Penumbra

Bach: "The Butterfly Room/The Sin Vault"

Bach got out of the cab at the address Freegrass had given him. It was a big house in one of the moderately nice neighborhoods in Seattle, right on the line between a residential area and a block of businesses and storefronts. The sign in the front yard confirmed that he was at the right place, “The Butterfly Room”. Bach raised an eyebrow at the odd name yet again, the second time he had seen it, but he hadn’t had time to question Freegrass about it.

He traversed the short concrete walk across the front yard, walked across the big rambling porch, and entered the front door. Looking around, he found himself in a parlor of sorts, immediately did a double-take, and then checked the info he had from Freegrass once more. “153 Holly Street; tell the receptionist you’re looking for Thibodeaux”. This was definitely the place, but…

There was a receptionist desk, if you wanted to call it that, and behind it a waiting room with big, overstuffed couches and chairs, and a bar on the back wall stocked with moderately expensive liquors. A wrought-iron spiral stair lead up to the open second floor, where Bach could see a dozen doors. The color scheme was largely pink and pastels, and the walls were adorned with lacy curtains. Draped over the couches, lounging lasciviously, were a half dozen girls of all varieties, and all in the bare minimum amount of clothes that could still be considered “dressed”.

This is a fucking bordello. thought Bach, fuming on the inside. When I see Freegrass next, he and I are going to have a little talk.

“Welcome to the Butterfly Room!” the woman at the receptionist desk said brightly, standing to reveal exactly how little she was wearing. “I’m Madame Viv—” she began, gesturing at a placard listing rates, before Bach cut her off.

“I’m looking for Thibodeaux.”

The receptionist’s demeanor changed instantly, from one of sultry welcome to a more resentful tolerance. The expressions of all the girls in the room similarly changed as they all dropped the act of being pretty and available and went back to their conversations or reading matrix zines. Bach couldn’t be sure, but he thought one of the girls might look just slightly crestfallen…

The receptionist jerked a thumb. “End of the hall, down the stairs. They’re in the vault.”

Bach tried to make it look like he wasn’t hurrying as he walked out of the room. At the bottom of the stairs, it was easy enough to find the door the woman had meant. A gaudy, hand-painted sign said “The Sin Vault” in stylized letters, and just below it was a heavy steel door with a big bank vault style wheel handle. Pulling it open, Bach stepped into a room whose decor was heavily themed around black leather and red velvet. There was a big, metal-framed bed in one corner with all kinds of cuffs and restraints attached to it, and some kind of apparatus of nylon webbing and harnesses dangled from the ceiling in another corner. A St. Andrew’s cross was against one wall with an umbrella stand nearby that was filled with whips and crops and switches.

A piece of furniture that looked a lot like a gymnast’s pommel horse had been moved out of the way to make room for a large circle to be drawn on the floor in temporary paint, with geometric shapes and flowery arcane figures filling the circle. Nearby, three men and a woman were sitting in beanbags, smoking a hookah that filled the air with an acrid haze.

Thankfully none of them were wearing a particular overabundance of leather. The first 20-something man was wearing a cheap business suit, and the second simply jeans and a t-shirt. The third man looked to be about forty and was dressed like somebody’s dad, with slacks, a windbreaker, ugly glasses, and a bad comb-over. The woman was maybe in her late thirties and wore a simple dress, round-lensed glasses, and a frizzy head of hair. Magic users are such weird people, thought Bach, either unaware of or simply ignoring the irony.

“You Bach?” asked the cheap suit. He thrust out a hand. “Thibodeaux.” Bach noticed a slight southern Louisiana accent and half expected the guy to start talking about gators and jumbalaya. “I’ll be your ritual leader.”

“I don’t need to know your names.” said Bach flatly.

“The message we got from you through your fixer said you’re pressed for time,” said somebody’s dad, “but do you mind explaining a bit more what this ritual is? I mean, there was some gibberish in the message about magical theory this and the matrix that, but it was all pretty beyond us.”

Bach sighed. “Look, as far as you four are concerned, it’s just like any other ritual spellcasting. You guys prepare the spell and push it through the astral link onto the target. I’ll handle the targeting, since I’m the one who understands the matrix ‘gibberish’. You needn’t worry about it, and in fact, I’ll give you an extra thousand not to worry about it. Fair?”

Thibodeaux had a look of amused satisfaction. He exchanged glances with his three teammates; no one had any objections. T-shirt and jeans spoke up, “Let’s get started.”

The four took their places sitting or kneeling regularly spaced around the magic circle, leaving a fifth spot for Bach to sit awkwardly. He had never taken part in a ritual casting, at least not that he remembered. Some of the others took out fetishes (Ha! thought Bach) or lit incense or did other arcane preparations, while Bach just sat there unsure what to do with his hands.

The ritual began. To Bach, watching the seconds tick away on the countdown clock in the corner of his HUD, the process seemed interminable. Then there was chanting; if these guys thought his matrix ritual thesis (suitably summarized and paraphrased, of course) was gibberish, Bach wondered if they considered their own lorem ipsum made-up chant language any less nonsensical. Whatever, play the part, Bach chided himself. After a few repetitions to get the hang of each chant, Bach joined in, trying not to sound halfhearted about it. Most of his focus went to weaving the spell into the virus he had already prepared, a psychotropic worm designed to infect the victim’s cerebral cortex.

Finally, three and a half hours in, Thibodeaux turned to Bach. “The spell is nearly ready. We’ll need the target soon.” Bach nodded and then, with eyes half-lidded, slipped into the Matrix. The chanting was still there, just at the edge of hearing, and the acrid smell of the hookah smoke and incense still burned his nostrils, but they were minor distractions. Slightly worse, he could subconsciously feel the inquisitive eyes of the other four on him. They’re probably wondering if this whole matrix ritual thing is just the ravings of a madman. Maybe they are, but that doesn’t make them any less real. If they had seen the things I have seen, the earthquake, the storm, the flooding, they wouldn’t be so skeptical. Whatever, they can be skeptical, I’m paying them to do the job regardless.

Bach used the commcode he had hacked from Rasmussen Reeves’ commlink to find his target: Reeves’ inside man in O.R.S. Locating him within the matrix took only a few moments. From that alone he could get a rough fix on his geographic location; using the matrix routing, he could get an idea of at least what city or neighborhood the target was in. Bach tried it, just in case, but got back a curious result: “remote uplink: SKAir F1350 – Seatac:Heathrow – GenDyn SV250”. That caught his attention, and he started a background search to see what location that routing might indicate. Meanwhile, he began the process of worming his way into the target’s commlink, deploying his hacking utilities to force access.

Moments later there was a chime. It wasn’t easy, but he was in. Pausing momentarily to check his stealth utility, it didn’t look like there were any alarms triggered. There were a few pieces of ICE, but all were still passively scanning the PAN. There was something unusual here; those ICE weren’t standard programs, they were sprites! Shit, this guy isn’t just a normal hacker, he’s a technomancer. Will the plans till work? Do worms even work on technomancers? Nothing else for it but to try. He set about deploying the psychotropic worm when there was a second chime in his ear.

The search results had come back. “Saeder-Krupp Airways flight 1350, departing Seattle Tacoma Int’l, arriving London Heathrow Int’l; vehicle, General Dynamics SV-250 suborbital”. According to the readout, the flight was currently in-transit and would be reaching red zone in a few minutes. Suborbitals… Isn’t there something about suborbitals and casting? Then Bach remembered.

“He’s on a suborbital!” Bach was still in the matrix, but he spoke aloud. “Get ready…” Still watching his worm do its thing, Bach heard the others conversing in agitated tones. At least the worm was working, though.

“Suborbital? Shit. That means a mana warp a few minutes before and after zenith, the ‘red zone’. If we get the timing wrong, all our brains will be jello.” said the voice of somebody’s dad.

“We can just wait. It’ll pass through the mana warp in about twenty minutes.” replied t-shirt and jeans.

“No, Bach said now. We push the spell as soon as he gives the sign.” stated Thibodeaux firmly.

A progress bar crept across Bach’s HUD, indicating the progress of the worm as it forced its way into the victim’s mind. 58%… 67%… 75%… It was an excruciating crawl towards the 100% mark, almost there, but Bach couldn’t wait. “Go, go! It has to be now!”

Bach felt the spell channeled through him, a sensation beyond words but somewhat like a cross between an orgasm and an electric chair. Then it was gone, moving from him to his commlink, through the matrix, through the worm, and into the target. It had connected!

He heard a voice, the victim’s, speaking to Bach through his commlink. The control thoughts spell had worked, he was going to speak aloud and reveal the secret headquarters of O.R.S. But Bach was expecting a city, a street; he didn’t even understand the words at first, because they all ran together.

“the dead-grey elder men with hills for hands will dance on all our graves”

Then the world went black.


Bach came to with the four members of Thibodeaux’s team looming in his field of view. He was flat on his back, and plain dress was muttering a healing spell with her hands on his head. He heard t-shirt and jeans ask “Think it was the magic drain? That spell wasn’t all that bad, but I guess he’s not as strong a caster as we are.”

“Or what is it that hackers get, shockdump? No, dumpshock?” asked somebody’s dad.

“It’s both.” said Bach, brushing them all aside to sit upright. There was a trickle of blood at his nostril, but it was already stopping and the splitting headache he had was fading, likely the work of plain dress’s spell. He tapped at his temple. His cyber eyes were working, or at least he could still see, but there was no heads up display and no response from his commlink. He ignored it for the moment.

“Does ‘the dead-grey elder men with hills for hands will dance on all our graves’ mean anything to any of you?” The four magic users cast unsure, questioning looks at one another. “Alright, nevermind. Look, uh, my commlink seems to be fried. Can I borrow one of yours to transfer the funds to your account?”

Thibodeaux helped him to his feet. “I’m not certain what happened here today, but I’ve never seen anything like it. Except for you getting brain-blasted, it was fun as hell. I trust you to pay it off when you can, or at least, you can owe me a favor.”

With that, there was little left for Bach to do but flee these strange people and this strange place as swiftly and politely as possible. In front of the bordello, out in the fresh air again, he hailed a taxi and jumped in.


Meanwhile, in the cramped bathroom cabin of S-K Airways flight 1350 to Heathrow, a man splashed water in on his face, unsure what had just happened to him. A few minutes ago, his antivirus sprites had suddenly gone wild with alarms and red-flag popups, and then he found himself whispering words in the back of his mind, speaking through his complex form with words he hadn’t intentionally formulated nor completely understood.

Unbeknownst to him, Bach had been there; the hacker was too stealthy to be detected even by the technomancer’s sprites. But there were things still stealthier than Bach, things that had also been there inside the technomancer’s skull. Things that had watched Bach with curious, intelligent eyes.

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