Divide by Zero.
by Noel K Hannan.
I remember the night they finally caught up with me.
Christ, do I remember the night they finally caught up with me.
Dickens had sent the instructions down the wire. The fone beeped twice while Bobby was hogging my portable deck in the living room, playing Death Holocaust 2099 or some other illegal hyper-addictive shit, rubber eyecups masking-taped to his face, and I had to turf him off to get at my mail. He skulked away to the big monitor in our bedroom but mum had pinched it for the teevee session I had installed. She'd blown her set when she missed out on a big e-lottery win by one number - 24 instead of cosmic 23 - and she'd put her big fat furry-slippered foot through the screen. Bobby was pissed off but he knew better than to try and keep mum and teevees apart for more than a matter of minutes. Me, I would have rather have tried my chances cold-turkeying the Jizz addicts down at the mall.
Dickens liked to play his little secret agent games and give two beeps on the fone so we knew when to pick up instructions from our anonymous mailboxes. We were supposed to retrieve them, read them and delete the files within ten minutes or something, and never ever hardcopy. Thing was, much of the stuff was far too complicated to memorise - mail aliases, corporate web site addresses, credit card numbers, passwords, sign ons. A single character wrong in the middle of any of that shit and you might as well not even have started, especially as the security procedures that any suspicious infringement called into play would have the Boys in Black knocking on your door within minutes. So I ignored Dickens' warnings about copies and evidence and auditable trails and dumped each night's instructions into a spare chunk of volatile RAM that erased itself when I switched the deck off. That way, I got to use accurate data in my work, cutting and pasting to minimise keystroke errors, and if the heat came down while I was on the job - well, illegal password ownership would have been the least of my worries. My deck, mum's teevee, the big monitor, Bobby's VR eyecups - everything in our house that was made out of black plastic or had an electrical plug was hotter than the centre of the sun.
Bobby took the hint and muttering something about not being wanted, bundled himself up in a thick quilted jacket with luminous kanji appliqued on the back, and disappeared out into the gathering October gloom. I watched him cross the shattered concrete lot that fronted our housing unit, sidestepping deep puddles of greasy water, and vanish into the hinterland of twisted metal bracing and blackened shells of buildings, swallowed up by this shit pile we called our home. It was, like they say, a jungle out there, but me and my brother were trainee predators, feral beasts born and raised. We were survivors, if nothing else. Mum didn't even lift her head as Bobby left.
With Bobby out of the way and mum safely entrenched in front of the teevee, I jacked my deck into the socket I had rigged from the municipal LAN line that ran in a drain housing a few hundred metres from our house.
I read somewhere once that there were more illegal nodes on most security-free municipal LANs than authorised ones. It was just too easy to break in with a length of fibrewire and an optical clamp, rather than pay the nominal fifty euro monthly fee. They were supposed to be free, introduced as the turn of the century under the Information For All Initiative, but like everything else had either been privatised or run down. I remember where I saw that nugget of info now - a security consultancy web page, where a little animated app showed a tracer program lighting up the network map like a neon spider, illegal nodes in red, good little fee-paying citizens in blue. Better red than in the red, I say.
Safely connected - no marauding hunter-killer programs on the loose, my Sentinel tells me - I collected Dickens' instructions.
Ten minutes later, I was deeply enmeshed in multiple layers of challenging security routines, firing off Dickens' passwords from my fingertips like a fighter pilot ejects chaff to decoy missiles, and sending the simpler security software agents off on meaningless tangents into password-interrogation subroutines that mimicked the legitimate attentions of the network analyst or sysop. The task that night, as had been the norm for a number of previous weeks, was to divert tiny amounts of currency away from the data flow of micropayments, fractions of euros for web page access, software updates, pay-for-view teevee, data subscriptions, mainframe processing time, or any one of the other million things you could buy and sell and sample digitally. Someone might pay 0.75 of a euro pfennig to view a pornographic picture (probably artificially generated, but who cared?) of this evening's short shelf-life teevee starlet, but would they notice 0.76 on the streams and streams of itemised billing that such commerce threw up? Most people requested not to receive such bills, many others had given up the mammoth task of checking them. Enter Dickens and his freelance team of young bucks - myself included. Dickens, apparently, was never one to miss the opportunity of exploiting a niche in the marketplace. Like a vulture, he spotted weaknesses from ten miles out.
I operated almost exclusively at the codeface, in text-based systems, and as such was deemed much in demand by Dickens because I was so much faster than the other guys - no diss meant, each to their own - who relied on eyecups and datagloves and graphical manipulation devices. In my opinion, interfaces devoured processor time and RAM that was far better spent cracking code. The Graficals, as I called 'em, attracted gamers and teevee addicts and VR jockeys who were used to interacting with data as great polygons of colour, texture and shape, towers and monoliths of things meant to represent data warehouses, stock control, corporate mainframes and the fairy-light matrix of the ubiquitous and poorly secured municipal LANs. Fine and dandy, but I got just as much of an adrenaline rush from my reversed black-on-white screen and my slashes and colons and asterisks. I got what I wanted faster too. And I never, ever got caught. Until that night.
I was close to my target for the evening when the Sentinel icon in the corner of the emulation window lit up like Bonfire Night. I exited the BankNet quickly and carefully, rolling up my audit trail just as Dickens would have liked, and examined the Sentinel's status panel. It revealed that a tracer had been tripped somewhere in the BankNet and was currently cruising the municipal LAN, looking for the culprit. Tracers could be killed or diverted easily enough but they left messy evidence in the net, evidence that could be tailed back to the assassin given a sufficiently talented or just downright tenacious DDS agent. Besides, I had not tripped the tracer - it had been one of Dickens' other little helpers that was abroad that night, jacked into the same LAN as me. Maybe Schonigen or Dykstra, both Graficals (snigger) from the Westside. So it would have been foolish of me to step in and zap the tracer on their behalf, and risk copping the flak for it. Far better for me to jack out and carry on my work through a fone modulator in a public booth, as per Dickens'
instructions. So that's what I did.
I gathered up my deck into a black nylon despatch bag and sealed it tightly with velcro webbing. My MTB was in the hall, covered in a pale grey concrete dust like everything else in here. I passed between mum and the teevee as I pulled on my bubble jacket and made my way out. She grunted as I blocked her view of the screen for what must have been half a second. I couldn't bear to look at her anymore. She must have been a hundred and twenty kilos. All she ever did was eat, shit and watch teevee.
I guess she was 'mum' in the biological sense only. Bobby and me had been feeding and educating ourselves for more time than I care to remember. She just shared our house like some vast beached sea creature, consuming too much of every resource we had - power, food, air, water - and putting nothing back into the loop.
An MTB was the only way of getting around on the estate. Cars and motorbikes rattled to bits on the broken concrete hardpan within days. My MTB had pneumatic shockers front and rear. The guy I took it off fought hard and I had had to cut him. Maybe he had cut the person he took it from. Law of the jungle.
Our 'estate' was just that - an old industrial estate from the time when we actually made things, not just consumed them, retail units that had lain derelict for a decade since the Collapse until the Americans came and some bright spark decided to carve them up into housing units to cage up the growing bands of the Dispossessed who clogged the arteries of the country. Imagine living in a cement factory with asbestos walls and crushed glass carpeting and you'll get a pretty good idea of what it was like. Those of us born here had lung shadows like kids elsewhere had freckles. Even the incessant rain did little to keep the dust down, especially inside. Life expectancy wasn't too long so you fitted in what you could. I had done well to get to seventeen without major surgery (not that we could have afforded any). Bobby wasn't shaping up to be so lucky - he was only thirteen and had started to cough up ugly black clots of blood. I gave him two years, tops. Shame, he was a good kid. He was just starting to get interested in the underground movement AvaloNet, which conducted a campaign of violent resistance to any American interference in British affairs, an organisation that I viewed with some suspicion. But Bobby seemed to think they had something to say and was talking about joining their youth wing. I didn't want to see him planting bombs under US marines' cars or hacking intelligence systems on AvaloNet's sayso, but I hoped he would live long enough to make that choice for himself.
A wide stretch of black tarmac led from the estate to a strip mall that was our town centre, shopping and meeting place, and the focal point of our 'community', if you could call us that. The off-licence had been raided at gunpoint so many times that the owner invested in a bullet proof glass pod like the Pope uses, and controlled entry and exit to his premises electronically. He had also bought a serious South African drum-magazined shotgun, which he kept under his till. He felt very safe, until some enterprising youngsters burned him out with jellied petrol bombs. Who said initiative was dead?
I cycled along the gravel and dirt to the side of the road as heavily laden thirty wheelers thundered past, heading east into the Pennines, their wash sending me wheeling into the scrubland as if I had been swatted by a giant hand. Rain clouds massed in the dark sky over Yorkshire. Good - a decent shower kept the dust down for a few days. We were never short of a little rain.
The strip mall loomed in the chill October dusk, all harsh sodium and technicolour neon tubing. An old double-decker bus retrofitted with multiple axles was parked at an angle in front of Joe Swo's Diner, a tatty American theme fastfood restaurant, and a gaggle of tourists were drinking their Diet Cokes and soaking up the ambience of early twenty-first century post-Collapse urban Manchester. I wondered how much they had paid to be taken to a shit hole like this, probably the only stop off on the way to a rural theme village in the Pennines. Maybe they thought that we were a theme village too - a village themed on urban decay and social breakdown.
I parked my MTB close to a public fone booth and triple-locked it to a lamppost. Inside Joe Swo's I could see Bobby and two kids of about the same age, clustered around a dirt-streaked plastic table littered with styrofoam food containers. One of the boys had a plastic bag with cables and wiring hanging out of it, and they were passing bits back and forth across the table. Two Jizz addicts shared an inhaler at a table nearby, their eyes closed, oblivious to all around them. I hoped Bobby would remember I needed more RAM for my deck but Christ only knew what he was trading for it.
The public fone booth was a smooth plastic cylinder that stank of urine.
Why did people always piss in fone booths? It required a pfennig to enter but the short blade on my Silverman tool and a deft turn clockwise usually worked just as well. The door hissed open and I stepped inside.
Fone modulation was archaic and painfully slow but a whole lot safer than using the public data jack socket, which spat little apps into your drive and asked awkward questions of your system, questions that I didn't want to answer. I set up my deck on the plastic shelf and fitted the 69'er rubber couplers to the fone's earpiece and mouthpiece. I heard the dial tones then the hiss of connection, and the sweet burst of surf. I was in.
I guess they must have given me fifteen seconds or so to log on to the BankNet, just so they would have the satisfaction of catching me in the act. Later, I would realise that they knew my modus operandii down to the average number of keystrokes I made and my predicted behaviour under stress. Nothing if not thorough were the Department of Data Security.
My first indication that something was wrong came when I saw through the booth's scratched plastic windows the tourists scattering as if a wasp had flown into their midst. As they cleared the pavement I saw what had made them run - a navy blue armoured personnel carrier was driving up the pavement through them and toward me at high speed, its fat tyres crunching plastic bins and rubbish. Even then, my first thoughts were that I had been caught in the middle of some gang battle or that a robbed shopkeeper had called in an over-zealous tac-squad. I fought to get out of the booth, grabbing my deck and punching at the door panel, as the slab of blue armour filled the window. I still thought I was just going to be inadvertently involved in a nasty accident. I had no idea that they had actually come for me.
The APC butted the fone booth with its sharply-canted prow. The plastic crumpled in and the booth upended from its flimsy foundations and crashed into the road, taking me with it. Incredibly, I was uninjured. I brushed broken plastic out of my face and crawled out of the wreckage on my hands and knees, stuffing the deck and all its trailing paraphernalia into my jacket. Obviously, I didn't want to be quizzed by the koppers on what I had been up to.
I stared up into the yawning black muzzle of a Peacemaker submachinegun, singled out by the stabbing beam of a maglite strapped under its barrel. I knew enough about guns to know that the light meant that the kop on the other end had taken up initial pressure on the trigger. A twitch and I would be comprehensively ventilated.
"Stand up and place your hands behind your head. Interlace your fingers."
The voice was electronically distorted, like a Star Wars stormtrooper. I did as I was told.
"I haven't done anything. You ran me over - "
"Are you Jason Packard, of Tumbledown Estate?"
A chill ran down my spine as I heard my own name. There didn't seem a great point in lying.
A number of the tac-koppers clustered around me now - all their Peacemakers spotlighting me, like the ghost-tracks of aimed but unfired bullets. The kops wore navy blue body armour, knee and elbow pads, shin guards, padded gloves and sinister grilled helmets marked with numbers stencilled in white. One ran a beeping detector over my body, and when it was discovered with a shrill whine, took my deck from my jacket.
"Jason Packard, you are under arrest on suspicion of electronic fraud, theft and possession of stolen goods. You are not obliged to say anything, however anything you do say may be taken down and used as evidence against you."
"Oh fuck," I said, which I thought was fairly innocuous. One of the armoured koppers behind me secured my arms with some sort of plastic binder that bit into my wrists when he pulled it. He shoved me in the small of my back toward the heavy doors on the rear of the APC. I was going down. I had heard so many stories about people disappearing in custody or killed 'resisting arrest'. I was about to find out first-hand if the horror stories were true.
Standing by the APC were the kop's commander, his rank-marked helmet tucked under his arm, and a man with crewcut hair, pebble glasses and a long tan duster coat - a typical DDS agent. He accepted a package from one of the kops - my deck in a plastic ziploc bag. He turned it over and over in his hands.
"Thanks for keeping this one alive, gentlemen," he said, his accent American. "Take him away. I'll take care of his toy."
They shoved me into the back of the APC, on to a webbing seat. I had to sit on my bound hands which hurt. The diamond plate floor was awash with thin gritty oil beneath my trainers. Before they closed the doors, I saw Bobby standing among a gawping crowd at the roadside. He looked at me and nodded. I nodded back. He turned and began to unlock my bike from the lamppost - he knew the codes. I hoped he would be smart enough not to go home - there would be nothing for him there. I think he was old enough to know that. The heavy door thudded shut, sealing me into a metal womb, surrounded by impassive masked automatons. I had never felt so alone, nor so utterly doomed, in my entire life.
It was, of course, just the beginning.
The journey took an hour, half an hour, twenty minutes, two hours. I couldn't tell as I was sitting on my watch. The stormtroopers to either side took off their helmets and shared a smoke, blowing it in my face. I asked them for one but they ignored me. All I could hear was the rumble of the diesel engine and the babble of radio communications from the driver's cab. Occasionally the vehicle would slow and one of the stormtroopers would pull a rubber flap off a little hull periscope and peer out, then grunt and pull it back into position. But we never stopped rolling until we reached our destination.
When we did, there was a flurry of activity and the back door of the APC was flung open, letting in a blast of warm, stale recycled air. Blinded by halogen arclights I was dragged out of the vehicle and into a dusty concrete hangar. For some reason I knew straight away that we were underground. I could almost feel the weight pressing in on the high corrugated ceiling. We were in some kind of underground installation, all loading bays and yellow-and-black striped ramps. Further observations were impossible as my head was pushed down and I was frogmarched along brightly lit corridors to a prison block and hurled into a small unlit cell with a bunk chained to a wall and a crusty bucket in the corner. The door slamming shut behind me sounded like the ringing of my funeral bell.
And then, my troubles really began.
"State your name, date of birth, place of residence."
"You know all that. You told me when you picked me up."
Mild electric shock through fingers and toes. I am naked and suspended upside down in some sort of nylon webbing harness, in a brightly lit tiled chamber. Cameras on the end of prehensile limbs like welding robots dart around my body, peering into my face. There is a cold, unfamiliar pressure between the cheeks of my arse, some kind of rectal probe, for who knows what reason.
"Previously validated facts are required for accurate truth calibration.
Answer the question."
"Jason William Packard. Born July tenth, nineteen ninety seven. I live on the Tumbledown Estate, East Sector, Greater Urban Manchester-Liverpool Axis. But you know all this."
I try hard to be cocky but I'm really terrified and the blood is pounding in my temples.
"Are you familiar with the individual known as the Mirrorman?"
"No." Expecting more shocks.
"Mirrorman: data terrorist, information pirate. Other known aliases - the Scavenger, Zero, Dickens -" Pulse flickers in my neck at the mention of his name. The coldly modulated interrogation voice stops dead.
"The individual is known to you as Dickens."
Never grass, never speak, never tell - Dickens' words. No overt threats but I'd seen the arsenal his messengers carried.
"The individual is known to you as Dickens." Not a question, but a statement, a mantra, to be repeated over and over until I agree. This isn't an interrogation, it is a brainwashing exercise. What for? I was caught bang to rights. They don't even need signatures anymore to put you away for this sort of thing. As for being a minor - fourteen year old helicopter door gunners were responsible for the massacre of rioters in Tirana last year. Somehow I don't think being under eighteen will particularly affect my treatment. Two good shocks through the soles of my feet and I'm crying.
"Yes, Dickens, fuck, yes, I've worked for Dickens."
A ruby laser flickers from a glass bubble on the floor and projects images directly on to my eyes. I try screwing them up tight but I get a shock every time I do. I watch as a series of e-fit images, like an endless comic strip, scroll by.
"Indicate the individual known to you as Dickens."
"I've never seen him, never met him." This is true. I get another shock anyway, including one right up my arse. Not a rectal thermometer, then.
"For fuck's sake, are you sadists? You know when I'm telling the truth.
You don't have to do this to me."
I grit my teeth and wait for more shocks. They don't come. The laser strobes and dies.
"Describe your first contact with the individual known to you as Dickens, and all subsequent contacts and business dealings."
I take a deep breath. Never grass, never speak, never tell. Fuck you, Dickens, you faceless bastard. You're not hanging by your balls in a stormtrooper's shower cubicle with a cattle prod up your arse. I spill my guts, before someone gets around to doing it for me.
The interrogation lasted for three days. I kept track of time as best I could as I was hustled from cell to interrogation room and back again.
They fed me on vitamin pills, let me drink water, and let me shit in the bucket. They also let me sleep, but I didn't. Couldn't.
After the three days they left me alone for twenty four hours while my tired muscles, aching from hanging in an inverted stress position for seventy two hours, had a chance to recover. Then they threw in some old baggy combat clothing - American by the look of it - and a pair of nylon and leather boots. I dressed quickly, glad of the warmth, and waited. I tried to use the time to prepare myself mentally and ran through a list of possible outcomes to all this - execution, lobotomy, long imprisonment.
Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
The sergeant was maybe fifty years old and looked like Henry Rollins did right before he croaked, a block of chiselled rock. He seemed impervious to the biting Pennine wind, sticking out his chest and chin while the rest of us huddled pathetically. He wore nondescript combat clothing that could have been any western army, but the subdued badges on his smock pocket marked him as an American. He opened his mouth and confirmed it.
"Fucking sacks of shit," he said, the wind snatching the words from his mouth and hurling them down the valley. He had a vague Southern states drawl. "You disgust me. What have I done to deserve this?" He cast his eyes upwards as if seeking celestial answers.
There were five of us stood in front of him on the freezing, windswept tor high up on a Pennine fell. One girl, four boys, all faces downcast and avoiding eye contact. I didn't know any of the others but they all looked around the same age as me, all dressed in surplus military clothing, small bergen rucksacks at our feet. No one, least of all me, looked capable of surviving a night out here. But it was getting dark. And here we were.
An officer had come to see me in my cell the previous night. I couldn't tell if he was a kopper or a soldier - their badges and uniforms all looked so alike. His tone and manner were gentle and persuasive but no less threatening than the bullying guards or the harsh tones of the interrogation room. He explained that I could 'volunteer' for a short programme that would transfer me for a period of not more than six months to a military unit where my skills could be used in the government's interest - he didn't say which government rather than against it. At the end of six months I would be discharged, all crimes annulled. He didn't bother telling me what the alternatives were - he obviously presumed that I wouldn't be refusing.
I guessed that my comrades were similar offenders, but I had not had a chance to talk to them yet. The American sergeant led us on a route march across the top of the wet moor, accompanied by two sullen young soldiers with builds like marathon runners. One of the younger boys began to fall behind almost immediately, his boots looked as if they were two or three sizes too big. The sergeant and his men didn't pay too much attention to him, until we had entered some woodland to rest and the boy had disappeared in a wet fog that had descended. One of the soldiers went to look for him and came back twenty minutes later, alone. Nothing more was said.
And then there were four.
We camped that night in a thinly-wooded copse. The rain lashed us as the soldiers showed us how to make shelters from the plastic sheets in our bergens and the sergeant droned on about navigation, tracking, survival. I listened and learnt because his monotonous drawl gave me something to latch on to. One of the boys got into a fight with the sergeant for refusing to eat a stew made from a rabbit that the soldiers had snared and killed. When we woke just before dawn the next day, stiff and shivering in our aluminised survival bags, the boy was gone.
And then there were three.
The sergeant pushed us hard that day, over ankle-turning moor and fell, to strange ancient cairns on top of the hills, back and forth, over and over again, until our feet were bleeding and sore and our thighs ached and we were cold and wet and hungry. We stopped for a while in the dangerous-looking lee of a huge mossy boulder that looked like a fallen meteorite, while the two young soldiers dressed our bleeding feet with antiseptic sprays and plastic skin blister patches. There we were attacked by a pack of wild dogs, grown feral from strays let loose in the cities.
One of the boys was literally carried away by a massive, wicked looking thing that appeared to be a cross between a Japanese Tosa and a Pekinese.
The sergeant and soldiers seemed more interested in saving their own lives, and fired off a few desultory shots, which succeeded in driving the pack away.
And then there were two.
I began to get the impression we were nearing our eventual destination.
The sergeant concentrated on his laminated map and GPS handheld and less on haranguing me and the girl or spouting countryside lore. We stumbled across a group of heavily-armed travellers erecting a big mesh satellite dish for some unknown reason. There was a brief gun battle during which I hid behind a rock with my hands over my ears. The girl and both the young soldiers were killed.
And then there was one.
The sergeant took the loss of his men and all but one of his young charges in his sure-footed stride. He pushed me ahead of him, barking orders to change course as he examined the GPS and the map. I got the feeling that I had been the victim of an elaborate setup that had gone terribly wrong.
The sergeant halted on a smoothly domed hill. It was almost dark and through the drizzle I could see the sodium ghost of a city to the east, maybe the Leeds-Bradford sprawl, but it could have been a moonbase for all I knew. I stood in a desultory huddle while the sergeant scrabbled around on his hands and knees in the wet grass, like a sniffing dog. His stubby fingers found something and he grunted in triumph. With a firm yank, he pulled a turfed hatch clear of the ground and beckoned me over. I looked down into a deep shaft studded with steel rungs and dim bulbs protected by glass lenses. It looked bottomless. The sergeant ordered me down and followed, slamming the hatch shut behind him.
The interior of the hill was silent and antiseptic. I had heard about places like this, relics from the cold war where observers were supposed to seal themselves up to monitor nuclear attacks. I always thought that it sounded like the ideal job for a friendless, antisocial console jockey, until the electromagnetic pulse blew away all your nice toys.
The low-ceiling corridors smelt of dust, sweat and new plastic. The lighting was sickly and dim, just enough, like you find in the basements of old buildings. The sergeant led me along to a room divided up into cubicles by black steel mesh partitions where several soldiers hunched over notebook consoles. Other soldiers patrolled the room, watching the console jocks. Wiring and cabling intermingled like spaghetti on the floor. No one looked up. A man stepped from behind the door, duster coat swinging. The DDS agent from my arrest. He smiled thinly.
"This is your new home," the man said. "Remember this?" He indicated a spare seat and an open deck. My deck - I recognised the spray-graphics on the keyboard. That I had last seen polybagged in the hands of this man at the roadside by the mall. I felt a sudden lurch of homesickness.
"You are now in the employ of the government," he said. Again, he neglected to mention which one. He drew deeply on a cigarette and blew a smoke ring. The bunker didn't appear to be air conditioned. "You are part of a special team monitoring and fund-gathering on behalf of the security services."
Fund-gathering? Was that what I had been brought here for? To hack micropayments on behalf of the treasury?
"We call this bunker The Cage. Your every move here will be logged and monitored. If you try to escape you will be shot. If you try to contact the outside world you will be shot. If you attempt sabotage, you will be -".