Going In

JA Howe
JA Howe's Website.

†††† Iím a wraith counter. It isnít the most pleasant job. It means I cannot have an internal internet hookup, because then others would catch me. So I have to live in this world of muck and refuse, of human scents and sweets, of the horrid sounds of murder and sex . Do you know what a human actually does when fucking ? He grunts. I try to keep away from that as much as possible. As long as Iím doing my job, Iím left alone.
†††† Anyway, to be what I am, you really need to be alone.
†††† Whenever you use the Ďnet, you see, you leave behind a wraith. Itís a copy of what youíve done. For even the most careful of you, I can find your tax ID, your social security code, birth records and so on. For ninety percent of you, I do not need this information: the worms who fiddle with the Ďnet are the ones I seek out. My kind used to be called
hackers Ė "wraith counter" is the more PC term, to use a bad pun. Just like any other profession, of course, there are good and bad guys.
†††† Iím not supposed to have a name, though in my private mind I call myself Tyra. That was the name I used when I went on my strangest job yet.
†††† "Welcome to Stratogen," my hookup said as we slapped hands in the alley. Jobs come through by word of mouth; I donít know my hookupís names any more than they know mine. But this guy I call Dreg Halifax just because. He pulled the wool skullcap tighter over his ears and led me down to a back door that clanged.
†††† "Why do geneticists need a WC?" I said. He parked it on a metal stair.
† †††"Why? Same reason tecchies need you. Have a drag?"
†††† "No thanks. Youíre telling me theyíre finding genetic wraiths? That should be impossible."
†††† As I said it, I considered the possibility of it being a possibility, and didnít believe it then either. The concept of actual ghosts, or wraiths in the natural world, was defined by something like the essence of a person being left over after their body died. That was why Iím called a wraith counter: I seek out whatís left after youíve left Site X. But the idea of DNA doing the same thing, producing the same breadcrumb trail, was not likely to me . Even if it did make ghosts, we wouldnít be able to detect them, far as I could see.
†††† However, that was not exactly what Dreg was talking about. He pulled out a tiny folding tapper and undid it, connecting the screens till a regular old 14" touchscreen appeared. There, he showed me the problem:† someone was hacking the implant system periodically so that it would self-destruct as soon as a person hooked up, thereby killing them.
†††† "Wow."
†††† He nodded. "Yeah, and sometimes itís even worse; they sometimes only have a little comp virus that gets set off as soon as the person-net link is up and running. Those people are killed slower, the sorry fucks."
†††† "Terrorism," I said. "But why bring me in for this? I have no biology degree."
†††† "Well, youíre practically untraceable, since you havenít been hooked up before. You have no wraith. You will by the time this is done with, though, so youíll have to go under for a bit to decompress whatís in there." He poked at the back of his neck where hookups had their connector.
†††† "Youíre kidding. You want me to go in and possibly be killed?"
†††† "Only temporarily. Weíve already lost three people doing this, but they said you were the best for this area," he said. "Youíre getting a whole different type of hookup, one that so far has been kill-proof.† The Stratogen people want to know whatís wrong with the other ones. To do that, you have to go inside."
†††† He put a hand on my shoulder. "Itís only 24 hours. Then you come out."
†††† I didnít feel so sure, but I needed the money as always. If you donít play internet all day, you need some distraction and mine was art. I liked to draw on buildings. The hookups didnít care, off in their own world. The bums on the street corners basically ignored what I did. I did it for myself, really, and I had the whole city for my canvas. Art supplies, however, are expensive. "All right. 24 hours."
†††† "Good. And if you havenít finished your mission, Iíll kill you."
†††† I stared at the gun. "Huh?"
†††† "Canít afford to have this leaking Ė to anyone. Remember, youíll have a wraith anyway. Better we kill you than they do; who knows what theyíll do first."
†††† I didnít want to think of who "they" might be, to do such a thing. So I nodded, feeling pale, and he put the gun away and we went through a door into an antiseptic room. I wondered how the people here could work with all-white walls and not go crazy. To top it off, they all wore white.
†††† "Just relax," said the blond girl with the name tag that said Suzie. I felt a sting and then only pressure, and a clicking sensation. The room went gray.
†††† I never did drugs, but this had to be close to the feeling of it. It was very hard to tell where the room was anymore, or that I was even in a room or anywhere at all. I was weightless without any nausea; it was like my body just wasnít there anymore.
†††† A giant smiley face appeared and said "Relax. You feel odd because you are adjusting." I found that I couldnít talk back. "You donít need to. Just think and youíll be where you need to be."
†††† How very zen, I thought.
†††† "Thatís good."
†††† Iím fucking lost, I thought.
†††† Instantly, a Directory sign appeared and my mind was definitely not in the room anymore. I suddenly found my body. I could feel my body walking down a hallway past doors, even though there was still a trace of that weightless sensation. Each door had a mark on them:† Dictionary, Search Engine, Chat Room, Games, etc.
†††† "Try the Chat Room," said the smiley face.
†††† "Who are you?"
†††† Oh. There I was. Now I could speak again.
†††† "Dude from the hallway. Remember? Nothing more, eh?"
†††† "I see. I can speak again."
†††† "No, you just think youíre talking. Thatís the internet inter-facing with the part of your brain that talks to itself. Youíre adapting fast."
†††† We headed for the Chat Room, and I found over a million options.† "Search: Viruses," I said, putting in a "wink." "You know, like the band?"
†††† "We have no such Chat Room," said the search module. "Try again?"
†††† I sighed, thinking. "Seeking out Pooty." Pooty was a well-known weapons dealer who had really profited from the Age of Technology. No one knew how old he actually was anymore, since heíd had almost all body parts including some major organs replaced at least twice. It was rumored the old boy had even replaced his brain.
†††† "Why, hello, do I know you?" He liked to use a younger version of himself on the Ďnet. Pooty was impossible to catch, but heíd been involved in various cross-double-cross deals with various governments that kept him in business. He had a very good WC too, working for him; when Pooty wanted to lay low for a while, he simply disappeared. No
wraiths at all to be found.
†††† I showed an attractive version of myself, fluttering her eyelashes.
"Might have some Ė candy Ė for you," I said. "Anywhere we can talk in private?"
†††† He ran a look up and down and seemed to be pleased. "Not bad. Come on."
†††† We went off to the Hot Club, a restricted area of the Ďnet. He plunked himself down in a chair and I straddled him, muttered a question in his ear. "So," I whispered. "Tell me about viruses. People are dying."
†††† He went pale and the room disappeared. We were now in a room all of green and black. Designs of the junk Pooty sold were all over the mess. Maps hung on the walls with tacks on them.
†††† "This is my secret room," he said. "So far, cracked by no one, but it has a self-destruct just in case."
†††† "Spill. What do you know?"
† †††I knew that he couldnít be the runner for the virus; Pooty liked more solid things . But from his history, I also knew that if it would potentially profit him, heíd rat on anyone. "The killer viruses are bad for business, thatís what!" he said . "Last month, one killed the assistant secretary to the Assistant Secretary of the State for the Country of Georgia, and that destroyed a million-dollar deal I had there! The Soviets were furious. We did some damage control, but I have drugs to buy and new sites to put up!"
†††† "Thatís all you know?"
†††† "No. My people are looking for these idiots too . After the AS from Georgia was killed, they started looking harder. Cracked every nasty site they could find on the Ďnet from porn to obsessive gambler bars.† Not a trace."
†††† "You think itís more than one person?"
†††† "Sure. Takes more brainpower than that for just one person, after all."
†††† "Do you know how these things work?"
†††† "No, but Crazy Mel down in the Opto Lounge could tell you. Heís a rogue hacker, builds cozy little spots like this for me every so often.† Iíll send you."
†††† Iíd heard of Crazy Mel, but not run into him before. He liked to make annoying popups, from what rumor said.
†††† I found myself this time in the type of sleazy strip joint thatís downtown in my city . Aged ladies with stretch marks tried to ride the pole in time to bad elevator music. It was getting harder to believe that I was not actually in the real world.
†††† "Crazy Mel around?" I asked the bartender, who pointed to a corner.† "Pooty sent me," I said to the wrinkled boy who nodded. A popup of a sheep dancing appeared over his head with flashing lights and I killed
it. "Cut it out."
†††† "Nervous habit," he said, and clicked us into a safe room. "So, Pooty says you want to hear about viruses?"
†††† "Only the killing kind."
†††† He grinned at me. "You a hacker?"
†††† "Sometimes. Why?"
†††† "I know hacker patterns. This isnít a hacker. This is a computer."
†††† "Why would you say that?"
†††† "Because, computers work on binary code, right? Humans donít, theyíre more scattered, more abstract. Iíve been watching this thing, checking its pattern, looking at its wraiths. What is killing people is not a virus, which is the reason why no virus protection system in the world could get this thing. Itís a computer."
†††† "We already know that computers can generate viruses."
†††† "Like I said, this is not a virus. This is a computer-generated form of DNA ."
†††† I stared at him. "Youíre kidding."
†††† "No, all my data says so. When humans and computers began interfacing back in the early Ď06ís, the people who made the original programs had a lot of problems. At least, they did until they found a common language for the brain and the computer to be able to interface correctly. A fair amount of people died or ended up with mental damage as a result, but in the end they managed to regulate the electronic pulse of the human brain to fit binary code. Voila, now they understand each other.
†††† "The problem is, something is going on now within the internet that is not regulated. I believe itís trying to create something on its own, or maybe it has already created something."
†††† "Artificial Intelligence?"
†††† "No, I donít think that is necessarily the case. I think that somewhere along the line, someone was putting in DNA coding for a site and didnít realize that the internet might get confused with it. So the internet tries to make a copy of what it has, during whatever fluke happened, and voila now you have a killer. Problem is, it isnít killing for the sake of killing, I think itís trying to communicate. And every time it tries, the brain that the internet is trying to interface with gets its own wires screwed up because hereís an incorrect version of DNA coding trying to talk to it: boom, meltdown."
†††† I was starting to get "report" signals, so I excused myself. Besides, I had to process this crazy theory as best I could. Somehow it made no sense to me that the internet could possibly make anything like DNA, but wasnít that what all the AI freaks had been talking about for decades now?
†††† "You wonít believe this," I said to the smiley face back out in a Cool Room site. I told him briefly what was going on, using encrypted code.
†††† "Youíre right, I donít. But I heard the same from someone else who tried to work on this, right before she died."
†††† "Then, do you think itís a possibility?"
†††† "Do you?"
†††† "Itís bizarre. Maybe, I donít know. Thereís only one way to find out?"
†††† I swear, it was one of the most bizarre moments of my life, to see this giant smiley face that was floating before me pop a frown. "WELL ?"
†††† "Test it. Whatever it is, it can kill humans, right? But thereís one thing that can not be killed on the internet, not by a virus at least, and thatís a wraith. Theyíll still be hanging around long after the office has closed and the audits all figured out."
†††† "You sure?"
†††† "Ninety-nine percent of the time, yes. Sometimes they can kill off wraiths. But itís not common. That is basically because people make more backup files than you can think of these days."
†††† "Itís almost been twenty-four hours, Iím going to have to take you out and reboot you; this is only a temporary hookup."
†††† Suddenly his words about killing me came to mind. "No, I can do this!"
†††† The smiley face smiled again. "Relax. Iím not going to kill you. Iím going to give you a chance. But if you donít come out now, youíll be in trouble. Temporary hookups that go on longer than expected, when we have to actually yank someone, they donít come out normal anymore."
†††† He had this really good knack for causing chills to go up my spine, I thought, as I saw a gray room again and suddenly went dizzy, then blacked out.
†††† When I came to, I was lying in a bed in a white room that looked almost exactly like the other white room had that I remembered but then there was this green room with Crazy Pooty and he was fucking Mel Stotts, and I was dancing under colored lightsÖ.
†††† "Hey, take it easy," said this blond doctor who I swore I could remember from somewhere. "Itís okay, a lot of people get really confused the first time in and out."
†††† "Am I in the Cool Room?"
†††† She smiled. "No, this is the actual physical existence," she said, injecting something into my arm. "You need to nap and let your brain reorganize things. It happens frequently, donít worry."
†††† There was something about me being in danger and I tried to keep my mind on that, so that I could remember what exactly it was, but I couldnít. I grabbed her hand, trying to say something, but then the room went fuzzy again and all I could see were pink tigers and some huge black womanís ass hanging off of a dancing pole.
†††† The second time I came to, I found this guy with a skullcap sitting next to the bed. "They said you were having problems," he said.† "Remember your name?"
†††† "Yes, itís Ė Iím not supposed to tell people for some reason," I said, stopping myself short. "I canít remember why."
†††† "Try."
†††† I stared up at the white ceiling. "Okay. Iím in a building that does stuff to Ė your mind, right? Something to your mind. Oh, god, I feel fucked up, Dreg."
†††† He blinked. "What did you call me?"
†††† "DregÖ Oh, sheesh, thatís what my mind calls you. Sorry."
†††† "Creative. Now do you remember who you are and why youíre here? " He sounded like someone in a mental hospital from some old movie.
†††† Slowly it was coming back. I nodded. "Yeah. And that doctor Ė blond Ė she said itís normal to have confusion."
†††† He nodded. "Yes it is. Iíve been in here before, took me about a week. But I donít think itíll take you that long. You adapt fast."
†††† I remembered what it was like being in the internet. "It was so real after a while, it was just like real life. How do I know whatís real anymore? You can say itís real now but this could be just another room," I said. "And you could even pinch me, and I wouldnít know."
†††† "Youíre right. Thatís the world of technology these days. Now you see why it is that so many people get so hooked in the internet that they decide to stay there."
†††† "Yeah."
††† †"Donít worry; youíll get used to the real world again eventually. But for now, while youíre still having the flux sensation, I need you to go back in. We had to make sure you were okay first, that was all."
†††† "So, you do want me to go on with the plan?"
†††† He nodded. "Theyíre ready for when you are."
†††† "Well, then. Hook me up."
†††† The hallway looked just like it had before, with the Directory signs.
†††† "All okay?" asked the smiley face.
†††† "Yep."
†††† "Your brainís used to it now, see? Letís get this over with before you get too hooked on the Ďnet; youíre too good an agent to get stuck here."
†††† I went wandering then, in search of dead sites and wraiths. They were part of the graveyard of the internet: if theyíd been in real life, youíd see gravestones and ghosts all about, past creaky old iron fences . Maybe youíd hear the rustle of the leaves in the wind that howled weirdly. Believe me, itís just as freaky here on a dead site.† You call but no one answers. You look at the remains of the site, the old pictures, some of which are disintegrating as we speak from disuse.† You can read the histories of people, places, things on dead sites, but itís all silent, and it will drive you insane after a while. I only wandered as long as it took to find a wraith. The most obvious site for them was a Chat Room, and I chose a LARP one, since people go in and out of there all the time, leaving a thousand traces. Once I had a wraith, I connected with it and led it back out with me.
†††† I took the wraith to Mel. "Hey, donít you ever give warning?" he asked.
†††† "Nope. Come on, I donít have much time." I outlined what I wanted to do and saw his eyes rise.
†††† He looked at the wraith suspiciously, all in a compact file. "You donít say."
†††† "Yeah. Now I need to know when the next personís coming in."
†††† "Bait."
†††† "Exactly."
†††† I could feel my heart pounding; if this didnít work, Iíd be toast or worse than toast. Mel led me to the secret room again and punched in a few numbers on his tapper. "Okay. We can get them to come here, actually. I just hacked the system so that the next personÖ."
†††† In the next few seconds a couple things happened. A woman in Victorian costume appeared out of nowhere, my smiley face friend tried to contact me, and the wraith went berserk. "Huh?"
†††† "Down!" Mel yelled and yanked me down to the floor, as the departing woman left a wraith and something else appeared with a bang . My own wraith that Iíd dragged with me all the way from the LARP smashed right into it, howling. I didnít know they howled. The entire mess of all three of them disappeared with a bang just then.
†††† "Wow," I said in the remaining silence. I got up off the floor. "It isnít dead, is it?"
†††† He was already poking his tapper again. "Not in the least. It just went into Ė no, itís gone again." He frowned. "Causing some messups in its path. I could track them, but they donít appear dangerous. Theyíll
just shut down a site or two for a while."
†††† "What about the woman?"
†††† He checked. "Sheís fine. Out in the Jamaica For Fun site. Itís a porn site. She seems to have had a client waiting thereÖ."
†††† "Okay, I donít need to know the rest."
†††† "Relax. I was pulling your chain. She IS in the porn site, but she appears to be a cop whoís trying to filter for pedophiles . Sheís alive."
†††† "What about theÖ.?"
†††† Mel grinned. "I think weíve just seen a birth, for better or for worse," he said. "Itíll probably be running around causing some minor havoc on the Ďnet for a while, till it learns whatís what. But at least it isnít killing people accidentally anymore."
†††† "Yeah, Pooty will be thrilled Ė not to mention everyone else," I said and headed for the outer chamber and finally the hard trip back to my smelly world of reality.
†††† Somewhere out there on the internet, thereís a life form, I thought during the months while I cleared up my own wraiths while staying hidden as best I could. The solidity of the streets, the cold chill of a winter breeze, all could be faked by computer interface. And sometimes I had dreams that were impossible to deny as fake ones, though I knew
they must be. The blond doctor whose name Iíll never know told me thatís going to go away after a while, and then Iíll be back to normal.† Though just then, I wasnít sure she would be right about that. Reality has many dimensions in this day and age, it seems.
†††† Whatever is out there on the internet, itís still there, no matter how many different new programs people keep trying to put out to get rid of it. It is a new breed of cryogenics Ė no, not quite that at all. Every so often, as I hear or read something on the news about " oddnesses on the internet these days," I get an urge to be hooked up again, just to
go looking for it. I wonder what if anything it thinks, or feels, about the world into which it was born. Then I take my shoes off and wander through the grass or the sand, and I know I couldnít give that up for a permanent hookup. My world is solid and slow, and I like it that way.†Sunsets, I find, are often much better when you donít plan them.††† Sadly, that is the one thing that the little critter now roaming your internet will never experience.

Votes for: Going In

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