Waris Kaler plodded down the staircase to Zomzom’s basement hovel. A rat scurried across a small puddle flecked with broken glass, but all Waris caught was a bit of tail and the glint of reflected streetlights. Noise came from behind the door as he knocked. Zomzom greeted him, wearing a beaten trench coat emblazoned with the Union Jack, leather trousers and nothing else. The hacker stared out from his wild blue eyes as the galloping strings of Beethoven’s Ninth hit Waris like a storm. “Ah yes, Mr. Kaler,” he said with an exaggerated bow. “Welcome to the High Church of harmful matter.”
The walls were covered with paintings – Zomzom’s work – depicting people, sometimes animals, engaged in various pornographic acts with bits of robot. The air was thick with the smell of ozone from burning motors and whatever Zomzom had been getting high on.
“Can I interest you in a work of art? I call this one ‘Sister Fister.’” A robot leg shoved halfway up the ass of a very happy looking donkey.
Waris scratched his arm. “You ask me every time. I don’t want any paintings.”
Zomzom raised his nose a bit, like a proud housewife. “No accounting for taste, I suppose.” He twirled on his heel, lifting the tails of his coat like a dervish. “I know what you do want of course, but it may interest you to know I have something rather exciting.” Zomzom sat down in front of a computer terminal that was connected to something that looked like a big fuck off mechanical spider.
“Is that a Tarantulum?”
Zomzom put one finger to his nose and pointed another at Waris “The latest in soul amelioration, the finest palliative for the weary denizen of Orion.”
Waris’ shoulders relaxed a bit. “I’ve heard of them. But this shit is for the rich, isn’t it?”
Zomzom leaned in towards his terminal, rapidly flicking at the keyboard. “This lovely beast has been reverse engineered from high end brain-machine interfaces. Back alley hacking triumphs again. My colleagues and I call it the Merzbau. It has its quirks, but certainly anything of value does.”
Waris began scratching again. “Quirks?”
“Its a bit, shall we say, ‘noisy.’ You see, Its based on a feedback principle. When you first switch on, it gets your profile from both the web and a rapid neuro-scan, and builds you a synthetic consciousness. Its you, for all intents and purposes. Then the digital ‘you’ goes and plays in web space. Virtual scenes of your every desire. When you patch back in, it feeds the recorded experiences to you, shaping your brain’s electro-chemical configuration so that you can actually feel the program.”
“What about the feedback?”
“Its rather elegant actually, its what takes you deeper and deeper. The Tarantulum records your brain states during the playback experience to gather even more data, to refine your fantasies. The thing learns.” Zomzom unplugged the clawed device from his computer and handed it to Waris. “Just be sure you don’t get spiderfucked.”
“Always remember where the story ends.”
Waris made his way back to his flat block. He threw himself onto his tattered recliner and strapped the Tarantulum to his cranium. As soon as he pulled his hand away, sharp leads pierced his scalp, the pain quickly followed by a paralyzing surge. Waris felt his limbs stiffen and his tongue swell. A dull ache rose up his spinal column and his brain felt like it was boiling in his skull. The tightening grew as his fingers clawed deeply into the arms of the chair. And then black.
Waris awoke in stifling heat, to find himself transformed into half a memory.
“Its time to live your life. Get up!. Its time to live your life. Get up!” Morning had come. Waris found himself lying fetal on the floor, the mechanical arachnid still attached to his head, drool pooling around the intersection of cheek and floor. “Its time to live your life. Get -”
“I’m up. Off.”
From the omnibus it was a brief walk to the vivisecting department. His head ached dully as another prepared animal arrived on his slab, ready for the razors and drills, and eventually the probes and the burns. Waris’ hands trembled slightly.
The vivisecting department used to make him sick, but now he was numb. Numb to everything, like everyone. The lab was all Dull concrete, stained by occasional stray plumes of blood that never got properly cleaned. Smell of chemicals and bone dust, sound of drills, twitches and occasional shrieks of perilously anesthetized creatures. They called it “advanced animal research,” but it was little more than precision butchery. Misery was writ large in the eyes of the department’s workers. But it was a job, and you needed a job. Whatever they gave you, you took it and smiled; If they thought you weren’t fit to do anything they would find other uses for you. Nobody saw it but everyone knew, and who wanted to end up like these animals, butchered and probed for the Controllers and their research?
He thought about the tarantulum all day. What was his synthetic self getting up to? What lovely things would he see, would he feel? His lips curled into a faint smile as he drilled depth probe holes into the skull of a motionless macaque.
From the omnibus, it was a short walk to his flat block. Waris flung himself into the recliner. Switch on.
Bathed in sunlight and the glistening of her olive flesh, her mouth forms the words that I long for and we hold hands and smile, lying on the beach as ships gather on the horizon. “I’m glad you found me. I’ve been waiting for you.”
“I’m glad I found you too. You are perfect. Everything I have ever wanted.”
“Of course I am.”
The sun is so warm. My body, lithe, strong, the color returned. I feel alive.
“I want to stay here forever. With you. Here.”
I love her smile and how she pushes the hair from her face. “I am always with you. I am a part of you now.”
“I love you.”
process.terminate – –
White flicker reset switch off.
Waris awoke with the thinly rising sun, after dreams of the sea.
“Get up. It’s time t – “
“Off.” Something Zomzom had said came to Waris as he walked to the omnibus. “The Tarantulum amputates bits, and it replaces them with extensions, virtual extensions. Not just of the constructed memory of the body image, but mental images as well; objects of consciousness, fleeting scenes and thoughts of the day. The Tarantulum makes me beautiful, and when the virtual experience is downloaded to my flesh consciousness, I find myself living wondrously as a manufactured Narcissus, the software of my perfection.”
. . .
Nelson H. Nelson wants to be someone else. He read a story once, about an admiral who took on a stronger fleet, and with wit and will defeated the greater force. The admiral died in the effort, but surely it was a glorious death. A man who led men to the brink at sea with fierce aplomb, splitting the enemy column and raging fire upon their broadsides, a real fucking man.
Nelson’s a servile worm. Tarantulum can change all that. He sat cross legged on a bed pad, his legs sprawled out on the concrete floor. Switch on.
This cheap fucking knockoff of a knockoff is stuttering the signals. Should have sprung for a Merz.
This cheap fucking knockoff of a knockoff and switched off/on midstream, shooting pain and sudden daylight when you play it back.
But at last, the smell and spray of the ocean
“Admiral. The enemy is closing and turning broadside.”
Right. Admiral. “Men, we shall drive on them, break the line. To the last, ENGLAND CONFIDES IN YOU!” Temporary white on white flickers again, someone is trying to interrupt the fantasy. Cheap fuckin’ thing.
“Who is that? Who is there?”
“Not fuckin’ talkin’ to you. Shit, where did -”
There is plenty of room to play, why log on to my dream? Who the fuck is that? Get out of here, you are pulling my fucking brain apart.
Nelson Nelson awoke on cold concrete, damp from his own piss.
He eventually made it to the vivisecting department, where he worked as a scrubber. Nelson didn’t feel great. While pushing his mop and grabbing up discarded bits of flesh, his mind would flash back to the tarantulum playback. Ships, the smell of cannon fire, white flash. He tried to focus back on his work, as the thought images became more rapid and scattered. Focus, Nelson. Charge on the column and attack at an angle, fuck, who is here, who is in my playback? And then a piercing noise in his head like a wailing alarm bell made him seize and shriek aloud and he crumbled to the floor.
For a moment all went black, and as he opened his eyes, his still blurred vision fixated on one face, the brown one. Where had he seen it?
Where am I? Who am I?
Nelson was a drooling mess of tremor. When Nelson went to Zomzom, he only had enough for a low end Tarantulum. “Its as good as any other” he remembered the hacker say. “Revel in the glitches. The true visionary sees the beauty in error, not just elegance.”
He was sent home. That’s dangerous, but he wasn’t thinking about that. Nelson sat on his decaying sofa and with tremulous hand strapped the spider to his skull.
. . . .
Waris was in love. His hands shook as he strapped the spider to his skull. Switch on.
Tremors are already fading. the light here is magnificent. My beach, our beach, where we lay together in smiles and the sun. You have done good, this is what we want, this is what we want forever. There is distant ship smoke on the horizon, but I think I can smell it. What is that smell?. It smells like the bone dust – fuck what is that . . . noise, like, a drill? Shake it off. Shit, noise, Can’t keep the shaking away. Don’t tighten. Breath. Ah, that’s it.
DATA FLOW RESTORED
Breath. Ah, that’s it. I see her face. The way she walks. I want to press into her flesh, I want it to be my flesh, our lithe bronze bodies intertwining. The distant ship smoke on the horizon. I know the ship is on fire, but it looks so peaceful, so far away. We smile and watch it burn.
“I love you.” Please tell me, “I want to hear it.”
“i love you too Waris.”
I know you do. I know – wait. Where did she go? Is she flickering? I hear something, a scream, from the ship? Hands cold. Shit what happened to the beach? Is this, is this concrete?
Waris awoke from mechanical nightmares, bathed in cold sweat.
The eyes on the omnibus lingered on Waris, drowning him in disgust. Everyone in Orion suffered in their own way, but they recognized his special kind of suffering. It was one thing to lose yourself in the pleasure zones, the good old ecstasy of the body. It was quite another to tamper with the head wiring, to distort identity code at the source. Waris’ knees nearly buckled as he unloaded at vivisecting. The tremors were getting worse. What was that smell? He handled his tools as best he could, but the sound of the surgical drills echoed, each whir triggering jagged reverberations that felt like a jackhammer on his neurons. Hold it together, spies everywhere. That fucking smell. Like ship’s on fire. The scrubber, what is his name?
Nelson is pushing a mop because someone put it in his hands and what the hell else do you do when that happens? Its the vivisecting department, but its glitchy. The drills, the dust, the smoke, the ships, the crew of the good ship where the fuck is my mind. Its all here in scattered form, eyes barely kept open from shaking so damn hard. Who is that? Wait, I know you, I know you.
Nelson inched forward, lurching on shaking knees towards Waris’ surgical slab. Nelson dropped the mop and instead reached for a scalpel that he somehow had in his pocket. With each step, his senses stutter, reality cut into fragments. Was that an error code? No, I know him. That swarthy French bastard. “You will never take us!”
Waris barely heard him. Even when the scalpel ended up in his back, he felt it first as information. He turned, bone drill still in hand and looked upon the drooling, bloodshot and sallow face of his attacker. With little hesitation, he pulled the bone drill up and put it square to Nelson’s forehead and pressed the button. The blood must have been moving faster, but it seemed like a slow motion kaleidoscope filling his vision.
Waris awoke from dreams of the sun rising on the Orion River to find himself strapped to a hospital bed.
“Kaler, wake the fuck up Kaler.” A stinging slap on the face. “Why’d you do it Kaler? Why’d ya kill Nelson Nelson?”
He suddenly jerked with shock, wrenching at his bindings. “What the hell are you talking about, I am Nelson Nelson.”