Thursday, March 18, 2021

Short Story: "No Country For Old Netrunners"

Last month, I wrote a short story inspired by the works of Pondsmith, Gibson, PK Dick, Ridley Scott, and Masamune Shirow (with a little Suda 51 in there), among others. It was somewhat of an homage to my favourite literary theme, and I shot and edited a cool-ass photo to go with it:

Click to see full size
The story would go great with Vangelis' Blade Runner Blues, to the point that I'll even post that song here in case you want to listen to it:

This one's dedicated to anyone who's ever punched deck and broken ice with his softs.  Enjoy, my street samurai.

"You ever hear the one about the old netrunner?"  The signal wasn't clean and there was interference on the line, but I couldn't mistake the sarcasm in my fixer's voice.  She'd done things I didn't want to do, seen things you people wouldn't believe, and couldn't just give advice.  She had to bust my balls, make me hunt for wisdom in her gonkbrained jokes and stale anecdotes.

But she was trying to warn me, and I read her five by five.  It was no secret that netrunners didn't exactly live long.  Only outlier being Ishikawa, if the rumours were true.  Yeah, the pachinko parlour guy.  Word is, he has some kind of military hookup and takes his beard off before going to sleep.  But your average, run-of-the-mill backalley breacher doesn't have those kinds of luxuries.

'Runners didn't exactly live to see retirement.  Those who were lucky enough to just walk away only did so because the heat was too much.  No matter how shit-hot you thought you were, there was always someone with better counterintrusion softs just waiting to fry your brain, or a corpo hit squad ready to kick down your door.  Not sure which was worse.

"You ever hear the one about the old netrunner?"  'Runners didn't get old.  They burned up on barriers, slipped on ice, and in some embarrassing cases, got impaled on lagspikes.  But that's not all that awaited an interface cowboy, and my fixer wanted me to know it.

With the Parasite spreading and roadblocks going up like realspace firewalls, you couldn't even grab a beer with a choom these days.  She knew I'd spend more and more time punching deck, and that's just what she wanted to warn me about.  Some said that the more you dive in, even with a barrier, the less of yourself remains when you jack out.  We all knew the stories.  Case and 3Jane.  The Ballad of Buck Ravers.  That delivery guy and the dolphin.  But that wasn't going to be me.

"You ever hear the one about the old netrunner?"  I don't plan on hearing about, much less becoming, an old netrunner.  I was more of a street samurai kind of guy.  I let my beam katana do the talking.  Still, I was no stranger to punching deck, but I wasn't trying to blaze a way down the rebel path.  All I wanted to do was jack in and see my friends on the net.  Sure, I'd never seen them face-to-face but that didn't mean we never had heart-to-hearts.  As the weeks rolled into months, I found myself diving in more and more, and staying in longer and longer.  Maybe one more combat drop with the armoured operator in Central.  One more conversation with the jetsetting businesswoman who hated the corps and couldn't wait to move half-way around the world.  One more plan with the West Coast girl who hustles as hard as I do.  One more job.  One more drink.  One more dance.  One more kiss, dear.

It wasn't physical, but it was real.  The stories.  The laughter.  The friendship.  The compassion.  The understanding.  Maybe even the romance.  When you punched deck, your friends were there for you, even when they weren't there with you.  We understood each other.  Didn't mean we weren't all jaded and alone, but we understood each other.  Maybe that's why I started 'running so hard.  Why my fixer had to warn me.

They say that 'runners have many faces, a different one for each place on the net they need to go.  Each with its own rules, lingo, and mindset.  Over time, these identities conflict, tear away from each other, vie for supremacy.  Double lives leading double lives, with not a word to their realspace friends, to protect the friends as much as themselves.  Guy who punched in isn't quite the one who jacked out.  I've seen it happen.  People who dive for too long don't tend to be themselves when they're back in realspace.  They're more distant.  They're not quite there, like their ghosts aren't comfortable in their shells anymore.  They only feel right when they're diving.

More and more of this knowledge, I was getting firsthand.  I could feel the 'running taking its toll on me.  I felt the different facets of myself tugging in different directions.  I could feel the effects on my wetware.  One morning, a gyrostabilization glitch on wakeup had me fall right on my ass until my optics rebooted.  My diet was mainly liquid.  And forget about dreaming of electric sheep or unicorns.  Any decent sleep was a distant read-only memory.

Did old netrunners have to worry about this sort of shit?  Was the next dive the only thing on their minds, even when they were off on some low-paying realspace gig to get that badly-needed scratch?  Did they want to reassure their friends with a "It's okay, I'm still me," even though it wasn't okay, and being them felt like a slow death sentence?  

More and more I felt at home 'running.  Maybe I didn't feel like eating.  Maybe I didn't feel like sleeping.  Maybe I couldn't fall asleep.  Maybe I wanted to share one more story with her before saying goodnight.  Maybe I didn't want to punch out and be alone at five in the morning.

"You ever hear the one about the old netrunner?"  The signal wasn't clean and there was interference on the line, but I couldn't mistake the sarcasm in my fixer's voice.  She was trying to warn me, and I read her five by five.  No, I hadn't heard the one about the old netrunner.  But maybe if I was lucky, I'd live long enough to find out.

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