Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter One

Filed under: A) Chapter One — David Halpert @ 1:17 am

Part One – The Blithe Incident and the Introduction of Eva L. Yonge

The citywide Wifi was set to expand at midnight. Harlan Novak had been looking forward to it for days, five blocks outwards from its existing circumference.

“It’s all the Americans fault,” yammered some geriatric to nobody in particular. Harlan sidled between booths of gray ultrasuede and waitresses in midnight blue latex, “conquest, Manifest Destiny, all that shit.” If he showed the slightest interest (or the slightest boredom) Harlan never would hear the end of it. “Four things,” continued the man slurring his syllables monotonously, “four things that ever came from those Yanks — Westerns, jazz, musicals, and mutually assured destruction.”

Harlan signaled to the bartender for another scotch, twisting his citrus rind to a nub. The bar was composed of pure slate with a plexiglass cover scratched profusely. Beneath the countertop was a layer of pennies lined flat side by side, reflecting their copper archaism. Harlan leaned his elbow on the curved mahogany edge waiting for the lights to dim. The circular seats of scarlet velour were classic as were the chrome poles supporting them. The floors were a violet Astroturf, disastrous under a black light, stained with cocktail salts and other innocuous fluids deposited from a handful of loyal patrons.

Diablo, a fresh-off-the-boat Serbian with a shaved head and a mesh tanktop, refreshed his drink on a doily made of hemp. There was a patch of scar tissue on his left temple allegedly from a sniper’s bullet. Fragments of a copper jacket lodged deep in his cerebellum. “You think too largely,” said the bartender in fractured English, loose-shouldered and lax, “you’ve to learn not to give a shit. Find inner peace. Zen.”

The Orange Snail was originally a strip club just ten minutes walking distance from the motel. Music pumped through the walls, the same Retro-d’-funk that seeped through his Hy-V prior to crossing the border. Bodies were clustered throughout the establishment helping themselves to lap dances, virtual karaoke, and the like. There were remnants of drug use on the encroaching countertop, primarily Rapture and U-phoria. The photovoltaic lasers gyrated, siphoning neon-adverts of low-budget cruises on the sidelines projecting outward.

“There are other ways to find inner peace,” responded the old man belatedly, “some find it within themselves. Others find it at the bottom of a bottle.”

A latent stripper took to the limelight strutting rhythmically down the runway. A plexus of sensory output nodes reflected the image of a budding nymphomaniac. She traipsed around in a schoolgirl’s uniform, her Polo shirt tied at the navel as the path before her retrofitted to resemble a yellow brick road. Her voluptuous pigtails, that plaid skirt, those lace stockings that met just below her knees, only added to her Lolita-esque mystique. The crowd was relatively convinced, although Harlan still noticed the memory core beneath the tempered glass of the runway. No lagtime, no skipping, perfect voiceovers, though she didn’t speak. The interface connections were in complete simpatico with the figure Harlan saw before his waiting visors.

Rolling blackouts were expectant, lulling power surges brought about by momentary lapses of energy, 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.

“Looks like I missed the matinee.” Harlan halfcocked his head over his shoulder and spotted a clean cut man with a prosthetic tan, dark and handsome, brush up beside him. The hologram Marlina faded upwards blowing butterfly kisses as her signature signoff before dissolving into oblivion.

“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.”

The Frenchman’s face was long and worn like used sandpaper. His accent poignant and intimidating. A hint of jasmine marked his aftershave. Harlan watched as his manicured fingernails grazed the border of his navy cotton lapels. The creases in his blazer were fresh, permanent. His tie was a power blue decorated with a white fleur-de-lis.

“Why you so damn jolly? Expansion’s nothing special. Most urban centers now annexed have lost their former glory.” Harlan ignited the thin-tipped end of his last cigarillo and crumpled the empty pack into an ashtray of gritty emerald. “Not from around here, are you?” But before the Frenchman could reply, Harlan continued, as if solely directing the interaction, “I can usually spot a foreigner when I hear one. Doesn’t take a lot to notice. Slight nuances. Inflexions in speech. You’re no different than the average immigrant stereotype.”

“Well, immigrant is a very fluid term,” answered the Frenchman, “You’re not exactly a native yourself.” Diablo returned with his neighbor’s order, a gin and tonic with a lime wedge on its rim and a sole shot of tequila. Harlan snatched his butane lighter and ended up fiddling with it, delicately tracing the monogrammed letters for no discernable purpose.

“What gave it away?” The whiteness of the Frenchman’s teeth jolted Harlan to his core, that inane glossiness that came with porcelain veneers or bleaching.

“Francois De Guerre. Et tu?”

He reached his hand over, fingers together, as if wishing Harlan would shake it. It was then that Harlan felt the true age in the coarseness of the Frenchman’s flesh, the firmness of Francois’s handshake. Square jewels of faux-ivory set his cuffs, each fixed in a shallow gold setting. In the cleft of Francois’s neck just behind his left ear lay a circular port of polished aluminium. The metal, graphed to his skin, had a translucent cover attached to prevent blockage and infection.

“Your artistry’s impressive,” mentioned Harlan, “where was your work done? Milan? Lisbon? I tell you these plastics have it mapped to a T.”

“You’re thinking too big, beaucoup trop grand. Try more local, centralized. The Via from Montreal, transferred at Syracuse.” Harlan always dreamt of DNI but settled for basic interface instead. The North American demand was not even close to peaking, a niche in the private market just waiting to be picked clean. “Went in for surgery this afternoon. Back in time for happy hour. No mess, no fuss.”

“And what do you do, Francois?”

“Freelance harvesting. The organ market is quite lucrative this time of year. The new real estate.”

“And the money’s good?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

Harlan inspected Francois’s wrist but saw no intravenous scarring. He must have been left-handed. A pixilated receipt from a Japanese businessman broke his immediate concentration. De Guerre drained his liquor before taking a venomous bite of the virgin lime slice. There was something primal and obvious in its action, something Harlan would dare not attempt.

“All right, check this. Made a killing, not literally of course but listen. Two livers, one pancreas, and a lung. And that’s just this week. Granted it was a good week but still.” Harlan surveyed him with a deadpan expression. Francois nursed his gin and tonic. “Not my own, gracious no. Thank God for finder’s fees. Comprenez? Never could handle that local anaesthetic. Wouldn’t celebrate by drinking neither. Nearly died on the table at eighteen having my appendix removed.”

It wasn’t long till exigency, zero hour. Harlan tasted the lounge on his tongue. Its delicate alloys, its versatile fabrics, the anticipation like pheromones swarming around his proximity. But he wasn’t having it, a kind of disconnectedness between him and the rest of clientele, and after browsing a menu of burlesque avatars (faces, costumes, nationalities) Harlan became suddenly attune to the thinning crowd.

“Bought me this,” said Francois, clanking the sturdy end of an acrylic skewer on the rim of his data port. “New hardware fresh off the line.”

“Any side effects?”

“Extreme vertigo. Some problems with depth perception. It’s the Cartesian way of seeing. Four-dimensional world on a three-dimensional plane. Fucks you to the nth degree but well worth every penny.”

DNI, the modern transcendence. An old college alumnus back West was a test subject for the first prototypes. His father patented Sony equipment and managed to snake his son into the trial runs. Consciousness, a higher plane his colleague called it, a headlong plunge into a lake of below zero temperatures. Zip codes pulsed, numbers ran like gravel into his numbing hands. Strings of computational numerics formed lattices in and around his periphery till his comrade’s paralysis kicked in, but the technology had improved remarkably in the last eight years.

“Very exclusive. By referral only. Western splicing clinics take special care covering their tracks. As far as the net is concerned these places don’t exist.”

Francois extracted a business card from his innermost breast pocket. Harlan’s fingers grazed the embossed Arial lettering. The thin gilded border made him nauseous, but that was the end of it.

In the rear pocket of his jeans, a patchwork of faded denim, Harlan retrieved a small monolith of moulded graphite and waved it before the sensor, however, he couldn’t view the receipt since the countertop was beyond repair.

“Closing time,” he muttered beneath stale breath. “It was nice to meet you Monsieur De Guerre.” He handed his numbered stub to a passing waitress, dressed as an airline stewardess in stiletto heals. A clammy palm fell on his right shoulder. There was an inexpensive ring of sterling silver set in an ebony crater.

“Seriously, neural interface. Wave of the future,” urged Francois, toasting his glass in Harlan’s direction, “think about it.” The Frenchman sleuthed to a nearby bombshell with red hair and a pink miniskirt. The waitress returned with his tan overcoat and black velvet fedora. That was the last Harlan saw of him.

#

Novak was twenty-eight. At twenty-three he graduated from Berkeley with a bachelor’s in law, magna cum laude, and a minor in computer science. The West Coast was better, purer, the California winds, though too much competition for one person. The only way to carve a niche in Silicon Valley was with a sledgehammer. The bulk of his tuition paid from the inheritance of a seedy uncle come intermediary out of under-the-counter deals with black markets, mostly former Soviet states. At least there was a funeral, a body, a death certificate, even if it was falsified.

Soon after, he moved to Seattle, taking a job for a security’s company. IT, information technologies, those little secrets that could wipe out a city block with a few direct key commands or turn traffic into pandemonium with a well-timed piggyback Trojan. In no time he penetrated the hacker subculture, not like a fuck, hard and pressing, but like a scalpel, cold, delicate, calculated. There were no names, only pseudonyms. Much of his underground knowledge was transferred by a group known as the Quintet. Their aliases were Snow, Soundwave, Durango, and Prodigy. Snow, Soundwave, and Prodigy were human, Durango was an AI construct.

This was strictly reconnaissance. More often than not Harlan’s comrades in the community were recruited by his company, the finest cyber-denizens this side of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was there he picked up the bulk of his technological prowess that the legitimate academia didn’t cover, a hodgepodge of the covert arts, surveillance, sabotage, programming, deprogramming, encryption, data recovery, and bugging. He was also a licensed bounty hunter.

Five years in the Emerald City didn’t do it for him anymore. Crime was slumping in the state’s worst areas. King County and Yakima were becoming more hospitable, with occupants lessening by the month. His city was now inhabited by multimillion dollar companies in the downtown core and a limited number of gated communities. The harbors were still plagued with illegal activity, counterfeit electronics from Seoul, drug trafficking from Melbourne, unauthorized imports from Victoria. A change of scenery was in order.

It was not five months ago did Harlan capture the tail-end of an online article from an independent media subsidiary. GOLDEN HORSESHOE TARNISHED? Seattle’s greater metropolitan area had been wireless for three years now. To even consider urban centres in the initial stages of Wifi was impossible for him to fathom.

Using Moore’s Law as a template, he was able to extrapolate, not only the date of the next Expansion, but how far it would extend from its former boundary. For the next forty-eight hours he combed the classifieds searching for leases, office space, one-bedroom condominiums, something tangible, a room of one’s own. Once a district went wireless, not only did the property value skyrocket, but so did the rent. Harlan put down a deposit without a moment’s hesitation.

#

The city was in lockdown. Many of the incandescent bulbs under the jutting marquee of the Orange Snail were either burnt out or missing. Most of the roads were deserted, fenced by candycane roadblocks of black and yellow that read ‘DO NOT CROSS’.

The readout on the bottom-right side of his lenses read 11:41:23. It started to rain, a low drizzle. Harlan knew if he hadn’t left the bar when he did, he’d have to endure the Expansion indoors. One-star motels didn’t bother with trite conveniences like transformers. His keycard wouldn’t work. He bought a half-pack of Swisher Sweets from a nearby vending machine and a one-time use umbrella with his credit card. It was fashioned from a synthetic polymer that degraded from acids in rainwater.

A stretch limousine lacquered white pulled up to the crumbling concrete. Its LED rims brandished Coca-Cola logos until the vehicle remained stationary, skidding. The adjacent alleyway held crustacean-like automata scuttling vertically up the brick wall. Their nickel carapaces reflected in the glare of streetlamps. Precision nozzles spray-painted insignias of this sector’s leading syndicate, the Organiks. Harlan didn’t give it a second look, witnessing his face in the gentle flotsam of a rather large rainbow oil-slick.

He glistened across the Cosmopolitan district, a kaleidoscopic mandala of fluorescence. Boarded-up store windows displayed Japanese characters like curvy, elusive hieroglyphics. Alternating magenta and lime strobe lights made holographic sims appear like they were skating on ice. He adjusted his belt so his armament didn’t jab his ribcage. Vending machines lined the avenue like dragon’s teeth; cigarettes, schoolgirl uniforms in Ziploc packages, zigzags, long-distance calling cards, lockpicks, sterilized hypodermics, floppy disks — not the solid flat relics of yesteryear but long, thin strips that could flex into helixes — as well as condoms. Monolithic hyperbase ads tainted the moonlight as he ventured onward across sidewalks littered with newspapers and torn bus transfers.

He flipped up the collar of his cloak and trekked through the remainder of the boulevard. The carcinogenic haze stung his corneas. The haze was offset by lucent emblems forged in the shape of martini glasses and casino die. They pruned his fingers, dangling lifelessly over the pea soup pent up from grimy sewer grates. However, just two blocks away using the zooming capabilities of his VisorGoggles, he clocked the daunting smile of J.T. Blithe over the striking neon of corner bodegas.

His temporary residence was a decrepit office building just on the fringes of Expansion. Its foundation was a rustic pawnshop for hi-tech salvagers and wannabe hackers. The second and third floors were the motel. The upper six had remained unoccupied since the dot-com bust.

He forked the third-level corridor. Its innards were asbestos and drywall. The smell of plaster and stale urine. Baroque-style doors ripped from their hinges. These things mingled together creating an eerie ambiance, a sort of eloquent decrepitude. The hallway chandelier flashed erratically, blinding his vision somewhat.

The card reader scanned the magnetic tape and the door beeped twice before opening. The turquoise shag carpet was flattened, worn through. Kernels of Styrofoam crunched under his feet. Instant noodle containers littered the floor. Harlan kicked a path to the bed. Bare stucco laid the walls under a thin coat of taupe shellac. His abode stank of cardboard and rust. Corrosion seeped through the ventilation. The smell gave the room its presence, horrid by city standards.

He searched mindlessly, clawing in the dark for a half-empty bottle of tequila. After helping himself to a hefty swill, he cupped his face in his hands, combing the hair from his eyes. Sodium light sliced through blinds of ductile plastic. Harlan didn’t bother closing them. In the afterglow of the evening’s events nothing much was accomplished. The VisorGoggles laid on his oak nightstand, downloading memory files into his core databank.

Tonight he’d get some sleep, but there’d be no parties in the streets tonight, no discothèques pumping techno ad nauseam. Tonight, the city was in darkness, yet nobody would be asleep.

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