Spaxter leaned back with bemused languor on the not-quite-sterile sheets of the shaky pneumatic bed that dominated Room 404B of the Gimme Shelter Carpark Motel, and tapped the rubberized control pad on the sideboard with his gloved hand. Instantly a section of the wall at the foot of the bed crackled and flared to luminescence. It was an antique liquid crystal video panel, 100 square feet of visual real estate, starred by tiny fissures radiating from impact craters that marked several decade's worth of frustrated viewership. The basic signal was abysmal, a primitive cable hookup evidently routed through a dozen splitters and remodulators, servicing the entire motel from just a single authorized feed. Still, even without the glove, it would have been better than the blank wall. With it he was able to step around the simple barriers between this screen and the uplink trunks used by the motel's accounting software, and could in this way directly access entertainment services and other feeds. As Spaxter caressed the pad with a glove-clad finger the connections flashed by. He scanned unconsciously for distinctive signals, local pirates, or unusual configurations that might indicate a specialty downlink or a commercial transaction, or, well, anything random or interesting. As he scanned, a very faint glow, reminiscent of underwater phosphorescence, could be just detected where glove and pad made contact. The reception began to improve.
He had been experimenting with a new configuration of the hardwired teleneural implant that made a sculpted skull's cap of the upper left hemisphere of his head. This was the Meld gear that was the most significant legacy of his recent intimate association with a powerful secret service, and normally it allowed him a moderately successful approximation of telepathy when activated in close proximity to someone with sufficiently organized conscious thoughts. When used in conjunction with the remarkable glove, a semi-organic sensor/scanning pad of his own design, it allowed him a complex interface with cybernetic devices, and to a certain extent with more organic neural structures as well. It increased his ability to accurately "meld" with a subject by as much as 400 per cent, for example, when he was able to actually shake that subject's naked hand.
He was lying low, didn’t feel like going through the business of cloaking his signature for the cloud, and so had to find his amusement through this awkward hack. But he had never before attempted to focus his combined technologies to access the data-sphere from a domestic land-line connection, as there had never really been that much spare time for such frivolity. Here in the Gimme Shelter Carpark Motel, bruised and safe, winding down a three-month adrenalin odyssey that had seen him as a key operative in the unbuckling of a vast belt of corrupt power that had encircled the Earth, happy with the fringe benefit of the resultant chaos that had allowed him to safely eradicate all files on himself that remained in the ‘sphere, at last free and clear of The Agency and safely anonymous again... he felt it was high time for a little r&r (which in his recent life had mostly stood for recuperation and reconnaissance).
His hand glowed, and the channels oscillated and danced, exploded onto the screen like slow fireworks, crawled serpentine from top to bottom, knife-slashed roughly into place, slid open, shimmered into existence, punched a hole for themselves with focused precision... every signal had it's own characteristic technique for gaining control of a display. Without the sophisticated interface, or any other pay or private add-on, the tuner in this cracked old screen would be stuck with the closest, most powerful local source, which would detect the active viewing device and send a commercial program directly at it. Using his glove, a device he had dubbed "The Gauntlet", he could bypass all restrictions and access anything that made it onto any platform that somehow connected to the motel trunk.
Here and there he paused briefly in the cascade; to attempt the translation of the grand prize question on a Eurasian game show, ogle a Phillipino sex education broadcast (or was it another game show?), allow the numbingly slow suicide of an Armenian martyr to play itself out on a Death Channel, ease into the hypnotic digital animation on a High Restriction Therapy feed (a powerful neural drug of military origin marketed as an exclusive form of meditation medicine to the super-rich)... For some reason he kept coming back to the talking head shows, the bland local news anchors desperately trying to make spectacle out of fiercely edited daily drudgery, the low budget chat shows with paid actors pretending to be real people with sensational diseases or extraordinary mating habits or extraterrestrial intelligence talking to over-groomed hosts with grotesquely exaggerated expressions of concern; the Weather Eunuchs, the Pet Swaps, the Grief Relief call-in-and-moan shows, the infinitude of Selfie channels...
What kept bringing him back to these mundane programs, when he was theoretically capable of tapping into the most exotic entertainment the planet could concoct, was at first a frustrating mystery. Time and again he would soar into the stratosphere of restricted information and priority access and top credit pay channels, lapping up the dense patchwork of sex and violence and international posturing like a heady cocktail of a dozen liqueurs, only to find himself once again drawn to these gritty real-time images of tawdry banality with their laughable performers and shallow discourse. There was something going on, here, something more than...
YES! He found it! A light tickling at the back of his brain in between words spoken on the screen, a subtle buzz like cross-talk or parallel interference. In a second he had identified what was happening and begun the fine-tuning of the Meld that would exploit the ever-so-faint signals of whose source he now had no doubt.
"Those are the scenes as the situation unfolds right now in Doughboy County. Hundreds of farmers have taken to the main street of Villersville to protest the proposed Hermetic Dome Weather Control Program that will impact on all that region and fifteen surrounding counties." The speaker was a grey man, wearing a grey suit, against a grey video matte of a gathering of grey men in a grey street. It sounded post-American, obviously rural, probably originating no less than a thousand miles from Spaxter's present location. And it was of absolutely no interest to him whatsoever. Except for what he also heard:
"Sonofabitch bin boppin’ her a week near's ah can tell," came the wispy words, clearly the same speaker as was onscreen, the sentence sandwiched somehow in between the words that came from his mouth. "What'm ah doin' here when ah should be doin' him with a meat tenderizer the fuggin'....."
Spaxter smiled broadly and began scanning again. This was tremendous! He had never imagined that he would be able to actually generate a meld over such a distance, over such a tenuous linkage, in such a situation of extreme disconnectedness.
He reflected for a moment that in all likelihood he was the only person that even knew that such a thing was possible. The Melds were of incredible scarcity -- as far as he knew his was one of only three now implanted and functioning. He had been using his by far the longest of those, and with the greatest degree of personal freedom. No others had access to an interface device of the subtle flexibility of his Gauntlet, and even if they had it was unlikely they would have developed the sensitive rapport that was his legacy of a decade of hard usage. This meld was a good example, the barest whisper of a trace signal densely interwoven with the hard data, like trying to read the text on the other side of a newspaper held up to the light. But... there it was.
"Blow it out your ass you pompous bastard," a sweetly smiling interviewer with china doll features was thinking at an overweight and balding politician in the midst of a circuitous apology for some piece of bad management or other. Spaxter soon learned what it was the politician was thinking about her anatomy, and his favourite accessory for doing it. On a talk show he found a host constructing a complicated three-dimensional word puzzle in his head while he nodded and smiled condescendingly at the comments of a thin bearded figure in a robe. Uncertain as to why, Spaxter attempted, unsuccessfully, to capture an identification tag for the program, so instead recorded several seconds of content before moving on.
Here a scientist on a live-feedback environmental documentary directly refuted in his thoughts the statement he was making bold-faced to the camera; there a prancing clown was taking a gaggle of toddlers on an animated "fun-filled tour of the galaxy", this hyperactive knot of figures appearing to travel instantly from the surface of one planet to another, the clown informing them merrily what fun they were having while graphically depicting for them with his mental voice just what would be actually happening to their unprotected bodies on the hostile surfaces of these worlds. On an expensive pay per view sports channel a battered and sullen prizefighter was chanting like a mantra the figure he was being paid to throw the fight, and screaming it loud in his head after every landed blow. An evangelist with a widow's peak had an inner voice that sounded like a supernatural slaughterhouse. Spaxter could hardly wipe that one fast enough, scanning randomly.
What came up felt like it must have been close, for the signal was strong, and live. It had the look of a natural healing channel, with a man in an odd, form-fitting black suit, very blonde, talking to the camera in a manner so completely relaxed that Spaxter immediately felt any tension wash out of him. The man, whose translucent blue eyes never blinked or broke camera contact, seemed to be describing some kind of device or jewelry, specifically showing how one could be removed. He turned his head to reveal that he was sporting a tiny silver disc over his temple. He then held up for the camera a small grey box, turned it to show that the bottom surface was silver, then placed this surface against the disc on his flesh. When he pulled it away the disc was gone. He turned his head the other way, revealing another disc in the corresponding position, and repeated the motion to the same effect. "There will be a brief period of disorientation" he spoke neatly, as if carefully fixing each syllable into a special slot in the listener's brain so as not to be misplaced. Spaxter melded, felt for the internal monologue, fully expecting this perfect image to be just another facade for an equally malign mind... and came up blank.
He had encountered something like this phenomenon before, individuals with a hole in their signal where there should be mental activity, but at the same time he knew this wasn't quite the same. In fact there WAS something there, but so different that he had at first mistaken it for random hardware interference. Carefully he tuned for it, like a watchmaker balancing a tiny movement, turning the precise focus of his electronic awareness.
What he found appeared to his meld-vision like a slow-moving river of deep blue, shot with jet-black, and stars. Out of this stream, every now and then, there leapt a glowing 3-dimensional geometric figure that oscillated in colour and shape for a few seconds then disappeared with a soft pop. Spaxter immediately started recording in meld memory, simultaneously ran a few checks to make sure this was not a malfunction, and began probing the signal.
There was no question he was accessing this feed from some local terrestrial distribution point, yet in characteristic it was substantially idiosyncratic. He often picked up images and designs during a meld, memory snapshots and raw emotions as three-dimensional "visual" events, but even in direct contact these were usually fleeting and difficult to isolate. And anyway, this remote business had up to this time only picked up those forceful sub-verbal levels of the mind, nothing like this dense packet of information.
As he probed the stream carefully he caught tiny explosions of data that emanated from the geometric figures when they expired, but so fast that he knew his meld was incapable of recording them. He found a level, in a black rivulet, where the words that the man was saying on the screen were being in some way "manufactured", and then prepared for the body to speak. He followed this stream-within-the-stream and found the whole emanated from a dense starfield reflection from which the geometric bundles were leaping in great numbers. Where they emerged from the surface it rippled like mercury.
A warning light went on in his visual field as his primary receptor, the one in the glove, achieved critical saturation, and automatically irised its sensitivity. He lost some detail, then, but it was so dense now that it rivaled any direct interface. It was, save for that one piece of language construction, utterly incomprehensible to him. Great waves and winds of hugely organized energies were sweeping past him now, leaving only confused traces behind them. Vast walls of obviously powerful symbolic construction rose and fell before he could focus on any portion.
Suddenly it was as though a current picked him up and swept him down a chute in a stream of energy bundles, spinning down a light speed tunnel. One of those bundles rushing along suddenly changed, drew nearer, abruptly altered its course to come hurtling towards him.
In an instant it was as if that bundle had drop-kicked him out of the stadium, and he found himself once more in normal meld status, observing that stream in the middle distance where the man in black's words were being processed. On the screen he noticed the man stopped mid-sentence, and leaned forward as if peering into the room itself. There was a single uncanny moment of disorientation as they seemed to lock eyes, and a feeling of intense unreality swept over him as he observed the man's next words being methodically manufactured in that deep blue river.
"Ah," the man in black said, slowly. And after a short pause, "Spaxter."