A Kranio Enterprises short story by Elisabetta Vernier
[Translation by Elisabetta Vernier – Original version in Italian published by Delos Science Fiction magazine]
Andy didn’t have much left to live.
Or so did the voices say around SoftTown: that pirate software he’d stolen from a smuggler had fused Kranio’s SonyMitzu console, and Kranio was the boss around there. And when his patience ran out, whoever was responsible had about 24 hours left to live, if he was lucky: time enough for a last sniff of herocain and a trip in VirtualNet, before someone shot his brain out on the synthetic floor of the city suburbs, in large, yellow and bloody lumps.
The bright towers of VirtualNet, three-dimensional representations of immense data structures, shone around Andy’s avatar like long neon headstones, dusty and dying. But there was a white light behind the azure pyramid of the World Bank, and Andy moved towards it. It called to him. He felt like a voice calling him, inside his head, saying:
– Come to me. Here, you’ll find all you’ve ever needed
– Come to me. No one will find you here, you’ll be safe
Andy let himself go and the light engulfed him, almond eyes of a synthetic snake and a sweet scent of flowers. There was no pain when Andy’s body began to shrink like a rubber doll with a broken air valve, in a filthy room blotched with Honshu sauce stains and dust from the wings of mutated roaches. Nobody noticed anything.
Dob, sent by Kranio to crush Andy’s head against the wall of his apartment, only found a pile of blackened bones, tangled together in an obscene coupling by the neurostym headband linked to the still-lit console.
That particular day, Kranio was in a very bad mood and Dob had to have his precious Doberman fangs – for which he had paid over 200K new Yen on the black market, and endured two years of immunosuppressant therapy – re-implanted. Life just wasn’t fair.
In VirtualNet, the perfumed light smiled and, its thirst quenched, it waned and disappeared.
Kyoko was alone in her suburban cubicle.
Jake had dumped her for one of those horrible synthetic whores of Love Hotel, with Canon-cam eyes and hypoallergenic silica-gel tits. But she didn’t give a damn, because she had never loved him. She’d only used Jake to steal information about all financial operations he carried out for MicroSun, which she would later sell to Kranio in exchange for her daily dose. In VirtualNet, she had everything she needed: with the information she’d stolen in the last three months, she could live like a princess for a whole year.
Kranio knew how to be very generous, when it suited him.
– Asshole! – she whispered, then switched her console on. In a nanosecond, its software projected her conscience on the cold electronic world wide web.
It felt so good, in there. The continuous data flow, like a swarm of blind moths, created an illusion of peace and order. But there was a shape that moved differently, over there, in the distance, behind the castle of lurid light that was MicroSun Corporation.
It had some sort of inviting electronic smell that, in Kyoko’s mind, turned into explicitly sexual neural impulses. Kyoko just couldn’t resist.
– Come to me, my love. With me there’s no sadness, no pain
– Come to me, Kyoko. Here you’ll find all you ever desired.
The soothing voice caressed her neural implants and Kyoko surrendered herself to the unstoppable data flow, which heaved her up toward the light at an unimaginable speed.
The sheer pleasure lasted only for an instant, a deadly neural orgasm.
Then Cubicle #47 filled with acrid smoke and a dense smell of ionized air, while the organic tissues that had been Kyoko’s body slumped to the ground among fiber-optic cables, like a paper origami in the rain.
When Dob went to collect her weekly report on MicroSun activities, swearing under his breath from the pain caused by his recently re-implanted fangs, her landlord told him that Kyoko was dead, consumed in VirtualNet by the lethal embrace of a firewall.
Kranio was furious.
The titanium plaque that replaced part of his skull bone, lost in a settling of accounts thanks to a molecular laser beam, shot sinister bluish reflections all around Kranio’s enormous and flaccid body, slumped on an anti-G chair.
– Who’s the sonofabich that’s taking out all my collaborators? – he rasped.
His voice, once a rich baritone, was reduced to a metallic wheeze, generated by a small endoscopic speaker which replaced his vocal chords, corroded by sulfuric acid fumes inhaled in his youth.
– Dob! – he shouted. – Dob! – Where the fuck are you, you disgusting bag of fleas! Doooob!
In that precise moment, Dob decided hiding was not worthwhile anymore and popped his head up from behind the tall row of yellow striped radioactive waste barrels that Kranio had picked as eccentric bar stools for his new night club, the Maze.
– Whatchaneed, Kranio? – he asked prudently, in a servile voice. He seemed to sniff the air around him, like a dog.
– Dob! Go find me the asshole who’s taking out my people. I’ve already lost too much money because of his fucking sense of humour. – His oily hand slid onto the plaque in his head in a gesture of frustration. – First that Andy idiot, then the whore. Get him, Dob, or the next one to go will be you, understand?
The tip of his forefinger flipped open to reveal an invisible but fatal molecular laser emitter. There was no need for words.
– But, Kranio! Those guys died in VirtualNet! You know I can’t access it anymore, don’t you? Why don’t you ask the Jew? He’s the real deal!
– Yeah, right. And where the hell has HE gone now? Find him and maybe Ill spare that filthy skin of yours. Promise him whatever you need to, then we’ll see
Kranio turned the anti-G generator of his chair on and slid towards the other end of the room, leaving Dob confused, with his tongue lolling between his large fangs. He desperately needed to find the Jew.
And maybe he knew where to find him, after all: in the last place Kranio would look for him, of course.
Joel, also known as the Jew, was one of the best VirtualNet surfers in the City.
He moved in VirtualNet like a rat in a waste disposal landfill, strong with twenty years of smuggling military software. He was a master in outsmarting firewall protection systems: if he had kept for himself all he managed to steal from his thousands of customers during those golden years, he’d been the richest guy of the suburbs. But he hadn’t, and now his World Bank account was painfully low. After the Mafia accident, moreover, his customers had become way too scarce.
At the Maze Joel felt comfortable: the atmosphere of bluish smoke, besides smoothing the hard edges of the recycled plastic furniture, softened his strong profile, hiding him in the shadows, making Kranio’s night club a safe refuge, and also a good harbour to meet the right kind of customers.
No questions asked, that’s how the Jew liked to work.
That particular evening, he was sipping some disgusting synthalcohol from a stained glass: it tasted like rotten fish, with an aftertaste of gasoline and smoke.
Dob spotted him in his dark spot.
– Yo, Jew! Still alive, uh? – He smiled, and his huge fangs gleamed in the dark. – I thought the Mafia had gutted you once and for all!
– Hi, Dob. What the fuck do you want this time, uh?
Last time Dob had come to him with a job, the Mafia had almost killed them both: he had learned his lesson the painful way, and had sworn to himself not to trust him ever again. Ever.
– Jew, I need you… No, wait. Kranio needs you, so open up your ears and listen – He licked his thick violet lips. – There’s a son of a bitch that’s running in VirtualNet, taking out Kranio’s people with some kind of neural software, never seen anything like it. It sucks the life out of them like a leech, leaving only burnt skin and bones – A shiver ran through Dob’s black and white spotted skin. – Well, Kranio has had enough. He wants you to find him and break his neck. Do it swiftly and silently, and Kranio said he’ll be very generous with you.
– Sure! Kranio is generous only when he expects a nine digit margin! I’m afraid I’ll have to think about it.
Joel didn’t want to get involved: working for Kranio was incredibly dangerous. He needed some guarantees. He was putting his synapses at risk once again, and he wanted to have a good reason to do it, at least a six digit good reason. And maybe a brand new SonyMitsu console as well, last generation, with infrared transducer.
– Listen, Jew. Stop being difficult. What do you want, uh?
It was asking time, and Joel did. Dob considered for a few seconds, then barked:
– You really deserve that nickname of yours, you dirty Jew!
He paused again, waiting for a reaction that didn’t come.
– Fine, Kranio said he’ll give you just about anything. Now get to work.
– The console. I want it. Now. Joel waited for Dob’s reply without shifting an inch.
– Then lift your ass and follow me. I’ll take to your new office. Come!
He giggled, dribbling saliva on himself.
– Yeah, sure. See how I come – commented Joel, and spat on the floor.
His unemployment days were over.
The white and perfumed light ran along the data highways as light as a feather, engulfing all it encountered. It had no goal and no purpose: it searched and when it found prey, it consumed it and started all over again, hungry as ever.
It was attracted by fear, suffering, and love, by all emotion that radiated from the immersed consciousnesses in VirtualNet. The light sensed the feelings like perfumes and responded in the most suitable way, with a call that attracted the innocent victims to its voracious light.
The light fed on their souls.
Joel was joined to his new console, a precious gift generously granted him by Kranio, in exchange for his services and silence. Its mint surface shone with fiberglass and duralumin, with red and green led lights blinking like the eyes of nocturnal animals in the shadows of the empty room. The neurotransmitter headband was already tied around his head, linked to the console by an invisible but powerful infrared beam. In there, inside that tarmac grey box, was VirtualNet, the infinite network linking data banks and computers everywhere. And in there, in the virtual counterpart of the world, was someone who for an unseen reason was killing all of Kranio’s slaves, one by one.
Joel didn’t know what to look for, but his experience told him that the first thing to do was always to connect and have a good look around. The Jew pulled the main switch and in that same moment, his consciousness was transformed into bits and uploaded onto the freezing cold grid of light called VirtualNet.
The light searched, called, embraced and consumed.
There was nothing unusual in VirtualNet.
Joel searched all around the electronic projection of his self, but saw nothing. He wandered through the dark alleys between the polychrome towers of the Multinationals, of the World Bank, of the Families. There was absolutely no hint of who could be responsible for those mysterious deaths: every data structure was where it should be, exactly where he had left it the last time he had been connected. No new form of colored solid light, no new firewall, nothing at all.
Joel had been cut out of VirtualNet for three months, from the day he had almost fried his brain because of Dob. They were supposed to steal the plans of BioGen’s latest cranial bio-implant, kept inside the overprotected data vaults of the Mafia. But Dob had peed his pants while they were crossing the innermost protection level camouflaged inside an Income Tax payment notice. He had disconnected himself so fast that all alarm systems in the firewall had closed upon them like a giant mousetrap.
The Jew got away with his life only thanks to a trapdoor program he always carried along in every mission: the program could dematerialize him instantly from the energy grid of VirtualNet and rematerialize him in a safe non-place, which was totally inaccessible if you didn’t know its exact coordinates. He hadn’t needed it very often, but knowing it was there was very reassuring.
Dob hadn’t been so lucky that day, and a feedback discharge from the firewall had fused the bio-implant circuitry that allowed him to upload himself to VirtualNet, cutting him out of it forever.
– Dirty bastard the electronic projection of Joel thought, in anger. Dob’s failure was the beginning of his bad luck: no more jobs, no money, no women. He thought that maybe he should kick those ridiculous Doberman fangs out of his mouth, with his best fiberglass reinforced leather boots. He’d enjoy that. Really.
The light changed course for no apparent reason, totally absorbed in its search.
It sneaked between the silvery towers of the World Trade Center, sliding behind the blue pyramid of the World Bank and the hexagonal prism of MicroSun with its solid violet light. It stopped suddenly, pulsating. It had smelled something, a victim maybe or a new soul to add to its own, a soul full of anger, a reservoir of hate exuding deliciously violent thoughts. It smelled like blood.
Where a minute earlier there was only an empty luminescent grid, now there was a small sun: it stood utterly still in front of Joel, its light throbbing.
It called to him, speaking with a soft voice.
– Come to me, Joel. Quench your anger in me.
– Come, kill me and drink my blood.
The call was so strong that Joel couldn’t help moving towards the light, like a moth in front of an acetylene light. He just couldn’t resist.
When the light started to engulf him in the now remote real world, a led lit on his brand new console and a soft whirring sound filled the silent air around Joel’s empty body. In less then two seconds, a cracked MicroSun counter-intrusion program shrouded Joel’s projection in a glittering cloud of minute ice needles, paralyzing the perfumed light, blowing its conscience into thousands of invisible bits of information which dispersed in the luminous data flow of VirtualNet like a horde of crazed mosquitoes. In that same moment, Joel opened his trapdoor and disappeared from the grid, awakening sweaty and stinky but victorious in a dark room at the back of Kranio’s night club. That thing out there was dead, along with the person behind it, his synapses burned up by the counter-intrusion software. Making a copy before reselling it had been a real good idea.
The light died with a smile. Its search was finally over: it had found peace.
The same day, Dob was sent to find the physical location where the killer light had originated in VirtualNet. The Jew had traced it back to an underground abandoned complex in the suburbs of the City, and Kranio was very curious to see the face of who or what had killed his slaves. The abstract language of VirtualNet surfers didn’t suit him: Kranio liked to see the corpse of his victim, and loved to keep a souvenir of each of them, to display inside his personal shelf at the Maze.
Another strand of hair, another tooth, a piece of liver in formaldehyde: they were all precious trophies that would boost his reputation incredibly.
Room -3/405 was dark and damp as a tomb neglected for centuries, full of organic putrid remains. It seemed nobody had been there for at least five years. Dob had to wear his nose filters to keep himself from fainting from the smell of decay that permeated the air, making it dense and oily to breathe. The neon torch he gripped in one hand tore the darkness around him, revealing the scarce and unusual furniture of that lonely place: a recycled-plastic chair was toppled to the ground next to a small table, on top stood an obsolete Mitz2020 console, a 10 year old model at least, held together with orange plastic tape, the kind used in hospitals to seal body bags.
Linked to the console through a thick umbilical cord was a suspended animation module, a device used in the past to keep terminal patients alive. The console seemed off and a thin layer of mist veiled the internal surface of the module’s round window, hiding its contents.
Dob kicked the servomechanism open and the lid slid to the side with a sigh, letting out a massive blast of putrid gas into the already unbreathable air: even the nose filters were useless in a stench so intense. Dizzy but alert, Dob inched towards the open module, keeping the torch in front of him, preparing for the horrid show he expected to find inside that fiberglass coffin.
The beam of the torch penetrated the capsule.
Inside the coffin lay a child, a masterpiece of white oriental porcelain, with almond shaped eyes and a tiny coral mouth. Her right cheek was streaked with a thin line of dried blood and her soft forehead was covered by an obsolete neurotransmitter headband, fused into a tangle of wires with her long coal-black hair. Her little biomechanical body had been decaying for a long time, but her face was perfect and sweet.
In death, she smiled.
– Shit… – murmured Dob, licking away a tear from his face with his long violet tongue.
With a delicate gesture, he closed the coffin without making a sound, and left.
If Kranio wanted his trophy so badly, he could as well come and get it himself.
Note: if you read the Hungarian translation of Origami on Galaktika, note that Kranio was translated as “Koponya” and Dob as “Kutya”.
Copyright: this story is copyright by Elisabetta Vernier. Reproduction is prohibited without the author’s consent.