Sam S. Kepfield
Adult Language Used
Hell looked a lot like Kansas City. Or vice versa.
In the end it didn’t matter since they were one and the same, and the here and now of it was a dark alley, shattered glass on grimy cobblestones in a crumbling stucco and brick canyon strung with wires that were obsolete two score years ago, all coated in a mist penetrated only by the harsh mercury vapor lights that hadn’t been shot out yet, and an olfactory assault of rot, piss, vomit and stale grease.
For the moment, it was home for Maris. From the ragged cavity that had once been a second-story window, she blearily surveyed her domain. Somewhere in the cavernous empty of the shell of a building, water dripped from multiple holes (from gunfire or time) in the roof.
Drawing heavily on a cannabis stick, she sagged and took grim satisfaction in her survival for another day. As her eyelids finally closed, and she slumped onto the filthy flooring, she recalled when it hadn’t been like this, and let a tear escape the corner of one bruised eye.
It seemed like a fair trade at the time.
Old oil money and new tech money and newer biotech money mingled at a party in the rich section of Dallas. The men oozed power from tanned pores and steel-sprinkled hair, the women were milfs or younger trade-in trophies, with a smattering of single females prowling the crowd, dodging white-coat waiters juggling champagne glasses and hors d’oeuvres across teak floors. The white noise conversation was a patina of civilization over the power games being played.
In the background, a string ensemble quietly played. Maris, on the cello, strummed the bow across strings, eyes half-closed in concentration, not particularly caring whether anyone heard or appreciated it. Most likely not, the new money was too nouveau gauche to appreciate the arts and the old money warily watching out for the new. It was of no import to Maris, who was being paid well for her time here, a couple thousand cash, an off-the-books supplement to the salary from the symphony.
She was halfway through an Offenbach duet when he oozed his way through the cougars and lurkers and cockmasters, but she paid him no notice until it was nearly done. The bow slid across strings one last time, fingers moving for a vibrato, and the strings faded to polite well-heeled applause.
“Take ten,” Joao Silver, their violinist and unofficial leader, said. She placed the cello in the case, moved on cat’s feet to the bar, stopping and smiling politely but inanely for the compliments from the cougars with diamonds dripping on spraytanned silicon bosoms.
“Enchanting,” a fiftysomething with jet-black dyed hair and too much kohl liner said, taking her hand limply in a gesture of patronage. Or patronizing? Maris could never tell. She felt almost naked in her simple black strapless dress, and desperately wanted to run away.
“Thank you,” she said demurely, lowering her eyes. In the background, the cougar’s breadwinner was holding forth. “—said we had to carry the losses forward, sure we get hit for ten mil last year, but the way we got the laws jiggered we’ll save three times that this year.” Mumbles and attaboys of approval. “—to a bonus, the rest to the Caymans, and route it back to a tax exmpt bond fund.”
Maris excused herself, wound through the crowd, to the bar. “Mineral water, please,” eschewing the champagne and brandies and vintages that cost more per bottle than she was making here. No alchohol, no pharmas, not since little sis had tweaked herself to death five years ago at eighteen.
“You play divinely,” the voice at her elbow said, mellifluous and oily.
“Thank you,” Maris demurred.
“I noticed you. There’s a real talent there.” She turned to see the face for the voice. He put out his hand. “Jaxon Bernley.”
“Maris Dupree,” she took his hand. It was cold, dry and smooth. Bernley was last-gen pre-Crash hipster, Vandyke and spiky short highlighted hair, small glittering earstud. Underneath Clark Kent frames, his eyes glittered and morphed. Borged up! she shuddered, wanting to run.
“Your accent. French?” he asked.
“No.” She kept her face bland. She’d tried to neutralize the accent, but failed. It was the legacy of her mother, along with the dark honey hair, liquid brown eyes under eyebrows that made a statement, classical features and sunkissed skin. Mother was but one of millions of refugees fleeing the eurozone when the three of the little PIGS – Portugal, Greece and Spain – were gobbled up by the big bad Chinese wolf came to foreclose the house, kicking the eurozone into the ashheap of history. She had wafted along more than a few gatherings such as this, caught the eye of a wealthier and older man, and spent the rest of her life in idle ease.
Bernley waited a beat for words that never came. “I have a proposition.”
“I’m not looking for a hookup,” she said quickly. Devon and his neediness and his pills and moodiness were six months gone.
“Not that sort of proposition. Look around you. I can tell you’re just as disgusted with these people as I am.” Bernley moved in, past the personal space forcefield, making her stomach flip. “Look at them. Congratulating themselves for being the heroic Producers, suffering the moochers and looters – us, until the day they can all Go Galt and leave us to go to hell. In the meantime, they loudly declaim Objectivism behind walled communities and conspicuously consume,” he said in a soft sulfuric voice.
“So why are you here, mingling among them?” Maris asked, gazing at him over the glass. Inside, she wanted to run away. People made her uneasy. People sapped her energy.
“Data mining. I make them money, but keep quiet about how I do it.”
“Do they,” she tossed her head at the jewel-encrusted crowd, “know the particulars?” Meaning is it legal?
“Let’s just say plausible denial has made me rich.”
“So why are you talking to me?”
“I need talent like yours. You’ve seen my eyes. They’re borged. So’s this,” he lifted his glasses, revealing a tiny port. “Direct wetware-hardware interface.”
“Why me?” she insisted softly, repulsed but fascinated.
“Cruising the grid trolling for infonuggets in datastreams is complex. For some reason, only a few of the hackers can do it mind-to-machine, and then burnout is a real problem. Most hit a wall in six months. It’s not a logarithmic thing, not a linear thing. What I need is – the closest analogy is a symphony of information woven from a multitude of data streams and bursts.”
“You need someone who can read music.”
“Some who can sight-read a symphony. And someone who can feel it. You can. I saw it. Heartrate, respiration, skin temperature,” he pointed to his eyes. “It’s in you. Not them.”
“Why should I?” she asked, drawn in and damning herself for it.
“You’re a thing of beauty, a classical sculpture, surrounded by the Visigoths, slowly subsumed into barbarity. You have to please these people to make your living making art, but you want to be rid of them. You want to be rid of people.”
The way he said it almost made her cry. The symphony depended up private funding, since government support had dried up the last decade, going the way of other government money for arts – broadcasting, humanities, grants – that flowed back into the offshore havens or black coffers of the military-industrial-financial multiplex.
She’d had her father’s money growing up. Cello lessons weren’t cheap, and neither was an Aegean internet match who was the issue from a faded oligarch. The money wasn’t on display, wasn’t the cornerstone of a worldview. Class, Daddy said, was not how much money you had, but how you wore it. That, of course, was before the securities probes and prosecutions, and the crash of the economy and the government here, leaving mother dead of what was supposedly an accidental overdose, and her father dead from mob before the U.S. Marshals could whisk him away.
Maybe she was in need of a new wardrobe. Get the wardrobe, and she could walk away when she wanted, right?
“What’s the catch?” she asked.
There were two, actually. The first catch was getting borged. The real catch showed up later.
The surgery itself was done in a late-night visit to an exurban mcmansion owned by a meatcutter (sans license) from the Indian subcontinent, the hardware from a rundown strip mall borg shop, strictly vanilla USB and UNIX 9 series chips with Russoft programming. It left her with a blinding headache for a day, and a crusty scar on the flawless olive skin that healed in a week.
Bernley’s operations were not in some glitterball tower rising above downtown, nor in a low-slung raw concrete building in a sculpted corporate park in the exurbs. Headquarters was a seedy ranch house in a quiet residential area. Quiet because it was half-deserted, the foreclosure signs battered and weatherbeaten.
“This is it?” she asked, incredulous, eyes wide behind oversized Ray-Bans; the borging sensitized her corneas and brought back the headaches.
“Appearances deceive,” he said, swinging open the door to a spartan drywalled cavern stacked with CPUs and servers and monitors, indicators and graphics winking in the shade-drawn dark. “I have an office downtown in the market district. It’s a backup, and I have some bodies I can rent to impress the suits who need a tour. Or the cops who occasionally come calling. Six years, no one’s caught on.”
He led her through the dark, to a bedroom with a wide reclining black leather couch in the center, surrounded by black towers of hardware lit only by flickering LEDs. “Your office,” he said, motioning for her to sit.
“You know, I don’t know anything about finance. I can balance my checkbook, but that’s about it,” Maris said, gathering her skirt and easing into the chair.
“Yeah, the masters of the universe and the quants were so fucking good at gaming the system. They got what they deserved.” He withdrew a USB cable from the darkness, positioned it at her temple. “Economics as a separate discipline is nonsense. It’s psychology, boiled down to three words: something for nothing. That’s what everyone who gets into the market, who opens a business, wants. Get as much stuff for as little money and/or effort as possible.” He pressed the port to her temple, and she felt a small stab as it slid in, and then the universe opened up before her, standing on the edge of a canyon looking down.
“N-now what?” her voice quavered.
“Shakedown cruise. Jump in. Get acclimated.”
Fell, swooning, into the grid, a riotous maelstrom of bytes and bursts and streams, a swirl of colors scrolling past her. She caught herself, steadied, and rode a byte like a log in a river.
She finally saw order from chaos, not unlike divining a cello (or flute or violin or French horn) line from an orchestral score. There was no awareness of Outside, nor of body or time. There was only the grid, and the wonder of it. She flew from line to line, hopping with a grace practiced in endless hours in a soundproofed conservatory practice room.
Breath taking, isn’t it? the voice from beside and inside her said, awed.
Jaxson He was a cool blue luminescence beside her.
Yes. I never get over it.
What am I looking for?
Let’s start simple. PetroKenya is floating bond issues backed by the central bank. Good investment or not?
She trailed him as he dove in and out of streams, crossing firewalls at will and digging deep into internal files, confidential risk analyses, back out for the metadata, long historical trends followed for decades and generations that scored past similar offerings, plotted out trends in developing countries’ GDP growth based on attainment of objectives like governmental stability, legal certainty, export development, infrastructure investment, and so on. Bottom line – fair risk, but too pricey in the short term, 12% chance of justifiable return on investment after five years. Pass, but note for future reference when stock pancakes and buy cheap.
She came out of the canyon, jolted into reality exiting cyberspace, disorientation giving way to panic giving way to exhilaration, heart racing and breath coming in ragged shallow gasps. Bernley steadied her, talking her down to normal.
“First time’s always like that.”
“Does it ever go away?”
“No. But you learn to manage it.” He unhooked the port from her temple, stowed the wire, and left the room. He returned a moment later with a wad of bills in his hand, held out to her. “Twenty thousand. Yours.”
She took it hesitantly. “For what?”
“Your salary. The info we mined is worth a million at least.”
She thumbed the bills. “No debit chip?”
“This can’t be traced, by the IRS for starters.” Whether it was legal or not had just been answered.
“How did I do?”
“You have much promise,” he said cryptically. She left, thanking him, with a promise to return in two days, standard recovery time after the first plunge, mind racing as she made the long trek to the mass transit station.
That night, in her apartment, the second catch kicked in, while she sat with cello in front of her, bow gliding across strings, on a stool. Barnabas, her large Maine Coon cat, sat imperiously on the couch, listening for his nightly lullaby, suffering through her scales and warm-ups. She tried to unwind and reboot with an old tin whistle she’d been given as a child. Maris had whiled away hours on the toy which had cost all of five dollars, its brass finish scratched and scuffed, the plastic mouthpiece bearing teethmarks. She played a slow, wistful tune, all improvised, for Barnabas’ bedtime song. It refreshed her some, and she picked up the cello again.
Halfway through Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Roccoco Theme it hit her. The music wasn’t there. The notes were as perfect as ever, pitch perfect, but what lay underneath had fled. Her fingers were of clay, her soul of lead. Music was the one thing to give her life, to make her feel part of the human race, to bring her out of her shell.
Her soul soared during the solo – her solo, but now the soul was chained to the ground.
She lay the cello down, dropped her bow, fell to her knees and then to the floor, the tears fighting their way out, then bursting forth. Barnabas nuzzled her, providing comfort that managed to get her through the night and the next week, through tortured rehearsals as her fingers moved leadenly across the strings and she interacted more awkwardly than normal with people.
“Will it come back?” Maris asked Bernley the next time, lying on the couch in the dark, ready to jack in.
“Of course,” he said too quickly, knowing that she knew it was a lie. The fifty thousand she made for four hours’ work swooping and diving for projected and rear-projected rice futures was bittersweet consolation.
“Don’t spend it at once,” Bernley told her. “No banks, deposits over ten grand get flagged. Fastest way to get spotted.”
Clearly illegal, then, but the sensation of freedom while jacked in was the only pleasure she now had, now that her music had turned leaden. And the money felt good, for the first time in her life, not having to worry about rent and bills and whether the movers and shakers would continue to drip their conscience-soothing public relations dollars into the symphony. I can stop anytime I want.
But as all addictions have a way of demonstrating, she couldn’t. Not even when, three months in, Bernley added a new twist.
She was jacked in, laying on the couch, and her eyes beheld a dizzying aerial view. The rocky terrain below scrolled slowly underneath. The rugged hills and draws were painted in a greenish hue, columns of numbers ticking up or down on the peripheries of her vision – altitutde, latitude, longitude, heading, pitch and yaw. She hooked into a GPS and deduced her location was somewhere over Pakistan.
Target up ahead
What is it?
Not relevant destroy it.
What is this? A drone?
General dynamics forth-gen recon drone. State of the art.
Of course why else use term “target.”
Again not relevant . . .ten K ahead bearing 290
We’re hacking into . . . .
She did as she was told, finding an incandescent blob nestled in the mountains, with smaller mobile blobs moving around it. She armed the Hellfire missiles, honed in on the target, and let two loose. The explosion blinded her momentarily. She saw the two streaks from the ground coming at her too late, and yanked herself from the link just as they destroyed the drone.
A hundred k for that one, a few new wardrobe items, and Bernley tight-lipped about what she had done. A newsfeed three days later gave it away. Pakistani army outpost attacked, Afghan government blamed, as evidenced by an American-made drone shot down near the site of the attack, both sides looking for a border war to erupt. Asian stock markets plunging in response. With markets plunging, anyone selling short could make a small fortune if they were lucky, had good intelligence – or had someone who could make the markets panic. She had helped someone make a killing on the Hong Kong exchange, and all it had cost was a couple dozen lives. It was more than morally questionable. The worst part was –
The worst part was that she had enjoyed it.
Two months later another cyberambush. She hacked into a border patrol surveillance drone over Arizona. A few more slides along the grid called in an airstrike from Air Force drones operating out of Davis-Monthan. The Hellfire missiles destroyed several hundred yards of border wall, and two tunnels constructed by the Jalisco cartel. A hundred grand later she could figure out who had bankrolled that one, her fee paid from the proceeds of ultra-pure methamphetamine and cocaine flowing north through other tunnels in the wall.
She was dealing with dangerous people, and didn’t completely trust Bernley to protect her. She met surreptitiously met the muscle department of Bernley’s clientele, private security contractors sent to collect cuts or pay off or use facetime to convey information without a cybertrail. They were of a type, heavily armed, steroid-bulked, heads shaved and skin inked, all with a smoldering menace about them, which made turning aside their crude advances all the scarier. One of them gave her a shooting range session on a 9mm Beretta, until she was reasonably proficient, able to hit the broad side of a barn from a respectable distance. She also got basic training in small explosives – C4 and Claymore mines – and rifles. At first repellent, she developed a respect and curiosity about the controlled violence that was becoming a greater part of her life.
It lasted a year and well over seven figures of unreported income tucked away in a canvas bag in the closet. She bid adieu to the symphony three months in, tears in her eyes, lying that she needed a break from burnout. Chadorov, the conductor, sympathized, telling her he had done the same when a young man, and promised her a spot back when she was ready. She thanked him, suspecting that it would never happen; the damned borg had cut her soul adrift, away from the anchor of her music, and the grid was a poor substitute, even poorer the day Bernley got her to the next level, from background analysis to realtime trading, day-trading on crack, gaming the markets, shaving a point here, selling a fraction higher there, piling up small increments in a short time to clear six figures on a bad day.
Otherwise, she retreated to the darkness of her apartment during the day, shades drawn, the world shut out. The borgs made direct sunlight difficult, so she only ventured out for essentials at night or on overcast days. The datamining had begun to rewire her brain, and human contact became more tortuous for her.
It all went smoothly, almost enough to cover the ache in her soul from the loss of the music. Until…
She got caught. She had to, eventually. It was something she had accepted intellectually a long time ago, but rationalized it by telling herself she could, would, get out before it happened. A prowler copbot skulking in the mainframe of a commodity broker on the Chicago Board of Trade jumped her, held on for dear life as she scrammed her way out long enough to get past the security walls and to the IP address. She came out of the netscape disoriented, babbling as Bernley, mute panic in his eyes, tried to calm her.
“We’re done,” she said, hysteria bubbling as she cursed herself. “The feds were there. Probably SEC, FBI, FCC. Our money won’t buy us out of a prison term.”
“I have a backup, a safe house,” he said quickly, moving away. “Gotta get the keys, cash, laptop, so we can move out. Power down the system?”
“Don’t you need to take the hard drive? All our info’s on there.”
“Yeah, I will, it pops out, just kill the power, okay?”
She turned away, for a moment, to toggle the power switch, but heard a whir behind her and spun about to see Bernley swinging a flashlight towards her. Maris ducked, the light caught her on the shoulder, pain lanced out. She fell backwards onto a CPU stack, knocking it over. Bernley followed, landing on her, bringing his arm down again, as she shoved him off and scrambled to her feet, into the front room. Frantic, she spied a Glock on a shelf, Bernley’s paranoia well-placed but now unfortunate. She picked up the gun, fumbled with the safety, pointed it at the onrushing Bernley, thinking I don’t even know if it’s –
A flash and roar filled the room, deafening her, a hole appearing in Bernley’s chest and a red spray coating the wall behind him. He stumbled to a halt, dropped his knees and flopped bonelessly face-first to the floor.
Loaded. Maris stood there, numb to the core, let her arm fall. She had never seen a dead man before, and her brain struggled to process the scene. Her mind came out of blankness, rebooted into panic, and she went into action. In the kitchen she found a tin of cleaning solvent labeled FLAMMABLE, poured it on the couch and computers, lit a match and fled as the fire glowed through the windows and sirens sounded in the distance. She tried to ignore the banal enormity of what she had just done, sought to rationalize it as kill-or-be-killed.
The ride back on the tube was a paranoia trip, glancing nervously over her shoulder and jumping at every new passenger boarding. She jumped off one stop early just to kill the nerves.
Once in the flat, she stuffed a change of clothes into the canvas cash bags, kissed Barnabas goodbye and wept as she texted Anya to take him for a while. Anya would keep him; she and the cat had fallen for each other on the nights a year and a half ago when Maris’ depression over her latest romantic crash segued into experimentation. The cello she left, but on impulse she took the tin whistle and shoved it in the bag.
“Take it out,” she rasped five days later, to the terrified face of the butcher who’d borged her. She held Bernley’s Glock to his forehead, between goose-egged eyes. “The borg, I want it out.” She pushed her way into the house, carrying a battered black case in one hand. She’d paid a visit to one of Bernley’s now-unemployed security goons, clocked him with a piece of metal pipe picked up on the street, and filled the bag with assorted tools of the trade. She wore dark clothing that was two sizes too big, and large black wraparound shades, her unkempt hair tied back.
“It’s not easy,” Umarzi stammered.
“But not impossible. Do it.” She waved him down to the basement room where he operated. He rummaged for his instruments. She set down the black case she carried in her left hand, and slapped a handcuff around his ankle. “How long does it take?” she asked.
“How long?” she screamed, making her head hurt. “How long to do it?”
“S-six hours,” he trembled. A stain appeared at the crotch of his pajamas.
Maris opened the battered case, letting him see the steel tubes wired to a keypad. She typed in 6:30:00, slammed it shut. “You’ve got an extra half hour for a margin of error. Don’t fuck it up.” She hooked the other cuff to the steel operating table. “Cell phone,” she held her hand out. Umarzi fumbled in his pocket, laid it in her palm. She hurled it against the wall, shattering it. The gun was a print-locked model, and it had taken her the better part of a day to figure out how to program it. That, at least, would not pose a threat. She slid it into a holster under her blouse. “No cops. Operate. Fuck up and you die.”
“So do you,” he said meekly.
“I’m ready to. Are you?” she spat, submitting to the local anesthetic. While under she saw swirls of light, streams of illumination dancing on the inside of her eyelids, a riot of color and warmth… and with a wrenching physical and psychic pain, the screen of her eyelids went dead.
Maris bubbled up to full consciousness, a dull throb in her temple covered by a wet bandage. Stumbling off the table, she lurched towards the hallway, searching out the key, foggily realizing that Umarzi was nowhere to be found, but a trail of blood led upstairs. She retrieved the gun, and the clip, following the sound of his voice.
Umarzi was limping around his living room, foot scraped and bloodied, the heel swathed in gauze and tape. He babbled excitedly, froze when he saw her.
“Drop it,” she commanded. He hesitated, lips moving soundlessly. One shot took out his right kneecap. Umarzi and the phone hit the floor. She ran back downstairs. The timer read 6:15. “Hardly exciting,” she muttered, and hauled it upstairs, laying it by Umarzi’s howling form and cuffing it to his wrist.
She was several blocks away when it blew.
Another month on the run, eluding various alphabet soup
agencies, had taken its toll. Maris had traveled in comfort for her first twenty-five years, first in her parent’s nouveau riche bubble, and then in the genteel modesty of an artist. She had avoided the burned-out cities, the crumbling highways and roads filled with joads traveling to the promised land but not entirely sure where it was, sitting at night in neglected rest areas and abandoned truck stops around fires of timber or the castoff detritus (paper, packaging furniture, empty houses) of a bankrupt consumer economy.
Her new reality rubbed her face in it. She paid cash for a secondhand car, anonymously, stole a tag somewhere in Ohio, kept changing them as she changed states. She traveled alone, during the day, when she could at least see the hazards on the road like police and armed gangs. At night, she pulled off on a deserted road and slept fitfully, the images coming back, Bernley’s death, the meatcutter who’d borged her arousing disgust, poor Barnabas making her wake up crying, and other times she would hear the music, feeling gloriously alive and soaring among the clouds.
She was fairly sure she’d left it behind her after a month. Law enforcement resources were stretched thin enough that the death of a data pirate and a shady borger were not high priorities. In fact, Bernley’s clients no doubt preferred that nothing be done about his inconvenient demise, lest it expose them.
The rusted, bullet-pocked green sign along I-70 led her to the hollow metropolis on the Missouri River. It was time to stop, she knew, time to rest, regain the weight she’d lost, and lie low, to consider what to do with her life. She had the cash, still, slung in a backpack. The car she ditched in a railyard. A trek on foot brought her to a deserted area of the city where she could be alone to meditate, and plan. The old brick two-story office building looked as good as anything else. The missing plaster and exposed rafters and dusty floors she ignored. It would do, for now, she thought, tossing her bag on the floor, and slumping against the wall and dozing before she woke.
She heard another sound among the dripping, a soft feline call. The coal-black cat jumped to the sill, sat blinking contentedly but warily. Brushing away a tear, Maris felt in her bag for the whistle, put it to her lips, and blew gently, a long, low D. Her fingers worked the holes, improvising a slow melody. A few missed notes and squeaks at first, but then it came back. She felt the music, closed her eyes and saw it, the fingers transforming to sheet music images. The notes ceased quavering and became strong, confident and clear, poured forth effortlessly, and inside she felt warmth welling up in her for the first time a very long time. The cat crouched on its haunches, relaxed, the tail waving slowly back and forth. Maris closed her eyes, playing a slow improvised melody into the unforgiving night, slowly feeling her soul leaving the bright bit-laden streams and coming ashore, no longer adrift.
Sam S Kepfield, a writer who is forced to earn a living as a criminal defense attorney in Hutchinson, Kansas. He has a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University (B.A. 1986), a law degree and an M.A. in History from the University of Nebraska (’89, ‘94), as well as doctoral work at the University of Oklahoma.