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Authors: Pat Cadigan

Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Literary, #Computer hackers, #Virtual reality

Synners

Synners
by
Pat Cadigan

HarperCollin
s Publishers
77-85 Fulham Palace Road Hammersmith, London W6 8JB

Published by HarperCollins
Publishers
1991 9 8 7 6
5
4 3 2 1

First published in the USA by Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1991 Copyright © 1991 Pat Cadigan The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBNO 246 13755 X Set in Caledonia Printed in Great Britain by Hartnolls Ltd. Bodmin,Cornwall

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in anv form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I could not have gotten through this project without the support of Mike and Rosa Banks. Besides sharing the broad range of his technical knowledge of computers and nets, Mike dropped everything to recover thirty pages of text that a failing disk drive had chomped into garbage, while Rosa dosed me with sanity, wisdom, and several jokes I'd never heard before. You had to be there—I'm grateful they were.

I am also grateful to Ralph Roberts for graciously allowing me an advance look at his book
Computer Viruses
(Compute!) at the very moment I needed it most.

A thank-you to Pat LoBrutto for his patience and care as an editor; to Shawna McCarthy for believing in the first place; and to Betsy Mitchell for getting me home in one piece. Also to Lou Aronica for consideration and good advice.

And many, many thanks to: Ellen Datlow (for Manhattan after dark, among other things), my agent Merrilee Heifetz, Bruce and Nancy Sterling, Lew and Edie Shiner, Barb Loots, Howard "Uncle Chowder" Waldrop, Sherry Gershon Gottlieb, Jim Loehr, Fred Duarte and Karen Meschke, Michael Swanwick and Marianne Porter and Sean, Lisa Tallarico (for the pump), Jeannie Hund (for knowing), Ed Graham, Barry Malzberg (for the fun part), Kathy McAndrew Griffin (for phrasing the coin), Suzanne Heins (for sushi lunches), The Nova Expressions, Robert Haas, Mark Ziesing, Andy "Sahib" Watson, Tom Abellera (for Godel), Eileen Gunn and John Berry and Angela (for tower accommodations), Patricia "Spike" Parsons, Alan Wexelblat and Jennie Faries, the Delphi Wednesday-Nighters, the Rochester, NY Creative FIST, Malcolm Edwards, James Gunn, Paul Novitski (for food and ferryboats), Gary Knight and Kim Fairchild (for letting me play with their toys), my inlaws George and Marguerite Fenner, my mother Helen S. Kearney, and my husband Arnie Fenner and our son Bobby (for everything).

1

"I'm going to die," said Jones.

The statuesque tattoo artist paused between the lotuses she was applying to the arm of the space case lolling half-conscious in the chair. "What, again?"

"Don't laugh at me, Gator." Jones ran a skeletal hand through his nervous-breakdown hair.

"Who's laughing? Do you see me laughing?" She shifted on her high stool and held her subject's arm closer to the lamp. The lotus job was especially difficult, as it had to merge into a preexisting design, and her eyes were already strained from a full night's work. "I don't laugh at anyone who dies as often as you do. You know, someday your adrenal system is gonna tell you to fuck off, and you won't be back. Maybe someday real soon."

"Just as well." Jones turned from the skull-and-roses design he'd been looking at pinned to the wall of the tent. "Keely's gone."

Gator lifted the needle and dabbed at the decorated flesh, frowning. The cases on the Mimosa generally had terrible skin, but they were docile enough to make a good filing system, considering you could usually find them wherever you left them—they didn't move around much on their own, and unlike other kinds of hardcopy, they seldom got stolen. "What did you expect? Living with someone who keeps dying on you is bound to strain any relationship." She looked at him with large green eyes. "Get help, Jones. You're an addict."

His bitter smile made her look down at the lotuses again quickly. "Jones and his jones? Yah, I know. I don't care. I got no complaints about that, not one. If I'd had to go one more day with that depression, I'd have killed myself anyway. One time, for good."

"I hate to point out the obvious, but you're depressed now."

"That's why I'm going to die. And Keely didn't leave me. He's gone."

The tattoo artist paused again, resting the flabby arm on her knee while she reinked the needle. "Is there a difference?"

"He left a note." Jones fished a scrap of paper out of his back pocket, uncrumpled it, and held it out to her.

"Bring it over here and put it under the light for me, I've got my hands full."

He did so, and she studied it for several long moments. "Well?" he demanded.

She pushed his hand aside and bent over her subject's arm again. "Shut up for a minute. I'm thinking."

There was a sudden blast of music from outside as the jammers who had been thrashing all night went at it again. Jones jumped like an electrified chicken. "Shit, how can you think with all that?"

"Can't hear you over the music." Nodding her head to the beat, she finished the lotus and set the needle on the tray. One more flower, and then she could stick the case back under the pier he'd come out from. She straightened up, pushing at the small of her back. "If you're really going to die on me, you could at least rub my neck before you go."

He began kneading her shoulders. The music outside lessened in volume, receding up the boardwalk. Someone was mounting a hit-and-run; have fun, kids, call if you make bail.

A tall man in an ankle-length cape burst through the tent flap, startling Jones again.

"Ow!" Gator slapped Jones's hand off her shoulder. "Jesus, what are you, a Vulcan?"

Even if Jones had understood the old reference, he wasn't paying attention. He was staring at the black patterns writhing on the white material of the cape, strange intricate waves dividing and subdividing almost too fast for the eye to follow, seeming to implode as they swept along the surface.

"Nice," said Gator, wincing as she rubbed the spot Jones had pinched. "Who's your tailor? Mandelbrot?"

The man turned his back and spread the cape wide. "Could you just die for this, or what?"

"Bad choice of words," Gator said darkly. "And if you're here on my account, forget it. I don't do skin animations."

"Actually, I was looking for someone." He swept over to the case slumped in the chair and bent to peer at his face. "Nope. Oh, well." He straightened up, giving the cape another swirl.

It was pulsing with moires now. "Hit-and-run in Fairfax, if you're interested."

"Fairfax is a hole," Gator said.

"That's why it needs a party." The man grinned expectantly.

"Yes, I do know who you are," she added, as if in answer. "And I'm charmed as all get-out, but as you can see, I'm booked."

He looked from the case to Jones, who was still transfixed by the cape. "You Mimosa people are a strange bunch."

"You should know," she said.

"Last call. You sure?" He leaned in a little. "Kiss me goodbye?"

She smiled. "Dream about it."

"I will. I'll put you in my next video."

"Valjean!" someone yelled from outside. "Are you coming?"

"Just breathing heavily," he called back, and swept out in swirling clusters of slithering paisleys.

"Keep rubbing. Nobody gave you the night off yet."

Obediently Jones went back to massaging her neck and shoulders. The music had faded away, leaving them in relative quiet. Somewhere farther down the strip, someone began improvising something in a high minor key on a synthesizer.

"What I think," she said after a bit, "is you should make your peace with the Supreme Being, however you may conceive of it. Full church confession."

Jones gave a short, harsh laugh. "Oh, sure. Saint Dismas could really help me."

"You never know."

"I'm not of the faith. I don't belong."

"You do now. I'd say you definitely qualify as incurably informed. Let me see Keely's note again."

He gave it back to her, and she read it over as he worked his fingers up her neck to the base of her skull. " 'Dive, dive' could only mean—"

"I know what it means," she said. " 'Divide, the cap and green eggs over easy, to go. Bdee-bdee.' The 'bdee-bdee' is a nice touch, actually."

Jones laughed again. "Yah, sure is. Keely's the one who needs help, not me. That B&E shit. I
told
him someday he'd get caught. I
told
him. And I
begged
him to get help—"

"The same kind of help you got? Implants from some feelgood mill that doesn't give a shit as long as your insurance company comes across?" She shrugged away from him and went to a small laptop on a table in the corner of the tent. The intricate climbing ivy pattern displayed on the screen was rotating through a sequence of views from different angles. She danced her fingers over the keyboard. The ivy pattern grew several more leaves. She pressed another key; the screen partitioned itself into two halves, scooting the ivy over to the right. A menu appeared on the left.

"I'll see what anyone knows," she said, touching a line on the menu with her little finger. "Eat that note."

"I don't like to die with anything in my stomach."

She sighed but didn't answer. On the left half of the screen, the menu had been replaced by the legend,
Dr. Fish's Answering Machine
in large, plain block letters. One-handed, she typed the word
tattoos
on the screen.

U/I or d/I?
came the response.

U/I,
she typed, and after waiting a moment she pressed one more key. The partition line in the center of the screen disappeared as the design was uploaded and the two halves merged into one. The rotating ivy froze and then faded away.

The doctor thanks you for your patronage and reminds you to eat
right, get plenty of rest, detox regularly, and consult your physician be
fore beginning any exercise program.

She reached for a cigarette as the screen went blank. "Nobody knows a thing," she said. "I'll find the answering machine tomorrow and see if—"

There was a soft thump behind her. Jones had keeled over on the packed sand, dead. She groaned. "You
shit.
You actually
did
it, you piece of useless fucking
trash.
I should just dump you. I
would
dump you, but Keely would care. God knows why."

She turned back to the laptop and called up the stored copy of the skulland-roses pattern Jones had been looking at earlier. Interesting how he'd been drawn to that one. It supported her theory that everyone had one special tattoo—at least one— applied or not. Of course, the way things were with him, he might simply have been drawn to the skull, but she had other designs that suggested death far more strongly than that one, and he'd barely noticed those.

Partitioning the screen again, she called up the E-mail menu and prepared to upload the skull-and-roses pattern. She added a short form letter:

Here is the latest design in your subscription to the Tattoo-of-the
Month Club. We ask that you pick it up at your earliest convenience, and
that you consult your physician before skin integrity is compromised.

She pressed the upload key and waited. The screen blanked again except for a small square blinking in the lower right-hand corner. Minutes passed. She left the buffer open and went over to the case in the chair. He was passed out or asleep. She pulled him out of the chair and stretched him out near the entrance. In a little while the kids would show up looking for eatmoney; she could pay them to drag him back to his usual spot under one of the piers. Then she hefted Jones into the chair and bared his left arm.

Maybe she ought to give him the skull-and-roses just to make him feel better, she thought, and then decided against it. If he was choosy, let him pay for the privilege. She remembered him when he'd gone from trying to crack video to just being a hanger-on, the type who basically helped you get toxed. The only difference between him and someone like Valjean, was Valjean had managed to stay detoxed long enough to put together a decent band. Or maybe she was just feeling pissy because she'd had the inclination to pick a vocation that required her to do it sober.

The laptop beeped discreetly, and she went back to it.

On my way.
The words blinked twice and then vanished. She recalled the ivy pattern, sized it, and set it to print out. The small cube-shaped printer spat a narrow strip of paper at her. She took it to Jones and pressed it down on the inside of his forearm, smoothing it against his flesh with two fingers. A minute later she peeled the paper away and looked at the ivy design on the pale skin. Perfect offset. She picked up her needle.

The tent flap opened, and two kids came in. She knew the husky fifteenyear-old, but his skinny friend must have been a recent arrival. Didn't look a day over twelve. Getting old, she thought.

"Put him back where you got him," she said, pointing at the case on the ground. "And if you can't, remember where you end up sticking him so you can tell me exactly."

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