The following is an except from “The Risk/Reward Matrix”, the novel I’m in the process of writing. It’s still in the raw, and there’s no context for it yet: You’ll just have to wait a while until it gets published.
“I need you to bring her back,” Karl asked. “She’s the only one left.”
He had come to Armstrong, to the only person he knew who could handle this task discreetly, and more importantly, for nothing upfront. He wasn’t taking chances: Accessing his accounts would almost certainly get him tagged and targeted. He had to rely on his natural charm and whatever goodwill he’d accumulated in his short career.
Now, he stood before a semi-circle of modules, panels and displays, waiting for Sade to finish the initialization sequence. He’d met the tall, blonde woman three years ago, the same night he’d met Liz. The two made quite a pair, and had known each other for a while at that point. Liz, the dark haired, sarcastic waif, and Sade, the free spirited amazon. Ram was convinced they were a couple, but Karl wasn’t ever really sure and didn’t care enough to ask. They’d met at the Low Bid, a scavenger hangout on the lower levels, and struck up a conversation about the merits of hiking boots. Of all things.
“I’m worried about the condition of this disc,” Sade said, holding the small, shiny device close to her left eye. The implant there was obvious, especially in low light like this, where the bluish iris seemed to sparkle. “It might work, but we should get a better copy.”
Karl looked away, at a row of Russian made processors with blinking indicator lights. “Yes, about that,” He started. Sade interrupted.
“Don’t say this is the only one.”
“Unfortunately, yes. That’s the only one I know of,” Karl said. He felt guilty. “There may be another one, but it would be in a Tantawi research lab on Mars.”
There was a momentary silence, filled by the whispers of processor coolants and the dull thump of the rhythm of the music upstairs.
“Initialization complete,” the computer reported. Karl turned to watch Sade, but she was staring at him, shaking her head ever so slightly.
“Look, we all agreed to this job,” Karl said quickly, trying to explain. “It sounded simple, and paid a lot.”
“You should have seen that for what it was.”
Karl nodded, and looked away from her stare. “I know that,” he said, almost choking on the regret and shame he felt. “Now.” He could feel the tears, and fought the urge to sob.
He sensed Sade watching him, but couldn’t say more. In a few moments, she turned back to the system, popped open data sleeve, and pushed the disc into it.
“I’ll have the system run a diagnostic first,” she said, her own voice cracking a bit. “If there are data errors, they may be repairable.” She spoke to the computer, giving it specific instructions on the procedures she wanted it to run. “None of this,” she said, gesturing to the bank of electronics before he, “is anywhere close to state-of-the-art. I’ve had to pull bits and pieces together from wherever I can get them. My instructors would be horrified if they saw this rig.”
She grabbed a chair from under the console and shoved it in Karl’s direction. Karl sat. She opened a cabinet, and took out a tall, brown bottle and two shot glasses, offering one to Karl. Filled it for him, then filled her own. And then she sat.
“Instructors?” he asked. He knew almost nothing about Sade.
“At the Cybernetic Defense Academy,” she said.
“Moscow,” Karl said, “right?”
“How do you know that?,” Sade wanted to know. “You’re from Mars, aren’t you?” She drained her shot glass and poured herself another.
“Earth by Birth,” he said repeating a well known catchphrase. He drained the shot glass, and nearly choked as the alcohol burned his throat. An aftertaste of cinnamon and vanilla. “I studied the Fall in school,” he said when he had recovered. “You guys wound up fighting the AI systems you’d designed.”
“Not me, thank God,” she said, leaning back, rocking. “I was just a technician. It’s kind of ironic, because that’s where I met Liz.”
Karl was surprised: “She was CDA?” he asked.
“No, military,” Sade said. She got up and poured another shot for Karl. “A pilot, of course. We put her back online when she was shot down.”
This was all news to Karl.
“Shot down? When was this?” he asked as Sade put the bottle down and checked on the progress of the computer.
“There are errors, but it looks like most of them can be repaired. Should be just a few more minutes,” she said. She sat back down, and held up the shot glass to savor the aroma. “That was, twelve years ago, I think. It was early in the evacuation, first or second stage probably. I don’t know if they ever did find out what hit her. We were on the verge of losing control of the air at that point.”
“To the machines?”
Sade nodded, and downed the shot. She grimaced when it hit her, then smiled. “Good stuff, eh?” she asked. “Local, but it does fine by me. Another?”
“No,” Karl said. “I’m not built for the hard stuff.” He pat his chest and smiled.
“Off-the-rack, eh?” she said, looking him over like a consumer. “But custom sculpture on the face. Anything else?”
Karl ran one hand over his face. “This was all I could afford, this time out. Tantawi has my customized morph.” With that grim thought, he downed the contents of the shot glass. This time the burn wasn’t as strong.
The computer interrupted and reported that it had completed the diagnostic and repair procedures.
Sade stood and turned to the computer. “Where did you get this backup, anyway?” she asked.
“From her,” Karl said. Sade turned to him, questions in her expression. “She forked, a few minutes after the shuttle breached the atmosphere. Opened a narrowcast to one of the frequencies Luke Daniels’ uses for his data vault.”
“The broker?” she asked, recognizing the name. Daniels was a very successful information dealer, who’d turned a five-kilometer wide hunk of rock in the main asteroid belt into his fortress and his home. He’d become something of a renegade celebrity.
“That’s the one,” Karl said.
“How did you find that out?”
“Liz. At the same time she was dumping her backup, she emailed me.” Karl replied.
“Thats,” Liz said, struggling for the words, “just amazing.”
“It was an amazing shock to me,” Karl said, “When we got clear of the jamming belt.” He paraphrased Liz’s message.
“You should have known she wouldn’t turn on you,” Sade said, scolding him.
“And you should realize how confusing it all was,” Karl said, “I thought, they thought, I’d killed them. The other me. The other them.” He shook his head. “And then to see the shuttle leave us behind. Confusing.”
“Then let’s see what she has to say about it,” Sade said, taking the disc with digital Liz out of one port and sliding it into another. Within seconds, the holographic screen rearranged itself to provide one large display of an empty white virtual construct. Liz’s face and pixie haircut warbled into solidity. She looked down, around, then up at them. And screamed.