Markus sat in his comfortable office-chair, gazing vacantly beyond the computer screen, his brain paralysed with images.
Memories came back like pictures falling out of frames. Why was he suddenly thinking of her? Why had she risen from the icy waters of the Styx like a resurrected Ophelia?
Karen screaming in the bathroom.
He’d tried to leave her out of the hacking operation, out of the Potemkin Crew’s secret business. But she was his girlfriend, after all and, of course, she’d met Ole and Nick. She’d heard them conspire in half-voices. Hell, they shared a one bedroom flat! So sorry for her now. So sorry about the bathroom, the pain, all that.
He focused on the screen and the lists beside the keyboard. New assignments: Hacking suspects, credit card frauds, peer-to-peer site users. He had a dirty job to get done.
But Karen walked in and sat next to him.
“What are you doing?” she asked, sounding genuinely interested.
That was what was so great about her. Her interest.
She had loved him.
He looked at her and shrugged.
That was what he had always answered.
“You don’t want to elaborate?”
She was wearing a tight black t-shirt and white panties. Just like that day. He could see the fine hairs on her thighs shining under the neon light. She crossed her legs and leaned against him to look at the screen. Her body was warm and reassuring. They were in their old one-room, kitchen, shower-toilet, low-rent apartment. A feeling of security. He wondered for a second if Synth was building all this, then laughed.
Karen put her hand on his shoulder, caressing him absent-mindedly.
“It’s a list of numbers,” she said. “With letters mixed in. Is it a program?”
Such familiar words.
She hated computers, but she loved him.
He nodded and shook his head.
“Sort of. It’s a tracking program.”
He looked at her. Her beautiful eyes widened in surprise.
“A tracking program? Who are you tracking?”
The word had a metallic ring in his mouth. He noticed it as he spoke. Apparently, so had she.
“A hacker? I thought you were one yourself.”
The office materialized briefly. He pushed Synth a little further and the old apartment surfaced again.
“Well, yes. I was. You know that now. But. . .”
She was still looking at him, her lips pursed, waiting for him to go on. Her heavy breasts fought against the black fabric of her T-shirt, he wanted to fondle them but the burning in his eyes made him stop. No need to go insane. Not right now, anyway. He knew what would happen with Synth if his mind strayed into erotic reverie. That was the curse of Synth: turning good things into unbearably good things.
Typical Karen. Would not let go.
“What?” she insisted.
There was a knock on the door and Markus jumped. He turned off Synth as much as he could and took a deep breath. The knocking resumed, louder this time.
“Yes, come in!”
A puzzled-looking security guard entered.
“Who were you talking to?”
Markus tried his best laugh-it-off laugh.
“It was the Web radio. I was just singing along.”
“Oh. Well, Sørensen wants to see you in his office. . .”
Markus nodded. He knew it was important because Sørensen had used the real voice channel, not the electronic one. Even at Viborg City Sec, wires had ears. So the personally spoken message was still the safest connection. The security guard left and Markus took the steel-cased elevator up to the 23rd floor. This time nobody walked in and no uncontrolled hallucination deranged his 8-second ride. Synth had left the building.
“Who were you talking to?”
Karen, you moron. Who else? Yeah, who else? Catherine the Great? Show me Catherine the Great. Marilyn Monroe? Show me Marilyn Monroe. You fuck. You fucking fuck.
“Who were you talking to?”
Was he becoming insane? Markus remembered his conversation with Dr. Sojo. No one really knew what Synth was all about. It was so new, even though it had started a culture of its own. Music and art, mostly, but literature would come soon. If it ever got published. Synth worried the authorities. Especially its influence on music. So popular. There were Synth fuelled urban legends too. Like someone taking too much and becoming catatonic. Or murdering his girlfriend and eating her brains. Or even disappearing completely. Markus smiled. The last one would surely help.
He remembered his first encounter with Synth. He was at Carlo’s, a few months ago, looking through the collection of Huxley, Burroughs, Moorcock, Ballard, Pynchon crammed on the store’s dark wooden shelves, all of them writers Markus had discovered in prison. The books were almost new when he had found them on the dull metal shelves of the library — probably too weird or difficult for most of the inmates. But this was precisely what had attracted him. There was something in the chaos of the words, in the torture of the sentences or the weirdness of the descriptions in these books that matched his own experience, although he had never done anything worse than smoking a lot of skunk and occasionally scoring a line or two from a generous friend.
Markus felt as if these writers were doing to literature what the Potemkin Crew had tried to do with the system. Change the lines of the code so that the code is rendered useless. Powerless. Harmless. It confirmed — albeit painfully — his commitment in his past actions, making him a much more conscious criminal than he had been at the time of the trial. He now discovered why prison turned criminals into hardened criminals: it gave them insight.
Markus was taking out Cities of the Red Night when he felt a presence behind him.
“Ah, I recommend that one,” the large stranger said. “Just finished The Place of Dead Roads. Awesome.”
The stranger was a giant dressed in a parka jacket, although it was the hottest June ever recorded in Viborg City. Conversation had ensued, then Dr. Sojo, as the stranger had introduced himself, asked him if he would like to experience some of the chemicals that inspired great literature. Markus thought about the anklet and prison. What would happen if Sørensen found out? What would happen if Markus kept waking up to the nightmare of inescapable reality?
Prison was inescapable reality.
Plain, solid horror.
Just like the time Markus returned to his cell after a walk to find his roommate beaten, lying in blood and vomit, his pants drawn to his ankles, red stains on his thighs The kid was eighteen and an idiot. Bragging all the time, showing muscle. Well someone had shown him his muscles. Markus pulled the kid’s pants back up and wiped his puke and blood encrusted face and cradled him until the guards took him to the infirmary. He died there two days later, after swallowing a razorblade he’d managed to break into pieces.
Now, every day in his office, tracking his old self down, trying to forget about morals and politics. Trying to forget who he was working for. Trying to forget who he really was.
He wanted out.
He had bought the book and followed Dr. Sojo outside.
Sørensen sat in his Nordic design leather and steel armchair and was lighting his pipe as Markus stepped into his office. The boss’ face was hidden behind a blue smoke cloud and Markus thought about The Wizard of Oz. Synth provoked no reaction. It had dried up. The calm before the storm. In an hour or so there would be pain, anguish and sorrow.
“Olsen,” the boss said in his gravelly smoker’s voice. “Sit down.”
Markus obeyed and accepted the genuine Cuban cigarillo Sørensen’s manicured fingers held out to him and then the flame from a Silvermatch. The boss wore a gray three-piece suit today, making him look both terribly conservative and incredibly hip. His dark-gray hair was combed back and held with some dull wax.
“We have a problem.”
Markus nodded. Why would he be here otherwise? He only hoped it wasn’t with him. Have they found out about my Synth habit? An icy crown of sweat drenched his hair. If they had, they would have sent him back to jail immediately. Or to some psychiatric ward. Or that special hell of a psychiatric prison. They wouldn’t give him a sermon and then arrest him. Would they?
“What kind of problem, sir?” Markus asked, savoring the delightful smoke from the cigarillo tickle the inside of his mouth.
“A security problem, what else?”
Sørensen’s blue eyes looked at Markus as if he was tired of seeing him. Or maybe just seeing. His neutral face showed no sign of anguish, fear or emotion. Power. Precisely. A metaphor. Like Synth trying to get back at you the hard way.
“Yes, of course, what else?”
A puff of the pipe, time slowing down even more.
“Here, I’ve got something for you.”
Sørensen handed him a plastic bag.
“Is it okay?” Markus asked, suddenly work-conscious. “I mean, with my bare hands?”
“Everything’s been taken care of.”
Markus fished out a PersoReader and a Viborg City National Bank CashCard.
“What’s wrong with the card? Is it fake?”
Sørensen shifted his weight in the chair. He looked uneasy.
“I can’t explain everything. You’re not cleared for Purple. But you need to work, so I have to give you some useful information,” he said, as if he was trying to explain something to satisfy himself. “We found those on the last hacker you tracked.”
The door explodes and flies into the corridor.
“Take a look at the card. Do you see anything peculiar about it?”
Markus examined the plastic rectangle. It looked like a normal CashCard, gold colored and with all the numbers and digits in the right places, the chip glowing copper under the neon light.
“Apart from the fact that your hacker is Cash, no. And then again, there are so many Bourgeois kids who are dying for adventure. . . What’s the catch?”
“It doesn’t exist. It’s not registered anywhere.”
Markus exhaled noisily.
“Very nice forgery.”
“Well, that’s the problem,” Sørensen said. “It’s real.”
Markus felt Synth buzzing in the background. Not now.
“Real? How can it be fake and real?”
“Well, the card might not exist technically, but it is funded.”
Sørensen stopped, to give his words more effect.
Markus let that sink in for a few seconds.
“So where does the money come from? Where is it?”
“We don’t know and we need to know. We found receipts at his apartment. Same card number. But when we checked the card with Viborg City National Bank, they denied its existence. There’s no account attached to that card. Anywhere.”
“How can that be?”
Sørensen stretched his lips into a forced smile.
“Exactly. We want you to find out how and trace the card back to its source. We are going to interview the hacker this afternoon. You’ll come with us.”
“Wait,” Markus objected. “I’m not a. . .”
“You are a civil servant, paid by the Viborg City Security Department and you’ll do exactly as you’re told. This afternoon, at two p.m., information building, room 12. Clear?”
Markus nodded, then felt a chill run down his spine.
“I have nothing to do with this,” he said.
“I know. You’re the first one we checked.”
Sørensen relit his pipe. His gestures were measured, as if he had an internal computer that regulated all his moves. Markus realized that it was raining. The drops slid on the window in long quicksilver trails.
“It’s been ten years now,” Sørensen said, his eyes half-closed as he sucked on his pipe. “Almost exactly. Next week, October 23rd. Food for thought. Happy anniversary, nonetheless. You were one of our greatest catches.”
Markus regretted having killed the cigarillo. He could have used a blue cloud to hide behind.
“Happy anniversary to you too.”
Karen screaming in the bathroom.
They’d dragged him downstairs first. He had not seen her until the trial. Ten months later. She was sitting in the middle of the crowd. She didn’t even wave to him. Or wink. Or anything. There was just her face, among all the others. Her face. Beautiful. She’d come once and never returned. He understood. At least, he thought he did. Later, Synth made things much easier. He really thought he did. The only question that had haunted him for the past ten years: Did she know why she was free?
Markus stood up to leave and Sørensen extended a hand. It was surprisingly warm and firm.
“Keep me informed.”
He reached the door then suddenly turned around.
“And what about the PersoReader?”
“I think you’ll find his taste in literature extremely interesting.”
Back in his office, Markus turned on the PersoReader. It belonged to a Bjørn Christensen, who lived in the Nobel area, near the zoo — a fashionable place, full of neo-Bohemians, artists, crooks, wannabees, pretty girls and expensive cafés. A cliché in itself, every self-respecting city nourishes carefully to give the illusion of culture and modernity. All irony aside, he felt sorry for the poor dude and he carefully scrutinized the small picture displayed next to the address, as if he could get to know him better, but all he saw was a trendy-looking idiot, with a fashionable haircut and the usual look of disdain.
He went directly to the book section and checked the file. There was only one title listed. The Potemkin Overture. Markus frowned. He had never heard of the book before, which was strange considering his dedication to the dailies’ literary pages.
Still frowning, he began to read.
Outside, it had started to rain. An icy drizzle, prickled his face with a thousand frozen needles. Markus knew he was going to be late for the interrogation. The building was right in front of his own, a mere fifty meters away, a brick and steel-glass twin. They liked things to look alike in this country. That’s why they were all blond, probably. Still he knew he was going to be late, and Sørensen wouldn’t like that. He would say “you’re late” and Markus would nod. Nothing more than that, and it would still be very unpleasant. Sørensen was unpleasantness personified. Probably got him the job too. Markus began to jog towards the revolving doors as the rain grew heavier.
Markus nodded. Synth squirmed. Black sweat.
Markus stepped into a steel gray cubicle, followed by Sørensen and a police officer. The facing wall was black, but he knew it was a one-way mirror — he had seen films. There was also a sound console, with two thin mikes attached, but no chair. Sørensen nodded to the officer, who stepped forward and pressed a button. The mirror suddenly lit up, revealing a white room, with a man sitting on a chair. Alone. After a second glance, Markus noticed the man was in fact shackled to the chair, wrists and ankles locked in steel bracelets.
The prisoner was a young man, with longish hair and thick fashionable stubble. His eyes were blue and glassy. He wore the regular beige prison overalls, which looked like oversized pajamas. Markus noticed the beard was glistening on one side. The prisoner was drooling.
So you think you’re so smart, hey boyo? You think you can press keys and change the world? You stupid university fuck. You know what you are now? You’re no fucking hacker, asshole. You’re a fucking traitor. A fucking traitor, that’s what you are now, asshole.
Things had definitely changed since his arrest. No more good cop, bad cop. No more beating up with a telephone book. No more insults or threats. Just a chair, dead eyes and spit running from his mouth. Markus wondered if they had pumped him up with smack, turned him into a junkie so he would confess whatever they wanted him to confess. He had seen films.
Think you’re so smart boyo?
Markus remembered the picture on the PersoReader. Rich kid. 2000 miles away from home. Loose chords in the background. Think you press keys?
“Are you ready?” Sørensen asked.
Markus nodded, not really knowing what he was supposed to be ready for. Sørensen switched the sound-console on and spoke into the microphone.
“Mister Christensen, can you hear me?”
The prisoner lifted a heavy head. His eyes rolled slowly, but didn’t seem to focus on anything.
“Yes,” he moaned, as if the word was too big for his mouth.
“What’s he on?” Markus asked Sørensen’s back. “Did you give him heroin?”
Sørensen shook his head without looking at Markus.
“A new drug. Military. Ultimate truth serum. Apparently it works. Or so I’ve been told. First time we’ve tried it though. Consider yourself a lucky one. First-hand witness to the science of interrogation.”
Traitor you asshole.
As if on cue, two men join them, each displaying a small golden caduceus on the lapel of his tweed jacket. Both are carrying note-holders and a government issued pencil. One is an older version of the other, with white hair stretched back and yellowish skin. His colleague is a tall, bony man, wearing steel rimless glasses. His hair is short, blond and thinning on top. Not funny types.
“Surgeon-Colonel Andersen,” said the older man, extending a hard hand. “My colleague, Lieutenant Böckel.”
That was the extent of their presentation and explanation. Sørensen turned back to the microphone.
“Is Bjørn Christensen your real name?”
“Yes,” the prisoner croaked, his eyes now staring at the floor. “I’m thirsty. I want to pee. I was born here. I am twenty-six. I don’t really love my parents. My girlfriend’s name is Emma. I. . .”
Sørensen’s voice was both firm and cautious, making the ghost stare up. The two army quacks were taking notes, nodding once in a while, exchanging muffled opinions.
“Did you try to hack in to Viborg City National Bank’s security systems?”
“I wanted to check something about the card.”
“Did someone give you this card or did you design it yourself?”
“Excuse me. Can you repeat what you just said?”
There were a few seconds of confusion. Sørensen turned around once more. The two doctors shrugged in unison.
“You sure this works?” he asked them. “He’s talking about a character from the X-Men comics now.”
“It works,” Surgeon-Colonel Andersen assured. “Up to now, information obtained with project 4B has been verified to be one hundred percent truthful. He’s telling the truth, whatever the truth might be.”
Fucking hacker asshole.
Sørensen furrowed his brow and shook his head.
“Yes, whatever. . . Mr. Christensen?”
“Who is Jean Gray?”
“She’s a member of the X-Men.”
Sørensen shot a furious glance to the doctors who remained impassable.
“Where did you meet her?”
Sørensen let out a deep sigh and turned off the mike.
“Give me a good telephone book and some psychological leverage. . .”
He stared at Markus who felt his stomach turn. Yes, it had worked with him. Karen screaming in the bathroom. You love her, don’t you? Do you really want to send her behind bars for ten years? Ten years, think about that. Ten years surrounded by tattooed dykes who are going to turn her on to heroin and other pleasures. You love her, you fuck? You love her? Then spit it out. Spit it out.
“Okay, we’re going to try something else. Mr. Christensen?”
“That book on your PersoReader, The Potemkin Overture, where did you download it?”
Markus felt the PersoReader in the inside pocket of his jacket. He had brought it with him although it was evidence. He wanted to finish reading it at home. He had to. It was about him. He was the hero. For once. No. Wrong. Not for once. Again. Yes, again.
You love her you fuck.
(Excerpt from THE SONG OF SYNTH, PS PUBLISHING.)