I'm gonna get out of here, don't matter what kind of metal they put in my head. Sure, Pa's got me wired with the super-deluxe model corticer, the one where electrodes grow behind your scalp. That ain't no surprise; he's the best black market cortexer this side of the Appalachians, and I done helped him get there. The business grown so big he gotta "hire" twenty kids to make it all work, though I'm the main one. Only I got the smarts to make those metal monsters sing, to tune the center frequency to the sweet spot where alpha and theta waves keep a fella stable.
But, still. I got a secret that Pa don't know about, and it's gonna make him real sad one day.
I wipe my nose with a sleeve and take a good look round my prison. I guess it ain't bad as far as prisons go. Down here in the basement it don't get too cold, specially not with the benches fulla o-scopes and logic analyzers and power supplies, all turned on and blinking. Pa's got a regular assembly line down here, he does. Got about ten socketed PC boards, with the corticers sitting in the open socket like an evil black bug. I got frequency generators pumping out alpha and beta waves, so I can check that the output follows real nice and pretty whenever I change the 'brain' frequency input. That feedback loop is what guarantees a corticer slave gonna get smacked if he steps outta line.
I member the day Pa first put it on me. Ma and Brother already had one for a long time, though brother don't really need one, him being messed up anyway. I was bout six, which Ma tried to tell him was way too young. But Pa's gotta control everything--even a six-year old's got too much mouth for him. He didn't use no anesthesia or nothing either. He just strapped me to a chair, heated up the corticer's metal rim to bright red, then pushed it into my scalp and held it there for a minute while I screamed like brother in his long nightmares. Month after that, I felt the thing spread its fiber tentacles into my scalp. After a year, you cain't never take a corticer out, unless you want to suck part of your damn cortex along with it. Takes software a while to match its output to a body's brain waves, but by the time it's done, that corticer can tune you tight enough to fry an egg on your scalp, if that's what its programmed rules tell it to do.
Just as I'm thinking all this, Pa's footsteps come pounding down the wooden staircase. They echo through the basement, and I try to keep working even though my neck starts tingling. But I gotta relax, cause when Pa throws a punch, it's always better to be free form--makes it hurt less.
I keep adjusting the scope even after the footsteps stop. I know he's behind me, watching me, cause I can hear his heavy breathing. But till he got something to say, I'm gonna ignore him. We go on like that for some time. Course it's all show on my part--I'm trying to look busy as a fly on a roadapple, but no way I can spot tiny tracking errors with him staring at me like that. It's almost a relief when he finally flaps.
"That corticer A9 you sent me yesterday--it swings wild. You best shape up, Kevin, or there'll be hell to pay."
I turn around, trying not to scowl at the miserable fuck. Pa's fat, and he always wears that green faded tee-shirt that don't come all the way down, so you can see his belly. He keeps a scraggly beard I think more from laziness than anything else. Every once in awhile he shaves, but he don't seem to care much. I dunno how Ma can stand him, but then again, she probly don't have to. I got no doubt by now Pa's wired some cute young thing with a corticer so he can rut whenever he wants without getting smacked.
I shrug. "I told you, there's a board problem with that one. I cain't test the corticer good enough if the A to D input is flaky."
Pa glares at me something fierce. "If there's a board problem, you fix it."
"You want me soldering boards, or you want me tuning corticers? You got a whole army of kids fixin' boards for you. I'm the only one that does what I do."
Pa spits, but I know I got him. I'm the only one who's figured out how to tweak the black-market corticers just right, and he even keeps those other sorry pukes on the other side of town so they don't bug me. We stand there staring at each other for a while afore Pa makes to leave. I get that whoosh of relief, but then he turns around and jerks his arm. I stumble back, and Pa, he gets a big old grin on his face. Pa don't hit me much these days on account of his age, but it still comes sometimes.
I try to keep straight-faced, but Pa's grin stays put, like crap smeared on a wall. "You got a lip on you," he says. "Maybe I'll tell Ma to throw away the paper today."
Pa knows I live for the newspaper. Ma's been bringing it to me since I was little, along with books of all sort--not just the electrical engineering manuals Pa shoved on me. Ma taught me to read that way, and sometimes reading bout the world is the only thing that keeps me from flipping out.
After a minute, he stomps off, and I get back to work, wondering how I'm gonna kill him. Course that thought only brings my little metal chaperone to life, and I gotta lean against the wall for a minute, letting my neuro-cyclone spin away.
Pa's programmed my corticer so that I gotta work on the assembly line, I cain't never tell no one what's going on, I cain't leave for more'n bout an hour, and I cain't never try to hurt him. If I ever think bout doing those things, my corticer lets me know right quick. It'll adjust its output frequency to mess with my brainwaves, making it real hard to hold the thought. Usually that's enough to stop me, but if I keep trying, it'll kick up a storm of frequencies that hurts my head so much, I cain't do nothing cept curl into a ball til it rides away.
Way back, corticers weren't sposed to control people. Well, not completely: they started off as game controllers with adverts built in. People put them in their scalps to control their Avatars in Dominion, that internet game where you try to build cities and conquer the world. With the corticer, you got to live through your Avatar just like you was in its skin--move your arm, your Avatar moves its arm. Blink, and it blinks. And you got all kinds of free stuff too; as long as you let soft commercials get played into your head once in awhile.
See, now there's the rub. Corticers got two way communication. At least that's how they was designed: A receiver to process adverts and graphics, and a transmitter, to spit your own brainwaves back at Dominion's servers through the cell network, where they turn into Avatar movements. But it wasn't long afore the black-market figured out a better money-making deal. Disable the transmitter so the corticer slave cain't tell no one, and replace the adverts with a set of rules. Those rules can be anything, really: Lie there while I beat you, scrub my floors all day, hook on the street and give me all the money, whatever the hell the programmer wants.
Course, it ain't legal. Soon as they realized what was going on, cops were everywhere, knocking on doors. We got raided twice, but it wasn't no big deal to Pa. Sure his whole family got corticers, and sure they're visible. But by that time, a few weirdos already had legal corticers, and it was pretty hard to tell who was who. And when the police asked us if we're OK, course we gonna say yes. That's the whole point about being a corticer slave, ain't it?
Later, Ma comes down with the paper, her stringy hair covering crazed eyes, and her teats clear down to her belly in that flowered muumuu she always wears. I go sit on the bed with her, holding her hand. Reading the paper goes way back between us two, though after years of getting beat and tortured by Pa, she ain't got much left in her noggin. I keep up with it though, as if nothing's changed.
"Lookit this, Ma. They got themselves a tournament for Dominion now. Money you win there can get used in the real world."
"That's wonderful," Ma says. "Mebbe we'll get internet someday."
I nod, even though that's bout as likely as flowers springing out of my ass. She don't know, though. After a minute, I point to another article.
"This one here says the guvner gonna be visiting town tomorrow. Who knows, mebbe we'll see him if we head to the store."
Ma turns those wild eyes on me. "Is he gonna do something about us? About these damn metal beasts in our hairs?"
I stare, cause the intense look on her face is something I ain't seen in awhile. Like she dredged up a little spark. "I dunno, Mama. I'm sure they're still scouting out the black-marketeers. They gotta come this way some day."
We both knew it was a lie. Way back, when the black-market corticers became a real problem, there were a million articles bout it. Politicians yelled and wagged their fingers, churches mobilized, pronouncements got made about how we got a new kind of slavery in America, just like before the Civil War. Police were everywhere, trying to stamp it out like a crazy-eyed uncle attacking a crack-pipe fire.
But little bit at a time, those articles slowed down and stopped. No one ever said the problem was gone. No one ever lit off firecrackers and shouted victory. They just stopped talking about it. Kind of like the last guys who cared either got bought off or strapped with a corticer themselves. When those articles finally stopped coming, well, that's when I saw the light in Ma's eyes die.
I've been avoiding looking at Ma's trembling lips. Finally I brush that stringy hair away and look into one darting eyeball. "Ma, don't worry. We gonna get outta here--"
"It ain't right!" Ma shouts suddenly. "What kind of sick, sick place do we live that they let this happen to us? The whole guvment done gone crazy! The world become an evil, godless place to allow thousands of us to live like this!"
I squeeze her hand, then say the thing I should never say.
"Mama. I got a plan to get us out of here. Hang on, Ma. Just hang on a little longer, OK?"
Those wild eyes don't focus, though, and I don't think she heard what I said. I cain't deny a little relief, cause if it ever gets back to Pa, I'm deader than a gimp raccoon on the interstate.
But it's the truth, I'm gonna get us out of here.
The next day I kick that can a little further down the road by heading to the local electronic warehouse for supplies. Especially serial cables, cause they gonna let me mess with the corticer software from the PC.
And that lets me turn on the transmitters and receivers.
Course it's too late to wire my own corticer. But I been spending all my free time trying to screw with my own monster's software by shaping my brain waves. Never assume a kid who tests corticers twelve hours a day cain't figure out how to tweak his own.
I tested my idea on a board, and damn if I didn't find a jumble of frequencies that switched on the transmitter. Took awhile afore I could shape my brain waves like the ones on the test system, but I ain't got nothing but time. I knew the minute I turned on my own transmitter/receiver, cause I suddenly felt that buzzing in my head, and got some static that I learnt how to tune way down.
Then, the other day I found an old serial cable, hooked one end to the PC, the other end into the serial probes on the board, and presto chango: turns out I can talk directly to the corticer UART. That means I got a beeline right into the software, and I'm gonna start enabling the transmitter on every chip, assembly line style. Might as well give those poor other bastards a chance to call out.
Clem's Electronica is an old warehouse fulla mostly useless junk: Motors, old PC boards, resistors and capacitors in bins, robot guts; I reckon it's enough to build Frankenstein. I shuffle down the aisles, darting quick glances at the other customers. I ain't been here in a year, hell I ain't really been out in a year. A lot has changed; seems like everyone's got a corticer in their scalp these days. A couple years ago it was only the odd freakazoid that burned that metal into his skull, at least around these parts. Back then, locals called it the Mark of the Beast, cause they figured corticoids were the tip of Satan's army. But now as I search around I see it on every last damn person in the store.
If it's the Mark of the Beast, then we all going to hell.
I put my pile of resistors, caps, and serial cables on the counter and look at Clem's baggy face. He don't look back at me, but I cain't help staring at the corticer on his forehead. If Clem's ever played a minute of Dominion, then I'm a Julius freaking Caesar. I member Clem saying he wouldn't strap a corticer on for a million dollars, yet here he is--and the chances he put that on hisself are bout as big as an ant's balls. Makes me wonder who controls who in this town, this country. Ma's right; we live in a sick world, a steaming pile of crap rotten to its core. Looking at Clem, I don't got much hope that anyone's out there to save us.
"Hey, Clem," I say, as he starts ringing me up. "Been awhile ."
Clem nods, his white hair falling round his ears in greasy strands. His face is scrunched like a prune in a sauna, and he still won't look at me. "Hey, Kevin. Things been good?"
"Okay I guess." Who's pulling your strings? How many guys held you down when they shoved that thing in your forehead? I wanted to ask him all of that. But that'd be giving away that I'm a corticer slave too, and my little metal Hitler won't have none of it.
We don't talk any after that. He grunts when I give him the card, and no matter how I try to position myself, he don't look up into my eyes.
In the end I walk back home with my pile of electro-junk, feeling bout as empty and low as I ever felt. Ain't no police, ain't no government. There's only Pa.
That night, I hook twelve serial cables to twelve boards and set up the PC and a switch so I could talk to any of the boards with a flick. Now I can issue commands to each of the corticers, commands that turn on their transmitters/receivers.
Way back when I enabled my own transmitter, I thought it was my ticket out. I figured I could call the police or something, cause the corticer control software wouldn't recognize that as rebellion. Well, that didn't go so good. First of all, there ain't no direct line from a corticer brain transmission to no kind of police. Second of all, my transmitter don't output in the right format to connect to Dominion, a cell phone, or any other normal channel. That takes special software, and I wouldn't know what that looked like if I crapped it out this morning.
But turns out my transmitter/receiver does let me talk to the other ones I've enabled.
First time I felt Johnny's brainwaves, I thought I was just distracted. I'd be thinking about tuning a corticer, and then feel a thought creeping in about some board problem that didn't exist. If I tried to kill the other thought, it hosed the thought I was trying to nurse. For a while there, I thought I was gonna melt down. Took a coupla days for us both to realize that we wasn't going crazy, there was just another guy in our heads.
Once we realized that, we started trying to talk. But it don't work that way. Soon as I tried to say something, I'd feel his thought pulling me in a different direction, so I couldn't form the words for a pile of gold and a stack of porno mags. This went on for some time. We could both tune our transmitters away, and we had to do that in the beginning just to stay sane. But both of us were so damn excited about the connection, we kept coming back. Finally, we figured out how to sync up, which is the only way to make it work. And once we understood that, I knew we'd discovered something bigger than this whole sick world.
Syncing up will change everything.
To be straight, I only got a fuzzy idea how it works. I know my brainwaves get digitized by the A to D, and my transmitter sends it through the cell networks to Johnny's corticer receiver. There, it gets converted back to analog brainwaves, and his metal demon modulates that on top of the alpha and beta waves it's already cranking out. That shapes Johnny's thoughts, and pushes them in a certain direction. Those thoughts get transmitted back to me, where they get worked into my own corticer outputs in just the same way. In the end, it's a giant feedback loop, where I'm influencing him, he's influencing me, until we both thinking the same thought at the same time. But it's better than that. When we both thinking the same thing, we got double the brainpower, and get ideas and plans we'd never come up with on our own. It ain't like being one of two people--it's like being one half of a really smart person.
Turns out Johnny got one of the corticers that I enabled. That made me feel real good. Wasn't no time afore we synced up and came to the same thought about software shortcuts to enable more of them a lot faster. Pretty soon both Johnny and me cranking out black-market corticers faster than a parolee shooting for the whorehouse. Each with a little hidden secret that gonna do in the puppet masters one day.
It wasn't long afore more folks joined our little party. Corticer slaves all of them, some of them having it way worse than me and Johnny, especially the women. Sometimes it hurt to sync up with them, cause the things they had to do made me wanna puke. But once we synced up, those memories disappeared, and we all got thinking bout the same thing: How to get out of this damn mess.
And let me tell you, if being synced up with one person doubles your brain power, get a picture in your head of what it's like with fifty people. Or a hundred.
Soon as we passed a hundred, we started the exercises. I'd lift my right arm, and I knew that across the country, a hundred other people were lifting their right arms at the exact same time. I'd dance, knowing for sure that all those other people doing the same damn thing at the same instant, or near as you can get with the speed of communication across the cell network. We ain't like a bunch of sorry pukes, we're like one crazy giant monster with a hundred heads.
One night we was all doing this weird dance when Pa comes down to the basement. I'm sorta trance-like, see, and I don't really notice him. He comes up to me and punches me hard, knocking me back.
"What the hell you doing, Kevin?" Pa shouts. He been drinking, and his eyes are redder than a bent-over monkey. "Get back to work or I'll smash you so hard you ain't never gonna walk again."
But an amazing thing happened when Pa punched me. I felt the pain, sure, but it was like most of it got transferred across the network, shared by two hundred other corticer slaves. It was like Pa had hurt one tiny piece of a giant creature. A flea bite on Orson Welles.
I don't say nothing, I just stop dancing and go to work. Pa leaves finally, but I got a giant grin on my face, cause together, we stronger than him. His day is coming right soon.
When we passed two thousand people, the Beast was born.
I felt it come to life, and knew we just done created something the world ain't never seen. It was so strange, but when that monster stirred, it was like we'd known it was gonna happen all along. And it was fast: one minute we's all synced up trying to figure out the best way to freedom, and the next minute, everything got real quiet. It wasn't like the connection went down--no, it was the quiet of everyone's thoughts getting muted at the same time. A few seconds later, strange pieces of ideas started floating through my brain. They didn't make no sense, kinda like random daydream fragments with no real point.
But it wasn't long afore I figured it out: we'd all just formed a creature higher than ourselves. It was thinking big thoughts, and using each of our brains like a bunch of neurons. Any one of us only gets a piece of the bigger thought, but together we's thinking real powerful stuff. And let me tell you, being part of it is kind of freaky, kind of scary, but kind of awesome. We just done turned into a giant critter.
I called it the Beast, since that fits what people thought of corticers in general. It ain't evil, but like any living thing, it aims to survive and grow. Each of us just one cell in the network, useful but expendable.
I find myself doing stuff in the lab that don't make sense, but I know got a higher purpose. I see myself writing strange commands to the corticer UARTs, commands I didn't know existed. I dunno what they do, but the Beast has it figured out for sure. I tune the corticers to this strange combination of frequencies that I wouldn't have thought up in a million years. It ain't like I'm a zombie; I know I'm doing all this. If I really want to, I can still opt out of the network. But I don't want to.
I know that whatever I'm doing, the Beast is duplicating in a hundred places, across a bunch of its cells. And pretty soon it pays off: Within a month we got five thousand people, after another month there's about twenty thousand, though I can only guess by the number of transmissions per second. Once it goes beyond that I got no way to estimate, but I wouldn't be surprised if by the time of the Escape, the Beast is already up to a hundred thousand neuron clusters. Or people, if you absolutely gotta think in the old style.
The Escape sure didn't turn out the way I'd always dreamed. But hey, you take what you get. I'd known for a while that the Beast's instructions were overriding my corticer's software controls, so I wasn't too surprised when I started thinking escape thoughts without kicking up a fuss from the corticer. That control loop was dead, and the new one was all that mattered.
But still, I cain't say I imagined how it'd be to strangle Pa in front of Ma and Richard. I didn't feel no anger, no righteousness, and I didn't make the speech I was always fixing to make. I was just one of the cells, doing what it needed to do for the greater good. Pa was likely to alert the other corticer masters, and the Beast couldn't allow that.
Pa's face went deep red when I closed his windpipe, and his fingers clawed at my chest something awful. But I was part of the Beast, and all that pain got shuffled across the network till I felt almost none of it. I stood in place like a freaking robot zombie while Pa died, watching as his eyes bugged out, while Ma gibbered behind me.
But afore I left the house, I pulled myself out of the network a moment and went to Ma. She was shaking hard, staring at Pa's body like a terrified mouse after the cat choked. When you been a slave for years, thinking for yourself is damn hard.
"Ma, listen," I say, holding her trembling head between my hands. "You's free now. That fat cockroach ain't gonna bother you no more. You do whatever the hell you want, but take care of Richard. He gonna need you."
She swallows slowly, and for the first time in years, I see a tiny bit of hope, like the world done righted itself just a little. "Kevin. Oh. Ain't you gonna stick around?"
I shake my head. "No, Ma. I'm part of something big now, and I gotta make it happen. Lots of other folks like us, and they need their masters gone too."
"You come back when it's done?"
I looked into Ma's tired eyes, still darting this way and that. Those eyes done seen some horrible things. I want to tell her I'll be back, but I don't know.
"Maybe, Ma. Maybe."
With that I sync back up to the network and leave the house. I'd like to say it was as a free man, but mebbe that's a stretch. Still, if being part of the Beast is a slavery all its own, then it's a damn sight better one than what I came out of.
The rest is history. First thing the Beast did is station guards around the cell towers, cause without those, it died. After that, the Beast was everywhere, sucking up more people, spreading its tentacles everywhere. It couldn't be stopped, cause as soon as they killed a few of us, the rest of us knew instantaneously. We didn't let it happen too often.
And when those newspapers started crying about how civilization's coming to an end, and humanity's in a fight for its life against a zombie army, I had to laugh. They let an entire country get swallowed by the worst kind of slavery, and now they're complaining cause it came back and bit 'em on the ass?
All I gotta say is that they done brought it on themselves.