Intellectual Property

This story was my attempt at writing some classic cyber-punk. It was published by Interzone magazine.

Intellectual Property

by Michael R. Fletcher

KAPECI, DEEP COVER NATU OPERATIVE

Dhaka, the capital of Gano Projatontri Bangladesh. With a population of thirteen million the city was a madhouse. Buses and plastic Tata Kei Cars spewed thick smoke from their struggling two cylinder aluminum engines. The heat and pollution were stifling and the cacophony of car horns relentless. This place was more than enough to drive you mad. It was dirty. It was overcrowded. It was dangerous.

I loved it.

As a deep cover agent for a Corporate Espionage Black Ops unit with a North American Trade Union charter I enjoyed a great many advantages, social and otherwise. Unfortunately NATU law didn’t apply here and I had all the political clout of any one of the city’s half-million rickshaw drivers. Maybe less. Scratch that. Definitely less.

Due to a sparsity of legal constraints Dhaka had become a hotbed of ‘grey market’ Research and Development. Officially the Pensiero Corporation’s Dhaka facility was researching advanced biological computers for medical usage. Little DNA spies looking for naughty chromosomes. Everyone born in anything better than a third world country had a biomed, me included. But Pensiero had strayed into far darker corners than those advertised in their glossy investor’s reports. They’d been purchasing children, stolen from the crush of Dhaka’s crowded streets, for use in organic computer research.

I’d infiltrated the facility. I’d seen the neat rows of shucked brains floating in their support tanks. All I had to do now was connect the dots, steal the research, and topple Pensiero. But there was a problem.

ANOMIE, PENSIERO RESEARCH SCIENTIST

My body kicked me awake with no regard for the fact that I desperately needed at least two more hours’ sleep.

Awake before the alarm. Sad.

I tried not to think about the day ahead. I tried not to think at all. Just go back to sleep.

Was it Friday?

“Thursday,” I muttered, pushing a hand through tangled blond hair.

Luckily, you are only crazy if you talk to yourself in public. As long as you do it in the privacy of your own home you’re perfectly sane. My mother’s mantra, though it was my father who talked to himself.

I surrendered to the inevitable and rolled out of bed. I’m in my mid-twenties, have never exercised a day in my life, and am petite and slender. Almost muscled for my small frame. My father always said it was good genes. I guess he would know, he picked them.

I was fat as a child. My parents, wealthy software engineers who thought they could debug me the same way they fixed code, decided to ‘cure’ me of that social embarrassment. A little recompiling of the recombinant.

They upgraded my biomed. My urges and hungers were monitored and strictly controlled. Looking at sweets made me feel ill. I could tell how many calories were in a piece of Texas-shaped-chicken-by-product by looking at it and my body wouldn’t let me eat a calorie more than it needed. My parents never understood why I didn’t thank them.

I’d happily kill them both for a chocolate truffle.

The biomed was just another step in my parents’ life-plan for their only child. Prenatal genetic manipulation came first. Then a lifetime regimen of advanced nootropic drugs, cholinergic receptors, and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. For my twentieth birthday they paid for my Memory Socket surgery. The socket wound monomolecular filaments throughout my frontal and parietal lobes, basal ganglia, and hippocampus. Memories created while a Memory Plug was inserted in the socket were scrambled and could only be accessed when that same plug was worn.

I think they saw me as a favoured investment in their portfolio.

Why would anyone want this? The socket, in combination with my education, guaranteed me a job in pretty much any cutting-edge research facility. Those software engineers certainly understood the importance of Intellectual Property Rights. They wanted everything for their daughter and pushed hard to get it.

Oh how they spoiled their baby.

I slipped into a pair of shorts and a t-shirt and padded barefoot into the kitchen. Breakfast was a single raspberry flavoured bar of seven wholesome grains [150 calories] and a cup of semi-sweetened tea with two tablespoons of 1% milk [32 calories]. My biomed ensured that I ate many small meals throughout the day. I was never quite hungry, never quite satisfied. Last week I’d managed to fight past the biomed’s programmed revulsion to buy a Snickers bar [57 grams, 271 calories] without throwing up. I had been unable to actually eat the Snickers. It still sits, calling my name in its velvet caramel voice, on the counter where I dropped it. Thinking about it made my stomach twist and my mouth water. It was confusing.

As an adult I could have had the biomed reprogrammed but a lifetime of parental programming (combined with the biomed’s more insidious Pavlovian training) fostered a deep-rooted fear of being fat. I lost sleep to nightmares of gaining weight without its constant guidance.

By 7:30am I’d laced up my hiking boots and, air-filter mask in place, was walking to work. Head down I waded through sweltering smog and poverty. I ignored the supplicating hands of beggar-urchins and the holographic advertisements which overlaid the real world in a three-dimensional assault on my senses. To the north I could see the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, the National Assembly Building of Bangladesh. From this distance it looked like an old Candu nuclear reactor.

Most mornings I travelled with the crowd, a minnow funnelled towards my destination in a river of sweating humanity. Today I fought my way upstream. A gaunt family of six ran past, stained air-filter masks in place. Mom was clutching a dead koala bear. They were being chased by another equally thin family. This was odd. Even for Dhaka.

I glanced down at the computer installed in my arm as a teen. “What the hell is going on?”

Google Interactive verified my GPS location, checked local news sources, public and private, and touched base with other GI users in the area.

“There’s a food riot,” GI told me. “The public zoo is being mobbed and animals stolen for food.”

“Seriously?”

In response it showed me pictures–uploaded from cell phones and other GI users–of rioters slaughtering zoo animals. Most of the pictures had been taken by the people doing the killing.

“The army is on the way,” GI said. “The Google Safety Recommendation is to move to a safer distance.” It suggested several routes avoiding both the mob and approaching military police. Somewhere to the east I heard the crack of small arms fire.

I arrived at Pensiero a few minutes before 8am. The guard nodded distractedly as I entered the building and approached his desk.

“Morning,” I said, stating the obvious in the way that we do.

He nodded again and pushed the retina scanner towards me. “Name.”

I answered, staring into the scanner. Then a DNA sample. Finger prints. Voice pattern and stress analyser.

“What do you call a wookie with an ass fetish?” the guard asked.

“What?”

“Just measuring neural activity.” He looked embarrassed and shrugged. “I don’t write this stuff.”

After the security hallway, which included a body search that reminded me how long I’d been single, I was allowed to enter Pensiero’s hallowed blue halls. A bored Bangladeshi woman in a Khaleeji-embroidered Abaya slid a small plastic plug through a rotating section of bomb-proof window. The plug looked remarkably like the hearing aids of the previous century.

I hesitated for a moment before inserting the plug in the Memory Socket hidden under the flesh-toned dust cover just behind my right ear. There were always rumours. I’d heard that some plugs held instructions and could tell the brain to produce and store neurotransmitters like dopamine and Gamma-AminoButyric Acid, giving the subject heightened control over their central nervous system. The thought of letting people mess with the inner workings of my mind gave me the screaming willies. My parents had done enough of that, thank you.

I frowned at the Memory Plug resting in the palm of my right hand and thought about Gamma-AminoButyric Acid which played a role in neuronal excitability and regulating muscle tone.

“GABA GABA,” I said and plugged in.

Blink.

Standing in the same blue hallway holding the plug in my left hand. A different Bangladeshi woman sat behind the bomb-proof glass, staring expectantly at me. I dropped the plug into the receiving tray and headed for home. The security gauntlet was just as demanding on the way out. Strange questions, more pokes and prods. By the time I made it out of the building I was stumbling with exhaustion. Ten hours had passed in that blink. My arms and legs ached, heavy with pooling lactic acid.

KAPECI, DEEP COVER NATU OPERATIVE

I was royally fucked.

The man I’d spent the last year ‘turning’ got greedy. It would have been bad enough had he just demanded more from me and my NATU handlers, but he wasn’t that bright. Were he one of the plug-wearing drones working in the research wing I could have simply knocked him on the head, popped his plug out, and destroyed it. One good stomp and all memory of our dealings would be gone.

Would that be that murder? I don’t think so. He would still be alive, but whatever differences existed between Plugged him and Unplugged him would be destroyed. Sure, after years of being a Plugged employee a person might become radically different than he was, but it still wasn’t murder. Right?

Unfortunately he was high enough up the food chain he didn’t wear a plug. Why this was always the case with upper management is a mystery. If anyone knew enough to be dangerous it was the old white guys at the top, the same ones who thought themselves too damned important to wear plugs.

What really pissed me off, what really got my soy-goat, was that this guy was perfect. He knew enough to sink Pensiero and he was a self-serving greedy son of a bitch. So why the hell was I surprised when the greedy bastard turned out to be untrustworthy? Apparently he figured that if he was going to sell Pensiero secrets to me, he might as well sell them to everybody. He was greedy and an idiot. Lovely combination.

The double-crossing bastard spent all of Thursday in boardroom meetings and I couldn’t get anywhere near him. It was frustrating and scary. Had he already told the other buyers about me? Hell. He’d sell me out in a second and, depending on where the opposition chose to come after me…yeah…royally fucked.

To make matters worse the greedy idiot sent a couple of his security staff to scare me with a little rude language and macho posturing. Maybe he thought I’d just give up and go away. Not my style. Instead I took a few seconds out of my busy day to beat the hell out of these two and sent them whimpering back to their boss. I wasn’t too worried this would come back to haunt me as the security personnel would unplug at the end of the day and go home wondering why they hurt so much. I sent a friendly message along with the limping goons.

“If you fuck with me I will kill you.”

ANOMIE, PENSIERO RESEARCH SCIENTIST

Thursday Evening.

I got home, kicked my shoes into the corner, changed into a pair of comfortable shorts and a t-shirt, and collapsed onto the sofa. My arms and legs were covered in dark bruises but the pain was already beginning to fade. I barely even felt stiff any more, just bone-weary exhausted. Things tingled down south and my mind wandered to the kind of subjects that told me I’d be spending time with Mister Vibrator in the near future. Unless I did something about it.

My last ‘relationship’ lasted less than three months and the sex had just started getting good. We’d finally made it past that awkward ’embarrassed about our bodies’ stage and could focus on figuring out what made each other’s eyes roll. I hadn’t even managed an orgasm in the first two months, though not for a lack of trying on his part. Sadly, it was doomed from day one.

I was working at a government-funded research facility and he worked for a Multi-National Financial Institution. Memory Plugs were a necessity for both jobs. We’d meet up each evening and try and have that conversation all couples have at the end of each day.

“How was your day?” he’d ask.

I’d shrug and laugh. “Dunno. Yours?”

“Dunno.”

If you can’t bitch about your workday, what the hell else are you going to talk about?

There were days when I’d return from work sporting bruises and he’d make fun of how clumsy I was and we’d laugh about it. And then he came home smelling of expensive perfume. I made some joke about him going to a strip club at lunch with the boys and he flatly denied it. Unlike me, he unplugged for his lunch breaks.

“Well then?” I asked.

He shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t know. I have no idea what goes on at work.” If he meant it to be a joke it fell flat.

That was it. My doubts ate at me and within a week we split up. It wasn’t just that I feared what he was up to while plugged in, I couldn’t be sure that my behaviour was any better. I’d spent the last year plugged in eight to twelve hours a day. I didn’t even know if I had friends at work. Christ, I could have been shagging someone every lunch hour and staying Plugged just to protect my Unplugged self.

How can you have a normal relationship when you don’t even know who you are most of your waking day?

That was two years ago and I hadn’t dated since. Pensiero was careful to let us out one at a time. They didn’t want us meeting up after work and having Unplugged contact. I don’t know why–put it down to corporate paranoia–it isn’t like we could talk about what went on at the office.

So here I was in Bangladesh. I’d never met any of my co-workers and I rarely went out. I made a decision.

I picked out a slinky black dress with sleeves to cover the bruises. I wasn’t going out to look for sex, I was going to find somewhere with people and music. Just expose myself–so to speak–to the attentions of the opposite sex. I found some fishnet stockings that slimmed my thighs. Yeah, yeah, at 112 pounds I understood that I didn’t really have fat thighs. When you are dealing with leftover childhood trauma the facts don’t matter. I found a bra that actually managed to give me some cleavage–it’s not about sex, I just wanted to look good–and some earrings that suited my dark eyes.

Hair up.

Different pair of shoes.

Hair down.

Another pair of shoes.

A long necklace to draw the eye to my–

Ah screw it, who was I kidding?

Google Interactive talked to my biomed to see what kind of mood I was likely in–probably noted an abundance of hormones–and suggested several dance clubs based on its findings. Most of them looked a little too scary for what was to be my first real sampling of Dhaka night-life. I scanned the list until I saw one populated mostly by other foreigners in Bangladesh on Corporate Work Visas. I left my condo and flagged down a rickshaw-bike driven by a boy who looked far too malnourished to drag me to the Club District in the Shahbag neighbourhood. Along the way GI kept suggesting alternate routes but I ignored it and let the boy take whatever route he wanted. If it cost me a few extra Euros, I didn’t much care.

The Rumpus Room was hidden on a small side-street between the University of Dhaka and the tent city that Ramna Park had become. The pristine white bathroom-tile walls echoed with the wealth, glitter, and frenzied desperation of people who weren’t sure who they really were. Women wore their hair down and men wore their collars up but I still knew the Sockets were there.

As I pushed my way through the crowd I wondered how many of these people were co-workers. At the bar I had two choices: I could order an alcoholic beverage, if I first convinced myself I had no intention of drinking it, or I could order a diet cola. My parents didn’t want me to be fat but apparently didn’t care if I died of cancer.

“Diet cola,” I told the bartender, a young Bangladeshi with lively eyes and a silk shirt hanging unbuttoned to display his chest and flat stomach.

“We’re all out of the left-handed stuff,” he said to my cleavage.

I shrugged and he passed me a luke-warm glass of flat diet cola.

“Fifteen Euros,” he told me.

Over the next few hours I danced with a few cute guys and managed to score some Afghani weed which the biomed didn’t have any problems with. My mouth felt like I’d been sucking dusty cotton swabs and my tongue was thick and dry. None of that mattered. I was dancing and I was high.

Later, after I’d taken a break and downed a few more over-priced cancer-pops, I checked Google Interactive. Most of the people here were on the GI network and were taking pictures of themselves and the people in the bar they were interested in meeting. IMs sailed about the room like biodegradable confetti at a wedding. After pointing out that, due to my limited social interaction of late it couldn’t promise its usual accuracy, GI gave me backgrounds on a few guys it thought I might like. It showed me their most recent hook-ups and the scores they’d received from previous dates. Privacy is for old people.

I had narrowed GI’s suggested selection down to three possibilities when I was pinged. No IM was attached which was a little odd and caught my attention. I checked the guy’s GI stats and was amazed to find that he had no registered information and was the oldest person in the bar by thirty years. Even GI seemed a little appalled. I was going to ignore him when I noticed his name, Gedanke Geschäft, which, if my German was correct, roughly translated as Thought Business. Pensiero meant Thought in Italian. Was there a connection? Had someone from work recognized me?

What the heck. I decided I’d talk to him and bail if he got creepy. I instructed GI not to include this in my social networking profile as I didn’t want it making the assumption I was into mysterious older men.

I found him alone at a small round table covered in empty Corona bottles. Hopefully they weren’t all his. He had a full head of dark hair but his eyes gave away his age. His suit was expensive and grey. The fingers of his right hand drummed nervously on the table top and his left hand rested on his lap under the table.

“Gedanke Geschäft?” I asked.

He snorted derisively and stared at me for a moment. It wasn’t the usual look that guys gave me, it was more like he was weighing consequences. I suddenly found myself thinking about that left hand under the table and the way he’d shifted his position as I’d approached.

“You Plugged?” he asked.

Afraid to open my mouth, I nodded. I don’t know why. Maybe I hoped I’d learn something. The Afghani weed wasn’t helping.

Gedanke finally nodded, his mind made up. “Mistakes were made. I have what you want but we have to be careful. There’s another interested party who is very dangerous.” With a start I realized he looked more than a little scared. “Contacting them had been a mistake but it’s too late now. We deal with what is. We have to move up the schedule.” Gedanke’s eyes were pleading. “You have to get me out of here.”

Oh.

Fuck.

I was way too high for this.

“Tomorrow evening,” Gedanke said. “My place.” He sent me his address, a private residence on Fular Road just south of the university. “Bring the rest of it and then I am out.”

Gedanke stood and walked away without another word. I watched him fade into the crowd. Had he slid something from his left hand into his jacket pocket?

“What the hell?” I asked the vacated chair.

I could not possibly be dumb enough to be selling Pensiero secrets. Could he have mistaken me for someone else? He hadn’t actually said anything specifically about me or Pensiero.

I lost all interest in dancing, being high, and the possibility of casual sex. I pinged the cab company for a real taxi and was home in ten minutes.

Friday Morning.

Awake before the alarm. Again. I rolled out of bed and groaned. My head felt like someone was trying to chainsaw their way through my cerebral cortex. That Afghani weed must have been laced with something potent because I could remember some pretty messed up dreams. The night was a blur of Eurotrash dance beats spiced with a hint of curry.

Gedanke Geschäft. Thought Business. Not a dream.

I walked to work and the streets were quiet and stained with the blood of yesterday’s food riot. GI kept me away from the few hot spots still smouldering with violence.

As I walked I scolded myself under my breath. “You will go to work, plug in, and get yourself out of this mess. You will not sell Pensiero secrets. You will not get me into trouble.”

It didn’t escape me that I was now talking to myself in public.

KAPECI, DEEP COVER NATU OPERATIVE

That greedy moron, calling himself Gedanke Geschäft and no doubt thinking himself clever, had contacted Anomie outside of the Pensiero facility. What had he hoped to gain? Had he known she’d be there, or was it just random chance? If only the girl hadn’t lied about being Plugged this would never have happened. Gedanke was smarter–or a whole lot dumber–than I’d thought. Perhaps he was trying to send me a message.

Well, message received.

I was going to have to kill Gedanke before he ruined everything. At best this meant starting from scratch and finding another greedy Pensiero employee to turn. More likely my cover was irreparably blown and I’d be yanked out and sent on to another job. Christ, I couldn’t do it. Two years of work flushed away in an instant. The lies. The violence. The teetering tightrope walk of corporate intrigue with a dangerous multi-national. Always alert. Always stressed over the times when it just wasn’t possible to protect myself.

I was deadly and yet strangely vulnerable.

Before the day ended Gedanke Geschäft would be dead. I decided to keep using the pseudonym because I didn’t want to think about the fact that this was a real human life. Anomie was both innocent and ignorant and Gedanke’s stupidity was going to drag her into this shit-storm. And probably get her killed.

With the NATU Spec-Ops upgrades to my biomed I had inhuman control over my adrenal glands and mental/emotional state, but thinking about the girl triggered all manner of startling reactions and memories. I could remember being that innocent and longed for a return to a simpler time.

And then it hit me. I didn’t want to do this any more. Over the last two years I had often suspected I wasn’t doing work of national security. More likely I was risking and taking lives simply to protect the interests of those at the top of the NATU food-chain.

I wanted out. Unfortunately, for my kind, the only way out was suicide.

I placed a call to Gedanke’s desk only to discover the bastard hadn’t even come to work. Most inconvenient. There was little time and a lot to arrange. I finally reached him at home and set up a lunchtime meeting.

Outside it was hot and sweaty. The street reeked of the latest bout of rotavirus-induced diseases sweeping the population of indigent children. A makeshift tent city had sprung up around the International Centre for Diarrhoea Disease and Research in an attempt to keep up with the deluge of young patients. A quick glance at a GI news report showed that over 500 people had been admitted to the ICDDR in the last 24 hours. I took the long way to avoid the worst of the stench. I needed time to plan.

Anomie, I realized sadly, was the key. I thought about setting her up as bait to draw out the opposition but it could go horrendously wrong. Who was Gedanke selling me out to? The Chinese? My EU counterparts? Whoever it was, I hoped they’d want to know what Anomie knew before they killed her. The only way they could do that was to plug her in.

It was a risky plan.

As I turned onto Fular Road I stopped suddenly, forcing a mob of denim-clad university students to veer around me with politely muttered apologies. I couldn’t kill myself. I frowned at the backs of the retreating students.

Perhaps I could get Anomie to do it for me.

ANOMIE, PENSIERO RESEARCH SCIENTIST

Another day sucked into the back-hole of employment in a cutting-edge research facility. Had I talked to this Gedanke Geschäft character and explained that I wasn’t interested in being involved in whatever he had going on?

Once home I changed into the same old shorts and t-shirt. I pulled a six ounce piece of skinless, boneless chicken breast [187 calories] from the freezer and tossed it into the sink to thaw. A prefab box of Romaine lettuce [15 calories] with a single teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil [40 calories] waited in the fridge. I wanted fries and the desire made me nauseous.

I was going to have dinner and then curl up on the sofa to watch some 3V. I was not going to meet with this mysterious Gedanke Geschäft.

I started pacing, walking and thinking out loud. “What if Plugged me is counting on Unplugged me to do something?” It was okay to talk to myself again, I was alone. “What if I am counting on me to go to this meeting?”

I checked for messages. Nothing.

If I didn’t go, I wouldn’t know if I was somehow hurting my plans, but if I did go I could tell Gedanke that I didn’t want to be involved. This could all be some colossal misunderstanding.

Though I wanted to stay out of trouble, I couldn’t deny that some part of me was excited by the thought of shady dealings and corporate espionage. Where did the law stand on this? Was Unplugged me guilty if Plugged me did something illegal? Could I be prosecuted for something I couldn’t remember doing?

I changed clothes again, laced up my hiking boots, and was out the door before reason and logic could get in the way. I couldn’t just let Plugged me make all my decisions, it was time I made some for myself. How weird was that?

While I walked I thought about what Gedanke had said. “Bring the rest and then I’m out.” I’d been too high to remember everything, but that part stuck. What was I supposed to bring? Did he think I had something of his? Did I?

The houses lining Fular Road looked strangely out of place. Turning the corner was like stepping into another world. One moment I was surrounded by buildings that jumped madly between hyper-modernity and classic middle-east architecture dating back to the Ilyas Shahi dynasty, and the next I was on a lane of English-style manors.

Gedanke’s house was large and forbidding and made of hand-laid field stones. I thought about what my 350 square foot shoebox condo cost each month and what this place must be worth.

“Please don’t be home, please don’t be home,” I whispered as I climbed the steps to the massive front door. I reached up to knock and my hand stopped. The door was ajar and I could see through the crack into a foyer decorated in black and white marble. The lights were on and the door was open.

“Hello?” I called too softly to be heard.

Nothing.

“Hello?” I tried again, slightly louder.

Still nothing.

Did this mean Gedanke was expecting me? I whispered a soft “This is stupid,” and pushed the door open. Inside smelled strongly of an aerosol disinfectant that burned the back of my throat and was both incredibly familiar and totally new.

Careful not to touch anything I slid into the foyer. In the room beyond I could see a dark leather sofa, thick carpeting, and a pair of man’s shoes, toes pointing to the sky. I froze before moving forward. Turning the corner I looked down into Gedanke’s startled face. His eyes bulged wide and I could clearly see where he’d been strangled with his own tie. The silk had cut so deep into his neck I was amazed there wasn’t more blood. Revulsion and curiosity fought for dominance. I’d never seen a corpse before and was surprised at how little fear I felt. The room was still and quiet. Hopefully whoever had done this was long gone.

“Wow, I’m taking this pretty well.” Aside from talking to myself, that is. I felt far more calm than I thought the situation warranted.

When I finally managed to drag my eyes away from the late Gedanke’s gaping neck wound I noticed the case on the table. It looked like a cross between a Samsonite briefcase and a Panzer tank and sat open.

“Walk away,” I said as I tip-toed to the case and peered inside.

For a moment words abandoned me and I stared into the open case. “It can’t be.” Forgetting that I wasn’t supposed to touch anything I reached in and removed one of the neatly stacked yellow coins. It was surprisingly heavy. The coins were blank except for a tiny 1 oz. 99.9999% stamped onto both sides.

“What is that worth?”

GI clued in that I was talking to it. “Gold is 7,000 Ameros per ounce.” It knew that I’d never become accustomed to thinking in Euros. “Based on the size of the case there are approximately 200 coins within. That puts the value of the case at around 1.4 million Ameros.” It paused for a moment. “The case itself lists for 900 Ameros in the Samsonite catalogue.”

“What does that much gold weigh?” I asked.

“Twelve and a half pounds plus the weight of the case.”

I could carry it out of here without too much effort. As I reached towards the case someone gently cleared their throat behind me. It was the kind of unhurried noise that said there was no point in making a mad dash for freedom. I turned slowly, hands held out to show I was unarmed. The Bangladeshi Police liked to shoot first, beat the corpse, and press charges after.

Two men and a tall woman stood watching me, looking for all the world like they’d been doing so for several minutes. The men had tasers drawn but held at their sides and the woman was armed with only her businesslike skirt, gorgeous shoes, and an air of command. All three were dressed in blue Pensiero Security uniforms. Hers looked like it had been custom-made by a skilled tailor in love with the female form. Suddenly I wished it had been the Police.

“So it was you,” the woman said with casual interest.

I shook my head. “No, I just got here. I didn’t–“

“Check her.”

One of the men nodded and moved forward while the other raised his taser to cover his partner.

“This really isn’t necessary,” I protested as the man patted me down with professional efficiency.

“She’s clean,” he announced.

“I’m not–“

“Plug?” the woman asked.

The man spun me effortlessly and popped the Memory Socket dust cover. “Nope.”

The woman nodded, unsurprised. “She’s not the one we want.”

“Of course not, I told you–“

“Yet,” she finished.

They piled me into the back of a waiting limo and I sat wedged between the two men. The woman sat across from us and examined me like I was an offensive insect she’d found stuck to the bottom of her expensive shoes. The case of gold coins sat on the seat beside her, the elephant in the room we all pretended not to notice. Even in the limo’s air-conditioned chill I felt sweat trickle down my back.

It didn’t take long to realize where they were taking me.

At Pensiero we walked through security like it wasn’t even there. We might as well have been invisible for all the attention we got. They marched me to a meeting room with a dozen large leather chairs and a fully interactive digital table that wouldn’t even fit in my condo. After sitting me in one of the chairs the two men watched me while the woman disappeared for several minutes. She returned all too soon with a familiar flesh-toned plug.

I raised my hands not so much to keep her away, but rather to stall for time. “There’s been some kind of mistake. You’ve got the wrong person,” I said, pleading. “I didn’t even know Gedanke.”

She raised a plucked eyebrow. “Gedanke?”

“The dead guy,” I supplied helpfully.

She moved forward to place her hands on the arms of my chair and stare into my eyes. “Of course you did.”

I could smell her perfume and for an absurd moment wanted to ask what brand it was. She smiled warmly as she brushed a hand through my hair to expose the Memory Socket. Her hand softly caressed my neck as she slid the plug into place.

Blink.

I was sitting on a plane in a massive First Class seat. The Memory Plug lay in the palm of my left hand and there was a hand-written note clutched in my right.

“What the hell?” I didn’t care if talking to myself in public meant I was crazy. A couple of other well-dressed First Class passengers made obvious efforts to ignore my outburst. I became aware of my clothes. A dark grey tailored business suit and a pair of black Manolo Blahniks that looked like a cross between a leather boot and an open toed stiletto heel. The Ankle-Cuff d’Orsay line had obviously made a comeback.

I started to read.

KAPECI, DEEP COVER NATU OPERATIVE

They took the bait. Of course it didn’t hurt that my pre-recorded time-delayed message told them where to be and at what time.

Our eyes met and the woman must have seen something because she backed away, reaching for something hidden under her well-cut Pensiero-blue jacket. Dopamines, acetylcholine, and Gamma-AminoButyric Acid flowed like Niagara Falls once did. Time slowed as the programming on the plug interacted with my advanced biomed. My adrenal gland went bug-fuck but was balanced by a wash of other hormones.

I said “GABA GABA” as I took her petite gun away, broke her arm, and sent her spinning into the nearest security goon. The two were still collapsing into a heap while I killed the other goon. Though the woman was obviously the most dangerous of the three, she was also the only one likely to know anything.

I turned and was pleasantly surprised to find her already on her feet, the expensive designer shoes kicked aside. I could have shot her but that would have been noisy and anyway I had a few questions that needed answers. There was no doubt in my mind that someone had planted her in Pensiero much as NATU planted me. It was lucky I wounded her before she managed to get her own stored neural stew pumping because she was fast and deadly. She fought like one of those born-to-Muay-Thai-kids on speed and for a moment I was forced to retreat. She wasn’t trying not to kill me and it was to her advantage.

The guy still on the ground finally managed to draw his taser and fire a hasty shot. I batted the trodes out of the air fast enough that my hands were barely numbed and sent them spinning in the woman’s direction. She was forced to duck which bought me enough time to kill the guy before he became any more annoying. Men. Sheesh.

The next time she moved in to attack I stomped on her bare foot with the heel of my rather unfashionable hiking boot and broke the bone. She was off balance for a fraction of a second but that was all I needed to take her down.

The fight lasted maybe seven seconds and made less noise than the Pensiero Research facility’s HVAC system. Once I’d immobilized her–which required breaking enough bones that, even with her ability to ignore pain, she couldn’t launch an effective attack–I asked who she worked for. The answer wasn’t pleasant. She wasn’t corporate at all. She worked for a small ‘family’ that used to be based in Costa Rica but, after the nuking of San José, had since moved their operation to Redmond, Washington. What the hell is in Redmond that would attract a Cosa Nostra family?

For a moment I thought about killing her. She knew too much and she knew who I was. My cover was blown. It’s hard to say what stayed my hand. Maybe I’d had enough violence, or maybe I just didn’t want to get any more blood on that perfectly cut suit. Perhaps I saw something of myself in her. Did she even know what she was?

I removed her Memory Plug and she passed out, swept away by a crushing tidal wave of pain. Who was she without the plug? What would she remember of this? Hopefully nothing.

I sent a couple of encrypted IMs to my NATU handlers informing them of my blown cover and–only in the vaguest terms–plans for retirement.

It was time to get the hell out of Dhaka.

ANOMIE KAPECI

The note was written in my own barely legible scrawl.

We have made some interesting choices. I say ‘we’ because once you began working for NATU you effectively became two people. Our time at the NATU research facility was actually spent in training and we learned a specific and dangerous skill set that could only be accessed while plugged in. You are reading this because we want to retire. You have had enough of not knowing who you are and leaving too many important choices to some other ‘self.’ And I have just had enough. Let’s just say we’ve hurt people and leave it at that. You don’t need my burdens.

This is my suicide note. You need the chance to find out who you are and you can’t do that with me here. I want you to destroy the plug. Crush it under the heel of those lovely shoes. I know what you’re thinking. You’re worried you might not be able to handle what is to come. You’re thinking that having access to my skills might be useful. Forget it. Destroy the damned plug. For once do as you’re bloody well told. You are stronger, both emotionally and physically, than you could possibly know.

I see now that many of our choices were made in an attempt to overcome our upbringing and escape the overprotective arms of our parents. Just remember that no matter how angry you may be, they did everything out of love. You should visit them sometime, they’d really like that. Ha. Thank god it’ll be you doing it and not me. I’d probably kick Dad’s ass.

I’m going to pull the plug in a moment. It feels like pulling the trigger. In the case you’ll find details on your new identity and a list of contacts back in NATU who will be able to assist you with certain transactions.

Remember, we really are as lonely as you think you are. Go do something about it.

Love,

You.

PS. I took the liberty of having some modifications made to your biomed. Enjoy.

I sat for a moment in silence before my eyes were drawn past the note to the case resting between my beautiful shoes. It looked like a cross between a Samsonite and a Panzer tank.

“Miss Kapeci, Can I get you anything?” A male flight attendant had appeared at my side with a refreshment cart. He was young and looked cute in his tight pants.

“I’ll have a beer. Surprise me.”

I watched his butt as he moved on and wondered how many calories there were in a bottle of Stella Artois.