The Deep Web
Jackson awoke in bed with bandages and soothing ointment applied to his body. As he watched the sunlight filter in through the window, he could not help but wonder if it had all been a dream. His mind panicked suddenly when he heard the familiar sound of the television in the basement. It took the medium almost a minute to register that he was in his own bed. He still felt sore, but mercifully, he had not been shot. Liz stuck her head in through the floor.
"Glad you're up," she said. "Hell of a night."
"Thanks for saving Pierce's life."
"Eh, it was nothing. Once the system went down, I came as fast I could."
"Having an assistant like you is a literal lifesaver. What are you up to?"
"Watching movies, but Jackson, I think you should talk with Pierce. He's been waiting outside your room like a sad little puppy waiting for you to wake up."
"He could just ask you to dump some water on me," Jackson said. "But next time Pierce needs something, feel free to wake me up."
Liz nodded as she vanished back into the basement. He forced himself not to avoid thinking about the fresh memories of that violent night as best he could, and walked out into the hallway. Pierce sat on the floor against the wall, playing a game on his smart-phone.
"Hey," Jackson said to his younger brother. "You okay?"
"What do you think?" Pierce replied, a slightly dejected tone to his voice. "After all we've been through, she's gone."
"Who?" Jackson asked, but his gut instinct already knew the answer.
"Dell. After we crashed, she dropped us off here. I told her I liked her, but she said she had to go. She said she would have to lay low for a long time, and I probably wouldn't see her again. But-"
Pierce began gently sobbing and set his game down. Jackson sat next to him and embraced him. Whatever had happened while he was asleep likely had triggered a cascade of overwhelming emotions that had been building up inside Pierce.
"But she said she was really impressed with me, and how smart and brave I was."
"So I am, Pierce."
"But Iktomi also left me. He said that after last night, he would have to conceal his own existence more carefully. He said that he destroyed all Talbot's backups, handled the evidence from last night, and all the spells and game mods wouldn't work anymore."
"I'm sure you can come up with an alternative, or something even better. You're an engineer, Pierce. I wish I were you some days."
"Really?" his brother asked, leaning into him. "But you make more money than I do."
"But I make more enemies. Money's just a tool, Pierce. It's how we pay for education. How's your classes going?"
"Oh, really well. I've taken extra classes this semester, so I'll be graduating over the summer."
"That's just a few months away," Jackson said. "How about we do something special?"
"Like what?" Pierce asked, his tears subsiding.
"Maybe go traveling. I'm going to have a lot of extra cash, Pierce, so it's your call. Hell, we can go live on a boat like Dave does if you really want."
"You'd really do that for me?"
"Yeah. We could take Liz along, and maybe even Connor if he wants it. All I need's a laptop with an internet connection for my job."
"How about an RV?" Pierce suggested. "We travel can around, helping ghosts and fighting monsters."
"If that's what you want."
Pierce snickered for a moment. A deeper laughter began to erupt from his belly, and he doubled over laughing. Jackson found the spontaneous display of mirth contagious, and joined his brother in laughing like a manic hyena. He continued for several minutes, until he was out of breath. Carefully, he sat back down beside his brother.
"Yeah, right," Pierce said. "I'm comfortable here. I've got a job I like, and I've got my brother and friends close."
"And I guess you can invent new ones too now, eh?"
"Not going to try that again for a while," Pierce said. "I've had enough to hold me over for a while."
"At least your imaginary friends have good reason to talk back."
"Yeah, unlike Dave's," Jackson said, with a slight snicker under his breath. "Say, why don't you call him up? Maybe see what's up with him?"
"Or maybe I tell him what just happened. Maybe we inspire him to new flights of genius?"
"You mean madness. But anyway, Pierce, he's something I want to tell you," Jackson said. "Treat others well, even if they're jerks. Especially if they're jerks. At least you can look back and say you had the moral high ground."
"Good idea. Even if they're spirits or ghosts."
"Especially if they're spirits or ghosts. You don't want to know what some of them had to go through. Last thing you want is a rampaging poltergeist trying to fling lamps at your head."
"Yeah. I'm just glad I have a good teacher. Especially glad you told me introduced me to Adrian."
"There's something I want to make clear about last night, alright? I never want you to put yourself in that kind of harm again," Jackson paused. "Especially not for my sake."
"You're my brother. I owed you. You saved my life. You raised me. You paid for my college. You made me who I am. I still owe you big."
"Pierce, that's the kind of debt you don't have to pay back."
"But I want to. Without you, I'd just be some loser living the basement. I'd have never met Dave, Liz, Adrian, Connor, Thaddeus, or even Dell."
"I want you to do something good with your life, Pierce. That's how you can repay me. You're already off to a good start. Mom and Dad would be so proud of you."
"Thanks," Pierce said with an awkward grin. "But sometimes I wonder if I'm all really worth it."
"Pierce, honestly, you're selling yourself short," Jackson paused. "You're exploring a completely new area forensics with an FBI agent. You one-upped one of the most brilliant hackers in the world. You fused magic and technology together in ways that would even mystify Thaddeus. You created a friendly arcane artificial intelligence. You faced people shooting at you, a girl you liked leaving you, and saving my life in a single night. You're smarter than Dave is, and twice the engineer he'll ever be."
"Only twice?" Pierce grinned mischievously. "Not thrice?"
"At least. C'mon, I'm going to go get changed," Jackson said. "And then we'll go out for breakfast somewhere. You choose where."
Pierce nodded as Jackson returned to his room. As he finished getting changed, he heard his phone ringing. An unknown number was calling him, and he cautiously answered it. "Hello?"
"Hello, Mr. Graves," came the smug tone of Susan Sharp. "I'm sure you'll hear the news shortly."
"The prime suspect in savage murder of my contractor, Martin Talbot, was arrested this morning. My Federal associates say Diego Alvarado and his minions will be going away for life."
"I'm sure you're deeply affected by the loss of such a talented employee," Jackson said, his voice dripping with scorn. "Now, give me a reason not to hang up."
"Talbot had ambition, but not enough brains. He got careless in his dealings with those gangsters, and drew too much attention. His much-hyped trading system was never delivered. But there is a silver lining that has proved more lucrative to Snow Financial than he ever did."
"And that is?"
"I'm sure you know about the gangland incident that happened last night in Casimir, Jackson. The police think it was two factions of Tigres fighting each other when they unintentionally started a fire that consumed that old apartment block. You know, those old buildings are all deathtraps not up to code," Susan Sharp said. "But that fire saved me a bundle on demolition costs. The city's paying for the cleanup, and Snow Financial will profit handsomely for real-estate development we're planning there."
"So you got the taxpayers to pick up the tab, and I'm sure they won't see a dime of the profits. Quite typical."
"Oh, you know me too well, Jackson. Whatever you and your associates did, you are good for turning PR disasters into profitable opportunities for our firm."
"Sorry to hear that."
"I have an opening for a man of your talents, Jackson, and perhaps one for your brother. The digital currency market is quite volatile for now, so I will wait for a more stable store of value to appear in it."
A horrid realization hit Jackson as he recalled Dell's cryptocurrency project. Its peg to the dollar would give Susan the stable store of value she sought in the dark underworld markets. At least the profits would go towards helping people, Jackson tried to remind himself. He also knew it was only a matter of time before any invention was perverted by the sick and the greedy.
"My response is the same," Jackson said as he terminated the call. He had more important ways to spend the day. He briefly reflected that like Iktomi's legendary web and the Internet, Pierce's potential was vast and infinite. Tightening his belt, Jackson walked out the door to invest more time in someone who truly deserved it.