Down in the Tunnels at Midnight
--Riffs tumble on and on as the symphonic program oscillates and spins, sampling, selecting, synthing, and in the middle near the tracks dancers move now soft and slow, now fast and frenetic, the spinning globe over their heads tossing slippery red lasers that slide down their rhythmic bodies like rain—
--Friends gather in the booths on the side and talk the swish of a satin skirt against skin smooth and tawny, of a cracker's soul lost in the yawning cannons of cyberstyled neverwhen, of matriculation days and prom dates unrealized, of kittens stumbling behind schoolboys along nightblack streets….
Color us in amber, then, and stretch the metaphor thisway and that, as in to say flies caught in--and as you freeze us in you mind's eye, freeze too the pulsing of light and shadow with the cascading saxophone of 20th C's Coltrane in this frame, of latest shuffle-sampling Lenins in the next. Viewing the vid, always in corner booth of the Kind of Blue, we see, from left to right: Poet, spectral white skin, dangling black locks, loose-limbed, tall, slender, high cheekbones, clipped, deep voice, pupils ever-dilated; Kensey, ghost-boy true, shadow-shrouded, short brown hair and odd blue-green eyes, speaks like the bard that Poet is, and then yrs truly, Billy Kidd, so called because of Mom-dubbed moniker of Wilhelm and propensity as schoolboy to blast away hapless victims with forefinger in mock quickdraw. Hair red like copper, eyes blue like Sunday morning, except squinted here, result, no doubt, of a late sniff of Slice, it'll set you up and cut you down.
Picture it. Color it amber, let it lay there undiminished and unchanging. Portrait of then that I wish was now, of time unblemished by my betrayal, before I gave out a lien on my soul. Picture it, down in the Tunnels at midnight.
"So let's share one and all," I said. "What wave you riding, Slice?" Hoping they were, wanting to slide in on their ride.
They both shook their heads wildly, marionettes with amateur puppet-masters putting them through unseemly steps. "Not on your life," said Poet, ill-fitted for Captain Disapproval, he's not a cracker, and besides, he does just as much shit for his bodyware, "we're dosing Benny-up with Kaleidoscope."
And would you believe that I can see the music move the air?" asked Kensey. "Ought to be pre-req for two-stepping on your linoleum." With that, he whirled his way to the floor, soft boots shuffling to time all their own.
I looked at Poet. "Thinking that his wanton comrades have visited the poppy fields without him, the host reached quickly for a sniff of equalization--"
Poet grabbed my wrist before I punched the button for a nostril hit of Slice. "Hold off for now, Billy. Soon as me and our cavorting partner drift down a little, I've got a business matter to discuss."
Good to hear. Cash flows low, Slice flows even lower. I nodded and said, "Then I'll find other remedies and perhaps take a little comfort to kill the time." And I did, and it took longer for us to confer than I thought, because Kensey caught an eyeful of my some-time paramour Juanice's new roomie, Diana, and he was slavering like a cyberhound in mad pursuit, but ere dawn it was just the three of us at Caffeine Corner, supporting the corner booth with slumped shoulders and bleary eyes--even the most judicious use of Benny-up before half-time will get you tackled before the clock ticks four zeroes--and with our double-spressos and jelly doughnuts we talked of matters professional, opening the matters as always with a toast to the weird kittens from old school days.
"Chandler came to see me," says Poet.
"Fucking suit," I grumbled. Man used to wear a badge. A them not an us.
Kensey scowled, eyebrow drooping over a reddened eye, "What's the lay with that name of his again?"
Poet shrugged. "You want to hear this or not?"
We wanted to. Check it: Chandler, true to detectivish name and papa's wishes, is solo heat, going mano y corpo time and again, lucking out because as single operator, he skips below notice. Pal of his, cracker named Daring Darly Worrington I used to cut Slice with, was laid low by anonymous heavy-corp desperados. Chandler thinks he's got the lead to cyber-stuff that'll drop their drawers in public. He contacts his sometime muscle-partner Poet (skinny, sure. check for organic rebuilds and replicated plexes, sinew, nerves, the works, & welcome to the 21st, by the way.) to seek a group just like the once-called Nightriders to do the job.
Download, Nightriders as self-styled dub when mopedding it at Saint Joan's School for Wayward Smartasses, where we formed the Trio Inseparable. Ten years ago and scenesters from then still slinging that name our way. Then a team, still a team, all for one, etcetera. Kensey, oldest of us, as ghost-boy unapproachable, Poet as sniff-enabled muscle-ninja-badass, self as Slice-riding cracker-hacker the like of which you ain't never copped.
So: the deal, to come by this self-enclosed cyber system at this one installation. I provide Poet and Kensey with mole module if I can lay greedy fingers on one, they tip-toe in, hook up the module, which serves as automated cracker to extract the data, & they hustle back to yrs truly for decryption.
Only problem: C-Comm. My whistle was low but it still almost summoned the caff-jerk.
Kensey drummed his fingers on the table. Problem with him and Poet is they tend to think that they're the kind of dumbfucks who like challenges, whereas I think of them as clinging to bitter last dregs of common sense. He finally looked up. "Bullshit does the shimmy-down to scattered teeny bop synth-samples," he said, "whereas dinero does the fancy flamenco on hardwood floors."
Poet nodded. "He went thirty, I jacked to forty-five."
Fifteen large for each tiny dancer; ransom from the shakes, paid in full, days to come.
Kensey drummed his fingers more. Hey now catch that beat. "For C-Comm that's bottom rung. Expenses?"
Poet shrugged. "He can probably supply the mole."
I put my card in, just to feel included: "That saves us a solid one and a half-gee."
Kensey nodded. "To arms, to arms."
Poet shook his head. "To bed, to bed. Catch you boys tomorrow, sixish, regards the details?"
And that's what started my journey hell-bent up Shit River.
The best have a neural input set in the skull; the rest--or the chickenshits, like your very own Wilhelm--play the game with goggles & keyboard. But: as goggler, learned a while back how to equalize and even press the advantage over jackers: Slice. Jackers can't cut, their synapses are doing too many flipturns when on Slice for the neural interfaces to keep up.
Down in the Tunnels one night, a click or so from The Kind of Blue, in a divy section neat the end called Dark Angel, where the place still looked like part of a pre-21st subway with all concrete and dirt and shit and the rails hardly covered. Was dangling loose, out of sniff, out of flake, out of sorts, and ran into old cracker pal Tequila Chin, a monster-movie ugly Latin-Asian nino with legendary acne.
So the night was thick about me and my head was slowing down losing rpms flat tire sounding whumpwhumpwhump and he showed me a new kind of sniffer I hadn't copped before and he said, buddy, it lifts and drifts, it's like smack and coke and Benny-up and pot and X-sniff all at once, and best of all you can ride the cyberpony like never before.
The account was replete with spendables in the right column, so I picked up a couple from him and headed back to my fourth floor walk-up, down near Piedmont Park, high ceilings, wood floors, speakers prepped by acoustic engineer. Opened the balcony doors to let the cool late air blow through. Turned off the sampler and synth, set the 100-disker on shuffling one through forty, those being the best of the early 20th jazz boys, don't you know, Davis, Coltrane, Armstrong, Getz, Gillespie, Rollins, Blakey, Pepper, Sims, Cohn, Brown, more, nothing past '65 or so, and with that shaking the windows and fueling my cortex with aural fire I sniffed up.
Slide was a slow burn at the end of a long night. It started coming on, my nose going cold and my vision sharpening. Small details standing out in relief, the fucking keyboard looking like foothills of the Appalachians. So I tuned up, goggled on, and dove in.
The net, the web, cyberspace, whatever appellation you feel like appelling, rose resplendent bright sharp and angular about me. You haven't even put the fucker in gear until you've splashed through on a warm/blue-smelling/summerwine-tasting breaker of Slice. Set you up and cut you down.
Download: I wasn't just surfing, cracking, hacking, wasn't constructing no icons to run against countermeasures and to filter out the ice; wasn't conscious of self at all. Became part of the net, a particle moving in wave pattern, an aspect of a surging whole. Still me, bopping to Parker with a horn like Saint Joan's boy Gabriel on a sunny day, but was vast and multitudinous, the godhead achieved, sentient, prescient, like some kind of net-spawned Turing lifeform itself, or the mythical cracker's soul gone searching and lost, living the rest of an eternity of nanosecs there in the crashing, flowing neon patterns of cyberwhen.
Days of old-fashioned chickenscratch gogglizing gone the way of the fossil fuel engine. After bodysurfing the light fantastic, no vaquero is going back to wearing the training wheels. Two sniffs of Slice stays with you about two hours. Call it eight sniffs to canister. Did five snorts in the first kaleidoscoping rush of cyberpotency.
Slice still illegal when even Morphine tabs move over-the-counter. That carried in itself a warning no label needed to boast: this shit addicts you bigtime, quicktime, lifetime. Like I give a fuck. Tally it up, carry the one, equals: got to have it, quick now. Credits drain fast when Slicing. Hard to keep in sniff and cash. Eventually the new habits carried, speaking-fiscal, by new skills, mostly. Earned a rep. Look where it got me.
"Sounds easy," says Poet, tone showing that he wasn't necessarily placing his money that way. Kensey moved on.
"Should be. If the security info we've scammed is dated, then you might need to handle a live body or two, but that's not much of a challenge."
I looked up, trying hard to concentrate. "So what's the skinny on this file, anyway?"
Poet's smile is feral, suited to ripping meat in underground grottos, not to reassuring old pals over lasagna, and he tells me of a ledger most secret, rendering visible actions intended unseen, the book being inscribed with tributes paid to city council, judges, local potentates, etcetera. Yet I'll tell you once and tell you true: Continental Communications = not to be screwed with.
So down in the tunnels again riding rails, ending up in Dark Angel, metal beat synth-sampled to turn of millennia country and western doo-wop shit, lights flashing red-blue, eyes losing focus. Lights blurry, leaving comet trails. Regular supply-man Cassius RedClay not to be found, Tequila Chin undisclosed, and things were getting
At some point the ripples cleared and I caught eye of a compadre of Cassius street-called Scooby Doo. Leather-trenched, tall, infra-shaded, long dark hair swept back with streaks of blue, leather gloves. Never had liked the aloof neo-OscarWildean motherfucker, sure he felt the same. Had seen him meeting corp-types all through the Tunnels. Had seen him take sniffs more than once. Had heard Cassius mention him as competition. Two plus two equals dealer. Cramps hit me again just as I got close. I leaned against a support beam and chewed my lip until sweat beaded on my head and I could unbend. I leaned up next to him at the bar, saying, "Scooby Dooby Doo, where are you?"
He tilted the head of his dark beer at me in greeting, said, "Billy Kidd," and then took a long pull.
I put on the frigomatic cool exterior, just like Poet. "Heard they're revamping the old animated flat-vid for interactives. Possibly you could get on board."
His sneer was a thing malignant and fine. Better than mine, better than Kensey's. Not quite as nasty as Poet's. "Too busy, I'm afraid."
"Shame. What will the youth of our generation come to?"
"Utter worthless shit, just like us."
I nodded again. Fingers were digging into the aged formica top. Lights were harsh and close; I couldn't escape them. Cold. Hot.
He took another long swallow of his beer. "Pardon me for saying this, fellow traveler, but you look like something that crawled from the gutter in the low-rent section of Hell."
Fuck this noise, I thought. Let's cut. "You score me some Slice?"
Scooby looked at me slantwise. "Maybe, you got three hundred to hand."
RedClay had always let me on for two twenty-five, two-fifty, depending on the quality. "Three hundred's sounding high."
"Sounds and is, but that's where it'll take you, cracker-boy. Higher and harder than you've had it take you before. Fucking bronco-breaking the Pegasus."
"Last shitster tried that belly-flopped." I wiped the damp, lank hair back from my eyes.
"You want it or no? There are people waiting for me with larger concerns and credit balances than are dreamt of in your philosophy, cracker-boy."
"I want it, Scooby, but--"
"No cash handy tonight. Just give me one cannister--"
He sneered again. "No credit with the Great Dane, tunnel-rat. Cash or card cold on the formica."
I grabbed his arm and started to say something. He shook me off. "You need a loan, why not just hit up your partners? Babbling Kensey, that arrogant Poet?"
"Not their problem. Look. A sniff or two, right? I'll recomp a hundred on Friday, and pick up two canisters at your inflato-rate."
"Fuck off, Billy Kidd. You're sweating on my leather."
I grabbed him and my knuckles whitened from their grip on his coat. "Listen. Serious score in the making, me and my buds. Swear. But the funds are not available for fucking transaction till Friday."
He seemed to consider for a minute, then said, "Hold it here, Billy Kidd. I'll be back soon."
I scrabbled after desperately. "Are we on? Are we on?"
"We're on. Fear not, crackerjack. Have a seat, nurse a beer. I'll be back before the clock tolls two."
Time passed in broken, fragmented lurches. Shakes. Cramps. Sweat. Vomit in the privy. Hands scratching the formica. Thirty minutes, thirty hours later, somewhere in-between, he showed up.
Had couple of folks with him. One was slick looking Guido with cheekbones sharp enough for slicing deli meat. Black gloves, combat boots, heavy coat. Street muscle unless I missed my guess.
Other was something out of a vid, with old black and white flatscreen class thrown in to make the mix irresistible. She showed long blonde hair, swept back and coiffed in curl behind head. Slender arms, surprisingly large bust that I'd lay long odds she didn't come by natural, long, lean legs turned elegant by her sweeping emerald dress and ankle boots. Eyes the unreal blue of cyberspace.
She moved up to my side, arm around me, fingers dangling over ear, stroking my sweaty cheek. She whispered, "Scooby told us you sought fellow hedonists for slicing and dicing," and the alarm bells went off, and at some level, buried deep within my abyss of self, beneath heaped mountains of self-justifications, rationalizations, and denied frailty, I knew she wasn't just talking Slice, she was talking my soul, but then and there, at two in the late night early morn, body wracked & Formica-clutching at the Dark Angel, I couldn't stop it. I gave a damn, sure I did. It didn't matter.
Had a quick diluted sniff, and soon the cramps subsided. Head reeled and the woman--Just call me Brigid, voice of satin and silk--helped me up the station stairs to a waiting BMW 9800, latest model, far as I could tell. Electric engaged and whirred us away. Black tint window separated the front seat & Scooby & Muscles, and she was all over me.
My blood was raging.
Soon we parked and stumbled into a highrise solar-window high-storied condo in Buckhead. A glasstech elevator whisked us to the top floor at the speed of sure abandon, and I staggered to the snickers of the other three when its motion ceased. Down the hall, around the corner, ret scanned and card swiped open a double oak door, and on through to a cream and sandstone interior that glowed like a Mojave vid at utmost brilliance and maximum res.
The four of us took a hit of real Slice, and I must tell you true: Scooby Dooby Doo was no liar. Stuff was premium. Set me up and cut me down. Then we took another, and then Muscle Boy (so dubbed by Wilhelm the Nicknamer) and Scooby vanished like smoke in the evening breeze and it was just Brigid and myself and I found myself doing another sniff of Slice and then a sniff of something else that maybe had Benny-up mixed in and then things go hazy….
and I remember—
--goggling into a deck there with her hooked into piggyback rig and showing what the ride was like with a maestro, a true crackerjack, the netwaves crashing and surging brilliant electric about us—
--her lips sliding down my chest and then her naked body poised above mine, a pale perfect Aphrodite, hair down, golden halo about her face, her smile a razor, her breasts tipped by hard nipples like ripe berries, bringing me into her, clamping around me, writhing on top of me, never letting me forget who was holding the reins—
--babbling, talking about buds, school, mom & pop, dog named Aristotle that ran away (a result of the Platonic overwhelming of metaphysics I said), cracking & hacking, Slice, RedClay, my apartment, Juanice—
--and about this time that me and the boys, golden olden schooldays, were out walking this neighborhood one night. Summer, warm air, honeysuckles fragrant. Last gasp of suburbia before encroach of asphalt/strip-mall/concrete overpaving. Kittens approached from some yard or another; not babies, but not full grown. They followed us into the orange-cast night despite our threats to the contrary for what seemed like klicks and miles, mewing and whining all the while. Finally we scuttled back around to where they joined up, put 'em over a short fence, ran like hell. Ran from the weird weird kittens.
--and what else she asked and what else I said I can't say. Return bouts, sweaty hot. Passed dead out before morning. Waking up outside my own door, mostly dressed, missing socks, extra two canisters in my pocket. Goosebumps shivering as I let myself in, not because of withdrawals.
Came Thursday, and at 0300 we synced, and at 3:20, cruising on a short sniff of Slice, hacking, and cracking, I rerouted the internal automated alarms so that they'd show power surges instead of key breaches, and turned off recording functions on all cameras. Sit and wait for code.
The run: forty minutes is most I'm supposed to hold, then reset all defenses turned aside.
Thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty. No word. Shit.
Forty-two. Forty-three. Forty-four. Minutes slowly rolling by. No stereo in the scrambler-house. Needed to hear my Gillespie and Parker. Would have to buy my own scrambler with the take from this.
Told myself I wouldn't go past fifty. Came and went. Clock tolled hour, I said the hell with it and started back into the system. Just as I slid through the gate I'd left in their virtual perimeter, "321" buzzed me via modem, & with relief I dropped my debuggers into their system, reset the security, and whispered out with never a trace left behind. Paid the house fee with Poet's cred and trumped out into the cool, early rain and light-rended darkness of half past four in the fucking a.m., city style.
Supposed to rendezvous with compadres at The Kind of Blue. Neither showed. Wanted Slice, did a hit of Benny-up instead. Sharpness, not drifting. Downed a black & tan and waited some more--wherethefuckwerethey? Modern Day Hangovers were playing crazy hazy electric harpsichords and lights were flashing in time and across the tracks I spied Scooby Doo moving his way toward me. I flashed the other way, headed up station stairs to the street and flagged a taxi that actually stopped, and had him push the battery homewards doubletime.
Made it up all four flights. Both tripovers intact on fourth floor. Lock looked fine at door. Card swipe and code, sure, but thumb id requiring ghost of Kensey's caliber to crack it. Moved in, alarm was fine, figured safety.
Things were boiling. Time to grab dope, taser, laptop rig, couple of changes of clothes, and light out for the hills. Knew a safehouse where fellow riders could reach me. Wouldn't stay there but connect via scrambled cyberlines.
Never saw the bastard, he was so fast. Brigid's muscleboy, leaping from shadowed door of bathroom. Knuckle spurs thrown backhand raked my cheek and slapped me across the room, me tumbling over, over, fall cushioned by my head, hah bloody hah. Reached for taser; his hardwired reflexes whipped his steel-toed jackboot into my arm, wrist snapped, taser clattering across the hardwood floor.
I started to protest my Edenic innocence, my primitive ignorance of all matters allwheres. Realized he had a cohort cackling at his side, burning bank accounts to bring down one little crackerjack. Muscleboy Numero Uno pulled me to my feet, threw me across the room one more time, just for kicks. Luckily they hadn't moved around to trashing the stereo components yet.
Head spinning, blood dropping from face to floor and pooling there crimson. Subscription was up. I was about to die. Racking memory for possible weapons I'd be too slow to grab anyway, when the balcony doors flew in, and swift-heeled Poet was among them.
Check it: most muscle is hardwired, revamped plexes, ganglia, what have you; goes bad after about ten, fifteen, and then off to the Home for Former Shitheels. But Poet went much more expensive route of replacement: vat-grown muscle, ganglia, bone hardening, his peaks made higher by sniffers inducing him to fever pitch of potential lethality until he bursts like a fragmentary grenade, all red-hot, mean, and sharp.
He and Muscle Boy started their dance, their limbs flowing, heads jerking, torsos twisting and whipping every which way, and though it froze in my mind like holo set to slowshow, it was over in only a few seconds, and Muscle Boy dropped back on my antique orange funfur couch with his jugular spewing his life. Poet turned to face Muscle Boy II the Sequel, but that one had already dropped, a dart in his face bespeaking the electric slinger in Kensey's hand as he slouched in from the balcony.
Click here for when your own favorite cracker threw up.
Poet before me, still in work clothes. Long leather coat covering pointy deadly stuff arrayed about him. Combat boots, long hair tied in back, tail tucked under collar. Nighteyes dangling on strap around neck, loaded gloves on hands. Kensey in chair, much the same, with tool belt, soft shoes, the likes, ghost rather than demon.
Neither looked happy. Poet had a ragged and bloody cut on his face, not from fight I saw. "Thanks, boys," I croaked, face on fire.
Poet's voice December cold. "Easy to figure. Barley told us you were in Shakesville the other night at the Angel. Told us you were hanging with Scooby."
"In the grand scheme of things," said Kensey, "Scooby's a maggot hoping to one day be a shitfly."
I started to speak. Poet's hand cut me off. I thought about the Trio in school, unapproachable, dressed to nines, dealing danger at every turn.
"Not much detecting needed to figure that Scooby sells to bidders. Muscle Boy worked for one such."
"Course we had Mr. Flatscreen-tough Chandler spring to our aid," said Kensey. "And wasn't long before picture was painted of you and femme fatale. You are become a cliché, Billy Kidd."
"Buds..." I croaked. Thought of this time that we were stalked in our innocence by the kittens. Of how we didn't want them to just follow us and be endangered, but also how we didn't want the responsibility of caring for them.
"You sold us," said Poet. "Three boys showed up, wanting the data themselves, the selfish bastards. Chandler figures they were either Ukraine or Yak-cashiered. Times got tough. Left three bodies. Not clean, Billy Kidd. Not the way we do business."
Head hurting, sweat coming. "I didn't know--I mean--"
Kensey stood, his face sad as Poet's was vicious. "Oldest rule: never trust a fucking junkie."
Poet walked to the door. "Here's the deal. Us or Slice."
I hold out my hands. "Kensey, James--"
Poet shook his head as Kensey stopped there. " Choose, Wil."
But the crashing neon cyber world its underflows and waves and channels and shores that I only I slicing and cutting could master, cracker god, avatar moving among lesser creatures, the daemon magnificent—"I--James, you don't know what it does for me, what I am when I take it, when I'm with it--Kensey--"
And the door closed behind them and as I fell back onto the bed and closed my eyes, I could see the weird kittens following us, scampering in our shadows, crying for something they wouldn't ever have, finally being dropped behind and deserted forever to an uncertain future, left to the winds of chance and misfortune. I wished those kittens the best.