This story was commissioned by Katharine Kerr for her anthology, The Shimmering Door: Sorcerers and Shamans, Witches and Warlocks, Enchanters and Spell-Casters, Magicians and Mages, and published by HarperPrism in 1996. The anthology includes so many wonderful writers of fantasy, I can’t type all the names. I’m pleased and honored to be among them.
The Hanged Man
Lisa Mason
There is no such thing as magic in telespace. Telespace is the aggregated correlation of five billion minds worldwide, uploaded into a computer-generated virtual reality. In a word, technology. And technology is scientific. Provable. Repeatable. Logical.
Whereas, magic. Well, magic is superstition. The belief that supernatural forces exist. That you can contact them, these supernatural forces. Manipulate them. Command them. But that’s an illusion, all right? You cannot depend on magic.
So Snap was outraged when a Hanged Man popped out of nowhere in the industrial telespace he was jacked into. “Damn telespace! Crashing again?” He’d been wrestling with a recalcitrant code and muttering to himself. He would never finish the TeleSystems infrastructure proposal if telespace crashed again.
Sometimes you cannot depend on technology, either.
A gruesome sight he was, too. Snap had never seen such a thing. Not some purple-faced, black-tongued, bug-eyed corpse throttled at the neck and dangling as hanged men do. Snap could have dealt with that. He would have thought Chickeeta was pecking at the resolution switch again. Was it Halloween? Snap had jacked in for three days straight, burning hypertime on the infrastructure proposal. For a moment, he couldn’t remember what month this was. What day. Dawn or dusk.
No, the Hanged Man dangled from his foot, his long, golden hair streaming down. A noose bound his right ankle. His left leg was crossed behind his right knee. His arms were trussed behind his back. He wore scarlet leggings, an azure jacket. And the Hanged Man was alive. He gazed at Snap with lucid, sorrowful eyes. His expression of silent agony was terrifying.
Then ping! he was gone.
Fear prickled through Snap’s telelink. He felt nauseated and dizzy, like the time some mooner had bumped the back of his motortrike in the gridlock and nearly killed him. Black streaks oozed in his perimeters. He dropped the code, which landed on the floor of the industrial telespace with a resounding plop and lay there, gelatinous as a jellyfish out of water.
“So help me,” Snap muttered, an expression he’d picked up from Chickeeta. “Whip you into shape later,” he promised the limp code.
Snap talked to himself a lot these days. He’d been ungainfully employed as a freelance telelinker ever since he’d been downsized out of a steady job with a utilities company two years ago. Except for a rented friend who’d been hired for three days because Snap couldn’t afford a longer term, he lived alone with Chickeeta. He saved the three days’ work on the TeleSystems infrastructure proposal to his backup drive, praying that the drive had enough space.
Praying. Now there’s some magic for you.
He jacked out of telespace.
And found himself strapped into the workstation tucked in his shabby studio apartment a story above the gravity dancing club deep in the wilds of the nightclub district. What the gravity dancers lacked in technical skill, they more than made up for in charm. Snap himself never patronized the club, but he often saw the dancers crowded around the front door, sneaking a smoke of this or that. Flashing gap-toothed grins, they lingered there in their fourth-hand danceskins and retreaded athletic shoes.
Snap’s studio apartment was not the kind of place to show your grandmother, but he liked it fine. Plus the price was right for a freelance telelinker. Snap unclipped the straps, cut the electro-neural. Feeling like three loads of dirty laundry, he dragged himself out of the workstation. Swigged a can of tweaked Coke. Threw open the window shade.
The damp chill and glimmer behind the eastern hills told him maybe four-thirty, maybe five a.m. Chickeeta huddled by the wallboard heater, eking out a bit of warmth, and glanced at him with glossy eyespots that always seemed too wise. Or wise-ass.
“Hey, idiot, where’ve you been?” Chickeeta said, ruffling its plumes. “I want to live, I want to dance, I want to cha-cha-cha.” Chickeeta let loose a tremendous shriek, then muttered, “So help me, ol’ salty boy.”
Snap grinned. He’d acquired the microbot from one of the sailors who frequented his lovely neighborhood. The sailor had mooned out in back of the club next to the door that led up to Snap’s studio. Someone had relieved the sailor of just about everything but the shirt on his back and the microbot.
Snap let the sailor sleep it off upstairs, gave him a pair of jeans and a ten-credit disk. For that small favor, the sailor gave Snap the microbot. A tiny, graceful entity with a bright copper head, anodized emerald aluminum plumes, and a silver rotary propeller extruding from its slender spine.
The exchange with the sailor turned out to be a good deal. Snap had the microbot appraised and discovered it could fetch up to five thousand credits through classy first-hand markets. Wow! But when a potential buyer responded to his telespace posting, Snap had to admit he didn’t want to sell, after all.
He’d grown attached to Chickeeta. The microbot was a pretty little thing. Smart. Sassy. Always nagging him. And at least Snap could complain to someone—something—other than himself.
Snap finished the tweaked Coke, which lessened the pounding in his head, sweetened the sourness in his stomach. A decent deal. He shuffled to the fridge. A small glacier calved out of the freezer. Down below, the fridge held the withered wrapper from a toner cartridge and half an organic apple that had seen better days.
Snap shredded the wrapper for Chickeeta. Sliced the apple for himself. Boiled tap water, mixed up instant coffee. Which could have been dishwater except it was black.
“You look like hell, amigo,” Chickeeta said, seizing wrapper shreds in its beak. The microbot processed metals and motor oil, automatically repairing its internal hardware.
“Tell me about it,” Snap muttered. “So help me.”
“Heh, heh, heh, so help me,” Chickeeta said. “Yeeeek!
An anomaly, that’s what the Hanged Man was. Snap sighed and sipped coffee. The brew tasted like freeway grit, but the caffeine wended its way to his exhausted brain. An anomaly. He’d heard of them, of course. Who hadn’t? The Hanged Man’s eyes were glossed with some awesome emotion, a strange intelligence that Snap couldn’t place at all. He shivered. Anomalies were random manifestations in telespace, erratic bits of electro-neural energy. Anomalies could never be completely deleted, not even with all those terabytes of artificial intelligence.
Yes, but telespace was technology. Technology was science. You could depend on science. Couldn’t you?
The Hanged Man meant Snap’s telelink was whacked. He didn’t know how it happened, but he had to get himself fixed. And fast. The TeleSystems infrastructure proposal had a deadline. He was depending on landing this gig. He tried to cast away the thought of his debts stacking up, the rent due in a week, his empty fridge. His unemployment compensation had long since expired. He would wind up on the street if he didn’t land this gig.
Snap stroked the microbot’s gleaming back. Chickeeta nuzzled his elbow. If Snap were to give up Chickeeta on the street, bargain and sell the microbot, he’d be no better off than the sailor in the alley. He’d be without Chickeeta. He’d be no good at all.
“Gotta go downtown, big bopper,” Snap said, draining the last drops of the coffee.
“What’s happenin,’ massa?”
Microbots cannot really understand concepts, Snap reminded himself. They don’t have much memory, let alone intelligence. They just repeat routines they’ve learned.
“Need to check with Data Control. Ah, what am I saying. You don’t really know what I mean, right?”
Chickeeta winked. Or maybe the microbot just had to clean a speck of dust on its eyespot.
“I won’t be long,” Snap added, just in case.
Chickeeta ruefully picked at the shredded wrapper. The microbot was looking rather scruffy lately. So was Snap.
“I’ll get some decent grub for us, too, okay? I’ll charge it, what the hell.”
Microbots can’t smile, either, but a grin curved Chickeeta’s beak. “Charge it, what the hell, heh, heh, heh!”
*   *   *
The gridlock idled downtown, emitting a filthy haze over the morning. The toiling masses were decked out in their facemasks and oxygen tanks. Since the air-borne San Joaquin fever caused a half million deaths in the city last year and toxic fumes claimed nearly another million, masks and tanks had become a necessity, despite escalating robberies and police protests.
To read the rest of “The Hanged Man” and find out how Snap solves his problem, the woman he meets who changes his life, and an Afterword about the story’s setting, please join Join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and support me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve got lots of goodies for you there—more stories, recipes, movie reviews, book excerpts—with more on the way.
Donate a tip from your PayPal account to lisasmason@aol.com.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!