Schuster’s got a scanned model of the wires that the girl extracted from Vakha’s neck rotating in a volumetric display to the right of her workbench, allowing us to examine them in detail without hunching over a scanning microscope. It’s expensive tech, the sort you usually see only in a corporate lab, but as Schuster flicks the model with her fingers I can see the value in it.
“This part here is a fairly standard optronic processing core. Nothing you couldn’t buy off the shelf in any hardware market. Then we have this,” Schuster has the fingernail sized processing board enlarged to the size of a dinner plate and is pointing at a cluster of cylindrical devices jutting up from it like grain silos. “Unless I’m mistaken, this bugger is a set of nano density capacitors. Expensive to buy and you’d need a nanite manufactory to make one yourself, but they’re essentially tiny little batteries that hold as much of a charge as your average power pack. Couple that with this,” she extracts a strand of wire, which has been modeled down to the flecks of gore from Vakha’s spine, “and you have a device which can operate independently basically forever.”
“And this is?” I ask. “I’m better at extracting implants than analyzing them.”
“Nice bit of work, actually. Combination of a piezoelectric actuator and a radio frequency harvester provides power to the capacitors from ambient radio waves and the movements of the, well, former wearer’s neck.”
“What’s it all for?”
“That’s actually where it gets interesting.”
Nobody who knows Schuster would ever accuse her of not having a flair for the dramatic. It’s stood her well in the antique and art trades. This whole bunker is as much a brilliant piece of marketing as a secure hole for Schuster to keep her artists in.
She flicks her hands through the volumetric display, rotating the model to reveal cluster of thin wires emerging from an unnervingly biological mound of electronics which splays across the edge of the chip like a hungry octopus. “This, darling Talbot, is the single most fascinating part of this little gift you’ve brought me. It’s better than a dozen hothouse roses, a blood diamond necklace, and a first class ticket to the Colorado enclaves.”
“Better than all that?”
“I mean, if you’d take me to bed that might be better…”
I cock my head and give Schuster a half smile. “I’m not saying no outright, but…”
She shrugs. Looks back to the display. “A girl’s got to try, Tal.”
“Maybe some day.”
“That’s better than nothing.”
The model expands, revealing more detail of the wires which emerge from the chip. Schuster enlarges the model yet again, until the edges of the chip and its wires are clipped by the hazy bounds of the display cube. I now see that the cluster of wires emerging from the chip are themselves festooned with countless additional tendrils. “Besides, this little guy is more than exciting enough for the moment. I mean, look here.” The model expands one more time, focusing on several of the wires. Even knowing what Schuster is capable of, I am impressed at the resolution of this scan. “This glorious piece of engineering is an active neural lace. It’s got a small compliment of specialized nanites which crawl through the host’s brain, building and maintaining a lace which is more complex than any I’ve ever seen.”
“What’s a neural lace, anyway?” I ask, studying the model. “I get the idea of it, but what’s the point of putting a bunch of wires in someone’s head?”
“The technology is primarily used for paraplegics, lock-ins who’ve suffered such traumatic spinal damage that they can’t control their body anymore. There are experimental programs to connect their brains to wheel chairs and ambulatory avatars, allowing them to regain some movement.”
“Why not just regrow the nerves?”
“I don’t know. Maybe there are too many damaged points, maybe the patient’s legs have been broken in too many places, I’m not a neurologist, Tal.”
“And you’re certain that is what we’re looking at?”
“Sure as I can be.”
I rotate the model and consider what Schuster has told me. I trust her technical analysis, but it just doesn’t seem to match with what I saw in the hotel. “What purpose could there be in placing a lace like this in a healthy human body?”
“Not much that I can think of. These things are still highly experimental, the sort of tech you only use in extreme circumstances. Round about twenty, maybe thirty years ago there was a tech bubble surrounding neural augmentation, but around the time we were born it all collapsed.”
“They couldn’t get it to work?”
“Not at all. Problem was safety. Too much risk of permanent brain damage if the implant went wrong, or the lace became corrupted, or the patient was exposed to significant radio frequencies. Most corps ditched the tech or scaled back their research to focus exclusively on medical applications. There’s word that the Feds have been working on this tech for decades to enable fully transparent communication. Soldiers and spies who can talk to each other and their restrillect aids as easily as thinking. But nobody much cares about those shadow games anymore, so I figured they had fizzled.”
“How far could you push this?”
“What do you mean?”
I cringe and step away from the display to settle onto a stool. My heart is beginning to race, my palms have begun sweating. Three days have passed, but I’m suddenly in my apartment above Tamar’s club again, watching identical men bleed out on the floor. Identical not only to one another, but to a fixer named Vakha who I had seen killed and dissected hours before.
I hear Schuster’s voice over the moans of the dying men, but that’s wrong. She wasn’t there. It was only me, the impossibly identical twins, and the blood. So much blood.
Hands grip my wrists and twist, the painful friction breaking me out of my trance. Schuster is there, standing in front of me with the volumetric display behind her. My mouth is dry and I can feel my heart pounding in my ears.
“Are you back?” Schuster asks, still gripping my wrists as she leans close and looks into my eyes.
“I’ve never been gone,” I croak. I manage to summon enough saliva to swallow. “How long was I out?”
“Just a couple minutes, but you were making a really weird noise. Like, not a moan or a scream, but someplace between them. I just can’t believe you didn’t need to stop for breath.”
I cough and look around the workspace for something to wet my mouth. Schuster has a half empty can of diet soda on the bench beside her keyboard, but I’m not desperate enough for that. She catches what I am looking at and grins. “You’re not going to drink that if I give it to you, are you?”
“I’m afraid that’d just be trading one panic attack for another.”
She crosses the workspace and pulls a fresh can from a glass fronted refrigerator that looks like it once occupied the end of a hypermarket checkout stand. I drink eagerly, savoring the sickly sweet liquid as it wets my tongue. Schuster pulls up another stool and watches me in silence until I’ve finished the soda.
“Were you there when the lace was extracted?”
“And, naturally, you didn’t react well to all the blood.”
“You could say that, though I think killing the twins took more out of me. Frankly, I’m surprised I lasted this long without a recursion. There was a lot of… everything.”
I take another pull at the empty can, grimace, and stand to get a replacement soda. I wish that Schuster had some liquor here in the lab, but she apparently prefers to keep a clear head while working. “You want to make me flip out again?”
“If it’ll help me understand you better.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say.”
Schuster shrugs. “What can I say, I’m a terrible person. Remember, Tal, you didn’t even think twice about giving me this bird’s nest of bloody wires.”
I crack the new soda can and take a swig, grimace, then say, “This neural lace, could you use it to communicate?”
“Like in those anime where cyberpunk detectives can communicate without speaking. The day I got the lace I saw four men who all looked exactly the same and all seemed to know exactly what the others were thinking.”
“That’s a pretty wild claim.”
“It’s what happened. The implant came from a guy called Vakha. Claimed to be a fixer for one of the major corps, trying to retrieve some sort of experimental clone that had gone rogue.”
“You kill him?”
“Nah. We were working together. One of my midden clients apparently took in the escaped clone. Hired me to track it down when it escaped, thinking it was just another of her foster care money machines.”
“And what does any of that have to do with a neural lace?”
“I don’t know, except that when Vakha, that’s the fixer, and I tracked down the clone she took him out and ripped that implant from the back of his neck before I could even react.”
“And the twins?”
“There were three more men who looked just like Vakha and knew everything we had done together. They came to Tamar’s place and tried to kill me, but… well…”
A beat passes before Schuster gives me a half-hearted shrug and says, “You did what you do.”
I pull down half the can, directing my focus onto the leaden chill of the soda as it hammers into my stomach. There must be some kind of rational explanation for what I saw, and as impossible as it seems, this neural lace tech might be just the piece of reality that I can grasp to keep myself from going mad.
Schuster purses her lips and works her jaw, squinting her eyes in a way that tells me she is running some kind of deep thought process. After a moment she nods, turns away from me, and begins toying with the model projected in the volumetric display. “If they’ve actually cracked how to build a sustainable lace, I suppose it would be possible to transmit everything that somebody saw or heard. I just don’t know how the experience would translate from one brain to another.”
“Couldn’t you just stimulate the same areas?”
“Maybe? I’m not a neurologist, Tal, but I’ve got a feeling that it doesn’t quite work like that. Regions of the brain serve the same purpose person to person in the same way that fingers do, but I don’t think that the structure of neurons in any two brains is the same. They’re organically grown based on individual experiences, kind of like finger prints.”
“But it could be possible to at least transmit what one person saw to somebody else?”
“Assuming that this is actually a functioning neural lace, then yes, it could be done.”
“Who would have the resources to build something like this?” I wonder aloud. The Feds might, but Vakha didn’t give me the vibe of being a Fed. For that matter, one of the distinct lines between corporate cities and federal territory is the allowance for cloning. For all the changes that swept through the government in the wake of Red Easter, the feds have retained many of the social values which defined their nation before it collapsed, and among these is a strong prohibition on human cloning. The corporate city states have no such compunctions, and as a result cloned organ donors, and even the occasional military experiment are not unheard of in the city.
“I can’t tell you that,” Schuster replies, her back still to me as she examines the implant. “The chips are too generic on the exterior and I don’t know if it’s safe to cut through their shielding. Even if I did, chances are that I wouldn’t find anything more than private serial codes which I’d have no means of interpreting.”
“Why wouldn’t it be safe to open the chips?”
Schuster hesitates. Rather, she just doesn’t say anything, but I can tell from the tensing of her shoulders that she is pretending to not hear me so she can play for time.
“What are you not telling me?”
“Let’s just say I don’t think it’s a good idea to take this implant apart.”
She tosses me a nervous grin over her shoulder, then looks back to the model and rotates it to focus on a nodule attached to the side of the lace extrusion port like a cancerous growth on the body of an octopus. “This guy right here is basically a nanite hotel. Room for about a hundred million of the buggers right in that little dot. I wouldn’t be surprised if, beneath that shell, there’s a housing complex for several specialized nanites. You know: The sort that harvest material from blood and tissue. The sort that restructure that material into superconducting nanofilament. The kind that trace those filament to the right part of your brain and graft it on to a neuron cluster so your masters can make you taste banana pudding whenever you look at a photograph of a Chihuahua.”
“And they’re active?” I ask. My daemon awakes, delivering fully immersive sensory memories of the ravager swarm that dined on George’s leg out in the mire. The angry black swarm crawling up her leg, consuming her with such rapidity that the air begins to fill with the scent of burning flesh. I can smell it even now, that sweet scent that makes my mouth water, even as my stomach revolts at the knowledge that I am growing hungry for the taste of my friend.
“Dormant, as far as I can tell, but that could change.”
“The implant’s CPU is still alive. It’s been waking every few minutes and trying to phone home, but there is no onboard modem. It must have depended on the user’s handy, or maybe a separate communication implant, but I doubt that. The human body is a pretty heavy insulator, so implanted modems rarely function efficiently.”
“Speak for yourself,” a new voice says, intruding on our conversation.
I look around to find Salinas glowering at us from the doorway. Their eyes are as hollow as they were hours before. They are covered in a heavy smock, speckled with luminescent paint.
“Hey, Salinas,” Schuster says.
“Javier’s been trying to contact you for, like, a while,” the glowing skeleton intones. “You’ve got all this communication hardware and we still can’t get a hold of you.”
“You just did,” I say. “Why doesn’t Javier just come and look for us himself?”
Salinas fixes me with a hollow glare. I consider asking whether I’ve offended them by even suggesting that Javier face his own paranoias like I have to every damn day, but the urge passes. I can be cruel, but rarely petty. Is it possible that I’m tempted to lash out because I’m jealous of Salinas’s relationship with Schuster?
The thought captivates my daemon, causing it to burrow into my memories and being dragging forth memories of Seth. I grit my teeth and turn away from Salinas, forcing myself to breathe slowly as I push back commingled images of tenderness and tenderized meat.
“Can you come now? Javier was, you know, kinda insistent that you’d want to see whatever this is,” Salinas says.
“Yeah, just let me pack this up. Tal, can you open the vault for me?”
I look to her, clenching my jaw as a chill passes through my body from my knees, through my chest, then up through the top of my head. This is exactly what makes my daemon so insidious: The closer I come to overcoming my fears, the deeper it digs its claws into the back of my skull. Sometimes I feel that the only way to rid myself of it would be to extract it bodily from my brain, ripping the daemon out like Vakha’s implant and crushing it on the floor.
Unfortunately, there tend to be negative side effects to ripping out one’s brainstem.
“Talbot?” Schuster repeats, indicating a cylindrical device about the size of a garbage bin to the left of her workbench.
I force a smile, then step closer to the device and study the panel for a couple of seconds. A display illuminates with the outline of a hand as I approach and I press my palm atop it, assuming that Schuster must have already keyed it to my biometrics if she is asking for me to open it. The display winks green, then turns white. An instant later the top pops up with the hiss of air rushing into a vacuum. An instant later the device telescopes upward, revealing a set of niches set into a central pillar of white ceramic.
“So much promise locked away in a murder tube,” Salinas sighs, shaking their head.
“It’s a reasonable precaution,” Schuster replies. She lifts the implant from the surface of her workbench and tucks it away into one of the niches. “And before you ask, I’m not giving you the nanites back.”
“I feel left out. Is everyone here playing with nanites?” I ask.
Schuster gives a bitter laugh and shakes her head. “Nope. Salinas had some idea of using them to construct interface elements in real time, but I put a stop to that, at least until they improve their code.”
“It would have been glorious. Certainly more effective than mere holography,” Salinas mopes. “I’m going back to my studio.”
Schuster presses her hand to the top of the vault and the display flashes. “I didn’t like the look of your safety protocols. That little mobile art exhibit of yours had the potential to digest half a city block if it mistook infrastructure for feedstock.”
“The people would be safe.”
“Not good enough, sweet.”
Salinas gives a noncommittal wave and disappears out the door without another word. A moment later I hear the clatter of the elevator safety cage.
I look back to Schuster. “Are you serious?”
“It was just a small experiment. I spotted Salinas working on the code one night, trying to override the firmware protection against self replication, and managed to root the firmware first. Told the little buggers to cluster into a ball the size of a marble, then tossed it into the vault.”
“And the vault will?”
“Incinerate everything within it if it detects any nanites escaping from the ceramic vacuum tube.”
“Thus the murder tube.”