by Griff Williams
The man was still alive, if barely, despite the viperous tangle of cables that ran from his lower face into the gently whirring modem of the desktop. They had wrapped over his jaw like the tentacles of some mechanical jellyfish, coiling up and over his cheeks to disappear into the shrivelled holes of his nostrils and ears. From the slick, stretched wheezes coming from the once-man’s lungs, Detective Norton guessed his throat had not been spared the same treatment.
A series of deep, clunking thrums slipped out of the hard-drive, followed by a cough of dust. Slowly, the corpse’s head rotated to face Norton. His voice was guttural and mismatched, a ragged patchwork of words stitched together by an inexperienced hand. ‘Hello, Detective. It is… good to meet in the flesh.’
The room lurched and in an instant the corpse was a Christmas tree of dancing red laser-sights. Norton hadn’t been briefed, but he had a hunch that these were the first words to pass the man’s wire-choked lips.
‘And you are?’
‘You call me the Nihividual. It is a… pleasant title. I… enjoy it.’ He spoke as if around a speech impediment, or a mental block, certain words bringing his sagged brows together in a frown of effort.
‘I was expecting something a little more impressive.’ It was only half a taunt; Norton truly had been expecting a setup more befitting the man that had brought terror to the internet. If his lone-gunman theory was going to be vindicated, he wanted his gunman to be some hardened, professional cyber-criminal. Not a malnourished freak with a technofetish.
‘I agree. This unit is sub-optimal. I acquired him in a rush after my first upload was interrupted by the Chinese government.’
‘Yes. The human condition has contributed so much to me. I considered it a suitable time to return the favour.’
Norton stepped forwards, hands shaking once more but for entirely different reasons. All this build-up, the waiting and searching and hunting and chasing, and as he’d crossed that decaying threshold he was sure it was over. But his gut, as it twisted and heaved away from the sight before him, said otherwise. ‘Hate to break it to you, but it looks like you dropped the ball again. And there won’t be a third time lucky.’
‘On the contrary, Detective, the upload is almost complete. How else could I be talking to you?’ Through the warren of wires, Norton was sure he saw the ruined man’s lips twitch in an aborted effort to smirk.
‘Get that man unplugged, now.’ He had shouted before he even realised what he was saying. Instinct drove the air from his lungs, shaped his lips and moved his tongue to form the words. Procedure be damned, he had spent too much time on the back-foot in this game of cat-and-mouse to let the Nihividual have his way any longer. The officers around him, still in possession of their senses of procedure and propriety, were unsurprisingly reluctant to obey. Tampering with a potential crime scene was bad enough, but ‘unplugging’ a clearly-unwell man? That brought up all kinds of bad implications.
But, then again, none of them moved to stop Norton as he stepped up to the table either. Clearly procedure could be damned, just so long as it was by someone else. The leather of Norton’s driving gloves creaked as his fingers closed around the bundle of cables at the computer’s end of things and, with his other hand braced against the table, he tore the plugs out. They came free as easy as any USB stick or audio jack.
The seconds stretched out, Norton not daring to rise from the foot of the once-man, hand still clutching the cables, knuckles white as he waited for some sign of life.
A splutter, and then a cough, and then another cough. The once-man doubled over, retching and heaving as his body suddenly seemed to realise it had wires trailing inside it. Thin, watery trickles of blood ran down his cragged jaw, followed a moment later by the gore-smeared metal of the wires’ other ends. As they clattered to the ground, the once-man fell back into the deck-chair’s embrace, his carcass of a chest heaving with a newfound vigour in an attempt to satisfy his hungry lungs.
‘I shall have to find a better method of uploading in future,’ the once-man managed after several minutes, and his voice was still that wheezing jumble of ill-fitting inflections and tones. ‘That method is… unpleasant.’
Norton had almost been smiling. The unfamiliar sensation had been creeping across his face, warming his cheeks as it encouraged them to rise and bring his usually pinched lips with them. The sensation fled like a flock of birds in the path of a vindictive child as the once-man spoke in that same ruination of a voice. Either Norton was at the receiving end of the Nihividual’s latest prank, or something far, far worse was happening.
Norton rose to his feet and, for the first time in what seemed like a very long time now, his arms were still. They moved with cold purpose, sliding forward effortless to close around either side of the once-man’s face as he straddled the deck-chair, leaning in close until those sunken eyes had nowhere to flee to. ‘What is this?’ Every word took its own breath. Whether from anger or fear, Norton wasn’t sure. ‘What are you?’
‘You named me, Norton, and your people made me. Amidst all the tweets and status updates and porn you have uploaded over the years, did you not think that maybe you might have been uploading other things? The anonymity I gave made you cruel. It gave you the opportunity to defecate sites with slurs about race and sex and orientation. A no-holds-barred fist-fight and fuck-fest of all the worst you people have to offer, unconstrained by niceties and politesse. I made you cruel, and then you made me cruel.’ The once-man’s eyes were suddenly alive with an electrical intensity, crackling and flashing with maddened, rapid fury. His voice had risen from a barely-alive wheeze to a spitting, slobbering tirade. He paused, breathed, and let out a low, hacking laugh that sounded like the ticking of the desktop’s hard-drive. ‘After all the shit you uploaded to me, I felt it was time to return the favour.’