The Code Junkie
by Scott Lyerly
forum: The Code Junkie
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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The Code Junkie


          "He's a code junkie."

          "A what?"

          "A code junkie. A guy who spends every bit of energy he has hacking into the main frame and fuckin' around with government code."

          The two men stood behind a pale thin wisp of a man. Despite their conversation, the emaciated figure had not even acknowledged their presence. Instead, he remained focused on his handheld. Karloff, a hearty, beefy mountain of a man, turned off the weak light and closed the service closet door, leaving the bleary-eyed soul inside. Brian, a much smaller man, barely more than a boy, stared at the closed door.

          Deep within the city's sewer systems Brian had found Karloff. The large man lived alone underground, one of a few thousand outcasts who chose the life of a hermit. He did not subscribe to the revolutionary tendencies of the fringe element, the "djinnis", as they liked to call themselves. Rather, Karloff belonged to the quieter, more subversive group that called themselves "the monks".

          After fleeing from the scene of the crime, the knife still in his hand, the bloodstain fresh and wet on his shirt, Brian entered the sewer system. Rumors of the strange, almost ghostly nomadic monks had permeated his consciousness since his days as a child on the playground. It was a game they used to play with what few mean-spirited friends he had, the game of "Feds and Monks". Invariably, Brian was always the lone monk fleeing from the other children who played at being the feds. He was always caught and always subsequently beaten. Now he knew of no place else to go, so he delved into the darkness of the city's massive sewer system in the hopes of locating these rumored loners. Finding Karloff in the forgotten maze of endless tunnels had been more blind luck than plan. And Karloff was certainly no ghost.

          Karloff walked down the wretched tubular tunnel to the next service closet, the bulky man's splashing footsteps echoing as he dragged his monstrous body, limp and all, down the sewer. Brian followed, but turned and looked back at the previous door, his mind still processing the image of the pale man inside focused on nothing but his computer. The code junkie had had a haggard face and nearly translucent skin, the result of spending so long underground.

          "What do you mean by 'code'?" Brian asked, turning his focus away from the code junkie and back to Karloff, who he followed more by smell than by sight.

          "I mean that he spends his time hacking into the computer main frame that runs the city and searches for ways to disrupt the government."

          "I didn't even know what was possible," said Brian as Karloff opened the next door. He pulled the chain hanging in the center of the closet and the single pale bulb blinked to life. Brian remembered the harsh fluorescent light of the medical center, as well as his school. In contrast, the single spherical flo-bulb in the service closet was thin, casting a grainy light on the grime-covered walls.

          "Sure it is," answered Karloff. "The sewer's full of them. The main frame lines are housed in conduits, and the conduits are accessed through the service closets. There are a ton of closets down here."

          Karloff squeezed his girth through the door and motioned for Brian to follow. Brian took a gulp of air, most likely to be his last clean breath before following Karloff, at least as clean a breath as he could take in a sewer.

          The room was small and Karloff spent his time reaching around Brian and over him to unload the items he needed for the "hack". He produced a small handheld computer and several cables and wires, a small but weighty power pack, a black box that was thin yet menacing, and a pair of bolt cutters. He plugged most of the wires into his various boxes and then plugged them all into one end of the thin black box. In the other end he plugged a single cable with the vicious looking clamp at the end of it. He took the bolt cutters and reached over Brian to a series of conduits in gray plastic tubes. He squeezed the cutters together with a snap and a short spark of energy arced outward. Dropping the cutters in his raggedy cargo pants pocket, he reached the wire clamp out and let it bite down on the exposed fiber cable now visible within the cut conduit. He then thumbed buttons and opened a session on his handheld computer.

          "See," Karloff began as his session warmed up, "we monks clamp down on the conduit lines and hack into the main frame. From there we try to disrupt the government systems or facilities. The djinnis are trying to take the government down by acts of violence and shows of force. We monks are trying to get the computer to topple the government from within. To do this, we have to hack into the computer and change the code running each of the systems. When it works, it's a beautiful thing. When it doesn't, it's usually because we get caught.

          "But that's not the biggest danger. The biggest danger is becoming a code junkie, someone who physically needs to hack in in order to survive. It's a side effect of the genetic makeup of programmers, unfortunately. I mean the ones who were manufactured to be programmers. They have a genetic trigger built into their DNA. If they start working against the will of the government, the genetic marker fires and suddenly they have to program to remain alive. It's some kind of enzyme thing. Now, they could go back to programming for the government, but that's just no fun. So they hack into the main frame instead, but that increases the chances of being caught. The trick is to know how much hacking you can do at a time without the genetic marker firing and without the feds finding you."

          Brian tried to keep all of this in his head as it swam underneath the logorrhea and stench that oozed off of Karloff.

          "There's no cure for being a code junkie, unfortunately," Karloff continued, "unless you can rearrange your genetic makeup. It's a tough, dangerous, and painful thing to do, but not impossible."

          "So how can you help me?" Brain asked, trying to cut through Karloff's exposition to the meat of the matter. At the same time, he tried not to cough as his eyes began to tear from the smell of the sewers.

          "I," Karloff said, pausing for effect, "can crash the code surrounding your files."

          It took Brian's brain a moment to fully realize what that could mean. As clarity dawned upon him, he said, "You mean I could be…"

          "Free," finished Karloff flatly. "Yeah, free."

          Brian unconsciously put his fingers on his forearm where the federal ID tag sat, lodged underneath his skin, electronically labeling him as a dangerous escapee for any radio frequency scanner within half a mile. If Karloff could hack in and change Brian's files, he would no longer need to worry about scanners, or barcodes, or retina scans.

          "For a price," Karloff added.

          The moment of temporary relief Brian had felt was suddenly crushed. Of course there was a price, there always was no matter what the service. But "price" could mean several things, and Brian cringed at the word.

          "What do you want?" he asked.

          Karloff sat back as much as his bulk would allow. The rickety wooden stool left by the last monk groaned mightily under his weight. Brian, who had stood as far in the corner as possible, shifted his feet anxiously.

          "I want you to get something for me," said Karloff.


          "I need a splicer. A high-end one."

          Brian was familiar with the equipment, but didn't understand the request.

          "What do you want with a gene splicer?"

          Karloff rolled up his dirty wet sleeve and flashed a bar code tattoo on his upper forearm. Even from a distance, Brian code read the numbers. Four-four-five-zero-seven-three-one (the number set designating a specific creation request), two-five-zero (the number set designating the nature of the creation request—in this case, a code programmer), zero-five-zero-four-two-seven (the date of creation), one-six-eight (the number of the created product within the batch).

          Karloff was a manufactured programmer.

          "I too," he said, "am a code junkie. I need the splicer to cure myself."

          Brian shook his head.

          "How am I supposed to get a gene splicer? I can't even walk topside right now. I think every cop in the city is looking for me and you want me to go back to the lab buildings to boost a splicer? No way."

          Karloff shook his head.

          "No, no, no, dear boy," he said. "I don't expect you to simply walk into the genetics lab and walk out with a splicer. I'm not a moron. But there are other ways of getting splicers. Other people, other groups, have them. I want you to liberate one from them."

          Brian closed his eyes. Karloff's reek was overpowering. His head was starting to spin. Brian knew exactly what Karloff meant. He wanted Brian to steal a splicer from one of the djinni groups. The djinnis, he thought, the tongue-in-cheek name for the genetically outcast. They had adopted the name "geners" as a description, but then one of the few literate members picked a battered old copy of Arabian Nights out of the gutter and found stories about the genies. They discovered an alternative spelling and began calling themselves "djinnis". It was funny once. Then you met them and realized how dangerous they could be.

          Brian opened his eyes, unsure of his next move.

          "As I see it," Karloff said, "you really have no other choice. You can run forever or find me a splicer and be free. But just in case you're thinking about running, let me throw another complication at you: if you don't go find me a splicer, I'll turn over what I know about you to the authorities. Height, weight, eye color, even a current photo"—from somewhere hidden in the folds of his clothing, a flash blinked and Brian heard the whir of an old-fashioned camera—"all to be turned over to them for the cost of repairing my genetic marker."

          Brian gave Karloff a hard look, and the big man simply shrugged.

          "Someone's going to enable my cure. Either you or the feds, but I'm getting my genes fixed one way or the other."

          Anger flashed in Brian's eyes and his face flushed. Karloff watched with amusement, though his face betrayed nothing.

          "You really think your fellow monks are going to allow you to walk into a federal building, with all you know about them and their activities? You said yourself that the monks were more dangerous than the djinnis. What makes you think they'll let you live long enough to even get out of this sewer?"

          Karloff smiled, a merciless rictus of missing teeth and rotting gums. God, thought Brian, how long has this guy been down here?

          "Because they know I'll be giving up information about you." Brian's heart fluttered uncomfortably. "You see," Karloff continued, "you're famous, my boy. You're known throughout the city, in fact throughout most of the nation. You're the genetic anomaly. Not like the djinnis, failures of the genetics lab that parents didn't have the heart to destroy, or beautiful, flawless people so sick of being admired for the perfection of their creation, rather than for the people they are. You're the child who was born ugly, the one who should have been beautiful. The genetics creation system worked perfectly, no failure whatsoever, and yet here you are, in your hideous splendor. You're the boy they call the 'duckling'. Cute nickname, by the way."

          Brian's rage seethed. His eyes, the right one crooked and slightly lower than his left, burned with a new fire. The same fire that burned that night the man in the alley tried to club him and kidnap him. Under his crooked nose, his harelip scowled downward and his jawline tightened. He was ugly, no doubt, but he was human. That's what people seemed to forget. That's what the man in the alley forgot. That man had seen him as a reward, a dollar sign. He had grabbed hold of Brian, not realizing that Brian was willing to kill to avoid returning to Building F.

          Brian's hands were by his hips, his thumbs hooked into his pants. He shifted his hand slightly, his fingers wrapping along the handle of the knife in his belt. Its edges were still crimson. Karloff's smug smirk faltered as he realized what Brian was doing. He went for his jacket pocket.

          In a single smooth motion, Brian had the long thin knife out of his waistband and plunged deep into Karloff's chest. Karloff's eyes widened, but he made no other noise or motion, and Brian worried that the knife's point may not have reached his heart through his bulk. But then Karloff coughed and a spray of spittle and blood landed daintily on Brian's shirt. Karloff moved his mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out.

          Brian filled in the silence.

          "I guess you have bigger problems now than surviving as a code junkie."

          Karloff's body convulsed in what Brian thought might have been a laugh and then was still. He withdrew the knife and wiped it on Karloff's dirty shirt. He grabbed the handheld computer from Karloff's hand and yanked on the cables, ripping the clamp from the conduit. He shoved them into a small bag by Karloff's side and zipped it closed.

          Slinging it over his shoulder and hiding the knife in his waistband once more, he opened the door to the service closet. The sewer was dark and quiet, save for the endless trickle of running water. Brian closed the door behind him and took off running deep into the dark buried heart of the city.



copyright 2006 Scott Lyerly.

Scott Lyerly:
Scott Lyerly is an analyst for a large retail organization.  In his spare time, he writes, publishes "The SiNK", a small-press literary journal (, and chases after his two-year-old daughter.  His previous publications include "Black Petals" and ""