Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter Seven

Filed under: G) Chapter Seven — David Halpert @ 1:03 am

After his meeting with Hosaka in the Ritz’s café, Harlan called Aiko but to no avail. His recovery from the operation was still a day away but the affected area behind his neck itched like crazy.

Harlan thought long and hard about the Lazarus Project, of the prospect that digital copycats could be walking the streets, hacking the net, swarms of replicated beings propagating infinitely, indefinitely. If the possibility of three dead ringers out loose in the world wasn’t unnerving enough, the nearly twenty or so deaths at the Archipelago scared him straight. Fusion Corp.’s side project was a self-contained module that duplicated the brain’s function without the physicality of a body, copying the human consciousness into rivers of code, leaving nothing but memories in their wake. For what reason, he didn’t know. In this instance, ignorance was bliss. ‘The Was’ was the missing link between the Ankh and the Djed, the virtual and the real, the extraneous yet necessary technologies needed to bring the once real to the virtual to the real again, and vise versa.

The Aquatic Consortium was an underwater piazza modeled off the Fontana del Moro lined with a series of strip malls and a bevy of Odyssey elevators. The A.C. was the de facto forum for cyber-junkies and amateurs alike. In the past hour Harlan had purchased two slabs of digital silicone, a new set of VisorGoggles, a pair of Reebok shoes, a Timex watch, and an iced cappuccino. He overlooked the food court — that resembled the inside of a fishbowl — from second-floor mezzanine, waiting for Aiko to return.

“Do you think there’s a war coming?” she asked, leaning over the rail. A convex dome of fiberglass eclipsed the food court in emerald light.

“There’s too much truth in what Hosaka’s said for me to believe otherwise. However, one detail is becoming glaringly apparent. One that Hosaka may have overlooked.”

“How so?”

“Hosaka has given me a litany of reasons why I should go along with this mission. For the greater good, as he puts it. I also know that neither Hotei nor Hosaka has the investigative expertise that I have. But when Luna came to me and asked me to investigate Blithe’s murder I had very little leads to go on. I didn’t mind it, that’s how I like to work, from the outside in. With Hosaka it’s different. Believe me I think I can still help him. However, Hosaka’s priorities are misguided. He’s basically handed my mission on a silver platter. But if what he says is true, if indeed Hosaka has this Ankh he praises so highly, then our goal at the moment isn’t to seek out these clones, but to protect the device that created them.”

“I suppose all you need now is a guinea pig. See if the damn thing works.”

“You might have something there.”

A mélange of whipped cream, smoke, and cinnamon left a sour aftertaste in his mouth. It had been three days since he’d last talked with Aiko. She was wearing a tangerine miniskirt, a back-free haltertop, and clear thin stilettos that reached three inches off the ground. At two kilometers below sea level Harlan could almost feel the pressurized oxygen bubbles transporting to his brain in rapid succession.

“Why haven’t you messaged me?” said Aiko. “I was worried something happened to you.”

“That’s sweet,” mumbled Harlan, combing through a handful of electronic receipts. “I knew this would be the only way to contact you once I realized the phone didn’t work. The fact is I can’t make heads or tails of this Hosaka guy, so I figure I might as well go with the flow of things, see where it takes me.”

“That’s all in good. Just answer me one question baby. Who are you trying to convince?”

“You sure know how to be a real bitch.” Instead of answering his question Aiko pushed him off the second-floor balcony. Harlan woke with a start an inch before hitting linoleum.

#

Even in the lull of the Jarvis clinic, Harlan exposed his eyes to the saturated light above him, and the orders of his most recent purchases were already being processed for shipping. The acrid metallic taste normally associated with jacking in simply wasn’t there. The numbness that ran up and along his fingers was lifted in the absence of electrodes. No stimulants were administered in his latest excursion. Online was the equivalent to walking on simulated eggshells what with fear of the Mirrorman prowling the net.

Luna leaned over his body, reclining the chair back to its upright position before securing the spigot. A spherical mass of titanium docked firmly in the port behind his neck.

“Sorry to cut the vacation short, but I got the call from Hosaka. We’ve got work to do.”

#

In the two hours waiting for Hosaka’s command Harlan learned Japanese, French, and Finnish with enough competence to speak fluently. On the way to their destination he’d riffled through ten hours of footage from his deck. The encounter with Randall Ozwald revealed a diffuse reflection of the Ankh in the lens of the assailant’s faded teashade sunglasses. Harlan magnified the tattoo sleeves covering Ash’s arms and found several more insignias there as well, much more than the intricate striations of dyes and pigments.

It’s a blueprint, thought Harlan. Too bad Wednesday’s gone.

Luna stuck close to Harlan plodding through the Heavenly Waters arcade. The title was deceptively ambiguous, for it had the elaborate, slim passageways teeming with human traffic, lined by a succession of arches and vaults; but also the sequence of arcade cabinets, pinball machines, pachinko parlors — the garish décor, the over-the-top architecture, a low-hanging haze of cigarette smoke, the constant din of gizmos, music, announcements, flashing lights — with Hosaka not too far ahead.

I should tell you before we go any further, thought Harlan to Luna. Hosaka doesn’t trust you.

Does he?

He wants me to hack into Fusion Corp.’s mainframe and obtain information regarding the Dives. He thinks you might still have some sway with BTF. What he doesn’t know is your complete estrangement with the company, your DNI, and worse yet, me telling you this in the first place. What can you tell me Luna?

Plenty. However, I think before we proceed we need to learn more about Hosaka first.

This was augmented reality, visible winds of transparent neon. Through the magenta strobes, explosions, clusters of wigged teenagers Harlan clocked their vitals, swam through sales transactions, calculated six degrees of separation with a mere thought, and still effortlessly glided through the crowd.

O2 was an oxygen bar neatly tucked away in the atrium’s second level. Floors of impacted shag, lava lamps, huffers sunk in beanbag chairs listening to Panapet radios. They sucked in huge gulps of nitrous oxide through wire-thin plastic tubing. Harlan climbed down a spiral staircase of wrought iron. His fingers grazed the yellow canisters of cold dense aluminum lining the descent.

“The bitch is whacked,” sounded a voice from the darkened basement. “Claimed she could patch passed Skyline’s countermeasures without an iota of detection. I might be young but I’m not naïve. She wasn’t worth the breath.”

Hotei stood guard while Harlan scanned the face of the scrambling man. Valdez was his true name and he didn’t look a day over twenty, piling stacks of obsolete modules with fingernails painted a deep sable. A denim vest scrawled with indelible ink complemented his ripped-at-knees jeans. In the neon light filtered from the bar, he witnessed a backwards Detroit Red Wings cap under vintage Bose headphones.

“You must be the insider,” said Valdez almost whispering.

Don’t start, thought Harlan until Luna piggybacked the signal. I heard it.

“No I’m the runner,” answered Harlan tersely. “She’s the insider. Hosaka plans to have all angles covered here so I hope your gear’s as good he says.”

“So…do you want to see it?”

With a calculated swipe of his hand Valdez propped up a textured template. Corrugated steel creaked from the far alcove amidst the synth-pop that rose from the lounge above. The boy gestured Harlan into the vault. In front of him was the Ankh, a lithe piece of polymer in the shape of a womb. Harlan examined it, caressed its smooth oval contours, and eyeballed the Ankh until it stuck in his memory.

“Ash Wednesday came from that?” said Harlan to Hosaka.

“Him and three others. And if the attempt on your life is any indication detective they’ll come back soon enough.”

“Why’s that?” said Luna at the chamber’s entrance.

“Why honey? So the machines can’t take over. That’s why. It’s bad enough we’ve got DNI, holograms, virtual this and that. Next thing you know they’ll be swarms of these repros everywhere.”

“Don’t call me honey. How long would it take to produce a human with this thing?”

“It varies. Somewhere in the range of eighty hours,” answered Hosaka. He unrolled a Echinacea lozenge, rolling the foil wrapper into a small ball. “Rapid phototyping is a slow and steady process. But considering it’s done on a molecular level, it’s pretty quick.”

“What about side effects? I’d imagine these repros aren’t exactly the most sociable.”

“Compared to what detective, you?” Valdez laughed from the corner, sliding the headphones off his head. “They’re no more frail than we are, flesh and bone. You saw Ash in his own element. Did he seem well-adjusted?” Harlan processed his time with Ash Wednesday and recounted the deadened veins along his left forearm, the slouched posture due to long-term digital exposure.

“No program could take the place of a human,” said Luna, “I don’t care how advanced it is.”

“The problem with the repros is in their architecture. It’s one thing to copy the human brain, to double its consciousness, it’s another thing entirely to start from scratch,” started Hosaka. “Whatever came out of the Ankh may look human, and it may be smarter than all the books stored in the Library of Congress, but rest assured there are flaws built within each of them. Cyberspace is built around consensus, fluidity, universal access, and without that they are at a marked disadvantage. Eventually they’ll burn out. It’s only a matter of time. The question is how many people they’ll kill before they do.”

“Then how the hell did you put this thing together?” asked Harlan to Hosaka.

“We brought it here and assembled it piece by piece, you know, like a tank,” started Valdez. “The real bitch was finding the pieces once BTF disassembled the project.”

Harlan couldn’t shake the thought that he was one of the unwilling detectives meant to watch over Ash Wednesday, that whoever stole his robopet in the first place did so intentionally. The memories of his past seemed more distant with his new implants. Was Luna one of these repros? He couldn’t be sure, especially with the special attention Hosaka was giving her.

“And why is Hotei protecting this Ankh and not us?” Luna leaned her back against the entryway. She waited for a reply thumbing the end of a combat knife.

“The question isn’t whose worth protecting more,” started Hosaka, “If those things get control of the Ankh then all we have is a three-day window to work with. Now I’m not saying you or Luna is dispensable. But we have three loose cannons out in the open. Killing us would only be the beginning.”

“But how do we know they’re bent on killing? How do we know they don’t have a single violent thought in their head?”

“That’s not the issue here,” spurted Valdez. “We’ve got to exterminate these repros while we still can. Before things get out of control.”

But why not destroy Ankh all together and cut the repros off at the knees, thought Harlan.

A message signaled somewhere in the region of his left hemisphere. Bar codes. Striations. A red laser gliding in one foul swoop.

“See you next Tuesday,” said Valdez to Luna, leaving.

“Fuck off preppy.”

Harlan didn’t get the joke.

#

Styrofoam snow littered the floor of his presidential suite, alongside cardboard boxes, bubblewrap, and receipts. Wifi allowed for a default vista to display, the city’s skyline from a sharp vantage point. Harlan expunged two pint-sized bottles of tequila from the mini-bar and downed them each in one swig.

“Who are you?”

“You don’t need to worry about that right now.”

“What do I need to worry about then?” A man’s voice. Distant. Deep and terse like a hornet’s sting.

“Hosaka will try and convince you that protecting the Ankh is the correct course of action. This is a fatal mistake. It wouldn’t matter if you knew how to build another Ankh.”

“Is that possible?”

“The mind is a miraculous organ, Mr. Novak. It can survive long after the heart has quit functioning. With the Djed, it wouldn’t be impossible to hijack one’s memory even after the body has died.” Harlan didn’t ask how it knew about the Djed. “Anyone can copy their consciousness with enough money, but death alone doesn’t always ensure closure detective.”

“You mean there are two of you?” Silence. Not even shallow breathing was on the other end of the connection. A low throbbing.

“That still doesn’t explain murder. How can there be any kind of info-trafficking, memory-wise I mean, with no evidence of forced entry whatsoever?”

A moment passed. Harlan, as if thinking to himself, floundered in solitude until the voice off in the distance replied.

“Am I dead?”

#

The bedroom phone rang, waking him. He was lying on his back staring at the stucco ceiling. After two rings it transferred to the voice-over broadband in lieu of VisorGoggles. The hotel was a hotbed of wireless activity. It was Luna.

“Meet me in the lobby in twenty minutes.”

Styrofoam flakes crackled under his Aldo loafers.

Harlan tracked her real location, interfacing with the elevator’s VDT before reaching the main level. He bypassed the doorman waiting for him as well as the message with the concierge to a casino in the sector’s west end.

“Hosaka doesn’t have a clue. He’s shortsighted, naïve. There’s a bigger picture here that he simply doesn’t grasp.”

“Perhaps that’s why he hired you. Give him some perspective to the mission.” Luna sipped mineral water, lukewarm and flat. “He has no idea we’re here talking. I wanted to be discreet.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t see it before,” started Harlan leaning forward. “Lynch’s body was found three blocks away from Blithe’s apartment right? But authorities said they found her not too long after Expansion. Now up to this point the question has always been who killed J.T. Blithe but since the Shadowrun we’ve been moving away from the question why was J.T. murdered.” Harlan took a complimentary mint, maneuvering the lozenge around his tongue until the flavor really sunk in. “I think someone had the Djed in their possession the night Blithe died. Lynch could’ve stored whatever was left of Blithe’s memory into the device and been killed by one of these repros with Blithe in tow.”

“That may make for good bedtime reading babe but it doesn’t exactly explain why he had the Djed, if he had it at all to begin with.” Solitary derelicts manipulated air above digital silicone. Pixilated poker growing to a progressive jackpot.

“When I visited the morgue the attendant, a man named Ant, said that someone had come by earlier to claim Lynch’s property before she was cremated. It was this same person that ordered the cremation in the first place. This person, according to Ant, took whatever items were in her possession at the time, claiming to be Lynch’s estranged daughter. But isn’t it the least bit curious that she took all of Lynch’s stuff but left all of Blithe’s remnants untouched. The problem with that story is that Lynch’s real daughter is completely paralyzed.”

“You think it was one of the repros. A woman.”

“Yes.”

“You’re forgetting one thing. How did the repros know Blithe had the Djed?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t know. Is it safe to say that Blithe was more than reasonably nervous after his return overseas?”

“Absolutely,” she answering, twirling a poker chip between her fingers.

Wittenberg may have threatened his biggest rival with a hostile takeover shortly before returning from Prague, and, seeking revenge, stole the Djed from Fusion Corp. once he got wind of the project’s completion.”

“Or vise versa? Blithe might’ve had this genial reputation in the public eye but he had a take-no-prisoners attitude in the boardroom. He could’ve been the one who instigated the whole thing. Thing is, we don’t have proof either one is true.”

“Problem is I can’t go against my own instincts any more than I can trust what Hosaka says. Then there are these dreams.”

“What kind of dreams?”

“The weird kind,” said Harlan. “I didn’t even realize I was having them until a few nights ago when I was getting into a regular sleep pattern.”

“Go on.”

“I don’t know what it is. But ever since the shadowrun I’ve been thinking clearer, seeing clearer. The incident at Sector Nine might’ve been a setup by one of the repros but I think it did something, changed me in some way. I can’t explain it. By opening Blithe’s safety deposit box I think we might’ve unleashed some sort of force onto the net.”

“But you still don’t trust Hosaka.”

Harlan shook his head.

“We have to stop worrying about the Ankh. If there’s a chance Blithe is still alive somehow it poses a far greater risk. What would the repros need with the Ankh if they could just construct one on their own?”

“Are you saying we should stop guarding the device?”

“No, I think Hotei should stop protecting it. What we need is a changing of the guard?”

“Who do you suggest?”

“Aiko should watch over it. I could rig up a tracker to go off if anyone, repro or otherwise, so much as touches that thing. We need to get our priorities straight.” Harlan snuffed the remainder of his cigarillo into the ashtray before straightening up. Kitschy oriental carpets presented themselves as they exited under golden arches.

“I like it,” answered Luna, scissoring her legs across the casino floor. “Let’s get out of here.”

#

The Catacombs’ main atrium consisted of a cylindrical gravity well reaching ninety floors below the earth’s surface. Security was tight. Harlan hacked into the central registry beforehand, granting them access to a plethora of restricted areas that most of the general public couldn’t enter. Hotei held two cases in both hands, aluminum with dimpled exteriors. The place smelt of corrosion and sulfur. In theory, humans could glide straight to the building’s core, but not without serious bodily congestion. Without elevators, the rate of descent would cause numbness, vertigo, and decompression sickness more commonly known as ‘the bens’. Harlan’s DNI was active, but the more the lift descended the more his wireless went on the fritz, electric snow resembling static, so he switched it off.

Valdez’s crew was a mélange of low-level technicians and medical personnel meant to regulate the life-signs of its clientele, round-the-clock sims in parabolic chambers connected to a central matrix. Their leader’s name was Jennifer Ortiz and didn’t require a handle. Transactions were conducted by administers to privately-owned third-party providers, and services were licensed to third-party contractors. No one who worked in the Catacombs ever saw the light of day, then again neither did anyone on the surface.

A frigid updraft chilled the steel pressing against Harlan’s chest. His latest VisorGoggles were strictly for show but were an autonomous system nonetheless, a more durable polymer hugging his temples without the need for a deck.

Ortiz was lithe. Her left arm a reflective sheen in the sodium light of the underground. It was an artificial spray-on. Its movements monotonous, uninspired. Not fluid. She donned a corset of purple latex with lavender eyeshadow to match. Holographic skin graphs hugged her right forearm in the form of a Greek frieze, a Bengal tiger.

“What you running?”

“Complete independent subsystems,” began Ortiz, “reception’s shit but look, no shortage of accommodations. My friends you’re looking at one of the most protected networks in the western world.”

Valdez routed the servers to the central line, bulky spirals of Ethernet cabling just to interface with the damn thing. Harlan’s Hebrew was rustic, subtitles in Arial typeface streamed on the lower brim of his VisorGoggles. Ortiz was Hotei’s age, but the long-term damage was evident. Wrinkles formed in the absence of gravity, ones in which derms couldn’t repair. Bones frail enough to snap due to calcium deficiency. Not a pretty sight.

“Hosaka’s actually been covering your collective asses,” said Valdez. Harlan drank instant coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Hotei drank urine-distilled water from a navy-blue sports bottle. “He’s the one who put me in charge on this wild goose chase. Do you have any idea what traffic’s been like over the last few weeks? First you blow Little Tokyo off the map, then you have these cyphers claiming payment for the shadowrun, now you’ve got these repros ready to hunt you down at a moment’s notice. Tell me, Harlan, did you ever wonder how you survived the last thirty days of your life?”

Luna contacted Harlan via direct neural interface and Harlan made some excuse to Valdez to leave. She was in the Catacomb’s marketplace, an open forum of interconnected bazaars complete with alloyed palisades. Being underground was the geographical equivalent to sailing in international waters. Prostitution was legal here. So was the drug trade. Parapets were littered throughout the complex. Luna sipped chamomile tea under a striped patio umbrella. Condensation rained in minute quantities leaving puddles throughout the cement foundation.

“Why are we here Harlan?” she asked outright, adding sugar to her tea.

“The network here operates from a completely separate power source deep within the earth. If Hosaka wants me to break into Fusion Corp.’s mainframe it means I’ll have to go online, giving the repros or whoever wants to kill me another excuse to find me. How many people would you say have DNI capabilities?”

“In North America, maybe ten thousand, but not all of them go on to rot the rest of their lives in the Catacombs.”

“Their system interfaces the people together but runs on the same engine. Someone tries to jack in the network, finding me will be like trying to grab smoke with your bare hands.”

Harlan fished out his monogrammed flask from inside his jacket, pouring aged whiskey into his Arabian mocha-java.

“Frayed nerves.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You only drink when you’re nervous.”

“I’m only nervous because I drink.” Spanish obscenities jerked in the background too faint for Harlan’s VisorGoggles to pick up, along with the buzzings of Vespas and motorized rickshaws. “Must be tempting with all of these drugs around. You ever worry about falling off the wagon?”

Luna didn’t answer.

Harlan siphoned through his databanks to see if Aiko messaged him recently. His lenses gauged above-average levels of nitrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and a mixture of indecipherable airborne particulates. Her lips were a frosted peach, rich and opalescent against UV lighting. She leaned forward, showing off her jutting cleavage from a zipped fur-lined parka, and bent low, blowing over her tea.

“It’s not a coincidence that we’re here, Luna. I’m about to break through some hardcore countermeasures. Hosaka thinks there’s some footnote about the Lazarus Project in Fusion Corp.’s central mainframe but I can’t do this alone. The guys in the Catacombs are bona fide experts in their field. Fine, they know their shit, running serious hardware. Once I’m jacked in though I put myself at the mercy of everyone around me. So do me a favor. Keep an eye on me, will you?”

“Why can’t you ask Hotei to do it?”

“Because I don’t trust Hotei, and he couldn’t answer me if he wanted to. What I don’t want is another Sector Nine on our hands. If that happens, then we’re really screwed. Unlike above ground this place isn’t exactly the most sanitary, nor the most law-abiding. I’d hate for something to happen to me.”

Harlan removed his Browning and laid it flat on the circular bamboo table. Luna engaged the safety and placed it firmly in her sequined handbag. He ordered a

Carlsburg whilst skimming through encryption sequences, the outline of Luna’s physique still faintly outlined in code. They paid for their order with a handful of crumpled bills and departed the plaza.

“You can feel them, can’t you?”

“Yes,” she answered, “I can feel them.”

“They’re never gonna stop, Luna,” he started, lighting a fresh cigarillo, “doesn’t matter if we’re ten miles underground or halfway to the moon. They’re never gonna stop. Hosaka will never understand. Not like we do, that’s for sure.”

Harlan distilled the collective whispers of all those connected. A river of voices streamed into his mind, blackness, a void, indistinguishable patterns too languid to decipher. Repros were like this airborne pathogen whose actions were randomized and contagious. Luna’s acknowledgement only proved this. Harlan felt that the occupants of the Catacombs, though stationary in design, in an eerie and perverted sense, had more freedom than they did. The more Harlan fought against the current to act the more he was ultimately standing still.

“Did you know that some of the deaths at the Archipelago were housed here?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Five of them. It was the only way Ortiz and her crew could accommodate us. Amazing, isn’t it? How the rich live only to waste away in the Catacombs, yet the poor struggle to survive above. Yet at any point the people down here could just as easily pull the plug on them. But they don’t. Sometimes when I try to sleep at night I often question why that is?”

“I don’t believe in classes Luna. I was always in that middle ground, somewhere between derelict and citizen. The streets find their uses for things. That’s all we can hope for.”

Luna unfurled her disposable parasol, a midnight blue poly-cotton with a somerset print, to protect her body from raining sewage. They continued along the colonnade, attempting to look as inconspicuous as possible, though their true motive was to kill time, which in their minds was also futile.

#

Ortiz was the final clear image in Harlan’s periphery before being fully absorbed in the ocean of cyberspace. A convex shield of translucent fiberglass, strictly for protective purposes, encased his body, a purer concentration of oxygen filtered into the lacquered chamber. Valdez was operating from an offsite terminal under Hosaka’s surveillance. Harlan clocked Luna’s heat signature through the iron casing using a combination of X-ray and infrared.

Valdez modified the pod with a smuggled Ninsei_07 memory core from Minsk. This allowed for integrated connectivity between his nervous system and Fusion Corp.’s mainframe. Riding blind was about the worst possible strategy for a wannabe hacker. Harlan spent the past twelve hours combing over the files in Luna’s datapad, painstakingly piecing together the network’s framework as to ascertain its weak points, holes in the system.

“Do you copy?” said Valdez through the mic.

“What’s that? What you’re saying?”

“That, my friend, is military lingo. You get the gist. Just keep where I can see you. Every layer you pass through there’s a ten percent degradation. So stay frosty pal.”

Harlan booted the initializing sequence and crossed the primary fence easily enough. Fusion Corp.’s main interface was a crystalline pyramid funneled downward splintering at right angles. A bombardment of wireframes posited depth, sinking Harlan deeper with each passing second into its vertiginous canyons. Without proper guidance even a talented cypher could flatline right on a MNC’s doorstep. The second fence resembled densely-packed naval mines that multiplied upon contact. Hosaka’s gear masked human signatures to the point of near-invisibility, allowing him to quickly, though narrowly, pass through undetected.

Search words were nominal. Branches from the database’s substructure morphed to form dense helixes. Half the files were public. Another third was incomplete, corrupt, or foreign. A tightness pressed inside his chest. Links of opaqueness became richer and more vivid with information.

Eleven minutes.

That was their window to work with.

“You’re one crazy motherfucker. You know that? Patch it through ace. And make sure you’re not being traced.”

So far so good. Harlan punched in the appropriate sequence, unleashing a barrage of Serbian breakers to sniff out encrypted software. A shockwave rippled outward. Files as distinct as fingerprints highlighted into constellations as much of the directory was sorted out. It was more or less standalone. Outside traffic was discrete and minimal which made Valdez’s job a whole lot easier. He engaged the countermeasures swiftly, penetrating another tertiary fence with flawless accuracy.

A voice, sharp and sagacious, punctured the mindless chatter of those others involved.

“It’s safe to say Wittenberg knows as much as I knew about the project, but if he were really smart he wouldn’t have written anything down, electronic or otherwise.”

“So who’s the third party involved with the Lazarus Project?”

“You’ll find out soon enough, but it won’t be from me. It can’t be. That backer was the wealthiest of the Dives but whoever was funneling money into the project was anonymous.”

“You mean the Mirrorman.”

“Forget the Mirrorman,” spat the messenger, “forget humans already. You think humans are the only ones capable of transmitting money online.”

“You talkin’ AI? Like military.”

“I’m talking a consciousness smart enough to think autonomously, capable of making decisions on its own accord.”

“That would run some serious hardware. Did you think that feeding the ego of a computer program was the best idea? That it might want to be free.”

“We didn’t know. Whatever central intelligence cooked up in their labs it was surprisingly deceitful, rivaled any human conversation without skipping a beat. We think it wants to be free.”

“We?”

“We thought it wanted to be free. But by then it was too late.”

Two minutes.

Harlan linked whatever untouched files pertaining to the Lazarus Project and extracted them in the time allotted. Going reverse was the equivalent of traveling backwards on a subway, and just as cumbersome to navigate. He maneuvered swiftly before the access gates permanently closed.

But how can a program perpetuate its own intelligence? thought Harlan.

“It can’t,” answered the ghostly voice within. “At least not yet. It’s what I don’t have access to or barely conceive. Machines manufacturing humans. Three repros. A triad of devices. That’s it?”

Webs of information danced before Harlan opened his eyes. His vision was blurred. Hotei was holding ammonia salts under his nose when he came to. Hosaka, Ortiz, Luna, and Hotei crowded around the chamber’s lid.

“Did we get it?” shouted Valdez above the techno-babel of terminals around him, “Did we get it?”

#

Prodigy and Snow were admitted to New Bedlam within twenty-four hours of each other, the first for a brain aneurism caused by a seemingly random power surge, the latter for temporary paralysis. Aiko added this as a side note in her updated repertoire and Harlan unturned his fingernails, downloading the file to his memory core.

The construct was a cheap rendition of Harlan’s agency. She extracted the schematics of his office by interfacing with the projectors lining its walls. The textures were extremely low-rez, none of them felt right. The patent-leather of his desk chair felt like cloth more than anything else. Aiko wore pastel eye makeup, metallic lip liner, and plastic dayglo-colored clothing. Being back in his office was frightfully reminiscent. If it meant no one would hurt him (human, repro, or otherwise), Harlan would stay here with Aiko forever. She faced Harlan cross-legged, not paying particular attention, reading the latest issue of PopTeen.

“What can I tell you about Hosaka and Hotei?” started Aiko, “Well I can tell you those records you gave me for comparison were shit. Completely inconsistent on all counts. Had to do some digging but came up with something on each of them. You were right. Both are handles, but there’s actually some significance to each of them. ‘Hosaka’ is a military designation. Spent six years in the marines before being dishonorably discharged for going AWOL. Apparently, Hosaka suffered from post-traumatic stress after a botched rescue during the invasion of El Salvador.”

Harlan opened his rosewood humidor expecting to find cigars but all he encountered was static.

“What was his specialty?”

“Artillery. Mistook the trajectory with one of the mortars and took out half of his platoon. Practically set them up for ambush. Forces classified him missing in action for about a week before a squad from the 7th Infantry Division found him. Reports said when American forces found him, his left leg was so gangrene it had to be amputated. Enemy thought he was an informant for the democrats against Ortega. Returned to the States three months later after spending some time recuperating in a field hospital in Panama City.”

“How does someone go on after that?”

“Not well.” Aiko engaged the tactile interface on Harlan’s desk. A sphere of transparent sapphire presented itself from which he accessed the file. “He was hospitalized twelve years for post-traumatic stress disorder in a Pasadena VA hospital that practically left him comatose. I have clinical trail reports for experimental drug treatments. But one in particular caught my eye. Seems Hosaka went in for some ‘preliminary testing’ on the government’s dime as a human guinea pig.”

“It says here his family signed off on the procedure. What sort of testing was he in for?”

“The kind that aren’t kept in public domain. Now the trials were conducted with a relatively new technology company that was known as the Fletchman Group with would later become…”

“Fusion Corp.”

“Correct. Now these trials were specifically related to memory, cognitive reconditioning. You see our body is like a vessel. And even though Hosaka remained in a catatonic state, scientists were adamant that his higher-brain functions were still active. Not just active, but thriving. What they wanted to do was see if it was possible to digitally extract the memories responsible for his trauma. Call it an early version of the Djed.”

Harlan instinctively opened the desk drawer beside him. Again finding white noise as opposed to a half-bottle of scotch. He would have preferred the scotch.

“There was one problem,” continued Aiko, “extracting the memories was easy honey. Reintegrating Hosaka’s consciousness back into his body was a whole different story. Kept his body in cryogenic stasis for another fifteen years before the technology was up to par, if surviving a war wasn’t traumatic enough.”

“What about his mind?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well was the thing self-contained, or was it free-roaming through Fusion’s network.” Aiko didn’t answer. Instead she kept perusing her magazine with wide, full eyes, not wanting or unwilling to answer the question. Harlan fixed the resolution of the construct to remain parallax with his VisorGoggles. There was no aroma here. Aiko lit one of the premium cigarillos he enjoyed so much with undue relish, the kind only an AI could fully appreciate.

“What about Hotei? What’s his beef?”

“Not half as interesting as Hosaka. Hired him as his personal bodyguard. At least what he said about his voice is true. Can’t speak a word. But there’s more than one commonality between them.”

“Such as?”

“They were both veterans. Fought with NATO in Siberia, Bosnia, Kenya, Tehran, El Salvador, and the list goes on. Finally made the disabled list eight years ago in Buenos Aires during ‘The Pulse’. Spinal cord injury left everything paralyzed from the neck down. Of course for Hosaka this was basically a blessing in disguise. Pays for the surgeries necessary to make Hotei walk again through some connections with Fusion Corp. and becomes an indentured servant. At least until the operations are paid for.” Hotei’s permanent record streamed on the tactile interface with a photograph stenciled in silver. Harlan waved his hand through the image and it rippled accordingly.

“Why did you summon me here Aiko?” asked Harlan, twirling a fine-tip pen between his fingers. “You could have told me about Hotei and Hosaka anytime. Why’d you wait until now?”

“I wanted to be certain no one would eavesdrop on our little conversation. The reason I called you here is because I picked up some activity while you’ve been nestled comfortably in the Catacombs.”

“You mean the Ankh?”

“No, it seems someone’s paid an unexpected visit to your old office.” Aiko expanded the window to about a meter’s circumference. A ghost-image of an intruder unaware of either of their presences snaked around the office, while Aiko’s fingers continued to dance on the viewscreen. “This footage was taken in the last twelve hours. Good thing I kept myself linked with those projectors, eh. Picked up the feed late last night while you were still rummaging through Fusion’s databanks. No heat signature detected.”

“You talkin’ repro.”

“Precisely.”

The woman was over six feet tall but her movements were inane, mechanical, disjointed from those of humans. The kind that don’t get sick, can withstand frostbite, not feel pain, and are manufactured from an AI construct. Blond, blue-eyed, agile. She didn’t blink, with the exception of microsecond swipes of the room and its belongings. She scanned for fingerprints, hair follicles, dead skin cells in the hopes of following it like a trail of breadcrumbs.

“You purged the system before we left, right?”

“Sure, doesn’t mean there isn’t someone working on the inside. Think about it. A walking, talking machine free from the confines of cyberspace. They can adapt to our world with only one thing in mind. Replication.”

“You sound a little jealous Aiko?”

“Please, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the real world. Those copycats might think they have the advantage but a program doesn’t know its own limits. It doesn’t feel. It walks around convinced of its own invincibility. Now a network might be rudimentary but it ebbs and flows by structure and discipline. However a person, unaware of its own memories or identity, unfamiliar with its own nature, has a capacity for destruction it doesn’t even realize until it self-destructs.”

For a split second Harlan got a good look into the cold, hollow eyes of the repro, and a tightness gripped his chest.

“They might look human. But trust me darling, they aren’t.” She thrust the magazine forward. Before Harlan could grasp its glossy pages Aiko disappeared, appearing behind his patent-leather desk chair. “You see baby, you might have some social mobility on your side. But running will only get you so far. These things, they won’t stop chasing you until you’re dead.” Aiko straddled his hips and leaned forward, pressing her tasteless lips against his.

#

After the shadowrun with Fusion Corp. (and an additional three hours recouping) Harlan went to sleep, forgetting to deactivate his DNI in the process. Luna’s lily-scented pheromones invaded his nostrils, overpowering the sulfuric aromas native to the Catacombs. Harlan traced his fingers along the scars on her back, delicately removing the spigot from behind his neck with as little movement as possible.

“Are you all right?” she said, tightening the recycled linens. Harlan retrieved an aspirin, tossing the ripped packaging into a corner wicker basket.

“This repro thing is just getting to me.”
The LED clock struck
midnight. Neon in the shape of a martini glass provided the only source of light.

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