Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter Ten

Filed under: J) Chapter Ten — David Halpert @ 12:51 am

Was it all a dream? That’s what Harlan couldn’t figure out. The last week had felt so real, but it wasn’t, somewhat unreal but nonetheless potent. When he came to he found himself back in Samilou’s apartment, abandoned and silent. His VisorGoggles lay inches from his face. His Browning was missing. Dried blood encrusted his lips and chin but he still had enough to spit on the floor.

His left hand was clenched into a fist. Harlan slowly unfurled his fingers and found an expunged bullet in his palm, the one Hosaka had shot him with.

What was happening?

He knew he was pale. He felt it in his bones. The index finger and thumb of his left hand were also coated in dried blood, as if he’d pinched the bullet straight from the wound. The pain must’ve been excruciating. Harlan, with shaking fingers, traced the port behind his neck. The spigot had returned to its cradle and was still active.

But was it there when Hosaka shot me?

Only two hours had passed according to the internal clock of his VisorGoggles. His body temperature was also elevated a few degrees above normal.

Call it a glitch, some random anomaly as a result of the sudden shock brought on to Harlan’s system. Call it a backup. The human body was capable of brain activity for twelve hours after death. Valdez knew this, hopefully. Although with the spigot behind his neck Harlan was able to pick up enough wireless traffic for a five mile radius. Then who was Jargon?

How could an avatar steal blueprints from a multinational?
How can a program have intent?

If Aiko was somewhere on the map she wasn’t responding. Maybe she was erased in the explosion alongside Ash. The duffel bag Harlan stowed away in the wall was still there, packed with clothes, equipment, supplies, the Djed, as well as Ortiz’s handbag from Nine Miles. There was only one place Harlan felt truly safe. And he really didn’t care if the Yakuza or Russian mafia was still on his ass, whether or not the heat had settled down from the incident at the Archipelago didn’t matter now.

Thankfully Blithe’s account was still active. He changed into a fresh set of clothes, a crisp Polo shirt and black pants before boarding a monorail to midtown. He bought a jug of Gatorade with whatever petty cash he had and replenished his electrolytes accordingly.

I need to find you. Come back to me.

Blackness.

Luna attempting to contact him. Her voice.

When he came to minutes later a light gash dusted his forehead. Harlan collapsed midstride the way an epileptic encounters a strobe light. Eventually, the leather soles of his loafers treaded the quarry tiles leading to his former office and fortunately the scanner recognized his fingerprint. The place was ransacked. Furniture strewn about though nothing appeared to be missing. Samilou looking for clues pertaining to Harlan’s whereabouts.

Since his blackout exiting the terminal he’d deactivated the spigot, for fear of another temporary loss of consciousness. He retrieved the monogrammed kerchief from his breast pocket and held it to his forehead in an effort to stop the bleeding.

Glass shattered from inside the bathroom. Harlan retrieved his spare piece, a standard Browning taped beneath the rosewood desk. He sidestepped the lobby, hugging the doorframe leading to the washroom. A bluish haze cradled the lenses of his VisorGoggles. X-ray. A skeletal structure wavering, tensing when Harlan released the safety.

“Don’t move.”

“Don’t shoot. I’m unarmed.” He lowered the wavelength on his visors and set the lenses to night vision, circling the bathroom’s threshold. The silhouette of a man came into view.

“Jesus, Valdez, you scared to shit out of me.”

“Well, then, point that damn thing somewhere else will you. Christ, I thought you were dead.”

“Surprised to see me alive then,” answered Harlan tersely, “what you doin’ here Valdez? Come to raid my stash once you knew I was dead?” Harlan aimed the sight between Valdez’s eyes, his face stolid with expression as he tossed the VisorGoggles off with his free hand.

“Wait, now! I had nothing to do with that. I didn’t know Hosaka was going to shoot you.”

“But you knew he was going to betray me once he got his hands on the Ash’s robopet.” Valdez didn’t answer. Headphones still cradled his neck. He was wearing the same torn jeans and denim vest scrawled with graffiti as he’d worn the first time Harlan met him.

After lowering his weapon, Valdez gestured Harlan into a wicker chair. A patch of blood coated his Polo shirt. From the corner he tended to Harlan’s wounds. Valdez removed a laser scalpel from the disposable medkit in hand and carefully set it to cauterize. The hissing of flesh. He then moved to the forehead, removing any miscellaneous bacterium for fear of eventual infection.

“Call it an added insurance policy with the purchase of DNI. Fucking bitch double-crossed me,” continued Harlan, buttoning his shirt. “Didn’t even see it coming.”

“Don’t blame yourself. Hosaka fooled us all. There was no way of telling he was in on the whole thing.”

“I wasn’t taking about Hosaka, I was talking about Aiko.”

“Who’s that?”

“Call her my secretarial avatar. My wireless was still active after I was shot. Must’ve involuntarily picked up some airbourne traffic ‘cause next thing you know she’s standing over me like the Archangel Gabriel. Convinced me I was resurrected using the Ankh, said I had three years to live. Although it wasn’t a total loss. I still managed to view your transmission.”

“I never viewed the transmission.”

“Yes you did. Back at the Catacombs. You said it was vital to our mission’s success.”

“Yeah, but I never viewed it. Only said that because the thing was triggered once you hacked into Fusion Corp. Tried every decryption code I knew, including every one of my own personal countermeasures and nothing worked. What was in that file anyway?”

Harlan explained about the pathogen, its willingness to infect high-ranking officials by a cabal of unruly avatars. The approximate location of where it was going to be released and at what time. The next Expansion (which was in the ballpark of nine days away) haunted him. Why was he capable of witnessing the transmission and no one else?

Valdez waltzed to the cabinet and poured two fingers of bourbon. Apparently Samilou’s epicurean tastes did not extend to vintage liquors. Meanwhile Harlan procured a secret stash of cigarillos from inside his closet.

“Now you want to tell me what happened once you left me for dead.”

“I didn’t leave you to die,” insisted Valdez, taking one of the cigarillos Harlan offered him. “We divided into two groups. Hotei injected Luna with some sort of sedative. Didn’t wanna raise suspicion dragging the poor girl kicking and screaming you know? Anyways, they took her away and decidedly let me go. Guess Hosaka wanted to cut ties once he got his hands on that damn robopet.”

“Or he knew exactly what needed to be done once it was in his reach.”

There was ‘The Was’ and the possibility Hosaka had been co-opted by the Mirrorman. That his true consciousness was being held hostage somewhere against its will.

“Which begs the question what are you doing here riffling through my shit? How do I know you’re not stringing me along so I won’t kill you? How do I know you’re not still working with Hosaka?”

“Well, for one, because I have no idea where either of them is headed. They didn’t tell me. And two, they paid me. Confirmed it at the nearest ATM. One hundred percent legit.”

Valdez tossed a thin strip of circuited plastic into Harlan’s lap. Through the VisorGoggles, he clocked its amount at somewhere in the five-figure range.

“Damn it. Still doesn’t explain what you were doing here two hours later.”

“Fine, I was stealing all right. Wanted to see if there was any gear salvageable before the damn Legionnaires got hold of it. Fucking vultures. There, you happy? Last time I saw Hosaka he was heading towards Sector 27 on a private Derringer.”

“Shit.”

His fingers were numb, the tips senseless as a result of flatlining. Luna could be anywhere by now. Luna’s purpose was undetermined. Why Hosaka was still keeping her around? Coolant gel kneaded his forehead from a freshly split icepack as he dropped two Tylenol, swallowing dryly.

“How’d you get that gash on your head anyway?”

“Fucking collapsed hard. Blacked-out suddenly coming off the monorail.” Harland was sweating. He immediately gulped down a bottle of Evian before realizing he needed sleep, desperately. “As crazy as it sounds, I think Luna was trying contact me.”

He noted the information traffic on his wireless had significantly decreased in recent hours. But with Luna’s DNI offline completely there was no way to pinpoint her location. With Valdez now keeping an eye on him, Harlan reactivated the spigot hoping for another chance to hear her voice.

#

Harlan monitored any and all outbound communication during the three REM cycles of sleep that night. He rigged a pulse trigger to alert him of transmissions sent, for fear that Valdez — who slept on portable temperfoam in his lobby — would warn Hosaka of his location, and dead-bolted his bedroom door. First thing tomorrow morning they would return to the Heavenly Waters arcade to retrieve the powersource from the Ankh. The thought of more digital insurgents appearing in real-time was disconcerting.

A nova.

“You fucking bitch!”

Harlan emerged, his nails digging into the throat of Aiko, not knowing whether the default program was a foreign discotheque or a virtual stripclub. Her construct flickered erratically, the avatar’s skin instinctively reddening before a sharp thrust struck the nape of his back. An avatar clone pixilated into existence. He tasted blood. A high heeled-boot of scarlet latex hit him square in the ribs. Harland hunched over. Aiko’s original’s attire had changed.

“Nice to see you too, sweetheart. Considering I never thought I’d see you again.”

“I’m not here for you, Aiko. I’m here for Luna, thought I might pick up one of her random communiqués while I slept.”

There was no way to physically track Luna. Her lily-scented pheromones were weak yet traceable but cut short at the shuttle she boarded.

Once he stood up, Harlan took in his surroundings. Dawn peaked over the horizon through concave slates of plexiglass. A studio penthouse dressed in matte blacks and sharp right angles. Feng Shui. A waterfall nearby streamed over cold, clean steel. A nappa leather arm chair sat across from him unoccupied.

“Didn’t think I’d let you get away from me that easily, did you?”

“Actually I did,” started Harlan, “So what is this Aiko, an impromptu payback for leaving Ash burnt to a crisp?”

“Dead, total data erasure. Pretty much as bad as it gets to a complete fuckup online. Wasn’t a trace of him left once I got to him.”

“Is that why you made me believe I was a repro? To piss me off, keep me from finding Luna so you could jerk me around like a damn fish.”

“You are so small. What is it I’ve been telling you since the beginning of this ordeal? There are things at work here bigger than you and I, Harland. You were inside Unreal City, experienced it firsthand. I don’t need to tell you that what you experienced was so real you couldn’t even tell the difference.

“You see I didn’t just want you to help me. I didn’t just want you to quit once you found Luna and forget about the pathogen. I wanted you to want to help me,” admitted Aiko. She ignited a cigarillo from one of Harlan’s favorite brands. By this point he leaned against the plate glass in frustration, panning the outside cityscape. “Besides who’s to say you weren’t conscious while you were inside Unreal City.”

“Wait…what do you mean, conscious?”

Aiko snaked her way out of her chair, her lithe body billowing across the room like a determined fog. Her arm curled around Harlan’s body until her thin lacquered nails scratched his back.

“I mean I’d double-check the memory banks on your VisorGoggles before we meet again detective.”

From there the program fizzled into dead air.

And then Harlan woke up.

#

The closest virtual lounge was a threadbare establishment in the heart of Yakuza territory. Its décor consisted mainly of rice paper walls, low-grade industrial carpet, and heliotrope neon. Harlan’s conversational Japanese was poor. DNI fusion was great for interpretation but shit when it came to basic language. Honeycomb-shaped cubicles allowed for privacy and the rooms were paid by the hour.

Valdez loaded up on caffeinated energy drinks while Harlan ordered his regular scotch-on-the-rocks from a waitress dressed as a schoolgirl. The interface was meant for accessibility, which included a slew of imaging apps.

“Thirty-seven minutes in two non-consecutive segments. This is what we have to work with. Whatever happened in the span of those six hours are in these videos.”

Valdez integrated the virtual interface with a touchscreen feature, though it cost a little extra for high-def imagining. Harlan snuffed the butt of his cigarillo in a porcelain astray cemented to the table. He hoped for answers but they simply weren’t coming to him.

“Are you even listening?” snapped Valdez.

“No, sorry, what were you saying?”

“I said, how do you even know it was you wearing the VisorGoggles when the footage was taken. I mean anyone could’ve been wearing that gear while you were floored.”

“Did you?”

“No, but the bigger question is do you remember ever going to any of these places in the first place.”

While extremely limiting, Harlan was firm in Ash’s staunch belief that the pathogen was somewhere within the predetermined circumstance set for the next Expansion. Unfortunately, this covered six sectors and time was running out. The first footage was compressed and grainy, imaging a liquid display that resembled many of the dilapidated gondolas that dangled between sectors. Aiko cross-referenced the vehicle’s type and model and found six trams still in operation. Three of which traveled to, or stopped within, the new expanded area. There was no sound.

“What about the second vid?”

Harlan forced the mic into both ears and adjusted the VisorGoggles along his temples, vying for an interactive display rather than a standalone. Valdez, meanwhile, observed from the outside. The second file was approximately seventeen minutes long.

“Starts out in a warehouse, only a million of those in the city. About five minutes later a man approaches, average height, tanned, European, possibly Mediterranean or Spanish. Have Aiko perform a search on profiles within the metropolitan area. Try and find a match.”

Knowing there was audio, Harlan disengaged the sound for fear of Valdez eavesdropping.

“Let’s talk business,” started the man, walking down a stagnant corridor, “it’s been a while.”

“Sure has, never thought Arshad and Ortiz would’ve bit the bullet like they did. Fucking cunts. Knowing them they probably pissed off the wrong people.” This confirmed it. It wasn’t Harlan’s voice on the other end of the lenses.

“Did anyone follow you?”

“Please, I know we haven’t seen each other for a while but I thought you’d at least give me more credit than that.”

“So it’s done then?”

“Never thought he’d bag a repro let alone two. It’s bad enough I had to pick up the slack of the other two.”

“But he prevailed. Found the Djed, found the Ankh, and through some miracle managed to survive the ordeal. There’s something to be said for that. So where do we stand?”

“Hosaka currently has the pathogen. We’re close to locating where the AI is being stored. The fact is this rogue program has the power to co-opt those with DNI and replace avatars wanting to leave their online environment. He’s codenamed the Mirrorman.”

“And what about the girl, Blithe’s assistant?”

“Kidnapped. Hosaka up and took her.”

“Well, is she fitted with a port?”

“For a long time now.”

“Then maybe all Hosaka needs is a test subject. You know, some flesh bag to see if the pathogen works.” They passed through steel double doors that parted at the middle. Harlan noticed the aquamarine plasma. Fusion Corp.’s logo rotated on the door’s porthole windows.

“Did they buy it when it was all over?”

“I think so. I mean faking your death isn’t exactly rocket science with a bullet to the head.”

“And how many people know this?”

“Apart from you. A few others, a handful of execs.”

A maelstrom of sorts engulfed Harlan. He passed through a series of interlocking surgical bays. Operating theatres of drilling, welding, and burning became deafening in the production of thousands of what looked like processing chips. They banked right and boarded a nearby Odyssey elevator.

“There’s another problem we have to deal with.”

“Name it.”

“We still haven’t found the Djed. If someone discovers what’s inside that thing and it falls into the wrong hands, we could be worse off than the pathogen.” Smoke blew from the man’s lips. All of the sudden Harlan’s mouth felt dry. “Though I’ve never heard of a man actually dying from direct neural interface.”

“The shit’s already hitting the fan. What about the Archipelago. What did that accomplish? Other than the wiping out half the Yakuza.”

Static invaded his lenses and the vid shrunk to a fine pinpoint. Harlan flung off the VisorGoggles, shattering a few Kirin bottles in its wake. Valdez shot upright, startled. The digital silicone evaporated a while ago. Valdez cut the feed streaming midway through the file.

“Problem?”

Harlan pinched the bridge above his nose, hoping it might ease the pain.

“I wonder what would happen if I just went home and forgot about the past six weeks. Pretend it just didn’t happen. And then I think about Luna. The future. What it might become and the chance to throw it all away if it meant sacrificing everything.”

Harland downed another shot of imported sake.

Their itemized bill fizzled upwards in pixilated sapphires flashing. Harlan tallied the total and quickly checked there was no overcharge. In the end he trusted it was accurate, even though there was still an hour left on their occupancy.

“If only for another day.”

#

Contemporary jazz pumped through the microspeakers littered throughout the establishment. The place was splayed in muted beiges, dim lighting, and ceramic tiles yet it was spacious, classy. In the adjacent booth a cabal of teenage girls in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms drank slushes, milkshades, bubble tea with tapioca. Strobes from the upper mezzanine filtered mildly through the VIP section of the second floor.

They stopped at a sushi hut en route to Harlan’s abode, decked in peeling floral wallpaper and exceptional ambient lighting. The crowd was sparse, and the quiet was a subtle change from the constant babel of wayward pedestrians and noise. There was no harm in letting Valdez view the footage. No signal had been transmitted from Luna since they vacated the cybercafé.

A vast network would be required to carry out such an incursion.

Their sushi boat was an oblong piece of acrylic plastic with drawings of geishas and octopi on its inner face. It contained a wide range of futomaki and sashimi. Harlan’s latest stint online left a bad taste in his mouth and even he was surprised he could eat at all.

“It’s likely the Mirrorman is being held in a very secure facility. The question is where it’s located?”

“It doesn’t concern me where it’s being stored so much as where the virus can be released. Its emergence point. Now there are a number of pockets still active during Expansion: surveillance, security, common necessities any city needs because without them society would plunge into anarchy.”

Valdez removed his chopsticks from their paper sheaths and rubbed them together to avoid splinters. A steaming pot of green tea graced their table from a nubile young waitress in platforms.

“All of these networks are connected together to a fine point, and for a split second everything within that system’s circumference collapses, before it’s simultaneously booted from the inside out. Every bit of trace memory is wiped clean. At least that’s what it should be. However there are rumors that’ve spread in underground circles that every so often something is left behind once the system is restarted. Now as the story goes, these traces, these ghosts, they grow, they learn to adapt and slowly evolve past their programming. But unlike the rogue programs that can normally be quarantined by most two-bit cyphers, these ones simply lay dormant, camouflaged until they manifest into something, something big.”

“Could these programs include avatars?”

“Possibly. Course they’re just rumors. No one’s actually seen it happen.”

“And what’s the ultimate point of your little speech.”

Valdez dragged up the interface and ordered an additional serving of tempura to resupply their ever-decreasing platter. Green diodes indicated their order was eighth in line.

“My point is that whatever you got yourself mixed up with between Blithe and Wittenberg is nothing compared to what’s at stake. But for some reason you feel compelled to move forward with this. Consequences be damned. There’s a compulsion within you that drives you to seek answers that aren’t even there. I know. I have that compulsion too. The only difference separating you and me is I surrender to the chaos and uncertainty of the world, while you seem to voluntarily let it consume you bit by bit until it swallows you whole. I can’t explain why that is, Harlan.”

He gingerly picked up a piece of sashimi before dipping it in a tray of domestic soy sauce. Harlan cradled his neck between calloused fingers, trying his best to appear detached, uncaring, but knew he was failing miserably.

“Luna said the same thing only she called them demons. Maybe it’s all bullshit. Chasing demons. I don’t know if you remember when that repro was on the slab back in the Catacombs. When she died she mentioned there was a chance I might’ve been a tracer, some repro bounty hunter, hired by Fusion Corp. to do their bidding.”

“I remember. You don’t actually believe her do you?”

“I don’t know what to believe anymore. Thing is you don’t know what you’re truly capable of until you reach that breaking point. And once you cross, there’s no going back. ”

“You think Blithe ever passed that point?”

“Oh definitely. He just didn’t survive the trip. Something still bugs me though.”

“Ortiz and Alvarez.”

“Yeah. Been nagging me ever since we viewed that vid. Now the man in the video said those two women were killed recently, Ortiz and Alvarez. And if someone was wearing my gear while that footage was being recorded that makes it one tracer per repro. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that Ortiz was killed in the Catacombs by one of the same repros BTF created. I mean you knew Ortiz better than I did.”

“I didn’t know shit ‘bout Ortiz. I told you man I’m freelance like you. Besides it’s not like she lived twenty-four seven in the Catacombs. It’s just her turf. Made a special trip there because Hosaka paid her to use the network.”

Despite being an all-you-can-eat sushi bar their time limit was drawing to a close. Two hours. Harlan picked up the tab with whatever credit was left on his oblong slab of glossy black plastic.

They exited the restaurant to the main sector’s intersection, a crosshatch of titanium walkways with steel bracings basking in the glow of neon. Human traffic was tolerable but it would surely increase as it approached midnight. Harlan reduced the glare of his VisorGoggles while a window in the lower left-hand corner prompted Aiko to speak.

“Talk to me.”

“Got word on that intel you sent me. No mention of a handle but managed to snag his true name from the City’s public access database.”

“Public database? Those files are usually restricted.”

“Not if you’re dead honey. Man’s true name was Luke Fields. Died a week ago from a drug overdose in a club called ‘The Boulevard’ down in the lowest east quadrant of sector 12. Kind of a freak accident really. Young too, thirty-nine. No family, was visiting here from the West Coast.”

“Interesting.”

“That’s not all. Checked the release papers and death certificate. Guess who picked up the body not too long after it hit the morgue.”

“Fusion Corp.”

“Bingo. Appears Lucas donated his body to science.” Valdez sighed, apparently loud enough for Harlan to catch wind despite the noise around them.

“What’s up?”

“Nothing,” started Valdez, “it’s just it’d be much more profitable for someone to sell the organs separately.”

“Yeah, Fusion Corp. must’ve paid a premium to haul that corpse over there. Thought it was illegal to disclose a body to a private corporation?”

“It is without registering it. Big brother wouldn’t stand for it. Of course, what they don’t know won’t hurt it.”

Harlan prompted a GPS locator and found ‘The Boulevard’ nightclub was only a half-a-click northeast from their current position, easily accessible by foot. He checked Valdez a few paces behind as he transmitted the coordinates.

I’m here for you. Come back to me.

Harlan collapsed midstride on imitation cobblestone. When he came to an oxygen mask covered his mouth pumping synthetic air into his lungs. Valdez had flagged down a private medicab via a public kiosk a few feet away.

“What happened?”

“Dude, you took a pretty bad spill. Just collapsed on the walkway out-of-the-blue.” Harlan clocked his vitals just prior to his blackout. A spike in his EKG was evident as well as a sudden vapid heartbeat. With his instant debit Harlan managed to scrounge up enough credit to pay off the paramedics.

“I think Luna’s trying to contact me.” Harland removed the mask from his mouth as Valdez helped him to his feet. “We have to get to that nightclub and find out what happened.”

“Don’t you think you should rest first?”

“When I need a doctor I’ll ask for one.”

It was easy enough to spot ‘The Boulevard’ from afar. Harlan leaned against the walkway’s plated glass, spotting the floodlights that pierced the club’s roof less than a kilometer below. Low-level vibrations cradled the soles of his loafers. His detective status bypassed the entry line, subcommunicating to him some level of exclusivity as he approached the doors.

Synthetic trance pummeled his eardrums from a general multi-touch midi. Its harmonics operator projected from on a classical-style balcony against a series of sequenced strobes. They sidled up to the bar, attempting to look inconspicuous amidst a very strict dress code.

“Tried contacting the manager over the wifi but good luck getting a response over this music. They’re usually dicks about this sorta thing anyway. I’m more concerned about the two guys that’ve been tailing us the entire trip.”

Harlan leaned into the bar, an alloyed counter latent with dataports. With a few subconscious commands he reversed the lenses on his VisorGoggles, panning the area behind him with a concave visage. Two Legionnaires stood eclipsed in a darkened niche of the club. He decided to play it cool, ordering a double bourbon from the bar’s touchscreen. A Thai bartender in a mesh tank top poured his drink.

“Don’t look,” insisted Harlan, turning Valdez away from the dancefloor, “I don’t want them to suspect we’re onto them.”

“Why are they following us?”

“I don’t know. Do they ever need a reason to be tailing someone? Most of the time they’re like insects. You leave them alone, they leave us alone.” Harlan nervously drummed his fingers while Valdez swallowed whatever was left in Harlan’s highball. “Can you hack into the club’s lightning controls?”

“Maybe.”

Harlan jacked into the bar and outfitted Valdez with his visors.

“Do it up cowboy.”

Valdez’s fingers floated like liquid across frosted glass once the lenses cradled his face. Its security was minimal. Much of the club’s finances were devoted to a second-rate power generator smuggled from Hong Kong and assembled somewhere near the premises. Harlan’s fingers got warm, a psychosomatic response possibly, to the codes Valdez was manipulating, the foreign algorithms he was bypassing, maybe even a tinge of jealously on his part, but knew any distraction would inhibit Valdez from doing his job right.

“Better make sure you have your eyes covered in about ten seconds.”

“I hope you have some cheap set of Raybans in one of those pockets of yours,” said Harlan. “’cause there ain’t no way you’re keeping hold of my visors.”

Sure enough Valdez stripped the VisorGoggles and replaced them with some cheap mirrorshades, sliding off the bar before heading towards the exit. When the Legionnaires followed the strobes quickly booted up, seizure-inducing, a targeted sequence that sent mimetic pulses through the corneas of every patron present. Their pursuants went into freefall.

Halogen light became visible. However crossing the threshold into the club’s antechamber Harlan was clotheslined by a bulging limb of muscle, bone, and tendons, blacking out for the second time that night. There was no word on Valdez.

#

The room was nondescript. Harlan assumed the wide mirror at the far end of the room was a two-way. His visors were gone, again, and his Browning had been missing since Valdez disarmed him back in Samilou’s apartment. That headache had returned. Enamel tiles coated the walls. The floor was cold concrete. Fluorescent tubes were sheltered by translucent plastic diffusing the light somewhat. At least a dozen stitches crosshatched his left cheekbone and his ass was comfortably planted in the embossed depression of a padded folding chair.

If this is another construct I’m going to fucking kill someone.

It was cold.

Harlan was wearing his beat-up leather jacket when two Legionnaires entered the room. The first was a hulking mass not dissimilar to Ash Wednesday wearing a wifebeater tight enough to outline his pecs and abdominals perfectly. He looked military. The girl on the other hand was a dark-skinned beauty with a serpentine physique and thin dreadlocks down her back. Harlan pinched his nasal bridge, hoping the throbbing would stop.

“Where’s Valdez?”

She threw a manila envelope onto the table.

The man presented him with a full cup of coffee.

Two cream, one sugar.

“Knee-deep with INS if not halfway back to Cuba. But don’t worry about him right now. His role in this little mystery is over.” Dried blood and scuffmarks pervaded the tabletop. He checked his pockets for whatever was left of his cigarillos only to discover they were missing too.

“At least offer me a fucking cigarette.”

The man reached into his faded denim jeans and threw a crumpled packet of low-grade counterfeits. It logo was a wigwam in cinnamon reds and tanned browns. It was only when the blue flame of his Zippo ignited that he noticed his hands were shaking.

“Are these legal?”

“We have a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy when it comes to Aboriginals. Remember, detective, we’re above the law not part of it.”

“And what about Baltimore? Some considered that a massacre.”

“Not if you were there,” answered the man flatly, igniting his own cigarette. “We like to think in the big picture we save more lives than we end.”

“All right, cut the shit. Why am I here? If it’s about the incident at Little Tokyo I had nothing to do with that. That thing was a fucking setup.”

“We know, detective.” The woman spoke for the first time, a light African accent softened with years of Ivy League education. “But that’s not why we’re here. Not entirely.”

“Then please, why am I here?”

“A few weeks ago a class-three icebreaker dubbed ‘The Cobra’ was stolen from a laboratory in Belgium. Now this was traced to a makeshift outfit, some low-key operation on the West Coast of the Antwerp. But that’s not important now, because that virus, a modified propagating worm, was used to erase the construct known as the Archipelago.”

Harlan wasn’t paying much attention. Instead, he followed a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead.

“Seventeen died that night, Detective Novak. However, there are more important things here than the destruction of a simulation.”

The man waved his arm over the sensor and the lights dimmed dramatically. Pixels eddied into a vid screen. The footage was surveillance of a Victorian-inspired coffeeshop filmed at a wide-angle. It encompassed two men in a nearby booth, one older black man in a tweed suit, the other a lanky Caucasian boy that appeared to be just out of his teens.

“This video was taken less than a week ago near Hyde Park in London. The older gentleman’s name is Alistair Jenkins, a media tycoon originally from Chicago. Now you may be asking yourself why is this video significant. The answer is because our friend Mr. Jenkins died more than two weeks ago from the incident at Little Tokyo. Death certificate in the file confirms it. We also have confirmed reports in Lisbon, Seattle, Louisville, and about a dozen other cadavers that have gone unaccounted for. At first we thought they were being smuggled out.

My God, thought Harlan, it’s already begun.

“Is it possible the surveillance was doctored?”

“No, we considered that. The videos are genuine. They haven’t been tampered in any way. Our experts confirmed that.”

Harlan fiddled with the Zippo in his hands, still having trouble adjusting to the sharp light of the image.

“You’re not suggesting they simply walked out on there own, are you?”

“That’s exactly what we’re suggesting. Of course since there was such a large volume of bodies they had to be sent to several morgues to accommodate the load. The thing is we didn’t even know any bodies were missing until it was too late.”

“There something else we need to show you,” continued the man. The footage remained on a continuous loop until a three-dimensional X-ray fizzled into view. “When we saw that you had DNI we took the liberty of scanning your body while you were unconscious for potential viruses, implants, the possibility that you were smuggling valuable data.”

“I ain’t no poacher if that’s what you’re thinking?”

“The good news is we found no retroactive infections within your system, permanent or temporary. But we did find this.”

A human skull focused above the shimmering tabletop in a hazy range of sepias.

The scanner zoomed in on the cholinergic system. Embedded a few inches within the prefrontal cortex was a wedge of metal of what looked like titanium.

“What the hell is that?”

“We don’t know. At first we thought it might be a tracking device on the off-chance you were sent here to infiltrate us. In fact the only thing we do know about the device is that whatever was active is now deactive. Don’t worry. We injected a round of well synchronized nanites to take care of that. Standard procedure.”

Harlan’s heart stopped. The only probable link between him and Luna was now severed. He felt that causing a sudden panic in these Legionnaires would send another bullet through his chest, or worse. Best to let them show their cards first. They had the upper hand after all.

“What about my gear?”

“Intel’s having it analyzed. Once the memory banks are copied we’ll have your visors returned to you with the files intact.”

“Now we know that something extreme is going to happen in the next couple days. However, we only know pieces of the situation, clips and phrases. So here’s what we’re proposing. You tell us everything you know pertaining to this viral outbreak, and we don’t hold you here indefinitely on charges of virtual terrorism. How does that sound to you, detective?”

This time Harlan was losing. With less than three days until the next Expansion and DNI recipients already being hijacked by avatars would mean a new dawn once electricity was restored to powered-down sectors.

“And what makes you think I’ll help you?”

“Because detective. We caught one of them.”

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