I used to feel off. Different, somehow, and forever separated from other people. It wasn’t my physical appearance, although I’m sure that didn’t help; I’m six and a half feet tall, all polycarbonate plates and right angles, and the neon lights of L.A. always seem to make me look monstrous in the perma-smog.
No, my problem was in the mind, which makes it much more complicated. Around the time I realized something was wrong, I was suffering from a bad case of amnesia. I couldn’t remember anything more than a year back. When you’re an amnesiac, you can’t help but feel like a freak. Everyone’s got sentimental memories. Hell, even other Artificials can’t help but have the warm and fuzzies for whatever gene-lab or assembly line spat them out.
I can’t tell this story without telling the story of John Texas. Bear with me, because it will all make sense by the end. John Texas was this fat guy from the Southeast Exclusion Zone, always going on about his cowboy heritage. He was a loudmouth, but good at what he did. The man could work a security system. Him and I would pull up to some dust-caked bank or minor data farm and be in and out of their local network before they realized what was happening. Made some good money that way.
Texas and I were a good team. He saw me as a friend, and I liked the way he didn’t get me killed. That is, until he insisted on hiring these four Vietnamese slabs of lab grown muscle and holding up a Wells Fargo. Texas pointed a shotgun at the clerk’s face and demanded that he be allowed to jack directly into the franchise’s local network. The clerk obliged. Texas jacked in, grinned at me, and then hit a neural firewall that boiled his brain like an egg. His finger twitched on the trigger, reducing the clerk’s head to a wet smear on the wall. A second later, a heart-stopping combo of liquor and combat stims caused the hired guns to open fire on the hostages.
As the bank descended into an orgy of blood and violence and I ducked out the side, all I managed to say or think was “oh, fuck”. Sure, I was mad that my score got lost, and I was extra mad that I had to lay low for months on end, but I was completely unbothered by witnessing the violent deaths of six people.
I know I’m not a psychopath, because I’m pretty sure there are no psychopath Artificials in the entire world. People rightfully get skeeved out by killer robots, so anyone who even thinks about violating the Skynet laws can expect the righteous fist of the law right up their sweet ass. Even CIA kneecappers and bloodthirsty Artificial cops still get all maudlin and weepy, sometimes.
The problem this poses is obvious. Somehow, despite fifty years of the most stringent regulation imaginable, I was running around without the ability to empathize. This was a terrifying place to be, because no one likes a killer robot.. If the wrong person poked around my head and saw this, I would be melted to slag before I could object.
After the robbery, I had to put my crisis of identity on the backburner to run from the cops. I ducked into this back-alley plastic surgery clinic. Unlicensed and completely anonymous was exactly what I needed. My face was going to be on all the feeds for weeks, so my face had to go.
I called in a favour with the proprietor, a gentleman by the name of Eric the Turk. By anyone’s estimation, the man had never set foot in the Middle East. He was short, tan, and sported a moustache. His fingers and nostrils were stained orange with research chemicals.
“Jesus Mary and Joseph, man,” he muttered as I lay on a battered simleather armchair in his makeshift operating theatre. His surgical drone hovered unsteadily over his shoulder, looking something like a metal spider.
“What’s the issue?” I asked impatiently. I wasn’t anxious, per se, but I was acutely aware of the horde of bloodthirsty cops ready to tear me limb from limb.
“You ever look at the back of your head?”
“What do you think, man?”
He laughed the kind of laugh that told me he was high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. “It’s all kinds of jacked up.”
“Jacked up how?”
“Looks like laser scoring. Someone shoot you in the head, man?”
“I have been having some memory problems.”
“Something flash-cooked your head, dude.”
“Shit,” I said distractedly as his surgery drone began rearranging my face. I don’t feel pain, but the surgery was definitely unpleasant. With each fresh cut or pull of the pliers, my OS sent a sharp pulse of alarm right to the front of my mind.
When the surgery was done, I told him we were square and left the shop.
That night, I liquidated everything I had in crypto and bought myself three months’ rent in a no-questions-asked apartment complex. The lodgings were scarce; a bed that I can’t use, an equally worthless hot plate, and about ten feet of walking space. I was paying for the privacy and a place to jack in.
I lurked online for a few days. I monitored cop feeds. I tried to hit up a few employers for some remote work, but had no dice. Days turned into weeks. I delved deeper and deeper into cobalt-blue waves of information as the regular pitter-patter of network pings sank into the background like rain droplets hitting a window.
A month into my isolation, a vidcall request pulled me from my concentration. I accepted.
Disappointingly, their camera feed was disabled and their voice was obscured.
“Good afternoon. I have an employment opportunity, if you’re interested,” a sexless, emotionless voice politely informed me.
“How did you get this line?”
The voice ignored me. “I understand you’re a security professional?”
The euphemism was obvious. “I am.”
“I represent a private collector of antiquities. They have asked me to secure an artifact of particular cultural relevance to them. Are you familiar with the Terracotta Warriors?”
“Correct. One of these statues has been located in a safety deposit box in the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
“That’s a little far from where I’m at.”
"This has been considered. I will send along airfare and… appropriate documentation.”
Sure enough, three seconds later, I received virtual copies of a driver’s license, a passport, and an Emancipated Artificial Citizenship Card, belonging to one Richard Winston. A second after that, I received a first-class airline ticket.
“Where’s this safety deposit box?”
“You will receive further instructions when you land. You fly out tomorrow.”
“Wait, let’s talk about my reward first.”
“You will receive fifteen thousand Lithcoins as payment. I trust this will be sufficient.”
I flew first-class out of LAX the next day. Soon, the endless concrete sprawl of L.A. gave way to churning grey ocean, dotted occasionally by gargantuan plankton farms and deep sea cobalt-digging platforms. A couple hours later, I came over Saint Thomas. From the air, I could see grey scrub grass and withered husks of trees on the ground.
I took a pamphlet from the seat in front of me. It informed me that Saint Thomas used to have a tropical climate, which has been painstakingly recreated in the San Jeffrey Arcology.
After getting off the plane, I followed the flow of foot traffic down to the arcology. It was a gigantic structure of plexiglass and rubber pipes that stretched into the sky and far into the distance. We were funneled through a gargantuan steel airlock by a bored-looking employee that closed behind us with a satisfying hiss. While waiting, I took stock of my fellow travellers: fabulously wealthy tourists, and a few suited corporate types.
Inside the arcology was a colossal resort. It boasted no fewer than six hotels, a waterslide, three bars, and a Michelin-starred restaurant. Bored looking mothers boasting the latest beauty augmentations drank mimosas while their genetically perfect children shoved each other into the pools.
I slowly wandered through the resort to a Spanish-style marble building, easily four or five stories tall. An immaculate, hand-painted sign above the entrance said “reception”. The floor of the lobby was exquisitely expensive granite slabs. The walls were covered in classical art, covered in a veneer of armoured glass. A nude, headless statue dominated the center of the room.
As I walked to the reception desk, the clerk looked up at me with curiosity. He was a heavyset black man in a heavily starched suit. He had a brass monocle implanted in his eyebrow and cheek, wires snaking into his eyeball.
I held my papers up. His monocle flashed.
“Ah, Mister Winston,” he said quickly, standing up. “My apologies, I did not recognize you. You’re booked in the Dolphin Suite, please allow me to show you the way.”
“Not a problem at all, my good man,” I said, trying to do my best impression of a rich traveller.
He led me to the elevator, which took me to the top floor. When the elevator bell rang, he hung back on the elevator.
“Not going to show me in?”
“The instructions were very clear,” he said quickly, before closing the door in my face.
The Dolphin Suite was the entire floor. Wandering through the twisting, ornate hallways, I counted five bathrooms and six bedrooms, all of which were completely useless to me. There was a lounge, which boasted paper books and real tobacco cigars.
At the end of my self-directed tour, I came to a veranda, which boasted an impressive view of the arcology. As I leaned over the balcony, I noticed the sky projected on the ceiling changed to reflect the time of day. Digital sunrise had begun, sending brilliant spears of yellow through the evening sky.
“Enjoying the view?” a wheezing old man’s voice asked me. He had a faint accent I couldn’t place - Italian, maybe. I turned around to see the speaker: a hunched over old man with hawkish eyes and a faint smile. He leaned heavily on an ivory cane. His eyes were covered in round, wire-frame sunglasses.
“I’d ask who you are, but we both know that would be pointless.”
“Indeed. I like to meet contractors in person for these kinds of delicate matters. I find it adds a… human touch.”
“So you’re the private collector, then?”
He smiled sheepishly, and rapped his cane against the floor. The tile shifted, slightly. “Would you be so kind as to pull that tile loose?”
I crouched and pulled the tile loose. It came free easily, revealing a compartment beneath the floor. I pulled off the surrounding tiles, revealing the black duffel bag that had been stashed beneath the floor, which I quickly removed and opened. Inside was a sleek, grey piece of plastic that resembled a telescope. On one end was a thick crystal lens. Satori Optical Solutions was written on the side. It was a comms laser, the kind that gets used by deep space probes. Its purpose was obvious.
“You want me to crash their network by hitting it with a comms laser, but that will never work.”
“And why is that?” the old man asked patiently.
“First of all, I would need to know the exact location of their central comms dish. Secondly, using this is like using a nuclear bomb. There’s no way whoever fires this thing escapes with their head.”
“I happen to know the location of the central comms dish. As for the retaliation, leave that to me.”
“No, this is insane. I’m walking,” I said forcefully, and started walking to the door.
“How would an extra ten thousand Lithcoins sound?”
I stopped. “Keep talking.”
“I am a man of means, I assure you, and I always pay my debts.”
As I turned around, he smiled magnanimously. “Alright. Fine.”
“You clearly have some kind of plan, here. Where do I fit into all this?”
“It’s simple. An associate of mine fires the laser from here, while you enter the bank and retrieve the artifact.”
“Oh, it’s simple. I’m glad it’s simple. I’m simply going to walk into that bank and get shot to pieces.”
He waved his cane. “Nonsense. The guards will be neutralized. All you have to do is compromise the weakened network, and retrieve the artifact.”
“How am I getting there?”
“A boat is programmed to take you to the island where the bank is housed tonight.”
Sure enough, that night, I was on a sleek, unmanned boat headed to an unknown destination. Unease grew in me as the knife-head prow cut through the sludgy grey water, kicking up a spray of plastic shards. The boat shuddered as it ran aground on the shore.
I cautiously stepped off the boat, half-expecting a security guard to appear and waste me right there. A second later, I received a message from an unknown contact.
Bank is up the hill. Go through the front door.
Seeing no alternative, I walked slowly up the hill until the bank came in view. It was nothing like the elegant Spanish construction of the resort buildings. The bank was built military-style, all concrete slabs and round walls. From its small size, I guessed that most of it was underground.
The front door was a solid titanium slab. Two redundant security cameras stared at me, like a pair of malevolent red eyes. In front of the door, on a small terminal, was the outline of a palm print.
I waited, for a moment. The cameras abruptly shut off.
I easily ripped the front panel off the terminal. I pulled a small wire from the back of my neck and plugged directly into the network. The network was in disarray. The security systems were screaming incoherent blasts of code into the void, unable to bring their weapons or alarms to bear. It was a trivial matter to open every door. I took a quick scan through the bank’s blueprints, and was alarmed at the dozens of autonomous fifty-calibre machine guns placed throughout. I override the turret safeties to stop them from firing, and resolved to be quick. I quickly downloaded the schematics before disengaging.
You have ten minutes. Don’t worry about guards. Run.
I needed no encouragement. I sprinted past the guard post, and barely noticed that they were choking on the air, clawing at their faces and throats. I overlaid the map of the bank and took a dizzying series of twists and turns, leading me to a row of formidable looking vaults.
They were safety deposit boxes in the same way that a trillion-dollar booster rocket is a “vehicle”. It’s true, sure, but it falls woefully short of doing it justice. There were ten boxes in the room, each one maybe twenty feet in diameter. Five to a row, separated by a hallway with a terminal on the far wall. Each one was an intimidating slab of titanium with an armoured plastiglass viewing port. Every deposit box boasted two spotlights, providing appropriate dramatic ambience to the priceless artifacts within.
Deposit Box Three.
I dashed over to the terminal and jacked in without thinking.
I was fighting for my life almost instantly. The bank’s security was starting to wake up. Malicious code flooded into me like venom. I could feel myself getting lost in lines of scab-red, throbbing code. I had seconds to act before my CPU cooked off and my higher brain functions started shutting down. Smoke curled out of my eyeports. My fingers clenched.
The bank’s security was still scrambled. It was throwing everything it had at me. I quickly inserted a block of junk code just deep enough that it had to waste precious milliseconds looking for it. With its attention diverted, I shoved a white-hot malware sliver right into its OS. It squealed in binaric frustration, and I swear I could feel its hatred when it shuddered and died.
The security system was dead. Nothing stood between me and my prize.
I quickly navigated over to Deposit Box Three. As I demanded that it surrender its contents, a warning message flashed: SERVO-ARM HAS NOT BEEN MAINTAINED IN 4.53 MAINTENANCE CYCLES? PROCEED?
My eye on the clock, I told it to proceed. I unplugged from the terminal and limped over to my bounty, still reeling from my fight with the bank. Through the viewport, I got my first good look at the Teracotta Warrior. He looked imposing, with his hand around a sword and his hair pulled neatly back into a ponytail. His chiseled face and cold eyes made it seem like he could see right through me.
A robotic arm unfurled from the ceiling and gripped him by the head. It slowly moved him over to a hole in the floor, like that old game with the stuffed animals. I watched in horror as the arm shuddered in the air, and then crushed the statue’s head into a fine powder. A second later, a shelf extended from the deposit box, presenting me with a worthless, decapitated statue.
This wasn’t the kind of client you crossed. Whoever this old man was, my odds of getting out of the Virgin Islands were less than zero.
I stepped towards the statue cautiously, as if it were rigged to explode. To my surprise, it was completely hollow. I gingerly placed a hand inside. My fingers curled around a cold, metal cylinder. I pulled it out of the statue, revealing it under the cold, fluorescent lighting of the vault.
It was labeled SimulTech™ XV-15 Memory and Personality Core.