Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Fiction

RedKing

Tain held a pistol toward me. The black gel of the handle pulsed, waiting to be gripped.

“Better take this,” she said.

I shook my head. “I never use them.”

We sat in an unmarked police cruiser, the steering wheel packed away in the dashboard. Tain’s face was a pale shimmer in the cool blue light of the car’s entertainment system. “Your file says you are weapons trained.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I got one of those cannons at home, locked in my kitchen drawer.”

Tain turned slightly toward me. She still held the gun out, her fingers wrapped around the barrel. “You gonna get me killed, code monkey?”

I considered telling her it was quaint to think that protection could be secured with a gun. But instead I told her, “I start waving that around, I’m more likely to shoot you than the perp. Just get me to the machines. That’s how I’m going to help you.”

She thought for a moment, then nodded. “Well, at least you’re a man who knows his limitations.” She turned the pistol around, held it a second so that the gun locked to her hand print, and then she tucked it under her belt at the small of her back.

She dimmed the dash lights. I was running a naked brain—standard procedure for a raid—and so the building, the sidewalk, and the road reduced down to the hard objects that our paltry senses could latch onto: a world without explanations, ominously obscure.

We both leaned forward and looked up at the building before us, eighteen stories of concrete. The once-bright walls had faded to the color of mold. A half-hearted rain began, streaking the grime on its narrow windows.

The clock on the dash read 2:30 a.m. No one in sight. Most of the lights in the building were out now.

“You know the drill?” Tain asked me.

“I know this kid we’re arresting probably wrote RedKing,” I told her. “That’s all I need to know.”

Unsatisfied with this answer, she repeated the rap. “Twenty-seven-year-old male. Got his name legally changed to his code handle: Legion. Five prior convictions for 909.” Design, manufacture, and distribution of cognition-aversive and intentionally addictive software. “No record of violence. But he’s still a killer, so consider him dangerous. We go in fast, my people take him down, and you save what you can from his machines.”

“I know my job.”

“Right.” She pushed open her door. I followed her into the rain, heaving my backpack on. I tightened its straps and then snapped them across my chest.

A Korean food truck, covered with twisting dim snakes of active graffiti, idled across the street. Its back door swung open, and cops in black, holding rifles, poured out.

We ran as a group for the entrance to the tower.

• • • •

A few kids stood in the lobby, smoking, and they turned pale and ran for the stairs when we parted the front doors. Their untied sneakers slapped at the concrete floor. We ignored them, but two cops took position in the lobby to ensure no one left. Tain had a set of elevator keys and she took command of both lifts. We squeezed into the elevator on the left, shoulder to shoulder with four other cops in full gear, their rifles aimed at the ceiling. The smell of leather and gun oil overwhelmed everything else while the LED counter flicked off sixteen flights.

A chime announced our arrival. We made a short run down a dim hall and stopped before a door with an ancient patina of scratched and flaking green paint. The cops hit it with a ram and we filed in quick and smooth. I broke to the left, following half the cops through a dingy common room with a TV left on mute, the flickering images casting a meager glow over an open pizza box on an empty couch.

A door by the TV led to a dark room. Two cops rousted the suspect out of bed and zip tied him in seconds. Legion was a pale, thin kid with trembling, sticklike arms. He gazed around in shock. A woman leapt out of the bed and stood in the corner, shouting, clutching the sheets over her naked body. Somewhere a baby started screaming.

Tain’s cops were good: They moved quietly, not all hyped on adrenaline, and they stayed out of my way as I ran through the apartment, checking each room for machines. But the only computers were in the bedroom: a stack of gleaming liquid-cooled Unix engines atop a cheap, particle board desk. Not heavy iron, but good machines: the kind rich kids bought if they played deep in the game economies.

Legion began to yell, calling for the woman to bring him clothes while two cops dragged him out. The woman screamed also, demanded a lawyer, demanded her baby. I did my best to tune out all that noise, pulled a cable from the side of my backpack, and jacked my field computer straight into the top deck. Data streamed through my eyeplants—the only augmentation I was allowed to run here—and I tapped at a virtual keyboard. In a few seconds I dug under the main shell and started a series of static disk copies. While in there, I ran a top check to show the processes that threaded across the machines: nothing but low level maintenance. Tain’s crew had got Legion before the kid could trigger a wipe.

I turned, found Tain’s eye, and nodded.

“Okay,” she shouted. “Wrap it up.”

• • • •

It started with the gamers. It wasn’t enough to stare at screens any longer. They wanted to be there, in the scene. They wanted to smell and hear the alien planet where they battled evil robots, to feel the steely resolve of their avatar and enjoy her victories and mourn her losses. They wanted it all.

That meant moving hardware into the skull, bypassing the slow crawl of the senses. Once we’d wired our occipital lobes, you could predict the natural progression of commerce: not just visuals, but smell, and sound, and feel, and taste had to come next. So the wires spread through our neocortexes, like the roots of some cognitive weed. Autonomic functions came after, the wires reaching down into the subcortical regions of pleasure and pain, fear and joy. We gave up all the secrets of our brains, and sank the wires ever deeper.

Then people started to wonder, what other kinds of software could you run on this interface?

Pornography, sure. The first and biggest business: orgies raging through the skulls of overweight teenage boys lying alone in their unmade beds.

But after that, people began to demand more extreme experiences. A black market formed. For the buyer, the problem is one of imagination: What would you want to feel and believe, if you could feel and believe anything? For the coders, the problem is one of demand: How can you make the consumer come back again? The solution was as old as software: Write code that erases itself after a use or two, but leaves you desperate to spend money on another copy.

That code was dangerous, but it wasn’t the worst. The worst was written by the coders who did not want money. They were users themselves, or zealots, and their code might just stick around. It might not want to go.

RedKing was a program like that. RedKing was as permanent as polio. And RedKing made people kill.

• • • •

When we got outside, a dozen press drones hovered over the street.

“Damn,” Tain said. “How do they find us so fast?”

“Hey, code monkey!” a voice called. We turned and saw a short, thin woman, with very short dark hair. Drones buzzed above her, filming her every move as she hurried toward us.

“Ellison,” I said, “what brings you to this side of town?”

She had a big mouth that probably could produce a beautiful smile, but she never smiled. Instead, her voice was sharp and quick. “You got a statement? A statement for Dark Fiber? This have anything to do with RedKing?”

“No statement,” Tain said.

“Come on, code monkey,” Ellison said, ignoring Tain. “You gotta give me something.”

“I’ll catch you later,” I said.

“He will not catch you later,” Tain said. She took my elbow. “No press,” she hissed at me. She slapped a small news drone that flew too close. It smacked into the pavement and shuddered, struggling to lift off again. We stepped over it.

“Ellison has helped me out a few times,” I told Tain as we walked away. “And sometimes I help her out.”

“While you’re working for me, you only help me out. And the only person that helps you out is me.”

We got in the car.

• • • •

At the station, they gave me a desk pressed into a windowless corner by the fire exit, under a noisy vent blowing cold air. The aluminum desk’s surface was scarred as if the prior owner stabbed it whenever police business slowed. I was filling in for their usual code monkey, and I got the impression they didn’t aspire to see me again after this job. I didn’t care. The desk had room for my machine and Legion’s stack of machines, the cold air was good for the processors, and I wouldn’t have time to look out a window anyway.

Within an hour I had scanned Legion’s machines twice over, mapped out every bit and byte, dug through all the personal hopes and dreams of the scrawny guy now shivering in the interrogation room.

I sighed and went looking for Tain. I wandered the halls until I found the observation room with a two-way mirror looking in on the suspect. Tain stood over him.

“She’s been in there a while,” one of the cops standing before the window told me between sips of coffee.

“I want my lawyer,” the kid said. His voice sounded hollow and distant through the speaker. He sat in a metal chair, and I wondered if he knew it measured his autonomic functions while he talked. Some people refused to sit when they got in an interrogation room.

“You made your call. Your lawyer’s on her way.” Tain bent forward. Her strong arms strained at the narrow sleeves of her coat as she laid a tablet on the table. Even from a distance, we could see the tablet displayed the picture the news had been running all week: a teenage kid with brown disheveled hair, smiling with perfect teeth. He looked innocent, and maybe rich.

Legion glanced down. “I’m not saying anything till I get my lawyer.”

Tain pointed at the picture. “Phil Jackson.”

“I had nothing to do with that.”

“With what?” Tain asked, with exaggerated innocence.

“I watch the news.”

“I didn’t take you for someone who watches the news, Legion.” Tain tapped the tablet decisively. “Seventeen. Doing fine in school. Lonely, but what high school kid doesn’t think he’s lonely, right? So little Phil Jackson loads a copy of RedKing into his head. Spends a week delirious, happy maybe, thinking he’s king of the world—who knows what it makes him think? Then he cuts his mother’s throat, hits his father with the claw of a hammer, and jumps off the roof.”

Legion looked up at Tain and smirked. Tain became as taut as a spring. She wanted to hit him. And Legion wanted her to hit him. It would provide great fodder for his lawyer.

But she held her fists. Legion waited, then said softly, as if he could barely manage to stay awake, “I told you, I watch the news.”

“What they didn’t tell you on the news, Legion, is that we got the code out of that kid’s implants, and our code monkeys decompiled it, and you know what they found? Big chunks of stuff written by you. Unmistakable provenience. Big heaps of Legion code.” Tain let her voice grow soft and reasonable. “We’ve got fifty-four confirmed casualties for this virus. It’s only going to get worse. And the worse it gets—the more people that commit crimes or hurt themselves—the worse it’s going to be for you, Legion.”

He clamped his jaw and mumbled, “My lawyer.”

“I’ll go get her for you. You sit here and look at the kid that your code killed.”

Tain kicked the door. The cop outside opened it. In a second she was around the corner and when she saw me she walked up close.

“Tell me what you got, code monkey.”

“Nothing,” I told her.

Her heavy black brows drew together over her pale, inset eyes. I held up my hands defensively.

“Hey, no one wants to find the raw code for RedKing more than I do. But I’ve scanned every bit of his machines, and I got next to nothing.”

• • • •

Tain dragged me to her office, her grip tight on my elbow, and closed the door.

“You saying your division made a mistake when they linked this guy to the code?”

I sat down on a hard metal chair by the door. Tain followed my example and flopped back into the chair behind her desk. It squeaked and rolled back.

“No. There’s code on Legion’s machines that is unique and that matches identically big chunks of the RedKing program. But there isn’t a lot there. And it’s . . . general.”

“What do you mean? What kind of code?”

I hesitated. “A toolkit. For running genetic algorithms.”

“What’s that doing in there?”

I frowned. “I’m not sure yet. I have a hunch, and it’s not good news. I’d rather follow up a little, study the code, before I say more.”

“Don’t take too long. So why isn’t this toolkit enough to convict?”

“Hackers tend to give toolkits away, on some user board or other. You can bet he’ll claim he did, first time we ask about the details.”

Tain frowned in disgust. “You see the autonomics on that kid while I was interrogating him? He flatlined everything. Skin response. Heart rate. Temperature and breathing. All unchanging. He fears nothing, he cares about nothing.”

“Oh,” I said, “he cares about one thing. His credibility. That’s what’s driving him.”

“Okay, fair enough. You code types have your whole thing with cred. But what I’m trying to say is, the guy is a classic psychopath.”

I nodded. “He’s a bad guy. But can we prove he’s our bad guy?”

She stared at the image on her active wall: mountains at the edge of a long green prairie. It was surprisingly serene for this nervously energetic woman.

“I got nothing,” she mused. “He’s not gonna talk; psychopaths don’t break under threat. My code monkey can’t link him to RedKing. And we don’t know what RedKing does or why it made a kid kill his own mother. We’ve identified dozens of infected people, and they all acted differently.”

I let that hang a long time before I stated the obvious. “Only one thing to try now. I load it up and see what I can tell from running the copy we got in quarantine.”

Tain leaned her head forward and looked at me through her dark eyebrows. “You know why we called you in? Why you’re here? Our usual code monkey is on extended leave. She fried her head trying just that.”

“Occupational hazard,” I said.

“Don’t tough guy me. My father was a cop, and my grandfather. When they busted a heroin ring, they didn’t go home and shoot smack to try to understand addiction from the inside.”

“It’s not the same,” I said.

“Looks the same to me.”

“All right, maybe it is. But what if, what if there was a new drug every week, all the time, and you couldn’t know what it would do to people—what it would make people do—if you didn’t just try it. Then I bet your grandfather, or your father, would have shot up. Because they wanted to fight it, right? And they needed to know how to fight.”

“Bullshit,” she said. But she didn’t say anything more. She didn’t say no.

• • • •

They put me in a conference room, bare white walls, a table that tipped back and forth if you leaned on it. Tain stared at me, her jaw working, while the tech brought me a memory stick. I slotted it into my field deck immediately, not wanting to give Tain time to change her mind. I’d set up a buffer and then a process echo, so my deck could record everything that was happening.

I plugged straight into my skulljack and in a few seconds I copied the code over into my implants.

“I got an interface,” I said. “Pretty simple.”

A single sentence appeared in my visual field. Do you want to be King? it asked. I looked at the word yes and willed it to click, giving it permission to run on my brain OS.

A rush of colors washed over me. I felt cold, exhilarated, as if I fell down a bright well of light. I think I shouted in something like joy.

Then it was over. There stood Tain, her eyebrows up in an expression of alarm mixed with disapproval.

“How long?” I asked.

“Long? You just plugged in.”

I frowned.

“Well?” Tain asked.

“It’s . . .” I thought about it. “After the initial rush it’s nothing. Nothing yet, anyways. I don’t know.”

I looked around, meeting Tain’s eyes, then the eyes of the cop waiting bored by the door. I did have a slight sense that maybe I felt a little . . . tenuous. But it was nothing definite. It’s hard when you are waiting to hallucinate. You tend to start to work yourself into a psychedelic state if you try too hard to expect one.

“Let me clear the buffer and start it up again.”

I took a deep breath and did it. We waited a while. “Nothing,” I said.

Tain sighed. “Bad batch of code? Maybe they sent you the neutralized compile.”

I shrugged.

“All right,” she said. “Shut it down. Look over your sample again, see if something is wrong with it. I’ll call Code Isolation and see if they sent you the wrong sample.”

We pulled the plugs. Someone knocked at the door. “Stay here,” Tain said. She went out into the hall and the other cop followed her.

I lifted my deck off the table. That’s when I realized my deck’s wireless had been left on.

• • • •

I slipped out of the conference room and walked quickly back to my desk, trying to stay calm. Or at least trying to appear calm. When I set my deck down I looked back. The door to my office was open, showing the long hall that stretched all the way to the center of the building, a corridor that diminished into infinity. And, along the sides of the hall, it seemed every cop in the building stood, hand on holster, looking at me. And down the center of the hall came Tain.

I turned and hit the crash bar to the emergency exit next to my desk. As I passed through, I cracked the red fire alarm crystal by the door. An alarm began to shriek.

“Stop!” Tain shouted. I didn’t look back to see if she aimed a gun at me. I threw the door shut and ran down the steps.

• • • •

I was on the street before they could get word out to stop me. The fire alarm was painfully loud, causing a lot of confusion. A few cops milled by the station’s front steps, wondering if the alarm was a drill or mistake. I walked past them and to the block’s corner. When I turned out of sight, I ran.

By the time I reached the subway steps my chest hurt and a sharp stitch slowed me to a hobble. I’m a code monkey, not a runner. But I made it down inside, hair lifted by the stink of hot air that a coming train pushed out of the dark. I turned all my implants on, wanting to get the full input now. I mustered a last burst of energy and slipped down the next set of steps and onto the train just as its doors shuddered closed.

Only a handful of people sat in the car. No one met my gaze. Still. Someone here could be undercover. Hard to know. I stared around, wondering what I should do next. If the whole department was infected, what would be the right course of action? Report to Code Isolation? That would be procedure. Only, I thought, I should get myself secure first. I needed a place to hide. I needed my gun.

• • • •

It was easy to outsmart them. It would be foolish for me to go home, but then they’d know it was foolish for me to go home, and so they wouldn’t look for me at home.

So I went home. I took the back door, the one that opened onto the parking lot for the few of us with cars. A short elevator ride, a few steps down an empty hall, and I pushed my way into my apartment.

In the kitchen, under the pale LEDs of my undercounter light, I keyed open my safety drawer. My gun sat with my passport and some spare cash. I picked it up and held it. The grip vibrated once to tell me it recognized me. I stuck it into my coat pocket.

Time to go. No sense in pushing my luck. I was smarter than all of them, sure, but even idiots could fall into fortune. So: I reconsidered. Should I report to Code Isolation? As I thought about it, the idea paled. Code Isolation had sent me the program I’d run on my deck. They had to have known my deck would transmit it. They were likely infected already.

I’d have to solve this on my own. And I could. It was just a matter of recognizing that anyone, everyone could be my enemy—and then outsmarting them all. I felt a thrill of excitement, a soaring determination. Because I realized I could do it. I could trick them all.

First step would be to lose myself in a crowd.

• • • •

The Randomist was a noisy bar half a block from my apartment building. I’d walked by it hundreds of times but had never gone in. The boisterous cheerfulness of the crowd, the painful sense that one had to be very hip to fit in, had alienated me immediately the few times I’d considered stopping for a quick drink. But now I went directly in under the electric blue archway.

I got a beer at the bar, something local and artisanal with a silly name. The bartender slid it to me but smiled insincerely. “Hey, buddy, how about turning it down a little?”

“What the hell you talking about?” I asked.

“You’ve got your implants turned all the way out. It’s hard to walk past you, you’re broadcasting so much. And what is it you’re blasting? Some kind of program? That’s not cool.”

“Drop dead,” I told him. I took my drink and turned away, all the hairs on my neck raised. He might work for the cops, I realized. An informant for the infected precinct. I might have to shoot him.

But the crowd swallowed me instantly, and I relaxed. Forget the bartender. He couldn’t see me or get me in this dense mass of people.

Bumping shoulder to shoulder as I pushed through, I felt a great worry lift. The cops would never find me in here. And I loved this crowd, with their implants humming all around me invitingly.

There was a beautiful girl in the back, standing alone, waiting for someone. I decided she was waiting for me.

“You’re a loud one,” she said, as I walked up.

“I like to speak my mind,” I said.

“More like shout it.”

But she didn’t leave. I leaned in close.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Sparrow. What’s that you’re broadcasting, anyway? You an ad? One of those walking ads? Come on, turn down your broadcast. I’m serious. It’s too much.”

I shook my head. “Let me tell you what I do, Sparrow. I’m a cop. But a special kind of cop. I protect people from the only real threat, the threat of their computers and their implants going bad. I’m fantastic at it. I’m the smartest person in the world.”

“Yeah? You don’t look like a cop.”

“I could show you my gun.” I put my hand in my pocket and felt the handle thrum against my palm.

She frowned, not sure if I had intended some dirty joke. She pointed over my shoulder. “Now she, she looks like a cop.”

I turned. Tain stood there, a few steps away, under a red light. She was all shadows and angles in the dim focused glare. Her hand was at her hip.

I scanned the room. People were starting to freeze in place and fall quiet as seven uniforms filed in. I counted them slowly. Then an eighth. Then a ninth, slipping behind the bar.

There were seventeen rounds in my gun. I could shoot all these cops and still have seven rounds left. I pulled my gun from my jacket pocket.

Tain’s hand didn’t move, but Sparrow screamed as a blur shot forward and two darts stuck into my chest. My body went rigid as a current slammed my nerves into overdrive.

I heard my gun clatter on the hard floor. I blacked out.

• • • •

When I came to, someone was sitting on me.

No, that wasn’t it. My hands. My hands were strapped down. And something gripped my head. A hat or helmet. I opened my eyes.

A white room. A hospital room. The sharp stink of disinfectant wafted over me. Every muscle in my body ached. Tain stood nearby, talking to a doc in a white coat. Behind her a big window was black with night, mirroring the white room back at us. A code monkey stood behind Tain, field deck strapped on her back. Stepin, a field agent specializing in brain system wipes. She was short and broad shouldered, with a calm but distracted look that made it seem she was always thinking hard about something distant and slightly sad.

“They got you, too,” I said.

Stepin looked over at me.

“Who got me?” she asked.

I looked at Tain. “Her. The others in the precinct. They’re contaminated with RedKing. You can’t trust them. If you’re not infected, step away from her, Stepin. Get me out of this. I’m the only person who can stop this. I can fix everything.”

Tain took a step forward. “How do you think we got contaminated? You’re the one who loaded up the RedKing.”

“My computer’s transmitter was on,” I said, looking at Stepin because it was useless to appeal to Tain. Tain would be gone now, inhuman. “I thought I was loading the virus but instead I was transmitting it.”

“Put him under,” Stepin said. “I’ve got to do a complete OS replacement. It’ll take me a few hours.”

The doctor stepped forward and adjusted my IV. A huge weight closed down on my eyes. As the darkness fell, I heard Stepin say to me softly, “Field computers don’t have transmitters. You know that.”

• • • •

When I woke, I was alone in the room. The straps lay open, my wrists and legs freed. Sunlight streamed through the window at a nearly vertical angle. I’d been here a long while, asleep on tranqs. I had a bad headache but otherwise felt normal. I opened my brain menus, and found they worked fine, although the arrangement was all factory normal. I logged into my work desktop and began to review my notes.

Some program had detected my waking, because in a few minutes a nurse brought me food, and then an hour after that Tain arrived, wearing new clothes.

We looked at each other. I chewed air, trying to get started on an apology. Tain let me struggle a while, before she nodded once. She pulled up a chair.

“All right, code monkey, just tell me what happened. We knew something was wrong when you left the test room.”

“RedKing is subtle,” I told her, relieved to be talking about code. “First, it convinces you that nothing has changed. And that remains throughout: I literally could not even imagine that I was running the virus in my head. I don’t know how it inhibits such a basic belief, but it does it very well. That’s a breakthrough of some kind. We’ll have to study it very carefully and—”

“Don’t tell me your research plans,” Tain interrupted. “Tell me what it does.”

“Right. It made me paranoid of anyone who might be a threat to the virus. I think my brain tried to make sense of my irrational fear of you and the others, and so I concluded you had the virus. I probably invented the idea that my computer had transmitted it in order to explain my fear to myself. Also, I began to feel . . . smart. Super intelligent. I became convinced that I could solve any problem. That I was smarter than anyone.”

“You were reaching for your pistol when I tazed you.”

I nodded. “I meant to shoot you all. It was . . . bizarre. I didn’t see you as people. I saw you as puzzles. Puzzles to be solved by my brilliant mind.”

Tain leaned back. Her jaw worked a while as she thought it through. Finally, she said, “So, what we have is code that convinces you that you are a genius, and makes you paranoid, and makes you see other human beings as worthless.”

I sighed. “It’s worse than that.”

“How?”

“Two things. First, I think I tried to spread it last night. To transmit it.”

“It’s too much code to transmit implant to implant.”

“I’m not sure. I think there might be a workaround, to make people call it up off of some servers. You have to test everyone in that bar.”

She stood, shoving her chair back. “Damn. We’ll have to act fast.”

“Get me out of here and I can help. We can get a court order to trace the bar charges and track everyone down.”

“Damn,” Tain repeated. She got a faraway look as she started transmitting orders from her implants. “What a mess. We’re back where we started, and things are even worse.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “If I’m right, and the program loads from another server, then that’s a weakness. If we can find someone infected, and can find the address that they downloaded RedKing from, we can find Legion’s hidden servers.”

“All right. That’s something. So what’s your second bit of bad news?”

“I’ve been reviewing the decompile, and I’ve confirmed my hunch. But before I explain that, I want to see Legion. We need to set up a meeting with him.”

“Why?”

Before I could answer, the door to the room banged open. Ellison strode in. “Hey, code monkey, you sick or something?” She looked at Tain, made it clear that she was not impressed by the lieutenant, and looked back at me. “Or you get shot? That’d be newsworthy, if you got shot.”

“You will get out of here right now,” Tain said.

“Hey, is that any way to treat a guest? I was invited.”

Tain glared at me. I held up a hand to urge her to wait a minute.

To Ellison I said, “I got something for that crappy blog of yours.”

“Blog. Yeah, really funny, code monkey. I never heard that one before. But Dark Fiber magazine gets more hits in an hour than there are cops in America. So don’t misunderstand who has the clout in this relationship.”

“I got something about RedKing.”

Ellison immediately looked cagey. She gave Tain a sidelong glance. “Okay. I’m interested.”

“Of course you are. Only: We don’t have the whole story yet. But I can tell some of it. An important part of our investigation, let’s say.”

“You’re asking me to help you get a piece of the story out. All right: Can you promise that I’ll be first to get the whole story when you put it together?”

“Tain,” I said, “set up that meeting we were talking about. Because you and I will be ready in a few hours.”

• • • •

There were four of us now in the small interrogation room. I sat across from Legion, in one of the metal chairs. Both Tain and Legion’s lawyer stood. Everyone eyed me suspiciously.

“My client has already made a statement,” Legion’s lawyer said.

“To me,” Tain said. “But our code security agent would like to ask a few questions.”

“My client does not have to answer any more questions.”

“No. But he can listen to them, can’t he?”

Silence. Legion looked around the room, feigning boredom. Finally his eyes settled on me. I met his gaze and held it.

“RedKing is brilliant code,” I said. “A small packet can be transmitted head to head and make a network call for the rest of the code.”

“That’s been done before,” Legion said.

The lawyer stepped closer. “Mr. Legion, I strongly advise you to say nothing.”

I nodded. “But the way it tricks implants into seeing RedKing as an operating system upgrade—that’s very good. I didn’t know such a thing could be done. But that’s not the special thing.” I glanced at Tain to let her know that this was my second bit of bad news. “The special thing is that it mutates. That code we found on your machines? A genetic algorithm toolkit. You wrote RedKing to mutate. As it spreads itself, it changes a little bit each time it’s copied. That’s why its operational profile is so variable. Eventually, there’ll be a version that probably won’t kill people—after all, dead users can’t transmit the code—but it will just spread and spread. If your program works, it’ll be the most influential, the most important virus ever written. It’s historic.”

Legion smiled. “Why tell me about this?”

“You read Dark Fiber?”

“I read lots of things.”

I set a tablet on the table and turned it around. The cover of Dark Fiber blared a headline in big letters: REDKING CULPRITS FOUND?: POLICE SUSPECT CRIMEAN HACKER GROUP VEE.

Legion flinched. For the first time, his mocking smile faded as he read a few lines of the news story.

I leaned forward. “Here’s what’s before you.” I held up a finger. “Option one. Admit you wrote RedKing. You can plead that you never knew it would be dangerous. The fact that you confessed will count in your favor. You’ll get a few years, and you’ll keep some net privileges. But—here’s the important point—you’ll be immortalized as the creator of the greatest brain hack ever.”

I held up a second finger. “Or, option two. Deny you wrote RedKing. Maybe we can’t convict you, maybe we can—let’s call it fifty-fifty odds. But if you walk free or you go to prison, either way, you lose your chance for the world’s biggest cred upgrade. You’ll have given up immortality for a fifty percent chance of escaping a few years Upstate.”

“I think my client has heard enough,” the lawyer said. She pulled at Legion’s sleeve, but the kid did not move. Tain held her breath.

“Vee can’t hack,” Legion said.

“You and I know they’re just some teenage thugs whose only skill is to steal credit info off old ladies. But this story has been picked up by a dozen other news companies. Reporters can’t tell a real hacker from a kid wearing a mask. And Vee was delighted to claim credit. They’ve already released a confession video.”

“Only I could have written RedKing.”

I nodded.

“Mr. Legion,” the lawyer growled, “I have to advise you that—”

“Only me,” Legion said.

Tain exhaled.

• • • •

“You get everyone from the bar?” I asked Tain. We sat in her office, looking at her wall screen image of mountains.

She nodded. “Only one has proven infected, a young woman. Stepin is working on tracing back the code.”

“I’m sorry I caused so much trouble.”

“Getting Legion to talk has made up for some of it. How did you know he would crack?”

“It’s a coder thing. Once I’d experienced RedKing, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime hack. No one like Legion would be able to stand someone else taking credit for it.”

“And how is your friend Ellison going to take it when she discovers your story about Vee was bogus?”

“Ellison will be fine as long as she gets to break the story that Legion confessed. She’ll be better than fine: We gave her two good stories, and one of them was even true.”

Tain cracked a smile that broke into a laugh. But it died quickly.

“What will it be like, if thousands of people get this virus? Maybe thousands already have it. It’s the end of goddamn civilization.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just this week’s threat. With any luck we can contain RedKing.”

“And then the next brainvirus will come along.”

I nodded. “It’s a race.”

Tain squinted. “You got kids, code monkey?”

“No.”

“I got a kid. Four years old. A second on the way.”

“Congratulations.”

“Yeah. But I swear, you know what, as soon as I put in my time, earn my pension, I’m going to get the wife and move out to Montana.” She gestured at the wall image. “And there, I’ll never get the implants in my kids. I’ll make sure they live in the real world.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “Me, I’m not much use at anything but coding.”

She grunted. “You wanna stick around awhile? Our old code monkey, she’s moving to a desk job at Code Isolation.”

“All right.”

She reached into a drawer and pulled out a big pistol. It fell on her desk with a heavy thud.

“Only, put your damn gun back in your kitchen drawer and lock it up before you hurt somebody.”

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Craig DeLancey

Craig DeLancey

Craig DeLancey is a writer and philosopher. He has published dozens of short stories in magazines like Analog, Cosmos, Shimmer, and Nature Physics. His novel Gods of Earth is available now with 47North Press. He also writes plays, many of which have received staged readings and performances in New York, Los Angeles, Melbourne, and elsewhere. Born in Pittsburgh, PA, he lives now in upstate New York and, in addition to writing, teaches philosophy at Oswego State, part of the State University of New York (SUNY).