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Mark of the Beast

by Steve Stanton

Zakariah Davis surveyed the V-net booth from across a darkened, deserted boulevard. The night was calm, but he felt a prickly unease like a static charge on the nape of his neck, a promise of adrenaline and strange neurotransmitters. A waft of air carried a faint odour of exhaust and mouldering refuse as a pregnant moon waxing gibbous laid a gossamer sheen on the suburban cityscape. The streetlights were long dead victims of power entropy, but the V-net terminal was still fully functional, an early public booth without the usual armaments, about a dozen years old school. A field technician had tested the electronics down to Sublevel Zero the previous day.

In a compulsive ritual of invocation, Zakariah caressed his scalp where the network cable entered his skull just above and behind his left ear, a permanently hairless semicircle on the side of his cranium. He combed his fingers through a wavy tangle of hair atop his head, and set his teeth with determination, psyching himself up like an athlete before a big game. He’d been a field runner his entire adult life since receiving the Eternal virus at twenty‑one, his only vacations spent underground when he was too hot to surface on the net, squirrelled away with his young wife and baby boy in dark basement apartments in downtown free-zones. He reached up to the V-net plug dangling from his left earlobe and tapped out a simple binary code with a pointed fingernail. The correct time flashed briefly in the upper right‑hand corner of his field of vision. He had three more minutes until rendezvous.

Camouflaged in the dark green coveralls of a metro rep, Zakariah hurried across the street and keyed open the V-net booth with his new set of retinal prints. He surveyed the photoelectrics and deadbolts in search of tampering, then set up his doorstop and mirrors with care. Safe inside, he buckled himself into the launch seat and laid his wrist on the biometric monitor. His eyes strayed ritually over the ceiling in search of nerve gas ducts or any other modifications as he unclipped his plug and inserted it into the V-net console beside his head. A two‑way flatscreen in front of him came to life with a menu of possible realities, but Zakariah was already diving to Main Street.

The City glowed with alien phosphorescence. The impossible architecture, unbounded by gravity, paid only passing homage to realtime mechanical conventions of depth and distance or light and shadow. Buildings that seemed about to topple never did. Pathways that seemed ready to disappear in the distance instead branched up into labyrinthine candelabras. Rooftop spires rose in spindly curlicues that sparked with energy like lightning rods. Pop-up billboards flashed the daily fads of fashion. Zakariah flew far above the twisted metropolis like a wary bird of prey as he rode the virtual datastream down. He tasted burning semiconductors—a keen electric choke in his throat that reminded him of home. Home again. Sound rose up in a blended hum of babbled incoherence and dissonant music from the digital underground, a chaos of raw communication.

Zakariah quickly located his target, a private conduit just inside the City perimeter, and glided to street level with slow precision. He was not interested in making a lot of ripples on Main Street. He preferred to remain unnoticed, a ghost without shadow, a cypher without substance. He landed to a full stop with clean grace and nary a vibration. He scanned the datastream without making eye contact with any pedestrian or sensory node. No trackers, no greysuits. He strode purposely to the conduit, stepped inside, and willed himself downlevel.

The fall to Sublevel Zero was much slower, experientially. He had time to peruse the steady string of advertisements scrolling on the walls, time to role play once again his scheduled meeting. His new avatar had made a flawlessly discreet entry to the net. His tech team had provided a stable linkup, his presence solid and virtually free of feedback interference. He held his hand up in front of his face and could see only vague outlines through it. Biomagnetic resonance detectors produced an exact duplicate in V-space, eliminating the need for webcams and bulky bandwidth, but Zakariah used illegal enhancements to disguise his avatar to suit the occasion. He was imaging an electric blue jumpsuit, a working man’s outfit that wouldn’t stand out in a crowd.

Sublevel Zero swarmed with bodies—pimps and tourists mostly, and hawkers pushing unlicensed nanotronic accessories. Zakariah brushed quickly past the colourful street chatter, being careful not to touch anyone or anything. Some of the escorts had dirty transparent holograms that betrayed cheap systems and promised nothing but trouble. A bad routine from one of them could fester in a system for weeks and ruin the best of implants. “Enhancement, turbo fantasy,” one of them whispered, her face pockmarked with feedback. She reached out a ghostlike hand, offering a free tester in passing, but Zakariah ducked away from her shadow.

Probably a greysuit undercover, Zakariah thought to himself with gathering paranoia. Half the users Sublevel were on Main Street payroll, quietly stockpiling data for correlation and causality reports. His survival code did not allow for extraneous interests—no strings, no dancing, no delay to destiny. Zakariah found his appointed terminal and keyed in a private code known by only two users.

“You’re fashionably late,” said a large man sitting on a clear plastic floater as Zakariah entered the room.

“I don’t like waiting in line,” Zakariah answered with a social smile.

“I’m a busy man,” he said. He shifted in his chair, his thighs bulky with fat. He wore an ill-fitting brown business suit with matching pants, a poor attempt at legitimacy.

“I’m sure the markup is worth your while.”

The broker still refused to smile, his face grainy with repressed emotion. He imaged a flat credit board in front of him and read, “Nine piggyback transports of fresh grain, Grade A Canadian wheat.”

“Any trouble at the border?”

The man looked askance, artfully taken aback. “Really, Mr. Nelson. We run a professional outfit.”

“I meant with the Eternal watch in such high gear these days.”

A shiver of interference ran through the broker from top to bottom, and Zakariah knew instinctively that his new avatar was about to be sacrificed. He suppressed a surge of panic and kept his own signal clear as crystal by utilizing mnemonic techniques gained from decades of experience.

“Grain is on the list,” the man said evenly, searching Zakariah’s image with critical care.

Zakariah stood stolid for inspection, already planning his escape.

“We wondered what you had in mind,” the broker continued, “for so much grain.”

“We’re making bread,” Zakariah said as he imaged his debit voucher. “This is Sublevel Zero, after all.”

“Of course.” The large man smiled finally and offered his palm up, fingers pointed skyward.

Zakariah hesitated. “I expect at least sixty minutes.”

Another shiver of interference passed through the avatar before him. So, not even sixty minutes. Zakariah wondered if they could possibly be on a greysuit monitor in realtime.

“Those damn Eternals have got the whole net in an uproar,” the man whined. “Not that I blame them for living,” he added hastily with obvious discomfort. “It’s just getting so hard to do business these days.”

“Do you expect me to make nine transports disappear in less than sixty minutes?”

“They’re only twenty miles from the interstate,” the man whispered, his face tight with panic.

“We had a specific agreement.”

“We’ve still got it. Can’t you see I’m giving you everything I have? Damn, it’s your own hide you’ve got to worry about.” The broker’s image began to break up, his face a mask of tension, his overhead palm glistening with sweat, with promise.

Zakariah felt his body hum with energy as he raised sparking fingers to seal the deal. As their hands met, electronic assets were instantly transferred through a series of bank accounts in several countries, a tax-free cryptographic trail that was virtually indecipherable, a white market. Zakariah recoiled like a launching missile and quickly vaulted out of the room. A few hundred miles south of the Canadian border, nine green lights flashed on the dashboards of nine transport cabs, and nine nervous drivers gunned black smoke up dirty stacks.

Back on Sublevel Zero, Zakariah noted greysuits in both corners of his field of vision. He grabbed the nearest avatar and forcefully mixed energies to disguise himself. He ran down the street diving and rolling through every hawker on the boulevard in an orgy of digital intimacy. Fleeting tastes of mindprobe experiments and dysfunctional sexuality assaulted him as he spread his signal over a hundred parameters, traceable and yet untraceable, everywhere and yet nowhere at all, in a desperate gambit for freedom. A handful of weaker avatars got snagged in his resonance field and trailed behind him like rag dolls, squawking and complaining about their civil rights, as he tumbled into a public zoomtube and punched in a panic abort.

A rocketlike feeling of momentum thrust him upward, inward, burning his brain with fire. A coarse vibration pulsed through him, a black energy of demon overclocking. He felt that he would surely die, as time slowed, stopped, twisted, and stabbed a knife in his forehead.

Zakariah peered through red fog at an angry V-net flatscreen. A blinking message, “DO NOT ATTEMPT TO MOVE. HELP IS ON THE WAY,” glared at him in three official languages. His smoking V-net plug had melted into the console beside his head. He reached into a pocket of his coveralls, pulled out a pair of red pliers, and clipped his cable clean behind his left ear.

Part of his brain seemed to shut down, his experience suddenly shallow, one‑dimensional. He struggled against a feeling of infinite loss as he pushed open a vaultlike door with deadbolts stuck eight inches out into the air. He carefully collected the doorstop and mirrors that had saved him from lockdown, quickly scanned the crime scene for evidence, and hurried away into the suburban evening, a burned runner again, a fugitive. Without a V-net plug he would eventually die of information drought, an addict without a fix. He was cut off from society, from his family, from all public and private systems of commerce. He was wired with the mark of the Beast and could not live long without that sustaining neurotransmission. An ambulance siren sounded in the distance, a keen wail like an animal in heat. Suburbia was a bad place to hide in a manhunt. Zakariah glanced up at the grey skyline, quickly got his bearings and headed downtown.

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Stanton

Steve Stanton’s science-fiction stories have been published in sixteen countries and a dozen languages, and his debut novel The Bloodlight Chronicles: Reconciliation is now available in print and epub formats. He currently serves as the President of SF Canada.

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