Shadowed

2018/04/07

This short story was written for Sci-Fi-London 48 Hour Flash Fiction 2018. I was given the title SHADOWED, the line of dialogue "Maintain radio silence... yes, I really did say that...", and the optional "science" prompt of "Consciousness transfer into healthy family members.". The total word count is 1997, for a limit of 2000.

--

Andrew Wilson bit into a fresh slice of pepperoni pizza, chewing loudly as he watched his monitor.

“Do you have to eat that right now? All I can hear is your chewing.” Asked Andrew’s colleague, Robert.

“It helps me think,” Andrew replied. “And anyway, you won’t hear anything once you’re jacked. Speaking of...”

Andrew’s monitor showed a map with tracking number, and the text underneath had just updated.

OUT FOR DELIVERY – YOUR ITEM WILL BE DELIVERED NEXT.

“We’re up. You ready?”

Robert nodded. He had been perched on a dentist’s chair in the middle of the apartment, bought second hand and repurposed by Wilson, wires now trailing between the seat and the computer. Lying back into a reclined position he shuffled slightly for comfort. There was no point coming round with a cramp if it could be avoided.

Settled, he reached behind his head and found a cable ending with a quarter inch jack. With his free hand he brushed up the hair on the back of his head, finding the matching socket.

“Let’s do it,” he said, pushing the connector into place.

Andrew pushed the pizza to one side for the moment and sat upright at his desk.

“Alright, I’m sending you in,” Robert heard Andrew say, and then everything went silent and black.

*

Jacking in was always the most disorientating part. To go from the full human experience of all of the senses to precisely nothing, the brain was left shocked and starved. He’d done it a dozen times before, but Robert still had to fight the sudden rising panic, that fear of the endless void.

No sooner had this crossed his mind than his thoughts were interrupted by a low static hiss breaking through the oppressive nothingness.

“...subconscious backchannel engaged. Can you hear me?”

Loud and clear thought Robert.

“Great, I got you.” The static faded as Andrew’s voice came into focus. “Now remember, this is a stealth engagement. We need to get in, find out what we need to, and get out without raising any suspicions.”

Yeah, I got it.

“I know, I know. Just bear in mind that the target is a jacker too this time, so he’ll notice more than most. Keep it subtle.”

Don’t worry. I’ve got this.

There was a moment more of silence before Andrew spoke again.

“Alright,” said Andrew, “I’ve got a full lock on the delivery driver. Alpha, delta and gamma feeds all streaming in. I’m syncing you now.”

First came smell. Not pepperoni pizza, but vanilla. An air freshener, the scent circulated by the van’s air con. It washed over Robert like a tidal wave, no other senses to distract from the aroma. Then came touch. Hands resting on the textured plastic of the steering wheel. The familiar comfort of a well worn leather seat. Sound followed shortly after, Robert mentally recoiling from the sudden onset of today’s top forty. Finally came vision, like an old television blinking to life, the image quickly coming into focus. The driver’s hands – his hands – resting on the wheel, the road advancing ahead, slowing and eventually stopping as the van pulled up outside a suburban home.

“Looking good Robert,” came Andrew’s voice. It sounded as real as the pop song on the radio, but Robert knew that only he could hear it. Just as only Andrew was aware of Robert’s thoughts back to him. “You’re pretty much at one hundred percent brain sync.”

Robert watched as the driver picked up a parcel and exited the vehicle, content for now just observing. The driver himself double checked his itinerary before approaching the house, unaware of the mental hitch-hiker he had just picked up.

Approaching for delivery now.

“Good, that’s good,” said Andrew. “Make sure you’re careful with that parcel. The whole transceiver is packed in there, you do not want to damage that.”

Robert didn’t need telling why. He’d seen first-hand what a de-sync could do to a jacker. If you were lucky it struck you instantly brain dead. That’s why every jacker had a tech, someone to keep the signal clean. Andrew was the antennae to Robert’s television, and Robert trusted him to keep him safe. But remote jacking needed a reliable signal to begin with, some way of connecting the jacker to the source. That’s what the transceiver was for.

The driver rang the doorbell and stood waiting, but Robert knew there would be no answer. That was all part of the plan. This house wasn’t the target, despite the package being addressed there. The woman who lived there just so happened to be out for the day, having won a day trip in a competition she never knew she had entered, and the parcel was addressed to her non-existent son.

Which meant, predictably, the driver would deliver to a neighbouring residence. The target residence was on the right hand side, so Robert turned his head – the driver’s head – in that direction. That was all the prompting needed, and a moment later the driver was knocking at the door. It swung open, a tall lady with tied back hair standing on the other side.

Got our next host. Looks like the wife.

“Roger that, I can see their signal. Locking in on it now,” Andrew replied.

“Delivery for number eighteen,” said the driver. “Could you sign for it?”

The woman frowned slightly, but nodded in assent, and the driver handed over the package. Just as she finished signing, Andrew piped up again.

“Alpha, delta, gamma locked. Ready to jump over?”

Do it.

Robert felt the sudden bodily disconnect as Andrew flipped the feeds, each of the senses switching over one after the other from one host to the next. Finally his vision blurred, then cleared again, but now he was stood in the doorway of the house, looking out at the driver. The parcel, now signed for, sat in his feminine hands. He watched as the door was closed, and the parcel containing the receiver was set down on the floor.

I’m in.

“Great, your numbers are all good… wait. Synchronisation has dropped to ninety-five percent. Did you put the transceiver down? Might be a bad signal.”

On it.

The woman had started walking back through the hallway, but she stopped as Robert began seeding a thought about moving the package. As the thought became conscious, he embellished it with the idea of placing it on a table top so that it would not get forgotten. It was a sensible enough thought to come unbidden, so the woman accepted it without protest. Ten seconds later the transceiver was sat on the kitchen worktop, and Andrew was confirming that de-sync was back under one percent.

It was a bold move getting the transceiver delivered straight into the target’s house, and Robert had been hesitant when Andrew had first suggested it, but now he had to admit it was a stroke of genius. Once they were done with the job Andrew would collect it himself, posing as the son it was addressed to, and the house occupants would be none the wiser to the contents.

Now in the kitchen the woman returned to preparing dinner. Robert watched the woman slicing an onion, experiencing himself the sharp knife sliding through flesh, and feeling the tears welling up in his – her – eyes. It was a peculiar thing to be a passenger in another’s body, and it wasn’t just limited to experiencing the same senses. He was jacked into her very thoughts, and the longer he stayed the clearer they became.

They’ll be eating in an hour. I could wait, transfer into the target then.

“An hour is too long, even for you,” came Andrew’s reply. “Can you find out where the target is?”

Andrew was right. It was too dangerous to stay jacked for an hour, his own body left to live and breathe alone.

Richard.

That was the name of the target, of the woman’s husband. That was who Robert needed to jack. Just thinking his name loudly was enough to make the wife’s mind wander to thoughts of him.

He’s upstairs, in his study.

But simply thinking about Richard was not enough to make his wife go to him. Of course Robert could have simply marched her there, but taking control of a host came with its own dangers. Once they realised they weren’t acting under their own power, a host could start to fight against the jacker’s control. At worst this could even cause a de-sync. Danger besides, this assignment was meant to be stealthy. Even if they didn’t realise they were being jacked at the time, hosts would often do so after the fact if they knew about such things. The wife of a famous researcher into the subject surely did. Such blatant direct control was out of the question.

Luckily Robert had found a different approach. The couple had two children, and by turning the woman’s thoughts to her daughter she called out for her. Seconds later the daughter appeared in the kitchen, still dressed in her school uniform, asking what her mother wanted. That gave Robert an idea.

Homework.

“Have you done your homework, Jess?” The woman asked.

If Robert could have laughed himself, he would have. It was almost too easy. Andrew began locking in on the new signal. The daughter began to protest about her mother’s line of questioning, which only made things easier still.

Upstairs.

“Just go to your room and start your homework!” Was how the mother ended the brief exchange, none the wiser as to what had brought it on.

With that, Robert flipped hosts again. As the daughter climbed the stairs he shared in her upset and her annoyance at her mother, experiencing the full stubborn assuredness of adolescence.

Reaching the landing, it was almost trivial for Robert to plant the idea of complaining to her father into the daughter’s head. Young mind’s were always the most malleable, especially when so emotionally charged. It was then that thoughts always flowed most unbidden. Robert watched as the door to the study swung inwards, revealing Richard. He was sat at his desk in front of his computer, his back facing the door. What surprised Robert, however, was the wire running out from the back of his skull.

He’s already jacked.

“What?” Andrew sounded surprised too, but continued. “I guess we shouldn’t be too shocked. Solo jacking, that’s what we’re here for right? I just didn’t expect him to be doing it at home...”

The daughter stood in the doorway, unmoving. Robert’s surprise had passed on unintentionally to her too. For the moment Robert held her there, although he could tell she wanted to close the door and leave him to his work.

Can you get me in?

“Yes, of course, I’m already locking the signal. It’s just harder when he’s jacked, so stay quiet would you? Maintain radio silence… yes, I really did say that...” Andrew babbled when he was concentrating.

“Got it. Alpha, delta, gamma locked. I’m sending you in.”

Again Robert felt suddenly disconnected as the feed flipped over, but this time the confusion did not pass as he regained vision. Instead he felt a greater panic rising.

Andrew, you’re looking out for me back in the apartment, right?

“Yes, of course. I’m looking at you now, why?”

So am I.

Andrew didn’t reply. Instead, Robert could only watch through his partner’s eyes as they moved off his own body and back to the computer screen. His gaze settled on the disconnect button. A complete de-sync. Desperately Robert tried to act, to take control, but something – someone – was blocking him. Richard was blocking him.

Two pizzas.

Two pizzas had been delivered. Andrew had only opened the first. Robert knew then what had happened.

He watched powerless as Andrew clicked on the disconnect button, and then everything went silent and black. He was back in the endless void, that oppressive nothingness, but this time no voice would come to save him.


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