LAST YEAR’S MOON
© 2015 Elle Hawken
All rights reserved
It didn’t pay to scrap junk anymore. Wrecked cars and worn-out appliances sprawled outside the city in moldering roadside heaps. People photographed them and gave them names, like Turtle Crawling Sideways and Steeple Kiss. Decay was the new art. It had character, and not much did these days thanks to the surge in global mass production. Everything was brand new, and cheap. Dirt cheap. I lived in a penthouse I’d bought last November that looked out over the Hudson. And I was dirt cheap, too.
Shadows cut stark lines across the railing and stairs beneath a burnt-out bulb. My session at the Paulsen-Krynor Institute started in less than twenty minutes, and I hustled. I had forgotten it was Friday. When I reached the lobby, I smoothed my long hair and tugged at the hem of my dress, pretending I was going somewhere nice. And who knew, maybe I would be. I could end up downtown at a glitzy bar nestled in an old bank vault, drinking sixty-year-old whiskey and basking in the glow of bronze turn-of-the-last-century deposit boxes. Or maybe I’d find myself chasing rats in the Holland Tunnel. Again.
Friday nights meant tough competition for cabs, but I caught a break. The Institute didn’t bother to send a car. Showing up was your responsibility, and if you broke more than three appointments there was hell to pay.
I hadn’t broken an appointment yet. But I thought about it every time.
The door handle on the cab jiggled, bolts loose. Interior hinges groaned and professed their rust. The sedan was only a few years old. Nothing lasted.
Factories employed more than a third of humanity, and they turned out crap products at an astonishing rate, but our government had given every high-tech contract to the arc-phens after the ISS incident. Too many high profile tourists had been cruising that deathtrap when it finally gave up the ghost in a blinding flash of incandescent plasma. Maybe one in a billion people could explain what had gone wrong with the new fuel grid. And those ten people were too knee-deep in their own elaborate endeavors to even tweet about it. Science had gotten that complex. We were manipulating structures we only understood in theory, and sometimes the gamble paid out in blood. So we quietly handed creation over to the arc-phens, the perfectionists. I often wondered what it was like to have never made a mistake. To have never crossed an I or dotted a T. To never have said yes when you meant no.
I wondered if that meant you lived without regrets.
We crept south. The tiny cinema marquee crammed into the corner of a sleek hotel facade came into view with a few minutes to spare, and the driver put on his signal. I never gave out the Institute’s address. Part of the rules. If you didn’t follow the rules, you got kicked out of the program. I suppose that meant different things to different people, but I knew what it would mean for me.
I walked around the corner and crossed the street. Capped by twin American flags and a smattering of satellite dishes, the Mid-Century building was all beige, gray and glass. Nothing marked it as odd. Yet my stomach crawled as if it were a dilapidated house in a nice neighborhood – the kind of place where if you snuck in and chanted ‘I believe in Mary Worth’ three times at midnight, maybe you really would see a ghost in the mirror and get your face snatched off. My destination was on the sixth floor. I took the stairs.
A red sign at the end of the hall read Paulsen-Krynor Psychiatric Institute – We change minds, but it was a front for the US Department of Transfer.
The arc-phens didn’t want money in return for their services. Not mostly. They wanted time, time in flesh. So they got paid in TIF-mins. Call them what you want – spirits, demons, AI’s. No one had ever proven anything and the arc-phens weren’t exactly forthcoming about their origins. Maybe it was just a hard question. Humanity’s been mulling that one over for a very long time. Some poor fools thought arc-phens were angels come down from heaven. But I knew better. Because I knew what they did when they thought no one was looking.
I was an org-av, an organic avatar. I let them rent me. They doled out their TIF-mins, I got paid in cash. And I was mostly immune to the effects of meta-benzodiazepines, or MetZeps as we called them. Those were the drugs org-avs got jacked up with before a TIF-min session. They selectively suppressed consciousness, or they were supposed to. But like I said, it didn’t really work on me. So I got to watch.
But that’s a secret.
Frosted glass obscured the interior of the Institute. I stared at the jumbled light and for the thousandth time wondered what the hell I was doing to myself. Two warped forms approached, darkening the glass. I turned the knob and swung the door open for them. A couple in their mid-sixties smiled and thanked me. They weren’t org-avs. The Institute treated regular patients to keep up appearances. You could tell who was who even though they corralled us in the same waiting room. People whose appointment was with the Department had a look about them, as if they’d had to stab their best friend to stay alive.
Org-avs never lasted more than a couple of years in the program. Suicide, always. There’d never been an exception. The Department of Transfer had even added an option to tag our profiles, so some lucky Had Enough of This Sorry World arc-phen could throw in the towel with you. For the first time in the history of mankind, you didn’t have to die alone. I’d been renting myself out for four months. I couldn’t imagine how the other avatars held out so long.
I had rules. That helped a little. You could have as many rules as you wanted, as long as your schedule stayed full. Few of us exercised the option, so I wasn’t as popular as some of the other org-avs. But I didn’t wake up in lockdown freaking like a crack addict, either. The rules weren’t something they you told about at the beginning. Everyone got baptized by fire. They said it made it easier on your body, and they called it the Conditioning Phase. The ability to have rules and set limits was a bit of consolation the director handed out like candy when your mind started to break.
The front office smelled like lemon chlorine. A polyester-clad nurse greeted me with a measured smile and ushered me into an exam room. I got checked before and after a session. The Department of Transfer had its own rules about what you could and couldn’t do to an org-av. No technological implants, no irreversible damage, and no sex.
I’d developed my own following, arc-phens who appreciated renting a body in top condition. They were happy to comply with the note on my profile: No crime. No broken bones or maiming. No brain-frying drugs. No animal cruelty.
The director had laughed at me when I’d added the No Animal Cruelty clause. Unenforceable, he’d said. How would the Department know? But my clauses were rarely violated. Even though we didn’t use our real names on our profiles, I had a feeling the arc-phens knew who I was. They probably figured I’d skip the bureaucracy and hunt them down in the Aether. Burn them out.
That’s what I did for a living before I got Listed. I was a Senior Purge Analyst for the EnCryptagion Corporation. We stored sensitive data in helical strips of viral RNA. If it got corrupted it was my job to dig up the reason, and I’d discovered a way to hunt down trespassers from the Aether. The arc-phens had been sneaking around in our world for a very long time. I built a bridge that allowed us access to their world. For the first time, the connection was a two-way street. We were ghosts in the Aether like they were ghosts here. The arcing phenomena – that’s what WorldSpan had dubbed them back in the New Twenties and the name stuck – had shut down the bridge from their end back in December, but that wouldn’t save them from me. I had also built a secret trap door.
I held my thumb against a glass plate next to the steel-webbed barrier between the Institute and the Department. Some people thought you had to mash your print against the pane since the computer was sometimes slow to read it. But I knew it was analyzing far more than the print, and the pane was dirty. Even though I had wiped the glass before presenting my thumb, I could envision the traces that countless others before me had left, and I knew the computer was having to sort it all out. Make sure I was really me. Not an impostor. Or a clone. No one had made a full human clone that could rapidly reach adulthood, yet. But they’d figured out how to copy and graft thumbs eons ago.
With a dull hum, the doors slid open. I advanced and went through security.
“You got bid up again, Beswick,” said Rogers with an air of congratulation. The government had taken a cue from internet auction sites, and org-av TIF-min fees varied according to demand.
Rogers grinned at me. He was six-foot-seven and black as opera velvet. When he handed me my tablet, I noticed the feather tattoo on his bulky forearm for the hundredth time. I’d always wanted to ask about it – what could a feather mean to a giant of a man like that? But the bright white acronym splashed across his armored vest loomed like a concrete wall between us. I was Listed. He was Government. We should have been enemies, but I liked his smile and returned it.
Sometimes I wished I’d met someone like Rogers before I’d been Listed. But before I’d stepped into the wrong elevator last December, I’d been a workaholic who had drowned myself in endless tasks and research to fill the void left by Husband Number Two. I wouldn’t have met a new man unless he’d driven a taxi or delivered Thai food.
My smile made Rogers nervous. His hand jerked away from the tablet and came to rest on his hip. The pistol there seemed superfluous, but it wasn’t. All these advances in science and you still couldn’t beat the physics of a chunk of metal tearing through flesh.
“Who’s up, do you know?” I asked, even though I knew I shouldn’t.
I smiled again. Mozart was my favorite. His sessions were more like a date than a nightmare. “You gotta tell me if the Knicks win tonight, okay?” I said as I passed through the second metal detector.
“You got it, babe. See you in the morning.”
I’d be leaving the transfer station in fifteen minutes with a bag of goods from an arc-phen’s locker, but I, of course, would not be me.
It was like watching myself on TV through a drunken haze. Starring in my own show, I played a lot of different characters who did surprising, and sometimes disgusting, things. I didn’t have to worry with Mozart.
The door to the liquor store bounced open with a jangle as tuneless bells smacked against glass. Mozart was partial to vodka, and he – or we, since I retained semi-consciousness – headed straight for the hard spirits. Peach vodka and a bottle of real orange juice. My favorite. He laughed. Sometimes I worried that he heard me, but I doubted it. I had shouted at some of the other arc-phens when I’d first started renting, when they were on the verge of doing something I objected to, and not one had ever given any indication of having heard a peep.
After securing the night’s entertainment in a paper bag we headed to Mozart’s apartment. If any of the others kept a physical address, I’d never seen it. They usually stayed out all night.
We took the train to the Upper East Side. Flanking a pair of revolving doors, streamlined statues supported a sunburst arch at the entrance of Mozart’s building. The doorman had seen me enough times to recognize me when I approached. He probably thought I was a high-dollar hooker. I tried to tell myself that wasn’t true as Mozart flashed him my flirtatious smile.
Then I realized the doorman must think I only show up when Mozart is gone, because Mozart would have to trade in his other org-av to rent me.
“Evening, Miss de Winter,” the elderly gentlemen said, as if I were a siren from the golden age of cinema. I liked it that Mozart had picked that name for me. Org-avs used handles on our profiles, no names. Mine was aloysia1777. I wondered if Mozart knew what it meant. Maybe his name was just coincidence.
“You’re looking smart, George. New haircut?” My voice was husky and rich in Mozart’s control.
A flush crept up from the doorman’s collar. “Kind of you to notice, miss.”
The elevator opened when we reached the eighth floor. Vestiges of art deco architecture strained to be noticed through the many sleek upgrades in the long, narrow hall. Sometimes it seemed like everything new was cheap and everything old was solid. Well, not everything. But Mozart’s door was a fine example. Heavy black walnut, with the rounded number 807 inlaid in brass. Mozart had held out against electronic passcard conversion, and slid a big heavy key into the lock.
After Mozart poured us a stiff drink, he cued up my favorite Eighties movie about a bunch of marines who get stranded on an alien planet. Then he switched the audio over to a Viennese recording of Don Giovanni. It was strange seeing the movie this way, but I liked it. The absence of dialogue didn’t matter so much. I knew every line, word for word. And so did Mozart.
After a few light sips of the drink – he knew better than to drown me in alcohol after I’d been shot up with MetZeps – Mozart peeked down the front of my dress.
“What did you wear for me tonight?”
Not your favorite, I thought. Unfortunately. Purple cheetah print was a bit loud for his taste, but it was all the rage at the upscale lingerie boutique I frequented. If I’d known we were having a date tonight, I would have put on something old school, something with black lace and nude lining. Something that hinted and beckoned rather than screamed.
But org-avs were never told which arc-phen we were renting to before we showed up. The info was usually withheld until we were on the table. In other words, until it was too late. Rogers had done me a courtesy this evening.
Guns flashed and zapped on screen. Someone mouthed a snappy quip. Everyone was dirty and sweaty, but still gorgeous. Good ol’ Hollywood. Mozart picked up the vodka and held the cold glass against my skin. Then he slid it down over my breasts. My body reacted and he grinned. Two empty marriages had left me no stranger to my own hands, and Mozart’s touch felt safe and familiar.
When the good guys defeated the monsters and the credits rolled, we moved into his bedroom. Mozart had laid out a nightgown and positioned the heavy gilded mirror against his headboard, as always. Sometimes I wondered if he left it there. It was an enormous antique, and must have weighed a couple of hundred pounds. I looked prettier in that champagne, age-darkened glass than I had at any other place or time.
He undressed me slowly, as if we had all the time in the world.
Mozart took a last sip of vodka before climbing onto the bed. He knelt in front of the mirror and slid my hands over my body. After I was soothed and relaxed, he laid down crosswise on the bed right next to the mirror and pulled a silk quilt over me. I fell asleep with my hand on the glass. Sometimes I imagined that he was in love with me. And every once in a while I fooled myself and believed, for a few hours, that it was true and that the feeling was mutual.
“You’re in the wrong elevator.” That’s what the creep with the consultant’s badge had said last December right before he attacked my co-worker, the elderly Mrs. Chung. Like a true Manhattan native, which I wasn’t, I ignored him. B5 was lit, and I pressed B4. I’d transferred to EnCryptagion’s headquarters seven years earlier and I knew damn well which elevator bank went to my lab pod.
When he slammed Chung’s head into the shiny steel doors, I reacted without thinking. My fist came up and clocked him in the head, then my other hand knocked away the gun he’d pulled out of nowhere and I struck him in the throat. He went down hard and didn’t get up.
It turned out Vera Chung was a data miner who’d been selling military information to some terrorist regime, and the creep was not a creep at all. His name was Danny Greenberg. He was CIA.
Someone swiped the security footage, and it was all over the internet before I was even in cuffs: girl in lab coat kills armed government agent barehanded. Some people thought the video was fake. I became an instant urban legend. And an embarrassment, to say the least. Government tactical training had gone the way of medication-enhanced electrical muscle stimulation and holographic scenarios. Apparently a bunch of steroids and VR games didn’t hold a candle to growing up the wrong color in a south Dallas slum. My only consolation was that the guy had no kids.
You don’t kill a cop in New York. Local or federal, doesn’t matter. That sort of stupidity earned you an immediate death sentence. No questions, no excuses. No air-conditioned prison cell for the rest of your life. It was the chair or the needle, and you didn’t get to pick. I respected that kind of black-and-white justice, especially considering that in today’s society shirking responsibility seemed to be the new American Way. But I’d landed on the wrong side of it.
Before my hearing, government lawyers from the Department of Transfer offered me a position in the arc-phen program. It was hush-hush, but I knew about it. It dovetailed with my line of work. They offered me a five year contract in lieu of execution, same as all the other org-avs. My assets were frozen and would be returned to me upon completion. It sounded good, but no one had ever made it through to the end. At least they were honest about that part. Back then I was still an optimist. So I took it.
I hadn’t realized the urges and curiosities of arc-phens could be as base and visceral as any human’s. The Department lawyers kept that part to themselves. You weren’t supposed to know what went on during the sessions, after all. The MetZep drugs were supposed to suppress your consciousness. Trading a cut and dry death sentence for a five year contract was too ridiculously good to be true. I should have known it. After a week in the program, I’d pulled off my fingernails, driven a car off the 59th Street bridge, eaten human flesh and shot a dog.
Then I got stolen.
I was Listed, and chipped. But IToldYourGirlfriend999 was not only a perfectionist, she was a genius. I’d been rented for three whole days to give her a head start. Everything had been planned, right down to hair dye, new fingerprints, and open-heart surgery in a bathroom at Grand Central Station. Using a duct-taped mirror and a scalpel, she removed the chip from my right ventricle in less than three minutes and managed not to kill me. We spent a month trafficking organs across Europe and Africa before agents caught up to us in St. Petersburg. When they swarmed us, I was sure they would just pull the trigger. I was Listed and the Kill On Sight bulletin had undoubtedly gone out. But they did a forced purge right there on the stony bank of the Neva and brought me back to the US.
The director told me it was a message to the arc-phens: Don’t steal government property.
I didn’t know what happened to IToldYourGirlfriend999. I wondered if arc-phens went the same place we did when they died. I wondered if either of us really went anywhere at all.
Regaining control of my body was a blessing and a curse after that. It had been too long. I’d been drugged for weeks, I’d done terrible things. Corpse raiding was a disgusting field of work, but it was the dog I couldn’t stop thinking about – the one I’d shot in Washington Square Park.
I had a nervous breakdown.
“I want out. I want to quit the program,” I’d told the director when I was lucid again.
From the way he looked at me, I knew he’d heard it a hundred times. “You know what quitting means.” He opened a desk drawer and handed me a small plastic bag printed with blue and green medical jargon. The disposable syringe inside was tiny.
I took it home. I put it away and dug it back out again. I thought about it. Who hasn’t? But I’d come too far from scrounging pennies to buy cereal in Big D to give up now. I’d put myself through school. I was no Cal Tech protege, but I’d landed a decent job at Clonique after graduation and jumped ship to EnCryptagion when they’d beckoned. Yes, my hands shook and I’d gone bat shit crazy over the golden retriever incident. But I had something to go back to after this was over. I had a future.
BetaLife in Basel had offered to grant me a haven when my circumstances allowed. They had taken the next step in arc-phen relations last summer and offered permanent transfer to flesh. I’d been EnCryptagion’s consultant to their development team. I worked for them now as a part-time freelance specialist via the internet on their new project: human awareness transfer.
I’m over it, that’s what I told myself about those three days I’d broken down and lost any sense of reality. The world went black for a minute, but I’m still here. Everything’s okay now. I’m going to make it. I can handle it. But I couldn’t stand to see old friends. I didn’t leave my apartment unless it was for a session. The syringe hovered at the edge of my thoughts. I bought vodka and listened to the Requiem, and wondered if I would know it was happening when the rest of my mind went to pieces.
A few days after my date with Mozart, BlackMagusDelphi34 took me to a BDSM club in Red Hook and cruised all the leather lesbians. I arrived home at 4am crisscrossed with deep welts. It was a minor infraction of my No Maiming clause, but I’d filed for an injunction against Black Magus just the same. The director had balked, but I pointed out that whichever arc-phens rented me next wouldn’t be getting their full TIF-mins’ worth, and I didn’t peddle a crap product. He’d had to agree. I looked like shit and felt worse. He gave me two days off. Medical leave. So I went home.
Lurking near the door to my building was a big man in a trench coat and baseball cap. He’d been stalking me since I got Listed and had Government written all over him. I used to think he was a cop with a misplaced grudge. But then he’d started hinting that he wanted to get to know me. I never gave in. He gave me the creeps.
“What happened to you?” he demanded.
“Hey!” He caught my arm. He’d never touched me before and it hurt.
“Do you know who I am?”
He looked sheepish. “Yeah.”
Of course you do, my video still rates worship status online. The footage from the elevator only showed the back of my head, but anyone with enough clearance could dig up my name. And address. “Then you know better than to touch me.”
He let go. “How come you never bring anyone here? No friends, family?”
I was incredulous. “Are you kidding?”
A cannon ball landed in the pit of my stomach and I wondered if the Department suspected my immunity to the MetZeps. Had I done something to give myself away? I’d alienated myself, but surely I wasn’t the only org-av who’d done that. I couldn’t stand to be with people who’d known me before I’d become an avatar. I couldn’t stand the way they looked at me, like I was the same person I’d always been. They expected me to act the same. To react the same. And I couldn’t. Was the Department watching me? Did they know? I told myself I was just paranoid.
But this guy had that look about him, like he’d spent the last fifteen years in a gym instead of behind a desk, and I knew something wasn’t right. He was armed. He had hard eyes that didn’t ask any questions, just like the man I’d killed at EnCryptagion. “Are you in the Company?” I asked, mimicking the term I’d heard in movies.
“But look, this isn’t official –”
“I’m under contract. You can’t touch me. What happened was a mistake.” And then I thought . . . maybe this guy isn’t for real. Anybody could lie. I wasn’t good at telling the difference. And I had two ex-husbands to prove it.
“Can I come up?”
“No.” I swiped my passcard, entered, and shut the door in his face. He caught it and swung it open before the lock clicked.
My building didn’t rate a doorman, but we had 24 hour security. The guard came around his desk in a hurry. It was Bruckman tonight. “Hey! Back off, mister! This is a secured building. I am armed and I will shoot you.”
The guy in the baseball cap showed his ID.
Bruckman looked at me and stammered.
“It’s alright,” I said, even though it wasn’t. “I thought he was faking.”
We took the elevator to the penthouse, and I noticed my companion didn’t look nervous. I was. Every time I stepped into an elevator I felt guilty.Like I might do it again. “I thought you guys only worked overseas.”
“My name is John. I worked with Danny Greenberg.”
Revenge, then. My eyes trekked over his frame. The trench coat hid a lot, but judging by his muscled neck I doubted I could take him. “I’m sorry about your friend. Like I said, it was an accident. I’d known Mrs. Chung for years. I mean, not personally, but I’d seen her around. I didn’t understand what was happening.”
“It was my fault.”
The doors to the elevator slid open.
“You were working early,” he said. “I didn’t expect you. You’d only left a couple of hours earlier.”
That night I’d taken a break around 2am. Dinner. I’d showered at home and eaten Thai food at the ‘round the clock joint down the street from my building. The moon had been full. That was the last time anything had looked beautiful. Nothing was the same after I killed Danny Greenberg and got Listed, the light went out of me and everything else seemed changed. Like a fool, I had looked up at that big glowing globe on the way back to work that night and promised myself that there was still love in the world. Somewhere.
I crossed the vestibule and slid my passcard into the lock. We entered my apartment and John looked around, taking in its retro industrial chicness. He looked surprised, but I wasn’t sure why. It could have been the lack of personal photos. My family wouldn’t talk to me anymore and I didn’t like reminders. The Department had covered up Greenberg’s death and the official story was that I’d been caught stealing information from EnCryptagion. Or maybe John was surprised that I kept the thermostat at sixty degrees and it felt ice cold. Maybe he was wondering how a biotech analyst could afford a place like this.
“I sold my patents on the Aether bridge to EnCryptagion,” I said, not wanting him to think I’d come into money the way Mrs. Chung had.
“Good thing you sold it before the arc-phens shut it down.”
“Diplomacy wasn’t my company’s strong suit.” But it wasn’t fair to blame EnCryptagion for that. It hadn’t taken the government long after the sale to recognize the bridge as a phenomenal security risk and seize it, claiming it was a port of exit and entry to the United States like the arc-phen transfer station. All true, their methods rubbed me the wrong way. I’d managed to stay on good terms with the arc-phens for two years, despite the nature of my job. The arguing bureaucrats and suits had destroyed my aura of good will and logic less than a week after they took over.
“Maybe the arc-phens didn’t like it that you gave up control.”
“I handed it over before they took it. Owning the bridge was like hiding a live dinosaur in my backyard. There was no way I’d get to keep it. Do you want something to drink?”
“I was there. Part of my job was to secure the door to the elevator bank.”
I selected two coffee pods and snapped them into the brewer. Pushed the button.
“Higher clearances take longer to block,” he said, “and I didn’t want to be in the system any longer than I had to. I thought I’d accounted for everyone with a code one passkey. I knew Davis Finchel and Carrie Morgan were home. Martin Greuber was holed up in his office, as always. Alexander Reustin was in LA. Lau Xing, still in Stockholm. I thought you had gone home. So I took a shortcut. I didn’t block your key.”
Despite what he was telling me, I laughed. Breaching EnCrytptagion’s security, even on just one door lock, was a job for an elite hacker. By the looks of him, John spent way too much time pumping iron instead of silicone to manage that feat. Or should I say, getting zapped and immersed in a vitamin-protein-AAS slurry, soldier-style. The coffee machine sputtered to life.
John grabbed me, pushing me back against my giant brass refrigerator until there wasn’t a breath of air between us. His lips wandered over my cheek and down my neck. Numbness and tingles shot through my body. I couldn’t move. To my embarrassment, I couldn’t even tell him no, and I started trembling. Blackness crowded in.
So much for being over it.
I’d gotten used to watching myself do strange things in that removed TV-like reality of arc-phen possession. IToldYourGirlfriend999 had slept around during our month on the lam. But this was different. I hadn’t been with a man while in control of my faculties since Husband Number Two had moved on to greener pastures. This wasn’t filtered through a MetZep haze. I wasn’t watching someone else’s pornographic dream starring my TV-Self and a Random Stranger. This was me.
John’s lips lingered over my ear and he whispered so quietly that I almost didn’t hear him. “They’re watching you right now. You know that.” I nodded, assuming he meant the Department, but I didn’t know why they would be. I was chipped. And the new chip was in my cerebellum. I wasn’t going anywhere without the Department knowing about it. “Friday,” he whispered. Then he let me go and left.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
April was too cold for the beach, but ThatChicFromCali took the early train to Atlantic City. We were treated to an eclectic display of junk statuary along the track and at several points across town. I’d never gambled before. We got thrown out of three casinos for suspicious winning. In spite of the name, this arc-phen felt male. He spent two hours standing in the ocean, feeling the freezing waves crash over us and listening to the sighs of the great heaving water. Silt wriggled between my toes and the sharp bite of broken shells prickled the soles of my feet. Before we slunk back to the city, he spent a good chunk of his winnings at a spa that pretended to be a Turkish bathhouse.
When he returned me, it was only ten o’clock at night and I had another session lined up to meet my quota.
30155632142 was new to me. The numbers got jumbled up in my head when I tried to remember the sequence through the MetZep gloss, so I called her Numbers. She left my clothes at the transfer station and changed into a clingy black dress, tall boots and a wool coat. We walked several long blocks up to Canal Street. Sightseeing at night could be dangerous, and I was afraid we’d get mugged. But we finally made it to a diner and ate some greasy lasagna before we took the northbound 6.
We got off at 77th. I was familiar with this part of town. Before I knew it, we were passing through the doors of Mozart’s building. George greeted us and Numbers gave him a dirty look. We got into the elevator. She jabbed the 8 button and my stomach did a little flip.
Numbers pressed my ear to Mozart’s door and listened. Not a sound. She removed a key from her coat pocket. It wasn’t as heavy, it was a copy. With a screech, the bolt slid back and we entered. Numbers locked the door behind us and went into the bedroom. I noticed the giant mirror hung above the dresser. But Numbers ignored that. She went straight for the armoire on the far wall. She opened it and removed the rear panel. Then we climbed through a secret passage into apartment 809.
Mozart’s setup was almost as complex as mine had been at my old lab. But he only had four monitors. Numbers took a seat in the swivel chair and started typing. Mozart’s passwords barely slowed her down. My attention was drawn to the leftmost screen. It showed live feeds of my apartment.
I felt sick.
“Goddamned lasagna,” Numbers muttered. She jammed a thumb drive into a slot and swapped data. “You’re gonna pay, you bastard.” Then she pulled the drive out and tucked it into my bra. The window popped up asking if we were sure we wanted to allow such and such program to make a change to the computer. Numbers punched yes. Then she replaced everything as it had been and locked up Mozart’s apartment. “Fucking snitch.”
I don’t know if it was Numbers’ uncharacteristic profanity or that she had been mean to George, but at some point I got over the fact that Mozart had been spying on me and I decided to warn him. Besides, she’d broken my No Crime clause.
White roses graced a cut-crystal vase. Each bloom was bigger than Rogers’ fist, petals thick and waxy. I’d sealed my encrypted note in a red parchment envelope and tucked it into the middle of the arrangement. For years I had eyed the flower shop in Grand Central that sold these ridiculously expensive flowers. I bought some because I figured George couldn’t say no to them.
I smiled at him, trying to make up for Numbers’ rudeness the previous evening. I tried to make my voice sound the way it did when Mozart used it, but I lacked his confidence and it came out all nerves. “I’m not expected,” I explained.
“Mr. Maurier isn’t in, my dear,” he said with something like an apology.
“Well, that’s actually good news. I was rather afraid of interrupting . . .” George raised a brow and I couldn’t finish my sentence.
He leaned in close. “I suppose I shouldn’t tell you this, but you’re the only woman I’ve seen visit Mr. Maurier.” George smiled at me in his grandfatherly way, as if he’d just convinced my mom to let me have a kitten.
It took me about half a second to realize that George thought Mozart was physically in his apartment during my visits, and the other half to realize that he must have been lurking in the secret room every time. Or should I say, his empty body must have been stowed there. His other org-av. The equipment in 809 was complex enough – he could have built a setup similar to the transfer station. Then I wondered if he had a regular org-av or if he switched out. Apparently he used the same one often enough to maintain a very real physical presence here. Part of me felt perversely jealous. And paranoid. I wondered what he looked like. Why he watched me. Why Numbers had burned him.
I wondered if I was involved in whatever Mozart was involved in.
Paranoia is a strange beast. Friday rolled around and I was afraid to stay in my apartment because of John. I wanted to hide, to feel safe. So I went to the cinema to be near the Institute.
Three films later, it was time for my session. I pushed through the back door and cool, crisp air made me thankful to escape the oppressive butter-laden atmosphere of the theater. I jumped at every cough and honk. Every time I caught sight of a man in a baseball cap, a jolt shot through my nerves.
John was a professional. I didn’t see him at all.
His gloved hand closed around my wrist and delivered a quick shock. My knees wobbled as John dragged me down the street and loudly berated me for being drunk again. By the time we arrived at his vehicle, which he’d stashed in an alley, the stun was wearing off.
But nothing I did took him by surprise. And I tried everything. He never lost control, not even for a moment. He gagged me and tied my wrists. Then he pushed me into the cargo bay and slammed the door. I ate a large dish of crow as I revisited my derisive opinion of government training methods. VR and steroids had just kicked my ass.
John kept telling me not to be frightened as we cruised in the dirty work van up FDR.
“I knew DiversiFine was hacking EnCryptagion,” he said as he wove through traffic. “I used to contract for them before I started taking jobs for the CIA. I blew the whistle three days ago when they got too close to your data on the footbridge. Yeah, I know you encrypted it, but any code can be broken. I had to burn it out.”
Footbridge? I liked that better than trap door. So much for it being a secret.
We pulled into a parking garage. John opened the van’s side door and looked down at me. My wrists stung from the plastic ties. He shrugged out of the trench coat and pulled off the cap. The change in his appearance was remarkable, he went from creep to regular guy in about three seconds. “I need you to make this work.” He pulled the gag out of my mouth.
“What are we doing?”
“Fleeing the country. And DiversiFine.”
He cut my ties with a short blade. “Because it won’t be long before they figure out your mind’s the last place to find the secret of the footbridge. And I can’t protect you here.”
At the sight of him standing over me with a knife, my hand went reflexively to the back of my skull, covering my chip. Brain surgery in a parking garage? “John . . .” I tried to sound convincing, but I couldn’t even get to the part where I begged him not to do it.
“Come on,” he said as he folded the knife and tucked it into his jeans.
We walked around the block and I realized we were nowhere near an airport or pier. We entered Mozart’s building. George greeted us with a friendly ‘good evening’ and I played along. We took the elevator to 807. John rushed me through the door, through the bedroom and through the armoire to 809. He flipped a lot of switches and sat in the chair.
“You know an arc-phen smoked this equipment, right?”
He sighed. “I got your message.”
“You got my message?”
He glanced up. “You hadn’t figured me out yet?”
Well, no. I hadn’t. I’d been too caught up in weighing my future against the tiny green syringe in my kitchen drawer. I couldn’t help but think how things might’ve gone differently at my apartment if I’d known. “Why didn’t you tell me, like months ago?”
Part of the wall slid away when he touched a button, revealing a different set of machinery.
“Because I didn’t realize you were lucid when I brought you here.” He typed green words onto an empty screen. I touched his shoulder. He looked up. “Are you upset?” he asked.
“That we’ve spent the night together.”
From the look on his face I could see he was embarrassed that he hadn’t exactly been a gentleman when he’d rented me. Instead of answering, I leaned down and kissed him. I didn’t linger, and when I straightened up I realized what was going on.
The computer setup in the room was a decoy. The setup hidden in the wall mimicked my lab at EnCryptagion in every way. Mozart-John didn’t just have his own arc-phen transfer station, he had built my footbridge. I had access to the Aether.
Green numbers appeared in a long broken string as he typed. The end sequence was familiar. I knew where we were going.
BetaLife’s ultimate goal was to figure out how to transfer human awareness from one body to another. Keep us alive a little longer. They thought arc-phens could help with that, and they were right of course. My expeditions into the Aether had proven that human consciousness could exist independently, with only a minimal tether to flesh, and the arc-phens understood how that worked better than anyone. Our research was going well.
But I didn’t realize until this moment that they planned for me to be the first human to fully manifest inside someone else’s body. I was about to be the guinea pig for one heck of an experiment.
As that sank in, I noticed the explosives lining the hollow in the wall. John entered a code on a small black box attached to them and a diode turned red. “What’s happening?” I asked.
“I’m taking you through the Aether to BetaLife. A virus will wipe the drives. Then a little plastic will melt everything. Including these bodies.” He saw my horror. “Look this is the only way I can get you out of here. This org-av I’ve been using is a burn out. He doesn’t have a mind of his own. And no big explosion. No raging fire. It’ll be contained. I need the key to the footbridge.”
John took my hand. “Your chip’s alarm has gone off and soldiers will find us any moment.”
“But I’ve never missed a session.” The Department wouldn’t be after me yet.
“You’re KOS short-listed, didn’t you know? The bulletin went out five minutes after you didn’t show up for your session.” He punched some keys on the other computer and a government database site, the List, came up. The flashing red box behind my name meant I was an active target. Kill on sight. John rubbed his thumb over my fingers.
I didn’t know if I could trust him. I wanted to, but I had to swallow to find my voice. “It’s the stretto in the dona nobis pacem chorus. Mass in B minor.”
I laughed at his surprise and shrugged. “Would you have guessed it?”
He shook his head, looking a little jealous as he grinned. “No.”
We arced into the Aether and transferred to flesh in Basel, Switzerland. I’d never let my body completely go before, and I think I shook hands with madness. I figured I would feel its destruction when the plastic blew, but I didn’t. My new body felt awkward, yet it was also comfortable and lithe. She had drowned in an accident and her brain had been reconstructed over the last few months just for me. After four hours of observation, the scientists at BetaLife pronounced my transfer a success, and let me have a few minutes to myself.
But I had trouble adjusting to my new body. Trouble sleeping, night terrors. After a week, Mozart-John-Berend Ehrlichmann convinced me to move into his apartment in the personnel wing of the BetaLife compound, and waking up to him instead of the machinery in the medical observation lab helped me feel more settled.
I soon discovered the arc-phens had rescued me in order to enlist me as their ambassador. It was an odd position that I didn’t know how to embrace. I was no politician. I had a new identity, so I wasn’t sure if I was still technically a fugitive in the United States. My body, my US citizen body, was dead. I watched it burn on the news.
Over the next few months, our research and diplomacy hit several breakthroughs and hiccups, as such things are wont to do. The UN recognized the Aether as a nation and its citizens were accorded rights. DiversiFine figured out who I was and tried to data mine my mind for the secret of the footbridge. The Swiss government stood by us when a bunch of religious nuts tried to shut down BetaLife and brand the arc-phens as demonic entities.
Unfortunately, we were still working on the secret to successful human awareness transfer. There were times I left my body for days and no one knew where I went or why it happened. Or how.
Sometimes I thought I might be looking for my old self.
I returned from those episodes disoriented, having been lost somewhere other than the Aether and other than here, with only fleeting memories of my journey. In spite of the setback, I was determined to embrace my new life and leap the hurdles as they came. Switzerland was my second chance. The second future that had meant so much to me. It was the dream that had kept the syringe in the drawer.
I lived in a world of cheap victories and disposable ideals. Nanosecond fame. Faked friendships and intimacy.
But some things aren’t destined to wind up as junk on the side of the road.
It took me awhile to see the difference.
I mused over this as I passed through the wintry courtyard of the BetaLife complex. A yellow disc hovered above all the steel and glass. Smoke gray clouds drifted across its face, filtering its light and obscuring the seas of Serenity and Tranquility. And for the first time in what seemed like a very long time, it was beautiful.
Like last year’s moon.