A sparse, delicate fall of snow has begun by the time we leave Tamar’s and begin walking towards the upper district. The flakes glint in technicolor flashes as they flit past billboards displaying the usual assortment of product placement and public service advertisements: Upgrade your body with a com implant! Extremist cults are illegal! Get your phage booster today! Though half the billboards we pass have cracks in the screens or dead pixels somewhere in their display, the relentless drive of commerce and social engineering continues unabated.
“We need someplace private with secure network access,” Iris says, pressing close to me as we move past a section of sidewalk that has been cordoned off by warning tape. A twisted lamp post stands at the center of the tape like a diseased tree, surrounded by a pile of shattered glass from a window that was knocked loose five stories up.
“Schuster has both.”
“We need to be closer to the YuriCo headquarters. Once I’ve got the access codes and file names we’ll have to move quickly.”
“Hold on,” I snap, stepping in front of Iris and scowling down at her like a disappointed father. “You’re telling me that after everything we went through this morning you still don’t have the codes?”
She shrugs and pushes past me, continuing her march. I want to shout after her, to demand an answer, but there’s only so much I can say here on the public street with the stream of pedestrians surging around us. We already make for an incongruous couple, the withered man in a battered black coat and the child in a stained sundress, without me screaming for an explanation of why we just murdered five people if it didn’t even get us the codes.
So I step quickly to catch up with her, then mutter, “I thought you already got what you needed from that scalp massage.”
“I took a mind state image. I’ll be able to play it back and get whatever I need, resetting it whenever I make a mistake. Much better than physical torture.”
“Just like that? You have everything?”
She waggles the fingers of her left hand at me, smiling devilishly. “We worked very hard to perfect this tech.”
“I guess…” I hesitate, wondering what I had expected the mind transfer to look like. “I guess I thought that it would be more like a body scan. Lots of big, expensive equipment.”
“It used to be. Now, about that network access. Hotel?”
“Absolutely not. Their bandwidth is always saturated.”
I trigger my ancillary and request directions to the virtual reality arcade nearest to YuriCo headquarters. There’s one only three blocks west and, before I can even give her the address, Iris nods and says, “Great idea.”
“It’s creepy when you do that.”
“Creepier than being a killer robot in the body of a little girl?”
“You’ve got a point.”
At the arcade I drop the desk clerk an additional fifty percent of the room fee in chits to ensure that we’ll be alerted if anybody comes. He pockets the chits, raises an eyebrow at Iris, and waves for us to follow him back into the warren of padded chambers.
“We’re only supposed to have one participant in each chamber,” he says, waving his hands towards the capsules which line both sides of the hallway. The omnipresent neon lighting reflects in rainbows across his chromed fingernails and washes all shadow from his face as he continues, “But I can make an exception for you.”
He stops at an entryway and taps a keycard agains the door, which slips aside whispering a melodic tone. The attendant hands me the keycard and grins, saying, “You’re paid up for three hours.”
Inside, the VR chamber is approximately four feet square and seven high, with a set of retractible metal steps leading down to the floor, which is slightly curved. Overlapping rubber gaskets connect the floor to the walls, hiding the machinery which allows the floor to pitch up to forty-five degrees in any direction while gliding to keep pace with the player’s steps. A harness dangles from the ceiling, along with ruggedized connectors for a variety of VR headsets and body suits. On one side of the room, a small wall-mounted shelf holds a basic headset and a bottle of electrolyte water, beside which a worn body suit hangs over a small bench.
“The chamber is soundproof?” I ask as I descend the aluminum steps.
“Just about. Can’t have players disturbing one another.”
“What about network access? I might need to download some client patches.”
“You should have full cellular signal, local wireless, and there’s a hardline somewhere in the connector bundle,” he replies, stepping into the chamber and pointing to the tangle of connectors dangling from the ceiling.
“Will this do?” I ask, looking to Iris.
“I’ll leave you to it then. I’ll toggle the lights if anybody comes asking for you.”
When the clerk is gone I look to Iris and raise an eyebrow. “Did you really download his mind? I can’t imagine that our entire consciousness could be transferred so quickly.”
In response, she steps over to the immersion harness and begins strapping herself in. “Help me jack in, will you? This will go faster if I have a hardline.”
I pull the connection bundle down a bit lower and select the network adapter from the assortment of cables. Iris brushes aside her hair, then uses a fingertip and thumb to pull apart the synthetic flesh behind her left ear, revealing a network jack. Plugging the cable in to the side of her head feels like an act of violation, as if I am sliding one of my blades into her tender flesh, flensing it away to reveal the machine within. As the connector clicks into place, I half expect her to respond with a cry of pain or a shudder of dread.
“Go ahead and attach the power input too. I may draw energy more than my generators can recharge during this.”
A second plug, this one inserted behind her right ear. It’s somehow a relief to see that, whatever Iris’s synthetic body might have been built for, and whatever strange service she has pressed it into, it is still a machine built by humans using off the shelf connectors.
Iris finishes strapping herself into the harness and taps at the integrated control nubs, raising it until only her toes are touching the floor as she dangles in the center of the room. I step back, looking into her face and wondering how much humanity remains. Wondering, not for the first time, whether I am actually helping a human woman, or if I have been duped by money and a caricature of childlike desperation into helping a syntellect commit murder and larceny.
“You don’t have to stay here for this,” Iris says, her voice cold. “It may be unnerving.”
I step in front of her and grasp the straps, holding her still as I say, “Why go to all that trouble? If, and I’m still saying if, you can clone a mind so quickly, why not download him the car as we were escaping? Hell, why not drug him and do it right there in his home?”
She cocks her head to the side and gives me a half smile, as if I am a bright, but uneducated child. “Guess.”
“Maybe drugs would interfere?”
The slightest hint of a nod.
“He had to be conscious for the process to take place.”
“It helps. Directed lucid dreaming would have been as effective, but far more difficult and prone to errors.”
“And you wanted him dead anyway.”
She raises her eyebrows, acknowledging.
“So might as well bring him someplace where the signal won’t get out. Where he can’t scramble his passcodes before we use them. Where it’ll be week or months before anyone finds the body.”
“Very good, Talbot. Now, I’m going to warn you again that you might want to step out for the next few minutes. The mind cannot function in a stored state. It has to be activated. Has to run on a compatible platform. Think of it like self-compressing encrypted virtual machine image. You can move the data around, copy it, even delete a few random bits without destroying it, but until you unpack it and allow it to decrypt itself, you can never be certain where the data you need is located.”
“And, let me guess, you’re the platform.”
“I’ll be right here. If you need me to disconnect the network, just say so.”
“If that’s your decision, so be it. Don’t get too close. There’s no telling what he might make me do.”
With that she closes her eyes and goes limp in the harness.
I take a step back and settle down on the stairs. For the next few minutes nothing happens. I take that time to calm my nerves, breathing deeply and forcing myself to ignore the daemon clawing at the back of my mind, whispering that my actions are going to get Tamar and Schuster and everyone else I know killed. That I’ve become the puppet of a rogue syntellect. That I should just walk away now and go back to my old life. It’s not like I am desperate for money, and I don’t know if I really believe anything that Iris has said about the capabilities of this technology.
Then she begins to speak.
“Mind state unpacked. Beginning simulation in five, four, three, two, one…” her entire body goes slack. Her mouth falls open as her neck collapses forward, dangling her head and arms like an abandoned puppet.
Then her mouth opens in a scream. Her body contorts in its bonds, arms and legs pulling inward until she’s dangling in a fetal curl in mid air, body racked by spasms. An instant later her limbs go limp again and she collapses, legs and arms swinging unsupported.
She raises her head and looks directly at me, lips curling into a cruel snarl. “What did you do to me?”
“Where am I?” The voice shifts as she speaks, modulating down several tones until it is closer to the sound of a grown man than a girl child. “And what are you trying to-“
Then Iris’s voice is back, cutting off the male voice as if they were arguing face to face, rather than inhabiting the same body. “I’m asking the questions here.”
Another scream, this one a howl tinged with rage as Ortiz Abaroa realizes that he is not in control of his own body. Not even in own body.
I can’t help wondering how I would react in the same situation. Imagining the existential crisis of waking to find oneself in a body that is not your own. The sudden onset of body dysphoria, after a lifetime of being comfortable in one’s own skin. It might not be so bad for me, I decide, considering that I have never felt comfortable in my own head. The sudden transition into such a radically different body might be surprising, but I wonder whether the process of learning to inhabit the new form might unlock something in me. Might give me the opportunity to learn what it is about myself I am unable to love.
Abaroa certainly isn’t as sanguine about the change as I imagine I might be.
The screaming subsides with a shudder and the male voice speaks again. “You’ll never get it.”
“Oh, I will,” Iris says.
Something overtakes her face then. In an instant the body’s face goes from slack to rigid. Then it begins to twitch, lips moving so rapidly that they begin to blur. Words spill from its mouth, the two voices blending together as the body spits syllables faster than I can understand them. The sounds continue to accelerate until they form a constant drone, interrupted by staccato blips of silence.
If not for everything that I have seen Iris do in the last few days, I would think that I was going mad.
The temperature in the chamber begins to rise, drawing forth spots of sweat across by forehead and dampening my shirt. I check the control panel beside the door and lower the climate control set point by 10 degrees. I step closer to Iris and reach out a hand, feeling the heat radiate from her body as I approach. Whatever she is doing, it is putting an intense strain on her body.
I take the temperature as low as it can go and shiver as a blast of cold air passes over me. The chamber is designed to simulate environments ranging from frigid arctic tundra to dripping wet jungles. If I have to turn it into an icebox to prevent Iris from overheating, so be it.
The lights flicker.
Odd. I don’t know how Iris’s body is powered or what sort of processing core she uses, but she can’t be putting a strain on the power grid. The standard adapter plug I used has a maximum power draw and will burn out the power supply long before it affects the building’s grid.
The lights flicker again.
I draw a ceramic blade from my sleeve and step up to the door, then activate the small screen that shows the corridor outside. The corridor is empty, save for a woman in yoga pants and a sports bra ducking into a VR chamber several doors down, at the edge of the frame.
I press the release icon on the frame and the door whispers aside into the wall. I glance left, then immediately right, moving casually as if I were merely looking for the restroom. On my left, I see a pair of Vakha clones moving towards me down the corridor, hands tucked into their jackets. On my right, I see the communal toilet fifteen feet down the hall. If the twins draw their guns and shoot, I’m dead. But I can’t let them get to Iris. I palm the door shut, hesitating just long enough to hear it lock, then start walking towards the bathroom.
A ceramic knife is a versatile weapon for many reasons. The blade is lightweight and sharper than steel, perfect for cutting a rope, penetrating clothing, or slicing skin. Most importantly, there is no metal in the blade, allowing it to pass through metal detectors and be used to cut electrical wires with minimal risk. There are, however, two critical downsides to a ceramic blade: They are more brittle than steel blades and, more important to this moment, they are terrible as throwing knives because they are so light.
Still, it’s better than nothing.
“Talbot!” One of the Vakhas shouts.
Of course they recognize me. With daily memory synchronization and real time backup of sensory data, they all know me by now. I wish that Iris could tell me how many there are, or how to turn off the factory that keeps spitting them out.
In response I turn and throw my knife directly at the chest of the Vakha on the left, then spin back around and dodge into the bathroom. They both shout in alarm and I hear the blade clatter against the wall. I wasn’t expecting to kill either of them, just hoping to slow them so they wouldn’t have time to shoot me in the back.
The bathroom door swings shut behind me and I step to the side, pressing my back to the wall and drawing my second blade. Half a dozen stalls line the walls opposite a sink backed by a mirror framed in translucent tiles which bleed shifting neon colors. Player stats scroll down the mirror, their ghostly letters and graphs keeping customers appraised of their position in the five most popular games. Outside, footsteps echo on the glossy black and white tiles. I overhear a shouted profanity and imagine that one of the Vakhas has just failed to open the VR chamber door. Doubtless he’ll coerce the clerk into overriding the lock soon. I need to stop him before that happens.
The bathroom door slams open, Vakha entering in a blur with his gun arm extended.
I twist into his path and ram my knife into his chest.
The force of our collision knocks us both off balance and we slam into the door of one of the stalls. It swings open, spilling Vakha across the toilet and leaving me to crash shoulder first into the door support. The polycarbonate buckles on impact and I cry out in agony as the edge of the frame rams into the joint of my shoulder. Vakha raises his gun and fires it, blasting a fist sized hole in the plastic inches from my head.
Somebody screams in one of the other stalls.
The daemon surges, clawing at my chest and pissing bile into my throat, but I hammer it back into the dark corners of my mind.
I’m not going to die here.
I lash out with a foot, slamming my boot into Vakha’s gun hand and sending the weapon spinning away under the stall dividers. Vakha roars at me, blood spraying from his lips, and lunges at my legs. I stumble back and lose my footing, barely managing to catch the edge of the counter with my elbow rather than the side of my head.
Another gunshot shatters the mirror behind my head. The embedded display seizes and scatters a kaleidoscope of unaligned polygons across the smart glass.
The second Vakha is standing in the door, adjusting his aim downwards to hit me.
The first Vakha has clambered to his feet and is clutching at the knife protruding from his sternum as he stumbles forward.
I push off from the counter and slide under the door of the second toilet stall, pursued by a bullet which shatters the tile floor directly behind me, peppering my head and shoulders with spalling. The stall is occupied by a young man, who is desperately scrabbling to pull his pants up as an erotic animation spools on the battered eper laying beside the toilet. I leap to my feet, grab him by the front of his shirt, and twirl us around to slam him into the door just as two more bullets punch through the stall door, freezing the embedded display half way through some pro-gamer’s enthusiastic endorsement of an upgraded immersion suit. The man’s eyes bulge and his knees go limp as I scramble behind the toilet for Vakha’s gun.
There it is, in the next stall.
The dead man collapses just as I duck and reach under the partition for the gun. Another bullet rips through the door, scrambling the ad display, and shatters the toilet beside me.
The gun is in my hand. I kick off the dead gamer’s body and slide into the next stall, raise the gun in the general direction of Vakha on the far side of the door, and pull the trigger.
A glance tells me that the gun has a secure grip, which is now glowing with a pale orange light.
“Move,” a voice commands from behind me. A hand presses against my left side and, without pausing to think, I step to my right.
A gun swings into my vision and barks three times. The stall divider and door shatter in a spray of yellow plastic and polychrome advertising displays. I rip the door open, not pausing to wonder who is behind me, and hurl the disabled gun into the face of the second Vakha, who is already reeling from the spray of shattered glass unleashed by my unknown savior’s gunshots. He shouts in surprise and pain, firing two more shots blindly into the bank of toilet stalls.
The first Vakha is leaning agains the counter, still clutching at the knife, too weakened to pull it from his own chest. I slam a fist into the side of his head, rip the knife from his chest, and twist around his stunned from to slam the knife into the throat of the second Vakha. Blood sprays from his neck, painting the yellow and white tile lurid red as he drops his gun and collapses to the floor, clawing at his throat. The first Vakha follows him, groaning in agony as he clutches at his chest in a vain attempt to staunch the flow of blood from his wound. I grab both of their guns from the floor and throw them into the recycler slot and am about to leave when a shout freezes me:
“Stop or I’ll shoot you too!”
I turn to look over my left shoulder and see a woman in a pixelated green and black dress standing in the ruined opening of the stall, clutching a tiny gun in her hands. She’s got platinum blonde hair, blue lipstick, and a face that’s icily composed considering her toilet was just interrupted by three men trading gunshots.
“Who are you?”
“Thanks for saving my skin in there,” I say, ignoring her question and nodding to the stall she’s just emerged from. “I’m going to give you my business card, that alright?”
She nods, but the gun doesn’t move.
I reach my right hand into an inner pocket of my coat, moving deliberately and painfully aware that my left hands is still clutching a knife that’s dripping with blood.
No. Don’t think about the blood. Or the filthy floor that I’ve been crawling across.
The daemon begins howling in the back of my left hand, wrapping its claws around my wrist as it stretches its lying tongue towards my ear to whisper than I am going to die now. All this blood, here in a public restroom, there’s no way I haven’t been exposed to something lethal.
I bite down on my tongue. Not so hard as to draw more blood, just enough to refocus my brain and chase the daemon away for a little longer.
I hold up an eper business card in my right hand. “I owe you. You ever need help with anything, and I mean anything, use this to contact me. Now, I need to leave because I’ve got another client waiting for me. You might want to leave too, because there are probably more of these clone freaks on the way.”
“Who are you?” She demands, still in control. Her aim never wavers as she watches me set the card onto the countertop.
“Talbot Liu. Maybe give me a call even if you don’t need help. I have work for someone like you. Cool under pressure. Not afraid to fire a gun in the city.”
She doesn’t lower the gun, but her eyes narrow, then she nods once.
I cock my head towards the door. “I’m going now. Are you going to shoot me?”
She lowers the gun, but keeps it ready.
I tap the card with a fingertip and say again, “Call.”
Then I’m gone, running down the corridor and back to the VR chamber.
Opening the door, I’m hit with a wave of hot air. Even with the air conditioner blasting at full strength, Iris is generating so much heat that the system cannot fully compensate. I approach her, wondering how I am going to get her out of this place if she won’t end whatever program is overloading her processors.
“Iris!” I shout.
Her eyes snap open.
“Can you hear me?”
The lights begin to flicker again.
“We need to get out of here. Are you able to leave?”
Already I can feel the heat dissipating as she says, “Yes. I’m finished with him, for now.”
She reaches up and unplugs both cables from the sides of her head, then lowers her harness and steps out of it. “I have everything we need to get into the vault, but we need to move quickly.”
“Tell me about it,” I reply. A furtive glance out the door shows me an empty hall, so whatever has the clerk spooked enough to be hammering the light switch must still be in the lobby with him. “Tell me about it when we’re on the street.”
A glance to the right tells me that a crowd is gathering at the bathroom door. No way to make it past to the emergency exit without pushing through them. Back towards the lobby the path is still clear, so I decide to risk going that way. If we can make it to the street we should be safe, for the moment. Even Vakha wouldn’t be foolish enough to attack us on the surveilled streets, I hope.
We’re three steps from the lobby when I see the cause of the flickering lights. The clerk is cowering behind his desk, tapping insistently at the light icon on his control screen as he stares out the window at the Security cruiser just pulling up to the curb outside. I can just make out the distant wail of an ambulance, or perhaps more Security vehicles, closing in on the arcade.
He turns to me with a panicked look on his face. His voice is strained to a hollow squeak as he says, “The gunshots triggered the automatic alarm.”
It’s then that I notice he is cradling his left arm and hand, the fingers of which are obviously disjointed.
“The twins do that to you?” I ask.
“Yeah. Bastards didn’t even give me the chance to sell you out.”
He flinches as I reach into my coat, then looks almost comically relieved as I toss a roll of chits onto the counter, along with one of my cards. “Help us out of here and I’ll owe you.”
Two Security agents in black tactical armor are moving towards the door now. If not for the mirrored glass they would already be able to see us. The clerk swipes the chit and card into his pocket, then steps back and palms open a door marked “Associates Only”.
“There’s an employee entrance at the back. Go.”
We slip through and close the door behind us, then pause. Iris and I share a glance, then both lean against the door and listen. We hear the clerk telling the police about the “twins” showing up and breaking his fingers. About gunshots down the hall.
That’s enough to convince us that he isn’t going to immediately betray us. Hopefully the chits and my card will be enough for him to keep his mouth shut going forward.
At the back door, we pause. Iris, still radiating the heat of her interrogation, looks up at me with questioning eyes. “If anyone tries to stop us, it’s back to the father and child bit. We’re trying to escape from a gunman.”
“You look the role,” she replies. “Those cuts on your face might make it a bit harder to get into the data vault.”
“That’s what you get for creating an army of killer clones.”
I shove the door open and we step out into the afternoon light. The rear of the shop opens onto a loading bay shared by all of the shops in this block. A wide alleyway takes us out to the street, where we join the early evening crowd and begin making our way towards the YuriCo office tower. If we were further away I would be concerned that my appearance would attract attention and get us stopped by Security, but even the ever vigilant eyes of the Security restrillect probably won’t flag me immediately. For all they know I’m on my way to a themed party, or taking part in a work of performance art or unlicensed filming. When you build an omniscient artificial intelligence watchdog, it’s just as important to train it to ignore aspects of human behavior as it is to teach the neural network to identify potential threats, otherwise you get a system that raises potential terrorism flags for every child playing cops and robbers on the street, to say nothing for the infinite variety of deviant behavior exhibited by adults.
“What happened?” Iris asks.
“Two more Vakha clones showed up,” I reply, shouldering through a crowd gathered outside a home theater showroom. “I dealt with them.”
“I didn’t expect them to find us so fast.”
“Well, if Javier managed to tap into the city’s surveillance network I imagine YuriCo has full API access. They’re probably watching us now.”
“What about you? Your body is still about thirty degrees hotter than it ought to be and I had the AC running full blast in there.”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You really don’t.”
I stop suddenly and grab Iris by the arm, eliciting angry outbursts from the people walking behind us. I shoot them all a withering glare and then pull Iris towards the windows of the restaurant we had been walking past. “I’m tired of being jerked around here, Iris. You’re going to tell me what the hell we’re getting into and what you just did back in the arcade, or I’m walking.”
She raises an eyebrow, apparently surprised by my sudden profanity. I’m a bit surprised as well, but the stress of taking down two assassins is getting to me. The daemon cackles behind my eyes and I bite my tongue to keep myself from shouting a further string of profanities into the heavens.
“I put both of our minds into an accelerated timeframe,” Iris finally says. “It’s like when you’re emulating old software and everything runs too quickly because modern processors are exponentially more powerful. The mind runs at a clock speed of around two hundred cycles per second. I engaged every bit of computing power I have in my body, all the distributed processors and neural networks built into every part of me, and ran both of our minds in parallel at about ten times that rate.”
“Don’t lie to me, Iris.”
“It’s not quite that simple, yes, but I’m not lying.”
“And the point of all that was…”
“Every minute that passed for you, we were experiencing between three and twenty, depending on the intensity of the simulation. I managed to extract his passwords and the names of all of the files we need to download from the YuriCo data vault.”
“Why can’t you just download everything remotely?” I ask. “I’ve seen Vakha transfer memories. There must be some way to access the servers externally.”
“Some of them, but they only hold the code in compiled form. Think of it like this, Talbot: It’s one thing to steal a box of data cards from a store. You can get whatever music or movies or whatever is stored on those cards, but you don’t get the musicians or actors. If we’re going to give this tech to the world, we need access to the hardware schematics and software source code. Only then will people be able to replicate it free of YuriCo’s interference.”
“You’re serious about this.”
“Dead serious. Now, let’s get to their offices before Vakha realizes that the data vault is our target.”