Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter Eleven

Filed under: K) Chapter Eleven — David Halpert @ 12:48 am

Blithe’s death wasn’t in vain. It had stalled the Mirrorman long enough to postpone his plans to release the pathogen during the last Expansion. While Ash could’ve manufactured (or bought) the virus without knowing its intended purpose one thing was for certain, it had to be tested — Then why kidnap Luna? — The gala at the Archipelago was the largest congregation of DNI recipients second only to Expansion, when traffic was negligible, extremely localized. Only the sample worked better than expected. Sending Harland and Luna into Little Tokyo was a calculated move. Ash’s signature would’ve been blacklisted had administrators known of his presence beforehand. But how could that be?

The Legionnaires were the de facto law officers when it came to police enforcement. Prison was one thing. Even death wasn’t so bad when compared to catching even a whiff of erasure with regards to electronic identities in real-time. Call it a precursor to what life would be like after Hosaka releases the pathogen.

Their names were Louis and Anika, and true to their words they returned Harlan’s VisorGoggles with no data missing or scrambled.

“I need you to grant me a concession before I agree to tell you what I know about the pathogen.”

“You’re in no position to ask us for favors,” answered Louis.

Louis, bad cop.

A moment of silence.

“What do you want, detective?”

“I need access to a very specialized, highly-classified virile agent. And I know if anyone can procure it for me you guys can. Now I’m not sure its official name but if memory serves me right it’s rumored to be named Medusa.”

“We can get a sample from the same family. Not the virus but definitely something you can work with.”

Anika, good cop.

“There’s something else I need you to do,” began Harlan just as they were about to leave, “I need you to turn on whatever it is you turned off inside my head.”

“Done,” said Louis, exiting the room, “if he wants to kill himself who are we to say otherwise.”

Harlan’s interrogation took about three hours with an extra hour-and-a-half tacked on for good measure. Everything. From the first meeting of Luna Veca, to the discovery of the Lazarus Project, and the subsequent trail of events that led him to this undisclosed location. After an additional six hours of sleep and recuperation Harlan still felt groggy. The painkillers were having little effect, but were enough to get him through the day.

Their capture was once a best-selling author of interactive virtuals — also known as ‘V-pros’ — that consisted largely of mysteries, urban fantasy, and erotica. One in particular, Kiss Me at Midnight, was particularly enticing, a noir-inspired vampire novella Harlan experienced in his college days on the West Coast.

His true name was Jeremy Wyatt and all information pertaining to his background, past history, and accomplishments were in the manila envelope Anika threw on the table during their first meeting. A lean, handsome man of fifty-eight that appeared more like a man of thirty, his face poised with dermabrasion skin treatments. His clothes didn’t come cheap either. The VisorGoggles clocked the thread count at high-end imported cloth from China. He was wearing a navy-blue sport’s jacket and pants that were extremely wrinkled.

“And why do you want me to be the one to interrogate him?”

“That should be obvious detective. If what you’ve told us is correct, you’re the only one who’s had firsthand experience dealing with repros. How they act, how they react. You know more about the Lazarus Project than most of the intel in this building. And we need you to squeeze whatever info this repro has related to this week’s Expansion. Your mission seems rather clear now, doesn’t it?”

Wyatt’s arms and legs were handcuffed securely. The chair he was seated in was bolted to the floor. Harlan was provided with a new firearm and two armed guards clad in thick Kevlar. Their bullets were loaded with barbiturates set to go off at a moment’s notice.

“Now imagine my surprise when the lovely personnel here at Legionnaire headquarters told me that I had a visitor specifically waiting for little old me. I’m truly flattered,” said Wyatt, licking his lips perversely. “Although I must say the accommodations have been less than satisfying. Wouldn’t even give me a copy of this month’s Economist if you could believe it. But I suppose we don’t always get what we want in life, huh?”

Wyatt’s laugh echoed along the interior walls of the soundproofed room.

Harlan did his best to appear deadpan and serious, but to be honest it was getting to be a burden. There was little keeping him from crawling across that table and strangling every once of breath from this thing that called itself human.

“Life. Funny you should use that word. Given what you really are.”

“It’s not what I think detective. It’s what I know. I’m human. Flesh and bone. Just like you.”

“Just like me, huh. You’re a fucking parasite. A rogue avatar who got lucky hijacking some newly-formed cadaver in the Catacombs. Probably pounced seconds after the explosion’s flashpoint using some form of modified malware. The only question I can’t answer is how.”

“Well you sure got my number now don’t you?” Wyatt slammed his head against the steel table leaving severe indentations on its surface. “Do you really think I’m afraid of dying? Then tell me detective, how do I know there isn’t an avatar behind those beautiful blue eyes of yours. How do I know you are what you say you are? One of the good guys.” A droplet of blood slowly rolled down his scalp. “The real question is whether I’ll be alive by the end of this interview.”

From his seated position Wyatt was able to view the DNI port behind Harlan’s neck. Perhaps from the mirror in front of him skewed at an awkward angle. Maybe this thing managed to hack into the city’s registry and obtain Harlan’s medical records. The thought sent his head spinning.

“Well I can tell you one thing. Your friends won’t be busting you out of here anytime soon. Got jammers set up around the perimeter to block signals incoming and outgoing. So you can kiss your DNI goodbye.”

“And how long are you going to keep me alive once you get the information you need. Because once you get that, all you have to do to save your collective asses is lock me in a room and throw away the key. So excuse me if I’m not forthcoming.”

“Yeah, well don’t expect us to feel sympathy because you’re being cooperative all of the sudden.” Harlan expunged the last of Louis’s cigarettes and felt the hyperbase take effect almost instantly. “Look I’m not here to play games. I’ll drop by in a couple of hours when you’re ready to talk. Till then, these officers will escort you back to your cell.”

Harlan pushed away from the table. The alloyed legs of the chair scraped loud against the linoleum tiles. He sidled towards the exit when Wyatt suddenly blurted out, “You cut the head and the body will die.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Forgive my sudden outburst detective. What I meant to say was if you destroy the Mirrorman every one of the repros resurrected at the Archipelago will die. At the very least they’ll be unable to jack into Unreal City ever again.” Harlan planted himself back into his chair. “It was the only way for the Mirrorman to get us offline. But while it remains a very powerful AI, it did have its fair share of limitations. You see the propagating worm that destroyed the program wasn’t merely a virus. It was our emergence point into RL, but it had to happen at the split second it was uploaded into the construct.”

“But the guest list to that gala was something like two hundred people. Why didn’t all of the avatars attending the party make it out of the construct safely?”

“Believe it or not, not all avatars who attended that event were bent on escaping the program. Now if you choose not to accept that detective, I can’t change your mind.

You’re just gonna have to trust me when I say that the transfer from human and repro had to occur at a second of whoever flatlined that night. I mean you saw the construct afterwards, wasn’t exactly a tea party down there was it?”

“What is it you want exactly?”

“Slightly better accommodations for starters. But there is something else I’ve been having my eye on for a while.”

“Amnesty.”

“Now why the hell would you do a stupid thing like that?” Harlan snuffed the remaining nub of his cigarette into the table. He took a moment to let the idea sink in before chuckling softly. “If what you’re saying is true, you’ll be dead the second the Mirrorman is killed.”

“Only I’m not planning to stick around for long. I’m planning to jack back in before the next Expansion.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it.”

“Be that as it may,” continued Wyatt, smiling wickedly, “frankly I’m at my wit’s end. I only care about one thing, the only thing that makes me human at this point, self-preservation. You send me back into Unreal City once this thing is over and I won’t cause hell like the others. I’ll go gentle into that good night, and quietly disappear.”

“What are you saying? You want to cut a deal?”

“Is it so crazy?”

“Maybe if you tell us what you know about this upcoming mission, I’ll take your request under advisement. In the meantime, you’re going to tell me where ‘The Was’ is being stored.”

“I have no idea.”

“Thought so,” said Harlan, standing up again.
“What I meant to say, detective, is that our part in this little endeavor is over. Whoever made it out alive is working independently of themselves, so long as the Mirrorman stays alive. But when it comes to this so-called mission you speak of, while He has to be the one to implement the virus, it’s not nearly as important as the source where he is transmitting from.”

“Transmitting? You mean its emergence point.”

“As long as you find that, knowing what network ‘The Was’ is being stored will be superfluous.”

So Valdez was right the entire time. He thought about their conversation at the sushi hut. His words echoing in his mind, 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.

Upon reflection he didn’t trust Wyatt anymore than he trusted Hosaka, the Legionnaires, or Aiko. What he said was from an old Dylan Thomas poem but it was misquoted, what Wyatt should’ve said was ‘Do not go gentle into that quiet night’. Maybe that’s what he intended.

#

Aiko transferred the footage of Little Tokyo to Louis and Anika without question to get a better picture of the avatars they were dealing with. The memory banks on his VisorGoggles also contained the Aussie’s guest list of the deceased. Legionnaire headquarters was a massive bunker of narrow bulkheads like the hull of some arcane dreadnought. However his personal bunker appeared more like the presidential suite at the Ritz International. Wyatt didn’t reveal much more than Harlan didn’t know already, other than the code needed to gain entry to the Mirrorman.

But it isn’t the location that’s important, thought Harlan to himself, lying back on Egyptian cotton sheets, it’s where the virus is implement that’s important.

What unnerved Harlan worse yet was the fact that he hadn’t received anymore messages from Luna. A relief in a sense, an omen in another. The Legionnaires trusted him enough to deactivate the jammers encompassing his suite, allowing Aiko’s avatar to be displayed in real-time. Wyatt was able to replicate the encryption from a standalone terminal with minimal software. Harlan twirled the pink diskette between his fingers, thinking extemporaneously about his current situation.

The lasers at the room’s vertices gyrated and Aiko fizzled into existence. She wore a low-hanging black dress that barely covered her breasts and cascaded down her legs until the fabric brushed the floor.

“I hope you’re proud of yourself. Because by some magical twist of fate you’ve managed to get your hands on one of the most sought-after viral agents in existence.”

It hadn’t been easy. The Medusa virus obtained was captured during a shadowrun involving a prominent Yakuza sect data-mining through pharmaceutical patents of rival megacorps. The Legionnaires bypassed layers of UN red tape in the name of the greater good, acquiring a suitable replica for their next mission.

“You’re thinking about Luna, aren’t you?”

“No,” he lied.

“Then what are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking why Blithe would knowingly place his consciousness in the Djed.”

“We know that already. He had the money, he had access to the technology, and half the world knew who he was. Doesn’t take a detective to recognize that.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Then please enlighten me.”

“I’m saying what if our premise was wrong. Think about it. Blithe takes out an insurance plan with Sector Nine shortly before his death. Now he didn’t know that at the time but next thing you know he’s found dead. Now, several weeks later, Wittenberg’s found dead in the same fashion. Granted it’s a bullet to the head, but still. Now it’s a good bet, he had access to the same technology if not more so, since Fusion Corp. is in essence a technologies company.”

“What’s your point?”

“My point is that Blithe didn’t just go into the Djed expecting to die. He expected to be resurrected. Probably gave Lynch the device and told her the location of the Ankh. Then out of the blue there’s this video on my VisorGoggles at Fusion Corp. with a man named Luke Fields, who apparently also died not too long ago, and whose body was purchased anonymously by a local multinational that shall remain nameless.”

“You think they killed themselves on purpose?”

Harlan set the diskette aside and removed the Ankh’s power source from his pocket. The cube shone a gentle violet before switching to an array of random colors. Ironically it was the only piece on Harlan that the Legionnaires didn’t first confiscate.

“It wouldn’t matter. He’d always have a backup on hand in the event he did die. But what if knowing what happened to Blithe, Wittenberg decided to be uploaded in someone’s body instead of the Ankh, for fear of being killed a second time.”

Harlan brushed the hair from his eyes and scrolled through the memory banks of his VisorGoggles, hoping something would jump out.

“There’s another thing that’s been bothering me.”

“The transmission from Nine Miles.”

“Yeah, just can’t put my fingers on why the message transferred perfectly to me and not Valdez, or you for that matter. Do me a favor. Check to see if you can trace the encryption origin of the construct.”

He cross-referenced potential venues for the Mirrorman to store his prized possession. With only two days until Expansion, tracing each network would do more harm than good and would leave Harlan depleted before attempting such a complicated shadowrun. He had to narrow the playing field.

If the mission had any hope of success it would require site to site precision, the mental equivalent of knee-jerk reactions. Harlan didn’t know their countermeasures, the strength of their fences, ICE. Hacking one source straight from the get-go was one thing, but jumping from one mainframe to the next was suicide.

The first thing Harlan did was eliminate sites less than five thousand square feet in area, which brought the list down from twelve to eight. Still too many. The Medusa virus wasn’t as potent as he’d hoped, but required an appropriate vehicle to deliver the package to the source, specific bandwidths, area networks, and the like, which brought the list down to half a dozen.

Possible, insofar as it wasn’t impossible to pull off such a feat. Six systems in less than two hours was cutting it close though, even with updated specs, and that’s with no residual damage from each successive run. Any slowdown on his part could result in brain damage, even death.

“Where’s Valdez?”

“We deported his spic ass back to Cuba. We already told you yesterday. Why?” Louis was a tad edgier than normal. It was a blue pallor. Legionnaire laboratories were for the most part sterile, rank with ammonia, and contained terminals spitting out visuals from electron microscopes.

“Why do you insist on lying to me?”

“Maybe if you researched Valdez’s history a little more you’d know that he was from Spain, not Cuba. And even if you had filed the electronic paperwork when you booked us, it would be at least a day before he’d be on the next suborbital back home. So I ask you again, where’s Valdez?”

Louis tried his best to look vacant, staring blankly. Anika was dressed in a doctor’s smock at the opposite end of the room.

“Look I like to think you guys want this mission to be a success. But I can’t do that without my best technician at the helm. There’s a reason why there are two branches of authority: Legionnaires and Detectives. The Legionnaires are loyal, steadfast, dutiful. They look out for the state, but are fastened down by red tape and bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. Detectives are reckless, improvisational, cunning. They’re completely autonomous, willing to hack into anywhere, force their way into anything. Yet both manage to maintain a kind of chaotic equilibrium with one another. Now you don’t have to like me Louis but you have to at least meet me halfway if you want this thing to have any chance of success.”

Anika returned to their terminal, throwing down a manila folder filled with X-rays.

“We have a better idea of what we’re dealing with that implant we found,” started Anika, “I think what intrigued us most with your case detective was there was no scarring on any part of your scalp.”

“Of course not. Because I’ve never undergone brain surgery.”

“Our thoughts exactly. At least according to your medical history. This led us to no other explanation than the only farfetched one we could think of.” Anika removed her glasses, framed in wire-thin titanium, and tossed them on the digitized silicone. The image flickered slightly. “It’s possible that whatever’s inside your head was grown there using some highly experimental nanotechnology, one which I don’t have to tell you we’ve now reactivated. Does any of this sound familiar to you?”

His mind drifted to the Ankh, and the possibilities that lay within. Of course, this could just be another deceptive ploy drummed up by the Legionnaires to get Harlan to act their way. At this point Wyatt was being more cooperative than any officer within his proximity.

“I need you to do a favor for me.” Harlan adjusted the glare setting on his VisorGoggles and the lighting around him dimmed. “Now I’ve narrowed the list of possible networks containing the pathogen down to six, but too much lies on this mission to succeed for me to go jumping from one system to the next in the hopes that one of them contains the Mirrorman. There’s only one way for me to be certain that I jack into the right network.”

“What do you need?” asked Louis flatly.

“I need you to retrieve the memory core from Blithe’s former apartment at Apex Towers. It’s a good bet that whatever system Blithe entered is still stored there somewhere in a backup system. If I can access that system with Wyatt’s encryption code I could simply ride the shockwave to wherever the pathogen is being stored. Once inside I’ll deploy the Medusa and jack out before the effects take hold.”

“But you’re still not one hundred percent sure.”

“Nothing’s one hundred percent. Worst comes to worst I start searching the networks one by one until we find the right one. But I’ll need Valdez on the outside to monitor the mission as it happens. So don’t jerk my chain and tell me that he’s deported when really he’s not.”

Harlan’s insomnia had somewhat abated since surviving his showdown with Hosaka. When he did sleep he dreamt about Luna. Whether or not they were implanted memories or some scrambled DNI transmission he couldn’t be sure. When he woke up in Samilou’s apartment Harlan had not only lost faith in objective reality. He just didn’t care anymore.

“Did you ever figure out why it’s there or its purpose?”

Anika propped up a holographic MRI of Harlan’s brain.

“All we know is that it’s located here near the frontal lobe. We don’t know how this will affect your personality, mood, learning, short-term memory…sleep.”

“I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.” Harlan tapped his lighter against the rippled countertop thinking, how this sterile environment would react to the lighting of a fresh cigarillo. “There’s another issue I wish to discuss. About Wyatt. He was more than forthcoming after my initial interrogation with him about the mission. The problem is if this shadowrun succeeds Wyatt will be dead. He wants amnesty. He wants to survive in Unreal City once this whole thing is said and done.”

“Absolutely out of the question,” spat Louis, folding his arms. “It’s one thing to make concessions with a cooperative prisoner but a repro. Uh-uh. No way.”

“Look it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Just jack Wyatt’s consciousness into an autonomous system here at HQ and firewall his ass until it’s over. If the encryption he supplied us with works and we eliminate the pathogen, we’ll simply dissolve the firewall and uplink the network.”

“Can we pull something like that off?” said Louis to Anika.

“If we have our technicians working round the clock, I think we could have something done in time.”

“You won’t have to work that long.” Harlan reached into his jacket and cupped something in his hand, slamming the Djed on the table. “Keep him in there for a while. Worst comes to worse, we wipe this thing clean.”

“What makes you think Wyatt will agree to this?”

“You’re the Legionnaires. Don’t give him the choice.”

A sudden calm pervaded the lab.

Anika nodded to Louis.

With that Harlan exited the wing on a monitored route to his suite — his body temperature, his movements. He was too tired to eat but managed to scarf down a granola bar and two packets of macadamia nuts from the minibar. Low-dose diazepam was a bitch on an empty stomach.

‘The Was’, the unknown pillar of the Lazarus Project, the fourth repro holding Luna hostage with Hosaka and Hotei at their side. But what of the pathogen? What did it look like? What form did it take in cyberspace? Harlan furled the granola packet and tossed it into a tin wastebasket, lying back on the temperfoam mattress before finally closing his eyes.

#

The subsonics kicked in ten meters after Harlan left the laboratory. The corridors were purposefully built at right angles to make them soundproof, though Aiko still managed to hijack the feed.

“And how do we know one of those rogue avatars didn’t take over Wyatt sometime before they picked him up?”

“You still don’t trust him.”

“Really it’s out of our hands now.”

Harlan made sure the jammers were still deactivated around his suite. His VisorGoggles were being powered autonomously through his personal deck, which had collected a fine sheet dust tucked away in his duffel bag.

“I need you to do a favor to me?” The window was a blank construct, a wide-angle lens. As he spoke, the memory core from Blithe’s apartment was transported to Legionnaire headquarters.

“Are you getting soft on me in your final hours?”

“I need you to ensure that everything over the last few weeks wasn’t done in vain if something goes wrong with tomorrow’s shadowrun.”

“Knowing that you still care about me is more than enough.”

“Then listen. I need you to take whatever discretionary income is left in Blithe’s account. Set up a safety deposit box at Sector Nine using my detective status and duplicate all files pertaining to this investigation. Keep them there for the time being. Don’t know if Legionnaires will intercept this but fuck it. At this point, who gives a shit? Patch my EKG through to Sector Nine and create a dead man’s trigger. If my pulse should flatline at anytime before or after the shadowrun I want you to send that information to every news feed within a five hundred mile radius.”

“Honey, if you don’t eliminate this pathogen at the source. It won’t matter who you send it too.”

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