Discover more from The Sprawl: Speculative Fiction
Hugh tuned his implants to the coup in Norway when his dead father appeared at the end of his bed wearing full plate armor. The specter stood over six feet tall, imposing in Hugh’s cramped room. LED lights glittered off the polished steel. His father came toward him and leaned down, familiar bushy black eyebrows knitted together making that anger-crease between his eyes, and the ghost reached out to place his gauntleted hand on Hugh’s bare knee. It felt freezing cold, and Hugh jerked back
“You’re dead,” Hugh said. “Twenty years now.”
“You can’t be here.”
“But I am.”
“What do you want?”
Father’s face relaxed. “We need to talk about the vote.”
“The vote?” Hugh couldn’t understand what he meant. His chest felt like it might crack open, and he’d never been so ruffled before in his entire life—not even during debates that got rambunctious or speeches that went off-kilter. He shook his head and tried to clear his mind, but his implant wouldn’t stop streaming.
“The vote,” his father said.
Hugh suddenly recognized the armor: it was one of his favorite sets from the collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He’d spent hours in there as a boy, staring at the ancient weapons, imagining what it must have felt like to wear all that metal on his body—and now there was his father, standing at the side of his bed, dressed like something from his boyhood fantasies.
“Speekr.” He barely managed the word.
“You have to vote yes, son.”
Hugh reeled back. “But—”
“You have to vote yes. You know the future of this country depends on it. You have to do the right thing here, son.”
Hugh looked away. He only partially understood the broad strokes: Speekr was an enormous online platform accused of monopoly status. The court cases stalled, but congress took up the issue themselves, and the vote was tomorrow.
Everyone told him to vote no. His party, the lobbyists that funneled money into his campaigns, his business contacts, they were all adamant. If Speekr got broken up, then they’d be next. Hugh believed in business and the sanctity of the dollar. He couldn’t vote yes and risk all that.
And yet. His father stared and Hugh felt a lump in his throat, something he hadn’t experienced since he was a child. He swallowed back against it.
“I can’t,” he whispered.
“You can, son. And you will, for me, and for the world. You must vote yes. That platform is wrong, and no matter how much money they give you, it must be broken up.”
He choked once, then cried. The tears came out, hot and painful, as he sobbed. God, he missed his father, missed the hours they’d spent fishing together, the still lake, the sun in the trees, the sounds of birds alighting off branches. He missed being that boy.
It took him a few minutes, but when he was composed, he looked up at his father. “I’ll try. I’ll do what I can.”
His father stepped away from the bed. Hugh wanted to reach out and beg him to stay.
“Do the right thing,” his father said, the voice a hoarse whisper as he faded and disappeared.
Hugh leaned forward, rubbing his eyes with the heel of his palms. “I think I’m going crazy,” he whispered to an empty room.
His implant played the coup in Norway again, and things looked dire, but things always looked dire on the Net.
The motherfucker ate that shit up. They always did. Their dead parent or pet or whatever appeared out of thin air doing that ghostly crap and they’re always all like oh yes mommy I love you so much I’ll gladly forgo my inheritance!! Even though it’s so clearly a trick. And that idiot swallowed the dead dad bit and now he’d do exactly what Stern wanted, no doubt about it.
The armor was a good touch. Mika said not to go with the armor, but he was like, the motherfucker spent lightyears in that museum, his browsing history was packed full of knights and castles and shit, so why not? Throw the dead dad in a suit of armor and call it a day.
Stern shoved the hardcoded controller back into his pack and exited down the back stairway. He had to be within spitting distance of the guy to get this particular hack to work, which turned out to be simple: the apartment complex across the street had shit-all for security. Once on the sidewalk, he dropped the controller down a storm drain and looked around as it clattered into the sewer. Nobody was watching. He was stealth as hell.
Six months. It took him six fucking months to program that sequence. The armor added an extra three weeks, and yeah, it was totally worth it, but damn. Six entire months to build an immersive download lifelike enough to fool that stupid bastard up there, six months of Stern’s life he’d never get back, and for what? A bank account filled with billions of rupees he couldn’t touch, not until he was sure the feds weren’t looking for him.
But worst of all, his best zero-day, down the drain. They’d figure it out sooner or later, that the dinosaur’s brain got hacked, and they’d patch that shit toot-sweet. He figured it would be a week tops, which was fine, so long as the craggy old shit had time to vote.
Stern hiked his backpack further up, tightened the chest straps, and stalked down the street, already trying to picture the look in Mika’s eye when he told her the story of how it all went down. He’d be a total legend. She’d be impressed, he was pretty sure. God damn suit of armor was a nice touch.
Mika lounged with her feet in Stern’s lap. The couch smelled like body odor and ozone. The hackerspace was quiet, which she liked, only a few coder-bros tapping away on mechanical boards. Stern had bragged all day about his alleged hack, but she was skeptical. He was smart and all, probably into some really dark-web advanced stuff or whatever—but not smart enough to break into a politician’s brain implant. He was cute though, and his little immersive experiments were pretty fun, so she went along with it.
“And then the dumb old fart started crying over his dead dad. It was the most hilarious thing I’d ever seen,” Stern said for the third time.
Mika plastered a smile on her face. “Totally,” she said.
She’d met a hundred guys like him at the ‘space, guys with egos the size of mountains, that thought they were geniuses because they tested into the gifted class in second grade. They were boring, and sometimes dangerous, but Mika liked Stern anyway, even if he was such a total cliché.
The flatscreen played C-SPAN and Stern looked enraptured as congress voted on Speekr’s breakup. She secretly didn’t want it to happen but could never say that out loud, since all the ego-boys at the ‘space loved to out-leftie each other, and she didn’t want to hear the lectures. Anarcho-capitalists, stateless socialists, whatever, she thought Speekr was fun, and anyway there were a ton of totally wild groups she spent time laughing at, like that one about lizard people, and those MLM-moms that kept begging her to sell supplements.
She leaned her head back, stared up at the tin roof, and wondered idly if she could get some coffee on the way home, and maybe spend a few hours painting if the light was good. She was about to ask Stern if he wanted to go camping with her, since maybe getting him out of his element would loosen him up a bit, when he sat up straight and pushed her feet off.
“Hey—” she started, then saw his expression.
“Hold on,” he said.
She looked at the screen and cocked her head in confusion. An old guy in a navy suit clutched his chest as more old guys crowded around him. She realized it was that congressman Stern was obsessed with, Hugh Something. He staggered once, then fell, and a woman in a reddish pant suit barely caught him before his head bounced off the carpet.
“Isn’t that your guy?” she asked, frowning, and she felt her heart do a double-take.
“That’s not supposed to happen,” Stern said, eyes wide, on the verge of flipping out.
He couldn’t be for real. Stern had to be full of it, like all the other ego-boys. She had played along, and even helped a little bit when he made that totally crazy brain-vid of the Ronald-Reagan-looking guy in the silly armor, but she thought it was all some game to impress her. It couldn’t have been real.
But Stern’s face was ashen white.
“Did you do that?” she asked.
“He’s not supposed to—”
He was cut off by a shout from a coder-bro sitting up front. The door to the ‘space popped open, the wood splintering like a disease, and Mika shoved herself sideways, putting her hands over her head. Stern leapt up, staggering, shouting something wild.
Mika risked a look as men in black body armor streamed into the room, guns aimed everywhere.
It was chaos, total freaking chaos. Coder-bros and terrified libertarians and anarcho-syndicalists dove for any available exit. Stern yelled something again, but she couldn’t hear over all the shouting. Some stormtrooper grabbed her, yanked her arm back, and she thought she her shoulder might pop from its socket as the trooper shoved a knee into her spine. She groaned in pain and looked up as Stern backed away from two more troopers that advanced on him.
“Put it down,” one trooper screamed. He sounded like her high school gym teacher, Mr. Luger, with his puffed-up red face. “Put it down now.”
“I don’t have anything,” Stern said, eyes wild. He looked at Mika, hands above his head, completely empty. “I don’t have anything.”
“Drop the weapon,” the other trooper said. “Drop it now.”
“I don’t—” Stern started.
But then the gunshots blared and Mika screamed even louder, and she watched Stern slump backwards onto the bare concrete of the ‘space, and he stopped moving.
She never would’ve believed it, if she hadn’t seen it with her own eyes. Totally crazy.