Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

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.

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