The Knifer

The Knifer:

The net was down and Rahim was stuck. The grey light from the rafters
chunked into discrete bits, lines in the grime, delineated like the
packets that just wouldn’t go down the wire. Frustrated, he stood,
pushed away from the dead jack, rubbed his streaking arms.

The datatats flashed briefly, vicious dragon tails and barbed wires up
his forearms, intricate reds and greens tapering into a nest of chords
at his collarbone. Every empty bit was filled and he needed to
unload. He couldn’t knife any new clients till the upload, couldn’t
dose up, couldn’t even sleep. Hence, he was stuck.

There was always the possibility of hijacking a public wifi, some
library line dense with p2p traffic and educational filters. He’d
have to encrypt, digitally sign every damn sliver off his arms, and it
would be slow. Exposed. Come to think of it, way too risky. The
feds would have him for a library line, the corporate bithunters once
he jacked Starbucks.

No. He’d have to sit and wait. For the mole.

For a long minute, the ground shivered, the decaying brick chunks
jittering like roaches. Then it passed, the speedtrain rocketing down
and under into the bedrock.

The mole could help him, if anyone. No one knew the underground as
well as the mole.

Rahim had met him once before, at the calling of a colleague, also in
trouble. Then, as now, the upload line got snipped, and the mole was
called. He remembered a fleeting glimpse of a short shadow, perhaps
hybrid, practically materializing from inside a nineteenth century
watermain. Rahim had scrunched his nose, immediately aware of a deep
stench, not foul like the choked sewerlines, but something else.
Something old. Ancient.

Joseth had laughed, Rahim remembered that. The big Mormon, head back,
spiky black beard jutting out, white teeth glimmering. “Hah, never
thought I’d see that day. They call it right – mole man.” The Mole
returned a look that froze him silent, not the white of eyes, but the
reflection of pupils.

Joseth had kept his mouth shut after that, merely grunting when the
Mole fixed the line, digging some forgotten cable from the crumbling
brick dust. Rahim, newly minted knifer, thanked him naively.

The Mole said nothing, hopping back into the dark sludge. When they
checked their debit vouchers hours later, the transaction was already
complete. Joseth had cursed in his humorously bland way, pounding a
meaty fist into his thigh. Rahim kept silent.
Joseth was long gone by now, as were the brothers Thom and Ross, even
feisty Bess, consumed by deepsims, addictions or cold lead. Only
Rahim was left. And the Mole.

Signaling. How did it go? Find a small water pipe, some thin copper,
preferably cold, that went vertically down. Knock out SOS in Morse?
Or was it LOL? Rahim couldn’t remember, but quickly spotted a black
tar-coated rod, solid, caked in soot and festered with unintelligible
graffiti. He pounded it till breathless, then stood back.

Fifteen minutes later, his arms aching, he was nearly ready to emerge
to the surface, risk the pubnets. And then a sound. Something
squealing, like mice, a grinding crunch through the black underground.

“We’ve met,” drifted a voice, nearly ambient, as though without
definite source. Rahim backed against the wall, fingers loose,
dwindling along the leathered hilts at his waist. Even if their
primary use was dataripping, the knives could still sever flesh as
well as any steel.

“Have we?” he ventured. “Show yourself.”

Ethereal, shimmering noise: “Give us a second.” Then, “Rahim, correct?”

The knifer frowned, nodding. “I need a line. Clean down to the core.”

“An upload, huh.”

“You are the mole?”

Then the shadow was there, the frightful eyes, hunched. Rahim
immediately thought of something amphibian, a mutant toad or
salamander, crippled spine and webbed toes. But it was vague.

“That’s who ya wanted, is it not?”

“Aye,” Rahim returned, shrugging off a shiver. This corner of the
underground was hot, surrounded by the big steam mains and uninsulated
lines. Even some of the battery conducers vibrated warmth into the
red brick. But he couldn’t help but feel a chill.
“You agree to pay, I got you a line.”

“Your price?” The knifer called back, attempting to keep a solid eye
on the shifting shadow.

The mole’s eyes blinked. “I think you know the price. Fifty.”

“Dollars?”

“Percent. Of this upload.”

Rahim stuttered. “What! Well…that’s ridiculous. I’m not going to pay that.”

“Or I could have yer arms. Take em here and now, extract what I can.”

A pulse of frost shimmered through his jacket and belly, straight to
his spine.

“Ok, Ok, Ok.” Rahim fired off between shivers. He clamped his mouth
shut to avoid audibly chattering. “A line.”

“Here,” floated a whisper. The threatening grit was gone from the
mole’s voice, ghostly again.

A single uncapped optic fiber, a white dot of light in the pitch.
Rahim shuffled closer, cautious, hands still on the hilts. Pulling a
small matecap from his side pouch, he melted it onto the fiber, then
pushed it into his collarbone notch.

The release was a rush, refreshing like urination, a quick steady
drain via broadband. The datatats cycled through animated spectrums,
fanged maws roaring fire, flared thrashing tails, blood dripping rose
thorns. Rahim closed his eyes, mentally calculating the haul.

But something twitched, low on his arm where the wrist bones melded,
throwing off his count. The vicinity sensor. There was heavy data in
the area – from the depth of the thump, very heavy. If he could knife
it, the motherload.

The mole.

Even now the hunched shadow blob sat silent, cat-slit eyes hinting
only a sliver of color.

Rahim thought quickly. Where was the data? The mole’s odd biology
might throw off the knives, scramble any recovered infojolts. The
thing’s head seemed to shift in the dark, but the eyes were constant.
That’s where he’d try first.

The moment the drain was done, Rahim sidestepped and snagged his left
blade, driving it towards the blob in a single motion. Only black air
was there to meet the knife. Cursing, he swiped again, pulling out
his right hander. This time a squeal, a tiny mammalian shriek, thin,
weak flesh. A worthless blip of data flitted up through his arms into
the datatats, the signature of some distributed system node.

Laughter in his ears. “Should have expected that from you. No honor
among thieves.” The eyes were gone.

“I’m no thief.” Rahim rasped, remembering brother Amir, pawing at his
soup bowl with amputated nubs.

“Knifer doesn’t have the same ring. We’re done here, Rahim.”

The shadows fled, and the knifer pulled a flashlight from his side
pouch. In the beam, a large sewer rat, fiber optic cable surgically
sewn into its spine, eviscerated in the black dust.

Rahim whimpered, sheathing his knives, emerging to the surface to
browse the pubnets. A hundred clients yammering his contact inbox,
demanding their payload.

They’d all have to go hungry tonight.

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