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5

Maybe he didn’t want to go home.

The anonymous author of The Book advocated a daily routine as the test for sanity. Code might turn you into a werewolf every full moon, but if you got up in the morning, went to work, cooked dinner, and kept a tidy living space, you were at least a functional werewolf. That was supposed to be better than nothing. But Donny wasn’t so sure.

He stayed dry under the florescent awning that blinked with advertisements in 17 or 18 languages. The feeds said there were 25 documented language groups in the city, 72 discrete dialects. You could hear or read almost all of them if you walked a few blocks through the Feliz Sector. So far, Donny had walked about three kilometers. Around kilometer two, he’d finally gotten one of the damp cigarettes going while staring up at an advert for Portuguese contraceptives. A green-skinned girl moaned and writhed on what looked like a blue octopus. Pinyin subtitles blinked across the bottom of the screen. From what he could tell, it was a biotic suppository called “Live Bait.” But Donny’s Pinyin was bad.

Maybe he didn’t want to go home because that was regular, stable, predictable, just what Friendly would advise. Maybe Moss was right: they woke up with chips in their brains because they’d made the choice at some point to explicitly not follow the rules.

The rain was as filthy as on any other night, smelled like sulfur, turned your skin gray after prolonged exposure, a mark of the street. Whole families lived and died in the shadows of the arcologies, the corporate office towers, the megablocks, the commerce domes that squatted like enormous mirrored bullfrogs in the vast circuit-board horizon of greater Los Angeles. Most street kids would never ride a drone up over the lights, see the city pulsing and fuming beneath them in black space like a confluence of stars. They’d never see the orbital colonies, feel a low-grav susurrus lift them off their feet beneath an artificial sky. Instead, they’d subsist on garbage and carry weapons made from broken machine parts. The rain would burn their faces gray like the skyline. And toward the end of their short lives, they’d become unnoticeable shadows, as if they were merging with the streets and alleys that birthed them.

Morbid thoughts on this rainy Tuesday night. Donny smoked as he walked, pulled up the hood of his windbreaker, watched two kids chase each other out a steam-filled doorway. Their clothes were a mesh of metals, resins, scraps of synthetic fibers no doubt salvaged from the Staples Garbage Pyramids far to the south. You couldn’t see the Garbage Pyramids at night. But during the day they pointed up through the rain like gargantuan hives, shaped that way from a century of municipal dumping.

The drone on the foundry’s roof hadn’t waited, even though Donny had asked it to. So now he was on foot. The meeting had been so upsetting, so pointless and depressing, that he wouldn’t have wanted to go right home even if he could. There was a drone station six kilometers south in Chinatown. Six in the dark. He’d walked it before on a night just like this. The streets were congested with the usual foot traffic, ground cars, rickshaws festooned with blinking lights, holograms swooping up to scrolling marquees, light-glow in the rain, street vendors grilling pale ikayaki and gai yang that could make you sick for days, while the crowd swarmed in every direction, heading to every sector that wasn’t dead.

Maybe it was simply that he didn’t want to stand beneath the buzzing light bar that ran the length of his capsule apartment, thinking of the 34 handguns he’d made all in a single night. Bleeding from another near-miss, half aware, Donny had stacked the guns in two laundry baskets in the closet. Then, on some night after that when he’d been too slow with the pills, the baskets had gone empty. Of the 34 guns, he’d now found ten—the most flimsy, the ones that would have only worked once or perhaps not at all. The zip gun made from a cardboard toilet paper roll. The crumpled graphite barrel printed and reprinted until it began to resemble a 1905 Luger 8. The blue glass bottle, its back end melted into a propellant reservoir with a plastic compressor valve that could send a bullet down the neck.

And bullets. Boxes of them. Bullets were harder to make. Still, Donny had so many. Somewhere, he was buying them. Had been. Consistently. Which meant the yellow pills weren’t working all the time. And he wasn’t remembering when they didn’t. So the Damocles Algorithm was toying with him. Some part of it—some part of Donny—knew he’d eventually run out of materials to make guns at home. Then what?

The drone station came into view. Intense white floods. Pristine subcrete. Little caged security guns on electrified poles that sparked blue from the moisture. And the row of drones, a line of black wasps gleaming in the light under a large corrugated awning. Donny didn’t know how the others left the meetings. Friendly had a ground car. The rest must have walked or caught drones. But Donny couldn’t imagine enormous Moss climbing into one of those narrow cockpits. Moss was afraid of heights. Even if he could have fit, the drones reached dizzying levels at the top of the skyway.

Donny climbed into the drone at the end of the row, spoke his 18-digit account number, and waited for the AI to authenticate. He knew he was thinking too much. Ruminating. Depressed again. Lost in all the Moss questions, chip questions, bullet questions, blue octopus, Garbage Pyramids, the cold darkness of the Shung Building, Graciela snoring in this T-shirt, how long will the yellow pills last, and what to do about the little broken duck.

Maybe we can get some epoxy. Put it back together. It’ll be a fun project. Fun was something people had, a normal part of everyday life. Graciela knew about things like that. She said being with him was fun. Donny probed the idea the way you might hold an odd stone, maybe put it in your pocket and turn it over a few times, your brain absently mapping its contours. Fun. A strange, oddly shaped thing that she’d handed to him. Dangler might ask what one did with fun, what its intended function was. But Dangler didn’t say anything earlier in the evening when Friendly also told them how important it was to learn how to have fun again. Like everyone in the group must have had all kinds of fun at some point but forgot about it along with everything else. Like it was possible to recapture that life again.

Jackson Filter said, “I think I had fun once.”

And Friendly nodded, flashing his maddening grin. “Yes, Jackson, of course you did.”

Of course. But nothing was of course anymore. Jackson Filter had taken his name from the logo on the industrial lading container where he’d woken up covered in blood that wasn’t his, a tube snaking out of his nose, and a portable pacemaker on its last three bars of power. Jackson had a bomb in his heart. As long as he recharged the pacemaker every day, he’d stay alive. If he didn’t, the chip in his neopallium would trigger and nobody knew how big the explosion might be—as big as the city of Los Angeles or as big as a man’s heart. No, of course was stupid. Of course was unthinkable.

Check,1187, rising,” said the drone, a different pair of eyes—far less alluring that those of the previous drone—blinked at him from the dash monitor. “Please fasten your seatbelt, Donald Stilton.” Then the turbines kicked in and the drone hovered slowly out from under the awning. Rain clattered against the acrylic canopy and the black wasp suddenly went straight up towards the skyway, gathering speed as it rose past the marquees, the tangle of hologram adverts, bright white floods, coruscating fields of pixilated Pinyin, New German, English, Spanish, Japanese, the green girl in the distance advertising “Live Bait,” the night throngs of the sector down on the street with their bio-luminescent amulets and VR-guided walking umbrellas and tuk tuks belching grease fumes into the particolored night.

What is your destination?”

I’m . . . not sure.”

It is necessary for you to state a destination. What is your destination?”

I . . .”

Are you disoriented? Do you require medical assistance?”

No.”

Please state your destination.”

Do you like it here?”

You have failed three of five opportunities to state a destination. What is your destination?”

John Desmond Frame, Jr. had been unusually talkative that night, And Rupert Two-Gears. Two extremely closed-mouthed individuals suddenly telling stories, emoting, describing memories. It felt strange. In a circle of ghosts, of men who’d been erased from the dayside life of human society, strange was an achievement. And then there was Moss’ outburst at the end. That wasn’t of course, wasn’t something anyone would forget. Moss throwing chairs. Putting his fist clear through the side of the corroded steel bin behind him. Breaking the arc lamp’s tripod over his knee. Screaming about how unfair it was, that he’d kill someone, that he’d have his revenge. He never said on whom. Because he didn’t know.

Moss was a kind, gentle giant until he wasn’t. Then he was a raving psychopath. Of course he was. Donny thought of the guns impossibly hidden somewhere in his capsule apartment. It’ll be a fun project, she said. If by “fun” Graciela meant something else, maybe “a moment of slightly less fear.” Maybe that’s what fun was for people like Donny.

The drone was at 700 meters and still rising to the skyway. The city was teeming with light, movement, energy—except for two unlit megablocks standing dark and neglected in Old Hollywood like rectangular black holes, enormous intangible voidspaces noticeable amid the rain chop and light wash only by virtue of how desolate they seemed. They no longer drew power from the L.A. grid. Disrecognized. Like him.

You have failed four of five opportunities to state a destination. What is your destination?”

Take me somewhere beautiful,” he said, not sure why, half-expecting the AI to ask for clarification or deny his request or offer him a sedative. But the eyes on the dash monitor blinked and the AI said, “Thank you” as the drone rose into the bottom lane of the skyway.

< Read Ch. 6 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-IH >

< Read Ch. 4 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-ID >

4

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.

No.”

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.”

Dangler nodded.

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 >

2

Donny clicked open the door to his apartment. Graciela was asleep in his bed. One of many good things about the apartment: you could look straight from the bedroom, through the kitchen area, through the living room, to the door. You could sit up in bed and put a bullet through an intruder—if you were fast like Moss and you could shoot straight. But Donny had never fired a gun at another human being, even though there were more than 34 handguns currently in his apartment. He’d fired about half of them at himself. That was the Damocles Algorithm. That was part of his wreckage, but not all of it.

He let the door shut behind him, then walked over to the foot of the bed and looked down at Graciela. When they had sex, she’d sweat. She liked to cuss. She liked to smoke his cigarettes in bed. She liked to drink. When she used his bathroom, sometimes the smell of shit lingered through the toilet’s deodorant spray. It made Donny feel good, calm. Graciela was real, as organic as any woman born the old-fashioned way in a hospital. Not in a lab.

Sometimes a synthetic person came to believe it was organic. And every now and then, organic people like Donny, who’d been involuntarily chipped by a family member or a spouse or an employer, discovered their hardware or coding during a routine physical or because of a triggering event or in some other more dramatic way. In most cases, forced implantation was legal in California, whether it was court ordered or whether the subject contractually agreed to it. The problem was remembering your life before the implant, even remembering you’d agreed to it in the first place. A certain degree of memory loss was inevitable. It protected the people who’d done it to you. At least, it added another layer of difficulty if you tried to find out. But sometimes people got their memories back. And sometimes they took revenge.

Graciela didn’t know about any of this. She knew, in a general way, things like forced implantation took place. But she didn’t know about Donny’s coding or the few fragments he remembered from his past. She thought all the guns were some weird macho thing. That was good, too. But Donny didn’t like it when she spent the whole night at his place, because that’s when it usually happened. He had some pills. They were supposed to help him block the algorithm that made him build guns in a feverish agony-filled trance and then try to use them on himself. The pills worked about half the time—if he remembered to take them. The side effects were horrible. Donny only took them when he felt the code kicking in, the strobe of pain in the center of his forehead. When it started, he had to move fast. He didn’t always make it.

Graciela sighed in her sleep. Donny took off his shirt, shoes, chinos, and lay down beside her, resting his right hand on the small of her back. She was wearing one of his white T-shirts and her warmth felt nice through the cotton. Real cotton. A luxury item, hardly in his budget as a night guard. But synthetic clothing gave you skin cancer and Donny felt he had enough on his plate. He smiled at the thought: enough on my plate, imagining an antique china dinner plate, gold scroll-work around the edge, a gold spoon beside it, and a Steyr Mannlicher L-D12 with an extended clip resting in the middle like a charred T-bone. Black steel. Tactical sights. Very similar to the first gun he could remember finding hidden in his apartment.

Donny panicked that night, not knowing that he’d ordered it online six days earlier. That was before the assembly subroutine activated. Now he had guns made from PVC piping, cardboard tubes, a disassembled fire nozzle he’d brought home from the Shung building and hacksawed in a trance with bloodshot unfocused eyes, his nose bleeding down to his belt. He’d gotten rid of his 3D printer, but he was still finding polymer firing mechanisms sunk in the toilet tank, piled on top of each other in a forgotten bowl in the kitchen cupboard, stuffed into a rip in the side of his mattress. He dreamed about guns almost every night, had encyclopedic knowledge of their specifications, materials, assembly. It was part of the code.

There was a VR channel where you could learn about objects from the past, examine them from all angles, experience what they might have been like sitting in your hand. Donny felt that in his previous life—the life before the implant—he must have spent a lot of time in VR, especially on the learning feeds. Most people had never seen an astrolabe, van Gogh’s Starry Night, a 16th century Koran in green leather fitted in brass. But he could remember such things and they had nothing to do with the Damocles Algorithm.

He’d heard of a similar channel for extinct animals. Some liked to spend all their free time playing with otters in high-def mountain streams. But somehow virtual animals didn’t have the same appeal for Donny. The archaeology of the past was more real because it had been artificial from the beginning—then an astrolabe, now a pixilated astrolabe. That was more honest, more organic, than a pixilated otter.

Donny listened to the rain patter on the big circular window to the right of the bed. The window depolarized at night. Unless he raised the auto-blind, the enormous ECO-TANGENT marquee on the apartment block across the skyway lit up the bedroom. Graciela apparently didn’t know where to find the controls. So the blind was still only half-raised, the way he’d left it that morning. A red-orange bar of light twisted on the ceiling whenever the enormous ECO-TANGENT logo flashed passing drones.

In a few minutes, he’d go into the kitchen and make a strong cup of Postum to keep him awake. Then he could go somewhere else and let Graciela sleep. The apartment was oblong, actually a very small capsule model. 72 floors up the megablock. The block generated a new capsule whenever a tenant moved in, incinerating the old capsule in its slot for hygiene purposes. Donny felt lucky to live there. It was hard to find a place in the city with decent filtration and radiation shielding. He didn’t know how he’d managed it. All he knew was that his name was on the lease. So he must have lived there before.

Somewhere Moss, Teague, Friendly, Jackson Filter and the rest were also going to sleep, however they managed to live, in whatever holes they called home. Well, he thought, they probably weren’t actually sleeping. They, as a group, didn’t seem to sleep all that much. And who could blame them? They’d gone to sleep one night as a relatively normal people only to wake up to nightmares they couldn’t escape.

Donny didn’t realize he’d dozed off until the subroutine had already begun. He gasped, sitting up beside Graciela. She was still on her chest, still breathing deeply, sleeping like a normal human being, whatever that was. He didn’t know anymore. The cramps had already started, aching nausea, his left hand trembling as if being jiggled at the end of an invisible string. His hand was separate from him now, coming online, connecting to the thing in his brain that wanted him dead.

He slid off the bed, dry heaving, his right arm hugging his stomach. Nothing to vomit. Just pain. A drop of blood fell out of his nose, black and glistening on the capsule’s blue polyamide carpet like a tiny jewel. Then his left arm started flopping at his side like a fish struggling to breathe.

There was still time. The spasms always started in one of his hands, then moved across his body like a seizure. There was time to get the pills, to get to the sink. He needed to take four of them. They were big. Donny had to put them in his mouth and then get some water in there. And he had to do it fast. He could already feel his heart starting to race. He focused on his breathing. If he started to hyperventilate, it was all over. He’d pass out and then the chip would only wake up the psycho-motor areas of his brain—the parts necessary for locating or building a firearm, loading it, and firing it point-blank at the side of his head.

The little ceramic duck on the edge of the sink. Something Graciela wouldn’t notice. Donny knocked it over with his right hand, trying to stay upright with his left arm spasming, his left leg starting to vibrate, his throat muscles getting rigid. Underneath the duck was a little cellophane packet full of the yellow pills. He tore the packet open with his teeth and they went everywhere. Focus. Count four lying on the counter. Starting to hyperventilate. His entire body trembling. Just as Donny’s right fingers started to pulse, he got the pills in, cut his mouth on the sink faucet, but got the water flowing. Swallowed. Fell to the kitchen floor and didn’t think, didn’t move, until the convulsions slowed, then faded and he lay there surrounded by triangular yellow pills that didn’t have a name. Donny listened to the rain. Graciela hadn’t woken up. One good thing. One small good thing.

 

< Read Ch. 1 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-In >

< Read Ch. 3 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Iw >

As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins.”

– Thomas Nashe, 1594

1

They wanted Donny to talk about the algorithm running in his brain, as if talking about it again would change something.

He stood and knocked over his folding chair. “Stop recording. I’m not gonna tell you twice.”

Sorry. I wanted to—review it—later.” Moss’ irises pulsed faint blue, then rotated as he erased the file.

The group stared. Donny lit a cigarette with a paper match. “Yeah, well, I shouldn’t have to say it.” He didn’t take his eyes off Moss.

Sitting, Moss was still taller than Donny. Standing, he was easily over eight feet. He weighed close to 400 lbs., all synthetic fast-twitch muscle fiber and chemical emulsifier. Hairless and scarred, Moss looked like someone who’d grown up in an industrial ghetto or who’d been sent to the gulags. But he had perfect balance. Was ambidextrous. Said he could see 20/20 in the dark and could bend a steel railing with his hands. Donny believed it. Moss was obviously enhanced. And code like that was open source these days. Outpatient. Anyone could chip you in—or have you chipped against your will. There was no telling who Moss had been or what he’d done or what his skeletal structure looked like. He was the same as everyone who came to these meetings. His memory was salad.

I said I was sorry. I’m—really sorry, man.” Moss looked away, folded his hands in his lap.

You know the rules.” Friendly raised his eyebrows and nodded to himself, wrote something in his notebook. “We don’t record. We keep it all in-group.”

I could care less about the rules. I just don’t like the thought of him watching playback of me in his head. It’s sick.” Donny righted his chair and sat back down, exhaling twin jets of smoke out his nose like punctuation.

I accept the rules,” Moss said. “But the reason we’re here is because—because maybe we’re not so good at following rules.”

Friendly grinned, nodded again. “That’s the truth, brother. The absolute truth. That’s what we mean by self-acceptance.” Friendly had big white teeth, a wooden ankh on a bead necklace, thin dreads tied in a perfect bun. He was definitely synthetic. He didn’t sweat. He smiled way too much. Donny wondered, again, what Friendly had done to wind up running a support group that met on the production floor of an abandoned foundry. Who’d built him? Why? Was it for this or something else?

Let’s just get on with it,” Donny flicked ash onto the subcrete and Friendly’s glance snapped down at the nub of ash the way a mongoose fixates on the head of a snake. The snake’s head jerks, the mongoose follows it so fast it seems like they’re moving as one. Yeah, sure, nothing unnatural about Friendly.

Friendly’s gaze slowly unfocused, softened, he looked up at Donny and nodded. Then smiling, he looked around the circle. “It’s Teague’s turn to share this evening. Isn’t it?”

Teague peered at Friendly with his good eye. The other was a dead milky orb with only the faintest outline of an iris. Someone had done that to him, among other things. He had pockmarked cheeks. Had someone done that as well—for realism? Or was it natural? He probably didn’t know.

There’s a burning question, thought Donny. Can synthetics get chicken pox? Is that the new thing?

I shared before,” Teague said. “I told you—you know who I am. I’m chipped. You know this. Right?” Teague looked at Friendly, who nodded.

Yes. But we need to hear your story.” Friendly would be smiling even if he’d had to tell a mother her kid had been torn apart by wild dogs. Donny stared until Friendly noticed and winked.

Teague sounded nervous, but telling your story was part of the therapy. In your first meeting, you were expected to share the nature of your coding as far as you understood it. You did a fearless and searching inventory of all the people you’d hurt as a result of your involuntary actions. You confessed. But there wasn’t supposed to be any judgment, just understanding, acceptance, compassion. Only then could healing begin. That’s what The Book of Synthesis said, anyway. Friendly gave everyone a copy. Donny read half of chapter one before throwing it in the trash. He didn’t expect to be healed. Talking couldn’t remove a chipset from your cerebral cortex or the software that had become integrated with your brain functions, your wetware. Donny didn’t know why he came back week after week, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t because of The Book.

Teague crossed his arms, cleared his throat. “Well, okay, so you all know me from last time, right? You know my name. It’s Teague. It’s my last name. I don’t know my first name.”

Moss stared intently at Teague with those dull blue filaments in his eyes that pulsed whenever one of his subroutines kicked in. Moss said his eyes weren’t supposed to do that. They had their own battery power and it was failing. Soon he’d probably go blind. Or worse. There was no way for him to know without contacting the company that made his eyes. But, of course, he couldn’t remember.

But what’s your wreckage?” Donny flicked another bit of ash from his cigarette to see if Friendly would react the same way.

Friendly smirked and wagged his finger as if Donny had been a naughty boy. “We don’t call it wreckage, Donny. You know that.”

Wreckage?” Teague’s mouth twitched. His good eye darted around the circle. Then he stood and spread his arms, and sang out in lyric tenor: “By the River Jordan, I sat down and wept! By the river! Le delizie dell’ amor, mi dei sempre rammentar! Sono io! Sono io! Ecco chi sono!

That’s who you are? You’re a river?” Dangler tilted his head to the side, considering the possibility.

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal!

Friendly stood and put his arm around Teague, helping him down into his folding chair. “Firewall. It’s okay, brother. Just sit back down.”

Teague had begun to shake, spittle foaming at the corners of his mouth. He tried to keep talking but could now only utter incoherent syllables, his good eye turned down toward the tip of his nose while his hands writhed in his lap.

Wow,” Dangler said. “How is that anything like a river?”

Let’s go easy on Teague tonight.” Friendly sighed, sat down, and smiled warmly at the group. “Evidently, this is a protective aspect of his coding. But that’s why were here, right? That’s part of the work.”

Dangler shook his head. “That must feel strange.”

How do you know what strange feels like?” asked Jackson Filter, who always seemed to be sitting next to Dangler even though Jackson despised him.

You’re right. I don’t actually know what strange feels like. What does strange feel like, Jackson Filter?”

Talking to you. That feels strange,” Jackson said and turned his folding chair slightly so he wouldn’t have to look at Dangler.

Donny smoked, took it all in. These men were broken, miserable. And the group meetings were a special kind of hell. What good did they do? Every week Donny swore that was the last time. But when the next meeting came around, he found himself on a drone texting Friendly that he was on his way. Could coming to the meetings also be part of his coding? Someone wanting to program him to attend group therapy for being programmed was absurd, at least as absurd as anything else in Donny’s life.

The old foundry’s enormous pressure injectors, iron crucibles, plungers, chamber machines, and die cavities towered around them like the discarded toys of a giant race. Everything had rusted horribly from the moisture, even the walls and the roof. It was always raining in Los Angeles and you could smell the acid tang of the rust. Hundreds of feet above them, rain clattered on the foundry’s corrugated roof and filled the air with mist, muting the glare of Friendly’s arc lamp. One day, the roof would come crashing down. Then they’d finally see who had physical enhancements to go along with the code.

Dangler, for example, looked completely normal. No scarring. No obvious synthetic characteristics. That is, if you overlooked the fact that he was 62 but appeared 22. He had bushy blond hair, a perfect even tan, and a vacant stare. He’d been coded against emotion. Sometime, he claimed, maybe 20 years ago, someone had done it to him. And for the last two decades, he’d felt no happiness, joy, fear, or anxiety. Higher levels of creativity were forever closed to him. Dangler was very good at imitating the behavior of others, but original thought or action was beyond him. He once said a middle-aged woman occasionally stopped by his room at the YMCA to ask how he was feeling. But he didn’t know who she was or why she came. She refused to explain why Dangler had been tattooed in the center of his chest. But that was his name. She said that had always been his name.

I’m sorry.” Teague pulled up the collar of his white T-shirt and mopped his face. “I don’t know what came over me.”

You were speaking Italian,” said Jackson Filter.

I don’t know Italian.”

Well, I guess you do.”

Friendly raised his hand. “Guys, we all know what a firewall is. It’s the code protecting itself. Sometimes, it’s hard. That’s intentional. But what do we say to those who have harmed us?”

Everyone but Teague and Donny called out in unison: “WE FORGIVE AND PRAY NOT TO FORGET!”

Yes,” Friendly said. “And, as it says in The Book, self-remembering is the basis of love, which is the greatest power in the universe.”

Amen,” said Moss.

Amen,” said Dangler.

Amen,” said Jackson Filter.

Amen,” said Rupert Two-Gears.

Amen,” said John Desmond Frame, Jr.

Teague covered his face with his hands and started to weep. “Amen,” he said.

Everyone looked at Donny. He blew a line of smoke at the arc lamp. Then he smiled at Friendly and flicked a nub of ash onto the subcrete.

< Read Ch. 2 here: http://wp.me/p2mP19-Ir >

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