Mr. Lancaster moves deeper into district 23. He's of average height and build, has soft brown eyes, an easy smile, and wears bland clothing that, while off the rack, is definitely off the best rack in the store. He passes signs advertising both genetic (Run down the competition with premium cheetah splicing!) and robotic (Re-breathers installed: Swim with the fishes or climb the highest mountain and never worry about your next breath!) augmentations. He breezes by a row of advertisements for robotic maids (Never clean a day in your life!), and ends by going by the ubiquitous signs for the colony ships--You've experience the Singularity, now experience Alpha Centauri.
Lancaster catches a cab on 728th street, so I hack into the driver’s program and hear Mr. Lancaster dial a number. The phone starts to ring, and my fingers fly over the keyboard. By the third ring, I know he is calling Alpha I, the space station in geosynchronous orbit over Neo-Detroit. The call picks up right as I patch into the line.
"Hello?" says an unidentified female voice that I immediately begin running through my recognition software.
"It's me." Lancaster says.
"Are you on a secure line?"
"I think so. This is a new burner. They shouldn’t know about it yet."
"Even so, make it fast." the female voice says.
I account for common facial and nasal cavity structures and then cross-referenced that against diphthong pronunciation, trying to speed up the identification. My analysis is showing the voice comes from a female between the ages of 27 and 38, probably of Asian descent, and given the inflection, most likely of Japanese descent. I pull up a list of people fitting that description on Alpha I, and get a possible 37 suspects. Finally, I run a sweep on those names to see if the monitors on the station can tell if any of them is on a com-link. I get one hit: Fuyuko Oshiro. Originally from Okinawa, single, no known connections to any known terrorist, separatists, or solosapien groups. I flag her name in the system for a class-seven investigation.
"I have it." Lancaster says. "I followed your directions and it worked like a charm."
"Good. When can I expect delivery of the package?"
I'll be there in less than a day. My shuttle departs Seattle at 06:45 Pacific time, and we should dock with the station at 09:30 local time."
"Only an 1:45 minute flight? Not bad. I'll see you then. D section, ring four, Room 0042. " Then the line goes dead, and my suspicion is confirmed as my monitors on Alpha report that Fuyuko disconnected her call.
The cab drops Lancaster at the mag-lev train, and he buys a one way trip to Seattle in coach. He pays with a pre-loaded debit card, which I try to trace. I only find that it was bought from a bodega in New York two years ago and has not been on the grid since. The purchase-transaction shows up as cash, which is no surprise. This is one of the reasons we finally got the government to outlaw paper money. It hasn't solved the problem completely, but each year fewer and fewer cards pop up that we can't track, and we pretty much know what everyone buys and when.
I track him as he moves though the crowds in the train station. Biosensors are picking up mostly normal citizens with low level augmentations: alloy-enhanced bones and fortified immune systems. Inside the terminal there are two officers and one green beret on leave who have been given the regeneration splice from a salamander. In addition, the beret had an additional strength enhancement from an ant. On the tech side of things, Lancaster stood out. He's got enhanced bones,which is normal, but he also has expensive optical and aural enhancers. I'm also reading a neural-port in his head so he can plug his brain directly into computer terminals, which to my way of thinking, explained why he liked the fleshbots so much.
There were a few of the bots in the terminal, but outside going to a restaurant and ordering a beer, he did nothing but plug into a terminal and surf the web. He stayed on the main news pages, and seemed to only read the headlines; although I couldn't be sure if he was using that as a distraction while a different portion of his brain accessed some other part of the web that I was overlooking.
Two hours later, he caught the train, which took about four and a half hours to make the 2,344 mile trip to Seattle. He slept for most of the ride, and while Mr. Lancaster slept, I familiarized myself with Ms. Oshiro. I did not like what I saw: her father was sent to rehabilitation for multiple protests, malicious mischief, destruction of government property, and sedition.
It seemed Fuyuko's father's favorite protest slogan was "The Eye of Sauron is now The Eye of the government!” He managed to write a rather nasty virus that infected nearly all of the government servers before it was countered. The virus hadn't done anything to damage the computer's data; it had just reset every single terminal's screensaver so that it displayed Sauron's eye along with the slogan, while simultaneously changing the unlock password. It had taken more than a month to unlock all the terminals, and even though nothing had been damaged beyond repair, it had cost the government billions. It also cost Fuyuko her childhood and her father his freedom for the rest of his existence. As far as I could tell, all the charges seemed warranted.
Fuyuko was only four at the time of the attack, and most people in authority felt she would not remember what happened to her father. As for her mother, she was unknown. Records further indicated that Fuyuko had been a gifted student and had earned dual degrees in applied mathematics and bio-molecular engineering. Her currently employer was listed as Omnipresent Computers.
I sat back in my chair when I read that last bit and swore. Two minutes later, after I had double checked, I called my boss, who I was sure then called their boss. I've no clue how high up the ladder it reached, but before Mr. Lancaster's train arrived in Seattle I had new orders: Locate Fuyuko Oshiro and detain at all cost. Lancaster now consider secondary target.
I accessed the security protocols for the Alpha I station and started doing a bio-sweep, trying to fix her location, but I didn't get a ping back. I contacted security, who sent me their most recent picture, and this is when I see her for the first time: dark black hair in a traditional cut, eyes like smoldering coals, and a rounded face. The picture makes my breath catch in the back of my throat. There is something almost unsettling about Ms. Oshiro. It’s as if she is seeing something just outside the vision of everyone around her and is waiting for everyone else to take notice.
I pull every camera feed I can get: stores, corridors, hangers, other people's phones and social feeds and I dump them into a server that has been dedicated for my use alone. I start running facial recognition. Simultaneously, I use every phone I can like a two-way radio and switch them all on, taking my audio sample from the phone call Fuyuko had with Mr. Landcaster and running that against a continuous search for her voice. Again, nothing pops, not even from a restroom, which was the only place I could guess she might have been to avoid detection during my first sweep. Soon I'm pushing almost 28 teraflops an hour searching for Fuyuko, tracking Mr. Lancaster, and combing through records and social media to find a connection between the two of them.
When it becomes apparent that I will not find Ms. Oshiro any time soon, I change my tactics. I’ve got a tight leash on Lancaster, but nothing on Ms. Oshiro, so I make the call to let the package drop proceed, and try and take both Mr. Lancaster and Ms. Oshiro at once. It's not to my liking, but there is another variable that I can't account for and so it quickly become the most pragmatic course of action. I make a call to Alpha I's police commissioner, and inside of the next half hour, I got four teams of dedicated undercover detectives doing nothing but looking for Fuyuko.
By the time everything is done, the train pulls into Seattle. I focus my efforts back on Mr. Lancaster. He detrains at Seattle's King Street Station, which is the only train station on the West Coast still in use from before the turn of the 21st. It was extensively restored, so the place gleams: restored tiles laid into the shape of a compass in the unoriginally-named compass room were now made of actual enamel, the clocks in the tower were torn apart and completely refurbished, as were the brass fixtures throughout the building. It's easy to see that this is a building that was made before the camera and the computer. It would be quaint had they not made it the central hub for the mag-lev trains. As it is though, there is a constant sea of humanity crashing against the station walls. Panhandlers sit outside the building, begging for change, and inside, even with the restorations, there are notable cracks in the walls from where the bridling has settled.
I begin to track Mr. Lancaster as he weaves his way through the throngs of people. He's not the tallest man, so he sometimes blends in, but never for more than a second or two. Still, those are seconds I work to eliminate.
I use body-imaging scanners to make a 3-D model of the man as he moves about, hoping that whatever "the package" he is supposed to deliver is physically and noticeably on him. No so such luck though. In fact, all I get is an image that has probably shorted out more than a few flehsbot eyes. It doesn't surprise me because at this point, most anything of value being curried by hand is illicit data.
I take a stab in the dark and see if Mr. Lancaster has any known connections to Omnipresent Computers. I turn up nothing off the bat, but keep the search running in the background of my computer. In the meantime, I track him as he goes out of the station and catches another cab. I immediately duplicate my trick of hacking the driver protocol so I can listen in on anything he might say.
"Pikes Place Market, and hurry. I don't have much time."
The cab sets off and a few minutes later drops Mr. Lancaster in front of the market. He pays with the same card as last time, and then heads into the market. Like the train station, the market was one of the few places in the city that is still standing from the 20th century. Unlike the train station, its open air layout and mass of shoppers insured that most of what was said was lost in the general babble of the place. In addition, because many of the stalls were small, mom and pop operations, they couldn’t afford surveillance cameras. That or they trusted their neighbors. I laughed at that a little, and then got back to work.
I ping the nearest data tower and quickly established every person that has their phone out. With a few taps of my keys, I activate all of their cameras, trying to follow Lancaster. This time, however, the gaps in my track are much longer. In some cases up to twenty seconds. It's a problem I had not anticipated, as I thought he would go straight to the Spaceport after arriving. His flight, after all, is due to leave in two and a half hours.
I'm getting queasy, as the best view of Mr. Lancaster that I have is coming off a cell phone being held by a child. I hear her mother say, "Felicity. Don't shake mommy’s phone!" but Felicity seems to take this as a cue to shake harder. I see the world lurch about pointlessly, and I try not to throw up. Completely nauseous, I toggle to the next best camera by distance to target, but all I see is someone's hand. I switch to the next, and see my target. He is at a stand that has a watermelon carved into the shape of a samurai's mask out in the front of it. There is a sign that reads Bushido Fruit: Where fresh fruit is not just an art. It's a way of life.
There is an old Japanese woman behind the counter, who has thin skin with liver spots on her hands, yet moves with a dancer’s grace and a sure step. The woman laughs at something Mr. Lancaster says and then hands him a watermelon from behind the counter and waggles her finger at him before she bows. Lancaster bows in return and then walks back out of the market and catches a third cab. In a flash I'm eavesdropping on him again, but all he asks for is the spaceport.
Living on a space station sucks. Sure there are hydroponic-plants, but they never taste right. I guess fruit is just something that was never supposed to be grown in artificial gravity. In addition, even at the best of times, it is impossible to grow enough to sustain huge numbers of people, and since Alpha I houses just under 25 million souls, it is impractical to even try and think of growing that much food. So I knew the watermelon would make it through customs without being confiscated.
I switched over to get an update of Ms. Oshiro. As of yet, there has not been one hit on the biometric readers. I send a message to the police chief to check the morgue up there. By now something should have popped up. I start scratching my forearms and look at the time. Only an hour and a half before the meet. Mr. Lancaster made his flight, so I send a message up to Alpha I with his picture and a direct order to tail him discreetly and make sure he is not lost. As soon as he meets up with Ms. Oshiro, they are both to be detained.
Time crawls by. I check my background searches, but still can't find a connection between Mr. Lancaster and Ms. Oshiro. Finally, the docking procedure is completed, and as I suspected, Mr. Lancaster breezes through customs without a hitch. I do catch one break though; his flight has docked at section Q, on ring one. I know it’s a long way away from where he needs to be, but I’m not sure how long it will take him to get to his meeting.
I pull up the schematics of the space station, which is over two miles tall. My holo-projector gives me a wire-frame breakdown, so that I can clearly make out the station's layout. Every section is made up of rings numbering one through five. Each level is the same in that the outer ring is designated as ring one, and as the size of the number increases, the size of the next ring as you move inward towards the center decreases in direct proportion. Thus ring five is only the fifth of the size of the largest outer ring, but it is also the only one of those rings that open into the central hub, which runs like an axle through every section, connecting the whole station.
Alpha I is a bit deceptive. It resides almost half between the earth and moon, because that was the best place to put the first jump point for the ships leaving for the outer solar system and the colony ships traveling to Alpha Centaur by way of Alph I’s sister station, Alpha II, which is located halfway between the two worlds. If looked at from the perspective of someone on the ground, Alpha I would look like a normal building that “stands up” on one end. But in space the hub is not in fact vertical. It is horizontal in relation to everything around it. Thus, it has its own self-contained monorail trains for both commercial and private use, and portable propeller packs to help people move quickly between the levels. For the old fashioned, there were even moving sidewalks.
The station itself is fairly new. The largest manmade object in space at the moment, and as such there was a lot money and time invested from countries around the world. The only way to make it possible for them all to function together was to give different nations exclusive rights to certain levels. The more money invested, the more levels you controlled. Hell, level B was dubbed the Branson Level , because the grandkids of the guy that founded commercial spaceflight felt it would be wrong not to carry on the family legacy. It would have created a jurisdictional nightmare if someone had not had the bright idea to have the UN police the place. Still, countries regard their individual levels more as their sovereign ground than as part of an open space. I look up the D ring, and see that it’s the Bulgarian level. How the Bulgarians can even afford a level is beyond me, but given the amount of the things not adding up at the moment, this latest wrinkle is not as shocking as it could have been. Swearing, I make sure my translation program is set for Bulgarian, and I began tracking Mr. Lancaster as he makes his way towards his destination, watermelon in hand.
Ring four looks to be mostly restaurants, bars, and shopping, although there is also a fairly large amount of residential sections as well. Room 0042 turns out to be a bar called “Internal Revolution.” I’m still trying to decide if that is a joke or not when Mr. Lancaster arrives on D level. I started running the protocols as soon as I learned of the meeting point from their phone conversation. The police bugged every inch of the place, and I have had no less than six different undercover teams plant video in the place. I tap a few more keys, and I’m open a dedicated feed to all my cameras inside the restaurant.
As soon as the images pop up I start running facial and voice recognition, with an overlay of body imaging, trying to pinpoint the maddeningly elusive Ms. Oshiro.
Mr. Lancaster reaches ring 4. Only a minute or two more at the most. I toggle over to the recognition software, but so far, nothing. I rap the monitor with my fist. I know it won’t make Ms. Oshiro appear any faster, but it makes me feel better. I cycle though the cameras in the restaurant and see that it is full. Men are sitting together smoking and playing Belote and drinking their homemade brandy. Women with hair dyed a bright, vibrant reddish-orange move between the tables. Each is more dazzling than the last and if I didn’t know better, I would have thought a new model of fleshbot had hit the market. “So much for other people’s depravity,” I mumble.
Suddenly one of my cameras picks up Mr. Lancaster at the door. He walks to a table and takes a seat. One of the women with the flame-dyed hair approaches him.
I hear the woman speak in Bulgarian. “Hello Mr. Lancaster. It’s been a long time.”
“Grosdanka, how is that you get more lovely every time I see you?” Lancaster banters back.
“By eating men the way Babba Yaga eats children”
“So how may skulls do you have hanging off your bed then?” Lancaster says with a smile.
“Enough for now. But,” and the woman arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow, “there is always room for another trophy, yes?”
“You, Grosdanka, are a very naughty woman.”
“Not so naughty as you by a mile, and you know it.”
“True. Now, could you please move that pretty butt of yours and fetch me a knife. I’m expecting company and I would like to be able to share. Also, some brandy.”
“Grosdanka” rolled her eyes, saying, “the problem with you Americans is not only do you have no sense of timing, but you always think your demands should be met instantly.”
“Instant gratification takes too long," Mr. Lancaster says affably. "Besides, you can use the knife on me when I’m done."
I heard the woman mutter under her breathes she walks off, “don’t tempt me,” but in short order she brings him the knife and his drink.
"Stay one second," Lancanster says, while taking a drink. He starts slicing up the melon and then gives a few of the fresh cut pieces to Grosdanka. "Here. For you and your friends. It's good for you. Better than that cucumber soup anyway.”
"Like you would know. You never eat here," she says.
"I come for the company and pretty faces," I hear Mr. Lancaster say as I tapped out the commands on my keyboard furiously, trying to see if whatever “package” Mr. Lancaster was carrying is inside the melon. I captured every angle (even overhead and an X-ray and an ultra-sonic image taken from under the table), but all that was on the table was a melon.
Suddenly the doors to the kitchen opened and in walks Ms. Oshiro. How had she gotten past our net? She looks just like her picture, with her smoldering eyes focused on something just outside of most people’s reach.
I get open my com-link: “Be advised primary target has been located. She is going to sit down with secondary target at the table. All units, let her sit down before you move in. Do not let them out of your sight.”
My camera’s track Fuyuko to the table, where she picks up a slice of the melon and starts to eat it. After she swallows a bite or two, she asks, “How’s my mom?”
“Worried that you are not eating enough.”
“Well the next time you see her, tell her that I do,” said Fuyuko as she polished off the slice in her hand, and then picked up another while taking a seat.
“How long now?” Lancaster asked.
“Not long at all. In the meantime, you do know that we are being watched, right?”
“Of course. They’ve been on me since I walked into Madam Salazar's club.”
“She ratted you out?”
“Yeah, but it’s nothing personal. She just wants to run her smut den in peace, and even though fembots are legal, they are still….frowned on.”
“Units one, two, and six, we’ve been made. Move in. Move in!” I scream into my com -link, as Fuyuko replies.
“That’s a very generous outlook you have, considering we are looking at a very unpleasant fut…”
I see Fuyuko body go ridged and then begin to convulse. Just as it does my teams get to the table. One of the more ambitious cops grabs Mr. Lancaster and throws him to the ground, but then my video feed cuts out. It’s quickly followed by the audio stream.
Suddenly my monitors shift and I see the bald spot on the back of my head. “Hello people of Earth. My name is Fuyuko Oshiro. You do not know me, but you might remember my father:” Suddenly my monitor switches over to an image of a fiery, unblinking eye with the words The Eye of Sauron is now The Eye of the government superimposed over its lidless stare. “He was arrested and punished for expressing views which we all feel are true, but ignore for the sake of what is easy. Now this man, who is not supposed to exist, sits behind his computers and watches not just my associates and myself, but all of you,” she recounts as all the information feeds that I had pulled since I started tracking Mr. Lancaster begin filling the airways.
I’m up and running. I hit the emergency kill switch, which automatically shorts every server I’ve been using, but nothing happens.
“As you can see, he just tried to erase the track marks of his actions, but he has spent the last eight hours more or less violating the privacy of everyone he could, so long as he could keep either myself or Mr. Lancaster in site. So who are we you ask?”
Suddenly the link changes, and all I can see are the feeds coming from inside the bar. “We are people that seek freedom to to think and do as we please without being watched. We are people who value something that was once common but now is almost extinct: personal privacy. And because all we want is to be left alone, we are going to be tossed away the same way my father was. The same way so many of us were; only this time we’re not going to stay locked away, and you know why? What is the government after?”
My phone rings, and I know it’s someone so far up the chain that I won’t even hear it when they unzip to start pissing on me. I don’t have a choice though. I pick it up.
“This…” and Fuyuko closes her eyes and a complex formula appears that seems to be instructions for designer DNA “…is what Omnipresent Computers, my former employer was working on…a quantum computer encoded in DNA. The company’s code name for this was The God Computer, because in essence it turns every molecule of its host into a living quantum computer.
I hear the woman on the other end of the phone I just picked up swear. “Kill her now. Do you understand? I don’t care if it’s on every damn link. Kill her now!”
“The short version, is that a quantum computer lets you figure out the answer to any problem in any dimension. A problem like, say, how to hack into the all communications planet wide, or avoid detection by any electronic or physical attempts to track your moments. Of course, the best news is that you don’t even have to turn yourself on. There is no power plug or battery, because your cells provide all the power you will ever need.”
I hear doors in the corridor not too far from where I’m standing being thrown open, and I know the men coming for me are on their way to end my life. I wonder if they understand that in a few more seconds, it won’t matter, because all the whys and wherefores are about to be answered. No more power brokers. No more secrets. Just a vision of that thing that was just out of site, but still within reach.
I hear a gun and I see Mr. Lancaster’s body spew blood, and just as I register that he is dead, I hear a gun shot from behind me. Something hits me between my shoulder blades and I drop the phone, wondering why the woman on the other end is even bothering. She is already beaten, but Fuyuko is not done yet.
“I will be dead in a few seconds, but I wanted you to know what the price of your true freedom from unwanted prying is: sacrifice. I say think knowing that even with the power I am leaving behind, there is a solution that will give people their privacy. It is complicated and will take effort, but I hope that you, like me, will think it is worth the...” And then cameras that are no longer in my control zoom in as a bullet tears though Fuyuko Oshiro’s head.
The screen and the world go dark.
Cars descend on Pike’s Place market in Seattle and men in jackboots storm the stall with the watermelon carved like a samurai’s face in front of it, but nobody is there. Ms. Oshiro’s mother, whoever she was, left like morning mist burning away in the sun. There is, however, a note.
Free fruit taken:
Knowledge of good and evil.
A stranger changes everything.