touch. On the wall, the digital display flickered, the “74 degrees” dropping to a “72.” The air conditioning unit kicked into life behind me.
I whipped my hand back in shock, but I shouldn’t have been surprised. I knew the power of Vert, knew what it could do. After all, there was a reason the government had delayed banning it for as long as they had.
In a world where everything was wireless and connected to the internet, Vert was the ultimate tool. A user-electronic interface. A mind-connection, not only to all your wireless devices, but the internet itself.
Video games, first person shooters? Now you were there, in the thick of it, armor on, blasting aliens away. Shopping? Now you could try on clothes from the comfort of your own bed. Movies? You were in them.
The potential was endless.
Unfortunately, so too, were the means of abuse.
In the end, it had taken five public deaths, a handful of suicides and a growing underground drug trade to drop the axe on Vert. Valtronic had taken the biggest hit. I remembered catching glimpses of the story in the newspaper scraps I found on the streets. Thousands of employees let go. The release of the government sanctions.
It hadn’t done much good. Vert was bigger than ever now and it would only continue to spread.
I spent the next few hours testing my limits with the drug, floating through the Grid, keeping my other thoughts shelved and out of my mind. I don’t know when I drifted off to sleep, but I remember what woke me.
Knock, knock, knock.
I opened my eyes, wiped the drool off my cheek. The bedside clock read 8:13 PM.
It came again.
Knock, knock, knock.
Someone was at the door.
My hand reached under the pillow. It was instinctual, as automatic as breathing – something born from years on the streets. Back when I still slept with my Browning 9 mm, that’s where I’d kept it. But I’d pawned that old gun ages ago. My hand came up empty and for the second time in two days, I cursed my own complacency.
How could I ever let myself get into this situation?
I scrambled off the bed and quickly gathered my things, throwing most of what I owned into my backpack, all the while trying to remain quiet.
I was still coming down from the Vert I’d taken. The cords of light, now mere wisps, spiraled out from my body and I tracked their targets. There was a new connection now, one I didn’t recognize. A single line pointing from my chest and passing out through the doorway.
Connecting to whoever was on the other side.
I tested it, reaching out to grab hold, but got no response. I didn’t expect to. It was the one unbreakable constant of Vert use: users were safe from other users. They claimed it had something to do with the complexity of the human mind. I didn’t know about that, but whatever the reason, not even the best hackers could figure a way though. It was a lucky thing, really. The drug was dangerous enough as it was.
I threw my backpack over my shoulder and moved to the back window, all the while keeping my eyes on the new strand of light.
Who was out there? Had Jake found me? Beef Cake? Were they here for the drugs I’d snatched? I glanced at the desk and, after a moment of indecision, swiped the remaining vials into my pocket.
The card reader at the door buzzed.
My heart dropped out of my chest. I stood, frozen in place, as the door opened an inch, only to get caught on the security chain. I heard someone curse and then a hand slid through the opening, trying to rip the chain free.
I didn’t have time to think. Despite my racing pulse and the sweat forming on my forehead, I reached up and slid open the window. It was a tight fit, barely three feet across. Clearly not made for late night escapes. I managed to wiggle my body through and was completely outside, dangling from the window ledge, when I met resistance. At first, I thought it was whoever had broken into my hotel room, grabbing hold of me, preventing me from dropping to the walkway below. Then I realized it was my backpack. One of the straps had caught on the window frame.
There was a loud crash behind me. I looked over my shoulder. Whoever was out there was kicking the door, trying to break the chain free. I didn’t have much time. I pressed my feet against the side of the hotel and pushed, using my body weight to pry my backpack free. It didn’t budge. There was another crash from inside and this time I heard something splinter.
“Stop!” someone shouted. A man’s voice. “Wait!”
It was now or never. I pushed again, harder. I heard a tear, but instead of freeing the backpack like I’d hoped, it split down the middle. I dropped the four feet onto the walkway below, everything I’d ever owned raining down on me from above. The cash I’d saved up, my clothes, my fake ID.
Overhead, the man had reached the window and was starting to climb through. I got a quick look at him. It wasn’t Jake or Beef Cake. That scared me more than I thought it would. Who else was after me?
I looked at the money I’d saved, floating down, some hitting the ground below, some blowing away in the wind. It would take forever to build up that much cash again. If I left without it, I could kiss my trip West goodbye.
In the end, I didn’t have a choice.
I scooped up Alice and ran, just as the man came crashing down onto the railing behind me.
“Stop!” he called out again. “You don’t understand, I’m trying to help you.”
He sounded out of breath and I heard him slow down behind me. Could I trust him? I wanted to say no. Trust never did anyone any good, especially me. But against my better judgment, I stopped at the end of the walkway and turned around.
He was tall, about six three, and wearing a long black jacket that fell to his knees. Part of his hair was tied up in a ponytail. The rest fell down around his eyes. I nicknamed him Ponytail in my mind.
He raised his hands in a plea for me not to run.
“Listen. I know this looks bad. Busting down your door, chasing you from your room. I get it. In hindsight, probably not the best first impression.”
“Oh, you think? Are you insane!” I looked at his outfit again: trench coat, black jeans, hiking boots. It wasn’t exactly climate-appropriate. “Crap. You are insane, aren’t you?”
“Right, not insane… but here’s the thing: you need to come with me.”
I started to back away.
“Wait! They’re already on their way and they won’t stop ‘til they have you.”
That made me pause.
His eyes narrowed. “What? No. Valtronic’s men.”
“The Vert company? Why the -”
“Look, we don’t have time.” Ponytail looked over his shoulder. “You’re just gonna have to trust me.” He reached for my hand and his sleeve slid up, exposing his wrist. A black band was strapped below his elbow. And it was connected to…
“You’re a Jockey,” I said. It wasn’t a question. He glanced down at his wrist, at the small silver disc attached to his armband, and cursed under his breath.
He looked up at me. “I can explain that -”
Tires squealed against the parking lot asphalt. I tore my eyes away from Ponytail and spotted a black SUV swerving toward us in the distance. I fully expected to see Ponytail smirk at the car’s arrival, but that wasn’t the case. He looked tired and slightly afraid.
“Run!” He took off down the walkway, heading right for me. “Run, run, run, girly!”
Despite my misgivings, I followed his lead. “How do I know they’re not with you?” I shouted over the noise of our feet on the walkway.
A crack echoed in the darkness, followed by two more. Over my shoulder, I caught sparks ignite off the metal walkway beside us.
Holy shit. They were shooting at us.
Beside me, Ponytail actually laughed. “That answer your question?”
We hit the end of the walkway and jumped down the flight of stairs to the ground. Two more shots rang out behind us and two more sparks lit up the night, both too close for comfort.
I glanced over my shoulder. The SUV was almost on us. At this rate, we’d never outrun it. We needed to do something and fast.
That’s when I noticed the thin blue line connecting me to the car. Whatever dose of Vert I’d taken, it was fading quickly. The lines that had once been bright blue, were now barely visible. I tried anyway. Mentally, I pulled on the connection, hoping to do something, anything, but nothing happened. I cursed under my breath, my feet moving at a whirl to keep pace with Ponytail.
Beside me, Ponytail tapped something out on his disc. There was a confirmation beep and then it changed, enlarging, spreading down his arm, until it formed a small keypad of dull blue light.
Could he hack into the SUV?
Frantically, I gestured over my shoulder at the car, then mimed typing. He seemed to understand my meaning. “No,” Ponytail shouted, before slowing to a stop on the asphalt. “Not yet, at least.”
What! Was he insane? Just who the hell was this guy?
But I already knew the answer. He was a keyboard jockey. A hacker. There were a lot of them these days, what with the resurgence of Vert on the streets. Most worked in groups. And I had a sinking suspicion I knew which one he was part of.
Ponytail’s fingers glided over the digital keyboard. He typed some codes, cursed and then smashed his fist against the pad.
The black SUV was right on top of him, barely twenty yards away. He had seconds, maybe, before he was roadkill.
“Get out of the way!” I screamed.
But he stood his ground. He didn’t even flinch as he raised his hand, palm forward, and violently shoved it to the side. As if mirroring his movements, the SUV turned rapidly. There was an eerie screech, followed by a loud pop as the front tires blew. The back end of the car slid forward until it was horizontal with the front, then it flipped – once, twice, three times – before skidding along the ground, sending sparks and shards of glass flying into the air.
The wreck streaked toward Ponytail and he casually stepped to the side. “Gotta love electronic steering,” he said, before turning back to me. “Come on. That won’t stop them for long.”
I laughed, mostly out of shock from what I’d just seen. The car was a smoldering disaster. No one would climb out of that thing anytime soon – if ever. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I don’t kid, girly. Not about crazies coming after us with bullets.”
He grabbed my hand, and in the moment, I was too spellbound to pull away. I felt his hand on my own, felt that spark that had become all too familiar to me, and knew that wherever he took me, there would be a lot of explaining to be done.
On both ends.
Three blocks away we broke into what appeared to be an old factory district and Ponytail made some calls. His people were on their way, whatever that meant, and I was doing some deciding of my own. Run or stay.
On one hand, I had lost everything I’d owned. I had no money, no clothes, no identification. Nothing to fall back on and nowhere to go. On the other hand, I had a stranger – a Jockey for hire – who was dangerous at best, suicidal at worst, and a team of criminals on their way to pick us up.
Besides that, I had a million questions. What the hell was going on? Why was Valtronic after me? And what exactly did this hacker group want with me? I wouldn’t get answers by running. But then, I wasn’t sure I wanted them.
I heard Ponytail end another call and turned to face him.
“What’s next,” I found myself asking.
“Next?” he said, reaching into his pocket. “Well, what comes next you probably won’t like.”
I stiffened, ready to bolt, but it was too late. Before I could react, Ponytail whipped out a thin metal rod and jabbed me in the chest.
A surge of electricity ripped through me and I barely had time to scream before everything went black.
Cool. Looking forward to more.
Thanks, bud. Hope you continue to enjoy.
Oh man… This is gonna get really confusing for him…
It’s a good story. I’m not sure who the good guys are, or even if there are any.
So, why did Valtronic track Rainey down, and was it a coincidence that they appeared after she’d used Vert for the first time in years? Why would this hacker collective care about what happens to Rainey, and risk their lives to keep her out of their hands?
I’m intrigued and I want more.
One problem is that you have Rainey and Ponytail talking while they’re running at full speed away from an SUV. When you’re dedicating every gram of oxygen to make your body move faster you don’t have any to waste on talking. Maybe one word, but that’s it. You’d rely on your partner intuiting what you mean by that word and your tone of voice.
Also, is that a physical keyboard which extends down Ponytail’s forearm, or a “virtual” keyboard that can only be seen with Vert. Does that mean he’s typing one handed?
> Still running full tilt, he typed some codes
How does he not trip over and break his face?
> Then he skidded to a stop and turned around.
I assume they’re running on asphalt? You don’t skid to a stop in shoes on asphalt. If you tried, you’d fall over. You slow to a trot and then stop. You can skid on asphalt if coarse sand has been spilled on it [eg. beach sand].
Thanks for your thoughts, Yakkt. Some of your questions will be answered in the next update or two.
Yeah… haha, the running bits. Good points all around. It didn’t seem strange at the time, but now that you point it out… yeah, I’ll have to mess around with that section a bit. In all fairness, skidding seems much cooler than slowing to a trot, but probably not practical haha.
Thanks for the input, all really helpful stuff.
And gloves. If Rainey finds basic human contact or moving through crowds a problem, then like Rogue of X-Men, she’d have some gloves. They’d also help with not leaving fingerprints.