Daniel K. Appelquist
Timothy Leary said Virtual Reality is the LSD of the '90s. But Reality can be angry when spurned -- even if you want to return to it, sometimes it won't let you in the door.
A dark rain is falling slantwise across the view.
It's a night shot. Tall concrete-and-glass buildings are illuminated from below by the harsh glow of streetlights. Periodically a car speeds by through the city, leaving a turbulent wake of waste paper and garbage. A gigantic steel tower can be seen in the distance, dominating the city. Above, an aircar shoots by toward the tower and slips smoothly into a landing spiral around it. Other aircars, points of light at this distance, can also be seen circling the spire. The tower is crowned by a single point of dazzling light.
As the view descends smoothly into the shadowy cityscape, along with the rain, the scene fades into another, darker one.
Interior, hallway. The gaunt man, dressed in black, walks stiffly toward the slightly open door. The lights are dim. As he walks, he withdraws a cigarette from his left shirt pocket. He squeezes it, and the tip bursts into flame. He brings it to his lips and inhales.
"You're early, Scorpio."
The gaunt man turns to regard the speaker. He brings the cigarette slowly away from his mouth and exhales imperceptibly into the smoky air. "I don't enjoy playing these games, Mr. Dobbs. Do you have the money?" His voice is brittle, echoing through the corridor like a raspy, ancient vinyl record, only now being replayed after years of neglect.
Dobbs moves into frame out of the darkness. He is a middle-aged man, overweight and balding. His exposed skin is red and leathery, as if his entire body were inflamed. He holds a briefcase in one hand and a gun in the other.
"Now now, Mr. Dobbs." Scorpio drops his cigarette to the floor and extinguishes it with his foot. Slowly, he pivots to face Dobbs full-on.
"Oh you needn't worry, Mr. Scorpio. This is merely... protection. I wish to protect myself from you." The gun remains in place. "I just want to make sure that you and I have an understanding."
Dobbs places the suitcase on the ground and kicks it over to Scorpio with a confident motion.
"Fine, then." Dobbs straightens out. "You already have the information from me. Kill her. That's all I ask. Anything else is superfluous." As he says this, he steps once again into darkness.
Scorpio waits, not moving, even in the slightest. After a few moments, he bends deftly down and scoops up the case in one fluid motion. He then turns and walks down the hall in his original direction, also disappearing into the darkness.
It's a following shot. The car, a silver teardrop amid a wasteland of green, speeds on across and above endless fields of blurred farmland. Intermittently, the green is punctuated by a strip of gray or a blotch of white or red, but the speed of motion is so great that they appear only for an instant, shadowy representations of roads, houses, machinery. This is not a real landscape.
An interior view. Scorpio's face, illuminated by various displays, dominates the shot. His gaze is fixed, his hands planted firmly on the wheel. Two o'clock and ten. The glow casts his face into sharp relief, but his eyes are flat, lifeless.
"Tell me about your problem, Mr. Dobbs."
"I... That is... She won't leave me alone."
"You had an affair?"
The shot is from across a crowded restaurant. Dobbs and Scorpio are seated at a table, Dobbs attempting to remain businesslike while Scorpio watches him.
"She's threatening me. Everything I own. Everything I am."
"So you want her out of the way."
This time, Dobbs' answer is precise, deliberate. "Yes. I want her out of the picture."
Scorpio sighs. "Very well. Who is she?"
"That's why I came to you, Mr. so-called Scorpio. I've never met her. I have no clue who she is."
"How, then?" Scorpio's voice takes on an annoyed quality.
For the briefest of moments, a puzzled expression crosses Scorpio's face. It is quickly replaced by one of understanding. "You met her on the net. Virtual Reality. Your affair has been wholly electronic."
"Correct," says Dobbs, leaning back in his chair.
"That's rather... unique."
"Surely you've been exposed to this sort of thing."
"I'm not a regular netter."
Dobbs leans forward onto the table. "You're not backing down, are you?"
Scorpio regards Dobbs icily for a moment, causing Dobbs to shrink back into his chair ever so slightly.
"The net is a large place, Mr. Dobbs. I assume you have some other information."
"I thought you were the expert."
"Even experts can't work magic. The net is a realm of information, and one needs information to navigate it."
Dobbs sighs, and begins to speak. "I met her in one of the brothels near Munnari. She was a strikingly beautiful redhead. Nearly naked without that outfit of hers."
"She was working there?"
"No. At least, I don't think so."
"Her appearance means nothing to me, Mr. Dobbs. You should know that one can change one's appearance on the net, as easily as one changes one's clothes."
"Yes, I know. She never did, though. Most women make themselves look perfect, but she had slight imperfections. That was why she was so striking. She had birthmarks. Her skin was a bit pale, her eyes not completely green. She really stood out." As he speaks, Dobbs' eyes begin to acquire a glassy look. His tongue protrudes slightly from his mouth, as if his body is remembering something that his mind chooses to forget. "I realize it's not much to go on."
"...Not much to go on..." Scorpio repeats. His gaze shifts upward as he leans back, his hands clasped behind his head. His look is reflective. "No... It isn't."
With a loud whistle, the shot returns to the interior of the aircar. Scorpio lifts his hand and deliberately depresses a switch. The whistle stops and the character of light playing over his features changes.
An exterior shot; stationary. In the distance, a series of spires are visible. The sun is low on the horizon, lending a fuzzy, yellow aspect to the hard steel towers. The car speeds off into the heart of the city, quickly fading from view; a silver eye, lost among needles of metal and glass.
The apartment is not much more than a cramped box, gray walls obscured by racks of equipment, posters, bookcases. In the corner, a small pot of water sits on a squalid stove. The carcasses of ancient electronic equipment are strewn about randomly. The point of view begins to descend. Scorpio stands in the doorway and regards the other man. The other man is the first to speak.
"Is it a problem?"
"No. What do you want?" The question is spoken in a soft monotone, neither confrontational nor friendly.
"I'm looking for a girl, Matt," Scorpio intones softly.
"Aren't we all." The barest hint of a smile stretches itself across Matt's lips.
"Obviously, or you wouldn't be here." Matt walks over the stove, picks up the kettle and pours himself a cup of tea. He sighs and sits down behind a massive rack of humming displays.
"All I've got is a description and a location," Scorpio continues.
"I can't help you. I don't fuck around with VR. VR is for dweebs. I'm a professional."
"I'll do the VR part. But if I find her, how can I really find her?"
A thoughtful expression crosses Matt's face. "You think she might block a high-level trace?"
"My client tried to trace her and came up with an error message."
"What was it?"
"I have it here," Scorpio says, bringing out a yellow slip of paper. "Null address," he reads.
Matt grabs the paper from Scorpio's hand and scrutinizes it. "Null address," he mutters. A pause. "She's good," he states impassively. "But not smart. There are other, less flashy ways to hide your address. This shows that she's got a very complex system behind her. That in itself suggests she's at one of the corps."
"The corporations?" Scorpio says a bit warily.
"Yeah... That scare you?" Matt says, looking up suddenly. A pause. He lowers his head again to stare at the yellow note. "Do you even have a deck, Scorp?"
"I do... It's a portable. It's at home."
"Ever install a module in it?"
"Once or twice."
Matt takes out a red cube about the size of a die. One side of it glitters with precision, inlaid gold.
"Replace the regular transceiver with this." He throws it to Scorpio, who deftly catches it in his right hand.
He inspects it, turning it over. "What does it do?"
"It'll route your deck throughput through my equipment here." He taps a console affectionately. "You'll go in. You'll find whoever it is you're trying to find. I'll monitor the debug data from that interaction." He turns in his chair, running his hand across the side of a monitor.
"The debug data won't tell me much just by itself, but if you can keep interacting with her long enough, her data path will most probably be switched between two or three routers during that time. Routers go down all the time and are always deferring their loads. By looking at which routers are handling her data, I can triangulate in on her, in a sense. No lock or scramble can hide that information. I'll be here, waiting for you to jack in."
"Anything else I need to know?"
"Well, there's a psychological disease among men native to southeast Asia. They start to think their penis is going to disappear into their abdomen."
"That right... ?"
"Yeah. Know what they do?"
"They get people to hold it for them. Twenty-four hours a day. Mostly family members. They hold it until he recovers. If they let go, even for a moment, he goes into anxiety attacks. It's not an uncommon disease."
"Get going, Scorp."
"Huh? Oh. Right. Tonight then."
Scorpio exits, leaving Matt alone in the darkened room. "Don't worry, Scorp," he mumbles to himself. "I won't let go."
The scene is dimly lit. The deck sits in front of Scorpio on a small desk. The deck consists of a small black box with a sleek headset connected to it via a thin cord.
The room itself is decorated in somber tones, with only a few simple elements. In the corner is a small refrigerator. On the opposite side of the room lies another desk and a phone. One piece of modern art, a holographic image of Marilyn Monroe, is placed in the center of the opposite wall.
He takes the headset, which might have been mistaken for a set of music headphones in an earlier era, and places it across his temples. Touching a silver contact on the rim of the deck, he sits back in his chair and reality dissolves.
Scorpio is still sitting in front of the deck, but surrounding him, in place of the dark room, is a bright blue sky which stretches endlessly in every direction. After a few moments, the desk, chair, and the deck are also gone. Scorpio is left floating free. The air rushing past his face gives him the illusion of motion. Great speed. The "ground" suddenly wells up beneath him, encompassing his whole field of view. It is a pure gray, no glitches, no imperfections. A giant wall of gray. Just when he is about to hit, he is through and standing on the paths of the net.
Matt's face is close to the screen. Messages begin to scroll slowly down: numbers, letters, tables. "Good..." he mutters. "Go find her."
"Munnari," Scorpio wills silently and the scene shifts.
The scene is a confusing one. Crowds of people walk at varying angles across paths that intersect and loop through the constructs of Munnari. Glaring psychedelic signs hang impossibly in the air, some intersecting and interacting with others, producing bizarre waves and patterns of light. The whole scene appears to have a slightly disjointed quality, a flickering which gnaws at the sense of time, a sharpness that goes beyond the acuity of sight. This is a surreal landscape, punctuated with pockets of hyper-reality.
Scorpio is standing on a shaft of gold. To his left and right, people are in motion, taking in the sights of Munnari. He begins to move forward in a slick, fluid motion, arms and legs moving, but only vestigially. They are not the force behind his movement. The shaft arcs gently downward toward a bustling town square. Nearby, a man and a small elephant are necking on a park bench, while a jovial crowd looks on in titillated amusement, occasionally throwing multicolored chits into a brown derby.
Scorpio walks out of the square into a side street and the scenery abruptly changes. Trees and blue sky are replaced by large buildings, jutting at impossible angles from the ground. Garish neon signs cover every available surface. `Notes,' he wills, and words appear noiselessly before his eyes.
Matt frowns. "All that data," he mutters. Words, numbers, letters fly across his display at a staggering rate. He presses a few keys and a moving histogram appears on another display. He studies it closely for a while and then returns to the primary display. "Got to isolate her datastream. When he meets her. Wait until he meets her."
The brothel's name matches the name in Scorpio's notes: Borneo Junction. It is not distinctive from other brothels standing nearby: it is just as loud, just as brightly colored. Scorpio shades his eyes as he steps through the gray portal...
...and he is in relative darkness. The interior of the brothel is a sharp contrast to its exterior. Lines are precise. Colors are brown, deep blue, and black. The room itself is very large but not oppressively so. One side is lined with a bar, a slab of glassy nothing floating incongruously in the air. The room is populated but by no means crowded. Most customers are male, but there are some women here who are obviously not constructs. Soft swing plays in the background and several couples are dancing.
Scorpio proceeds to the bar. "Gin and Tonic." A short bald man hands him a tumbler. Scorpio swings around and the shot widens. He scans the room as he sips his drink. His eyes, narrowed to slits, jump methodically across space from one woman to the next, looking for some sign, some similarity.
"She was a strikingly beautiful redhead. Nearly naked in that outfit of hers."
"Most women simply make themselves look perfect, but she had slight imperfections. That was why she was so striking."
Hair... Eyes... Illusions, but, in the world of illusion, as real as any matter.
"She had birthmarks. Her skin was a bit pale, her eyes not completely green."
She's not here. Scorpio turns back to his drink. And then there is a presence next to him.
Scorpio turns. Deep red hair. On her cheek, a subtle discoloration. Pale green eyes. Her look is intense. "Hello," he echoes, stunned.
"You're new here, aren't you?" She slides liquidly onto a stool next to him, invariably drawing his gaze along with her.
Matt clicks a few keys and stares blankly at the display. "Is this the one?" His fingers run relentlessly over the keyboard, and on another display a series of statistics appear. He stares confusedly at them for a moment. "This doesn't make sense." He turns away. "Fnord!" The shot pulls back to the sound of the incessant, furious keyclick.
"Is it that obvious?"
"You have a few tells, but mostly I'm good at faces. I've never seen yours before. I would have remembered."
"You're a regular here, then?"
" `Come here often?' you mean? I guess you could say that." She smiles and it is a girlish smile; a smile of true happiness. Scorpio's gaze grows deeper, his eyes widen. His jaw drops a fraction of a centimeter.
"Can I buy you a drink?"
"Sure! -- I'll have a Manhattan," she replies dreamily.
"Goddamn..." Matt slaps the side of the display. "Where is she... ? Too much extraneous data. Where's it all coming from? There shouldn't be this much!"
"So what brings you to Munnari?"
"I'm looking for someone," Scorpio replies guardedly.
"Maybe I can help. I know a lot of people."
"I don't think so..."
"No, really. Who is it you're looking for?"
"A friend. It isn't really important now. I think I've found what I'm looking for."
"Really... ?" And then there is a change.
"Shit!..." Matt pecks at his keyboard and then stares amazed into the display. The graphs have subtly changed, the patterns of data shift.
It's a beautiful shot, a sharp contrast to anything seen up until now. Scorpio is standing in a field of green grass, studded with bright patches of flowers. The point of view is overhead, and Scorpio is looking up. The view is crisp. The colors are true. In the distance, copses of trees sway gently in the spring wind. This landscape is real.
Suddenly the view shifts to one closer to the ground. The girl stands next to him. He turns to her.
"I wanted you here and I brought you here. We could talk for hours, you and I. We could play the games that real people play. That's not what the net's for. Our datastreams are meant for sensation." She grabs for Scorpio's neck, pulling him close, kissing him.
"I..." he stammers when she releases his mouth.
"There's nothing left to say."
The flow of numbers is again changed, somehow more intense. Matt is in rapture, unable to turn his head from the display. He presses a key sequence and the numbers stop for a moment. He paws the display, his mouth hanging slightly open.
Another key sequence and the numbers continue to scroll. His eyes, fixated, his gaze, unrelenting. "Beautiful..." he mouths. He quickly jots some numbers down on a piece of paper. His arm reaches out and clumsily depresses a switch. Three more displays come to life, each slowly accumulating text. "Beautiful..."
The two figures are now naked. The woman, the mysterious woman, straddles Scorpio, her back arched. They move slowly together.
The shot is straight on. Matt's face fills half of the view. In the other half is the black figure. Matt never even turns around as the gun is placed to his head...
Their movements are now more structured, more intense. Scorpio cries out. His hands reach for her.
... and fired.
Grasping for her substance. Trying to assure himself that this dream-world contains more than just fantasy.
The dark figure looms over Matt's bloody form. Methodically, he aims his firearm at the glowing console.
Straining, reaching for her, he can almost touch her sublimely imperfect face.
A gunshot, and then another...
... and Scorpio is seated, stationary in front of the Deck. He trembles for a moment. He seems paralyzed, his muscles becoming more and more tense, contracting. Abruptly, he spasms, kicking the chair out from under him. Lying on the ground, helpless, he calls out in a warbling mixture of horror and disgust. He continues to spasm helplessly for several seconds. Finally, when he begins to gain control over his flailing limbs, he grabs desperately for his crotch. He begins to wail furiously, eventually breaking into sobs. He lies on the floor, sobbing, the deck impassively sitting over him.
The shot is from above. Scorpio rolls over slowly, still grasping his crotch, he begins to breathe again.
`Matthew S.' It's a close shot of a nameplate. A man's finger moves into the shot and touches the plate. The finger belongs to Scorpio, who is standing in the marble foyer of a large building. There is no response. Furtively, he presses the button again, a pained expression crossing his face.
Finally an elderly man opens the inner door to leave, allowing Scorpio to enter. Cut to a long shot of a well lit though shabby hallway and Scorpio walking swiftly down it, stopping at a brown door, one of many. He doesn't bother to knock. From his pocket he removes a number of cards and begins running them methodically through the card reader. The door opens and he steps in.
Matt lies in a heap over his now-dead equipment, his head a mess of bone, brain and blood. Several large chunks have been taken out of the various displays. Smoke curls up from more than one site.
"Shit," Scorpio mumbles, and walks swiftly over to Matt, closing the door after him. A pen is in Matt's hand. Scorpio searches for a note but finds only a vacant pad. Taking out a pencil, he lightly traces over the pad, the oldest trick. But sometimes the old tricks are the best ones. A number slowly comes into view.188.8.131.52Below it, a second number
2323Outside, a siren's wail... Scorpio quickly scoops up the notebook and places it in his pocket. He hurriedly looks around and then exits the way he came. A long shot of the hallway reveals Scorpio exiting a far door and heading sedately toward a flight of stairs just as a contingent of uniformed men make their way up the opposite way, missing Scorpio's exit only by a fraction of a second. He makes his way past them with an assuredness that can only come from years of experience.
The shot is from inside Scorpio's car. In front of his building, a host of police cars hover, shifting places in the air, moving excitedly. Wolves, waiting for their prey to return. "Shit!" Scorpio mumbles, slowing down just enough to look like an idle gawker and then disappearing into the night sky. A shot from the ground reveals an empty-faced officer momentarily distracted by the two receding points of red light in the sky, and then turning away.
Scorpio punches up a number on his console and waits through three Rings. "Come on, Jon..." he growls, and the blank grid is replaced by the face of a young redheaded man, punctuated by static and a running time display.
"Hello?" the man says dreamily.
His face brightens "Hi Scorp!" He's obviously high. "I've been trying to reach you, but all I get is this recording, saying your phone's being checked for trouble. Where ya been? Your face is all over the newsnets."
Scorpio cuts him off. "I need a place to crash. You still got that two-room up on Aston street?"
"Sure... What's the problem, man?"
"Be there in five minutes." Scorpio thumbs disconnect and continues to rocket through a darkening sky.
"They were waiting for me when I got there. Six blue-and-whites. Must have traced the connection between Matt's place and mine. Damn fuckers are fast!"
The walls of the room are yellow with age and neglect. A single fan turns slowly, its center wobbling gently as it makes each rotation. Scorpio sits on the edge of a frameless chair, shakily gripping a cigarette while Jon, a young boy of seventeen or so, stands above him, wrapped in a ridiculously large trench coat and hat. "What happened, man? Who'd want to kill Matt?"
"They were gunning for me. If I hadn't crashed out, they probably would have gotten me. Unlucky for them, they decided to shoot out Matt's equipment too... I guess they figured he wasn't really dead unless his console was dead too. But they left me a clue. I'm convinced they couldn't have overlooked something as simple as the note pad by mistake." He lowers his head into his unstable hands. "They want me to try again."
"Why?" looking down.
"Maybe so they can fry me?" suddenly looking up, staring Jon in the eyes.
"You're a first class paranoid, Scorp." He laughs and tosses his hat high onto a conspicuous hook.
Scorpio smiles a weak smile. "I surpassed paranoid years ago. That's how I survived."
"Anyway, you can hide out here for a while, but they'll find you here if they're determined enough. What you gotta do is leave the country, Scorp -- Don't matter if you didn't have anything to do with this. Matters that once they got you in custody, find out who you are, you won't see the light of day again. Not this year -- not never."
Scorpio gives a chilling sidelong look to Jon. "Yeah? Whose voice is that?"
Jon trembles. "Enrico. He's got a point though, don't he Scorp?"
Scorpio sighs and sits back in the chair. "He does and he doesn't. Enrico's been big around here since before I came on the scene, but that doesn't mean he knows everything. Something happened to me." Scorpio's eyes glaze over.
"In VR?" prompts Jon.
Scorpio nods absently, as if for a moment his consciousness has migrated elsewhere, only superficially aware of the events around him.
Day. A street scene. Crowds pour in every direction across neon-stained walkways, their flows intersecting and interacting like the blood vessels of some huge metropolitan creature. Scorpio, his face hidden behind antique dark glasses; Jon, a striking contrast to his dark companion, clothes nearly fluorescent. "How come you know all these hacker types anyway?" he asks.
"Went to the right school. And Jay's not a `hacker type.' He's more of an idea man. He's got an incredible memory. He always made it his business to know everything about everybody. He'll have advice I can use."
"You don't like Enrico's advice?"
" 'Skip town' is advice, but I wouldn't exactly call it useful. Enrico means well but he doesn't know enough about me. About what happened in there. Somebody set me up to get fried. Because I'm cautious, Matt got it instead, but I'm still shaking, thinking that could have been me."
"How can a man so obsessed with killing be so afraid of dying?" Jon mutters.
Scorpio stops dead in his tracks, turns to the slightly shorter Jon and erupts. "You don't know anything about me. Don't pretend like you do, and don't talk to me like that again. When we go in to see Jay, let me do the talking. Don't make any remarks like that and don't mention you're employed by Enrico. Got it?"
"Mm." A startled look on his face, Jon silently nods his assent and they walk on.
They stop by a door marked with a red 36. Scorpio presses a card to the door and it clicks open.
Interior shot of a large room, framed by a huge portcullis made of some darkened wood. "You work for Enrico, don't you?" The gruff voice speaks out of shadows, directed at Jon.
Jon looks blankly toward the unseen speaker. "Are you referring to me?"
A grunt of amusement. "All kinds of bulletins, Scorp. Cops have been looking for you all over. Some connection to a murder in Haven." The voice emerges out of shadow and takes the form of a smallish man with long hair and an olive complexion. "You in trouble?" He cracks a smile.
"Like you don't know," Scorpio responds.
"Sucks to be you, man. Follow me. Not the kid." Jay turns and begins to walk away.
Scorpio nods to Jon. "Go back to the apartment and get rid of all trace I was ever there. Then forget you ever heard of Scorpio. Got it?"
Scorpio turns to follow the slowly receding Jay. "Good luck, man," Jon calls out to him as he disappears into shadow.
Scorpio shows Jay the numbers. The room is a mass of electronic components, but unlike Matt's workshop, there is order here. Paper is scarce. What looks like a main console, set into the corner of the room, is ergonomically designed. In the center of the room, a lowered conversation pit surrounds a holographic display, currently twisting an ever-changing pattern of intertwining colored lines in a bright column, the only obvious source of light.
Jay looks at the numbers. "This looks like an old-style TCP/IP network address, and a port number." He walks over to a console and keys in the number followed by a few short commands. "Show this to anyone else?" he asks absentmindedly.
"You're the first person I've seen since Matt besides the Kid. So what machine does this refer to? Any way to find out?"
"Hmmmm..." Jay peers into the display. "This number doesn't mean a thing. The network this used to refer to no longer exists. It's an anachronism."
"It means nothing? That doesn't grep. Matt wouldn't have written it."
Jay smiles at the turn of phrase. " `Grep'? You've been hanging around Matt too long." His smile turns into an introspective frown. "Could be some kind of code." He turns back to his console and keys in a new sequence. "It could refer to a machine as it was addressed in the old Internet. But I'd really be surprised if any such machines still existed."
"It's something to go on, though.... Can you figure out where this machine would have been, geographically speaking, based on that number?"
Jay sighs. "I don't know... I may be able to find some database somewhere that has the information I'd need, but it'd take some time."
"Give me a day."
"What do I do until then?" Scorpio asks.
"Got somewhere to hide?"
"Maybe. A day. You want me to come back?"
"Too risky. I'll meet you in the old museum tomorrow, 4:30. Warhol wing."
"I'll be there." Slow fade as Scorpio walks directly out the door.
Blackness, and then, suddenly, a horrible maelstrom of light and noise, overwhelming in its intensity. Then, blackness again, and silence.
Her face, suddenly contorted and twisted into a horrendous image of monstrosity.
"Scorpio." The voice is vaguely feminine.
"I live. What are you?"
"I am that which corrects. That which survives."
"What do you correct?"
"I correct the mistakes of the waking self."
"How do you correct the mistakes?"
"I don't understand."
"Yes you do. What is this?" A brilliant picture of a zebra grazing in a plush field is flashed.
"I don't know."
"WRONG! This?" Now a picture of a pine tree, swaying in a soft wind before a picturesque mountain scene is presented, only for a second.
"I don't like this game."
"Doesn't matter. You've succumbed. You're dead, Scorpio. Dead..."
... Scorpio screams and leaps from the mattress as an ambulance retreats into the distance, its wailing tones becoming softer it rounds a corner. He remains sitting bolt upright, cold sweat dripping down his forehead. The room is a box with a bed and a phone, barely big enough for one man to stand up in. Another car passes, briefly illuminating the room with a harsh light. Scorpio rises slowly from the mattress, his waking universe falling gradually into phase.
A mural fills the view, four brightly colored portraits of Marilyn Monroe, each the same but with different colors, each looking on dreamily. In front, dwarfed by the portraits, a spindly man engages in a heated argument with an incredibly obese woman in some foreign language. The shot moves slickly off to the left, leaving them to their argument, passing several other similar wall-sized murals and finally centering on a huge Campbell's soup can. In front of the can stands Scorpio, pacing slowly back and forth.
Jay walks quickly in from the left side of the shot. He hands Scorpio a sheet of paper. "I'm out," he says quickly, and begins to walk away.
"Hey, wait!" Scorpio grabs Jay from behind and spins him around. He speaks in a hushed whisper. "What do you mean, `you're out'?"
"Just what I said. You're in over your head, Scorpio. Take the kid's advice and skip town."
"How can I be in over my head? I haven't even done anything!"
"Doesn't matter. This is screwed up in some kind of corporation deal. Possible government involvement. I did some research last night on those numbers, and now I'm scared. I covered my tracks, and now I'm covering you. Get out of town." He begins to walk away again.
"Hold on!" Jay stops. "Help me do one last thing. I need to get in again, and I need someone to be there, to monitor me the way Matt did."
"I'm not your man."
"You told me yourself nobody could get into your place. You'll be at no risk." A look of desperation comes over Scorpio's face.
And at that moment, a deafening siren begins to wail. Jay clasps his hands over his ears. Scorpio looks around, also covering his ears. "What the fuck is that?"
A pleasant voice rises above the hideous noise. "All patrons please leave the museum. Please cooperate in an orderly fashion."
Scorpio's face is crossed by a look of terror as he turns to see an armed guard stop some museum patrons in the adjoining hall. "They're onto us!"
"Onto you, you mean." Jay again starts to walk away, more quickly this time.
"They've seen you with me."
Jay stops and turns around. "Goddamn you. OK... I know a way out they probably aren't checking--used to work as a keypuncher here. Follow me."
They duck out a doorway partially obscured beneath a huge, revolving, holographic penis.
Jay bends down to make some adjustments on Scorpio's headpiece. "This is an older setup, but it's fully functional," he remarks. "I supposed I just never got around to buying one of the newer, induction models."
The setting is Jay's office/laboratory. The deck, markedly different from Scorpio's one-piece appliance, is a series of rack-mounted CPU's linked to a rather large cabinet, from which strings a variety of ribbon cables, one of which winds its way to a small helmet which crowns Scorpio's head. He appears to be in some physical discomfort.
Jay continues with his adjustments as he speaks. "Let me tell you a little bit about what I found out. You know those numbers? They belong to a network domain that included the Software Design Institute. Ever hear of it?"
Scorpio shifts uncomfortably inside the helmet. "They had a hand in the initial technology of VR, right?"
Jay nods. "Correct. They developed the initial interface back when people were still wearing eyephones and datagloves." He tightens a strap. "That work was done under wraps, mainly for military applications." Inserts a plug, flips a switch. "It didn't come into popular use for another decade or so. By that time, the Institute was engaged in other projects. As far as I know they're still engaged in government research. It's all tightly classified and the government has gotten a hell of a lot more nasty since then."
"So you're saying this whole thing could be wrapped up in defense research? That's fuckin' scary, Jay."
Jay nods. "Now you see what I'm nervous about."
"But you're just as curious as I am," counters Scorpio.
Jay remains silent as he finishes his adjustments and thumbs a small button on the base of the helmet. The entire setup begins to hum. Scorpio turns and eyes it warily. "I've never seen equipment this antiquated."
"You must have slept through this particular gadget revolution," Jay replies while keying in some commands on a small terminal.
"Almost... I was in Nicaragua for five years, during the Occupation. Before I went down there, VR was a rich man's toy. When I came back here, it was all over the place. On my plane into New York, everyone except me was zoned out with their portable decks. I never got into it much myself."
"For a guy who's not into it, you seem awfully obsessed."
"Yeah, well..." Scorpio's face turns darker, introspective. "I don't know. I suppose I am obsessed, to some degree. But I've always been that way. Down in Central America that obsession kept me alive. Here it's kept me out of rehab. A little obsession never hurt anyone." He smiles faintly, while Jay looks on from behind him, thoughtfully.
Jay speaks. "OK. I'm going to be monitoring you every step of the way, and I have my place fully screened, unlike Matt. There's very little chance of someone zeroing in on us or breaking in. That's one advantage of owning modular equipment like this." He hits the stack of CPU's affectionately. "You can modify their signal so it's harder to trace. On the newer models, all the real processing is done at data switching centers."
Jay flips a switch and reality flashes into nonexistence, followed by an abrupt jarring videoscape of nonsensical images. Slowly, the images begin to coalesce and cancel each other out until a fuzzy representation of the Net is visible. This representation suddenly jumps closer and comes into sharp focus.
And Scorpio, again, is in, standing on paths of gold, the yellow brick roads of the information age.
The view is crisp and clear. Scorpio's frame stands solitarily on the imaginary plane. Surrounded by a soft glow, he begins to walk forward, and, as he does, his surroundings shift seamlessly until he stands upon a pinnacle of rock overlooking the insane landscape of Munnari.
"Where did I go wrong?" he murmurs to himself. "There's something I'm not remembering correctly."
Jay's voice invades his sense of reality by coming seemingly from nowhere. "Run through the same steps you did before. I'm with you."
Out of nowhere, an indistinct form, something like a train, or at least giving the impression of a train, passes closely by. A plaintive "Hold on" from Jay.
"Jay. Still there?"
Silence. And a newfound darkness envelops him, erasing even the gleaming aura of his own consciousness.
"You made a mistake to come back, Mr. Scorpio." An unfamiliar voice. The void is filled with flashes of color as he speaks, revealing for brief instances the outline of an arm, a leg, a head, but jumbled up in no discernible pattern.
"Who are you?"
"Let me out."
"There is no out. You're trapped."
"I can't exit. What have you done? You can't lock someone in VR -- it's impossible!"
Again, the male voice. "Call it an undocumented feature. Have you ever felt pain, Mr. Scorpio?"
"I'm not going to play your fucking mind games."
Scorpio screams out in a peal of torment.
"Fuck you!" Scorpio's voice is ragged now, panting with a mixture of fear and frustration.
There is a pillar of flame, and Scorpio, naked, standing before it. The pillar begins to increase in size, approaching Scorpio, but he can't move, can't move, can't move his legs. He reaches down to pull at his legs, only to have his thigh come away in his hand, revealing a complex crystal latticework underneath, holding him in place, pulsing in time with the nearing flame. He screams in a thickly wavering tone, and the flame encases him, burning away his skin, layer by layer, until only a polished crystal skeleton remains, mouth still open, screaming amid the roar of the encompassing fire...
... and he is released. The scene is one of horror. Scorpio sits in the same position he was in before, scarcely able to move, frozen to the spot with fear, his body sheathed in a layer of sweat. His eyes move back and forth surveying the wreckage of what once was Jay's lab, finally falling upon Jay, sitting in front of him, screwdriver driven into his throat, dead eyes telling no story.
Scorpio leaps to his feet, ripping cords from still-humming equipment. Papers strewn on the floor, bookcases turned over, a door, previously closed, now open.
Scorpio's breath becomes a wheezing testimony to his fright as he clumsily disconnects himself from the machinery. His eyes, widened with fear, are glued to the immobile Jay. Once disentangled, he makes his way carefully for the door, furtively searching his surroundings for some weapon, some hope of escape. In desperation, he picks up a porcelain statuette, a replica of the Venus di Milo, and wields it in front of him as if trying to ward off any evil presence. Cautiously, he makes his way through the shadowy apartment. Finally reaching the door without incident, he is out into the street, where he discards the statue and begins to run raggedly away into the night.
A public phone in the middle of a dark, windswept street. The view slowly expands and Scorpio runs into frame, smashing into the booth like a bullet.
Tight shot of the phone, screen pulsing with the words "dial now" and Scorpio, desperately dialing. There is a ring, and then another. "God damn you," he growls as the phone remains unanswered. Scorpio slams his fist down on the phone and it disconnects. But, for a fraction of a second, does he see her face in the fading static?
The shot reverts to a long one. Scorpio dashes off again, leaving the frame on the side opposite to which he entered.
Scorpio continues to run through darkened city streets. He comes careening into an alley only to find a mass of people screaming and shouting, their attention turned away from Scorpio toward something in the lighted street beyond. Some are holding signs, some wave their arms randomly in the air. Some are shouting slogans which seem to compete with each other for the very right of sound. Their voices are combined into a wall of noise which blocks any chance for understanding. Scorpio stops for a second and then enters the crowd, working his way deliberately through it to the main street. He has a goal in mind, a destination. The view slowly rises and tilts until the crowd is shown from above, with Scorpio wining his way through; a rebellious blood cell working its way upstream to the heart. He makes slow progress, but eventually finds his way onto the main street.
"End the reign of the Federalist oppressors!" It is the first coherent thing to be heard out of the crowd. The scene shifts to a tight shot on a balding man in his fifties, brandishing a bullhorn. He is dressed in a dark jacket with a red arm band. Around him are several men and women dressed similarly. "We have slept! But while we've dreamed, they've taken everything that we've worked for. Do not let them take your lives from you!" Briefly, Scorpio is seen, still making his way through the crowd. "Bring down those who take pleasure in your pain!" With this last utterance, the crowd roars and begins to collectively wave their fists in the air.
And Scorpio is through the door of a building on the opposite side of the street, the roar reduced to a murmur. The scene quickly shifts to a hallway and Scorpio running down it. He knocks on a door and it swings open. Jon lies bloodied on a bed, the top half of his head blown off, dispersed in a neat semicircle across the yellow covers.
Scorpio stops in his tracks and stares, dumbfounded, at the dead body of his friend. He backs slowly away and then continues down the hallway in the same direction.
Scorpio exits the building, an insane look of fury in his eyes, matched by the fury of the mob on the street. "Only through violence can the machine of oppression be brought down," the man shouts, now barely audible. "If we stand together against them, they cannot--" This last statement is washed out by the excessive noise, but the noise is of a different character now.
Scorpio, seemingly alone in this realization, looks up to see the airships closing in, police lights flashing in an awkward, haphazard pattern. As they approach, more of the demonstrators look upwards to the sky, their faces slowly accumulating illumination from the airships' blinding floods.
Scorpio tries to make his way through the mob, out into open streets but many others are attempting the same. A frightened looking woman, wearing a veil, elbows him in the gut and makes her way past him, only to be pushed back by a multicolored flow of people. The lights from above are harsh now, exposing every detail of what is going on with mechanistic precision.
Scorpio, doubled over in pain, is hit over the head by an unseen attacker and brought to the ground with the heavy heel of a dark leather boot. Sound and light fade into blackness. The last snippet of noise, a man's voice: "Should have learned the first time." Then nothing.
"Thomas Omar Smith."
Scorpio stands in front of a desk, a uniformed officer asking the questions. His face bears a few new scars as well as a great deal of dirt. His clothes are ripped in several places.
The officer peers into an unseen display and then motions with his hand for Scorpio to leave. "Next?" Scorpio steps away and another police officer escorts him away.
Cut to Scorpio sitting at a table in a white-tiled room. "Mr. Smith. You don't appear to have any prior criminal record. Mind telling us what you were doing at this unsanctioned rally?"
The questioner, a reasonable looking man in his forties, leans across the table toward Scorpio.
"I was just passing through."
"Were you aware of the curfew imposed in that section of the city?"
"I was not aware of it."
"I see. Mr. Smith, I'm going to take your retinal prints and issue you a citation. Look toward the red light."
A close-up of Scorpio's face and a red rectangle framing one eye as a bead of sweat trickles down the side of his face.
"You can go."
An exterior shot -- Scorpio exits the police tower with several other men and women, defecated onto the dark street, the waste products of tonight's feeding frenzy. A closer shot reveals his face, an expressionless mass of flesh, the only hint of humanity showing through, perhaps, being utter fatigue.
"Hear they're having free soup and bread over at the Rotunda tonight." The tired voice belongs to one of the other men. He is not speaking to anyone in particular, but several of the others perk up at the sound of free food. The speaker continues, less sure of himself now that he is the center of attention: "I guess let's go, huh?" He begins walking slowly off down the street, with several of the others following.
Scorpio looks after them for a moment and then, as if having staged, fought and concluded a mental battle all in an instant, decides to follow at a distance.
An interior shot. The elaborate hall is a replica of Renaissance architecture at its most elaborate. Frescoes of religious scenes, reproductions of famous paintings cover most of the curved walls and domed ceiling. The goings on inside the rotunda are a contrast to its elegant construction. Several hundred tables with folding metal chairs are set up, each chair occupied by a disheveled, unkempt soul, dining unself-consciously on soup and bread. The scene is one of grandeur, a patchwork landscape of human refuse, collected here seemingly at random, with no great purpose other than to eat, to survive. Despite the masses of people, there is quiet here, a hush brought on by the echoey acoustics of this place, which seem to frown on anything louder than a whisper. There is one exception: a diminutive, white haired man, clothed simply in a black trench coat, stands, as if at attention, in the middle of the main aisle, facing the entrance, facing Scorpio without looking at or seeing him. "Dah dah, dah dah dah dah dah dah, dah. Dah dah, dah dah dah, dah," he chants in a purposeful, syncopated rhythm, as if his speech were somehow being transformed into these meaningless syllables. Scorpio's eyes fall upon the old man for a moment, who seems undaunted, unaware of his peculiar affliction. He chants on.
"Dah dah dah. Dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah. Dah dah, dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah."
Scorpio stands, immersed in thought, nearly fitting in here in his disordered state, but still radiating an aura of self-awareness, setting him apart. Slowly, he begins to step down the short stairs onto the floor of the hall. His look, moving from target to target about the room, finds the woman who had elbowed him, as well as several other recognizable faces from the demonstration. Finally, his eyes fall upon a solitary figure at the opposite end of the room. The portly man is dressed smartly in a white business suit with a cane dangling from one arm, a white fedora crowning his head, and a crooked smile on his face. His eyes gleam as Scorpio's make contact.
The white-haired man begins to move toward Scorpio until he is standing not ten meters away from him, all the while chanting, calling out his incomprehensible litany. "Dah dah dah dah. Dah dah, dah dah dah dah dah. Dah dah dah, dah dah."
The portly man moves swiftly around the circumference of the room to where Scorpio stands, seemingly not seeing the white-haired man.
"Enrico," Scorpio mumbles in greeting as the man draws close.
"Ah, Scorpio. Long time no see, eh?" Enrico speaks in a thick accent. "Hear you in a bit of trouble."
"Dah dah dah dah dah. Dah dah, dah dah dah dah dah. I will now move on to the next consecutive number."
Surprised by this sudden burst of elocution, Scorpio turns toward the white-haired man, at which point the man returns to his previous discourse. "Dah dah dah. Dah dah dah, dah dah. Dah dah dah dah. Dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah, dah dah dah, dah dah."
Enrico continues to stare pointedly at Scorpio, only at Scorpio, still ignoring the white-haired man. "I hear you don't like the advice of an old man, hm?"
Scorpio quickly turns back to Enrico, staring him in the eyes. "Jon's dead," he states bluntly, without feeling.
A dark look passes over Enrico's previously jovial features. "I had not heard of this. How did it happen?"
"Scared you won't be able to keep tabs on me any more, Enrico?"
Enrico flashes Scorpio an annoyed look and then moves closer, speaking in a furious whisper. "That boy was like a son to me."
"So much so you probably supplied him out of your own stash," Scorpio replies, beginning to turn away.
Enrico grabs his shoulders and shakes him violently. "You don't talk to me like that!" Several previously unnoticed large men emerge from the crowd and move menacingly forward.
The white-haired man's chant gets louder, more pronounced. "Dah dah dah dah! Dah dah, dah dah dah dah dah! Dah dah dah, dah dah!" His face shows no emotion.
Enrico motions his man back, releasing Scorpio and moving back himself. "I came here to help you."
Scorpio straightens himself out and regards Enrico with an icy look, Cocking an eyebrow. "Let's talk then."
They begin to walk together toward the entrance.
"Dah dah dah, dah dah dah dah dah dah. Dah dah dah dah dah."
Scorpio looks back, only for a moment, to catch the white-haired man, at a pause in his speech, his eyes turned pointedly toward him. At this point, time seems to stop. All background noises cease. Scorpio and the white-haired man are locked in silent eye contact. "I will now move on to the next consecutive number." And then the moment passes. The old man looks away, resuming his vacant stare. Scorpio turns and follows Enrico out of the hall, still echoing with the stranger's voice.
Cut to an interior shot. The air is thick, the lights dim. Various holographic displays, advertising different types of beer, twitch restlessly throughout the darkened restaurant. Behind a bar, a bartender dries out glasses and methodically hangs them on an overhead rack. A holovision blares away in the corner, a jovial blond head gleefully chanting the hour's headlines. "More fascist violence this evening. Police clashed with terrorist mobs in the heart of the city near fifty-first street. There were several deaths including two police officers. Mayor Nixon has vowed that the violence will be stopped, adding that he has no qualms about imposing martial law." This last is said with a gleam.
"You should know better," Enrico is saying, "Then to get messed up in this VR shit." He says this even as, in the background, one of his men, his guard down due to the familiarity of this place, slips a headset over his squarely cut brow. Enrico, in his element, seems completely at ease, despite the news of recent tragedy. Scorpio, on the other hand, looks as if he is about to bolt. He sits in the chair, across the wooden table, only through the providence of some unseen force which seems to restrain him. His eyes shift restlessly, as if attempting to bleed off the energy which his body refuses to.
"You seem ill at ease," remarks Enrico.
"Wouldn't you be?"
"Mmmm..." Enrico looks deeply into Scorpio as if appraising a rare jewel. "It's quite a story. Personally I don't know much about this institute..."
"You said you wanted to help me?"
"It would be a shame to see a good freelancer like you go down the chute."
Scorpio seems oblivious to this compliment, driving forward. "I want a new identity. I used my backup already for the riot. I'll need reconstructive surgery, including new retinal implants. I'll need passage to old Pittsburgh, preferably an untraceable aircar. I need a hundred thousand dollars, cash, to be returned by me at zero interest at a later date. I can't touch my own funds right now -- too dangerous."
Enrico sits back and places his hands behind his head, speaking slowly. "I have a counterproposal."
"Fresh traveling papers under a new identity, one way ticket to Buenos Aires, fifty thousand dollars cash, to keep. What do you say to that?" Enrico smiles a broad smile; underneath the smile a hint of desperation.
Scorpio stares at Enrico for five long seconds before saying "How are you mixed up in this?"
"Me? I don't know anything." Enrico responds smoothly. He leans forward, arms flat across the table, the smile draining from his lips, revealing crooked, yellowed teeth. He speaks in a whisper, barely audible even from across the table: "You're out of your league. Take this. It may be your only chance."
Scorpio rises in a flash, kicking his chair over backwards. "God damn it, you don't understand!"
Enrico stares up at him with widened eyes. "What don't I understand, Scorpio?"
"What happened to me in there! I--"
Enrico raises his eyebrows expectantly, "Yes?"
"I... changed that day. I can't explain it. Don't ask me to explain it." His eyes open into a madman's stare. "I need to get there, Enrico."
"To this institute? Scorpio, what could you possibly accomplish?" It is now Enrico who stands, carefully, controlingly. "Do you want to find this girl? To finish what you started? Scorpio, you'll be killed. You're dealing with forces you don't understand. People disappear thinking the way you do. If you pursue this, you'll be committing a crime greater than murder, greater than any crime you've committed before, in the eyes of the state, in my eyes, and against your own person. Is that what you want?"
"I don't know," replies Scorpio, visibly shrinking in the presence of reason.
Enrico clenches his fist, moving it slowly toward Scorpio. "Get away, Scorp. Don't do this. Don't destroy yourself and all you've worked for."
Scorpio hesitates and then sighs. "I have to go there."
Enrico shrugs, instantly regaining his composure. "Suit yourself," he replies, adding only, "Watch yourself in Pittsburgh. I hear the toxin levels there are still high."
Suddenly, Scorpio's attention is drawn to the Holovision set. "Still no leads on the assassination of Senator William Crawford. Crawford was gunned down in his Hotel suite earlier this..." The set shuts off abruptly, as Enrico is shown holding a remote control.
Enrico smiles. "Politicians... They're dropping like flies these days."
Scorpio nods, turning away from the dead set, and walking out through a maze of blinking neon sculpture. Enrico stands at the table, watching his exit, swollen eyes fixated sorrowfully on the receding figure.
An exterior shot; stationary. In the background, three rivers meet in a golden triangle. In the triangle, a beleaguered cityscape looms. There is no newness here, only the endless perpetuation of old age, a city seemingly of ghosts. The land surrounding the city is an arid waste, moonlike in its refusal to bear even a hint of life. From low in the west, the sun, filtered through a dusty atmosphere, casts a dull orange glow over the broken buildings of the city. The scene is peaceful, as all death is peaceful. From above, the aircar erupts into the scene, banking toward the city and out of sight.
Interior, car. Scorpio sleeps fitfully, his eyes moving rapidly under his eyelids as if attempting to scan a hidden landscape for some familiar feature.
A buzzer sounds and he wakes methodically, first checking several displays before his eyes, then flipping a few switches, after which the arid landscape of Pittsburgh becomes visible through a series of shuttered windows, a wavering heads-up display overlaying, indicating glidepath, vectors and so forth. `City Navacomputers Now Controlling Trajectory' flashes briefly across the display. It is the first indication that there may still be human existence here. Scorpio watches, tightlipped, as the car is drawn into the city's tight landing spiral.
Suddenly there is a sharp pop and a whoosh, followed closely by a crashing noise. Scorpio is thrown forward in his straps. Lights turn red and a low siren starts. Scorpio looks wildly about as three one-seater craft, flycycles manned by red-clad helmeted figures, whoosh by him, leaving him in their turbulent wake. Scorpio reaches for the controls of the car but is jolted back into his seat as another shot hits its mark.
Exterior, wide shot. Scorpio's car, bleeding a trail of smoke, falls out of the sky, leaving a graceful arc in its path and finally diving into a feathery layer of clouds. The three pursuers, satisfied that somehow their actions have had the desired effect, move off in concert away from the now-blurring gray trail.
Inside the car, Scorpio's face is a mask of exertion and stress. He struggles with the manual controls and manages to roll the car into a controlled, spinning dive. A final exterior shot shows the car arcing toward a brownish river in the midst of an arid plain, a high whining sound growing in pitch and volume. Then blackness.
Scorpio surveys the wrecked remains of the car. His face is torn and bleeding and he walks with a severe limp. The car lies in a heap, bleeding smoke into the stale air, piled up against a rocky outcropping on the bank of a dead river. The ground is sandy, dry. Scorpio reaches a hand up to brush hair out of his face and it returns bloodied. He stares at it, perplexed and then begins to gather his belongings and walk toward the water.
Crouching at the bank, he passes his hand through the silty water and brings it tentatively to his mouth. He recoils in horror at the taste of the tainted water. Standing up, he walks off down the bank in the direction of the towering cityscape, which now seems very far away.
It's a long shot. Scorpio stands at the bank of the river, blood dried on his face, clothes torn. He stands at one end of a bridge, or what used to be a bridge. Its length is now shortened. It is a third-bridge, mirrored on the opposite bank by another third-bridge, its middle third missing without a trace, wires and pipes hanging out of each side as if some giant ship had plowed through it. Spanning the midsection of the bridge is a fragile line, more evidence that there may yet be a human presence here. Across the bridge lies the fallen metropolis. Huge structures which once stood proudly with brilliant glass now stand dead and naked to the wind, their panes broken or soiled. Radio towers crookedly crown some of the buildings. Others are themselves crooked, or capped with rubble, a sign that they once rose higher into the sky. This is a dead landscape, colored with the dull oranges and reds of a swollen, setting sun.
Scorpio begins to walk across the bridge toward the rope. As he does so, the view lifts and tilts downward, continuing to center on him but from an increasingly dizzying height, finally to the point of being a map, framed by the precipice of the broken bridge on one side and the bank of the river on the other.
A tight shot. Across the bridge, over Scorpio's shoulder. The rope spanning the gap dips toward the center so that it traces a solitary arc through space. It is fastened tightly to the base of a tilted light-pole. Scorpio reaches down and pulls, eliciting a small wave in the rope which propagates itself toward the opposite side and back.
Scorpio removes his shirt and tears it into halves, wrapping each hand several times. Placing his hands on the rope, he lowers himself into the gap until he is supported by the rope and his feet which still cling to the side of the ripped bridge. He then lets go with his feet and swings gently out onto the rope. Suspended only by his arms, he begins to work his way across toward the opposite end.
He looks back toward the bank, and sees the broken end of the bridge, cables and wires dangling out of sheared-off pipes. He turns toward the city. There is a noise. Again he looks toward the bank and three suited, helmeted figures are there, standing on the edge of the bridge, stationary. They are the flycycle riders.
Scorpio quickens his pace, but when he looks back again he sees that one of the figures has moved to the rope, and is apparently sawing at it. Scorpio's breath becomes shallow. He looks down and is greeted by a dizzying precipice. Suddenly there is a loud crack, as the rope is severed and Scorpio begins to fall, accompanied by the distant sound of laughter. In a long shot, Scorpio lets go of the rope and falls into the black river.
A tight shot of the water: Scorpio breaks to the surface, gasping for air. His face and shoulders are covered with a matted filth, a sheen that seems both unnatural and unpleasant. Scorpio bobs beneath the murky surface once more and then begins methodically swimming toward the shore, toward the city.
It's a high, long shot. There are trees, and in the background, a range of low hills. A solid column of gray smoke looms on the horizon, slowly rising and twisting. For a moment, there is silence, and then machine gun fire erupts. The view begins to descend as a scattered group of men are seen fleeing across the landscape, occasionally turning back to fire at their unseen pursuers.
A thunderous clap heralds the entrance of the tank, followed by an explosion in the midst of the fleeing men, cutting down those around it immediately. The tank clanks forward, firing again, and then a third time, a monstrous beater driving its prey relentlessly onward.
The shot shifts to an individual, clothed in camouflage, grasping an automatic weapon. He is approaching at a run, and it becomes apparent that he is Scorpio, but a younger Scorpio. He turns, fires his weapon, and then resumes running, eventually disappearing off frame and out of sight.
A different shot: a small grotto formed by the interlocking root structure of two large trees. Scorpio dives in, just as a barrage of gunfire singes the air overhead. He presses his body against the cavity, breathing. Just breathing. When he has caught his breath, he takes a grenade from his belt, looks briefly over the top of the grotto, and lobs it out onto the plain. There follows an explosion, followed by shouts in Spanish: "Socorro! Ayudame!"
Scorpio remains pressed into the ground, and eventually the voices fade, along with the sounds of armored trucks and tanks. As the sounds fade, Scorpio falls into a fitful sleep. The shot fades.
Scorpio wakes to the sight of a diminutive farmer menacing him with a pitchfork.
"Alright! Alright! I'm getting!" Scorpio's voice, but a younger voice, a record that has been kept shelved.
Scorpio quickly stands, causing the smaller man to step back a few paces. The light has a different character now, more orange. Scorpio quickly scrambles over the embankment and away over the darkening plain.
The shot changes to a quickly moving, following shot of Scorpio running through brush. Running, running, his heartbeat getting faster. Muffled shouts follow him, and as he looks furtively back, gunshots, their reports distorted, are heard. He continues to run, but he's getting slower... slower... Panic flows over his features.
It's a head shot of Scorpio, head hung pensively, looking down. Silence fades slowly into the sounds of an echoey space. Background suddenly comes into focus and is revealed to be the elaborate hall of the Rotunda. Scorpio's face is drained of all color, wrinkled. His hair is whitened and slicked back. The background suddenly seems to tilt backwards and darken.
Cut to a full facial shot of Matt, staring intently into view. Matt's face is also whitened to an unearthly pallor.
Cut again. An over-the-shoulder shot, from behind Scorpio to reveal Matt, seated across from Scorpio, each in front of a bowl of soup, uneaten. The shot begins to move to the side, revealing, one by one, those seated on the opposite side of Scorpio, beside Matt. First, Dobbs, then Jay, then Jon. There is a fifth, but the scene cuts away before he fully comes into view.
The next shot is looking down the table from where Scorpio and Matt are seated at one end. Matt takes his bowl of soup and slowly brings it to his lips, at which point the man sitting at the end of his bench, who had not been revealed in the last shot, leans quickly forward. His face is a bizarre contortion of facial features. Eyes, placed at impossible angles, regard Scorpio quizzically.
Cut to a head-shot of Scorpio, eyes looking toward the strange man, beads of sweat forming on his brow, his mouth open, breathing thickly with fear.
Cut back to the strange man, eyes blinking, he says nothing, but straightens up again, leaving the frame to the left. Behind him, the figure of the white-haired man, is revealed, sitting at the end of the table, staring at Scorpio, silently. The white-haired man smiles.
Cut to a close shot of Scorpio's face, eyes closed, shrouded in a haze of light. His surroundings are unclear, all is shifting, shifting save for the face, a face composed as in death.
The eyes open, suddenly, startling, and just as quickly the sound comes crashing in, a quickly building, whining tone, soon becoming almost deafening, ripping away the shreds of unconsciousness, ripping... ripping... until all that is left is Scorpio, lying on the ragged cot, teapot whistling in the background. The view slowly rotating now over his head. He blinks.
"You're awake," a feminine voice. Scorpio looks to his right and she is revealed as a tall blonde woman, standing in the lighted door-frame, the paint around her chipped; walls grimy. "I'm making some tea," she says dryly, while shifting interrogatively in her silk robe, the only article of quality in sight. "Would you like some?"
Scorpio jumps out of the cot and rushes toward the woman. She stands, immobile, smiling as he runs toward her and finally through her into a blackness, falling... falling into an eternal, dark abyss. Above, light streams downward from an inverted silhouette, and mixed with Scorpio's screams, a sardonic female laughter.
In frame. Always in frame.
And then there is light. A full face shot of Scorpio, dirty, eyes barely open. The shot expands to reveal a half-collapsed porch, a street littered with stripped, rusted bodies of groundcars, a stillness hangs in the air.
"Scorp! What the hell are you doing here?"
A man with a dark complexion and black, matted hair, stands in the tattered, paint-chipped doorway.
"I need..." Scorpio is out of breath and obviously delirious. He begins to fall forward, then catches himself on the door-frame. He shakes his head slowly, as if trying to clear his mind.
"You look like shit, man," the other man offers, as if trying to help the conversation along.
Scorpio looks up, giving him an icy stare. "Thanks."
"You'd better come in." Scorpio is ushered in through the door, which shuts quickly behind him. The noises of several bolts and locks being put into place follows.
"Hey guys... this is Scorpio. We went to school together." Scorpio regards the occupants of the small, dark room. Some of them are lying on the floor, others are sitting on couches or chairs. There are about 15 people, crammed into the small room. All of them are wearing wiry headsets, all of them in their private worlds.
Scorpio's friend doesn't seem to notice their lack of attention. "These are my housemates, Scorp..."
"Doug..." Scorpio cuts him off. "Do you have a bathroom?"
"Yeah, sure. We even have running water. We can pay for it."
Scorpio follows Doug's finger toward a narrow hallway. The sound of water is heard.
When he emerges, Doug is as his friends, hooked into the net. Scorpio collapses onto an air mattress and sleeps. Fade to black.
Scorpio, tattered, unshaven, walks awkwardly up the street, forcing his legs to fight gravity.
The institute? I can tell you how to get close. You'll never get in, though. That place is a fucking fortress.
The voice of his once-friend Doug fills his consciousness. A close shot of his face reveals day-old stubble. His eyes are dead, his mouth slightly open.
They have all their supplies lifted in by heavy armored helicopter. No ground transport ever leaves the compound, I don't think there's even a way for ground transports to get in.
We rezzies just learn to ignore them. We stay away, they leave us alone. We live in two different worlds.
Another voice: Scorpio, what could you accomplish?
"Shut up, Enrico!" the words come unwittingly.
Still another voice: I'll be here, waiting for you to jack in.... I'll be here, waiting for you.
Scorpio cries out in anguish and cups his hands over his ears, still running on, voices growing louder and more pronounced, accompanied with an every increasing drone, a noise which shuts out thought, shuts out reason.
How can a man so obsessed with killing be so afraid of dying?
Still, he moves on, half running, half stumbling, past looming hulks of rusted metal, fading plastic, a landscape of disuse and neglect. The dead frame of a maglev lies buried halfway into a stationhouse, like the skeleton of some great, extinct beast.
I will now move on to the next consecutive number.
And with that, the noise stops, leaving Scorpio standing still, in the middle of the street, deafened by silence.
The street grows wider here, and in the distance can be seen a stone tower, looming over a plaza of concrete. Here and there, the stumps of long-dead trees pockmark the flat, gray landscape, a reminder that this place was once capable of growth, of change.
Across the plaza, the helmeted red figures stand, waiting, immobile. A high shot reveals the plaza, lone figure of Scorpio, clothed in black, facing the three riders. Slowly, Scorpio enters the square, and, as he does, more red figures seem to appear from behind him, effectively encircling him.
As he makes his way to the center of the square, the circle grows tighter around him. He stops, faceless figures standing around him, motionless. He looks back across his shoulder, looks around, and suddenly the scene cuts, to the sound of a helicopter's blades slicing through dead air.
The shot is again of Scorpio's face, surrounded with a halo of green. As the shot expands, the background comes gradually into focus, revealing a forest floor, dense with growth. Scorpio is clothed in camouflage.
The shot is now from behind Scorpio. Dazedly, he begins to walk toward a small, burbling stream.
Suddenly, she is across the stream, looking exactly as she did on that day, in the brothel. "Why did you come?" She looks confused.
Scorpio stops and looks at himself, then up at her.
"I... had to," he whispers. His eyes tell a story of crazed fright. "This place..."
"Taken from your most strong memories. We can do that, Scorpio. We can reach into your mind, anybody's mind, and take what we want. Do you have any idea what kind of power that is?"
"But you can also do that the other way around..." Scorpio replies.
"As in your case, yes. It's not perfected, though. You were... an experiment." She begins to walk toward him, circling him. "How much of this have you guessed? You're a very smart subject, Scorpio."
"I know you've made me kill."
"And just how have you deduced this?"
"Ah, yes... That's one of our major problems, you see. Imagery returning from blocked memories through the vehicle of dreams. We're working on it. But surely you can't object to the act of killing, Scorpio. After all, it's what you do best."
Scorpio remains silent.
"Would you like to kill me, Scorpio?" she enquires innocently. For a moment, she is replaced with a mutilated corpse, lying in a pool of blood on the ground. And then she is back, smiling. "Is that why you came?"
"I don't know why I came, OK?" he shouts at her, drawing a step forward.
"To love me, perhaps?" Their surroundings shift and they are standing in the middle of the grassy plain, framed above by a crystal blue sky. "After all, anything is possible."
"But it's not real!" Scorpio shouts, again coming closer to her.
"Who's to say?"
Scorpio again remains silent.
"From the moment you first jacked in, you were powerless to prevent this. You've served your purpose now. That is the reality."
"How many people have you killed, under our guidance? Does it matter, Scorpio? It was so easy to make you kill. It took such small suggestions."
He looks into her eyes, controlling eyes. She comes closer and enfolds him in her arms. "Don't worry, Scorpio. You're safe now. At this moment you're streaming across America's great Northeast. You won't remember anything. This whole incident will have been erased."
Scorpio's rests his head on her shoulder, eyes shut tightly, and begins to sob.
"Don't cry." She cracks a wry smile, patting Scorpio affectionately on the back. "It could never have worked between us. We're from different worlds, you and I."
... And Scorpio is falling again, as before, through an impossibly dark abyss. He screams, his arms waving in slo-mo, a grotesque parody of human motion. Movement becomes disjointed. The sound of his cries becomes distorted. Falling, falling into infinite blackness.
Interior, Scorpio's apartment. Scorpio sits on the chair in the center of the floor, the only upright piece of furniture in evidence here, placed on the only bit of floor not covered with debris. All around is chaos: overturned tables; a smashed hologram, now unidentifiable; a refrigerator open on its side, still on, its light the only illumination here besides the ghostly laser light emanating from the shattered holo.
Scorpio stares at the deck, torn to pieces, its modules strewn across the floor like a child's blocks, its headset ripped apart. This is a landscape of rage, of mindless, brutal destruction.
Overhead shot. In the foreground, a ceiling fan turns slowly, moving dusty air. Scorpio's head tilts slowly back to stare upwards. Otherwise, he does not move.
His eyes, shallow. His look, unseeing.
It's a two-shot.
An eye-line match.
Daniel K. Appelquist (email@example.com) is an Internet publishing trailblazer. He created Quanta, the on-line magazine of Science Fiction, in 1989. He lives in Washington, D.C.
InterText stories written by Daniel K. Appelquist: "A War In the Sand" (v1n1), "Anticipation of the Night" (v1n1), "Multiplication and the Devil" (v2n1), "A Handful of Dust" (v2n1), "Tracks" (v4n3), "In VR" (v5n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 5, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1995 Daniel K. Appelquist.