Second Death, A Novel

January 5, 2009

Chapter Three

Filed under: C) Chapter Three — David Halpert @ 1:12 am

“Give it to me straight then Ash. What’s the word?” said Harlan in between gulps of noodles. It rained. Smoke frothed from the restaurant’s niche on grilles where vegetable oil spat. A candycane-striped parapet sheltered him but the reception was lousy nonetheless. Listening to Ash was pragmatic, fractured and lowbrow, engaging subtitles on his VisorGoggles to avoid miscommunication.

“It’s like this. Your girl’s a foreigner. Dual citizenship. Moved here from Buenos Aires.”

“Before or after the Pulse?”

“Shit man I don’t know. You do the math. Came over on a workman’s visa more than a decade ago and never left.”

“What’re you telling me? Forged documents? Refugee?”

“Like indentured servitude man. Worked for BTF all this time for your boy Blithe. Did some social climbing along the way. You hear me? Six vertical moves up to executive assistant.”

“What about Lynch?”

“Forty-eight year old single mother ‘riginally from Akran. Husband was killed in a plane crash off the coast of Lake Erie seven years ago. Girl worked as a stripper in her early twenties, high-end contractor you know, paid a stage fee every week. ‘round the same time she got hooked on ice just as it was going out of style before getting herself clean.”

And the records from the Beacon Center proved it. Ash even included a missing person’s report of her daughter. The man did his homework. Blithe’s rap sheet was nothing new. The man had seven biographies written in his honor (two authorized, four unauthorized, and one memoir), a webseries based on his life that garnered bad reviews and several awards, plus databanks worth from local media outlets for Harlan to select and decipher at his own leisure.

He sidled through a cluster of Catholic schoolgirls enduring their babel of pop-idol ringtones boarding the tram before it departed. Electromagnets whirred as the induction track gained juice. Odyssey elevators were notorious for pickpocketers. That’s why he loved the trams. The current disrupted short-range signals for possible identity theft.

Steel caressed his mind, though he was only touching it.

Ice sent chills down his spine.

The city morgue was a standalone building situated in the northeastern ward, an oblong crystalline structure towering twenty stories high. After paying the toll (non-blood related patrons surrendered a small service fee) and reviewing Ash’s inventory one last time, Harlan was allowed access to Elysium Hills’ foyer.

Ant was a grad student in forensic anthropology working the late shift. He wore ripped jeans, sandals, and had black fingernails. Shirtless, with only a doctor’s scrub covering his chest.

“The tox report for the most part came back negative,” he said shuffling. “There were no chemicals in system. Stimulants, barbiturates, what have you.”

Blithe lay there, blue and resolute, on a slab of virulent chrome.

It was eerie. This wasn’t the first dead body Harlan had come into contact with but it was still unsettling. The thing, the person whose death was the catalyst for the events that happened, for the events to come. Whose influence and notoriety spewed forth like a nuclear reaction and knowing nothing was tangible, concrete. In the present it was unnerving.

“Is that the report?” Harlan adapted to the silence. Whenever he was jacked in there was this encroaching omnipresence from millions of interfaced users. A low murmur like the soothing calm of oceanic waves. Now there was nothing except his labored breathing.

“Can I borrow your stylus?” Ant offered no resistance.

Harlan gauged his database a meter from his eyes, a deep red in contrast to the white opaqueness of the morgue. He triggered Blithe’s record from his memory core and shifted the stylus accordingly, overlapping dental impressions with the real deal.

“They match. This is really J.T. Blithe.”

“No shit Sherlock. What did you expect? The autopsy was the tricky part,” said Ant patting Blithe’s thigh with a surgical gloved hand, “His age predates MID, micro-identification. Two implants, one pacemaker found once we opened him up, and one DNI port. The man had a virtual entourage for Christ’s sake. That’s when I noticed the scarring on his left shoulder. I thought one in a million chance, right? Took out a laser scapel and lo-and-behold the thing raised like Lazarus.”

By this Ant was referring to the tattoo, a stylized Ankh of worn jade. Harlan immediately photographed it for his archives.

“Anything else I should know about, scarring, abrasions? Something that might be of interest.”

“Well his corneas were a little worn. When they brought him in there were high levels of serotonin in his system. But that’s not unusual. Probably fucking some broad.”

It was only when Harlan dissolved the interface did he notice the data port behind Blithe’s neck, a trifle convenience for a mogol billionaire. It had a plastic cover pressed in the socket where the fiberoptics were meant to go.

Harlan’s deck was an octagonal shell of corrugated black plastic, the best Japanese replica on the market, and a plethora of cable jacks to boot. He located the appropriate plug and connected his portable.

“No use doing that man. He’s been brain-dead more than two days.”

“Maybe,” started Harlan absently, “but if there’s so much as a spark of juice left in this bastard I’ll be the one getting it.”

Harlan twisted the cap to a heap of flowing gunk, at least half-an-ounce worth gushing from Blithe’s brainstem.

“What the hell’s that?”

“What? Do you think I know?” said Ant, grasping a translucent container no bigger than a pill bottle. “I’ll get this to the lab ASAP.”

“I wanna know the results on that sample.” Ant nodded in response with a glazed look in his eyes, orbs which were bloodshot nonetheless. The faint aroma of medicinal cannabis filtered the air.

“Did the coroners bring in a woman alongside Blithe? Fortyish, short, blonde hair.”

“Don’t think so.”

“Could you check?” Ant sighed, sauntering to his desk. The monitor activated with a wave of his hand, a deep porcelain that blended with the morgue’s aquamarine tinge. His lacquered nails danced methodically over a vintage keyboard.

“What was her name again?”

“Amy Lynch.”

“Oh yeah I remember that one but I didn’t see her. Wasn’t on duty then. Morning shift, ya know. Now she was here for a while but it says here…” he continued, drumming a ringed finger on the steel countertop, “…that she was taken to the incinerator the same day she was brought in.”

“You mean burned?”

“Cremated, yeah.”

“Beautiful.” Harlan covered his mouth in blank frustration realizing only now that he was sweating. His lead suspect was nothing more than charred remains and a few bone fragments. It felt like a ghost was stalking Harlan, something always two steps ahead of him.

“Who ordered the cremation?”

“Daughter dearest.”

“You’re kidding,” blasted Harlan, rotating the monitor in his direction.

“’fraid not my friend. Not according to these records.” Ant examined the screen, double-checking the morgue’s dossier. “These things are pretty foolproof. Once a log’s plugged into the system it’s more or less permanent. Wasn’t bad looking either if you ask me?”

“What wasn’t bad looking?”

“The daughter genius. She came by here earlier. Spitting image of her mother if you ask me. Came to collect her mother’s possessions.”

“Goddamn motherfucker.” Harlan meandered dumbstruck, siphoning through a laundry list of birth records before Ant got suspicious, and copied them completely. Ant busied himself with Tetris. A module clasped to the desk like a vice grip sent lasers gyrating into images, burlesque dancers into direct syncopation with the deft metal playing.

Harlan was on the verge of burnout and needed sleep. Ant pulled open his desk

drawer before dropping a crumpled bag on the tabletop.

“What’s this?”

“Blithe’s possessions. No one came by to claim them. Figured they might help in your investigation.” Harlan grabbed the bag not bothering to look inside. As long as blood wasn’t seeping through the lining Harlan was more than satisfied. Ant opened a door of frosted glass behind him, producing the suit Blithe flatlined in shrouded in a saran wrap cover.

“Thank you,” said Harlan, altering the depth perception of his VisorGoggles slightly, “you’ve been of immense help to me.”

Ant reveled in the feel of paper money. He received a bundle of folded hundreds clasped tightly in the crest of his right palm. Harlan signed off on Blithe’s items and triplicate the release forms with a stylus, copying the morgue’s info before finally exiting the premises.


It was raining when Harlan awoke. A heavy patter on the windowpanes of his bedroom office. The rain formed a thick green film on the outer glass. He slept, three REM cycles worth, forgoing hypnotherapy or any other ‘relaxation’ technique. And still no sign of Luna.

Sector 44 of the city was known by its inhabitants as ‘The Cube’ but to the rest of the naïve metropolis living outside its opaque boundaries it was referred to simply as Mecca. Or rather Mecca was sector forty-four, a pilgrimage of consumers for the postindustrial age.

There were no maps once inside. No corridors or helpful guidance lights except for one’s own intuition. It was the natural law, social Darwinism at its apex, rival gangs budding for greater territory, store upon store beside store above store. The only sense of order was the varying sizes of pneumatic tubes where garbage was frequently deposited. Its only escape (or entrance, for him) was a monorail intersecting the sector laterally, appearing and departing every fifteen minutes about a kilometers and a half inland.

Harlan checked his ammo, exchanging his Widley magnum at the closest repository for a Browning nine millimeter. Aiko triangulated the stockpile Harlan was seeking not too far from his extraction point. He recalled passing two Taiwanese discothèques, a nail boutique, a Russian-run pawn shop, but not much else. At two minutes a store, including three major detours — while simultaneously leaving a digital trail of breadcrumbs to find his way back to the monorail — distinctions became a blur.

Legionnaire’s disease ran rampant within Mecca. The air was impure, recycled. Harlan meandered with the populace. Their ashen gray faces, corpse-like lethargy and sensitivity to light. That was a distinction he noticed right away.

“Get out,” murmured the man, flipping the pages of Anarchist Weekly without so much as a glance at Harlan.
“I was told this was the place to buy explosives.”

“You heard wrong.”

The stockpile called a store consisted of three aisles, fluorescent lighting stripped to the bone, and whatever light exhibited the floor — patterned like the Thames in a Monet painting, dingy and scuffed from military boots, vandalized scrapings from army knives. It was one of the most deserted outlets in all of Mecca

The Vietnamese trafficker was tall but lanky, built like a tank. His face was streaked with dirt and a plethora of scars. His teeth were another story, yellowed from nicotine and tar, full of metal bracery causing his words to slur.

“Well,” started Harlan, drumming his index finger on the dusty display case, “I’m not leaving here until the info I need.”

He unbuttoned his ultrasuede jacket to unveil a chain of plastic explosives wrapped around his abdomen. Harlan never considered himself a martyr but there was always a first time for everything. He quickly unlatched the explosives, held together by inexpensive Velcro, and willingly put the belt on the counter.

“I need to know the purchase orders of these explosives.”

“This isn’t the kind of place that keeps receipts.”

“Don’t forget I’ve got jurisdiction here. Besides I’m looking to port. What’s the surveillance like?”

“Basic setup like any other joint,” started the man in his Meccanian accent, “two maybe three cameras around the perimeter patched through the unit’s power system. I don’t keep up the maintenance. Too expensive. Too time-consuming. Lucky if you’ll get a picture at all. Those things are ancient,” he continued, more lax now discussing his daily affairs. “A good day is the one where I don’t get robbed. But really in the larger scheme of things who’d want to rob me? Try lugging this merchandise around Mecca without getting jumped by local mafias. Listen carefully though. Explosives don’t come by here much. Maybe two in the last month. Don’t remember a lick about them. You’re not running are you?”

The man was curious as to whether Harlan had any direct ties to local police or private security. To this Harlan shook his head no. The merchant retrieved a dime bag of cocaine and a single rustic razor blade, cutting irregular chunks into smaller segments then into a fine power.

“Wanna hit on this?”

“Nah, I’m not into that scene.” The man sighed.

“You’re thinking too dimensionally. Drugs in Mecca aren’t just drugs. They’re a currency basis. How do you think we’re able to survive? It’s not a scene man. It’s a genuine way of life.

“Any place I can port?”

The man directed him to a beat-up terminal intended for public access. With no virtual interface and the monitor profusely scratched it was impossible to view its contents. The jack was better protected. Harlan jimmied the latch with a paperclip and located the appropriate cable, hooking it into the back of his deck before the proprietor took sight. He immediately emptied his recycled bin, dumping whatever virtual memory he didn’t need, and downloaded three weeks worth of round-the-clock surveillance, which cost him most of his hard drive.

This took about twelve minutes.

Mecca was taking its toll on him. His breathing was short and asthmatic. His eyes were sore. He pulled some bottled water from his leather case but it did little to quench his thirst. Every time his joints flexed, they felt heavy like iron.

On his voyage back to the monorail Harlan vomited in a porcelain urinal steam-cleaned to perfection. Paid toilets were a priceless commodity. European manufactured alcoves set up like phone booths. At the midpoint of his voyage — the distant echoes of the monorail humming — Harlan grabbed whatever chocolate bars were abandoned from a nearby vandalized vending machine, following the ultraviolet path Aiko laid out for him.

He crossed five corpses on his way back to the terminal. Three, stripped to near nakedness, brandishing gangland tattoos. The others died of madness.


The chemical was called umbelliferone, a yellowish-white crystalline solid with a high solubility in ethanol. It was notable for absorbing ultraviolet light at many different wavelengths. That was his first clue. Harlan suspected drugs, most prominently heroine. He owed Ash an apology. After a short trip to the lab he collected the sample. His results.


Aiko propped up a particle display late the next morning before the rosewood hearth. On his bedspread, used and wrinkled, was a Styrofoam carton of tandoori chicken on a bed of wild rice. Curry was the prime aphrodisiac. Cleared his blocked nostrils, soothed the phlegm that hung deep in his throat.

The aftereffects of Mecca lingered in his body as well as his mind.

The weather reports didn’t help.

Beyond his brief trip for food at the bazaar his afternoon was pretty much free. Lightning woke him. Rain lulled him. Tram carriages were likely suspended during electrical storms. Jaded sessions of rolling blackouts causing time delays and the like.

“So what’s the deal with this Ash character?”

“I have no idea. Haven’t seen him in a week.” Harlan barely paid attention to Aiko as he bit down on the fork’s white plastic. He plotted a topographic layout of Ash’s inventory with regards to company locations. Searching, praying for patterns, anomalies, anything.

But nothing came to him.

“So what’s in this for you?”

“What do you mean?”

“With Ash.” Aiko turned sideways in her silk negligee waiting expectantly for his reply. He picked some chicken between his teeth before tapping his VisorGoggles. “Well if I understand things correctly, this information trafficker hired you to find his lost robopet. And in exchange he offered you his own expertise as a console cowboy pro bono?”

Harlan nodded.

“I’d say you got the short end of the stick.”

“You’re forgetting one thing. I still haven’t found his robopet.”

“Listen baby. I hope you know what you’re getting into. I’ve gone over his stash. This stuff’s deep. Half of it’s military, top secret. Shanghai, Istanbul, Sao Paulo, AI restraints. Why don’t you come to your senses?”

“I can’t do anything Aiko. I wasn’t born to live out my years in a cubicle plugging data entry like some white-collar junkie. I live in the fast lane, real-time. If I’m not occupied with something, good or bad, I feel like a waste of space. Like I have to apologize for my existence.”

Harlan wandered to a half-empty crystal and clunked two ice cubes into his glass. The information he gathered daily seemed to swim before his eyes. Nonsensical eddies of form, plasma blue, neon red, locking, interlocking, attempting to achieve some sort of synergy. That drive he got when he jacked in, that freedom of space — he hadn’t done it for so long, for without purpose he did not feel the need to, the necessity of it — was that withdrawal he’d been experiencing. No amount of time in cyberspace or expert shareware could remedy it.

“Aiko, what’s Unreal City really like?”

“It’s a twenty-four seven orgy of decadence and self-deprecation. A hedonistic free-for-all involving pleasures beyond the realms of human consciousness. Pure energy pumping round after round of dopamine into your neuroreceptors under you’re completely comatose.”


“Of course not.”

“How else am I supposed to know then? I’ve only heard stories, half-certified myths. That’s the irony of DNI. Once people are in they never seem to want to leave. That’s why I find Blithe to be such an anomaly. Why stay here when you could live in perpetual bliss all your life? I suppose it’s some kind of distinction. Honor. Guess that’s over now. I mean since his death.”

Harlan rubbed his eyes fervently.

“It’s actually a pretty desolate place really. Not like the real world. Can I tell you a secret?” Aiko pressed forward. Her pert breasts. Her jutting eyelashes. Harlan got in close, kneeling, retiring his VisorGoggles to the bedside table to listen what she had to say.

“The real world is so much unlike Unreal City. Where I come from, beyond the net, beyond cyberspace, there’s a war going on. To be honest this place is a recluse from there, a safe haven. The others that populate this wondrous city are already on the edge, set to explode at a moment’s notice. Now this might not seem important to you when you watch it on your plasma monitors or subtly interface with it virtually, but let me tell you something Harlan” — the first time he heard Aiko use his name with such seriousness — “before this war is over, when all is said and done, the consequences in this world will be greatly felt.”

He found his hands shaking. They went numb upon her invisible touch. He swallowed the lump in his throat, choking on the very words he meant to say. Never before fearful of an avatar.

“Then what will happen?”

“I’m sorry, Harlan, but we’re going to have to end this conversation.”

There was a stumble at his office entrance, glass breaking, disrupting data transfer from Sao Paulo by way of Atlanta. He jumped like a bat out of hell, stumbling over the velveteen ottoman. A woman with red curls lied faced-down whimpering, a palm print of red on the plasma door. Harlan cradled her underside and came to his senses like Aiko warned him to do.

Aiko’s reflection disappeared from the burgundy loveseat. The girl had a black eye and her front lip was swollen. A ring impression left a gash on her right cheek. She wore only one heel and didn’t speak for a time.

It took Harlan fifteen minutes to realize that this woman was Luna.

Harlan brushed the hair away from her neck and spotted the bruises under her jaw line. She had been gasping for breath. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t talk. It was that she couldn’t talk. The barcode tattoo that once patterned her neck was gone. Luna didn’t stop shaking until an hour when Harlan joined her, protecting her, as she fell asleep in his bed.


Luna was bedridden for a time. The reddened marks on her neck manifested into purple blotches that stayed there for days. She only spoke when she wanted water or a datapad. Her absence remained a mystery. More often than not Harlan waltzed into his bedroom and felt Luna was more like a stranger to him. Her hair shorter and curled. Her eyes once a vibrant purple were now a deep brown.

Durango had yet to confirm their latest assignment. Normally planning didn’t take this long. Harlan began to have his doubts. Even if it did take this long his friend would send him outlines, a dossier, broad strokes, but there were no messages. Upon entry Luna quickly shed her urban clothing. They felt like relics when Harlan held them between his fingers. Bloody torn silk that left a sickly taste in his mouth when he rubbed them. There was no purse, only the discarded waste of an extended voyage through the city — bus transfers, paper currency, her discontinued security pass from BTF — that provided few clues.

The rain receded during early morning while Luna was still sleeping. He donned his fully-charged VisorGoggles without hesitation, asking Aiko to keep watch on her if she woke up, to stall her if she did. At least that would buy him some time.

“I’m headed to your neck of the woods,” uttered Harlan into the side-mic. He hoped the message would be heard over the commuter babel. Ash didn’t speak. He didn’t even make a sound, a sigh, a whisper. The signal was being patched through Soviet hardware as he talked. There were two dial tones, followed by dead silence, before the irregular bleeps signaled for him to speak, “Hang tight, I’ll be there shortly.”

St. James Town was a mass exodus in the early morning dawn. By ten o’clock it was virtually deserted. The suspended trams were quite empty, yet the carriage swaggered to a northeasterly gale causing oscillated static on his VisorGoggles. Harlan lit a fresh cigarillo. He took in the noxious vapors as a reprieve over the blanketed smog. The emergency phone rang. It was secured in a shell of canary yellow plastic with a wire snaking to the tram’s undercarriage. This was a one-way connection.

“You won’t find me in Night City. I’m in the field today flyin’ solo. Transfer at the next station and head back. I’m loadin’ up the directions now.” Ash’s signal bounced off the ionosphere from a long-abandoned comsat over the Mediterranean. The hack was flawless. Harlan couldn’t respond.

Forty-three minutes passed. He arrived on the dense outskirts, the slums, sidling through hooded transients in the crowded bazaars of the marketplace. Steam erupted from the wayward pipework above. Interconnecting side streets were offset by crumbling concrete. Walls that weren’t battened down with aquamarine tarp were tagged in Arabic graffiti.

A sharp right led him to a door of frosted glass. There was a single bullet hole inside its framework. Its fractures spider-webbed their way out from its epicenter. The shisha bar was teaming with heat, a dozen languages implicitly berating him from all angles, the pungent aroma of singed apples and strawberries. It was a disarray of purples and soothing browns. Even the smoke felt digital in the afterglow of plasma screens as Harlan continuously searched for Ash.

“You wanna hit?” asked Ash, disengaging his lips from the hookah.

“Actually I’m more interested in business at the moment.”

“Fair enough, fair enough. Just wonderin’ where you been that’s all? How’s the investigation goin’?”

“Poorly actually,” admitted Harlan. There was no need to lie to Ash. He ordered Harlan a rum and coke and took a seat across. “Your inventory makes no sense. I can’t find a single discrepancy. There’s just no pattern. I’ve come up dead.”

“Relax man, I ain’t here for the third degree. ‘member I ain’t paying you. Just wanted to talk.”

Ash appeared different by candlelight. His dented steel-toed boots hung low on the gabardine ottoman. He sat up stretching his leather jacket open. Harlan caught sight of the bottom-end of the taser he’d leant him, tucked away neatly in an underarm holster. The last thing Harlan wanted to do was burden Ash with his personal problems, like telling him about the man who tried to kill him at the izakaya.

“I’m sendin’ you on assignment to the archipelago. Ever been?” Harlan shook his head as Ash took sporadic puffs from the hookah. “Let’s just say the clientele doesn’t look too favorably on my kind. Take you right to the source man. Where my shit got jacked.”

“You mean the robopet?” Ash dropped a crumpled envelope on the table. Inside were two tickets to the night’s banquet written in Japanese and English.

“Not the robopet. Just a trace from one of my virals that looked surprisingly similar. Swankiest joint in town my friend. Be ready to show up fashionably late. Wouldn’t hurt to have a pretty girl on your arm neither, or a piece. Fucking Yakuzas outnumber the place. One nigger ices a party some years back next thing ya know we’re the Ebola virus. Musta done somethin’ right though. Not a single drop has been spilt since. I’ll hook you up with a tracker and my pet’s last location. Strictly reconnaissance. I want you to come back in one piece. Spent six hours straight ‘crypting code just to get your name on the damn registry. I’d ‘spect you’d be more grateful.”

“I’ll do my best,” said Harlan, lighting another cigarillo. A middle-aged Sikh in a turban and white cotton dhoti sidled to the bar nearby mumbling a variant form of Urdu too fast for his VisorGoggles to translate. Other than the receding echo of the clattering beaded curtain they ignored him entirely. “You ever deal with equipment?”

“You talkin’ gear?”


“What you gettin’ at?”

Harlan reached into his breast pocket and tossed a piece of polymer no bigger than a silver dollar on the tabletop.

“What the hell’s this?”

“A pacemaker I think. Extracted from none other than J.T. Blithe himself. I was wondering if there’s any information on it that could be of use to me. I’d do it myself but I don’t have the proper gear.”

“Damn man, you mean Blithe the billionaire. Didn’t think he was this country no more. Last I heard he was livin’ it up in Dubai somewhere. Shit, and here I am thinking I got off easy with your services.”

Harlan listed the discernable links between the inventory from mega-corporations in the Far East and the conglomerates in central Europe, concurrent headlines on the news e-links en tandem with Ash’s cache. It wasn’t much to go on but Ash knew his intellectual property better than Harlan. An LED blinked Morse code in the left corner of his VisorGoggles, Aiko informing him of Luna’s consciousness. He’d have to cut it short. Harlan did his best to look natural. He didn’t want to give Ash the impression something was up.

“Oh, I nearly forget,” uttered Harlan, rising up, “I got the results on that vial yesterday. Thought maybe you’d want to have a look.” He handed Ash the dot matrix printout and the vial in a Ziploc bag.

“Contact me tomorrow. It’ll give me a chance to sift through the data.”


It was a hack job three years ago. That much he remembered.

Harlan remembered the bitter taste of blood. One of the third generation inhabitants of the Jupiter Belt less than two miles into the Pacific. SeaCal had been nothing but a cluster of islands with secondhand cement for foundation and whatever landmass it could scrounge. Where subcultures emerged like microbes in a culture and coalesced after ‘The Big One’ hit.

The splintered sky gave off a microfiche sheen though the encapsulating geodesics allowed for filtration. Back then his gritty tenement was the third-floor of a Bastille overlooking the sinking coast, barely visible through the moguls of the port’s dead technologies. The troupe ran nine. Three on rotating shifts connected to the mainland — our resident cyphers — though there was always someone jacked in at any given time. Others were intermediaries for the Yakuza, the Triads, sporadic branches of the Costa Nostra, drug launderers, fencers, hackers, traffickers. Jupiter’s west peninsula was the densest population-wise. Catacombs of crumbling cinderblock prone to anonymous aftershocks.

Benzedrine ran rampant causing intermittent gaps in his memory. These freezeframes, like shattered glass, were the result of generic copycats. Aquatic strobes from a distant arcade. Obsolete first-person shooters left him strung out after long-hours in corporate mainframes. A patent-leather recliner lay stripped of its upholstery. Floors of cold cement were snaked with fiberoptics and photo-degradable containers that withered in sunlight.

Faces rekindled afterthoughts but only one name stuck, Kwan Yin. Dreads of dirty blond and black, baggy fatigues from army surplus, a white tanktop, a tattoo on her inner thigh.

It was a hack job, he repeated in the back of his mind. That much he remembered.

Someone ripped them off good.

She, the sole survivor of his return. Her body hung loose in a battened-down swivel chair. A silenced bullet left her lung perforated. Her pupils, lifeless pinpricks in the faint glimmer of vacant monitors.

Harlan traced the feed, cumulating the latent power from his deck and booted the system. The screens went nova, blinding him. Logic bombs. He couldn’t save Kwan Yin even if he wanted to. He remembers her in fragments. His fingers on the damp stucco walls. The bitter taste of blood on his lips. She existed now only as a memory.

The last image Harlan saw would lead to his permanent exile. The encrypted location of the fuckers that screwed him. He needed VisorGoggles after that. He vanished in the face of the crowd not long after, never to return to Jupiter Belt.


Aiko warned Harlan through a DOS prompt on his lenses that Luna was leaving his office halfway through his journey down the orbiting colonnade. The second message from his cushioned earpiece made him redouble his efforts home. He burst through his office door stumbling on his way to the bedroom, only to find Luna at the mosaic kitchenette finishing the last of a Denver omelet.

“Where’ve you been?” asked Harlan.

She didn’t look at him. Her eyes were more focused on the plasma screen, playing old reruns of Spanish soap operas. Luna was wearing a black silk kimono with patterned wild blossoms as she quickly downed her Taiwanese beer in one swift single gulp.

Four identical shopping bags dropped on the parquet floor. They were high-density polyethylene with globes on the packaging that rotated every three seconds. The durable nylon handles rubbed hard against his palms.

“Sky-diving. What do you think, I went shopping.”

“You didn’t use Blithe’s account did you?” She deactivated the screen nearly knocking the plate from her grasp. Her sudden attentiveness startled Harlan.

“Don’t worry about it. I used the retainer money you gave at the sushi bar. Jeez what’s you damage?”

“Do you have the obelisk?”

“Of course.” He fished glossy black acrylic from the pocket of his faded denims. It was hers after all or at least it was now. She snatched it the second it hit the adobe countertop.

“Blithe’s account’s tapped. Someone’s definitely tailing us. I can sense it,” she said, biting down feverishly on a manicured thumbnail. “I sensed it with Blithe when I accompanied him around the city.”

“Is that why you left so suddenly Luna? Or should I call you Eva?”

“Why? Did you miss me?”

“Don’t get soft on me sweetheart. Just because you go AWOL doesn’t mean the world’s going to explode.”

“Yet you obviously found time in your busy schedule to pay a visit to the Emporium. Doing very well for yourself aren’t you? Four bags of merchandise…” Luna winced in pain, cradling her wrist so it wouldn’t move.

“What’s the matter?”

“I think my wrist’s broken.” It was revealed to be a bad sprain. He handed her an ice pack, a plastic sac of refrigerant gel, to soothe her aching pain.

“So where’d you end up those last couple of days you went missing?”

“You first.” She removed a pack of Meia-Noite regulars and lit a menthol cigarette. Glare from the skylight fixtures bounced off her dancing corneas. They were glassy, her eyes. Contacts that phased with relative brightness to a predetermined spectrum of colors. Harlan explained the assailant who tried to kill him at the pod shuttle days ago. The encounter at the love hotel in the local Xanadu and his subsequent trip to Mecca. The autopsy of Blithe at the morgue and Lynch’s estranged daughter. It gave Luna a chance to quit talking. Her voice was still hoarse, though the bruises on her neck were more or less gone.

“Et tu?”

“There was some business I had to take care of. Do you remember that tattoo on my neck? Insurance that I’d stay in Blithe’s employment. But with Blithe dead I considered my tenure with him over. The first thing I needed was to get rid of it. Smart ink too. Radioactive isotopes burnt into the skin. That was my first priority.” She took in a long slow puff of smoke and exhaled slowly, tightening her silk sash to hold up her sinking cleavage. “So you could see the dilemma I was in. Normally those barcodes are removed until the debt is repaid but if authorities got hold of me all they’d have to do is scan it. Being Blithe’s assistant would be enough of a motive to charge me. You know how they operate. Arrest first, ask questions later.”

“And what about the blood? The torn clothing? If it wasn’t the cops that nearly bludgeoned you to death…”

Luna shook her head.

“I don’t know what happened. Last thing I remember was boarding the metro station at Sector 47. Everything from there is a blur. Somehow, for whatever reason, I ended up back here. Damn chikans must have slipped me something. My mind’s drawing a blank.”

There was no direct translation from his VisorGoggles. The term was of Japanese origin. The best paraphrase was ‘molester’ or ‘pervert’ but Harlan knew what she implied. Luna snuffed the butt of her cigarette in a scratched-up porcelain ashtray. She wearily wiped her nicotine-stained tips across both her front lips.

“You were in shock, probably running on adrenaline. This place was likely the last image you thought of before you were attacked. In times of traumatic stress the body reacts before the mind, a fight-or-flight response, which eventually led you here. I had my doubts though.”

“About what?”

“About the extent your injuries. You had an awful lot when you came back here. I had to check your body for cuts to make sure you didn’t bleed out.”

“I was attacked?” murmured Luna, as if she herself wasn’t convinced.

“But most of the injuries on your face and hands were superficial. The cuts were less than an inch deep. Now I’m not calling you a liar. There is no doubt in my mind that you were attacked. But most of the blood you had on you probably wasn’t yours.” Harlan remembered the butterfly knife she wielded on their first meeting. He mentally traced the scar beneath his Polo shirt. Luna cupped her forehead in her right hand, her elbow pressed firmly on the countertop.

“Oh shit. My father gave me that knife when I was a child as a gift. Do you think that guy who tried to kill you in the pod shuttle was the same person who attacked me?”

“I killed that guy in the bathroom with the butt of my handgun. Doesn’t mean that both weren’t in league with one another.”

A silence perturbed the air.

“How did it feel?”

“How did what feel?”

“Killing. Was it all that you hoped for?”

“The man who was tracking me had five blocks worth of destruction taped around his chest. Whatever I did I did to save those innocent bystanders in the shuttle and the dozens of others that would’ve been killed had I not intervened.”

“At least you remember killing him. Some of us wish to be so lucky.” Luna waltzed to the side bathroom closing the door behind her. Her silhouette flexed through refined translucent resin as she redressed into urban clothing. Harlan relaxed on the navy bedspread smelling her scent on his pillow, a mixture of eau de cologne and pheromones.

“What did he say?” asked Luna through the door. “When you were in the stall with the man, what did he say?” Harlan’s throat tightened. In the filters of his mind he recalled his last words.

You know she’s playing you.


The girl that’s who man. Do I have to draw it for you with a fucking stylus or something?

He said nothing.


The bowels close to ground zero were littered with ’58 Buicks. This unspecified southeastern quadrant of the city was the epitome of Raygun Gothic. Its upswept porticos, those curvaceous geometric shapes, the bold use of glass and steel. Neon splayed up buildings like festering algae. The spirit of a generation dwindled to nostalgia culminating in motels and coffeehouses. Half the people wore oxygen masks, a third were lathered in suntan lotion, a cosmological clutter of light.

Their destination, the Archipelago, was modeled off a Shanghai replica, the pinnacle of retro-futuristic design surrounded by artificial platforms. Through the white darkness Harlan led Luna to a service elevator ostensibly wide and flanked with rust. She wore a sheer white blouse with a Cordova skirt and a vinyl handbag to match. Her radiance didn’t dim Harlan’s luster. He paraded the concrete walkway in a double-breast jacket and tailored pants with a contrasting pink shirt for style.

Luna craved excitement, adventure. Ash’s assignment was the perfect aphrodisiac for her wayward albeit idiosyncratic slump. Harlan simply shrugged. Without a weapon he felt naked. Paranoid that leering eyes were staring at him. He knocked three times on the dented steel, reverberations felt through the metal.

A Japanese girl answered their call. She had creamy skin with hair in a diagonal streak of blonde and pink. A headset wrapped around her jaw.

“Are you Mr. Novak?”

“Detective Novak yes, and this is my associate, Luna Veca.”

“Follow me.”

The pair funneled to the rear of the warehouse. It was a thinned niche above a grated staircase blocked off by walls of square glass. Forklifts rumbled behind them. This sector (aside from the neon) was nothing short of a glorified storehouse. High-bay skids for offshore outsourcing. Imported crates from Helsinki, Kotka. The girl’s confidante was already wired in next to a desk of faded rosewood. A head mounted display of fire-retardant polyurethane covered his eyes. ‘trodes extended from his fingers. Deadened veins at the wrist posed an IV drip, plus a biteplate of molded plastic between clenched teeth.

“What’s he running?”

“He’s unconscious. Been at it for six hours now. Jetta here’s just got some top-secret military hardware from Malaysia. He’s been itching to try it out.”

“You mean he smuggled it here. That is what you do right? Traffic the goods to a third-party launderer and have them transported to this warehouse.” The girl flexed her fingers together. Harlan struck a chord in her that jostled her very being. Terminals reflected the user’s interface, what Jetta saw, sprawling distinctive lithograms Harlan recognized as the Eastern Port Authority. Monochromatic layers of scarlet and black gave the illusion its depth.

The place reminded him of the Jupiter Belt, the girl Kwan Yin. This warehouse had a presence about it. Vacuum tubes of diluted light cascaded through the sloped sunroof.

“You may want to tell your friend there that if he wants to shave a couple of hours off his duration to adjust the residual harmonics a few points, unless he wants migraines for the next week. He also might want to stick close to subsidiaries. No less than four degrees of separation at all times.”

“Are you a tracker?”

“I’m freelance, private dic.”

“But not officially I take it. Because anyone who knows the intricacies of shipping protocols that well is no amateur.” She rested her thin legs on the desk, long patent-leather boots ran up her shins, and lit a Meia-Noite cigarette (Luna’s brand) before speaking again. “I remind you you have no jurisdiction here. Ash owes me favor. Anything you see is purely circumstantial.”

“Look we’re sorta in a hurry,” said Luna, “Would you mind if we leave the chitchat for later?”

“All right.” She double-checked Jetta’s heartbeat and blood pressure. Her nails were a vibrant pink. The girl’s handle was a mere five character mix of letters and digits which Harlan couldn’t decipher. “Hand me your identification.”

She secured their cards in a white envelope — credit cards, driver’s licenses, social security — and produced a fresh one smelling of incense. Inside was a one-page dossier for each of them. Their fictional life histories spread before them on a virtual plane, that brilliant tactile interface of mauve and coral pixels.

“My name’s Angel in case you were wondering.”

A drawer slammed behind him. Harlan was startled. He licked his fingers unnecessarily scrolling down the final remnants of his profile.

“Who goes first?”

Angel held a pneumatic injector. As she closed the GUI Harland gazed outwards through tempered glass, steel barred windows, that endless blitzkrieg.

“These nanites will disintegrate in your bloodstream within the next fours hours so it’s a good idea to get off the premises by midnight. It’s just easier that way.”

“Like Cinderella.”

“Sort of. Only these glass slippers are manufactured in a lab.”

“Then I guess that’d make you our fairy god mother.”

“I’m only doing this as a precautionary measure. Ash instructed me to give you the best treatment possible. If he’s taught me anything it’s that these mafia joints can afford whatever their heart’s desire. Metal detectors that can scan on the cellular level. Laser readers that can trace ID tags from space. The sky’s the limit for these people.”

Harlan winced at the trigger-happy Angel. The puncture points kissed his flesh for a split second.

“Now believe me when I tell you that these people are ruthless. And there are far worse ways to die than at the barrel of a gun. You see, that’s the difference between the real and the virtual. Online, you can cower away in the digital niches for hours without ever realizing you can jack out. The point I’m trying to make detective is be careful. Because, if you get caught in the Archipelago, there’s no jacking out.

After the injection into his arm Harlan adjusted his VisorGoggles’s output, fixing for depth perception and calibrating the frequency to scan for miscellaneous anomalies.

“Listen Angel. Slow down if my pulse tweaks suddenly. Keep us under the radar. Is he burning clean?”

“Does anyone?”

“What stims?”

“Acetylcholine’s in the drip. Figure that’ll buy you a couple hours.”

Harlan felt an empty lucidity as the nanites took effect, a placebo effect at that, but an effect nonetheless. They’d mask his signature, at least temporarily, burrowing microscopic fissures in the markers that defined his genetic code. He worried his VisorGoggles would cause suspicion but it was too late now.

“Ready to go,” said Luna.
“I was born ready.”


Harlan propped up a dialog box on the inside of his VisorGoggles of the persona he was meant to inhabit. He remained erect facing forward as the private elevator oscillated upwards — an overabundance of blunt-shaped chrome, globes of translucent wax swimming in glass tubes — as the light amplitude automatically got dimmer with the increasing altitude of the lift. A glint of something caught sight in his periphery, a miniscule shunt lodged deep in Luna’s esophagus. No wonder she had no accent.



“Try to relax and take deep breathes.”

Jeff Lafayette was his handle, an up-and-coming e-vid distributor of harlequin fiction. Luna was a high-end escort from the outsourced Taipan line. With the majority of invites clinging to some sort of wildcat cartel Angel vied that Luna keep the scars from her assault.

Little Tokyo, the Archipelago, opened to bustling commerce of laissez-faire capitalism. Two divergent corridors provided sprawling vistas of Unreal City. The sky glowed a dark saffron that encompassed much of the horizon. Harlan bustled lazily on terrazzo floors. He scoped the lower plateaus that made up Little Tokyo’s eastern wing. Each domed nautilus was bubbled in cement glass. Its arched walls led to a metal spire. These plateaus were linked by serpentine walkways whose exterior shells were also see-through. He counted twelve in sight.

The walkways were public domain for corporations. Harlan sauntered through phantasmal avatars bearing corporate insignias. The evening’s motif was the proverbial outlaw: western gunslingers, the ronin, misguided derelicts of the underground.

Passing as Jeff Lafayette was like swimming through the personal histories of everyone around him. Abstracts of data flooded his lenses. The area teemed with decadent opulence. Luna made a makeshift emery board from the underside of a discarded matchbook. Harlan got the urge to smoke. Nano-filtration at this altitude was ultra-hardcore. Sheets of diffuse fiberglass covering the slanted roof.

The Aqua Bar off the rotunda was teeming with archaic electroclash. Music that left a nostalgia in Luna that was both artificial and perversely attractive. Furniture was situated at right angles — khaki-colored chairs, polished red oak tables. The languid scent of sandalwood lingered in the air.

“You picking up anything?”

“Nada. Nothing out of the ordinary anyway. Other than the fact I’m starting to get a headache.”

“Some alcohol will get rid of that,” said Luna, passing him a champagne flute.


Dense plexiglass rested beneath their elbows. Goldfish swimming amidst a heliotrope pulse. Tracers wore three piece suits with high white collars and solid matte black ties. Earpieces were graphed permanently in their left ears. A pale overcast of toxic green descended on Luna’s face as the unassuming Algerian bartender handed her a cosmopolitan.

“What’s the story morning glory?”

“Can’t tell. Normally bars are rife with subvocalized info-tracking over the Wifi but not here. Mobility’s weak. Transactions are slim to nil. But I’m sure our illustrious hosts are just glad the guests aren’t killing each other.”

“That tense huh?”

“Not sure but these elevated heat levels aren’t for nothing. Everyone’s on edge.

I’m just saying one dropped fork and the whole place will explode.”

“Then what the fuck are we doing here?”

Luna led Harlan across a staircase of coarse limestone. The elliptical corridor was slim, dimly lit, and contained Chinese lanterns covered in rice paper that provided the only floodlight. Wires stretched from the walls above to the dome’s central axis. Gnarled petals modeled off Potsdamer Platz draped cotton sheets against a lavender backdrop.

“There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.”

“What’s that?” Luna’s stilettos clunked monotonously against the floor like a code pleading to be deciphered. “Come on now. Don’t leave me hanging.”

“I need to know where you got you’re work done.”

“Fair enough. I had an acquaintance over in Sector 13 that promised a good discount on my credit if I’d get the mods done by him. It was strictly an external procedure.”

“Was he certified?”

“Let’s just say Blithe had a lot of connections. Some of which were shadier than others. Some of whom I’ve kept in contact with for a long time.”

How many connections? Harland wondered.

And that was it. Sector 13, the undisputed wasteland of the city. Even in broad daylight it was an urban no-holds-bar battle royale. The pieces of Luna’s assault were finally falling into place.

“And your personal safety didn’t factor into the equation?”

“Don’t be silly. I had my knife with me.”

“Is that all?”

“This may come as some shock to you Harlan but I’m not the harmless little damsel in distress you make me out to be. I don’t need rescuing, especially by you. I’ve survived much worse in my life. But it’s you that has to realize that there are easier, more inventive ways of killing a man than with a knife or a gun.”

He was startled back into her past. ‘The Pulse’, the blackout, the ensuing chaos, and eventual quarantine. What impacted Harlan more was her strident, unflinching tone. The pure malice rooted in her speech that left Harlan to question her true motives. Specifically the death of J.T. Blithe.

A snapshot of Jetta drifted through the light of the bar. This was his avatar, the unshakable truth. He was a cyberkid, branded in full regalia of the cyber subculture; ultra-modern tunic with Dintex webbing, military boots, uniform stretch-panel trousers with an asymmetrical hemline, hazard goggles that rested under shards of cobalt blue hair, not to mention the LED collar.

Aiko was transmitting a live feed to St. James Town. Harlan’s faith in Angel dwindled in that their success in the mission relied solely on barely legal jailbait. He fiddled with his naphtha lighter in his jacket pocket. The coldness reassured his nerves.

“You okay?”

Her voice receded into matte darkness. Miniscule details skewed his brain in the company of Yakuza. Teardrop tattoos, Italian silk ties, imitation jewelry that bore the words ‘loyalty’ and ‘family honor’ in their native language.

“Aiko, get me the point of origin.”

Constellations of pixels flooded the interface. Wireframes pulsed from the terminal perspective. His limbs were disembodied pieces of meat. Harlan waved steadily through the crowd outside the main ballroom, down various antechambers. The spectral clunking of Luna’s shoes dawdled not too far behind. Trickles of ultraviolet breadcrumbs led him from the final transmitted position of Ash’s robopet to some undetermined locale. The robopet was nowhere in sight.

Was it endless?

Aiko routinely refreshed the bandwidth but it stayed within normal parameters. She strung him along like a digital marionette far into the Archipelago’s east wing, three domes away from the main hall. He continued, following the same traces of umbelliferone found in Ash’s apartment. Invisible to the naked eye yet disastrous under a black light.

The thin corridor forked south unveiling a blend of Japanese décor and art-deco sensibilities; walls of rice paper, inlaid wood, shallow lighting, sharkskin, poly-carbonated cherry blossoms.

“Don’t tell me, you found something,” said Luna, breathless.

“The trail ends here.” No other access points were available, no adjoining junctions, airtight or otherwise. The only door was an ill-hidden storage closet a few meters away. “I’m picking up low-level heat signatures behind this door.” It was a rugged, lacquered mahogany. The stainless-steel handle was smeared with variant fingerprints, which he scanned immediately into his VisorGoggles. “Stand back.”

He turned the knob. Harlan’s eyes widened. There were no assailants ready to split his skull. No assassins waiting to ravage him despite the high concentration in the Archipelago. Harlan grabbed Luna’s wrist and bolted across the checkerboard floor. It became transparent, X-rays through a sequence of taps on his visors.

The main hydrogen line branched below to the subsystems of five nearby geodesics. Luna dug her fingernails hard into his skin insisting that he slow down but Harlan was having a hard enough time navigating the foyer with invisible walls around him.

Once inside the closest service elevator he pushed the lowest button on the panel. The buttons weren’t numbered. This lift was likely just a bypass. A direct route to the ground began.

“Have you lost your fucking mind?”

“Do you really expect me to answer that?”

“The time. What is it?”

“I don’t know.” Harlan’s ears popped as the elevator increased speed. Bands of light flashed rapidly in succession. The cascade was instantaneous, branching its digital fire-light to the nether-regions of Little Tokyo before ultimately going nova.

Horizons released skies.

Falling Towers.

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air.

Silence. Absence. Fire.


Harlan became conscious first and foremost of the smells of the warehouse’s interior, timber, sterile steel, vulcanized rubber. His eyes had a type of double-vision as he gazed at Angel’s silhouette. In the static tinted monitors he attempted rubbing them, his eyes, though ‘trodes were still clipped to his fingertips. Harlan was pent double on a salvaged dental chair, nauseated and dismayed.

“Are you awake?” said Luna.

Harlan said nothing.

After disconnecting the fiber-optics from the port of his VisorGoggles he took in heavy gulps of saturated air. That virtual program, the Archipelago, the construct that Ash tried so hard to accommodate was at this point in time irretrievable. Constant was the shrill bleep of Jetta’s flatline as he lay there mere meters away, and the flow of Angel’s tears.

“Are you awake?” she asked again.


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