1 – BOOT SEQUENCE
West side New Hong Kong
It had been a trap and the detective had barely escaped; his enemies were now chasing him through the sewers. If they were equipped with night vision he would be at a disadvantage, which was the reason why he chose the sewers in the first place. The sound of their feet splashing on the black waters was an excellent warning; unfortunately the slums’ sewers were a horrible irregular maze and the risk of arriving to a dead-end was quite high. With no place to take cover from their submachine guns he would be toast in no time.
No. He had survived the ambush and lost direct contact with the enemy; the sewers had served their purpose already. Now the best route to take was up. He climbed the first ladder that he saw and opened the manhole cover, hoping there wouldn’t be another ambush up there.
The detective heard the splashes below closing in, but he didn’t get his head up until he made sure there was nobody above. The bad news was the two full moons in the zenith; they’d make him a perfect target for a sniper on one of the roofs. But the splashes below him were getting closer and there was no time for a second check. He got out and...
...ran zigzagging to the nearest corner without even bothering to close the manhole. When he didn't hear any shots he realized he was safe, at least for now.
Crouching behind a garbage container, he checked the silencer on his gun and aimed for the manhole. He saw the first of his pursuers get out without taking the slightest precaution. Instead, he just looked around for a second, and waited for the guy below him to pull him out. The detective winced.
What the...? These guys have no training at all...
His frown turned into a grin; finally, some good news. But he couldn't shoot right now, the third one might run away. No, the best thing to do was to wait until the third one was climbing out, shoot him and then deal with the other two. But first he had to make sure they were looking away. He grabbed an empty soda can that was lying around, thank God for the messy people in the slums.
This will do.
He threw the can to his right as high and as far as he could. Two of the thugs followed the noise; better than he expected. The third one was still getting out. The detective focused and aimed for the heart. The thug never saw what hit him. He fell back into the manhole without making any noise. One down, two to go.
The detective waited for the first thug to turn to the right.
He shot at the second one's head. It was a clean shot, but then he saw the first one turning around.
“Hey, did you see where – WHAT THE...!”
The detective emptied his gun on him and reloaded. He could hear himself breathing. He ran back to his hiding spot to recover his breath. No signs of alarm yet.
That was close. Better get out of here.
He kept running and crouching, just in case a sniper was hiding around. Several blocks later he decided he was out of danger. He looked up with his mind; in his alternative view, as if he had a third eye looking at a dark room, he saw the image of a digital watch, which was in fact a software simulation interfacing with his neural implants.
24:67. Only fourteen minutes 'till midnight; he still had time. Now all that was left was to go to the appointed building and hope that Kimiko would still be alive. “Please,” he whispered, “don't die on me. Don't die on me...”
>> Pearson, you there?
The nanotech antennae implanted inside his ear helixes allowed him – like any citizen – to receive the transmission perfectly: an ECP message. Encrypted Chat Protocol, standardized centuries ago as the official standard for private, end-to-end encrypted communication. For police forces it was end-to-central encryption, but Pearson's partner used a temporary key to deliver the message end-to-end, with guaranteed anonymity. That was the way communications were handled during an operation.
(As usual, for consecutive messages from a single person the chat software replaced the sender's username with a double greater-than symbol, encoded with a customizable color palette. In any case, the user's voice print was embedded in the metadata and arrived right to your person recognition module, so getting confused about a message's sender was impossible unless you wanted perfect anonymity; this was rarely the case.)
Reading his partner was a blessing, but he was still afraid of the mobsters finding out he wasn't alone in case they were sniffing the airwaves. He couldn't risk losing Kimiko.
>> Don’t worry, we got you covered. Go to the meeting point, my team will take care of the rest. Remember, even if she dies we can resurrect her, given the usual provisions.
>> Stop worrying and focus on the mission. And Pearson, you have my full support.
Pearson kept walking in the shadows until he reached the apartment building. He took a deep breath, and waited for the best.
A loudspeaker took him by surprise. “HEY, PEARSON!!”
Pearson looked up at the origin of the voice; he recognized two silhouettes on the building roof: a strong man holding a gun, and a woman.
The front of the entire building turned into a projection, probably set up by the kidnapper; the woman was too far to the right, but he recognized the man: it was none other than Chen Tao, an infamous gangster come from New China. What the hell was he doing there? Didn’t he die years ago?
The gangster was aiming at the woman's neck. When the camera panned right, Pearson froze; it was his wife. The bastard had put her in a whore’s attire, with knee-high leather boots, fishnet dress, a miniskirt, and an obvious red lipstick. Her hair had either been painted pink, or she was wearing a wig.
“Please, Rick”, cried Kimiko, “do what he says, please!!!”
Soon, a myriad of reflectors shone upon the gangster, from both above and below.
“THIS IS THE POLICE! YOU ARE SURROUNDED! RELEASE THE HOSTAGE!”
The gangster spoke through the megaphone. “Any closer and she dies!” He grabbed the woman by the hair, making her scream.
Pearson stepped towards him. “Look! Just let my wife go, and we’ll spare your life!”
“Just drop the case, copper!”
That didn’t sound like a Chinese voice. What the hell was happening?
“Okay, I’ll drop the case! But please, don’t hurt my wife!”
The gangster laughed. “You think I'm that stupid? Fuck no! You must learn your lesson first, motherfucker!”
The gangster kicked Kimiko over the ledge of the building. Pearson couldn't believe it. Why did he kick her out! Wasn't he supposed to use her as hostage? But the answer was obvious: The gangster wasn't really there; he had been “wearing” an avatar the whole time. Pearson regretted not having shot him when he could, but it was too late now; his wife was now falling to her death.
The police shot the gangster on the spot, but now it was too late. Pearson dropped his gun and sprinted towards Kimiko, but he was too slow. To his dismay, she was falling head down.
Come on, hurry, hurry!!!
Despite his best efforts he couldn't make it in time. Kimiko's head made contact with the concrete.
He fell on his knees. She was dead.
He just stared at the dead body, ignoring the phone call sound that was echoing in his head.
Rick woke up in his apartment, with his undershirt drenched in sweat. “Not again, dammit... not again...”
He sat up, grabbed a clean one from the closet and put it on. He kept facing the closet as he wiped his brow... he didn't want to turn to the other side of the bed. Eventually he gave up and turned around, hoping for a miracle... hoping for Kimiko to be there, resting placidly on her pillow on the other side of the bed. The truth quickly disappointed him once again. Why did he keep doing that? She'd never be there, he had to face the cold hard truth. No matter how much he wished it, Kimiko wouldn't be there for him, and it hurt like hell.
The hardest part to swallow was that Kimiko hadn't died that night. No, it was far worse: Kimiko had never existed in the first place. She wasn't real.
Around Eight years ago
“Well, Mr. Pearson,” the labcoat-clad woman in the clinic told him, “we finally found out the reason for your recurrent dreams.” The woman removed her glasses and put them on her desk; Rick noticed the translucent text that would show her the diagnostic data still scrolling inside them for a second before vanishing.
(Since the genomic revolution sight problems were a thing of the past; glasses became exclusively used for augmented reality, diagnostics, and fashion. Wearing non-decorative glasses now could only mean two things: You were either a physician... or a Terran with bad eyesight and God knows what other congenital diseases.)
The doctor went on. “I'm afraid it's bad news.”
Rick swallowed. “What do you mean, doctor, bad news?”
(It was his first visit; he didn't call her “doc” until a few months later.)
“It seems, Mr. Pearson, that you suffer from Implant-triggered false memory disorder.”
“False memories, Mr. Pearson, caused by malformed connections between your implants and your brain cells.” “What do you mean, malformed connections? Oh, that's gotta be bullshit. One doesn't just dream about a specific person they've never met just because some bad connections here and there!”
“Well, Mr. Pearson, it does start like random noise — fractal noise, to be precise — , but then your neurons start trying to figure out a pattern behind the random concepts triggered in your mind. At first, it starts like a feeling... a Deja Vu. Something you've seen, a scent, the feeling that you've met someone, that you've heard something... that you've loved someone. And then, every night you dream, that feeling starts growing towards other parts of your mind. Because the noise patterns don't change with time, they're assimilated by your brain as if they were actual memories, and then they're influenced by other dreams you've had; movies you've watched, wishes, even sexual fantasies, and other noise patterns caused by previously isolated faults. The false memories are fed by your mind, Mr. Pearson. They grow and you can't get rid of them.”
“Are you shitting me? You're telling me this is really a thing?”
“You said you dreamed about being a detective, didn’t you?”
“Tell me, do you like detective movies?”
Rick froze; he had an entire collection of such movies, even the earliest black and white ones from Earth.
“I’ll take that as a yes. Tell me, Mr. Pearson, how many have you watched?”
“A few...” he lied. By now he had watched at least a hundred of them.
“Are you sure it’s my case?”
“It's not common; very rare, in fact, but it does happen. Trust me, Mr. Pearson, the diagnostics Sensei never lies.”
“But... how? Why does it happen?”
“See, Mr. Pearson, not all brains are 100% biocompatible with the neural weave. Almost all are, but there are a few rare cases — we’re talking about a few dozens in millions — who suffer from these problems, and I'm afraid you're one of those rare cases.”
“So you’re saying I won the lottery of implant diseases?”
The doctor smiled politely. “Keep that sense of humor, Mr. Pearson. You’ll need it.”
“But can it be fixed?”
“Only if we remove the neural weave altogether, but you see, the surgery is not free of risks. Please look at the screen.”
Rick turned to the smooth section of the wall, which had been treated with e-paint; the control circuit had been etched on one of the corners. The animation began playing: He saw the cross-section of a brain as seen from the front. On the center, right between the two hemispheres, a black dot – like a seed, appearing after a syringe inserted it from the top.
“During the neural weave implantation, Mr. Pearson, the nanotech seed is surgically inserted right in the center of the Corpus callosum; that's the part that joins both hemispheres of your brain. As the neural weave starts growing, its branches begin to cover the limbic system and both hemispheres, like a second parallel brain intertwined with your organic brain until the terminals sprout on top of the neocortex. The process takes approximately two months until the terminals are ready for interfacing.
After extending the skull to make room for the implants, a surgical procedure inserts the neural router on top of the terminals, “ she continued, as Rick saw a yellow layer appearing on top of the brain, “along with the communications module and the VR implants; that’s where the motor nerves are pruned and replaced with the control connections. After a period of adjustment, the cortical implants are installed on top of the router's wetware. And on top of the implants come the memory extensions and add-ons that you've seen on TV commercials.”
“And what does that have to do with my condition, doctor?”
“Mr. Pearson, the problem with your condition lies in the interfacing between your neurons and the neural weave.” The tree structure inside the brain began to flash in red. “If it were a problem related to the neural router or the implant itself, we could simply replace it, but to solve this problem we'd have to remove the neural weave itself. It is a very invasive procedure, Mr. Pearson. Trying to remove it physically is out of the question; it'd be like removing the red fibers in a flannel shirt. The chemical solution is to use a nanomachine-based dissolver that will eat the neural weave, but the irony here is that in people with your condition, the dissolver also destroys the layer of myelin that protects your neurons, and then it would start to degrade the neurons themselves. To put it simply, Mr. Pearson, there's just no guarantee that you won't suffer significant brain damage during the procedure.”
“So you mean it can't be cured?”
“Technology is advancing fast, Mr. Pearson... maybe in a few decades, scientists will find a way to safely remove the neural weave with zero risk. But even if it can be removed, I'm afraid you won't be able to use implants ever again.” “You're kidding, right? I mean... it's genetic, right? There should be a cure! Doctor, I've watched the Science channel, they cure inherited diseases with just an injection, right?”
The doctor shook her head. “It's not that simple. In theory, yes, we could figure out some method to induce the neurons to produce more myelin, but a blanket approach would render the neural weave unusable; and to locate the faulty connections is like finding a needle in a haystack. A million needles inside a trillion synapses haystack, Mr. Pearson.”
Rick stared at the desk, shaking his head. “There's got to be a way... there's got to be a way...”
“There's an alternative, of course.”
“What is it, doctor? Tell me, anything!”
“A recent experimental treatment; biochemical. It won't cure the disease, but it can treat it. We have a couple samples in the research labs, let me request one.”
The doctor typed something in her computer terminal (for security, some procedures needed to be typed in using wired keyboards instead of wireless implant connections), and waited until the pneumatic tubing terminal beeped. She walked to the terminal, opened the door, picked the cylindrical casing that had just arrived, and took out an bottle of pills from it, labeled with a high-density multicolored QR. “And here it is. A pharmaceutical company recently gave me access to these during a joint program with the Esperanzan Government.” Rick took the bottle; it was just pills; and on it, the visible text “CLASSIFIED” and a few alphanumeric codes. No ingredients, no list of side effects, and the QR code just rendered nonsense.
“It can mitigate the occurrences of false memories, but there are certain side effects.”
“And what are the side effects, doctor?”
“Suboptimal hand-eye coordination, mild headaches, occasional dizziness, but the worst of all is that you won't be able to use avatars.”
“You got to be kidding me, doctor.”
“It's that, or losing your implants altogether. I'm sorry, Mr. Pearson. But, if you agree to form part of the experimental treatment, here are a few forms you have to sign.” Rick took the forms.
“As required for implant-challenged patients. Some people are allergic to the neural weave, some suffer from avatar-coordination dysfunction, others have VR-induced epilepsy; in those cases, paper forms are a requirement.”
“I... I understand.”
Rick began filling in his name; his hand was trembling, he hadn't done this since he was ten years old; his handwriting was horrible. His implants had suffered a shock during the diagnosis, and he couldn't download shit... much less a good handwriting module.
Implants were a de-facto requirement for citizenship. During the citizenship exam one couldn't access online resources except through their implants, and passing the citizenship exam required 99% of accuracy in solving the questions. In practice, it was a hundred percent, because one mistake would land you below 98% of correct questions. A few centuries ago the requirement it was just 51%, but immigration waves and political pressure from conservative groups (nobody wants to upset the big neighbor) raised that to 99% across all countries except China.
The good news was that Rick was already a citizen; the bad news was the handicap of not having neural implants at your disposal. In a world where mere seconds made the difference, not having implants put you in the same place as denizens: Ground-dwellers, earthworms, defectives, whatever the name and whatever the country, it all meant the same thing: Second-class citizens.
No implants would mean you had to use AR glasses for everything. No telepathy, no mood-regulation plugins, no remote control, no VR sex, but worst of all, it meant not being able to download concepts. Ever. Rick’s childhood dream of becoming a police officer would go down the drain. All police officers were provided with neural implants, and if one couldn't have it, well, that meant studying for years, or having to live with a desk job for all your life.
And here he was, not even able to write his name decently. Since he remembered, implants were part of his everyday life; every citizen had taken them for granted. Without being able to use them, he felt like some kind of mutant. He couldn't even remember how to write a decent “a”. Not even Terrans wrote that ugly; good handwriting was a required course in immigrant schools and reeducation centers. How much would he have to study, drawing sticks and circles on notebooks, just to re-learn to write decently?
His hand began to tremble even more.
Now for the last name.
He began sweating. Another “a”... he fumbled and ended up drawing a “2” instead. He crumpled the paper and threw it on the floor before bursting in tears.
He didn't know how much time he had cried; his vision was blurry and his throat hurt.
“Mr. Pearson, maybe you can fill it out at home. In a few hours you'll be able to download a handwriting concept.” He nodded and began to uncrumple the form, ashamed of himself.
“Here's another form, Mr. Pearson. Here, have other three, just in case.”
“Th... thank you,” he whispered.
“Normally I wouldn't do this, but you can take the first dose home. One per day, every morning.” She put the bottle in a prefabbed box and gave it to him.
“I ordered a cab for you, Mr. Pearson, in case you don't have cash.”
“Thank you,” he whispered again.
“Don't worry, the implants will reboot in a few minutes.”
“Will... will this happen the next visit?” “No, Mr. Pearson. Despite your disease, your implants' nanotech keeps adapting with time; the next visit, disconnection time will be much shorter.”
“Good night, doctor.” He couldn't look at her eyes; he felt ashamed of himself: Of his disease, of his horrible handwriting, of his tantrum... he was pathetic. He walked out the door and closed it silently. On the way home, he finally saw the reboot sequence in his field of view. He hadn't realized how much he needed those implants until he lost them. He thanked God for that.
No... he couldn't give up. There had to be a way. There had to!
Days passed and he tried to contact other sufferers from this disorder. After all, there had to be someone! He spent a full year contacting all the doctors that had published anything about the disorder, and none of them allowed him to contact other patients. “Doctor-patient privilege”, they said.
The next thing he tried was online forums, but many of the alleged sufferers turned out to be teenage kids trolling around. And those who weren’t, turned out to be AI-powered trollbots.
A fucking waste of time.
“Fucking nightmares.” For the last eight years, Rick had to relive false memories of his wife over and over, with new memories spontaneously appearing every few months. At least the nightmares weren't as frequent now, they only happened once or twice a month. Rick grabbed his bottle of prescribed medication and swallowed two pills. Then he turned on the alpha-wave generator in his implants and went back to sleep.