A Smile On Her Five Thousand Faces

BigBadWolf 1374

Then, it was all about the fix.

She was blinded by neon lights, supported by sweaty bodies clad in leather and denim. Wandering hands kept her on the dance floor. But her mind had departed, eyes lolling in their sockets.

That was always when Jeanette got shitty with her. The other woman was like a boulder down a mountain side, pushing and pulling at the human throng until she found her deep within, almost unconscious, spittle and vomit crusting at the corners of her mouth.

That was the point, back then, when the rest of the club-goers thought things were getting a bit too real.

Jeanette would cradle her head, lower her onto the floor, and amongst the thrumming bass and flashing lights, would call for the paramedics.

That was then.

*

Now, she couldn't sleep.

She'd woken up just after four-thirty. She'd signalled the curtains to open, and stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows of her apartment, sipping coffee and staring out over the ChiLo Sprawl.

'Call Graham.'

Her intercom flashed and she pressed the spot on her clavicle that accepted the call. Graham's holo-form was standing in a bathrobe against her apartment window.

'What is it?'

'Sorry, Graham. I didn't realise how early it was.' Dry.

'You'll have to get up a helluva lot earlier than this to wake me up.'

'Regardless. I can't sleep.'

'Neither could I, if I were you.'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

He scoffed, wiping down his bad comb-over. 'Jenkins is due here in a fortnight. Your division keeps crocking up.'

'You wouldn't need my division if the morons at HQ knew how to keep their servers protected.'

'Well,' Graham picked at his teeth. 'Then you'd be out of a job.'

She turned away from the window and Graham's holo-form followed, static. She walked up the steps of the open living room toward the kitchen. 'I'll be out of a job regardless if Jenkins arrives and I've got squat to show for myself.'

'So why're you calling me?' He was leaning against her counter. She stood at the kitchen island and chopped oranges.

'Because I've been thinking.'

'A dangerous pass-time.'

'Fuck off.'

'Language.'

She sneered at him, gesturing the knife at his holo-form. 'I need a favour.'

He began to laugh.

'Did I stutter?'

'No, No. It's just-' He wiped his eyes, pantomime tears. '-the thought of you owing me yet another favour is just hilarious!'

She exhaled and set down the knife. 'Graham, you can either help me do this, or let me do it on my own. But you'll like it a lot less if I have to do it on my own.'

'And hows that?'

'Because I'd rather you give me what I need than have to steal it from you.'

The holo-form eyed her, tapped his nose. 'Methinks you are a man now, son.'

She placed her hands on the counter and eyed him.

'So what then. What do you need from me?'

'It's nothing too bad.' She said, placing the orange slices into the blender. 'Just access to all of NBN's remote servers.'

Graham gagged. 'You'd better be fucking joking, Jessica.'

'Graham.' She put the lid on the blender. 'I never joke.'

*

Then, it had always been about where she could sleep.

'The 'medics said your credit was bad.' Jeanette told her from the lounge. 'They said next time they're gonna know not to help you.'

Jessica was cradling the toilet bowl, staring down at her guts lined with red floating in the water. 'Whatever.'

She heard Jeanette kick the coffee table. 'Fuck! Jess!' She stormed into the bathroom. 'You can't keep doing this shit to yourself. It's every weekend I'm following you down to some goddam rave and ten minutes later, I'm scooping you up like you're about to fucking flatline!'

Jessica shrugged.

'Get up.' Jeanette bent down and scooped her arms around Jessica's waist.

'No...' She groaned, lazily trying to bat her away and Jeanette pulled her out of the bathroom and onto the faded blue couch. Her shirt was stained with vomit and alcohol.

She watched Jeanette move the coffee table, kicking away empty fast-food packets and scattered drives that she piled up in the corner next to her rig.

'What're you doing?' She winced when Jeanette turned on the lights.

'I'm gonna put you in the mirror.'

'...huh?'

Jeanette ignored her. Jessica watched as the other woman tied back her coloured hair and rolled up her sleeves, pulling something heavy from the trunk beneath her rig. 'You don't need to answer to me anymore. You gotta answer to yourself.'

Jeanette set up the cam on the plasteel tripod and aimed the lens at the couch.

Jessica groaned and threw a pillow at her but it barely made it to the coffee table. 'No... Fuck off. Let me sleep.'

'If you go to sleep you'll die.'

'Who cares then?'

Jeanette stomped over to the couch and slapped Jessica hard in the face. 'Listen, bitch. You care. That's who.' She pulled her into a sitting position as Jessica's eyelids slid closed, a red mark forming on her cheek.

Jeanette turned the cam on, a winking red light next to the lens.

'Now look at it.' She said. 'Look in the mirror. Because this is who you are; a passed-out future stimm-tripper on her way to the goddam ChiLo sewers. And you never look in the mirror when you sober up. So this time you're going to.'

Jessica shook her head, eyes fluttering.

'Do you know how selfish you are, Jessica?' Jeanette said. 'You're just an angsty teen still unable to deal with baggage your Mom left behind. You refused to grow up, even thought you're Jessica Page, which means you could rightly walk into any NBN building on the goddam planet and get a job simply because of your last name. Just because of who your grandfather was. And here I am, babying you while I try hard enough to get scraps together for myself. Fuck you Jessica. Just fuck you. What I wouldn't give to have what you got.'

Jessica started to vomit on herself.

Jeanette grunted and reached over, turning her head so she wouldn't choke.

The cam watched.

*

Now, it was time for blood.

The executives were settled around the table as if about to be served with the Last Supper. Jessica was among them, leaning back, flicking through the last few items of the agenda on her PAD.

Graham sat opposite her. He was wearing his orange toupee today. It made him look like a pasty Irish school boy had been bloated and thrown into his Daddy's suit. He kept trying to make eye contact with her.

'Which leads us to our next item; Tara.' The Director leant back in his chair and looked at Jessica. 'Miss Page?'

Jessica smiled. 'Tara is the codename we've given to the Runner who-'

'I'm sorry, 'Runner?' It was Bernice. That snively little bitch was always trying to bring her down.

'A hacker.' Jessica said.

'I'm sorry,' Bernice said. 'The term 'Runner' just seems a bit... Street, don't you think?'

The executives murmured their approval.

'My apologies, Miss Mai.' Jessica forced a smile. 'Tara was the Goddess of Many Faces. Our Hacker isn't far off. We initially thought the breaches to our security were being made by different individuals. But residual data recovered from our archives has lead me to believe that all these attacks are being perpetrated by the same person.'

'Why are we so sure it's not a man?' A man asked.

'Well, we're not. But she only uses female cognomen. She's been Kara, Eleanor, Madison, Lynn and a swathe of others.' Jessica said. 'As it stands, our ICE is proving less and less efficient.'

'What about the imported programs from Japan?' Someone asked.

'The Jinteki ICE seems to be the most paper-thin.' Jessica glanced at Bernice, who she knew had commissioned the programming. 'Regardless, I believe we're now at a point where Counter-Intrusion has become ineffective. I propose we move for extraction.'

There was a murmur. The Director leant forward, straightening his spectacles. 'We want to avoid liaising with anyone from the Consortium. Ever since the scandal with that sociopath Spark hired, we need to distance ourselves.'

Bernice smiled. 'I agree. I believe when the new ICE currently in development is REZZED into the servers, we'll be air tight.'

'That would work,' Graham said. 'Had the SySops not already burnt through their quarterly budget. I'm afraid the money must come from somewhere else.'

Jessica smiled. 'Quite. In my division, I believe this new, unique process of extraction will prevent further intrusions from Tara.'

'How?' The director asked.

Jessica tapped a button on her PAD and the projection flew into three-dimensions above the table, glowing a faint orange.

'We use these.'

'What am I looking at?' The Director asked.

'Cams. Nanocams, actually. Forgive the misnomer, but they're around about the size of a human hand, and have in-built anti-grav engines. They were developed for the Sensies over at Haarpsichord.'

Bernice chuckled. 'I'm sorry, Miss Page, did you perhaps forget this is the NBN, not eighth grade film school?'

The room snorted laughter. Jessica held her smile.

'Miss Mai, have you committed any cyber-crime today?'

'Excuse me?!'

'Relax. I'm not accusing you. But answer me this; would you have committed any cyber-crime if four of these cams were following you around, recording your every move?'

Bernice rolled her eyes. 'Your plan is to surround Tara with cams and record her?'

'It is.'

'And do what with it? Extort her?'

The room laughed again. Jessica spoke over it. 'No, Miss Mai. I plan to stream it live to one and a half billion people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.'

Silence.

'You want to do what?' The Director asked.

'You're not safe from anyone if everyone is watching you, Sir.' Jessica said. 'I'm going to fill Tara's life with so many Nanocams and flood the rest of the budget into marketing a real life Truman Show.'

'A what show?' Mai said.

'So you think by doing this she wont commit any more crimes against us?' The Director said.

'She may well do. But we'll know where she shops, where she works, where she banks, where she runs, who she speaks with. We'll know where her children sleep. And so will the rest of the world.' Jessica said. 'And, most importantly, Tara will know that we know.'

'And you've scheduled this with the Television Department?' The Director asked.

'There's room coming up in the next month.'

'Midseason?'

Jessica nodded.

Mai sat forward. 'Just one more thing, Miss Page. This all looks very good on paper, but don't you also need the data to narrow down exactly where Tara's rig is before we flood her home with nanocams?'

'We will.' Jessica said. 'That's where Mister Mycroft comes in.'

Graham cleared his throat. 'We'll need to give Tara a reason to remained jacked in for a long enough period of time to get trace data on her. That will require a small... Sacrifice.'

The director narrowed his eyes. 'What kind of sacrifice?'

*

Then, she would always forget come morning.

She was in Jeanette's shower, washing away her sins from the night before. She watched the dried blood and flecks of vomit swirl down the grimy drain before stepping out and dressing.

'Feeling better?' Jeanette asked. She was at her rig, jacked in, plugs inserted in her spinal column.

'A little.' Jessica rubbed her temples. 'What're you doing?'

'I'm working? You know that thing people do to feed themselves? Should try it sometime.' She tapped away at her keyboards, reaching down to her rig to plug in an external drive.

'Sure. I'll try it when you try a job that's legal.'

'What I'm doing is perfectly legal.' Jeanette took a swig of her Diesel. 'Just depends who you ask.'

Jessica leant over Jeanette's chair and eyed the streams of code on the monitor. 'You IM'ing with a dog?'

'What?'

'I thought I saw 'Argus' in there.'

'Oh.' Jeanette took a handful of Power Puffs and stuffed them into her mouth. 'Nah, it's some British Security Division.'

'A Consortium Division?' Jessica's eyes went wide. 'Jeanette, what the fuck're you doing in there? Those spooks will fuckin blow your head in!'

Jeanette waved her off. 'Urban Legends. 'Sides, who gives a fuck? I know you'd love it if someone kicked in that door and double-tapped the both of us.'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

Jeanette reached and pulled a drive from the rig, tossing it to Jessica who nearly dropped it. 'Go watch your mirror.'

'What is this?'

Jeanette looked at her. 'Jessica, this my gift to you. It's you. This is your mirror. Look at it. See yourself. This is who you are. This is the reflection of who you are inside. The person you always forget about in the morning. It's the reflection of abuse. A reflection of cowardice and weakness. It's a reflection of the person I'd rather see swallow a fucking pistol than drop dead from withdrawal.'

Jessica held the drive in her palm and then slipped it into her pocket. She walked to the door and pulled her boots on.

Jeanette turned away from her monitors. 'Where are you going?'

'Away from you.'

Jeanette rolled her eyes and looked back at her rig. 'Don't call me if you OD.'

Jessica slammed the door as she left.

Later, sitting in an alley on the SouthSide, Jessica watched the video and cried.

*

Now, she was in deep shit.

'When I gave you control of the remote servers, I didn't think you were goddamned psychotic!' Graham spat, leaning over the monitor embedded in the steel desk.

Jessica rubbed her eyes. 'It's just one project. Something old. Something incomplete that nobody cares about.'

'And you think Jenkins will be okay when she finds out you lead Tara right to the server with the Reconstructed Data Pool?' Graham scoffed. 'And what's more, you're just gonna let her in and take it?'

She shrugged. 'It'll take five minutes at least for Tara to decode the Enigma ICE. When she gets in, we set up the Bioroid to bluff her into thinking we're trying to protect the Data Pool. She avoids a trace with him while we build our trace data on our end. By the time she actually accesses the server, we'll have everything we need. The Data Pool has identities of hundreds of people. It's the kind of data Tara wants bad enough to risk getting caught.'

Graham plonked down in his chair opposite her, shaking his head. 'You're going to make me look like a goddam fool.'

'I was very clear to the Director when I told him we'd have to sacrifice some data.' Jessica said. 'If it goes poorly, say I acted against you.'

Graham laughed. 'You're going to willingly let me toss you under the bus?'

Jessica nodded.

He shook his head, closed his eyes. 'Five years ago you wandered in here, wearing a cheap MegaBuy suit and a dime-store hair-do. And you look at me and you tell me you're Jessica Page. And you tell me you can be a Sysop.' Graham laughed. 'What we wouldn't give to have someone from the Page Bloodline working here. And what's more, you were better at it that I expected. Did I ever tell you that? But ever since you've been here, you've been looking for more and more risky ways to do your job. It's like that guy from the twentieth century. Used to ride a motorcycle over cars?'

'Evil Knievil?'

'Yeah. The guy with a death wish. That's you.'

Jessica stared at him. She tapped at her PAD and brought up a window on the monitor in the table. 'She's jacked in.'

Graham leant forward. 'Where?'

The window shrivelled with lines of code. 'She's using the name “Bettie.”'

'That the code you had written up? Narrows her down and identifies her cognomen?'

She nodded.

'Okay, she's approaching the Engima.'

They watched the code, eyes narrowed. 'How long?'

'Shush.' Jessica said.

'What's that?'

'What?'

Graham pointed. 'I thought the Bioroid wasn't supposed to kick in until after she broke through.'

Jessica leant forward. 'Goddamnit.'

She tapped onto her PAD and dialled Bernice.

'Busy.' Mai said.

'I can see that. You're running a trace on Tara.'

'Oh? Am I?' She laughed. 'I'm sorry. I'm running a trace on someone named “Bettie.” I knew how important this project was to you. Didn't want some other Hacker crocking it up for you.'

'Jack the hell out of my server, Mai.'

Graham tapped the monitor, enlarging the code.

There was a shift in the stream. The data changed from red, to a soft blue.

'Tara jacked out.' Jessica said.

'Oops.' Mai was smiling through the phone.

Jessica disconnected and slammed her fist on the table.

Graham shook. 'Well, just explain to the director that-'

She stood up, took her briefcase and stormed toward the door.

'Where are you going?'

'I'm going to fix this. Reset that server. Flood some data into the pool so she thinks we're adjusting the parameters. She'll be back and we'll take this bitch tonight.'

*

Then, it had been about numbing the pain.

'How much?'

The dealer wore a fedora with dancing holos on it in fifteen different colours. He was just barely dry from the little shelter in the alley. He looked at her like a proud father at a little-league game. 'You're back like clockwork, m'lady.'

'Hurry up, Derrik. I don't have long.' She said. 'How much.'

'You want tablets or do you want something that'll last longer than one greasy night at the Wyldside?'

She pulled her coat tight around herself and glanced at the convenience store across the street where Jeanette was buying smokes. A hover-bike howled past and whipped Jessica's hair into her face. 'I just want the regular tabs, okay?'

He shook his head. 'It's time for you to graduate, don't you think? Those tabs don't hit you right like they used to.'

'You're a chemist now, are you?'

'Basically.' He reached into his waistcoat and produced a tiny test tube filled with a faintly glowing liquid. 'Stimm comes in a little glass vial. Means you'll have to take it before you hit the clubs.'

Jessica swallowed. She'd never done Stimm. That shit was for junkies and Runners who were jacked in so much they didn't need their motor functions anymore. They weren't for girls like Jessica.

She watched Derrik wave the vial back and forth, her eyes tracking it like a dog eyeing a ball. She closed her eyes and shook her head. 'Just the tabs.' She shoved a fistful of credits into his chest.

'Sorry, m'lady.' He twirled his fingers and slipped the vial up his sleeve. 'All out of tabs. Stimm is where the creds are at.'

She grit her teeth and cursed, looking back out onto the street. Jeanette would be done in the convenience store any second.

'Alright. Shit. Just gimme whatever Stimm you got.'

Derrik licked his teeth and counted the creds. 'You got enough for one.' He handed her the vial.

She snatched it and stuffed it into her coat.

'You know you can always buy another on credit.' His slimy eyes looked her over.

Jessica drove her fist into his crotch and left him reeling in the alley.

*

Now, Jessica wasn't a violent person.

Bernice Mai was pushed up against the supply room wall, Jessica's forearm pressing against her throat.

'Stop lying to me.' Jessica said over the woman's whimpering. 'You've been pulling shit like this with me for years. I'm not gonna let you fuck this up for me, Mai.'

'You'll be fired for this!' She feebly pushed back, legs kicking.

'Maybe I will, but here's what's going to happen next, Mai: Firstly, Graham is resetting the server and Tara is going to come in and we're going to trace her, and my extraction plan will go forward. Secondly, you're going to sit in here and wipe away your tears and reapply your fucking dime-store lip-gloss, and then you're going to ask yourself; if Jessica Page is willing to assault you in a supply closet at the HQ of the NBN, what do you think she would do if you got her fired?'

Mai's eyes were wide. 'You're crazy.'

Jessica shook her head and let the woman drop. She squeaked.

'Stay out of my shit, Mai.'

She closed the door behind her and straightened her skirt in the hallway. Elegant, she made her way back to the Sixtieth floor, where Graham was waiting for her.

'Welcome back, Mistress.' He chided.

'Shut up. Is she jacked in?'

'Yep.' He nodded down at the monitor. 'Just got a call from the server location in Rio. They're freaking out. I told them to settle. Apparently nobody informed the SysOps down there what we were doing.'

'Did they flood some data in like I said?'

'They did.'

'Then who cares?' Jessica looked down at the code. 'Oh, she's “Kelly” now, huh?'

'Apparently so.'

'Approaching Engima. This shouldn't take her long. Get the Bioroid ready.'

Graham tapped a few keys on his console. 'Primed. He's ready to run the trace.'

'Tell him to hold back. Get a sense for her links and lowball her.'

He tapped again.

She watched the code. 'Alright, she's in.' The code flashed with red, interspersed with blue. 'That's the Bioroid.'

Graham was chewing his nails, watching.

'She's past him. Boot up our tracer, fire when I say.'

The code was almost entirely red. Tara was in deep, downloading the Data Pool.

'Now!'

Graham fired.

The code twisted, as if the screen was jilted picking up the signal.

'It's not working.' Graham said.

'What're you talking about?'

'She's got some hidden link... Or... Or something. The program can't get a lock on her.'

Jessica grit her teeth. She stared at the code, watching the Data Pool being eaten away.

'She's nearly done. There's some sort of fire wall blocking our tracers.'

'Goddamnit!' Jessica kicked over her chair and watched it skid across the steel floor.

'What should we do?' Graham asked, pale.

She grunted and got to her knees at the console. She pulled up a cable and lifted her hair, exposing the input at the base of her skull.

'I thought you were a Natural?' Graham said, eyes wide.

Jessica pointed at him. 'Tell. No one.'

She plugged herself in and felt her eyes go white as she was sucked into the net.

The server was a labyrinth of flashing red code. Her projection stood out; a green woman in a pant suit. She ran down the hall, the code rippling from her footsteps like stones in a pond. The server was a howling alarm.

After two more corners, she found Tara.

An angel ablaze, formed of red code, floating above the boxed server, her face shifting, scrambled. One woman's face then ten-thousand more per second. Her arms outstretched, her hands were funnels, draining the code from the server, sucking them into her form.

Jessica looked at the Runner.

Tara looked at her. A smile on her five-thousand faces. She nodded.

The game was on.

*

Then, it was about support.

'What're you doing?' She asked Jeanette.

'I'm working.' Jeanette was jacked in, cords in her spine and on her arms.

'Yeah, but what?' Jessica leant over her chair, her fingers twitching. 'Is that a hospital?'

'Yes.'

'What're you doing there?'

'I'm looking for dead people.'

Jessica blinked. 'What?'

Jeanette sighed. 'I'm looking for dead people. People who are dead. Those who aren't living.'

'Smart ass. Why're you looking for dead people.'

'Because, if I can steal any of their login details at all, I can mask myself and appear as them.' She smiled.

'Online?'

'Or off. I mean. If I have too, but that's way harder. Fingerprints and all. But mainly online.'

'That seems super illegal.'

'Identity theft is totally illegal. But people have to be able to prove it. Dead people have a hard time doing that. It also makes everything else I do way safer.'

'How?'

'Remember a few months ago, when you were worried they were gonna come murder me?'

'Yeah.'

'Well, if they think I'm Dorris McKean, a rotting octogenarian, it makes it harder for them to actually find me.'

'That sounds super simple.'

'It's not. You can only really assume an identity for one Run. Two at most. Then they figure it out.'

'And what do you do on these Runs?' Jessica said.

'I steal shit and sell it.'

Jessica shook her head. 'I know my way around code, but you're of your head, Jeanette.'

She laughed. '”Off my Head”? Pretty rich coming from you. I saw that Stimm in your bag last night.'

Jessica went stiff.

'Don't worry. I've written you off. You wanna kill yourself? Go for it. You've been doing it a few weeks at least. I heard you drop the jar of mayonnaise last night. And your toes were twitching in your sleep.' Jeanette looked up at her. 'But if you're gonna junk-up on Stimm, you should maybe start pulling your weight around here and jack in while you do it. Makes cyber-space something chronic, I hear.'

'Fuck you.' Jessica walked away, flopped onto the couch.

'I'm serious.'

'Sure you are.'

'Did you even like it?'

'The Stimm?' Jessica shrugged. 'I liked it fine. Would be better if you weren't always trying to high-road me.'

'It was for your own good. But if that footage of yourself didn't change your mind, I honestly don't know what to do with you.'

'You're aware how fucking ironic it is that you, a criminal, are trying to lecture me on morality?'

'Only because you've got a way out.' Jeanette said. 'You're the one with the NBN family name. Go get a job. I steal out of necessity. You're a junky because you're a coward.'

Jessica narrowed her eyes. 'Fuck you.'

'Fuck yourself.' Jeanette shrugged, tapped at her monitor. 'Or you can step up and join my family business instead.'

Jessica lay down on the couch, stared at the mouldy ceiling. She took the vial out of her pocket and held it up, watching the Stimm swim around in the glass.

Twenty minutes later, she sat up. 'Okay. Show me how to Run.'

*

Now, it was all on her.

Tara was siphoning the code from the Data Pool. In moments, she'd have it all. That was fine.

Jessica just had to make sure the tracers were initiated.

She stood in the room made of flickering red code, and typed frantically at a virtual terminal. Zeroing in on Tara's location again and again, working through her links in a desperate attempt to find her. Every keystroke cost the NBN hundreds of credits. The data flooding through the links, across servers all through the world past firewalls and Counter-Intrusion programs at every twist and turn.

Then the server began to collapse.

Jessica turned, the tracers firing on virtual pistons.

Tara floated in negative space, a burning angel, her scrambled face shaking its head as the last of the Data Pool was downloaded into her rig. The angel rose a hand, as if in commiseration. Tara vanished, jacked out instantly.

'See you soon.' Jessica's voice echoed as the code collapsed around her like a crumbling building, and then her virtual self flickered out of time-

-And she was back on the floor in the room with Graham. He stood over her, mouth agape. Jessica removed the plug from her neck and stood up.

'What happened?'

She smiled. 'Send in the cams.'

*

Three weeks later, “The Tara Show: Reality of a Hacker” streamed live to a staggering 432 Million viewers across the United States alone.

The focus groups ate it up, as did everyone in the world, it seemed. Something about watching Tara stumble her way through her filthy hab-stack apartment, scratching the track-marks in her arms and washing vomit from her hair resonated with hundreds of thousands of people.

They watched her sit at her rig for ours and never touch a key. They watched her shower, (censor-free after 11pm), they followed her to the convenience store where she bought Power-Puffs and Diesel, and the pimply-nosed kid behind the counter would wave and scream out 'Shit! I'm on The Tara Show!'

And Jessica would sit in her lounge, activate the tinting on her skyline-viewing windows, and drink gin while watching Tara slowly decay into a neurotic insomniac.

It was after the first two weeks that Tara really became erratic. She'd start swiping at the nanocams following her around. She'd always miss. Years of substance and Stimm abuse had rendered her motor-skills almost useless. Her hand-eye co-ordination was pitiful.

Jessica sat and watched Tara try to remove a mouldy packet of yoghurt from the fridge door for nearly twenty minutes. From that angle, the nanocams showed the rusting and irritation around the sockets in Tara's spinal column, a sign of poor maintenance and illegal back-alley implants.

Jessica continued to drink.

'Fuck off, Graham.' She told his holo-form.

'We're worried about you. You haven't been in at all since the cams first went on. Jenkins is here tomorrow. She wants to meet you.'

Jessica drank from the bottle and shut off Graham's holo-form. She turned up the volume on her television and watched Tara open a packet of chocolate with her yellowed teeth and her two good fingers.

Jessica threw up in her sink. The automated faucets washed it away.

A week later, Jessica hadn't showered. She'd barely left her sofa. Take-away packets and empty bottles were piling up alongside spent tissue boxes and blister packs of sleeping pills. And she was watching Tara.

It was three in the morning. Jessica's eyes were glazed over, and Tara was laying on the tattered couch in her hab-stack, staring at the ceiling where the hand-sized cams were floating, looking down on her.

It was like watching a stalking predator seek out it's prey.

Tara leapt up, moving faster than anyone had seen her, and snatched one of the cams, holding it tight, close up to her face. She was dotted with cold sores, and her left eye was lazy from the Stimm damage to her brain.

'I know you're there.'

Jessica sat up, swallowed.

'These things have an NBN encode on their base.' Tara said, eyes watering from the bright light of the cam so close up. 'I knew it was you when I saw you in the server that day. I was coming for you next. You know that, right?'

Jessica's face trembled, twitched.

'I'm not dead, Jeanette.' Tara said, teeth chattering, withdrawal. 'But you stole my life like I was one of your corpses. You just took off in the night. You had all the shit you needed, especially after we started Running together. But I can't Run now, can I?'

Jessica sat up, pulled the throw pillow to her chest and stared at Tara.

'You would be nothing without me.' Tara said. 'Nothing without my name. Without my history. Without my goddamn fingerprints.' She spat on the lens. For a moment, the feed changed to another cam nearby, and watched as Tara wiped the spit away before switching back the close-up of her face.

'But you didn't know it was me, did you?' Tara laughed, coughing. 'That whole time you idiots were chasing me down rabbit holes and servers across Mumbad and Sydney, you never once thought that you were chasing the Dead Girl who's life you stole.'

Jessica lit a cigarette and held it in shaking hands.

'So, Jeanette, this is my gift to you.' Tara twitched, saliva leaking from the corner of her mouth. 'This is your mirror. Look at it. See yourself. This is who you are. This is the reflection of who you are inside. This is the reflection of abandonment. This is the reflection of your selfishness. It's the reflection of abuse. A reflection of cowardice and weakness.'

Jessica leant forward, eyes wide.

Tara held up a rusted Smith & Wesson. 'It's a reflection of the person I'd rather see swallow a pistol than drop dead from withdrawal.'

Jeanette, sitting on a couch, in an apartment bought with money earned in a life that should have belonged to Jessica Page, froze.

Just as Tara put the gun in her mouth, the feed went blank.

37 comments
4 Jan 2016 zengoshugoju

Wow. You do good work, thx for putting this up. I liked the previous one too but this is stronger alround.

4 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@zengoshugoju im super glad to hear that! The whole time I was writing this one I fet like it wasn't as strong as the first, so that's a big releif!

4 Jan 2016 rojazu

needs a bit more TL;DR

4 Jan 2016 Jaggerbyte

I am sure if you get enough short stories together you could get a book deal with FFG.

4 Jan 2016 coyotemoon722

Amazing. It was definitely as strong/stronger than the first. I was glued to the story the entire time. The thing I like most is that these aren't just Android stories. They're Android: Netrunner stories. I felt like I was playing out a game of Netrunner during some parts of the story. Brilliant.

4 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@coyotemoon722 thanks dude. That's defs what I was going for. I haven't played any of the other Android games so I'm mostly influenced but cards I find interesting from a flavour stand point. And thanks for the feedback, glad someone else feels it holds up to An Affinity For Violence!

4 Jan 2016 tzeentchling

Good but creepy story! Deck seems reasonable and at least fun to play, though not sure if I like the Pups instead of Pop-ups.

4 Jan 2016 coyotemoon722

@BigBadWolf I think you have a great talent for writing, and I don't think it needs to stop here. I would love to read a cyberpunk/noir story told from the "bad guys" point of view. A syndicate of criminals, enlisting runners to do their work.

My favorite laugh-out-loud moment of the story was when Bernice made fun of Jessica for using street lingo. Honestly though this is one of the best pieces of fiction I've read. I want more! You should definitely send some of these to FFG and see what comes of it.

5 Jan 2016 catch8088

A NBN deck without Jackson. Fascinating.

5 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@catch8088 Well if he wasn't in the story, what sense would that make? :P Let's pretend I'm prepping for rotation!

7 Jan 2016 magikot

Thanks for the bedtime story :)

9 Jan 2016 loodo

Absolutely brilliant mate! I was glued to the story, you really have a talent for writing. The ending actually made the hairs on my neck stand up. I read Free Fall, the FFG novel, and this was a hundred times better!

9 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@magikot I hope you slept well!

@loodo wow, that's one helluva compliment! Thanks you so much. I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

11 Jan 2016 Redi Spades

Why is this a DotW? I think it is a great story and all, but the DotW should play well, not tell a story. I had the most miserable game ever by playing this deck.

11 Jan 2016 Tozar

I love that Chill has to play this and write about it for NRDB in Review.

11 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@Tozar this is actually an elaborate troll on him.

12 Jan 2016 magikot

@Redi Spades because I think DotW is based on total likes/favorites a deck received the week it was created. Since it's an automated process non-decks or janky decks will get up there from time to time.

@BigBadWolf you should consider using the inspiration for and derived from features of future stories to make it easier for others to read through all your stories in the future.

12 Jan 2016 Drugs

I initially thought TL;DR but after taking the plunge... Wow. Even though I saw 'the twist' coming, I was thrown for a loop at the very end! Well played.

12 Jan 2016 Redi Spades

@magikot It is what it is, my comments probably came off a little rude. I was just frustrated because I saw the deck and it looked fun to play and now I am stuck in an online tournament with it as my deck qq

12 Jan 2016 Tozar

@Redi Spades Oh man, that's pretty funny. I tried to play this deck on Jinteki.net, landed a serious Midseasons and found myself panning the deck list, thinking "well, what do I do now?". Couldn't seem to convince the runner to flatline themselves as the story suggested.

12 Jan 2016 Manjusri

There's a nonzero chance I take this deck and swap Adonis and the pups with three scorched earths.

12 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@magikot do you mean linking the stories together, subtly?

12 Jan 2016 Tozar

@BigBadWolf I think he means linking them with a hyperlink using the "Derived From" field when publishing.

12 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@Tozar oh! That makes more sense. the more you know star

13 Jan 2016 Redi Spades

@Tozar I can definitely see potential in the deck, it just lacks synergy. I landed a strong Midseasons early one game, this was followed by me asking myself what I could possibly do now that the runner has 14 tags...

That being said, only two more games with the deck....

13 Jan 2016 Tozar
14 Jan 2016 LynxMegaCorp

ThisneedstobeabestsellerNOW.

18 Jan 2016 hutch9514

what is the point with all the tagging? There isn't anything to do with them. Terrible deck man

19 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@hutch9514 You use the tags to start a reality TV show staring your former roommate who's identity you stole to go straight and start a life of your own.

Christ, dude. Weren't you paying attention?

19 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@Lynx Kuroneko Aww, that's super nice of you! Thanks heaps!

@Tozar That column is the most amazing thing I've ever read.

27 Jan 2016 hutch9514

@BigBadWolf I understand the story, but i came here to find playable decks, not a short story.

27 Jan 2016 BigBadWolf

@hutch9514 then I'm sorry but your issue is with the 90-odd people that made it DOTW. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

5 Feb 2016 Moonielicious

I finally got around to reading this, and it's excellent as always. :D

(A little glass vial, a little glass vial!)

7 Mar 2016 MightyToenail

Are we going to see anymore from you?

26 Mar 2016 BigBadWolf

@Moonielicious Thank you! Glad you picked up on another reference.

@MightyToenail Probably! When I get an idea. A helluva lot of people complained because this one made DOTW, though.

26 Jul 2016 crujones33

@BigBadWolf, your fiction is awesome. I hope you keep writing more.

12 Mar 2019 Cliquil

This is still awesome. Nigh on 3 years later