Climbing Jacob's Ladder


by Brian Burt

The sun never shone in Hell, and folks never saw the stars. That was what they missed more than anything, why they hated it so much. Three-quarters of the luminary panels had been shattered by punks or juicers, leaving the leprous metal skin of the place in perpetual dusk. Except, of course, during sleep-cycle, when the wary fled the glowtube-speckled darkness to cower in their apartments until it passed; when demon-boys and blackhearts lurked in hungry shadows, swallowing the foolish, the unlucky, and each other. During day-cycle a homeboy could move around if he knew which areas were DMZ, if he crossed the turf borders in the right places and could afford the tolls. It was still a dangerous place, day or night. Food, clothes, medicine, tronix -- Hell got the worst of everything, shoddy discards from up the Ladder. Still, what bothered most folks was not seeing the sun.

Unlike the rest, Raghib Jones could scam his way out of Hell. At least once a week he tubed up the Ladder, through the nether levels all the way to Paradise: Chicago Metro Level Five. Up there, above the stratified metal shell of the city, he could walk under an open sky beside the Topsiders. Sometimes he stayed past sunset, ignoring sublevel curfews so he could watch the stars sparkle dimly above Lake Michigan, watch the moon glow overhead like a wedge of ripened honeydew. Being the best hacker on the nets bought him that precious breath of freedom. If the Ladder cops caught him, they’d toss his ass in the juvie Hellpits for sure. He didn’t give a damn. Everybody deserved a taste of sunshine, and it wasn’t fair that folks buried on Level One couldn’t afford it. Besides, there were worse things to worry about than Ladder cops.

One of those worse things hacked into Raghib’s net session without warning. The Netware Engineering classroom of Depaul’s Virtual University dissolved around him, replaced with a swirling fractal fog. Raghib cursed as the image of an immense dragon filled his goggles, its armored body covered with scales the color of jade, its tail bristling with bony spikes dripping blood. Leathery wings billowed like sails above a serpentine neck that ended in a human face. Akuma, leader of the Helldragons, his slanted eyes glowing like hot slag.

Akuma’s virtual lips parted in a razor smile. "Hey, Raw, how you got time to link into that sweet little Topside college when you so busy fucking with my Dragons?"

Raghib juiced up his own virtual image, a proud black warrior with bulging biceps and a glittering afro sculpted into the sleek outline of a spaceplane. A righteous look, kind of an astral Malcolm X on steroids. "I’m takin’ them classes ‘cause they my ticket outa here, Akuma. I just wanna stay clean and get my family up the Ladder. I don’ mess with nobody, ‘specially not your Dragons."

Akuma’s spiny tail twitched in the background. "Ninja Storm hit our Stoney Island dojo last night. Killed ten soldiers, left five more scrambled. Cut through our guard-dog netware like it not there. Word on nets is no way they do that without Raw."

Raghib winced. "Man, that’s ratshit an’ you know it! I don’ soldier for no Ninja Storm, and I don’ soldier for no Helldragons. I just do my classes and stay outa y’alls way. I don’ want no part o’ no gang war!"

"You sing sweet, Raw, like mockingbird. But mockingbird lies. I want proof you not Storm’s boy. You hack for Dragons. Then I know you not my enemy."

Raghib shook his virtual head, felt his helmeted realtime head shaking in tandem somewhere far away. "No way, man. I’ll send you just like I did Shibo an’ the Storm. I don’ hack for hire. I don’ do gang biz."

A crackling tongue of flame flicked from Akuma’s mouth. "Hey, kage, you play nasty game with me. How you like if I play nasty with your woolly old Mama-san? Maybe your sweet little kage brother?"

Raghib’s realtime fists clenched inside his gloves, the glove sensors translating the movements into digital pulses that caused his virtual image to mirror the gesture. The racial slur didn’t bother him. Kage -- Japanese for "shadow." Who gave a shit. But threatening Mama and Jamaal? Man, this squint was begging for a gigajolt of juice in his wetware! Raghib’s temper sizzled like a pissed-on powerpack.

"You mess with my blood an’ you’ll see how nasty the game can get. I’ll kick your skinny yellow ass, an’ I won’t need no Ninja Storm to help!"

Akuma’s dragon roar shook the nets. "You gone, kage, you hear? You yurei! You a fucking ghost!"

"That’s right. I walk through walls an’ slip through your greasy fingers like smoke. Just don’ be steppin’ on my grave."

Raghib purged the Helldragon simulacrum from his netspace before the crazy Jap could rant at him again. Level One was getting too hot for someone who refused to choose sides. He had to finish his degree so he could get his family up to Level Two. Level Two could still bleed you, but at least folks there kept trying. They kept their eyes up. Not much left in Hell but fog-eyed zombies with no hope. And bloodsuckers like Akuma who kept them that way. Damn, he hated the gangs! He wouldn’t let them drain the life out of Mama and Jamaal. He cut the link and stripped off his virtual interface gear, trembling with impotent rage.

* * *

Jamaal punched him in the arm, a good shot for a bony ten-year-old, and stared at him with pleading eyes. "Hey, man, you din’t forget?"

Raghib grinned, his ill temper fading. "Nah, I din’t forget. Come on, monkey."

Mama raised her tired head from the gel-couch, her short-clipped silver hair bristling like steel wool. A lifetime in Hell had etched deep fissures into her gaunt brown face. "Where you boys off to?"

Raghib sighed, knowing Mama would hassle him. "Promised I’d take Jam tubin’ today, let him breathe a little rich man’s air. The boy ain’t never seen Heaven, Mama. I ‘spect it’s time he did."

Mama’s sleepy eyes flashed. "The boy’s name ain’t Jam, it’s Jamaal. And your name ain’t Raw, it’s Raw-heeb. You use it, boy. Your Daddy gave you that ‘fore this place ate him. That’s a freedom name, gonna take you straight up the Ladder someday, if you don’ get yourself thrown in the Hellpits ‘fore that can happen!"

Jamaal’s wide brown eyes narrowed in disgust. "Ah, Mama, Raw promised! I just gotta see the sky with my own eyes, not in no vid. Even the rats too scared to come out in this smelly ol’ dump."

Mama sat up and waved a gnarled finger at both of them. "Maybe them rats got more sense than both of you. There’s a lot of evil ‘tween here an’ the tubes!"

Raghib spoke quietly enough to smother her anger. "The boy’s tired of suckin’ soot down here. He needs real air an’ sunshine. I swear I’ll take care of him."

Mama seemed to age several decades before Raghib’s eyes. He hated to pain her, to play on her guilt, but she had to face the truth. She busted her ass, did the best she could for them. But the best of Level One was still shit, and she couldn’t turn it into gold. She sank back into the gooey cushions of the gel-couch with a sigh. "You feed him while you up there, an’ make damn sure he wears plenty of UV blocker. ‘An you get back ‘fore curfew, or I’ll beat both your black butts ‘til they purple!"

Raghib and Jamaal raced down the hall, laughing too loud, acting dopey. Raghib checked the lobby monitors carefully before palming through the flophouse exit into the gray twilight of Hell’s day-cycle. Mama was right about one thing. Evil ruled the streets, and Jamaal was just a kid. Raghib scanned the shadows for any sign of trouble as he hauled his little brother through the skeletal remains of Old Downtown toward the Michigan Ave Tube. Jamaal jittered and jived like a juicer at the top of his buzz.

* * *

They hurried down Grand, dodging a pack of tattooed, depilated blackhearts cooking a slab of ribs over a heating vent at the corner of Michigan Ave. Raghib’s stomach lurched. Only the craziest blackhearts came out during day-cycle. He wondered which poor dumb juicer had been butchered in an alley so this bunch could have their little picnic. Raghib tried to block Jamaal’s view, but he couldn’t block out the ghastly reek of smoking flesh. As they hustled to put some pavement between themselves and the blackhearts, the battered entrance to the CTA Tubeline came into view -- the gateway to blue sky and green grass and cotton-ball clouds. The gateway to a ten-year-old’s dreams.

A street freak lumbered out of the alley beside them, the smell reaching them before he got within five meters. His toothless mouth dribbled spittle across a ruined face cratered with radiation scars. He mumbled something that sounded like a plea as he stretched two scabrous hands toward Jamaal. Raghib grabbed his brother with both arms and backed away from the walking corpse, Jamaal’s little-boy scream jabbing into his eardrums. The freak distracted him only for a moment. A moment too long.

Four lean teenagers slipped out of an abandoned flophouse between him and the Tube, their silver jackets shimmering with jade dragons that seemed to dance inside their chests. Akuma’s boys. Shit! Raghib watched in horror as two of them raised stingers to their mirrored eyes and sighted, numbly realizing he still held Jamaal in his arms. He ducked under the palsied swipe of the street freak and hurled Jamaal toward the mouth of the alley. A beam of ruby light scorched across his back and he heard the freak’s gurgling scream. Two more beams exploded at chest-level, dropping Raghib into a vat of boiling agony.

Long minutes passed as he struggled through an ocean of liquid fire. He lay on his stomach on the filthy pavement, his head turned toward the alley. Jamaal sprawled a few meters away, limbs akimbo like a broken doll. Two grinning Helldragons loomed over him, stingers bulging inside their silver jackets. One of them pulled a crystal dagger from his belt and knelt beside Jamaal, burying the blade in what remained of the boy’s chest to claim the kill. Raghib fought to move, to scream, but could do nothing. His traitorous body would not even let him pour out the grief that welled behind his eyes. When the second Dragon bent to thrust a dagger into Raghib’s own back, Raghib welcomed it. Still he felt nothing. Where was the pain? He wanted it, wanted something to fill the yawning void. Please, God, let me die. I promised. I promised to take Jam to Heaven.

As the world faded into midnight, Raghib Jones stared at the wreckage of his brother, searching for the boy’s departed spirit. And for the strength to cry.

* * *

Raghib awoke in the middle of a cloud. As his vision cleared, the snowy vapor hardened into white ceiling tiles. The pale glow of a luminary panel hurt his eyes, but he could not turn away. Tronix hummed nearby, soothing him despite his confusion. Where in Hell was he? The cloying smell of antiseptic told him he lay in a hospital bed. He tried to look around, but he could not move. He could not feel his arms, his legs, the mattress against his back. Memories of Michigan Ave. drifted through his mind like angry ghosts.

"Relax, Raghib. You’re going to be okay." The face of a white woman appeared above him, brown eyes crinkled with sympathy.

"Who are you?"

The woman tried to smile through thin, colorless lips. "I’m Dr. Nichols. I’ve been in charge of your case since the Ladder police brought you in six days ago. The injuries to your spinal cord were extensive, Raghib, too extensive for us to deal with down here. Your mother gave us consent to bring down some Topside specialists to perform an experimental procedure. It was your only chance."

"I can’t . . . feel . . . nothin’."

"This is a new technique, Raghib. We implanted a neural interface web in your brain stem above the area of spinal trauma. Signals from your brain are routed to a microprocessor that interprets and relays them along the proper neural pathways. It’s incredibly complex. We were able to restore basic autonomic functions, enough to keep you alive. Beyond that . . . Well, we couldn’t reverse the quadriplegia. We did the best we could."

Raghib fought a growing tide of despair. Okay. He was fucked. He could buy that if only . . . "Where’s my brother? Let me see Jamaal."

Dr. Nichols’ face tightened. "There was nothing we could do for him. I’m sorry." Raghib stared at her, hopelessness kindling into rage. "You bitch. You already banked him!"

The doctor did not flinch, salt-and-pepper hair curling around her face like smoke. He could see she had been through this many times. "Reclaiming viable organs from nonviable patients is standard practice. Your brother’s gone, Raghib. Maybe we can save a few other ten-year-olds with his help. Do you think he wouldn’t want that?"

Raghib knew she was right, that the law backed her up, but he still hated her. Just another gigabuck cutter from some Topside medical center doing her hitch in Hell. This was a research lab for her, a chance to see all kinds of ugliness she’d never see in Heaven. Jamaal’s parts would wind up in some rich brat on Level Five, not in any poor homeboy. None of it mattered, because Jamaal was dead. Dead because of him.

"When you banked Jamaal, you shoulda banked me too."

"Wrong. You’re disabled, not dead. It sounds like garbage right now, but you can still lead a good life. That micro has a lot of power. When you get used to it, you’ll be able to adjust the gel-bed without help, load yourself into a hoverchair and go where you want. Eventually you’ll be able to patch into your own residential controls, be self-sufficient. You don’t look like a quitter, Raghib. Find a reason to live."

Dr. Nichols left him floundering in his misery. A few minutes later Mama leaned over him, looking ancient and defeated. She kissed his forehead and began to cry. At last he managed to shed his tears, for Jamaal and Mama and for himself. That night, as he lay sleepless and alone, giant scaly lizards writhed in the darkness above him, laughter gleaming in their mirrored eyes. He knew that he had found it. His reason to live.

He had to slay the Dragons.

* * *

It didn’t take Raghib long to figure out how to uplink from his microprocessor to Wacker Hospital’s main system. From there it was simple to hack into the nets. He did reconnaissance every chance he got, searching for signs of Akuma and the Helldragons. His hatred gave him strength, but only the nets could free him from his gel-bed prison. Only Virtual Reality could breathe life into dead flesh. He spent hours refining the micro’s VR prosthesis, strengthening his presence on the nets as the realtime Raghib Jones faded toward oblivion. Dr. Nichols tried to restrict his link time, but he slipped the security easily, spending every conscious moment in VR. That was how he met Calico.

He was wearing his baddest Zulu astro-warrior look, kicking back in a corner of Wacker’s virtual lounge, when she sat down at his table. Lean muscles rippled beneath velvety fur as she slipped into the chair beside him. He had never seen such an elegant blend of feline and human graphics, her cat shape melting seamlessly into the lines of a beautiful woman. Eyes the color of flame glittered above her whiskered nose, their orbs bisected by ovals of obsidian. She smiled, a hint of fangs adding just the right spice of danger. Breasts swelled gently above her slender waist, nipples hidden by the caramel fur of her chest and belly. The rest of her coat shimmered with patches of gold, orange, and amber. She leaned forward, moving with the erotic grace of a panther, relaxed but ready to spring. The sheer beauty of the simulacrum bewitched him, and he could not speak. She tapped a claw on the table top, her voice a throaty murmur. "What do you think?"

Raghib managed to pull his eyes away long enough to glance where she pointed. A poem appeared in the center of the table.

The Filthy Rich in Heaven tell

Of how the Wretched Refuse fell

Down Jacob’s Ladder into Hell,

Where we have only souls to sell.

But heed my words, and heed them well:

The Lowly Poor toward Heaven swell

On tides of rage you cannot quell.

Oppression’s Children shall rebel!

Raghib nodded, praying that his voice would not quaver. "Righteous. Sound like the preacher talkin’, but that’s a real sweet rap."

"Sometimes you have to preach at people to wake them up. My name’s Calico. You’re Raw, aren’t you?"

"Yeah. How you know that?"

"I’m in your Netware Engineering class at Depaul. We miss you, Raw. I’m so sorry for what happened to you . . . to your brother."

"You a cop, or just a snoop?"

"Neither. Akuma wants everybody to know he hit you. You’re a legend, Raw. You’ve been Topside. That’s something Akuma can never do. The Ladder cops will bust him if he goes vertical, and the gangs will fry him if he goes horizontal. He’s trapped until he dies. You’re not. He gained mega status by taking you out."

The ghost sinews of Raghib’s arms and legs jerked taut with the force of his hatred. "Let him talk his trash. After I kill that squint so slow they hear the screams for a week, I’ll make sure the nets know who did him!"

Calico’s lips curled in a feral smile. "That’s the right idea, baby. You’ve got the wetware between your ears to do it. But you’re going to need some help."

"I don’ need nobody’s help to smoke Akuma!"

Calico bared her fangs. "All you care about is your own little tragedy. There’s more to it than that! The gangs have hacked into everything on Level One. Food and water delivery systems, power, communications. Pay their tariffs or get nothing. Most people down here can’t afford to pay. For them, it’s a goddamn death sentence!"

"Look, Calico . . . I read what you sendin’, but you tryin’ to fix the world. That’s too big a job for me. I’m just lookin’ for some payback."

"All right then, think of it this way. If you help me hack through those Dragon barricades, you’ll inflict more pain and humiliation on Akuma than he can stand. I have friends in sectors all over Hell, people who can find out anything you need to know. You help me, I help you. We’re both better off." She snaked her tail around his wrist, her eyes liquid, her voice aphrodisiac. "We’ll have fun together, Raw. I promise."

Desire boiled in Raghib’s brain. He drank the sweet, intoxicating nectar of her image, and he believed her. She led him from the lounge to a separate netspace where they crafted a private reality, a place of soft lights and soft caresses. She offered him every fantasy he had ever dreamed, a chain of phantom passion joined with links of silk and flame. Love exploded in his mind as it never had in his body, leaving him happy and exhausted. Perhaps there was more to live for than revenge. Calico was right.

They would have fun together.

* * *

Raghib sat in his corner of Wacker’s virtual lounge and studied the stream of data that flowed across the table top. Most of their hack attacks had gone well. Greektown and Little Italy now had tariff-free supplies of water and power. The poor devils in Tortilla Towers could get all the food they needed without begging the Helldragons for it. In his home sector, Jamaicaville, he’d tied Dragon hackers in so many knots they were chasing each other. Akuma was losing money, prestige, and what little patience he had. Not knowing who to blame, he turned his fury on the Ninja Storm, sending strike after strike across treaty lines onto Storm turf. The streets of Tokyo West glowed with incandescent rage as bitter fire fights erupted during every sleep-cycle. If Akuma’s soldiers didn’t take out Shibo soon, the Storm would take out Akuma. That would be a shame. Raghib wanted that pleasure for himself.

Calico sat down across from him and smiled. "Hey, baby. Slacking off?"

Raghib grinned back. "Just takin’ some time to watch ‘em bleed. Looks like we kickin’ some serious ass on Akuma an’ his boys. He might just take out the Storm for us, too, ‘fore he’s through."

Calico nodded. "You’ve got him and Shibo at each other’s throats. Look, Raw . . . I don’t give a damn how many soldiers get smoked in this little war. They’re getting what they deserve, the bastards. But a lot of civilians are getting caught in the crossfire."

"Ain’t no civilians in Tokyo West, Pussycat. Just squint gang-bangers an’ the squints that help ‘em. None of ‘em worth cryin’ over."

Calico bared her fangs in a snarl, orange eyes spitting fire. Raghib flinched and felt foolish. She was just a harmless VR ghost, her image shifting to match the thermal fluctuations in the skin of her realtime body. He knew that. Still, he had never seen all that smoldering sensuality transformed into molten rage. "You don’t know shit, Raw! You think you and your brother had it bad? Let me clue you, baby. The Dragons and the Storm do far worse on their home turf than they ever did in Jamaicaville!"

"Don’ expect no sympathy from me! Every Jap I ever met, on the streets or on the nets, tried to smoke me or own me. If there’s righteous folk dyin’ in T.W., I’ll bleed for ‘em. But I ain’t found none."

They stared at each other in pained silence, VR masks suddenly transparent. In a world of programmed vision, Raghib saw something hideous reflected in Calico’s eyes -- the specter of his own bigotry. A trick of her virtual imaging or his guilty conscience? You know that ain’t right, Raw. What about Jimmy Sato, helped Mama get a job when Daddy died? What if he lyin’ dead on the streets ‘cause you so full o’ hate you ain’t got no room left for truth? Shame engulfed him, and he felt his realtime eyes water. Finally Calico spoke, her voice pinched and brittle. "We can argue it later. Right now let’s just concentrate on getting this over with so the killing can stop. How’s your Dragonslayer Program coming?"

Raghib tried to focus his thoughts away from the look in her eyes. "Big, bad, an’ ready to rumble. We just gotta find us the right time to use it. Akuma an’ his boys’ll fade away like a bad dream."

* * *

"Some dreams last forever, kage." A short Latino with a silver skull tattoo on his forehead rose from a nearby table, smiling through blackened teeth. As he drew closer, the image of Wacker’s virtual lounge wavered. The Latino’s head imploded at the same time his body began to swell. A serpentine neck sprouted from the wreckage above his shoulders, ending in a familiar face. Akuma leered at them, his dragon bulk expanding to fill the netspace. They stood in a blackheart boneyard deep in the maw of a decaying Level One warehouse. An army of hairless blackhearts surrounded them in the gloom, brandishing laser torches and gutting knives. A fence made from stacked columns of human bones circled the perimeter, its top lined with ribs curving to sharpened points. An altar of human skulls rose from the cracked floor nearby, eye sockets glowing from the fire that burned in the altar’s hollow belly. A long spit jutted above the iron grate that formed the top of the altar, barely visible through the smoke. Panic danced in Raghib’s mind, but he managed to force a laugh.

"This be one trippin’ freak show, Akuma. Make a wicked cartoon, but ain’t none of it real. You think you gonna scare us with shit like this?"

Akuma’s smile glittered darkly in the torch light. "See if you laugh when show over." He motioned toward the blackhearts. They parted as four of their number dragged someone through the mob. Raghib recognized the woman’s sobbing and his heart froze. The tattooed cannibals carried the struggling image of his mother to a blood-soaked slab beside the altar. He fought to reach her, but some invisible barrier had been programmed into the virtual geography of the place. He could do nothing but watch in horror as the four blackhearts held her fast while a fifth raised his gutting knife. Raghib’s screams continued long after hers had died. He tried to retreat to realtime, but the micro would not disengage. When he opened his eyes, Mama and the blackhearts had vanished. Akuma and the altar remained.

"Scared of shit like this, kage? None of it real . . . yet. Tell me what I want to know, or she maru-yaki. Blackheart barbecue."

"Just . . . just ask your questions, man."

"Dragonslayer Program you discuss with that whore. How would it destroy us?"

"Don’ work like that. It’s defense, so the homeboys can protect themselves. Wrote me the slickest security knowbot on the planet. When we juiced it up in Jamaicaville, your boys couldn’t cut into them systems to save their ass. It’s smart, ‘an it learns. Stops any hack attack, jams ‘em up. I call it Jam-All. We was gonna download to every sector so you couldn’t scam shit from a septic tube. Woulda worked, too . . . it woulda goddamn worked."

Akuma’s smile widened. "Shori! If we put this on Helldragon system, Storm cannot touch us. Cops cannot touch us! You give me Jam-All. You hack for Dragons. Otherwise Mama-san goes to last supper."

Hatred seethed in Raghib’s head, a blinding, searing cloud. God, he wanted to kill that squint, snap the slimy lizard neck with his bare hands. Truth was, in here he could do no harm. Somewhere out there, the realtime Akuma could do plenty. Raghib spat the words out like poison. "Yassuh, boss. Look like you got yourself another slave."

Calico’s voice grew shrill with anger. "Don’t do this, Raw. We’ll find a way to protect your mother. If you give him that program, you make us all slaves!"

Akuma roared, spewing flames in her direction. "Shut up, imbaifu! You betray your own people!"

Raghib suddenly felt as if the blackhearts had gutted him. "Own people? What the hell you sendin’, Akuma?"

"You not know? Hah! Her realtime name Tenshineko. She grow up on Dragon turf. You sleeping with the enemy, kage."

Raghib stared at Calico in shock. She would not meet his eyes. A stinger pulse had reduced his realtime world to ashes. Now the fire raged through his virtual world, consuming all he had left. Emotions mixed inside him like toxic chemicals, eating a hole in his chest, leaking away to leave nothing but a smoking void. She had betrayed him, hidden the truth behind the image of a cat-goddess. An’ did you ever let her see the real you? No. But how . . . how can you be in love with a Jap?

"I’m . . . I’m gonna download Jam-All to your system an’ show your boys how to juice it up. I’m even gonna hack for you, Akuma. But anything happens to Mama, I swear I’ll stick your sorry ass on that altar, an’ I’ll personally eat your fuckin’ heart!"

Akuma smiled. "As long as you belong to me, Mama-san the safest woman in Hell." The boneyard dissolved. Raghib found himself sitting across from Calico in Wacker’s lounge. Neither moved, trapped in a silent bubble of pain.

"How could you sell us, Raw? How could you sell us all?"

"I always tried to imagine what you look like in realtime, sweet-meat. Figured you was prob’ly ugly as a street freak with radiation rash, but I didn’t give a shit. I could trust you. But you . . . you used me like a twenty-credit hooker. Guess there ain’t much difference ‘tween workin’ for Akuma and workin’ for you."

Raghib let his consciousness drift back toward realtime. He heard Calico sobbing in the background, but he ignored her. She deserved a taste of the pain she had caused him. And the Helldragons . . . they deserved more than a taste. Much more. God willing, he would feed them enough misery to choke them.

* * *

It took Raghib several hours to show Akuma’s hackers how to download Jam-All into the Helldragon’s secured netspace. He jammed enough techno-babble down their throats to get them totally confused, but they were too proud to admit it. Just what he had counted on. What he hadn’t counted on was Calico.

He heard the doors of his room hiss open and rotated the gel-bed to face them. A slight Japanese girl floated beside him in a hoverchair, lips pressed together in a tight, grim line. He had never seen her before, but he knew her. Long black hair cascaded across her shoulders, framing a china-doll face: large almond eyes, a dainty nose, skin that had never known a blemish. Her slender arms were folded above the void where her legs should have been, as if she were hugging herself against a draft only she could feel. He had been wrong about Calico: she was just as lovely in realtime. And just as deadly. When her right arm swung toward him, he could see the stinger in her trembling hand.

"I can’t let you do it, Raw. I don’t know what happened to you, or how much of it’s my fault. But I can’t let you hack for that cockroach."

Raghib tried to shake his head, but the muscles in his neck were as dead as childhood dreams. Rage and frustration burned in his mind. Why couldn’t she face me down in VR? But there were advantages to realtime. Fewer eavesdroppers.

"You really think I’d slave for Akuma, with all the hate I been carryin’? With what he did to Jamaal? Ain’t no way in Hell. But if you gonna break a cocky scuz like Akuma, you gotta make him think he broke you. I wanted to tell you, Calico . . . but there ain’t no privacy on the nets. Couldn’t risk sendin’ you the gospel on no party line. Akuma don’t have no idea what I gave him, an’ neither do you. You want to learn, sit back an’ watch the vid. You still want to smoke me when it’s over, go for it. Be doin’ me a favor."

Raghib saw the uncertainty in those lovely, almond eyes. She wasn’t sure she believed him, but she wanted to. Calico lowered the stinger onto her lap without a word. She turned the hoverchair for a better view of the vid screen on the wall of the hospital room, choosing an angle that still gave her a clear shot at him. Raghib raised the gel-bed so he could see the screen as well. Tension twisted his innards into knots as he waited for Channel Five’s noon report to begin. Not because of Calico -- he doubted she could pull the trigger if she tried. But the gamble with Akuma was the biggest of his life. A tiny voice cut through the fear, hard and sharp. You ain’t just rolling the bones with your own life, boy. You bettin’ Mama’s too. He listened to the newscaster with a rigid intensity that made his jaws ache.

"Our top story this hour: gang violence explodes on Level One. Ninety-four members of a Japanese street gang known as the Helldragons have been killed this morning in the bloodiest purge in the city’s history. Metro police report that most of the deaths resulted from an explosion in gang headquarters, but a number of youths were slain in separate incidents of sabotage to transport tubes and residential control systems. Computer crime experts expressed considerable surprise at the coordinated timing of the attacks and the diversity of systems involved. Federal Investigator James Concanon called the purge ‘the most intricate case of network sabotage I’ve seen in twenty years.’ So far authorities are baffled by the attacks, but Gang Intervention sources believe a rival street gang known as the Ninja Storm may be responsible. The Helldragons and the Ninja Storm have been embroiled in bloody territorial battles in the Tokyo West sector of Level One for the past three months . . ."
The muscles in Raghib’s jaws began to unclench. His lips curled into a smile of triumph and relief. At last Mama was safe. At last his brother could sleep in peace. He still carried the guilt, would probably always carry it, but it no longer suffocated him. For the first time since he had awakened inside the walls of Wacker Hospital, he felt almost free.

Calico rotated the hoverchair to face him. Her dark eyes shimmered like the mist above Lake Michigan on a humid summer night. "Way to go, baby. I don’t know how you did it, but . . . you got them. You got them all."

* * *

A third voice came out of nowhere to shatter the fragile beauty of the moment. "Not all, whore."

Raghib heard the ominous hum of the door’s locking sequence and swiveled the gel-bed toward the sound. Calico sat frozen in her hoverchair, her back to the door, her own private ghosts dancing across her face. She too had recognized the voice. Raghib stared at the figure beside the door, trying to make sense of it. He had always pictured Akuma as a monster, even in realtime, some gruesome incarnation of the virtual disguise he wore. He saw only a skinny, bedraggled Japanese boy who could not have been more than seventeen. When Raghib met Akuma’s eyes, he understood. They were not the eyes of a boy. They were the merciless eyes of the dragon.

Akuma took two steps toward the gel-bed, pointing his stinger directly at Raghib’s face. Akuma’s hand did not tremble. Raghib noticed for the first time that the boy’s jacket was badly torn and scorched in places. He could not hide a smile.

"Akuma, you don’ look so good. News-man said somebody put a whole lot o’ hurt on your boys. Guess Jam-All didn’t work as slick as I said, huh? Guess you come here to ask for a fuckin’ refund."

Akuma smiled back. A dragon smile, full of fire. "No refund, kage. I just going to cook you blacker than charcoal. But first, I want to know. How?"

"You wanted Jam-All, an’ you got it. Got somethin’ you can’t begin to understand. I told you: it’s smart, an’ it learns. Not your average ‘If A then B’ bullshit -- I’m talkin’ complete personality algorithm, modeled on somebody real. I been workin’ on it for years. Turn it on, it makes its own rules, decides who the bad guys are. An’ what to do with ‘em. It spread through your netspace like a fuckin’ plague, man, even chased your pack of murderin’ bastards into their private systems. Cut ‘em up like so much raw meat. I ‘spect the blackhearts be eatin’ real well tonight."

Akuma’s eyes seemed to pull at him with their own demonic gravity, black holes swallowing every bit of light inside him, leaving nothing but empty space. Something monstrous crouched behind those nightmare eyes. It was far more terrible than any stupid VR dragon. It was real. And it was hungry. When Akuma smiled, the monster growled deep inside his throat. "Yes, blackhearts will eat well tonight. They will eat dark meat. One crippled piece of kage shit . . . and the gray-haired bitch that squeezed him out."

Calico’s voice came out in a strangled whisper, her back still facing Akuma. "Leave him alone, you bastard."

Akuma leered in her direction. "I not forgetting you, imbaifu. Last time you defy me, I take your legs slowly, because traitors to Helldragons are only fit to crawl. Now I take the rest, one piece at a time." Akuma took a step toward her, the monster hissing in his voice. "You know which piece I will take first, whore."

Akuma saw her shoulders tense and laughed. He could not see her hand tightening around the stinger in her lap. Raghib saw the hatred in her eyes, the terror. He could not move. He could not stop her. She spun the hoverchair, raising the stinger with a quivering arm. Akuma saw the object in her hand and smiled as he leveled his own stinger at her head. Everything seemed frozen. Raghib could only watch in impotent horror. She was too slow. Way too slow. He lay there, a useless block of ice, and saw it happening all over again, just like in the alley on Michigan Ave. He did not want to see. Oh god, please don’ make me watch somebody else I love get blown away by this piece o’ garbage.

* * *

He noticed it out of the corner of his eye and thought for certain he had lost his mind. The multi-jointed robotic arm of the autonurse swung away from the wall behind Akuma, arcing toward the little bastard’s outstretched hand. The mindless metal arm that gave Raghib injections, took fluid samples, emptied waste containers. He watched it all like some slow-motion gunfight in a bad western: Calico spinning to face Akuma, Akuma aiming coldly between her frightened eyes, the autonurse unfolding like the leg of some gleaming insect.

Suddenly time melted, and everything happened at once. The autonurse whipped its last segment upward into Akuma’s arm. Raghib heard the deadly hum of a stinger pulse, the electric shriek of a luminary panel exploding overhead. Akuma’s stinger flew across the room as the arm of the autonurse wrapped around his skinny chest, pinning his arms to his sides, squeezing him like a jointed metal python. Crushing him. Akuma bellowed in pain. Raghib could see the blood trickling from the places where steel cut into flesh, could see the monster raging in Akuma’s dark eyes. Calico could see it too, but another beast danced across her snarling face. As she pressed the trigger, her eyes were the incendiary eyes of the cat. Akuma’s chest exploded in a shower of bloody, smoking pulp. The monster shuddered. Then, at last, it died.

Raghib and Calico stared at the wreckage of Akuma in stunned silence, Calico still gripping the stinger beneath knuckles as white as bone. They heard shouting from the hallway. Calico seemed to wake from a deep, disturbing dream. The stinger clattered to the floor near where her feet should have been, and she began to sob. Raghib tried to find the words to soothe her, but he could not think. He could only repeat the same two words again and again, like some shell-shocked combat vet. "It’s over. It’s over."

They both heard pounding outside the door now. They didn’t have much time before the Ladder cop circus would begin. Calico stared at him, the mist in her eyes turning to rain. "You saved my life, Raw. You saved me, but . . . how?"

Raghib smiled the most unfettered smile he had managed since his last trip through Old Downtown with a jittery, motor-mouthed ten-year-old. That seemed like such a long time ago. He felt the mists gathering in his own eyes. "Wasn’t me, Pussycat. Wish to god it was -- I need to make up for all them things I said, all the ugliness I dumped on you. But the one that saved you was the same one that got the rest of ‘em. Thought the name might give it away, but Akuma never figured out shit. Don’t thank me. Thank Jam-All."

They both rotated to face the vid screen. A small boy stared back at them, wide eyes shining from a chocolate face that was too smooth, too perfect to be real. Calico laughed in joyous disbelief. Raghib barely managed a whisper, the words catching in his throat. "You done good, Jam. You done real good."

A flawless smile rose above the boy’s dark skin like a crescent moon. "I had fun playin’ with them stupid Dragons, but they all gone. You gonna take me to Heaven now?"

Raghib stared back at the ghost on the wall, the ghost in the vast machine that kept the rich folks safe from all the madness down below, made life so hard for those who couldn’t afford the climb. Like Mama. Like Calico. Raghib glanced at the frail Japanese girl with the will of steel and felt a surge of shame. She was braver than he would ever be. And wiser. When she looked at him, she didn’t see a kage, didn’t see another punk busting heads for the Black Widows or the African Avengers. He was no more one of them than she was a Helldragon. She did not let her hatred blind her to the difference. Maybe, with time, she could help him bleed the poison from his soul. We all the same down here, Calico. You showed me that. We all poor . . . an’ we all trapped. The nets, the laws, the Ladder cops -- everything was built to keep it that way. But the bastards that set it all up had never planned on a virus that could think. Raghib grinned. There was just a trace of the monster in his smile.

"Nah, Jam. You gonna take me, and Mama, and Calico. You gonna take us all up the Ladder.

"When we get there, we gonna raise some Hell." 

Story copyright © 1994 by Brian Burt. (Published previously in Figment.)
Illustration copyright © 1994 by Andrew G. McCann.

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