Unplaced: Julian and Cassandra I

Note: “Unplaced” Chapters are sections of text in an early form that haven't yet found a home in the official text. This one is very much a rough sketch of a rough draft, but I needed to get it written down, and I figured I'd toss it in here so people could see what's up.

Consider Julian’s life.

He was born in Texicali to a single mother, which was a more or less the norm in his place at that time. She had two other kids, from two other men, and Julian was the last before she swore off that lifestyle. Julian’s Grandmother was a huge influence on his life, as they spent a lot of time living with her and her husband, until Grandma moved to Ohio, pleading a desire to live somewhere less…revolutionary. This was when repatriation was easy.

From a young age Julian had shown extreme intelligence and a quick wit. He wasn’t ever meant to be big, although he did have a wiry strength. But he realized early that what he was good at was people and words, and that he could make this work for him.

He moved away home when he was fifteen, and headed north, realizing, like his grandparents, that Texicali was too messy to make a stable base for a real life. So Oregon ho! He made his way north to Portland, then to Tacoma. In Tacoma he was employed briefly by a tech security firm, first to do physical security for their location. After a few months of watching the security workers at work he asked if he could help out. Two months later he was a manager over a small group. Six months after that he was asked to train all the pen testers after successfully penetrating the company’s own network, then implementing the protocols that made his hack impossible. And then penetrating the network again.

And then he discovered Sin. Not the abstract concept of acting against the dictates of divine law, but an actual substance. It was Julian’s dubious honor to name the substance, and the name stuck.

There was a common fault of people who got Spines, and it was that they were somewhat ostentatious about it at first. Julian was no different. And why should he hide it? He was nineteen and a subject matter expert in his field. Getting a Spine was almost a business expense, except the company had refused to reimburse him for it. In his mind this was because they were afraid Julian would use it against them. They might have been right, Julian wasn’t sure yet. He was enjoying the fluid connection to the world of information, and the ability to know new things just by thinking about them. But there are still some things that have to be learned through direct experience.

“Hey Julian.”

“Oh, Hi Mark,” Julian responded as he walked into the room where they both worked. It was unlike Mark to come to work early…but that didn’t look like what had happened here.

“Did you stay all night?” Julian asked.

“Is it morning? I guess I did.”

“What are you working on?” Julian asked.

“Hah…yeah, this wasn’t really work. Not…exactly, anyway.” Mark said, sitting on the sofa the company had put in the room to make it look, to prospective employees, anyway, like employees were free to sit in quiet corners like this one and “take it easy”.

Mark bent his neck forward, reached back and flipped up the cover on the high-transfer port on his Spine, and pulled off a thin sheet of material, holding it between two fingers like a dead rodent.

“What’s that?” Julian asked, taking the patch from his colleague.

“It’s an experimental…thing? Countermeasure? It doesn’t really have a name, and it probably never will.”

“You’re testing countermeasures on yourself? That’s hard core, guy.”

Mark closed the port cover and leaned his head back. “Ha, well, we’ve struck on something new, here. It’s…different. It might incapacitate people, but trust me, they won’t mind.” Mark was speaking slow, slurring his words, and falling asleep.

“What is it?” Julian asked, but Mark was asleep.

What it was is this: A mesh of impure graphene, connected to each contact point in the high transfer port of a standard Spine, and two prebuilt instructions. The first instruction asked the Spine for permission to directly access sensory input and output; the device read a person’s senses and also gave sensations. The second instruction only fired when the main event was over.

The main event was an echo loop. The graphene mesh connected every point to every other point. Every input was made into an output everywhere else. Put another way, it was every form of synesthesia at once. A sound from outside would become taste, touch, and color, which would echo across the mesh, bouncing back to the other senses like waves across a pool. Every sensation was a new revelation. Sitting in a quiet room in the dark would suddenly become an entire symphony, light show, interpretive dance, massage, all at once. A fortunate side effect was that voluntary motor control more or less shut down under the onslaught. A person using the product would usually lay very still indeed.

As these sensations washed through the graphene it would heat up, and the impurities in the mesh would break, severing certain connections, changing the flow of sensation, shifting the symphony, moving the melody, and as more and more breaks occurred the heat increased in the still-functioning grid. Eventually the mesh was compromised enough that only a few strains were still transmitting, and at this point the final instruction would cut in, turning the network off and leaving the user to their own devices, and they would have to wake up in a world where color wasn’t sound and light wasn’t a caress.

And that’s why Julian named it 'Sin'. Because like every other sin it worked by overwhelming the senses, by making the real world pale in comparison. Sin broke down all the borders, ruined all restraints. It was uniquely selfish.

And he was hooked on it, by this point.

Once you had the fairly simple code it was cheap and easy to produce. At first it was just Julian and Mark who used it, but secrets like this don’t say secrets. Soon everyone in their firm would use it at least occasionally. Julian’s 'sin' moniker was short, easy to say, edgy, and better than “that graphene thing we meant as a countermeasure but turned into this thing we use for fun” so when the code went open source it was labeled “OpenSin” and spread amongst the technological elite.

But none of this mattered to Julian. For a while he had all he could ever need, at cost. He experimented, then dabbled, then stockpiled, then started missing work.

Because why on earth would he want to go to work? Work was dull and gray and boring. So he went for a while, made himself three hundred patches, and was frankly unsurprised when he was fired.

But how could he pay for more when his stash ran out?

He wouldn’t, he decided. When he had named the patches “Sin” it was to make it sound cool, now he realized how right he had been. Sin, somewhat unsurprisingly, led to addiction, and he wasn’t the kind that would get addicted to something. Julian had always been “straight edge,” a term he had found in a scan of a 20th Century magazine. Apparently it meant totally “clean” from drugs or tobacco or alcohol, which was an odd distinction to draw but the 20th had been an odd time. So Julian wasn’t going to be addicted to Sin. So he was done with it. As of this one…last…patch.

Well, after these twenty he got from Mark.

Or, well, after these three.

Wow, they’re getting expensive. Well, this one will be the last one.

This is where Cassandra found Julian. He had run out, but that was okay, he told himself, because he was off of Sin now. The last patch he had used was the last patch. Ever. He didn’t need the one thing that made life livable. He didn’t need the one thing that gave him a sense of connection to the cold and uncaring world. He could make his own way. Straight Edge.

Until things got hard and he needed one more. Then he had to find more work, enough to pay Mark, or…that nameless gray house…or that one guy downtown…for the next one.

Julian was doing little jobs for small time operators, and doing them poorly—or, at any rate, below his normal standards. Cassandra hired him as a contractor under the name “the Lady” and was impressed by his work. Most of her employees up to this point were, not to put too fine a point on it, government workers for a failed government. Compared to them Julian was a supernova. Cassandra had him do a few more jobs and noted, quietly, that he was looking worse and worse between jobs. She had him followed after he picked up his payment one time and understood. His next meeting with her was somewhat different.

“Julian, a moment,” She said as he was about to leave.

“Yes milady?” He responded. Julian, as should be obvious, loved antique language, and found any reason to use it. When Cassandra hired him as “The Lady” she couldn’t have known how much fuel she was putting on that particular fire. But just now Julian’s heart wasn’t in it. In his mind he was halfway down the block, headed for a little house, not far from this location. In that house he could get a patch and a room where he would be safe for two hours, and then, with this latest payment he could probably get some food and pay his rent for the month. Or just buy three more patches and plan on getting another job before the rent was due. Either way.

“How much of your last payment from us did you spend on Sin patches?”

“Ah…I’m not sure that is any of your business, milady. No disrespect intended, of course.”

“Nor any taken. But you are quick, and good at what you do. I don’t want to lose you, especially to something so…trivial.”

“Ah…I’m not one of your employees, milady.”

Cassandra waved this away as immaterial. “Then consider this a humanitarian effort. You’re a human and a good one at that. So I have a proposition. We will help you overcome this addiction—“

“I’m not addicted, it’s been two weeks—“

“Spare me please, Julian. It’s been four days, we’ve been watching your favorite Sin house. As I was saying, we will help you overcome this addiction. In return you will work for me and my organization, full time, at a rate double your current contracting rates.”

“That is a very generous offer…”

Cassandra smiled a little, but with no humor in it. “You won’t think so in two weeks, but I believe it would be a sound investment for my organization.”

This was a new idea for Julian. Someone thought he was a sound investment. Had she also said he was a good human? No one had ever thought that.

“What if I relapse?”

“Then you will be honest with me and with the doctor I assign to your case and we will ensure you are stronger next time. I need your brain in actual working order. I need you able to focus on tricky tasks, hard data, real problems. I don’t need you with no attention span and no interest in gratification that takes effort.”

And that was a beginning. She had been right; he hated the first two weeks. He spent them in the constant companionship of either Cassandra or someone in her employ, performing physical tasks for ten hours a day. Moving boxes. Setting up hotel rooms. Anything that would keep him moving and not thinking too hard about how much he wanted Sin.

After four weeks of this Cassandra sent him on a mission deep into Bonneville to extract an operative that had been injured and was in a safe house. This was another tactical move on her part, as Bonneville had outlawed Sin shortly after it had been invented and had done an admirable job keeping it out of their territory. By the time he came back to Seattle his headaches had almost entirely subsided, the withdrawal was almost ended. And what’s more, Julian had started to know himself. He had just done something very difficult: he had infiltrated Bonneville, found a sleeper agent on the brink of death, arranged medical care, and brought the agent back to Washington without being caught. A little spark of self confidence amongst the tinder of Julian’s psyche and caught.

But that wasn’t how their relationship had been solidified.