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Winter Peterson Breaks the Wall

Jonathan Helland lives in Vermont where he works in higher education and has taught in the US, China, and India. When he's not reading and writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror, he can most likely be found enjoying the outdoors and practicing historical swordplay.

********Editor's Note: Adult language in the story that follows********
I was there the day Winter Peterson broke the wall. I know you're gonna call bullshit. Ask any experienced brain-jockey and they'll say it's impossible. You can't hack squishware. But if you ask that same jockey if Winter Peterson could've done it and you might get some hesitation, some uncertainty. Winter's the kind of fearless motherfucker who can do the impossible. And I was with him when he did.
Nobody rides minds like Winter. He goes far beyond the usual voyeurism, thrill-seeking, and password theft that keeps most jockeys happy. Told me once he'd never even bothered with invitational mind-riding--you know, the kind where some cam-girl tells you they're going naked cliff-diving with three of her hottest friends at precisely 5 PM eastern and she'll DM her base code if you tip high enough? Invitationals are how all brain-jockies pop their cherries, but Winter's first time, if you can even believe the way he tells it, was Maximillius Fucking Brady during his title defense against Honey Hernandez. You know, the fight where he broke his leg and pulled off the victory anyway? Winter was riding his sensory-network that whole time. He felt everything, both the physical pain and the joy of triumph. I wasn't there that time, so I can't tell you it's for real. I mean, how's a virgin mind-rider going to break through that kind of security?
But I believe it. You would too, if you knew him. Shit I've seen him do, I'd believe anything. And I did see him limping a few days after that ride. Phantom pains like only the best jockeys get, only the ones who can really attune to their host. But he always said it was worth pain to feel what it was like, just for a few minutes, to be the best fighter in the world. Winter has this thing about genius, you see--sports, art, coding, music, doesn't matter--he won't bother riding a mind that doesn't shine in some way.
I was there the day Winter broke through the wall. Yeah, I know you're still skeptical, but I was there, in the same room and riding piggyback on his sense-net. Call me what you want, if I know someone can go places I can't, I'm gonna ask him for a hitch. So, when Winter told me he was planning to attend a private Grammy after-party inside the mind of Mad-Ax-Killa himself, I was all, "you gotta take me in there with you, bro!"
Hitching isn't like real riding, of course. Everything's duller and slower. Less intense. Winter feels everything Mad-Ax feels, but I only feel what Winter feels, so when Winter gets bored, I feel bored--even though Mad-Ax is high on a stimulant program and grinding on no fewer than three barely-dressed actress-slash-models. And when Winter gets bored he drifts away from the sensory network and starts sifting through Mad-Ax's inactive applications and memory files. I'm all, "Go back, go back, one of them girls smells like ripe pears and looks just like Julio's hot step-sister." But I was mouth-talking into the meat space like a noob and of course he can't hear me. He's inside Mad-Ax's mind, staring at The Wall. He thinks at me: "I'm going to hack his squishware," and before I can even tell him that's impossible, that you can't hack a fucking bio-brain 'cause there's no fucking code in there, we ghost right through the wall.
On the other side, inside the squishware, it smells like fresh mildew, looks like a strobe light in a snowstorm, and there's this constant bass buzzing. That's all I get before a massive error signal flashes across my ocular feed and I'm booted out of Winter's sense-net. I look over at Winter and see blood running from his nose, dripping off his chin, and soaking into his jeans. He reaches for the empty tissue box to his right and, like a mime, pulls an imaginary tissue and wipes at his nose. This just gets blood on his hands and smears it around his face, but what does he care? When you're riding, input from the meat-space is present but forgotten, like how you forget you're hungry while you're getting a scrotal tattoo.
I, on the other hand, am freaking the fuck out! Nosebleeds aren't a normal hazard of mind-riding, and I'm still feeling a little after-buzz from Mad-Ax's virtual-stimulants. I think maybe Winter's having a brain hemorrhage or something, so I try shaking him by his shoulders and slapping him a few times. I'm about three seconds from braining for an ambulance when Winter yawns, stretches, and stands up. He wipes at his nose again, glances in the direction of the tissue box, and walks to the bathroom. I yell "what happened?", but he just says, "hang on a minute," cool as anything and I hear the shower come on.
Motherfucker comes out an eternity later in a towel. I give him a look like "tell me everything, Motherfucker" and he just shrugs and says, "did you know Mad-Ax doesn't write his own rhymes?"
I must be looking at him like he's growing a dick out of his forehead, but he just shakes his head.
"There was no poetry in there at all, man."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

Author Comments

This story was the result of a prompt given by my writing group of former Vermont College of Fine Arts classmates. Among other images and phrases (mostly cut in later drafts), the story had to include an empty box of tissues. The result was my first foray into cyberpunk, touching on questions that have always intrigued me about the nature of consciousness, the creative process, and "genius."

- Jonathan Helland
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