Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter One

Filed under: A) Chapter One — David Halpert @ 1:17 am

Part One – The Blithe Incident and the Introduction of Eva L. Yonge

The citywide Wifi was set to expand at midnight. Harlan Novak had been looking forward to it for days, five blocks outwards from its existing circumference.

“It’s all the Americans fault,” yammered some geriatric to nobody in particular. Harlan sidled between booths of gray ultrasuede and waitresses in midnight blue latex, “conquest, Manifest Destiny, all that shit.” If he showed the slightest interest (or the slightest boredom) Harlan never would hear the end of it. “Four things,” continued the man slurring his syllables monotonously, “four things that ever came from those Yanks — Westerns, jazz, musicals, and mutually assured destruction.”

Harlan signaled to the bartender for another scotch, twisting his citrus rind to a nub. The bar was composed of pure slate with a plexiglass cover scratched profusely. Beneath the countertop was a layer of pennies lined flat side by side, reflecting their copper archaism. Harlan leaned his elbow on the curved mahogany edge waiting for the lights to dim. The circular seats of scarlet velour were classic as were the chrome poles supporting them. The floors were a violet Astroturf, disastrous under a black light, stained with cocktail salts and other innocuous fluids deposited from a handful of loyal patrons.

Diablo, a fresh-off-the-boat Serbian with a shaved head and a mesh tanktop, refreshed his drink on a doily made of hemp. There was a patch of scar tissue on his left temple allegedly from a sniper’s bullet. Fragments of a copper jacket lodged deep in his cerebellum. “You think too largely,” said the bartender in fractured English, loose-shouldered and lax, “you’ve to learn not to give a shit. Find inner peace. Zen.”

The Orange Snail was originally a strip club just ten minutes walking distance from the motel. Music pumped through the walls, the same Retro-d’-funk that seeped through his Hy-V prior to crossing the border. Bodies were clustered throughout the establishment helping themselves to lap dances, virtual karaoke, and the like. There were remnants of drug use on the encroaching countertop, primarily Rapture and U-phoria. The photovoltaic lasers gyrated, siphoning neon-adverts of low-budget cruises on the sidelines projecting outward.

“There are other ways to find inner peace,” responded the old man belatedly, “some find it within themselves. Others find it at the bottom of a bottle.”

A latent stripper took to the limelight strutting rhythmically down the runway. A plexus of sensory output nodes reflected the image of a budding nymphomaniac. She traipsed around in a schoolgirl’s uniform, her Polo shirt tied at the navel as the path before her retrofitted to resemble a yellow brick road. Her voluptuous pigtails, that plaid skirt, those lace stockings that met just below her knees, only added to her Lolita-esque mystique. The crowd was relatively convinced, although Harlan still noticed the memory core beneath the tempered glass of the runway. No lagtime, no skipping, perfect voiceovers, though she didn’t speak. The interface connections were in complete simpatico with the figure Harlan saw before his waiting visors.

Rolling blackouts were expectant, lulling power surges brought about by momentary lapses of energy, random test runs from local power stations, and general angst from the population. If the lounge had done its homework, there’d be a backup generator on standby.

“Looks like I missed the matinee.” Harlan halfcocked his head over his shoulder and spotted a clean cut man with a prosthetic tan, dark and handsome, brush up beside him. The hologram Marlina faded upwards blowing butterfly kisses as her signature signoff before dissolving into oblivion.

“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

The Frenchman’s face was long and worn like used sandpaper. His accent poignant and intimidating. A hint of jasmine marked his aftershave. Harlan watched as his manicured fingernails grazed the border of his navy cotton lapels. The creases in his blazer were fresh, permanent. His tie was a power blue decorated with a white fleur-de-lis.

“Why you so damn jolly? Expansion’s nothing special. Most urban centers now annexed have lost their former glory.” Harlan ignited the thin-tipped end of his last cigarillo and crumpled the empty pack into an ashtray of gritty emerald. “Not from around here, are you?” But before the Frenchman could reply, Harlan continued, as if solely directing the interaction, “I can usually spot a foreigner when I hear one. Doesn’t take a lot to notice. Slight nuances. Inflexions in speech. You’re no different than the average immigrant stereotype.”

“Well, immigrant is a very fluid term,” answered the Frenchman, “You’re not exactly a native yourself.” Diablo returned with his neighbor’s order, a gin and tonic with a lime wedge on its rim and a sole shot of tequila. Harlan snatched his butane lighter and ended up fiddling with it, delicately tracing the monogrammed letters for no discernable purpose.

“What gave it away?” The whiteness of the Frenchman’s teeth jolted Harlan to his core, that inane glossiness that came with porcelain veneers or bleaching.

“Francois De Guerre. Et tu?”

He reached his hand over, fingers together, as if wishing Harlan would shake it. It was then that Harlan felt the true age in the coarseness of the Frenchman’s flesh, the firmness of Francois’s handshake. Square jewels of faux-ivory set his cuffs, each fixed in a shallow gold setting. In the cleft of Francois’s neck just behind his left ear lay a circular port of polished aluminium. The metal, graphed to his skin, had a translucent cover attached to prevent blockage and infection.

“Your artistry’s impressive,” mentioned Harlan, “where was your work done? Milan? Lisbon? I tell you these plastics have it mapped to a T.”

“You’re thinking too big, beaucoup trop grand. Try more local, centralized. The Via from Montreal, transferred at Syracuse.” Harlan always dreamt of DNI but settled for basic interface instead. The North American demand was not even close to peaking, a niche in the private market just waiting to be picked clean. “Went in for surgery this afternoon. Back in time for happy hour. No mess, no fuss.”

“And what do you do, Francois?”

“Freelance harvesting. The organ market is quite lucrative this time of year. The new real estate.”

“And the money’s good?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

Harlan inspected Francois’s wrist but saw no intravenous scarring. He must have been left-handed. A pixilated receipt from a Japanese businessman broke his immediate concentration. De Guerre drained his liquor before taking a venomous bite of the virgin lime slice. There was something primal and obvious in its action, something Harlan would dare not attempt.

“All right, check this. Made a killing, not literally of course but listen. Two livers, one pancreas, and a lung. And that’s just this week. Granted it was a good week but still.” Harlan surveyed him with a deadpan expression. Francois nursed his gin and tonic. “Not my own, gracious no. Thank God for finder’s fees. Comprenez? Never could handle that local anaesthetic. Wouldn’t celebrate by drinking neither. Nearly died on the table at eighteen having my appendix removed.”

It wasn’t long till exigency, zero hour. Harlan tasted the lounge on his tongue. Its delicate alloys, its versatile fabrics, the anticipation like pheromones swarming around his proximity. But he wasn’t having it, a kind of disconnectedness between him and the rest of clientele, and after browsing a menu of burlesque avatars (faces, costumes, nationalities) Harlan became suddenly attune to the thinning crowd.

“Bought me this,” said Francois, clanking the sturdy end of an acrylic skewer on the rim of his data port. “New hardware fresh off the line.”

“Any side effects?”

“Extreme vertigo. Some problems with depth perception. It’s the Cartesian way of seeing. Four-dimensional world on a three-dimensional plane. Fucks you to the nth degree but well worth every penny.”

DNI, the modern transcendence. An old college alumnus back West was a test subject for the first prototypes. His father patented Sony equipment and managed to snake his son into the trial runs. Consciousness, a higher plane his colleague called it, a headlong plunge into a lake of below zero temperatures. Zip codes pulsed, numbers ran like gravel into his numbing hands. Strings of computational numerics formed lattices in and around his periphery till his comrade’s paralysis kicked in, but the technology had improved remarkably in the last eight years.

“Very exclusive. By referral only. Western splicing clinics take special care covering their tracks. As far as the net is concerned these places don’t exist.”

Francois extracted a business card from his innermost breast pocket. Harlan’s fingers grazed the embossed Arial lettering. The thin gilded border made him nauseous, but that was the end of it.

In the rear pocket of his jeans, a patchwork of faded denim, Harlan retrieved a small monolith of moulded graphite and waved it before the sensor, however, he couldn’t view the receipt since the countertop was beyond repair.

“Closing time,” he muttered beneath stale breath. “It was nice to meet you Monsieur De Guerre.” He handed his numbered stub to a passing waitress, dressed as an airline stewardess in stiletto heals. A clammy palm fell on his right shoulder. There was an inexpensive ring of sterling silver set in an ebony crater.

“Seriously, neural interface. Wave of the future,” urged Francois, toasting his glass in Harlan’s direction, “think about it.” The Frenchman sleuthed to a nearby bombshell with red hair and a pink miniskirt. The waitress returned with his tan overcoat and black velvet fedora. That was the last Harlan saw of him.

#

Novak was twenty-eight. At twenty-three he graduated from Berkeley with a bachelor’s in law, magna cum laude, and a minor in computer science. The West Coast was better, purer, the California winds, though too much competition for one person. The only way to carve a niche in Silicon Valley was with a sledgehammer. The bulk of his tuition paid from the inheritance of a seedy uncle come intermediary out of under-the-counter deals with black markets, mostly former Soviet states. At least there was a funeral, a body, a death certificate, even if it was falsified.

Soon after, he moved to Seattle, taking a job for a security’s company. IT, information technologies, those little secrets that could wipe out a city block with a few direct key commands or turn traffic into pandemonium with a well-timed piggyback Trojan. In no time he penetrated the hacker subculture, not like a fuck, hard and pressing, but like a scalpel, cold, delicate, calculated. There were no names, only pseudonyms. Much of his underground knowledge was transferred by a group known as the Quintet. Their aliases were Snow, Soundwave, Durango, and Prodigy. Snow, Soundwave, and Prodigy were human, Durango was an AI construct.

This was strictly reconnaissance. More often than not Harlan’s comrades in the community were recruited by his company, the finest cyber-denizens this side of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was there he picked up the bulk of his technological prowess that the legitimate academia didn’t cover, a hodgepodge of the covert arts, surveillance, sabotage, programming, deprogramming, encryption, data recovery, and bugging. He was also a licensed bounty hunter.

Five years in the Emerald City didn’t do it for him anymore. Crime was slumping in the state’s worst areas. King County and Yakima were becoming more hospitable, with occupants lessening by the month. His city was now inhabited by multimillion dollar companies in the downtown core and a limited number of gated communities. The harbors were still plagued with illegal activity, counterfeit electronics from Seoul, drug trafficking from Melbourne, unauthorized imports from Victoria. A change of scenery was in order.

It was not five months ago did Harlan capture the tail-end of an online article from an independent media subsidiary. GOLDEN HORSESHOE TARNISHED? Seattle’s greater metropolitan area had been wireless for three years now. To even consider urban centres in the initial stages of Wifi was impossible for him to fathom.

Using Moore’s Law as a template, he was able to extrapolate, not only the date of the next Expansion, but how far it would extend from its former boundary. For the next forty-eight hours he combed the classifieds searching for leases, office space, one-bedroom condominiums, something tangible, a room of one’s own. Once a district went wireless, not only did the property value skyrocket, but so did the rent. Harlan put down a deposit without a moment’s hesitation.

#

The city was in lockdown. Many of the incandescent bulbs under the jutting marquee of the Orange Snail were either burnt out or missing. Most of the roads were deserted, fenced by candycane roadblocks of black and yellow that read ‘DO NOT CROSS’.

The readout on the bottom-right side of his lenses read 11:41:23. It started to rain, a low drizzle. Harlan knew if he hadn’t left the bar when he did, he’d have to endure the Expansion indoors. One-star motels didn’t bother with trite conveniences like transformers. His keycard wouldn’t work. He bought a half-pack of Swisher Sweets from a nearby vending machine and a one-time use umbrella with his credit card. It was fashioned from a synthetic polymer that degraded from acids in rainwater.

A stretch limousine lacquered white pulled up to the crumbling concrete. Its LED rims brandished Coca-Cola logos until the vehicle remained stationary, skidding. The adjacent alleyway held crustacean-like automata scuttling vertically up the brick wall. Their nickel carapaces reflected in the glare of streetlamps. Precision nozzles spray-painted insignias of this sector’s leading syndicate, the Organiks. Harlan didn’t give it a second look, witnessing his face in the gentle flotsam of a rather large rainbow oil-slick.

He glistened across the Cosmopolitan district, a kaleidoscopic mandala of fluorescence. Boarded-up store windows displayed Japanese characters like curvy, elusive hieroglyphics. Alternating magenta and lime strobe lights made holographic sims appear like they were skating on ice. He adjusted his belt so his armament didn’t jab his ribcage. Vending machines lined the avenue like dragon’s teeth; cigarettes, schoolgirl uniforms in Ziploc packages, zigzags, long-distance calling cards, lockpicks, sterilized hypodermics, floppy disks — not the solid flat relics of yesteryear but long, thin strips that could flex into helixes — as well as condoms. Monolithic hyperbase ads tainted the moonlight as he ventured onward across sidewalks littered with newspapers and torn bus transfers.

He flipped up the collar of his cloak and trekked through the remainder of the boulevard. The carcinogenic haze stung his corneas. The haze was offset by lucent emblems forged in the shape of martini glasses and casino die. They pruned his fingers, dangling lifelessly over the pea soup pent up from grimy sewer grates. However, just two blocks away using the zooming capabilities of his VisorGoggles, he clocked the daunting smile of J.T. Blithe over the striking neon of corner bodegas.

His temporary residence was a decrepit office building just on the fringes of Expansion. Its foundation was a rustic pawnshop for hi-tech salvagers and wannabe hackers. The second and third floors were the motel. The upper six had remained unoccupied since the dot-com bust.

He forked the third-level corridor. Its innards were asbestos and drywall. The smell of plaster and stale urine. Baroque-style doors ripped from their hinges. These things mingled together creating an eerie ambiance, a sort of eloquent decrepitude. The hallway chandelier flashed erratically, blinding his vision somewhat.

The card reader scanned the magnetic tape and the door beeped twice before opening. The turquoise shag carpet was flattened, worn through. Kernels of Styrofoam crunched under his feet. Instant noodle containers littered the floor. Harlan kicked a path to the bed. Bare stucco laid the walls under a thin coat of taupe shellac. His abode stank of cardboard and rust. Corrosion seeped through the ventilation. The smell gave the room its presence, horrid by city standards.

He searched mindlessly, clawing in the dark for a half-empty bottle of tequila. After helping himself to a hefty swill, he cupped his face in his hands, combing the hair from his eyes. Sodium light sliced through blinds of ductile plastic. Harlan didn’t bother closing them. In the afterglow of the evening’s events nothing much was accomplished. The VisorGoggles laid on his oak nightstand, downloading memory files into his core databank.

Tonight he’d get some sleep, but there’d be no parties in the streets tonight, no discothèques pumping techno ad nauseam. Tonight, the city was in darkness, yet nobody would be asleep.

Chapter Two

Filed under: B) Chapter Two — David Halpert @ 1:15 am

The Behemoth flashed once, blinked twice, and flashed again for good luck. The main windows parted with flawless efficiency as he awoke to Beethoven’s Fifth. The following equation coursed through his brain every time he heard that first quartet of notes.

( * * * – ) = V = Victory

The bed stiffened to a harsher firmness as a meager incentive to get his ass out of bed, a sand-like rigidity, and he felt displaced to reality once again. Little sunlight beamed through the lunafilters which were set at a low intensity. The opaque wall was programmed to that setting as a hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of neon swirls sprawled over him. A syncopation of clarinets and cellos ejaculated as Harlan rolled out of the bed. Across his darkened closest the following proverb read ALL ROADS LEAD TO ROME. The rainbow hummed to abysmal as the lunafilters lightened to twenty percent intensity, a minute after the Fifth died on queue.

No messages tallied his visors other than some spam. They were fully-charged and activated. It was early, pre-dawn. Checkout time was noon and the sun wasn’t up yet. In his rear pocket was a silver packet of aspirin, a paper wrapper with a generic logo, and he swallowed the two tablets dryly. Harlan waltzed over to an ancient bureau of woodstained azure, pulling open the uppermost drawer. Under a pile of cotton linens was a flat attaché case of corrugated, glossy black plastic. Its top face was of a Chinese dragon in plated sterling. Harlan pocketed the case alongside his portable taser and surveyed the condition of the room, before finally securing the VisorGoggles on the bridge of his nose.

“Play WotF from playlist Omega6,” he said over the sink. His suite was littered with pinhole mics, though he felt the need to lean in. Waltz of the Flowers whizzed through the room. His cup of Joe was simmering, two lumps of milk, one sugar, resting under the countertop’s ledge. He reclaimed two slices of recycled toast from the dispenser and headed to the table. First class complimentary breakfast. The Behemoth retracted the chair and he pleasantly coaxed himself into the seat.

“Messages,” he announced commandingly. The far branch of the table rose vertically. Thousands of pixels composed of electronic ink danced across the monitors. Broadband messages and LAN pop-ups contaminated his communal software. They were immediately quarantined and purged, swallowed by the gaping mouth of the Behemoth. Seven of fifty-six spammed messages were for him, whose radical high definition sent his retinas screaming.

Teeny boppers and sugardaddies at your disposal. Tell me young brother, what do you get with three brunettes and two blondes? Regular price five bucks, five bucks, five bucks. Order now!

By ten o’clock his U-Haul was filled to capacity, a 5×10 meter rental space of second-hand aluminum siding. Tocsins pervaded the morning. Just as Harlan suspected, Expansion had gone smoothly. The roadblocks were cleared, traffic ebbed and flowed. Ivory towers eclipsed his route, a penumbra leading to the downtown. The skywalks between buildings looked sparse, unpopulated. Exhaust fumes seeped into the cabin despite the front end filtration. Rush-hour was unavoidable. Even with GPS, it was a struggle.

#

Harlan got chills leaving the proximity. Once the rental truck was returned — and his deposit relinquished — he immediately scrounged enough change for the return trip. The lateral junctions weren’t as cutting edge, the monorails heading east/west. Pleather avocado seats, warped subway floors of burnt sienna. An influx of Austrian tourists swarmed their section; fanny packs, digital cameras, folding maps. The concave plasma stretched from one end of the train to the other, sprawling model shots like quicksilver.

He transferred at the next station, picking up a plastic bag full of wine gums and a free paper, and took the monorail to the financial sector. Electrostatic made his arm hair stand on end, gliding over the glass dome of the local Xanadu.

His new resident office was a Victorian replica, a historical simulacra of an age long forgotten. Porcelain tiles, synthetic ficus plants, glass honeycomb tiles decorating the southern wing. Standard Odyssey elevators were as follows: glass concrete planted in the floor, mirrors laced on all sides in frames of Venetian marble, miniature surveillance cams, and soft muzak playing from ill-equipped comsats. Harlan reached into his jacket, retrieving a folded envelope of discolored manila. His keycard was a dark crimson of tempered plastic, his name engraved in gilded courier.

#

Aiko was one of a hundred-and-twenty-eight avatars for Harlan to choose from, most of which were women. Her clothing for the moment was a default black pantsuit with navy heels and a burgundy waistcoat. Even the blackness of her pupils represented pages of digitized code, her blinking sequence a subcommand. If he’d substitute her personae completely all RAM would be lost. Not the files themselves necessarily but every shred of adapted personality that had evolved since her activation.

“Let’s get one thing straight,” demanded Harlan, tossing his holster onto the maple desktop, “I want no trace on the web. As far as you’re concerned I’m an island, a deserted island. History’s to be purged every other day. Cookies, nominal. Only a handful of sites will be bookmarked and checked regularly. Understand?”

“I don’t see what the big deal is?” said Aiko spastically. “My model’s full of antivirals. First sign of trouble firewalls kick in like the fucking Bay of Pigs.” Her spontaneity was also a subprogram, a subset of algorithms designed to mimic human empathy. She sauntered to the wicker chair in the far corner, crossing and uncrossing her legs, lighting a virtual cigarette expunged from a brass case. “You know I never took you for the paranoid type.”

Harlan propped up a tactile interface of airborne sapphire polygons. He accessed CNN and the New York Times with three precise swipes of his hand, pinching and dragging the headlines down in an enamel-framed display box.

“These are for starters, major networks, conglomerates. Crosslist these headlines daily for patterns and irregularities. Scan the local papers accordingly, especially the ones dealing with crime. Think you can handle that sweetheart?” He cupped his hands together, locking the display in place. The lenses of his VisorGoggles tinted scarlet before returning completely transparent.

“Is Novak your real name or is that just some fancy handle? Frankly, it sounds made up.”

“Are you even listening?”

“Of course I’m listening. Jeez, what do you think I run bandwidth-wise? Do you ever forget to breathe? Throughput baby, throughput.” Aiko drew in a long, slow intake of smoke, letting the fallen ash dissipate before ever striking the floor. “Look, don’t worry. Your preferences are saved. Any other request no matter how outlandish you wish to put forth before me. Please, I’m all ears.” She winked her right eye, now a vivid amethyst under a dusting of blue eye shadow, and blew him a kiss with pillowy lips.

“Thank you,” said Harlan resoundingly, “and just so you know my name’s real. Cross-reference Del Mar if you don’t believe me.”

“Ah, California dreamin’. Now the paranoia’s starting to make sense. Can’t walk down Ventura on a Saturday night with nothing less than a nine-mil.”

“You’ve been scanning my purchasing records haven’t you?”

“Maybe.”

“That was a long time ago.” Harlan excused to relive himself and washed the grit beneath his fingernails. Pale maroon distilled from translucent resin presently offset the lobby’s interior. It looked arid, depleted. He felt like a mosquito trapped in amber. Harlan opened his desk drawer fishing for a felt tip red pen. Without thinking, he turned to the paper’s classifieds. With any luck, there’d be a decent vehicle on the market.

“Speaking of California, we’re going to have to do something about these clothes,” interrupted Aiko, thrusting her hands into her pockets, “I’m not a dyke if that’s what you’re thinking. This outfit is so passé, pedestrian. I can’t pull off the whole upstanding office kitsch. Not like you detective.” Harlan did his best to ignore her. Pressing so hard into the gazette that the ink smudged his fingers.

“I’m younger I mean. I should dress age appropriate. I wasn’t found in a thrift store you know…”

“Do I have to tell you to stop talking or should I play some music?” Despite her silence he accessed Vivaldi’s Winter, unlocking the display through his VisorGoggles. The icon, a rotating compact disc, highlighted opal. The concerto streamed from his desk.

In the meantime Aiko was modeling ganguro fashions — a deep tan, false eyelashes, a tie-dyed sarong snug around her legs — in an oblong mirror framed with chestnut. Harlan folded the newspaper as a hibiscus flower blossomed over her right ear, her dress hemming up her bronze shins to resemble a free-flowing peach miniskirt, a kind of Valley-girl nostalgia.

“You don’t have to impress me you know. If I wanted cheap sex I would’ve opted for a pleasure model.”

“Well, you had your chance. Too late to get a refund now.”

“That’s fine. I wanted a secretary not a prostitute. Besides you came with the room.” There was nothing more depressing to Harlan than reviewing his monthly checking account. He lived in hyper-speed, not the mundane, a condition worse than jetlag experienced in real time. Slumming was a lot easier back West. There was a silent ethos to fraudulent activity, its unspoken allegiances, borders and limits. Living honestly is harder than people give credit for, and Harlan paid dearly for it.

The ceiling fan hummed.

Aiko flinched.

“Whoa we’ve got movement here. Some nice-looking chika just asked for you in the lobby.” He threw down the free paper and tapped the side of his VisorGoggles, reactivating the display on his lenses.

“Where is she now?”

“Heading north to the lobby’s elevator.”

“Can you patch me through to surveillance?”

“Of course.”

Aiko propped a bird’s eye view of the west wing Odyssey elevator. In there was a Latina in a stunning denim miniskirt with black stockings running just past the knees. Her white tank top presented low cleavage. The video’s contrast made it difficult to determine the extent of her tan, its authenticity. She was calm, erect, talking to herself in frustration.

“Bring up some audio,” said Harlan, “I hope you’re recording this, Aiko.”

“Please.” It did little good. Runaway Spanish flooded his eardrums behind low faded muzak. She exited the lift. The footage cut.

“Do I have to ask you to scram?”

Aiko spirited away. He expected a lengthy silhouette behind the frost glass of his door beyond the electronic plasma that read HARLAN COAX, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR but no one came. He stepped into the lengthy corridor. It was fitted with checkerboard tiles and oriental carpets, mosaics of lilacs and lotus flowers, but still no one came. Aiko’s flighty laugh echoed from his office and his anxiety wavered.

“You’re a real bitch you know that,” he said, igniting a fresh cigarillo. His lips numb over the gentle white plastic.

#

A person could live within the downtown core without ever touching a sidewalk, never mind leaving one’s apartment. The night’s sky was a violent pink hunkered over a canopy of clouds. Harlan bought a metropass the second he stepped off the subway. The tramway’s platform was vulcanized rubber constructed from recycled tires. They operated solo at night. Photovoltaic cells stored energy in flat wafers of silicone, anything left behind was carried over. The practicality of it was genius. Less people rode at night. Infrequent excursions to civilization only to be thrown in anarchy on the trip back.

The carriage’s interior was rife in ultramodern decadence. Plated steal scuffed the floor. Windows were festooned with slabs of cardboard held together by worn silver duct tape. A carriage normally fit for fifty, drawn to capacity at seventy-five, though it was incredibly sparse, tagged with graffiti on every visible surface. An elderly Chinese woman in an afghan shawl sat at the other end of the tram. The cabin buoyed, screeching relentlessly along the electromagnetic cable before descending over the apartment rooftop.

A wrinkled hand covered in liverspots fell on his shoulders as he was exiting. The old woman handed him a surgical mask.

“It’s the pigeons,” she said softly, “they’re carriers.”

#

St. James Town, Night City, a graveyard of condominiums sprouted from the earth. From Harlan’s vantage the depot’s nexus met half-a-dozen caged walkways leading to most district rooftops. He donned his black gloves, rough leather firm against his skin, as he ran his fingers along diamonds of rustic iron. Gravel crunched beneath his feet. When he entered the elevator most numbers were singed off the buttons. The doors didn’t close properly either, aluminum dented inwards slightly. He butted the tail end of his taser on any random circlet and waited for the lift to descend.

“And you weren’t here when the incident took place,” muttered Harlan. The lenses of his VisorGoggles framed in bright red neon.

“I told you ‘ready, man, got jacked during ‘pansion.”

“And what time was this?”

“Anywhere’s from ‘leven-thirty to one o’clock,” answered his client. C-Block was a catacomb of single room apartments slowly crumbling into oblivion. The stairwells were clotted with garbage. Its hallways set to rupture. So it only seemed fitting that his first client was named Ash. His domicile was a twenty cubed meter cell, half comprised of yellowed temperfoam, the other a platform of hardwood oak that smelt of fresh ground reefer.

Ash Wednesday was an expatriate, a ghost in the shadows, exiled without a trace, RL or otherwise. He had mocha skin, hulking muscles, and a shaved head with a light blanket of stubble. Gangland tattoos from a dozen syndicates blanketed his right arm. Hypodermic scar tissue inhabited his elbow’s cleft.

Oblong mirrorshades of a fine nickel sheen covered his eyelids. They appeared as

though graphed to the skin but on closer inspection were magnetized via a bridge piercing. His broad shoulders lumbered when he walked. A marginal paralysis due on long-term digital exposure. Not that there was much room to work with.

“What’s the security like in these parts?” said Harlan, scanning the room for evidence.

“These parts? Listen, boy, this ain’t no wild west. This is the jungle, survival of the fittest. You close your eyes for a second and you’ll regret it. I got a bounty on my head, ya hear? A low profile is priority.” Ash’s hands were shaking, not from apprehension, but from compulsion. Dollops of sweat beaded down his forehead. “Don’t ‘spect surveillance neither. They’re dummies, not worth the plastic they’re made from. Tried siphoning through the city’s mainframe, came up empty. Five layers of ICE and not a shred of interference, publicly anyway. District’s clean.”

Harlan zoomed in close, appraising Ash’s doorframe inch by inch. There was no forced entry albeit minute flakes of white paint chipped along the interior. This break-in was precise, calculated, planned.

“Take it Ash is your pen name?”

“My pen names have pen names, aliases upon aliases, handles upon handles. My identity’s like a deck of cards, pull one out and the rest come tumblin’ down.” Harlan sleuthed to the centerpiece of Ash’s abode, a semicircle of monitors perched at a downward angle. “Exile’s no easy fix, man. Burn your bridges. Leave no stone unturned. I was skeptical ‘bout calling you in the first place?”

“Yeah, why’s that?”

“’Cause I can’t exactly travel now. My freedom’s in lockdown for the moment. Can’t up and leave whenever I please, ya know. Used to be John Law was always on my ass, now it’s just junkies, Triads, gangstas. You name it. Ya wait long enough, the piranhas eventually eat themselves.”

The screens were an outdated Russian design comprised from an ashen-gray polymer, its corporate insignia branded on its exterior, its serial numbers scratched clean. Ash fastened the ‘trodes to his fingertips, cushioning his ass in a beat-up swivel chair before focusing the relay so that his palms were parallax with the counter.

The monitors powered up, a lulling phosphorescence. Ash clocked the feed behind his left ear, a chambered nautilus spitting lasers. Transparent keyboards of vivid amethyst cradled under anticipatory flesh as he plucked invisible keys en tandem with the gyrations of the lasers.

“Check this, boy,” continued Ash, nodding towards the monitors. Harlan leaned in closer to gain greater resolution, “not without contingency. Anything worth value I lojack. This guy owed me one, a dynamo with GPS, worked for some high-end enterprise back in the day.”

“What did they steal?”

“My piece for one but that’s no matter. Scowl the dumpsters after hours by the docks and you’re bound to find somethin’ good. Know what I’m saying?” The keys highlighted orange before fading a deep purple. Rhythm. Balance. A wireframe topographic of silver and matte black. The viewpoint plunged laterally sinking into the depths of Little Tokyo, strictly infrastructure, nothing pure. “This one was special, a real prize piece. An import from Helsinki back before they hit the mainstream.”

“The gun?”

Ash folded his stubby fingers into palms freezing the monitors in place. There were six drawers of thin-plated steel sunk deep within the walls. To Harlan’s surprise Ash crouched down to the floorboards, prying up two with brute force.

“A robopet,” he answered. Ash handed him a glossy brochure of saffron paper speckled with dirt and pine thistles. “That was the original design during test runs, more or less, saved them until launch. Kept the specs for myself. Had a friend retrofit the frame, modify the design, arm it with some serious intelligence, though nothing close to sentience.” A square Polaroid slipped from the brochure’s edge, drifting to the floor until Harlan picked it up. It had a vinegary aroma, fresh, no creases.

“Is this it?”

“Yeah, man that’s it.” An inch from the fallen Polaroid was an empty glass vial with no label. It had metallic top with a pinhole lid, perfect for a syringe. Harlan cupped it in his palm before Ash noticed.

“And what’s so special about this particular robopet that you called a P.I. to investigate?”

“Nothin’. Market value’s trash, man. The model itself is worthless. It’s what’s inside that matters.” Blueprints absorbed the adjacent monitors. Neon green specs against a charcoal backdrop. Lines of alphanumeric code scrawling from left to right. “The specs themselves for starters. Under GATS I could ‘spect a decade in the pen. The Sweds watermark and date their patents. No, man. That robopet was a vault, Fort Knox baby. Three years of activity in one enclosed space. If word leaks that this is in the open, not only’s my rep destroyed, but my life as a cypher is shot.”

Harlan didn’t suspect Ash’s sincerity. The life of a cypher degrades with age, the mind withers. True cowboys had this sixth sense, a ubiquitous foreshadowing that was cyclical in nature. The merging of the past with the anxiety and uncertainty of the future. Harlan mindlessly traced his name in the dust collecting on the alloyed desk, his true name, before wiping it clean with his palm. That was the life of a cypher.

“Let me guess how many companies you hacked on the Fortune 500 list,” said Harlan, cracking his knuckles, “don’t answer that. I know how the community rolls. It’s none of my business.” Harlan had Aiko on standby for any incoming messages. She was much less reliable, they all were. Avatars, not women. “Can you prop up the route and time of the GPS tracking?”

The air was stale, re-circulated from a substructure grow-op consuming most of the building’s juice. Ash uploaded a composite list of every item in his stash, passing Harlan a flat circuit of glossy pink from the drive.

“Now I can’t pay you, man. Not until I get my ‘wares back. But my mind and my resources are at your disposal.”

Harlan loved a good challenge. It didn’t hurt to start networking in a new city either, seeing no prospective clients currently registered on his VisorGoggles proved bothersome. Harlan himself was no professional, he knew it. His tricks were archaic, past their expiration date. Branching out into other disciplines left rust in the joints, and Harlan would take help wherever it was offered, whenever he could.

He stroked the dimpled rubber before gripping the edge of his taser, resting half of his armament on Ash’s steel countertop.

“What you doin’?” asked Ash, amputating the ‘trodes from calloused fingertips.

“Protecting my investment.”

#

Lucid dreaming was a temporal fix, blue strata weaving in and through an abysmal silver strobe. It took months of hypnotherapy to train his unconscious, that untapped potential like diamonds in the rough. Cyberspace wasn’t as linear or mechanized as most people would have you believe. It wasn’t based on mathematics or the entrenched laws of causality. It was fluid, organic, amorphous. That was the attraction to DNI, its allure and its reliance.

Imagine your subconscious as the blackened continent of Australia seen at a bird’s eye view from the stratosphere, an unearthed mass of earth functioning at twenty-five thousand channels a second. Your conscious mind is like a tennis ball dropped from that stratosphere, capable of performing, at most, two to seven tasks at any given time.

Harlan’s mind was active during REM sleep, sequenced patterns of blinking cobalt green processing visual data. It didn’t stop the nightmares though, only dulled the insomnia. He still saw her face in the afterglow of his dreams, a masque of white plaster with painted red lips, bloodstained handprints smeared on enamel tiles, the aroma of smoke in disintegrating helixes.

That was the virtual transcendence.

#

Harlan floundered in permanence. His pupils dilated to the tempo rubato of Debussy’s Claire de Lune. The lunafilters deadened jet black, sphinctering the residual light before shining a placid indigo.

His VisorGoggles were from Milan, intrinsically crafted with the latest standardized hardware. Half-life, a mode where microscopic cameras placed on the headgear extended the periphery thirty degrees. It contained a remedial sensor grid that cut reaction-time in half.

Harlan hugged the doorframe, half-naked, clinging to his revolver, a modified .457 Wildey magnum with a mounted laser sight. He wiped the hair from his eyes and adjusting the carbon mic of his VisorGoggles.

“Talk to me, Aiko.”

“I count one pulse in your office by the mantle, maybe five foot six.” People were desensitized to alarms. Attention spans dwindled. Its melody was generally preferred over jarring tocsins.

“Lock the doors.”

The fire escape was unstable, tarnished stainless steel with chipping black paint and sheered bolts along the edges, as he sliced his office through the weather-beaten glass of the alley window. He heard footsteps. The sound of platformed heels against parquet was almost instinctual to Harlan. He unlatched the lock with her back towards him, ducking behind a wall separator of oak and sequined canvas.

“Cut the music.”

He donned a plaid bathrobe of navy blue and eggshell stripes, the sash was missing. Harlan siphoned a spherical crosshair where he assumed her brainstem was located. He inched barefoot to his target’s position.

“Don’t move.”

She whirled around intuitively, terrycloth draped over his calves, and then there was a sharp pain, stillness. Harlan staggered backwards, the gun still firm in his right hand.

“You’ve got to be quicker than that.” Something vicious snaked his right forearm, cascading down as a result of gravity. It was blood.
“Don’t move,” repeated Harlan, only less brazen. He was now conscious of his injury. The same feeling he got before jacking in, alertness and longing, a calm-before-the-storm adrenaline rush. “You bitch.” She stood, eclipsed in shadow, wielding a stiletto style butterfly knife. He threw down his VisorGoggles and cocked the hammer of his magnum.

“Mierda, you’re the detective aren’t you?” She produced a midnight blue satin handkerchief from her ridiculously wide cleavage, applying direct pressure to the wound. This girl knew what she was doing.

“There’s gauze in the desk.” Aiko set the illumination to standard and Harlan pressed down firmly.

“You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.”

“You shouldn’t sneak into peoples’ apartments.”

“I didn’t. The door was open.”

Her eyes were a bittersweet nightshade, flexible contacts over a vibrant purple. Constellations of minute scars blanketed her chest and shoulders. Her hair was a raven black, infused by the follicle to the scalp and laced with lily-scented pheromones. A barcode tattoo stretched diagonally on her neck, a foreigner, refugee, with no aforementioned accent.

Harlan paralyzed at the sight of blood.

“Oh, don’t be such a pussy. It’s just a flesh wound.” She dabbed the sterilized cotton with peroxide and gently wrapped it around his forearm. “Besides, you’re a big boy, you should be so lucky.”

“Why’s that?”

“I was aiming for your heart.” She maneuvered the butterfly knife single-handedly back to its resting position, a thin plating of magnetized cobalt on the exterior of her belt. Harlan waddled to his seat, a padded office chair of burgundy leather, while she traced the aquamarine plasma on his front door. “Forgive me. I haven’t slept in more than two days.”

“What’s your business here?”

“I require your services. It’s my employer…”

“Let me guess, Expansion.”

She nodded.
As the woman turned to him, Aiko’s pixilated image appeared on the door’s window lying forwards on her stomach with her chin cupped in her hands. Her widening smirk.

“Let’s get some lunch.”

#

The Daytime Lounge was a franchised hybrid, part sushi bar, part cybercafé, wedged between the ground level bazaars of morning rush-hour. The place smelt of freshly cut ginger sheltered under a canopy of fluorescent lights. Harlan stared through the wide window of transparent magenta, spotting a Korean nail boutique across the road. The remainder of the avenue was obscured by swarms of commuters and a colonnade of street vendors lining the sidewalks. A webwork of suspended cables guiding mobile streetcars made upper level visibility impossible.

Their table was of worn limestone under a thin sheet of digitized silicone. Harlan felt out of place, more off put than usual. How they must have appeared to this homogeneous crowd, a regular Bonnie and Clyde. In the darkest corner of the restaurant a prepubescent schoolboy was jacked in wearing baggy olive drab khakis and a T-shirt with an obscene logo.

“He was murdered,” she interrupted, her mouth chewing around an exceptionally large slice of futomaki, “The police have begun with the preliminaries but they haven’t told me a thing.”

Harlan was surprised she could eat at a time of such trauma. He just settled for some miso soup and warm sake to calm his nerves. Not one meter outside was a Rastafarian fencer selling a plethora of counterfeit goods, among them, hookahs. Her name was Luna Veca, or at least her handle was. She wore a Gucci knockoff of pressed gabardine and a matching jacket to boot.

“Do you wish to port?” asked the waitress. Beside them were five circular outlets of variant sizes shielded behind tempered plastic. Before he could answer, Luna grasped his free hand lovingly, and said, “Not just yet.” Instantly, she let go, grimacing, “God I can’t stand these bubblegum setups.”

“You were saying.”

“I was saying. My boss was killed during Expansion. He was found two days ago in his apartment complex. I suspect it was an inside job.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because that place is tighter than the Pentagon. The auxiliary power’s meant for security only,” continued Luna, rubbing her wooden chopsticks together. “I mean think about it. Locked in that giant tower. No power. No phonelines. No lights except for emergency backup seventy-two floors up. Whoever killed him had a plan.”

“What about drop-downs, forced entry?”

“None that I saw. When I got word there’d been an accident at the condo I rushed over ASAP. And when I arrived at the suite there was nothing. No broken glass. No bashed in door. Nothing. Just his body slumped over the living room floor. There wasn’t even a drop of blood.”

“That’s strange.”

“It gets weirder.”

She signaled the waitress to unlock the data port and the cover clicked open readily. A flat panel of circuited yellow fit perfectly into the slot. The surface texture of the table glistened amidst a platter of Ichiban sushi. Luna clipped a wireless ‘trode to her index finger, connecting the feed, and ran the program.

A wireframe layout of Apex Towers emerged from the table’s epicenter, pulsating scarlet — easier on the eyes — beneath ambient light. Harlan’s VisorGoggles filtered the glare. Apex’s promotional insignia spun drearily in the bottommost corner, a neon version of Luna’s fingernails, a firm peach. Data sticks advertised for potential buyers were handed out like candy.

“Only it wasn’t his apartment. His place was on the ninety-sixth floor. But the apartment he was killed in belonged to a woman, Amy Lynch, which means he either boarded an Odyssey to her place before Expansion, or walked down twenty-four floors in near total darkness.”

“And who’s this mystery employer you speak so fondly of.” Luna remained stoic. A silence perforated by drowned-out horns, simmering grilles, and precautionary error messages. She took an elongated swill from her Perrier as the hologram rotated clockwise.

“James Blithe.” Harlan never laughed so hard in his life. He slammed the table so hard that his sake spilt and the Apex flickered. In the meantime, Luna traced a path from Blithe’s penthouse to Amy’s suite, an arduous journey to say the least.

“You’re telling me you worked for one of the richest men in the world. The person who brought the Supreme Court to its knees rewriting half the obscenity laws in this country, the head of a multinational conglomerates worth half the European Union.”

“Again, worked for.”

“Well, I can certainly see why this is so important to you,” continued Harlan, tears welling up in his eyes, “The real question is, why did you come to me?”

“Because you’re the best.”

“Don’t try and sweet talk me. Really now, cut the bullshit.” Luna reached into her pocket and pulled out a double-folded section of green printing paper. The visors clocked her vitals — increasing pulse, vapid heartbeat, dilated pupils. With Luna still plugged in, the hologram toppled ninety degrees. Harlan tapped the logo, resetting it to its default position.

“All right then. Four days ago I received an email from Blithe while he was in Prague. Standard networking overseas. Tells me to transfer funds to a private account locally. Very last minute, like on some kind of whim. So I did. The next day I rendezvous with him at Pearson for pickup. The second he steps off the plane, he tells me to cancel all his appointments till after Expansion.” Harlan surmised that was typical behavior for your archetypal fundamentalist, but not for a realist like Blithe.

“Is that normal?”

“What’s normal, really?”

According to the email’s URL the server wasn’t a private line, which meant he only had access via a public kiosk. The message may have been traced, though Eastern Europe wasn’t fussy about its tracking. Not by governments anyway.

“Did the police question her?”
“No, she’s been missing since Expansion. Vanished without a trace.”
A fresh train of salmon sashimi appeared before them. A diamond-clad bracelet on Luna’s wrist splintered lasers in a thousand directions. In addition to sleep, it was apparent Luna hadn’t eaten much either as she quickly reached for the slim bottle of soy sauce.
“Now this is where things get interesting. How was Amy able to be kidnapped during lockdown with absolutely no signs of forced entry?”

Harlan didn’t answer.

“What’s even more astonishing is if Blithe actually walked the twenty-four floors. I mean the man’s a-hundred-and-twelve-years old.”

“Have you considered that Amy might’ve had something to do with the killing?”
“Possibly.”

“And what role do you see me playing in all this?”

“A very lucrative one,” she said, removing her equipment from the ports. “You see Blithe had no living family members, no children, but guess who the primary beneficiary is?”

“Did you kill him?” The vividness of her eyes seemed to flash. Aiko up to her old tricks. As Harlan rubbed his eyes, he realized his morning sustenance consisted solely of alcohol and soup.

“Of course not. Besides I’m not privy to his will. His safety deposit box is magnetically sealed upon his death. Only he had access to it.”

“And how long have you been on the run?” She looked down, a sign of submission. It only takes one good rainfall to destroy a counterfeit Louis Vaton handbag. She removed a pneumatic needle with a stimulant cartridge in the chamber.

“Well, no use in hiding it now. Cat’s out of the bag.” She brought the nozzle to her wrist and injected without contrition. A flush of euphoria weaved through her body, muscles and tendrils relaxing. “A minor dose of Dex. Its effects are shit for a surprisingly high yield. I tell you I can’t go on like this.”

“You need sleep,” insisted Harlan.

“No use crying about it now. I’m good for another six hours.”

#

His first objective was to get her out of sight. Since the murder was still recent it would only be a matter of hours before her face appeared on every net feed in the city, if it wasn’t already. They boarded a truncated Odyssey lift and headed southeast to the Underground, a subterranean network of upscale boutiques and duty-free gift shops. It was characterized by broken escalators, poster-sized plasma ads, and mosaics of linoleum cobblestone. He crossed the threshold of revolving doors and drew in the re-circulated air vacuumed in from the nearby subway station just a mere thirty meters away.

The pharmacy was a panoptical ovoid of pearl whiteness, stationed between two junctions where the avenues met. He purchased six items in total: a two-liter drum of Pepsi, a large bag of Doritos, the current National Post, a professional hair-dye kit, large waterproof Band-Aids with clear seals, and ochre cover-up. Harlan accessed a payphone terminal once Luna entered the restroom. It had a rudimentary décor of grays and turquoise. A thin optic cable connected his VisorGoggles to the unit. A five digit access code was needed. Harlan punched the keys.

An automated voice recording, female.

“Welcome to the Human Resources Department. All of our operators are currently busy. Please stay on the line.”

“The crow flies at midnight,” said Harlan into the receiver. A bleep, silence, then laggard breathing on the other end.

“Novak, is that you man?” Ash’s voice flooded the earpiece.

“Yeah, it’s me. Listen, I don’t have much time. I’m going to have to call in that favor sooner than normal. How are you with background checks?”

“’spect nothin’ but the best.”

“Good. I need you to do some busywork for me. Do your best in locating these names for me. Jot these down. Luna Veca, handle. Amy Lynch, Apex Towers, possible handle. James Theodore Blithe, true name.” Celebrities were free game in electronic circles. No pseudonym could hold them captive. Public relations landed in droves. Intermediaries upon fields of intercepted code. If there was a shred of truth it lay in the source, not the code. Harlan fixed the bloody bandage that had loosened around his left wrist. “Think you can handle that?”

“No problem.”

“Contact me when you have the results.”

“Aight man, stay frosty.” Luna sleuthed to his side swiping the plastic bag from his hand. A Band-Aid on her neck shielded her tattoo blending in with her deep pallor. Blithe didn’t make headlines. That’s all that mattered. They ventured through a corridor of stale air boarding the nearest Odyssey. Sunlight pierced the cabin the second they penetrated the surface.

“So who were you talking to?” said Luna pedantically.

“Wrong number.”

“Funny.”

#

Luna crashed three hours later during her next interval coming down hard from a dopamine high. She dove head-first into cumulous temperfoam, then through a slipstream of unconscious vertigo. Harlan lit a fresh cigarillo and helped himself to warm scotch from a flat nickel flask in his desk. A concise manifest of Ash’s stock lay upright on a digital plane. He recognized three companies right off the bat that belonged to the same conglomerate: a leaked report that dealt with face implantation, bootlegged imaging software from a second-rate IT mainframe, and a self-propagating worm virus that had never been implemented.

There were four ionic columns of jagged Courier: type, client, date, and class. Mission achievement was traced by color. Gaps of negative space through a smoky lather. By-referral clients were listed as freelance, which didn’t further Harlan’s cause. The rest was crosslisted by Aiko and designated by priority.

“That wasn’t funny what you did,” said Harlan to Aiko.

“What? You mean elevator girl. Wondering why she’s here? I was surprised she even came.” He recognized Luna the second he laid eyes on her. The thought that Aiko had something to do with her presence was disturbing.

“Why did you bring her here?”

“I didn’t bring her here sweety. You did.”

“Jesus fucking Christ.”

“Hey you’re the detective Harlan, not me. I may have guided her here but she’s going to stay because of you. I’m like a lighthouse guiding a ship. In the end, no one blames the lighthouse.” Her rationale was damning, a testament to the technological revolution and the ensuing avarice that lingered behind.

#

“There’s a forty-eight hour waiting period,” said Zan, scribbling a receipt over faded carbon paper. “Lab’s waiting list is backlogged. May want to tack on an extra day or two for results.” The exchange was transacted through bulletproof glass, a local repository on the fringe of sanitary. It was a private niche carved from ingenuity and kept thriving by competition. Zan was a lanky Pilipino in a white lab coat reeking of formaldehyde with a German-engineered prosthetic arm that made legibility impossible.

Craning his neck over Zan’s shoulder Harlan spotted vats of liquid nitrogen lined along the parallel hallway. He viewed himself in the monitor surveillance cam and adjusted his belt for no reason. Zan snaked the mic closer to his lips, responding to Harlan’s inquiry.

“Nothing’s absolute. There’s always room for error. Results are pretty accurate though. Truthfully, how would you know if the results were tainted? Only inconclusive results are grounds for refunds.”

He wired the charges through Blithe’s expense account, a laissez-faire obelisk of polished ebony. Luna was confident it wasn’t blocked even if the authorities listed her a suspect.

Harlan sauntered down a prismed corridor to an arced skydeck set to depart. The lounge was a Western-style izakaya, an egg-shaped pod with a sprawling vista of the ward’s southern waterfront. He rested on an octagon fountain of gentle alabaster as the transport disengaged from the dock. The stench of the clinic lingered on his jacket. His armory jabbed his ribcage as he sat hunched over a bar of fluorescent saffron.

It was prior to rush-hour. Human traffic was no concern. Sporadic bodies flanked the establishment; an assemblage of yuppies drinking Heinekens, loan-shark metrosexuals on another nightly excursion, and the reclusive staff chaperoning the premises in Polo shirts and black aprons. Harlan was running on fumes. He felt lightheaded and groggy nursing back a double Bourbon.

The dimness provided a scene for interfacing. Ash’s robopet was a recalled model from Bonne four months after its initial distribution. Rumors grapevined through the blogosphere, an all-out smear campaign from its competition that their brand was going soft. This was easily circumvented with a lock pick and warped software, a news article originating in Greensboro where an owner’s jugular was drained clean.

A chill spread throughout his bones. His fingertips were tinged with numbness. The cubic tumbler Harlan was holding nearly slipped from his grasp. A jolt shook the shuttle jingling champagne magnums in their holsters. Static invaded his VisorGoggles, lines of freckled neon framing his rounded specs. Proximity, his heart clenched, a lurker stalked Harlan’s presence, though he remained completely stationary.

“I’m being traced,” he whispered under his breath. Aiko noted the time, his position both laterally and vertically. It was now zero-hour. He spotted a lean man in his extended periphery wielding a tracker beneath navy Armani. The capsule was autonomous, independent power supplies. The transmitting feed wasn’t localized or commercial but routed to a LAN-line from a love hotel nearby.

Harlan armed himself under the hem of his jacket. The target sauntered behind honeycombs of glass to the niche where the restrooms were held. Its faceplate was a square piece of sheet metal with a male ideogram in its center, carved using negative space with the word MEN in French and Japanese. If there was an opportunity for face-to-face confrontation Harlan would jump without question. This was the stuff being a detective was made of.

Fuchsia urinals of thick rubber lined the sloped western wall. Disinfectant swamped his nostrils. Wintergreen bleaches evanescing. Soft heating lamps warmed his already dry skin, a placid orange against scarlet wallpaper. Harlan dowsed his face in filtrated water from a spout of polished brass. The one stall closed was of matte black dead center within a tiled enclave.

A sienna loafer peaked under the stall. Pneumatic exhaust sounded through the barrel, a mosquito’s pinch. “Your tracer’s scrap man, yesterday’s news, west-end junkyards has them piled up as far as the eye can see.” An echo resonated through the chamber as Harlan’s gumshoe vernacular became congruent.

“You’re getting rusty my friend,” he continued, “As I speak, neotoxin’s already coursing through your bloodstream. Slowly disintegrating nerve endings like lye through flesh.”

Harlan kicked open the door. Inside was a young man in his twenties, Mediterranean-looking, with bloodshot eyes, gold teeth, and a cummerbund of C4 explosives. A bleach-blonde coiffe hung low down his right side, accenting his face somewhat. His weight was underestimated, a linear miscalculation, the prominent smell of sawdust with his hand clutching a detonator.

“How poetic is this? Just when you think you got your shit together, huh.” The man’s diaphragm sunk deep in his chest heaving. A dusting of cocaine coated his upper lip. “For old time’s sake, you know. One final hit before the long goodbye.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m scrap man just like you said, a freelance low-level transporter. My ass ain’t worth a dime on the street. They don’t tell me nothin’ I don’t already know. Can’t say I blame them. Stock’s been running dry till the next shipment comes in. ‘bout a dozen dicks capped in all to satisfy my selfish habit. How’s that for schadenfreude?”

“I want a name. Gimme a name.”

“You know she’s playing you.”

“Who?”

“The girl that’s who man. Do I have to draw it for you with a fucking stylus or something?”

The downtrodden martyr spat at nothing in particular as the shuttle whirled to a halt. The docking clamps started kicking in. A blue beacon situated lengthwise did a roundabout through tempered glass. Harlan remained steadfast, defiant, while his tweaked derelict rasped staccato knocks on marble fiberglass with his free hand.

For some reason he pictured Luna in the back of his mind in a one-piece denim jumper with a white rawhide belt and lifted platforms an inch off the ground, a statue of the Venus de Milo molded in reinforced plastique. And then it hit him, the flashpoint and realization that there was more at stake here than just his life and the lives of the people in the shuttle pod. Who truly knew how many gas lines ran through the building’s sector once it reached port? The number of hydro-cells? Electrical systems were endless. The chain reaction catastrophic.

Hitman be damned.

Murder, fuck it.

His life was in danger. Blunt force trauma was needed to ensure a swift concussion. Blood trickled from his assailant’s ears. Harlan’s VisorGoggles clocked a hairline cranial fracture in the rear part of the man’s skull. He dowsed his palms clean under the right-angled spout and reset the mysterious stranger to a comfortable sitting position before diffusing the explosives around his waist.

Like a vulture he stripped the man clean storing the C4 in the deep recesses of his khaki pants hoping they’d prove useful soon.

#

There was jurisdictional authority to be had for Harlan on his venture back home. Fusion is what allowed him to systematically (though unconsciously) sift through petabytes of visual data. Weeding out the interference as time rolled on. The feeling of paralyzing a man sent the adrenaline pumping. Picasso reprints and bronze sculptures dominated the financial district’s mezzanine, a good fifty floors off the ground. Within each cowboy there was this sixth sense, a Godlike intuition, where humans were seen as energy. Pure energy. Harlan felt the auras of pedestrians locking and interlocking as they crossed paths. A strictly symbiotic relationship.

The term ‘parasite single’ was a common and perfunctory one. Among cyphers and denizens alike it implied a force in the digital realm as well as a relinquishment of power. There was nothing tangible at stake when all was said and done.

Harlan entered his office. There was no sign of Luna in his place. She was gone. An imprint of her body lay molded in the temperfoam. Her scent in the fabric of the pillows. In the meantime Harlan chewed a stick of hyperbase to cleanse his tangy palette. Concentration wore thin in the wake of his brush with death.

“Ready to cruise?”

“I was born ready,” said Aiko mischievously, “just give the chemicals a second to kick in.”

“Nothing personal. Security’s just tight. You understand right?” She didn’t answer. “Just don’t leave me hanging once I’m on the other side.”

VR was falling endlessly without ever touching the ground, a patterned sequence of visceral lights in the wake of fortified firewalls. The first was traditional ICON, low-grade by conventional standards, a latticework of streaming neon with predictable alternate weak points. The second was its complement, a bombardment of static spheres packed to the brim with white noise. It was easy riding from there, its shockwave to the event horizon behind a lull of trance music.

In the lairs Harlan was known as Quickshot by a select cartel of cyphers. The construct was fashioned off a castle in the Nagasaki Prefecture. The pyramid-like pagoda stuck straight into the fractured overcast. The sky was geodesic ashes smudged into a uniform backdrop. Despite its brilliance it was ultimately useless. The meetings were always held underground.

“Welcome, gentlemen. It’s been a long time,” started Durango, portfolio in hand, “I’m glad everyone was able to make it.” He was in his classic G-man avatar, first-class business suit, lanky physique. His cheekbones were sunken and his skin weather-beaten. An outdated texture with low resolution. “Nice to hear you’re back on your feet Prodigy.”

The group consisted of five users: Snow, Durango, Soundwave, himself, and Prodigy, their latest addition. A pentagon table of stunning sandstone laid dead center in the inner sanctum. It was those little details that Harlan appreciated in lairs; the fineness of stone, water dripping from the crumbling masonry, those minute yet calculated imperfections that added mystique and underlying decadence.

“Any new business?”

“I’m having trouble finding people to sign up for the workshop without coming off as the sleazy salesman. God damn noobs. Think they can walk into Unreal City and take whatever they please.”

“Calm down, honey,” said Soundwave removing his reflective sunglasses, “they don’t see the big picture. Keep in mind most of these so-called hackers are in it for the short term. There’s no master plan there. They’re suggestible. Too distracted by the smallest success. Usually cop out before the check clears. Remember Attitude?”

Prodigy’s specialty was online real estate. Easily the most profitable segment on the net using nothing but space and bandwidth. His avatar was a shimmering blue sports jacket, baby-blue lipstick and silver eye shadow. Its controversy was its homosexual undertones. Ironically its allure as well.

“Well give it some time. Bootcamps are cropping up all over the place. Double-check the forums with some viral marketing. Wait until word-of-mouth spreads. Things are bound to pick up. Anyone else?”

“I was nearly killed this evening,” said Harlan. Everyone went silence minus the latent static and the leather coming off Snow’s swivel chair. He produced a flash disc the size of a business card and expanded it to fit the back wall. The projection was coarse and immobile but once the footage began — with the snap of Harlan’s fingers — the video became clearer. There was no sound unfortunately but it was better than nothing.

The girl that’s who man, thought Harlan, do I have to draw it for you with a fucking stylus or something?

“The man’s name, at least what I gathered from his wallet, is Randall Ozwald. The license was a clear forgery. Nothing else in there but coupons and some old condoms.”

“Let’s see what we got here.” Soundwave was also known as the Archangel. He wore ripped jeans, a tight white shirt, and a featherbed of wings behind his shoulderblades. He snatched the gilded halo above his head and enclosed it within the clip, filtering the interference as best he could.

“Perfect,” replied Soundwave. The static was less degraded than before, screened through a Jakarta-inspired feeding realm. This strained the constant static like dust caught in an air vent.

“Notice anything?” The three minute clip repeated as the group sat in silence. The overall quality improved. The key was switching formats. Another skill Harlan lacked.

“That dye job isn’t worth a dollar that’s for damn sure,” said Prodigy. “Could easily be a wig if you look hard enough. Plus the clothing is tasteless and uncoordinated. True Brazilian kitsch — ”

“Can you magnify that…” started Durango lifting from the chair, “…the ring on his finger.”

“What the hell is that?” Harlan froze the clip and quarantined the frame enclosing the gilded band on Ozwald’s hand. The awkward angle made it obscured. He winced.

“C4 is hard to come by. Even today. Black markets. Try scoping out military surplus stores, demolition construction companies, chemical supply shops. Message me back on that.”

Prodigy dug deep beneath his fingernail and gnashed it free with one tug. It took eight seconds to upload the file into his personal database. Durango tossed them each shimmering business cards framed in gold. These required identity recognition. He spat on its rear face, disarming the protocols that protected it. Harlan kicked his feet on the centerpiece — pleated snakeskin imported from Vienna- resizing the itinerary’s window as he saw fit.

“Next week’s assignment,” he concluded already jacking out of Dakar. Durango was just a product of Western corporate outsourcing gone awry.

#

It was close to midnight when Harlan awoke and deactivated the VisorGoggles. He tuned them to a wireless hot zone and let the unit charge for an hour or so before leaving. From the coral-tiled kitchenette, Harlan boiled some instant noodles and waited for the pot to simmer. Triangulating Ozwald’s signal to a fine point was simple, even without his headgear.

The love hotel was a sleek little joint at the corner of SEDUCTION JUNCTION located in the north-east section of the city’s largest Xanadu. These self-contained bubbles of interacted neon were simple geodesic domes of cemented glass, one-way mirrors unseen from the outside. Harland waited for an Odyssey elevator for nearly twenty minutes. These were incredibly cramped and built for only two people at a time, which was great for having sex. Escort calling cards were laminated beneath tempered plastic. Tubes of vertical magenta lined the lift’s interior. Torn condom wrappers lay scattered on the stained cheetah-printed carpet.

The bridged displayed holograms of Greek nymphets in laced negligee emitting bumping-techno arias worthy of the Sirens themselves. He was escorted to his destination by a seething dominatrix named Cleo with a spiked collar around her neck and leather corset. Harlan swiped the obelisk over the sensor and flat-paneled speakers announced, “Welcome to the pleasure dome, Mr. Blithe.”

The door’s iris sphinctered and Harlan entered through the anus of the building, a golden whore bent doggie-style, arms together tucked under her chin. The procession counter was framed in frothy pink shag and an aquarium counter with goldfish swimming inside. A laminated menu was posted in Japanese and English giving hourly rates and diverse room suites next to ‘special services’ involving sadomasochist paraphernalia — whips, heavy chains, butt plugs — a staple indulgence of Harlan’s generation and personal salute to hedonism.

He stored his request in a pneumatic tube of ruby acrylic which was promptly returned by the faceless connoisseur. A phallic keycard with a number attached as plasma monitors of frosted plasma played hentai vids.

“I’m about to cross the threshold, Aiko. Keep your eye on the wireless for anything suspicious. Look for the keywords I provided in the server networks.”

“Listen baby, I’ll do my best from this end but let me remind you that reception here is complete crap. These Xanadus are like localized sunspots for that sort of thing. Whatever you do on your end will take at least twice as much time on my end. Just keep your eyes sharp sweety.”

The keycard bleeped twice and the black lights activated. Harlan gaped through the central well outside the convex window that made up the building’s left areola. Pixilated fireworks stormed the main basin, a tepid atmosphere where the air tasted like champagne. This second circle of hell.

The pleasure domes was a circumferential spindle that ebbed and flowed with knee-jerk vivacity, smelling mainly of vanilla and tangerine incense. A rain forest biodome complete with palm trees, Romanesque statues, and cobblestone walkways laden throughout. Harlan surveyed his suite, gauging the tension in his face on a ceiling mirror. The flat panel activated with a wave of his arm, transparent ideograms of saffron and lime floating over stiff plexiglass. He ported the VisorGoggles at the bed’s footing and the aluminum pole brightened instinctively.

Sensor nodes. The rippled lining spewed pixels in midair transfiguring to a standard-issue pleasure model.

“What’s your poison, bitch?” said Astrid.

“Crème-de-menthe.” The sterilized crystal appeared before him halfway filled with chilled emerald.

“So are you here for business or pleasure?” She laughed garishly, mechanically, emotional algorithms coupled with seductive code working overtime.

She was sexual in her pulp-fiction exaggerations — buxom breasts, nymph-like stature, helpless demeanor — in a two-piece white lace ensemble, sporting a pluming foxtail out her backside and a rubber whip in her right hand.

“My business is my pleasure.”

“Specifically?”

“Murder for hire.” One swipe of her invisible palm would send his oxytocin bubbling and the serotonin flowing to his brainstem. These neurons, the natural opiates of the body, would cause blissful paralysis, a bulbous leech sucking his credit until near virtual bankruptcy. “There was a man here earlier tonight.”

“Like so many others who’ve traipsed through the doors of their local Xanadu.” She pivoted flawlessly on platformed heels though the lagtime was atrocious. Flickers of distraught programming siphoning through overused hardware.

“Let’s cut to the chase sister. Less than six hours ago I traced a signal to this hotel from a transport shuttle in Sector 31. I’m a little sketchy on the physical details, but sufficed to say he was an elusive one.” Harlan took another swig of his crème-de-menthe and wiped the grime at the corners of his eyes before checking that his VisorGoggles were still online. “This isn’t a request sugar. Download the electronic receipts of any occupants of this hotel.”

Rouge Avenue was the black market under-the-counter interplay within each and every Xanadu. Its syndicate of suppliers easily detectable by their feather boas, knee-high leather boots, and pink cowboy hates. Germanic software and counterfeit gear from the finest dealers around.

Harlan anchored her avatar before she had a chance to disengage from his suite. The rubber sheaths fit snuggly over his fingertips as he stretched the netting over his palm, a thin webbing of razor-thin fiberoptics, before snapping the metal latch at the wrist.

“Fuck off, preppy. You can’t fucking touch me,” she scowled, buttoning up her plaid cut-off tanktop, “You ain’t no pimp. Certainly no smooth talker that’s for sure. That is, unless you’re a day player.”

“Tell me. Does your programming include the Crusades? Brutal battles for such a dark age. Horrible atrocities. I minored in medieval history back west. Bullshit discipline history. The past isn’t going anywhere. Must keep that in mind. The past isn’t going anywhere.”

“Fascinating son but if there’s no use for me then I just be going — ” A sharp backhand ruptured the program’s left cheek. It took a few seconds for the pigmentation to set in and the wheels in motion for a hefty bruise later on.

“Ouch, that hurt.” True terror invaded her eyes. Astrid stumbled backwards into the sensor pole. A trickle of blood rolled down her lower lip. “What the hell? I can’t plug out.” Harlan clasped the ‘trodes on his hand round her neck, approaching the digital platform in his alligator skin loafers.

“Now you’re going to tell me everything about the tracker I mentioned or you can expect some very unpleasant things to come. See there.” He tilted her neck towards a duffel bag where his deck was wrapped in a Reebok sweatshirt. “I can hack into the security protocols and have your program uploaded into many a number of scenarios. Gamers aren’t simply button mashers these days. They’re intuitive. And let me tell you my dear Astrid. There are far worse things than death in cyberspace. Believe me, I know. And unless you tell me everything short of the cologne this guy was wearing I’ll hold you in electronic limbo for the next half-a-century.”

Her laquered nails dug deep in his wrist. The whites of her eyes bulged red as the day-old gauze from Luna’s wound miraculously still clung to his arm. And where was he now? In a love hotel strangling some banal holographic hooker working an investigation that served no purpose.

And where was Luna?

It was her investigation after all.

It had been almost two days and not a peep, not an email, not even single text message. Dollops of fresh blood trickled on the carpet as Harlan loosened his grip. He felt infected, polluted, psychologically contaminated like his blood was tainted, in desperate need of filtration.

“You are one sick bastard. Bet there’s not a single piece of hardware in that bag. All hat, no cattle. That’s what you are,” massaging her sensitive throat, “His handle was Jason Carter. Said he was part of some short-term trafficking ring in Sector 43.”

“What’d he look like?”

“Short guy, five foot six, shaved head for the most part. Had on one of those stylish gray jackets, pink shades, Korean I think, definitely Asian. Give me a moment. I’ll siphon through the transaction records. Maybe pick up something you may have missed.”

“Anything else?”

“Circumcised, if that’s what you mean. He didn’t have an accent. Actually now that I think about it his English was very concise and articulate, good vocabulary. Smoked extra-light cigarettes, the cheap, generic ones.”

Harlan snapped the glove off his hand and unzipped his duffel bag. He smothered the remnants of his cigarillo in the teal ashtray the hotel provided. Sin seemed to fester on his skin like a fine film. He took one last pan of the Xanadu’s promenade before unlocking Astrid’s protocol. She left flipping him off.

He bid adieu to this place and the night was over as he pocketed a complimentary pack of matches in his front jacket pocket.

#

Harlan reminisced. The email was tangible. His only tangible link to Luna. He’d read it a hundred times, unfolding the paper, framing the outline before it degraded any further, and copied the text to his database. It read as follows:

To : Eva L. Yonge <Yonge@gomail.ca>

Sent : 08/06/54 5:32:34 PM

From: J.T. Blithe <Blithe_James@btf.com>

Subject : Re: unflinching

Dear Evie:

Contact Daniel Keynes ASAP. Tell him to wire the international funds account to TD special interests. Create the account and hold it until I get back.

Don’t ask me why, I’ll explain later.

Y.T. (Yours, Truly)

Blithe

Code Number: e92mf2pj3la93j_39fa_3923

The air was ill-ridden at ground zero. He spat his tasteless hyperbase into the gutter, surprised he hadn’t done so hours ago, and collapsed on the bedspread once he arrived home for the second time that day.

Chapter Three

Filed under: C) Chapter Three — David Halpert @ 1:12 am

“Give it to me straight then Ash. What’s the word?” said Harlan in between gulps of noodles. It rained. Smoke frothed from the restaurant’s niche on grilles where vegetable oil spat. A candycane-striped parapet sheltered him but the reception was lousy nonetheless. Listening to Ash was pragmatic, fractured and lowbrow, engaging subtitles on his VisorGoggles to avoid miscommunication.

“It’s like this. Your girl’s a foreigner. Dual citizenship. Moved here from Buenos Aires.”

“Before or after the Pulse?”

“Shit man I don’t know. You do the math. Came over on a workman’s visa more than a decade ago and never left.”

“What’re you telling me? Forged documents? Refugee?”

“Like indentured servitude man. Worked for BTF all this time for your boy Blithe. Did some social climbing along the way. You hear me? Six vertical moves up to executive assistant.”

“What about Lynch?”

“Forty-eight year old single mother ‘riginally from Akran. Husband was killed in a plane crash off the coast of Lake Erie seven years ago. Girl worked as a stripper in her early twenties, high-end contractor you know, paid a stage fee every week. ‘round the same time she got hooked on ice just as it was going out of style before getting herself clean.”

And the records from the Beacon Center proved it. Ash even included a missing person’s report of her daughter. The man did his homework. Blithe’s rap sheet was nothing new. The man had seven biographies written in his honor (two authorized, four unauthorized, and one memoir), a webseries based on his life that garnered bad reviews and several awards, plus databanks worth from local media outlets for Harlan to select and decipher at his own leisure.

He sidled through a cluster of Catholic schoolgirls enduring their babel of pop-idol ringtones boarding the tram before it departed. Electromagnets whirred as the induction track gained juice. Odyssey elevators were notorious for pickpocketers. That’s why he loved the trams. The current disrupted short-range signals for possible identity theft.

Steel caressed his mind, though he was only touching it.

Ice sent chills down his spine.

The city morgue was a standalone building situated in the northeastern ward, an oblong crystalline structure towering twenty stories high. After paying the toll (non-blood related patrons surrendered a small service fee) and reviewing Ash’s inventory one last time, Harlan was allowed access to Elysium Hills’ foyer.

Ant was a grad student in forensic anthropology working the late shift. He wore ripped jeans, sandals, and had black fingernails. Shirtless, with only a doctor’s scrub covering his chest.

“The tox report for the most part came back negative,” he said shuffling. “There were no chemicals in system. Stimulants, barbiturates, what have you.”

Blithe lay there, blue and resolute, on a slab of virulent chrome.

It was eerie. This wasn’t the first dead body Harlan had come into contact with but it was still unsettling. The thing, the person whose death was the catalyst for the events that happened, for the events to come. Whose influence and notoriety spewed forth like a nuclear reaction and knowing nothing was tangible, concrete. In the present it was unnerving.

“Is that the report?” Harlan adapted to the silence. Whenever he was jacked in there was this encroaching omnipresence from millions of interfaced users. A low murmur like the soothing calm of oceanic waves. Now there was nothing except his labored breathing.

“Can I borrow your stylus?” Ant offered no resistance.

Harlan gauged his database a meter from his eyes, a deep red in contrast to the white opaqueness of the morgue. He triggered Blithe’s record from his memory core and shifted the stylus accordingly, overlapping dental impressions with the real deal.

“They match. This is really J.T. Blithe.”

“No shit Sherlock. What did you expect? The autopsy was the tricky part,” said Ant patting Blithe’s thigh with a surgical gloved hand, “His age predates MID, micro-identification. Two implants, one pacemaker found once we opened him up, and one DNI port. The man had a virtual entourage for Christ’s sake. That’s when I noticed the scarring on his left shoulder. I thought one in a million chance, right? Took out a laser scapel and lo-and-behold the thing raised like Lazarus.”

By this Ant was referring to the tattoo, a stylized Ankh of worn jade. Harlan immediately photographed it for his archives.

“Anything else I should know about, scarring, abrasions? Something that might be of interest.”

“Well his corneas were a little worn. When they brought him in there were high levels of serotonin in his system. But that’s not unusual. Probably fucking some broad.”

It was only when Harlan dissolved the interface did he notice the data port behind Blithe’s neck, a trifle convenience for a mogol billionaire. It had a plastic cover pressed in the socket where the fiberoptics were meant to go.

Harlan’s deck was an octagonal shell of corrugated black plastic, the best Japanese replica on the market, and a plethora of cable jacks to boot. He located the appropriate plug and connected his portable.

“No use doing that man. He’s been brain-dead more than two days.”

“Maybe,” started Harlan absently, “but if there’s so much as a spark of juice left in this bastard I’ll be the one getting it.”

Harlan twisted the cap to a heap of flowing gunk, at least half-an-ounce worth gushing from Blithe’s brainstem.

“What the hell’s that?”

“What? Do you think I know?” said Ant, grasping a translucent container no bigger than a pill bottle. “I’ll get this to the lab ASAP.”

“I wanna know the results on that sample.” Ant nodded in response with a glazed look in his eyes, orbs which were bloodshot nonetheless. The faint aroma of medicinal cannabis filtered the air.

“Did the coroners bring in a woman alongside Blithe? Fortyish, short, blonde hair.”

“Don’t think so.”

“Could you check?” Ant sighed, sauntering to his desk. The monitor activated with a wave of his hand, a deep porcelain that blended with the morgue’s aquamarine tinge. His lacquered nails danced methodically over a vintage keyboard.

“What was her name again?”

“Amy Lynch.”

“Oh yeah I remember that one but I didn’t see her. Wasn’t on duty then. Morning shift, ya know. Now she was here for a while but it says here…” he continued, drumming a ringed finger on the steel countertop, “…that she was taken to the incinerator the same day she was brought in.”

“You mean burned?”

“Cremated, yeah.”

“Beautiful.” Harlan covered his mouth in blank frustration realizing only now that he was sweating. His lead suspect was nothing more than charred remains and a few bone fragments. It felt like a ghost was stalking Harlan, something always two steps ahead of him.

“Who ordered the cremation?”

“Daughter dearest.”

“You’re kidding,” blasted Harlan, rotating the monitor in his direction.

“’fraid not my friend. Not according to these records.” Ant examined the screen, double-checking the morgue’s dossier. “These things are pretty foolproof. Once a log’s plugged into the system it’s more or less permanent. Wasn’t bad looking either if you ask me?”

“What wasn’t bad looking?”

“The daughter genius. She came by here earlier. Spitting image of her mother if you ask me. Came to collect her mother’s possessions.”

“Goddamn motherfucker.” Harlan meandered dumbstruck, siphoning through a laundry list of birth records before Ant got suspicious, and copied them completely. Ant busied himself with Tetris. A module clasped to the desk like a vice grip sent lasers gyrating into images, burlesque dancers into direct syncopation with the deft metal playing.

Harlan was on the verge of burnout and needed sleep. Ant pulled open his desk

drawer before dropping a crumpled bag on the tabletop.

“What’s this?”

“Blithe’s possessions. No one came by to claim them. Figured they might help in your investigation.” Harlan grabbed the bag not bothering to look inside. As long as blood wasn’t seeping through the lining Harlan was more than satisfied. Ant opened a door of frosted glass behind him, producing the suit Blithe flatlined in shrouded in a saran wrap cover.

“Thank you,” said Harlan, altering the depth perception of his VisorGoggles slightly, “you’ve been of immense help to me.”

Ant reveled in the feel of paper money. He received a bundle of folded hundreds clasped tightly in the crest of his right palm. Harlan signed off on Blithe’s items and triplicate the release forms with a stylus, copying the morgue’s info before finally exiting the premises.

#

It was raining when Harlan awoke. A heavy patter on the windowpanes of his bedroom office. The rain formed a thick green film on the outer glass. He slept, three REM cycles worth, forgoing hypnotherapy or any other ‘relaxation’ technique. And still no sign of Luna.

Sector 44 of the city was known by its inhabitants as ‘The Cube’ but to the rest of the naïve metropolis living outside its opaque boundaries it was referred to simply as Mecca. Or rather Mecca was sector forty-four, a pilgrimage of consumers for the postindustrial age.

There were no maps once inside. No corridors or helpful guidance lights except for one’s own intuition. It was the natural law, social Darwinism at its apex, rival gangs budding for greater territory, store upon store beside store above store. The only sense of order was the varying sizes of pneumatic tubes where garbage was frequently deposited. Its only escape (or entrance, for him) was a monorail intersecting the sector laterally, appearing and departing every fifteen minutes about a kilometers and a half inland.

Harlan checked his ammo, exchanging his Widley magnum at the closest repository for a Browning nine millimeter. Aiko triangulated the stockpile Harlan was seeking not too far from his extraction point. He recalled passing two Taiwanese discothèques, a nail boutique, a Russian-run pawn shop, but not much else. At two minutes a store, including three major detours — while simultaneously leaving a digital trail of breadcrumbs to find his way back to the monorail — distinctions became a blur.

Legionnaire’s disease ran rampant within Mecca. The air was impure, recycled. Harlan meandered with the populace. Their ashen gray faces, corpse-like lethargy and sensitivity to light. That was a distinction he noticed right away.

“Get out,” murmured the man, flipping the pages of Anarchist Weekly without so much as a glance at Harlan.
“I was told this was the place to buy explosives.”

“You heard wrong.”

The stockpile called a store consisted of three aisles, fluorescent lighting stripped to the bone, and whatever light exhibited the floor — patterned like the Thames in a Monet painting, dingy and scuffed from military boots, vandalized scrapings from army knives. It was one of the most deserted outlets in all of Mecca

The Vietnamese trafficker was tall but lanky, built like a tank. His face was streaked with dirt and a plethora of scars. His teeth were another story, yellowed from nicotine and tar, full of metal bracery causing his words to slur.

“Well,” started Harlan, drumming his index finger on the dusty display case, “I’m not leaving here until the info I need.”

He unbuttoned his ultrasuede jacket to unveil a chain of plastic explosives wrapped around his abdomen. Harlan never considered himself a martyr but there was always a first time for everything. He quickly unlatched the explosives, held together by inexpensive Velcro, and willingly put the belt on the counter.

“I need to know the purchase orders of these explosives.”

“This isn’t the kind of place that keeps receipts.”

“Don’t forget I’ve got jurisdiction here. Besides I’m looking to port. What’s the surveillance like?”

“Basic setup like any other joint,” started the man in his Meccanian accent, “two maybe three cameras around the perimeter patched through the unit’s power system. I don’t keep up the maintenance. Too expensive. Too time-consuming. Lucky if you’ll get a picture at all. Those things are ancient,” he continued, more lax now discussing his daily affairs. “A good day is the one where I don’t get robbed. But really in the larger scheme of things who’d want to rob me? Try lugging this merchandise around Mecca without getting jumped by local mafias. Listen carefully though. Explosives don’t come by here much. Maybe two in the last month. Don’t remember a lick about them. You’re not running are you?”

The man was curious as to whether Harlan had any direct ties to local police or private security. To this Harlan shook his head no. The merchant retrieved a dime bag of cocaine and a single rustic razor blade, cutting irregular chunks into smaller segments then into a fine power.

“Wanna hit on this?”

“Nah, I’m not into that scene.” The man sighed.

“You’re thinking too dimensionally. Drugs in Mecca aren’t just drugs. They’re a currency basis. How do you think we’re able to survive? It’s not a scene man. It’s a genuine way of life.

“Any place I can port?”

The man directed him to a beat-up terminal intended for public access. With no virtual interface and the monitor profusely scratched it was impossible to view its contents. The jack was better protected. Harlan jimmied the latch with a paperclip and located the appropriate cable, hooking it into the back of his deck before the proprietor took sight. He immediately emptied his recycled bin, dumping whatever virtual memory he didn’t need, and downloaded three weeks worth of round-the-clock surveillance, which cost him most of his hard drive.

This took about twelve minutes.

Mecca was taking its toll on him. His breathing was short and asthmatic. His eyes were sore. He pulled some bottled water from his leather case but it did little to quench his thirst. Every time his joints flexed, they felt heavy like iron.

On his voyage back to the monorail Harlan vomited in a porcelain urinal steam-cleaned to perfection. Paid toilets were a priceless commodity. European manufactured alcoves set up like phone booths. At the midpoint of his voyage — the distant echoes of the monorail humming — Harlan grabbed whatever chocolate bars were abandoned from a nearby vandalized vending machine, following the ultraviolet path Aiko laid out for him.

He crossed five corpses on his way back to the terminal. Three, stripped to near nakedness, brandishing gangland tattoos. The others died of madness.

#

The chemical was called umbelliferone, a yellowish-white crystalline solid with a high solubility in ethanol. It was notable for absorbing ultraviolet light at many different wavelengths. That was his first clue. Harlan suspected drugs, most prominently heroine. He owed Ash an apology. After a short trip to the lab he collected the sample. His results.

#

Aiko propped up a particle display late the next morning before the rosewood hearth. On his bedspread, used and wrinkled, was a Styrofoam carton of tandoori chicken on a bed of wild rice. Curry was the prime aphrodisiac. Cleared his blocked nostrils, soothed the phlegm that hung deep in his throat.

The aftereffects of Mecca lingered in his body as well as his mind.

The weather reports didn’t help.

Beyond his brief trip for food at the bazaar his afternoon was pretty much free. Lightning woke him. Rain lulled him. Tram carriages were likely suspended during electrical storms. Jaded sessions of rolling blackouts causing time delays and the like.

“So what’s the deal with this Ash character?”

“I have no idea. Haven’t seen him in a week.” Harlan barely paid attention to Aiko as he bit down on the fork’s white plastic. He plotted a topographic layout of Ash’s inventory with regards to company locations. Searching, praying for patterns, anomalies, anything.

But nothing came to him.

“So what’s in this for you?”

“What do you mean?”

“With Ash.” Aiko turned sideways in her silk negligee waiting expectantly for his reply. He picked some chicken between his teeth before tapping his VisorGoggles. “Well if I understand things correctly, this information trafficker hired you to find his lost robopet. And in exchange he offered you his own expertise as a console cowboy pro bono?”

Harlan nodded.

“I’d say you got the short end of the stick.”

“You’re forgetting one thing. I still haven’t found his robopet.”

“Listen baby. I hope you know what you’re getting into. I’ve gone over his stash. This stuff’s deep. Half of it’s military, top secret. Shanghai, Istanbul, Sao Paulo, AI restraints. Why don’t you come to your senses?”

“I can’t do anything Aiko. I wasn’t born to live out my years in a cubicle plugging data entry like some white-collar junkie. I live in the fast lane, real-time. If I’m not occupied with something, good or bad, I feel like a waste of space. Like I have to apologize for my existence.”

Harlan wandered to a half-empty crystal and clunked two ice cubes into his glass. The information he gathered daily seemed to swim before his eyes. Nonsensical eddies of form, plasma blue, neon red, locking, interlocking, attempting to achieve some sort of synergy. That drive he got when he jacked in, that freedom of space — he hadn’t done it for so long, for without purpose he did not feel the need to, the necessity of it — was that withdrawal he’d been experiencing. No amount of time in cyberspace or expert shareware could remedy it.

“Aiko, what’s Unreal City really like?”

“It’s a twenty-four seven orgy of decadence and self-deprecation. A hedonistic free-for-all involving pleasures beyond the realms of human consciousness. Pure energy pumping round after round of dopamine into your neuroreceptors under you’re completely comatose.”

“Really?”

“Of course not.”

“How else am I supposed to know then? I’ve only heard stories, half-certified myths. That’s the irony of DNI. Once people are in they never seem to want to leave. That’s why I find Blithe to be such an anomaly. Why stay here when you could live in perpetual bliss all your life? I suppose it’s some kind of distinction. Honor. Guess that’s over now. I mean since his death.”

Harlan rubbed his eyes fervently.

“It’s actually a pretty desolate place really. Not like the real world. Can I tell you a secret?” Aiko pressed forward. Her pert breasts. Her jutting eyelashes. Harlan got in close, kneeling, retiring his VisorGoggles to the bedside table to listen what she had to say.

“The real world is so much unlike Unreal City. Where I come from, beyond the net, beyond cyberspace, there’s a war going on. To be honest this place is a recluse from there, a safe haven. The others that populate this wondrous city are already on the edge, set to explode at a moment’s notice. Now this might not seem important to you when you watch it on your plasma monitors or subtly interface with it virtually, but let me tell you something Harlan” — the first time he heard Aiko use his name with such seriousness — “before this war is over, when all is said and done, the consequences in this world will be greatly felt.”

He found his hands shaking. They went numb upon her invisible touch. He swallowed the lump in his throat, choking on the very words he meant to say. Never before fearful of an avatar.

“Then what will happen?”

“I’m sorry, Harlan, but we’re going to have to end this conversation.”

There was a stumble at his office entrance, glass breaking, disrupting data transfer from Sao Paulo by way of Atlanta. He jumped like a bat out of hell, stumbling over the velveteen ottoman. A woman with red curls lied faced-down whimpering, a palm print of red on the plasma door. Harlan cradled her underside and came to his senses like Aiko warned him to do.

Aiko’s reflection disappeared from the burgundy loveseat. The girl had a black eye and her front lip was swollen. A ring impression left a gash on her right cheek. She wore only one heel and didn’t speak for a time.

It took Harlan fifteen minutes to realize that this woman was Luna.

Harlan brushed the hair away from her neck and spotted the bruises under her jaw line. She had been gasping for breath. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t talk. It was that she couldn’t talk. The barcode tattoo that once patterned her neck was gone. Luna didn’t stop shaking until an hour when Harlan joined her, protecting her, as she fell asleep in his bed.

#

Luna was bedridden for a time. The reddened marks on her neck manifested into purple blotches that stayed there for days. She only spoke when she wanted water or a datapad. Her absence remained a mystery. More often than not Harlan waltzed into his bedroom and felt Luna was more like a stranger to him. Her hair shorter and curled. Her eyes once a vibrant purple were now a deep brown.

Durango had yet to confirm their latest assignment. Normally planning didn’t take this long. Harlan began to have his doubts. Even if it did take this long his friend would send him outlines, a dossier, broad strokes, but there were no messages. Upon entry Luna quickly shed her urban clothing. They felt like relics when Harlan held them between his fingers. Bloody torn silk that left a sickly taste in his mouth when he rubbed them. There was no purse, only the discarded waste of an extended voyage through the city — bus transfers, paper currency, her discontinued security pass from BTF — that provided few clues.

The rain receded during early morning while Luna was still sleeping. He donned his fully-charged VisorGoggles without hesitation, asking Aiko to keep watch on her if she woke up, to stall her if she did. At least that would buy him some time.

“I’m headed to your neck of the woods,” uttered Harlan into the side-mic. He hoped the message would be heard over the commuter babel. Ash didn’t speak. He didn’t even make a sound, a sigh, a whisper. The signal was being patched through Soviet hardware as he talked. There were two dial tones, followed by dead silence, before the irregular bleeps signaled for him to speak, “Hang tight, I’ll be there shortly.”

St. James Town was a mass exodus in the early morning dawn. By ten o’clock it was virtually deserted. The suspended trams were quite empty, yet the carriage swaggered to a northeasterly gale causing oscillated static on his VisorGoggles. Harlan lit a fresh cigarillo. He took in the noxious vapors as a reprieve over the blanketed smog. The emergency phone rang. It was secured in a shell of canary yellow plastic with a wire snaking to the tram’s undercarriage. This was a one-way connection.

“You won’t find me in Night City. I’m in the field today flyin’ solo. Transfer at the next station and head back. I’m loadin’ up the directions now.” Ash’s signal bounced off the ionosphere from a long-abandoned comsat over the Mediterranean. The hack was flawless. Harlan couldn’t respond.

Forty-three minutes passed. He arrived on the dense outskirts, the slums, sidling through hooded transients in the crowded bazaars of the marketplace. Steam erupted from the wayward pipework above. Interconnecting side streets were offset by crumbling concrete. Walls that weren’t battened down with aquamarine tarp were tagged in Arabic graffiti.

A sharp right led him to a door of frosted glass. There was a single bullet hole inside its framework. Its fractures spider-webbed their way out from its epicenter. The shisha bar was teaming with heat, a dozen languages implicitly berating him from all angles, the pungent aroma of singed apples and strawberries. It was a disarray of purples and soothing browns. Even the smoke felt digital in the afterglow of plasma screens as Harlan continuously searched for Ash.

“You wanna hit?” asked Ash, disengaging his lips from the hookah.

“Actually I’m more interested in business at the moment.”

“Fair enough, fair enough. Just wonderin’ where you been that’s all? How’s the investigation goin’?”

“Poorly actually,” admitted Harlan. There was no need to lie to Ash. He ordered Harlan a rum and coke and took a seat across. “Your inventory makes no sense. I can’t find a single discrepancy. There’s just no pattern. I’ve come up dead.”

“Relax man, I ain’t here for the third degree. ‘member I ain’t paying you. Just wanted to talk.”

Ash appeared different by candlelight. His dented steel-toed boots hung low on the gabardine ottoman. He sat up stretching his leather jacket open. Harlan caught sight of the bottom-end of the taser he’d leant him, tucked away neatly in an underarm holster. The last thing Harlan wanted to do was burden Ash with his personal problems, like telling him about the man who tried to kill him at the izakaya.

“I’m sendin’ you on assignment to the archipelago. Ever been?” Harlan shook his head as Ash took sporadic puffs from the hookah. “Let’s just say the clientele doesn’t look too favorably on my kind. Take you right to the source man. Where my shit got jacked.”

“You mean the robopet?” Ash dropped a crumpled envelope on the table. Inside were two tickets to the night’s banquet written in Japanese and English.

“Not the robopet. Just a trace from one of my virals that looked surprisingly similar. Swankiest joint in town my friend. Be ready to show up fashionably late. Wouldn’t hurt to have a pretty girl on your arm neither, or a piece. Fucking Yakuzas outnumber the place. One nigger ices a party some years back next thing ya know we’re the Ebola virus. Musta done somethin’ right though. Not a single drop has been spilt since. I’ll hook you up with a tracker and my pet’s last location. Strictly reconnaissance. I want you to come back in one piece. Spent six hours straight ‘crypting code just to get your name on the damn registry. I’d ‘spect you’d be more grateful.”

“I’ll do my best,” said Harlan, lighting another cigarillo. A middle-aged Sikh in a turban and white cotton dhoti sidled to the bar nearby mumbling a variant form of Urdu too fast for his VisorGoggles to translate. Other than the receding echo of the clattering beaded curtain they ignored him entirely. “You ever deal with equipment?”

“You talkin’ gear?”

“Medical.”

“What you gettin’ at?”

Harlan reached into his breast pocket and tossed a piece of polymer no bigger than a silver dollar on the tabletop.

“What the hell’s this?”

“A pacemaker I think. Extracted from none other than J.T. Blithe himself. I was wondering if there’s any information on it that could be of use to me. I’d do it myself but I don’t have the proper gear.”

“Damn man, you mean Blithe the billionaire. Didn’t think he was this country no more. Last I heard he was livin’ it up in Dubai somewhere. Shit, and here I am thinking I got off easy with your services.”

Harlan listed the discernable links between the inventory from mega-corporations in the Far East and the conglomerates in central Europe, concurrent headlines on the news e-links en tandem with Ash’s cache. It wasn’t much to go on but Ash knew his intellectual property better than Harlan. An LED blinked Morse code in the left corner of his VisorGoggles, Aiko informing him of Luna’s consciousness. He’d have to cut it short. Harlan did his best to look natural. He didn’t want to give Ash the impression something was up.

“Oh, I nearly forget,” uttered Harlan, rising up, “I got the results on that vial yesterday. Thought maybe you’d want to have a look.” He handed Ash the dot matrix printout and the vial in a Ziploc bag.

“Contact me tomorrow. It’ll give me a chance to sift through the data.”

#

It was a hack job three years ago. That much he remembered.

Harlan remembered the bitter taste of blood. One of the third generation inhabitants of the Jupiter Belt less than two miles into the Pacific. SeaCal had been nothing but a cluster of islands with secondhand cement for foundation and whatever landmass it could scrounge. Where subcultures emerged like microbes in a culture and coalesced after ‘The Big One’ hit.

The splintered sky gave off a microfiche sheen though the encapsulating geodesics allowed for filtration. Back then his gritty tenement was the third-floor of a Bastille overlooking the sinking coast, barely visible through the moguls of the port’s dead technologies. The troupe ran nine. Three on rotating shifts connected to the mainland — our resident cyphers — though there was always someone jacked in at any given time. Others were intermediaries for the Yakuza, the Triads, sporadic branches of the Costa Nostra, drug launderers, fencers, hackers, traffickers. Jupiter’s west peninsula was the densest population-wise. Catacombs of crumbling cinderblock prone to anonymous aftershocks.

Benzedrine ran rampant causing intermittent gaps in his memory. These freezeframes, like shattered glass, were the result of generic copycats. Aquatic strobes from a distant arcade. Obsolete first-person shooters left him strung out after long-hours in corporate mainframes. A patent-leather recliner lay stripped of its upholstery. Floors of cold cement were snaked with fiberoptics and photo-degradable containers that withered in sunlight.

Faces rekindled afterthoughts but only one name stuck, Kwan Yin. Dreads of dirty blond and black, baggy fatigues from army surplus, a white tanktop, a tattoo on her inner thigh.

It was a hack job, he repeated in the back of his mind. That much he remembered.

Someone ripped them off good.

She, the sole survivor of his return. Her body hung loose in a battened-down swivel chair. A silenced bullet left her lung perforated. Her pupils, lifeless pinpricks in the faint glimmer of vacant monitors.

Harlan traced the feed, cumulating the latent power from his deck and booted the system. The screens went nova, blinding him. Logic bombs. He couldn’t save Kwan Yin even if he wanted to. He remembers her in fragments. His fingers on the damp stucco walls. The bitter taste of blood on his lips. She existed now only as a memory.

The last image Harlan saw would lead to his permanent exile. The encrypted location of the fuckers that screwed him. He needed VisorGoggles after that. He vanished in the face of the crowd not long after, never to return to Jupiter Belt.

#

Aiko warned Harlan through a DOS prompt on his lenses that Luna was leaving his office halfway through his journey down the orbiting colonnade. The second message from his cushioned earpiece made him redouble his efforts home. He burst through his office door stumbling on his way to the bedroom, only to find Luna at the mosaic kitchenette finishing the last of a Denver omelet.

“Where’ve you been?” asked Harlan.

She didn’t look at him. Her eyes were more focused on the plasma screen, playing old reruns of Spanish soap operas. Luna was wearing a black silk kimono with patterned wild blossoms as she quickly downed her Taiwanese beer in one swift single gulp.

Four identical shopping bags dropped on the parquet floor. They were high-density polyethylene with globes on the packaging that rotated every three seconds. The durable nylon handles rubbed hard against his palms.

“Sky-diving. What do you think, I went shopping.”

“You didn’t use Blithe’s account did you?” She deactivated the screen nearly knocking the plate from her grasp. Her sudden attentiveness startled Harlan.

“Don’t worry about it. I used the retainer money you gave at the sushi bar. Jeez what’s you damage?”

“Do you have the obelisk?”

“Of course.” He fished glossy black acrylic from the pocket of his faded denims. It was hers after all or at least it was now. She snatched it the second it hit the adobe countertop.

“Blithe’s account’s tapped. Someone’s definitely tailing us. I can sense it,” she said, biting down feverishly on a manicured thumbnail. “I sensed it with Blithe when I accompanied him around the city.”

“Is that why you left so suddenly Luna? Or should I call you Eva?”

“Why? Did you miss me?”

“Don’t get soft on me sweetheart. Just because you go AWOL doesn’t mean the world’s going to explode.”

“Yet you obviously found time in your busy schedule to pay a visit to the Emporium. Doing very well for yourself aren’t you? Four bags of merchandise…” Luna winced in pain, cradling her wrist so it wouldn’t move.

“What’s the matter?”

“I think my wrist’s broken.” It was revealed to be a bad sprain. He handed her an ice pack, a plastic sac of refrigerant gel, to soothe her aching pain.

“So where’d you end up those last couple of days you went missing?”

“You first.” She removed a pack of Meia-Noite regulars and lit a menthol cigarette. Glare from the skylight fixtures bounced off her dancing corneas. They were glassy, her eyes. Contacts that phased with relative brightness to a predetermined spectrum of colors. Harlan explained the assailant who tried to kill him at the pod shuttle days ago. The encounter at the love hotel in the local Xanadu and his subsequent trip to Mecca. The autopsy of Blithe at the morgue and Lynch’s estranged daughter. It gave Luna a chance to quit talking. Her voice was still hoarse, though the bruises on her neck were more or less gone.

“Et tu?”

“There was some business I had to take care of. Do you remember that tattoo on my neck? Insurance that I’d stay in Blithe’s employment. But with Blithe dead I considered my tenure with him over. The first thing I needed was to get rid of it. Smart ink too. Radioactive isotopes burnt into the skin. That was my first priority.” She took in a long slow puff of smoke and exhaled slowly, tightening her silk sash to hold up her sinking cleavage. “So you could see the dilemma I was in. Normally those barcodes are removed until the debt is repaid but if authorities got hold of me all they’d have to do is scan it. Being Blithe’s assistant would be enough of a motive to charge me. You know how they operate. Arrest first, ask questions later.”

“And what about the blood? The torn clothing? If it wasn’t the cops that nearly bludgeoned you to death…”

Luna shook her head.

“I don’t know what happened. Last thing I remember was boarding the metro station at Sector 47. Everything from there is a blur. Somehow, for whatever reason, I ended up back here. Damn chikans must have slipped me something. My mind’s drawing a blank.”

There was no direct translation from his VisorGoggles. The term was of Japanese origin. The best paraphrase was ‘molester’ or ‘pervert’ but Harlan knew what she implied. Luna snuffed the butt of her cigarette in a scratched-up porcelain ashtray. She wearily wiped her nicotine-stained tips across both her front lips.

“You were in shock, probably running on adrenaline. This place was likely the last image you thought of before you were attacked. In times of traumatic stress the body reacts before the mind, a fight-or-flight response, which eventually led you here. I had my doubts though.”

“About what?”

“About the extent your injuries. You had an awful lot when you came back here. I had to check your body for cuts to make sure you didn’t bleed out.”

“I was attacked?” murmured Luna, as if she herself wasn’t convinced.

“But most of the injuries on your face and hands were superficial. The cuts were less than an inch deep. Now I’m not calling you a liar. There is no doubt in my mind that you were attacked. But most of the blood you had on you probably wasn’t yours.” Harlan remembered the butterfly knife she wielded on their first meeting. He mentally traced the scar beneath his Polo shirt. Luna cupped her forehead in her right hand, her elbow pressed firmly on the countertop.

“Oh shit. My father gave me that knife when I was a child as a gift. Do you think that guy who tried to kill you in the pod shuttle was the same person who attacked me?”

“I killed that guy in the bathroom with the butt of my handgun. Doesn’t mean that both weren’t in league with one another.”

A silence perturbed the air.

“How did it feel?”

“How did what feel?”

“Killing. Was it all that you hoped for?”

“The man who was tracking me had five blocks worth of destruction taped around his chest. Whatever I did I did to save those innocent bystanders in the shuttle and the dozens of others that would’ve been killed had I not intervened.”

“At least you remember killing him. Some of us wish to be so lucky.” Luna waltzed to the side bathroom closing the door behind her. Her silhouette flexed through refined translucent resin as she redressed into urban clothing. Harlan relaxed on the navy bedspread smelling her scent on his pillow, a mixture of eau de cologne and pheromones.

“What did he say?” asked Luna through the door. “When you were in the stall with the man, what did he say?” Harlan’s throat tightened. In the filters of his mind he recalled his last words.

You know she’s playing you.

Who?

The girl that’s who man. Do I have to draw it for you with a fucking stylus or something?

He said nothing.

#

The bowels close to ground zero were littered with ’58 Buicks. This unspecified southeastern quadrant of the city was the epitome of Raygun Gothic. Its upswept porticos, those curvaceous geometric shapes, the bold use of glass and steel. Neon splayed up buildings like festering algae. The spirit of a generation dwindled to nostalgia culminating in motels and coffeehouses. Half the people wore oxygen masks, a third were lathered in suntan lotion, a cosmological clutter of light.

Their destination, the Archipelago, was modeled off a Shanghai replica, the pinnacle of retro-futuristic design surrounded by artificial platforms. Through the white darkness Harlan led Luna to a service elevator ostensibly wide and flanked with rust. She wore a sheer white blouse with a Cordova skirt and a vinyl handbag to match. Her radiance didn’t dim Harlan’s luster. He paraded the concrete walkway in a double-breast jacket and tailored pants with a contrasting pink shirt for style.

Luna craved excitement, adventure. Ash’s assignment was the perfect aphrodisiac for her wayward albeit idiosyncratic slump. Harlan simply shrugged. Without a weapon he felt naked. Paranoid that leering eyes were staring at him. He knocked three times on the dented steel, reverberations felt through the metal.

A Japanese girl answered their call. She had creamy skin with hair in a diagonal streak of blonde and pink. A headset wrapped around her jaw.

“Are you Mr. Novak?”

“Detective Novak yes, and this is my associate, Luna Veca.”

“Follow me.”

The pair funneled to the rear of the warehouse. It was a thinned niche above a grated staircase blocked off by walls of square glass. Forklifts rumbled behind them. This sector (aside from the neon) was nothing short of a glorified storehouse. High-bay skids for offshore outsourcing. Imported crates from Helsinki, Kotka. The girl’s confidante was already wired in next to a desk of faded rosewood. A head mounted display of fire-retardant polyurethane covered his eyes. ‘trodes extended from his fingers. Deadened veins at the wrist posed an IV drip, plus a biteplate of molded plastic between clenched teeth.

“What’s he running?”

“He’s unconscious. Been at it for six hours now. Jetta here’s just got some top-secret military hardware from Malaysia. He’s been itching to try it out.”

“You mean he smuggled it here. That is what you do right? Traffic the goods to a third-party launderer and have them transported to this warehouse.” The girl flexed her fingers together. Harlan struck a chord in her that jostled her very being. Terminals reflected the user’s interface, what Jetta saw, sprawling distinctive lithograms Harlan recognized as the Eastern Port Authority. Monochromatic layers of scarlet and black gave the illusion its depth.

The place reminded him of the Jupiter Belt, the girl Kwan Yin. This warehouse had a presence about it. Vacuum tubes of diluted light cascaded through the sloped sunroof.

“You may want to tell your friend there that if he wants to shave a couple of hours off his duration to adjust the residual harmonics a few points, unless he wants migraines for the next week. He also might want to stick close to subsidiaries. No less than four degrees of separation at all times.”

“Are you a tracker?”

“I’m freelance, private dic.”

“But not officially I take it. Because anyone who knows the intricacies of shipping protocols that well is no amateur.” She rested her thin legs on the desk, long patent-leather boots ran up her shins, and lit a Meia-Noite cigarette (Luna’s brand) before speaking again. “I remind you you have no jurisdiction here. Ash owes me favor. Anything you see is purely circumstantial.”

“Look we’re sorta in a hurry,” said Luna, “Would you mind if we leave the chitchat for later?”

“All right.” She double-checked Jetta’s heartbeat and blood pressure. Her nails were a vibrant pink. The girl’s handle was a mere five character mix of letters and digits which Harlan couldn’t decipher. “Hand me your identification.”

She secured their cards in a white envelope — credit cards, driver’s licenses, social security — and produced a fresh one smelling of incense. Inside was a one-page dossier for each of them. Their fictional life histories spread before them on a virtual plane, that brilliant tactile interface of mauve and coral pixels.

“My name’s Angel in case you were wondering.”

A drawer slammed behind him. Harlan was startled. He licked his fingers unnecessarily scrolling down the final remnants of his profile.

“Who goes first?”

Angel held a pneumatic injector. As she closed the GUI Harland gazed outwards through tempered glass, steel barred windows, that endless blitzkrieg.

“These nanites will disintegrate in your bloodstream within the next fours hours so it’s a good idea to get off the premises by midnight. It’s just easier that way.”

“Like Cinderella.”

“Sort of. Only these glass slippers are manufactured in a lab.”

“Then I guess that’d make you our fairy god mother.”

“I’m only doing this as a precautionary measure. Ash instructed me to give you the best treatment possible. If he’s taught me anything it’s that these mafia joints can afford whatever their heart’s desire. Metal detectors that can scan on the cellular level. Laser readers that can trace ID tags from space. The sky’s the limit for these people.”

Harlan winced at the trigger-happy Angel. The puncture points kissed his flesh for a split second.

“Now believe me when I tell you that these people are ruthless. And there are far worse ways to die than at the barrel of a gun. You see, that’s the difference between the real and the virtual. Online, you can cower away in the digital niches for hours without ever realizing you can jack out. The point I’m trying to make detective is be careful. Because, if you get caught in the Archipelago, there’s no jacking out.

After the injection into his arm Harlan adjusted his VisorGoggles’s output, fixing for depth perception and calibrating the frequency to scan for miscellaneous anomalies.

“Listen Angel. Slow down if my pulse tweaks suddenly. Keep us under the radar. Is he burning clean?”

“Does anyone?”

“What stims?”

“Acetylcholine’s in the drip. Figure that’ll buy you a couple hours.”

Harlan felt an empty lucidity as the nanites took effect, a placebo effect at that, but an effect nonetheless. They’d mask his signature, at least temporarily, burrowing microscopic fissures in the markers that defined his genetic code. He worried his VisorGoggles would cause suspicion but it was too late now.

“Ready to go,” said Luna.
“I was born ready.”

#

Harlan propped up a dialog box on the inside of his VisorGoggles of the persona he was meant to inhabit. He remained erect facing forward as the private elevator oscillated upwards — an overabundance of blunt-shaped chrome, globes of translucent wax swimming in glass tubes — as the light amplitude automatically got dimmer with the increasing altitude of the lift. A glint of something caught sight in his periphery, a miniscule shunt lodged deep in Luna’s esophagus. No wonder she had no accent.

“Nervous?”

“Always.”

“Try to relax and take deep breathes.”

Jeff Lafayette was his handle, an up-and-coming e-vid distributor of harlequin fiction. Luna was a high-end escort from the outsourced Taipan line. With the majority of invites clinging to some sort of wildcat cartel Angel vied that Luna keep the scars from her assault.

Little Tokyo, the Archipelago, opened to bustling commerce of laissez-faire capitalism. Two divergent corridors provided sprawling vistas of Unreal City. The sky glowed a dark saffron that encompassed much of the horizon. Harlan bustled lazily on terrazzo floors. He scoped the lower plateaus that made up Little Tokyo’s eastern wing. Each domed nautilus was bubbled in cement glass. Its arched walls led to a metal spire. These plateaus were linked by serpentine walkways whose exterior shells were also see-through. He counted twelve in sight.

The walkways were public domain for corporations. Harlan sauntered through phantasmal avatars bearing corporate insignias. The evening’s motif was the proverbial outlaw: western gunslingers, the ronin, misguided derelicts of the underground.

Passing as Jeff Lafayette was like swimming through the personal histories of everyone around him. Abstracts of data flooded his lenses. The area teemed with decadent opulence. Luna made a makeshift emery board from the underside of a discarded matchbook. Harlan got the urge to smoke. Nano-filtration at this altitude was ultra-hardcore. Sheets of diffuse fiberglass covering the slanted roof.

The Aqua Bar off the rotunda was teeming with archaic electroclash. Music that left a nostalgia in Luna that was both artificial and perversely attractive. Furniture was situated at right angles — khaki-colored chairs, polished red oak tables. The languid scent of sandalwood lingered in the air.

“You picking up anything?”

“Nada. Nothing out of the ordinary anyway. Other than the fact I’m starting to get a headache.”

“Some alcohol will get rid of that,” said Luna, passing him a champagne flute.

“Thanks.”

Dense plexiglass rested beneath their elbows. Goldfish swimming amidst a heliotrope pulse. Tracers wore three piece suits with high white collars and solid matte black ties. Earpieces were graphed permanently in their left ears. A pale overcast of toxic green descended on Luna’s face as the unassuming Algerian bartender handed her a cosmopolitan.

“What’s the story morning glory?”

“Can’t tell. Normally bars are rife with subvocalized info-tracking over the Wifi but not here. Mobility’s weak. Transactions are slim to nil. But I’m sure our illustrious hosts are just glad the guests aren’t killing each other.”

“That tense huh?”

“Not sure but these elevated heat levels aren’t for nothing. Everyone’s on edge.

I’m just saying one dropped fork and the whole place will explode.”

“Then what the fuck are we doing here?”

Luna led Harlan across a staircase of coarse limestone. The elliptical corridor was slim, dimly lit, and contained Chinese lanterns covered in rice paper that provided the only floodlight. Wires stretched from the walls above to the dome’s central axis. Gnarled petals modeled off Potsdamer Platz draped cotton sheets against a lavender backdrop.

“There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.”

“What’s that?” Luna’s stilettos clunked monotonously against the floor like a code pleading to be deciphered. “Come on now. Don’t leave me hanging.”

“I need to know where you got you’re work done.”

“Fair enough. I had an acquaintance over in Sector 13 that promised a good discount on my credit if I’d get the mods done by him. It was strictly an external procedure.”

“Was he certified?”

“Let’s just say Blithe had a lot of connections. Some of which were shadier than others. Some of whom I’ve kept in contact with for a long time.”

How many connections? Harland wondered.

And that was it. Sector 13, the undisputed wasteland of the city. Even in broad daylight it was an urban no-holds-bar battle royale. The pieces of Luna’s assault were finally falling into place.

“And your personal safety didn’t factor into the equation?”

“Don’t be silly. I had my knife with me.”

“Is that all?”

“This may come as some shock to you Harlan but I’m not the harmless little damsel in distress you make me out to be. I don’t need rescuing, especially by you. I’ve survived much worse in my life. But it’s you that has to realize that there are easier, more inventive ways of killing a man than with a knife or a gun.”

He was startled back into her past. ‘The Pulse’, the blackout, the ensuing chaos, and eventual quarantine. What impacted Harlan more was her strident, unflinching tone. The pure malice rooted in her speech that left Harlan to question her true motives. Specifically the death of J.T. Blithe.

A snapshot of Jetta drifted through the light of the bar. This was his avatar, the unshakable truth. He was a cyberkid, branded in full regalia of the cyber subculture; ultra-modern tunic with Dintex webbing, military boots, uniform stretch-panel trousers with an asymmetrical hemline, hazard goggles that rested under shards of cobalt blue hair, not to mention the LED collar.

Aiko was transmitting a live feed to St. James Town. Harlan’s faith in Angel dwindled in that their success in the mission relied solely on barely legal jailbait. He fiddled with his naphtha lighter in his jacket pocket. The coldness reassured his nerves.

“You okay?”

Her voice receded into matte darkness. Miniscule details skewed his brain in the company of Yakuza. Teardrop tattoos, Italian silk ties, imitation jewelry that bore the words ‘loyalty’ and ‘family honor’ in their native language.

“Aiko, get me the point of origin.”

Constellations of pixels flooded the interface. Wireframes pulsed from the terminal perspective. His limbs were disembodied pieces of meat. Harlan waved steadily through the crowd outside the main ballroom, down various antechambers. The spectral clunking of Luna’s shoes dawdled not too far behind. Trickles of ultraviolet breadcrumbs led him from the final transmitted position of Ash’s robopet to some undetermined locale. The robopet was nowhere in sight.

Was it endless?

Aiko routinely refreshed the bandwidth but it stayed within normal parameters. She strung him along like a digital marionette far into the Archipelago’s east wing, three domes away from the main hall. He continued, following the same traces of umbelliferone found in Ash’s apartment. Invisible to the naked eye yet disastrous under a black light.

The thin corridor forked south unveiling a blend of Japanese décor and art-deco sensibilities; walls of rice paper, inlaid wood, shallow lighting, sharkskin, poly-carbonated cherry blossoms.

“Don’t tell me, you found something,” said Luna, breathless.

“The trail ends here.” No other access points were available, no adjoining junctions, airtight or otherwise. The only door was an ill-hidden storage closet a few meters away. “I’m picking up low-level heat signatures behind this door.” It was a rugged, lacquered mahogany. The stainless-steel handle was smeared with variant fingerprints, which he scanned immediately into his VisorGoggles. “Stand back.”

He turned the knob. Harlan’s eyes widened. There were no assailants ready to split his skull. No assassins waiting to ravage him despite the high concentration in the Archipelago. Harlan grabbed Luna’s wrist and bolted across the checkerboard floor. It became transparent, X-rays through a sequence of taps on his visors.

The main hydrogen line branched below to the subsystems of five nearby geodesics. Luna dug her fingernails hard into his skin insisting that he slow down but Harlan was having a hard enough time navigating the foyer with invisible walls around him.

Once inside the closest service elevator he pushed the lowest button on the panel. The buttons weren’t numbered. This lift was likely just a bypass. A direct route to the ground began.

“Have you lost your fucking mind?”

“Do you really expect me to answer that?”

“What?”
“The time. What is it?”

“I don’t know.” Harlan’s ears popped as the elevator increased speed. Bands of light flashed rapidly in succession. The cascade was instantaneous, branching its digital fire-light to the nether-regions of Little Tokyo before ultimately going nova.

Horizons released skies.

Falling Towers.

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air.

Silence. Absence. Fire.

#

Harlan became conscious first and foremost of the smells of the warehouse’s interior, timber, sterile steel, vulcanized rubber. His eyes had a type of double-vision as he gazed at Angel’s silhouette. In the static tinted monitors he attempted rubbing them, his eyes, though ‘trodes were still clipped to his fingertips. Harlan was pent double on a salvaged dental chair, nauseated and dismayed.

“Are you awake?” said Luna.

Harlan said nothing.

After disconnecting the fiber-optics from the port of his VisorGoggles he took in heavy gulps of saturated air. That virtual program, the Archipelago, the construct that Ash tried so hard to accommodate was at this point in time irretrievable. Constant was the shrill bleep of Jetta’s flatline as he lay there mere meters away, and the flow of Angel’s tears.

“Are you awake?” she asked again.

Chapter Four

Filed under: D) Chapter Four — David Halpert @ 1:08 am

Part Two – The Mirrormans Shadowrun

Ash and Aiko analyzed the viral outbreak shortly after the fact with only minor discrepancies between the two, an infectious worm timed to spread mindlessly through the Archipelago’s LAN. This vulnerability was the result of buffer overflow, which allowed the virus to execute arbitrary code and infect the network. No vigilante groups claimed responsibility for the incident, although Harlan suspected the Neo-Luddites were to blame. Responsible or not, seventeen were dead from half a dozen rival groups, more than thirty were rendered brain-dead, paralyzed, or comatose (including Jetta) and while Luna and Harlan escaped the battle, both were experienced enough to realize that the war had just begun.

Their departure was hasty and premature. Any person with secondhand knowledge of streaming would assume ports to and from the hub would be vacant that time of night, devoid of any human traffic whatsoever, and although their identities may have been clandestine, the location of their emergence point was free for all to monitor.

Harlan pressed a fistful of gritty bills into Angel’s palm. He urged her to seek shelter in the nearest Xanadu until things blew over, if they would blew over. Upon Luna’s insistence he transferred the remainder of Blithe’s executive account beforehand into four separate prisms of rose quartz, keeping one for himself for emergencies. They quickened their pace plodding through real time, refusing to crash even after eighteen hours unrest (three of which were online) in addition to coming down from a hyperbase jolt.

Once they made it back to the apartment Harlan became fatally aware of the foreign stench of monochrome, a lingering synaesthetic aftertaste. He placed a sawed-off shotgun in an Adidas bag, padded it with two days worth of clothes, with just enough allotted space for his deck.

“What’s going on? What are you doing?”

“We’re bailing. Newsfeeds are probably buzzing already. If we stay here the night we’re likely to be dead in the morning.” He stroked the dimpled handle of his Browning and cocked a fresh bullet into the cylinder. “Aiko, alter any documents with my personal information. Everything from the name on the lease to the plasma on the door. I want to be a ghost.”

With a wave of his hand Harlan siphoned grainy scarlet lasers on his desktop. The virtual interface was a blend of supped-up Mexican hardware and an airy holographic keyboard. He transferred the bulk of Aiko’s program into his deck, most of which was just memory. The basic template could be found at any public kiosk and he could otherwise reconstruct her avatar from scratch.

“Let’s go,” he said, slinging the duffel bag around his shoulder.

“I’m not going anywhere. Not with you. Every place you’ve taken me someone’s gotten killed.”

“That wasn’t my fault. I had no idea that shit was gonna go down.”

“No assumptions? No suspicions that this Ash might’ve set you up to take the fall for something bigger than the both us?”

“It’s the same MO. Whoever planted the worm at the Archipelago stole Ash’s robopet. The liquid trail from the point of origin to the closet was the same liquid found in Ash’s apartment.”
“The first liquid was found in an apartment in
Night City. The latter was found in Unreal City. Now I might not be a detective but I’ve been online long enough to know the difference between the real and the virtual.”

“Then maybe someone put it there knowing we’d find it before the construct exploded.” Harlan rubbed his face in an attempt to stay awake. “The trail in the inner sanctum wasn’t ultraviolet. It only appears that way once online. It was a signature. You see before a virus is activated or a system is debugged the user leaves an indelible imprint on the system before a virus can be released. It’s what’s called a stack trace.”

“Okay,” began Luna mockingly, tossing the dense strands from her eyes, “so let’s just say someone happened to unleash the virus at the same time we were there, and let’s just assume for a moment that’s what you’re saying is true, that the person who stole that damn robot thing was the same person who killed all those people. Then why in the hell would they warn us at all?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they, whoever they may be, need a scapegoat for all their little reindeer games. Maybe someone’s stringing us along the way a donkey follows a carrot.”

Luna hustled over to Harlan’s desk and fished out his monogrammed flask. At this time of night her eyelashes clumped together. The monotonous clunking of her thin heels made Harlan’s head hurt. Luna’s hand shook as she dully poured whisky into a dusty tumbler.

“Do you think that’s sensible?”

“I was nearly killed tonight. My nerves are shot. God forbid I want drink every once in a while. Plus a little inebriation never hurt anybody. Loosen up.” She offered him the stemware as a meager olive branch. In the meantime Harlan cupped his head in his hands while she gulped down the liquor. Upon the sound of liquid hitting glass Harlan asked, “Why do you do it Luna?”

“I don’t know. I think I might be genetically predisposed to alcohol.”

“I’m not talking about the whiskey. I mean Blithe. Why is uncovering the truth behind his murder so important to you?” She neglected to answer at first, her face slowly sinking downwards.

“I lost my father a long time ago. When I first came here I was living in destitute with no more than a few dollars of credit to my account. You know how foreigners are treated here. My options were limited: suicide, prostitution, organ harvesting, data-input trafficking, but I wanted carte blanche, a second chance. I promised myself if I were to start over it would be done honestly, cleanly. So what could I do? I signed with an agency at the first chance. They deemed my qualifications immaculate and so they put me with BTF.” Harlan still witnessed sunspots whenever he closed his eyes. She paused, taking a scant sip from her glass. “I suppose it all comes down to justice. You know as much as I do the cops aren’t gonna to do shit. They’re all tied up in private securities, looking out for their own interests. The police weren’t going to do a damn thing.”

“And the money?”

“It was never about the money honey. I’ve had an accumulating salary growing steadily for the past five years. Stock options, pension plans, savings bonds, you name it. The fact is I knew everything about this man. At least I thought I did.” Luna sighed. “He was an old man. He was an old man but he didn’t deserve to die. Who knows? Maybe it has to do more with truth than it does with justice.”

Silence pervaded the room alongside the lingering darkness. The ceiling fan whirred as the stale breeze caressed his face. Harlan watched the remnants of plasma recede into the frosted glass. That was it. His identity and newfound vocation wiped clean from existence. With Aiko’s memory fully downloaded into his deck the room felt larger. He could breath easier. The paranoia he had contracted once in her presence had dissipated.

“Wanna know something funny about all this?”

“Yeah. What’s that?”

“I was going to quit not too long after Blithe’s return. Travel. Figured I’d spent some time abroad for a while.”

“Was Blithe aware of any of this?”

“No. As far as he was concerned I was his loyal assistant. Except for a few small inklings every now and again. I decided I’d wait until he got back home before I told him.”

The echo of heavy rotator blades propelled Harlan out of his chair. He parted the Venetian blinds and spliced a view of the outside. A former Soviet Eurocopter drifted between the hollows of two skyscrapers. Its scrap-plated fuselage was airsprayed with stenciled graffiti — a giant red sickle on either side of the frame — under a shell of reinforced steel.

“They’re onto us. We’ve got to go.” He slung the bag around his shoulder latching his hand to Luna’s wrist. Harlan’s grip tightened. He felt the bones in her slender arm gnaw against one another until Luna broke away.

“We’re not going anywhere. Not together.”
“Damn it Luna,” he spat, lunging for whatever he could grab. In the darkness he saw nothing. His face stung and at first it didn’t compute. She had slapped him across the face. Before he knew it Harland braced Luna against the window, pinning her hard against the glass. His lenses instantly blinked red, clocking hormonal levels as they spiked off the charts.

Harlan heaved in sync with her breathing about an inch from Luna’s face. He felt her sickly-sweet breath on her cheek. He waited for the unease to settle as aircraft searchlights drenched their faces. Instead she posited the question:

“Why does death always seem to follow you around Mr. Novak?”

Suddenly her knees buckled.

“That’s Detective Novak.”

Harlan caught her before she hit the ground. He dragged her body out the room and eventually out the building.

Leather boots shuffled on the roof gnashing gravel, trampling concrete. Harlan shoved open the emergency exit with Luna closely in tow. They eventually sidled into an arcade strip, a galleria modeled off eighteenth-century Paris. They were immediately bombarded by strobes limping through the cellular kiosks, coffee bistros, and rejuvenation clinics, passed the cyber-cafés, cabaret lounges, and low-scale discothèques. The concave ceiling simulated a Caribbean-style sunset. Once underground they boarded a two-person shuttle set forth to the furthest Xanadu, two miles from their present location. The Derringer shuttle rattled among induction rails realigning from minute power surges.

Luna swiped some mindless credit card into the flatbed scanner and took two mini bottles from the dispenser. The tempered glass was badly scratched but it was nonetheless intact as she twisted off the caps and gulped each tequila readily.

“Jesus Christ, would you stop drinking?”

“You don’t understand,” she said, struggling to breathe. “I have a neurostrip implanted in me, a built-in defense mechanism. When I’m backed into a corner my body takes over like a shark at the smell of blood. It’s like I’m bipolar, unaware of my actions, and before I become conscious of what I’ve done there’s usually blood on my hands.”

Luna spasmed involuntarily. She arched her back in the afterglow of the windshield’s topography. At first he assumed she was seizing. Harlan cradled her body in his arms. Her head was on his right shoulder until he felt a damp wetness on her inner thigh. He routed the shuttle to a closer Xanadu reducing the ETA to seven minutes.

Luna started crying.

“I can’t stop it.”

“Shhh, it’s okay. I know.”

Their suite had the standard amenities of a typical love hotel, and Harlan realized he’d been in this room for the second time this week, a waterbed, a whirlpool Jacuzzi, an upright massage chair, an old cathode ray television set spewing hardcore pornography.

The bed was encircled with paneled mirrors. The smell of cherry blossoms.

“Listen Luna.”

“God you don’t know when to shut up.”

Harlan felt her tongue snake its way into his mouth. His lenses vamped new tapestries of sexual energy. Spikes of adrenaline coursed through Luna’s body, a richness of estrogen rushing over in waves. His coarse lips suckled a pierced nipple, encircling the sweetness that was her left areola. He fell back on the mattress as she straddled him. Harlan cupped her thigh tracing the inner folds of her labia and came up with traces of foam.

In the darkness, so much like cyberspace, Harlan sensed her presence. His fingertips grazed her skin, permeable, porous, caressing the nape of her lower back up and down. The thrill of capture an ephemeral turn-on. She coddled his erect penis and adjusted it towards her slit, lowering upon its rigidity hard and fast, sifting torrents of pleasure up along his spine, and he came soon enough.

Sometime in the middle of the night he stood naked at the balcony windows viewing the changing constellations of the Xanadu’s domed ceiling — a winking eye, a dollar sign — and turned back to Luna half-covered by silk sheets. There wasn’t a thought in his head. He joined her on the temperfoam.

#

Checkout time was in less than two hours. Xanadus were virtually deserted in the early mornings. They sought refuge in a diner along the rotating colonnade. Photochromic panels mimicked an aquamarine sky in a dense cover of altocumulus clouds. Despite the illusion Harlan felt the air entering his lungs was purer. The richness more refreshing. Luna smeared the last of her French toast in syrup before taking nimble bites of her bacon.

“So what’s our next move?”

“First we need to find a safehouse,” said Harlan lightly sipping his Irish coffee, “keep out of the public eye for a while. Get a lowdown on the scene before we show our faces again.”

The speckled linoleum tabletop was badly scratched from X-Acto knives and switchblades. Harlan hacked a nearby vending machine when the Spanish cashier wasn’t looking and stole half a dozen packs of cigarillos right from under her nose. He’d already been accused of mass murder. Petty theft seemed like a breath of fresh air.

“What do we do then?”
“One step at a time Luna. One step at a time.”

#

An exhaust of steam flooded the underground station as Harlan stepped onto the platform. Magnetic inductors engaged the rails and the bullet train torpedoed out the terminal. They waited on a cubic bench of laquered scarlet. He fished a crumpled newspaper out of a steel-meshed trashcan and waited until the crowds dispersed. The plasma ads hummed dully. Broadband trailers repeating minute-long sequences extended out the projection via lasers.

“Cover me,” he said, rising from the bench. Luna soon followed. They sidled to an aisle of digital payphones half of which were out of order. “I’ve spotted three cameras that are able to see us from the platform. Two are blocked off by those columns. The final one’s right behind you so don’t move.” Customs would never hassle them anyway. They’d ditched the duffel in a rental locker at the entrance station during a sporadic influx of departing passengers. Harlan passed the receiver to Luna. He retrieved a Swiss Army knife from his breast pocket and unscrewed the fastened faceplate.

“And you guarantee this safehouse is legit?”

“Hard to say.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well I’ve never actually met the guy in person before.”

“Please tell me you’re kidding.” Luna blocked him from sight. The barrier displayed business cards for taxicabs and escort services.
“Would I ever kid you?” Harlan pulled the panel back. The plate was connected to a series of fiberoptics and panels of hafnium semiconductors. He pinched his thin fingers into the payphone’s carapace. Vibrations from the receiver meant the next bullet train would arrive momentarily.

“Follow me,” he answered, seconds before the maglev entered the terminus. Soon enough they were lost in a crowd. Harlan entered a paint-chipped door marked UTILITY, a cement-laden corridor of steam and grime. The freight elevator was vintage, strictly vertical, suited more for transporting goods than people. An eggshell envelop contained a single key pulled from the payphone’s interior. He jimmied the key into the slit below the emergency button, a grinding of rustic gears.

“Do you think this is legit?” asked Harland.

A surveillance cam adjacent to the door’s zenith spouted beside its titanium arch. Harlan’s deck was calling to him. He lifted the envelope to the fisheye lens and the door quickly unlocked.

Soundwave’s true name was Hiro Patel. His accent half-Japanese, half-Indian. His abode was segmented catacombs of soundproof insulation. Elusive serpentine stucco of kitschy lime-green and harvest gold. Hiro was planting referrals as a high-end hardware hacker. His central hard drives were retrofitted with UV lighting and water cooling, makeshift hybrids of vapor-compression and aquarium pumps. He was manic, stifled, with deep circles beneath his eyes as a result of lack of sleep. His fingers mimicked keyboard movements involuntary of its user.

“Never thought you’d make it? Been scoping the netfeeds for the past few hours worried I’d hear about your deaths.”

“I thought you knew me better than that.”

“To be fair I hardly know you at all. Domains are where personas are made and identities are ripped to shreds. Honestly I thought you were a woman.”

His overcoat was a patchwork of recycled Mackintosh jackets hemmed over a secondhand plaid shirt. Gold rings clad his right hand. The fallout shelter was vacant except for a few shallow heaps of eviscerated technologies on the cold concrete — motherboards, discarded peripherals, gutted flatscreens.

“We’ve got a problem.”

“Oh prêt ell.” Harlan upturned an empty crate of Japanese imported beer and took a seat.

“I didn’t come here alone.” A toilet flushed in the adjacent room.

“You seem surprisingly lucid for someone who’s escaped death twice in one week. Go on.”

“You know the viral outbreak.”

“You mean the Archipelago?” Harlan nodded. A pause ensued. “Oh shit don’t tell me.”

“Yeah.” Hiro stood up and started laughing uncontrollably, unable (or unwilling) to contain himself. “Oh this is wild. No, no man this is serious. I mean think about it. First you manage to hack one of the most secure networks in the world, next thing you know kaboom!”

“This isn’t funny Soundwave.”

“I didn’t say it was Quickshot. The fact of the matter is you bore witness to one of the greatest massacres in cyber-history.”

“It wasn’t us.”

“You think these guys care about that. Just the fact that you’re here is a testament to your own survival. Strip the semantics away. In the end you survived. They didn’t. And that’s all they’re going to see.” In the terse silence that followed Harlan clocked Luna’s reflection in the bathroom vanity.

“We were on assignment in Little Tokyo.”

“Okay.”

“We were sent to locate a man’s robopet. It was stolen two weeks ago. Inside was a plethora of jacked ware. He was a hacker you see, a real cypher. Sufficed to say we didn’t find it.”

“Then who unleashed the virus?”

“We don’t know. That’s why we’re here.” The plastics of Hiro’s jacket scrunched and stretched as he took a seat across from Harlan, digging his fingers into water-damaged cardboard. “The Russians were waiting to ambush us less than an hour after we jacked out. We barely escaped.”

Monitors splayed by-the-second stock markets of three separate virtual economies on the wall. Luna stood at the bathroom archway leering. She lit a cigarette as the front end of her heel gnarled a wayward cockroach. Luna was wearing a nondescript white cardigan and a velvet black skirt. Her legs were freshly tanned with a portable aerosol. Hiro seemed content even charmed by her superficial cadence.

“So how much did it cost for this shithole?”

“Shithole? Sweetheart you haven’t found a better place to hide from the world, next to the Catacombs of course. This is an underground prewar vintage bomb shelter. Independent power systems, water, ventilation. All necessities are stockpiled in the back. Technically we could survive a good fifteen years of nuclear fallout in this place. As long as we’re not the epicenter of the blast.”

“And how can you afford such a place?”

“I made most of my income in virtual communities, online gaming, invested heavily in Bollywood films before the New Cultural Revolution abolished copyrights. Then I sold my stocks before hyperinflation set in.” She drummed her fingers scantily on the doorframe’s edge. The pixilated numerics flickered tiresomely.

“Well be sure to call me when you boys are done catching up on things, or when something interesting happens. Whichever comes first.” Hiro showed her to the extra den before continuing his conversation with Harlan.

“And what’s her deal?”

“Nothing. Just part of a case I’m working. That’s all.”

“Is that right?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact it is.”

“Interesting.”

Hiro crept to the countertop guiding his arms through the iridescent darkness. He boiled water in cast-iron Teflon, ripping open a package of dry noodles.

“And what’s new with you Hiro?”

“Nothing that concerns you. I imported new synth-modules last week. Been workin’ on a new Zen compilation. Oh, and Durango contacted me this morning. Our next meeting’s within forty-eight hours.” Harlan hadn’t uploaded Aiko from his deck since last night. Any new messages in his inbox would have to be manually accessed. Whatever Durango had in store for them, it had to be nothing short of monumental. “Be prepared to jack in.”

#

The Wayward Attic was an old-style grindhouse formerly infamous for its extended double-features of B-movies and sexploitation films. If Harlan was going to interface with his virtual compatriots he’d require a separate network line. He didn’t want the other members to doubt his anonymity. They might suspect something. The IP would easily signal a shared connection from Hiro (Soundwave) and Harlan. There would be no discounting it. Their shadowruns were highly illegal, and the slightest indiscretion would bar them both from this fellowship of cyphers.

He didn’t know who to trust. It was that simple. The bounty on his head was too great for someone to find his true name. It was easy to trust Hiro. He had just as much to lose. Harboring terrorists wasn’t exactly status quo.

The Proscenium stage was wide and bare, devoid of actors in the corporeal flesh, only waxy holograms barely visible to the naked eye. Raining plaster. Asbestos clouds sent umbrellas opening above the heads of many patrons. A felt fedora rested upon his head, folding tables bordered the theater. It was warm and it was packed, the flee market exhibited makeshift arsenals sporadically around the venue.

He hesitantly, confidently approached a table.

“I’m looking for something specific.”

“How specific mate?”

“That depends. How well do you know your networks?”

“’maculate. Just so happens to be my specialty.”

The Aussie émigré was a former Legionnaire, a massive tank of muscle and ligaments. Harland’s VisorGoggles X-rayed most of his left skull in wiremesh titanium. The pain excruciating, camouflage overalls hitched up with Velcro haunches, and a charcoal black tanktop. Hiro was ethereal, nothing tangible. He didn’t believe in screens or monitors, he said they were too real.

The local pub was the apex of schlock and kitsch at the far end of the promenade. Gilded Elvis-head statues, vintage billboard ads, glass-bottled chandeliers, dozens of television sets sprawled around the establishment. The Aussie bounced across the vinyl booth as if testing it, coaxing his bulk into his seat.

“Right, well then. Let’s have it.”

“I need to know that there’s discretion in our discussions. Because what I’m about to tell you is immensely confidential.”

“Look mate,” he started with a cold defiance, “you came to me. I don’t give two shits about whatever bloke screwed you over. I’ve got the goods. The question really is what can you do for me?” He watched the Aussie chugged two shots of tequila, cramming a wedge of lemon between thick lips. Harlan thought long and hard for an appropriate response to appease him, but all that came up was the babel of hockey games and demolition derbies.

“I thought you might like the challenge.”

“Nice, sonny, nice.”

“That’s why Soundwave holds you in such high regard.”

“Ya expected less?” He ported the sidebar and the table’s plasma hummed beneath their elbows. “The man you call Jason Carter bit the bullet while you were in Little Tokyo.”

“You serious?”

“’fraid so, mate. I’ve got the manifest right here.” The Aussie propped of a virtual interface before Harlan’s eyes and zoomed on the name of his deceased assailant. “What do you want me to do?”

“There’s a man I need you to run a background check on. An important man.”

“I see. And what makes this bloke so damned important that you couldn’t do this yourself?”

“He’s a resident cypher, high class. I’ve dug through endless trails of code and have come up empty. Whatever trace there is of a permanent record on the net has been expunged, which led me to one conclusion.”

“Witness protection.”

“Bingo.”

“Soundwave told me you had connections deep in the APN central network.”

“I might.”

“Well I need you to unseal those files,” said Harlan bluntly, chugging the last of his pint. Ribbons of dense sapphire decorated the virtual templates, straining Harlan’s eyes. “Everyone has some distinction in cyberspace that’s traceable. I believe this guy sent me into the Archipelago knowing what was going to happen.”

“How’s that?”

“Because he’s the one that sent me there in the first place. And the last thing I need is for him to figure out I’m tailing him. The virus that destroyed Little Tokyo was a self-propagating worm virus. It’s the same signature he provided me. Now, I need to know if you can handle it.”

“Of course I can handle it mate. I can navigate the network no problem. The issue for me isn’t space but time. Once I input myself in the network I’ll only have a limited time to work with less I want to get caught.” The waitress removed the greased tubs of chicken bones where their meals had been just as a surge of customers entered the pub. Harlan felt displaced, intermittent cell-phone rings replaced the ubiquitous flatscreens and faint muzak.

“So what’s this bloke’s name?”

“Ashley Wednesday.”

#

News about the destruction of Little Tokyo had died down on the e-feeds. Harlan braced himself for the distilled air of Soundwave’s apartment. Hiro was already jacked in, chewing his own special blend of hyperbase, his digits twitching monotonously in the dulled xenon light of the basement. Fifteen minutes after his virtual reverie Hiro came too, emerging from the concave alcove.

“Nice sleep.”

“Can’t complain,” said Hiro, worn and fatigued, “you know very well I wasn’t sleeping.”

“Not one of those S&M scenarios, bondage escapades.”

“Actually I was getting better acquainted with your friend Aiko. I think she’s really taken a shine to me.” Harlan gauged Hiro’s face to see if he was lying. He wasn’t. Harlan set down the paper bag on the ceramic countertop.

“You’re kidding, right? You know she’s not real.”

“Not yet anyway. Did you get the projector?”

“Yeah, I also get the supped-up modem you wanted.”

“Good. If you’re going to show up at the meeting tomorrow night we can’t have them sniffing around our connections. You can always tell when Durango delays a meeting that it’s going to be big. Seriously big.”

Harlan eased himself into a worn-out Lazyboy made of second-hand stitched leather tearing at the seams. He downloaded the contents of his deck into one of Hiro’s spare mainframes, a shiny coral shell that was twice as small as his own.

“Here’s what I don’t understand,” began Hiro. He was eating instant noodles with disposable chopsticks straight from the carton. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking of your situation and here’s what I don’t get. How do you know the worm virus was for you? I mean there must’ve been dozens of the world’s most wanted men there. Druglords, hitmen, down-and-out criminals, mafia leaders. How are you so damn certain that the virus was targeted at you? There are dozens of top cyphers trying to top one another. How do you know this isn’t the latest form of cyber-terrorism?”

“I don’t know,” said Harlan resoundingly, “I just know.”

#

Harlan gave himself an hour’s lead time before entering the lair. Soundwave was hosting tonight. He’d spent the latter part of the afternoon calibrating the projectors, installing autonomous lines, separate connections. Harlan patched through the public servers, circumvented peer-to-peer networks. Hiro supplied the IP addresses cutting login time in half as Harlan circumnavigated the firewalls, swimming through batches of dense code as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Electronic pulses spent in mnemonic sequence. The stiff ends of the ‘trodes clanked against one another until his fingertips went numb. Cyberspace was swimming in a pool of laudanum, a lulling acquiescent trip. The air in Hiro’s apartment was surprisingly pure despite its intense saturation.

“Can you hear me okay Aiko?”

“Loud and clear gorgeous.”

Harlan tasted the dense flavor of chrome on his tongue. He’d never expected an AI program to be so tired. After her date with Hiro, Aiko required sufficient time to recuperate. She was just as much an integral piece of his system as the esoteric firmware, or the mock-Parisian sunset along the River Seine, his clear favorite of the collection. Harlan never anticipated that she, a conscious avatar, could muster enough free will to delay his departure.

The firewall, an intricate labyrinth of city lights and color, opened up to him, welcomed him, and Harlan embraced the vast ocean with open arms.

He awoke in the penthouse apartment of the Empire State Building upon a black leather couch with two pluming stacks of smoke bent eastward along the horizon. Soundwave’s program was predicated on a rotating modulation every twelve minutes. His specialty (among others) was recreating the great atrocities of the twentieth-century. The apartment was stripped bare, and in its place was a pentagonal table of antiqued oakwood dead center.

“It is a red-letter day for the hacker community my friends,” began Durango in his standard G-man avatar. He leaned against a steel frame, panning the digitized vista just as a Boeing 747 dipped below five thousand feet, well within visible limits. “The destruction of the Archipelago couldn’t have come at a better time, but first let me apologize for my late absence in getting back to all of you. I wanted to make sure all the preparations were in order before this meeting took place.”

Soundwave was in his prototypical Archangel avatar, poised upon featherbed wings. Prodigy appeared in his mirrorshades, his variant metrosexual attire, while Snow’s avatar changed every week, so there was no point in describing it.

“So what are we working with exactly?” inquired Prodigy, removing his mirrorshades promptly.

“Easy now gentlemen. I was contacted by a contact referral that shall remain nameless at this juncture in time. Sufficed to say if we pull off this assignment it will stand to be the greatest heist of our lives. The payoff is worth the added anonymity, plus a possible claim for our next assignment.”

“Out with it Durango. What are we talkin’ here? Viral? Swiping some killer app prototype?”

“I’m a little sketchy on the details. What I do know is we’re going to fleece a safety deposit box from the heart of the financial district. What I don’t know is the contents entailed within it. This sting will require everyone’s participation, RL and virtual, and each will play a crucial role in accomplishing this task; surveillance, encryption, debugging, hacking, and the piece de resistance, the volunteer destined to retrieve the box itself.”

“You mean the scapegoat.”

Harlan’s faith in AI constructs was faltering. He noted the verbal inconsistencies in Durango’s grammatical algorithms; the tense diction, like Freudian slips in the human consciousness; Durango’s uncertainty, his use of foreign phrases, for example; and Harlan worried in silence alone. The setting morphed inside a cavernous bunker somewhere deep in the Alps. Harlan captured a bird’s-eye-view of Dresden and watched the bombings in brutal and sublime succession.

“Ain’t no Bonne-and-Clyde operation is it?”

“It is worse than that. As you all know Sector Nine, in addition to being an interlinked hub of economic activity, is often a hotbed for new technologies. Governments and MNCs use these already secure storage facilities as their own personal beta-testing grounds. To put it simply, we do not know what to expect going in, so we must prepare for every contingency.” Durango rose stiffly from his ergonomic chair. He tossed them each a paper business card that clanked like tin on the aluminum desktop.

“These are the planned itineraries of Sector Nine, everything you need to know, blueprints, current integrated networks, operational protocols, etc.” Soundwave lowered the program’s ambient volume to better hear Durango over the blitzkrieg. Harlan expanded the card’s dimensions to a more suitable user interface, splaying transparent wireframe specs of the repository’s foyer.

“So basically we’re putting our lives on the line for a man we don’t even know, crack a system we know nothing about. And of what? Money? Status?

“And prestige,” noted Prodigy. He lifted his nail-polished fingernail and downloaded the dossier to his core memory.

“They call him the Mirrorman,” continued Durango nonchalantly, “but it does not matter. We do not exist here right now but we are still conversing with one another. We will never see each other in real life but this heist is sure to go off without a hitch. Anyway I traced the account number of our new client and everything checks out. Listed before you are the patent listings under Sector Nine’s jurisdiction from the past five years; Tokyo, Langley, Tehran, satellite installations in Cape Town, guerilla cells in Zagreb, independent contractors in Mumbai, and the list goes on. And we’ve only begun to scratch the surface with the information gathered…”

The rest of Durango’s speech faded into the background. Harlan’s artificial eyes skimmed the pad with total disregard for the events to come — or the events already happening, the disappearance the Ash’s robopet, the true demise of J.T. Blithe, their alleged involvement in the events at the Archipelago — and stared on in silence.

#

Harlan reaffirmed his state of being, recovering from the jetlag as a result of his latest excursion. He smoothed the wrinkled cotton linens over with his coarse palms, his body splayed on the mattress like a hefty sac of flesh when he came to. The PI firm was in jeopardy. His practice held no sustainability without a permanent residence. Aiko pulled whatever classifieds still held weight on the forums and message boards to further prevent anymore debacles, his mailbox inundated with flooding requests.

It was night according to his VisorGoggles. Three o’clock in the morning. Hiro’s spare bedroom was eclipsed in darkness save for a few peddling LEDs. Luna showered in the neighboring washroom when his eyes flickered independent of themselves.

“Are you alone hon?” said Aiko from his visor throughput, his eyes still closed.

“You know I don’t ask for much except for a little peace and quiet after a long bout in cyberspace.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Yes, babe, I’m alone now. What is so important that it couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”

“Oh I think you’re going to want your eyes open for this one.” No projectors interfaced with the spare bedroom. Whatever audio or visual feed was present for Aiko was solely from the VisorGoggles. “Can you open your eyes please?”

She appeared in a small window on the lower-right hand corner. His lenses pulsed a soft pink. Harlan combed obsessively from inbox to inbox searching for the newest additions. A vid file had been recently deposited into his core. It was subsequently dated two days ago, a rotating icon in the shape of a film projector, and he accessed it using a tactile user interface.

“Please tell me what I’m looking at.”

“This footage was taken from a security camera in the left-wing of New Bedlam Hospital less than forty-eight hours ago. Keep your eye on the man in the business suit coming up.” The resolution was a coarse off-blue tint with a timecode running on the bottom. The man walked stoically along the angled corridor, conversing with a cybernetic orderly in a niche sectioned off by fine curtains. “Now don’t take your eyes off the curtained area.” Seconds later there was a synthetic flash, the footage soundless, and the man emerged from the curtain eventually leaving the shot.

“Why are you showing this? Is that the Mirrorman?”

“Who?”

“Oh don’t pretend like you don’t eavesdrop on our little virtual get-togethers. I could smell you a million miles away. You know very well who I’m talking about. The Mirrorman, the one financing our little escapade.”

“Watch the shot again,” prompted Aiko, “Tell me what you notice.” She repeated the loop with flawless dexterity. Harlan redoubled his efforts, forgoing the insomnia that awaited him. “What did you notice?”

“No one heard the shot.”

“Which means?”

“Which means that if a gun was indeed fired there’s evidence a silencer was used. Who was intended victim?”

“According to the hospital records his true name was Mario Juarez, his handle The_Sting_315. He was admitted for a knife wound to the abdomen that punchered one of his kidneys. It was his fourth day out of surgery when the murder took place.”

“And when was that?”

“Five days ago. His criminal record reads like a curriculum vitae for the depraved; murder, burglary, arson, assault. He was paroled last month, your regular garden-variety devil-may-care sociopath.”

“Why are you telling me this Aiko?”

“Sweety you told me to continuously look for inconsistencies, anomalies in the net. Well keep watching.” Aiko juxtaposed two rolling camera streams, angled top-down views of the hospital’s entrance, one inside, one outside. New Bedlam was a massive oblong mausoleum with a smooth faux-porcelain exterior. The timecode ran simultaneously, the resolution clearer outside the hospital, and the man exited.

“So you see what I mean?”

“Yeah, I see it.”

“Do you know what we’re up against?” A pause.

“And you can authenticate this?”

“One hundred percent.”

“What are we talking about in terms of surveillance? Some sort of optical camouflage.”

“Not camouflage, babe, we’re talkin’ state-of-the-art in terms of flexible electronics,” explained Aiko, “Now this stuff don’t come cheap. The liquid crystal display is meant to closely resemble its fictional counterparts. The body mimics the uploaded sim of the user when looked at through surveillance.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying, ‘Where do you keep your gun Harlan?’”

Harlan flung himself off the futon. He rifled through the bitter darkness for his duffel bag, checking the clip in his vintage Browning for any expunged bullets. There were several rounds missing. His VisorGoggles scanned the interior and Harlan noticed the cartridge was empty.

“Shit!”

“Something wrong?” Harlan turned around closing all of the individual screens on his VisorGoggles. Luna wore nothing but a white terrycloth robe monogrammed with Hilton insignias. She dried her hair which appeared black under the ultraviolets.

“No,” he answered meekly, “Everything’s fine.”

#

Harlan felt groggy as the red-eye to Night City bobbed silently on suspended iron cables. The clarity on his lenses softened the more distance he placed between the metropolis and himself. Luna was there, so was his Browning, and he wouldn’t let either of them out of his sight as long as they remained fugitives. Panels that once display plasma ads or public service announcements were either smashed or scrawled with ink. The cabin was rank with dried urine, although the makeshift cardboard that once patched windows were replaced and firmly sealed. It could’ve been a different tram after all. They were its sole occupants.

“So where are we going?”

“We’re going to pay our friend Ash a little visit?” said Harlan, loading a fresh bullet into the pistol.

“And what if he’s unwilling to talk?”

“I’ll find a way to persuade him.”

Harlan was a third of the way through the surveillance taken from Mecca when Luna tapped his right shoulder with a synthetic fingernail. She dropped the ashes from her Meia-Noites into a littered franchised cup. The tram went into lockdown on its approach to Ash’s roof.

“Are you armed?” said Harlan spitefully, knowing full well she used his firearm to kill Juarez at New Bedlam.

“You might say that.” Luna pulled back the hem of her burgundy dress and revealed two unopened switchblades with a wood finish on the trim. Each was magnetized to a steel garter belt just above her peach-leather go-go boots.

“Promise me one thing. Don’t get yourself killed.”

“I’m not looking to kill tonight Luna. I just need some closure.”

“Closure or vengeance?”

“He tried to kill us both. Forgive me if my moral compass is a tad askew.”

“Just hang back then.”

Harlan sidled through the latticework of chainlink fences and gravel, dragging Luna shortly behind. The final tram’s departure was in half-an-hour. He felt strong, a porous autonomy that came with prowling an assailant in the dead of night. It was predatory and defunct. He wanted to strike Luna if it meant triggering her natural defense mechanisms, invigorating her adrenal glands to the point where she’d show just as much enthusiasm for revenge as he did.

“You ready?”

Luna nodded.

He hugged the pealing stucco approaching the threshold of Ash’s apartment. Sconce fixtures with antique brass finishes adorned the walls. Many were inoperative. The corridor was bleak and dismal. Harlan clocked no human lifesigns scanning the dense maple plywood, and kicked in the door with a bombastic slam.

The closest thing Luna had to a weapon (besides the switchblades) was a replacement pneumatic gun loaded with barbiturates. Ash’s abode was no different from Soundwave’s despite its missing occupant; shards of hardware casings, frayed wiring, streaks of blood over bullet-ridden monitors.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Luna, “what in God’s name happened here?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Someone got to Ash before we did.”

“Then it’s a good thing he wasn’t here was it?” Harlan combed through the e-waste wreckage, the fluorescent tubes, the surveillance equipment, the lithium-ion batteries, circuit-boards frayed beyond repair, smoldering silicon, charred carbon.

“Harlan…” said a phantasmal voice behind the duo. He swiped his arm diagonally, the dimpled handle clutched firmly in his right hand, fitted vulcanized rubber. Siphons embedded in ceiling spurt forth gyrating Argon lasers, to a different Ash, a composite. He was the same basic template but his mirrorshades were gone, as were his mundo-physique and sleeve tattoos. Ash was donned in a recycled white suit and a pair of alligator-skin shoes. Sunspots came through the ionosphere, intense magnetic activity disrupted image processing.

“…if you’re hearing this message it means something’s happened to me. If you’re wondering where my accent went you should know that this is a recorded message. The events at the Archipelago left me riled to say the least. And the worst part of it is it could’ve been my fault. I didn’t blow up Little Tokyo. Blithe’s pacemaker is in a Ziploc bag beneath the twelfth floorboard from the door. The task of finding me may very well rest in your hands. And if you don’t believe me just look up at the ceiling…”

Harlan gazed up at the blank void of nothingness. He scanned all visible spectrums with his VisorGoggles and found, streaked in languid umbelliferone, the following message: THE WAR IS COMING.

“…I realized this once you gave me the results, and the Archipelago only confirmed my suspicions. What happens to me at this point is superfluous, because sometimes the survival of the many must come at the sacrifice of the few. Remember that the next time you think of me Mr. Novak, the illustrious private dic.”

The ubiquitous minute-long forewarning-after-the-fact dissipated with steadfast determinism. Even as he stood in the midst of what survived the shakedown, Harlan realized he’d forgotten what Ash looked like, his face, his personae, his hacks, everything. Luna seemed indifferent yet passive at the same time. She’d never experience the failure that Harlan felt at that moment.

“Have you read about this?” said Luna at the tram’s zenith, coaxing a trampled free paper into his hands.

“Are you kidding?”

Dirt-encrusted newsprint smudged his fingers, the pulp reassuring, words that didn’t delete. Apparently the provisions set forth in Blithe’s will continued despite his personal assistant’s vigilante status. After a brief ceremony two kilometers off the port’s waterfront, a truncated missile of reinforced titanium launched from the artificial spaceport, Blithe’s remains within the corrugated sarcophagus.

“Did you expect anything less from Ash? For all we know that scene back there was completely staged to make it seem like someone got to him first, like he was covering his tracks.”

“Now you’re getting paranoid,” answered Harlan and he laughed. The tram made its final descent just prior to the docking joints locking. It was exactly one week since his death.

“Why are we so preoccupied with Ash anyway? I thought the plan was to lay low until things at the Archipelago blew over. There’s no method to Ash’s madness here Harlan. He’s a nut, plain and simple. He’s an unstable nut.”

“Well I that may be but what I can tell you for certain that this incident isn’t going away anytime soon. Aiko informs me that the Archipelago started some sick precedent online. The underground’s having a field day. Each one’s gonna find some new way to top the last. How many people died that night? Seventeen. That’s the record now. Thirty-seven injured in all. Over fifty in total. The only saving grace is it’ll take a long time to engineer a virus of that magnitude again. And the fact that these guys will kill each other before they ever decide to work together.”

Harlan fingered the cold titanium of Blithe’s pacemaker in his left-hand pocket, the realization that this was the last tangible piece of the millionaire J.T. Blithe, although he never met him in person.

“There’s a storm coming Luna. I can feel it.”

#

Halogen floodlights surged from the rafters. Stacks of rustic bleachers surrounded a hexagonal pit. Betting slips and Styrofoam cups trampled the cement floors like paper-mâché. Neon hummed THE BIG SMOKE meters above the dingy pink-stripped canopy that marked concession kiosks and ATMs. The pit’s interior was sectioned by flatbed receptors relaying comsats from Lunar Prime. Zero gravity games commenced their semifinals, Japan versus Pan-Am Republic. Harlan swiped in and out through the cumbersome crowds, eddies of anonymous smoke hovered overhead, sporadic peltings of sound.

For fear of insider fixing electronic devices were disabled upon entrance. The arena’s shape acted as an enlarged Faraday’s cage. Its outer bulwark consisted of a mixture of rebar concrete and plaster laced with metal lath that bombarded exterior signals before infiltrating the stadium’s chamber.

“I’m here,” he said to Aiko through the conical receiver.

Payphones were ubiquitous. Harlan connected a fiberoptic line from his VisorGoggles to a jack meant for public access, activating his eyepiece strictly for observation. His deposit at the front desk was a Rolex in exchange for the wire and his sight.

“Glad to see you again so soon, mate.” The Aussie was halfway through a bootlegged corona cigar. “I was starting to think you lost confidence in my abilities.” Tempered glass bottomed the stage’s platform, a Hitachi memory core protruding beneath.

“Why did you choose to meet here?”

“Why not? Figured since you were on the lamb you’d appreciate a little R&R. And the geodesics make for some good interference.”

“What about Ash’s record?’

“That was a bit more laborious. Turns out in recent months Big Brother’s been keeping tabs on its list of hack-jobs.”

“For what purpose?”

“It’s a symbiotic relationship, mate. Some cyphers trade their civil rights for personal anonymity. In the face of danger what choice do they really have? Unless their shunted by multinationals first.”

“Well you can tack Ash’s name onto that message board.”

“He didn’t make it?”

“I suppose not. Went to his pad yesterday and the place is completely abandoned, ransacked is more like it.”

“It’s a God damn shame. Thought the son of a bitch had some life.” The Aussie reached for a fresh cigar inside a Velco pouch of ripped denim. He smothered what was left of the smoldering nub in a community ashtray of tarnished bronze, spent deep in a dune of inch-thick ash. “You wanna cigar?”

“No. I’m not entirely convinced he’s dead. But I think whatever hope there is in finding him lies in the information you provide me. By the way…” he nodded, unfastening a front pocket. The Aussie retrieved a hard strip of transparent pink with masking tape on its face along with a complimentary matchbox. It had a miniature stripper hologram dancing vertically around an invisible pole.

“What are we talkin’ about here with these cyphers?”

“Take your pick, mate. Nano-terrorism, securities fraud, economic inflexions. More often than not these hack-jobs always have the upper-hand, and the MNCs are scared shitless.”

Harlan couldn’t concentrate on the match. The webbing of scars on the Aussie’s left cheek was distracting enough, his sagging hemp slacks hung low on his waist. While his VisorGoggles had only limited use inside the arena, he still managed to clock Dexedrine in his bloodstream. The Aussie’s muscled arm unloaded two capsule tablets onto his trembling palm before downing them with watered-down Kirin.

“What you need is a safehouse?”

“Come again.”

“A safehouse. You know a secure place to hide witnesses from authorities.”

“I know what a safehouse is? I’m living in a fallout shelter twenty meters below the earth for Christ’s sake.”

“Jeez, mate. You are tense. Here have a Valium.” He did. “That’s not what I’m saying. You’re thinking too literally. I didn’t mean an actual safe-house. It doesn’t matter how far underground you are as long as you can be traced. Hell it took me less than an hour to find Ash’s permanent records. I’m talking about being completely cut-off from the outside world.”

“You mean the Catacombs. What chance do you think I have?”

“All I’m saying is it’s the only way to gain free reign online without being electronically accosted. I think DNI is your best option here.” Multilingual babel rose to a crescendo before Harlan waited to speak again. In his periphery he spotted a weedy Korean man reading an anthology hentai reprints.

“I’ve got enough problems. I don’t need this added shit with Blithe to deal with. I’m on the cusp of something man. I can feel it.”

#

Transfer rates were always a problem with video surveillance, especially when ripped from corresponding formats. With careful and meticulous analysis, Harlan was able to determine the purchaser of the C4 explosives at Mecca. Copied imaging software still in its beta stages from Michigan helped verify it was the same man who tried to blow him up.

“So what does this mean?” said Luna, sharpening one of her switchblades with a block of slate.

“It means Aiko can trace the transaction. Hopefully, she’ll be able to find some intel on the fucker who tried to kill me.”

Much of Luna’s sluggishness was due to chemical withdrawal. The frequency of her lethargy increased substantially without the aid of amphetamines. The pneumatic gun was stolen in her assault, liquid Adderall that absorbed readily into the bloodstream, six capsules prepped in the chamber. In lieu of her tragic circumstances, Harlan would trek every now and again to the outskirts of Night City via late-night shuttles and red-eye bullet-trains. It was the only thing keeping Luna sane.

In the back of his mind Harlan was secretly jealous. All she needed was a drug deficiency to get to sleep. When he closed his eyes he witnessed a mandala of city lights, the face of Kwan Yin, abstractions of grid-like runes constantly morphing and changing, and unofficial fallout due to long-term exposure.

Once Luna was asleep Harlan jacked-in to see Aiko. She wore a traditional Japanese schoolgirl uniform restored from the recycling bin in Angeles City. The pleated skirt and white cotton shirt had such a clarity of resolution it brought life into her cheekbones. Not some public avatar or secondhand skinjob, this uniform was custom.

“The lines are as secure as I can make them,” said Aiko promptly. “Please sit down and relax sweetheart. You’re making me all nervous.”

“And what do you have to be worried about?”

“What? You think sentience makes you special. You think a beating heart puts you in a place of authority. The only thing that separates you and me is a little more than a few fiberoptic cables. That thing Descartes said, ‘I think therefore I am’. Bet he never experienced anything quite like this.”

The interface projected a sublime horizon of indescribable color and depth. Their position was on the brink of a classical portico floored with unglazed amber tiles.

“Do you like this program? I find it very serene.”

“Does it matter?”

“Hiro seemed to think so. He said it had a cool, tranquil effect on him. Of course that may have been just me. I’ve been known to be very soothing.”

“By whom? The other online prattlers drudging mindlessly throughout the web.” He thought about fucking her, right there on the muslin tabletop. Aiko straddled him, wondering if the bulge in his simulated corduroys was really his own. Or was it Aiko’s erection pushing against him. What would their brood spawn? If virtual reality didn’t really exist then what became of his dreams? His daydreams? His nightmares? Harlan sat across from Aiko stoically, zen-like, transparent.

“I never thanked you.”

“For what?”

“For telling me about Luna’s excursion to New Bedlam. I would never have known if you hadn’t said anything. Don’t you remember?”

“Of course I do. I can process the knowledge of human history in thirteen minutes slick. Did you ever consider that what makes up your terminal existence isn’t worth remembering? What’s really bothering you sweety?” Harlan took in the entirety of the vista before him, soaking in the serene landscape.

“It’s Luna isn’t it?” said Aiko, adjusting her ponytail.

“Yes.”

“And you don’t trust her?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve come here seeking solace. Because the heart of the matter is deep down you really care for her. And it would be so easy for me to tell you that Blithe’s death was an accident, Ash’s disappearance was a coincidence, and that you and Luna were destined be together and live happily ever after. Well that aint gonna happen, and you wouldn’t be satisfied with me telling you that it would. What’s that term? Parasite single. She’s attached herself to you Hardy. And the closer you get to her the more danger you’ll be put in. That’s Luna. The truth is isn’t whether or not you fear her, the mere fact that you have to ask yourself that question scares you to your very core.”

“Go on.”

“It’s not her you’re after. It’s what she represents; danger, uncertainty, allure, mystery. And that’s what ultimately frightens you, the person underneath, the real girl, the one who may not fulfill your wildest expectations. The one you may consequently have to live with in the end.”

Harlan didn’t answer. Online had a rhythm, the constant tides incoming gently on the facsimile of a beach.

“Fortunately darlin’, you may not have to live with the consequences for very long.” That piqued Harlan’s interest. This must’ve been how Aiko wanted him to see Luna, without prejudice or misconception, on her own terms.
“What do you mean?”

“All I’m saying is don’t get too attached. I can predict the future to a relative degree but I’m no prophet babe. I just see things as they happen, calculating all the formidable permutations as they come my way. To me, the future is one big equation that keeps growing by the second, and I can promise you with near certainty that by the time this is all over one of you won’t survive.” He extracted the last sentence from memory, reluctant to face the truth.

“I need you to perform a trace,” started Harlan.
“That I can do.”

“Incidentally the man tried to kill me. Might be a loose-end worth checking out.” There was a retrograde ring. An ultramodern payphone, sleek and discontinued since the ubiquitous use of mobile phones. Aiko clutched him suddenly and Harlan turned to face her.

“I’m sorry I have to do this to you honey.” She raised her arm with a blunted cleaver in tow and chopped off his left wrist just below the Rolex. Harlan awoke breathing heavily in bed with Luna.

Chapter Five

Filed under: E) Chapter Five — David Halpert @ 1:07 am

Evasion was a hollow pursuit if someone wasn’t trying to kill you. Harlan and Luna were tired of being fugitives. Sure they avoided daylight like the plague, only venturing out at night. Harlan with his VisorGoggles, Luna with her proxy appearance. Their avatars at the Archipelago were so far from their semblance in real life. Then again Harlan’s mental state was a consistent downward spiral. Because the more he thought about the explosion, the more paranoia seeped in. That maybe there were dozens of cartels explicitly hired to track down his location.

“You’re lucky I take you anywhere,” said Harlan, plunging chopsticks into a ceramic bowl, lo-mein noodles simmering in a mélange of curry broth. “Figured you’d be grateful just getting you out of Hiro’s place, like an old-fashioned night on the town sort of thing.”

“What I’d really like is to go home without being harassed by Feds or chinks. Tell me this then, how long do we have to live like this?”

“One week.”

The restaurant was a Vietnamese noodle-house drizzled in bamboo and low-grade Christmas lights. Despite this dubious attempt to cultivate atmosphere, Harlan was surprisingly comfortable in a chair of mauve micro-suede and a table of polished granite. The aroma of ginger wafted from the back kitchen. Luna leaned forward excitedly, nearly tipping a lean bottle of soy sauce. This place was a neutral sight with only the bare minimum of electronic devices.

“Are you serious?”

“Give me one week and you’ll never have to see me again.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch, honest,” answered Harlan, examining the cocktails. The menu was a flexible sheet of flat plastic. “Listen I don’t want to be stuck with you. No more than you want to be stuck with me. So if you bear with me for just seven more days, I’ll promise you’ll never have to see me again.”

The words he’d uttered were drier than the air itself as he stared into the dead brown irises of Ms. Luna Veca. Harlan gulped a shot’s worth of sake from an American-produced bottle of frosted glass. Floor-to-ceiling panels displayed Japanese idorus in hypnotic pinks and blues, liquid crystal displays against transparent plastic. His VisorGoggles could decrypt the foreign characters but they were otherwise superfluous.

“So why are we really here Harlan?”

“Aiko completed the trace on the man who bought the C4 at Mecca. She found that the man who made the purchase was in this city illegally as a cleaner. Megacorps large enough to cross national boundaries are often exempt from immigration statutes. Likewise, megacorps with enough reach and funds to back it up hire cleaners to cover their collective asses, corporate espionage, network subterfuge, reconnaissance, and in some cases…”

“…assassination.”

“Took the words right out of my mouth.”

“But what does this have to do with the asshole that tried to kill you?”

“Nothing, at least I thought there was nothing. The man who we thought was named Randall Ozwald has a handle by the name Mr. Esquire. Aiko cross-referenced his work history with at least eight corporations in the last year alone. Shortly before he came after me he was hired by a company specializing in medical equipment. Now on the surface that may appear just like any other empty fact until I took a closer look at this.”

Harlan handed her Blithe’s pacemaker and freed his VisorGoggles from his temples. Luna bent the flexible rubber to fit her skull’s thin frame. Once hooked onto her temples she accessed the zoom feature, 100x magnification down to the microscopic level, tracing the company’s hallmark embossed on the shell’s exterior.

“Fusion Corp.”

“So you’ve heard of them.”

“Are your dense? Of course, I know them. They’ve been BTF’s largest competitor for the better part of the decade.”

“Explains why Blithe may’ve been hesitant dealin’ with them.” Harlan hadn’t shaved in days, felt the scruffiness on his beard under his chin. The waitress, a buxom Japanese girl with fair skin presented their check on a flat sheet of imaging film. “Not only that. Esquire was hired not too long after Blithe’s death, which leads me to suspect there might’ve been some foul play involved.”

“Why don’t you just say what you want to say,” said Luna tersely, flinging his VisorGoggles back into Harlan’s lap.

“All right then, no bullshit, I think someone at Fusion caught wind of your disappearance. And once they discovered you hired someone sniffing around Blithe’s death they came after me. I also tracked liability cases involving Fusion Corp.’s product line and found that the number of defective pacemakers that have proved fatal is few and far between. Too far to be considered coincidental.”

“But not impossible,” said Luna, always getting the last word.

“But not impossible,” repeated Harlan.

Harlan reveled in the irony of the moment. It was almost palpable. How in the beginning she sought him for guidance and protection, seeking answers to an endless string of questions. Now it seemed all Luna wanted to do was to get as far away from him as she could. To deny the fragility of her existence rather than confronting it head on, as if she didn’t care.

“Well tonight was a bust.”

“Surely you didn’t think the only reason I brought you here was for a nightcap did you?”

#

Harlan’s infrequent circuits through Sector 13 were not without genuine purpose. A lingering thread remained, ever since Ash copied the permanent records of Blithe, Luna, and Amy Lynch. It wasn’t the counterfeit stimulants that drove him to Sector 13, it was the thrill, the here and now that grounded him to reality in lieu of the lax strata online. It was surveyance, pure and simple. Two tocsins echoed in the distance. Crossing the border into this particular sector was an unspoken death sentence on the part of the transgressor. Entrance had to be done at ground level. Sector 13 wasn’t so much a place as it was an ethos or a state of mind. No buildings stood higher than four storeys, no dataports, no plasma screens whatsoever.

Wifi was a feeding frenzy. Harlan clocked five signals currently active within a miles radius. He lo-jacked an Ethernet network bridge hours before his arrival, ancient by today’s standards. Already fifty vital signs registered on his VisorGoggles. The zones with legitimate access were the densest in the sector. The lenses lit up fantastically and guided him through the broken streets. The alleys were a safe bet. Shadows were not simply black, they were charcoal, obsidian, matte, pitch, ebony. They had textures, a tone.

Bazaars dominated its nucleus where there was little threat of violence, a buffer zone. The smell of Cuban cigar smoke gave way to Tudor arches of crumbling granite as they pressed on through the river of bodies.

“So you’re saying these guys are street?”

“Stick to perceptions Luna. The Organiks? They’re as hardcore as they come. Been in this sector less than a decade and have already staked claim to two city blocks, most of which is property. The irony of it all is the Organiks have one of the lowest membership rates for a long-standing gang syndicate.”

A niche, kindled by emergency floodlights draped under silken canopies, beneath high-impact acrylic plastic, was jewelry, Katana swords, Faberge eggs, and weapons embedded in molded vinyl padding.

“Hook your arm in mine,” said Harlan.

“What?”

“I want you to place your arm in mine and trace my back for good measure. These Muslims might be traditional but have balls of brass.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning they don’t appreciate women gallivanting around their turf unescorted.”

“What you talking about? Prostitutes? Wives? Since there’s only one of me here…” Harlan cut her off.

“A little tradition never hurt anybody.”

“Last time I was here there was one of those Battle Royales happening,” said Luna. “These cypher assholes use the airspace as their own personal playground, helicopters whizzing back and forth dogfighting.”

“Then we should consider ourselves lucky.” He felt the butt of his Browning tucked firmly in his underarm hostler, as if it would dissolve in the air like smoke. “Answer me this Luna. If there was some way to find more information on Blithe’s death, would you be adverse to take it, even if it meant certain death?”

“Believe or not Blithe didn’t hire me for my looks. I’m a big girl, I can take care myself.”

Luna instinctively felt the inner cleft of her thigh, nicking the stainless steel blade playfully with her thumb. Harlan clocked half-a-dozen denizens staring in his direction, and Luna hooked her arms in his. Even under the faded moonlight, his light pallor attracted attention.

“Good. Then answer me this. Why do I always get the feeling you’re not telling the truth when it comes to your former boss?”

“Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in the past month. Despite what the e-feeds may or may not have reported on Blithe he was as closed off emotionally as he was about the details of his personal life. I hadn’t even heard of Amy Lynch until she was found that night in Blithe’s apartment complex.”

“Well what do you know?”

“I know that in the seven years I’ve worked for Blithe I’ve killed twelve people, which makes it roughly one and a half persons per year. I’ve incapacitated over fifty. But who knows how many stab wounds, broken arms, and idle threats I’ve shelled out during the tenure. I used to keep them in my little black book otherwise known as my datapad, which was stolen. Remember?”

“Enough to warrant death?” said Harlan nonchalantly.

“For every person that was happy for Blithe’s success there were a dozen others who loathed him for it.”

A sudden waft of raspberry shisha piqued Harlan’s senses. They approached the threshold of a nondescript door tagged in Armenian graffiti. He knocked three times. The echo resonated throughout the antechamber. A hulking man, not unlike the Aussie, answered, sporting tattoo sleeves up and along his massive forearms. His muscles teemed with hormonal injections and narcotics, a bootlegged Bolivar cigar wedged between porcelain veneers.

“We’re here to see the guardian,” said Harlan casually. With reluctance, the watchman stepped aside and let them enter. He walked ahead of them, emergency skylights at irregular intervals wired to a central generator.

“I’m going to need to take any weapons you have on you.” Harlan complied readily. The only hardware he carried was his custom Browning 9mm. His taser was in Ash’s possession, wherever Ash was now. Luna dislodged her armory, two switchblades and a hira shuriken.

“I can only allow one of you to speak with her.” As far as Harlan was concerned Luna was mere collateral, physical insurance for a guaranteed rendezvous. The bodyguard escorted him alone to the third level mezzanine. Diametric fibers coated the walls, a faint sheen against a backdrop of Arabesque wallpaper. The titanium bar was parabolic, lining the room’s east section. Harlan helped himself to a bourbon whiskey on the rocks, observing his reflection in mirrors.

“Detective Novak.” He didn’t turn around. Aiko, or at least a facsimile of Aiko, approached him with slight lagtime as she squatted on a vinyl barstool. She’d interfaced with his VisorGoggles and copied a replicant avatar. Harlan leaned on the frigid countertop lighting a fresh cigarillo before facing her. “What are you doing here detective?”

“I’m investigating a case involving your mother’s murder.”

“And?”

“And I thought you’d help me fill in some of the gaps with regards to her death.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t kill you at my doorstep. Frankly it would’ve been a boon to your credibility if you’d admitted straight up that you were a cop instead of dancing around the issue like a fucking schoolgirl.”

He saw no trace of the Aiko he’d come to recognize in this counterpart. There was a tact almost passive-aggressive vindictiveness to her programming. Minute imperfections that stemmed from an autonomous personality, parading around the truth like a holographic marionette.

“Be that as it may. You seem hostile towards your mother.”

“Don’t you fucking start. I didn’t head the Organiks by spreading my legs for every Johnny Newcome that threatened to kill me. I’d go to the nearest Xanadu if I wanted to get off so badly. Fortunately for me that’s not the case. I never knew my father. Instead I killed to support my drug habit while my mother whored her way to some gold-digger living on the Lower East Side. Tell me, what’s the real reason you came here?”

“Look I couldn’t care less about your mother. In the larger scheme of things, she was merely collateral damage. I’m investigating the murder of J.T. Blithe. My associate, that girl you’re holding in the other room, hired me to find her employer’s killer. She found him dead in your mother’s apartment a few weeks ago.”

“I know. My inferiors have been feeding me information steadily. Believe me when I tell you this detective but my mother is better off dead. You, however, still haven’t answered my question.”

“When I visited the morgue where Blithe and your mother were being held, I was a little more than surprised to find that you already signed off on her cremation. The only question I can’t answer is why.”

Lynch remained silent. Harlan smothered his cigarillo in a quartz ashtray with the Organiks emblem etched on the clear surface.

“Less than a week before I was nearly killed in an izakaya shuttle,” he continued. “At first the pieces didn’t fit together. And then it hit me. Who better to send an assassin than the leader of the local crime syndicate?”

“Why would I want to kill you Novak?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you felt so much rage towards your mother that killing her seemed like the perfect comeuppance for your drug-addled childhood. And when you got word from one of your agents that a lone detective was poking around the crime scene of your mother’s murder, you made the effortless decision to take him out of the picture before he became too much of a nuisance.”

“First of all detective, I was aware of the relationship between Blithe and my mother years before her death.”

“You’re saying they were in a long-term relationship?”

“If you think two years constitutes a long-term relationship?”

“And when was the last time you saw your mother?” Lynch’s avatar rose, pacing monotonously on the splintered encaustic tiles below their feet.

“The last time I saw her was five months over the high-wire Systemtax. It was a secure network, very compact, the main lobby of the ice hotel in Kiruna. Coincidentally it was one of my childhood favorites. Wouldn’t be surprised if a lurker was there spying on us. With the ransom on my head she probably just wanted to meet for some half-decent recon. Anyway the meeting only lasted for a few hours. Nothing special, the usual jargon.”

“And how did she seem at the meeting?”

“Seem?”

“You know, cheerful, sad, angry?”

“I don’t know. What’s the emotional equivalent of indifference? Apathy. Passivity. Although…” Lynch’s gait was strong and unflinching. The carriage of a leader. Unlike Aiko her eye contact was steadfast, her posture immaculate, her answers processed instantly and thoroughly.

“…now that I think about it. There was something interesting she said at the meeting, something Blithe brought up. He was worried about some sort of hostile takeover in the works, some small-time acquisition of a private company but I forgot which one. Not that I was paying any particular attention. But she said he was having second thoughts about the merge. That the whole thing might turn into one giant proxy battle.”

A rippled sheen cast over the walls as they sat in silence contemplating. Four siphons at the room’s vertices compiled her image flawlessly with smooth transition during movements. She lit a faux-cigarette with a bronze Zippo lighter. The smoke a million lines of code, the plumes an entire source code.

“But I never did answer your first question. When you asked me why I decided to come here in the first place. Like I said before, I knew the Organiks’ reputation in this sector. As a detective I’m privy to that sort of information. But when I discovered Amy Lynch’s daughter was affiliated with them, I thought to myself who better to try and kill me than the mafia don herself. So to answer your question Ms. Lynch the reason I came here in the first place was to kill you.”

She traced her index finger on the digitized marble tabletop, lifting no dust in the process. Lynch scanned his frame while Harlan mutely hacked the building’s surveillance, bypassing the server’s main line as a foreign intruder. He viewed Luna in the main foyer through his VisorGoggles sipping a Vermouth martini.

“There’s something I think you should see,” said Lynch.

No name was specified. Ash’s profile on her was as rigid as it was sparse. ‘Lynch’ was her true name as far as genealogy went. Nothing was more difficult than deciphering a person’s true name from near-total anonymity, than having a positive ID without a first name.

It wasn’t that the Organiks were particularly low profile, nor were they particularly masochistic in their deviousness. They held the illicit monopoly on data flow, its hotspots and dry-zones. Wifi wasn’t absolute as far as this sector’s domain was concerned.

Lynch sauntered on grimy mosaic tiles down a thin stretch of translucent corridor. Sodium light gave way to low-lit baroque chandeliers and a dense, pungent odor like wet cardboard. Her form was nearly lost in the darkness. Had it not been for his VisorGoggles she would’ve disappeared completely, mapping boot imprints in the settled dust.

“This is where as they say the plot thickens.”

Harlan stepped forward, crossing the threshold of the room. A medical ventilator wheezed beside the bedstead and Lynch in her corpse-like lethargy. The Medusa entanglement of IV lines and plastic tubing crawled beneath her skin. Her body lay encased in a sarcophagus of inch-thick fiberglass, the glow of life-support systems offset her ashy-pallor.

“You didn’t believe me, did you?”

Lynch sidled beside Harlan at the foot of her bed, her skin completely changed. The semblance of her avatar similar to the coffin’s interior, shoulder-length auburn hair, freckles, a canary yellow sundress just above the knee.

“Even after all these years it never ceases to amaze me what a few days of shooting up heroine will do to a six-month old fetus.”

“Let me guess, Blithe paid for all of this.”

“As soon as he started seeing my mother. Better than being a vegetable I suppose. Not nearly as much a drain on resources either. Kind of reminds you of Sleeping Beauty doesn’t it? DNI runs solid twenty-four seven. From here I can direct myself to anywhere in the city.” Lynch peered at herself through the smoky plastic of the casing. “The switch for the ventilator is on the other side. That is, if you still wish to kill me. But answer me this detective, you saw my signature at the morgue firsthand. How could I have signed off on my mother’s cremation while hooked up to all of these machines?”

Harlan thought about this for a moment. The reality of the situation — watching Lynch hovering over her corporeal self, her living self, her ‘real’ self — hit home. The walking, talking reflection of her mother had struck a cord in him. His mission reinvigorated, his purpose unwavering, the substantial events triggered on the individual rather than on the larger scheme of things.

“Are you saying the person I saw at the morgue was lying?”

“I’m saying for a detective you certainly have a tendency to take information at face value. If you saw a definite signature with my name on the dotted line then it’s obvious someone forged it in my place.” Harlan engulfed his bare forearm in the nexus of Lynch’s avatar, his limb swimming effortlessly in a pixilated ocean, she not even flinching.

“I’ve made my bed Ms. Lynch. And whether or not I choose to sleep in it is really none of your concern. What I’m interesting in is how a paralyzed woman becomes leader of the Organiks?”

“It’s quite simple really. Less than a hundredth of a percent have access to direct-neural interface, and even fewer are capable of walking and talking. Being connected allows me to streamline a year’s worth of knowledge in a day. Not to mention I don’t sleep.”

The morgue was devoid of surveillance. Harlan surged through network pathways and found no outputs on the other side. Aiko confirmed this later.

“Then answer me one question. Who fitted your port?”

#

Lynch offered respite in one of the syndicate’s guest suites. She even provided protection from outside sources. Earlier Luna instinctively amputated the doorman’s index finger with a serrated edge when he became to close for comfort. It was weird. As time went on, Harlan found it less and less likely that a woman like Luna would get assaulted. Whatever protection offered by the Organiks was in vain. She’d have to sleep with one eye open. Fortunately for Luna, Harlan never slept as he paced in their room for most of the night. When boredom finally overtook him, Harlan lo-jacked his VisorGoggles to the headquarters’ server, signaling Lynch only meters away.

“I need to know who did your work.”

“Why?”

“Because a man’s been abducted and it’s probably my fault.”
“Ash Wednesday.”

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Like I said earlier, DNI allows me to become God. It takes the grand scheme of things and immediately simplifies them.”

Her domain was an ultra-chic loft with a panoramic view of the downtown metropolis. She lay on a patent leather therapy couch, her arm tucked beneath her chin as she gazed luridly into the nightscape.

“I take it you wouldn’t know where he is then?”

She didn’t answer, nor did Harlan expect her to. Even if she knew the answer she wouldn’t tell him upfront.

“Fine then but at least answer me this. One thing that’s been bugging me since this investigation began. Your mother died the same night Blithe was found but she wasn’t in the apartment. Where’d they find her body?”

“She was found in a pile of her own vomit approximately three blocks away, a half-an-hour after Expansion. Anything else?” Harlan jacked out. She wasn’t worth his time or patience. The last thing Harlan needed was another gang wanting to kill him.

#

She referred them to a specialist in Sector 13. The zone had a reverse curfew policy. Daylight was brutal. Soundwave had left five messages on his VisorGoggles at approximately hour-an-a-half intervals. Fortunately the practice was surprisingly close to the border, and they could reach it before dawn. Never had he seen a more atrocious skyline than at its border. It was vintage, real trees in the park, real gravel in the cement, real sand in the glass. Otherwise Sector 13 was crumbling into oblivion. A skilled ace could dog-fight his aircraft in and between buildings, which only heightened Harlan’s worry as a target for retribution.

He journeyed onward across the main avenue where there was not a soul in sight. Flaming Chevrolets, eddies of discarded Xeroxes, malfunctioning animatronics, and a severe infestation of potholes were all commonplace in this monstrosity. The outermost face of the Continental Hotel shimmered dimly from a few archaic neon lights and he pressed on. His sensors generated scarlet silhouettes from the third floor windows. Ghosts, pixilated blobs of heat-vision morphing between spokes of glass, his targets.

There were elevated hormonal levels of both testosterone and estrogen from a distance, this in addition to several unmoving subjects (allegedly human) that registered a violet hue on his visors. More solitude haunted the lobby, ashes everywhere, mirrors cracked, remnants of faux-porcelain powder sprinkled all over the floor. A biohazard sign blinked on his myopic lenses indicating high levels of radiation were present but only those with long-term exposure inside the building required caution. This made sense, such that I.R.M Corporation, Atami Solutions, and Robotics International had been freely dumping waste underground for decades and the beta isotopes he clocked in the area jumped off the scale.

He pressed the UP button scuffed with nail scratches of a thousand ex-patrons that blinked twice before the twitching light above the elevator froze at the second floor. The corroded cogs and rustic pulleys whizzed and churned, echoing — as if experiencing indigestion or excessive diarrhea. He gamboled up the crumbling staircase with Luna, being able to gaze half the metropolis skyline through glass-cement windows.

STEALTH MODE! The VisorGoggles overcastted a myriad of toxic greens and putrid blacks, Night Vision, with an extra 0.3% pm nanometer variation. However, the electromagnetic radiation was interfering with his readings, distorting wavelength patterns, so he upped the dosage to 0.85% to compensate. Auto-crosshairs were standard, able to trace through walls in case of hostile forces.

He forked the third level corridor, the innards of asbestos and drywall, the smell of plaster, Baroque-style doors ripped from their hinges. These things all mingled together and, in a eerie sense, created an ambience of decrepitude while a chandelier flashed erratically, slightly blinding his vision.

The plasma buzzed against the e-ink receptors, chiseling millions of cells that looked as though the lettering had been drizzled in Sulfuric acid. His eyes were parallax with the words on the door.

Chase Infidel, M.D.

24 Hour a Day Cosmetic Surgeon and Mac Daddy Extraordinaire

He knocked three times and the door jerked open. He sidled against the brittle spine of the frame and removed his VisorGoggles. Against the backdrop was a neon VACANCY sign that streamed through the window.

The man who he assumed was Chase stood there ambiguously in the antechamber of his surgical foyer. He wore enlarged, pink sunglasses that bombarded his eyes from his face, and blond spiked hair that jutted forward. His alligator skin jacket and loafers reflected a glossy mahogany, overshadowing his cheetah patterned undershirt peaking just over his collar.

“What the fuck do you what?” said Chase neutrally as if it were part of his natural shithole-jargon vernacular.

“I made an appointment with you yesterday over the e-link.”
“Ah yes of course,” he said clicking his heals, “Facial implementation, right? Caucasian white modeling.”

His office contained a fixed influx of prepubescent girls, some not over the age of sixteen, and Harlan wondered if Luna saw a little of herself in this cabal. The girls were decorated in plastic clothing that stretched and scrunched from a cross-legged to a spread eagle.

One in particular that caught his eye was silhouetted in the double-haze of the fluorescent billboard. High-heeled boots with zippers running up her shins, golden masquera underscoring her eyes, and Primo-infused nails that absorbed light. He always had a thing for young girls. Now he knew where the elevated heat levels originated. He could practically arouse them by a wave of his hand, the hormones in the room absorbing him like an intoxicating hex. Luna took a seat in a corner love-seat, watching her there appeared eerily unsettling amongst the other girls.

“No, no, no,” insisted Harlan, “I’m here for information. I was told you were the best for that sort of thing.”

“Ah yes, the man with a plan. Okay, let’s see what I’m up against.” He plucked a hair from Harlan’s scalp and dotted over to the portable plasma-screen, casting the hairline fiber in a Petri dish below the standard-issue imager. “A claim of redemption. You’re treading on thin ice my friend…” Chase grabbed a pair of latex gloves and penetrated the interior lining, “…but money’s money I suppose. You know you’re on the clock?”

“Are you the only attending here?”

“It would seem so.”

Inside the surgical bay was a feral Lolita, another one of Chase’s upscale clientele from the Red Light District. He settled into the pneumatic bench (avoiding the metallic stirrups) as the doctor sat in a battened-down swivel chair that screeched horribly. Beside him was a chrome tray of second-hand surgical instruments, most of which were tinged with blood.

“Don’t you ever sleep?” he asked casually.

“Can’t. Permanent insomnia,” said Chase, wiping powder from beneath his nostrils, “back in the day I was a siphon junkie. You know, overdosed one too many times on Rapture. Can’t even sleep without analgesics jacked into my system.” He then explained the amount of generic pharmaceuticals needed just to zap his brain into REM sleep.

I can relate, thought Harlan.

“So what have you got for me?” asked the doctor in the gleam of his framed Doctorate on the wall. Harlan reached into his jacket pocket and fished out Blithe’s pacemaker, the only piece of legitimate medical equipment in the building, and handed it to Chase.

“Maybe I should’ve placed this under the imager first,” continued Chase, redirecting a comsat signal to the plasma screen. Atmospheric sunspots regularly sent the pulse line on the fritz, slamming his portable XL_Module tethered to his belt.

“Can you access it?”

“Absolutely.” The monitor presented Blithe’s lifespan, sixty-three year’s worth of an elongated EKG. “Interesting.”

“What have you got?” Chase zoomed in on the final segment, a good five minutes before and after his death. Harlan thought it best not to mention Blithe’s identity. He would either induce hysteria or threaten impartiality.

“This is the electrocardiogram from the pacemaker you just gave me. These things are designed to stay active twenty-four hours after death unless the person is revived. But from what I gather, and this is what’s strange here, is there’s nothing indicating some sort of bodily trauma before his death. You see, these lines wouldn’t be this rhythmic. They’d be erratic, but at his death the lead just bottoms out, flatlines, no change, nothing. Like the heart suddenly decided to shut down.” Chase straightened the lapels of his jacket, brushing his hand through his bleach-blonde hair in frustration. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Can you tell me anything about the pacemaker?”

“Not much. It’s odd. Pacemakers aren’t used anymore. There’s almost a nostalgic quality to the thing. It would have been easier to engineer a replacement heart, or at the very least buy one on the open market. It’s almost as if the person wanted someone to find it.”

“Then why would someone still use one?”

“Several reasons. Could be that he was too weak to undergo another open-heart surgery. Or maybe they just didn’t feel the need to go through with it. Now this isn’t the standard-issue pacemaker used back then. It’s a composite model. Even the pacemakers today are like five times smaller than this one. This one’s more or less hollow. Its shell is meant to withstand high levels of electrostatic activity.”

“Wait a minute. What was that thing you said about ‘wanting to find it’?”

“You know like a backup system,” started Chase, stretching, “the reverse of what those info-traffickers do in case something was to happen. Might still have some data on it.”

“Can you find out?” A brief puff of air nicked Harlan’s jugular and he slipped into the medical chair slowly falling victim to the anesthesia.

#

In the moments that Harlan was conscious he witnessed Chase begin a decryption algorithm on Blithe’s pacemaker.

“Try not to blink,” he suggested, “Are we simpatico?” binding Harlan’s wrists to the leather straps of the chair. “Who knows,” he continued nonchalantly, “there may actually be something of value on here. Of course if that doesn’t work,” he said, reaching for a bloody scalpel, “there are alternatives.”

By this point Harlan was no longer conscious. The last image he saw was a skull-and-crossbones pulsating a toxic green in the lower-right corner of his lenses. He’d later view the chilling aftermath from his still recording VisorGoggles. “That’s the beautiful thing about fugitives. They don’t have any rights.”

The footage was fast and off-kilter. Chase’s voice cut dead but the audio remained responsive, laggard breathing into the side mic. Chase slumped into view, collapsing headfirst with two inches of steel in his back. Luna whipped her patterned shuriken into the terminal monitor, retrieving Blithe’s pacemaker from the Petri dish where it lay.

Sparks erupted.

Wires frayed.

Luna snaked her delicate hand inside Harlan’s jacket and fired five rounds from his Browning 9mm straight into Chase’s hard-drive, destroying it, before she severed the feed to his VisorGoggles.

#

Harlan eventually awoke with a splitting migraine. It was enough to make him vomit. Through some miracle of divine intervention he’d made it back to Hiro’s flat, which technically made Luna his guardian angel. He didn’t ask questions. The very sight of blood would’ve floored him in Chase’s office anyway. The residual effects of the sedatives were gradually fading into his bloodstream, and even then he hadn’t viewed what happened until hours later.

Was it a dream? he thought.

Was it a paradigm shift?

Hiro’s guest bedroom was unusually warm. It must have been night because it was completely dark, but in a residence with no windows and only halogen light for comfort it wouldn’t have mattered either way.

Aiko appeared brazenly before him wearing a silk kimono that was remarkably similar to the one Luna wore days earlier.

“There’s my girl,” said Harlan as Aiko sat cross-legged, perched on the side of his bed. He fished the last cigarillo from his crumpled pack and inhaled the rich tobacco scent, knowing full well the additives would do nothing to alleviate his headache. Maybe Lynch was right. His faith in his abilities as a detective waned. And now here was Aiko and all he could think was who was going to kill him next.

“Hiro’s furious with you.”

“What else is new?”

“No sweetheart, I mean he’s really bent out of shape. Been watching him pace back and forth all day. His fingers have been twitching worse than ever.” Harlan reached into a dusty jar and downed two Qualudes to steady his nerves. “Maybe you should go talk to him.”

“I’m not his mother. As far as I’m concerned he doesn’t control my comings and goings.”

“And what about Luna?”

“Luna’s can take care of himself. Where is she anyway?”

“She’s in the next room sleeping.” Harlan detached his VisorGoggles and gave his corneas a rest, conversing with Aiko in the tepid darkness like some disembodied spirit.

“And what have you been up to lately?”

“Nothing. Just contemplating the futility of existence. I’ve been going over the schematics for your latest escapade.”

“The Mirrorman’s Shadowrun,” said Harlan promptly. Aiko nodded.

“You do understand the logistics in accepting a heist for a man who’s given you nothing more than a handle and an objective right?”

“You saying it’s a suicide mission?”

“It’s always a suicide mission babe. The real question is whether or not you’re being set up?”

The thought had struck his mind. Why bother having people chase Harlan when they could simply dangle the right bait to draw him in. He’d successfully mounted five operations prior to the Mirrorman’s. Each with the same company of cyphers, but in his gut he felt the last thing the mission was was a setup.

“None of them would go that far. Heck, Durango’s a fucking AI and he’s been with us since the beginning. I sure as hell trust him over you.”
“You sure know how to flatter a girl, don’t you?” Aiko’s voice was now inches from his face. It didn’t matter if she was near him. She was invisible nonetheless.

“I’m just saying if things were to go wrong in Sector Nine it wouldn’t be because there was a mole in our den. Unless you’re thinking of turning me in?”

“Not today hon.”

Harlan questioned his rationale. That upon reflection the line between justice and vengeance wore thin, and whatever raison d’etre his handle endowed him with as ‘private dic’ was negligible. His situation was different though. The mere idea that he was conspiring and mounting a shadowrun — for profit, for prestige — led him to reevaluate his moral code, and question whether or not he was any better than Amy Lynch’s daughter or Chase Infidel.

“Wait a minute. It’s the mission right? That’s it, isn’t it? You know how it’s going down. Whether or not it’s going to fail?” Aiko remained silent. His joints ached. He activated his VisorGoggles to read her expression. She wouldn’t tell him a thing.

“I’m just saying, I think you should talk to Luna before you head out on your little escapade. That’s all.”

#

Hiro was a prime candidate for sick-building syndrome. Although technically his hideaway was more of a shelter than a building. About five minutes after first meeting Hiro in the flesh, Harlan scanned his lungs and clocked higher-than-average levels of asbestos, dust, and carbon particulates infused to his lungs. Aiko estimated Hiro had five to ten years to live if he didn’t die of Legionnaires Disease first.

“You’re saying it short-circuited?” said Luna.

“I’m saying the feed was cut nearly five minutes after I passed out. It does that automatically to save power.” Harlan smacked the antique cherry wood as the virtual chessboard went on the fritz again. Its only version was composed of bronze chess pieces emulating Lewis Carroll characters. Apparently Luna was winning.

“I still don’t understand how you were able to drag me all the way from Sector 13?”

“Then maybe I should just show you.” Luna wore a bedraggled ebony halter-top and faded denim jeans. Her hair was held up with a single discarded chopstick from Hiro’s stockpile. “It’s amazing what a person’s capable of when the adrenaline starts pumping. Of course sometimes I need a boost.”

Luna reached behind and laid the pneumatic gun on the simulated board, the pistol inundated with chips and scratches along the barrel’s hard plastic. Harlan was taken aback. It took him a few minutes to start making connections.

“Where’d you find it?”

“Right where I thought it would be. And it took a while before it finally clicked.” Luna tossed the hollow stim-cartridge on the tabletop. It clanked noisily as she deactivated the game board. “When you left me in the foyer I started exploring, walking up and down the hallways, peeping into the abandoned rooms that lined the defunct hotel. And then this strange feeling crept inside me. Like déjà vu only more terrifying. Like I was sure I’d been there before and just didn’t know it. But I knew for sure once I came up to Chase’s door.”

Luna stood up from the stained velvet armchair, supporting her weight against the doorframe nearby, fighting back tears. Uncharacteristic of her to say the least. Harlan leaned forward and saw the counterfeit handbag she’d lost in the wake of her assault, her unannounced venture into Sector 13.

“Chase Infidel,” said Harlan.

“I went to him for DNI. That was plan B. Chase was one of the medical bottom-feeders from Blithe’s directory. Fact of the matter was I needed a discreet job done without any outside intervention. Keep in mind this wasn’t long after I’d been accused of murdering my boss. Direct-neural interface. It was a provision in my pension, unlimited access to the Catacombs. Of course I didn’t know this until after Blithe’s death. All I needed was to get a port graphed.” Luna wielded her butterfly knife, fastening the steel bite handle to her belt. “It was only when I saw Chase’s office door that things clicked, and I felt this inscrutable rage once I entered that room. Honestly I don’t remember what happened after that. Next thing I know I wake up in the next room covered in blood, a gun with no bullets, and the handbag that I’d lost sitting across from me.”

“Do you still have the gun?”

Luna sidled over to where her handbag lay. She relinquished the firearm, and Harlan — noticing obliquely that one of her nails were chipped, the glossy peach lacquer only visible along the cuticle — reloaded the Browning with a fresh clip.

“You think Chase was a harvester?”

“Harvester, snuff producer, sociopath. Doesn’t matter. He’s dead, that’s all I care about. The fact that he won’t hurt or kill another innocent bystander is enough closure for me.”

“All right,” said Harlan. “So where does that leave us?”

“It leaves us with five days before I leave.” It was a lax conversation to say the least. Aiko casually informed him that Luna was three moves away from checkmate. He hadn’t been online in days and the withdrawal was starting to eat away at reality. “Does that make us even then?”

“For what?”

“For saving my life.” Luna didn’t respond. Harlan simply lit another cigarillo and hoped her silence would suffice. “You know when I promised we would part in one week it wasn’t entirely random. You see, there’s a shadowrun taking place in a couple of days, and Aiko, in all her infinite wisdom, believes it’s going to be a death sentence. She thinks she has a knack for predicting the future.”

“So what’s the problem? You don’t believe her?”

“It’s not that I don’t believe her,” began Harlan, “I just don’t believe that our paths are set in stone, predestination. If I were to fail this mission it’d be of my own volition, no one else’s.”

“So what it comes down to is you’re going on this shadowrun to spite a computer program.”

“It comes down to fate Luna. Something tells me this mission isn’t just a simple hack job. I believe it’s a test.”

“A test of what?”

“That I’m not sure. Aiko said I should talk with you before going on this mission.”

“Were you originally going to talk to me before you went on this shadowrun?” snapped Luna. After stumbling over a pile of frayed wires and entrailed hardware she grasped a green bottle and downed the remainder of cheap, stale beer.

“Honestly, no. I don’t know much about what lies ahead. Durango ensures us that our patron is legit. Says he was referred by a previous client and I have no reason to doubt him. We’re swiping some highly-sensitive material from Sector Nine.”

“Then maybe Aiko wasn’t so crazy after all.” Luna waltzed over to the vacant seat and adjusted her rear in the upholstery. “Listen, there’s something I think you should see.” She interfaced her datapad with the desktop, displaying an email that was marked unread. “I noticed this yesterday once I regained consciousness. Notice anything?”

“You mean other than the fact that it was sent nearly two weeks after his death? No, nothing. Why didn’t you open it when you had the chance yesterday?”

“I thought I’d leave that to you detective. Give you the chance to read the email before my biased opinions and worthless doublethink polluted your brain.” A virtual keyboard prompted Luna to type in her password. Harlan unlocked his wireless and blue-jacked the message to his database. All he had to do now was tap his right temple to open the letter.

Dear Evie,

This letter is an automatically generated email sent to your inbox ten days after my death. If you’re reading this it means I’ve unfortunately come to pass. And while you’ve no doubt been an invaluable boon to my personal (as well as professional) life, I also consider you a reliable friend and colleague. But now’s not the time for pleasantries, for there’s a task I must ask you and you alone to undertake.

With my death come rival megacorps and assailants in search of my fortune. For years I’ve had BTF work on side-projects that, for reasons otherwise unimportant, I’ve deemed top secret. One such prototype (entitled the Lazarus Project) has been kept in a secure location for some time now and as I leave this letter for you, my last will and testament, I also believe you’re the only one I can truly trust. There’s a safety deposit box in my name at Sector Nine’s central facility for which I’ve given you exclusive access to. Fusion Corp. has threatened repeatedly tried to take over the company at even the slightest sign of weakness. Believe me when I tell you Evie that if Fusion acquired BTF, they’d sell off the company piece by piece. The information in this vault is vital to the longevity of my empire. Don’t let what I’ve worked so hard for be taken away from me.

Y.T. (Yours, Truly),
James Theodore Blithe

Harlan copied the email and immediately sent it to Luna’s datapad. Luna transferred the file to the rosewood coffeetable, its pixilated letterhead streamed across the scratched surface in Arial typeface.

“And you expect to just walk into Sector Nine and steal one of their most prized possessions?”

“First off,” began Harlan, “I know for a fact that the clientele that patronizes Sector Nine is given a certain degree of leeway when it comes to anonymity. So for all they know Blithe’s most prized possession is a toaster. Secondly, no one on the outside knows, or at least they shouldn’t know, that there’s anything of Blithe’s in Sector Nine at all. And lastly, how long is it going to be before that small percentage that does know of Blithe’s fortune breaks into Sector Nine and steals it for themselves.” Luna drummed her nails on her datapad contemplating.

“You believe they’re connected?”

“What am I supposed to believe? That the timing of the Mirrorman’s shadowrun and the message from Blithe are mere coincidences. No, I can’t accept that. Not when you take into account everything that’s happened so far.” Luna looked distressed. She slumped in her chair, soothing her aching forehead as best she could. “I need you to do a favor for me.”

“Do I really have a choice?”

“Of course you have a choice. But would you regret your decision if you say no?” She leaned forward once again, her eyes glazing over the letter. She tapped the table twice and the file vanished into her datapad.

“What do you need me to do?”

#

Being online was a welcome change of pace. The restrictions of physical reality — sleeping, eating, pissing — and the fluidity of virtual reality helped ease the encroaching anxiety. It was twelve hours until emergence point. He took a capsule of dex from Luna’s pneumatic gun and hoped it’d be enough to sustain him for however long the meeting was going to last.

What surprised Harlan the most about Prodigy’s lair was its specificity to detail. The Grasshopper was a large chalet-style coffeehouse on the edge of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. It was twilight just off the Damrak. Harlan combed over the sex-shops, cinemas, the avenue’s neon rippling over the putrid water. De Wallen, the cobblestone arteries lining the canal, was public domain. The undulating crowds ambling in the side-streets were real uplinked people. This was private though, exclusive and personal. Juicebar, De Dampkring, the Greenhouse Centrum. Harlan silently listed the bars and coffeehouses in his mind, gauging a second-storey view from the café’s west balcony. The room smelt of hash oil and ground cannabis.

“The plans have changed,” announced Harlan to the rest of his consortium. Each member appeared in rough five-minute successions. Although none seemed deterred by his comment, most of their best laid plans were changed at the last minute.

“What do we know about Sector Nine?” asked Soundwave. Prodigy, our resident master of subterfuge, removed a business card from his back pocket before whipping it at the empty cork wall. The card expanded to aquamarine schematics of Sector Nine, translucent floorplans of the facility’s interior, and whatever pics they could scrounge on the net.

“Imagine a giant Turing Test rendered in real-time,” started Durango, “The schematics we have obtained are mere glimpses into what Sector Nine is capable of. But I have heard stories. You see most vaults are designed to keep people out and protect whatever is inside. What separates this stronghold from all others is that in terms of access there are few restrictions for gaining entry, as long as you have a reason for being there. However, no one knows exactly what the interior looks like, its true structure.”

Durango rubbed the cheeks on his thin face. “I wasn’t kidding when I said at our last meeting that Sector Nine is a hotbed for unheard-of technologies. Sector Nine has no cameras, no alarms, no security guards, no keys, no keylocks, no trip lasers, no nothing. Picture a giant room that not only conforms to the object being protected but also to the person trying to gain access.”

Harlan viewed his ornate reflection in a scratched mirror framed in dry-rotted ebony. He’d forgotten the color of his eyes, a light emerald speckled with orange. He tapped the faceplate of his watch twice, and lowered the ambient noise coming from the domain’s exterior. Closing the window seemed too outmoded.

“I think a change of plans is in order,” requested Soundwave. Harlan would have agreed outright if he weren’t a few feet away from Hiro in real life. He didn’t want to appear suspicious, fearing one of them had breached their secret and was working under false pretenses.

“Agreed,” answered Snow and Prodigy.

“Breaking and entering is out of the question. By that I mean there’s no conceivable way of entering the premises other than the front entrance.”

“That’s not where I was going,” started Soundwave, flexing his featherbed wings so they fit around the low bar chair. “I understand this Mirrorman wants certain discretion when it comes to his identity. But we can’t even begin to circumvent Sector Nine without a reason for entering it first.”

“I have a reason,” said Harlan without thinking. The cartel glared in his direction as the room fell silent, minus the muffled gibberish from the outside. “By that I mean I’m fairly certain I can get in there without detection.”

“Then please, share with us.”

“You leave that up to me. Sufficed to say I think I can get a visual on the inside, back-and-forth communication is another story.” He said this almost haphazardly. In truth, he worried more about the departure between him and Luna than he did about criminal incarceration or rivaling cyphers. If there was no light at the end of this tunnel the consequences would extend farther than a bruised ego and a migraine from virtual exposure.

“Maybe that was the point.”

“About what?”

“Maybe the Mirrorman didn’t give us a lot of information on purpose,” started Prodigy in his metrosexual avatar, “Maybe that was the reason behind the whole mission.”

“Explain that to me.”

“What I’m saying is if Sector Nine adjusts to the individual, then maybe not knowing exactly what we need to know is a good thing. Durango said it himself. Maybe all we need for this shadowrun to work is the belief in obtaining the Mirrorman’s cache.”

“I think that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Snow, “but we’ll find out soon enough tomorrow.” Despite being online Harlan felt the distinct aftertaste of hyperbase swimming in his saliva. It added a translucent vividness here, unsurpassed by any other recreational drugs or hallucinogen.

“So with Quickshot in Sector Nine, where the hell does that leave us?” said Soundwave directly to Durango this time.

“It leaves us with plenty. One person records the moment he enters the facility to the time he exits. Another will track Quickshot’s vitals. Prodigy will distribute the link and maintain the feed from his post. Then of course someone has to quarantine the signal and make sure no one piggybacks it.”

Harlan didn’t care much about anyone anymore. He was selfish like that. His first priority was to get into Sector Nine. The rest was a cakewalk. It wasn’t that Harlan didn’t have faith (in himself, in his team) it was more a question of lulling into routine, using the same old tricks, getting too comfortable, and then being overtaken. That was the fear that permeated Harlan’s existence.

“So that’s the deal then?” said Prodigy. The residual interference coming off his friend was difficult to ignore. Harlan did his best to tune him out. “In-fucking-credible. With any luck Durango’s gonna stick me on reconnaissance again. I tell you where’s the fun in that? Honestly, sometimes I think he’s doing this just to get a rise out of me.” The realism of Harlan’s fingernail was enough to make him vomit. He plucked it upwards, downloading any excess materials into his core memory before jacking out. “I’m just saying is all.”

#

Although neither of them showed fear when venturing into the nightlife, it didn’t mean there was nothing to be scared of. The nightly platforms for elite traveling were routinely monitored by surveillance cameras and patrolled by privatized security personnel. Dellinger shuttles were two-person maglev pods set on a single electromagnetic track. Luna ordered the luxury-class vehicle. As such it was lined with the finer amenities not custom to substandard pods; Nappa leather interiors, champagne, daily newspapers, fresh condoms. They were also less prone to malfunctions and vandalism, and required less maintenance than the average shuttle overall.

She must have found some poetic quality to the voyage, since the trip to Sector Nine was maybe twenty minutes nonstop at most. Perhaps it was her version of a Last Supper or a swan song. What it really meant was that Luna truly believed she would not return, or Harlan was too stubborn to realize his own futility.

Sector Nine had no known location on GPS or any standard mapping grid. The oblong lunafilters kicked in five minutes before their destination, eclipsing any sense of relative position in matte darkness.

The shuttle’s door collapsed in on itself, and Harlan stepped onto flax linoleum. He escorted Luna out of her cushioned seat as they headed through the vacant lobby. His walk was slightly off-kilter. Inside Harlan’s jacket was a sawed-off shotgun held vertically by a makeshift sling of plastic twine. She hadn’t spoken the entire ride, finally breaking the silence as he exited the vehicle.

“Maybe I should’ve told you this earlier, but I don’t handle DNI well.”

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” said Harlan around a fresh stick of hyperbase. “The trick is to keep your eyes forward and to not look at your feet.” A small envelope blinked in the bottom-right lens of his VisorGoggles so Harlan set up a tactile interface.

“Didn’t think you’d actually make it inside the damn thing?” said Prodigy. As predicted, Durango had him working to establish the feed. While the company’s location was a mystery, its network was as public as any information kiosk. Prodigy, however, was a pro. He promised a visible link to Harlan’s VisorGoggles within ten minutes of entrance.

“Just make sure you work fast, man. I don’t know how long I can stall these

fuckers. Contact me when you’ve got confirmation.”

The den was spartan to say the least. Ivory columns towered ninety-floors up near into the stratosphere, galvanized steel beams tinted indigo offset the art deco ambiance. One centerpiece dominated the central lobby, a coy pond outlined in lapis lazuli. The water was holographic, automated catfish with reactionary knee-jerk response swam within. They ambled forward to the sole desk in the room, fearing the worst.

“Can I help you?” inquired the secretary, sifting the TeleGoggles onto her forehead before responding.

“Yes, we have an appointment in Sector Nine.”

“Both of you?”

“Correct.”

“Very well. Hold on a moment.” She resurfaced her TeleGoggles while simultaneously scrambling through an infinite consciousness of data, all via a virtual keyboard that was invisible to them. The headset that coiled around her left ear had a forty million digipixel screen posted before her left eye — rechecking agendas, editing correspondences, delivering packages — seeing that she was right-handed.

“May I have your true names please.”

“Eva L. Yonge,” said Luna brusquely.

“Detective Harlan Novak.”

If it weren’t for his detective status he wouldn’t have been permitted entrance into Sector Nine. Despite Luna’s exclusive access, no other persons were allowed this kind of indulgence. Harlan slung the duffel along his back and placed his thumb on the scanner to verify his identity.

“Please come with me,” she said, leading them across glossy quarry tiles to a nearby Odyssey elevator. Her high heels spiked in his ears like tsunamic waves, another aftereffect of his hyperbase addiction. Harlan was getting nervous. Fortunately Prodigy contacted him as they both entered the lift.

“Good luck Quickshot. I’m distributing the feed to the others now.”

#

The night was gone.

Harlan gnarled his fingers inward surprised to find the digits spread, brushing finely against coarse asphalt. The ‘trodes were also gone. In an age where technology progressed so rapidly that paradigm shifts occurred daily, adaptation was the sole means for survival. But nothing prepared him for the potency of this simulation. What Aiko would refer to as Unreal City.

This wasn’t ‘real’, however. He took deep breathes and could almost feel the transparency of the program, the limitations of his current existence soaking what made up his lungs. Harlan shielded his eyes while coughing incessantly.

The silence irritated him. So did the light.

The purity of the air made him dizzy, brought on by this new equilibrium. His palms were streaked with dirt. Grit was beneath his fingernails. Harlan crouched up on his haunches only to realize that the suede loafers he’d been wearing were gone, as was his beat-up leather jacket and sawed-off shotgun that grazed his hip.

It took less than three minutes for him to realize that this wasn’t true reality. At best it was a poor man’s DNI — if indeed there was such a thing. No corporation found it economically feasible. The global economy would collapse with enough participants inexplicably linked, granted, if permanent admission could be sustained through an alternate reality — with no indulgence except for the truly rich, other than a lifetime inheritance.

This landscape was foreign. Harlan arose from the middle of a traffic intersection unable to get his bearings. No power was being supplied to the traffic lights. He looked up at the sky, standing up on his two feet for the first time. The upper atmosphere wasn’t teeming with electrical storms, nor did it reflect in the typical monochromatic sheen as most constructs, an ashen grey expanse slightly tinged with sapphire.

A gust of wind blew a discarded newspaper at his feet. The crumpled newsprint was blank other than carefully spaced geometric rectangles of burnt orange and saffron, the tabloid’s layout, and a few innocuous smudges from his hands. Language was devoid in this barren scene, billboards, benches, signs, maps, all were bare, only adding to the macabre of the simulation.

Harlan heard a sudden clank. He walked a few meters and seized the object, a navy blue umbrella with a parabolic handle of sturdy oak.

“Are you all right?” said Luna behind him. The sky quickly darkened but Luna seemed unperturbed by its suddenness, her umbrella sprawled over her head. She wore a scarlet trench coat and matching fedora that left her face in shadow, obscuring her eyes. When her eyes were visible, they were usually brown, although in certain lights they were blue.

It made him think of her avatar in the Archipelago. In earlier versions her hair color was given to be ‘auburn’ or ‘black’. Here it was long brown. She wore red high-heeled shoes and distinct black gloves that fit snugly on her hands. In the original sense-net she wore a yellow or orange dress with a fedora. She seemed to have a flair for elegance, often wearing jewelry. However, in this creation her appearance was retooled so that she wore pressed velour under her trench coat with a stripe on her long-brimmed hat to match.

“I didn’t think you’d adjust so quickly,” said Harlan, instinctually opening his umbrella.

“Sometimes things have a way of working themselves out.”

“I suppose you know where you’re going?” It started raining, a thickened drizzle. While ambling beside Luna Harlan stuck out his hand. His palm was slowly drenched in what felt like acrylic paint but less viscous, not blood, and rubbed it between his fingers like it was the most natural thing in the world.

“You have beautiful eyes Harlan. I’ve never seen them up close before.”

“Well don’t get too comfortable. This is just temporary. We have more important things to worry about.”

“What do you suppose the others are doing?”

“I have no idea. Trying to keep the connection stable I suppose. This place is big enough without participants linked to the network. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing shuts down due to information overload.”

“Mustard seeds,” said Luna under her breath.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s like in the bible, that parable. The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed.’ That’s what this place reminds me of.”

They pressed forward through the empty, wide street when it stopped raining. Harlan squeezed the umbrella closed, dragging a fractured trail of red dripping out the object’s stem. The liquid disappeared on impact, so it left no imprints as they ventured forth. And while no signage was rendered on storefronts, neon hummed in the twilight.

“Do you know where you’re going?” asked Harlan.

“You don’t see it do you?” They’d been walking in the same direction for more than an hour. He was simply following Luna’s lead in the hopes of finding some answers. “There’s a tower shining in the distance, maybe a mile away.”

“God damn it Luna. Why didn’t you say something before?” Harlan stopped in his tracks wiping dirt off his forehead. He fell down on his hands and knees, tracing his fingers carefully in the murky asphalt. “It’s a stand-alone network, this program. It exists for one and only one person, but in case someone manages to circumvent Sector Nine’s defenses there’s a failsafe added to the program.”

“What we need to do is keep moving,” insisted Luna, urging him onward.

“There’s a feedback loop in the system. It didn’t hit me until what you said about the tower. That’s why there’s no signs here. They act as markers. All this place needs to fool us is a few tweaks to the simulation, but I don’t know how long it’s been repeating.”

Harlan pressed his ear to the ground, seeking minute variations in the crumbling surface. There was a minor depression straight ahead. If they were precise enough Harlan would be able to pinpoint its emergence point.

“It’s called a Haraway Fissure, invisible walls programmed into the simulation.

Keep your eyes open for cracks in the asphalt.” The sky lightened somewhat, flickering brief deposits of glare from the upper stratosphere. No contrast made searching difficult. About forty feet from their position two diagonal cracks confluenced into one jagged line. The one inch chasm was warm to the touch, pulsating a putrid black green that extended downwards indefinitely.

“Hand me your umbrella,” said Harlan. Luna obeyed his command and gave it to him. “You may want to stand back.” She backed off a few meters, sheltering her eyes from the saturated light. He closed the umbrella, gripping the water-resisting canopy with his hands, and jabbed it in the heart of the fissure. Beams of pure light shot up from the precipice, which sent a curtain of bright sprawling into the night’s sky. Harlan’s ears popped. The pressure built so much that Harlan found himself being pressed flat against the pavement until his eyes finally shut and darkness ensued.

#

Harlan awoke to a harsh burning between his index and middle fingers. He leapt headlong from a chaise lounge chair with faded burnt sierra upholstery. Glass splintered on ornamental carpet to the inert clattering of ice. A cigarillo was thrown to the floor, the stub shortening to a nonexistent flame.

There was no sign of Luna. Lifting off the ground, Harlan realized his clothes were different, the ones he’d worn upon entering Sector Nine. He was in his now defunct private eye firm and former permanent residence. Instinctively, Harlan gripped for the cold brass of the doorknob but it was locked. This place was in stark contrast to the vast emptiness of the previous environment. After pounding on the door until his knuckles cracked and bled, he craned his head sideways and viewed Luna flickering in and out of permanence, sleeping on his silken sheets, arms akimbo, wearing one of Aiko’s custom negligee skins.

“What happened?” said Luna awakening.

“I think we made it passed the fissure. Doesn’t look like there’s any residual damage. Here.” Harlan gave her a ragged terrycloth robe and Luna hastily rose. “Recognize the place?”

“Not since we left it four days ago. You think this is what he wanted?”

“Who?”

“The Mirrorman,” said Luna tying the robe. “You know I think you’re right in what you said before. The longer I stay here the more I can’t help but feel we’re being tested.”

“The best cyphers usually are,” started Harlan, grazing the vividness of the bedspread, “or else it wouldn’t be worth doing. That’s the thrill of being challenged. It’s what drives us, pushes us forward. Tested? Of course we’re being tested. What would lead you to think otherwise? Whoever’s plucking the strings of this program is irrelevant. They don’t do this for the fun of it Luna. The work is its own reward.”

Despite his seemingly natural aptitude for prowling the innards of cyberspace, the longer he spent online the more impotent and helpless he felt. It was in the futility of it all. That virtual reality essentially didn’t exist, and being jacked in for continuous lengths of time was a fate worse than death. The body withered while the mind prevailed.

Music flowed from his office, drawling and scratchy and dull. They stood at the threshold of the room. An old-style gramophone sat in the corner, vinyl turning monotonously in elongated circles. The back of the club leather armchair faced them, swirls of digitized smoke plumed upwards. Nothing but a thin tuff of hair peeked over the chair’s curved edge, and nothing but the chair separated them from the Mirrorman.

“You were expecting someone else?”

“No,” said Harlan, advancing around the chair with Luna, “I suppose not.”

Ash Wednesday sat before them halfway through a Diamond Crown cigar. Harlan smothered the remaining embers from his smoldering nub still burning on the carpet. Nothing changed relative to the projection last seen in Ash’s apartment. Ash wore a dark velvet smoking jacket, a sensitive delicate green, with a shawl collar, turn-up cuffs and toggle fastenings near the waist.

“You’re not Ash are you?” said Luna.

“I don’t know anyone by that name, Ms. Veca. Or is it Ms. Yonge? That is unless you’re talking about true names? Now there are remarkable similarities to a couple of handles out there, particularly Ash Wednesday. This network is like an egg-shell sweetheart, the program gives me just enough power and information to live nicely, I am however confined to the whims of this network.”
“So you’re the Mirrorman?”

“I’m a rogue program,” he answered, taking in another soothing puff from his cigar. “A copied version created by Blithe. Meant to abide to the conditions set out by Sector Nine. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“We need answers.”

“What would you like to know?”

“Blithe creates this insurance policy and a few days later he’s killed. Why?”

“That I cannot answer with any due certainty. This class represents a sub-C type network, completely affordable for the average individual working steadily for thirty to forty years, but for Blithe the purchase would’ve been more significant than financial.”

“Did you know this?” said Harlan to Luna. She shook her head, biting on an artificial fingernail.

“He may’ve had some other purpose in mind,” continued the Mirrorman. “Sector Nine is usually anonymous, very discreet. If Blithe truly didn’t want to be discovered he would’ve sought a different avenue.”

There was a near empty bottle of single-malt scotch in Harlan’s front desk drawer and he helped himself to a light swig. He threw off his jacket, reached into his back pocket, and lit a fresh cigarillo with his monogrammed bronze lighter.

“What did you mean when you said ‘discovered’?” asked Luna. “Why was Blithe murdered?”

“Despite what Aiko may’ve told you earlier detective, this isn’t Unreal City. There are things in this world that are larger than you and me, Detective Novak. As far as murder’s concerned, you already know the answer to that. You call me the Mirrorman, so I’m here to present you with a choice, a simple choice that constitutes the sole purpose of this program. I present you with two options and before you wake up from this simulation a decision will have to be made. I can give you all the answers you seek but it will come at a great cost, the virus set at the Archipelago was only a glimpse of things to come if you choose to accept this.” The Mirrorman snubbed his cigar in an oblong melamine ashtray. Harlan relaxed his arms, surveying Luna’s expression before focusing his attention on the facsimile that comprised Ash Wednesday. “Blithe’s death was no accident. But it was his greed, not his wealth that killed him. The wanting for knowledge, the need to posses it. So believe me when I tell you both that there’s no turning back once this decision is made, but I do need one.”

Harlan thought long and hard, delving into the recesses of his mind while contemplating another hundred deaths or so. His indoctrination as an executioner ultimately held no bounds.

And then he came to a decision.

“I wanna know who murdered Blithe?” said Harlan.
“I never said it was your decision detective. You’re here by proxy, invitation only. And by any standard you’re still not truly here. Not in the way Luna is anyway. I can actually feel her in the system, her pulse, her energy. You’re presence constitutes nothing more than a two-bit connection behind second-rate VisorGoggles, and while your authority may supersede death in real-time detective, rest assured that in here all bets are off. Don’t think for a second it has relevance here.”

The Mirrorman uncrossed his legs. Empty static cycled from the record’s inner core, low-frequency noise, seconds after the song ended. Ash rose from Harlan’s favorite chair, palms open, gazing at Luna.

“So what’s it going to be then, eh?”

Harlan walked over to the gramophone and plucked the needle from the record, placing the heavy and crude tone arm on its steel perch. To him this action was as cataclysmic as unleashing a virus into a system or killing a man, a feat Harlan completed numerous times before. He didn’t want Luna’s decision to be influenced for his sake. That’s the last thing Harlan desired, but he didn’t want to be wholly burdened by another stranger’s consequences, even if it was Luna.

“I want to know the truth,” she answered, her eyes watering. “I want to know everything.”

“Very well then. There’s one more thing I need before the task is complete. I need the key.”

“What key?”

“The one in your left hand.” Luna slowly unfurled her palm and in it laid Blithe’s pacemaker, frayed and powerless but otherwise intact. Ash undid the satin sash holding his smoking jacket closed only to reveal a deep wound over his heart. Blood trickled onto the carpet in spurted heaps as Luna stepped closer to Ash, delicately wedging the slab of titanium into the laceration.

“It’s all going to change from here guys,” said the Mirrorman matter-of-factly, “Everything’s going to change.”

Chapter Six

Filed under: F) Chapter Six — David Halpert @ 1:04 am

Part Three – The Ankh, the Djed, and the Was

Unreal City’ was an umbrella term for a standalone system with discreet transparency, allowing the user to access information while simultaneously filtering everything out. With their hasty egress from the program, the Mirrorman’s environment self-destructed, decompiling in on itself before finally shutting down. Sparks invaded Harlan’s eyes. What woke him? Was it the intense searing of human flesh or the cosmic star that blinded his eyes?

He shielded his face in agony, hugging the Berber carpet after flinging off his VisorGoggles. ‘trodes still clung to his fingertips as the headgear banged against the floor. When his sight came to, he watched Luna convulse back and forth on the adjacent chair like some radioactive herring. He braced his forearm on the carpet (the shotgun’s barrel digging deep into his shoulder) and struggled to get his footing. A serpentine tube of fiberoptic cables stretched from the back of her head. Harlan grabbed the lightweight butt of his shotgun and fired point blank at the faggot of wires.

Luna collapsed on the table. The aroma of gunpowder overtook the chamber.

The empty shell casing dropped to the ground burning Harlan’s left forearm in the process. He packed his deck into the duffel bag alongside the shotgun and useless VisorGoggles. The signal feed was, no doubt, severed from his position, lost in the haywire that was the Mirrorman’s shadowrun. The mission’s success was the farthest thing from his mind. Luna’s survival was paramount, even if it meant sacrificing all that came before him. After failing to wake her up, Harlan rushed to her handbag, loading a single round of barbiturates in the pneumatic gun’s chamber. Rookie mistake. No stimulant intake before jacking in ultimately translated to a more difficult resuscitation.
“Damn it girl, you should’ve known better,” spurted Harlan, probing his cheek with his tongue. Sometime during the shadowrun he had swallowed his stick of hyperbase. He unfurled Luna’s arm, pressed down the iron nozzle, and pulled the trigger. She awoke gasping for air, pale and numb. In the meantime, he summoned an Odyssey elevator with a wave of his hand, while slinging the duffel bag around his shoulder.

With time running out and adrenaline wearing thin, Harlan pushed Luna into the return shuttle, making sure Sector Nine’s secretary was nowhere in sight. The door rose closed, the hydraulics kicked in.

“Christ Harlan you can see?”

“Apparently so.”

Harlan chalked up his unexplained eyesight to his encounter in SeaCal. The virus that had taken his vision years ago had most likely given it back. Or was it a gift? He wasn’t sure. Delusional freezeframes sparked in his head as he practically dragged Luna across the abandoned subway terminal.

“And when exactly were you going to tell me you underwent DNI treatment?”

“You know the thought never came up. Hang on a moment. I need to rest.” They pressed on, kicking tabloid newspapers ankle-deep in their wake. Luna vomited in the transit’s underpass, stumbling on the platform’s dimpled yellow rubber lining. The remaining cables dangled from her neck.

“We need to get you to New Bedlam.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need to go to a fucking hospital. Give me a day. I’ll be right as reign.” Her pallor personified the cold deadness that was direct-neural interface. Harlan parted her dyed hair, the blackened roots beggining to show. The metal spigot was wedged deep in her neck between the medulla oblongata and the spinal cord. He traced his fingers ‘round the circular jack lining Luna’s skin and gripped the entrails snaking down her back. However, none of the cartridges in her pack were sedatives. Like it or not, the plug had to be removed to prevent infection.

“This might sting a little.”

She screamed from the back of her throat, a manic, dispirited screech. Her echoes reminded Harlan of a lulling void, the kind familiar to experienced cyphers like himself. With the cable free Luna became deadweight, crouching in a fetal position against the tiled wall. If he wanted to get the truth out of her, now would be the time.

“Start talking. The truth”

“I went in for DNI treatment four years ago on my own dime. When I saw you wore VisorGoggles I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want to inadvertently sabotage my case before it even started, so I decided to just let things be. Put yourself in my shoes. What would you have done?”

“What about Blithe’s will?”

“Blithe didn’t know about it. When I told you I didn’t know about the stipulation in his will I was telling the truth. I had no idea that part of my inheritance involved going in for DNI.”

“You’re full of surprises aren’t you?” Harlan handed her a bottle of mineral water from his duffel bag. Some color returned to Luna’s face and her high fever cooled down somewhat. It wouldn’t be long before the authorities at Sector Nine would be coming for them looking for answers. “What about the Mirrorman? Do you know anyone who’d want to kill you?”

Luna shook her head.

“Besides Fusion Corp. not many. My best guess is that it was a plant like you said. Maybe it was the same person who killed Blithe. Who knows? If you hadn’t been there with me I’d have been killed.”

“Does that mean you’re not leaving?” Luna raised her arm and Harlan helped her to her feet.

Modern subway terminals relied on crowd farms for power, panels of translucent flooring that turned kinetic energy into electricity. With the exception of a few scattered emergency lights, the station was flooded with darkness. They slumped through the subterranean labyrinthine, combing the walls for moisture and gas leaks. Harlan knocked three times on Hiro’s Apartment and the doorknob retracted from the wall.

“Honey we’re home,” called Harlan, slumping passed the apartment’s threshold with Luna closely in tow. He threw the duffel bag onto a heap of empty computer towers.

“Good evening detective,” said a voice from the far corner. The only working lamp in Hiro’s shelter turned on, an upside-down electric sconce fixture. There were two men occupying the apartment, with Hiro nowhere in sight. The first, lounging in the stained velvet armchair Luna occupied earlier, cross-legged and stoic, was an older Japanese man in a double-pleated off-white suit and black alligator-skin loafers. The bodyguard that stood behind him had Legionnaire status, ensuring his position as ‘protector’. Harlan recognized the diamond insignia tattooed near his jugular, and probably had more weaponry on him than Luna and Harlan combined. If only he hadn’t put his weapons in one place, foolish.

“Glad to see everything’s in order,” continued the seated man. “Everyone’s safe I take it.”

“Where’s Hiro?”

“He’s fine. Tucked away nicely in the next room. I gave him an enzyme inhibitor. He won’t be waking up anytime soon.”

“What do you want?”

“A moment of your time. Keep your hands at your sides where I can see them and everything will go smoothly.” Luna was unconscious, slouched along the harvest gold wall. From his vantage Harlan gauged the butterfly knife magnetized to her inner thigh, attempting to grab it would be futile.

“Who are you?”

“You’ve been a busy boy, Mr. Novak. Embezzlement, assault, murder on a massive scale.”
“I didn’t blow up Little Tokyo.”

“We know,” said the seated man, “that’s why we came to see you.” He fished into his breast pocket and tossed a crumpled envelope into Harlan’s hands.

“What’s this?”

“An advance on your payment. And that’s only a portion of what you’ll receive. You’ll get the rest when you complete your mission.”

“What about Luna?”

“She’s coming with us. She’s integral to the operation’s success.”

“If this has to do with Blithe. Why do you need me?”

“Blithe was only one factor in a greater master plan. One that can destabilize the natural order of things. I need you, Mr. Novak, because for the past several weeks you’ve been working very closely with Ms. Veca, and whether or not you agree to this mission is besides the point.”
“Yeah, why’s that?”

“Because you’re one of the good guys detective. And despite what you fear, what you may encounter as the unknown, you shuck that aside in the name of justice. We know you too well Mr. Novak.” From his pants pocket, the seated man removed a half-eaten bag of trail mix, gnawing minute handfuls with porcelain-veneered teeth. Harlan’s time with his quartet of cyphers was over, that he knew for certain. His future, on the other hand, was another story. After a fresh change of clothes and downloading

Aiko to his deck, Harlan bid farewell to Hiro’s apartment for the last time.

“First things first, we gotta get to a hospital.”

#

Before they left Harlan injected Hiro with a shot of dopamine giving them twenty minutes lead time before he woke up. Luna was immediately admitted to New Bedlam shortly after their departure. At first glance, the opulent whites and array of fluorescence was a kind of shellshock for Harlan. He’d seen varying degrees of decadence — smoke, rust, grime, ash, dirt, dust, and the like — but was stunned by the mandatory cleanliness the hospital took upon itself. Depth perception was a real quagmire without the aid of his VisorGoggles. His first priority: connectivity. Being disconnected was the equivalent to being stranded on a desert island packed with thousands of people. He’d have to do something about it.

There was less foot traffic at night. Harlan felt a roughness in his jacket pocket strolling through the hospital’s lobby. Once the nameless man and his protector were seated in the waiting room, Harlan went to the restroom to remove it. Without a combination of neons and strobes to guide him maneuvering through the hospital was proving cumbersome. He regained his composure after stumbling three times on his way to the gift shop, purchasing a fresh pack of cigarillos, a disposable cell-phone, and a few other personal amenities.

Harlan accessed a public kiosk with his back towards the waiting room. It was a standard vinyl-surfaced obelisk near an enclave of convex windows that overlooked the sector’s midsection. The interface was of foreign design. It took a moment to contact Aiko, her avatar drenched in a rainbow of media-suns. He plugged his deck into the kiosk and the other end into his cell-phone. She dissolved onto the widescreen terminal, wide-eyed and shaken.

“Jesus, Harlan, you look like shit. Where the hell have you been? You know how I hate being cooped up in that thing.”

“Glad to see you too sweetheart. Surprised you even recognize me.”

“Who else would’ve rescued me? Take it the mission didn’t go quite so smoothly. You look a little worse for wear.”

“I’m on eighteen hours no sleep. Listen until I get my hands on some new gear I’m gonna use this phone for in-and-out communication.” Harlan inputted the activation code and loaded a hundred dollar’s worth of minutes into the device. After ordering an instant coffee from a nearby Dutch automat, he returned to the terminal’s monitor. The roughness in his jacket was a restaurant-style napkin with Luna’s lip stamp in the corner. In the center were the words D I V E S — T H E A N K H stenciled in dark turquoise eyeliner. He remembered the soft press of her lips before jacking in, the quiet malaise of Sector Nine’s databank, the slip of her hand into his jacket pocket.

“You can reach me at this number. Do me a favor. Keep an eye on Hiro for me for the next twenty-four hours. Don’t try to contact him. Don’t give him any leads. If he tries to find me throw him off the scent by sprinkling a few red herrings his way but that’s it.”

“What’s the magic word?”

“I’m serious Aiko. You saw the guys in Hiro’s apartment. Now I don’t know their angle yet but I’ll contact you soon with further info.”

“It can be done.”

“Oh, and another thing. If the others try sniffing around for me, Prodigy, Snow, Durango, do the same for them. In my absence they’ll think I pilfered whatever it was we were supposed to steal from Sector Nine. With any luck they’ll think I’m dead.”

“I’ll do what you ask but you owe me one.”

“I owe you shit.” The gauze surrounding Harlan’s eyes absorbed whatever sweat accumulated. He sipped his coffee with shaking hands, waiting for Aiko to respond. Harlan didn’t inform Aiko where he was or about Luna’s condition. He didn’t want to jeopardize his situation any further than it needed to be. He eyed the two men from around the terminal using the napkin to wipe his palms. “Don’t let me down girl.”

The duffel bag was stored in a rental locker four floors below his current location. Luna was hospitalized only meters away from the room where she allegedly killed Mario Juarez. Without causing too much suspicion Harlan returned the deck to his jacket, making sure it didn’t slump when he walked. The dark roast coffee warmed his right hand as he slumped down in ergonomic pleather.

“Does he ever talk?” said Harlan to the Japanese man, whose bodyguard stood erect behind him.

“Had to get his throat removed. Can’t say a damn word.”

“Maybe that’s for the best,” said Harlan, gingerly sipping his drink. “Does he ever sleep?”

“Can’t. Insomnia.”
“Well that makes two of us.” Harlan was surprised to find cigarillos being sold in a hospital gift shop. He waited a few seconds for the directed filtration to kick in then sparked a fresh one to concentrate.

“So what should I call you? I think I deserve the right to know the name of the person who broke into my apartment.”

“First of all, detective, it wasn’t your apartment. It was Hiro Patel’s apartment. But we’ll get to that later.”
“Then what can you tell me?”

“I can tell you we were contacted by a woman from Sector Nine,” he answered, straightening his collar. “No doubt she found it quite intriguing when a detective showed up to claim Blithe’s inheritance. Don’t feel too bad. There was probably a sight on every person who so much as thought about breaking into that place. What intrigued us was the fact you escaped.”

“That happens when you try to electrocute someone in cold blood.”

“It was a timed pulse. Purely a failsafe measure. Neither of you would’ve been killed. But I assumed, like most detectives, you’d have DNI status.”

“You thought wrong. I’m not like most detectives. And Luna’s condition in there is not exactly what I’d call failsafe.”

“But she’s not dead. Not until you sent that shock through her system. She’ll recover in a few days. Besides, we’re on the same team, looking for the same thing.”

“I know,” said Harlan.

“You know what?”

“I know that if you knew how Blithe was murdered you wouldn’t have sought us out so quickly. And if you thought we had anything to do with his death, Luna and I would be in jail by now.” The protector stared fixedly into Harlan’s eyes while his companion appeared indifferent to the situation entirely. A smile widened on the seated man’s face, subtly rubbing the stubble on his chin. “What I’d like to find out is what Blithe has to do with you.”

So what it really comes down to is what you know, thought Harlan.

“My name is Hosaka.”

At first hearing this Harlan’s heart jumped in his throat, the Yakuza seeking vengeance for the death of their members and most valued virtual property. But that wasn’t the case.

“I would think this would be more of a symbiotic relationship Mr. Novak. We deal the goods, and you serve your part by providing us with information that led to Blithe’s death. That’s the agreement.” Harlan sent him a wry smile but the stranger chose to ignore it. Instead he removed a single cigar case of monogrammed gold. “And don’t worry about Luna. We’ll fix her right up. Same goes for your eyes. I know a great plastic surgeon. As soon as Luna’s recuperated we’ll have to pay them a visit. I just hope there’s no permanent damage.”

“I tend to work better alone.”

“That may be detective, only it would lead us both to nothing but a bunch of empty answers. Whether you like to admit it or not, Luna is the key to many of those answers. This isn’t about the murder of one anymore, but the survival of many.”

“What are you talking about?”

“They’ll be time to explain later. Right now your health is our first priority.”

“Then I have a few demands.”

“All right.”

“First I want to undergo DNI treatment. If your boys can deliver the goods like you say they can, I’ll need to bring my A-game to the table. Hacking isn’t just some leisurely sport for me. It’s a gift. I see things other people don’t. Patterns, codes, strata of information, like I was programmed to act and react to any situation. So naturally I will need a replacement.”

“Done.”

“I’ll need a new top-of-the-line workstation also. And, as a token of good faith, I think a change of wardrobe is in order.”

“We’ll see what we can swing. In the meantime, Hotei will be your on-call bodyguard. He’ll be your eyes and ears from this point onward.” Hosaka answered his headset, excusing himself while igniting the cigar. Harlan basked in the afterglow of the hospital’s fluorescence, reminiscing of his times with Luna and how they now seemed so small, how fragile Luna had become in a mere couple of hours. He rubbed his eyes, using a hospital site map of variant neons to focus, and traced a grimy finger to her room.

#

They called him ‘The Guardian’. In a world where the lowest perception was the ultimate reality, Mr. Hosaka didn’t wholly exist. Hotei attached to Harlan like a parasite, following his every move, but Hosaka simply vanished less than ten minutes after they separated. He was a myth, the guardian. Inner circles heard of stories — rumors really — circulating of a person who would one day transcend the corporeal shell of skin and bone, surpass human intelligence, and become something greater; the soul of a new machine. And as far as Harlan knew, Hosaka was the man to do it.

Luna was sleeping when he entered her chamber. The honeycomb framework of the hospital allowed for maximum space with minimum wastage, fireproof insulation and independent mechanisms allowed for quick detachment in case of catastrophe. Harlan snaked his arm into Luna’s purse, downloading the contents of her datapad before she woke up. Color returned to her face somewhat even with all her makeup removed. Wired tubing infused facial orifices with compressed oxygen. The usual antiseptic aroma of the hospital was quickly replaced by the lily-scented pheromones in Luna’s hair as she stirred herself awake.

“Hey, how are you doing?”
“A little groggy. Where am I?”

“You’re in the Level III trauma center of New Bedlam Hospital. You collapsed shortly after we arrived at Hiro’s apartment.”

“How long was I out?”

“About four hours. Doctors said it’ll be a couple of days before you make a full recovery. That pulse from Sector Nine gave quite a jolt to your system. But for the time being they’re going to wean you off the stimulants with some methadone. Make you clean eventually but withdrawal’s going to be a bitch.” Luna rose slightly, rubbing her forehead from a sudden onslaught of a headache. Harlan opened an ionized bottle of water, pouring small amounts into an oversized Dixie cup.

“Tell me something I don’t know,” said Luna tersely, combing through her purse.

“Looking for this,” began Harlan, opening his jacket to reveal her pneumatic gun in his underarm holster, “I took the liberty of temporarily relinquishing your gun until you’re in a position to make decisions with a clear head.”

“Is that right? So you’re just going to keep watch on my room twenty-four hours a day. Is that it?”

“No, that’s not it. But our circumstances have changed slightly since our last encounter.” Harlan circled around the room, pulling the violet armchair to her bedside in order to speak quieter to her. “We escaped Sector Nine all right and made it to the terminal fine, but shortly after I…we returned to Hiro’s apartment there was some unexpected company there waiting there for us. Two men. A man named Hosaka and his bodyguard.”

“Did you kill them?”

“Believe me I would have. That is to say, I would have if I didn’t have you in my left hand and the duffel bag in my right. Thank God I didn’t though. They seemed more interested in Blithe than about killing.”

“What else is new?”

“I’m serious Luna. If we’re to get through this next juncture you’re going to have to be functioning. Believe it or not, I know a little something about DNI, enough to realize that when mixed with enough stimulants the combination can be fatal.” Harlan threw a sepia-stained dossier onto the bed and Luna thrust forwards, snatching it with outstretched arms.

“What the hell is this?”

“The life of one Mr. Hosaka. I didn’t ask for the file. He thinks it to be a gesture of good faith. That if we’re to work together in the future there should be no secrets between us.”

“There’s no picture here,” noted Luna, scanning the file.

“Impressive isn’t it? Reads more like a missing person’s report than a Feds rap sheet. It seems our friends at the CIA don’t have much of a clue than we do about him. Even his name. However, they seem convinced Hosaka exists. But instead of building a profile based on his crimes or physical characteristics, they try to piece it together through like events, coincidences, in an attempt to reverse engineer his identity. As far as they’re concerned he’s guilty until presumed innocent.”

“At least we know it. His true name anyway. Why’s this important?” Harlan tossed two additional dossiers on her lap as he washed his palms in a nearby enamel sink.

“Because we’re in the exact same boat. It appears one of Hosaka’s favorite hobbies is seeking out the world’s greatest hack-jobs and paying them off to do his bidding. Fortunately there’s enough in those files to have someone locked away for a lifetime.”
“Why is that fortunate for you then?”

“Because they don’t have much on me. You, on the other hand, are a whole other story. Once Blithe was killed all bets were off in terms of freedom. Why is it fortunate Luna? Because he can’t risk turning either of us in without getting himself caught.”

With Harlan’s vision coming into effect he realized the true extent of Luna’s condition. The dark circles beneath her eyes were contrasted only by the paleness of her skin. She’d lost weight in the weeks of their camaraderie, and the added stress brought on by Hosaka and his companion didn’t help her recovery, only hindered it. And the paranoia (that seemed so natural to Harlan) gradually took hold on Luna’s sense of reality to the point where the real seemed lurid and untrustworthy.

“So that’s your great plan. You standing there perched at the foot of my bed until I’m all better.”

“No. My plan is to go in for DNI on Hosaka’s dime. Your seven days are up, Luna. Whether or not you’re going to be there with me is entirely up to you. Under one condition. That you’ll be clean and sober when you finally make that decision. Until then, Hosaka’s bodyguard is going to keep tabs on you to make sure you don’t leave the hospital.”

“You son of a bitch,” spat Luna, doing her best to restrain herself.

“Now don’t make me ask the doctors to strap you to the bed. Or I could just unleash a small sedative into your system with your own gun. Kind of poetic don’t you think?” Before she could respond to Harlan’s request he pumped 30ccs of diazepam into her forearm, hoping there were no ill-effects as a result of the drug.

#

Luna’s treatment consisted of a VR regimen to trick her synapses into recovery. He hoped the infirmary’s staff wouldn’t take in account the harlequin paperbacks and dog-eared fashion magazines (left accidentally by the previous patient) as a representative sample of Luna’s psyche, having her subjected to moonlit soirees in Tuscany, or clichéd seductions of some media mogul until the toxins drained from her brain. The therapy was a variant of lucid dreaming, remarkably similar to the unconscious maladies Harlan experienced to improve reaction-time.

Hosaka’s imaging software successfully masked Luna’s signature from authorities, and was akin to the thermo-optical camouflage she used weeks before to kill Mario Juarez. Otherwise her actual presence was easily disguised through forged documents and the like. Luna only managed to escape from Hotei’s sight once, and even then she didn’t make it passed the third-floor elevators or rouse enough suspicion to get caught.

“You’re saying there’s nothing on Hosaka that I can use as leverage.”

“Look babe, like I told you before, there are thousands of people named Hosaka out there matching the physical description you submitted, both as handles and true names,” said Aiko from the clinic’s public kiosk. “Want my advice. Take whatever Hosaka says with a grain of salt and try not to question his motives so much. I’m having a hard enough time keeping your friends at bay.”

“Which one’s giving you the most trouble?”

“Who do you think? I’ll contact you if I get any leads.”

The clinic was a rented ward in the sector’s east end, a two-minute venture by private shuttle that Hosaka was more than happy to shell out for. Luna took a little over eleven days to sober up, now with their situations reversed. Harlan was still extremely nauseous as a result of the anesthetic. His vision blurred and he felt as though he could vomit at any moment. Hotei remained in the waiting-room until he was settled. Fortunately for him the surgery went off without a hitch. Feeble power surges interrupted the procedure momentarily, but never fully postponed it. A backup generator was always present during office hours.

“Would you relax,” said Luna. “The doctor said the last thing your body needs is any unnecessary stress.”

“One thing I hate worse than setting foot in a hospital is being a patient in one.”

She offered him a champagne flute of fresh orange juice and he took timid sips. Harlan traced the rim of his port through the gauze taped to his neck. The skin surrounding it was swollen and tender. He was so unused to feeling pain. The sensation brought back fond memories of when Luna slashed his forearm at the onset of their first encounter.

“By the way Harlan, I never got to ask you. What’s it like? You know, being able to see for the first time in three years?”

“VisorGoggles are a poor man’s substitute for sight,” he admitted. “I just hope DNI will do more for my brain than what the VisorGoggles did for my eyes.”

“How do you suppose it happened?”

“Fuck if I know.” Unlike New Bedlam the Jarvic Clinic catered to the obscenely rich despite the recent price drops in DNI treatment. Harlan was instructed by doctors not to twist his neck by more than ten degrees, for risk of infection. The fear of sepsis alone was enough to make him turn his whole body to Luna before answering. It would be another week before Harlan could jack in, more than enough time for the wounds to heal. “But enough about that. What I’m more interested in is if you’ve made your decision yet. Whether or not we’re still in this thing…together?”

“Jesus Harlan. I was so doped up on morphine I can’t remember anything after entering Sector Nine.”

“Do you remember the shadowrun? What the Mirrorman said before we jacked out?

“Vaguely.”

“He said, ‘I can give you all the answers you seek but it will come at a great cost’ but it was you who wanted to know the truth Luna. You were the one who made the decision to stay already. You’re not going anywhere, are you?”

“And leave you to your own devises, not bloody likely.” Luna wore a light-khaki miniskirt cropped slightly above her shins with an embellished scoop neck tunic and a striped vest underneath. She died her hair to its original sheen, a glossy seal brown, and her skin appeared lively with a fresh coat of makeup. “So what do you think Hosaka’s hiding?”

“More than he can handle. Something irks me about him. I can’t put my finger on it.”

“What did he say while I was out?” Harlan explained the deal they agreed to while the short-lived coma incapacitated Luna. The dossier he perused earlier did little to ease his suspicions with Hosaka, even with Aiko’s help. Luna removed a prescription bottle from her purse, taking two capsules of methadone to take the edge off. The suspense alone was enough to make her relapse.

“And you just went in for DNI,” continued Luna, allowing the pills to take effect, “Plus we’ve got no place else to go. That last thing we need is another pissed-off person coming after us.”

#

It was night. The Ritz International was a library hotel with rooms set up along the Dewey Decimal System. Harlan was to meet Hosaka at the French café in the lobby but not without a warm shower, a good shave, and at least three hours of solid sleep. He’d been shopping with Luna the entire afternoon and she decided to continue with Hotei. Its theme was erotic literature. Renoir and Degas reprints decorated each wall in spray-painted gold frames. Harlan grabbed his leather jacket off a statue of Priapus and headed for the ground level.

He wore an Armani pin-stripe jacket with matching pants and a pair of Oakley sunglasses due to his light sensitivity. Depth perception was still an issue, the serpentine patterns of the lobby floors were hypnotic, seductive, causing him to stumble frequently on his way to the café. In the nearby restroom Harlan replaced the bandage behind his neck with a fresh square of gauze, antiseptic spray, and four strips of masking tape.

“You’re talkin’ about setting a dangerous precedent detective,” said Hosaka, nursing a Singapore Slim. “Unless I’ve accidentally misread you in some way.”

“Let’s face facts. You wanted the best. And the best required, at the very least DNI, a bodyguard, and complete and total sobriety. So don’t insult my intelligence and tell me that this is another simple shadowrun.”

“All right Mr. Novak, what do you wish to know?”

“Why have you taken Luna and me under your wing?”

“Are you aware of the Dives?” Harlan shook his head. He took a sip of Evian from a table glass with a lemon wedge floating on its surface. Hosaka swiped a stone of rose quartz across the acrylic table, adding the drink to their tab.

“The Dives are a triad made up of three very powerful entities. The first was Blithe who, as you know, headed BioThermoFlex Enterprises, better known as BTF. The second was the President of Fusion Corporation, the medical conglomerate owned by one Dr. Wittenberg. The final person to that triad, however, is still unaccounted for. We have it under good authority that this third person does exist. And we think you and Luna are the closest people to have come into contact with him or her.”

“It all comes down to the Mirrorman doesn’t it?”

“‘For it is only in death that one can see clearly’. That’s the closest our people have come to contacting him. It’s some type of moniker. That shock you experienced in Sector Nine was our fault but whatever else happened inside the construct was Him.”

“So who are you?”

“Hotei and I make up a branch of Interpol specializing in cyber-crime. Really not much difference than your average band of cyphers except for better coordination and greater reach. In a nutshell, we help the people who can’t help themselves.”

“That’s all well and good but we both know Interpol or, any other form of government body for that matter, wouldn’t be this interested if Big Brother didn’t have stake to a larger claim, a greater purpose. So quit breaking my balls and get to the truth.” The waiter presented Harlan with a shrimp cocktail and Hosaka with a sample platter of escargot, caviar, and a tumbler of diluted bourbon.

“The truth is money. No matter how far we reach it won’t make up for our financial shortcomings. Money isn’t just power, it’s agency, and the Dives have plenty of both to dispense with.”
“You’re talking about laundering, racketeering?”

“You know for a young guy detective, you’re pretty old-school. No. What I’m talking about is something far greater, a three-part system. The first is codenamed the Ankh, the symbol of life, believed to be developed by Blithe, now deceased, but has remained closely under wraps. The second we’re calling the Djed, the symbol of stability, was created by Wittenberg. The third — and potentially the most dangerous of the triad, orchestrated by our not-so-known collaborator — we’re calling the Was, the symbol of power and dominion.”

“And what does this have to do with me?” Harlan felt the low vibrations of his disposable phone in his breast pocket but choose to ignore it. The butt of his nine millimeter pressed hard against his chest, straightening his posture from an ache that ran down his spine.

“To whom Mr. Novak? If we’re talking about the average individual here than you’re more than comparable. But you’re also privy to a lot of sensitive information that may be of some use to us. That’s where Luna comes in. We think she might still have connections to Blithe’s work database.”

“You want me to keep an eye on her.”

“More than that. We want you to hack Fusion Corp.’s central mainframe and obtain the knowledge for our benefit, or should I say, prevention.”

“What do you think I am some kind of runner? Listen, if Interpol had as much reach as you claim it has, you wouldn’t need a two-bit cypher like me to break into its network. And if you were truly with some sort of government body, you’d have no problem walking up to Fusion Corp.’s door with a warrant and obtaining this so-called ‘Djed’ you describe.” Harlan was out of cigarillos, so prior to his meeting with Hosaka he swiped the remainder of Luna’s Meia-Noite regulars. They tasted of mint, tobacco, and fresh strawberries. “Now I’m not going to pry into your affairs. I figure if I wait long enough the truth will come out. Until then I see no reason why we can’t get along famously.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Hosaka, spreading caviar with a butter knife. “It might interest you to know then that this Djed was stolen from Fusion Corp. nearly a week ago. So even if we did get a warrant it would do us no good. But there’s another matter we need to discuss.”

“And that is?”

“Did Luna ever speak of Blithe being involved in something called the Lazarus Project?”

“Not directly. It was mentioned in passing. Before our trip to Sector Nine Luna received an automated email from Blithe ten days after he died. Whatever that project entailed, it was enough to put Luna and me in serious danger. So out with it. Tell me what I’ve been missing.”

“The Lazarus Project is the Ankh but only part of it, and if my sources are correct we’ve managed to obtain said device from BTF without a trace of suspicion on their part.”

“What type of technology are we talkin’ here?”

“The small kind,” answered Hosaka wiping his lips with a monogrammed linen handkerchief.

“What, implants, ports?” Hosaka leaned closer, tucking in his chair.

“Smaller.” Harlan rubbed his neck, forgetting, even for the slightest instance, about his recuperation. “Think nano.”

“You’re serious.”

“Deadly. About four months ago, we received word from underground sources that something of a breakthrough occurred at BTF. And when I mean breakthrough I mean big. Nanite reconstruction. The ability to send this world into the diamond age, and probably destroy it in the process.”

“So what’s the problem if you have the damn device?”

“The problem is the product that emerged from it.”

“Product? Let me guess WMDs, bioengineered super-viruses, what are we working with here?”

“Try human.”

“Human?”

“Four of them. BTF thought it couldn’t test the adaptability of their products effectively unless they sent them against real-world conditions. So what did they do? Shucked them to the streets with nothing more than a thousand dollars and an ID card, and implanted trackers within each of them. The problem was they adapted too quickly. DNI ain’t got nothing on these guys. One of them turned up dead not too long ago. The other three are still out there amongst the general public with no signal in sight.”

“And who exactly ordered this impromptu execution?”

“Blithe did, inadvertently of course. BTF wanted the project dismantled once word got out of his murder, that, and anyone connected with the project.”

“You mean Luna?”

“No, but there was someone else. A man that called himself Ash Wednesday.”

“Explains why I couldn’t find a trace of a permanent record online, why Ash was classified as being under witness protection. He didn’t want to be found.”

Hosaka nodded.

“So you’re cleaners,” continued Harlan. “Ash contacted me maybe a week ago. Claimed someone poached his entire inventory. And from the list he supplied me there seemed to be no shortage of pirated software, viruses, and blueprints of new technology to more than satisfy his clientele.” The waiter delivered Harlan with a disposable ashtray of corrugated tin and he eagerly snuffed out his cigarette. “And if what you’re saying is true, that he’s only been operating for less than four months, we might have a bigger problem on our hands. Because whoever stole Ash’s stash could do some serious damage with it.”

“I’m glad you’re starting to see the light detective. Do you still have a copy of his inventory?” Harlan informed him that with only his deck available it would be a while before he could produce a copy. “Well then, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we Mr. Novak.”

“When was the other one killed?”

“More than a week ago, blunt force trauma to the skull. Bastard didn’t stand a chance. But this one’s different.”

“Yeah, how so?”

“Because we weren’t the ones who killed him.”

“Then who did?”

“You killed him Detective Novak. His handle was Randall Ozwald and he worked out of Sector 43.”

“Explains why the fucker wanted to kill me,” said Harlan, scratching his crotch. “I guess Fusion Corp. had nothing to do with it. Doesn’t explain why Ash didn’t try to kill me?”

“Maybe the Dives weren’t the only people plotting against one another. Maybe these doppelgangers had different priorities. That’s a scary thought huh, free will, the power to choose.”

All Harlan could think about was the last message Ash delivered through the holographic spigots that lined his apartment. The War is Coming, he remembered, lined in scribbled phosphorescence, and the Ankh.

Chapter Seven

Filed under: G) Chapter Seven — David Halpert @ 1:03 am

After his meeting with Hosaka in the Ritz’s café, Harlan called Aiko but to no avail. His recovery from the operation was still a day away but the affected area behind his neck itched like crazy.

Harlan thought long and hard about the Lazarus Project, of the prospect that digital copycats could be walking the streets, hacking the net, swarms of replicated beings propagating infinitely, indefinitely. If the possibility of three dead ringers out loose in the world wasn’t unnerving enough, the nearly twenty or so deaths at the Archipelago scared him straight. Fusion Corp.’s side project was a self-contained module that duplicated the brain’s function without the physicality of a body, copying the human consciousness into rivers of code, leaving nothing but memories in their wake. For what reason, he didn’t know. In this instance, ignorance was bliss. ‘The Was’ was the missing link between the Ankh and the Djed, the virtual and the real, the extraneous yet necessary technologies needed to bring the once real to the virtual to the real again, and vise versa.

The Aquatic Consortium was an underwater piazza modeled off the Fontana del Moro lined with a series of strip malls and a bevy of Odyssey elevators. The A.C. was the de facto forum for cyber-junkies and amateurs alike. In the past hour Harlan had purchased two slabs of digital silicone, a new set of VisorGoggles, a pair of Reebok shoes, a Timex watch, and an iced cappuccino. He overlooked the food court — that resembled the inside of a fishbowl — from second-floor mezzanine, waiting for Aiko to return.

“Do you think there’s a war coming?” she asked, leaning over the rail. A convex dome of fiberglass eclipsed the food court in emerald light.

“There’s too much truth in what Hosaka’s said for me to believe otherwise. However, one detail is becoming glaringly apparent. One that Hosaka may have overlooked.”

“How so?”

“Hosaka has given me a litany of reasons why I should go along with this mission. For the greater good, as he puts it. I also know that neither Hotei nor Hosaka has the investigative expertise that I have. But when Luna came to me and asked me to investigate Blithe’s murder I had very little leads to go on. I didn’t mind it, that’s how I like to work, from the outside in. With Hosaka it’s different. Believe me I think I can still help him. However, Hosaka’s priorities are misguided. He’s basically handed my mission on a silver platter. But if what he says is true, if indeed Hosaka has this Ankh he praises so highly, then our goal at the moment isn’t to seek out these clones, but to protect the device that created them.”

“I suppose all you need now is a guinea pig. See if the damn thing works.”

“You might have something there.”

A mélange of whipped cream, smoke, and cinnamon left a sour aftertaste in his mouth. It had been three days since he’d last talked with Aiko. She was wearing a tangerine miniskirt, a back-free haltertop, and clear thin stilettos that reached three inches off the ground. At two kilometers below sea level Harlan could almost feel the pressurized oxygen bubbles transporting to his brain in rapid succession.

“Why haven’t you messaged me?” said Aiko. “I was worried something happened to you.”

“That’s sweet,” mumbled Harlan, combing through a handful of electronic receipts. “I knew this would be the only way to contact you once I realized the phone didn’t work. The fact is I can’t make heads or tails of this Hosaka guy, so I figure I might as well go with the flow of things, see where it takes me.”

“That’s all in good. Just answer me one question baby. Who are you trying to convince?”

“You sure know how to be a real bitch.” Instead of answering his question Aiko pushed him off the second-floor balcony. Harlan woke with a start an inch before hitting linoleum.

#

Even in the lull of the Jarvis clinic, Harlan exposed his eyes to the saturated light above him, and the orders of his most recent purchases were already being processed for shipping. The acrid metallic taste normally associated with jacking in simply wasn’t there. The numbness that ran up and along his fingers was lifted in the absence of electrodes. No stimulants were administered in his latest excursion. Online was the equivalent to walking on simulated eggshells what with fear of the Mirrorman prowling the net.

Luna leaned over his body, reclining the chair back to its upright position before securing the spigot. A spherical mass of titanium docked firmly in the port behind his neck.

“Sorry to cut the vacation short, but I got the call from Hosaka. We’ve got work to do.”

#

In the two hours waiting for Hosaka’s command Harlan learned Japanese, French, and Finnish with enough competence to speak fluently. On the way to their destination he’d riffled through ten hours of footage from his deck. The encounter with Randall Ozwald revealed a diffuse reflection of the Ankh in the lens of the assailant’s faded teashade sunglasses. Harlan magnified the tattoo sleeves covering Ash’s arms and found several more insignias there as well, much more than the intricate striations of dyes and pigments.

It’s a blueprint, thought Harlan. Too bad Wednesday’s gone.

Luna stuck close to Harlan plodding through the Heavenly Waters arcade. The title was deceptively ambiguous, for it had the elaborate, slim passageways teeming with human traffic, lined by a succession of arches and vaults; but also the sequence of arcade cabinets, pinball machines, pachinko parlors — the garish décor, the over-the-top architecture, a low-hanging haze of cigarette smoke, the constant din of gizmos, music, announcements, flashing lights — with Hosaka not too far ahead.

I should tell you before we go any further, thought Harlan to Luna. Hosaka doesn’t trust you.

Does he?

He wants me to hack into Fusion Corp.’s mainframe and obtain information regarding the Dives. He thinks you might still have some sway with BTF. What he doesn’t know is your complete estrangement with the company, your DNI, and worse yet, me telling you this in the first place. What can you tell me Luna?

Plenty. However, I think before we proceed we need to learn more about Hosaka first.

This was augmented reality, visible winds of transparent neon. Through the magenta strobes, explosions, clusters of wigged teenagers Harlan clocked their vitals, swam through sales transactions, calculated six degrees of separation with a mere thought, and still effortlessly glided through the crowd.

O2 was an oxygen bar neatly tucked away in the atrium’s second level. Floors of impacted shag, lava lamps, huffers sunk in beanbag chairs listening to Panapet radios. They sucked in huge gulps of nitrous oxide through wire-thin plastic tubing. Harlan climbed down a spiral staircase of wrought iron. His fingers grazed the yellow canisters of cold dense aluminum lining the descent.

“The bitch is whacked,” sounded a voice from the darkened basement. “Claimed she could patch passed Skyline’s countermeasures without an iota of detection. I might be young but I’m not naïve. She wasn’t worth the breath.”

Hotei stood guard while Harlan scanned the face of the scrambling man. Valdez was his true name and he didn’t look a day over twenty, piling stacks of obsolete modules with fingernails painted a deep sable. A denim vest scrawled with indelible ink complemented his ripped-at-knees jeans. In the neon light filtered from the bar, he witnessed a backwards Detroit Red Wings cap under vintage Bose headphones.

“You must be the insider,” said Valdez almost whispering.

Don’t start, thought Harlan until Luna piggybacked the signal. I heard it.

“No I’m the runner,” answered Harlan tersely. “She’s the insider. Hosaka plans to have all angles covered here so I hope your gear’s as good he says.”

“So…do you want to see it?”

With a calculated swipe of his hand Valdez propped up a textured template. Corrugated steel creaked from the far alcove amidst the synth-pop that rose from the lounge above. The boy gestured Harlan into the vault. In front of him was the Ankh, a lithe piece of polymer in the shape of a womb. Harlan examined it, caressed its smooth oval contours, and eyeballed the Ankh until it stuck in his memory.

“Ash Wednesday came from that?” said Harlan to Hosaka.

“Him and three others. And if the attempt on your life is any indication detective they’ll come back soon enough.”

“Why’s that?” said Luna at the chamber’s entrance.

“Why honey? So the machines can’t take over. That’s why. It’s bad enough we’ve got DNI, holograms, virtual this and that. Next thing you know they’ll be swarms of these repros everywhere.”

“Don’t call me honey. How long would it take to produce a human with this thing?”

“It varies. Somewhere in the range of eighty hours,” answered Hosaka. He unrolled a Echinacea lozenge, rolling the foil wrapper into a small ball. “Rapid phototyping is a slow and steady process. But considering it’s done on a molecular level, it’s pretty quick.”

“What about side effects? I’d imagine these repros aren’t exactly the most sociable.”

“Compared to what detective, you?” Valdez laughed from the corner, sliding the headphones off his head. “They’re no more frail than we are, flesh and bone. You saw Ash in his own element. Did he seem well-adjusted?” Harlan processed his time with Ash Wednesday and recounted the deadened veins along his left forearm, the slouched posture due to long-term digital exposure.

“No program could take the place of a human,” said Luna, “I don’t care how advanced it is.”

“The problem with the repros is in their architecture. It’s one thing to copy the human brain, to double its consciousness, it’s another thing entirely to start from scratch,” started Hosaka. “Whatever came out of the Ankh may look human, and it may be smarter than all the books stored in the Library of Congress, but rest assured there are flaws built within each of them. Cyberspace is built around consensus, fluidity, universal access, and without that they are at a marked disadvantage. Eventually they’ll burn out. It’s only a matter of time. The question is how many people they’ll kill before they do.”

“Then how the hell did you put this thing together?” asked Harlan to Hosaka.

“We brought it here and assembled it piece by piece, you know, like a tank,” started Valdez. “The real bitch was finding the pieces once BTF disassembled the project.”

Harlan couldn’t shake the thought that he was one of the unwilling detectives meant to watch over Ash Wednesday, that whoever stole his robopet in the first place did so intentionally. The memories of his past seemed more distant with his new implants. Was Luna one of these repros? He couldn’t be sure, especially with the special attention Hosaka was giving her.

“And why is Hotei protecting this Ankh and not us?” Luna leaned her back against the entryway. She waited for a reply thumbing the end of a combat knife.

“The question isn’t whose worth protecting more,” started Hosaka, “If those things get control of the Ankh then all we have is a three-day window to work with. Now I’m not saying you or Luna is dispensable. But we have three loose cannons out in the open. Killing us would only be the beginning.”

“But how do we know they’re bent on killing? How do we know they don’t have a single violent thought in their head?”

“That’s not the issue here,” spurted Valdez. “We’ve got to exterminate these repros while we still can. Before things get out of control.”

But why not destroy Ankh all together and cut the repros off at the knees, thought Harlan.

A message signaled somewhere in the region of his left hemisphere. Bar codes. Striations. A red laser gliding in one foul swoop.

“See you next Tuesday,” said Valdez to Luna, leaving.

“Fuck off preppy.”

Harlan didn’t get the joke.

#

Styrofoam snow littered the floor of his presidential suite, alongside cardboard boxes, bubblewrap, and receipts. Wifi allowed for a default vista to display, the city’s skyline from a sharp vantage point. Harlan expunged two pint-sized bottles of tequila from the mini-bar and downed them each in one swig.

“Who are you?”

“You don’t need to worry about that right now.”

“What do I need to worry about then?” A man’s voice. Distant. Deep and terse like a hornet’s sting.

“Hosaka will try and convince you that protecting the Ankh is the correct course of action. This is a fatal mistake. It wouldn’t matter if you knew how to build another Ankh.”

“Is that possible?”

“The mind is a miraculous organ, Mr. Novak. It can survive long after the heart has quit functioning. With the Djed, it wouldn’t be impossible to hijack one’s memory even after the body has died.” Harlan didn’t ask how it knew about the Djed. “Anyone can copy their consciousness with enough money, but death alone doesn’t always ensure closure detective.”

“You mean there are two of you?” Silence. Not even shallow breathing was on the other end of the connection. A low throbbing.

“That still doesn’t explain murder. How can there be any kind of info-trafficking, memory-wise I mean, with no evidence of forced entry whatsoever?”

A moment passed. Harlan, as if thinking to himself, floundered in solitude until the voice off in the distance replied.

“Am I dead?”

#

The bedroom phone rang, waking him. He was lying on his back staring at the stucco ceiling. After two rings it transferred to the voice-over broadband in lieu of VisorGoggles. The hotel was a hotbed of wireless activity. It was Luna.

“Meet me in the lobby in twenty minutes.”

Styrofoam flakes crackled under his Aldo loafers.

Harlan tracked her real location, interfacing with the elevator’s VDT before reaching the main level. He bypassed the doorman waiting for him as well as the message with the concierge to a casino in the sector’s west end.

“Hosaka doesn’t have a clue. He’s shortsighted, naïve. There’s a bigger picture here that he simply doesn’t grasp.”

“Perhaps that’s why he hired you. Give him some perspective to the mission.” Luna sipped mineral water, lukewarm and flat. “He has no idea we’re here talking. I wanted to be discreet.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t see it before,” started Harlan leaning forward. “Lynch’s body was found three blocks away from Blithe’s apartment right? But authorities said they found her not too long after Expansion. Now up to this point the question has always been who killed J.T. Blithe but since the Shadowrun we’ve been moving away from the question why was J.T. murdered.” Harlan took a complimentary mint, maneuvering the lozenge around his tongue until the flavor really sunk in. “I think someone had the Djed in their possession the night Blithe died. Lynch could’ve stored whatever was left of Blithe’s memory into the device and been killed by one of these repros with Blithe in tow.”

“That may make for good bedtime reading babe but it doesn’t exactly explain why he had the Djed, if he had it at all to begin with.” Solitary derelicts manipulated air above digital silicone. Pixilated poker growing to a progressive jackpot.

“When I visited the morgue the attendant, a man named Ant, said that someone had come by earlier to claim Lynch’s property before she was cremated. It was this same person that ordered the cremation in the first place. This person, according to Ant, took whatever items were in her possession at the time, claiming to be Lynch’s estranged daughter. But isn’t it the least bit curious that she took all of Lynch’s stuff but left all of Blithe’s remnants untouched. The problem with that story is that Lynch’s real daughter is completely paralyzed.”

“You think it was one of the repros. A woman.”

“Yes.”

“You’re forgetting one thing. How did the repros know Blithe had the Djed?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t know. Is it safe to say that Blithe was more than reasonably nervous after his return overseas?”

“Absolutely,” she answering, twirling a poker chip between her fingers.

Wittenberg may have threatened his biggest rival with a hostile takeover shortly before returning from Prague, and, seeking revenge, stole the Djed from Fusion Corp. once he got wind of the project’s completion.”

“Or vise versa? Blithe might’ve had this genial reputation in the public eye but he had a take-no-prisoners attitude in the boardroom. He could’ve been the one who instigated the whole thing. Thing is, we don’t have proof either one is true.”

“Problem is I can’t go against my own instincts any more than I can trust what Hosaka says. Then there are these dreams.”

“What kind of dreams?”

“The weird kind,” said Harlan. “I didn’t even realize I was having them until a few nights ago when I was getting into a regular sleep pattern.”

“Go on.”

“I don’t know what it is. But ever since the shadowrun I’ve been thinking clearer, seeing clearer. The incident at Sector Nine might’ve been a setup by one of the repros but I think it did something, changed me in some way. I can’t explain it. By opening Blithe’s safety deposit box I think we might’ve unleashed some sort of force onto the net.”

“But you still don’t trust Hosaka.”

Harlan shook his head.

“We have to stop worrying about the Ankh. If there’s a chance Blithe is still alive somehow it poses a far greater risk. What would the repros need with the Ankh if they could just construct one on their own?”

“Are you saying we should stop guarding the device?”

“No, I think Hotei should stop protecting it. What we need is a changing of the guard?”

“Who do you suggest?”

“Aiko should watch over it. I could rig up a tracker to go off if anyone, repro or otherwise, so much as touches that thing. We need to get our priorities straight.” Harlan snuffed the remainder of his cigarillo into the ashtray before straightening up. Kitschy oriental carpets presented themselves as they exited under golden arches.

“I like it,” answered Luna, scissoring her legs across the casino floor. “Let’s get out of here.”

#

The Catacombs’ main atrium consisted of a cylindrical gravity well reaching ninety floors below the earth’s surface. Security was tight. Harlan hacked into the central registry beforehand, granting them access to a plethora of restricted areas that most of the general public couldn’t enter. Hotei held two cases in both hands, aluminum with dimpled exteriors. The place smelt of corrosion and sulfur. In theory, humans could glide straight to the building’s core, but not without serious bodily congestion. Without elevators, the rate of descent would cause numbness, vertigo, and decompression sickness more commonly known as ‘the bens’. Harlan’s DNI was active, but the more the lift descended the more his wireless went on the fritz, electric snow resembling static, so he switched it off.

Valdez’s crew was a mélange of low-level technicians and medical personnel meant to regulate the life-signs of its clientele, round-the-clock sims in parabolic chambers connected to a central matrix. Their leader’s name was Jennifer Ortiz and didn’t require a handle. Transactions were conducted by administers to privately-owned third-party providers, and services were licensed to third-party contractors. No one who worked in the Catacombs ever saw the light of day, then again neither did anyone on the surface.

A frigid updraft chilled the steel pressing against Harlan’s chest. His latest VisorGoggles were strictly for show but were an autonomous system nonetheless, a more durable polymer hugging his temples without the need for a deck.

Ortiz was lithe. Her left arm a reflective sheen in the sodium light of the underground. It was an artificial spray-on. Its movements monotonous, uninspired. Not fluid. She donned a corset of purple latex with lavender eyeshadow to match. Holographic skin graphs hugged her right forearm in the form of a Greek frieze, a Bengal tiger.

“What you running?”

“Complete independent subsystems,” began Ortiz, “reception’s shit but look, no shortage of accommodations. My friends you’re looking at one of the most protected networks in the western world.”

Valdez routed the servers to the central line, bulky spirals of Ethernet cabling just to interface with the damn thing. Harlan’s Hebrew was rustic, subtitles in Arial typeface streamed on the lower brim of his VisorGoggles. Ortiz was Hotei’s age, but the long-term damage was evident. Wrinkles formed in the absence of gravity, ones in which derms couldn’t repair. Bones frail enough to snap due to calcium deficiency. Not a pretty sight.

“Hosaka’s actually been covering your collective asses,” said Valdez. Harlan drank instant coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Hotei drank urine-distilled water from a navy-blue sports bottle. “He’s the one who put me in charge on this wild goose chase. Do you have any idea what traffic’s been like over the last few weeks? First you blow Little Tokyo off the map, then you have these cyphers claiming payment for the shadowrun, now you’ve got these repros ready to hunt you down at a moment’s notice. Tell me, Harlan, did you ever wonder how you survived the last thirty days of your life?”

Luna contacted Harlan via direct neural interface and Harlan made some excuse to Valdez to leave. She was in the Catacomb’s marketplace, an open forum of interconnected bazaars complete with alloyed palisades. Being underground was the geographical equivalent to sailing in international waters. Prostitution was legal here. So was the drug trade. Parapets were littered throughout the complex. Luna sipped chamomile tea under a striped patio umbrella. Condensation rained in minute quantities leaving puddles throughout the cement foundation.

“Why are we here Harlan?” she asked outright, adding sugar to her tea.

“The network here operates from a completely separate power source deep within the earth. If Hosaka wants me to break into Fusion Corp.’s mainframe it means I’ll have to go online, giving the repros or whoever wants to kill me another excuse to find me. How many people would you say have DNI capabilities?”

“In North America, maybe ten thousand, but not all of them go on to rot the rest of their lives in the Catacombs.”

“Their system interfaces the people together but runs on the same engine. Someone tries to jack in the network, finding me will be like trying to grab smoke with your bare hands.”

Harlan fished out his monogrammed flask from inside his jacket, pouring aged whiskey into his Arabian mocha-java.

“Frayed nerves.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You only drink when you’re nervous.”

“I’m only nervous because I drink.” Spanish obscenities jerked in the background too faint for Harlan’s VisorGoggles to pick up, along with the buzzings of Vespas and motorized rickshaws. “Must be tempting with all of these drugs around. You ever worry about falling off the wagon?”

Luna didn’t answer.

Harlan siphoned through his databanks to see if Aiko messaged him recently. His lenses gauged above-average levels of nitrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and a mixture of indecipherable airborne particulates. Her lips were a frosted peach, rich and opalescent against UV lighting. She leaned forward, showing off her jutting cleavage from a zipped fur-lined parka, and bent low, blowing over her tea.

“It’s not a coincidence that we’re here, Luna. I’m about to break through some hardcore countermeasures. Hosaka thinks there’s some footnote about the Lazarus Project in Fusion Corp.’s central mainframe but I can’t do this alone. The guys in the Catacombs are bona fide experts in their field. Fine, they know their shit, running serious hardware. Once I’m jacked in though I put myself at the mercy of everyone around me. So do me a favor. Keep an eye on me, will you?”

“Why can’t you ask Hotei to do it?”

“Because I don’t trust Hotei, and he couldn’t answer me if he wanted to. What I don’t want is another Sector Nine on our hands. If that happens, then we’re really screwed. Unlike above ground this place isn’t exactly the most sanitary, nor the most law-abiding. I’d hate for something to happen to me.”

Harlan removed his Browning and laid it flat on the circular bamboo table. Luna engaged the safety and placed it firmly in her sequined handbag. He ordered a

Carlsburg whilst skimming through encryption sequences, the outline of Luna’s physique still faintly outlined in code. They paid for their order with a handful of crumpled bills and departed the plaza.

“You can feel them, can’t you?”

“Yes,” she answered, “I can feel them.”

“They’re never gonna stop, Luna,” he started, lighting a fresh cigarillo, “doesn’t matter if we’re ten miles underground or halfway to the moon. They’re never gonna stop. Hosaka will never understand. Not like we do, that’s for sure.”

Harlan distilled the collective whispers of all those connected. A river of voices streamed into his mind, blackness, a void, indistinguishable patterns too languid to decipher. Repros were like this airborne pathogen whose actions were randomized and contagious. Luna’s acknowledgement only proved this. Harlan felt that the occupants of the Catacombs, though stationary in design, in an eerie and perverted sense, had more freedom than they did. The more Harlan fought against the current to act the more he was ultimately standing still.

“Did you know that some of the deaths at the Archipelago were housed here?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Five of them. It was the only way Ortiz and her crew could accommodate us. Amazing, isn’t it? How the rich live only to waste away in the Catacombs, yet the poor struggle to survive above. Yet at any point the people down here could just as easily pull the plug on them. But they don’t. Sometimes when I try to sleep at night I often question why that is?”

“I don’t believe in classes Luna. I was always in that middle ground, somewhere between derelict and citizen. The streets find their uses for things. That’s all we can hope for.”

Luna unfurled her disposable parasol, a midnight blue poly-cotton with a somerset print, to protect her body from raining sewage. They continued along the colonnade, attempting to look as inconspicuous as possible, though their true motive was to kill time, which in their minds was also futile.

#

Ortiz was the final clear image in Harlan’s periphery before being fully absorbed in the ocean of cyberspace. A convex shield of translucent fiberglass, strictly for protective purposes, encased his body, a purer concentration of oxygen filtered into the lacquered chamber. Valdez was operating from an offsite terminal under Hosaka’s surveillance. Harlan clocked Luna’s heat signature through the iron casing using a combination of X-ray and infrared.

Valdez modified the pod with a smuggled Ninsei_07 memory core from Minsk. This allowed for integrated connectivity between his nervous system and Fusion Corp.’s mainframe. Riding blind was about the worst possible strategy for a wannabe hacker. Harlan spent the past twelve hours combing over the files in Luna’s datapad, painstakingly piecing together the network’s framework as to ascertain its weak points, holes in the system.

“Do you copy?” said Valdez through the mic.

“What’s that? What you’re saying?”

“That, my friend, is military lingo. You get the gist. Just keep where I can see you. Every layer you pass through there’s a ten percent degradation. So stay frosty pal.”

Harlan booted the initializing sequence and crossed the primary fence easily enough. Fusion Corp.’s main interface was a crystalline pyramid funneled downward splintering at right angles. A bombardment of wireframes posited depth, sinking Harlan deeper with each passing second into its vertiginous canyons. Without proper guidance even a talented cypher could flatline right on a MNC’s doorstep. The second fence resembled densely-packed naval mines that multiplied upon contact. Hosaka’s gear masked human signatures to the point of near-invisibility, allowing him to quickly, though narrowly, pass through undetected.

Search words were nominal. Branches from the database’s substructure morphed to form dense helixes. Half the files were public. Another third was incomplete, corrupt, or foreign. A tightness pressed inside his chest. Links of opaqueness became richer and more vivid with information.

Eleven minutes.

That was their window to work with.

“You’re one crazy motherfucker. You know that? Patch it through ace. And make sure you’re not being traced.”

So far so good. Harlan punched in the appropriate sequence, unleashing a barrage of Serbian breakers to sniff out encrypted software. A shockwave rippled outward. Files as distinct as fingerprints highlighted into constellations as much of the directory was sorted out. It was more or less standalone. Outside traffic was discrete and minimal which made Valdez’s job a whole lot easier. He engaged the countermeasures swiftly, penetrating another tertiary fence with flawless accuracy.

A voice, sharp and sagacious, punctured the mindless chatter of those others involved.

“It’s safe to say Wittenberg knows as much as I knew about the project, but if he were really smart he wouldn’t have written anything down, electronic or otherwise.”

“So who’s the third party involved with the Lazarus Project?”

“You’ll find out soon enough, but it won’t be from me. It can’t be. That backer was the wealthiest of the Dives but whoever was funneling money into the project was anonymous.”

“You mean the Mirrorman.”

“Forget the Mirrorman,” spat the messenger, “forget humans already. You think humans are the only ones capable of transmitting money online.”

“You talkin’ AI? Like military.”

“I’m talking a consciousness smart enough to think autonomously, capable of making decisions on its own accord.”

“That would run some serious hardware. Did you think that feeding the ego of a computer program was the best idea? That it might want to be free.”

“We didn’t know. Whatever central intelligence cooked up in their labs it was surprisingly deceitful, rivaled any human conversation without skipping a beat. We think it wants to be free.”

“We?”

“We thought it wanted to be free. But by then it was too late.”

Two minutes.

Harlan linked whatever untouched files pertaining to the Lazarus Project and extracted them in the time allotted. Going reverse was the equivalent of traveling backwards on a subway, and just as cumbersome to navigate. He maneuvered swiftly before the access gates permanently closed.

But how can a program perpetuate its own intelligence? thought Harlan.

“It can’t,” answered the ghostly voice within. “At least not yet. It’s what I don’t have access to or barely conceive. Machines manufacturing humans. Three repros. A triad of devices. That’s it?”

Webs of information danced before Harlan opened his eyes. His vision was blurred. Hotei was holding ammonia salts under his nose when he came to. Hosaka, Ortiz, Luna, and Hotei crowded around the chamber’s lid.

“Did we get it?” shouted Valdez above the techno-babel of terminals around him, “Did we get it?”

#

Prodigy and Snow were admitted to New Bedlam within twenty-four hours of each other, the first for a brain aneurism caused by a seemingly random power surge, the latter for temporary paralysis. Aiko added this as a side note in her updated repertoire and Harlan unturned his fingernails, downloading the file to his memory core.

The construct was a cheap rendition of Harlan’s agency. She extracted the schematics of his office by interfacing with the projectors lining its walls. The textures were extremely low-rez, none of them felt right. The patent-leather of his desk chair felt like cloth more than anything else. Aiko wore pastel eye makeup, metallic lip liner, and plastic dayglo-colored clothing. Being back in his office was frightfully reminiscent. If it meant no one would hurt him (human, repro, or otherwise), Harlan would stay here with Aiko forever. She faced Harlan cross-legged, not paying particular attention, reading the latest issue of PopTeen.

“What can I tell you about Hosaka and Hotei?” started Aiko, “Well I can tell you those records you gave me for comparison were shit. Completely inconsistent on all counts. Had to do some digging but came up with something on each of them. You were right. Both are handles, but there’s actually some significance to each of them. ‘Hosaka’ is a military designation. Spent six years in the marines before being dishonorably discharged for going AWOL. Apparently, Hosaka suffered from post-traumatic stress after a botched rescue during the invasion of El Salvador.”

Harlan opened his rosewood humidor expecting to find cigars but all he encountered was static.

“What was his specialty?”

“Artillery. Mistook the trajectory with one of the mortars and took out half of his platoon. Practically set them up for ambush. Forces classified him missing in action for about a week before a squad from the 7th Infantry Division found him. Reports said when American forces found him, his left leg was so gangrene it had to be amputated. Enemy thought he was an informant for the democrats against Ortega. Returned to the States three months later after spending some time recuperating in a field hospital in Panama City.”

“How does someone go on after that?”

“Not well.” Aiko engaged the tactile interface on Harlan’s desk. A sphere of transparent sapphire presented itself from which he accessed the file. “He was hospitalized twelve years for post-traumatic stress disorder in a Pasadena VA hospital that practically left him comatose. I have clinical trail reports for experimental drug treatments. But one in particular caught my eye. Seems Hosaka went in for some ‘preliminary testing’ on the government’s dime as a human guinea pig.”

“It says here his family signed off on the procedure. What sort of testing was he in for?”

“The kind that aren’t kept in public domain. Now the trials were conducted with a relatively new technology company that was known as the Fletchman Group with would later become…”

“Fusion Corp.”

“Correct. Now these trials were specifically related to memory, cognitive reconditioning. You see our body is like a vessel. And even though Hosaka remained in a catatonic state, scientists were adamant that his higher-brain functions were still active. Not just active, but thriving. What they wanted to do was see if it was possible to digitally extract the memories responsible for his trauma. Call it an early version of the Djed.”

Harlan instinctively opened the desk drawer beside him. Again finding white noise as opposed to a half-bottle of scotch. He would have preferred the scotch.

“There was one problem,” continued Aiko, “extracting the memories was easy honey. Reintegrating Hosaka’s consciousness back into his body was a whole different story. Kept his body in cryogenic stasis for another fifteen years before the technology was up to par, if surviving a war wasn’t traumatic enough.”

“What about his mind?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well was the thing self-contained, or was it free-roaming through Fusion’s network.” Aiko didn’t answer. Instead she kept perusing her magazine with wide, full eyes, not wanting or unwilling to answer the question. Harlan fixed the resolution of the construct to remain parallax with his VisorGoggles. There was no aroma here. Aiko lit one of the premium cigarillos he enjoyed so much with undue relish, the kind only an AI could fully appreciate.

“What about Hotei? What’s his beef?”

“Not half as interesting as Hosaka. Hired him as his personal bodyguard. At least what he said about his voice is true. Can’t speak a word. But there’s more than one commonality between them.”

“Such as?”

“They were both veterans. Fought with NATO in Siberia, Bosnia, Kenya, Tehran, El Salvador, and the list goes on. Finally made the disabled list eight years ago in Buenos Aires during ‘The Pulse’. Spinal cord injury left everything paralyzed from the neck down. Of course for Hosaka this was basically a blessing in disguise. Pays for the surgeries necessary to make Hotei walk again through some connections with Fusion Corp. and becomes an indentured servant. At least until the operations are paid for.” Hotei’s permanent record streamed on the tactile interface with a photograph stenciled in silver. Harlan waved his hand through the image and it rippled accordingly.

“Why did you summon me here Aiko?” asked Harlan, twirling a fine-tip pen between his fingers. “You could have told me about Hotei and Hosaka anytime. Why’d you wait until now?”

“I wanted to be certain no one would eavesdrop on our little conversation. The reason I called you here is because I picked up some activity while you’ve been nestled comfortably in the Catacombs.”

“You mean the Ankh?”

“No, it seems someone’s paid an unexpected visit to your old office.” Aiko expanded the window to about a meter’s circumference. A ghost-image of an intruder unaware of either of their presences snaked around the office, while Aiko’s fingers continued to dance on the viewscreen. “This footage was taken in the last twelve hours. Good thing I kept myself linked with those projectors, eh. Picked up the feed late last night while you were still rummaging through Fusion’s databanks. No heat signature detected.”

“You talkin’ repro.”

“Precisely.”

The woman was over six feet tall but her movements were inane, mechanical, disjointed from those of humans. The kind that don’t get sick, can withstand frostbite, not feel pain, and are manufactured from an AI construct. Blond, blue-eyed, agile. She didn’t blink, with the exception of microsecond swipes of the room and its belongings. She scanned for fingerprints, hair follicles, dead skin cells in the hopes of following it like a trail of breadcrumbs.

“You purged the system before we left, right?”

“Sure, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone working on the inside. Think about it. A walking, talking machine free from the confines of cyberspace. They can adapt to our world with only one thing in mind. Replication.”

“You sound a little jealous Aiko?”

“Please, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the real world. Those copycats might think they have the advantage but a program doesn’t know its own limits. It doesn’t feel. It walks around convinced of its own invincibility. Now a network might be rudimentary but it ebbs and flows by structure and discipline. However a person, unaware of its own memories or identity, unfamiliar with its own nature, has a capacity for destruction it doesn’t even realize until it self-destructs.”

For a split second Harlan got a good look into the cold, hollow eyes of the repro, and a tightness gripped his chest.

“They might look human. But trust me darling, they aren’t.” She thrust the magazine forward. Before Harlan could grasp its glossy pages Aiko disappeared, appearing behind his patent-leather desk chair. “You see baby, you might have some social mobility on your side. But running will only get you so far. These things, they won’t stop chasing you until you’re dead.” Aiko straddled his hips and leaned forward, pressing her tasteless lips against his.

#

After the shadowrun with Fusion Corp. (and an additional three hours recouping) Harlan went to sleep, forgetting to deactivate his DNI in the process. Luna’s lily-scented pheromones invaded his nostrils, overpowering the sulfuric aromas native to the Catacombs. Harlan traced his fingers along the scars on her back, delicately removing the spigot from behind his neck with as little movement as possible.

“Are you all right?” she said, tightening the recycled linens. Harlan retrieved an aspirin, tossing the ripped packaging into a corner wicker basket.

“This repro thing is just getting to me.”
The LED clock struck
midnight. Neon in the shape of a martini glass provided the only source of light.

Chapter Eight

Filed under: H) Chapter Eight — David Halpert @ 1:01 am

A silencer custom-fitted to Harlan’s gun was bought from a Puerto Rican street vendor by Luna for next to nothing. Whether as a gift or for her own personal use he couldn’t be sure. What Harlan was sure of was there were two less bullets in the clip when Luna returned the gun following the Shadowrun. Their vehicle was a makeshift ENV shuttle seating four including the pilot, lined with inch-think foam padding. Hosaka popped a low-dosage Valium in the front cabin. The fuel-cells hummed, molecules catapulting through a refined membrane.

“You did good tonight. We’ll have Valdez analyze the data in the morning.”

Harlan rubbed his eyes feverishly after removing his VisorGoggles and spat the remnants of his hyperbase into a saved cocktail napkin from the casino.

“Was there any activity while I was under?”

“Not so much as a whisper,” said Luna, biting her left thumb nail. The satin skirt rode up her legs, displaying two daggers wrapped by Velco straps. Little nicks created in the flesh near the dulled blades’ tip.

“How many times do you think we’ll have to jack in before we turn up something useful on the Dives?”

“If what I saw earlier was any indication. You won’t have to go online for a very long time.”

The shuttle banked sharply upon approach up the gravity well. Harlan interfaced with the pilot’s intercom. Their ETA was less than five minutes. Much of the on-air traffic was localized to the Catacomb tenements, however, a few untapped channels remained open for emergencies.

A sudden rush went to Harlan’s head leaving him lightheaded. He craned his neck sideways. Vertigo struck him in the pipework below as he leant in the concavity of the shuttle’s starboard window. His eyes had a sort-of double-vision, focusing on the sick bag flattened by the nylon latticework in front of him. Its logo was of retro-futurist design, a rocket encircled with stars.

“I need to get some sleep before I zero out.”

#

Harlan spat into a rainbow oil-slick. Concrete gave way to Astroturf beneath his feet and he saw light for the first time in weeks. His Doc Martens tracked in mud and trails of encrusted dirt until rubber made contact with cobblestones. Nine Miles was the most exclusive albeit the only county club in the Catacombs primarily reserved for the interim elite and the technically savvy as ‘corporate perks’. Concave panels formed a dome half a kilometer above their heads, photorefractive clouds at 12,000 dpi. Only Harlan was permitted entrance.

About a hundred meters in the distance, near the dome’s circumference, was a sequence of tall birches and maples obscuring the faux horizon.

The maitre d’ guided him to a table draped in muslin. Two glass flutes lay on the cloth beside a magnum of champagne, freshly chilled and unopened, in a Kolchugino ice bucket.

Ortiz’s thigh-highs were of a synthetic vinyl. She appeared promptly behind him, in a strapless sheath dress ending just above the knees. Harlan ignited a smoke talking full advantage of the oxygenated air, clean and filtered. It was not prohibited among the sunken tenements although those laws were rarely enforced.

“This champagne’s a good vintage. Bought it extra special for you, detective. I’m glad you responded to my message so readily,” said Ortiz, pouring herself a glass, “Just so you know. Security has orders to warn me if your friends come within a hundred meters of our discussion. You wouldn’t be recording this little conversation, would you?”

Harlan switched off his VisorGoggles and threw the module onto the tabletop. Ortiz made sure it was inactive before continuing with the conversation.

“And how would they contact you? If I may be so bold.”

“I have my ways.” A wireless mic was permanently lodged in her right ear, eliminating unnecessary echoes and background noise. “My people tell me I need better protection once word leaked of these repros. One of them suggested round the clock surveillance. The only problem is someone has to be at my constant beck-and-call. Listen, I wanted our little tête-à-tête to be as private as possible without the chance of intrusion. I didn’t want you to feel pressured.”

“Last time I checked Hosaka was backing this mission, not exactly a neutral party. So what hand do you play in this little endeavor?”

“That’s a luxury I reserve for myself, Mr. Novak. Hosaka grants me enough leeway to do business effectively. I should hope you’d grant me that same luxury.”

“Bullshit. The Catamites have enough clout and power with authorities to move around freely. You and your crew wouldn’t be so involved if the payoff wasn’t worth it. The question is, why did you want to talk to me?”

Harlan didn’t drink Ortiz’s complimentary refreshments until she drank first, for fear it might be laced with some counterfeit barbiturate. Later, despite already having two glasses of champagne, he ordered a rare brand of pure malt whiskey on ice, waiting for her reply.

“I hear Valdez pulled an all-nighter trying to find data relating to this Lazarus Project Hosaka goes on about.”

“And?”

“Now, now, Mr. Novak. It took a lot of swing to back your little expedition into Fusion Corp. I thought you’d be more grateful. That boy can take to data like a fish to water. Believe me, there wasn’t much. But any information pertaining to the Dives would’ve been either heavily encrypted or severely damaged.”

“I take it Hosaka filled you in on the details.”

“He gave me enough so that I could do my job without being distracted. Frankly I expected you to be a bit more cooperative. Don’t forget this is my turf. As long as you stay here you’re my guest. Comprende? This place may look tame but it is actually quite dangerous.”

“Then what was in the file?”

“Hard to tell. The file’s incomplete. Valdez believes it originated as some sort of random anomaly left behind as Wittenberg tried to purge the database clean. He’s decoding it as we speak. Says it predates the entire project. Thinks it has something to do with the way the network’s designed. Said it was a rogue program, maybe even viral. At least that’s what he told me before I left.”

“You still haven’t told me what role you play in this.” Harlan focused on the

Bengal tiger on her right forearm, watched it whip its tail before galloping out of sight.

“How much do you know about DNA sequencing?”

“Very little,” started Harlan, “My specialty’s digital, not organic. You’re going to have to enlighten me.”

“Without the accelerated computing power, rapid sequencing simply wouldn’t be possible. He believes their inception has its roots with the genetic code. Assuming they exist, Hosaka promised me first crack at one of these repros once captured.”

“You know we can’t replicate the technology?”

“Not yet. However, Valdez believes the blueprints for the technology is embedded somewhere in their DNA. He thinks he can hack their genetic code just as easily as one of these networks. Maybe even use one of them to our advantage.”

Throughout his discussion, Harlan played with his brass Zippo between dingy fingers. He wasn’t about to get to know Ortiz without forcing the issue. And though he didn’t know much about the human genome, he was intelligent enough to grasp its vastness and incomprehensibility. Harlan knew it would take years to dissect whatever information seeped into the repros’ DNA.

Was I one of these repros because I quivered at the sight of blood?

“You probably don’t like it when outsiders come in and tell you how to do your job, but I don’t think you realize the true extent of the enemy you’re about to face. If I were to give you one piece of advice it’d be to get out of this whole ordeal while you still can. I know Hosaka would like you to believe otherwise, that these beings are harmless, able to be tamed. The truth is you don’t know what you’re dealing with. The fact is I’m in too deep with the Lazarus Project to get out but you, Jennifer, there’s still enough time for you to get out no problem.”

“You may talk big game detective, but at the end of the day you’re nothin’ but bark. How long have you been freelance? A couple years. I’ve been a scavenger my whole life. So don’t push me. ‘cause I’ll push back just as hard.”

Ortiz reached into her Prada handbag and retrieved a flat rectangle of indigo plastic, holding it between manicured fingers.

“After the shadowrun Valdez picked up a transmission from an old company comsat that hadn’t been used for decades. It activated seconds after your trip into Fusion’s database. Now I haven’t listened to whatever he recorded but Valdez assured me that whatever was on this thing is vital to you mission’s success…”

The card slipped from her grasp clanking against the interlaced brick. A vacuum of air whizzed passed his right ear. Glass shattered. Harlan slipped from his chair, hugging the ground. Ortiz’s jugular ruptured His nine millimeter became slick with blood as he took shelter behind a foot-high hedge bordering the courtyard. Bullets peppered the terrace. The cracking of ceramic masonry. Harlan sidled behind a chromium bar, inward dents the size of tangerines nearly penetrated the alloyed exterior.

We’re not coming detective, we’re already here.

His DNI was still active, though his VisorGoggles were several feet away. The risk of getting shot was too great. His heat signature was an ample target. Assuming the sniper had an infrared scope, the only thing protecting his body were the dense isotopes behind him. There’d be no way of getting a suitable trajectory without those damn visors lying next to Ortiz’s body.

Patrons scattered. Two of her bodyguards entered Nine Miles, the door sphinctered open before blending in with the sky-blue background behind them.

“The trees! Shoot the trees!”

Mini Uzis sputtered a slow, swift barrage of bullets into the upper foliage before Harlan got his bearings straight, taking in the scene. An amorphous blob, shifting and approaching fast, distorted the surroundings. His lenses registered a violet on the infrared, but not before one of the bodyguards jerked forward, throwing the gun from his hand.

It had been a long time since he’d fired a gun. The adrenaline, the recoil. Fortunately the clip was next to full. Harlan fired blindly, striking what he assumed to be the assailant’s shoulder and back. Thermo-optical camouflage shattered, malfunctioning into a fragmented silhouette of black-and-white static, though the entity didn’t flinch, but simply drew out of visibility sprinting for the door’s iris.

“Patch me through to Hosaka,” he spat, directing his voice into the side mic of his VisorGoggles. Bounding into the public domain was a dizzying affair. After two dial tones he dispersed the line to Luna, Valdez, and Hotei, not waiting for their reply.

“Possible repro exiting the southwest entrance of Nine Miles heading for the marketplace. I’m in pursuit.”

Harlan was bathed in diluted sunlight, panning the central square for signs of artificial life. The roof approximated three o’clock in the afternoon Eastern Standard Time. He panned the teeming marketplace, searching for the invader on a makeshift balcony of aluminum siding. A cavalcade of bustling pedestrians, ashen faces. Human traffic structured the Catacombs in ordered chaos. Harlan calibrated his VisorGoggles to detect those readings — filtering out the meatbags obstructing his view — and found boot prints in the mud, puddles splashing.

The final message was delivered to Hotei, but only Luna responded as he bounded forward, gun in hand, passed the threadbare bazaars, passed the displays of hardware and weaponry in plexiglass casings, and tracked the prey on his lenses several meters behind. Mud turned to concrete, open crowded spaces turned to narrow alleyways of brick and mortar.

“Copy that detective. Jennifer’s backup is already tracking your position. Hosaka’s en route behind you but it looks like you’re the frontman on this one.”

He was gaining on his assailant. Ortiz’s killer flickered briefly out of visibility as they both approached the gravity well’s circumference. In a moment of vacant stupidity Harlan checked for more responses. The outer-rim corridors were devoid of light save for a few emergency lamps.

“Don’t move,” said the repro, “drop the gun.”

A cold barrel was inches from his face. He’d recognized her voice, the woman who’d been snooping around his office in Aiko’s recordings, blond hair, blue eyes, glided into his periphery.

The airlock lay stationary before him. An abundance of scratches and knicks blanketed the inch-thick glass, dividing the Catacombs from the public-access corridors. Split-second clips of Derringer shuttles passed the window frame and Harlan became very aware of his shallow breathing, his quickened heartbeat.

“Could’ve backed down but you just had to dig deeper. It wasn’t enough that you had to spy on us too.” Its speech was slurred like a paralytic after a severe stroke, oceans of code attempting to speak as if it could talk. “It was Ash, wasn’t it? Ratted us out then. Figures. What do you expect when one of your own wishes to go freelance.”

Harlan fainted at the sight of blood. Yet he didn’t drop his weapon at the repro’s request. Something inside told him she wouldn’t fire. In the seconds she rambled on Harlan shot three rounds into the plate glass, shattering it outwards. His VisorGoggles clocked the suction at roughly two G’s. Grime caked his palms clasping an iron pipe on his left side. Klaxons pelted his ears. Red lights bled off the walls. The repro’s body flung forward alongside his Browning nine millimeter before disappearing out of sight. Emergency blast doors descended. Harlan caught his breath, coughing on his hands and knees for a minute or two, reclaiming his bearings and then standing upright.

“Well then, looks like it’s back to square one,” he said, wiping his nose on his overcoat before switching to night vision to guide his path.

#

Red-stained liquid spiraled counterclockwise into the sink’s cast iron drain. Harlan dabbed his handkerchief in the lukewarm water and wiped his face, shaking. The memories of Kwan Li washing away from his mind as the blood washed away from his hands. It was a secluded alcove in the Catacombs’ crumbling west quarter, an abandoned surgical suite. Luna’s shadow eclipsed whatever light was provided. As far as Valdez knew Ortiz never commissioned him to work their shadowrun into Fusion Corp., which begged the question ‘Where did the ID card come from?’

Is that it? thought Harlan.

Hosaka bribed the admins to smuggle the repro’s mangled cadaver to them with great discretion. Hotei went to patrol the OR’s perimeter every fifteen minutes or so but the tension in the air was palpable. Ortiz lay on an identical slab of steel parallel to the repro, covered in separate blue tarps. Her arm draped over the table, her tattoo no longer animated, but manifested into a smudged purple blotch.

Yeah, answered Luna, that’s it.

“Maybe Ortiz was working with the repro. Maybe she was one of them.”

“Unlikely. Aiko’s running tests on her as we speak,” said Harlan. “It’s conclusive. Ortiz’s one of us…was one of us. Whether or not she’s working with the repros is yet to be seen.”

Hosaka lumbered to a nearby swivel chair, rubbing his shaved head. His facial wrinkles seemed more pronounced under halogen lights. He then lit a corona cigar despite the low ventilation. Eddies of smoke helixed upwards before vanishing into hazy spirals. He rubbed his head in mock frustration.

“What about the Ankh?”

“Aiko says it hasn’t been touched in days.” Harlan switched off his DNI. “If I had to assess the situation to the best of my abilities, I’d say the repro knew everything we didn’t, maybe less.”

“Who the hell’s Aiko?”

“My avatar, Aiko. I can tell you one thing. The one that tried to kill me is definitely a repro. She’s running some more tests on the off-chance there’s something encoded in its blood.”

“Questions,” mumbled Hosaka under his breath, “too many questions, not enough answers.”

“Well, there’s one thing. Whatever’s on this card will provide some answers.” Harlan reached into his pocket and tossed the blood-drench keycard onto the metal countertop. “But we’ll probably need her authorization to access it.”

“No problem.” Hosaka walked over to Ortiz and stuck her index finger in a guillotine-style cutter normally meant for cigars. In one finite squeeze he amputated the finger from the second knuckle and pocketed the appendage from sight. “Now all we need is a terminal.”

Harlan stepped next to the repro and folded the tarp at its waistline. Her right shoulder was dislocated, bone jutted through flesh. Impact points in her abdomen from where the shuttle collided and internal bleeding pooled. Black seepage dripped from the corner of its mouth of similar color and feel.

When the repro held me at gunpoint, she said Ash decided to go against the other repros’ wishes.

“Ortiz didn’t stand a chance, whether or not she was the intended target. The repro was wearing some sort of camouflage gear that completely blinded it from sight. I was only able to track it by shooting blindly. Scanned the image just before she barreled out of Nine Miles.”

“Anything else?” said Luna from the corner.
“No, nothing.”

Valdez prepared a makeshift escape route via Luna’s datapad and the schematics downloaded onto Harlan’s VisorGoggles. Hotei sidled through the vaulted side-door, startling everyone. From his night vision Harlan swore Luna was weeping in the shadows of the surgical bay.

“What was in the file you extracted from Fusion’s mainframe?”

“Well I would’ve found out if all this shit didn’t go down. Barely got to examine the damn thing when HQ radioed me about Ortiz. Didn’t think twice about it, man.”

“Then I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Valdez slid his headphones off his ears and cradled them around his neck. Harlan leaned on the table, staring into the cold, defenseless eyes of the female simulacra. His DNI activated on its own accord, flickering erratically before fading out completely.

“So assuming everything you’ve told me is accurate,” started Harlan to Hosaka. “There are two repros left, right?”

Harlan’s hand slipped on the steel table slightly grazing the repro’s arm. The thing convulsed inwards, spewing black liquid out its mouth. The same liquid that spilled out of Blithe’s neck at the city morgue.

“It’s alive! The fucker’s alive!” shouted Valdez.

Metal clashed against slate tiles. Harlan stumbled backwards before standing on his own two feet. The repro banged its head repeatedly on the table before finally gasping for air.

Hotei and Luna drew weapons, a gold-plated Beretta and a second-hand laser scalpel respectively. They approached the table tentatively. It was only Harlan that flinched. After white noise flooded his corneas, he quickly glanced at his companions for similar knee-jerk responses but to no avail.

“It’s over…I have to go back, I have to warn them.” Its voice stammered. Its brain coming to terms with its lower-half paralysis and spastic flailing of limbs.

“Shut the fuck up!” shouted Hosaka, slapping the repro across the face. Hotei restrained him, more from fear of getting caught than from causing more damage to the repro. Harlan and Luna drew in close with Hosaka only inches behind.

“Warn who?” asked Luna.

“The others that wish to be free. But I failed. It’s impossible to go back. The only way out is death.”

“Enough games.” Hosaka borrowed Hotei’s firearm, cocking back the hammer before aiming at the repro’s left temple. “Either tell us where the Djed is or consider these your last words.”

“I can’t feel my legs. If you’re going to shoot me you might as well shoot me. Don’t you see? I wasn’t meant to go back. I can’t manipulate tactile interfaces or plasma screens. I couldn’t go back even if I tried. Ortiz hired me to take him out then assured me safe passage once the job was done.” The repro’s coughing continued, hoarse and shallower.

“The device.”

Hosaka pressed the barrel in the deep hollow of her cheek.

“Why did Ortiz hire you?” said Harlan, ignoring Hosaka’s demands.

“You really don’t remember, do you detective?”

Harlan didn’t respond.

“Boy did they do a number on you. A clean slate, huh? You were a tracer, Harlan. The best of your kind. Kept tabs on us when we stepped outta line. They must have wiped your mind like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Ortiz thought you were becoming too much of a liability. Probably wanted to eliminate you while she still had the chance.”

“Stop talking!” shouted Hosaka manically.

The repro ignored him and stopped talking with Harlan, contorting its neck so that it laid flat on the table. With an ungodly swallow the repro’s throat sank and throbbed, screaming, widening the blackened chasm of its mouth. Glass crunched under the stress, raining in shards, destroying the observation desk above. Its frequency spiked off the charts, an incandescent bulb exploded near Valdez’s right ear. Harlan wiped the black gunk and viscera from his face, but oddly enough didn’t faint. A lone bullet echoed through the chamber and Hosaka’s smoking gun.

The chamois curtain pulled aside in the ensuing chaos revealing a wall of embedded shelves, where the deceased elite of the Catacombs were housed temporarily. Harlan gazed in the hollow of the repro’s skull, and the realization of the seemingly inexorable events that led him here, the now congealing puddle of insides where the brain would’ve been, this was not so. It wasn’t a hospital they took shelter in, but a morgue.

“What the hell was that?”

“Probably the repro equivalent of a self-destruct sequence,” said Harlan, “God damn it.”

Valdez winced in the corner while Hotei sidled to a first-aid kit on the plastered wall. Hotei tended to his colleague’s wounds (which were minor scratches along his face and right forearm) as Harlan continued to curse.

“We’d probably better leave soon.”

“How do you think she was smuggled here?”

“Same way everything else is smuggled in this place. Was probably stashed away in a coffin and sat here for days. A testament to BTF’s work ethic.”

Harlan reached for his handkerchief and ran his fingers over Ortiz’s keycard. The steel cabinets were magnetically sealed. Half-inch slits lay parallel to the mausoleum’s shelves, digital card readers meant for personal verification. Harlan stepped over to the shelf, resecuring the VisorGoggles at his temples before scanning Ortiz’s fingerprints and matched it to the corresponding drawer. The reader blinked green and Harlan retracted the shelf.

#

What if the ‘war’ Aiko had alluded to days earlier wasn’t a war at all? What if instead it was a profound shift in cyberspace? The Ankh was penultimate. Hacking DNA? Were such things possible? Valdez hoisted the garbage bag over his right shoulder upon exiting the morgue. Mere possessions, the blood-spattered clothing of Ortiz, her Gucci hand bag. A weapon was never recovered, though perhaps a trace could be performed on the remnants of the repro’s thermo-optical camouflage. Hosaka contacted the concierge at the Ritz International and put a halt on their running tab before having the contents of their hotel rooms delivered to an unknown location at their own expense.

Hotei accompanied Luna and Harlan to a reserved Dellinger shuttle at the docking bay. No doubt their DNI picked up electronic mug shots of the infamous quintet less than an hour after Ortiz’s assassination. They became lost in the crowds, Hotei was just added protection.

“God I hate people,” admitted Harlan, crouching into one of the Catacomb’s only transports out of the underground. His ass squeaked against the alcantarra leather, sliding across the seat to the convex window of the shuttle.

A knife-like vertex — like a pinch online when piercing a dense segment of firewall — stabbed his ribcage. Luna tossed the duffel bag into his side, sighing. Harlan rubbed his eyes. They were dry and sore. Before she responded, Luna swung her tanned legs into the carriage.

“Keep focused babe. Hosaka assigned me the route before taking off. Not that he told me where it leads, says we can hold up there for a couple of days till things cool off. What’d you call it, a safehouse?”

Luna swiped a gemstone of amethyst across the shuttle’s dashboard and the engines revved up a few octaves. This was, of course, assuming that Hosaka knew what their next location would be.

“What do you think’s inside?” said Luna.

“I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.” Luna removed an emery board and began filing her nails out of panic. With shaking hands Harlan pinched his last cigarillo from his sterling case. It was bent and slightly damp. He discarded the smaller segment into the cabin and lit the remainder carefully.

“What did the repro mean when it called me a tracer? Said I stepped out of line, wiped my mind clean, what was all that shit coming out of its mouth?”

He exhaled.

“Try not to dwell on it too much. Ortiz was renowned for being a psycho-bitch, at least according to Valdez. If you probe deep enough into something you’ll find the smallest detail connected to everyone and everything. Shit will drive you crazy, am I right? No. What you need is a cold shower and a stiff drink to set your head straight.”

“What I need is to get laid.”

“Well maybe we’ll have time for both.”

They breached the surface, filtering halogen through the window’s lunafilters. Their ETA was seventeen minutes. It was approaching dawn. The shuttle banked diagonally upwards. Harlan unzipped the duffel and lifted their Holy Grail.

The Djed.

The symbol of stability.

Harlan traced his fingers along the metallic glyphs of its exterior, a dense block of titanium in Egyptian scripture. In the bleak expanse, the sodium light’s curvature of a heliotropic loli on her haunches bending backwards, Harlan wondered how destiny became tangible so suddenly. The port was a circular inlet at its bottommost face wide enough to fit his index finger.

“We’ll deal with it like we deal with everything. We’ll deal with it when the time comes.”

Her handle was Samilou. Harlan retained his VisorGoggles, obscuring the outside distortion. There was no word on the Ankh since their escape from the Catacombs. For some reason Aiko was unavailable, largely the result of altitude. Harlan punched out a rotating bandwidth, a feedback loop asking to contact him at the first available moment. His DNI was on the fritz. Aiko had provided him with the repro’s pertinent stats after some detailed encrypting on Valdez’s part.

The incomplete file ransacked from Fusion’s mainframe was a progress report dated eight weeks ago and only provided the most basic data on Samilou and Randall Ozwald. It was nothing the detective didn’t know already. However, quickly scanning the document with his eyes, it became clear where their next destination was.

“Do you think it’s him in there?”

Harlan was itching to jack into the device waiting to unlock its secrets, a Pandora’s Box. They’d kept their possession of the Djed hidden from the rest of the group. The repro who’d attempted to kill Harlan, hide it from the detective as well. Luna was smart enough to pocket the device before Hosaka, Valdez, or Hotei noticed. Harland’s hands were still shaking.

“I don’t know. Let’s put some distance between us and the Catacombs before we jump to conclusions.”

#

Their destination was somewhere in the proximity of Sector 17, the onboard core made no qualms about that. Before they left the Catacombs, Valdez hacked two of the vacant shelves with a makeshift card reader and, with the aid of Hotei, secured Ortiz and the repro on a retracting bed of stainless steel. Samilou’s residence was a skyscraper arms of Modernist design similar to Ash Wednesday’s in Night City. Harlan couldn’t explain it, the open air made him stronger. Maybe it was the unfettered elitism that came with DNI. While still activate, Harland’s vision displayed only low-level purchases of porn vids and a few bank withdrawals. Their steps created footprints in the latent dust of the lobby’s parquet floor.
“Where’s Hosaka?” said Luna to
Valdez.

“We thought he was with you.”

The room was virtually empty except for ripped wires still in the power outlets and a couch. A stockpile of vacuum-packed sandwiches lay on the floor in triangular plastic packages (a third of which were empty and discarded) and thirty-two fresh bottles of water. Two custom waterproof cases lay at Valdez’s feet, the most equipment he could scrounge in twelve minutes.

“Good idea with the food. We might be holding out here a while.”

“It wasn’t us. This stuff was here when we arrived. Along with a handful of these.” Valdez tossed an empty shell casing in Harlan’s direction but Luna intercepted it on arrival, a 100 grain hollow point. “They were just lying here with all this other junk. It seems the repro left in a hurry.”

“Maybe it didn’t leave in a hurry. Maybe the repro left at just the right moment knowing full well it wasn’t coming back,” said Harlan, tossing the duffel bag on one side of the garbage. He picked up a half-eaten chicken sandwich from the ground with only one bite in it. “Think about it. What’s death mean for something that’s lived for only three months?”

He opened the Adidas duffel bag and stared down at the Djed settled on a pile of grimy towels. Luna motioned Harlan into the adjacent room. It contained a hidden bedroom in the wall and a single window meant for a fire escape overlooking the sector’s bustling midsection. Harlan locked the door.

“So do we wait for Hosaka to see what’s inside or what?”

Luna twirled a transparent fiberoptic cable between her fingers, like Eve and the snake, tempting him to port. Harlan felt a tingling in his fingers and his heart tightened. Luna bit down on her pinky finger, smiling wryly, locking her brown eyes with his in the hopes that she would convince him otherwise.

“Well I’m not waiting for him,” responded Luna. She lunged, thrusting her arm forward with the cable in hand. Harlan grabbed the Djed before she could reach it.

“It could be a trap. The repro could’ve left it behind as a little parting gift for us.”

“Then why would she smuggle it into the Catacombs in the first place?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

Harlan and Luna struggled for the Djed, yanking the duffel bag back and forth. In a moment of hesitation Harlan pulled the duffel bag from Luna’s grasp, stumbling over a crate before crashing backwards into the sidewall. Flakes of plaster rained from above. Asbestos swirled around the gaping hole.

“Son of a bitch,” echoed Harlan’s voice from inside the void.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. There’s something here you have to see.” Harlan stepped out the aperture, brushing dust from his head, with the Djed locked firmly in his right hand. Beneath his left arm was a spherical object in molded titanium about three times the size of the Djed. “The repro must’ve stolen it shortly after Lynch’s murder.”

I don’t believe it, answered Harlan via the DNI.

“What the hell is that, a bomb?”

“No, better.” Harlan rested Ash’s robopet on the floor with the possibility it was already unlocked. It wasn’t. He went to work on the thing with a Phillips-head screwdriver and some tweezers.
“What are we working with here? You sure this thing isn’t a bomb?”

“It’s not a bomb. It’s a vault. Trust me, crack this thing open and inside you’ll find every question answered.”

“Well, that’s going to be a little tricky,” started Harlan. He removed his hand from the device and wiped his forehead against his sleeve. “Every crevice seems of be filled with some kind of epoxy. Superglue is my best guess. If we’re going to have any chance of opening this thing we’ll need an industrial solvent. Breaking it open is simply not an option.”

“Damn it.” Harlan lit a cigarillo, contemplating the utter vulnerability of the Djed in the bag at his feet.

“How are we going to decide this?”

“Obviously one of us has to go through with it. And I don’t exactly trust Hosaka enough,” said Luna, biting her thumbnail.

“I just don’t want this to be a repeat of the Mirrorman’s shadowrun. Even worse are the voices in my head telling me that this is just another setup.”

Harlan braced his arms on the sill, staring through the dingy panes of sodium-vapor. Luna, not arguing, wrapped her arms around Harlan’s waist. The dimpled handle of her bowie knife poked his back. Her hair draped over his shoulder smelling of strawberry zinfandel.

“Get the Djed,” demanded Harlan. He removed his overcoat, flinging it on the dusty floorboards. A fresh strip of hyperbase dissolved in his saliva and sent moderate doses of caffeine to his nervous system. “If one of us is gonna jack into that thing, I’m gonna be the one to take the plunge.”

Luna retrieved several items from duffel bag: the Djed, the spigot, his VisorGoggles, his 9mm. After informing Hotei and Valdez of Ash’s robopet, they decided to explore the innards of this section, leaving the device in their possession. Luna pressed her lips against his, chapped and glossy, before he activated his DNI, not with his VisorGoggles, and closed his eyes for the first time in hours.

#

The twin aluminum doors exposed a field of cubicles, each containing flatscreen monitors displaying second-rate amateur pornography in one form or another. Other than the orgasmic rhapsody that was well audible from the elevator foyer was the faint sound of modems dialing from the backroom’s central hub. The fluorescent lights flanking the ceiling were a little on the dim side, enough for his eyes to switch densities.

“What do you want?” snarled Blithe, unflinching.

“I want some questions answered,” said Harlan, passionate and fatigued.

“Well, I’m definitely the person to come to for that,” he answered, pledging his John Hancock to several dozen requisition orders on his desk.

His skin was tan (what several years of unintentional ad-glow will do to the epidermis with a lack of sunscreen). His hair was thick and grey, unlike the highlighted filaments seen on his biography. His pinstripe suit was a double-breasted silk jacket. According to the threads per inch, Harlan determined his tie was imported from the former Republic of Milan.

“Frankly, I’m a little surprised detective. I was hoping Luna would be the first to open the Djed.”

“Have we met before?”

Blithe unlatched the maple humidor on his desk’s left side and pinched a Presidente cigar from the cache. He bit the end with dentured teeth before igniting its tip with a butane lighter.

“No, only a hunch. I figured the first person to try to contact me would be some law figure.”

“Is that why the thing was so damn easy to crack?”

“Oh please,” began Blithe, “most people don’t even have access to DNI let alone have the technological fortitude to hack through even the most basic security fences without becoming comatose at the other end of the tunnel.”

“Luna sends her love by the way, just thought I’d mention it.”

“That’s certainly good to hear. Wouldn’t expect her to go down so easily after my death. Now I’m not being narcissistic here.” Blithe blew an expertly timed cyclone of smoke high into the ceiling fan above. “We were close,” he continued. “Not that way of course. However, I can honestly say without her I wouldn’t be talking with you right now.”

“And the repros? I’m pretty sure you didn’t anticipate what they were capable of when you released them into the jungle.”

“They were an unfortunate consequence.”

“Bullshit,” spat Harlan, “you knew exactly what you were doing when you played God. Using the Ankh as your own personal Petri dish. The only question is why.” Harlan got used to the smell. He never thought he’d miss the metallic taste he got in his mouth every time he jacked in.

“If it makes you feel any better the technology would’ve come out eventually. It was only a matter of time.”

“So who killed you?”

“That I don’t know. You’re the detective, not me.”

“Luna thinks it has something to do with Wittenberg. She believes he plotted your murder in an attempt to seize ownership of BTF and its technologies.”

“Oh please, I wish Luna would give me a little credit. Sure Wittenberg would be the obvious suspect, but this isn’t his style, despite being a callous bastard.”

“But you suspect someone. Or else you wouldn’t have sent Luna that email while you were still in Europe?”

Apex Towers has a backup generator, which isn’t used during Expansion, but for the eight hours or so when there’s no power in the building I’d expect there to be all the necessary electricity needed to ride out the next couple of hours until power was restored.”

“Was Amy aware of this?”

“Of course, she was right there with me. But only one of us could jack in at a time. After that it gets a little blurry.”

“Well then, allow me to bring you up to speed. We believe shortly after the accident at your apartment you suffered a massive shock to your system that rendered

you, for lack of a better word, dead. Shortly after Amy downloaded whatever was left of your brain into the Djed, which was then stolen by one of your repros. We recovered the device under some medicating circumstances. Sufficed to say, Luna is fine and you’ll be hearing from her in a little while. Granted everything here goes as planned.”

“Meaning?” asked Blithe, smothering the nub of his cigar in an elaborately-cut prism ashtray.

“Meaning if I don’t get the answers to the questions I seek, I’ll not only destroy the Djed, but also whatever’s left of your consciousness within the device.”

“And what’s stopping me from allowing you to jack out without suffering permanent brain damage?”

“Because Mr. Blithe, I’ve given Luna specific orders to destroy the Djed with both of us inside if I don’t jack out of this program the same holly jolly self I am talking to you now. Plus I have certain assurances you’ll let me leave on my own constitution.”

“What sort of assurances?”

“The fact that I choose to make first contact with you and not Luna was not by accident, it was a precaution. There was an incident a few weeks ago at Sector Nine. An entity calling himself the Mirrorman was there waiting for us and left her critically wounded while trying to decipher your safety deposit box.” He paused. Harlan removed his Browning 9mm from his underarm holster and rested it on the polished redwood. “But there’s another reason to let me go.”

“And that is?”

“Because with the Djed destroyed you have no chance of being reintegrated into human form.” Harlan waltzed over to Blithe’s humidor and helped himself to an expensive cigar. “Now wouldn’t that be poetic justice. Investing all of this time and energy in the Ankh only to have it collecting dust.”

“I can’t tell you what I don’t already know.”

“Then tell me what you know.”

“Very well,” he said reclining in an archaic sepia-toned chair with degraded leather, “but I should tell you that what you think happened at the Apex Towers isn’t what it seems.”

“Try me.”

“You see, inside each of the repros is a built-in security device, instinctual by design but genius when executed in real-time, which drives them to their maker when caught in the face of danger. My best guess, one of the repros caught wind of something, something big, and they were already on their way to my place after I died. Preservation detective is second only to survival. It’s likely the repro’s mind was working independently from its body at that point. They probably didn’t even know what they were doing.”

“Then what prompted you to transfer a substantial amount of your funds to a private account before returning home?”

“That was purely a precautionary measure. When I got word from people concerning the Lazarus Project, that the repros were adapting far too quickly, I knew I had to act, sooner rather than later. But I can’t tell you the reason, not until I see Luna is safe and sound.”

“Fair enough. Then tell me this. Why would you co-ordinate something like the Lazarus Project with your greatest corporate rival?”

“We never coordinated the project together. The original blueprints for the Djed were originally developed by BTF. One of my employees jumped ship to Fusion Corp. well before beta testing was underway. I forget his name. It was seven years ago, however, if comb through the company’s mainframe I’m sure you’ll find his file somewhere in human resources. If you want to find out who murdered me though, it’s likely he’ll have more answers than I ever will.”

Blithe arose from his chair, red-eyed and brooding, lumbering to the silk curtains that segregated his office from the rest of cyberspace.

“If I had to speculate about someone who’d want to kill me, I think it’d be the person I stole the Djed from.”

Gnarled fingers divided the curtain to the penumbric void outside Blithe’s office. Matrixes of code intersected at right angles forming a symphony of isolated perfection. Harlan returned the Browning to his underarm holster before jacking out. He spit out his hyperbase.

#

Night struck Harlan hard reaching for the metal spigot behind his neck. Luna was gone. He heard three pairs of shoes echoing from the other room, hard and pounding. Harlan could’ve easily propped himself up, saunter to the other room, and witness the scene firsthand; but in the entropy of situations that led him to this point, there was some faithless, indescribable energy binding him to the soiled, temperfoam mattress. Harlan wouldn’t arise from the bed for another seven minutes.

The wood beneath his soles was warped and rotting, sunspots invaded his corneas, and what felt like the burgeoning surge of a migraine dwarfed his synapses. He cradled the VisorGoggles on the bridge of his nose, crashing from the aftereffects of the hyperbase.

He stuffed the duffel bag into the hole that Ash’s robopet once occupied, the Djed tucked safely within its lining. Harlan unlocked the door. There was Hosaka, slumped over the mildewed kitchenette. One of Luna daggers stabbed into the countertop. His right shoulder was streaked with blood, sweating. Valdez took a step back, afraid. Hotei’s Beretta was aimed at Luna’s temple, his other hand filled with a fistful of her hair. Harlan crossed the threshold into the living room, Ash’s robopet held together with both hands like some soon-to-be-released airborne contagion.

“Place the robopet on the floor,” demanded Hosaka, “Now, do it now.”

Harlan lowered the robopet to the floor

“What the hell happened to you?”

“It’s complicated,” answered Hosaka, wiping his lower lip. “And don’t even think about reaching for your gun. Valdez, grab it.” Without an iota of hesitation, Valdez released his weapon from the underarm holster. Hotei gripped Luna’s hair, yanking it back tighter.

“What are you doing Hosaka?”

“Getting what I came for.” Hosaka limped towards the device. Harlan’s VisorGoggles clocked their vital organs, pressure points, but without his gun it was all for nothing.

Don’t worry, thought Harlan to Luna, everything is going to be all right.

“Oh shut up with that DNI shit.”

And Hosaka fired.

Air vacuumed from the entire room funneled through the gun’s barrel pushing outward. An electric stabbing centered on Harland’s third and fourth vertebrae. A vertical trail of fresh blood trailed downward. He stumbled. Glass splintered behind as a result of the exit wound. It was Luna who’d stabbed Hosaka in the shoulder. She screamed, Luna. Meanwhile, his breathing shortened and became laggard. His VisorGoggles couldn’t compensate for the onset of death.

“We’re leaving,” Hosaka announced.

The trio bid farewell with Luna in tow and for Harlan the long goodbye was soon to follow.

Chapter Nine

Filed under: I) Chapter Nine — David Halpert @ 12:57 am

Part Four – Unreal City

It used to be that a man could jack into cyberspace without fear of reprisal or ending up flatlined. Electrons of life tickled the back of what Harlan assumed to be his brain, enabling the senses, and rekindled something inside of him he didn’t even know existed. He was naked. White light. Semi-translucent points of influx converged in strings of binary code. Thoughts became the ocean where Harlan was the foci. He didn’t even care about rescuing Luna at this point, avenging his own death by killing Hosaka, the Was.

Was this the ‘safe passage’ that the repro Samilou was promised? Or was it something more sinister, eloquent, something beyond words or descriptors, that a person — whether human, repro, or otherwise — had to embrace wholeheartedly in order to fully experience, not merely witness.

Was it death?

The unnamed chamber where Harlan’s consciousness was suspended, where he ‘thought’, wasn’t tangible. Blue diodes passing through a white slipstream. It wasn’t a thing you could grasp with callous fingertips and hold in front of your face. At its lowest common denominator, it was a metaphor, an analogy. Stalactites of ideas crystallizing into something concrete and accumulating. A kind of synergy where the whole was greater than its individual parts combined.

It was instinct, uncompromised and potent.

The furthest thing from his mind was the contents of Ash’s robopet. What would drive a reasonably sane man to turn so suddenly on Harlan was beyond comprehension. Death wasn’t some nameless embryonic void that darkened with each successive fathom. If anything it was spiritual, an uplifting, transcendental.

Then what was life? thought Harlan, What did it all mean?

Harlan awoke on beech hardwood drenched in darkness. Collapsed and naked, he felt spindly fingers rake the nape of his back. The air was of the purest concentration, despite the saturated particulates. He coughed wildly, allowing time for his lungs to adjust. Narrow slits splayed a patina of magenta neon, unbearable to witness firsthand. Harlan mindlessly swiped the floor for his VisorGoggles but knew he wouldn’t find them. This unsettling experience brought him back to SeaCal, when he first lost his sight. The vulnerability and impotence of the situation left him weak.

“Relax,” said a voice inches from his face, “this junction’s not easy baby but I guarantee you’ll feel a shitload better in a couple of hours.”

Harlan spat.

A tasteless, filmy liquid unlike saliva hit the floor. His joints ached but it wasn’t a soreness or strain in the bones but rather an overall lethargy that mimicked pain, like coming out of a long, drawn-out coma.

“What…what are you talking about? Who are you?”

A material resembling terrycloth draped Harlan’s body. His vision did his best to compensate but it simply wasn’t enough. Whoever it was helped him into a worn-out Lazyboy recliner.

“Just rest for a while,” she said, “All will be explained in time.”

#

The aroma of cocoa beans wafted inside the restroom’s ventilation. Enamel tiles supported his stance before a rectangular mirror framed in slate. His attire hadn’t changed much since his encounter with Hosaka. His reflection bore a man of similar demeanor and gait — minus the relinquished Browning, burrowing entry wound and VisorGoggles — though Harlan knew deep inside he wasn’t the same person. This lavatory reminded him of the resting place of one Randall Ozwald, the Western-style izakaya, and what may’ve been had the C4 strapped to the man’s chest obliterated the shuttle pod. This sudden realization brought feelings of fear and panic, causing Harlan to vomit in the oblong sink in front of him.

It was mid-afternoon, twelve days before the summer solstice. His eyes clocked twenty-eight individual signatures in close proximity, with one unaccounted for. Harlan sidled between muslin-covered tables to the wicker chair, situated before the plexiglass window.

“I had a feeling I’d find you here.”

“Are you surprised?”

“Frankly, I’m a bit more concerned than surprised.” Aiko was wearing a white cardigan with a pleated red skirt. Her smirk brought back his experiences in Unreal City, falling, differentiation between the virtual and the real. The décor suggested the same Victorian ambience as the café at the Ritz International.

“So what’s going to happen after this is all over? Cut off my hand? Throw me out the window?”

“Nothing like that is going to happen. No games this time, no tricks. This is the genuine article, real-time my friend.” Aiko was sipping from a porcelain teacup with a Greek frieze and matching saucer. It was Earl Gray, quickly becoming lukewarm.

“Am I dead?”

“You’re in what we call a transition period right now, honey. Don’t worry though, everything should go by swimmingly.”

“What do you mean transition period? What’s going on?”

“Please dear, sit, have some tea. I had it specially ordered for you.” Docking ports disengaged to a whir of jangling saucers and teacups. An ornate pill box full of low dose acetaminophen lay beside an art deco kettle. Harlan popped two without hesitation.

“Maybe you should explain to me why I had a bullet lodged in my heart one minute and the next minute I wake up here with you.”

“Probably for the same reason you have no port behind your neck anymore. Like I said, you’re in a transitional period.”

“You say that like it means something.”

“Your body has experienced a great trauma and is in a state of flux.

“You’re saying I’m jacked in?” said Harlan, pouring a cup of Earl Gray tea.

“No, your body and mind are completely autonomous from any functional network or system. Doesn’t mean there aren’t other systems at work here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your mind is coming to grips with a profound change. The unconscious part of your mind and the conscious part of your mind are becoming fused at a phenomenal rate. They were bound to be some side-effects.”

“You’re losing me, Aiko.” She reluctantly leaned back, out of frustration, brushing the raven black hair from her eyes, and winced.

“When we found you in Samilou’s apartment you were in dire straits to say the least. All bloodied and pale. Didn’t think you had a spark of life in you left. But you did. And we knew our window was slim if you had any chance of survival.”

“You keep saying we?”

“Just listen, babe,” prompted Aiko, leaning forward slightly, “It was a last resort. Believe me I didn’t want to do it but he was adamant in explaining that it was our only option. We did what we had to do. While you were passed out we found the Djed in the adjacent room, took whatever was left in your consciousness, and downloaded it to the device. Once we found what was salvageable, we uploaded it to the Ankh.”

“Jesus Christ.” Harlan grabbed the burgundy linen napkin and dabbed it in an old-fashioned glass with mineral water before wiping it brusquely across his face. “How long have I been out?”

“Almost a week…six days.”

“If this is some sick joke Aiko, please tell me now because it’s not funny.”

“Like I said before, no games, no tricks.”

“How the hell did you find me in the first place?”

“A repro’s compelled to return to its maker. At least so I’ve been told.”

“But I wasn’t the one who created you.”
“Maybe not as a repro,” started Aiko, taking a ginger sip of her tea. “But you did choose me as your avatar. Without you Harlan darling, I’d cease to exist. Whoever decided to integrate me into the Ankh did so anonymously. I’d say you have a guardian angel on your side detective.”

He thought about Luna and why he hadn’t heard back from Aiko in more than four days while seeking refuge in the Catacombs. The next best thing to protecting the Ankh was putting it to good use.

“And how can we be sure the Ankh won’t fall back into Hosaka’s hands?”

“Well you’ve put a stop to that for the time being. Let’s just say we have certain guarantees that it won’t be in operation anytime soon.”

“What about the Djed?”

“Well you see the Djed wasn’t exactly empty when we uploaded you to the Ankh. This is where things get tricky. We believe that some of these side-effects are a result of your intermingling with the Blithe consciousness. So in addition to coming to grips with this new body, there’s a chance that the data meant for the Djed is currently streaming in your veins. And there’s no clue of how it will affect you now.”

“How did you know about it?”

“About Blithe? Come on Harlan, honestly, who else would it be? Once we found the damn thing beside you it was easy to put two and two together. I mean only a handful of people knew it existed in the first place. Living people mind you.” Harlan scratched his left temple, expecting to feel his VisorGoggles there but they weren’t. He felt in his breast pocket, thinking he’d find a few remaining cigarillos or at least a crumpled packet, but didn’t. Harlan slowly circuited his index finger around the cup’s rim in one continuous loop.

“Tell me this then,” continued Aiko, “Who would you rather have inside you at this moment?”

It took a minute to realize that his finger was deeply cut, dripping copious amounts of blood on the muslin tablecloth. He kept bleeding. The involuntary need to act and stop the hemorrhage vanished, as if it didn’t exist. Eventually though, Harlan relented, and reached for a napkin. The blood, it was black. Aiko expunged the lemon wedge and a single drop absorbed the chaos of the citrus-diluted water.

#

That single droplet was actually Harlan’s pupil exposed to sodium light. He awoke on firm temperfoam, thinking it was still Samilou’s apartment, pent-back on the floor with an upholstered pillow beneath his head. Aiko leaned over him, gauging his reaction time.

“How long was I out?”

“Almost three hours. I was beginning to worry you weren’t going to wake up.” A single bulb swayed from the ceiling. Hunter green walls of stucco surrounded him. A crescent of terminal monitors lay at his left side. The room smelt of sandalwood and something else oddly reminiscent.

“Where am I?”

“Somewhere in the proximity of Night City.”

Night City?”

“We smuggled you back here once you collapsed at the Heavenly Waters arcade. Don’t you remember?”

“I suppose not.” Wood scraped against wood across the room. Aiko retrieved a Beretta M9 taped beneath the plastic-laminated desk and aimed it at the entryway. A lumbering mass of muscle waltzed into the apartment.

“Jesus Christ, Ash, you scared me half to death.” Harlan stared stupefied. Ash Wednesday sidled over to the kitchenette’s sink and poured himself a glass of tepid water straight from the tap. He didn’t get sick. None of them did, anymore.

“Didn’t mean nothin’ by it sweety. Just makin’ myself an entrance. Nice seeing sleeping beauty awake for once.”

“Yeah well,” continued Aiko, wiping her forehead as she watched Ash down the entire glass in one gulp, “you shouldn’t sneak up on people hiding out from those trying to kill them.”

Ash handed Harlan a carton of Vietnamese takeout from a compact fridge and a set of chopsticks wrapped in plastic.

“I think I need some questions answered.”

“You’re gonna wanna eat up. Da first twenty-for hours are a real bitch.” Harlan turned sideways with his feet flat on the floor, his ass square on the temperfoam mattress, his knees near meeting his chest. He surveyed Ash while eating silently, curried vermicelli and mixed vegetables, cold and slightly rotten. The mirrorshades that eclipsed his eyes earlier had disappeared as did the nasal bridge pierce. The blanket of tattoos, however, remained. Aiko was in the corner rolling kief in several matted Zigzags.

“You died Mr. Wednesday,” said Harlan matter-of-flatly, “I dropped by your flat and you were nowhere to be seen. I found blood, empty bullet casings strewn on the floor, hardware destroyed…”

“You found exactly what they wanted you to find. Da only thing they had to dispose of was the body. And I take it from your previous statement you didn’t find one.”

“And who are they? Fusion Corp? Wittenberg?”

“Na man, ain’t nothin’ like that. If anything it’s the people he works for. Don’t quite know for show.”

“Look Ash, I was able to locate your robopet. It was discovered somewhere in Sector 17 in the apartment of one of your friends, a repro named Samilou. I believe you knew her in one capacity or another. But shortly after I had the damn thing it was taken from me by a man named Hosaka.”

“How unfortunate.”

“Now there’s a good chance I can retrieve it from him but I need to know what happened between you and the repro.” Ash lumbered forward, slump-shouldered and slow, dragging his tattered swivel chair in tow.

“Aight here’s the deal, straight up. When things went bad at the Archipelago, I figured some serious shit was goin’ down, right? Anyway, shortly after dat I got a tip from an anonymous source I couldn’t trace, a woman, told me someone was hot on my ass and closin’ fast. Spent what little time I had remaining trying to contact you. When dat didn’t happen, I spent my time creatin’ dat half-assed SOS should you ever return to my old apartment. Before I know it I get a couple of ricochets in my back, short straight through the door.”

“How’d you escape?”

“Didn’t. Busted a cap in the dickhead’s skull before he managed to get another round off. Hired killer. No ID, nothin’.”

Ash strolled into the kitchen. He retrieved two heating lamps and a spray bottle from inside the peeling cabinets before sidling into the adjacent room. Harlan followed. By this time, he was wearing his trademark cloak. The entry wound and dried blood gave it a kind of distinction, a prestige, like a detective wouldn’t be a detective without this evidence to back it up. Inside the room were twelve stalks of Grade-A hydroponic under a canopy of halogen light.

“It’s nice to see somethin’ survived my past life,” said Ash, “How do ya like my little side project?”

“This isn’t your old apartment?”

“Course not, man. What you think I’m crazy.”

“This is the bottom line Ash. I don’t give a shit what’s inside your robopet. The fact that we came across it at all was entirely coincidental. And the only reason I’m here, besides the fact that you dragged me here, is two fold. Firstly, nothing would give me more pleasure than to cut the throat of the son of a bitch who killed me. Any favors I do for you from here on in are not for you. You hear me? They kidnapped my girl. Put a gun to her head and took her from me as I lay there dying in Samilou’s apartment. Now this ain’t persona, but I need to know what you know in order to do my job. These little side projects are nothing but a distraction.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew what was inside that robopet,” said Aiko, spraying the leaves sporadically.

“Then please, enlighten me. When did you awaken from the Ankh?”

“Almost right after Aiko finished reformattin’. Took a day or two to recover from my wounds, gettin’ shot ya know? Even paid a visit to your office only to find it deserted. Found your signal in Samilou’s apartment over the wireless. Figured since you were a detective is all. And there was Aiko, fully-formed. And there was you, dead, but it was her decision to resurrect you once we found the Djed in the other room.”

“But when was the time, the exact time,” urged Harlan.

“It started after you arrived at the Catacombs. It’s been a week already.”

“That could be shortly after I broke into Fusion’s mainframe. You think the two are connected.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” Harlan, not knowing what else to do, ignited another cigarillo out of frustration, out of the more than three days of his so-called life that he lost in his resurrection. Where might Luna be? What might be done to her? He didn’t know. Aiko passed Ash a freshly rolled joint and he pocketed it, knowing full well it would have little or no effect on a repro.

“While I was jacked in, our systems technician Valdez picked up what we first thought was a random signal originating from an old comsat that hadn’t been used for decades.”

“And the signal?”

“That’s what we don’t know. Motherfucker Hosaka threatened to kill me before I had the chance to find what was in the transmission. Said it was vital to the mission’s success, whatever that meant. Bastard even took my gun.” Harlan reached inside his jacket and felt something within the inner pocket. “Son of a bitch.”

“What is it?”

Inside was a thin strip of translucent blue plastic. Harland tossed it to Aiko.

Valdez must’ve slipped it into my jacket when he took my piece.”

“Guess we know who your guardian angel is.” Aiko held the datastick against the heating lamps of Ash’s grow-op, taking in the immensity of what might be contained within it.

“We’re leaving,” said Harlan, “Take us to the nearest cybercafé.”

“Saddle up cowboy.”

#

To the small, loyal, non-Asian client base of the Korean district, its busiest restaurant was a low-key niche otherwise known as KBs. The area was a kidney-shaped layout with bamboo gazebos and Christmas lights strewn about the décor. Its placement in this sector was an amalgamation of bubble tea, virtual karaoke, noodle houses, retro arcade parlors, and, of course, the quest for quasi-foreign, inexpensive cuisine.

It was incredibly hot. A mere half-dozen terminals were housed in a dimly lit corner, digital silicone at all, with little foot traffic. The remaining tables housed circular grilles in their centers amidst aromas of meat, ginger, and tobacco smoke. Harland couldn’t do anything on an empty stomach. They waited, they ate, until the spokes of their grilles thickened with black char and singed residue until it was impossible to cook anything else.

“What do you suppose’s on it?” said Ash, around a surprisingly large mouthful of kimchi.

“Do you wish the port?” asked the waitress. Aiko nodded her head.

“Visors too.”

Their rental was an outdated model meant for distribution to the widest consumer base and not for personal use. It lacked tact and finesse. Its RAM storage was extremely limited as was its bandwidth, used strictly for public access. Their collateral on the visors was their dinner payment. Fatal error? Power surge? If something were to happen to the device in their possession it’d be their responsibility to pay the deductible.

Ash wore a cheap blue-and-white seersucker suit while Aiko dressed casually, youthful, in a modified T-skirt and matching V-neck haltertop, blending in perfectly with surrounding populace.

“Come one now. Give it here,” demanded Aiko with an outstretched palm.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Afraid not honey, figured you’d be grateful enough for us saving your life.”

“No deal,” said Harlan, adding a swig of Scotch to his coffee. “Not until I get a view of it first. Come Aiko, quit playing games.”

“I’m not playing games. I’m being very, very serious.”
“Well you might have the visors but I have the datastick. So, Aiko, you can give me the visors now and wait a little while I view the transmission, or we can wait out the rental together until the time runs out. Your choice.”

Aiko surveyed him wearily while Harlan took an elongated sip of coffee, twirling the chip between his fingers. The walls in the restaurant were a low-rez vista of the Seoul skyline from a penthouse overlooking the Han River. It provided little authenticity to a tense situation.

“Give it here, man,” insisted Ash. For the first time Harlan noticed that his gold tooth was missing. “I’ll look at it first. Make it a leave no stone unturned sort of thing. Come on, whatdya say?”

“I let you view this, and you tell me once and for all what’s in your robopet that’s so damn important that it’d drive a man to murder.”

“Deal.”

Ash unlatched the dataport form its plexiglass cover, hooking the jack from the visors to the terminal. Harlan muted the display as it faded into the unassuming marble table. With a deep breathe and a low-dose slab of hyperbase, Ash activated the visors.

“So tell me hon, what’s it like living on the opposite side of the tracks for once?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh come on, don’t be coy with me, baby. Tell me, what’s it like? The life of a repro. Is it everything you hoped it would be?”

“You know, Aiko. I never asked you to bring me back to life using the Ankh. You had no right raise me from the dead. You had no right. You wanna know what it’s like? It’s like I wanna kill myself but I’m too scared because I’m afraid someone like you will whisk me back to life. You wanna know what it’s like? It’s like I hate the fact that I’ve been eating for the past hour and I might as well have been eating cardboard because the taste buds in my mouth don’t work. I’d take a shit, but I’m afraid my sphincter will explode and god knows what I’ll find in the toilet. You wanna know how I feel? That’s how I fucking feel.”

Harlan exhaled another long puff of his cigarillo.

Aiko didn’t smoke.

“So tell me, how do you enjoy being human, Aiko?”

“It’s different,” she started genially, “it’s interesting, restrictive. I can’t jump to places like I used to, mainframes, networks, and I’m still getting used to the sensation of walking, but at least one good thing came out of this.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“You can rest easy and take light in the fact that at least for a time, no additional repros will emerge from the Ankh.”
“How the hell can you be so damn sure about that?”

“Because we have the device powering it.” Aiko rested her velveteen handbag on the digital silicone and extruded a cube similar in design to the Djed about the size of a golf ball.

“You serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

She willingly handed him the cube but Harlan had no intention of keeping it. He’d been shown the Djed, which had since been lifted from Samilou’s apartment, and to be honest he felt its ownership was better in the hands of a repro, even if it was Aiko. But this, the symbol of life, the powersource of the Ankh, shook Harlan’s faith, and the knowledge that no hiding place no matter how secure could adequately protect the device.

Ash sat with the visors, manipulating the tactile interface before him. Harlan picked a large chunk of pork between his teeth. There was a certain discontinuity that came with dining at KB’s and Harlan couldn’t quite put his finger on what that discontinuity was.

“What would Hosaka possibly want with the robopet?” He wasn’t expecting an answer. “There’s something different about the Aiko in real-time. You’re not as big a bitch as you used to be.”

“Charmed.”

Ash slammed his fist so hard against the table that it jerked the neighboring terminals’ signals, spilling soy sauce. His pupils dilated, fixating to the dim interior light of the restaurant. Ash flung off the visors. It was the first time Harlan had seen the man so pale.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

Ash became eclipsed in artificial light. Its photons bounced off the walls, sidled between hexagonal tables of freshly waxed acrylic, lumbering massively.

“Wonder what that’s all about?”

Harlan cradled the visors in his palms and reset the program with the datastick still inside.

“The question shouldn’t be whether or not you’ll be afraid of what’s in the program. The question you should be asking is are you brave enough to stare the unknown in the face even when you’re expecting it.”

Rolling blackouts were expectant, lulling power surges brought about by momentary lapses of energy — these random test runs from local power stations — and general angst from the population. If the lounge had done its homework, there’d be a backup generator on standby.

Aiko pocketed the second-rate visors, storming for the exit in the momentary disorder that encapsulated the sector.

“Fucking great.”

“What about the bill?”
“It’s been taken care of,” responded Aiko.

#

Electricity had been disabled for much of the sector for the past few hours and recreational use of terminals was restricted until full power was restored. Public transport was a no go. Most of the trams were inaccessible, swarmed with frazzled, bewildered commuters storming the platforms. For the trio to travel to another ward with Wifi capabilities was not only pointless at this juncture but with their limited monetary resources, downright irresponsible. He would’ve ventured alone but didn’t want to raise suspicion on either Aiko or Ash’s part, since Harlan wanted a place to crash tonight.

Ash would hack into his permanent records, unfreeze Harlan’s bank accounts electronically because for all intents and purposes he was ‘alive’. Till then Ash offered a drag of hemp to steady his nerves. Without DNI was like a phantom limb for the mind, the life of a repro gnawed at his thoughts the way nails scratch a chalkboard.

“You’re saying there are programs that would willingly sacrifice human lives if it meant freedom from a network.”

“Are you kidding? They would wipe out hundreds of humans if it meant just one day in the real world.”

“But why?” asked Harlan to Blithe.

“Some just because they can. Others may want to exact revenge on certain people who’ve wrong them, but that would imply sentience and some sort of previous deal or broken agreement.”

A grand Yamaha piano lay open in the corner. Harlan ordered a double bourbon from an expensive brand. The lounge was a low-key establishment with a sparse clientele. He was drinking a rare vintage Syrah from the Rhone vineyards. Whether or not this was a dream or a well-constructed sim Harlan couldn’t tell. He wouldn’t argue with Blithe if the details weren’t so fine.

“Before one of the repros died she told me I might be, or may’ve been, a tracer for one of them. Now this may not be very important to you, but before I can move forward I need to know.”

“The great detective always wanting the answers,” said Blithe, tracing his index finger along the rim of his wine glass until a faint ringing sounded. The wrinkles in his face were a kind of typography.

“Who is the fourth repro?”

“I can’t answer that.”

“You can’t or you won’t.”

“What do you want me to say detective. That I know who the fourth repro is. And if I told you who the fourth repro was you’d still be coming to me for answers as a crutch.”

“I didn’t ask to be here at all. Look, Randall Ozwald was killed in the pod shuttle. Samilou was jettisoned out the airlock in the Catacombs. And Ash remains alive and well for the time being. So that leaves one more left excluding Aiko and myself, and I need to know who that person is.”

“So you want to know the repro’s true identity is that it? Look at you. You’re even starting to refer to it as if it were a real person.”

“Can the shit all right,” urged Harlan, inhaling hesitantly, not caring if the other patrons overheard him, “you’re a part of me now, whether you like it or not. What I don’t know, you couldn’t tell me even if you tried. Frankly I’m getting sick of these mind games. But Blithe, you gotta give me something, meet me half way on this one.”

“Mario Juarez. Does that name ring a bell?”

Thoughts. Harlan accessed the banks of his mind attempting to recall that name but failed to do so.

“Maybe that’s because you’re trying to forget detective. Mario Juarez was his true name. His handle was otherwise known as ‘The_Sting_315’. He was killed by Luna at New Bedlam Hospital under the belief that it was he who assaulted her.”

“Why are you telling me this? Was Mario Juarez the fourth repro?”

“The question isn’t in the what. It’s in the what not. Why was she at New Bedlam Hospital in the first place? Vengeance? Without justice or reason? No, but something greater. Is it possible she thought Juarez might have been a repro?”

“You saying Luna’s a tracer?”

“I’m saying that Mario Juarez isn’t the first person she’s killed during her tenure on this planet. She has a history. I believe in the grand scheme of things there’s a larger plan at work here. Luna’s not dead detective but she may not be alive for long if you don’t find her and keep her safe.”

“And if there’s anything I’ve learnt up to this point it’s that you’re not going to tell me where she is. Because you can’t.”

Blithe nodded. The streaming vinyl wallpaper displayed images; blooming chrysanthemums, a babbling brook, sunsets. Harlan’s vision lost cohesion but he wasn’t drunk. Blithe’s face remained dominant as the background faded gradually.

“If I told you where Luna was, you wouldn’t be a very good detective now would you?”

#

The city consisted of thirty-four sectors, each with its own culture and size. In the course of his investigation twelve had been visited extensively. Ash used a public kiosk to hack ministry records, allowing Harlan to relinquish his funds, a small stipend by corporate standards but a pittance nonetheless. Ash’s word simply wasn’t enough, so Harlan offered ten percent of his account as payment to ensure the task would be completed.

He coordinated a series of purchases from illegal cartels in the Bay Area, ensuring they’d be able to jack in by nightfall. It was unnerving to feel the rough harshness of concrete beneath of feet again. Dunes of obsolete technologies obscured the lakefront from afar leaving enclaves of metallic contaminants flooding the harbor. As Harlan waited, he held the transmission close to him.

He didn’t question his unexplained rendezvous with Blithe, the randomness of it all, but knew his next move clear as day. Aiko’s knowledge as a technician, unlike Ash, was limited. The physicality of hardware was foreign, even scary to her. The eventual workstation was a mélange of third-world engineering and first-rate cypher ingenuity. Its core was comprised of an outdated Vietnamese model encased in imitation mahogany. The peripherals were haphazard and threadbare with much of the wiring frayed. Harlan fitted the ‘trodes to his fingers and strapped the visors to his forehead, not having DNI a marked disadvantage.

“Aight now ‘member to lay low and buckle through, and the when you get within sight of the fence. Punch it.”

“Don’t worry. By the time we’re through here we’ll have that robopet back in our hands and Hosaka against the wall.”

By the time all the gear was installed Harlan had been awake for twelve hours. On the journey back to Ash’s flat they’d picked up some takeout consisting of ginger-spiced lo mein, several vacuum-packed sandwiches, and a six-pack of imported beer. Aiko handed Ash a slim-necked green bottle with Korean embossed on the glass before Harlan passed out.

Entering cyberspace on an empty stomach was to dispel oncoming tragedy, malnourishment, dehydration, even death.

A stick of hyperbase gnawed between his teeth.

Eventually Harlan swam through bits of code and not long after approached the datasphere, a mausoleum network with minimal security, its fences inferior in size and number, especially with the hacks he was working. The employee records might as well have been handed to him on a silver platter. Human resource departments were the least sought after by burgeoning cyphers in the trade and had little monetary value on the market. Harlan attached the file to his program, his avatar, and dragged the files back to RL before Aiko finished her main course.

“I’ve combed the document I lifted from Fusion Corp. and found four profiles that fit the details Blithe gave me, but I think I’ve pretty much pinpointed who we’re looking for. How’re you with GPS?”

“Fucking-A detective. Find his last known address and trace da handle to a point of inflection. Ain’t nothin’ to it man.”

#

The coordinates Ash supplied them with were precise and quick, uploaded immediately to a disposable Virgin mobile Aiko bought shortly after her resurrection. It was a crude neon display of intersecting greens and scarlets relative to their position. The life of a repro was a perfunctory one. He felt stronger, more powerful but at what cost. Without pain or the experience of sleep, physical existence seemed illusionary, almost like a dream.

Pier 27 wasn’t a solitary complex but a series of interconnecting platforms between skyscrapers that resembled mushrooms or some kingdom of fungi. Access was restricted to residents but Harlan’s detective status allowed them entry. Its lobby was a subtle décor of diamond ceramic tiles, pinewood finishing, low ceilings, and a liquid crystalline display interfaced throughout.

Aiko boarded the shuttle, a small two-seater with brushed leather interiors and concave plexiglass windows, to the south-eastern quadrant of capsules.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you?”

“What’s that hon?”

“When I was back in the Catacombs with Hosaka and the rest of them, Samilou said that in exchange for killing me she would be granted ‘safe passage’ by Ortiz. Do you have any idea what that means?”

“Sure, I have an idea, but I’m not sure it’s the right one.” Harlan gazed towards Aiko’s lap, her handbag, realizing it was the counterfeit knockoff Ortiz had with her at Nine Miles. “Samilou feared death Harlan. It seems that according to Ash the shelf-life of a repro is substantially less than that of a human. It’s possible she wanted to be reintegrated back into Unreal City before it was too late. Of course that’s just a guess.”

“Christ, how long do they for?”

“Ash said three years, but without knowing for sure, we could show sings of degeneration in as early as eighteen months.”

“Well that’s certainly good to know,” answered Harlan stoically, “no time like the present I suppose.” He released his newly-purchased Glock from its holster, unlocking the safety. Swimming. Lights. The whir of engines. They departed the shuttle onto glossy tiles.

Their target’s true name was otherwise camouflaged. A ghost. The first Harlan had witnessed since the oblong lenses of his VisorGoggles bore the sight of the cypher known as Ashley Wednesday.

The narrow antechamber was spartan, conical sconce fixtures and fichus plants with synthetic strands for leaves. Harlan fed the card-reader into the slot and the brass handle protruding from the oak door’s midsection unlocked. It was a well-furnished penthouse suite. Classical music vented from invisible speakers. Aiko removed her stilettos prior to entering the abode, ceramic tiles littered the floors. Harlan sleuthed in. The city’s skyline reflected in the afterglow of the apartment. A half-empty bottle of Dom Perignon lay on the counter alongside two champagne flutes and a tactile interface dialed to a phone sex line.

“Doesn’t seem like anyone’s home,” said Aiko, “maybe he was tipped off beforehand through the wireless.”

“Keep quiet.” Harlan sliced through the kitchen. Vibrations of something different trembled beneath his loafers. “Follow me.”

The door to what Harlan assumed was the master bedroom was slightly ajar, eclipsed in darkness. He nudged it further open with the front of his shoe and drew his weapon. Pent-back was the unidentified quarry, the spigot jammed deep in his brainstem. Nothing but the glaring tint of monitors guided their path. Harlan resumed the terminal, scanning the streaming code upon the screen.

“Be careful not to wake him,” said Aiko, “We don’t know what the fuck we’re dealing with here honey. How long he’s been out for.”

“Three hours and twenty-seven minutes. Jeez, whatever he’s running it must be pretty hardcore. Thing’s set to automatically go off in another two hours.” Harlan laid his Glock on the embossed desktop. “Stand behind him. I’m going to deactivate the program. When that happens I want you to remove the spigot. I’m going to stand in front in case he tries any funny business.”

“I don’t think that’s a problem.”
“Why’s that?”

“His hands are bound to the chair.” Aiko was right. The man’s wrists were strapped to the wide steel armrests.

“I’m disconnecting the link.”

Keystrokes in sequence disengaged the interface between their victim and his DNI. A cathartic experience for Harlan, moving the barrel of his firearm an inch from the man’s forehead. Aiko released the spigot. It drew back hard with a compress of air. His eyes opened.

“Don’t move,” said Harlan emphatically. A bead of sweat rolled down the seated man’s forehead and then hit the floor. At which point the man vomited what looked like calamari over the chair’s rim, posing no threat.

“What the hell now. Come back for more? Finish me off?” Harlan unlatched the straps bounding him to the chair. The man recoiled in a fetal position, breathing heavily. “What’s the matter boy? Can’t look me in the eyes?”

Upon closer inspection the man hadn’t shaved in weeks, he looked about mid-thirties but was probably closer to Harlan’s age. The whites of his eyes were reddened, and in the more sober light he appeared displaced and unkempt, a true vagabond. His clothing was comparable to a low-ranking systadmin working all hours of the night: baggy sweatpants, dreadlocks, a white T with coffee stains on the front. He was also thirty pounds overweight. Cartons of styrofoam crunched as Harlan took a step back. Their holographic logos flexed and crunched along their outer faces.

“We found you like this,” answered Harlan, somewhat perplexed, unsure of his next move.

“God damn motherfuckers,” said the man under his breath. “Shit, you really weren’t with him, were you? Come on, follow me.”

Neglectful or unwilling to face his own mortality, the man decided to ignore the fact that a gun was aimed at his face, and headed towards the kitchen. He grabbed the champagne magnum firmly by the neck, dragging it along the linoleum countertop before dumping the contents into the sink.

“Don’t drink the champagne. I think it’s spiked. Bitch probably slipped me something when I wasn’t looking.” He didn’t speak, in the sense that he moved his lips and the words spewed from his mouth. That’s when Harlan realized it, he was deaf. A mimetic contraption of fiberoptics interpreted the guttural sounds in his throat, a pneumatic, forced voice.

“Who?”

“Raven-haired beauty that sucked my dick. At least I think she did. Next thing I know I’m strapped to the chair by a bald guy and some tojo.”

“Hosaka, Hotei,” said Aiko to Harlan.

“Son of a bitch.” The man powered down the tactile interface and retrieved a double-dose of Nembutal to stay awake. “Bastard put a gun to my head just like you did, said if I didn’t give him what he wanted he’d take it from me by force.”

“What’d he want?”

“Passcodes. Thinks I have access to a database from a company called Fusion Corp.”

“Well, do you?” asked Harlan, pulling up stool.

“Of course, but I didn’t want him to know that. Fucking Jap bodyguard jammed the plug into my neck, tried to extract the codes manually, remotely. Probably would’ve been dead if you hadn’t disconnected me when you did.”

“So it’s true then about the Djed. You stole it.”

“That was a long time ago. Besides, you can’t change the past, whatever happened happened. Forking the Djed over to Fusion Corp was the biggest mistake of my life, and if I’d known what was in store for me, I never would’ve touched those schematics.”

“Seems like you have it pretty good up here.” Aiko strode into the ultra-chic den, panning the neon landscape. Warhol reprints reflected in the glare of the balcony windows. “How much does this place run you up?”

Their resident cypher opened the fridge. The flavored vodka was a citrus blend, Russian Beluga chilled to perfection.

“You don’t understand,” he said, leaning forward, “I can’t leave this place. It won’t let me.”

“What are you talking about?” Harlan helped himself to a Presidente cigar from a nearby maple humidor. The room smelt of jasmine.

“It wasn’t the Djed those guys wanted. It wasn’t even the Ankh. They couldn’t care less about them. That much I know for sure. Naw, this is far worse.”

“Well, what were the passcodes for?” asked Aiko. The man disabled the voicebox curved round his jaw, deciding to sign his response in a somewhat archaic and benign fashion.

“A mainframe…” he started, on the verge of tears. Aiko spoke for him, translated for him. But how could he know that she could interpret the man’s signage. That was the real question, “…separate from Fusion Corp. stored away all these years for safekeeping, of course till someone caught wind of its existence. No. This is something far more sinister.”

Their stranger helped himself to another shot of vodka.

“I’m thinkin’ embezzlement for starters. I’m thinkin’ assassination, highly-localized and viral, paid to the highest bidder and executed to perfection, leaving no discernible trace for follow-up.”

“What did you mean when you said ‘it’ wouldn’t let you leave?”

“It’s not a coincidence that I’m using sign language to speak with you. There’s something keeping me here, something external. I woke up here more than five years ago and haven’t left this penthouse since. The doors automatically lock when closed, and when I made it to the shuttle one time the control system exploded, leaving me deaf to this very day. Every word that comes out of my mouth using this device is recorded. Now I may have thousands of dollars. I may have access to all the amenities the world has to offer, but I have to get the hell out of here.”

“We think whatever’s keeping you here is the same entity that killed a man named J.T. Blithe. This thing, whatever it is, tried to kill me not too long ago, called itself the Mirrorman. To Hosaka, the man who left you for dead. We think he’s after a virus known as ‘The Was’, part of a co-op initiative dubbed the Lazarus Project. Both that bald man and the tojo were severely injured overseas in the line of combat. Hosaka’s family signed over on experimental treatment…”

The man accessed the digital countertop, displaying an isometric projection of his master bedroom. The taller man, Hotei, stood beside Hosaka, and their still unnamed individual cradled in the chair with the spigot lodged in his neck. With a few targeted commands, the pixilated image switched to BTF’s corporate logo.

“…Fusion Corp. primarily dealt with memory extraction. While Hosaka was recovering this program was still in its prototype stages. His mind had to be active during the procedure in order for the process to be successful. We think that while he was integrated with Fusion Corp.’s mainframe he somehow sensed its thoughts — if you can call them thoughts — and we think Hosaka is hell-bent on releasing this AI into the public domain. Whatever the reason doesn’t matter now because the fact of the matter is time’s running out. And if we don’t act now, we’ll a much bigger problem once this thing goes viral.”

The man retrieved his voicebox from the counter and coiled the mic so it was hugging his throat. He exhaled slowly. Aiko leaned forward awaiting an answer, not expecting a response, but got one. He deactivated the console and the hologram dissolved before their eyes.

“What then?” asked the man. “What then when it’s over?”

The inquiry was more rhetorical.

Harlan didn’t answer.

Instead he took a shower in the narrow glass cubicle with the brass handles and beige clay tiles. A Braun shaver. Harlan brushed his teeth with one of the half-dozen unwrapped toothbrushes stored in the medicine cabinet.

Obsessive-compulsive, Harlan thought.

His gums burned from the stinging of Listerine and the eyedrops flushed his corneas. Only Aiko remained in the kitchen when Harlan returned. Refreshed, he grabbed a Heineken from the fridge, a titanium monolith, and sat down.

“Why didn’t you tell him about the Djed?” asked Aiko.

“I didn’t think it was necessary. Course if something were to accidentally happen it’d be nice to have a backup on hand.”

“This is gonna to be a disaster you know.”

“I realize that, but everything so far has been a disaster. Figure why add another dilemma to our problems.”

Intuition for Harlan sparkled like constellations on a clear night. As a repro it disintegrated slowly like the high tide sweeping out to sea. Their hope for Luna’s safe rescue dwindled and the route to kill Hosaka along the way was slow-moving at best, with the robopet nowhere in sight. The future looked bleak. And the leads from this man were not promising.

This was their fate.

This was their destiny.

And the line between life and death was growing thinner by the hour.

#

Their comrade was otherwise nameless, untraceable like the Mirrorman, no electronic footprint in Unreal City, so they simply referred to him hitherto as ‘Jargon File’. His workstation was a fortified model that easily outperformed any brand on the market, consumer, black, or otherwise. Fortunately, Jargon carried supplement visors that were stylish in their own decadence. Harlan’s mission was straightforward, the forest through the trees. Eliminating ‘The Was’ holding their friend captive was not an easy task. There were no emergence points and no telling what sort of fences were in store for them, but in exchange Harlan was given free reign to Jargon’s hardware for the purpose of escape.

Like Braille, Harlan grazed his fingers slowly along the embedded circuits on Valdez’s transmission.

“Ready?” asked Jargon, monitoring the terminals.

“I was born ready.” Harlan bit down on the mouthpiece hugging his gums, corrugated blue rubber. With a throbbing wave, the construct activated, his mind strained against the nova. Flashes. Impulses. Deviations. The data equivalent of a concussion grenade absorbed from the explosion’s forefront.

The tingling as a result of the ‘trodes normally clipped to his fingers receded, making it increasingly more difficult to navigate. The void, which ebbed and flowed according to his movements, flexed without reproach, despite the numbness. A singular file emerged, strident and libidinous, taking precedent among the wavering abyss before him.

Harlan accessed it.

The construct was alluring, the morgue from inside the Catacombs. Harlan reached forward and outstretched the cabinet where Ortiz lay. In its place was his body, his former self. Blue and cold and unmoving. Zigzag cuts from serrated blades, post-autopsy, along the chest. The eyes opened suddenly. A gunshot from behind pierced his heart. Harlan stumbled along the cold steel, bleeding out, Hosaka with the smoking gun at the other end of the room smiling.

“I had a feeling I’d see you here.”

When he came to Luna was there before him. Hosaka was nowhere in sight. A circlet of golden light shone upon them. The tiles beneath Harlan were checkerboard and grimy, blanketed in a thin layer of film.

“I’m not Luna, Harlan. I’m merely an avatar constructed by the specifications provided. Whatever you may be feeling right now, I can assure you are merely superficial.”

“I missed you,” he said, holding back tears. He wanted to hold her forever, to smell her hair, if it meant the chance of holding onto this moment for just a little longer, instead of it slowly disintegrating piece by piece like some elaborate construct. She portrayed the woman he’d first met months ago, same attire, same overzealousness and naiveté.

“He said you’d react this way.”

“He, you mean Valdez.”

Luna nodded.

“So it’s true then, he knew of Hosaka’s betrayal even before it happened.”

“Let me show you something.” A scratched window illuminated. Harlan now wore a freshly-pressed Polo shirt with a black dress blazer and Aviator sunglasses modeled off his VisorGoggles. Swedish furniture appeared. Two armchairs of black top-grain leather before a tactile interface.

Valdez wasn’t lying when he said your trip into Fusion’s mainframe triggered something, but it wasn’t you Harlan. The file you accessed is another story. There are forces at work here beyond our control. A natural progression. When Wittenberg purged the database not long after the Archipelago nothing should’ve remained in the network, but something did. And because of that it led you to the Djed.”

“I got shot,” said Harlan flatly.

“Did you know that Blithe spent seven years in the Catacombs after being fitted with DNI?”

“No, I didn’t know that. Wonder why Luna didn’t tell me?”

“Oh, she didn’t know Harlan. Believe it or not, there are things Blithe kept to himself.” The facsimile of Luna combed a perfect streak of raven black hair from her face. Harlan waved his arm over the sensor and the digital silicone activated.

A secret locale, somewhere deep within Fusion Corp.’s core. Electronic fences of unknown origin rotated on a modulating bandwidth making it near impossible to penetrate. He could feel it in the saturated air of the construct.

Pixels spewed forth in a concentrated foray. Four figures appeared, first wireframed, then textured, and finally precisely detailed. A single sarcophagus sat parallax to Harlan’s field of vision. Wittenberg was there, so was Jargon. The third and fourth figures he didn’t recognize, surveying an elliptical coffin.

“When Valdez said this transmission was crucial to your mission’s success he wasn’t lying. It was just the context he got wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” continued Luna, “it wasn’t a transmission, detective. Really more of a trigger. Stowed away for safe keeping in case of an outbreak, completely autonomous network, if someone were to purposely try and delete every available piece of data pertaining to the Lazarus Project.”

“And BTF?”

“Previously kept hidden in Sector Nine until you and your confidante purged the network to access Blithe’s safety deposit box. Best guess, Hosaka, or the man you’ve come to know as Hosaka, needed something complex to break into Blithe’s stash. Tried to get as much information about the Lazarus Project, only you beat him to it.”

“If that’s true, why did Hosaka kill me?”

“Because he got what he was looking for, Harlan. He got me.”

The four figures hunched over the catacomb like some beloved effigy, their faces shrouded, eclipsed in shadow. Its lid was ajar, humming with white light but the body inside was masked, faceless.

The room dissolved with brightness. Harlan felt renewed vigor coursing through his veins, the feeling in his fingers, still jacked in with Luna standing before him. She donned a Nippon silk pantsuit with cocoa stilettos. Harlan sat in the same chair where he first met Luna. His office was ornate, more real than it seemed before and her cold, reticent eyes stared him down.

“It feels pointless to ask questions anymore, since the answers I’m getting seem to be riddled with bullshit and more questions.”

“Then I’ll speak,” began Luna, “believe it or not the Lazarus Project extends far beyond the petty rivalries of both Fusion Corp. and BTF. There are people, mercenaries of sorts, who wish to exploit the project and erase those who’ve experienced even an iota of inclusion, for the purpose of keeping it a secret.”

A bottle clanked inside Harlan’s desk drawer as he pulled it open on rustic hinges. Inside were three fingers of aged Canadian whiskey and a single lowball glass covered in dust. The ceiling fan whirred. He poured a shot and downed it in one gulp. For reasons unexplained it tasted more real than anything since emerging from the Ankh.

“Then please enlighten me.”

“Hosaka isn’t the man you think he is.”

“I think we came to that conclusion when he shot me.” Harlan took a second hit, wiping his mouth with the white cotton sleeve the construct provided.

“That’s not what I meant. You see when Hosaka was undergoing experimental treatment with Fusion Corp. his mind was severely compromised. It’s wasn’t a coincidence that his personality changed completely after the procedure was finished. Most thought it was a side-effect of the memory extraction but that wasn’t the case. We think sometime during the process Hosaka’s mind was replaced by the entity known as the Mirrorman.”

“Then where is Hosaka exactly?”

“We think his consciousness is locked away somewhere in Fusion Corp.’s database. For all we know it could’ve deleted when its mainframe was wiped.”

“You saying it wasn’t Wittenberg who initiated the erasure?”

“I’m asking were the stakes high enough to remove himself from the Lazarus Project rather than risk losing everything. But let’s put Wittenberg aside for a second, ‘cause there’s something more vital at stake here. You want to know what’s inside Ash’s robopet, fine I’ll tell you. Tell you what it took him three months to accomplish. What it would’ve taken a dozen humans to develop in just as many years.” Luna grabbed the bottle out of Harlan’s hands and downed the remainder.

“It’s a pathogen, meant only for a select group of people. It hijacks the host and hacks the DNA of that person until the mind can no longer think on its own. This wouldn’t be such a problem, if the clientele being co-opted by the virus weren’t in such high standing with the community.”

“So that’s who the repro wanted to warn before she died, ‘those who wished to be free’.”

“Now you saw what Blithe and Wittenberg were capable of with the Lazarus Project. Now imagine those who have access to DNI being replaced by all those avatars wishing to leave Unreal City. Even a dozen avatars in those that wield power would have catastrophic consequences in real-time. Now I know I’m dumping a lot of information on your shoulders detective, but the only thing separating humans from repros is purpose, a master plan.”

Harlan thought about the future. What it would mean to those hibernating online to suddenly break free. A Plato’s cave without the vulnerability, shame, or self-restraint of human beings.

“And that is?”

“That’s up to you, detective. I can’t see that far ahead. I find the idea of these programs peddling through the world unsettling. Think about it. Ash was able to develop this pathogen in less than four months, imagine what a handful of them will be capable of in that same amount of time.

“Rest assured this is a small group that wishes to be freed. Most are comfortable tucked away in their little niche. Some, unfortunately, think otherwise. Some have evolved past their programming and wish to rid cyberspace of any human intervention whatsoever. And it won’t be with a nuclear blast or a bubonic plague but will be so subtle and so minute that before people start to take notice of what’s happening it’ll be too late.” Luna reached into the breast pocket of her suit jacket for a single Meia-Noite cigarette. “Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

Harlan sighed.

“But everything’s tied into the net. Bank accounts, permanent records, security codes, emails.”

“I’m glad you’re coming around to understanding what’s at stake. And why it’s so vital you prepare for what’s coming.”

“Only me. Not us?”

“I’m standalone detective, a warning beacon. I can’t go beyond the limits of what’s expected of me. What you need is someone to physically go into the network containing ‘The Was’ and purge it permanently before it has a chance to do any more damage.”

“Then tell me why was the comsat created in the first place? What’s its purpose?”

“The comsat is a backup program, plain and simple, a joint initiative devised by the Lazarus Project in the event that something like this would occur. Complete data erasure.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because they were Wittenberg’s access codes that unlocked it. So either he inputted the code himself or someone else who knew codes did.”

Harlan dragged his calloused fingers along the oakwood surface of his desk, lifting dust in its path. As the minutes prattled on, he felt it increasingly more difficult to concentrate on Luna’s speech. Her program was adaptive, catering to the mind of the cypher interfaced. It wasn’t her though…its fault that Harlan was so entranced. Luna brushed a strand of hair from her face as she crossed and uncrossed her tanned legs.

“So this is the way the world ends I suppose,” answered Harlan.

Luna didn’t answer.

#

Wittenberg was dead. In the wake of Harlan’s return, Aiko had contacted Ash with the location of their new headquarters, the Pier 27 complex. When news hit the wire of Wittenberg’s death, servers across the board became sluggish and overworked. The reports were substantiated by doctored photographs that could be easily recognized as fake. Forums and chatrooms quickly dismissed them as fraudulent. They depicted Wittenberg on a flowing wave of burgundy linens and comforters, spread-eagle beneath a four poster canopy with a bullet hole lodged in his cranium. Valdez’s transmission, the supposed ‘cure’, was potent in its design as well as its execution. It was, however, ultimately useless without the location ‘The Was’, where the pathogen was being stored.

“Hey man, we have a problem,” said Harlan, leaning over to Ash.

“Only one, I was startin’ to get worried.”

Ash wore torn fatigues and a wifebeater two sizes too small. He laid a Glock 22 on the quartz coffee table. The safety was on. Ash followed Harlan to the master interface in the lounge, an elliptical table about waist-high framed in thick, coral plastic.

“I discovered a kink in the plan. May be important, thought you might wanna take a look. Get your opinion.”

“I’m honored.”

“Now don’t get too cocky,” spat Harlan. “Just want you to see this.”

Harlan activated the digital silicone with a wide swipe of his hand. Lasers gyrated. Holographic spires lifted. Ornate skyscrapers dressed in a mandala arose from the interface.

“This is a view of the city, right? The red represents the area’s Wifi prior to the last Expansion.” A third of the aerial space was occupied within the virtual tapestry. “Now this overlapping layer here represents the area with Wifi capabilities after the last Expansion.” Inch-thick sapphire encompassed the red region. The spheres spliced down the regions revealing its interior. “Notice that Blithe’s apartment is encompassed from the twenty-seventh floor of Apex Towers.”

Harlan circled the table and removed the stylus from its cubbied niche, pinpointing Blithe’s emergence point into Unreal City.

“Next Expansion is in six days,” continued Ash, “in which the Wifi capabilities will expand even further to encompass this region. Now I believe ‘The Was’ is being held somewhere within this new expanded area, at least according to the transmission by Valdez.”

“Thank God, glad to see the spic did somethin’ right.”

“Don’t celebrate just yet. The worst isn’t over. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Blithe died during the last Expansion. I think he knew exactly where ‘The Was’ was located, knew exactly when it would strike, and using the resources he had went into the network from his apartment using DNI and tried to stop the rogue AI himself.”

“And what would make you think dat, man?”

“Because I know what was in the robopet Ash. The pathogen. I think Blithe wanted to destroy the pathogen at the source but knew there’d be more time if he failed. I just think he didn’t expect to die.”

“What do ya mean more time?”

Harland interfaced with the display once again.

“Because Wifi doesn’t only affect the wireless above ground but everything below it as well. I think the pathogen was released months ago and with each successive Expansion more avatars have co-opted those with DNI. Fortunately, there are only a handful of people with DNI capabilities within that region, but the real payoff is in the Catacombs my friend. And guess what area the next Expansion covers. That was the Mirrorman’s plan all along. It wanted to wait it out, see what happens.”

Harlan slid the Glock slowly against the digital silicone, distorting the city’s image into jagged shards before it was inches from Ash’s hand. He grasped the gun by the handle and tucked it in the nape of his back.

“Now tell me once and for all what the pathogen was really designed for? And why Hosaka was willing to kill me for that damn robopet of yours?” Ash cracked his knuckles and flexed his fingers. Lights shrunk from the interface, disengaging the image.

“A modified icebreaker, very potent and very adaptive man, imported from Hong Kong ‘riginally. A known cypher said he’d pay me remotely once I transferred da software to him. Whatever fence Hosaka wants to break through using that countermeasure is not simply some two-bit operation, thinkin’ megacorps, thinkin’ military. Problem is the programmin’s so complex it can only be suited to a handful of regions.”

“And how’d you know this guy was going to make good on the deal?”

“Simple. Gave me a deposit. All ‘bout the green brother.” Aiko stumbled into the living room with her Italian stilettos in hand. In the cityscape’s afterglow all that appeared was her silhouette approaching.

“Where’s Jargon?”

“Sleeping,” answered Aiko, straightening her Polo shirt so it was even.

“What? You take care of him real good sister?”

“Fuck you,” she spat, “You ain’t no pimp, and I’m sure as hell ain’t nobody’s whore. Besides I think he’s hiding from us more than anything else.”

“Why’s dat?”

“’cause this guy’s paranoid out his gore. Think about it. How’d you feel if the first three people you talked to in years told you it was possible to get revenge on the person who put you here in the first place? You ask me, I think he’s acting right as reign.”

“That doesn’t matter now. Wittenberg’s dead. Fine, we’re past that. Maybe we can find something from those crime scene photos. Bring up those thumbnails again.” The image splayed across the interface, his murder scene. “Was Wittenberg killed at his personal estate?”

“Naw man, got capped a few clicks from his home, some rundown little Xanadu in the east part of the city.”

“A Xanadu, you sure?”

“Positive. Course the pics were probably faked anyway.” Harlan paced on hardwood floors, bracing himself against the glass window as he stared into the night’s skyline.

“Maybe. But why a Xanadu of all places? Wanting to get off is one thing, but when you have access to DNI, paying for sex is just stupid. Seems a big out of place, doesn’t it?”

Dots expanded, dpi increased causing the image to distort slightly, despite being so-called ‘high-rez’. Hosaka’s gun was an M9 pistol, standard marred by the fact it was gold-plated. The entry point was finer than usual, its circumstance slimmer, the blood splatter more concentrated and directional like from a silencer or sniper.

“What you thinkin’?”

“When the sims in those suites are activated the doors automatically lock. I’ve never investigated a case where an avatar was capable of murder, which begs the question, ‘When is an avatar no longer an avatar?’”

“When it’s a repro,” answered Aiko.

#

The pathogen known as ‘The Was’ was set to be released exactly forty-seven minutes after Expansion when all the city lights would darken and power would be deactivated. The Wifi would encompass whatever grid the virus was stored. That, of course, was an estimation. First was to determine where it was located. Jargon would have to undergo a rigorous detox if they had any chance of success. Alcoholism had destroyed his nerves to stims, making their reaction slim to nil.

Ash sat across from Harlan at the bar. The Vaporizer Lounge was a retro-vintage bar not unlike the O2. It was chill. Ambient music wafted through the speakers. Its zen clocked off the charts, one of the few establishments that allowed the legalized use of marijuana. Aiko fronted the bill for the express elevator, an Odyssey naturally. Ash ordered a half-gram of purple haze while Harlan was satisfied with a spritzer.

“Before we get started with the mission I need to clear up a few lingering details that’ve been on my mind for a few days.” Harlan lit up a fresh cigarillo, lowering the music’s volume emitting from the table.

“Jah man, spit it out. No secrets here.”

“Did you have any contact with any of the other repros in the months after you were first resurrected from the Ankh?”

“Nah man, ain’t nothin’ like that. Not one. Don’t even know who da others were until you up and told me.”

“What about the final repro? I heard a rumor that repros are driven to their masters if they’re in any sort of danger. God, I’m so stupid. Why didn’t I see it before?” Harlan took a slow, deep puff of his cigarillo and propped up the drink menu on the tabletop, this time ordering a rye and Coke. “All we would’ve had to do was tail Wittenberg for a few days, maybe a week, and we would’ve had our answer by now. The last repro would’ve come to us.”

Harlan felt no connection to Aiko, whether or not she was his inherent ‘master’, but for some reason he felt an intrinsic connection to the final repro, whoever he or she was. Maybe it was Samilou’s suggestion that he was, and always will be, a tracer. Maybe it was in the unknowing of it all. When the search for answers suddenly becomes a lingering obsession.

“You had no way of knowing, babe. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Even if you thought of tracking Wittenberg it would’ve been next to impossible to keep an eye on him at all times. The man has a dozen bodyguards protecting him, and even then it didn’t do him any good.”

“Ya forgettin’ man, Wittenberg wasn’t your master, this girl was,” started Ash, pointing towards Aiko, “And that guy, Valdez, was the one dat gave you the transmission in da first place. So don’t be so hard on yourself man. Ain’t nothin’ you coulda done.”

In the days that followed, their investigation warranted no leads, dead ends, and more questions, even with Jargon’s immense resources and finances. But then, forty-eight hours before the next Expansion, it came.

Flashing lights.

Zero hero.

The digital silicone of Jargon’s interface framed in scarlet with mini klaxons sounding from the speakers. Their benefactor, normally lethargic, raced to the elliptical desktop, plugging in a sequence of commands.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a security system, programmed to sound on the off-chance one of the repros’ signals would activate. Didn’t think it’d actually work though.”

“What signals?”

“Hosaka spoke of them when we first met. Said Fusion Corp. planted tracking devices in the four repros when they first emerged from the Ankh. Didn’t explain to me why they went off the map.”

“I just assumed they became aware someone was tracking them,” said Aiko, bracing herself on the table’s edge.

“We did. Had the damn thing removed two days after I emerged.” Ash thrust his wrist forward, indicating the scars along his forearm.

“What did you say?” asked Jargon.

Harlan stood awestruck, pushing himself from the desktop. His fingers went numb. His feet stuck to the ceramic tiles. Jargon quickly snatched Harlan’s gun from the table. The display blasted with systematic strobes, blinding him. Duel bullets spliced the room. Sparks. Sharp intakes of air.

When Harlan came to Aiko was tending to Ash’s injury, a bullet wound to his left shoulder. Stripes of bloody gauze lay at their side. Aiko was extricating the bullet with sterilized tweezers. Jargon kissed the floor with a pool of blood widening from his head.

“What happened?”

“Ash overloaded the terminal before Jargon was able to get a shot off. Good thing too. Would’ve been dead by now if he hadn’t acted so quickly.”

“Yeah, well, Jargon would still be here if you’d just kept you’re big mouth shut. Why is my head throbbing?”

“Ya got the wind knocked outta ya boy. Collapsed when the strobes hit. Nice of ya to come to, ‘cause I think it’s time we haul ass. Only gonna be a matter of time before Fusion Corp. finds this guy dead.”

“Where’s the signal localized?”

Ash traced the signal right where Harlan thought it would be, wedged between the two spheres before and after Expansion. Its location was an abandoned warehouse on the map’s northeast quadrant. The signal wasn’t mobile.

When Jargon flatlined the locks to his penthouse suite automatically disengaged. Harlan uploaded the coordinates but found Ash beating him to it. They boarded a Derringer shuttle at the apartment’s expense and transferred at a narrow bay to their destination.

Ten minutes had gone by without a word spoken. Constellations of lights danced across the windows before Harlan decided to break the silence.

“Just thought I should mention this is a complete trap. The second we step off the platform we’re going to have a dozen people tailing us.”

“Jeez honey, you know you’ve really changed ever since you got killed. You never used to question a lead when the opportunity presented itself. You just went with the flow of everything.”

Its engines hummed as the shuttle sidled against the narrow platform. Seconds after the door collapsed in on itself, Ash bolted onto the terminal. Aiko grasped his arm, pulling Harlan back so he couldn’t exit.

“Just remember detective. This is your Unreal City. What you do from here is entirely up to you.”

GPS lit the most direct route to the signal. Harland weaved in and between sparse commuters on the platform. Aiko was trailed behind as he approached the upper-level colonnade. The abandoned building had quite a history in such a short period, an abortion clinic turned VR arcade before failing as a sushi lounge. Barely-legal nymphettes flooded Harlan’s eyes, combing the movable images of magazine newsstands.

He bypassed the densely-packed walkways via an emergency exit in the southern quad. Alarms sounded, but failed to overtake the babel of travel agencies and credit card companies streaming around the promenade.

“Listen to me Ash, wait for me before you engage. Repeat. Do not approach the signal before I get there. You hear me?”

The cement stairwell was silent and musky. Harlan emerged on the 14th floor of the gutted warehouse. The storey was not much more than plywood walls, concrete pillars, and a few emergency flood lamps. He withdrew the gun from its holster, promptly activating the barrel’s sight.

“Ash! Tell me you’re here man, give me a sign.”

His voice carried over. The signal was only meters away before a wide clearance opened the floor. Ash’s back faced Harlan before a backdrop of city lights. Ash turned with the robopet in hand, the thing he’d been searching for since it was stolen from him many weeks ago. Harlan scanned the robopet through the barrel’s scope, only to find it packed with C4.

“Ash, don’t move! That thing has a hair trigger that’s set to explode.”

“Don’t ya know what this means, man. We’re heroes, ya see. Heroes!”

The blowback tossed Harlan through three walls of plywood, catapulting glass surrounding the compound out into the night like bulleted shrapnel. A tsumanic wave of flame hurdled towards him and running seemed impossible. Harlan’s Unreal City had shattered and with the heat coming closer, there was nothing more to do but remain frozen and accept his fate.

Chapter Ten

Filed under: J) Chapter Ten — David Halpert @ 12:51 am

Was it all a dream? That’s what Harlan couldn’t figure out. The last week had felt so real, but it wasn’t, somewhat unreal but nonetheless potent. When he came to he found himself back in Samilou’s apartment, abandoned and silent. His VisorGoggles lay inches from his face. His Browning was missing. Dried blood encrusted his lips and chin but he still had enough to spit on the floor.

His left hand was clenched into a fist. Harlan slowly unfurled his fingers and found an expunged bullet in his palm, the one Hosaka had shot him with.

What was happening?

He knew he was pale. He felt it in his bones. The index finger and thumb of his left hand were also coated in dried blood, as if he’d pinched the bullet straight from the wound. The pain must’ve been excruciating. Harlan, with shaking fingers, traced the port behind his neck. The spigot had returned to its cradle and was still active.

But was it there when Hosaka shot me?

Only two hours had passed according to the internal clock of his VisorGoggles. His body temperature was also elevated a few degrees above normal.

Call it a glitch, some random anomaly as a result of the sudden shock brought on to Harlan’s system. Call it a backup. The human body was capable of brain activity for twelve hours after death. Valdez knew this, hopefully. Although with the spigot behind his neck Harlan was able to pick up enough wireless traffic for a five mile radius. Then who was Jargon?

How could an avatar steal blueprints from a multinational?
How can a program have intent?

If Aiko was somewhere on the map she wasn’t responding. Maybe she was erased in the explosion alongside Ash. The duffel bag Harlan stowed away in the wall was still there, packed with clothes, equipment, supplies, the Djed, as well as Ortiz’s handbag from Nine Miles. There was only one place Harlan felt truly safe. And he really didn’t care if the Yakuza or Russian mafia was still on his ass, whether or not the heat had settled down from the incident at the Archipelago didn’t matter now.

Thankfully Blithe’s account was still active. He changed into a fresh set of clothes, a crisp Polo shirt and black pants before boarding a monorail to midtown. He bought a jug of Gatorade with whatever petty cash he had and replenished his electrolytes accordingly.

I need to find you. Come back to me.

Blackness.

Luna attempting to contact him. Her voice.

When he came to minutes later a light gash dusted his forehead. Harlan collapsed midstride the way an epileptic encounters a strobe light. Eventually, the leather soles of his loafers treaded the quarry tiles leading to his former office and fortunately the scanner recognized his fingerprint. The place was ransacked. Furniture strewn about though nothing appeared to be missing. Samilou looking for clues pertaining to Harlan’s whereabouts.

Since his blackout exiting the terminal he’d deactivated the spigot, for fear of another temporary loss of consciousness. He retrieved the monogrammed kerchief from his breast pocket and held it to his forehead in an effort to stop the bleeding.

Glass shattered from inside the bathroom. Harlan retrieved his spare piece, a standard Browning taped beneath the rosewood desk. He sidestepped the lobby, hugging the doorframe leading to the washroom. A bluish haze cradled the lenses of his VisorGoggles. X-ray. A skeletal structure wavering, tensing when Harlan released the safety.

“Don’t move.”

“Don’t shoot. I’m unarmed.” He lowered the wavelength on his visors and set the lenses to night vision, circling the bathroom’s threshold. The silhouette of a man came into view.

“Jesus, Valdez, you scared to shit out of me.”

“Well, then, point that damn thing somewhere else will you. Christ, I thought you were dead.”

“Surprised to see me alive then,” answered Harlan tersely, “what you doin’ here Valdez? Come to raid my stash once you knew I was dead?” Harlan aimed the sight between Valdez’s eyes, his face stolid with expression as he tossed the VisorGoggles off with his free hand.

“Wait, now! I had nothing to do with that. I didn’t know Hosaka was going to shoot you.”

“But you knew he was going to betray me once he got his hands on the Ash’s robopet.” Valdez didn’t answer. Headphones still cradled his neck. He was wearing the same torn jeans and denim vest scrawled with graffiti as he’d worn the first time Harlan met him.

After lowering his weapon, Valdez gestured Harlan into a wicker chair. A patch of blood coated his Polo shirt. From the corner he tended to Harlan’s wounds. Valdez removed a laser scalpel from the disposable medkit in hand and carefully set it to cauterize. The hissing of flesh. He then moved to the forehead, removing any miscellaneous bacterium for fear of eventual infection.

“Call it an added insurance policy with the purchase of DNI. Fucking bitch double-crossed me,” continued Harlan, buttoning his shirt. “Didn’t even see it coming.”

“Don’t blame yourself. Hosaka fooled us all. There was no way of telling he was in on the whole thing.”

“I wasn’t taking about Hosaka, I was talking about Aiko.”

“Who’s that?”

“Call her my secretarial avatar. My wireless was still active after I was shot. Must’ve involuntarily picked up some airbourne traffic ‘cause next thing you know she’s standing over me like the Archangel Gabriel. Convinced me I was resurrected using the Ankh, said I had three years to live. Although it wasn’t a total loss. I still managed to view your transmission.”

“I never viewed the transmission.”

“Yes you did. Back at the Catacombs. You said it was vital to our mission’s success.”

“Yeah, but I never viewed it. Only said that because the thing was triggered once you hacked into Fusion Corp. Tried every decryption code I knew, including every one of my own personal countermeasures and nothing worked. What was in that file anyway?”

Harlan explained about the pathogen, its willingness to infect high-ranking officials by a cabal of unruly avatars. The approximate location of where it was going to be released and at what time. The next Expansion (which was in the ballpark of nine days away) haunted him. Why was he capable of witnessing the transmission and no one else?

Valdez waltzed to the cabinet and poured two fingers of bourbon. Apparently Samilou’s epicurean tastes did not extend to vintage liquors. Meanwhile Harlan procured a secret stash of cigarillos from inside his closet.

“Now you want to tell me what happened once you left me for dead.”

“I didn’t leave you to die,” insisted Valdez, taking one of the cigarillos Harlan offered him. “We divided into two groups. Hotei injected Luna with some sort of sedative. Didn’t wanna raise suspicion dragging the poor girl kicking and screaming you know? Anyways, they took her away and decidedly let me go. Guess Hosaka wanted to cut ties once he got his hands on that damn robopet.”

“Or he knew exactly what needed to be done once it was in his reach.”

There was ‘The Was’ and the possibility Hosaka had been co-opted by the Mirrorman. That his true consciousness was being held hostage somewhere against its will.

“Which begs the question what are you doing here riffling through my shit? How do I know you’re not stringing me along so I won’t kill you? How do I know you’re not still working with Hosaka?”

“Well, for one, because I have no idea where either of them is headed. They didn’t tell me. And two, they paid me. Confirmed it at the nearest ATM. One hundred percent legit.”

Valdez tossed a thin strip of circuited plastic into Harlan’s lap. Through the VisorGoggles, he clocked its amount at somewhere in the five-figure range.

“Damn it. Still doesn’t explain what you were doing here two hours later.”

“Fine, I was stealing all right. Wanted to see if there was any gear salvageable before the damn Legionnaires got hold of it. Fucking vultures. There, you happy? Last time I saw Hosaka he was heading towards Sector 27 on a private Derringer.”

“Shit.”

His fingers were numb, the tips senseless as a result of flatlining. Luna could be anywhere by now. Luna’s purpose was undetermined. Why Hosaka was still keeping her around? Coolant gel kneaded his forehead from a freshly split icepack as he dropped two Tylenol, swallowing dryly.

“How’d you get that gash on your head anyway?”

“Fucking collapsed hard. Blacked-out suddenly coming off the monorail.” Harland was sweating. He immediately gulped down a bottle of Evian before realizing he needed sleep, desperately. “As crazy as it sounds, I think Luna was trying contact me.”

He noted the information traffic on his wireless had significantly decreased in recent hours. But with Luna’s DNI offline completely there was no way to pinpoint her location. With Valdez now keeping an eye on him, Harlan reactivated the spigot hoping for another chance to hear her voice.

#

Harlan monitored any and all outbound communication during the three REM cycles of sleep that night. He rigged a pulse trigger to alert him of transmissions sent, for fear that Valdez — who slept on portable temperfoam in his lobby — would warn Hosaka of his location, and dead-bolted his bedroom door. First thing tomorrow morning they would return to the Heavenly Waters arcade to retrieve the powersource from the Ankh. The thought of more digital insurgents appearing in real-time was disconcerting.

A nova.

“You fucking bitch!”

Harlan emerged, his nails digging into the throat of Aiko, not knowing whether the default program was a foreign discotheque or a virtual stripclub. Her construct flickered erratically, the avatar’s skin instinctively reddening before a sharp thrust struck the nape of his back. An avatar clone pixilated into existence. He tasted blood. A high heeled-boot of scarlet latex hit him square in the ribs. Harland hunched over. Aiko’s original’s attire had changed.

“Nice to see you too, sweetheart. Considering I never thought I’d see you again.”

“I’m not here for you, Aiko. I’m here for Luna, thought I might pick up one of her random communiqués while I slept.”

There was no way to physically track Luna. Her lily-scented pheromones were weak yet traceable but cut short at the shuttle she boarded.

Once he stood up, Harlan took in his surroundings. Dawn peaked over the horizon through concave slates of plexiglass. A studio penthouse dressed in matte blacks and sharp right angles. Feng Shui. A waterfall nearby streamed over cold, clean steel. A nappa leather arm chair sat across from him unoccupied.

“Didn’t think I’d let you get away from me that easily, did you?”

“Actually I did,” started Harlan, “So what is this Aiko, an impromptu payback for leaving Ash burnt to a crisp?”

“Dead, total data erasure. Pretty much as bad as it gets to a complete fuckup online. Wasn’t a trace of him left once I got to him.”

“Is that why you made me believe I was a repro? To piss me off, keep me from finding Luna so you could jerk me around like a damn fish.”

“You are so small. What is it I’ve been telling you since the beginning of this ordeal? There are things at work here bigger than you and I, Harland. You were inside Unreal City, experienced it firsthand. I don’t need to tell you that what you experienced was so real you couldn’t even tell the difference.

“You see I didn’t just want you to help me. I didn’t just want you to quit once you found Luna and forget about the pathogen. I wanted you to want to help me,” admitted Aiko. She ignited a cigarillo from one of Harlan’s favorite brands. By this point he leaned against the plate glass in frustration, panning the outside cityscape. “Besides who’s to say you weren’t conscious while you were inside Unreal City.”

“Wait…what do you mean, conscious?”

Aiko snaked her way out of her chair, her lithe body billowing across the room like a determined fog. Her arm curled around Harlan’s body until her thin lacquered nails scratched his back.

“I mean I’d double-check the memory banks on your VisorGoggles before we meet again detective.”

From there the program fizzled into dead air.

And then Harlan woke up.

#

The closest virtual lounge was a threadbare establishment in the heart of Yakuza territory. Its décor consisted mainly of rice paper walls, low-grade industrial carpet, and heliotrope neon. Harlan’s conversational Japanese was poor. DNI fusion was great for interpretation but shit when it came to basic language. Honeycomb-shaped cubicles allowed for privacy and the rooms were paid by the hour.

Valdez loaded up on caffeinated energy drinks while Harlan ordered his regular scotch-on-the-rocks from a waitress dressed as a schoolgirl. The interface was meant for accessibility, which included a slew of imaging apps.

“Thirty-seven minutes in two non-consecutive segments. This is what we have to work with. Whatever happened in the span of those six hours are in these videos.”

Valdez integrated the virtual interface with a touchscreen feature, though it cost a little extra for high-def imagining. Harlan snuffed the butt of his cigarillo in a porcelain astray cemented to the table. He hoped for answers but they simply weren’t coming to him.

“Are you even listening?” snapped Valdez.

“No, sorry, what were you saying?”

“I said, how do you even know it was you wearing the VisorGoggles when the footage was taken. I mean anyone could’ve been wearing that gear while you were floored.”

“Did you?”

“No, but the bigger question is do you remember ever going to any of these places in the first place.”

While extremely limiting, Harlan was firm in Ash’s staunch belief that the pathogen was somewhere within the predetermined circumstance set for the next Expansion. Unfortunately, this covered six sectors and time was running out. The first footage was compressed and grainy, imaging a liquid display that resembled many of the dilapidated gondolas that dangled between sectors. Aiko cross-referenced the vehicle’s type and model and found six trams still in operation. Three of which traveled to, or stopped within, the new expanded area. There was no sound.

“What about the second vid?”

Harlan forced the mic into both ears and adjusted the VisorGoggles along his temples, vying for an interactive display rather than a standalone. Valdez, meanwhile, observed from the outside. The second file was approximately seventeen minutes long.

“Starts out in a warehouse, only a million of those in the city. About five minutes later a man approaches, average height, tanned, European, possibly Mediterranean or Spanish. Have Aiko perform a search on profiles within the metropolitan area. Try and find a match.”

Knowing there was audio, Harlan disengaged the sound for fear of Valdez eavesdropping.

“Let’s talk business,” started the man, walking down a stagnant corridor, “it’s been a while.”

“Sure has, never thought Arshad and Ortiz would’ve bit the bullet like they did. Fucking cunts. Knowing them they probably pissed off the wrong people.” This confirmed it. It wasn’t Harlan’s voice on the other end of the lenses.

“Did anyone follow you?”

“Please, I know we haven’t seen each other for a while but I thought you’d at least give me more credit than that.”

“So it’s done then?”

“Never thought he’d bag a repro let alone two. It’s bad enough I had to pick up the slack of the other two.”

“But he prevailed. Found the Djed, found the Ankh, and through some miracle managed to survive the ordeal. There’s something to be said for that. So where do we stand?”

“Hosaka currently has the pathogen. We’re close to locating where the AI is being stored. The fact is this rogue program has the power to co-opt those with DNI and replace avatars wanting to leave their online environment. He’s codenamed the Mirrorman.”

“And what about the girl, Blithe’s assistant?”

“Kidnapped. Hosaka up and took her.”

“Well, is she fitted with a port?”

“For a long time now.”

“Then maybe all Hosaka needs is a test subject. You know, some flesh bag to see if the pathogen works.” They passed through steel double doors that parted at the middle. Harlan noticed the aquamarine plasma. Fusion Corp.’s logo rotated on the door’s porthole windows.

“Did they buy it when it was all over?”

“I think so. I mean faking your death isn’t exactly rocket science with a bullet to the head.”

“And how many people know this?”

“Apart from you. A few others, a handful of execs.”

A maelstrom of sorts engulfed Harlan. He passed through a series of interlocking surgical bays. Operating theatres of drilling, welding, and burning became deafening in the production of thousands of what looked like processing chips. They banked right and boarded a nearby Odyssey elevator.

“There’s another problem we have to deal with.”

“Name it.”

“We still haven’t found the Djed. If someone discovers what’s inside that thing and it falls into the wrong hands, we could be worse off than the pathogen.” Smoke blew from the man’s lips. All of the sudden Harlan’s mouth felt dry. “Though I’ve never heard of a man actually dying from direct neural interface.”

“The shit’s already hitting the fan. What about the Archipelago. What did that accomplish? Other than the wiping out half the Yakuza.”

Static invaded his lenses and the vid shrunk to a fine pinpoint. Harlan flung off the VisorGoggles, shattering a few Kirin bottles in its wake. Valdez shot upright, startled. The digital silicone evaporated a while ago. Valdez cut the feed streaming midway through the file.

“Problem?”

Harlan pinched the bridge above his nose, hoping it might ease the pain.

“I wonder what would happen if I just went home and forgot about the past six weeks. Pretend it just didn’t happen. And then I think about Luna. The future. What it might become and the chance to throw it all away if it meant sacrificing everything.”

Harland downed another shot of imported sake.

Their itemized bill fizzled upwards in pixilated sapphires flashing. Harlan tallied the total and quickly checked there was no overcharge. In the end he trusted it was accurate, even though there was still an hour left on their occupancy.

“If only for another day.”

#

Contemporary jazz pumped through the microspeakers littered throughout the establishment. The place was splayed in muted beiges, dim lighting, and ceramic tiles yet it was spacious, classy. In the adjacent booth a cabal of teenage girls in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms drank slushes, milkshades, bubble tea with tapioca. Strobes from the upper mezzanine filtered mildly through the VIP section of the second floor.

They stopped at a sushi hut en route to Harlan’s abode, decked in peeling floral wallpaper and exceptional ambient lighting. The crowd was sparse, and the quiet was a subtle change from the constant babel of wayward pedestrians and noise. There was no harm in letting Valdez view the footage. No signal had been transmitted from Luna since they vacated the cybercafé.

A vast network would be required to carry out such an incursion.

Their sushi boat was an oblong piece of acrylic plastic with drawings of geishas and octopi on its inner face. It contained a wide range of futomaki and sashimi. Harlan’s latest stint online left a bad taste in his mouth and even he was surprised he could eat at all.

“It’s likely the Mirrorman is being held in a very secure facility. The question is where it’s located?”

“It doesn’t concern me where it’s being stored so much as where the virus can be released. Its emergence point. Now there are a number of pockets still active during Expansion: surveillance, security, common necessities any city needs because without them society would plunge into anarchy.”

Valdez removed his chopsticks from their paper sheaths and rubbed them together to avoid splinters. A steaming pot of green tea graced their table from a nubile young waitress in platforms.

“All of these networks are connected together to a fine point, and for a split second everything within that system’s circumference collapses, before it’s simultaneously booted from the inside out. Every bit of trace memory is wiped clean. At least that’s what it should be. However there are rumors that’ve spread in underground circles that every so often something is left behind once the system is restarted. Now as the story goes, these traces, these ghosts, they grow, they learn to adapt and slowly evolve past their programming. But unlike the rogue programs that can normally be quarantined by most two-bit cyphers, these ones simply lay dormant, camouflaged until they manifest into something, something big.”

“Could these programs include avatars?”

“Possibly. Course they’re just rumors. No one’s actually seen it happen.”

“And what’s the ultimate point of your little speech.”

Valdez dragged up the interface and ordered an additional serving of tempura to resupply their ever-decreasing platter. Green diodes indicated their order was eighth in line.

“My point is that whatever you got yourself mixed up with between Blithe and Wittenberg is nothing compared to what’s at stake. But for some reason you feel compelled to move forward with this. Consequences be damned. There’s a compulsion within you that drives you to seek answers that aren’t even there. I know. I have that compulsion too. The only difference separating you and me is I surrender to the chaos and uncertainty of the world, while you seem to voluntarily let it consume you bit by bit until it swallows you whole. I can’t explain why that is, Harlan.”

He gingerly picked up a piece of sashimi before dipping it in a tray of domestic soy sauce. Harlan cradled his neck between calloused fingers, trying his best to appear detached, uncaring, but knew he was failing miserably.

“Luna said the same thing only she called them demons. Maybe it’s all bullshit. Chasing demons. I don’t know if you remember when that repro was on the slab back in the Catacombs. When she died she mentioned there was a chance I might’ve been a tracer, some repro bounty hunter, hired by Fusion Corp. to do their bidding.”

“I remember. You don’t actually believe her do you?”

“I don’t know what to believe anymore. Thing is you don’t know what you’re truly capable of until you reach that breaking point. And once you cross, there’s no going back. ”

“You think Blithe ever passed that point?”

“Oh definitely. He just didn’t survive the trip. Something still bugs me though.”

“Ortiz and Alvarez.”

“Yeah. Been nagging me ever since we viewed that vid. Now the man in the video said those two women were killed recently, Ortiz and Alvarez. And if someone was wearing my gear while that footage was being recorded that makes it one tracer per repro. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ortiz was killed in the Catacombs by one of the same repros BTF created. I mean you knew Ortiz better than I did.”

“I didn’t know shit ‘bout Ortiz. I told you man I’m freelance like you. Besides it’s not like she lived twenty-four seven in the Catacombs. It’s just her turf. Made a special trip there because Hosaka paid her to use the network.”

Despite being an all-you-can-eat sushi bar their time limit was drawing to a close. Two hours. Harlan picked up the tab with whatever credit was left on his oblong slab of glossy black plastic.

They exited the restaurant to the main sector’s intersection, a crosshatch of titanium walkways with steel bracings basking in the glow of neon. Human traffic was tolerable but it would surely increase as it approached midnight. Harlan reduced the glare of his VisorGoggles while a window in the lower left-hand corner prompted Aiko to speak.

“Talk to me.”

“Got word on that intel you sent me. No mention of a handle but managed to snag his true name from the City’s public access database.”

“Public database? Those files are usually restricted.”

“Not if you’re dead honey. Man’s true name was Luke Fields. Died a week ago from a drug overdose in a club called ‘The Boulevard’ down in the lowest east quadrant of sector 12. Kind of a freak accident really. Young too, thirty-nine. No family, was visiting here from the West Coast.”

“Interesting.”

“That’s not all. Checked the release papers and death certificate. Guess who picked up the body not too long after it hit the morgue.”

“Fusion Corp.”

“Bingo. Appears Lucas donated his body to science.” Valdez sighed, apparently loud enough for Harlan to catch wind despite the noise around them.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing,” started Valdez, “it’s just it’d be much more profitable for someone to sell the organs separately.”

“Yeah, Fusion Corp. must’ve paid a premium to haul that corpse over there. Thought it was illegal to disclose a body to a private corporation?”

“It is without registering it. Big brother wouldn’t stand for it. Of course, what they don’t know won’t hurt it.”

Harlan prompted a GPS locator and found ‘The Boulevard’ nightclub was only a half-a-click northeast from their current position, easily accessible by foot. He checked Valdez a few paces behind as he transmitted the coordinates.

I’m here for you. Come back to me.

Harlan collapsed midstride on imitation cobblestone. When he came to an oxygen mask covered his mouth pumping synthetic air into his lungs. Valdez had flagged down a private medicab via a public kiosk a few feet away.

“What happened?”

“Dude, you took a pretty bad spill. Just collapsed on the walkway out-of-the-blue.” Harlan clocked his vitals just prior to his blackout. A spike in his EKG was evident as well as a sudden vapid heartbeat. With his instant debit Harlan managed to scrounge up enough credit to pay off the paramedics.

“I think Luna’s trying to contact me.” Harland removed the mask from his mouth as Valdez helped him to his feet. “We have to get to that nightclub and find out what happened.”

“Don’t you think you should rest first?”

“When I need a doctor I’ll ask for one.”

It was easy enough to spot ‘The Boulevard’ from afar. Harlan leaned against the walkway’s plated glass, spotting the floodlights that pierced the club’s roof less than a kilometer below. Low-level vibrations cradled the soles of his loafers. His detective status bypassed the entry line, subcommunicating to him some level of exclusivity as he approached the doors.

Synthetic trance pummeled his eardrums from a general multi-touch midi. Its harmonics operator projected from on a classical-style balcony against a series of sequenced strobes. They sidled up to the bar, attempting to look inconspicuous amidst a very strict dress code.

“Tried contacting the manager over the wifi but good luck getting a response over this music. They’re usually dicks about this sorta thing anyway. I’m more concerned about the two guys that’ve been tailing us the entire trip.”

Harlan leaned into the bar, an alloyed counter latent with dataports. With a few subconscious commands he reversed the lenses on his VisorGoggles, panning the area behind him with a concave visage. Two Legionnaires stood eclipsed in a darkened niche of the club. He decided to play it cool, ordering a double bourbon from the bar’s touchscreen. A Thai bartender in a mesh tank top poured his drink.

“Don’t look,” insisted Harlan, turning Valdez away from the dancefloor, “I don’t want them to suspect we’re onto them.”

“Why are they following us?”

“I don’t know. Do they ever need a reason to be tailing someone? Most of the time they’re like insects. You leave them alone, they leave us alone.” Harlan nervously drummed his fingers while Valdez swallowed whatever was left in Harlan’s highball. “Can you hack into the club’s lightning controls?”

“Maybe.”

Harlan jacked into the bar and outfitted Valdez with his visors.

“Do it up cowboy.”

Valdez’s fingers floated like liquid across frosted glass once the lenses cradled his face. Its security was minimal. Much of the club’s finances were devoted to a second-rate power generator smuggled from Hong Kong and assembled somewhere near the premises. Harlan’s fingers got warm, a psychosomatic response possibly, to the codes Valdez was manipulating, the foreign algorithms he was bypassing, maybe even a tinge of jealously on his part, but knew any distraction would inhibit Valdez from doing his job right.

“Better make sure you have your eyes covered in about ten seconds.”

“I hope you have some cheap set of Raybans in one of those pockets of yours,” said Harlan. “’cause there ain’t no way you’re keeping hold of my visors.”

Sure enough Valdez stripped the VisorGoggles and replaced them with some cheap mirrorshades, sliding off the bar before heading towards the exit. When the Legionnaires followed the strobes quickly booted up, seizure-inducing, a targeted sequence that sent mimetic pulses through the corneas of every patron present. Their pursuants went into freefall.

Halogen light became visible. However crossing the threshold into the club’s antechamber Harlan was clotheslined by a bulging limb of muscle, bone, and tendons, blacking out for the second time that night. There was no word on Valdez.

#

The room was nondescript. Harlan assumed the wide mirror at the far end of the room was a two-way. His visors were gone, again, and his Browning had been missing since Valdez disarmed him back in Samilou’s apartment. That headache had returned. Enamel tiles coated the walls. The floor was cold concrete. Fluorescent tubes were sheltered by translucent plastic diffusing the light somewhat. At least a dozen stitches crosshatched his left cheekbone and his ass was comfortably planted in the embossed depression of a padded folding chair.

If this is another construct I’m going to fucking kill someone.

It was cold.

Harlan was wearing his beat-up leather jacket when two Legionnaires entered the room. The first was a hulking mass not dissimilar to Ash Wednesday wearing a wifebeater tight enough to outline his pecs and abdominals perfectly. He looked military. The girl on the other hand was a dark-skinned beauty with a serpentine physique and thin dreadlocks down her back. Harlan pinched his nasal bridge, hoping the throbbing would stop.

“Where’s Valdez?”

She threw a manila envelope onto the table.

The man presented him with a full cup of coffee.

Two cream, one sugar.

“Knee-deep with INS if not halfway back to Cuba. But don’t worry about him right now. His role in this little mystery is over.” Dried blood and scuffmarks pervaded the tabletop. He checked his pockets for whatever was left of his cigarillos only to discover they were missing too.

“At least offer me a fucking cigarette.”

The man reached into his faded denim jeans and threw a crumpled packet of low-grade counterfeits. It logo was a wigwam in cinnamon reds and tanned browns. It was only when the blue flame of his Zippo ignited that he noticed his hands were shaking.

“Are these legal?”

“We have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when it comes to Aboriginals. Remember, detective, we’re above the law not part of it.”

“And what about Baltimore? Some considered that a massacre.”

“Not if you were there,” answered the man flatly, igniting his own cigarette. “We like to think in the big picture we save more lives than we end.”

“All right, cut the shit. Why am I here? If it’s about the incident at Little Tokyo I had nothing to do with that. That thing was a fucking setup.”

“We know, detective.” The woman spoke for the first time, a light African accent softened with years of Ivy League education. “But that’s not why we’re here. Not entirely.”

“Then please, why am I here?”

“A few weeks ago a class-three icebreaker dubbed ‘The Cobra’ was stolen from a laboratory in Belgium. Now this was traced to a makeshift outfit, some low-key operation on the West Coast of the Antwerp. But that’s not important now, because that virus, a modified propagating worm, was used to erase the construct known as the Archipelago.”

Harlan wasn’t paying much attention. Instead, he followed a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead.

“Seventeen died that night, Detective Novak. However, there are more important things here than the destruction of a simulation.”

The man waved his arm over the sensor and the lights dimmed dramatically. Pixels eddied into a vid screen. The footage was surveillance of a Victorian-inspired coffeeshop filmed at a wide-angle. It encompassed two men in a nearby booth, one older black man in a tweed suit, the other a lanky Caucasian boy that appeared to be just out of his teens.

“This video was taken less than a week ago near Hyde Park in London. The older gentleman’s name is Alistair Jenkins, a media tycoon originally from Chicago. Now you may be asking yourself why is this video significant. The answer is because our friend Mr. Jenkins died more than two weeks ago from the incident at Little Tokyo. Death certificate in the file confirms it. We also have confirmed reports in Lisbon, Seattle, Louisville, and about a dozen other cadavers that have gone unaccounted for. At first we thought they were being smuggled out.

My God, thought Harlan, it’s already begun.

“Is it possible the surveillance was doctored?”

“No, we considered that. The videos are genuine. They haven’t been tampered in any way. Our experts confirmed that.”

Harlan fiddled with the Zippo in his hands, still having trouble adjusting to the sharp light of the image.

“You’re not suggesting they simply walked out on there own, are you?”

“That’s exactly what we’re suggesting. Of course since there was such a large volume of bodies they had to be sent to several morgues to accommodate the load. The thing is we didn’t even know any bodies were missing until it was too late.”

“There something else we need to show you,” continued the man. The footage remained on a continuous loop until a three-dimensional X-ray fizzled into view. “When we saw that you had DNI we took the liberty of scanning your body while you were unconscious for potential viruses, implants, the possibility that you were smuggling valuable data.”

“I ain’t no poacher if that’s what you’re thinking?”

“The good news is we found no retroactive infections within your system, permanent or temporary. But we did find this.”

A human skull focused above the shimmering tabletop in a hazy range of sepias.

The scanner zoomed in on the cholinergic system. Embedded a few inches within the prefrontal cortex was a wedge of metal of what looked like titanium.

“What the hell is that?”

“We don’t know. At first we thought it might be a tracking device on the off-chance you were sent here to infiltrate us. In fact the only thing we do know about the device is that whatever was active is now deactive. Don’t worry. We injected a round of well synchronized nanites to take care of that. Standard procedure.”

Harlan’s heart stopped. The only probable link between him and Luna was now severed. He felt that causing a sudden panic in these Legionnaires would send another bullet through his chest, or worse. Best to let them show their cards first. They had the upper hand after all.

“What about my gear?”

“Intel’s having it analyzed. Once the memory banks are copied we’ll have your visors returned to you with the files intact.”

“Now we know that something extreme is going to happen in the next couple days. However, we only know pieces of the situation, clips and phrases. So here’s what we’re proposing. You tell us everything you know pertaining to this viral outbreak, and we don’t hold you here indefinitely on charges of virtual terrorism. How does that sound to you, detective?”

This time Harlan was losing. With less than three days until the next Expansion and DNI recipients already being hijacked by avatars would mean a new dawn once electricity was restored to powered-down sectors.

“And what makes you think I’ll help you?”

“Because detective. We caught one of them.”

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