Featured February 13, 2020 Horror Literary Fiction Science Fiction Caren Gussoff hacking cyberpunk science fantasy near future near-future SF


By Caren Gussoff Sumption
Feb 12, 2020 · 1,699 words · 7 minutes

From the editor:

Cicada is a diver: an information broker who knows how to reach the Brimstone, the elusive under-under-belly of the internet. But the Brimstone isn’t just hard to get to—it’s devilishly hard to return from.

Author Caren Gussoff Sumption lives in Seattle and has published five novels and over 100 short stories. She was the recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Gulliver Grant, and was the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia E. Butler Scholar at Clarion West. She’s also new to Curious Fictions, so give her a warm welcome!

From the author: "Information wants to be free. But that doesn’t mean it is." Originally published in MISERIA’S CHORALE, edited by David Nell (2013)

Ten years after he ruined my life, Odo Baldisserotto yanked me clear out of a dive. All the way back top, and the ports closed behind me. 

If it was anyone else besides Odo, I would have been mad. But it was Odo – I even checked the IP range, and it was well within where he lived – so I was furious. 

I hadn’t made it all the way down to Brimstone, but it was still an hour of work I couldn’t get back, and Deputy Dog was on me. 

Plus, Odo damaged everything he touched, and he’d touched me plenty already.

"Leave me alone, Cicada," he typed. 

"Same to you," I answered. "You fucked a dive."

"How are you diving?" he asked.

"Fuck off," I wrote, then closed the window. He wanted to find out where I was and what I was doing. Filthy hackers. Social engineering tactics were no better than running a con. When Odo and I were together, I tried to get him off hacking. He’d be a fine diver and excellent miner. He had an unearthly mind for patterns. He’d nearly surpassed the record-holder for spotting supernovae with the naked eye. Robert Evans be damned. And that was just Odo’s hobby.

But he was still at it. And he was after me. 

Information wants to be free. But that doesn’t mean it is.

Grudgingly, I shut down my box entirely. And pulled the plug out of the wall.

Harassment and hacking were still illegal. It wasn’t what Deputy Dog favored, but it was something to give him. 

Deputy Dog let himself into my place. He did that so that I remembered he could. 

I wound up in bed with him. Odo made me angry; he also made me very lonely.

"My ex hacked me this morning," I told Deputy Dog. "He’s harassing me."

Deputy Dog rolled over onto his side so he could face me. "That’s not much."

I knew he’d want something else, something beyond. "When do I ever have more?"

Deputy Dog leaned in, kissed me. "You always surprise me."

I’m a miner by trade, a diver by calling, and a rat by necessity.  

When the cops try and go down into Brimstone, it up and moves, like a pot of shit with feet. I can go below and come up with something. 

Whether that is my talent or the fact that cops move online like they move through a crowd, I couldn’t really tell you. It doesn’t matter. I consult to stay out of jail. I inform to stay under radar. I squeal to keep Deputy Dog happy. I get to keep some of what I mine: bits, coins, private information. That keeps my whole operation going. But it’s diving down to Brimstone that I really love. 

It’s not easy to find, even for me. The road is never the same twice, and that’s how it should be: untraceable, irreproducible, anonymous. There’s an internet below the internet, all invisible data, password-gated, superseded formats and old scripts. 

Brimstone is beneath that. 

"I haven’t been able to find anything good," I told him. May as well be honest.

Deputy Dog laid his palm on the flat corridor between my breasts. "You’ve got to come with me," he said. 

"Today?" I asked, meaning not today.

"Soon," he said. His hand was cool and felt nice. 

"But, I gave you something. I always give you something," I said. 

"Not much."

"It is to me," I wiggled under his hand. "I need more time."

"You can’t put it off forever," he said, tracing down to my belly.

"I don’t need forever," I said.

"Good," Deputy Dog said. He was ready for another go. "Because you can’t have it."

"Let’s just talk," Odo wrote. "Where are you?"

It made me scared. I didn’t know what he could want. He wasn’t trying to get my wallet; he knew I plug in my wallet only to swallow new transactions. I looked over my shoulder at my bedroom table. The wallet was safe there. Or somewhere. It may be in the kitchen.

While my head was turned, he typed, "How are you doing this?"

"Doing what?" I didn’t want to let him know I was afraid. 

"You get to me," he said. "Every time."

The first time Odo and I met, he broke into my phone from across the room. He took me over completely. I thought it was romantic.

Odo started me mining. He donated CPU cycles, the unused time when he was looking for interstellar radiation, to Fortean causes: searching for extraterrestrials and cryptid genome sequencing. He used the same cycle principle to sauce up my box’s graphic processor. It could run hash values over and over and over in a pattern recognition algorithm of his own design. Spit out coins. Coins and coins. 

He could have mined. But he liked to push, He watched the patterns and cycles of patterns, then tried to figure out where they broke.

That was why he could see supernovae. That was why at some point, he replaced my name with Cicada. The cicada is born and lives, sings and mates, molts and dies in pattern. In a cycle. 

 And he must have been watching my patterns and cycles. Then he broke through. I checked my box’s back doors. They were sealed tight.  "How are you doing this?" I wrote.

Odo paused. Then sent, "You were never good at the how."

If it had been anyone else but Odo, I wouldn’t have been this frightened. I looked for some bravado, for protection. "Not true," I wrote. "I just don’t dangle hows in front of people like a dick." 

The comment found purchase. He aimed and fired back. "For someone who hated hackers, you push a lot of buttons," Odo wrote. "You just pushed buttons until you found mine." 

Then he signed off. 

The problem with sleeping with Deputy Dog was that he’d expect it every time. He’d take it in trade, over information. 

I preferred giving him information. It was a cleaner transaction. I wished he’d just see the sex as a bonus. 

But, in its way, his flexibility was timely. Every road I took led me to a gate, or a mirage, or a construction site, or back to the beginning. It squashed me. I wanted into Brimstone like Deputy Dog wanted me in bed.

"My ex is still hacking into my system," I told Deputy Dog. He’d drifted off a little, afterward, and made a faraway snore. "I don’t have more than that."

"You don’t have to give me anything," he said. "It’s not why I came here."

"Mmmhmm," I said. I changed the subject. "Maybe I should go out somewhere today."

"You ready to come in with me?" he asked.

"No. Not in. Out."

"Sure," he said. "Go ahead." He closed his eyes, but looked slightly amused. That pissed me off.

"I mean," I said, like I needed to justify myself to him, "I’m not trapped here. I’m not under house arrest."

"No," he agreed. "You aren’t."

"What’s funny?" I asked him.

He sat up. "Nothing. Just you’ve been in here so long, I’m not sure you can leave on your own anymore." He smiled. "You need me."

I slid out of the sheets. "I’m going to go. You can let yourself out."

In the living room, I waved away a spider web. I’d let everything crumble into a mess. I couldn’t remember the last time I did laundry, and I had no clean clothes, nothing matching. One right sneaker, one left flat. The left sneaker I finally found on a top shelf in the kitchen pantry, like someone hid it there deliberately. Then, my keys. The last time I saw them…I couldn’t remember. And my wallet. It wasn’t on the bedroom table or in the kitchen, in the bathroom cabinet or a desk drawer.

Sneakers, motley clothes, door unlocked. I made it to the stoop. Then the skies opened up, dropping sheets of rain. Sheets of it. I came back inside and collapsed onto the sofa to have a tantrum.

Deputy Dog let me cool off from anger to panic, down to sadness before he joined me. He was wrapped in my quilt, baring only bony legs and dry feet like a sadhu.

"I’m here to help," he said. "It’s my job."

Deputy Dog said he didn’t want to leave me alone. He stood behind me while I did a dive. He said he’d be quiet, and he was. I couldn’t even hear him breathe.

The modal popped open. Odo was there. "I am an old man, Cicada," he wrote. "I just can’t do this anymore."

I snorted for my audience. "Then don’t," I wrote.

"I can’t," he wrote. "You need to go, Cicada. You need to stay away from me."

"Stay away from you?"

"You haunt me," he wrote. "Every second of every day."

That was the kicker. I didn’t even sign off. I yanked on the cord to unplug it from the wall, but it came loose easily and I whipped myself in the face with it.

It hadn’t been connected at all. 

I sat in my chair and watched the monitor power down, as if everything was normal. Deputy Dog placed his hands on my shoulders and squeezed a little.

I held the cord up and out like a dead thing. "What the fuck is going on?" I said. 

"I think you know, Cicada," Deputy Dog said. 

When I didn’t answer, because I didn’t know, he reached over and tipped the black monitor up a few degrees. "Look at yourself."

I did. I tried. There was nothing to see. But I could see his face behind me. I had never noticed his big, black eyes. I waited for him to blink. 

He didn’t.

 "You’re already in Brimstone," he said. "There’s no further down to go."

I waited for him to breathe.

He didn’t do that either.

 "Information wants to be free," he said. He was so gentle with me. He put one hand on my cheek. "Are you ready?"

I placed my hand over his. "Take me in," I said.

Caren Gussoff Sumption

Caren writes emotionally messy sci fi that hits you in the feels.