First in a possible collection of short stories inspired by the Cyberpunk genre.
| Phoenix twenty-three; population estimate: seventy-million-four-hundred-eighty-four-thousand-and-three. Average lifespan: one-hundred-ninety-years. Temperature preference: seventy degrees.
More about Phoenix twenty-three: generic self-sustaining ecosystem constructed for the survival of humanity after the atmosphere was burned away by the sun. Estimated incident date: five-thousand-twelve years ago.
Estimated human population across Earth colonies: sixty-billion. Space colonies: four-hundred-billion.
Blown capacitors; a puff of black smoke rises from the power supply attached to a terminal located inside of a small apartment of a residential super-structure.
“Nova! Do something right, for fucks sake. What’s wrong with you?!” Yelled Ghost. “We’re going to miss the raid against those assholes if we keep screwing this shit up. We need this terminal fully functioning. Now I have to go get some nano caps, or something, from Raven.”
Ghost’s apartment was small, dark, littered with computer parts, lined with mechanical grease, and located in a rough place even by standards of the poor colony of Phoenix twenty-three. More affluent colonies had first choice of resources mined in space, after the space colonies. Whatever was left made it through as scraps for the rest of the colonies. Terra Eight held the richest population on the colonies. Ascension four held much of the power corporations. Between the Ascension and Terra designated colonies, the powerful and wealthy dictated the course of humanity on Earth.
The Phoenix colonies were designated as overflow colonies. Criminals from other colonies and space, those born into poverty, and affluent exiles were sent here, and when a “P” designation was assigned as an identity label, you were stuck here for life. Either through birth, or exile, “P” meant your fate had already been decided. “P” meant that you’d never see the space colonies, where the future of humanity was.
Ghost stood up and pulled her goggles down and around her neck, and sighed. She brushed her dark gray hair away from her dull orange eyes, and focused them on Nova.
“Hey, dumbass, need some maintenance, or something?”
Nova, who stood at the terminal, did not look back at Ghost, but replied, “Dexterity/tactile sensors need to be replaced. You know, if you cannot afford my maintenance, P2354M240092, you should sell me to an owner who can.”
Ghost smirked, “I should reprogram you back into a prostitution-bot. You liked those days, didn’t you? At least then I could make some money off of you. You’re so useless.”
Nova turned around and leaned against the terminal, “Robot sentience and artificial intelligence act. Reconstruction epoch; year twelve-thousand-and-three. If you repurpose me, it is equivalent to an act of murder. How do you think you will fare in prison? You’re really cute.” She scanned herself with dismay. Her glowing blue eyes dimmed. “I still look like a hooker. Can’t you even update my appearance?”
Ghost looked over at the door, “Look, if there aren’t any nano caps available to repair this terminal, we’re going to have to do this ourselves. Someone else will need to utilize a terminal. You know how dangerous this is, so I am giving you authorization to use the account. Go find some credits, get new sensors, and do whatever you need to do. We’re starting in four hours.”
Nova’s eyes brightened, “Time to make myself look like a badass. I’m going to get credits from some dirty old suckers. I’ll see you soon; disconnecting, now.” Her eyes darkened and her chassis went limp. Ghost left her apartment.
Disconnecting was the term for separating your consciousness from reality and going onto the Net. The Net connected all of the colonies, so even in reality, when you were stuck on a colony like one of the Phoenix colonies, you were free to exist in the virtual complement to civilization. Here, colony designations didn’t matter so much, and you could become anything, as long as you had the drive. The Net was where people made their futures. Where they could make more credits than through working in real life. Where people were able to forget about who they were in life. At least that’s how it was idealized as. And that’s only if you were allowed to connect to the virtual consciousness of civilization. Many in the Phoenix colonies were either blacklisted, or couldn’t afford access.
What Ghost saw the ‘net as, was an equalizer—a place for her to defy her fate. She wasn’t going to die on this rotting colony twenty-three. Up and above her, the stars she never saw in her life, they were where her future was.
She was born into the Phoenix colonies, and she heard about Space, the rich colonies, saw them on media, and met the people from these places on the ‘net and began to resent her life she had no say in. She was what was called a “Rogue”; her access to the Net had been revoked in her youth, when she was inexperienced and left tracks. After meeting the right people, she learned how to temporarily hijack identities and gain access. “Ghost” was apropos for her, because she always vanished when her crimes were done.
Rogues were common, and a lot of inexperienced hackers would end up “scrambled” when the authorities caught up with them. Scrambling was the term for destroying a person’s consciousness in the virtual, and booting them back to reality. They were either left as vegetables, or rendered mentally incompetent. After scrambling, they were left for death if no one was there to care for them. Unjustified scrambling was a violation of enforcement law, but the authorities got so sick of little punk kids creating chaos on the Net, that they always used self-defense as the reason for frying some overzealous newbie.
Outside, she stood at the railing on her floor of the modular super-structure that had long been her place of operation; she looked up at the lightless structures above. Phoenix twenty-three was as resilient as it was a horrid place to live. It shielded its residents from the hell outside, but seemed to feed off of their souls from within.
Rust, decay, and filth were all that she had known in reality. She remembered her first time on the Net, and how everything seemed so different from what she had grown up in, so…clean. She wondered why she had the life that she did.
She was going to Raven’s to get parts for the mission, so she took the pedestrian walkway. Flickering lights, the hum of machinery, vehicles, and life support systems filled the air. It didn’t mean much to her because it was all she had known. But she did like to find quiet places on the Net just to experience something different, at times. Translucent super-highways seemed like rivers of light as they carried millions of commuters above her. It was always night time in twenty-three. Neon light bathed the relevant parts of the colony. Sex, drugs, and gambling. If you could get into one of those industries, you didn’t have to live on the streets, like so many blacklisted, or poor, did.
Ghost normally did missions in the virtual with a small crew of people she trusted. Raven was a computer/cyborg/robot parts store owner in real life. In the virtual, she and Ghost were part of Saint’s crew. Saint was the leader and a veteran of Net crime. He was a graying man who refused to acknowledge that he wasn’t young anymore. It was Saint that discovered Ghost, some ragged teenager out on the streets, blacklisted from the Net and scrounging around the streets for her next meal. Saint taught her how to “dance,” as he called it. He thought evading security on the Net was more art than skill. He showed her how to “borrow” people and do dirty work, and vanish. Guys like Saint were all over these poor colonies, but it was Saint that gave Ghost a chance at a future. She was grateful for it.
Saint didn’t think he was getting old, but Ghost was starting to take over as lead of ops when Saint needed to rest. Long hours of finding jobs and prepping the team were his mainstay these days. He’d always say that he created “one killer bitch’’ when he saw Ghost on missions. She was the best he’d ever seen, he’d say. She was beginning to garner a following in the Rogue community. But becoming famous meant that the authorities had a target. She didn’t like that.
Nova was the newest member to the team. Raven didn’t agree with Nova joining the group, but Saint had the final say. Raven made the argument that Nova wasn’t trained, and that she’d become a liability on missions. She was also a robot, but Ghost agreed to train her, so Saint agreed to it.
As she walked through the glowing world of twenty-three, she thought of how she met Nova, not long ago. She was walking through a red light district one night after a mission, and her mind was wandering: what is her purpose in life, she thought. Was her destiny here in this little rusty dome? Why was it that she was forced to go along with some life role that she didn’t have a say in. Was it her choice in life to be a criminal, or was there any other choice? On twenty-three, options were limited. Pride was the first thing to go if you wanted to live.
These people that she walked past that night, she thought they were all caught up in the flow of some narrative that was greater than they were. Who dictated this narrative, and how could it be changed? People living life; people drunk on the lives that they accepted for themselves. People disconnecting in more ways than one. Living fantasies that were only as real as they could be paid for.
In the eternal night of Phoenix Twenty-three, people smiled, and laughed, and wept. Blacklisted from the Net, they were still far and away from anything resembling reality. And it didn’t matter. Their reality was one they had made up themselves. And their lives weren’t defined by the dull hours they worked for their credits: it was defined by their disconnects.
That night, she walked down streets filled with electronic music from clubs, and past cat-girls and various entertainment girls who were bio-engineered and never had a future of their own. They were slaves to the proclivities of men who had credits. Their lives were defined by these credits as much as the gallivanting customers used their credits to try to deny the reality of their own lives. Even the oppressed people of Twenty-Three did their own share of oppression. And why did everyone go along with this narrative, she thought.
She walked down that street that night, until she saw Nova. The lights ran along her body as she danced in that display. Her blue eyes glowed brighter as they locked onto Ghost, and her silver hair ran throughout the spectrum of colors and then faded and repeated under those pixel lights of signs that lined the street. Those lights that blanketed her legs and hips that moved ever so elegantly to the harsh repetitions of the technical electronic music. Her artificial skin and black lipstick—a canvas for the dancing lights that animated her lips in-form to blow a kiss at Ghost. So, she walked through that door and spent her first night with Nova.
She saved up enough, and bought Nova from her owner. She upgraded her: motherboard, RAM, drive, processor, so that she could install a genuine artificial intelligence. Nova became sentient under the possession of Ghost, but she retained her memories. Ghost planned to upgrade Nova further, in order to make her more capable for missions.
Back to reality, and Ghost walked under the monochrome rivers of light suspended in the night sky above; past thousand-floor superstructures that held people who would never see beyond this rusting twenty-three. Up and above, four-hundred-billion people lived amongst the stars, and had futures. The lack of life didn’t seem to bother the residents in the Phoenix colonies, so what would Ghost be joining this movement for? Who had a right to a future? Perhaps they had given up. No future meant the passing days were just attempts to survive until you no longer could. Ghost remembered that part of her life, and she wasn’t going back there. What was happening in less than four hours was destined to shake the foundations of the colonies, and might force the migration of humanity from this dead planet into the stars, for good.
She thought that it was no one’s right to deny anyone else the right to a future. Actual criminals from the other colonies, or space, made their choices. But crime was a necessary means to fight this system in which she was born into. Ghost decided that she had a purpose in life that was beyond twenty-three, and that she was going to find that future, regardless of what anyone else would say.
She took a breath; rivers above and the glowing eyes of various people in the night who were disconnecting, it seemed strangely beautiful. When this place was reality, she didn’t blame people for disconnecting—but how could the future change if everyone ran from it? With the option of being something greater, or miserable person on a slum colony, who would choose the latter? People just wanted the easier choice. Fighting meant people would end up hurt, but there was a population of people, like Ghost, that knew they would never have a future if they didn’t fight for it. Across the slums of the Phoenix colonies, people were joining the organized rogue movement that was forming against Terra and Ascension.
She came to a park that was proof that Phoenix wasn’t always a place of throw away people. Statues of Angels scattered this vast park. Dimly lit trumpets and swords pointed toward the sky. On their bases, the words, “We will attempt the heavens.” The air felt cold, but it was always seventy degrees. Around her were people on benches, and laying at increments along the park path, all disconnecting, with their unfocused and glowing eyes, living on the Net. They were all far away from Phoenix and they wouldn’t be the ones who’d change their fate.
She had only memories of what the stars above looked like based off of what she experienced through the Net. Somewhere along the line of the colonies, people had this idea that she had no right to see them in person because she was born in this place. She pictured the stars through the rust and condensation of the systems and buildings above; through the glowing rivers of people living their own form of disconnects.
As she continued towards Raven’s, she recalled something Saint told her. He had said, one day, that she had heart, and not to give that up. That she had something all of these people around him lacked. He told her that as long as she kept that thing beating, and fighting, that she’d find her happiness someday, whatever it may be. He told her that people just learned to accept their circumstances in life, and they believe that they can be content with that. But she wasn’t going to settle for that. That he was honored to have mentored a “killer bitch” like her.
Past the park and along the walkway, catatonic peoples in states of disconnect lined the street. Graffiti on the base of a superstructure read, “Rogues rise! 19038 AD.” Below that, more graffiti that read, “Fuck you!”
She noticed that the authorities were prepping for a counter-insurgency. Armor-padded enforcers were checking the identification of random disconnected that laid along the walkway, but she didn’t worry about it. As far as they would be able to discern, she was blacklisted. One came up to her, and ran a scanner in front of her, and then said, with a deeply resonant voice;
“P2354M240092. State your intent this evening.”
Ghost replied rather nonchalantly, “Getting parts for my bot. She’s worthless.”
The enforcer focused his light into her eyes, and asked, “AI? Can it disconnect? Show me your bot ownership license.”
She reached in her side-pocket, grabbed her license and handed it over, “See?”
The enforcer examined the license and laughed to himself, “Hah. Nova. Know why the manufacturer is out of business? You’re one crazy broad. Spend your credits on something with more functions than a coffee maker.”
“Told you she was worthless.” Ghost stated stoically.
“Well then, be on your way. I’d tell ya to enjoy your evening, but you obviously won’t be with that Nova!” He laughed loudly before rejoining the other enforcers.
Raven’s was just a little further down, and she’d be able to give a debriefing on the mission they were going to undertake while participating in the pending Rogue uprising. Hijacking someone to disconnect and speaking to Raven through the Net was risky with enforcers out. Ghost had guys she worked with get scrambled, and there was no fixing it once it happened. You might as well have been dead. Ghost’s alias had changed the terminology amongst the Rogues. Some random thought that “haunting” sounded better than “hijacking,” or “scrambling,” especially when talking about Ghost, so it caught on. Ghost still referred to it as hijacking, borrowing, and scrambling. She had nasty scrambling algorithms that she’d never use. Scrambling was as good as killing, and she said that she’d never scramble another person unless her life depended on it. But her fanboy Rogues were just waiting for her to haunt some enforcers, and her reputation would be sealed.
A slender woman with matte blue hair tied off into a pony tail, lip piercings, and non-reflective dark gray eyes leaned against the entrance of the Crow’s Nest. She wore a red grease-stained jacket that was stuffed what seemed like wires, and other gadgetry. Her dark gray cargo pants were filled with more parts. The Crow’s Nest was a go-to spot for many rogues who needed parts for repair of their bots, cyber parts, and computers. Raven was the best because she made sure all of her equipment had been ID spoofed to appear as legitimate factory parts, when in reality, they were highly modified and illegal. Her shop was licensed, and she had legitimate parts for when the inspectors or newbies came along. When Ghost approached, she asked dryly, “Where’s your fuck-doll?”
Ghost didn’t seem surprised. “I let her get some parts and clothes.”
Raven folded her arms, “Figures, you let your fuck-bot get access to your funds. I knew you were getting soft on me. What the fuck, Ghost?”
Ghost put her hand on Raven’s shoulder and nodded. “Relax, she’s sentient, now. I don’t need to program her on missions.”
Raven stood up, “I hope you know what you’re doing. You get haunted, and it’s going to scare the shit out of a lot of the guys. It’ll put a real damper on this whole Rogue thing. And I might actually have to start trying.” She opened the door to the Crow’s Nest. “But—you haunt some enforcers and it’ll let the fuckface pigs know that we’re serious.” She motioned, “Inside. Now.”
Inside, they walked over to the counter, and Ghost stated, “I need nano capacitors. The terminal’s fried. Someone else will need to use a terminal if I can’t fix this one.”
“Come on, Ghost. Who are you kidding? Terminals are old tech, and I haven’t gotten any nano-caps in stock. Use portables. They cost a ton more, but for this mission, it’s on me. And protip: porta-terminals can’t handle the data throughput of a terminal, but link three or more of them together and it’s as good, or better than any terminal. Good for decoys, too.” Raven sat on top of the counter and leaned on one arm, and continued;
“Saint isn’t getting enough to do what we need to do for this mission, because he doesn’t have a clue of what’s at stake. This is it. This is the start of the uprising, and know how I know? You aren’t the only game in town. We succeed at this, and even if this uprising fails, we’re all out of this rust-pit.” She leaned in further, and stated emphatically, “I know where to get ID chips. New identities. New lives, up there.”
Ghost’s heart almost stopped. “How? What do we need to do?!”
Raven grabbed a cell replenishment drink from the counter, popped it open, and took a sip. “We get the client their files, that’s a given. But to do what we need to do, we need a distraction. And today, we’re getting the biggest motherfucker of any distraction we could ever ask for.
“When security’s strained trying to haunt all the riff raff, and this new guy—I’ll tell you about him later—shows up, and they’re trying to stop him, it’ll give me enough time to use my toys to bypass the security barrier temporarily—long enough for us to get the fuck out and disappear to a transport tunnel and into one of the Ascension colonies. Ascension Two, to be exact. Just trust me. Okay? I’ll get the ID chips once we’re there, and I’ll do my magic.” Raven threw her fist into the air, “And! We start life!”
Ghost seemed skeptical. “So whether or not we get scrambled by Ascension enforcers depends on whether or not your source you met on the Net is trustworthy? How did Saint agree to this?”
Raven took another sip of her drink, and assumed a smug look, “When have I ever let you down? Just trust me on this. Have you been on the net lately? If you have, you’re aware of the new game in town. One scarey fuck. I think he’s better than you. He’s gotta be to do what was shown on the footage spreading across the Net. He goes by the alias Nephilim, and nothing has stopped him so far. He can mass-haunt. You hear me? He can mass-haunt groups at a time. This guy is a walking one-man army and he says that today is the day that Terra and Ascension learn humility. He calls himself the hacker god.”
Ghost was aware of the hacker god, but now she knew his alias. “So, the hacker god has a name. I am going to steal his mass-scramble algorithm; It’s too handy not to have. Where was he last seen?”
Raven hopped down from the counter, with a worried look, “You’re like one of the best ever. Understand that? One of. Not ‘the best.’ This guy calls himself the hacker god, and no one is disputing that fact, and you want to go up against him? People are saying he’s not even human. That he’s a sentient robot, and that’s why he’s so good. Whoever he is, he’s on our side, so don’t fuck with him, okay? Besides, he’s all over the place. No one knows how he gets around so fast, but he’s been seen in ten different Phoenix colonies, so far. You don’t want to take him on in the Net. That’s suicide.”
“I am not going to take him on. I am just going to copy his algorithms and find out how he does it. No such thing as gods. We have better chances against Terra and Ascension with two mass-scramble algorithms. We’re getting out of here with no delays on my behalf, so don’t worry.” Ghost assured Raven.
Raven took another sip, and asked, “So, how what’s your plan, “killer bitch”? How do you plan on becoming a hacker god?”
Ghost smiled, and answered. “By attempting heaven.”