Most of you are suckers, and it's my job to take advantage of that fact. There's a lot of variety in your suckage, I'll give you that. It makes my job that much more entertaining.
First, there are the ones who don't keep their anti-virals up to date. An act so simple all it requires is for you to nod "Yes" to an auto-updater, but apparently you're too busy for that. Or you bought the cheapest anti-virals you could find, betting you won't be spammed in the first place. Or it's against your religion to run software in your body. Whatever the reason, thank you. You've got spam.
Second, there are the ones who accept the spam I'm slinging. You try it out because, who knows, it might be cool or useful or good for a laugh or it will make you rich from the comfort of your own home. Idiots. It's never any of those things. But thanks for making my job that much easier. You've got spam.
Last, there are the ones whose personal filters are up to date and who would never think of accepting a link, of testing out an unknown product on their own body's OS. You guys I love the most; at least you provide me a challenge. In the end, though, it doesn't matter, I'm one step ahead of the best spampols in the world. If my client wants you to try their product, you'll try it. You've got spam, too. Have a nice day.
Business is slow and I'm sitting on an uncomfortable stool at the bar of a crappy coffee shop in the International Terminal at LAX. Harried travelers move to and fro past the floor-to-ceiling glass window in front of me. I'm not going to be joining any of them on a flight, but this is a nice, central location to wait out the time until my next job. It's important that I stay in large crowds. Airports, sports events, subways, theaters. These are the canvases upon which I paint my masterpieces. The more people around me, the more hits I can get when I'm active. At an airport like LAX, I could have global coverage in a day if I'm lucky.
The flip side of that is the constant monitoring and enhanced security at such a high-profile target. But that's okay, I've got that covered. One, I'm never the same person twice when I'm here. Two, I keep key security personnel at LAX well taken care of in exchange for a certain blindness to my activities. Nothing too obvious, just a slight delay in tagging me as suspicious, giving me a window to work in. Three, all of my spam is time-delayed so I'm long gone before it takes effect. Only amateurs stick around to check out their work. It's stupid and risky, but then I guess some people get off on that sort of thing.
Although I've done it a hundred times already this morning, I blink twice in quick succession to pull up my inbox. Force of habit. Any new messages would have popped up in my peripheral vision. Well, any that made it through my filter. A craftsman of my caliber receives hundreds of contract requests a day, but I can only afford to accept those that meet my high qualifications. I do have a reputation to uphold.
The filter I use is, of course, hand-crafted. None of that off-the-shelf garbage the herd relies on. I want something that will protect me from another me. After all, I do have competitors and I'm not immune from their attacks, or rather, their attempts to attack me. All communications go through this filter: e-mail, v-mail, b-mail. I even have the rare physical package or letter scanned and destroyed upon receipt at my dead drop, and have a virtual recreation sent to me. I can always reprint it later if it's important, and it's a particularly effective method to avoid bombs, chemical attacks, and the like. I did mention I have competition, right? So, no jobs yet today, but that's fine. I'm a patient man, and no time need go to waste.
I put my hand on the arm of the businessman sitting next to me. His jacket is on the bar beside him, his sleeves are rolled up, and his tie is slung over his shoulder as he tucks in to a messy egg-and-cheese croissant.
"Buddy, save my place while I go for a refill?" I ask.
He looks discomfited by my touch, but nods and says, "Sure thing," through a full mouth.
I smile and walk away while the oil from my fingertips soaks into his skin and delivers a chemical payload. In an hour or so, Mr. Businessman will find himself on his flight with a very painful and persistent erection. An oldie but a goodie, and he'll be a walking advertisement for the effects of a certain male enhancement drug until he does a complete system reboot or the proper anti-priapic is administered. That one's not for any client, I just like to keep my hand in.
At the counter I check the menu against an internal inventory of chemicals that are running low in my pancreatic reservoir and order off the menu accordingly. The barista girl gives me an odd look when I order seven different pastries and three drinks. I fake an embarrassed smile and leave a big tip.
I collect my order when it's ready, ferrying it back to the bar in three separate trips. Mr. Businessman abandoned his post while I was ordering, but my stool is still open. For an instant, I feel a frisson of fear. Did he suspect something? Has he gone to the authorities? Maybe his spam-guard identified the attack immediately?
For a few seconds I stand behind my stool, pondering whether or not to leave now, but I can't believe his system was sophisticated enough to recognize my subtle insertion. More likely he had a flight to catch.
I sit down and eat precise amounts of each pastry, take sips of my drinks. Each mouthful is broken down immediately in my stomach. No messy digestive juices, escaping gases, or wasted nutrients for me. My stomach, like most of my internal organs, has been replaced with a machine that works more smoothly and efficiently than the original model. Food is broken down and analyzed, the pieces with needed chemicals are shunted to the pancreas for synthesis and storage, and waste is shunted to the bowels for later release. Of course, none of these organs is as simple as the original but they take up the same amount of space and will pass a full-body scan. My rates are high and part of that is the upkeep on running the machine that is me.
While I'm eating, I fail to notice messages blinking at the edge of my sight until they start to insistently migrate toward the center of my vision. I sigh at my absentmindedness and double-blink them into full view.
Several new contracts have made it through my filter, meaning any or all of them are worthy of my attention.
A beverage company has sent me the composition for a targeted dipsogenic. Elegant work. It causes the spammee to thirst for the company's new energy drink. Nothing too intrusive. It grants immunity from this specific dipsogenic once you have tried their drink. After all, forcing your customers to continually need your product is bad for long-term business.
I receive dueling requests for satietics from rival weight-loss companies, each one of which guarantees that their product will curb your hunger longer. I turn them both down in favor of a polyphagic from a third company. I like the idea of driving people to seek out your weight-loss cure by making them gorge themselves first. Shame is a wonderful motivator.
There are a handful of skinvert requests I could complete in my sleep. Literally. The pores of my skin are miniature aerosol injectors that can send my chemical-laden sweat into a building's circulatory system. One night in a coffin hotel and the next day 500 salarymen are trying desperately to scrub "Eat at Ryoko's!" or some similarly inane message off of their forehead, to no effect. Of course, I am afflicted with the same ad until I'm out of their sight.
As I'm reviewing these potential contracts, more sweep into my vision from the sidelines. My morning is suddenly busy and I perk up. This is what life is all about. Without work, I am nothing.
I continue to read down the list: requests for scroungers, hypocritics, calmatives (this is from a dummy company I suspect is actually the local police force), and the like.
One request in particular catches my eye, an actuator that forces the spammee to bow to Mecca five times a day. Novel, and I like the chutzpah of the request. You may not believe but you'll act like you do.
As I go down the list, I twitch my lips to accept some contracts and wrinkle my nose to dump the others. I look like I'm fighting back a sneeze the entire time until finally I take a few short breaths in and let a real honker out.
"Excuse me, excuse me," I beg pardon of the customers to either side of me at the bar.
And with that sneeze, my first payload of the day is released.
I spend the next hour casually strolling the airport, making small purchases at the shops, using the restroom twice, bumping into travelers and making my apologies, spewing my invisible spam all the while. It's all time-delayed. By the time the authorities trace it back here, review the security footage and tag me as the spammer, not only will I be long gone, I won't be the same person they're looking for anymore.
In the meantime, I decide to throw up a final smokescreen before leaving. As I'm heading for the terminal's exit, I put together an inactive cocktail of all the contracts I've worked on so far this morning. I pick a likely mark, bump into him, apologize profusely and move on.
It's called a Joe job. When my spam activates, the first thing the spampols will do is look for the architect of the attacks. By then, I'll have shed all traces of the contracts. This poor Joe, on the other hand, will be slathered in them yet be completely unaffected. Talk about a smoking gun. Sure, they'll figure out he's a dupe (after a very unpleasant morning for him, I'm sure), but it will buy me that much more time. Thank you, Joe.
As I step outside of the terminal, warning bells go off in my head, an alarm only I can hear, and the left side of my vision fills with an amber glow. My eyes have seen something I have not and my security protocols have tagged it as a serious concern. If the warning had been red, I would have taken immediate evasive action, but amber means I don't quite need to be in fight-or-flight mode yet. Instead I slow my pace and casually sweep my gaze to the left to see what has my security so concerned.
Travelers, skycaps, and rifle-toting LAPD patrols congregate around the entrance to the terminal, going about their business, but none of them is tagged as dangerous.
I step up to the crosswalk and continue to scan the crowd, trying to pick back up the threat. There. Further down the curb a man gets into a taxi, and my security has outlined him in an amber glow. I don't have to wonder what it is about him that is cause for concern; my security plays back clips from the last hour or so in a tiny square before my eyes. The images are of the same man: in line at the coffee shop, two urinals over in the restroom, browsing paperbacks in the news shop, and lastly, exiting the terminal a few doors over from me.
As the taxi passes by me, I see the man is older, gray-haired, with a stern look to him. He matches my stare until the taxi merges into the flow of traffic.
I have no idea who this man is, but my security believes it is not a coincidence our paths have intersected so many times today. I agree. Despite my precautions and counter-measures, someone is on to me.
The most important task now is to dissociate myself from the spam I sent out this morning. The Joe job will only throw the spampols off my scent for a short while, and my friends at LAX can't delay a review of the security footage forever. When the authorities figure out it was me who spewed LAX (and within a few hours, half the world thanks to all those international flights), I have to not be me. For that I need my tools, which are back at my hotel room.
I'm wary of going back there, though. If they followed me to the airport, they must know where I'm staying. It's not safe there anymore. There's only one thing for it, then, and that's to start removing all traces of my current persona.
I send a remote destruct code to my luggage at the Hotel Bel Air--for their sake, I hope the cleaning staff observed the "Do Not Disturb" sign--and make my way to the safehouse I keep in the L.A. area for just such an occasion. I switch taxis several times and take the final two blocks on foot. My security assures me I am not being followed or observed from a distance.
The safehouse is a crummy little room in the basement of an abandoned warehouse, but I keep it fully stocked with all the equipment I might need. Once I'm inside, I go to work erasing and rewriting myself. I've done this so many times I barely need to give it my attention. Instead I pull up my news hound and see what it thinks I need to know today. Videos play in one corner of my vision while I go about my work.
"An impromptu dance craze has swept the streets of Los Angeles this morning," the chipper newswoman reports. "As everyone from businessmen to schoolchildren and even this energetic grandmother of twelve shake their booty at the command of an unknown spammer."
Cut to a shot of a field reporter helping an exhausted old lady to a park bench.
"One minute I'm walking my dog. The next, I'm dancing down the block, chanting about some high school musical."
The field reporter looks to the camera and says, "From what we can tell, this is the latest in a guerilla marketing campaign for the upcoming sequel, We Got the Beat... Again."
Old lady: "It's not right to use me like this. I'm not letting my grandkids watch that awful movie."
Back in the studio: "Golden Goddess Productions denies any involvement in the spamdance and says it is as much a victim of the spammer as anyone else."
I grin until I remove my faceplate and I have no lips to smile with for the moment. I toss the used face into the incinerator chute and send my hairpiece winging after it. Golden Goddess can protest all it wants, but someone has deposited payment for the job in my account already.
"The Islamic League of Los Angeles denies rumors that an influx of converts is due to an overrider..."
It's more of the same for a while: denials and calls for harsh punishment of the evil spammers. I don't care what they say, if it wasn't me spamming them, it would be someone else. As long as there are humans, there will be spam.
With the press of a few pressure points on my torso and a mental unlock command, hidden seams on my chest pull apart and my skin slides back to reveal my insides. All of my systems--lungs, heart, stomach, pancreas, bowels--have the taint of this morning's jobs on them. I pull them out one by one with a gentle hiss-click of uncoupling, and toss them into the incinerator. With minimal exertion, my backup power supply will keep me alive for thirty minutes without my internal organs in place.
"A scourge of scroungers is making the rounds again this morning, but is the cure costlier than paying the spam to go away? We'll check in with bio-economist Sal Chase for his take on these invasive panhandlers."
I take a caustic shower to flush out my insides and to scour my skin, which turns bone white. Then I pull tubing out of a compartment in the stall and hook it up to waiting ports in either arm. It takes five minutes to completely drain me of blood, flush my cardiovascular system clean, and fill me back up again with a fresh supply.
I unhook the tubing, turn off the shower, and dry myself off thoroughly inside and out.
I have maybe five minutes left on my battery by the time all this is done. I select new parts and fit them into place inside of me, one by one.
"What can the average person do to avoid this type of spam, Dr. McCathy?"
"Well, it's a constant battle between the spammers and the spampols, an escalating arms race. A certain amount of spam is always going to get through, but if you keep your anti-virals up to date and make sure you're running the newest OS possible, you can..."
You can still not resist me, I think, as I walk across the room to the face rack, I program a new look for myself. My skin darkens to a deep chocolate. Extensors around my femur, tibia, and fibula stretch the modular bones so I stand a few inches taller. I feel an electric tingle as new hair grows in all over my body. It burns but not unpleasantly so.
At the rack I select an emotionless white mask and fit it into the seams of my face. I watch in the mirror as it binds to the rest of my skin and darkens to match my new skin tone. When it is done, I blink my new eyelids a few times and twitch my lips. With my face in place, I switch back to breathing through my lungs and go completely off backup power. I add a new hairpiece to complete the persona, salt-and-pepper to give me some gravitas. Looking good. At a visual and cellular level, there is nothing to connect the spammer from this morning with the man standing here now.
"Disturbing reports this morning from the CDC which states its early-warning system has flagged a new strain of superflu sweeping outward from Los Angeles. Flights out of LAX and Burbank are being quarantined upon landing, but experts warn it may be too late to prevent the spread."
I stop short. Superflu?
I have no time to ponder this, though, because my world suddenly turns red and alarms vibrate through my skull like fireworks. Someone has breached my secure perimeter. Impossible.
On my security screen, I see an army of spampols pouring into the warehouse above me and I know this is the last I'll see of this safehouse. I hurriedly dress in a fresh set of clothing and then slip out the rear exit, sealing it shut behind me. Ten feet into the tunnel I trigger the self-destruct sequence, choking on my own anger. That's twice today I've had to destroy my belongings and I'm no closer to figuring out how I'm being tracked.
I hear the explosion and the sound of the warehouse above caving into my safehouse, then the screams of the spampols who survived the initial blast.
I can almost feel sorry for them: the cold war between spammer and spampol rarely gets this violent. This is different though. The spampols are pawns in this battle. I sense the handiwork of another spammer here, someone who thinks he's good enough to set me up, to take me out.
And what really pisses me off is he's doing a bang-up job of it so far. He's forcing me to stay on the move, and I can't fight back because I don't yet know who I'm fighting.
Once I'm out of the utility tunnels and back onto the city streets of L.A., I start to work on remedying my lack of intel on the mystery spammer. I have to assume one of the contracts that got through my filter this morning was a false negative with a Trojan virus in it, courtesy of this Unknown Spammer. It's the only explanation for how I was tracked at the airport and then back to my safehouse. If I can figure out which contract was poisoned, maybe I'll be able to follow it back to its source. In the meantime, I need to keep moving, to lose myself in crowds, because you can bet the spampols will be back on me unless I can find and remove the locator I've been poisoned with. And after my little safehouse collapse, they'll be out for blood.
I take a cab to Union Station but I barely notice the ride. I'm on automatic pilot as I work internally to review the contracts I accepted this morning.
"... I said, 'What do you think about this new flu?' You worried about it?" I hear the cabbie asking me, and I surface to respond.
"I haven't heard much about it," I admit. It's true. I've been so focused on escape and on my own problems, I forgot about the news report from before the spampols hit.
"You must be living under a rock," the cabbie says. He coughs, clears his throat and rolls down the window to spit. "Hey, you sure you want to head to Union Station? I hear they may be setting up a curfew, telling everyone to stay home. It's gonna kill my business, lemme tell ya."
Curfew? The flu must be bad, then. Just what I need on top of everything else today. I tell the cabbie to mind his business and take me there already. I sink back into my thoughts, tearing apart each contract and inspecting it for the slightest flaw, a marker that will show me what went wrong and maybe who sent it. The cabbie continues to talk and cough--he must be a smoker, nasty habit--but I tune him out. By the time I arrive at Union Station and pay him off, I think I know which contract was poisoned.
All of them.
How the hell could he have gotten all of them past my filter?
When I see how deserted Union Station is, I start to get spooked. Armed LAPD officers outnumber the passengers. Even in my new skin, I feel incredibly vulnerable here. I came here to hide in the crowd but the crowd has deserted me, so I turn around and cross the street to the park to lose myself amongst the homeless. I pull up my news feed again and find it dominated by reports of the plague--that's what they're calling it now--that is cropping up all over the world. There is wildly varying information about the threat it poses, but the experts do agree the plague is spreading quickly and its point of origin is the Los Angeles area.
The news reports are careful not to mention terrorism, but I can't help but glance at the framework of the new Federal Building being constructed a few blocks away and wonder if we're under attack again. Well, I have my own problems to worry about. My security should protect me against any so-called plague. My job right now is to figure out what sort of attack is being directed against me.
Once I'm in the park I go on auto-pilot and focus on tearing apart the contracts I've been infected with. It is impressive work and I begin to sweat. Whoever crafted these is good, really good. Each contract is innocuous in and of itself but includes tiny bits of extra bio-code. Some of the contracts even have redundant code, as if they counted on me not accepting everything they sent me. But I accepted enough that once I started producing all the compounds to fulfill the contracts, I was unwittingly creating and spreading something else, too.
I stop in my tracks. My feet have carried me through the park and across the street to the plaza. I am shivering.
The code is much too complex to simply be a tracking signal. I finally admit to myself what I've been denying all this time. The code is a virus, a sickness, a plague. The plague. All that spam I created and delivered this morning, the scroungers, the actuators, the hypocritics, it was all a cover so I would unknowingly loose a plague in an epicenter of world travel. I've been Joe-jobbed by some Unknown Spammer, maybe even the man who was tailing me at the airport. The cocky bastard watched me as I fulfilled his contracts and then he fled the scene.
I am dizzy. To have done this right under my nose, to have subverted my security to the point where not only was I spreading a virus but I didn't even realize I was infected? I thought I was the best spammer out there, but this bastard is better.
I hear a cough right next to me and I shake in surprise. My security has limned a beggar in amber but I was so caught up I didn't notice him approach.
"God bless you, mister, you got a buck for my kids I need medicine can you spare anything?" the dirty, homeless man asks me. He is pale and I can see red lines like a lightning strike traced under the skin of his cheeks and forehead. He coughs into his hand and bloody phlegm slaps his palm.
I walk away without responding. I need to hide. I need to find someplace I can lie low and formulate a cure for this plague I am carrying. First for myself and then for whoever can afford to buy it off of me. I glance back and see the homeless man collapse to the ground in a coughing fit.
Around me, other people are coughing, too, a dreadful chorus of throat-clearing and hawking. All that coughing makes my throat start to tickle in sympathy. I start to scratch at my throat lightly, as if I can ease the itch from the outside in, when I am distracted by my news feed blossoming unbidden in my field of view. It's an emergency broadcast, so everyone is forced to watch.
A man stands behind a podium, looking stern and serious. He reports the plague that is sweeping the world has been confirmed as an act of bio-warfare. The United States government is working in conjunction with world leaders to contain the outbreak and find a cure, but in the meantime, martial law has been declared across the globe. Death toll rising, atrocious act, believed to be the work of fundamentalist jihadists.
He goes on and on but I am not listening. My head aches and I sway in place. The man behind the podium, this agent of the federal government, is the man from the airport this morning. My Unknown Spammer is actually a government agent. I'm not fighting a lone competitor; I'm up against a superpower.
I am racked with a sudden coughing fit and my legs wobble beneath me. Someone collapses to the concrete nearby, coughing and muttering insensibly. I remember the cabbie coughing as he talked to me, the homeless man with his lightning-struck face.
Not only am I sick with the plague I unwittingly created, I realize I am still actively producing and releasing it, even after my wipe-clean.
That's why the spampols were able to track me back to the safehouse. I've been leaving a trail of poisoned breadcrumbs everywhere I go. It must have put a wrench in their works, me escaping like that, but I'm sure they'll be after me again too soon.
I limp into action feeling sluggish and fevered. I have to get the plague out of me. My body has been corrupted. It's producing this plague for them so I can take the fall for the next war or New World Order they want to justify. In other words, I've got spam.
There's only way to get rid of it.
I cross the street, heading for the sanctuary of a church. Lord knows I can use whatever help I can get now. I push open one large red door, but before I enter, my security system alerts me to another threat. As compromised as it must be, it still points out the spampols that are approaching me from either side in full bio-hazard suits.
I lunge into the darkened church and let the door swing shut behind me. It is still and silent inside except for my ragged breathing and the pop-hiss of my torso opening up. As I stumble between the pews, heading toward the altar, I remove each of my offending body parts one at a time and drop them to the tile floor. Hiss-click, thud, clack-clack. My stomach. Hiss-click, thud, clack-clack-clack. My pancreas. My bowels. My lungs. My heart. My kidneys. The culprit could be lurking in one or all of these traitorous mechanisms.
I am on battery power alone now and I accept without any replacement parts, this is it for me. Doesn't matter. I can feel the plague quickening inside me. It will be a race to see which ends me first.
When I reach the altar, I hear the sound of the front doors of the church opening. I turn around to see the spampols silhouetted in the doorway.
They are equipped with flamethrowers. I can see the blue flames flickering at the end of their barrels. They are going to delete me.
I send out the command and wipe my skin clean of identifying features like prints and skin color. I reach up and uncouple my face and hair, hold them out to either side of me and let them drop. They're not going to kill me. They're going to kill a smooth, white, faceless mannequin I inhabited for a time.
I stand before them, a hollow man. Without eyelids, I cannot look away as the flames bloom toward me.
If I had lips, I would grin.