Read Xenoform Online

Authors: Mr Mike Berry

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BOOK: Xenoform
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The only anomaly was the clean-shaven man who sat at the bar apparently gazing deep into the rocky depths of a large Scotch, head hunched over, hands laced around his tumbler. The avatars pulled up nothing on him. The HUD displayed no overlay, either. The stranger’s software defences didn’t send any countermeasures back at Debian though – he was simply a hole in the net. The man’s direct neural interface, evidenced by the auxiliary sockets in his skull, didn’t transmit or receive any detectable data traffic. This had to be the contact Debian was here to meet, known to him only as Hex.

Debian approached the bar, not yet acknowledging the Scotch-drinker. He sat on the stool next to the man. Jalan Frazer swaggered over, slapping his dishcloth over one powerful looking shoulder. Sharky Dave growled and twanged his way through Undercity Princess, a song apparently about a man who fell in love with a robot hooker and ended up killing himself with a drill.

‘Hey – what can I get you for?’ asked Jalan, green swamplight oozing softly from his person.

‘Water,’ answered Debian.

‘Water,’ repeated Jalan tonelessly, clearly not impressed.

‘Please.’

‘Water we got, if that’s y’poison. Bottles.’

‘Fine. Thanks,’ said Debian, trying to keep any exasperation from his voice.

‘Fifteen,’ stated the barman, handing over the plastic bottle.

Debian paid him in hard money and waited for him to return to his glass polishing, which he did with deliberate, defiant slowness. Jalan was rude but he was safe and he knew when not to listen. Debian had been coming here for years and the proprietor’s unfriendliness was actually one thing he liked about the place. Jalan Frazer asked no questions, just sold drinks and polished glasses.

Finally, Mr. Scotch Drinker turned to Debian. His smooth-skinned and generic face betrayed no more information than his net signature. The plug sockets glinted amongst his short hair like shrapnel in his head. He rolled the Scotch around its glass meditatively.

‘You are Debian?’ he asked in a surprisingly soft voice.

‘Yes.’ Debian tried to fight the nervous urge to glance continually around himself.

‘I am Hex. Your new contact from the employer. You have been informed, of course. My predecessor has moved on.’

‘I was told that he was dead.’

‘As I say, he has moved on. Be assured, his death was not business-related.’

‘I
have
been assured. Otherwise I would not have agreed to meet you.’

‘Of course, and only right. I have the verification you expect.’ Hex held out one index finger. There was a black data-spot adhered to it.

‘If that thing contains some sort of virus, don’t get your hopes up,’ Debian confided in a low voice, searching the face of his contact for any deception, analysing micro-expressions on his features. He seemed genuine enough.

‘It’s clean. I know you’ll have multiple firewalls in that head of yours. A virus wouldn’t get in anyway. You think anyone who knew your reputation would even try?’ Hex answered equally quietly. Jalan had ducked into the back room.

‘You never know,’ admitted Debian. He pressed his own index finger to the data spot and the electromagnetic field reader in his digit scanned the codes on the spot. They all checked out. The contact was apparently genuine. Honestly, he hadn’t doubted it anyway. ‘All good,’ he said.

Hex simply nodded, and the spot disappeared into a pocket of his voluminous coat. ‘You wanna go sit in a booth, out of the way a bit?’ he asked.

‘Sure, why not,’ answered Debian, brushing his long blonde hair behind one ear. His own DNI sockets were exposed on his head – triple-shielded highways to the brain.

They stood – Hex towering over Debian like a puppeteer. At only five foot eight Debian was used to this. The tumbler of Scotch led them to a booth at the side of the room, seeming to pull Hex along by the hand. Debian followed, moving in a manner intended to draw as little attention as possible. He had perfected the art of walking under the radar, of being unseen in plain sight, avoiding plain sight altogether where possible.

Hex slid onto a bench, which creaked with ancient leather. Debian sat opposite him, placing his water on the table, trying to relax.

‘It is good to finally meet you,’ said Hex. ‘I’m a keen follower of your work.’

‘My work,’ replied Debian pointedly, ‘doesn’t like to be followed. But thanks.’

‘I have a…commission for you.’

‘A job. Fine. Of course. The employer has always recompensed me well.’

Hex leaned forward across the table. Debian could smell the alcohol on his breath but the man’s eyes were clear and piercing. He slid an old-fashioned non-networked datasheet across the wooden surface for Debian’s perusal.

Debian read the writing on the screen without touching the device:
Cyberlife Research and Development
, was glowing there. He slid it back. Hex took it and cleared the screen.

‘You know them?’ asked Hex, his natural hazel eyes locked on Debian’s eyes of milky crystal.

‘Actually, no. I thought I knew most of the major players in the tech scene. Are they new?’

‘Well, not exactly. Apparently they’ve been beavering away in debt at the bottom of the heap for years, struggling for funding, but now they may be onto something that has piqued the employer’s interest.’

‘What do you want?’

‘Ah – the usual,’ replied Hex, indicating with a sweeping hand how broad a range of services this might include.

‘Specifically? Research databases, staff details, financial details – all of it, in other words. I assume.’

Hex took a sip of Scotch, appraising Debian critically. He took in the hacker’s thin, handsome face, intense expression and understated clothing. This non-descript, slight-framed young man was the best in his business. At least that Hex knew of.

The ice cubes, melting now, clinked in his glass. Rolling, rolling. Oily colours glistened faintly on the surface of the liquid. The two chatting ladies were leaving, gathering up their artefacts. Sharky Dave was really abusing the slide guitar now. The sound was raw, buzzy, over-enthusiastic, but all the better for it.

‘All of it. Yes.’

‘Should be no problem. The price will be as usual.’ Debian took a sip of water and looked towards the bar, where Jalan was looking busy without actually doing much.

‘The payment will actually be increased this time,’ Hex admitted, as if confessing an embarrassing secret.

‘Why so?’

‘You are likely to find them rather well-prepared to defend their data, rather more so than the average AI research company. They are working on a very large, very secretive contract.’

‘For whom?’ asked Debian, his interest fully engaged now.

‘You tell us.’ Hex spread his hands wide in the universal
search me
gesture.

‘Okay. It won’t be a problem anyway. I’ve been working on something new – something that will let me run rings around the average avatar. Not just a neural simulation of myself and a simple guidance routine but…’ Debian stopped himself, suddenly aware that he was about to reveal too much. Trade secrets must exist, after all. If only there was someone,
one person,
whom he could talk to freely about his passion, his work, without fear.

Hex waved aside this abridged flow of information. ‘Don’t tell me,’ he said, echoing Debian’s own thoughts. ‘Just be careful, right? Their defence routines are pretty top-notch these days. If we could find someone to get us what we want for cheaper, we would, but none of our other…
helpers
has had any joy with it. These guys are using avatars themselves. Just be warned.’

‘Avatars are still illegal!’ hissed Debian, surprised. ‘How can a registered company get away with that?’

‘Maybe no-one can catch them at it. Maybe you can find us answers to these questions.’

Debian stroked his narrow chin meditatively. Avatars! This could be a proper test of his new toy, a proving ground for his baby. He had been prolific enough over the last five years that he could comfortably retire already. His various employers, covert and overt, had paid him in accordance with his abilities. But what would he do if not this? Smoke dope and indulge in recreational acts of random cyber-terrorism? Where would be the challenge? He didn’t realise that he was smiling broadly. Hex noticed though, and gulped the last of his Scotch, satisfied.

Sharky Dave was deep in the groove now, his growling voice rolling under and over the zinging and pinging of his guitar:

‘I got sixteen pills

They cure all ills

The one with the cross

On the underside kills.

Take two at random

At the foot of a hill,

Climb to the top

And abandon your will

-power. Flee cowards,

Dreamflowers litter the street –

They’re like porcupine quills

On the soles of your feet.

Multicoloured poisons,

I pour ’em out neat

And into the corners

Of your mind I creep.

I got sixteen pills

They cure all ills

The one with the cross

On the underside kills…’

Debian listened absently to the music, eyes roving the shadows of the ceiling randomly, deep in thought. The dull glitter of alloy betrayed the presence of the flying knife above the door. A wiry youth with blue hair and glittering golden tusks entered the bar. Debian side-banded the HUD info about him without thinking. Jalan nodded to the tiny robot – the youth approached the bar. Debian knew that if there was anything untoward about the newcomer then his avatars would have pulled it up already and warned him.

His brain was spinning. He let it spin, bubbling away faster than his conscious mind could even follow, full of attack code and counter-attack code, avatars and AI research, net shadows and sub-verters.

Hex watched him, unnoticed, for several minutes. He knew what he was looking at – a genius caught up in his own world. Like an artist envisioning a great work, perhaps a painting which would be his masterpiece, the hacker was no longer truly in the room. Hex was a man who appreciated people who were good at their work. He had heard many positive things about Debian from his employer. He was genuinely impressed by this intense young man now that he had met him in person. There was something in Debian’s demeanour that made him more impressive than his appearance alone would suggest. He oozed
seriousness
, confidence and intelligence. Although his crystal eyes betrayed nothing, it was clear that behind them was happening a very deep, rapid thought process.

Hex cleared his throat. Debian jumped slightly, returning visibly to the bar. The golden-tusked youngster was sitting with a huge glass of beer now, checking his watch with the nervous impatience of the stood-up. Debian’s avatars checked the man’s personal scheduler. He was indeed expecting an acquaintance by the name of Sanna – a female, presumably.

‘Three hundred thousand,’ said Hex quietly, and now Debian’s attention was truly re-engaged. Not by the sheer amount of currency on offer here, but by the importance of the job that the amount of money suggested. This was several times greater than any payment the employer offered him before. And there had been some big payments.

‘This is a big deal for you guys, isn’t it? Really.’

‘It will be a big deal for
you
if they catch you,’ confided Hex,
sotto voce
.

‘They won’t, so it’s all good.’ Debian smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner. Truth be told, his people skills were lagging further and further behind his computer skills these days, but it seemed to have the desired effect.

‘Good. We think their backer might be a government.’

There was silence between the men as Debian digested this information. Hex played with his tumbler, empty now save for the last diminishing pebbles of ice. He looked as if he was considering getting another. The prospect of making this business meeting a sustained social occasion was not an enticing one to Debian. He pointedly re-capped his water and stowed it in a pocket. Hex took the hint and resignedly pushed away his empty vessel. The young hacker intrigued him and the atmosphere of the bar was compelling in an earthy sort of way. But business was business and distance must be maintained.

‘Which government?’

‘We don’t know. Find out if you can. We may be wrong.’

‘Interesting…Should be a good test for my new system.’

‘You can contact me on the same address as my predecessor. Wait five minutes before you leave,’ Hex told Debian, standing and snapping the two halves of his coat together, making a hermetic seal against the dribbling rain outside.

Debian nodded, making eye contact. For the briefest moment Hex could actually see the whirling, dancing code behind those milky lenses. Electrons rushed and bustled there, skipping between computer chips and grey matter. He wondered what Debian’s new system might comprise and whether this young man was really up to the challenge. Without another word, Hex turned and swept from the bar, coat-tails playing about his ankles. For a second, he paused in the doorway, framed against a strip of night. A bouncing gravpod whistled past the door, someone hanging out of one window with a bottle in their hand, indecipherable yell trailing them into the gloom like a streamer. Debian noticed that Jalan had also watched Hex leave the bar. He looked to where Debian sat in the booth, then pointedly away again.

BOOK: Xenoform
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