If you missed out on the first chapter for the Fan Fiction by Hugo Klopp, Check it out here.
by Hugo Klopp
Something was wrong with the net. Xavier had experienced this feeling for the first time about twelve years ago, when he was just a child; and the feeling had been with him ever since. Every time he would plug in, it was as though something was waiting for him, looking for him. He tried to ignore it at first, but then he got more and more curious. It seemed as though the net had been rewritten, or parts of its intricate systems at least - except it hadn’t. Xavier had searched everywhere, hacking into high security databanks, reading pages upon pages of code, often encrypted. Of course, there had been important updates, but always framed within the same parameters, the same old 30s technology. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Xavier had always been a talented child; “gifted” was the word for it. He had made his first run in the net when he was around six years old, plugged into a hand-made, overheating cyberdeck. His mother had found him on the couch, his body convulsing and his eyes wide open. She tried to keep him away from the net but she never really could; that’s where he felt most at home. So if Xavier Summers felt that something was wrong with the net, then it was wrong; he could read through code quicker than corpos could read through the lines of a contract. When he had realized that there had been no significant change in the essence of the net, he had turned to another theory: what if the net had grown? And not just some new AIs in a dark corner of the Russian web - what if this growth could not be observed through conventional means? He had written dozens of new programs; when they had failed, he had searched for new, less restrictive ways of coding. He had always acted as though he did not notice the other netrunners and programs that were watching his activities but, in reality, Xavier used them to guide his efforts. An increase in interest from spying programs often meant that he was on the right path.
That night, he was going to run the third version of his Red Leader program. To netrunners, the net was visible as a virtual reality; “plugging in” meant being virtually transported into a world similar to reality, functioning in three dimensions. Each netrunner had an avatar, as in a video game, and each program had a physical, tangible icon. Xavier was obsessed with Star Wars; he named all of the programs he wrote in reference to those films. He had named this particular program Red Leader because the unique way in which it linked his brain to the net left a reddish filter over his vision in the virtual reality. Xavier was taking a small break from the net, drinking coffee from a dirty red cup in the middle of his empty apartment. Anyone else would have to have been desperate to live in a place like this. There was nothing but a suitcase, a bed, a microwave oven, a few home cameras, a scavenged weight training bench, some weights, and ration packs scattered all around the place. The windows didn’t let much light through, as they were sloppily boarded up with planks of plywood and nails. But Xavier saw this apartment as something purely functional. He could easily spend 12 hours in the net each day, be it for a job or for his Red Leader Project.
The coffee was too hot; Xavier had never gotten the hang of his microwave. He did not know if it was day or night, and frankly he did not care. He only cared enough to know the time on Fridays; parties were too important to miss. He blew softly on the coffee, then took another sip which burned his tongue. His hands were shaking with excitement.
He threw the cup towards the sink, turned around, almost stopped when he heard it hit the ground, but kept going. He lay down on his bed, fastened his cyberdeck around his arm and pulled a retractable cable out of the device. He plugged the cable into his wrist, then set up a 5-minute timer on his shutdown program in case something disabled him from jacking out from inside the net. He closed his eyes. The implants in a netrunner’s brain became activated when they plugged in, allowing them to follow the incredible speed of the net. Spending a minute in the net amounted to just a few seconds in realspace.
Virtual Night City stood before him, an imperfect imitation of the realspace one. Corporations and banks liked their offices to be located similarly in the net and in realspace, whereas rogue netrunners preferred to hide their data where one would least expect it. This resulted in a mostly corporate virtual city under which crawled layers upon layers of illegal businesses and information centers, ever-moving behind facades of legitimate numbers generated by complex algorithms. Virtual Night City, or VNC, was as violent as its realspace equivalent. Corporate netrunners and police net-enforcers passed judgement freely in the virtual city’s depths; the hackers and illegal programs that resided there waged a constant war with them. Usually brightly colored with neon lights, logos, stylized advertisement and meteorological simulations, the city now appeared reddened and distorted to Xavier’s eyes, its every edge curving and twisting, moving as he stood still. He saw that sacrificing color and realism for his Red Leader program had left a lot of space for reading additional information and concretizing it. He turned around, quickly at first, but the sudden loss in vision he experienced convinced him to take it slow. There was so much to see: he could see information being transferred throughout the city, the encryption methods always changing. Has anyone else seen this before? He guessed so; there always was someone better than you in the net. But in Xavier’s case, there were not many.
His avatar, a large Godzilla figure, did attract a bit of attention around him, as well as the laughter of a few teenagers who had gone shopping or partying in the net (one could tell by their generically fabricated, expensive avatars). Most netrunners did not care much about looks; Xavier had gotten his avatar by scanning an old action figure in a local drugstore for 2 euro-dollars. He popped his two Imperial Guards, his assistant programs, next to him. He had written these limited AIs some time ago; they were quite useful, as they learned and adapted quickly. Xavier sent them decryption programs and ordered them to gather samples of the information that was being transferred around them. He then looked through the data, more searching for symptoms of a malfunction in Red Leader than anything else. But every bit of information was coherent with its source and its destination: Red Leader 3.0 was working better than its predecessors. Xavier laughed.
“I’m in trouble.”
Anytime you did something unique in the net, someone, somewhere, was sure to notice it. It could be gangs, hackers, corpos, the police or worse: NetWatch. Netwatch was an international organisation that acted as the net’s secret police. Repressive and uncompromising, they scrupulously applied every rule mentioned in international net law; and when two laws or amendments happened to be contradictory, they were known to abide by the most violent one. Xavier had never run into them, but he knew they had followed his tracks a few times - he had felt them. Unlike most netrunners, Xavier could experience instinct and intuition in the net. To him, the net was not just numbers and visuals; it was a reality of its own. Its surface was fabricated, but there was something deeper, something real. This feeling was what led him to programming Red Leader. He had probably broken multiple laws just by programming it, and almost certainly caught Netwatch’s attention. But I’m so close, I can feel it.
Close to what? He did not know it yet, but as he looked at the bits of pure, unfiltered code surrounding him, he felt an intimacy with the net that he could never have attained within realspace. You cannot look at reality, not like this. And yet, despite his awe for the world around him, he knew there was more. He wanted to see more. He started walking slowly, measuring the speed of each of his steps, picturing himself as an astronaut in his mind. In the net, one’s limbs did not ache or tremble, they followed the directions of one’s mind to the letter. As he advanced slowly, he glimpsed the simplistic, architectural coding of corporate buildings. The code appeared and disappeared like a reflection on glass; at every point of his movement, he saw the letters and numbers from a different angle and under a different light. He couldn't care less about the swarm of avatars that came and went around him. I have to find a way to see more without losing structure, I have to keep the shape of things as they are. I need balance, but how do I balance that?
He came out of the net and went back to the discomfort of his own body. Even though he was young and athletic, there were always imperfections in realspace. He suddenly raised his head, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was afraid before understanding why. The air felt odd, displaced. The dust that should have been hanging in the air was agitated. Has someone been here? For like... the 2 minutes I was out? Probably not, but he could not shake the feeling. This had happened to him often; when he jacked out of the net, he sometimes felt like he was being watched. Some psychologist had diagnosed symptoms like those in netrunners - or so it had been written in the news - but Xavier couldn’t help but trust his gut.
He stood up and quickly checked around his apartment. Nothing had moved. Xavier was a maniac about his own chaos; he would have noticed. He walked to the kitchen and made himself another coffee, trying to make it colder than the last one. The result was lukewarm, brown water with some powder at the bottom of the cup. I’m sure they’re making them like that so we need to buy more each time we fuck up. He threw the cup into the sink, and closed his eyes when he heard more coffee splashing on his floor, and the clanging of metal bowls. He remembered that he had forgotten to wash the dishes, then tried to recall his last meal without success - spending hours in the net made you lose track of time. He took off his pajamas, put on blue jeans and a bulletproof T-shirt, then went to the bathroom and walked over to the sink. The yellowish water came out of the faucet in irregular, violent spurts, and Xavier’s jeans were wet before the water finally became clean. Once he could see his hand through the muddy liquid, he rinsed his mouth and washed his face. He then took his bulky handgun and stuffed it into the inside pocket of his leather coat, which he threw over his shoulder as he headed down the stairs leading to the door of his apartment block.
There were a few dozen people sitting in the stairs, drinking from half-empty bottles, and the building’s faulty lights flickered over their heads. A green-haired teenager with a guitar was trying to get her amplifier to work by hitting it repeatedly. These kinds of gatherings were commonplace in Xavier’s building. Teenagers would go out, thrilled to visit the Combat Zone, the most dangerous district of Night City; and as they clubbed and drank, they would realize that the streets around them were becoming violent - dangerously so. Feeling that they were getting more than they bargained for, they would seek out unguarded, lit apartment blocks and wait out the night indoors. Unguarded didn’t mean safe though; the apartment buildings’ residents often lost their tempers. An amateur metal concert or karaoke from 4 to 6am didn’t leave everyone happy, and there was some shooting and slicing in Xavier’s block every now and then.
As he was passing through the squatters, he noticed just how pretty the guitar girl was; and she was around his age, too. He walked over to her and sat down, pushing aside a gangly teenage boy.
“Hey, you want me to take a look at this?” he said, pointing to her amplifier, which was clearly not working.
The hostile look on the girl’s face faded as she took a closer look at him. He had never been able to afford aesthetic enhancement, but he was still a good-looking young man .
“Sh- sh- sure, if you don’t mind.”
Her hair was green with blue highlights that matched her big, expressive eyes. He opened the side of the amplifier, cutting and reconnecting a few things here and there, as he had previously done a few times on his friends’ handmade amplifiers when he was younger. A shrill feedback sound suddenly filled the staircase, and everyone turned to face the girl; some with surprise, others with irritation. However, when she started playing the hit song from Johnny Silverhand’s most recent album, the complaints turned to rowdy encouragement. Xavier sat there, looking at her, smiling for the entirety of the song. As it ended, he leaned towards the girl and shouted:
“Hey, I’m getting pizza, you want some?”
“Sure, if you’re buying!”
She smiled at him, then lowered her eyes towards her fingers on the guitar’s strings.
“Hey, do you know his first single?” shouted someone from the top of the stairs. “Samurai - it’s fucking great, man.”
“What’s the name of the song?” yelled another boy.
“Not the band, the song!”
“Well the band’s first single is called Samurai, and the first album is called Samurai, and the band’s called Samurai. Just like Iron Maiden.”
“Come on, man, Iron Maiden… it’s old world metal. Johnny’s grandpas, sort of.”
Xavier walked out the front door. A band of nomad riders were cruising through the street, their motor deafening to anyone standing outside within a few blocks of them. The nomads stank of gas and blood; they wore leather jackets, and carried improvised weapons and old world guns. Xavier and his friends usually called them “Mad Maxes”. They were there one instant, and the next they were gone, leaving only scavengers, corpses, and a few sex workers and their clients behind. The thunder of the bikes grew distant and now screams, laughter and gunshots could be heard around the demolished district. One of the scavengers sitting on the sidewalk was busy cutting off the arm of a dead woman with a machete. His quick and precise movements, which he had probably perfected through frequent repetition, scattered blood around him. His face was harshly lit by burning barrels flickering on his left; darkness concealed the other half of his face. As he walked by, Xavier raised his voice.
“Yeah, yeah. But you know, she was already dead. It’s a shame for the poor girl.”
“Wouldn’t want that cyberarm to go to waste, huh?”
“Sure. You’ve got some pretty cybershit yourself, so I’d shut up if I was you.”
Xavier liked his district for the same reasons that he liked his part of the net: it was scattered and chaotic. It was virtually impossible to find someone in the Combat Zone without going there, as rents were paid to gangs in money, food, fuel or sex, and no record was kept of anything. There were no regulations, no taxes, no phone books. No corpo could ever find a careful netrunner there. In theory.
Xavier got in line next to a pizza stand that was set in the remains of a blasted building, a few blocks from his place. He waited for some time, then gave a five eddie bill to one of the cooks.
“Do you want some real tomatoes friend?”
“I look like I got that kind of money to you?”
“Just asking man.”
“Hey Xavier, how you doing?” said another cook.
“I’m okay.” he said. “You know, people always talking about Johnny Silverhand like he’s some kind of prophet? Usually I’m good but now, I wake up hearing some teenager screaming his name in my staircase every other night, you know?”
“Yeah I know what you mean.”
“That’s ‘cause he’s the best there is!” shouted a visibly Scottish man in Xavier’s ear.”
“Of course he is!” screamed Xavier in his ear.
Xavier was soon on his way back to his apartment. He heard the scavengers debating about the cleanest way to extract an ocular cybernetic from someone’s head, while pointing to parts of the dead girl’s head, and positioning it to illustrate their point. Xavier did not comment this time and he kept a steady pace, stopping only once to avoid getting hit by a rusted, three-wheeled car. He climbed back up the stairs in his building, lifting the pizza box above his head and tossing aside arms that were trying to take it from him. He only opened the box once he was sitting next to the green-haired girl. She was still playing the guitar, now older songs. He started eating and she joined him at the end of her song, someone else took the guitar and the show went on.
“You like it?” he asked.
“Sure, it’s pizza. Thanks for buying.”
“No problem. So, what’s your name?”
“I’m Xavier. You’re way too cute to be from the Combat Zone, so where you from?”
“It’s that obvious?”
“Well, no broken nose, no scars, clothes look like they’ve been washed ... You know.”
“Okay, so I’m technically from Pacifica, but I’m close to the factories so…”
“So you see way too many corpos and not enough real people.”
“So tonight you came to where all the fun is, how d’you like it?”
“It’s not my first time, but I’m still not used to seeing people die so much.”
“Yeah well, people say it’s part of the fun, but I don’t like it either. Hey, how about we go eat at my place?”
“Umm… maybe not today?” she said smiling. “I’m with friends and it’s their first time, so I want to try and make sure they don’t end up chopped to pieces by scavs, you know?”
“But here’s my number, if you want.”
That small piece of paper ended up on the floor of Xavier’s apartment. Come on, I wanted to get laid tonight, not next week. Well, she’s kinda cute, anyway; might call her later. He threw himself on his bed and closed his eyes. A few floors higher, someone was blasting pop music that clashed harshly with the guitar from down below. His mind kept spinning. He couldn’t think of anything except for Red Leader. After a few minutes he got up. Fuck that, what’s one more dose anyway? He went to the bathroom and opened a cupboard. He grabbed an automatic syringe:
Night Owl: GET A FULL NIGHT OF SLEEP IN ONLY ONE HOUR!!! Tested regularly and trusted since 2045. Why sleep when you can work?
He put the syringe against his arm and pressed a button. With a soft hiss, the needle entered his arm and he immediately started feeling sleepy. Oh and what the hell? He pressed the button a second time, went back to bed and set a 40-minute timer. He immediately fell asleep.