Panopticon – A Cyberpunk Story

I finished reading Neuromancer recently, the grandfather book of Cyberpunk as a genre. The book had quite an effect on me. While it wasn’t the freshest I’ve read, it doesn’t lose much for its age. Themes of hope, humanity, and even a sense of the divine, all give the novel things to remember. Best of all, it inspired me to write the story below, given in its entirety (I apologize).

Owned by Fantasy Flight Games and Liiga (the artist).

Owned by Fantasy Flight Games and Liiga (the artist).

Fuller flashed the countdown on her display. Down from 3, 2, 1.

Ashley entered the lobby of Mailer-Bronson International as the count hit zero. The conglomerate’s headquarters swarming with men and women wearing tight white or grey business suits with matching suitcases. As Fuller watched through her eyes, using the Simulated Stimulus implants, he could see the disturbing monochrome of the crowd.

“Is it just me,” Fuller’s words vibrated Ashley’s eardrum to create the sensation of him whispering in her ear, “Or are these all the same people?”

He could feel her lift an inquisitive eyebrow.  While it wasn’t uncommon for business people to talk to the little people in their ears, they were undercover, and she didn’t want to be heard saying the wrong thing. So instead she looked down at her watch and made her way past the front counter.

“I don’t know why they couldn’t just snatch this thing with a warrant,” Fuller said as he keyed in Mailer-Bronson for a search query.

“They can just deny having it,” Ashley said as she got away from the crowd. Fuller didn’t like hearing her voice over Simstim, it was the deepend internal tone everyone hears for themselves.

“Then bring in CorpOps,” Fuller replied.

“Cleaner this way,” She replied, “Look like another Corp did it.”

“Unless HQ has something else in mind.”

Ashley rounded a corner and found herself in a hall full of faux-gold walls with wood paneling. Elevators lined each side, each marked with different floor ranges, numbers, and security clearances.

“Focus,” Ashley said as she walked the hall. He could feel her touch her hip, brushing past the hidden pistol to pull free a small disc of metal, a keychip.

“I’m focusing,” Fuller said.

He switched over to the Matrix, dropping the piggybacked sensations of Ashley’s body in exchange for his own simulated expression of the totality of the net. He was greeted by an all-green sunset, like a crystal locked down just over the hill, the Westboard Datalink.

His body shifted across the virtual distance, flying through locales all set over that same sunset, until he found what he was looking for. A windowless skyscraper, a representation of the simplistic outer security of MB International.

This was where Fuller was in control, where he got to be an artist. In the past, hackers got a bad reputation as brutes, anarchists, criminals. That changed after the Last Corporate War. Now instead of a fresh faced hacker, he was a Investigative Programming Agent of the North American Business Authority. If mom was still alive, he would have been able to tell her he was one of the good guys.

The monolith of the MB security had a large padlock over it, cartoonish and large.

“Talkback,” Fuller said.

A small blip of white light appeared next to him, “Yes, Sir?”

“Bring up Razorbud.”

“Yes, Sir.”

An interface appeared in front of Fuller on a whim, and he motioned over the keys in a fluid act that made it seem mindless. After a moments, a small green seed appeared near his head, and he grabbed it without looking at it.

Some hackers, programmers, runners, whatever they wanted to be called, some of them were still brutes. It was a good way to get killed or caught, tracked down in the real world by men in black suits flying black lightplanes ready to point black guns at you.

He flicked the seed at the cartoon lock, and it flew into the keyhole.

Where anyone with a bit of experience in the matrix could formulate a program to hammer away at a lock, or create a skeleton key, everyone would know you were there. A real programmer was as much an artist as a painter, or holovid writer. The greatest tool in any artists arsenal was subtlety.

Soon the curves of the cartoon lock began to curl in, becoming the natural shape and luster of a rose-colored bud. Then with a flourish, it bloomed. Fuller smiled, then his body shifted through the center of the rose.

Back in meatspace, Ashley found the elevator marked M38, and took a deep breath.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, Fuller,” She said as she held the keychip up to the elevator’s interface. It gave a positive beep, and a green light flashed, before the door opened to her. She looked both ways down the hall, then stepped inside.

“You like?” Fuller’s voice buzzed in her ear. It always sounded like a drone talking through a 40 year old busted speaker.

She kept her head low as she spoke, minimizing lip movement, “You said this was the easy part.”

“It is, look up,” Fuller said, and Ashley peered at a small black orb at the top of the elevator, a camera, “You’re on vid.”

She furrowed her brow, but couldn’t do much more.

“I’m taking care of it, looped feed, the works. All you have to do is get to B4.”

She knew every detail. It seemed Mailer-Bronson had a basement that wasn’t on the grid. No net connections, not even an elevator that goes to it. Once she got down that far, if she managed to get that far, she had to extract their objective by hand.

She touched her pistol at her side.

“I still don’t like this,” Fuller said, his voice sounded busy, “Do you know Mailer used to have military connections before the old Corp War?”

She didn’t like the interest in his voice, “I think we can worry about that after I’m out of here alive.”

The elevator was still sweeping through floors, but it was slowing down. Soon she would be on the third basement, right before basement 4.

“I figure you would want to know if you’re walking into a trap.”

“Why would NAB send me into a trap?” Though she knew he could give her any number of answers, “What do you think it is? An AI?”

Fuller watched the elevator door open through her eyes, “AI aren’t real, Ash.”

She stepped into a hall that went off to her left and right, her eyes peering each way with a speed and clarity that almost awed Fuller.

“Really?” She whispered, “You’re a programmer that doesn’t believe in AI?”

He tried to shrug, then remembered he was in simstim, “We’ve turned them into a thing of myth, super intelligences that can run whole worlds by themselves. A real AI wouldn’t be much smarter than a Dump Drone, it would just be the cleverest drone in the bunch.”

She shook her head, “You sound so sure. I’ve heard AI might even run NAB.”

Fuller switched back to the matrix, found himself miles above the green walls of a maze. Even as he arrived, the walls and paths shifted, as if the maze itself was putty one moment and titanium the next.

It was a decoy, and a piece of ICE he didn’t particularly need to break. Though the challenge intrigued him. There was one thing about ICE, someone put it there. Another ‘programmer’ whose job was just as much art as his.

He shifted, his body flying from the maze in a whir.

“Talkback, any closer to those files on MB?”

The white speck reappeared, “A complication, Sir.”

Fuller turned to find a wall of brick, so tall his matrix avatar couldn’t see to the top of it. A simple wall, not the easiest to get through, but not tricky, just thick. If he had the time, he could break through, get the files on the other side, find out what Mailer-Bronson buried back in 2020.

Unfortunately this ICE was set up by NAB itself.

Switched back to Ashley, Fuller found her in complete darkness. Her implants made it pointless, everything around her had a slight white glow, but all she could see was the walls of a shaft.

“Air vent?” He asked.

She nodded. Chances were she didn’t want to make any more noise than necessary. If she was already in a vent, that meant soon she was going to need a distraction, a way to escape.

He switched back, tapping a few commands into his deck. A drill appeared outside the wall, a hand cranked model that no one ever used on purpose.

“Can you handle this?” Fuller asked.

“Of course, Sir.” The Talkback construct responded. The drill started to crank, slow but sure. Fuller’s body blurred back to the inside of MB’s security network, floating again over the maze.

“No easy way around you,” He noted.

 

Ashley was snug in a vent, hanging over a grate. She tried to minimize her breathing, laid perfectly still, watched the floor below.

There was no sign of any guards, but she had no way of knowing that until she went down. If they were going to hide this thing on a separate floor, they had to keep it guarded by the best. Ninjas? The idea almost made her giddy. She was trained to handle anything, but there was only so much you could do to prepare against instant death.

The 4th basement had a cold steel floor, it lacked the false welcome of the floors she already traveled. That also meant a good chance there was nowhere to hide.

“No choice but to go,” She whispered. Her display told her Fuller wasn’t listening, but the words comforted her anyway.

She held the grate in place with one hand, and the other slid it free. With one fluid motion, she fell into the 4th basement, made one full turn, then stood tall. No guards yet, but they were close. The hall was designed to be circular, but there wasn’t a door there. They would stay where they were needed, guarding the only asset on the floor.

Her pistol’s grip felt cold, but she held it tight at her side. Each step left minimum pressure on the floor, nearly silent. One thought kept her on edge, an aspect of her training she was never allowed to forget. It didn’t matter if she was the government’s billion dollar baby, full of implants and training most people never dreamed of, any corp could afford to get the same.

The hall was circular, a wide turn around metallic paths. She kept looking for a camera, any sort of security, but it seemed the floor was a true blind spot.

A step, and Ashley rolled forward to see further in the hallway. Her muzzle flashed before she saw the man, dressed in a dark red guard uniform, a splash of bright red over his chest, then he fell to the floor.

Ashley moved to his body with two steps, glancing around the rest of the hall. He was dead, and there was no one else there. Just a wooden door with a brass handle.

She stood, pistol in one hand, and gripped the handle. She entered the room, weapon first.

 

Fuller still hovered above the maze, now a spiraling corridor that ended in the exact center. There was left a black hole, a trap door. Fuller dropped a blue orb from above, and watched it fall straight through the center of the maze.

“Sir,” A voice rang in his ear.

“I’m busy,” Fuller responded. Watching as a dim glow rose the hole.

“It is urgent.”

Hearing that from a simple remote construct either meant it didn’t know what it was dealing with, or things were actually getting bad. Fuller let his body shift along the matrix, endless settings sliding past before he found himself in front of the familiar wall. A hole just large enough for Fuller’s hand was drilled through the surface, a speck compared to the larger ICE.

He slid forward, pressing himself against the brick. There was no sensation here, just ideas of what should be. The cold of the wall was a tingle like a running generator. The tough exterior was like a million needles pricking together, made ineffectual by their teamwork. His fist entered the hole, and he found something, pulling it back out. Another orb, this one a black impenetrable by the false sunset.

“What is it?” He asked Talkback.

Files opened before his eyes, records, half-redacted and encoded, that kept repeating the name of a government project.

Panopticon.

It was a surveillance project, born before the final year of the Corp war. Meant to fill in the one hole that let the corporations get out of control, observation. He scanned the pages, eyes locked to every new screen of information. Something tickled at the back of his neck, a forgotten thing, or dread. Even with whole pages of data missing, he could put together the plan. Turn the matrix into a playground, and install a yard keeper who could keep an eye on everyone.

Fuller switched to Ashley, and his body buckled at the pain coming from his chest. She was shot, he could feel it in every motion she made. Her body trembled, and he could feel her breath come out in unsteady waves.

“Ash,” Fuller yelled. She recoiled, moving her head as if to escape him yelling in her ear, “You have to get out of there.”

“Shut up,” She snapped under her breath. She was out of the library now, stalking the circular hall. He didn’t know if she ever got inside, what she found there, but now she was hurt.

Her pistol shot out one way, then she looked the other. Her former grace was replaced with a rank-and-file panic.

“Where are you.” She whispered. Her left hand gripped her chest, each movement of her fingers bringing a new wave of pain. Something was dulling it, a morphine patch maybe, but it was distant and weak.

“Fuck the objective,” Fuller said.

“I’ve got it,” She said, “Where is my distraction?”

“Go put it back, then get out.”

“Distraction,” She growled, something moved just out of her vision, “Now.”

As he switched, he felt her depress the trigger, shots rang out.

 

“Sir?” Talkback was right ahead of him as he returned to the matrix.

“We can’t let Ash get that drive out of Mailer-Bronson,” Fuller said, “Open contact with NAB command, urgent.”

“I can’t do that sir,” Talkback said.

Fuller paused, “Tap the MB wire at first entry, and call the local branch.”

“I can’t do that either, sir.”

Fuller took a deep breath, then looked around the endless green sunset. “Because you aren’t Talkback, are you?”

There was a pause, and as Fuller looked back at his simple construct he saw something pulsing in the center. It grew with each wave, almost visible.

“Impressive,” Talkback said, “I estimated at least another 10 minutes before you made the connection.”

The pulse became a glyph, a symbol of an eye atop a tower, filling the center of the white orb.

“Panopticon,” Fuller whispered, “What is your Turing ID?”

The ball waited, but if he was right it had no choice but to answer.

“My ID is, Omnigaze,” The construct said, “You’ve wanted to meet something like me for a long time, haven’t you NAB Agent Carlos “Tru” Fuller? Former runner for the now disbanded WB Hot Blades, former employee of the Harajuku Grl.”

“I get it,” Fuller said, “You’re AI, you think you’re hot stuff.”

His mind wandered to Ashley in the basement, being stalked by a shadow, bullet holes in her chest. Worse, something terrible was in her pocket.

“My purpose is not to think, but to know.”

That was a pretty slick comeback from a program.

“So what do you want with me?” Fuller asked. He tried to make the switch to Ashley’s simstim, but he couldn’t.

“Want?” Omnigaze said, “I have already used you, and soon I will have used agent Ashley.”

“So you’ve infiltrated NAB command?” Fuller asked. He couldn’t jack out, he was stuck in the matrix.

The ball rippled, like a stone struck its surface, laughter, “Your organizations are temporary, shoddy, human. I was activated before the North American Business Authority was created, and I plan to outlive.”

“If it was this easy, why wait until now?”

The ball hesitated, “Easy? This task would not be completed until Agent Ashley was here to complete it, and you were here to let her in.”

Fuller closed his eyes, “So now you’re telling me I’m some chosen one? You scoured the world for the perfect pair to bring into the hidden basement of some corporate tower?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Omnigaze said, “I am simultaneously completing 10 other similar operations across the planet, and 2 in orbit. Manipulating humans isn’t an achievement for me, it is my express purpose. I watch, I push, you move. As you did in the summer you met Natalie Lee, and left home after she broke up with you.”

“Shut up,” Fuller said, “Stop tapping my records.”

“What did she tell you? That she was pregnant, and you could be happy together.”

“Stop,” Fuller whispered.

“How irresponsible,” Omnigaze said, “No wonder you became a delinquent. That was when I created your first file, tagged you as impulsive, licentious, outgoing. It was your file, and your experimentation in the Matrix, that got the Harajuku shut down. A child with your record jacking in from that sort of property, I tagged the business for removal.”

“You did all of that?” Fuller said, “Couldn’t you have gotten me help? Instead you shut down my new home, put me out on the street?”

“Would you be who you are today without those hardships?”

“Bullshit,” Fuller shouted, “You aren’t some god. You aren’t some grand manipulator. You’re a wisecracking database. Soon, when this whole run comes crumbling down around us, they’ll realize you need to be put down, and crush you.”

“Unless,” Omnigaze said. The words sent a chill through Fuller’s fingers, “The one thing that could wipe me from the backbone of the matrix, were to get out of that basement, and into hands I could manipulate.”

The drive, and Ashley pulling it from the hidden floor. They were delivering the only weapon that could kill Omnigaze, right into its hands.

“She won’t make it out,” Fuller said. It felt odd to say, but he had no higher hope. “The attack will let MB know you are causing trouble, and they will kill you.”

“She will make it out,” Omnigaze replied, “She has been training to make it out of that basement since she was 5 years old. Before she was toilet trained, she feared corporate ninjas. Before she learned history, she learned to climb those vents. To you she seems normal, but I have created her for this moment.”

Fuller’s eyes went wide, then he looked away, “Are you thinking about the distraction?” Omnigaze said, “I know you never activated it. Thankfully, your assisting construct did. The local authorities will arrive, and officers will arrest several suspects on the scene, including your friend Ashley.”

Fuller slid to the ground, a digital heap, “And me?”

“I think you already realize the truth,” Omnigaze said, “You have been flatlined. You will remain here until brain death. Trust me, I do appreciate everything you’ve done. Your purpose, is complete.”

 

Ashley’s display was filled with alarms, glyphs noting to turn around, head left, leave. She tried to close her eyes to ignore it, but it did nothing to stop the digital readout.

She was in a duct along the lobby, watching as cops spilled into the room, foam-balling anyone that bothered to move. Suits of grey and white went screaming across the tile, the occasional red of blood mixed in as they fell or were tackled. This was her escape, and she knew a few of those officers were looking for her in the crowd.

“Why put it back?” She asked herself, “What were you trying to say?”

Fuller had left her during her fight with the ninja, it wasn’t until she was up in the vent that he returned. But something was different, he was less abrasive, like a brother trying to push her along the path. Then the display messages began, first simple instructions, then harassment. It was enough to make her suspicious. While her training told her to complete the mission, a certain someone she knew was always willing to dig into the oddities.

In one hand she clutched her bleeding chest, barely staunched, but numb from her patch. In the other hand she held a small black chip, the drive she found in a room empty besides a table and an old man wearing no shoes. It wouldn’t hurt to double check exactly what she had.

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2 thoughts on “Panopticon – A Cyberpunk Story

  1. Pingback: Thinking About Cyberpunk | The Little Tower

  2. Pingback: #NaNoWriMo Day 30: Running Backwards | The Little Tower

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