Bright Stars Gone to Black: A response to the Chuck Wendig terribleminds flash fiction challenge

The resulting story from the challenge posted on Chuck Wendig's terribleminds blog on the 5 October 2012 is as follows. Again, it is a first draft and it is exactly 1,000 words in length. Enjoy.

Bright Stars Gone to Black

They came for Corcoran at night, imposing and not to be argued with. He was packed and ready, dressed warm, one appearance layered under another as he’d been instructed. He’d been warned his talent would bring him trouble.
If it hadn’t been for Em Jay, he’d be in more than trouble; he might just have been dead. As it was, he’d had to leave his cat behind, his collection of vintage science fiction in paperback and old DVD, and a closet-full of graphic novels, the latest of which he hadn’t even had time to open, let alone read.
No one knew about tonight’s little escapade, just as no-one knew about last night’s escapade, or the night before’s or the night before that. Corcoran was in so deep, he should have drowned a long time ago. He should have pulled out but he hadn’t. If he didn’t find a way in, he grew irritable and distracted, at risk of betraying the persona he’d so carefully built, at risk of letting something of himself show through.
Em Jay had cracked it, sneaking round the corners of his public display to steal a little piece of him for herself. She never would say how she’d found out, but he had tracked her through the ethernet, following her cyber signature like a digital hound. He knew who she really was, but didn’t dig into her secrets.
Discovering what was hidden in the neural by-ways, stalking the net-shadows until he saw under their cyberspatial skins, Corcoran rode the electronic waves and swam through bits and bytes until he caught a scent of what was hidden and dove deeper. He found a lot of people that way, and uncovered more than a few realities the corporations meant to keep hidden.
Some people he had turned in, some corporate sensitivities he had revealed, setting up a wall of melting bank accounts and false identities and addresses so the brokers could reward him. Working the wires and info layers to make sure he was never found, Corcoran played the game and grew his own undernet legend. Some people he protected, anonymously shoring up false identities or planting cyber herrings to lure tracking codes away.
There was an entire community he kept safe. William Gibson was wrong. The rats did not live in the walls of the world; they walked under neons in business suits, attended offices, ran businesses, corporations, and countries. They sacrificed the innocent for profit and ambition, and ploughed whole worlds under in the name of power.
Corcoran was Johnny Mnemonic but he didn’t carry half the baggage. Corcoran did what he did simply because he could. He lived in that bright world with the rats, looking like them in the best suits he could afford, speaking like them in stock market squeaks and monetary chitters, smelling like them in gentleman’s cologne while he drank coffee in the same convenient carry cups.
He’d been perfectly camouflaged, perfectly happy being what he was under a veneer of being what the world wanted him to be, and then Em Jay had come along. It was only a matter of time, she said, before he had to ‘go to black’. Him, a rising star in the world of technological money making, a rising star in the world of secretive geekery, a coffee-drinking accountant of promise by day, a darkly shining crusader by night.
Johnny Mnemonic would have been appalled. Em Jay was obviously mistaken.
It wasn’t until she begged him to listen, to drop out of the firmament so his talent could shine on, begged him on her knees and in tears that he understood she had bathed in the light of other stars. Earlier that night, when she convinced him to farewell his cat and Gibson, Scalzi, Weber, Norton, and Moon, when she had employed her substantial assets to convince him to do as she asked, Em Jay had told him of those other stars. She explained how she had begged for them to go black and find refuge in the dark. Most, she said, had refused.
Again, Corcoran toyed with the idea she was lying, but she had named a constellation of people he admired. Em Jay knew their secret names and who they’d been in reality. She recited a litany of disappearances, false charges, and murder. She’d named the communities they’d protected, the gifts the world had lost. How she knew of the mayhem wreaked on heroes stupid enough to try to outshine the corporate elite, Corcoran couldn’t begin to fathom—and nor did he want to.
In the end, he agreed because of her tears. Somewhere in between buying her coffee and reading her extracts of Foster, he had lost the ability to deny her distress. He could always resurface when the lie was told, so he met the big men and the tough women whom Em Jay swore would save his life. And he left with them in their sleek dark car, taking night roads through a physical city he’d only traversed using data streams and electronic dreams, while manipulating code in a waking sleep.
Em Jay did not betray him. When his apartment blew, she had the cat and his favorite copies of McCaffrey, Bova and Silverberg. She hadn’t managed to save the comics, Foster, Moon or Gibson. Corcoran never learned the sacrifices she made.
By then he was the darkest of lights, a lone knight, a honed weapon paying back the debt owed for his freedom, and Em Jay had discovered another star roaming the dark streams of the illegal web, doing good but in danger of discovery. The cat had left, and the paperbacks were showing well-read wear. Em Jay hugged her piece of Corcoran close, and found another part of her soul to give away.
Hers was the most powerful of organisations, a corporation on the flip-side of the universe, ruling from underbelly of the neon-spattered pavement. And she had hidden inside it the light of a galaxy of stars.


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