The last few weeks have been hectic. I’ve finished five shorts, including a requested story for an anthology, and finished the latest edits on my most recent novel Gamers. I still have to type in the edits and write my submission package, but that shouldn’t be too bad, just time consuming.
So after an afternoon of playing in the snow with the kids, I plopped down in front of the TV and a nice fire with my wife Rachel to watch Championship Sunday for the NFL. At this point, I’m rooting for anyone but the Jets, as Rex Ryan is crass and Sanchez is over-rated (sorry, Mr. Martin, but it’s true!)
Part of me wants to expand on the discussion on the WOTF forums about writer habits and creativity, but I think the argument has played out. Instead, I’ll treat you to the first chapter of The Digital Sea. If you like it, you can find it in my bookstore in various formats.
The Ghost Assassin (Chapter One of The Digital Sea)
He licked the nanoblade in a deliberate motion. It was the only way to get it clean. His muscles twitched, and with a light snap, the blade was sheathed and tucked into a vest pocket. He felt—quick as a nanoblade. Yes, that was it. He could feel it in his sinewy muscles.
He chose a tight fitting black outfit, admiring the way it clung, and brought out his muscular tone. Even though no one would see it, he smoothed the wrinkles. Instead, they would see an overly tanned businessman with graying hair too busy trading in his personal stock space to be bothered. The kind annoying enough no one wanted to stare at too long.
“Mal’ak ha-mashhit,” he whispered in Hebrew, though he was not one of them.
The hotel room was a tomb of luxurious marble covered in ancient tapestries. He could run the length of the room, do a double back handspring and have room to spare. Sharp light pierced through the clear panes of the stained glass illuminating the massive bed, which still sagged in the middle. Everything was real, except him.
Without a sign, he dropped to his knees and flipped off his connection to the Sea, scanning the room. If a rival could slip a counter-program into his system, then they could hide beneath the digital rendering, and he’d be forced to believe the illusion. Most likely to his demise.
The mesh of the net that draped over the world disappeared. The lack of change in his room was startling. Normally, such reality checks exposed a dirty, decaying world. On the streets, he liked to walk without the outer layer on, seeing the filth beneath—women missing most of their teeth, women that were really men, emaciated men hiding behind a fantasy life too scared to see the truth.
He finished his survey of the room, confident nothing lurked. The nature of his business forced him to be ever-vigilant. The outer layer rose back up surrounding him as efficiently as it had disappeared.
He stepped over the black high-heel Darycki shoe lying next to the bed, fingering the bulge in his vest. He sighed deeply. The job would be disappointing, unsatisfying in its simplicity. He felt like a sledgehammer, when a whisper would do the same job. The assassin cleaned the room, removing all traces of the night’s entertainment.
Footfalls echoed as he stalked down the hallway. He sent a note to the desk requiring his personal items, including the large chest, to be sent a hotel in Mumbai.
A few hundred meters from the hotel, as he walked down the steps to the Meijo line, he modified his personal information, the outmod, so that he would be seen as a middle-aged Japanese salaryman shuffling down the street with his head bowed down. The salaryman was just a cog. Not to be noticed. Instead of a confident gait, he broke his step into a shuffle where as before his face had exuded an annoyed ambivalence, now it was the blank stare of homogeneity.
He smiled under his digital mask, thinking of assassins of century’s past, smearing ash and ointments on their faces to disguise themselves. Now a thought changed appearances, and to see behind the mask, they had only to turn off the Digital Sea, but humanity was much too immersed to give up the illusion.
His trickery involved more than a change of appearances. Simple detective work could see a person changing from one to the next, but a digital version of the salaryman had been walking around the streets and living his life in Nagoya for a few weeks, virtually, until he walked down the steps and the assassin stepped into his persona as if he was inhabiting a ghost.
He fell into the wave of people flowing toward the open doors, and was swept inside, huddling against the side to avoid the press of people in the center. The busy train surprised him, since Nagoya, like most major cities, was on the decline. Fingertips explored chipped paint on the wall while the digital wall looked pristine.
An advertisement sprang to life in the form of an attractive Japanese woman above the press of people as the subway train rattled back and forth. In his stock broker guise, he could have easily blocked out the ad, but a salaryman didn’t have the kind of disposable income needed to suppress the ad since the subway was sponsored by Ecoverse. So he endured it.
“Sumimasen,” a polite Japanese woman said as she bowed deeply.
Immediately his ARNet translated the words.
“My most humble apologies, Wantanabe-san, for disturbing you on your wonderful trip. Our sponsors, Ecoverse, would like to take a brief moment out of your ride to explain the glories of our products. Our humble programmers have created a host of mods to enhance your life. We notice you have an older version of YenManager and KatoKatcher. If you wish to upgrade, please acknowledge the marker placed in your nimbus layer. Remember the Ecoverse motto, Conservation through digitization.”
He scanned the riders: old, young, students, mothers. Mostly dark hair, except for a few wide-eyed foreigners along the far bench unknowingly taking up too much space. He did not pity them. They were sheep waiting in their digital cages, too numb to care, waiting for the slaughter. He was the Angel of Death among them.
The train lurched to a stop. He slipped out of the doors ahead of the masses. The arrows pointed down the concrete hallways to the Higashiyama line, but he went the other way. As he crested the stairs, the sunlight broke through the clouds briefly illuminating the city around him. He stood at Sakaemachi Station. Reaching to the sky before him, the Nagoya Tower straddled the Hisaya Ondari Park.
A strange hillbilly music drifted upon him. To his left stood a large blue fountain full of geysers that sprung from stone dolphins. Arrayed on the street side of the fountain, a dozen youths gyrated around on the bricks. He was familiar with such places. Youth congregated to showcase their allegiance—cosplay, yoshinko, debutante, Goth, furry; including styles he’d never heard of, and probably only existed for a few days. The young men strutted around with huge bulbous coifed hair. His ARNet whispered they were a form of Elvis impersonators of his early years. The assassin hadn’t heard of him.
Across the street more performers strutted, cloaking themselves in outrageous styles only possible in the Sea. The performer before him defied classification, proving the point that physics didn’t matter in a digital world. He had transformed himself into a living squeeze box. His arms and legs were accordions and his hands drum tips. As he danced, music issued forth with fat notes floating upwards like soap bubbles. Around him, constructed of the digital mesh, drums hung in the air and were also set into the street. Drum tip hands pounded out the beat on the imaginary drums, as his arms and legs gyrated. The dancer’s mod projected the music out to all those nearby. He listened for a dozen heartbeats, then blocked the signal.
Only fools dance in the street.
He drew the veil back to watch him gyrating around with arms splayed out like a child’s doll hung from a dog’s mouth. The cracked concrete beneath his feet made him grin. Even the Nagoya tower had an orange mixture of rust and mold snaking up the supports. Everywhere it rotted. Beneath his mask, he sneered, licking his lips. The putrefaction of the world could not be avoided.
Seven billion people couldn’t be pruned in a century without good roots being chopped. Those noble politicians had saved the world by enacting Sagan’s Law, and reversed the millennium’s old climb of the common people with a dash of ink.
Even their efficient markets that had helped the common folk rise from the gutters had been turned against them, once the world started trading population bonds. Countries could earn a profit by conveniently losing a few hundred thousand people.
I am God’s scythe, set among the field to cut the chaff from the wheat.
The assassin realized he was not walking with the hesitant gait of the salaryman, but instead he stalked up the street. He didn’t care. It wasn’t a subtle job.
The sounds of the rally wafted over the youth loitering in the spaces between the streets. He was blocks away from the Nagoya Tower. A gaggle of young Japanese girls dressed in the styles of their favorite anime characters huddled around a small bench. An impulse consumed him like a flame as he discretely removed the nanoblade from his vest pocket.
An agitation had been building in him. There should be foreplay in death, not precision. His benefactors had made it clear the manner of the job. It still made him sick. He was an artist, not a machine.
He slowed his gait. A girl on the edge of the group dug into a clutch purse. She wore an angular, militaristic uniform with a short skirt, all in purple. His ARNet whispered she was dressed as Murasaki Kisaki—The Purple Queen. He could feel himself go stiff. O’ Gabriel how you flaunt your duties.
As he neared, he feigned to drop something. He relied on her culture to supply the next action. Her lips pursed in a little ‘o’. He pointed to her feet, and she followed his fingers and bent down to look. The assassin moved in close. She smelled like peaches.
He leaned in to pick up the non-existent object, bumping into her. The blade had a phallic curve, thin as a whisper, and it penetrated her clothes. She didn’t notice the cut, as he slipped down the street, and wouldn’t until later when she would find a small slice in her shirt above her hip.
His impulse had been foolish, and he had played it as far as it could go, but he had felt a hunger. The tension loosened. The crowd formed around the base of the tower. The barking speech of a politician shot across the crowd in staccato pulses. He silenced it before his system attempted to translate. The words wouldn’t matter much longer.
What I suffer for my art, he thought, then closed his eyes, and sent a signal to a far away place with his mind. Though he couldn’t hear it, or see it, he imagined a great machine, full of steel and sprockets, starting up, even though it was probably a bank of quantum computers humming in the cold dark. The effect would be immediate, they told him.
It was difficult to fool one person, to invade their system and distort reality without notice. It was the magician’s trick. To draw the eye away so the card could be hidden. Two people became more complicated, but he could do it with ease. Adding additional people made the trick exponentially harder. He had once twisted the veil with five, not for long, just enough to cut them all before they realized he wasn’t the waiter, and before they could realize they were dead. But they had been paying attention to their menu. And he had only needed to hide the blade, the motion and the slumping of the body.
To actually hide something within the Sea was considered impossible. Rumors of a ghost program, powerful enough to break into many systems en-mass and confuse them to create true invisibility had been around as long as the Digital Sea. But those were just rumors. Every assassin in his line of work had toyed with the rumor, researching the possibilities, but once the math of it became clear, they gave up.
He strode through the edge of the crowd, deftly avoiding everyone, the nanoblade held playfully in his fingertips. A few might have sensed something, but at most they considered it the wind at their neck. He never would have thought they could make a machine powerful enough to push through so many security systems, to reweave that many views of reality, including the security cameras all around the tower. Yet, he strolled up the path, stepping around the guard.
He didn’t know what the man had done, or was going to do. It wasn’t his business to ask. The politician stood at a short podium in his gray suit, shouting at the crowd with one fist raised, pumping at the sky. The assassin drew up to him. It was a queer feeling standing in front a crowd without being seen. He turned to the crowd, hundreds of faces staring at the politician next to him. Not knowing death so near.
The assassin lifted his arm up slowly, measuring the distance, then pushed his own mod into the politician’s system. The crowd couldn’t see what he had seen, but they saw his reaction. One moment, the politician was shouting, the next he gasped, holding his arms out in front of him, as if he had seen a ghost, then his head fell off.