a thing in progress
5. OUTSIDE THE LINES (part 1)
Night sweats done, the food stalls in Soy Park were opening back up. I made up for lost time crossing the plaza before the late shift crowds returned and I walked into Loi’s shop with thirty seconds to spare and the scent of steamed shumai and fish ball curry clinging to my jacket.
Loi was at her work bench, tinkering on what looked like a very expensive, very custom cyber hand. It was Ferrari sleek and skeletal, matte black with two opposable thumbs. Each finger housed what looked like half a dozen micro tools, including titanium scalpels and at least one cutting laser; a prosthetic for a brain surgeon or a micro-robotics machinist. Not occupations I associated with anyone in this district.
A cousin from my Chinese uncle’s side, Loi was small and round in a plump Han way, with a bowl of purple-dyed hair over fair skin. I had inherited my Malaysian mother’s darker complexion and racing hound leanness, and kept my hair buzzed and black.
“Looks complicated,” I said. “What is that?”
“You’re late and you smell,” she snapped.
“I’m always late and everything smells in this neighborhood. It’s part of the charm.”
“Charm…” she snorted. “Yesterday, a client said the gear she bought smelled like stinky tofu for a week.”
“At least you don’t have to go far for lunch.”
She fiddled with one of the thumb joints. “There is that.”
“So… who’s that for?”
She finished tinkering and covered the hand with a non-static cloth. “None of your business.” A sideways glance. “At least not yet, anyway.”
“Don’t worry Zek. It’s not your department.”
“What department would — never mind.” It was a stupid moment to press her on possible illegal activity.
“Exactly.” Loi made a swift but intricate gesture at the security camera above her counter. The lights dimmed. I heard the front door lock behind me. “I think you’ve finally cracked, asking me for this.”
She reached under the table and pulled out a silver faraday pouch, set it on battered lexan top.
It lay there between us. “This is serious,” I said.
“I know it’s serious. I live here, Zek. Two of the bodies were found by my apartment. But this…” She gestured at the bag. “Is crazy.” She paused, pursed her lips. “It’s suicidal.”
I couldn’t exactly disagree, but pushed on anyway. “Fat Quan says there’s another victim. An eighth one.”
“Eight?” She swore. “You sure?”
“Quan… Fat fucker. Is he sure?”
“Seemed to be.”
“You can’t trust him. Especially after –“
I cut her off. “I don’t. But I might need him.”
She waved her hand again, different gesture this time, then looked meaningfully at me. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I have no idea. But I don’t have one solid piece of evidence. Whoever is killing these people is vicious, specific, and careful. Like ‘sanitary’, careful.”
“You’re not helping. You’re saying the killer is smart, they struck again, and now you want illegal ware that could kill you. Or at least break your mind.”
“So I’ll go to prison after I’m released from the psych ward?”
“Something like that, yes.”
I set my shoulders. “I don’t have a choice.”
“You always have a choice, Zek. It’s consequences that are the problem.”
She stared at me. I stared back.
She nodded at the bag. “I can send this back. No one will ever know.”
I tried to joke away the tension. “To the shadows where it belongs?”
She didn’t smile. “To the nightmares, more like. There’s a reason only spooks and extreme corp-security have access to this, you know. You don’t bring back the dead, Zek.”
I forced more levity into my tone. I barely understood what this was and even that was enough to get me back in church after three decades. Make me pray. “You said, technically, I’m not bringing back the dead. I’m accessing memories.”
“Technically, you’re an asshole. They’re not even memories.”
“But you told me –.”
“I explained it in a way you could understand. The Neural chip connects people to the Net. It’s a modem router, not a processor. Not storage. You can’t play back people’s memories like a video – even when they’re alive. It doesn’t work like that. The Chip is just a connector. It’s a tiny, wafer-thin iPhone.”
“Leave it to Musk to put a phone in our brains.”
“Screwed us all up then fucked off to Mars. Fucking Musk.”
“Fucking Musk,” I agreed. “No good deed… So if they’re not memories what are they?”
“They are memories – sort of. They’re – – ,” She searched for the word. “Impressions. Sensations. Fragments of thoughts and emotion. Images. All nonlinear and unfiltered. It’s like being stuck in someone else’s dream.”
I thought of the crime scene pictures. The victims. “Or their nightmares, like you said.”
“Which, like I said, is why this…” she hissed as she nudged the pouch, “is restricted by international law.”
Good point, I thought. They were stacking up against me fast, those points.
end of 5a. TBC