Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

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.”

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