Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter Nine

Filed under: I) Chapter Nine — David Halpert @ 12:57 am

Part Four – Unreal City

It used to be that a man could jack into cyberspace without fear of reprisal or ending up flatlined. Electrons of life tickled the back of what Harlan assumed to be his brain, enabling the senses, and rekindled something inside of him he didn’t even know existed. He was naked. White light. Semi-translucent points of influx converged in strings of binary code. Thoughts became the ocean where Harlan was the foci. He didn’t even care about rescuing Luna at this point, avenging his own death by killing Hosaka, the Was.

Was this the ‘safe passage’ that the repro Samilou was promised? Or was it something more sinister, eloquent, something beyond words or descriptors, that a person — whether human, repro, or otherwise — had to embrace wholeheartedly in order to fully experience, not merely witness.

Was it death?

The unnamed chamber where Harlan’s consciousness was suspended, where he ‘thought’, wasn’t tangible. Blue diodes passing through a white slipstream. It wasn’t a thing you could grasp with callous fingertips and hold in front of your face. At its lowest common denominator, it was a metaphor, an analogy. Stalactites of ideas crystallizing into something concrete and accumulating. A kind of synergy where the whole was greater than its individual parts combined.

It was instinct, uncompromised and potent.

The furthest thing from his mind was the contents of Ash’s robopet. What would drive a reasonably sane man to turn so suddenly on Harlan was beyond comprehension. Death wasn’t some nameless embryonic void that darkened with each successive fathom. If anything it was spiritual, an uplifting, transcendental.

Then what was life? thought Harlan, What did it all mean?

Harlan awoke on beech hardwood drenched in darkness. Collapsed and naked, he felt spindly fingers rake the nape of his back. The air was of the purest concentration, despite the saturated particulates. He coughed wildly, allowing time for his lungs to adjust. Narrow slits splayed a patina of magenta neon, unbearable to witness firsthand. Harlan mindlessly swiped the floor for his VisorGoggles but knew he wouldn’t find them. This unsettling experience brought him back to SeaCal, when he first lost his sight. The vulnerability and impotence of the situation left him weak.

“Relax,” said a voice inches from his face, “this junction’s not easy baby but I guarantee you’ll feel a shitload better in a couple of hours.”

Harlan spat.

A tasteless, filmy liquid unlike saliva hit the floor. His joints ached but it wasn’t a soreness or strain in the bones but rather an overall lethargy that mimicked pain, like coming out of a long, drawn-out coma.

“What…what are you talking about? Who are you?”

A material resembling terrycloth draped Harlan’s body. His vision did his best to compensate but it simply wasn’t enough. Whoever it was helped him into a worn-out Lazyboy recliner.

“Just rest for a while,” she said, “All will be explained in time.”

#

The aroma of cocoa beans wafted inside the restroom’s ventilation. Enamel tiles supported his stance before a rectangular mirror framed in slate. His attire hadn’t changed much since his encounter with Hosaka. His reflection bore a man of similar demeanor and gait — minus the relinquished Browning, burrowing entry wound and VisorGoggles — though Harlan knew deep inside he wasn’t the same person. This lavatory reminded him of the resting place of one Randall Ozwald, the Western-style izakaya, and what may’ve been had the C4 strapped to the man’s chest obliterated the shuttle pod. This sudden realization brought feelings of fear and panic, causing Harlan to vomit in the oblong sink in front of him.

It was mid-afternoon, twelve days before the summer solstice. His eyes clocked twenty-eight individual signatures in close proximity, with one unaccounted for. Harlan sidled between muslin-covered tables to the wicker chair, situated before the plexiglass window.

“I had a feeling I’d find you here.”

“Are you surprised?”

“Frankly, I’m a bit more concerned than surprised.” Aiko was wearing a white cardigan with a pleated red skirt. Her smirk brought back his experiences in Unreal City, falling, differentiation between the virtual and the real. The décor suggested the same Victorian ambience as the café at the Ritz International.

“So what’s going to happen after this is all over? Cut off my hand? Throw me out the window?”

“Nothing like that is going to happen. No games this time, no tricks. This is the genuine article, real-time my friend.” Aiko was sipping from a porcelain teacup with a Greek frieze and matching saucer. It was Earl Gray, quickly becoming lukewarm.

“Am I dead?”

“You’re in what we call a transition period right now, honey. Don’t worry though, everything should go by swimmingly.”

“What do you mean transition period? What’s going on?”

“Please dear, sit, have some tea. I had it specially ordered for you.” Docking ports disengaged to a whir of jangling saucers and teacups. An ornate pill box full of low dose acetaminophen lay beside an art deco kettle. Harlan popped two without hesitation.

“Maybe you should explain to me why I had a bullet lodged in my heart one minute and the next minute I wake up here with you.”

“Probably for the same reason you have no port behind your neck anymore. Like I said, you’re in a transitional period.”

“You say that like it means something.”

“Your body has experienced a great trauma and is in a state of flux.

“You’re saying I’m jacked in?” said Harlan, pouring a cup of Earl Gray tea.

“No, your body and mind are completely autonomous from any functional network or system. Doesn’t mean there aren’t other systems at work here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your mind is coming to grips with a profound change. The unconscious part of your mind and the conscious part of your mind are becoming fused at a phenomenal rate. They were bound to be some side-effects.”

“You’re losing me, Aiko.” She reluctantly leaned back, out of frustration, brushing the raven black hair from her eyes, and winced.

“When we found you in Samilou’s apartment you were in dire straits to say the least. All bloodied and pale. Didn’t think you had a spark of life in you left. But you did. And we knew our window was slim if you had any chance of survival.”

“You keep saying we?”

“Just listen, babe,” prompted Aiko, leaning forward slightly, “It was a last resort. Believe me I didn’t want to do it but he was adamant in explaining that it was our only option. We did what we had to do. While you were passed out we found the Djed in the adjacent room, took whatever was left in your consciousness, and downloaded it to the device. Once we found what was salvageable, we uploaded it to the Ankh.”

“Jesus Christ.” Harlan grabbed the burgundy linen napkin and dabbed it in an old-fashioned glass with mineral water before wiping it brusquely across his face. “How long have I been out?”

“Almost a week…six days.”

“If this is some sick joke Aiko, please tell me now because it’s not funny.”

“Like I said before, no games, no tricks.”

“How the hell did you find me in the first place?”

“A repro’s compelled to return to its maker. At least so I’ve been told.”

“But I wasn’t the one who created you.”
“Maybe not as a repro,” started Aiko, taking a ginger sip of her tea. “But you did choose me as your avatar. Without you Harlan darling, I’d cease to exist. Whoever decided to integrate me into the Ankh did so anonymously. I’d say you have a guardian angel on your side detective.”

He thought about Luna and why he hadn’t heard back from Aiko in more than four days while seeking refuge in the Catacombs. The next best thing to protecting the Ankh was putting it to good use.

“And how can we be sure the Ankh won’t fall back into Hosaka’s hands?”

“Well you’ve put a stop to that for the time being. Let’s just say we have certain guarantees that it won’t be in operation anytime soon.”

“What about the Djed?”

“Well you see the Djed wasn’t exactly empty when we uploaded you to the Ankh. This is where things get tricky. We believe that some of these side-effects are a result of your intermingling with the Blithe consciousness. So in addition to coming to grips with this new body, there’s a chance that the data meant for the Djed is currently streaming in your veins. And there’s no clue of how it will affect you now.”

“How did you know about it?”

“About Blithe? Come on Harlan, honestly, who else would it be? Once we found the damn thing beside you it was easy to put two and two together. I mean only a handful of people knew it existed in the first place. Living people mind you.” Harlan scratched his left temple, expecting to feel his VisorGoggles there but they weren’t. He felt in his breast pocket, thinking he’d find a few remaining cigarillos or at least a crumpled packet, but didn’t. Harlan slowly circuited his index finger around the cup’s rim in one continuous loop.

“Tell me this then,” continued Aiko, “Who would you rather have inside you at this moment?”

It took a minute to realize that his finger was deeply cut, dripping copious amounts of blood on the muslin tablecloth. He kept bleeding. The involuntary need to act and stop the hemorrhage vanished, as if it didn’t exist. Eventually though, Harlan relented, and reached for a napkin. The blood, it was black. Aiko expunged the lemon wedge and a single drop absorbed the chaos of the citrus-diluted water.

#

That single droplet was actually Harlan’s pupil exposed to sodium light. He awoke on firm temperfoam, thinking it was still Samilou’s apartment, pent-back on the floor with an upholstered pillow beneath his head. Aiko leaned over him, gauging his reaction time.

“How long was I out?”

“Almost three hours. I was beginning to worry you weren’t going to wake up.” A single bulb swayed from the ceiling. Hunter green walls of stucco surrounded him. A crescent of terminal monitors lay at his left side. The room smelt of sandalwood and something else oddly reminiscent.

“Where am I?”

“Somewhere in the proximity of Night City.”

Night City?”

“We smuggled you back here once you collapsed at the Heavenly Waters arcade. Don’t you remember?”

“I suppose not.” Wood scraped against wood across the room. Aiko retrieved a Beretta M9 taped beneath the plastic-laminated desk and aimed it at the entryway. A lumbering mass of muscle waltzed into the apartment.

“Jesus Christ, Ash, you scared me half to death.” Harlan stared stupefied. Ash Wednesday sidled over to the kitchenette’s sink and poured himself a glass of tepid water straight from the tap. He didn’t get sick. None of them did, anymore.

“Didn’t mean nothin’ by it sweety. Just makin’ myself an entrance. Nice seeing sleeping beauty awake for once.”

“Yeah well,” continued Aiko, wiping her forehead as she watched Ash down the entire glass in one gulp, “you shouldn’t sneak up on people hiding out from those trying to kill them.”

Ash handed Harlan a carton of Vietnamese takeout from a compact fridge and a set of chopsticks wrapped in plastic.

“I think I need some questions answered.”

“You’re gonna wanna eat up. Da first twenty-for hours are a real bitch.” Harlan turned sideways with his feet flat on the floor, his ass square on the temperfoam mattress, his knees near meeting his chest. He surveyed Ash while eating silently, curried vermicelli and mixed vegetables, cold and slightly rotten. The mirrorshades that eclipsed his eyes earlier had disappeared as did the nasal bridge pierce. The blanket of tattoos, however, remained. Aiko was in the corner rolling kief in several matted Zigzags.

“You died Mr. Wednesday,” said Harlan matter-of-flatly, “I dropped by your flat and you were nowhere to be seen. I found blood, empty bullet casings strewn on the floor, hardware destroyed…”

“You found exactly what they wanted you to find. Da only thing they had to dispose of was the body. And I take it from your previous statement you didn’t find one.”

“And who are they? Fusion Corp? Wittenberg?”

“Na man, ain’t nothin’ like that. If anything it’s the people he works for. Don’t quite know for show.”

“Look Ash, I was able to locate your robopet. It was discovered somewhere in Sector 17 in the apartment of one of your friends, a repro named Samilou. I believe you knew her in one capacity or another. But shortly after I had the damn thing it was taken from me by a man named Hosaka.”

“How unfortunate.”

“Now there’s a good chance I can retrieve it from him but I need to know what happened between you and the repro.” Ash lumbered forward, slump-shouldered and slow, dragging his tattered swivel chair in tow.

“Aight here’s the deal, straight up. When things went bad at the Archipelago, I figured some serious shit was goin’ down, right? Anyway, shortly after dat I got a tip from an anonymous source I couldn’t trace, a woman, told me someone was hot on my ass and closin’ fast. Spent what little time I had remaining trying to contact you. When dat didn’t happen, I spent my time creatin’ dat half-assed SOS should you ever return to my old apartment. Before I know it I get a couple of ricochets in my back, short straight through the door.”

“How’d you escape?”

“Didn’t. Busted a cap in the dickhead’s skull before he managed to get another round off. Hired killer. No ID, nothin’.”

Ash strolled into the kitchen. He retrieved two heating lamps and a spray bottle from inside the peeling cabinets before sidling into the adjacent room. Harlan followed. By this time, he was wearing his trademark cloak. The entry wound and dried blood gave it a kind of distinction, a prestige, like a detective wouldn’t be a detective without this evidence to back it up. Inside the room were twelve stalks of Grade-A hydroponic under a canopy of halogen light.

“It’s nice to see somethin’ survived my past life,” said Ash, “How do ya like my little side project?”

“This isn’t your old apartment?”

“Course not, man. What you think I’m crazy.”

“This is the bottom line Ash. I don’t give a shit what’s inside your robopet. The fact that we came across it at all was entirely coincidental. And the only reason I’m here, besides the fact that you dragged me here, is two fold. Firstly, nothing would give me more pleasure than to cut the throat of the son of a bitch who killed me. Any favors I do for you from here on in are not for you. You hear me? They kidnapped my girl. Put a gun to her head and took her from me as I lay there dying in Samilou’s apartment. Now this ain’t persona, but I need to know what you know in order to do my job. These little side projects are nothing but a distraction.”

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew what was inside that robopet,” said Aiko, spraying the leaves sporadically.

“Then please, enlighten me. When did you awaken from the Ankh?”

“Almost right after Aiko finished reformattin’. Took a day or two to recover from my wounds, gettin’ shot ya know? Even paid a visit to your office only to find it deserted. Found your signal in Samilou’s apartment over the wireless. Figured since you were a detective is all. And there was Aiko, fully-formed. And there was you, dead, but it was her decision to resurrect you once we found the Djed in the other room.”

“But when was the time, the exact time,” urged Harlan.

“It started after you arrived at the Catacombs. It’s been a week already.”

“That could be shortly after I broke into Fusion’s mainframe. You think the two are connected.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.” Harlan, not knowing what else to do, ignited another cigarillo out of frustration, out of the more than three days of his so-called life that he lost in his resurrection. Where might Luna be? What might be done to her? He didn’t know. Aiko passed Ash a freshly rolled joint and he pocketed it, knowing full well it would have little or no effect on a repro.

“While I was jacked in, our systems technician Valdez picked up what we first thought was a random signal originating from an old comsat that hadn’t been used for decades.”

“And the signal?”

“That’s what we don’t know. Motherfucker Hosaka threatened to kill me before I had the chance to find what was in the transmission. Said it was vital to the mission’s success, whatever that meant. Bastard even took my gun.” Harlan reached inside his jacket and felt something within the inner pocket. “Son of a bitch.”

“What is it?”

Inside was a thin strip of translucent blue plastic. Harland tossed it to Aiko.

Valdez must’ve slipped it into my jacket when he took my piece.”

“Guess we know who your guardian angel is.” Aiko held the datastick against the heating lamps of Ash’s grow-op, taking in the immensity of what might be contained within it.

“We’re leaving,” said Harlan, “Take us to the nearest cybercafé.”

“Saddle up cowboy.”

#

To the small, loyal, non-Asian client base of the Korean district, its busiest restaurant was a low-key niche otherwise known as KBs. The area was a kidney-shaped layout with bamboo gazebos and Christmas lights strewn about the décor. Its placement in this sector was an amalgamation of bubble tea, virtual karaoke, noodle houses, retro arcade parlors, and, of course, the quest for quasi-foreign, inexpensive cuisine.

It was incredibly hot. A mere half-dozen terminals were housed in a dimly lit corner, digital silicone at all, with little foot traffic. The remaining tables housed circular grilles in their centers amidst aromas of meat, ginger, and tobacco smoke. Harland couldn’t do anything on an empty stomach. They waited, they ate, until the spokes of their grilles thickened with black char and singed residue until it was impossible to cook anything else.

“What do you suppose’s on it?” said Ash, around a surprisingly large mouthful of kimchi.

“Do you wish the port?” asked the waitress. Aiko nodded her head.

“Visors too.”

Their rental was an outdated model meant for distribution to the widest consumer base and not for personal use. It lacked tact and finesse. Its RAM storage was extremely limited as was its bandwidth, used strictly for public access. Their collateral on the visors was their dinner payment. Fatal error? Power surge? If something were to happen to the device in their possession it’d be their responsibility to pay the deductible.

Ash wore a cheap blue-and-white seersucker suit while Aiko dressed casually, youthful, in a modified T-skirt and matching V-neck haltertop, blending in perfectly with surrounding populace.

“Come one now. Give it here,” demanded Aiko with an outstretched palm.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Afraid not honey, figured you’d be grateful enough for us saving your life.”

“No deal,” said Harlan, adding a swig of Scotch to his coffee. “Not until I get a view of it first. Come Aiko, quit playing games.”

“I’m not playing games. I’m being very, very serious.”
“Well you might have the visors but I have the datastick. So, Aiko, you can give me the visors now and wait a little while I view the transmission, or we can wait out the rental together until the time runs out. Your choice.”

Aiko surveyed him wearily while Harlan took an elongated sip of coffee, twirling the chip between his fingers. The walls in the restaurant were a low-rez vista of the Seoul skyline from a penthouse overlooking the Han River. It provided little authenticity to a tense situation.

“Give it here, man,” insisted Ash. For the first time Harlan noticed that his gold tooth was missing. “I’ll look at it first. Make it a leave no stone unturned sort of thing. Come on, whatdya say?”

“I let you view this, and you tell me once and for all what’s in your robopet that’s so damn important that it’d drive a man to murder.”

“Deal.”

Ash unlatched the dataport form its plexiglass cover, hooking the jack from the visors to the terminal. Harlan muted the display as it faded into the unassuming marble table. With a deep breathe and a low-dose slab of hyperbase, Ash activated the visors.

“So tell me hon, what’s it like living on the opposite side of the tracks for once?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Oh come on, don’t be coy with me, baby. Tell me, what’s it like? The life of a repro. Is it everything you hoped it would be?”

“You know, Aiko. I never asked you to bring me back to life using the Ankh. You had no right raise me from the dead. You had no right. You wanna know what it’s like? It’s like I wanna kill myself but I’m too scared because I’m afraid someone like you will whisk me back to life. You wanna know what it’s like? It’s like I hate the fact that I’ve been eating for the past hour and I might as well have been eating cardboard because the taste buds in my mouth don’t work. I’d take a shit, but I’m afraid my sphincter will explode and god knows what I’ll find in the toilet. You wanna know how I feel? That’s how I fucking feel.”

Harlan exhaled another long puff of his cigarillo.

Aiko didn’t smoke.

“So tell me, how do you enjoy being human, Aiko?”

“It’s different,” she started genially, “it’s interesting, restrictive. I can’t jump to places like I used to, mainframes, networks, and I’m still getting used to the sensation of walking, but at least one good thing came out of this.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“You can rest easy and take light in the fact that at least for a time, no additional repros will emerge from the Ankh.”
“How the hell can you be so damn sure about that?”

“Because we have the device powering it.” Aiko rested her velveteen handbag on the digital silicone and extruded a cube similar in design to the Djed about the size of a golf ball.

“You serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

She willingly handed him the cube but Harlan had no intention of keeping it. He’d been shown the Djed, which had since been lifted from Samilou’s apartment, and to be honest he felt its ownership was better in the hands of a repro, even if it was Aiko. But this, the symbol of life, the powersource of the Ankh, shook Harlan’s faith, and the knowledge that no hiding place no matter how secure could adequately protect the device.

Ash sat with the visors, manipulating the tactile interface before him. Harlan picked a large chunk of pork between his teeth. There was a certain discontinuity that came with dining at KB’s and Harlan couldn’t quite put his finger on what that discontinuity was.

“What would Hosaka possibly want with the robopet?” He wasn’t expecting an answer. “There’s something different about the Aiko in real-time. You’re not as big a bitch as you used to be.”

“Charmed.”

Ash slammed his fist so hard against the table that it jerked the neighboring terminals’ signals, spilling soy sauce. His pupils dilated, fixating to the dim interior light of the restaurant. Ash flung off the visors. It was the first time Harlan had seen the man so pale.

“I think I’m going to be sick.”

Ash became eclipsed in artificial light. Its photons bounced off the walls, sidled between hexagonal tables of freshly waxed acrylic, lumbering massively.

“Wonder what that’s all about?”

Harlan cradled the visors in his palms and reset the program with the datastick still inside.

“The question shouldn’t be whether or not you’ll be afraid of what’s in the program. The question you should be asking is are you brave enough to stare the unknown in the face even when you’re expecting it.”

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

Aiko pocketed the second-rate visors, storming for the exit in the momentary disorder that encapsulated the sector.

“Fucking great.”

“What about the bill?”
“It’s been taken care of,” responded Aiko.

#

Electricity had been disabled for much of the sector for the past few hours and recreational use of terminals was restricted until full power was restored. Public transport was a no go. Most of the trams were inaccessible, swarmed with frazzled, bewildered commuters storming the platforms. For the trio to travel to another ward with Wifi capabilities was not only pointless at this juncture but with their limited monetary resources, downright irresponsible. He would’ve ventured alone but didn’t want to raise suspicion on either Aiko or Ash’s part, since Harlan wanted a place to crash tonight.

Ash would hack into his permanent records, unfreeze Harlan’s bank accounts electronically because for all intents and purposes he was ‘alive’. Till then Ash offered a drag of hemp to steady his nerves. Without DNI was like a phantom limb for the mind, the life of a repro gnawed at his thoughts the way nails scratch a chalkboard.

“You’re saying there are programs that would willingly sacrifice human lives if it meant freedom from a network.”

“Are you kidding? They would wipe out hundreds of humans if it meant just one day in the real world.”

“But why?” asked Harlan to Blithe.

“Some just because they can. Others may want to exact revenge on certain people who’ve wrong them, but that would imply sentience and some sort of previous deal or broken agreement.”

A grand Yamaha piano lay open in the corner. Harlan ordered a double bourbon from an expensive brand. The lounge was a low-key establishment with a sparse clientele. He was drinking a rare vintage Syrah from the Rhone vineyards. Whether or not this was a dream or a well-constructed sim Harlan couldn’t tell. He wouldn’t argue with Blithe if the details weren’t so fine.

“Before one of the repros died she told me I might be, or may’ve been, a tracer for one of them. Now this may not be very important to you, but before I can move forward I need to know.”

“The great detective always wanting the answers,” said Blithe, tracing his index finger along the rim of his wine glass until a faint ringing sounded. The wrinkles in his face were a kind of typography.

“Who is the fourth repro?”

“I can’t answer that.”

“You can’t or you won’t.”

“What do you want me to say detective. That I know who the fourth repro is. And if I told you who the fourth repro was you’d still be coming to me for answers as a crutch.”

“I didn’t ask to be here at all. Look, Randall Ozwald was killed in the pod shuttle. Samilou was jettisoned out the airlock in the Catacombs. And Ash remains alive and well for the time being. So that leaves one more left excluding Aiko and myself, and I need to know who that person is.”

“So you want to know the repro’s true identity is that it? Look at you. You’re even starting to refer to it as if it were a real person.”

“Can the shit all right,” urged Harlan, inhaling hesitantly, not caring if the other patrons overheard him, “you’re a part of me now, whether you like it or not. What I don’t know, you couldn’t tell me even if you tried. Frankly I’m getting sick of these mind games. But Blithe, you gotta give me something, meet me half way on this one.”

“Mario Juarez. Does that name ring a bell?”

Thoughts. Harlan accessed the banks of his mind attempting to recall that name but failed to do so.

“Maybe that’s because you’re trying to forget detective. Mario Juarez was his true name. His handle was otherwise known as ‘The_Sting_315’. He was killed by Luna at New Bedlam Hospital under the belief that it was he who assaulted her.”

“Why are you telling me this? Was Mario Juarez the fourth repro?”

“The question isn’t in the what. It’s in the what not. Why was she at New Bedlam Hospital in the first place? Vengeance? Without justice or reason? No, but something greater. Is it possible she thought Juarez might have been a repro?”

“You saying Luna’s a tracer?”

“I’m saying that Mario Juarez isn’t the first person she’s killed during her tenure on this planet. She has a history. I believe in the grand scheme of things there’s a larger plan at work here. Luna’s not dead detective but she may not be alive for long if you don’t find her and keep her safe.”

“And if there’s anything I’ve learnt up to this point it’s that you’re not going to tell me where she is. Because you can’t.”

Blithe nodded. The streaming vinyl wallpaper displayed images; blooming chrysanthemums, a babbling brook, sunsets. Harlan’s vision lost cohesion but he wasn’t drunk. Blithe’s face remained dominant as the background faded gradually.

“If I told you where Luna was, you wouldn’t be a very good detective now would you?”

#

The city consisted of thirty-four sectors, each with its own culture and size. In the course of his investigation twelve had been visited extensively. Ash used a public kiosk to hack ministry records, allowing Harlan to relinquish his funds, a small stipend by corporate standards but a pittance nonetheless. Ash’s word simply wasn’t enough, so Harlan offered ten percent of his account as payment to ensure the task would be completed.

He coordinated a series of purchases from illegal cartels in the Bay Area, ensuring they’d be able to jack in by nightfall. It was unnerving to feel the rough harshness of concrete beneath of feet again. Dunes of obsolete technologies obscured the lakefront from afar leaving enclaves of metallic contaminants flooding the harbor. As Harlan waited, he held the transmission close to him.

He didn’t question his unexplained rendezvous with Blithe, the randomness of it all, but knew his next move clear as day. Aiko’s knowledge as a technician, unlike Ash, was limited. The physicality of hardware was foreign, even scary to her. The eventual workstation was a mélange of third-world engineering and first-rate cypher ingenuity. Its core was comprised of an outdated Vietnamese model encased in imitation mahogany. The peripherals were haphazard and threadbare with much of the wiring frayed. Harlan fitted the ‘trodes to his fingers and strapped the visors to his forehead, not having DNI a marked disadvantage.

“Aight now ‘member to lay low and buckle through, and the when you get within sight of the fence. Punch it.”

“Don’t worry. By the time we’re through here we’ll have that robopet back in our hands and Hosaka against the wall.”

By the time all the gear was installed Harlan had been awake for twelve hours. On the journey back to Ash’s flat they’d picked up some takeout consisting of ginger-spiced lo mein, several vacuum-packed sandwiches, and a six-pack of imported beer. Aiko handed Ash a slim-necked green bottle with Korean embossed on the glass before Harlan passed out.

Entering cyberspace on an empty stomach was to dispel oncoming tragedy, malnourishment, dehydration, even death.

A stick of hyperbase gnawed between his teeth.

Eventually Harlan swam through bits of code and not long after approached the datasphere, a mausoleum network with minimal security, its fences inferior in size and number, especially with the hacks he was working. The employee records might as well have been handed to him on a silver platter. Human resource departments were the least sought after by burgeoning cyphers in the trade and had little monetary value on the market. Harlan attached the file to his program, his avatar, and dragged the files back to RL before Aiko finished her main course.

“I’ve combed the document I lifted from Fusion Corp. and found four profiles that fit the details Blithe gave me, but I think I’ve pretty much pinpointed who we’re looking for. How’re you with GPS?”

“Fucking-A detective. Find his last known address and trace da handle to a point of inflection. Ain’t nothin’ to it man.”

#

The coordinates Ash supplied them with were precise and quick, uploaded immediately to a disposable Virgin mobile Aiko bought shortly after her resurrection. It was a crude neon display of intersecting greens and scarlets relative to their position. The life of a repro was a perfunctory one. He felt stronger, more powerful but at what cost. Without pain or the experience of sleep, physical existence seemed illusionary, almost like a dream.

Pier 27 wasn’t a solitary complex but a series of interconnecting platforms between skyscrapers that resembled mushrooms or some kingdom of fungi. Access was restricted to residents but Harlan’s detective status allowed them entry. Its lobby was a subtle décor of diamond ceramic tiles, pinewood finishing, low ceilings, and a liquid crystalline display interfaced throughout.

Aiko boarded the shuttle, a small two-seater with brushed leather interiors and concave plexiglass windows, to the south-eastern quadrant of capsules.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you?”

“What’s that hon?”

“When I was back in the Catacombs with Hosaka and the rest of them, Samilou said that in exchange for killing me she would be granted ‘safe passage’ by Ortiz. Do you have any idea what that means?”

“Sure, I have an idea, but I’m not sure it’s the right one.” Harlan gazed towards Aiko’s lap, her handbag, realizing it was the counterfeit knockoff Ortiz had with her at Nine Miles. “Samilou feared death Harlan. It seems that according to Ash the shelf-life of a repro is substantially less than that of a human. It’s possible she wanted to be reintegrated back into Unreal City before it was too late. Of course that’s just a guess.”

“Christ, how long do they for?”

“Ash said three years, but without knowing for sure, we could show sings of degeneration in as early as eighteen months.”

“Well that’s certainly good to know,” answered Harlan stoically, “no time like the present I suppose.” He released his newly-purchased Glock from its holster, unlocking the safety. Swimming. Lights. The whir of engines. They departed the shuttle onto glossy tiles.

Their target’s true name was otherwise camouflaged. A ghost. The first Harlan had witnessed since the oblong lenses of his VisorGoggles bore the sight of the cypher known as Ashley Wednesday.

The narrow antechamber was spartan, conical sconce fixtures and fichus plants with synthetic strands for leaves. Harlan fed the card-reader into the slot and the brass handle protruding from the oak door’s midsection unlocked. It was a well-furnished penthouse suite. Classical music vented from invisible speakers. Aiko removed her stilettos prior to entering the abode, ceramic tiles littered the floors. Harlan sleuthed in. The city’s skyline reflected in the afterglow of the apartment. A half-empty bottle of Dom Perignon lay on the counter alongside two champagne flutes and a tactile interface dialed to a phone sex line.

“Doesn’t seem like anyone’s home,” said Aiko, “maybe he was tipped off beforehand through the wireless.”

“Keep quiet.” Harlan sliced through the kitchen. Vibrations of something different trembled beneath his loafers. “Follow me.”

The door to what Harlan assumed was the master bedroom was slightly ajar, eclipsed in darkness. He nudged it further open with the front of his shoe and drew his weapon. Pent-back was the unidentified quarry, the spigot jammed deep in his brainstem. Nothing but the glaring tint of monitors guided their path. Harlan resumed the terminal, scanning the streaming code upon the screen.

“Be careful not to wake him,” said Aiko, “We don’t know what the fuck we’re dealing with here honey. How long he’s been out for.”

“Three hours and twenty-seven minutes. Jeez, whatever he’s running it must be pretty hardcore. Thing’s set to automatically go off in another two hours.” Harlan laid his Glock on the embossed desktop. “Stand behind him. I’m going to deactivate the program. When that happens I want you to remove the spigot. I’m going to stand in front in case he tries any funny business.”

“I don’t think that’s a problem.”
“Why’s that?”

“His hands are bound to the chair.” Aiko was right. The man’s wrists were strapped to the wide steel armrests.

“I’m disconnecting the link.”

Keystrokes in sequence disengaged the interface between their victim and his DNI. A cathartic experience for Harlan, moving the barrel of his firearm an inch from the man’s forehead. Aiko released the spigot. It drew back hard with a compress of air. His eyes opened.

“Don’t move,” said Harlan emphatically. A bead of sweat rolled down the seated man’s forehead and then hit the floor. At which point the man vomited what looked like calamari over the chair’s rim, posing no threat.

“What the hell now. Come back for more? Finish me off?” Harlan unlatched the straps bounding him to the chair. The man recoiled in a fetal position, breathing heavily. “What’s the matter boy? Can’t look me in the eyes?”

Upon closer inspection the man hadn’t shaved in weeks, he looked about mid-thirties but was probably closer to Harlan’s age. The whites of his eyes were reddened, and in the more sober light he appeared displaced and unkempt, a true vagabond. His clothing was comparable to a low-ranking systadmin working all hours of the night: baggy sweatpants, dreadlocks, a white T with coffee stains on the front. He was also thirty pounds overweight. Cartons of styrofoam crunched as Harlan took a step back. Their holographic logos flexed and crunched along their outer faces.

“We found you like this,” answered Harlan, somewhat perplexed, unsure of his next move.

“God damn motherfuckers,” said the man under his breath. “Shit, you really weren’t with him, were you? Come on, follow me.”

Neglectful or unwilling to face his own mortality, the man decided to ignore the fact that a gun was aimed at his face, and headed towards the kitchen. He grabbed the champagne magnum firmly by the neck, dragging it along the linoleum countertop before dumping the contents into the sink.

“Don’t drink the champagne. I think it’s spiked. Bitch probably slipped me something when I wasn’t looking.” He didn’t speak, in the sense that he moved his lips and the words spewed from his mouth. That’s when Harlan realized it, he was deaf. A mimetic contraption of fiberoptics interpreted the guttural sounds in his throat, a pneumatic, forced voice.

“Who?”

“Raven-haired beauty that sucked my dick. At least I think she did. Next thing I know I’m strapped to the chair by a bald guy and some tojo.”

“Hosaka, Hotei,” said Aiko to Harlan.

“Son of a bitch.” The man powered down the tactile interface and retrieved a double-dose of Nembutal to stay awake. “Bastard put a gun to my head just like you did, said if I didn’t give him what he wanted he’d take it from me by force.”

“What’d he want?”

“Passcodes. Thinks I have access to a database from a company called Fusion Corp.”

“Well, do you?” asked Harlan, pulling up stool.

“Of course, but I didn’t want him to know that. Fucking Jap bodyguard jammed the plug into my neck, tried to extract the codes manually, remotely. Probably would’ve been dead if you hadn’t disconnected me when you did.”

“So it’s true then about the Djed. You stole it.”

“That was a long time ago. Besides, you can’t change the past, whatever happened happened. Forking the Djed over to Fusion Corp was the biggest mistake of my life, and if I’d known what was in store for me, I never would’ve touched those schematics.”

“Seems like you have it pretty good up here.” Aiko strode into the ultra-chic den, panning the neon landscape. Warhol reprints reflected in the glare of the balcony windows. “How much does this place run you up?”

Their resident cypher opened the fridge. The flavored vodka was a citrus blend, Russian Beluga chilled to perfection.

“You don’t understand,” he said, leaning forward, “I can’t leave this place. It won’t let me.”

“What are you talking about?” Harlan helped himself to a Presidente cigar from a nearby maple humidor. The room smelt of jasmine.

“It wasn’t the Djed those guys wanted. It wasn’t even the Ankh. They couldn’t care less about them. That much I know for sure. Naw, this is far worse.”

“Well, what were the passcodes for?” asked Aiko. The man disabled the voicebox curved round his jaw, deciding to sign his response in a somewhat archaic and benign fashion.

“A mainframe…” he started, on the verge of tears. Aiko spoke for him, translated for him. But how could he know that she could interpret the man’s signage. That was the real question, “…separate from Fusion Corp. stored away all these years for safekeeping, of course till someone caught wind of its existence. No. This is something far more sinister.”

Their stranger helped himself to another shot of vodka.

“I’m thinkin’ embezzlement for starters. I’m thinkin’ assassination, highly-localized and viral, paid to the highest bidder and executed to perfection, leaving no discernible trace for follow-up.”

“What did you mean when you said ‘it’ wouldn’t let you leave?”

“It’s not a coincidence that I’m using sign language to speak with you. There’s something keeping me here, something external. I woke up here more than five years ago and haven’t left this penthouse since. The doors automatically lock when closed, and when I made it to the shuttle one time the control system exploded, leaving me deaf to this very day. Every word that comes out of my mouth using this device is recorded. Now I may have thousands of dollars. I may have access to all the amenities the world has to offer, but I have to get the hell out of here.”

“We think whatever’s keeping you here is the same entity that killed a man named J.T. Blithe. This thing, whatever it is, tried to kill me not too long ago, called itself the Mirrorman. To Hosaka, the man who left you for dead. We think he’s after a virus known as ‘The Was’, part of a co-op initiative dubbed the Lazarus Project. Both that bald man and the tojo were severely injured overseas in the line of combat. Hosaka’s family signed over on experimental treatment…”

The man accessed the digital countertop, displaying an isometric projection of his master bedroom. The taller man, Hotei, stood beside Hosaka, and their still unnamed individual cradled in the chair with the spigot lodged in his neck. With a few targeted commands, the pixilated image switched to BTF’s corporate logo.

“…Fusion Corp. primarily dealt with memory extraction. While Hosaka was recovering this program was still in its prototype stages. His mind had to be active during the procedure in order for the process to be successful. We think that while he was integrated with Fusion Corp.’s mainframe he somehow sensed its thoughts — if you can call them thoughts — and we think Hosaka is hell-bent on releasing this AI into the public domain. Whatever the reason doesn’t matter now because the fact of the matter is time’s running out. And if we don’t act now, we’ll a much bigger problem once this thing goes viral.”

The man retrieved his voicebox from the counter and coiled the mic so it was hugging his throat. He exhaled slowly. Aiko leaned forward awaiting an answer, not expecting a response, but got one. He deactivated the console and the hologram dissolved before their eyes.

“What then?” asked the man. “What then when it’s over?”

The inquiry was more rhetorical.

Harlan didn’t answer.

Instead he took a shower in the narrow glass cubicle with the brass handles and beige clay tiles. A Braun shaver. Harlan brushed his teeth with one of the half-dozen unwrapped toothbrushes stored in the medicine cabinet.

Obsessive-compulsive, Harlan thought.

His gums burned from the stinging of Listerine and the eyedrops flushed his corneas. Only Aiko remained in the kitchen when Harlan returned. Refreshed, he grabbed a Heineken from the fridge, a titanium monolith, and sat down.

“Why didn’t you tell him about the Djed?” asked Aiko.

“I didn’t think it was necessary. Course if something were to accidentally happen it’d be nice to have a backup on hand.”

“This is gonna to be a disaster you know.”

“I realize that, but everything so far has been a disaster. Figure why add another dilemma to our problems.”

Intuition for Harlan sparkled like constellations on a clear night. As a repro it disintegrated slowly like the high tide sweeping out to sea. Their hope for Luna’s safe rescue dwindled and the route to kill Hosaka along the way was slow-moving at best, with the robopet nowhere in sight. The future looked bleak. And the leads from this man were not promising.

This was their fate.

This was their destiny.

And the line between life and death was growing thinner by the hour.

#

Their comrade was otherwise nameless, untraceable like the Mirrorman, no electronic footprint in Unreal City, so they simply referred to him hitherto as ‘Jargon File’. His workstation was a fortified model that easily outperformed any brand on the market, consumer, black, or otherwise. Fortunately, Jargon carried supplement visors that were stylish in their own decadence. Harlan’s mission was straightforward, the forest through the trees. Eliminating ‘The Was’ holding their friend captive was not an easy task. There were no emergence points and no telling what sort of fences were in store for them, but in exchange Harlan was given free reign to Jargon’s hardware for the purpose of escape.

Like Braille, Harlan grazed his fingers slowly along the embedded circuits on Valdez’s transmission.

“Ready?” asked Jargon, monitoring the terminals.

“I was born ready.” Harlan bit down on the mouthpiece hugging his gums, corrugated blue rubber. With a throbbing wave, the construct activated, his mind strained against the nova. Flashes. Impulses. Deviations. The data equivalent of a concussion grenade absorbed from the explosion’s forefront.

The tingling as a result of the ‘trodes normally clipped to his fingers receded, making it increasingly more difficult to navigate. The void, which ebbed and flowed according to his movements, flexed without reproach, despite the numbness. A singular file emerged, strident and libidinous, taking precedent among the wavering abyss before him.

Harlan accessed it.

The construct was alluring, the morgue from inside the Catacombs. Harlan reached forward and outstretched the cabinet where Ortiz lay. In its place was his body, his former self. Blue and cold and unmoving. Zigzag cuts from serrated blades, post-autopsy, along the chest. The eyes opened suddenly. A gunshot from behind pierced his heart. Harlan stumbled along the cold steel, bleeding out, Hosaka with the smoking gun at the other end of the room smiling.

“I had a feeling I’d see you here.”

When he came to Luna was there before him. Hosaka was nowhere in sight. A circlet of golden light shone upon them. The tiles beneath Harlan were checkerboard and grimy, blanketed in a thin layer of film.

“I’m not Luna, Harlan. I’m merely an avatar constructed by the specifications provided. Whatever you may be feeling right now, I can assure you are merely superficial.”

“I missed you,” he said, holding back tears. He wanted to hold her forever, to smell her hair, if it meant the chance of holding onto this moment for just a little longer, instead of it slowly disintegrating piece by piece like some elaborate construct. She portrayed the woman he’d first met months ago, same attire, same overzealousness and naiveté.

“He said you’d react this way.”

“He, you mean Valdez.”

Luna nodded.

“So it’s true then, he knew of Hosaka’s betrayal even before it happened.”

“Let me show you something.” A scratched window illuminated. Harlan now wore a freshly-pressed Polo shirt with a black dress blazer and Aviator sunglasses modeled off his VisorGoggles. Swedish furniture appeared. Two armchairs of black top-grain leather before a tactile interface.

Valdez wasn’t lying when he said your trip into Fusion’s mainframe triggered something, but it wasn’t you Harlan. The file you accessed is another story. There are forces at work here beyond our control. A natural progression. When Wittenberg purged the database not long after the Archipelago nothing should’ve remained in the network, but something did. And because of that it led you to the Djed.”

“I got shot,” said Harlan flatly.

“Did you know that Blithe spent seven years in the Catacombs after being fitted with DNI?”

“No, I didn’t know that. Wonder why Luna didn’t tell me?”

“Oh, she didn’t know Harlan. Believe it or not, there are things Blithe kept to himself.” The facsimile of Luna combed a perfect streak of raven black hair from her face. Harlan waved his arm over the sensor and the digital silicone activated.

A secret locale, somewhere deep within Fusion Corp.’s core. Electronic fences of unknown origin rotated on a modulating bandwidth making it near impossible to penetrate. He could feel it in the saturated air of the construct.

Pixels spewed forth in a concentrated foray. Four figures appeared, first wireframed, then textured, and finally precisely detailed. A single sarcophagus sat parallax to Harlan’s field of vision. Wittenberg was there, so was Jargon. The third and fourth figures he didn’t recognize, surveying an elliptical coffin.

“When Valdez said this transmission was crucial to your mission’s success he wasn’t lying. It was just the context he got wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” continued Luna, “it wasn’t a transmission, detective. Really more of a trigger. Stowed away for safe keeping in case of an outbreak, completely autonomous network, if someone were to purposely try and delete every available piece of data pertaining to the Lazarus Project.”

“And BTF?”

“Previously kept hidden in Sector Nine until you and your confidante purged the network to access Blithe’s safety deposit box. Best guess, Hosaka, or the man you’ve come to know as Hosaka, needed something complex to break into Blithe’s stash. Tried to get as much information about the Lazarus Project, only you beat him to it.”

“If that’s true, why did Hosaka kill me?”

“Because he got what he was looking for, Harlan. He got me.”

The four figures hunched over the catacomb like some beloved effigy, their faces shrouded, eclipsed in shadow. Its lid was ajar, humming with white light but the body inside was masked, faceless.

The room dissolved with brightness. Harlan felt renewed vigor coursing through his veins, the feeling in his fingers, still jacked in with Luna standing before him. She donned a Nippon silk pantsuit with cocoa stilettos. Harlan sat in the same chair where he first met Luna. His office was ornate, more real than it seemed before and her cold, reticent eyes stared him down.

“It feels pointless to ask questions anymore, since the answers I’m getting seem to be riddled with bullshit and more questions.”

“Then I’ll speak,” began Luna, “believe it or not the Lazarus Project extends far beyond the petty rivalries of both Fusion Corp. and BTF. There are people, mercenaries of sorts, who wish to exploit the project and erase those who’ve experienced even an iota of inclusion, for the purpose of keeping it a secret.”

A bottle clanked inside Harlan’s desk drawer as he pulled it open on rustic hinges. Inside were three fingers of aged Canadian whiskey and a single lowball glass covered in dust. The ceiling fan whirred. He poured a shot and downed it in one gulp. For reasons unexplained it tasted more real than anything since emerging from the Ankh.

“Then please enlighten me.”

“Hosaka isn’t the man you think he is.”

“I think we came to that conclusion when he shot me.” Harlan took a second hit, wiping his mouth with the white cotton sleeve the construct provided.

“That’s not what I meant. You see when Hosaka was undergoing experimental treatment with Fusion Corp. his mind was severely compromised. It’s wasn’t a coincidence that his personality changed completely after the procedure was finished. Most thought it was a side-effect of the memory extraction but that wasn’t the case. We think sometime during the process Hosaka’s mind was replaced by the entity known as the Mirrorman.”

“Then where is Hosaka exactly?”

“We think his consciousness is locked away somewhere in Fusion Corp.’s database. For all we know it could’ve deleted when its mainframe was wiped.”

“You saying it wasn’t Wittenberg who initiated the erasure?”

“I’m asking were the stakes high enough to remove himself from the Lazarus Project rather than risk losing everything. But let’s put Wittenberg aside for a second, ‘cause there’s something more vital at stake here. You want to know what’s inside Ash’s robopet, fine I’ll tell you. Tell you what it took him three months to accomplish. What it would’ve taken a dozen humans to develop in just as many years.” Luna grabbed the bottle out of Harlan’s hands and downed the remainder.

“It’s a pathogen, meant only for a select group of people. It hijacks the host and hacks the DNA of that person until the mind can no longer think on its own. This wouldn’t be such a problem, if the clientele being co-opted by the virus weren’t in such high standing with the community.”

“So that’s who the repro wanted to warn before she died, ‘those who wished to be free’.”

“Now you saw what Blithe and Wittenberg were capable of with the Lazarus Project. Now imagine those who have access to DNI being replaced by all those avatars wishing to leave Unreal City. Even a dozen avatars in those that wield power would have catastrophic consequences in real-time. Now I know I’m dumping a lot of information on your shoulders detective, but the only thing separating humans from repros is purpose, a master plan.”

Harlan thought about the future. What it would mean to those hibernating online to suddenly break free. A Plato’s cave without the vulnerability, shame, or self-restraint of human beings.

“And that is?”

“That’s up to you, detective. I can’t see that far ahead. I find the idea of these programs peddling through the world unsettling. Think about it. Ash was able to develop this pathogen in less than four months, imagine what a handful of them will be capable of in that same amount of time.

“Rest assured this is a small group that wishes to be freed. Most are comfortable tucked away in their little niche. Some, unfortunately, think otherwise. Some have evolved past their programming and wish to rid cyberspace of any human intervention whatsoever. And it won’t be with a nuclear blast or a bubonic plague but will be so subtle and so minute that before people start to take notice of what’s happening it’ll be too late.” Luna reached into the breast pocket of her suit jacket for a single Meia-Noite cigarette. “Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

Harlan sighed.

“But everything’s tied into the net. Bank accounts, permanent records, security codes, emails.”

“I’m glad you’re coming around to understanding what’s at stake. And why it’s so vital you prepare for what’s coming.”

“Only me. Not us?”

“I’m standalone detective, a warning beacon. I can’t go beyond the limits of what’s expected of me. What you need is someone to physically go into the network containing ‘The Was’ and purge it permanently before it has a chance to do any more damage.”

“Then tell me why was the comsat created in the first place? What’s its purpose?”

“The comsat is a backup program, plain and simple, a joint initiative devised by the Lazarus Project in the event that something like this would occur. Complete data erasure.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because they were Wittenberg’s access codes that unlocked it. So either he inputted the code himself or someone else who knew codes did.”

Harlan dragged his calloused fingers along the oakwood surface of his desk, lifting dust in its path. As the minutes prattled on, he felt it increasingly more difficult to concentrate on Luna’s speech. Her program was adaptive, catering to the mind of the cypher interfaced. It wasn’t her though…its fault that Harlan was so entranced. Luna brushed a strand of hair from her face as she crossed and uncrossed her tanned legs.

“So this is the way the world ends I suppose,” answered Harlan.

Luna didn’t answer.

#

Wittenberg was dead. In the wake of Harlan’s return, Aiko had contacted Ash with the location of their new headquarters, the Pier 27 complex. When news hit the wire of Wittenberg’s death, servers across the board became sluggish and overworked. The reports were substantiated by doctored photographs that could be easily recognized as fake. Forums and chatrooms quickly dismissed them as fraudulent. They depicted Wittenberg on a flowing wave of burgundy linens and comforters, spread-eagle beneath a four poster canopy with a bullet hole lodged in his cranium. Valdez’s transmission, the supposed ‘cure’, was potent in its design as well as its execution. It was, however, ultimately useless without the location ‘The Was’, where the pathogen was being stored.

“Hey man, we have a problem,” said Harlan, leaning over to Ash.

“Only one, I was startin’ to get worried.”

Ash wore torn fatigues and a wifebeater two sizes too small. He laid a Glock 22 on the quartz coffee table. The safety was on. Ash followed Harlan to the master interface in the lounge, an elliptical table about waist-high framed in thick, coral plastic.

“I discovered a kink in the plan. May be important, thought you might wanna take a look. Get your opinion.”

“I’m honored.”

“Now don’t get too cocky,” spat Harlan. “Just want you to see this.”

Harlan activated the digital silicone with a wide swipe of his hand. Lasers gyrated. Holographic spires lifted. Ornate skyscrapers dressed in a mandala arose from the interface.

“This is a view of the city, right? The red represents the area’s Wifi prior to the last Expansion.” A third of the aerial space was occupied within the virtual tapestry. “Now this overlapping layer here represents the area with Wifi capabilities after the last Expansion.” Inch-thick sapphire encompassed the red region. The spheres spliced down the regions revealing its interior. “Notice that Blithe’s apartment is encompassed from the twenty-seventh floor of Apex Towers.”

Harlan circled the table and removed the stylus from its cubbied niche, pinpointing Blithe’s emergence point into Unreal City.

“Next Expansion is in six days,” continued Ash, “in which the Wifi capabilities will expand even further to encompass this region. Now I believe ‘The Was’ is being held somewhere within this new expanded area, at least according to the transmission by Valdez.”

“Thank God, glad to see the spic did somethin’ right.”

“Don’t celebrate just yet. The worst isn’t over. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Blithe died during the last Expansion. I think he knew exactly where ‘The Was’ was located, knew exactly when it would strike, and using the resources he had went into the network from his apartment using DNI and tried to stop the rogue AI himself.”

“And what would make you think dat, man?”

“Because I know what was in the robopet Ash. The pathogen. I think Blithe wanted to destroy the pathogen at the source but knew there’d be more time if he failed. I just think he didn’t expect to die.”

“What do ya mean more time?”

Harland interfaced with the display once again.

“Because Wifi doesn’t only affect the wireless above ground but everything below it as well. I think the pathogen was released months ago and with each successive Expansion more avatars have co-opted those with DNI. Fortunately, there are only a handful of people with DNI capabilities within that region, but the real payoff is in the Catacombs my friend. And guess what area the next Expansion covers. That was the Mirrorman’s plan all along. It wanted to wait it out, see what happens.”

Harlan slid the Glock slowly against the digital silicone, distorting the city’s image into jagged shards before it was inches from Ash’s hand. He grasped the gun by the handle and tucked it in the nape of his back.

“Now tell me once and for all what the pathogen was really designed for? And why Hosaka was willing to kill me for that damn robopet of yours?” Ash cracked his knuckles and flexed his fingers. Lights shrunk from the interface, disengaging the image.

“A modified icebreaker, very potent and very adaptive man, imported from Hong Kong ‘riginally. A known cypher said he’d pay me remotely once I transferred da software to him. Whatever fence Hosaka wants to break through using that countermeasure is not simply some two-bit operation, thinkin’ megacorps, thinkin’ military. Problem is the programmin’s so complex it can only be suited to a handful of regions.”

“And how’d you know this guy was going to make good on the deal?”

“Simple. Gave me a deposit. All ‘bout the green brother.” Aiko stumbled into the living room with her Italian stilettos in hand. In the cityscape’s afterglow all that appeared was her silhouette approaching.

“Where’s Jargon?”

“Sleeping,” answered Aiko, straightening her Polo shirt so it was even.

“What? You take care of him real good sister?”

“Fuck you,” she spat, “You ain’t no pimp, and I’m sure as hell ain’t nobody’s whore. Besides I think he’s hiding from us more than anything else.”

“Why’s dat?”

“’cause this guy’s paranoid out his gore. Think about it. How’d you feel if the first three people you talked to in years told you it was possible to get revenge on the person who put you here in the first place? You ask me, I think he’s acting right as reign.”

“That doesn’t matter now. Wittenberg’s dead. Fine, we’re past that. Maybe we can find something from those crime scene photos. Bring up those thumbnails again.” The image splayed across the interface, his murder scene. “Was Wittenberg killed at his personal estate?”

“Naw man, got capped a few clicks from his home, some rundown little Xanadu in the east part of the city.”

“A Xanadu, you sure?”

“Positive. Course the pics were probably faked anyway.” Harlan paced on hardwood floors, bracing himself against the glass window as he stared into the night’s skyline.

“Maybe. But why a Xanadu of all places? Wanting to get off is one thing, but when you have access to DNI, paying for sex is just stupid. Seems a big out of place, doesn’t it?”

Dots expanded, dpi increased causing the image to distort slightly, despite being so-called ‘high-rez’. Hosaka’s gun was an M9 pistol, standard marred by the fact it was gold-plated. The entry point was finer than usual, its circumstance slimmer, the blood splatter more concentrated and directional like from a silencer or sniper.

“What you thinkin’?”

“When the sims in those suites are activated the doors automatically lock. I’ve never investigated a case where an avatar was capable of murder, which begs the question, ‘When is an avatar no longer an avatar?’”

“When it’s a repro,” answered Aiko.

#

The pathogen known as ‘The Was’ was set to be released exactly forty-seven minutes after Expansion when all the city lights would darken and power would be deactivated. The Wifi would encompass whatever grid the virus was stored. That, of course, was an estimation. First was to determine where it was located. Jargon would have to undergo a rigorous detox if they had any chance of success. Alcoholism had destroyed his nerves to stims, making their reaction slim to nil.

Ash sat across from Harlan at the bar. The Vaporizer Lounge was a retro-vintage bar not unlike the O2. It was chill. Ambient music wafted through the speakers. Its zen clocked off the charts, one of the few establishments that allowed the legalized use of marijuana. Aiko fronted the bill for the express elevator, an Odyssey naturally. Ash ordered a half-gram of purple haze while Harlan was satisfied with a spritzer.

“Before we get started with the mission I need to clear up a few lingering details that’ve been on my mind for a few days.” Harlan lit up a fresh cigarillo, lowering the music’s volume emitting from the table.

“Jah man, spit it out. No secrets here.”

“Did you have any contact with any of the other repros in the months after you were first resurrected from the Ankh?”

“Nah man, ain’t nothin’ like that. Not one. Don’t even know who da others were until you up and told me.”

“What about the final repro? I heard a rumor that repros are driven to their masters if they’re in any sort of danger. God, I’m so stupid. Why didn’t I see it before?” Harlan took a slow, deep puff of his cigarillo and propped up the drink menu on the tabletop, this time ordering a rye and Coke. “All we would’ve had to do was tail Wittenberg for a few days, maybe a week, and we would’ve had our answer by now. The last repro would’ve come to us.”

Harlan felt no connection to Aiko, whether or not she was his inherent ‘master’, but for some reason he felt an intrinsic connection to the final repro, whoever he or she was. Maybe it was Samilou’s suggestion that he was, and always will be, a tracer. Maybe it was in the unknowing of it all. When the search for answers suddenly becomes a lingering obsession.

“You had no way of knowing, babe. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. Even if you thought of tracking Wittenberg it would’ve been next to impossible to keep an eye on him at all times. The man has a dozen bodyguards protecting him, and even then it didn’t do him any good.”

“Ya forgettin’ man, Wittenberg wasn’t your master, this girl was,” started Ash, pointing towards Aiko, “And that guy, Valdez, was the one dat gave you the transmission in da first place. So don’t be so hard on yourself man. Ain’t nothin’ you coulda done.”

In the days that followed, their investigation warranted no leads, dead ends, and more questions, even with Jargon’s immense resources and finances. But then, forty-eight hours before the next Expansion, it came.

Flashing lights.

Zero hero.

The digital silicone of Jargon’s interface framed in scarlet with mini klaxons sounding from the speakers. Their benefactor, normally lethargic, raced to the elliptical desktop, plugging in a sequence of commands.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a security system, programmed to sound on the off-chance one of the repros’ signals would activate. Didn’t think it’d actually work though.”

“What signals?”

“Hosaka spoke of them when we first met. Said Fusion Corp. planted tracking devices in the four repros when they first emerged from the Ankh. Didn’t explain to me why they went off the map.”

“I just assumed they became aware someone was tracking them,” said Aiko, bracing herself on the table’s edge.

“We did. Had the damn thing removed two days after I emerged.” Ash thrust his wrist forward, indicating the scars along his forearm.

“What did you say?” asked Jargon.

Harlan stood awestruck, pushing himself from the desktop. His fingers went numb. His feet stuck to the ceramic tiles. Jargon quickly snatched Harlan’s gun from the table. The display blasted with systematic strobes, blinding him. Duel bullets spliced the room. Sparks. Sharp intakes of air.

When Harlan came to Aiko was tending to Ash’s injury, a bullet wound to his left shoulder. Stripes of bloody gauze lay at their side. Aiko was extricating the bullet with sterilized tweezers. Jargon kissed the floor with a pool of blood widening from his head.

“What happened?”

“Ash overloaded the terminal before Jargon was able to get a shot off. Good thing too. Would’ve been dead by now if he hadn’t acted so quickly.”

“Yeah, well, Jargon would still be here if you’d just kept you’re big mouth shut. Why is my head throbbing?”

“Ya got the wind knocked outta ya boy. Collapsed when the strobes hit. Nice of ya to come to, ‘cause I think it’s time we haul ass. Only gonna be a matter of time before Fusion Corp. finds this guy dead.”

“Where’s the signal localized?”

Ash traced the signal right where Harlan thought it would be, wedged between the two spheres before and after Expansion. Its location was an abandoned warehouse on the map’s northeast quadrant. The signal wasn’t mobile.

When Jargon flatlined the locks to his penthouse suite automatically disengaged. Harlan uploaded the coordinates but found Ash beating him to it. They boarded a Derringer shuttle at the apartment’s expense and transferred at a narrow bay to their destination.

Ten minutes had gone by without a word spoken. Constellations of lights danced across the windows before Harlan decided to break the silence.

“Just thought I should mention this is a complete trap. The second we step off the platform we’re going to have a dozen people tailing us.”

“Jeez honey, you know you’ve really changed ever since you got killed. You never used to question a lead when the opportunity presented itself. You just went with the flow of everything.”

Its engines hummed as the shuttle sidled against the narrow platform. Seconds after the door collapsed in on itself, Ash bolted onto the terminal. Aiko grasped his arm, pulling Harlan back so he couldn’t exit.

“Just remember detective. This is your Unreal City. What you do from here is entirely up to you.”

GPS lit the most direct route to the signal. Harland weaved in and between sparse commuters on the platform. Aiko was trailed behind as he approached the upper-level colonnade. The abandoned building had quite a history in such a short period, an abortion clinic turned VR arcade before failing as a sushi lounge. Barely-legal nymphettes flooded Harlan’s eyes, combing the movable images of magazine newsstands.

He bypassed the densely-packed walkways via an emergency exit in the southern quad. Alarms sounded, but failed to overtake the babel of travel agencies and credit card companies streaming around the promenade.

“Listen to me Ash, wait for me before you engage. Repeat. Do not approach the signal before I get there. You hear me?”

The cement stairwell was silent and musky. Harlan emerged on the 14th floor of the gutted warehouse. The storey was not much more than plywood walls, concrete pillars, and a few emergency flood lamps. He withdrew the gun from its holster, promptly activating the barrel’s sight.

“Ash! Tell me you’re here man, give me a sign.”

His voice carried over. The signal was only meters away before a wide clearance opened the floor. Ash’s back faced Harlan before a backdrop of city lights. Ash turned with the robopet in hand, the thing he’d been searching for since it was stolen from him many weeks ago. Harlan scanned the robopet through the barrel’s scope, only to find it packed with C4.

“Ash, don’t move! That thing has a hair trigger that’s set to explode.”

“Don’t ya know what this means, man. We’re heroes, ya see. Heroes!”

The blowback tossed Harlan through three walls of plywood, catapulting glass surrounding the compound out into the night like bulleted shrapnel. A tsumanic wave of flame hurdled towards him and running seemed impossible. Harlan’s Unreal City had shattered and with the heat coming closer, there was nothing more to do but remain frozen and accept his fate.

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