The Devil’s Hat by Gary B. Phillips

The Devil’s Hat by Gary B. Phillips

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” – Albert Einstein

— — —

Orelli weaved through the homeless that littered the alley. The bright lights from the city streets lit up their eyes with neon-colored halos as they pulled on his coat and begged for credits. They were pariahs, adorned with scars, unable to connect in a world that lusted after technology. He swallowed and felt a mixture of disgust and envy.

He thumbed the wad of crisp bills in his pocket as he pushed past them and into the widening alley. The sky above was dead, threatening to release a torrent of water and cleanse the things that rotted in the city.

Orelli approached the end of the alley, where two men stood waiting for no one.

“What’s a rounder doin’ here?” the taller man asked.

Orelli let the insult slide. “I need drugs,” he said.

Drugs were plentiful, cheap, and coded with precision. It wasn’t about who had the largest selection, cheapest prices, or best mods. It was about who put on the best show. Dealers took on bizarre personas to please their clients. The two men standing in front of Orelli looked straight out of a mid-twentieth century comedy routine: One tall, the other short and round.

The tall one studied Orelli’s face. “You’re shifting,” he said.

“I am.”

“We don’t deal with shifters here. Like you got something to hide.”

“I do.”

“Did anyone see your face coming over?” the round one asked.

“I shifted after I passed anyone.”

“Lemme see,” the round man said, peering at him.

Orelli’s face glitched and reconfigured itself. Soft eyes that waded behind a hook nose and loose jowls, a replica of the round man’s face. It was a good illusion, not perfect with anti-shift webs installed on every corner, but better than anyone else could do.

“Impressive,” the tall man said. “What’s a man with your skill doin’ talkin’ to me? Don’t you have gophers for this kind of thing?”

A nervous spasm wound its way up Orelli’s spine. He shook it off. “I do my own business.”

The round man pushed a stubby finger past Orelli’s projected hook nose until it rested upon the real thing. He giggled, a high pitched whinny, and his belly shook. “I like ‘im.”

The tall one cocked an eyebrow at his partner. “Guess I like you too. We got black voranil, reds, wash, any synth you want.”

“None of that,” Orelli said. “I need mushrooms.”

“I can upload you some psilocin.”

Orelli had already tried synthetic psilocin. It was no good, even if he didn’t have a chemical balancer installed. The code itself wasn’t bad, even quite clever as it self-modified per user, but it was too predictable. Not dangerous enough to protect him.

“I gave it my own special modification,” the round man said, his red cheeks beaming with pride.

“That ‘little something special’ makes you an idiot. Baka. If you were a real hacker you wouldn’t be pushing drugs, you’d be working for me. The government frowns on snubs like you tampering with their code. I’m looking for the real thing. Fly agaric.”

The round man scoffed. “Now the rounder’s talkin’ funny. Makin’ up words.”

The tall man stepped into the light. His jaw came to a fine point, an exclamation to every word he spoke, as did his eyes that swam below a weighty crop of chestnut hair. A jagged scar ran from his temple down to his mouth. “Oh it’s real. But nobody would be caught dead with it.”

“That means you know someone that has it.” Orelli pulled the wad of bills from his pocket. “One hundred bucks,” he said.

“Old America paper? Lemme see that,” the round man said, his soft eyes turning hungry.

“Back off Cos,” said the tall one. He grasped the bills with his long fingers.

The round man stood on the tips of his toes to see the money. They studied the bill and Orelli could almost see the neurons firing, sending electric signals to a chipset that transmitted out to the darknet. The tall man stood motionless and Orelli saw his ping hit the net, asking to verify the serial number and looking for a buyer.

Orelli intercepted the ping and sent an anonymous reply with the credits, effectively buying back his own money. The tall man was none the wiser. It would have been a brilliant scam if Orelli needed the money.

The tall man looked up and smiled. “It’s real. Found a buyer too.”

“I hope you got a good deal,” Orelli said.

“Eight million.”

A small price to pay. One of Orelli’s couriers was already dispatched to pick up the cash. It would be back in his possession soon enough.

“You religious?” the tall man asked.

“Not if I don’t have to be.”

“You are now.”

“Did I just get you eight million credits so you could tell me to find God?” Orelli asked.

The round man laughed again, his belly heaving.

“There’s a shrine at the base of Mount Tsukuba, been there for centuries. You’ll find a miko there that can help you.”

Orelli smiled and hoped she was more than just a miko. He didn’t have time for women and wasn’t interested in what they were after, but he never turned down professional companionship.

“Thank you,” Orelli said with a bow.

“I’ll send word ahead for you. Show her your real face,” the tall man said.

They returned his bow and the tall man pocketed the cash. The round one opened an umbrella to block the rain that started falling from the black sky.

Orelli walked back the way he came, fingering the single bill that remained in his pocket. He dropped it at the beggar’s feet as he passed him.

# # #

Father let the water rush over him. The valve shut off and he stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around himself. Smokie was already in the common room, eyes closed, mouthing a silent prayer. The room was pale green under the fluorescent lights, a cross placed above each doorway serving as the only decorations. A tangle of cables hung down from the ceiling.

Father donned a black cassock. “We need no armor,” Father said, placing a simple gold cross around his neck. “God will provide for us.”

“Amen,” said Smokie.

Father scratched at the base of his skull, where the soft bald flesh met the thin silicone port. He grabbed one of the cables and plugged it into the port. Their partnership was simple and efficient, they worked quickly and split the pay down the middle.

A translucent screen appeared in his field of vision with the darknet boot sequence. He checked his messages, ignored the spam, and checked for an update on their mark. His dislike of technology only matched his distaste for who he had become.

Smokie grabbed a scattergun and a couple pistols. Father never understood why he came so prepared, their fight was not on earth, but in the darknet.

“You see the message?” Smokie asked. “He was spotted in the Roppongi district. A homeless man reported him.”

“Doesn’t sound very promising,” Father said.

“The man says he gave him American cash. A twenty dollar bill.”

Father smiled. “That sounds like our man.”

“You’re too happy about it. Friends and fiends, we’re all cut from the same cloth.”

“I taught you that. Don’t forget it,” Father said. “The bounty increased again. Killing for God pays well. I can almost retire once we finish this. If you were to,” Father searched for the right words. “Not make it, I could retire sooner.” He smiled. “Of course, I pray that doesn’t happen.”

“If it is God’s will, I accept it,” Smokie said.

Back in his room, Father removed a twin pair of bowie knives from their place on the wall. They were made from Damascus steel, striated with nanowires. He had paid handsomely for them, called them a gift from God. It was the only gift he could remember receiving in as many years.

# # #

A flat red warning popped into Orelli’s field of vision. Someone had called him in, the fat dealer, he guessed. He didn’t blame him. It was hard to resist that kind of money. He hopped on his bike, and dropped into the Roppongi district net for a quick data dump. He placed a few bombs disguised as bread crumbs for anyone on his trail. Any snub snooping the darknet for him would take the bait and find himself dead on the other end of the line. Killing an avatar in the darknet was as effective as killing the man himself. Every darknet connection linked directly to the brain, sending and receiving data. A well coded signal is all it took.

Orelli had designed the best security systems out there, and yet even they couldn’t keep him safe. He needed a way to short circuit the connection to darknet without killing himself. Fly agaric, that small red mushroom, was his last hope.

He disconnected and returned to the old protocol where it was safe, a meaningless stream of text and unused code. The old protocols had been abandoned by the public a couple hundred years prior, when politicians passed laws that made criminals out of its users. The darknet rose after that. A seedy, unkempt place for pushers and those looking for a push. Orelli helped make it a virtual world that didn’t just mirror the real world, but improved upon it. Some people lived their whole lives in darknet, never bothering to come up for air.

He headed west, speeding across two districts and out of the city. The glowing skyscrapers winked out of view, like stars dying in the morning sunlight, as he crested a hill. The moon sat fat and high in the sky with a single cloud stretching over it like a ragged wound.

He felt probes at the edge of his mind, in the darknet. They took the bait, and Orelli figured them for a couple of thugs looking for easy money. He left more “beacons” in his wake, but knew they would only buy him a few extra minutes.

# # #

Father lumbered through the puddles, his broad shoulders touching the walls of the narrow alley. Thin rivulets of water poured from the pipes nestled in the brick, filling the cracks in the cobblestone and flowing like rivers searching for the ocean. Two men shared a single umbrella at the end of the alley.

“You two dealers?” Father said.

“Who’s asking?” the taller man asked.

“I’m an easygoing fellow. Never liked trouble much. That’s why I joined the priesthood.” He laughed, a thick sound like a wet cough.

“Men of God don’t need what I sell,” the tall one said.

“I need information.”

“You and everyone else tonight,” the round one said and then covered his mouth.

Father smiled.

“I- I don’t know nothin’,” the round one said with a whimper.

The tall man drew a pistol from his jacket. “Maybe you should get goin’. Try prayin’ for what you need.”

Father returned the gesture by drawing the twin blades from their sheaths.

“Funny how you guys traded bibles for bullets to spread your message,” the round man said.

“Ain’t no bullets here. Just a thin strip of Damascus steel that would love to meet your bones. I’m looking for a man. His name is Orelli. The CEO of SigmaCorp. I have it on good faith from the vagabond back there that he spent considerable time talkin’ to you. Made a trade.”

The tall man stepped out from under the umbrella. He spoke from the side of his mouth that was untouched by the scar drawn across his face. “What’s he to you?”

Father ignored the question. “He would’ve been shifting. I don’t know what he wanted from you, drugs or information but,” his voice trailed off, then softened a bit. “He needs saving.”

The tall one chuckled, a thin nervous sound. “Saving. I know what that means.”

“Did he buy from you?”

“A lot of people coming through here buy from me.”

“But not many of them bother shifting, do they?”

Father raised one of the blades and pressed the tip across the tall man’s long face, letting it slide into and trace the crevices of his wound. The short man dropped the umbrella and drew his weapon as well. He pushed the barrel into Father’s cheek. “Get that outta his face. My brother, he’s a nice guy, won’t shoot you. But I got no problem fillin’ that position.” The round man tightened his grip and the gun shook in his fat, nervous hands.

The blade cut through the air in a flash of silver, and the gun and hand that held it fell to the ground with a clatter. A thick spurt of blood followed and washed into the cobblestone. The round man’s scream echoed into the alley before another glint of steel silenced him.

Father grabbed the tall man’s throat with his other hand and brought the blade’s twin to his neck.

“Tell me,” Father said, his lip curling. “Or I’ll finish what someone else started.” He pressed the knife into the man’s scar until blood streamed out of it.

“My brother-” the man said, choking a sob. “You-”

Father flexed his arm, choking the words from the man’s throat.

“Where did Orelli go?”

# # #

Orelli heard a small tone and a flat screen entered his field of vision. Jean’s face smiled back at him.

“Hello Jean,” he said.

“Sorry to bother you on your vacation, sir.”

“No worries.”

“We got hacked again.”

Orelli let his bike coast to a less life-threatening speed. “Details?”

“They got a lot before I realized it. I don’t know how, none of our security programs saw them. I noticed when I walked past one of the servers and saw the data access light thrashing.”

“Listen closely, Jean. In six hours I want you to kill the connections. All of them. Cut the wires. Make sure every node goes down.”

“What? I- I don’t understand- That will destroy half of dark-”

“Just do it. Grab the data stick from my office safe. It should have a current backup on it. Keep it on you, I don’t care where you have to store it. Just keep it safe. Evacuate everyone and then get out once it’s all shut down.”

Orelli felt another firewall go down in the darknet. They were out of the city and on his trail.

“We’ve been livin’ on borrowed time friend. That time is up. It was a pleasure working with you. Be proud of what we accomplished. I’ll transfer credits to your account. It’ll be enough, consider it your severance. Take care of yourself, Jean. I’ll send you a secure message when I can.”

Orelli cut the signal.

The war had finally caught up to him.

He stopped his bike on the side of the highway and removed his helmet. He pulled a penknife from his pocket and adjusted the side view mirror until he could see ear. He coded a quick calculation in his head, a beautiful golden-ratio arc, compiled it and downloaded it to the knife. The knife’s blade changed into a hawkbill blade. He looped the hook of the blade around the back of his ear and slid it forward, cutting through the cartilage without resistance. Blood spilled out and ran down his shoulder, but he continued in a smooth motion until the ear fell to the ground.

The little red chip that sat on the bundle of nerves at the peak of his spine did its job, blocking any pain signals traveling to the brain. The red chip worked in tandem with a blue one, the chemical balancer, that would eliminate the desired effects of the mushrooms. Those chips would have to go, but he couldn’t remove them himself.

He reached into the wound and grasped the metallic circlet in his ear canal. Most of the connectors had been severed with the first cut but he wanted to guarantee no hope of being found. He tore it out and tossed it into the pine trees nestled at the edge of the road.

# # #

The paved road ended in patch of dirt and Orelli felt the bike shudder under him. He sent a new compile to the bike and the tires compensated for the uneven terrain with proper tread. The road curved and hugged the base of the Mount Tsukuba. Two red columns rose from the ground ahead, a gate that guarded the entrance to the shrine. Orelli parked and removed the shift that hid his face from the world. His skin was taut around his gaunt face, eyes sunken into dark sockets. He ran a hand over what remained of his hair and made his way up the crumbling stone steps.

A miko waited outside the hall of worship. She wore a white haori embroidered with flowers, and a red skirt tied with a bow. In her hand she carried bells that rang clear in the night. She was beautiful, milky skin with honey lips and two black eyes like inkwells that told the story of every man that had worshiped at her altar. She was bald, much to Orelli’s delight. A temple priestess and sacred whore.

“Have you come to pray to the spirits?” she asked him.

“Nothing that pious I’m afraid. I was sent here by a man in the Roppongi district.”

“Follow me,” she said.

He felt another probe in the darknet. They were here. He followed her around the edge of the temple and across a stone bridge overlooking a small pond.

“You are not spiritual?” she asked.

“I was. But that was long ago. Before the war.”

“The war changed us all,” she said.

They entered a garden filled with maiden lilies and Himalayan blue poppies. Spruce trees lined the path. She knelt by one of them and picked the mushrooms that grew around it. They had tall stems with large red caps spotted with white. When she finished gathering them, they returned to a small room near the hall of worship.

He watched her steady hands cut the mushrooms into strips and place them in a pot already boiling with milk. “Fly agaric isn’t like other mushrooms. It’s a deliriant, not a psychoactive,” she said. She slid the pot back onto the fireplace crane and pushed the arm until the pot settled over the fire. “It has been used for thousands of years by shamans and holy men seeking spiritual awakening. Its use can be traced from Siberia, to Native American tribes, to the soma mentioned in India’s sacred texts. Even early Christians used it to draw closer to God.”

“And the rest of us?” Orelli asked.

“It was also used by warriors. They called it the devil’s hat. The Zulu people ingested it before battle, believing it made them impervious to pain. Gave them a holy purpose. The same is said of the Norse warriors and their berserks.”

“I need something else from you.” It was a clumsy interruption but he was out of time.

“I know,” she said.

“I can guide you, but I need a pair of steady hands.”

She put down the cutting knife. “Let me get something a bit gentler than this.”

“Please,” he said with a laugh.

She slipped out of the room and came back a moment later with a small box. Inside were scalpels, retractors, and other medical instruments.

“At the beginning of the war, I was stationed at a medical camp outside of Israel,” she said.

“What made you become-” his voice trailed off.

“A prostitute?” she said.

She walked behind him and lifted his shirt off. Her fingers moved up his spine. “Is this the right location?”

“Yes,” he said.

She rubbed her thumb across her lipstick and pressed it against the top of his neck, leaving a faint line. “I saw people do terrible things to each other. Both in the name of progress and God. Hold still,” she said, pushing his head down. “I’m going to take out the chemical balancer first and then inject you with a local anesthetic. Then I’ll remove the pain inhibitor.” He felt the cold steel of the scalpel against his neck as it slid across and opened him up. She worked in silence and he listened to the sound of the instruments clinking against each other. He felt each cut–still painless–as she worked deeper into his neck and heard a thick pop in his ears as she cut into the tendon. “Any pain?”

“Nothing.”

He felt her breathe a small sigh of relief on the nape of his neck. When she finished, she washed his neck and returned to the boiling pot and stirred the tea. She poured it into a cup and handed it to him.

“I know who you are. And I believe you have pure intentions,” she said.

He thanked her and drank the tea, feeling the warmth travel down his throat and bloom, expanding in his stomach like a flower opening to the sun.

“Tell me why you came here,” she said. “What are you running from?”

“There are men who blame me for this war. Because of the technology I helped create. They believe that I value progress above human life. They blame me for those who have died. They wish me dead and… They are close.”

# # #

Father sat at the base of the rocks wiping the blades of his knives across his cassock. He spit on them and wiped them down, repeating the process like a ritual. Smokie sat a few feet away puffing on a cigarette. They were both connected to a small gray cube that balanced on a rock between them. An antenna extended from it, blinking green in a staccato pattern, confirming the sending and receiving of data.

Father hated being connected to the cube. He hated the cold, numb feeling of a fresh surge of data flowing into his neck. It felt wrong, like he was giving his body as a sacrifice to some strange gray god that spoke in ones and zeros. It was the most efficient way for them to hack into a local darknet, find their mark, and then drop their avatars there.

Father smelled his mark among the sweet scent of the spruce trees. He sat and watched Smokie’s eyes roll back as he searched searched for Orelli in the net.

It was Orelli’s control over all things code that had allowed him to elude them up to this point. Orelli was always prepared with a new trick or piece of code. Always able to hack and recompile the world around him, like a child stacking building blocks one moment and destroying them in a tantrum the next.

Father was glad that Smokie volunteered to go into the darknet without him. He preferred to be out among the woods, where the playing field was even. There was nothing to control in nature, no inputs or jacks. God was the only hacker out here.

# # #

Orelli’s hand twitched and he felt something watching him. A ball of fear nestled itself into his stomach. The walls shimmered and danced as the drug took hold. The wooden floor shifted colors until it was a cold black void, as if he were standing in space. The sound of the miko’s bells turned into the growl of a beast that watched him from the darkness, lurking in the black halls of the shrine.

He hopped into the shrine’s darknet, a perfect virtual representation of the shrine itself, and found that things were no better there. Just as he had hoped, the drug was leaking out of his mind and into the darknet. The walls shifted and tore themselves apart, putting themselves back together incorrectly. Beyond the walls, the shrine floated in the vastness of space.

An alarm triggered. They were here with him now. He tried to pinpoint their location but the shifting walls made it impossible. He steadied himself and followed the ever changing hallways, trusting his instincts in the maze. He journeyed through the shrine’s labyrinthine darknet and found himself outside an altar room. A priest stood near lit candles and burning incense, gripping a scattergun and watching the walls explode and rearrange themselves at non-Euclidean angles. His brow was furrowed with deep worry, as if he might never be sane again.

The priest saw him. “What- What are you doing?” he asked.

Orelli took another step closer.

The priest raised his gun. “Don’t come closer. I-” He looked down at the gun and then back to Orelli and shook his head, as if remembering his mission. He pulled the trigger.

Orelli heard the boom of the scattergun and flinched as a shower of bullets pierced him. He looked down to see a fresh hole in his chest, but instead of blood, liquid polygons crawled out of his chest. The polygons shimmered and fell to the ground in a heap. It slithered along the floor, growing as it moved toward the priest.

He fired another shot but the bullets never found their target. The shimmering snake wound itself up the priest’s leg and pulled the priest into the floor with a sickening snap. Orelli disconnected from the net and touched his hands to his chest but found no hole there.

The monster growled in his ear, close enough to strike.

# # #

Father sat on the hard ground, optimizing the code in the little gray machine, trying to parse the torrent of bad data that threatened to overwhelm the box. Smokie’s body spasmed and Father scrambled across the ground to him. He yanked the cable from the back of Smokie’s head but it was too late. Smokie’s eyes had taken on the glossy stare that all corpses possessed. Father performed last rites and pulled the cable from his own head.

In the distance, a bell chimed.

# # #

Orelli opened his eyes and could not move. He felt ropes cutting into his wrists and legs, binding him.

“Relax,” the miko said from over his shoulder. “You’re doing just fine.”

“What did you do?” Orelli asked.

“You two are cut from the same cloth, even if you do not yet realize it,” she said.

He lifted his head, straining to look toward her voice. Father was bound next to him, nude and bleeding. The miko pulled a knot of wires from the back of Father’s head and cut them.

“Is this God’s will?” Orelli asked.

Father did not respond, but the miko did. “This is for what I saw in Israel. For my friends… My husband.” Her voice trailed off. “This war will not end with men like him chasing you.” She turned to look at Orelli. “And they will not stop.”

She was right. He felt no rush of adrenaline, no anger. Only guilt. He stopped struggling and bowed his head. Relief. His empire was crushed. There would be no more running. It would all be over soon.

# # #

The warm glow of pink morning sunlight woke him. He rubbed his eyes and felt rested for the first time in as long as he could remember. The flesh around his eyes was perforated. Scarred. The connection to darknet was gone. He felt the back of his neck and his arms and found more scars as proof.

Outside, the sky lightened as the sun peaked over the blue ocean. His toes dug into the cold clumps of sand on the beach. He took a deep breath and the salty ocean air licked at his nose and lips. Tears stung at the edges of his eyes.

There were a few tents nearby and a group of men and women worked together, pushing boats out into the water. Another group sat around a campfire cooking a meal. They were all shirtless, adorned with the same scars. He scanned the crowds looking for a familiar face, friend or foe.

A man excused himself from the campfire and walked toward Orelli

“We wondered how long it would be before you woke up,” he said.

“Where am I?” Orelli asked.

“A small fishing village. You were brought here a few days ago.”

“Why?”

“To live your life,” the man said. “We have everything you need here. We will not judge you.”

“It’s the life of an outcast,” Orelli said.

“Some men choose their fate, others have it thrust upon them.”

“Did you choose this?” Orelli asked.

The man ignored the question and beckoned Orelli away from the beach.

“We’re a few days walk from Toyko. You and I both know what that city holds for men like us.” He touched the scar at the base of his neck as they walked down a dirt path. “We’ve seen them in the streets, suckling at the tit of a city that ignores them.”

Orelli stopped at a small clump of red topped mushrooms growing on a fallen tree. He let his fingers touch one. “I chose my own fate,” he said.

—The End—

— — — — —

About the Author

Gary B. Phillips is a writer, currently working on his first novel. He also writes short stories. Gary writes speculative fiction, though most of his work is dark in nature and is either straight up horror or has horrific elements. He will have another story, “A House Divided”, published this month in Lucuna. Gary was born in California, grew up in Arizona, lived a few years in Ohio, and now he’s back in Arizona. He has a beautiful wife, two adorable daughters, and three cats. When not writing Gary enjoys reading, playing video games, building haunted houses, and hoping for rain.

© Gary B. Phillips 2012

5 thoughts on “The Devil’s Hat by Gary B. Phillips

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