David A. Gray
Around Husker, the Eyrie was hushed, the night shift expectant — high-eyes were fielding ten incursion attempts an hour, subsea moles snaring scores of marine diversion drones.
From the second tier of stations Murphy shot Husker his usual “Evening, granny”.
She glanced back at him. “Evening, ratings rat.”
The stocky blond man grinned. “Rumor has it Anti-Mesh Corps is taking another shot trashloading every mind in the Mesh.”
Husker grimaced. “With enhanced neural scrubbers. Twenty years of memory gone in one burst.”
Murphy grinned again. “Another run-in with them, we’ll peak 12 billion shadows global.”
“One Flask shootout on top of Security Central vault is enough.”
Junior members listened closely to the banter while pretending to be otherwise occupied. Murphy and Husker were the only two of the shift with the particular skillsets needed to Flask, to ride the input tide of millions of minds and datastreams measured in zettabytes, take in the street-level physical inputs of the smooth as silk flask body, and not end up with an electrical storm for a brain.
“You just got your sights on the Sea Habs. They missed sinking the Atlantic barriers but they definitely sunk your ratings.”
“I’ve got a special welcome back worked out for the gilled rats next time they try putting a few thousand more square miles under the waves. They want waves – they’ll get them.”
Husker settled back in her chair with a shrug. He was a ratings rat but she wouldn’t want anyone else as a Flask partner. She finished her coffee, shook off her shoes, flexed like a bow, and shot her mind off into the Mesh. She let the night city currents take her, and the Mesh pulled her to the biggest crowds, the rawest concentrations of emotion. She scanned a football game through 49,989 pairs of eyes, felt the vertigo, brought in noise and low-level emo. A roar, a primal excitement, pouring from every Feed at once.
A sharp tug, over to the east side, where a small crowd gathered around a crash on the maglev highway. She looked down from 23 changing viewpoints as a man named Jonas bled out and died in the wreckage, surrounded by an intense gamut of emotions from horrified to aroused. He gaped in horror at the circle of hungry faces, choking on a torrent of strangers’ emotions, desperately reached into gawkers’ Feeds for sympathy that didn’t come. Husker hesitated, then slid into the dying man’s Feed, felt his pain, and whispered.
“I’m Husker,” she said, “I’ll wait with you, Jonas.”
The man heard her as a subliminal murmur, more of a memory than a voice.
“I … know you,” he gasped. “I shadow you. Am I on …?” His mental voice quavered, surreal wonder warring with pain and a growing chill.
“You are live on my Feed,” Husker said. “And …” she flickered an icon on in her vision. Jonas’ Feed surged from 232 horrified family and friends, as a portion of her own shadows toggled back and forth between Husker’s Feed, the emotionally impenetrable, omniscient Feed of a legally sanctioned Watcher, and Jonas’ raw terror, overlaid with bitter thrill at the attention.
“You have engagement just passing 80k,” she murmured.
Husker logged onlookers whose appreciation of Jonas’ death was the most palpable, cross-filed with other violent and public deaths, got one repeat pattern, sent a scuttler through the woman’s Mesh history, buried a snare in her Feed, and tagged it back to the Eyrie for a trawl. Husker observed the woman through Jonas’ misting eyes, saw her blink, pale, and walk off hurriedly as her Feed merged with official Eyrie Watchers.
Husker drew back from Jonas as the end came, muted the emo, and registered the Feeds coming in on an approaching med-hopper. “Too late,” she cast, picking up the medics sense of failure.
She was at 218k, high for a pre-shift warmup. She searched for something to make her feel clean and calm before her shift started proper. A street fiddler, playing to a small crowd on a hyperloop platform. They were loving it, marveling at the dancing bow, feet tapping. Husker dialed up the sound and emo, the sense of belonging.
Then one Feed — a sly hand reaching in to a woman’s bag. Husker cast them a “stay put”, and of course they fled, trying to dial down their sense input below Mesh level. Too late: Husker had tagged them. This was small, not requiring a Flask; on-ground security would track and apprehend.
Husker took a virtual breath, knew her body back in the Eyrie would be doing the same, and in a heartbeat, was totally immersed. Submerged in the sights, sounds, and feel of 37 million open Feeds. One of these nights she might decide not to come back, just dissolve into the Mesh, like many old Watchers did, leaving behind an empty vessel to be quietly removed from the tower.
She was soaring. She tasted the Feed clusters, focusing on the trademark pattern analysis that had helped her gain a top-ten rating. She strummed a thousand data hooks she was teasing invisibly through the Feeds, snagging the oddest of overlapping events.
There. A sharp-eyed overseer on a crane on the Red Hook pontoon docks had spotted a fleeting movement on a floodlit slab that should have been occupied only by robot lifters. When he’d tried to zoom in through the crane’s cams, they’d glitched. A request for a repair team, and a check on the dock’s pressure sensors had been routed into a dead loop. She gusted into the crane operator’s Feed. In the corner of his vision, a silhouette darted across a slab slick with ocean spray.
Husker slithered over to the Feed from the pilot of a veetol-bird lifting off the pier. The pilot’s vision was darting, shifting randomly. Husker pinged a rote instruction to the pilot’s controller: Suspected F-forward junkie, mandatory bloodworks. She stabilized the Feed, isolated a glance at the thermal node looking over the cargo pods, ran the grainy fragment through a scrubber and got a flicker of a runner, therma-shielded but visible for a moment as their suit caught the wash from the veetol-bird’s engines.
Layering the dock plans with the floodlight cams, cargo pod e-eyes, the crane operator’s visual — nothing. She started an auto-analysis of the 302 people on the boulevard abutting the dock. She filtered out the main focus, patched a dozen backgrounds together, caught a crucial split second as a stealthy figure turned its lope into a confident night-out swagger. No face, just shapes, impressions. Might be Corps.
She ran a check on the whereabouts of the rest of her shift, looking for Murphy. His Feed registered a mile away atop a glass comm spire looking through it’s hi-res sensors. She opened her Feed to him and cast him a standby call in case she needed back-up.
Just say the word Granny. I’ll be there.
She cut short a reply — the target was off the dock, on the street, merging into the stream.
She merged the hundreds of citizen Feeds hurrying along the rain-soaked boardwalk, set overlap instructions and queried the six that came back marked anomalous. Three religious exemptions walking together, logged and treble checked against the database. Two shuffling punishment cases, denied the Mesh, alone and insane in the crowd. Husker tagged them as public and interesting just in case, and knew her shadows would track them, happy to be part of the game.
The sixth was an Incognito icon: a higher-up, most definitely not anyone’s business. Husker frowned. She paused, and 576k shadows held their breaths. Too many questions might invite some unhealthy phantom interest in all our Feeds, Husker cast. A tide of complicit delight and a sudden drop of 24,989 shadows. Husker sent a tiny storm of prepared scuttles after them, with an eye out for patterns.
But since when did I avoid trouble? she cast, and pinged a wave of “Watcher requesting ID” requests, that pattered off the blank Incognito like raindrops against the Eyrie windows. But like a swarm of hornets they kept trying. She played a composite of the Feeds of a dozen people near the mystery figure, still showing a 360˚ view with a fuzzy hole in the middle.
“We’ll wave goodbye for now,” Husker whispered onto her Feed, and hundreds of thousands of shadows laughed, thrilled to be in on the joke. She mentally stepped back from the Incognito.
She fired off a crosslink to the walking style she’d caught a glimpse of. Nothing. So either the target was openly mimicking a citizen or was blocking Feeds from picking them up.
Time for the sledgehammer, she cast. And she passed 600k shadows a heartbeat later.
She flitted back to the crane operator, logged an over-ride and ordered him to drop a ten-ton pod 50 feet down to the platform. The crash turned every Feed. For a second, they all stopped moving. Except one. There: a slim figure in liquid-camo, a face that didn’t register in viewers’ consciousness. A cutting edge Dazzler then, that fed a thousand changing features a second onto a sensor-adapted face, only the punishment cases and religious exemptions would see the true appearance.
I have you, Husker whispered, and her rating soared past a million.
She tagged the figure, setting an auto cascade on the Mesh. The figure bolted. People stopped and stared, or gave chase, their Feeds showing a running blank. Then Feeds started dropping off, evaporating with a flare. The intruder was using a Zapper on them, and around one in ten wouldn’t get up again. Husker’ stomach dropped. The Eyrie might call in an orbital, and that would put an end to her Feed.
Husker queried for the nearest Flask, and was routed to one on ready in its booth a block from the end of the pier.
Husker still felt the rush of excitement and fear she’d had with her first decanting. She hit the mental button and with a wrench she was in the Flask, taking in the city through the cyber-frame’s senses layered over her Eyrie feed. She hit the street at a run, seeing through the Flask’s eyes, feeling rain-slick cobbles under composite feet, smelling the night air, feeling the thrum of the underground mag levs, the wash of electromagnetic energy and the smooth potential of the artificial body she rode.
5.9 million shadows now.
People stared, queried, and joined her Feed.
Husker was almost at the boulevard when the intruder rounded the corner, saw her, and stopped. The Dazzler effect fell away to reveal a slim figure in Shroud. Wired for combat, high-tech insertion with advanced physical kit. Anti-Mesh Corp.
Murphy cast Backup time?
Under threat of heavy violence a call for reinforcements only increased ratings. Wouldn’t mind it.
ETA two minutes.
She ran an inventory of her Flask’s armament: stunners, flares, pulses. Nothing that would stop a Shroud.
The imminent threat of Flask destruction was doing her rating no harm: 15 million. But it would mean her own death, if the feedback shock exceeded buffer capacity.
The intruder paced forward slowly. He stopped before her, cleared his visor, and smiled confidently.
“Just so you can see whose killing you,” he drawled. “How’re your ratings, Watcher? I’m at 20 mill, with a couple mill more in black feeds. You’ll die a star!”
Husker threw everything at him before he finished: the night flared incandescent and lightning arced around the invader like a mad halo.
He laughed, and waved a hand, casually. Tiny matter specks ripped holes in the pavement, catching her Flask and throwing it through the flimsy bodywork of a parked bus. Alerts screamed as she slammed against the big slab of the battery charging from a street pad below the vehicle. Her eyes flicked to the indicator, almost fully charged.
Wait for it, she sent to her followers, an extra ten million since careening through the bus.
Updates flashed: an orbital was 100 seconds out, and Murphy had Flasked down close by. She could feel him getting closer in the increasing humming, vibrating feedback loop between the two Flasks.
A spray of flechettes shredded the bus and ripped holes in the Flask’s outer armor.
“Kinda pitiful if that’s the best show you can put on,” she called.
“Wait for the finale. Which is you,” he barked. A salvo of hi-ex tore the side off the bus and she scrabbled back along the center aisle. The bus creaked as the Shroud hopped on.
She peered up as he stalked towards her.
“Give me a nice closeup,” he crowed, “and smile goodbye.”
He raised a bulky arm and Husker detected a thermal flare as tiny fission slivers warmed their missiles.
“That should do it,” she said out loud.
He cocked his head to one side. His visor darkened again and he took a cautious step back.
Your showboating might just have got you killed, Husker, she thought, then she was tumbling back through the shredded rear wall as the bus exploded under the force of the battery rupturing from the timed flares she’d pressed onto it.
When Husker stopped rolling, she looked back through her Flask’s stuttering visual sensors. The bus was raining down in fragments. The intruder was still standing.
He raised his arm and aimed again. “And that’s all folks.”
“We have you covered! Get down!”
The Shroud swiveled to send a spray of flechettes but Murphy’s heavy weaponry left a dark, ragged figure lying amidst flames in the street.
Then Husker registered the “we” and rolled her protesting Flask to its knees, staring towards her colleague.
His shock rifle was just angling away from the still Shroud. At his side, the shimmering haze of the Incognito, the request hornets still swarming.
Husker felt her skin crawl. “Murphy! Look out!”
“’Sokay granny. This is special agent Losowsky. Top level backup.”
Husker felt nauseous. She had no weapons left.
“That’s right, I’m a very special agent,” the shadowy figure said, patting Murphy’s Flask’s shoulder in friendly manner. And leaving a disc flat against the silver skin.
“Hab disruptor!” Husker said.
Murphy reached for it.
“Touch it and I’ll explode it. You don’t want to gamble on what the feedback shock does. Relax Murphy. It’ll be over soon.” the Incognito smirked. “It’ll feed a viral along the link to Central Mesh. Oh, and a grubber back up to your body in the Eyrie. Soon as I press the switch.”
“Toast either way.” Murphy could see Husker was scanning the explosion rubble for a likely projectile. “Record audience now,” he mused. “Any words?”
“The Sea shall return. It will wash away your Mesh, your cities, your existence.” The Incognito gestured dismissively at the ragged Shroud prone in the street. “We tracked this Anti-Mesh Corps fool’s clumsy insertion and took advantage of the distraction. We’re infiltrating your Mesh… we can already hide from you in your own cities, mimic your designations.” With a sneer down at Husker, the Incognito pulled out a stubby neural pistol. “You had me tagged as a government spook, didn’t you?”
Husker’s hand closed on a jagged lump of battery casing. Her Flask could hit with speed and deadly accuracy, but maybe not before the Incognito pulled the switch on Murphy. Nobody would blame her for killing a deadly agent at the expense of a fellow Watcher’s life. Duty over friendship. The public loved that. She’d be a star. They’d make a vee special. She’d be played by someone fitting the teev’s notion of a Watcher — young, shaved head, sparkling though unnecessary skull nodes, sculpted musculature tweaks.
“No, I had you tagged as a gilled rat Hab commando.” Husker sent the casing flying in one sharp movement. It hit target, slicing through and shattering the limpet as a broad surge from the neural pistol half fried both her and Murphy. They swayed, senses dropping offline one by one.
“Nice. And the sea shall reclaim you. Now…” the Incognito paused, then juddered.
“About time,” Husker grated. “You must have some very fancy tech to have resisted that request wave for so long.”
The Incognito’s Hab camouflage flickered, revealing a young woman wrapped in a complex web of tendrils and pin projectors. She looked around in mute, pale anger and shock.
“It contained a little welcome back I devised after you made a fool of me last time,” Husker said, feeling her Flask totter, warning icons flashing. “It should be all the way through your systems by now. You’ll live, if you’re not too wired in, and be a vee villian.”
“You couldn’t have known,” the woman hissed through seizing jaws. “I mimicked Incognito signature perfectly…”
“There is no Incognito in my Mesh. So I knew, the moment I couldn’t id you.”
Husker’s Flask juddered, her senses dwindling.
As the cold came, Murphy cast. 98 points global, over 15 billion people watching.
Great if we survive the neural shock. Ratings rat. As Husker faded, a netstorm roar of relief, concern, admiration, arousal, carried them off into the dark.
“Watchers” © David A, Gray
David A. Gray is a Scots-born creative director and writer living in Brooklyn, NYC. His first novel – Moonflowers – will come out in early 2019. He doesn’t tweet, and is too private to be a natural with The Facebook, but his Instagram account (david_a-gray) is an obsessive compilation of random things he finds in the streets as he wanders Red Hook and environs. Also, of the real-life locations that end up in his stories and novel.
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