When he was fifteen years old, Johnny San Vito logged into a military-sponsored, virtual reality BBS using his dad’s account and threatened to beat the shit out of an Airman who went by the ultra-cool handle Raw Dawg. I was right there along with him too, using my dad’s account, but to this day I’m ninety percent sure it was Johnny who started the whole mess. And when Raw Dawg went crying to his superiors, it was our dads who got called in for disciplinary meetings. I don’t know how or if Johnny ever got punished for getting his dad in trouble, but I had my immersion rig taken away for three months.
I was so pissed at Johnny that first month offline. In the second month, I turned that anger towards myself, and finally, as my punishment came to an end, I seethed with rage at Raw Dawg for being a little bitch.
Ultimately, it was our stupidity that got us in trouble. We thought because we were using our dads’ accounts that we were anonymous, when in fact, it was quite the opposite. Not only were our dads’ names attached to the accounts, but since we were on a military base, it was trivial to find them if someone lodged a complaint. We realized that we’d taken a shortcut in getting access to the BBS, and that the next time we threatened to kick someone’s ass, we’d do it behind the veil of true anonymity.
That was the second stupidest thing we (but mostly Johnny) had ever done. The topper was Johnny actually creating a true Dead Man’s Loop, or DML, a program that would automatically delete all of his personal files and transfer his assets to a specified target, which turned out to be me. The loop could only be triggered by Johnny’s death, since it relied on the biochip embedded in his neck. If an hourly ping went unanswered for twenty-four intervals, the code—distributed throughout VNet and various darknet servers—would activate.
Johnny had always been fascinated with the idea of a Dead Man’s Loop even when we were kids, though I bet he never though he’d actually use it. The topic first came up a year after the Raw Dawg incident, when we stumbled upon the number for an 18+ BBS that had a sizable stash of VR porn shot in first person and with 360-degree head tracking. It lacked much of the sensory input that would come later with the higher bandwidth of the Net, but at the time, it was better than swiping through Victoria’s Secret ads on our palettes. For a time there, we spent most of our night in those simulations—separately, of course—marveling at the naked women who stared into the camera, into our eyes, with a lust we had never seen in real life before.
It became necessary to hide all that porn; after all, they weren’t magazines to be hidden under my mattress. And in a pinch, we needed to be able to dump the incriminating evidence directly into the ether. Overwrite the bits. Zero everything out.
We worked together on the first iterations of the DML, which at the time were simply triggered by a duress password. If our parents ever asked us for the password, we could just give them a special passphrase like tacotime92 and the computer would know to dump all the data in /home/danny/jubs. It wasn’t until we got older and started messing around with a tougher crowd that we began discussing what would happen if we actually died.
I don’t remember ever reaching an agreement on the subject. My intention was to dump every piece of data I had into a sea of cleansing zeroes and leave all of my money to my wife. The wife never materialized, and for the last decade my accounts have been payable on death to my mom. Moving the money to someone else, that I understood. If it went unclaimed, it would just end up in the hands of the government to be spent on building the border wall with the MX. But the data, all my documents, photos, music, and yes, pornography… that wasn’t meant for anyone else.
Evidently, Johnny San Vito considered all of his data to be of vital importance. I knew this because when the Dead Man’s Loop triggered while I was in bed with Jane, it dumped a lifetime of happy hackery directly into my Syzygy biochip.
I remembered holding Jane, kissing her lips, smelling her faint perfume, when everything just went white. The Syzygy does so much to regulate everyday functions that when it gets overloaded—which is rare—it shuts down all non-essential functions. The problem with Johnny dumping his entire databank into my biochip is that the Syzygy was never designed to hold that much information. When the data started coming in, the biochip tried offloading it to a secondary host, which meant bandwidth in both directions went to 100-percent utilization.
A denial service attack on my biochip. Only Johnny would accidentally invent something like that. Perhaps if he knew how much pain—true, physical pain—it would cause, he would have left me out of it, or better still, dumped the data to a respository and simply sent me a username and password.
As it happened, I writhed on the floor for a good ten minutes, gritting my teeth against the pain in my head and blubbering like a lost child. I wasn’t embarrassed to be crying in front of Jane; whether she judged me or not, she would never say anything openly about it. It wasn’t unprecedented for me to shed tears at pain; I’d hurt my back a few years before and to date, that had been the most painful thing I experienced.
This was pain from another layer of reality, and the only way through it was to wait until enough data had been offloaded so it could resume its normal functions. I did have the option of cutting it off completely, but at the cost of all the data living in RAM. No, my only choice was to weather the storm and hope I didn’t go insane from the flashes of photos and text popping in from the periphery.
It took Jane some time to realize I wasn’t crying because Johnny was dead—or supposedly dead, at any rate. Once she did, however, she switched roles from counselor to nurse.
“Are you alright?” she asked, placing her hand on my forehead. She was kneeling beside me at the foot of the bed. The lights were low but I could see her face plainly, see the concern in her eyes. “Should I call someone?” She reached for my left arm, for the sliver embedded in my wrist.
“No,” I said, taking her hand instead. The Syzygy drove the sliver anyway, so there was no guarantee she would be able to use it to call for help. And it didn’t matter; there was nothing a standard hospital could do for me. If we were in Umbra surrounded by gray market butchers then maybe. But here in Vail where the rich and powerful owned million-dollar homes they only used two weeks out of the year? No way.
“Your forehead’s on fire. Let me get you something.” Jane ran to the bathroom, grabbed a washcloth from the shelves by the shower, and then held it under the faucet.
I felt my eyes wander over her body, which was good because it meant some of my normal functions were coming back, but the moment was short-lived. I couldn’t even appreciate her naked form as it hurried through the darkened cabin to my side.
The cold cloth barely made a dent; there was nothing but heat all around me.
“How do you know your friend is dead?” she asked.
“Johnny. You said he was dead.”
I shook my head, felt needles prick my neck. “I don’t know if he’s dead.”
It always felt hollow explaining technical things to Jane. As I laid out the details of the Dead Man’s Loop in simple terminology, she remained engaged and even nodded every once in a while. But at her core, I knew none of the information was sticking. And I wouldn’t have expected it to. Her interest in computers and technology was superficial, an add-on feature chosen via a check-box on a web form.
“Maybe it was an accident?” she suggested. “Like, he was just cleaning it and it went off in his hands.”
“Maybe,” I replied. “Maybe. Could you—” I paused as a hot needle passed through my eyes—first one, then the other. “Could you grab my palette from the bar?”
She got up without replying, grabbing her Spurs shirt on the way to the kitchen. I rolled onto my stomach and sat back against the bed.
So much data.
Every time I closed my eyes, I saw more if it streaming past me like the Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace, only these weren’t stars but rather complex equations cycling through letters and numbers, trying to find a sequence that made sense. The Syzygy’s on-the-fly decryption couldn’t keep up with the incoming stream, and it looked like there were some batches of data that it couldn’t even touch. Others were simpler though, bits of meta attached to files and photos, with names that were almost recognizable as words, except that they flew by too quickly, deforming at the speed of light.
Jane returned with the palette and handed it to me. She sat down on the bed, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“At least you can sit up,” she said.
I nodded, unable to unclench my jaw to speak. The palette woke at my touch and presented a grid of applications. I brought up an app I’d put together to manage my personal servers—most of them were in-house, with redundant backups buried beneath the foundation of the cabin. A select few were located offsite in a darknet, protected by firewalls and honeypots and generally inaccessible to all but the most elite hackers.
My first task was to follow my biochip’s lead and cut all non-essential programs—anything that would eat CPU or fill up the pipe. I shut down a farm of VMs that were running integration tests for Lucas Cotton’s MESH project. It would be a pain in the ass to restart all the tests, but I didn’t really have a choice. I took the house offline as well, shut down transcoding services that were pulling movies from supposedly secure servers owned by Paramount, Lion’s Gate, and the newly reborn New Line Cinema. Every feed aggregator and parser in my arsenal went silent, and the cabin followed suit.
Upstairs, the fans on my suite of video cards slowed to an inaudible hum, bringing a quiet to the cabin that even Jane noticed.
She looked up, as if suddenly aware of the world again. I wanted to tell her what was happening, but at that moment, it was if someone had pulled the plug in the bathtub of my agony. I felt the data seep out, faster and faster, as the Syzygy used the full breadth of available bandwidth to chunk out the dump to local servers. I leaned my head back, felt Jane’s hand on my forehead.
“Better now?” she asked.
“Getting there.” And it was true. With every terabyte the Syzygy offloaded, its utilization fell by a small fraction. “Just give me a few minutes.”
“Sure,” she replied. “You want some water?”
Jane pushed herself off the bed and walked to the lower dresser separating the bedroom from the living room. She opened her drawer, and after rifling through the contents for a minute, extracted a sheer pair of black underwear.
“That Johnny,” she said, her tone suggesting she actually knew my friend personally and not just through my stories. “It’s just like him to interrupt us at the worst time, right? I mean, you could have been watching TV or playing a video game. For the last six months, you’ve sat here alone with your toys.”
She paused as her head disappeared into the fridge.
“But no, he waits ’til I get here, waits ’til we’re in the throes of passion, and then gives you the headache to end all headaches. Some friend.”
I took the water bottle when she held it out to me and ripped the cap off. Between sips, I told her, “Johnny’s more than a friend. He saved my life. I saved his. We did time together, did you know that?”
Jane shook her head.
“Folsom Minimum Security in 2007. We got jumped by a group of former MX soldados that had overflowed from Max. Neither of us were great fighters, but we stuck together and came out of it on the other side.” I laughed. “I remember Johnny saying to me, and it was funny because he had a mouth full of gauze, but he said we’re connected now… brothers. He said it like we hadn’t been friends since junior high.”
The Syzygy snapped back online. According to a monitor app on my palette, it had reduced the data dump’s memory footprint to a manageable size. Most of the data had been offloaded, and now the biochip was going line-by-line trying to decrypt the data. I adjusted a few sliders to kill the decryption process and focused energy on managing my body.
It wasn’t as if the Syzygy wasn’t up for the job, but a decryption task as big as this one needed a proper environment, like a self-contained construct in VR where the server and my immersion rig could double-team the data.
The headache began to subside, only to replaced by intense fatigue. I climbed up the foot of the bed, and Jane followed me back to the pillows. She pulled the covers over me as I stretched out, my forehead still covered in sweat.
“Good,” she said, patting me on the chest. “You need some rest.”
“I just need to send a quick message.”
The sliver in my wrist had come back online, and I noticed there were no keyword alerts for Johnny San Vito—a search I’d had running for nearly a decade now, just so I could always keep tabs on him. Johnny didn’t always share the details on every job he took; sometimes I learned about a new hack from the feeds, and it would only be later in a protected construct that I would get the full story.
I used the quick keys to compose a simple message to Johnny.
What the fuck?
It disappeared into the ether, and I used the same arm to reach above my head for the box full of code cards. Jane snagged it before I could.
“What do you want?”
She shuffled to the back of the box and examined the labels on the cards. Finally, she pulled out a sleek silver card with a wisp of light pearl running its length.
“Turn your head.”
I did as I was told, turning my gaze to the clear walls of the bathroom and the serene forest beyond. Snow fell in the moonlight, as it had all winter, and the world turned, as it had for all of human history.
Jane pressed the card to the back of my neck, initiating a wireless transfer of synth code directly into the Syzygy. Vanilla Sky was a cocktail of synthetic sleep aides that came on quickly but softly. Within a few blinks, I would be asleep.
I turned back to her, watched her climb beneath the sheets before pressing the card to the back of her neck. She smiled at me, mouthed the words, “Sweet dreams.”
The cabin began to fall away, but a light buzzing in my wrist kept me from going over the edge into sleep. I lifted my arm, hoping to see a message from Johnny.
What the fuck? asked my sliver.
It was my own message. Not bounced, not returned. It was forwarded.
Vanilla Sky pulled me down, but not before I understood the gravity of the situation. The messaging service wasn’t some random account Johnny owned; it was tied to his core identity and hidden from most of the world. It was the way he communicated with his best friends and most treasured contacts.
It was a basic part of Johnny.
He could do without his data for a couple of hours, and the money could be easily returned, but if he was still alive, he wouldn’t have waited for me to return his messaging account.
He would have taken it back.
What the fuck indeed.
Photo by Sam Beasley on Unsplash