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Cage: Part 14

Shikkai was waking slowly, enjoying the warmth of Aishuu's naked body curled up against his, when he heard the 'click' of the apartment door opening. He was out of the bed in seconds, pressing himself up against the wall next to the bedroom door, listening intently. He held his arm up, blade ready to snap out at a moment's notice.

Footsteps trailed down the hallway towards him, and he tensed, ready to attack. Then a head poked in the doorway.

"Shikkai? Aishuu?"

Shikkai's blade was already sliding forth, and he jerked his arm away from the door with an explosive "fuck!" bursting from his lips. Kami leapt away as well, avoiding the blade that had been aimed straight for his head.

"Gods, Shikkai!" Kami's eyes were wide with disbelief.

"Don't you fucking well know not to sneak up on me by now?" Shikkai demanded, pulling his blade back in before it did any damage.

"I didn't know you were that paranoid."

"If I weren't that paranoid I wouldn't be alive right now." Shikkai's frown intensified as he realised he was still naked and Kami was eyeing him curiously. "Oh, get out and let me get dressed," he grumbled, turning away from the hacker and searching for some clothes.

"Whatever you say," Kami laughed, and his footsteps disappeared back into the main room.

Shikkai pulled on whatever came to hand, and paused to stare down at Aishuu, still sound asleep and completely unaware of what that was going on. He pulled the covers up around the boy, kissing him on the forehead.

"You'd make a terrible flunky," he said softly with a smile, and then walked out to the main room.

"So, what was so important you had to almost get yourself killed over it?" Shikkai tossed himself down on the sofa across from Kami.

"Nothing," Kami gave him an evil grin. "Well, actually, I came over to give you two these." He waved two small, flat pieces of metal at Shikkai. "After your run-in with that faker yesterday, I want you both to be accessible at all times."

"What are they?"

"Spindles. You seen 'em?"

"Yeah." Shikkai pulled a disgruntled face. "I never wanted one -- it's bad enough having addicts buzzing my door every day, I don't want them to be able to weave me wherever I happen to be."

"Well, you don't have addicts to worry about anymore. Just me, Kitsune, and Aishuu. 'Sides, you can do more than just send weaves with 'em. There's a whole lotta stuff on the Spindle-net that's really useful if there's nowhere to hit the looms and you need information." Kami got up from the sofa, crossing to sit next to Shikkai. "Here, let me show you."

"Yeah yeah." Shikkai held out his left arm, annoyance flaring briefly. He still hated the idea of anyone being able to contact him whenever they wanted. But he let Kami press the soft metal against his forearm, watching as it moulded to his skin and stuck itself in place.

"How's it stay on?" he asked, curious in spite of himself. Kami glanced up at him, then grinned.

"Tiny clips that graft onto you, all around the edges. Don't worry, it comes off easily, too." Kami tapped the flat screen, and it lit up, giving off a soft green glow. "Here, let it register you."

Shikkai pressed his thumb against the screen, watching as it scanned him and then brought up his datafile.

"Easy. Now you've got a spindle-weave as well as a loom one. Here, I'll put in mine and Kitsune's so you can weave us." Kami tapped the screen again, and a tiny console plate slide out. "Pretty cool, ne?"

"It's small." Shikkai hid his surprise, not wanting Kami to see how woefully uneducated he was when it came to technology; there were just some things he never got around to keeping up with, and it was always a shock to see how fast they changed over the years.

"Yeah. This is the latest. Can't get much thinner than this or it'd be too thin to exist. I hated those old chunky ones." Kami's fingers moved fast across the console, and then he tapped it again and it slid back inside the spindle. "Done. It's easy to use. Think you can set up Aishuu's when he wakes up?"

"Probably." Shikkai shrugged, taking the other spindle from Kami.

"Good, 'cause I got stuff to do. Tell him to meet me in the looms tomorrow morning. I'll get Kitsune to start with you tomorrow, too. He'll probably weave you, so don't lose the damn thing, okay?"

"I won't." Shikkai watched as Kami got up and headed for the door; he remembered the night before, and the strong lips that had taken him over for a short time. "Kami, about last night.."

Kami turned, his smirk knowing, his eyes amused. "Want more already?"

"No." Shikkai glared at him. "I just wanted to.." he hesitated, unsure for a moment. What did he want to say? He wasn't sure why he'd even mentioned it. "I'm not like that." He hesitated again, then added, "anymore."

"Don't worry." Kami shrugged his shoulders. "I am. I can take it or leave it, I don't care. There's plenty of other pretty boys who aren't involved like you are, and I like to play. Just tell Aishuu to watch who he plays with; not everyone's easy as me."

"That guy.." Shikkai remembered the lonely eyes. "He's a friend of yours?"

"Yeah." Kami shrugged again, then turned back to the door. "Seeya." He was gone before Shikkai could say anything more.

Aishuu was already deep in the looms and Shikkai had eaten breakfast and was idling in front of the vis-unit by the time Kitsune weaved him the next morning. The soft vibration of the spindle against his forearm startled him -- he'd gotten used to its presence suprisingly quickly and had almost forgotten it was there.

He hastily tapped the answer pad, and a tiny image of Kitsune appeared on the screen.

"Hey, Shikkai! Ready to learn?" Kitsune was as cheerful as ever, even this early in the morning.

"You got it. Where should I meet you?" Shikkai grabbed the vis-unit control with his free hand and flicked it off, as he launched himself out of his chair.

"No-perma zone 653. Think you can find it easy enough?"

"Sure. Meet you there in five."

"Gotcha." Kitsune's face vanished, and Shikkai relaxed into a chair near Aishuu, reaching for the other kit that was hooked up to the loom connection. He jacked in, letting his mind settle for a few moments against the suddenly different perspectives of the looms, and then looked around him. He was already in a no-perma zone; Aishuu's alteration of his sig must have phased his link to his home location. It was a moot point, as he never used the thing anyway.

He sent a query thread to the main locator, and recieved the co-ordinates for zone 653. He hastily moved himself there, to find Kitsune already waiting. His avatar, like Kami's, wasn't human; he'd taken animal form, and a crafty looking fox was curled up in a resting position, nose on its tail.

"Hey, took your time." Kitsune sat up, fox-mouth splitting into a grin. "Where's your stealthfield? And I bet you're still traceable."

"Shit." Shikkai hastily flicked his trace off and his field on, frowning. "That's what I get for rushing."

"Rule number one; never rush when it comes to hacking." Kitsune laughed. "You don't need to remember those, though, you realise. You can program it into your sig."

"I can?" Shikkai looked down at his avatar, wondering about all the code that made up he himself, here in the looms. This was no real body; this was a smooth cover for nothing more than a whole lot of data.

"Yeah. Kami said you used to hack. How long's it been?"

"Too long, obviously." Shikkai paused, thinking. "I guess thirteen, fourteen years since I did it properly."

"Fuck me. That's way too long. No wonder you had no idea." Kitsune shook his head with a grin. "Things change so fast on the looms; now's the time to catch up and keep up. Used to be most people'd just run a program everytime they logged in to set their prefs, trace and stealthfield and all that. Became common enough that most of it got worked into sigs so you could set it and forget it."

"Nice to know. Even the stealthfields? With the corps on our tails? I would've thought they'd crack down on that."

"They use 'em too. They just use different types. There's a standard field setting for off/on. What field you use is up to you. They get changed all the time, anyways. Go into your sig settings. Take a look around."

Shikkai did as he was told, the screen overlapping his view of the looms, and was amazed by all the preferences he saw.

"Shit. I never thought to look at this. It's been so damn long since it was actually useful..." He tapped at the screen, changing things to his liking; his home location, his prefered avatar, and of course his trace and field settings.

"You got that right. You oughta get some new avatars, you know. This one bites when it comes down to hacking. No point showing anyone who can see you what you actually look like."

"True. I never could get the hang of animal ones though. I'm too used to manipulating the arms for control." Shikkai looked down at his avatar again. When it came down to it, it was all in the mind, how one manipulated the looms. But it had always been easier to do in ways that were familiar, which was why human avatars had always been the standard.

"So make a human one that looks nothing like you. We can get you on other types later; there's more control involved, so yeah, it's more difficult. Anyway, for today, it doesn't matter. It's time to learn. Let's see. You know about tandems, right?"

"Sure. You stick a faker in the main connection, jack in behind it, and the looms only registers the faker as being online."

"Right. Tandems are probably the best thing hackers ever invented. Not that you necessarily need one, with what Aishuu did to your sig, but you should probably use one so that you never put this new sig in danger."

"I guess so."

"Save it for tomorrow. What do you know about fakers?"

"Um.." Shikkai paused, not wanting to sound ignorant. But he was here to learn, after all; the whole point of being a student was that you started out knowing nothing. "They're not real sigs and you can use 'em to cover up real ones. That's about it."

"Fair enough. Most fakers you've seen are the chipped ones in tandems, right?"

"Yeah. I change mine every so often, buy one off a friend."

"Fakers like that are one way to make quick credit for a hacker, but mostly only hobby hackers buy them." Kitsune grinned as Shikkai almost unconciously gritted his teeth. "Don't be so offended, you were a hobby hacker. It's not an insult. So listen, fakers are made like this: there's a one day waiting period between a person dying and total loom confirmation of that fact. In that day, it's possible to intercede the real confirmation and make it seem like it was incorrect data. Takes some tricky code, and it's nothing I'm gonna teach you yet, but it's possible. Now, if you did it on every single person who died, there'd start to be problems. People like their dead relations' sigs to die gracefully. So most hackers have programs running, that scan for first notification of death, and check for things like still-living relatives and the like. If it looks safe, they'll run the code, make them 'alive' again, and bang: you have a faker. If someone tries to follow your tracks, they end up following a dead person."

"Man, I didn't know there was so much in it." Shikkai tried to imagine how many people must die per day in a city as big as theirs, and how many hackers were constantly running programs looking for them. "And Aishuu can really make them outta nothing?"

"Oh, yeah." Kitsune laughed. "A couple of people like him and you could ruin the rest of the hacker's faker business. There's something just that little bit better about a faker that never even lived."

"He's dangerous stuff." Shikkai shivered. Where the hell had Aishuu gotten these abilities? Here Shikkai was, thinking Aishuu and Kou were slum nobodies like everyone else.. in a way, it scared him to be so involved with someone so important. He himself really was a nobody, after all. Aishuu, on the other hand, was probably going to make history.

"Depends on how he uses his skills." Kitsune grinned. "Never mind him. We're here to teach you. Today we're gonna hack the credit records, and not the stupid hack decoy way, either, if you're familiar with it. Then we can get on to some serious shit. Think you're up for it? Still think this is what you wanna do?"

Shikkai looked around him, at the absolute black of the looms, at the glowing, neon colours of the threads that shot through it all the time, in all different shades, in all different directions. The looms were so vast, so vibrant, and always changing. It awoke a feeling of excitement in him. There was power here, too, power to make his adrenaline rush and satisfy him more than the killing high he got; and it was a lot safer, too.

"I wanna do this. I wanna be a part of it all."

"Good." Kitsune leapt to his feet. "Then let's get started. We've got a lot of work to do!"

And so began their lessons. Shikkai found that the looms were as addictive as they had been when he was a kid, when he'd begged anyone he knew to teach him whatever they could about hacking. He'd totally immersed himself in the looms then, too, only using drugs as a side job to make him extra money, until that time when he'd lost his best and only real friend to a threadcage.

Back then, the shock had been too much, and he'd done the only thing he could think of to do; he'd turned his back on the looms and focused entirely on his other business. And he'd built himself up to be one of the most successful middlemen in the bottom of the slums. But things had changed so much since then. The pain had faded, the loss had lessened, and now he had Aishuu to think about. Aishuu's whole world was quickly becoming the looms, and Shikkai was determined to be a part of that, too.

And so he found that he finally understood why Aishuu spent all day in the looms, hardly even coming out to eat; he was doing exactly the same thing. They didn't go outside, and they didn't need to, because everything they needed was in the looms. Shikkai was on a virtuality high and Aishuu was delighted by it; in the times they spent out of the looms, the few hours they shared before sleeping each night, Aishuu became a wild child in bed, his unsurety fading quickly as Shikkai taught him everything he could. And Aishuu thought up a few tricks of his own that left Shikkai weak with passion and pleasure.

Kami and Kitsune took a day or two off a week, and Aishuu and Shikkai soon found that there was more fun to be had in the looms than just hacking; they immersed themselves in cyberscapes, wild stories of imagery and sensation and emotion that were never quite coherent enough to follow set paths, but were always enough to leave them breathless and amazed, wanting more.

Shikkai was so caught up in this new, entirely different life, that he could almost forget all the troubles that had dogged them for so long; the fakers and the near deaths and the ever-looming presence of WeaveLock. But of course it always had to come back and catch up with them sooner or later, in one way or another.

"Shikkai?" Aishuu's soft voice intruded upon Shikkai's comfortable almost-doze, and he frowned slightly, not opening his eyes. Curled around the smaller boy's warm body, the covers pulled loosely across them, he was feeling content, safe, and he didn't particularly want to interrupt his drift into sleep.

"Nn?" he mumbled, trying to sound even more asleep than he was.

"We.. we're hitting WeaveLock tomorrow," Aishuu murmured the words softly against his ear, and snuggled closer against him, maybe believing his act. But the words were enough to drive sleep -- and contentment -- completely out of his mind.

"You what!?" He sat up, his eyes snapping open of their own accord, and stared down at Aishuu. The boy stiffened in surprise, blinking wide eyes up at him in the semi-darkness.

"WeaveLock.." Aishuu's voice trailed off, and then he sat up as well, slowly. "I thought you were asleep," he added, pulling a lock of hair in front of his face, hiding his eyes with it.

"I almost was." Shikkai shook his head, shaking off the last of the safe feeling. So much for that. He'd let himself get lax, and he should've known better. "What do you mean, hitting? What exactly are you going to do?"

"Get whatever files they have, on Kou, and on me. Kami says we can do it now. I can do it."

Shikkai felt the frown creasing his face, and smoothed it away. But he couldn't quite smooth it out of his voice. "Kami says so, does he? And did he just up and tell you this, or did you beg him?"

"I don't beg." Aishuu glared at him around the lock of hair for a moment, then pushed it back out of his eyes. "It's okay. I can do it. It's not like it's anything big. We're just gonna go in, get the files, get out again. I'm not gonna do anything to them."

"Just!" Shikkai rolled his eyes. "Just hack into the biggest corp in the city. Sure, why not. Shall we hit the deeper data on the credit records and shower some unsuspecting slumdwellers with credit while we're at it?" He halted his words, hearing an edge of hysteria he didn't like. Hysterical wasn't him. But nothing was what it seemed anymore, and Aishuu evoked too much in him that he didn't understand. That scared him.

Aishuu was silent, just looking at him with those huge violet eyes. As if he'd explained everything he needed to; or maybe those eyes were explaining the rest. The determination in them. This was what he'd promised to Aishuu, back at the very beginning of this madness. The truth behind Kou's death.

"I want to be there." He spoke firmly, decided; he couldn't, and wouldn't, stop Aishuu from what he'd once promised the boy, but he wasn't letting Aishuu go alone.

"You're not.." Aishuu hesitated, then shrugged. "You couldn't do the hacking. You might mess up. Expose us."

"Not if I just followed you." Shikkai ignored the sting Aishuu's words had against his pride; the boy was right about his ability.

"You could still mess it up. Trust me." Aishuu toyed with his hair again, his eyes dropping to the covers.

"Ask Kami then. I want to be there somehow. I don't care how." Shikkai paused, then reached out, grasping the boy's arm. "I promised you this, Aishuu. I'm going to see you get it."

Flickering eyes raised to meet his. "I know." The eyes dipped, and Shikkai could almost feel them tracing the path of the crescent scars around his face. Then the boy nodded, once. "I'll ask him."

"Good." Shikkai sighed, feeling tired again, but no longer content. He let go of Aishuu, and lay down again, on his back this time, staring at the ceiling. He felt on edge, and he realised it was a familiar feel, returning; once he'd always felt like this. Like he had to watch his back at every second, even in sleep. He'd spent a lifetime like this. Aishuu had made it go away, and now the boy had brought it back again. Maybe he was safer in the long run, being on edge, but he wished the feeling had stayed gone.

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