Quality

The Quality Cafe is always open. I’ve eaten there at three in the morning after washing blood from my hands. I’ve sat nursing cups of Koffee for hours while puzzling my way through an anxiety attack. Have watched over a carload of exhausted manikins sharing waffles and bacon after working all the way through a long night. Lou isn’t your classical talkative proprietor. He doesn’t ask how your life is going, or commiserate over the trials of love, or listen for hours while you pour your heart out. The closest he comes to human sympathy is to spot the first cup of black Koffee if you wander in looking especially down. Just black Koffee though, and just the first cup. Refills, cream, and mood altering substances beyond caffeine will still cost you. 

Tonight is no different. The wind is still driving sheets of horizontal rain across the city and the street downhill from Quality Cafe is a mess of floodwater and broken trees, but Lou is still behind the bar and some dozen diners are camped in booths. The girl hops delicately from the handlebars and darts inside as I lock the bike into a chit-operated rack near the door. The broad glass windows are covered with roll down shutters, the sort that most places use to keep out looters when they close for the night, but Lou only lowers them when there’s a chance of flying debris. He doesn’t need to lock up at night. Not because there is no looting here in the midden, but because the cafe is never closed. I’m told that there have been occasions, expectedly rare, when some desperate fool decided to ignore all surveillance and barge into the diner with thieving on his mind. Those events generally end with the would-be thief dead on the floor while customers continue to enjoy their meals in the side booths. 

You don’t mess with Lou.

We take a corner booth where I can watch the door and I order breakfast. She orders only a black Koffee.

“You can’t eat in that body, can you? But then, if you’re an AI, you wouldn’t have much interest in food,” I say as the tabletop menu darts into a corner to be replaced with lazily drifting advertisements for religious deprogramming services. 

“I can eat. The food is merely ground into a paste and stored in a removable container. I prefer not to though. The feature is included merely to facilitate blending in with natural bodies.”

“But why would you want to eat? Were you programmed to like food?”

She gives me a smile so sad that it disturbs me to see it plastered on such a childlike face. “You haven’t worked it out yet, have you, Talbot?”

“I’m not following you.”

“I never said that I was a syntellect.”

I pause to review the last few days. Come to think of it, she is right. Ever since she killed Vakha I’ve just been assuming that she is an artificially intelligent killing machine. Maybe not the smartest conclusion, but it wasn’t much of a stretch. 

“You said that you had somebody look at the implant…”

I nod.

“Did they determine what it is? I mean beyond being a neural lace.”

“Not really. Most of the chips were sealed. She could definitely tell that it is more advanced than most laces. Something about having a colony of nanites so it can repair itself.”

The girl smiles, but her eyes fall with a weight that I have rarely seen in someone so young. There was a band of adolescent scavengers I encountered in the mire once. Their parents had all been killed by Red Easter or disappeared during the realignment and they had banded together for protection. A few of them had that look to their eyes. That deepest knowledge that the only magic or joy to be found in this world was at the edge of a blade. 

“Talbot, that implant is the key to immortality.”

I arch an eyebrow and lean forward on one elbow, the tabletop adverts realigning themselves like lily pads around my arm. “Come again? Because from where I’m sitting it sounds like you just made a wild, impossible claim, and I’m already having trouble believing much of anything you say.”

   She leans forward, as if to meet me eye to eye, but her short stature pulls her up short and she winds up spreading her elbows and resting her chin on the back of her hands. Her lips curl up in a wry smile and she says, “Have you seen any twins recently?”

I narrow my eyes and sink to her level. “Twins?” I say, injecting some uncertainty into my tone so she can’t guess that she’s hit a nerve.

“Maybe even triplets. Men who look just like your buddy Vakha from the hotel.”

I start to reply, but our order arrives, sweeping up to the table side on an automated trolly. I slot a few chits into the cart and send it back into the kitchen, taking advantage of the distraction to gather my thoughts. 

All of this is simply too much. When I was ejected from Federal service, I expected that I had seen the end of my involvement in important affairs. I drifted for a while, living on basic assistance in one Federal city or another, taking odd jobs where I could find them, but never settling into anything. Never returning to my hometown after that first, disastrous visit when I learned of Seth’s fate. Eventually Tamar contacted me with the offer to become a partner in her newly opened club and, with nothing else worthwhile in the offing, I took her up on the opportunity. 

The journey from Federal territory to the city was perilous. Over a hundred miles of lawless terrain lay between the borders and every guide I read or traveler I cornered in a bar had a different opinion on how best to traverse the mire. The only constant was that an airship would be the safest method, but I would already be spending all of my savings to buy corporate citizenship and invest in Tamar’s business. Crossing overland, moving on foot through the waste of once prosperous suburbs and small towns, would take longer and held the peril of encountering still lingerings pockets of plague. Traveling the highway was more direct, but brought with it the risk of scavenger attacks. I opted for the middle ground of traversing the back roads in a solar powered car which could only make about fifty miles a day thanks to the added weight of armor plating attached to the body.

“You’re avoiding my question. That’s as good as an admission,” the girl says, prodding my arm with a bony finger. 

Blinking away the past, I take a bite of eggs then shake my head as I chew the rubbery mouthful. A swallow of bitter Koffee washes them down before I reply. “Just thinking about how I got stuck in this situation. I’m not a hero, kid. I’m hired muscle. I just do what it takes to get by and try to make that a little easier for people weaker than I am.”

“Which is why I need you.”

“You said that YuriCo could have stopped Red Easter. That the implant is the key to immortality. What proof do you have for any of this?”

“So you have seen twins,” she says, her statement as factual as pointing out that my eggs had arrived cold.

“More like quadruplets. There’s the one you killed, then three more showed up at my club later that day.”

“I told you not to go home. That they would find you.”

“I guess you did, and I guess you were right, but that’s neither here nor there. What does any of this have to do with YuriCo?”

“YuriCo has many divisions…“

“That doesn’t make them unusual. Just about every independent corporation has it’s fingers in a dozen different industries these days.”

“True enough,” she says, scowling at my interruption. “But YuriCo is heavily invested in biotech and human-machine interfacing. They employ thirty percent more bioengineers than their nearest competitor and single handedly held the guild patents on fifty-seven percent of actively licensed biotech last year. Combine that with their strong presence at cognitive interface conferences in the last year and an industry leading team of synthetic cognition experts and you have a recipe for revolutionary advances in mind-machine interfaces.”

“If I was a reporter that would all be… interesting? Listen kid, I don’t care about their latest financial quarter or anything like that. All I want to know is what I get out of helping you. Money is nice. Evidence that your claims are true might help me get revenge, but it’s not like the Feds or Corps are going to put anyone on trial.”

“But what if we could take power from the hands of the Corps and the Feds alike? Think of it, Talbot. Global warming. Red Easter. The Realignment. What if all of the upheavals that have shattered humanity in the last century could be redeemed? We can never bring back the dead, but I am telling you that YuriCo has invented a technology that could ensure that nobody ever has to die again.”

“The twins, right? What are they, clones?”

“That’s the starting point, yes. The four men you saw were all vat grown clones of Yevgeny Rudin, YuriCo’s chief of security.”

“He said his name was Vakha.”

“That’s his middle name. He hates being called Yevgeny.”

“And the implants?”

“Rudin is fitted with a prototype neural lace which is more advanced than any previously disclosed. The device infiltrates all parts of the brain, monitoring neural growth and chemical transfer throughout. Everything is captured as data and relayed to a corporate backup server.”

“You’re saying that his brain is backed up.” I push my plate away and sit up straight against the seat back, studying the girl as I sip my Koffee. This doesn’t seem impossible, people have been dreaming of personality backups and consciousness transfer for nearly three centuries and the structure of the human brain was fully mapped shortly before I was born, but I’ve never heard of anyone able to reboot a backed up mind. Dig into the archived data and root around for memories, perhaps, but even then sorting out the difference between real memories and fantasies has always proved insurmountable.

Until now, I suppose.

“More than that. All of the versions you have interacted with were clones, Talbot. The actual Yevgeny Vakha Rudin is at a secure location outside the city.”

“But how can that be? Nobody has ever managed to transcribe fresh memories into a brain, let alone an entire personality.”

“Technically, it has been possible to encode false memories into the mind for the whole history of humanity. The brain works by transferring information from long term memory to short term memory whenever you need to access it. That process is inherently destructive, like a computer that can only move files around, but never make copies of them. Over time, errors can be introduced into memories as they are being transferred, and eventually we all end up with a pile of false memories. In most cases it’s harmless. You are convinced that you saw a movie as a child, but you’re actually remembering two or three different plots and constructing a film that never existed. You are certain that your favorite shirt in college was green polo, but a few years later you see a photo of yourself and realize that the shirt was actually a fuchsia tank-top with a screen printed leprechaun on the front.”

“I’m familiar with false memories,” I say. “My daemon specializes in implanting them.”

“Demon?”

“Sorry. Daemon. Like the computer process. It’s how I personify my anxiety. Which, come to think of it, is a false memory in itself.”

She cocks her head to one side and pulls her lips over her teeth, trying to puzzle me out. After a minute she replies, “Yes. I suppose.”

“So you’re telling me that not only has YuriCo created a perfect brain lace that can actually do a full resolution capture of the human mind, but they have also created a mechanism for transcribing that information into another mind.”

“Exactly. The mind has to be compatible or the transcription can result in irreparable damage, but once the template is in place minor corrections can be made while the subject is asleep with no apparent side effects. Transcribing while awake can result in confusion, but is possible.”

“I’m still not sure if I believe it.”

“You saw the men, Talbot. Four of them, you said? All of those versions of the man you call Vakha were grown at an accelerated rate in artificial wombs, their neural development shaped by a template drawn from Rudin’s own mind. They were never anyone other than him, even as fetuses. They received updated templates every day for about a year, shaping their brains to be receptive to his mental state. After decanting, each of them operated independently while awake, then received a synchronized memory template every night while sleeping.”

“You know a lot about this, kid.”

“You haven’t asked who I am.”

“Frankly, I’m not really interested in who you are. I just want to know what you expect me to do in the face of a mega-corporation that can build its own private clone army. Fact is I’ve done my job. You’re safe enough. I can tell Ethie that she might as well report you as a runaway and hope that she doesn’t get audited.”

I lean forward and twine my fingers, resting my chin on my thumbs as I study the deadly child creature sitting across from me. Her lips curl up in an imitation of a smile so perfect that even her eyes narrow, pupils dilating to soften her gaze. The effect is disconcertingly disarming. If one of Tamar’s clients were sitting here instead of me, he’d likely be eating from her hands by now, one artificially induced tear away from reaching for his wallet and begging to buy this lost child a place to stay and hiring a lawyer to get her expedited citizenship. 

Back in the early days of cybernetics and animation, creators had to contend with the uncanny valley, that is the tendency of artificial human faces to be so close to real that humans could detect every little imperfection. Each instant of lag in the animation or glitch in the synthetic musculature would trigger the part of an observer’s brain that had been wired to detect lies, with the result that creators and consumers alike widely rejected the simulacrum of human features in favor of anthropomorphized animals and caricatures of humans. 

This face, however, is beyond perfect. Not only do I feel as if I am speaking with a living human, it is as though I am sitting across from the greatest actress of her generation. 

“The problem is, kid, that I should be going back to my apartment to have a few drinks and resume my regular schedule of self-loathing for a few hours before going back to my regular life. Watching out for Tamar’s manikins and dancers. Breaking the occasional arm when somebody falls behind on child support. Drinking enough that I’ll probably need a replacement liver before I’m fifty. Unfortunately—“ I slam my palms down on the table, causing the plates to rattle and sending a flock of animated viral load boosters scurrying to the corners of the table. “Unfortunately, I can’t go home because some sort of corporate clone club decided to try and murder me. So now I have to deal with that before I’ll be able to sleep in my own bed.”

“Did you have to kill them to escape?” she asks, unflinching in the face of my rage. 

“Two of them.”

“Was it bloody?”

“Extremely.”

“So you may not even be able to sleep in that apartment again. I’ve read your file, Talbot, and I find it fascinating that you always kill with a knife when you have such an aversion to blood.”

I slouch back in my seat and scowl at her, not replying. If she wants to bring up her connections to the Feds and the utter transparency of computer networks to her whims, then I can just wait. If it weren’t for the chance of more Vakhas showing up I’d be on my way back to Tamar’s now, perhaps stopping by the hardware store for supplies to refinish the floor. Not that anyone would be interested in selling me a can of varnish in the back end of a hurricane.

We sit in silence for a long while. On the table, the viral load boosters stop cowering in the corners and resume their oddly erotic dance routine, reminding diners to keep bacteria at bay with regularly updated phage boosters, then scamper off screen to be replaced with a public service ad denouncing unlicensed religious services.   

“My name is Iris. I used to work for YuriCo on the development of those implants, but we had something of a disagreement on how the technology should be used.”

“Would that disagreement have anything to do with why you’re using that body?”

“Everything. You see…” she hesitates and, for the first time since I met her in that hotel room, she appears uncertain. Concerned. Even upset. 

If I didn’t already suspect that this Iris has some form of enhanced control over her emotional display, this moment of uncertainty would give me pause. As it is, I can’t help but wonder if she is still playing me. 

“Talbot, this body is all that remains of me.”

I raise an eyebrow. 

“I’m telling the truth.”

“So, your evil corporate overlords ripped out your brain and put it in the body of an assassination robot.”

“No. Talbot, they killed me. Shot me in the head right there in the interfacing lab.”

“This is too much.”

“It’s true.”

“Then how are you sitting here? How are you talking to me right now?”

“Because the cloning and the implant are only the beginning. Talbot, YuriCo has developed a means of imprinting neural patterns on independently grown brains, and perfected a method of casing those brains so they can be placed in artificial bodies.”

“That’s some serious science fiction shit, if it’s true.”

“It is.”

“Three questions then.”

She nods. 

I hesitate for a moment, collecting my thoughts. In truth I have dozens of questions, but I manage to narrow down my thoughts to a few essential points. 

“First: Why would the company kill you? If you were involved with the research, then clearly you have something to offer them.”

“I disagreed with the leadership on how we should apply this technology. They believed that it should be covertly distributed to executives and governments, with trap doors installed to ensure that the Feds, rival corps, and hostile governments could not take the tech without paying an ongoing maintenance fee. These would also prevent it from being nationalized, since YuriCo’s executives would hold the keys to the technology and simply destroy those keys if anyone attempted to seize it. It’s not like the Feds could threaten any of them with imprisonment or death when they are all running multiple backups already.”

“That didn’t answer my question.”

“I wanted to open source the technology. To give it to the world without restriction, then sell hardware to support it. I may have threatened to do that without authorization.”

“And by ‘may’ you actually mean ‘definitely’, right?”

“Basically. So, not knowing that I had already been backed up, the board decided that it would be better to have me killed than risk a leak.”

I hold up two fingers and point at the kid. “Two: What do you plan to do?”

“Release the tech. Think of it, Talbot. All of the people who died during the realignment, who were killed by Red Easter, who are suffering out there in the mire, if all of them had access to this technology they could be reborn. Think of the impact it could have on society! What point is there to wars when the best soldiers are simply reborn, or whole battalions are comprised of the replicated minds of the best strategists? Why murder somebody when they will awake in a new body a few hours later? This could be the single greatest achievement of humanity since, ever.”

“Not afraid of celebrating your own achievements, are you?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.

“I’m just speaking the truth as I see it.”

“So, three: What do you want me to do? Because however crazy you might be, I’ve clearly been pulled into your swamp and I need a path out.”

The kid, Iris, I suppose I should call her, nods slowly and drums her fingers on the table top. After a moment she says, “Kill them. The board ordered my death, and I want revenge. If you won’t do that, at least help me break into the data vault. If I can exfiltrate the schematics and codebase, that will be enough to change everything.”

This isn’t the first time that somebody has asked be to kill for them. Nor is it the first time I’ve been asked to participate in a robbery. The two often go hand in hand and, when you work in the circles I do, requests for murder are more common than you might expect. I generally turn them down. Not that this keeps my hands clean. There’s a reason I always keep a set of ceramic blades secreted on myself, and I don’t like to think of the number of times that a simple intimidation job has turned bloody because some dude was all hyped up on their latest designer drug.

But why should I kill for this girl? I don’t even really know who she is.

“If it’s money you want, I can get it for you. If it’s revenge or closure or whatever the hell else your therapist calls it, I can make it a priority to exfiltrate all the data I have on YuriCo’s ties to Red Easter.”

“I’m just trying to decide if you’re worth it.”

She doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. I’ll give her this: Iris has the poise of an experienced corporate strategist. When she speaks, her voice is clear and strong, with just enough emotion to convey the import of her words without giving way to frustration.

“You want to go home? You want to sit at the bar, watching your pathetic customers pay for companionship, downing drink after drink, and not worry about whether Rudin is sneaking up on you through the smoke?”

“When you put it—“

“Talbot, I’m offering you the chance to do something that matters.”

We sit across the table from one another for a long moment, each studying the other as the table adverts dance between us. My daemon whispers at the back of my mind, prompting me to run away, to leave the city and make a new life far away from YuriCo, Vahka, and all of the madness I’ve found myself drawn into these last few days. It would be the easiest path, and god knows that avoiding the path of least resistance hasn’t exactly worked out in my favor, but a spark of rebellion refuses to be extinguished. That tiny flame that guided me back from my mental break and led me to join Tamar in the city, rather than electing to merely exist in the Federal zones.

“I’ll help you,” I say.

“Great. And now you’ve made your choice, how about you check your credit balance. ”

I pull my handy from a pocket and call up my account balances. My digital wallet is showing a credit balance ten thousand units higher than it was the last time I checked.

I look up from the screen and raise an eyebrow.

“There’s more where that came from. If we get through this alive I’ll make sure you have a diversified portfolio of crypto currencies that will last several lifetimes.”

“How are you able to do this? The coin systems are the most secure currency network ever devised.”

“Let’s just say that I have access to a lot of accounts.”

“Christ, I was worried about Vakha coming after me. Now you’re going to turn the currency wonks against me.”

“All sufficiently laundered and anonymized. Don’t worry Talbot, I’ve been shifting digital currency for years. By the time any of that credit reaches you it’s been through so many hands that nobody can prove that it was for you.”

I put my handy away and drum my fingers on the table, considering my next move. I should just walk away and leave Iris behind. Maybe even sell her out to YuriCo in exchange for being allowed to return to my life.

But even if she’s lying about their ties to the plague, I know that something terrible and revolutionary is going on in the bowels of YuriCo, and I need to learn the truth.

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