Heaving for breath, I spin in a circle, looking for a way out. But I see the same thing in every direction.
Nothing but clowns. Dozens of clowns.
Every one of them laughs, giggles, or guffaws at the same time. They bobble their heads, slap huge clown shoes on the parking lot pavement, and toot horns. All face-paint and bulbous red noses and baggy costumes in all the wild colors of the rainbow, they look like they'd be right at home at a circus or a carnival or a kid's birthday party.
Except for the malevolent sneers etched into every one of their faces. Not to mention the jagged, shark-like teeth lining their red-lipped maws.
As the clowns close in, my heart hammers in my chest. I'm a big guy, I'll fight them—but I'm exhausted after what I've been through. The past two days of nonstop madness have wrecked me, I admit it. And I wasn't feeling up to snuff to begin with; the pain in my gut was bad at the start and has only been getting worse.
Plus which, I'm wearing a bright green knee-length dress and spiked heels.
Not exactly the ideal outfit for a five-eleven, two-hundred-twenty-five-pound guy to wear while fighting a mob of savage clowns.
"Back off!" Even as I shout it over the crazed laughter, I see it does no good. The clowns are still moving toward me.
Swallowing hard, I prepare to make my stand. I crouch and turn slowly, arms extended from my sides.
Suddenly, I hear a wild scream behind me. I whip around just in time to see a clown with a big plastic daisy on its pink derby hat charging toward me.
As I stumble back a step, the unexpected happens. The charging clown gets to within six feet of me and explodes, blowing apart in a burst of orange flame.
I throw up my arms to shield myself. Lumps of dead clown splatter all over me, smelling like burnt bacon.
Then, I hear another shriek and spin to see a second clown charging. Trying to dodge him, I trip on my spiked heels and go down hard.
This time, the clown gets closer, within five feet, before exploding.
And then I hear another scream, and another, and another. I hear three pairs of floppy clown shoes paddling toward me. I wonder how close this new batch will get before blowing up. I wonder if they'll get close enough to take me with them.
And I wish to God that I'd never gotten on the lifehacker radar in Crowdlife.
Three days ago, I could not have imagined how things would turn out for me. I was busy just doing my job as an agent of Crowdlife Outcomes Enforcement—the C.O.E.
My last case, the one that changed my life, led me to a rundown tenement apartment on Skid Row. A family of five was living in this three-room dump, dressed in rags, immersed in squalor.
Make that a family of five plus a screeching chimpanzee in a purple turban and glittering gold diaper.
"Look at this place!" said the man of the house, Mr. Byron Chellingham. "There's been a mistake, I tell you!"
"Sorry, sir," I said, looking around the dilapidated apartment. "Crowdlife has spoken."
"Like hell!" Byron swatted at what was either a passing bug or a gnat-cam—one of the multitude of tiny airborne camera-bots zipping through modern humanity's environment at all times. Gnat-cams constantly beamed video and audio signals to augmented reality devices like my contact lenses and aural implants, enabling them to enhance what I and others saw and heard. Gnat-cams also streamed data back to the social network providers; without them, Crowdlife, Yapstream, and the like wouldn't have a window on the world.
"Calm down, Mr. Chellingham." I raised my voice, trying to snap him out of it...doing my best to hide the fact that I felt sorry for him. "You need to get a grip, sir."
"But someone gamed the system! Don't you see?" Byron flapped his arms like he was trying to take flight. His bright green eyes were bugged out, his wife-beater tank top t-shirt soaked with sweat. "We don't deserve this!"
As if to punctuate his comment, the diapered chimp screamed its lungs out on the far side of the room, in the filthy makeshift kitchen.
"You signed the T.O.S." With practiced flicks of my eyes, I played the controls of my A.R. contact lenses. The image of a terms of service agreement appeared in midair between us, visualized as a sheet of paper filled with print and adorned with Bryon's signature at the bottom. Long ago, he had signed over his destiny to Crowdlife, the ultimate crowdsourcing social network, just like all the rest of us.
A century after Facebook and company, social networks truly ran the world. Everyone's fate was in the hands of everyone else; people voted to determine each other's fates, right down to the smallest detail.
The system ran pretty well, truth be told. Hard work and kindness were often rewarded by majority vote; cruelty and criminality were often punished the same way. People pretty much got what they deserved...usually.
Though I'd be lying if I said that the outcomes always made sense, or that everyone was always happy with their own personal outcome.
"I agreed to accept the will of the Crowd, yes," snapped Byron. "But that can't be what this is, Agent Grice."
As he glared at me, brief notes appeared in midair around him, visible to my A.R. lenses—social messages from the Yapstream posted by the multitudes watching Byron's story unfold:
Yes it CAN be!
The Crowd says U SUK
But what if he's 4 real?
Just then, Byron's wife, Sylvia, emerged from a doorway, armed with a broken broom handle. Waving it at the chimp, she drove the animal back three screeching steps. "Our likeability index is sky-high!" She scrubbed dirty fingers through her willy-nilly bird's nest of tangled brown hair. "We get millions of smiles on Crowdlife every day!"
Something swam past me—gnat-cam or insect, I couldn't tell—and I swatted it away. "You know that isn't how it works, ma'am. Likeability doesn't always correlate with fate-voting."
Forget smiles, I'd give em puke faces all the time.
But I like em! Giving em 100 smiles right now in fact.
"I'm telling you, something's wrong this time!" Sylvia lunged with the broom handle, driving the chimp back further. "We're too well-loved for the Crowd to drop us this low!" She jabbed the handle again, and the chimp whirled and darted through a doorway. As Sylvia raced after it, the animal's screeches were joined by the screams of the Chellinghams' three young children.
All that noise made my stomach churn, setting off the ongoing pain in my gut. "Look." I turned to Byron. "I get it. You don't like this outcome."
You tell im COE boy!
Spoiled rich piece of crap.
"Being transformed from billionaire to pauper? Terrorized by a chimp in a diaper?" Byron laughed like he was ready to jump off a building. "What makes you say that?"
"These things have a way of working themselves out," I told him. "If you play your cards right, the Crowd could send you straight back to the top overnight."
Thats right we could do that.
I'll vote for em in a heart beat.
I say vote em another monkey.
"But what if this isn't the will of the Crowd?" said Byron. "What if a single embittered individual is behind all this?"
I scowled. "A lifehacker?"
"I've heard of it happening before!" As Byron said it, the screeching chimp barreled out of the kids' room and hurtled across the apartment. "Trolls hacking the fatevote to get what they want."
"Fairy tales," I said. "Crowdlife's unhackable."
I heard theres a guy who.
Nothings unhackable you boob.
#lifehackers. No such thing bitches.
"Will you at least look into it?" Byron stepped forward and raised a hand as if to touch my arm, then withdrew it. "Please?" His eyes practically throbbed with desperation. Behind him, his wife charged after the chimp, howling with rage. "Because I don't know how much more of this I can take."
That’s what they all say.
Too true, that note from the Yapstream. I'd never met a gracefaller who didn't say the same thing. Words to that effect, at least. And I'd never met one who said they deserved what the fatevote stuck them with.
Tellim eff off LOL.
Still, something kept nagging at me. Even as my brain and the Yapstream told me to turn my back on these people, my gut said something different. In all my years with the C.O.E., I'd never seen a fall from grace so precipitous or bizarre.
What if lifehacking wasn't a fairy tale, after all?
As I stood there, thinking about it, someone knocked hard on the apartment door. Byron brushed past me and opened it wide.
Oboy I cant wait to see this.
Latest fatevote's in, I just saw whats comin.
Holy eff eff eff!!!
"Mr. Chellingham?" A man in a white Crowdlife Fatemaker uniform looked in from the hallway. He didn't wait for Byron to answer before pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with snakes through the doorway. "Special delivery, sir."
The Fatemaker dumped the snakes in the middle of the floor, sending them squirming in all directions.
Awesome! Eat it, gracefaller!
OMG! Look at em all!
Dance, bitches, dance!
"See what I mean?" Byron stared at me. "Do you really think I deserve all this? Why would the Crowd vote to do something this insane?"
But the Fatemaker wasn't done yet. "Bring in the next load!"
A second white-uniformed man rolled in a rusty gray steel drum on a dolly and set it down near the snakes. With help from the first man, he pushed the drum over, sending putrid brown sludge oozing over the floor.
It was raw sewage. The smell was so strong, it made me gag.
"Excuse me, Mr. Chellingham." The first Fatemaker held out a tablet computer and a stylus toward Byron. "Wouldja put your John Hancock right there, sir?"
Talk about adding insult to injury!
Byron just glared at him.
The Fatemaker cleared his throat. "Just, uh, need you to sign for this, sir. Please."
Byron turned to me. I could hardly hear his next words over the chimp's screeching as it swung fistfuls of snakes against the wall, bashing their heads in. "Will you at least look into it?"
I told him I would.
After the Chellinghams', I went straight home and jacked into the Crowdlife Backlot—the vast virtual workspace linking employees like me with Crowdlife's behind-the-scenes infrastructure.
As interpreted by my A.R. contact lenses, the Backlot looked like an enormous crystalline city sprawling over a sun-soaked plain. My point of view was high above it, gazing down from a gold-tinted sky.
Pausing, I took it all in, savoring the uninterrupted scenery. The view was uniquely private, free of all social network connections. Here in the Backlot, there were never any Yapstream popups or immersive ads to distract from the important work of running Crowdlife.
After a moment, I blinked hard, and a drop-down text menu of city sectors appeared in the upper right corner of my field of vision. Flicking my eyes, I chose the last option and began my approach, settling down like a feather through streamers of cloud.
I stopped alongside a tall tower and circled around it, looking for the right office. When I found it, on the 85th floor, I flew straight in; there was no need for walls or windows to block my way in this virtual environment.
As I landed, a young woman looked up from inside a conical well of holographic computer screens, dozens of them flashing with rivers of data.
"Cage!" She perked up instantly when she saw me and tucked strands of glossy black hair behind her ears. She was beautiful, and not just because that's how she chose to look in the Backlot. I'd seen her in the non-virtual world, too, and she was even prettier there. "What's the occasion?"
"Just paying a visit to my favorite Outcomes Analyst." I couldn't help smiling when I said it. "And let me just say you're looking lovelier than ever, Liz."
"Flatterer." Liz brushed a hand along the well in front of her, opening a gap, then got up from her chair and walked through it. "But I like what I'm hearing."
"There's more." I shrugged. "I'm also hoping to talk you into something."
Liz grinned and moved closer. "And what might that be?"
"I want you to work a little of that magic of yours," I told her. "You know the kind I mean."
She winked. "I think I know exactly what you mean."
"I'm looking for something."
She leaned closer, close enough for a kiss. "Aren't we all?" She closed her eyes. "I'm sure we can find it together."
"I wouldn't be so sure," I said. "Do lifehackers even exist?"
Liz's eyes shot open. She looked at me like I was crazy. "Lifehackers? That's what you're looking for?"
The ever-present pain in my gut spiked, then receded. "There's this family of gracefallers. They've been handed an unusually extreme outcome."
The fire drained right out of Liz as she leaned back away from me. "Crowdlife has spoken. They signed the T.O.S., didn't they?"
"Yeah, but..." I shook my head. "This outcome. It's so extreme, it's insane. We're talking a billionaire reduced to poverty, forced to live on Skid Row with a crazed chimpanzee."
Liz shrugged. "It happens, Cage. Sometimes a crazy outcome goes viral and sweeps the fatevote."
"It gets crazier," I said. "There's a wheelbarrow full of snakes and a drum of raw sewage dumped in the apartment."
Liz sighed and turned away, heading back to her data well. "Lifehackers are a myth. Crowdlife is unhackable."
"So I've heard." I followed her to the well. "Could you do some digging anyway?"
Throwing herself down on her chair, she closed the gap in the well as if she were drawing a curtain across it. "I can dig a little, but don't expect to find anything. You know how elaborate these systems are. Hacking them would be the equivalent of hacking God Himself."
"But if someone did hack Crowdlife, it would explain a lot," I said. "And you'd be a legend for exposing it."
Liz paused in the middle of working the well's holographic controls. "I'd be more of a legend, you mean. More than I am already."
I chuckled. "Exactly."
"Let me see what I can do." Liz's fingers raced over the glowing controls, triggering high-speed data scrolls on multiple screens. "Keeping in mind you owe me big no matter what I find or don't find."
"Of course." I gave her a wink. "That goes without saying."
While Liz dug deep on the data side of things, I punched out to take some personal time. The Chellingham case had been a welcome distraction, but now I had to step away for an appointment I'd been dreading.
Because as much as I wished it were otherwise, not everything was controlled by Crowdlife.
As I sat in Dr. Duncan's office and waited to hear his verdict, Yapstream posts popped up around him via my A.R. contacts.
Praying for him so hard.
Fingers and toes all crossed.
I can't stand the suspense!
I read a few, but they were coming thick and fast. Moments like this brought the rubberneckers out in force.
"Mr. Grice," said Dr. Duncan. "I'm afraid the news isn't good." His eyes were locked on the tablet computer in his hands. "Not good at all."
"Sorry to hear that." I sat back in my chair.
"Gene therapy has failed to prevent additional metastatic activity," said Dr. Duncan. "Future remission of your cancer is unlikely."
"Right." I nodded. "Okay then."
Dudes goin down...
Poor son of a bitch.
I swear Im gonna cry!
"What this means," said Dr. Duncan, "is a dramatically reduced life expectancy."
I cleared my throat. "How much time do I have left?"
"Based on your latest test results, I'd say not much." Dr. Duncan looked up from his tablet and met my gaze. "Two months, minimum. Four at the outside."
"I understand." Swallowing hard, I tried to ignore the swarm of popups filling the A.R. field all around Dr. Duncan, some of them covering his face.
I AM CRYING SO HARD RIGHT NOW!!!
2 to 4 months???
Just imagine if that was you OMG OMG
Needs all the smiles he can get right now
Poor guys got NO ONE, does he?
Not since we voted for his wife to divorse him.
Its spelled divorce.
"Now, it's possible," said Dr. Duncan, "that we might prolong your life a bit with targeted nanotherapy. Millions of guided nanomechs would deliver microburst neochemotherapy to cancerous sites." He paused. "Though as you know, that brings with it certain undesirable side effects."
"How much more time would that buy me?"
"One to two months," said Dr. Duncan. "As you know, your cancer is in a very advanced stage."
Take the nano, man, take the nano!
I know what I would do.
Serious no-brainer he has to do it!!!
But what about quality of life??
Dont be stupid man
1 to 2 months isnt much time
Closing my eyes, I shut out the tide of Yapstream posts. "So in a best case scenario, I've got six months left."
"Yes," said Dr. Duncan. "So what do you want to do?"
I told him I needed to think about it, and then I left. I decided to take the rest of the day off and headed straight for my favorite bar, where I ordered up the hard stuff as soon as I walked in the door.
As I sat and drank, gnat-cams or gnats buzzed around me, drawing the occasional swat. Yapstream posts popped up around me, too, telling me to do one thing or another.
Then, the message I'd been expecting arrived: the announcement of a Crowdlife-wide fatevote to decide if I should have nanotherapy. Crowdlife might not control the progression of terminal illness, but it could sure as hell tell me what treatment to select. (It's right there in the T.O.S.)
Before I could get my third drink down, another message got my attention...an incoming call. Instantly, my heart beat faster; this communication had nothing to do with cancer treatment.
Flicking my eyes over the contact lens controls, I answered the call. Instantly, the appearance of my surroundings shifted, reshaped by the A.R. lenses to look like the interior of Liz's office in the crystalline Crowdlife Backlot. As always, the Yapstream popups disappeared when I switched to the Backlot view.
"Hey, Cage." Her voice was clear in my head, beamed in through the aural implants behind my ears. Her image was right in front of me, seated as always within the holographic control well. "You owe me a steak dinner, hon. Make that two, plus top-shelf cocktails."
"Oh yeah?" I straightened on my barstool. "Why's that?"
"I thought your whole lifehacker theory was pure baloney," said Liz. "But then I analyzed recent protests among gracefallers and noticed a pattern. Seems there've been other cases of inexplicably insane outcomes in Crowdlife lately."
"Fifty-seven worldwide over the past two weeks," said Liz. "All very similar to the Chellinghams' outcome. For example, one family was split up, and the members were all sent to live in different countries as licensed fart inspectors. Another family ended up starring on a reality show called Whose Hickey?, stark naked at all times and speaking nothing but increasingly colorful obscenities."
"I've seen that show." I whistled softly. What the hell had I stumbled into here, anyway? "Any connection between the victims?"
"None." Liz ran her fingers over the glowing controls in the well, sending data streaming over multiple screens around her. "But I did find a link between the fatevotes that led to their outcomes." She grinned at me. "Which is where the steak dinners come in."
"Tell me about it."
"A lesser analyst would never have caught it," Liz said with pride. "Even Crowdlife's own artificial intelligence glitch-bots didn't pick up on it, and they're programmed to find irregularities." She tapped a finger on one of the screens in the well. "What I found is an elaborate system of vote trading conducted by an army of kamikaze A.I. proxy drones.
"The proxy drones commandeer Crowdlife lobbyists—A.I.s dispatched by system users to convince other users to vote certain ways. The proxies use the lobbyists to assemble blocs of carefully aligned votes, and then boom. They trigger a chain reaction of fatevotes setting off a web of outcomes, at least one of which is a Chellingham-style freakshow.
"Then the drones self-destruct," continued Liz. "The only traces they leave are the recorded movements of the enslaved lobbyists, which are buried under layers of obscure vote trades."
"Unbelievable." I shook my head in amazement. "Who could be capable of a implementing a strategy that sophisticated?"
"Someone who doesn't want to be found," said Liz. "Using forensic algorithms, I followed the proxy drones' footsteps back to a set of Crowdlife accounts—all of which belong to deceased users around the world. It was a dead end...almost." She tapped a screen, turning it to face me, and expanded it by flexing her fingers. "Then I dug a little deeper and turned up the dead users' old e-mail accounts. When I checked the spam filters, I found they all had one spammer in common. This company right here."
She pointed at the name on the screen facing me: Dada Wyrm, Inc. I'd never heard of it.
"The spams were encrypted," said Liz. "They were programs coded to launch proxy drone armies on a timer from the cloud servers on which the e-mail accounts were stored."
"Dada Wyrm, Inc." I felt a jab of pain in my gut and winced. "Got a physical address for this outfit?"
Within the hour, I was standing in front of a door in an uptown apartment building—number 23, home address of Dada Wyrm, Inc.
Gut aching, I took a deep breath and raised my fist to knock. At least I wasn't distracted by any Yapstream popups; as a C.O.E. agent, I was able to block Yapstream during moments of imminent danger.
As I knocked on the door with my left hand, I kept my right wrapped around the grip and trigger of my gun. After all, I was investigating manipulation of Crowdlife on a grand scale; I'd seen fellow agents shot to death over much less than that before.
No one answered my knock. I leaned closer but could hear nothing from the other side of the door.
Tightening my grip on the gun, I knocked again. Still nothing.
"Crowdlife Outcomes Enforcement," I shouted. "Open up. We need to ask you a few questions."
Next time, I knocked with the butt of the gun. Again, there was no reply. The only sound after my knock was the buzzing of the gnats or gnat-cams looping around me.
Before going in search of the building super and his set of keys to every apartment, I reached down and tried the doorknob. I did it as an afterthought...and was surprised when it turned in my hand.
Open sesame. That was what I might have seen on the Yapstream if it hadn't been blocked just then.
It's a trap! That, too.
Because of course the open door suggested just that. It would be the perfect way for the lifehackers to end my investigation into Data Wyrm.
But trap or not, I knew I had to go forward. The Chellinghams and the lifehackers' other victims, past and future, were depending on me.
Pushing the door open, I stepped over the threshold. Sweat trickled down my back as I peered into the darkness, keeping my gun upraised in case of attack.
The place was just as silent as it had been with the door shut. I was starting to think there was nobody home, that the apartment was a dummy address set up as a decoy by whoever was behind Data Wyrm.
Then, as I took another step forward, a holographic panel leaped to life in front of me, an online screen as tall as I was and twice as wide. Blinking at the sudden flare of light, I saw the familiar orange and green homepage of Crowdlife zoom out of the center and fill the screen from edge to edge.
At least I knew I was on the right track. Scanning the room by the glow of the screen, I saw no one and nothing but four bare walls, a bare floor, and a bare ceiling—but clearly, the Dada Wyrm trail was getting warmer.
Gut burning, I tried to walk around the screen for a closer look at the rest of the room. I quickly gave up, though; the image of the screen stayed in front of me no matter which way I turned. As long as the A.R. lenses were still in my eyes, I couldn't get away from it.
Suddenly, the screen changed from the Crowdlife homepage to the familiar box-and-column layout of a fatevote in progress. The question being voted on appeared at the top of the screen in bold black letters: Should Agent Grice hop on his left or right foot while battling the three killers walking down the hall?
The tally was in the hundreds of millions for either option, and the leader was "Right Foot" with 67% of the vote.
I spun to face the doorway with my gun at the ready, and the screen stayed square in front of me. I heard three sets of footsteps in the hall, not far away, but it was hard to focus with the fatevote tally flashing in my face.
Just then, the numbers stopped changing, and the winning choice turned bright red and expanded to five times its original size. "Right Foot" had won by a landslide with 82% of votes cast worldwide.
An audio message played in my aural implants. "Agent Grice must now comply with the outcome of this fatevote, according to the Crowdlife terms of service that he signed on October 21, 2192. Failure to comply will lead to extraordinary measures taken against him and his Crowdlife account within one hour."
The screen finally dissolved...just as a tall man dressed in a red uniform pushed through the doorway, brandishing a rifle.
Without hesitation, I fired my pistol, throwing two shots into the intruder's forehead. The impact spun him to the floor with a heavy thud, clearing a path for the next guy to push through.
I was getting ready to fire again when the Crowdlife screen reappeared smack in front of me with a familiar message: Agent Grice must now comply with the outcome of this fatevote, according to the Crowdlife terms of service that he signed on October 21, 2192.
"Damnit!" I gave in and hopped on my right foot, and the screen vanished. With a clear shot at the bad guy, I let loose three slugs—one to the forehead, one to the throat, one to the chest in quick succession.
As soon as the second shooter dropped, number three barged in and started firing. Taking aim while hopping wasn't easy, but I managed to tag him in the temple and shoulder, dropping him beside the other two attackers.
With all three down, I stopped hopping at once and bolted into the hallway. Looking one way and then the other, I saw no additional intruders.
But a heartbeat later, I did see the Crowdlife screen again. It leaped up in front of me without warning, displaying the tabulation of another fatevote in progress.
This time, the Crowd was voting on a new question: Agent Grice: Off limits or open season?
So far, there were zero votes in favor of me being off limits.
The pain in my belly flared. Heart bashing my ribs like a boxer's fist, I charged down the hall, trying to get as far from the lifehackers' apartment as possible. The whole time, the Crowdlife screen stayed in front of me, making it tough to see where I was going.
Just as I reached the elevator, it dinged. The doors sprang open, revealing a pack of howling maniacs wearing hockey goalie masks and brandishing machetes.
The fatevote winner turned red and expanded, but I already knew it was "Open Season."
The Crowdlife screen vanished. Bolting past the elevator, I ran for the stairs. Every step of the way, the howls and footfalls of the machete-bearing maniacs were close behind.
Throwing open the door, I barreled down two flights of stairs like my feet were on fire. When I got to the bottom, I crashed through the exit door without slowing down.
And I found myself facing a flash mob armed with cream pies and fire hoses.
I didn't even get a moment to catch my breath. As soon as I emerged from the stairwell, the cream pies came flying in my direction. One after another, they bombarded me, covering me with gooey cream.
When that fusillade stopped, I wiped enough goop from my eyes to see that the Crowdlife screen had reappeared. This time, the text was a direct message to me: No more advance warnings, Agent Grice. Our fatevotes will be invisible to you from now on. You will pay the price for sticking your nose in our business.
As soon as the screen blinked out, the mob cut loose with their fire hoses.
I was blasted back by what I thought at first were jets of water...but I quickly realized the liquid was something else. Something with a noxious smell I knew all too well.
Pinned against the stairwell door by the force of the jets, I shut my eyes and mouth. Gathering my strength, I staggered right, letting the current push me until I rounded the corner of the building.
Then, I charged down the street away from the flash mob. I ran as hard as I could into the night, praying no one would flick a lit cigarette in my direction.
Drenched in gasoline, spattered with pie cream, I ran for blocks, winding my way through the heart of the city. When I finally thought I was clear, I ducked into an alley and threw myself against the wall, heaving for breath.
My gut was killing me, and I felt dizzy. I was in over my head this time; if only I'd thought to bring backup to investigate Dada Wyrm. As it was, the only help I could turn to was Liz in the Backlot.
Without further delay, I flashed her an emergency ping. There wasn't time to traverse the virtual environment of the Backlot in the usual way, soaring down into the crystalline city and alighting in her office.
She responded immediately. Through my A.R. contacts, I saw her image pop into the alley, standing three feet away from me.
"Cage!" She looked instantly worried. "What happened?"
"Lifehackers," I told her. "They ambushed me at the Data Wyrm address."
"You look terrible!"
"I barely got away." My stomach twisted, and I doubled over...then sucked in my breath and straightened. "They're spinning rogue fatevotes, siccing the Crowd on me. They want me dead, Liz."
She nodded grimly. "I'm on it, Cage. I'll do what I can. But someone who can hack Crowdlife..." She narrowed her eyes. "We've got our work cut out for us."
"Tell me about it." I thought I heard voices in the distance and looked at the mouth of the alley. "I don't think we've got much time for it, either." I swatted at the ubiquitous swarm of tiny bugs swirling around me. "They can track my feed from the gnat-cams through Crowdlife."
"Raising the alarm as we speak." Liz's hands danced over controls I couldn't see; her visual didn't include them. "Sending in every defensive bot and A.I. countermeasure in the arsenal."
The voices were getting closer. "I hope it's enough."
"I'll do everything I can." Liz stopped working unseen controls and met my gaze with her warm brown eyes. "Just try to hang on, Cage."
Because I've got so much to live for? The cancer would take me in a matter of months, anyway. I shouldn't care, should I?
But I did. "I'll do my best, Liz."
Just then, the voices rushed up, and people poured into the alley. They washed over me in an angry tide, snatching away my gun and hauling me off my feet.
As they dragged me away, I heard Liz's voice over the frenzied roar, calling to me from the Backlot. "Hang on, Cage! Hang on!"
Then, she was gone, and I was on my way to whatever madness awaited in unknown quarters.
The flash mob stripped me naked in the street, then wrapped me in Christmas paper and pelted me with eggs. When that was done, they stripped off the wrapping paper, rolled me in a red carpet, and peed on me while singing cartoon theme songs from the 70s.
My treatment went downhill from there. Each abuse, each outcome of a Crowdlife fatevote engineered by the Dada Wyrm lifehackers, was more bizarre than the last.
They dragged me through an art museum in a little red wagon and smashed famous paintings over my head, one after another. When they were done with that, they shoved me into a koala costume, poured grease down my back, and spun me in circles until I vomited. Next, they stuffed me into a knee-length green dress and spiked heels and made me bungee jump off the Crosstown Bridge.
All the while, the pain in my gut intensified. By the time they plunked me on the dance floor in a nightclub and beat me with frozen legs of lamb to the tune of "The Chicken Dance," I felt myself losing ground. I hadn't been at my best to begin with; I wasn't sure how much more insane torture I could take.
Not that the mob ever seemed to run out of new ideas. They blindfolded me, threw me in a dumpster full of loaded diapers, and let me dig my way out with one arm tied behind my back. They put on stork masks and pecked the hell out of me while reciting the preamble to the Constitution. They tried to force-feed me live tarantulas and crumpled-up pages of old comic books.
Then, finally, there was a break in the action. They led me into an empty school gymnasium and left me there.
Heaving for breath, I stood at center court and looked around. The place was peaceful and dark, lit only by the dim red Exit signs over the doors.
For a moment, I dared to hope that my ordeal was over. Maybe the lifehackers were finally done with me; maybe they figured I'd gotten the message.
I wiped blood off my face with the back of my arm, then wiped my arm on the front of the green dress. I was about to kick off the damn spiked heels and head for the nearest door, just in case I had a chance to get away.
That's when the lights blazed to life and the clowns rushed in.
They poured through the doors and surrounded me, cutting off all escape routes. Laughing, howling, giggling, they closed in around me, jagged teeth glistening.
Then, one at a time, they charged toward me and exploded. I dodged once, then twice, barely avoiding being blown to bits along with the clowns.
The next time, three come at me at once.
The three clowns charge toward me from three different directions, shrieking like berserk Vikings. As beat as I am, I can't imagine that one of them won't get me. Maybe I'll be better off that way, going out with a bang instead of fading painfully as the cancer takes me.
But something deep inside clicks into place, and I refuse to give up. Maybe it's just that I'd rather go down fighting, or maybe it's plain stubbornness. Maybe it's sheer anger after what I've been through. Does it even matter?
Sucking in a deep breath between shattered teeth, I gather what strength I've got left—which isn't much—and leap into action.
Just as the clowns are nearly upon me, I dart out of the way. They collide and explode with shuddering force, spraying clown bits in all directions...but no Cage Grice bits. Though the blast knocks me down hard, I'm still alive.
But for how long? Even as I hurry to get back on my feet, I hear more floppy shoes smacking toward me. Looking around, I see three clowns...four...five this time, shrieking and charging in my direction all at once.
Looking around frantically, I wonder what my next move should be. Running and dodging seems to be the only choice. If I try to fight the clowns hand-to-hand, I'm guessing they'll blow up on contact.
Wait! Maybe that's the key.
On the floor a few feet away, I see the blown-off arm of one of the dead clowns. I bolt toward it, grab it up, and keep running, heading straight for the nearest of the five attackers.
I haul the severed arm back like a baseball bat, gripping the wrist and hand, and swing it hard at the clown's chest. As soon as the arm makes contact, the shrieking clown explodes.
The blast knocks me off my feet, and I roll twice with the impact. When I come to a stop, I see another clown almost upon me with arms outstretched.
Kicking off the shoes, I scoop one up and whip it at the clown with all my might. He explodes in mid-shriek, sending chunks in all directions; some are big enough that they set off other clowns, which in turn trigger others and so on.
I keep my head down until the blasts subside. When I look up again, the ranks of the explosive clowns have thinned out noticeably. Maybe now, I have a fighting chance.
Grabbing the other shoe, I scramble to my feet and take a quick look around. From what I can see, a dozen clowns remain. The odds are much improved.
Picking the spot where the fewest clowns remain, I get ready to make a run for it. Adrenaline burns through my bloodstream, setting my heart spinning like a dervish. The pain in my gut peaks and refuses to subside, but I'll push past it.
Every muscle in my body tenses as I prepare to sprint. If I die trying to escape this surreal trap, so be it; at least I'll have given it everything I've got left.
Brandishing the shoe, I start running. I expected the clowns to close ranks in my path, and they do...but they also take me by surprise. Wheels sprout from their floppy shoes, enabling them to move much faster than before.
The clowns swoop toward me like angry bees, and I keep running. As I go, I realize this is likely the end for me, but it doesn't freak me out at all. I feel like I'm watching it from a distance, from outside my body, and all I can think is how this isn't the way I'd ever thought I'd die. If someone had told me even a year ago that this would be my death scene, I would've laughed in his face.
Yet here I am. Running in a green dress, wielding a high-heeled shoe against a pack of clowns in roller shoes.
Then, suddenly, the doors slam wide open all around the gym. Men dressed in loincloths and bunny slippers barge in, armed with blowguns—hollow tubes held up to their mouths, jungle weapons loaded and ready.
They all fire the blowguns at once, sending a barrage of darts into the cavernous gym. But none of the darts comes anywhere near me.
It quickly becomes clear that the blowgunners are shooting at the clowns. Again and again, as the darts hit their floppy-shoed targets, the gym booms with thunderous explosions.
All the clowns go up in short order, surrounding me with fiery blasts that make my ears ring. Clown bits rain down everywhere, splattering the floor and covering me with shards of bone and tissue.
Somehow, I stay on my feet through the series of blasts. I'm shaking my head hard, trying to clear the ringing in my ears, when something zips toward me—not a dart, thankfully.
It's a Crowdlife screen, as tall as I am and twice as wide. It zooms up from a pinpoint to full size in a heartbeat, displaying a message in big, bold letters.
All current fatevotes impacting Agent Cage Grice are hereby nullified in accordance with the Mercy Provision of the Crowdlife Terms of Service.
"What the hell?" It's too good to be true; the start of another twisted torture, perhaps?
Or maybe it's just as advertised. As I read the message, the blowgunners turn and leave the doorways...and the doors don't close behind them. All the ways out are wide open and apparently unguarded.
Just then, Liz's image appears alongside the screen, grinning. "All better now," she says. "Sorry I'm late, but you wouldn't believe how long it takes to round up a tribe of blowgunners at this hour."
Seeing her puts me instantly at ease. "So it's over?" My body untenses, and the spiked-heeled shoe falls from my grip. "It's really over?"
Liz nods. "I didn't think I could pull it off at first. The defensive bots and A.I. countermeasures were useless against the lifehackers. Everything we sent after them ended up compromised and turned back against us."
"But you still did it." I smile, broken teeth and all. "You still saved me. I owe you big time."
"Actually," says Liz, "you owe your cancer."
I scowl at her, wondering what the hell she's talking about.
"There's a Mercy Provision in the Crowdlife Terms of Service." Liz gestures at the Crowdlife screen beside her. "A fatevote necessitated by terminal illness supersedes and nullifies all others." She points a finger at me. "And it so happens there's just such a vote in progress for you, my friend."
I have to think for a moment before it comes to me. "Oh, right." In all the madness, I forgot. The Crowd was voting on whether I should undergo nanotherapy for my cancer. The treatment could buy me 1-2 months of life, accompanied by undesirable side effects. But the vote started hours ago; why is it still in progress? "There's a Crowdlife provision for this?"
Liz nods. "Typical Crowdlifer. Sign your fate away without reading the T.O.S." She sighs loudly. "The provision's meant to restore a person's dignity if they're dying. It gives them one last bit of control over their lives at the end."
I frown. "How? If the person's still subject to the will of the Crowd on that fatevote 'necessitated by terminal illness,' how do they have any control?"
"Because the one who's dying always gets the last vote. The deciding vote, that overrules all others." Liz walks up to me and places her phantom hand upon my shoulder. "You get to cast the deciding vote."
So that's why the vote is still in progress after all this time. "They're waiting for me to vote."
"Good thing you put it off when you did." Liz's voice softens as she stares into my eyes. "Good thing it happened in the first place."
"Yeah." I smirk. "Thank God for cancer."
We laugh, and then we stand there for a moment in silence. The flash mob hasn't come back, and Yapstream remains offline; I haven't removed the imminent danger block since entering Dada Wyrm's apartment.
The only intrusion is the Crowdlife screen, with the all-important fatevote announcement emblazoned across the top: Should Agent Cage Grice undergo nanotherapy to treat his cancer?
Pain shoots through my belly, and I wince. I haven't had much time to think about this, what with the lifehackers and exploding clowns and all.
"So?" Liz looks at the screen, then back at me. "What'll it be? Nanotherapy or no nanotherapy?"
I gaze at the results as they now stand: 93% of the vote in favor of nanotherapy, 17% against. It's a landslide.
Should I take those results as a sign? Would a slightly longer, less pleasant life be preferable to a shorter one without so many side effects?
It's all up to me. After a lifetime of putting my destiny in the hands of other people, I finally have the power to set my own course. The cancer gave me that much, at least. The one thing that could not be controlled by social networks has liberated me from them in the end.
Maybe it's time to take that liberation to the limit.
"What's it going to be, Cage?" Liz's brown eyes lock expectantly with mine. "How are you going to vote on Crowdlife?"
I look once more at the screen with its question and results...the fulcrum upon which the rest of my life will turn. And then I grin.
"None of their business." I pop the A.R. contact lenses out of my eyes, and the Crowdlife screen disappears. So does Liz. "Every vote's a secret ballot from here on out."
Then, I flick the contacts over my shoulder and wander off through the gym, the remains of exploded clowns squishing between my bare toes.