He’d broken the little ceramic duck by the sink. He’d been so out of it, so determined to pick up every last pill, that he must have missed the duck. But Graciela hadn’t.
“You came. You left. I guess I slept through our whole night together.”
Donny watched her lean towards the camera. He had an ancient Samsung VR phone, but he couldn’t use its clunky obsolete VR. No room for a second chip to make his brain backwards compatible. Whenever Graciela or Loach or someone from the group left a message, he had to watch it on the tiny screen.
“I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t dreamed you.” Still in his white T-shirt. She must have called as soon as she got home. Graciela’s long black hair shined in the ambient light from the window. L.A. was never fully dark, never fully light; though, the days were brighter than the nights. And the rain never stopped.
She lived somewhere on West Washington by the old cemetery. Bad area, full of gangs, junkies with heads full of sand. He’d never been to Graciela’s apartment, couldn’t see anything in the message but the corner of the window behind her, the same window he always saw when she left a message. “So I left the duck by the sink. I don’t know. Maybe we can get some epoxy. Put it back together. It’ll be a fun project.”
Donny smiled. She hated shit like that.
Graciela said she’d call him tomorrow, but he knew she wouldn’t. She tried so hard to be unpredictable that he could tell whenever she was going to call. Sometimes she surprised him—like showing up in his bed last night—but mostly they did the on-again, off-again thing. How it had to be. Donny’s time was limited. Some night, the algorithm would win. He didn’t want Graciela to be anywhere near him when that happened.
The drone banked north towards Feliz Sector. Sunset Boulevard curved below like a dead vein running straight through the heart of the city. Donny could barely make it out beneath the lights of the megablocks and the sherbet-colored rain-halos of the scrolling marquees, signs flashing TITUS LTD, ENLISS-ZAIBATSU, DAIMLER MONEYSHOT 360, COKE, DELCO POYNTER. You could see so much when your drone climbed up toward the top of the skyway near the upper floors of the mega-structures—the sectors that pulsed with light as well as the unlit dead zones like Sunset Boulevard or Old Hollywood. The LAPD didn’t control those areas. Their blocks stood dark, vacant, populated by the mentally ill, failed cyborg conversions, cannibal gangs, rogue synthetics, fugitives, the castoffs of society. You might see little fires dotting the landscape there, but everyone knew: if your drone went down in a dead zone, you needed to get clear because it would be about to self-destruct. No rescue-retrieval in the unregulated sectors.
He played her message again. I’m beginning to wonder if I haven’t dreamed you. Maybe she did. Maybe they were dreaming each other along an endless timeline of days no different than nights. Someday Donny’s timeline would reach a termination point. Graciela wasn’t synthetic. So someday hers would, too. In-between was some kind of shared dream that passed for life, that could feel like a nightmare if Donny let himself get distracted, if he didn’t try to make it be a good dream after all.
When the drone plunged straight down to the jump pad, he felt a moment of weightlessness. Cheap taxis didn’t worry about your equilibrium.
“Take it easy,” he said. And a graphic of a woman’s eyes appeared on the dash monitor—long lashes, turning irises that read Skyway Cabs in stylized Gairaigo.
“Has your experience been unsatisfactory?”
“Your descent was too fast.”
“Would you like to register a complaint?” The eyes blinked. Someone had coded those beautiful lashes to blink but left the rest of the face off. As if someone were peering out from a crawlspace in the nose of the drone, a perfect nubile beauty grown in there just to take passenger complaints.
The eyes blinked, crinkled at the corners as if she were smiling. “Thank you.”
The hatch opened and the filthy rain drenched the cockpit.
Donny was late. He felt sure storytelling had already started by the time he crossed the roof and took the shaky metal stairs down to the foundry’s alley. The Feliz Sector was desolate, even though many of the old factories and warehouses were still in use. Donny wondered (again) why Friendly had chosen this location for their meetings. Was it just that they were erratic dangerous men who couldn’t be trusted? Or was it something more? Aside from a dead zone, one could not find a more lonesome place to meet.
These enormous, empty buildings were what remained of the old defense engineering sector that had crept inland over centuries of endless war. Around 30 years ago, the last military-industrial facility went sub-orbital. Now, according to the learning feeds, production was fully automated with enormous mass drivers that could put materiél anywhere on the surface within minutes. What the feeds didn’t say was that after the military left, the parasites crept in. Aftermarket chipware. Sand labs. Organ printing operations. Sweatshop micro-assemblies for obsolete nano still salable in Europe or Inner China—not all of it criminal, but certainly gray market, highly temporary, and very low profile. Everything was done quietly in Feliz Sector. Windows were spray painted or taped up with plastic bags. Equipment ran in basements with only a spaghetti-profusion of power cables and fiber-optic transfers jacked to external grid boxes to indicate anyone was there.
When Donny came out of the alley and rounded the corner of the building, the street was as dark as a dead zone. He walked through the unlit hallway that ran the length of what had once been a ground-level production floor until he saw the glow of the basement stairwell. Then he heard the sound of Rupert Two-Gears telling the story he always told when it was his turn. Rupert was the most unnatural-looking member of the group. Ironically, he also happened to be one of the least coded. Three flights of stairs and Donny could smell the basement—heavy rust, the tang of machine oil, mold, wet earth—and he could hear Rupert saying, “It’s not that I lost my mind. I was just over-written three or four times.” Overwritten. Meaning Rupert had gone in and gotten himself chipped. And then somebody didn’t like the fact that he had. Or just didn’t like the fact that he was alive.
Donny walked into the glow of the arc lamp and Rupert paused, stared at him. Then everybody else did, too.
Friendly smiled. “Welcome.”
Moss’ glowing irises rotated. “Welcome” Then his left eye flashed. Did that mean he’d just taken a picture?
“You’re late,” said Jackson Filter.
“You’re l-l-l-late,” said Teague.
Rupert raised a long pale hand. “May I continue?”
Friendly inclined his head. “Please do.” Then, still smiling, he looked up. “Aren’t you going to have a seat, Donny?”
There was one empty folding chair in the circle. Donny’s. He sat and took out his waterlogged pack of cigarettes, carefully pulled out a bent one without tearing it, and put it between his lips.
“After my third overwrite, something must have happened. I drank solvent.”
“No,” Dangler said. “It was not solvent. Four weeks ago, you told this story and you said you drank lubricant.”
“Well, I don’t remember. It might have been lubricant. Then again, it might have been solvent. But I know it did this to me.”
Jackson filter said, “For fuck’s sake.”
Moss’ left eye flashed.
Rupert Two-Gears was hairless, blue veins forking in his marble skin, lips in a small pained frown. His ribs pushed visibly against his pink child’s tank-top that had obviously been printed for a girl. Donny wondered whether there was a little girl in Rupert’s life. He looked alien, undead, skeletal, like something that had clawed its way to the surface but shouldn’t have.
“And that’s when I blacked out the last time. I remember that. Blacking out.”
“And then?” asked Friendly.
“Then nothing. Memory stops. The rest is —fragmented.”
Overwrite a chipset and it wouldn’t matter how small the original program was—a helper for differential equations, maybe, or basic Spanish, or a field-of-vision clock display. No matter what it had been at first, once overwritten, its code would mutate into bloatware, an expanding tangle of contradictory commands, as new control structures tried to dominate the implant. The mutant code would eat into parts of the brain that were never meant for it. Overwrite a chip once and, given time, aneurysms, hemorrhaging, and serious mental illness would be inevitable. Do it three or four times and you clearly want the subject to die a long horrific death. Yet here was Rupert. All that remained of him. Such a small change, overwriting a cortical chip. It was almost elegant compared to the Damocles Algorithm. But, in many ways, it was far worse that Donny’s affliction. Donny knew he would lose control some night and put a bullet in his brain. Rupert’s bullet was already there twisting through the gray matter.
“I admire your courage.” Moss had gotten red nano tattooed in a Celtic knot pattern around the back of his neck. When he leaned forward, it writhed and resolved into a new design. Donny wondered how many different triquetras it had in its memory. Some functional tats could change into hundreds of different related shapes over time.
Rupert regarded Moss for a moment, then offered a tight smile. “Thank you. You’re very kind.”
Moss’ left eye flashed.
“What the fuck is that?” Jackson Filter pointed at Moss’ eye. “You recording again, asshole? Didn’t we cover this last time?”
What could that nano tat do? What was its intended function? People suffering from invasive code didn’t often go in for more enhancement. They tried to hang on to the humanity they had left. And Moss was so augmented that further modification would bring him dangerously close to the synthetic tipping point, where one could no longer claim to be predominately human.
“My eye is malfunctioning today.”
“Bullshit.” Jackson Filter crossed his arms, looked at Friendly. “I don’t buy it. He’s always trying to preserve everybody’s stories for some secret fuck fantasy of his. It ain’t right.” Then Jackson looked at Donny. Donny nodded. It wasn’t right. But neither was Moss.
Friendly shook his head, grinned, opened his leather-bound copy of The Book of Synthesis he always kept under his chair. “You all might want to follow along. Part three, chapter 41. ‘Trust as a Prerequisite to Recovery and Reintegration.’”
John Desmond Frame, Jr.—who’d torched half of his face years ago exposing the titanium reconstruction beneath, his right eye pulsing like an orange ember in the wind—was wearing an expensive suit, vest, 19th century railroad watch on a golden chain, silk tie with a Balliol College pin. He always dressed like that, his suit always smartly creased as if it had been printed that morning. His copy of The Book was non-synth cream leather pressed with silver letters that glinted in the light from the arc lamp. He had a red leather bookmark featuring a black chess rook above a lion rampant. The bottom of the bookmark read, CASTLE SECURITY in block letters so big Donny could read them from the other side of the circle. Frame seldom spoke. When he did, his voice sounded immanently human and soft, yet somehow menacing coming from that half-titanium face, those blackened lips burned into perfect titanium teeth. “Focus,” Frame said, “on the text. And be quiet.”
Jackson Filter closed his mouth and looked down at his copy.
Moss’ left eye flashed. The crimson triquetra on the back of his neck turned green as it changed shape.
Danny didn’t have a book. His edition had long ago made its way through the bowels of the Los Angeles municipal recycling system. Instead, he flicked his plastic lighter, but the damp cigarette wouldn’t catch. “Shit,” he mumbled and kept trying.
Friendly chuckled, beamed at him, then commenced reading the most well-known passage in The Book: “We take as fact and yet also as an article of faith that we are bound in a confraternity of suffering. Our pain, as we have come to understand it, is our sacred mutuality.”
The others, even Jackson Filter and John Desmond Frame, Jr., started to read aloud in unison.
“Our certitude, that we have been victimized by parties unknown in ways that are mysterious and ineffable, is the basis of our devotion both to each other and to the truth—”
Donny joined in at the end, not sure why he did apart from the fact that he’d heard the words so many times he’d memorized them, the bent cigarette jerking in his lips as he spoke.
“—that we are now, as we have always been, human beings, worthy of the designation and destined to live the time we are given as our forefathers have done—in life, knowingness, and hope.”
“Amen,” said Jackson Filter, brushing away a tear.
Friendly slowly closed the book. “Amen, my brothers.”
Donny whispered it to the cigarette as he tapped it back into the pack with the tip of his finger. He couldn’t argue with the words. They were all suffering in ways none of them fully understood, and the biggest, deepest pain came from not knowing why.
“I want to weep,” said Moss, “but I can’t. No tear ducts.”
Dangler’s monotone: “That makes sense. Without tear ducts, crying is impossible.”
“There are other ways to express your grief.” Friendly steadied Moss’ shoulder but pulled his hand away when Moss looked down at it.
Then Moss turned toward Donny. “What do you think?”
“I think grief is overrated.” Donny sniffed the waterlogged pack of cigarettes, frowned, and put the pack in his windbreaker pocket. “I’m a big fan of survival.”
John Desmond Frame, Jr.’s orange eye glowed, but his human eye looked just as intense. “Yes. And payback.”
“And payback.” Moss nodded. The Celtic tracery on his neck burned bright red like a brand.
< Read Ch. 5 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IF >
< Read Ch 3 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Iw >