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Chapter 6: PR1Σ$+

Copyright © 2009 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved. From his novel Tears of the Wounded Sky.

Chapter 6: PRIEST

     The dumbot stopped coloring, lifted its crayon from the page. “Sir,” it said, peering out of its window, “There is a call on the secure line.”

     The Priest was juggling seven windows — six dumbots working six problems and one porn feed. He killed the porn, told the dumbots to take five. “Hold the signal.”

     The dumbot put its crayon down, responded to the signal with an affirmative. “Holding.”

     The Priest opened a new window, his personal working window. Inside, his puzzle box hovered, two hands cocooning it. He pushed as hard as he could and the first lick of sweat prickled his forehead. Slowly, the hands turned the box over, twisted its shape. It was like stirring molasses with a plastic drinking straw. Finally, it clicked over, encrypting the signal. He let out a rush of air.

     “Get it.”

     The dumbot opened a window inside his own window, showing the puzzle box. The puzzle box opened, revealing yet another window. Windows within windows within windows. The call was blue. Voice only, no vid.

     “I — I’m looking for someone.” The voice was timid, like a forest animal seeing a peanut in the hand, trying to reconcile hunger with safety.

     The Priest nodded. “An’ who dat?”

     “They call him — the Priest.” The voice was choppy and distant. It came though like a sentence of pasted-together words; the signal was frequency hopping somewhere, one step ahead of the snoops. He hoped.

     “Ya got ‘im.”

     “I hear you can… alter… prayer feeds.”

     “Yup.” The Priest laid back on his bed, hands behind his neck, elbows up.

     “How… does that work, exactly?”

     “Ya want tech details?”

     “No — I, I mean, what happens?”

     Time to sell. “Our standard package substitutes your prayer feed for simsomatic porn. When it time to pray, you get to play. You can be the man, or the woman. It’s up to you.” He affected his best announcer voice. “And yes, it really is just like you’re really there.”

     The signal dropped, came back up. “Actually, I was looking for something more –”

     “Extreme?”

     “I — I think so.”

     Makin’ money. “You want the premium service. You can be both the man and the woman, same time. Fuck yourself.”

     “No –”

     “Okay — gang-bang, and you’re everybody there. All at once.” The Priest shuddered. That was a rough one.

     “Really –”

     “We also do Chinese feeds. The black stuff.”

     “Really?”

     “I bet you’re man enough for the Eight-Penis Orgasm.”

     “What?” The voice broke.

     “Or the Sex/Fight broadcast. It’s live, straight outta China, no re-runs there.”

     A sigh. “No –”

     Chuck Christ, what was it gonna take to satisfy this guy? “That’s it. That’s the best we can do. If Sex/Fight don’t get you off, nothin’ can.”

     “I — I think you misunderstand me. May I talk now?”

     “Sure.” Asshole.

     The voice cleared its throat. “I have heard that you can — alter the experience.”

     “Yes.” Where was this asshole going?

     “Make it, make it more — intense.”

     Oh. One of those guys. “You want Chuck-cubed.”

     “It intensifies — the experience?”

     “Hell yeah. It’s more addictive than the Eight-Penis Orgasm. You sure ya can handle it?”

     “I — I want to.”

     “You got it.” You fucking freak.

     “How do I –”

     “You,” the Priest said, “Don’t do nothin’.” He glanced at the puzzle box window, and with great effort, willed the hands to turn and flip it. “I got yer financials right here. You tell me you want it, and you got it.”

     “How do I — pay?”

     “You say go, and we do the hook-up for two.”

     A click, and a beat of hissing silence. “Two?”

     “Thousand. We’ll take it out of your account ourselves. Then every time you use, the re-direct automatically smurfs the cash.”

     “Pardon?”

     The Priest spoke slowly. “We take it a little at a time, so your bank records don’t show a big fat pay-out every time you pray. The godcops’d be on you all quick-fast.”

     “How much — every time?”

     “That depends on how hard it gets you off,” the Priest smiled. “We monitor.”

     More silence. Then, “Oh.”

     “Now, before we turn you on, we need to have an understanding, be very clear.”

     “Yes?”

     “We are a powerful consortium of hackers, our agents are everywhere. We monitor all transmissions. If you are a godcop, or a snoop, we will find you — and kill you. Do you accept the terms of his licensing agreement?”

     Silence.

     “Hey.”

     “Yes.”

     “Good. Now –”

     “Aidan!” It was his mom, yelling up the stairs.

     Aidan dropped the audio, folded windows so he could see. “Mo-om! I’m doin’ my homework here!”

     “Aidan! I need you!” she yelled, “I tried calling but your node isn’t responding! I think we need to get it checked!”

     Christ. “Mom! Stay liquid! I’m down in a sec!” He sprung the call. The window had gone black. A hang-up.

     Dammit! He had to find a way to take business calls at school, so he wouldn’t be interrupted. This was the third hang-up this week. He just wasn’t used to that. Everyone who called needed what he had. Bad. He was a monopoly for chrissakes. He didn’t have to deal, or beg. He dictated terms and they paid. Three hang-ups. Three in one week! It was more than he had in the entire previous year. Fuckin’ Mom. Why couldn’t she just leave him alone? People needed him, but not if you left them with dead air, nothing to fill it in but their nerves. Nothing to do but hang up. He was working, for chrissakes, making money, mad-crazy money. Money that she used. He sighed. She used the money, but never, ever asked where it came from. Like she didn’t want to know.

     Mom, your little Aidan’s a hacker. A magician. A Windwalker.

     But she never asked. Liquid, after all.

     The dumbots were waiting expectantly. Aidan addressed them. “Status.”

     Inside their windows, they perked up, and replied in turn.

     “History paper: ten more minutes. Must run plagiarism-smoothing filter.”

     “Theology & Government reading assignment: complete. Summarizing.”

     “English vocabulary list: decoded.”

     “Art: when is it finished?” It was the dumbot with the crayon.

     “Let me see,” Aidan asked.

     The dumbot held its work up to the window.

     Ugh. “You’re finished now.”

     The next dumbot spoke up. “Calculus problems: complete. I,” it said proudly, “Was finished first.”

     “What’s the percentage correct?” asked Aidan.

     “One hundred percent correct.”

     Aidan frowned. “No, I can’t turn that in. Fuck up the last two.”

     The dumbot hesitated. “Fuck up?”

     “Never mind. I’ll do it myself later. Next.”

     The last dumbot reported in. “Information Science project: complete.”

     “Hmmn!” said Aidan, “That was quick. What’s the project?”

     “Semi-sentient Dumbot Heuristics. Me.”

     Aidan grimaced. “No fucking way. I’ll get popped so hard — code it and archive it. Then pull up something from grade school.”

     The dumbot saluted. “Aye-aye.”

     Aidan kicked back and unfolded his porn feed. He’d go see what his mom wanted, in a minute…

     He was halfway though an amateur feed, Fist Time for Love, when Donner broke through, frantic.

     “Aidan! You gotta take this call! Aidan!”

     Donner pinged him hard, a wake-up ping — Aidan’s head buzzed.

     “They killed him! They –” Donner broke into sobs, recovered. “They killed Windwalker!” he shouted.

     Aidan sat bolt upright, felt the world falling, shattering over his head.

     No.

     “Aidan, goddamnit, take this call! Aidan –” Donner’s voice was remote, falling away.

     No no no no.

     His mom walked into the room, her arms wrapped around folded laundry. “Aidan –” she saw him, dropped the clothes on the bed. “Aidan?” Her tone upshifted with concern. “What’s wrong?”

     He was looking at her through a hazy black tunnel. He sucked in a cold breath. “They –” He couldn’t speak. Hollow and numb. He squeezed his eyes shut, wishing it all away, but Donner force-fed him a vid —

     A naked guy, looking up, his eyes and mouth hugely wide, wet hair. He hopped up a chair to a desk, the camera tracking him, robotic. His thigh burst into flaps of red wet cloth, and he leapt through the window. It shattered around him, bending outward like a spiderweb, then —

     Sparks, and red mist.

     “Oh god oh god,” he started, afraid he wouldn’t be able to stop. It was like seeing Superman get beheaded. It was like seeing Satan choke-out God. Stunning, unbelievable, and horrifying all at once. I should be crying, why can’t I cry? He was empty; he had dropped out of himself. There was no one left behind to cry.

     “Honey, what –”

     “Please, Mom,” he managed, “Leave.” His next breath unhitched a sob.

     She looked at him, stricken, then turned and left without a word, closing the door behind her.

     The sound of the latch kicked it loose in him. He felt it, a black surging well of feeling rising through him, to pour out his face. His hero, idol, the thing he loved most in this world — Windwalker — the man he liked to imagine was his father, the thing he felt when some one said ‘father’ — Windwalker was dead.

     He fell back into the bed, pressed the heels of his palms into his eyesockets and began to cry.

     Against the black the dumbots beavered on, unaware.

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