I had the good fortune to lose my mind six months after Red Easter and spend the next three years locked in the mental health ward of a military hospital in Quantico.
Fortunate in the sense that I managed to skip over the worst of the plague by curling into a fetal position and screaming at my daemon for hours on end, occasionally emerging watch decontamination teams spray the emergency room entryway with dilute acid disinfectant through my window. They remembered to feed me, usually, but therapy sessions were few and far between as the surviving hospital staff spent their days playing hide and seek with a weaponized strain of necrotizing fasciitis. By the time they got around to releasing me, the exit evaluation was perfunctory and my approval for release likely based more on dwindling food stocks than a genuine assessment of my improved mental health.
But I managed. I kept the single blister pack of lorazepam they gave me in my pocket, fondling it like a good luck charm whenever the daemon started to whisper lies into my mind. A few times I broke down and took a couple of the pills, but for the most part I managed to cope by personifying my anxieties, externalizing them, and telling myself repeatedly that I have the will to survive. And when that failed, curling into a ball in the bathtub of a cheep motel and screaming for a couple of hours usually did the trick.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a bathtub here in the back seat of the car, so I’ll have to settle for the screaming.
“Are you finished yet?” Iris asks, leaning around the front seat of the autocar that we summoned once we reached the edge of the city. I say we, but frankly she did most of the work, ordering my ancillary to call us a ride, then rigging the stolen car’s battery to explode while I busied myself with having a panic attack on the side of the road.
I reply by transitioning from repeated screams to a sustained low whimper, which she correctly interprets as me saying, “No, but almost.”
I’ve mostly collected myself by the time our ride pulls up outside Tamar’s. As the flashing purple neon washes through the windows, my daemon finally agrees to take a back seat for a little while and I pull myself upright in the back seat.
“That’s quite a problem you have there,” Iris says.
“You haven’t seen me on a bad day.”
She inspects me critically, then asks, “Can I trust you to do what I need?”
“I’m fine on the job,” I say, paying for the autocar with the free credits Ethie arranged for me. “It’s the aftershock that gets to me.”
“You sure you aren’t too afraid?”
“Eh, I always figure that having a little fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
We climb from the car and approach the rear door to Tamar’s, where Sven and Derrin are sharing pulls from a vaporizer. They nod to me as I approach, then Sven’s eyes narrow.
“What’s with the kid, bossman? You know the rules.”
“Remember when I asked you about your cousins?” I ask, not even breaking my stride.
Derrin suppresses a laugh, then grunts as Sven punches him the shoulder. “Least I got family here. Boss, I’m just looking out for T’s license. You don’t want anyone catching a kid in here and getting the wrong idea.”
“She’s just a companion bot carrying some data for me. We’ll go up to my office, do the transfer, then be out within the hour.” I stop, my hand on the door pull. “Unless you want to tell me I can’t go into my own club?”
Sven chews on that, scowling at Iris as he works his jaw. “Still not comfortable, bossman. We got rules for a reason.”
Iris steps up to Sven and smiles beatifically up at him, then says, “Don’t worry, Sven… Or, rather, Steven. If you don’t give me any trouble I won’t tell Talbot about what you did down in Atlanta.”
Sven’s eyes pop wide and his jaw goes slack. His eyes dart from Iris to me, then out to scan the street for watching drones. He speaks in a hushed tone, “What’s this about? I’ve never even been—“
“To Druid Hills?” Iris whispers. Her voice barely loud enough to be heard, but it’s enough to stop Sven’s tongue and close his mouth with an audible click.
We stand beneath the blinking purple lights in the chill for a long moment, then Sven swallows and steps aside, raising his hands in surrender as if Iris were pointing a weapon at his chest. I nod to him, wondering what secrets he left behind down south, but not particularly inclined to pry. Iris flashes him a grin then follows me into the back hall. Before the door even closes Derrin is laughing and punching Sven in the arm.
“What was that about?” I ask as we ascend the steps to my apartment, pursued by the relentless kick of drum and bass echoing through the thin walls.
“Nothing you need to fire him over.”
“You sure? Tamar and I run a tight operation here. Full service viral load clinic. Security detail for every private party and fully anonymized reporting for our staff. I hate to think that we might have somebody who’s a danger to the manikins.”
“Steven didn’t react well when the plague hit. Blamed it on the wrong people and exacted a bit of vigilante justice before he was convinced that Beacon of Glory was responsible.”
I nod, slowly. “I’m really curious how you know so much about people.”
“I’m still tied into a lot of databases.”
Sven wouldn’t be alone in having some crimes in his past, if Iris has access to the right criminal databases. Plenty of people turned against one another after Red Easter. The infection was first reported in Israel, with the inevitable result that western media heaped blame on Islamist extremists. That suspicion only grew as the plague cropped up in European and American cities. Mosques were vandalized across the western world and more than a few assaults occurred, though reports of these were buried amid the horrors of video coming from infected cities. When it became clear that the plague had also been unleashed at Ramadan celebrations in Mecca and theme parks throughout Asia, people found new targets for their vengeance. China cracked down on religious organizations and democratic activists. Synagogues were burned throughout the Middle East. The flow of reprisals would likely have become a flood of violence, were it not for enforced curfews and quarantines in cities across the globe.
Then the truth came out.
“How did you make it through?” I ask as we climb the steps to my office. “Or are you too young to remember?”
“I’m probably older than you, Talbot. I was working eighty hour weeks in a clean room at the YuriCo office in research triangle when the plague hit, sleeping in employee crash cubes instead of going home. When it became clear that the plague had reached the Carolinas, the company instated a lockdown. They wouldn’t stop anyone from leaving, but nobody was allowed back on campus.”
My office smells of enzymatic cleaners and air freshener, but all signs of the carnage have been erased. I check the corners of the room as I step in, half expecting to find another Vakha clone waiting for me, but the room is empty except for Iris and me.
I go over to the one printed photo I still have of Seth and take it off the wall. The rational side of my brain says that this is ridiculous, and the daemon is screaming that I’m putting Tamar at risk by returning, but if I’m going on an insane mission to steal data from a corporate vault I want to have all the luck I can with me.
“Isn’t that in your databases?”
“Sure, I just thought it more polite to ask.”
“I don’t think we need to worry about that,” I reply, extracting the photo from the frame.
“Suppose not. So, what came after you were released from Quantico? You kind of vanish for a while until you reappear here in the city almost seven years later.”
I hold onto the picture for a moment, studying Tamar’s youthful face, and the lines of Seth’s body, and my own unironic smile. Two, maybe three lifetimes have passed since the photo was taken.
“It got really bad for a while after Beacon released their statement. At first nobody wanted to believe them. I mean, who’d think that a fundamentalist Christian group could be responsible for the single worst terrorist attack in history. Not that I have to tell you. You weren’t locked up for the worst of it like I was.”
“Tell me about it. There was this period of maybe two weeks when everybody was denying it, claiming that the Beacon of Glory were a false front put up by atheists, or muslims, or the jews, but Jephthah kept posting those videos, then the news networks brought him on for that interview.”
“I did see that. One of the doctors would sometime let us watch television in the common room.”
Iris sits on the corner of my desk, her eyes downcast as she recalls those terrible days. “I never imagined that there could be such a sudden and complete reversal. Hell, Talbot, I had a cousin who spent years attacking me for becoming a cyberneticist, claiming that I was violating god’s natural laws, that I was an awful person. She contacted me in the midst of the uprising to apologize. To say that she was leaving her church and fully supported the feds cracking down religious groups.”
“Was she disappointed that it never came to that, what with the realignment?” I ask as fold the photograph and tuck it into an inside pocket of my coat.
“She died. In a secondary outbreak the next winter.”
I don’t say anything to that. What is there to say? Back before the plague people used to express condolences and give lip service to sympathy whenever somebody mentioned losing a loved one. Now? Now we are all just lucky to be alive. We’ve seen the worst that humanity can do and managed to come through with some semblance of civilization, but there’s no use pretending that death isn’t coming for us anymore. The specter of mortality awaits all of us, be it in old age, a rogue nanite colony, or a drug resistant bacterial strain.
“That’s why we have to get this technology out into the public, Talbot. Don’t you see it? The world needs this so we can move beyond out physical bodies. If we were able to back up our minds, then there would be no purpose in committing violence against the body.”
“Or there would be no consequence,” I say.
She looks over to me and cocks her head inquiringly.
“Sven didn’t want to let you in because we have rules against kids being exposed to what we do here. We don’t want them to see the power dynamics or hear the fetish language and, obviously, we don’t want to risk anyone taking advantage of someone who isn’t mentally prepared to give consent. All that’s important, Iris, because while the last few generations have come around to realizing that everybody has their peccadilloes, there are still plenty of people out there who are unequivocally evil in their tastes.”
“I don’t see what your sex trade has to do with saving people from death.”
“You want to save people. You want to make sure that people can be cloned and have their consciousness transferred in to fresh bodies. Have their brains encased in little robot bodies that can survive almost anything.”
I pull out my handy and summon a profile from Tamar’s customer database. Within a few seconds the image of an elderly man with narrow, steel grey eyes and long white sideburns appears on the display.
I hand the phone to Iris. “This is Joshua Hopkin. You might know his name from the corporate circles. He’s banned from this club. Can’t hire our manikins for an outside party. Can’t come in and watch the stage shows. Can’t even sit in the bar and have a drink. You know why?”
“I accessed the report while you were talking.”
“Because he tried to cut a manikin.”
“Because he did cut a manikin, but I got her distress signal and pulled him from the room before she had anything a medispray couldn’t bandage. This vile old shit wanted to flay her alive, just to watch her die.”
“And you know this because?”
“Because he became very familiar with my knife before I dumped him on the street outside his home and posted epers showing his play session on the door of every house in the neighborhood.”
“Thats…” she hesitates, searching for a word to adequately describe either my vengeance or Hopkin’s depravity.
“Justice. Nobody hurts anyone in Tamar’s house. Nobody.”
“Except you,” Tamar says from he doorway.
I turn and give her a crooked smile and shrug. “Somebody’s got to enforce the rules, I suppose. That’s why you brought be down here.”
Tamar glides across the floor and pulls me into a hug. I reciprocate, holding her tightly against me and wrapping my arms around her shoulders. “I was worried about you,” she whispers.
“I should have been worried for you,” I reply. “Did anyone try to come here?”
“No. We haven’t seen any more of… them.”
We pull apart and I give her arms a reassuring squeeze. “Just keep watching, but I think those clone types are going to be the least of our problems soon.”
“Oh? Because of her?” she asks, nodding towards Iris.
“Yeah, sort of.” I release her and wave a hand in introduction. “This is Iris. The girl Ethie asked me to find.”
Tamar nods coldly, her eyes narrowed as she waits for the rest of the story.
“She killed Darby.”
Tamar isn’t one to be easily surprised. She’s been protecting this house and fielding the strangest customer requests imaginable for more than a decade, but this news makes her eyes go wide. She breathes a low whistle and shakes her head. “You can’t be serious.”
“I shot him,” Iris replies. “Though, to be fair, he had it coming.”
Tamar looks to me for confirmation.
I shrug. Nod.
Tamar shakes her head in wonder. “How long do you think we have?”
“I doubt that we’re in his data bomb, but I wouldn’t want to place any bets on who among the C-level executives is safe.”
“What are you talking about?” Iris asks, looking between us. “Is there something I should know about that bastard besides the fact that bringing him in to help with the extraction was a disaster.”
Part of my wants to immediately bite back, arguing that if she’d told me that she only needed a few minutes alone with Abaroa we could have taken him to a parking garage and saved ourselves a whole pile of trouble, but that’s an argument for another day. I glance at Tamar, hoping she’ll take my look as a hint that she should handle this question, having been a part of the city’s underbelly a lot longer than I.
She catches my look and explains, “Darby was head of one of the nastier crime syndicates. Not especially large, but he was influential enough to operate in the heart of the city, while most of the gangs remain on the fringes, preying on the newcomers and people who haven’t managed to hold down a corporate job. At first nobody could understand how Darby managed to get a foothold in the city, but a few years ago Darby announced that he had placed a large cache of damaging material on the network, triggered to be released if he was ever killed or arrested.”
“What sort of material?” Iris asks.
“Nobody knows, but we assume it includes evidence of corruption or cruelty from dozens of high profile individuals. There’s not a lot that’s illegal in the city, but Tal and I could tell you some stories about clients we’ve had to blacklist.”
“Are you worried that you’ll be exposed?”
Tamar shrugs and waves away the proposition. “I’ve been a citizen since corporatization. Probably the worst thing they could pin on me is letting Talbot live above the club, and nobody really gives a shit about zoning permits anymore.”
“But you’re concerned that the disclosure could have a negative impact on your clientele.”
“Yeah. Something like that,” Tamar says, nodding.
“The real problem is that it’s an unknown. Darby was a vile excuse for a human being, but he was a known quantity. We knew to work around him. To encapsulate him. Now, well… we don’t know what is going to happen next.”
I give Tamar a half smile and nod towards the door. She’s been instrumental to my survival these last few years. I couldn’t hope for a better business partner or surrogate sister, but now all of that might have to change. “We’re leaving. Iris and I have some work to do that can’t get traced back to you.”
“I figured as much when you took Seth. Are you coming back?”
“Ideally. We’ll have to see what the fallout looks like.”
Tamar wraps her arms around my shoulders and places a gentle kiss on my forehead, then leans back to look down into my eyes. “You’ll always have a home with me, Talbot Liu. Try not to get yourself killed.”
I breathe deeply, unwinding the tension in my back, then shoulders, then neck. Silently curse myself for still carrying this burden of pain and revulsion. I manage to put one arm up and pat Tamar on the back. “Thanks, Tam.”
She releases me and turns to Iris, still sitting on the corner of my desk. Tamar settles her hands on Iris’s shoulders and looks down into her round, innocent eyes and says, “Don’t you get him killed. I don’t know who you are or what you’ve done to get him on your side, but he’s my only friend still alive from before everything went to blood and shit.”
Iris blinks innocently, then lets the mask drop. For an instant her features have the weight of a woman who has seen the worst of humanity and spent decades laboring to correct it. Her lips fall into a resolute line and she nods, slowly. “I’ll try, Tamar, but I’d be lying if I told you this won’t be dangerous.”
“Is it important?”
Iris nods emphatically.
Tamar looks back at me and I shrug, then nod in agreement.
“Then you’d better get to it.”