4th September 2042, 1:44 PM

The bar is small and rather empty, out of place amid the swirling holographs of the Green Line. I glance again at the entranceway, searching for whatever had caught my attention - whatever had made me crane my neck outward instead of sitting as still as I have for the past couple of days - but the unidentifiable something is gone.

The bench softens. I lean back and close my eyes and it molds itself against me, glows with synthetic warmth, massages until the tensions have worn themselves out of my neck and shoulders, and drains my credit account of $27.50; not that it matters. A few teenagers glance in my direction, eyes and minds half-focused on their VR sims; I ignore them and they fade into the crowd.

People trickle past.

The ceiling digiplane is moving: patterns play formlessly about the narrow enclosure, spinning in leisurely circles beneath the apex of the domed roof - and, I realize with a start, there is a darkness visible behind them, a projection of the actual night sky above. I jerk my eyes away, calming the tremor that has appeared in my stomach, smoothing my shirt as I push the thoughts from my mind.

Reality.

The pain evaporates. I pull myself to my feet and stroll nonchalantly into the bar, a false spring and swiftness in my step, and I order a drink and a private booth and sit, remembering.


18th August 2042, 8:48 PM

The Berrintgon Institute for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence is a firefly in the darkness. Its holograph hovers tastefully, designed to imitate a 20th-century theater facade, but a cool glow (too expensive to engineer out, apparently) belies its true nature, flickering with an intensity that speaks of unrepaired circuitry, casting green and orange shadows away in steadily dimmer circles of pattern. The clouds are glowing, faintly underlit. I shut my eyes and the afterimage lingers on my retinas.

Several deep breaths later, I am scampering up the staircase, through the great plastic doors, into the phosphorescent inner lobby. A lone secretary glares at me from behind her monitor. I wait, sitting, standing, leaning against the wall, in full lotus position, singing classical music in my head, until she rises, an hour later, and I straighten my nonexistent trenchcoat and follow her, the floor cool and soft and faintly glowing with each footfall.


18th August 2042, 9:43 PM

"Hi! Have a seat!" Henri Varenz relaxes into a semicircular plastic couch, his face jovial and fading hairily into the surrounding scenery. My unwilling jaw is forced into a smile.

"Hi." I collapse into a chair. My own face, I hope, bears the proper bored-bourgeoisie expression, my hands the proper flop to the sides. I have been preparing for this for weeks, but there is no way to tell exact facts from an MS feed; the connotations are steadily edited by a stream of inoffensiveness wizards and by the time the finished product hits the 'net it is little better than a glorified encyclopedia. He seems taken in, though, almost too easily, and I relax.

"So, what can I do for you, Mr..." - It is not visible from where I stand, but I can tell that he is checking an appointment schedule beamed onto the surface of his retinas - "...Mr. Esson? We have many choices available for people in your condition, you realize. Most victims of..."

He continues and I let him, not listening. A transparent circle at the back of my left earlobe is recording every word that passes through the air, and I am free to examine his features.

Varenz goes on about my options (nanosurgery, spinal implants, a brutal pill regimen, etc.), and I drop a not-so-subtle hint that I am, so to speak, in the money. His demeanor changes, slowly enough that I can pretend not to notice.

"And then there's by far the most permanent, most satisfactory, most revolutionary treatment. For a price, Mr. Esson, I can cure you of your disease. But more than that" - he leans towards me and lowers his voice to an energized whisper - "I can make you one of the first immortal beings to walk the face of this planet."

I feign disbelief. "Don't be ridiculous, Henri. Even if my disease could be cured, even if the telomerase limit could be breached, my body would still grow weaker with age. Eventually, the simple act of breathing would be too much of a stress."

I find myself shaking internally. This will be the toughest hurdle to cross, and if he falls for it, I'll be surprised; I would have to have been on a Martian Amish reserve for the past 15 years to have actually not heard of Fleons. The sims gave fair warning, of course - a 43% chance that he would figure it out by this point - but I do need the case, I remind myself. If I manage to see the lab, the photographs will be enough and I'll be able to slip out quietly. The case - yes, I will solve the case, and I will send the results to Alderson, whether she wants them or not.

Varenz taps a finger on the desk; it gives with a faint bluish glow. "Mr. Esson, you, like almost every American, have yet to fully grasp the implications of computer technology. Listen:" And he proceeds to explain, in a summarily oversimplified manner, the mechanics of Fleon history.

In 2026, a lifeboat was constructed for the mind of Ms. Samantha H. Fleon. S. H. Fleon, 58-year-old computer scientist, chief architect of the metaVR explosion of the '00s (libertarian revolutionary? Quite possibly), feminist, agnostic, undisputed scientific genius. A digital model of her cancer-eaten brain was etched not directly in circuitry, but in the mechanics of a piece of software that, when running, would emulate the workings of her true, flesh-and-blood brain down to the sub-neuron level. The model, ostensibly running on a supercomputer (and physically divided among 50,000 data nodes worldwide), would be connected to her still-healthy body through a cranial implant (the technology to splice nerve endings effectively was nearing completion) in much the same way that the receiver of a 20th century cordless phone connects to its base. The creation of the software model would require the removal of her organic brain and its analysis -- would require, therefore, its destruction.

To Fleon, the change of medium from carbon to silicon was not so much an exotic, high-tech move of desperation as an escape from the infirmities of the flesh. She had lived most of her life immersed in informational technology - and, less pleasantly, medical technology - and it seemed appropriate that she should one day return to it in the most physical sense possible.

Most scientists, long used to sidestepping sticky philosophical issues, took the affair in stride; the media, on the other hand, had a field day. Perhaps the defining event of the late '20s was the widespread outrage that erupted over the 'murder' of an American icon, and, later, over the Supreme Court's acquittal of her 'murderers', the Berrington Corporation.

By the thirties, though, 'mind-models' (now dubbed Fleons) were becoming less avant-garde. A silicon consciousness, unlike an organic one, could easily be moved from an old ailing body to a sparkling new artificial one - the software not having been in either body to begin with - and anyone with money could achieve relative immortality 'in the flesh' through the transmigration of their minds into software. As organ synthesis increased in safety and efficiency, Fleon technology expanded to encompass first everyone with a brain disorder, then everyone with any disorder, and each aristocrat in America soon had themselves copied to a Fleon of their own (although it was more like transferred, as their organic brains, like Samantha Fleon's, had to be destroyed in the process). As nanotechnology improved, only Christian fundamentalists clung to the outdated definition of person as a specific collection of organic molecules.

In 2038, Henri Varenz discovered a new use of Fleons: an opportunity for infertile couples to produce children, or, rather, a loophole. Manipulation of human DNA, for whatever reason, had been prohibited in the U.S. since 2009, but the law was loosely enforced; the real blockade can be traced to 1998's preemptive outlaw of human cloning. Although a baby could, under law, be built from the ground up, using synthetic DNA unbound to a living human, one could not be produced via techniques combining two existing DNA strands - for example, the DNA strands of two would-be parents - into a single strand with a gene sequence roughly between the two originals (a better option, obviously, for people wanting a child 'of their own'). This was considered producing a clone, albeit one of two different people at once, and so was righteously opposed by congress.

Merely predicting the DNA that would result from such a procedure, however, was perfectly legal. The prediction could be examined, and a mind could be 'grown' electronically to the imaginary genome's specifications, receiving stimuli from a computerized world, until it was mature enough to be put in control of a physical body, similarly grown - that is, turned into a Fleon. 'Mature enough' could mean anything from having the number of neurons required to shake spastically to having a complete understanding of the universe; most parents, it was expected, would release their child into the world somewhere around it's tenth subjective year (the maturation process would take only about two weeks, real-time). The market, needless to say, was huge, and relatively untapped.

The first, highly publicized 'virtual parents' were Richard and Juliet Alderson, my current clients. Their story was sold to ViaWarner for $180 million; it was to be kept under wraps until the development of their son, Bernard, was complete.

His development was, of course, to be normal - psychologically and physically, nothing could go wrong. The mental variables were coordinated by computer and altered if signs of instability became present, and by the third day of his development he was a moderate copy of his parents, as a biological child would be. His physical body would be grown in a hundred different tanks, then spliced together, melded.

On June 14, 2042, Bernard Alderson was released into human form, into the true outside world. Five hours later, at 11:23 PM, his mind was deleted from the Berrington hive. The body was found the next morning, a pile of ashes sprawled over his computer terminal. It had been incinerated by the cleaning robots.


3rd July 2042, 4:58 AM

"It was murder."

I can see a face glowing, almost green in the darkness of my apartment; rather, it is the screen that glows, and the face shines with it. A business card pings into existence in front of me.

"I see," I muse, sliding my hand towards disconnect. My ad is targetted, and I get a few calls like this each month. Still, I can never bring myself to hang up immediately.

"You're Esson, right?"

My eyes are leaden. "Listen, why don't you call me tomorrow, and we can talk. Take my business card." My apartment sends it to him.

His stares at his watch and his demeanor shatters; I can see the realization of the time of night spread across his face, the black eyebrows fall, the thin lips stretch inwards out of the position of urgency that they have occupied. "Oh, very sorry," he mouths, and lunges for disconnect. The subtitled words appear, white-lettered, at the bottom of the blackened screen.


3rd July 2042, 10:26 AM

I awake.

Barely.

The advent of needle-free bloodwork has opened the door to painless chemical alarm clocks, but there are a few days each month during which I must forgo them, simply to avoid developing a tolerance to my usual synthetic concoction.

I stumble out of bed, punch up a caffeine-laced milkshake, and fall back into the covers while it pours.

It was Murder!

Where did that come from?

The events of the previous night twist gradually into focus; I brush them away and struggle to concentrate on the milkshake. Still - was the man truly a nutcase? I glance at the gentle reminder of my financial state that the apartment places, albatross-like, atop the calendar, and the thought of ignoring the caller vanishes. I glance at his business card - simple black letters:

Cyrex Corp.
Richard Alderson
CEO

Why should he call me?

I possess a healthy amount of paranoia; it is either a product of being a detective or a prerequisite for surviving as one. The only reason a CEO might call me for a case would be the tag attached to my 'net ad: Specializing in Fleons.


3rd July 2042, 11:05 AM

My apartment has done some research.

The Aldersons are middle-aged and infertile. They both have large numbers of reproductive problems that might be treatable in isolation but together have eluded the medical advances of the past century. They have, together, visited over 30 doctors. They have tried organ replacement, gene splicing, nanochemonology, acupuncture.

It is apparent that the urge of these people to parent a child is more than slight.

The couple has been seeing Varenz regularly for four years now, about twice a week.


3rd July 2042, 1:34 PM

Juliet Alderson stirs her Coke, the ice cubes knocking faintly against the waxed container sides, tips it, pours the mixture down her throat. I can see her glance up as I approach, then quickly cast her gaze back to the wood-grained tabletop. I pull up a chair and sit.

"You're Esson, I assume." The voice that emanates from Alderson's hunched figure is surprisingly strong, and I answer too quickly. "Yes; yes, I am."

She tells me the story of her son's death. She is not a nutcase. I decide to be frank.

"Ms. Alderson. There are a few possibilities here, the first being that, as you suggest, somebody hacked into the Berrington hive, and, for whatever reason, wiped your son's mind directly." I keep my voice flat. "There are a number of problems with this, but it remains our best option. Another possibility is that one of the staffers on the project wiped it. This would eliminate the need to assume a security breach, but the morale at Berrington is. . ."

I continue, feeling the dry language peel from my lips, helpless to produce the torrent of professional sympathy that should be pouring into the air. I feel the emotion, but it simply does not register on my face or in my inflection; I should fake it, but have never been able to do so.

I finish listing the alternatives (five in all, the last three inconsequential), and explain blandly that they are in order of decreasing probability. She is still.

"So. My fee - "

But she is leaving, gathering her things, high heels clicking the floor. Her drink stares at me across the table.


16th August 2042, 1:18 AM

I have tracked down the loose ends.

The project is unknown outside of a group of twenty scientists, and, in any case, Berrington has such high security that Fleon herself couldn't have hacked in. Only a few members of the staff currently have any sort of access to the hive, and none have access to the file - none, including Varenz, the project head.

After his awakening, the only person with access to Bernard's file was Bernard himself.

Was Bernard himself.

But he couldn't have committed suicide; his computer-controlled genesis prevented any psychological disorder.

Any disorder, apart from one deliberately created by the staff.

If Varenz had had access before Bernard was released, it would have been relatively easy for him to implant a few flaws in the file, flaws that could develop into some sort of psychiatric condition. I spend the afternoon searching for information on the Berrington's access history, and it fits: Varenz - and Varenz alone - had been authorized to make changes in the file. Despite the lack of motive, I am forced to the conclusion that blame lies with him.


18th August 2042, 9:46 PM

"And, then, of course, we have our latest development, the 'digital baby', as I like to call it." Varenz appears slightly nervous, although that is likely a product of my own imaginings. "Untested, as yet." He describes the process, then turns from the computer screen with an air of finality. "Now: Would you care to see the lab?"

Easy! It was easy! I follow cautiously, the soft walls not echoing with our footsteps, the plain white door not creaking as it opens inwards. The Lab...

It is small - a computer terminal, a chair, a nanoOperator that appears fairly standard to my untrained eye. I am nonchalant in my request for coffee. Varenz disappears into the lobby to retrieve some, and I lunge for the terminal, my fingers thumbing the keyboard with maniacal intensity. The photographs click inaudibly from the camera and I am finished long before he reenters.

I suddenly realize the time, apologize, and make my way from the building as quickly as socially possible. I can think of almost nothing other than the pictures waiting on my apartment screen to be analyzed.


19th August 2042, 9:18 AM

Another day, another fruit-flavored beverage.

I down the concoction with slightly grimacing countenance; its sickly sweetness barely masks the taste of vitamins.

The liquid slides gooily down my throat. I rub my eyes.

Nothing.

It is the last thing that I expected. Now that I have eliminated the impossible, the improbable is, of course, all that remains - but the pictures on the screen have just rendered the only remaining improbable impossible: Varenz did not interfere.

There have been no changes made to Bernard's since the initial error-weeding program operated over a year ago - no changes of any kind, much less the huge, glaringly obvious ones that could construct so anti-Darwinian a structure as sucidilism. I set the screen on project and the green text seems to hover a foot in front of my face; it wavers as a realization floods across my synapses:

Bernard Alderson was sane when he committed suicide.

One of the few things that can cause a sane person to end his life is unyielding pain.

And I think suddenly of the unyielding pain of helplessness.

And the million pieces click together with the force of a falling skyscraper.


For the first subjective decade of his life, Bernard Alderson existed only on silicon. Every thought that he had, every action that he resolved to take, was instantly and effortlessly set into the computerized universe. He had no senses; he had no need of them - his will acted directly upon the world, without middlemen, without mediation.

Throughout those first ten years, he looked forward in anticipation to his eventual release from what he was continuously told was his prison. The single most highly anticipated event of his life was his 'awakening' to the wonders of reality, and when that transition finally arrived, it was crushing:

For reality was untouchable.

For he now had to use senses, biological middlemen that prevented the true interaction that he had expected, the interaction that no natural-born human can ever know. Senses were barriers, turning reality, a mystical place impressed upon him as far better than any artificial world, a location that had been his life's overwhelming goal and anticipation, into an organic prison.

Trapped, his illusion shattered, he had sought the only way out.


19th August 2042, 9:18 AM

I should be euphoric; I'm always euphoric with the solution to a case fresh in my mind. This time, though, it is subtly different; I can sense a darker consequence of the realization, a corollary of my just-uncovered theorem that still eludes me.

It does not escape long.

Now that I have thought of the senses as middlemen, I can think of them in no other way. I can never again see the world around me, or touch it, or hear it. I am trapped, just as Bernard was, in an unreachable universe.

Maybe it is fitting.


1:44 PM, 4th September 2042

I sent the results to the Aldersons; either they dismissed them as the work of a crackpot or they are too shocked to react. In any case, I have received no reply.

Perhaps they have fallen into the same trap as myself.

I stand, stretching, as the plastic of the now-empty mug dissolves into the translucent tabletop, and pay, and exit, and make my way to the elevator, which opens with a ping. "Top," I whisper.

The doors close behind me.

The room rises, then slows, then opens, and thick air blasts into me, icicles clutching at my face and hair, and I grit my teeth at it, scream something incoherent into the unthinking black. The city lights pierce the thin edges of the darkness, pinpricks, lighting the cloud bottoms amber. I look towards them, step forward, outwards, over the textured rooftop. I do not feel the cement beneath my shoes.

The edge nears, and I find myself smiling, grinning, laughing into the wind. The menagerie of light and color dances around me and I gaze downwards, through my feet, through the building, through the street below and 16,000 miles of granite.

I can see the stars beneath.

Will I?

The night whirls around me, inside me, through my face and outstretched arms.

I have no answers.

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