The Know Circuit
November 2, 2028
The crowd in the Tanz looked on the events playing out on the screen in stunned silence. People looked from one face to the other as in a shared dream state, experiencing the uneasy camaraderie of the traumatized herd too shocked to remember the natural distrust they should have of each other. The house lights had been turned on somewhere in the middle of the broadcast, and Bridge’s eyes ached. He’d been going pretty hard lately, a three-day stretch of lost sleep and constant footwork. His body still felt the effects of the hallucinogenic seizure he’d experienced, and the other jacked-in victims appeared equally drained.
Bridge jumped as his cell connection buzzed to a life, a tingly irritating vibration in the back of his skull that signaled an incoming call. "This is Bridge, go," he said by reflex.
"Was that you ghosting through Ars just a minute ago?" It was Bridge’s girlfriend, Angela. He could feel the barely-controlled panic in her voice. "I was cruising the taverns and I swear I saw you in theBlooded Falchion, but then I was in the Tanz with you. And what was that about Boulder?" Angela was one of the operators of the virtual world Ars-Perthnia, spending most of her time in that world dressed as the lich-queen Baroness Eletheia.
"Are you still jacked in?"
"Of course, there’s a tourney tonight."
"Check the news feeds, baby."
"Which one? CNN?"
"Any of them. All of them. It’s all over the place. Boulder just went nuclear or something."
"Oh my God, hold on." The artificial sound of virtual breath being drawn tickled Bridge’s auditory nerves. It was hard for someone in a crèche to gasp, but she managed it. "What the fuck happened?"
"They don’t have any idea. But apparently that little hallucination you just had of me in the Blooded Falchion was shared. I swear I was in the Falchion AND the Tanz at the same goddamn time. You know that weirdo feeling you get when you’re jacked in without a crèche and have to look at the real world and the Net at the same time? That double image bullshit that gives you a headache from hell? That’s what it was like. I could feel the table twice. Always makes me feel like the walking dead."
"Did you jack in wireless?"
"Hell, no. You know I don’t jack in anymore unless I have to. This wasn’t conscious, it just happened."
"You sure you didn’t get slipped a nannymick?" Bridge had already considered the idea of a nanobot attack and dismissed it.
He replied, "If it had just been me, I’d have considered it. But everybody in the club with a jack got hit the same way, all screaming out ‘Boulder’ over and over again. Ask around in the joint, see if the other gamers had the same experience." Bridge noticed Aristotle for the first time. The bodyguard was frantically dialing numbers on his cell, putting the receiver to his ear, then cursing at something and repeating the process. "I’ll get back with you, Angie. Something to take care of." Angela broke the connection quickly, with barely a word. Bridge wondered if he should have given an ‘I love you’ but was still unsure where their relationship stood. Living together was one thing, actually saying the words and meaning them with everything that entailed? Something for another time.
"Yo, brother, what’s the problem? Who you trying to call?"
Aristotle looked up quickly from the phone in his hand, his expression one of sheer abject animal terror. He quickly went back to the receiver, dialing again and cursing while ignoring Bridge’s question. His curses only grew louder as his frustration grew. "Fucking piece of shit, why won’t you get through?" he finally screamed into his palm. As if realizing where he was, he looked around quickly and saw the stares of the nearby patrons. Everyone in the joint was on edge, their nerves frayed from the disruption of their normal lives by the outright weird. Bridge put a hand on Aristotle’s shoulder and led him away.
"Calm it down, big guy. We got a reputation to protect. Now who are you trying to call?"
Aristotle seemed unwilling to tell Bridge at first, his eyes darting from Bridge to the phone and back. At last he sighed and stared into Bridge’s eyes. Almost on the verge of tears, he said, "My grandmother. She lives in Boulder, Bridge, and I cannot raise her. I think she’s dead."
"Whoa there. Let’s not jump to any conclusions. Slow it down, breathe and let’s work this, ok? I’m sure you’re grandmother is fine."
Aristotle’s expression grew sour, the hint of sarcastic disbelief in his wry smirk. "What do you care? You aren’t exactly family guy now are you?"
"Just because I’m an amoral shitheel doesn’t mean I don’t got family… somewhere," Bridge replied. His thoughts drifted to his parents for the briefest of seconds before he pushed the memories aside. They were out there somewhere, but damn if he cared where. "You never talked about your grandmother, so I just expected you didn’t have one."
"Gram pretty much raised me. My parents split when my dad was in Iraq and my mom was a no good nothing, or so Gram said. Last I talked to her, she was living in Boulder."
"Where in Boulder? Near that big dome thing?"
"I cannot be certain."
"Well, see, there you go. It couldn’t have covered the whole goddamn city, right?" Aristotle nodded meekly. "Maybe she’s in the part that isn’t covered."
"She was living near the university when I left Boulder. The artsy district. She’s a bit of a Bohemian. I haven’t been back since I left. I haven’t even visited her. What if she’s dead?"
"Hold on, let’s not jump to conclusions. So she’s by the university. I can get Angie to start pouring through the feeds, see if they can pinpoint this thing. It may not even be anywhere near her."
"Then why can’t I get her on the phone, Bridge?"
"Shit just kicked off, big boy. The power was out. Maybe it knocked out the networks around there. Hell, maybe everybody in the country with family there is trying to call in, or everybody trapped in that bubble thing is trying to call out. The whole network could be jammed to hell and back. You remember what happened during the riots, how nobody could get any kind of service, no GlobalNet, nothing? That’s probably what it is."
Aristotle had been staring down at his feet the whole time, nodding at each new proffered morsel of hope. As Bridge finished, he raised his head again with a forceful nod, his mind made up. "That’s it, then. I must go there. I have to go find out if she’s ok. You have to come with me."
"Wait… what? Hold your horses there, big guy. You’re talking crazy talk."
"No, I’m not. You said it yourself, the whole network could be down or jammed, and it could be days before it clears up. She could be outside the bubble. She could be wandering around alone in a daze. There’s no way I can spend days wondering if she’s ok. I have to go find her, get her out if I can."
"How the hell do you plan on doing that? The cops, the national guard, the goddamn LGL is probably going to lock that site down tighter than a nun’s habit."
Aristotle nodded. "That’s correct, and they are likely even now setting up plans for evacuation camps to hold the survivors. And who better to navigate the red tape of survivors, bureaucrats, cops and administrators than you. Those situations are where you shine."
Bridge grinned with egotistical pride for a moment. "I know what you’re trying to do and it won’t work. You’re stroking my ego, brother, trying to get me to go along. It is not going to work. Colorado ain’t my stomping grounds. I don’t know nobody there."
"Since when is there a place you don’t know somebody?"
"Ok, fair enough, I know a guy. But I’ll be totally out of my pond. Plus, I got work to do here. I can’t just toss nights of profit away on somebody’s grandmother." The force of Aristotle’s reaction slammed the breath out of Bridge. Aristotle had lifted him completely off his feet and into the wall behind him.
"Listen, Bridge. Since I know that you are a cold-hearted bastard, I’ll ignore the insults. I’ll even ignore your lack of sympathy. But I will not ignore the fact that you OWE me." Aristotle’s eyes narrowed to piercing slits. "That’s right, motherfucker. I am calling in the marker on that one. I went to jail for you, and I’m a two-strike man. I could have gone away for a long time FOR you, so let’s be entirely clear here. I need your help, and you will give it to me, whether from empathy for someone you call a friend or because you well and truly owe me. At this point, I don’t care which it is. Are we clear?"
"You picked a bad time to call in a marker," Bridge replied with a grin. "All right, put me down, goddamnit." Aristotle let him down gently, smoothing out his lapels as he did so. "I help you with this, we’re square, right? No matter what turns out?" The bodyguard nodded.
"Then we’re going to need some help," Bridge said. He dialed up the one person he really didn’t want to ask. While Bridge owed his life to Aristotle he owed as much and more to Stonewall Ricardo.