Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter Four

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

Part Two – The Mirrormans Shadowrun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you think that’s sensible?”

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

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

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

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

“And the money?”

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

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

“Wanna know something funny about all this?”

“Yeah. What’s that?”

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

“Was Blithe aware of any of this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly her knees buckled.

“That’s Detective Novak.”

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

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

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

“Jesus Christ, would you stop drinking?”

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

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

Luna started crying.

“I can’t stop it.”

“Shhh, it’s okay. I know.”

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

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

“Listen Luna.”

“God you don’t know when to shut up.”

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

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

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

#

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

“So what’s our next move?”

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

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

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

#

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

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

“And you guarantee this safehouse is legit?”

“Hard to say.”

“Why’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you knew me better than that.”

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

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

“We’ve got a problem.”

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

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

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

“You know the viral outbreak.”

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

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

“This isn’t funny Soundwave.”

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

“It wasn’t us.”

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

“We were on assignment in Little Tokyo.”

“Okay.”

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

“Then who unleashed the virus?”

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

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

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

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

“And how can you afford such a place?”

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

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

“And what’s her deal?”

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

“Is that right?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact it is.”

“Interesting.”

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

“And what’s new with you Hiro?”

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

#

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

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

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

He hesitantly, confidently approached a table.

“I’m looking for something specific.”

“How specific mate?”

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

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

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

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

“Right, well then. Let’s have it.”

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

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

“I thought you might like the challenge.”

“Nice, sonny, nice.”

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

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

“You serious?”

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

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

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

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

“Witness protection.”

“Bingo.”

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

“I might.”

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

“How’s that?”

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

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

“So what’s this bloke’s name?”

“Ashley Wednesday.”

#

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

“Nice sleep.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

“Can you hear me okay Aiko?”

“Loud and clear gorgeous.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean the scapegoat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

“You didn’t answer my question.”

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

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

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

“Please tell me what I’m looking at.”

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

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

“Who?”

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

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

“No one heard the shot.”

“Which means?”

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

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

“And when was that?”

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

“Why are you telling me this Aiko?”

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

“So you see what I mean?”

“Yeah, I see it.”

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

“And you can authenticate this?”

“One hundred percent.”

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

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

“So what are you saying?”

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

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

“Shit!”

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

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

#

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

“So where are we going?”

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

“And what if he’s unwilling to talk?”

“I’ll find a way to persuade him.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Closure or vengeance?”

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

“Just hang back then.”

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

“You ready?”

Luna nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you kidding?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

“Why did you choose to meet here?”

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

“What about Ash’s record?’

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

“For what purpose?”

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

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

“He didn’t make it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What you need is a safehouse?”

“Come again.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it matter?”

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

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

“I never thanked you.”

“For what?”

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“And you don’t trust her?”

“Yes.”

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

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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