The solver watched a tall woman hurry down the street. She had blonde hair, and she wore a black coat that billowed around a white dress. Her heels were polished black—the kind the girls wore in the darker places of Junction. Blues and pinks reflected off them and it looked like she was dancing in the rain that hadn’t stopped pouring for a week.
He sniffed. Sulphur floated in the air and masked the stink of a world gone mad, filled with people who had forgotten themselves, lost in the luxury of light and plenty. There were no more stop signs, no more forks in the road. Desire had become linear, and the path to absolution was paved neon.
“She’s different.” Mai’s voice infiltrated the solver’s thoughts.
“Track her,” said the solver, tapping again at the cylindrical lenses sticking forward from his head. His goggles were special to him. He’d earned them on the Arch, long ago, as a reward for being who he was—who he’d become. Solvers were honed and dangerous. They were weapons made by new men from the ashes of the old world, and he was among the oldest and most dangerous. But also the most tortured. The program had left no visible scars, but they were there, and they were as earned as his vision.
Where was the woman going? He raised a green-gloved hand to his face and adjusted a lens, spiralling it between nimble fingers, grooves of the lens rippling the soft plastic of his glove.
The image of the mid-town market shifted; the opaque became clear and the hidden became seen. The woman kept flicking her feet, faster now, purposeful.
“She’s headed to Chunda House,” said Mai inside his head. His Core had found a pattern and crunched the numbers. The solver checked the girl’s direction and made some estimations of his own, then grunted. Chunda House, he wondered. Going to see the Cybs, probably.
The Cybs were a blight. They were a collection of drugged-up augments who lived only for the next hit—a metaphor for what life had become. During the Reckoning, in that split-second of confusion when Providence had impossibly gone offline—when the city became bathed in darkness and its guardians had gone blind—the Cybs had seized their chance to infect far and wide. They took territory and spread their “religion.” No doubt the girls in the black heels were already paying their dues to their new digital pimps. The tall woman was likely no different. But...
“It feels wrong,” he said.
Mai buzzed in his mind. “Maybe it’s just your nanos messing with your head again, Dove.”
“It’s not my fucking nanos.”
Dove didn’t respond. His Core was right, of course. She was always right. Every day, Dove burned. Every damned day. His creation had been a sin. In all of the Illumination’s glory, while revelling in their brilliance, they hadn’t considered an expiry date, or a shelf-life. Solvers like Dove—old, weary—needed refurbishment often. Too long in the field without care or attention, and they’d suffer silently. Sometimes loudly.
The Illumination’s agent of light who had delivered Dove’s current instructions had been certain: find Maxine. But Dove doubted a Junction hooker would be the key to finding the Passport and bringing order back to the City, still teetering on the brink of collapse in the wake of the Reckoning. It wouldn’t bring Providence back online. What did the Illumination want with Maxine, he wondered?
“The girl is working with the Cybs, Dove—still think this is a waste of time?” Mai asked.
“Maybe,” he said.
But he knew better than to second guess his source. Everything led somewhere; everyone wanted something. It’d been two weeks since the Reckoning, and the City had grown darker and more dangerous. Someone had wanted it that way, and Dove would find out why and who. Not for the Illumination, who had commanded his obedience, but for himself. Do this, he had thought, and perhaps he’d earn his freedom.
The uneasy pact he’d made with the Illumination had led him here, to this back alley in the dregs of the City, watching a girl with black heels scurry into a cartel hole. He followed.
Getting inside wasn’t difficult, despite the gatekeeper. Cybs were small minded, their pride was misplaced, and they were sure in their superiority. Sure, they’d heard of the hack Dove now sent scurrying through the gatekeeper’s neural net, but they did not believe. Military men taking over their implants? Absurd. He flicked his eyes and a series of menus opened. He saw the conjured strings of code within, and he accessed the nanos floating about the bouncer’s brainstem. It took seconds, maybe less. The idiots were still using tech developed in the dawn of the Singularity. It was archaic—slow and clunky. Easy for a solver.
The doors to Chunda House opened to him and its taint declared itself like a crashing train. Music used to mean something. Now the streets were filled with disconnected tones and beats, waves laced with synth and vibe in sync with the always flickering halogen of the night. It was worse inside—in your face, inescapable, forcing you to recognize its power. The dancers matched the music: thugs with metal limbs and teeth, inhuman faces carved from steel, draped in the finest silk, lugging behind them girls with black heels and other creatures of the night. Everyone drank, liquids thick and thin, blue and red and yellow, each capable of making one forget, or become someone else. Even for a night.
Not sure why the Cybs bother, he thought. Their nanos scrubbed it all up before it could take hold of their blood.
There. The tall woman sat in the corner alone, a bottle of something blue before her on a table shaped like a flower, each pedal sharp and cold. The solver adjusted his vision, scoped Maxine’s face, and saw the red puffiness of her eyes and cheeks glistening sodium and hate. He pulled at his green glove, snapped it against his wrist, then clenched his teeth. A tick; a tell. A habit he couldn’t stop no matter how stupid it made him, or how weak. A vestige of a former life, all but forgotten. But still with him.
Maxine. The Illumination kept detailed files on targets of interest—so deep that a childhood seemed just another word on a page, chapters of lives running on forever. Her full name was Maxine de L’avant, and she was a True Worlder. Not an original, of course, but descended from pre-singularity lines. Her family name made her wealthy, so why had she decided to waste away in Junction, turning tricks for the Disconnected, and now in the service of Cybs? The question had bothered him since he’d left the Arch.
Drunks and gangsters swept aside before him, desperate to avoid his attention and the shuffle of his black cloak as he pointed his way across the bar to where Maxine sat. Some knew him, sure, and some didn’t; but even those blissfully ignorant sensed him. The night-girl saw him come but did not recoil, wide eyes fixed on his face. He imagined the horror she saw: a square jaw, stubble, and lids for eyes failing to hide the rage within. Maxine dangled a glass from thin fingers, tipped white. She held a pinky to her lips, also white, like her dress. Black and white, Maxine. If it were only so simple.
He slipped into her booth, rested his arms on the table and clasped his hands. No fear, just curiosity. She didn’t seem to know who he was, or what he was. In the strobing light of the bar, her face pulsed rapidly and his vision corrected to create a full image. She was young, but not too young. A crack at her lips, in her foundation, and a crease in her temple. The way the joints of her knuckles protruded a bit too much, or how she sat back, relaxed, poised. The environment coalesced around her until she was the pinpoint, she was the energy, a beacon in a white dress. What was she doing in a place like this?
“I’ve been looking for you, Maxine.”
She sipped, and a trickle of blue seeped from the corners of her lips. She caught it with her pinky, licked it off, stared at him with eyeballs round and shining.
“You found me, mystery man.”
“The Cybs?” asked Dove.
“They keep me safe,” she said.
“Is it worth the price?”
She turned away, brushed her hair with a hand, and rested her elbow on the hard steel top of the booth. He saw it just then—a hesitation. Brief, but real. She was scarred, too. The kind of scars that went unseen except to those who looked.
“Maybe it is. Doesn’t matter. You want a drink?”
“No.” He snapped his glove.
“Fine by me,” she said. Refill. The bottle was almost gone, now. That would have been too much for her alone; someone had come and gone and left her in tears—despondent. Or maybe this was her, all of her, in the flesh. Maxine de L'avant, black heels and all.
“Do you have it?” he asked.
She paused mid-sip, let the cocktail roll on her tongue and gulped it down. It was enough—confirmation. The agent’s direction to Maxine had been sound, and his information was reliable. The solver’s answers started here.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, stranger. What did you say your name was?”
Her eyes were focused now, no longer hazy, and she sat straighter. A delicate hand wiped away the last of her dried tears. She sniffed.
“No, I guess you didn’t. Doesn’t take an Elite to figure it out though, where you come from, I mean. That cloak, those eyes, if you can call them that. You’re a solver, aren’t you?”
So, he thought. She did know what he was.
“Shit,” she continued. “Never thought I’d meet one. Didn’t think they—you—were a real thing, you know? One of those legends that runs through the circuits, a myth of our cybernetic reality, an echo of light and electricity. Who can tell any more what’s real and what’s not. Do you remember? Before, I mean? Life pre-singularity. You should have seen it, solver, it was so beautiful. Green, everywhere—green like your gloves. Fresh air. Quiet. I remember.”
“You’d have been a child, at best,” he said.
“I said I remember, ok?” Curt. Tense. Painful. Odd for a True Worlder, but perhaps not for a girl lost in Junction. He was intrigued, but her story didn’t matter. His story mattered.
“Tell me where it is, Maxine.”
She grew restless, crossed her legs back and forth, then her arms, then finished the bottle of something blue. Synthwaves continued to ripple around them, the beat grew faster, and she nodded her head in sync, gaze fixed on his face. She bit her lip.
“I don’t have it. Not any more,” she said.
She bit harder, pushed against the seat, and strained against herself until she almost gave in. Almost.
“Protect me, promise me you’ll protect me.” She was pleading. Her voice trembled.
Dove did not flinch, but he pursed his lips. He had made promises once. They broke, and people died. He was blamed. By himself, and others. The struggle had been beaten out of him on the Arch. The Illumination had been unwilling to endure such a fault.
“I don’t make promises,” he said.
She cried—silently, slowly. Streaks ran down her cheek, tracing the same lines in her makeup like rainwater in a gutter. Trapped, but she knew what she must do.
“It’s with Arcturus.”
“Arcturus? The moonlight man?” he asked.
“You heard me.”
“What were you doing in Osiron?”
“Too many questions.” She sniffed her last and regained her composure. He couldn’t touch her now—not any more. “Now, I think I’ll refill my bottle, and then I’m going to go dance with my shiny friends. You can join us, you know.”
The hint of her smile was seductive—back at work. He felt so sad for her. She was grace-fallen, a True Worlder no more. He gave no reply, for none was needed. He picked himself up from the booth and raised a hand to his vision, captured a last memory of the Lady de L'avant, then made his way out, taking care not to drown in the filth of Chunda House.