Monday, March 26, 2018

Query 1.05: Babylon

The CEO’s rather large accommodations were arranged such that Cain’s support staff was invisible, tucked away in small little side areas, unseen unless summoned. The majority of the floor was left open as a waiting room. Well, more of a waiting gallery. Leather couches and chairs had been arranged to create little bubbles of intimacy. Each area had its own refreshments and a complimentary piece of Vergeron’s past, sometimes the centerpiece of a coffee or end table, sometimes a pedestal or shadowbox hovering somewhere nearby. The entire room was like that, dashes of history peppering the landscape, each art installation with its own little plaque, explaining the significance of this industry award or that circuit board. There was even a ten meter section of wall that was plastered, floor to vaulted ceiling, with full color renderings and half completed sketches of all the original ideas for the Vergeron logo.

Py hated marketing. Hated how the touch of it could make any achievement feel cheap. When something was excellent, it didn’t need to be glamorized. It was simply excellent. The last time Py had visited Cain’s office he’d walked past the syringe that contained the first working vaccine for Rapture. It had saved millions and would continue to save millions more. It was the reason he’d chosen his original vocation. It was a large part of the reason he was here now. But below that vaccine, below that miracle, was a digital frame looping the awards ceremony footage of a balding fat executive accepting the UN’s award for Peace and Global Unity. The first time the award had been issued to a multinational conglomerate. An award Py knew Vergeron had bought and paid for through ‘charitable’ donations and UN policy recommendations. It was hard to cheapen saving lives, but somehow they’d managed it.

Each floor of the Vergeron tower took the form of a huge hollow disk suspended by tremendous cables from the grand central column, stabbing through the heart of the great megalith. Between the edge of each floor and the column was a significant gap with bridges traversing the empty space, so one could stand and look the length of the tower both up and down. The bridges merged and mingled with gardens surrounding the central space. Lush clinging vines wrapped around the spire. Fragrant flowers were suspended everywhere in large hanging planters. The ambient noise of guided rainfall touched leaf and petal to diffuse the light and create the ubiquitous scent of floral petrichor. Py always wondered how Vergeron justified the expense. They employed more full time gardeners than any other institution in Delphi and were not shy about publicizing that fact.

The grand column also housed the building’s primary method of conveyance. A traditional elevator would be too slow and inefficient to fit in the space the architects had allotted, so the Vergeron tower employed a unique vertical roadway. The cars were not suspended by cables, but connected to the inside of the column using magnetic force. Hundreds of small cars were allowed to move on the maglift in all directions, creating the same throughput as dozens of conventional elevators in a fraction of the space. The translucent wall between the gardens and the central column allowed a perspective occupant the view of Vergeron’s army climbing up and down the lift, like a nest of swarming ants.

In an age where any tech company worth its salt has centered itself on a sprawling campus, Vergeron and its Delphi counterparts were forced to think skyward. The amenities were the same however; people could jog, eat, or simply meditate in the cool green spaces. Py had seen children a few times, even a dog once, though he doubted that was the norm. World class food was served at each of the buildings many cafeterias. Laundromats, exercise gyms, and cafes followed on the lengthy list of reasons why an employee would be a fool to return to their dirty little hovels when they could live and work forever, each day at Vergeron.

The maglift ride was always a surreal experience for Py. The pod ran along the column at speed and it took some getting used to. The constant acceleration and deceleration to optimize travel of the pods kept one’s stomach in a constant state of flux. Not just up and down, as many people are accustomed, but side to side as well. The cars missed each other, sometimes by centimeters, as the computer guidance worked to save every modicum of both power and distance.

As the pod made it’s way downward the paradise of Vergeron was laid bare. The gardens Py sped past were all different. Some were rocks and sand in the Japanese style. Others were dense collections of pine and fir trees, or rainforest plants Py didn’t know. All were idyllic, after a fashion, and all, except for the central floor, which had the distinction of being purposed solely for recreation and life necessities, had tucked beyond the flora, or rock, or water feature an unmistakable maze of office space.

Py transitioned from above to below. The gardens of previous floors transformed into the lobbies of the Underground, which displayed their own modernist charm. This was where office space gave way to lab space and scientific endeavours. Access here was restricted and recreation space vanished in its entirety.

The majesty of Vergeron’s manicured space was offset rather suddenly by the parking complex passing by in a blink, followed by a cacophonous whoosh from all sides and total blackness, the only light coming from inside Py’s car, and the sensation of being swallowed by a great malicious something. The first time Py had experienced the sensation he’d had a moment of panic. His first week at Vergeron had been like any other employee’s and had included, among other corporate minutiae, a guided tour. It had been established by a well spoken, smiling someone as they walked the underground facilities that the 10 floors below the main building were where all of the more sensitive work was managed. Py remembered being somewhat impressed by the labs and had largely put it out of his mind. It hadn’t been until he was chosen as a beta tester for the Alice system that he realized how secretive Vergeron was about their projects, that he would be part of a deeper conspiracy, invited to participate in endeavours buried well below the 10 ‘secret’ floors that Vergeron publicly claimed comprised the research and development arm of their Delphi branch.

Py would learn upon his ascent back to the surface that the great whooshing of his descent had been caused by a large security door built into the maglift column. The door consisted of a series of rotating metal disks, similar to the rotating cylinders in a combination lock. When aligned they created a small, just-barely-pod-sized passageway that the car zipped through at uncomfortable speed. After the pod cleared the lock, the disks spun out of alignment to create a massive steel barrier separating Vergron from its underbelly, generating a rather impressive sound in the process.
 
While he had a pretty good idea of the layout above his head, Py was completely unsure how far the root system of Vergeron reached into the earth. He’d only ever come down here once and that was to accept custody of the silver pen that connected him with the Alice system.

Py stepped out of his pod and was relieved when the thick metal plates of the doors in front of him separated with a satisfying shhhhhh into the walls on either side and allowed him access. An older man, dressed in the black lab scrubs common to the Vergeron Underground, stepped forward as Py moved through the doorway.

“Mr. Black, I’m Mr. Gliss. I’ve been assigned to get anything you need for the Alleyman Project.” The man extended a hand in Py’s direction.

Py took the offered hand.
The Alleyman Project? Wonder if Cain’s already run that headline through a focus group.     

“Thank you for being so, ahhh...punctual. I know this assignment came as a surprise. Have you been briefed on the necessities?” Py was almost positive the man didn’t know anything, but he’d be damned if he was going to let Cain get one over on him.

“No sir. I was given the project name and told to meet you by the entrance?”

“Well, first things first, Mr. Gliss, enough with the sir and the ‘Mr. Black’. Name’s Py. Please use it. Second, in the right now, I’m looking for a Veebot. If you’d be so kind to lead me to one I can use, we’ll talk as we walk.” Py indicated the hallway ahead so the man could take the lead.

The Vergeron Underground was a different world. Py had no idea how big it was and only a vague understanding of how it was put together. Though he knew it wasn’t entirely accurate, Py couldn’t help but think of the Underground as the roots of some vast tree, extending and giving purchase to the structure above. There was a saying you’d hear some of the older black-jackets recite: only Vergeron’s big toe pokes above ground.

The ceiling was vaulted and slightly curved, seamlessly meeting the walls on either side. White was the color of choice, and the knowledge that you were under literal tons of earth was chased away by the perfectly diffused light. It reminded Py of some of the labs at WHO, everything sterile and clean. The unmistakable smell of disinfectant permeated the air. Horizontal space was both in abundance and almost completely covered. A few other people in the same black scrubs as Mr. Gliss where wandering the halls, discussing in hushed tones whatever business they were about.   

As they walked, Py found Mr. Gliss, who prefered to be called Brian, a pleasant sort of person. He was matter of fact and sure in a comforting way. He’d been with Vergeron since his college days, and his dedication to the company had landed him a more permanent position after graduation. Py had to marvel at how good Vergeron was at that, making sure the young and talented were indoctrinated into the fold. Corporate culture was beguiling and deliberately so. Certain aspects of it were a little cultish for Py’s taste. The sooner Vergeron convinced you to drink the kool-aid the better and Brian had drunk a lot of kool-aid in his time, now carrying a frosty pitcher with him to dole out as he made his daily rounds.

Brian had led them to a little side lab and to his credit he waited for the door to close before asking any details.

“So, exactly what does The Alleyman Project entail?” Brian stood with his hands behind his back as Py glanced around the room and saw, to his satisfaction, that the latest model Veebot was tucked in the corner.

“I’m investigating a handful of unexplained deaths. I suspect it’s related to some unknown agent present in the environment. I’ll be gathering several samples and I’ll need to have them analyzed.” Py walked over and got himself situated in the attached reclining chair of the automated phlebotomist.

“That’s kind of a wide net to cast. Any tests take priority?”

“I may have been exposed to the agent myself, so I’ll be your first subject. We’ll start with blood cultures and mass spec.”

They went on like that for a while. Brian asking for clarification. Py providing theories and details. Cain had placed a marvelous array of toys at Py’s disposal and Brain seemed fluent in all of them.

Py was happy to discover that the Veebot he was currently in made the Delphi Police Department one seem like trash. Py wondered how the manufacture had managed to take the ‘pinch’ out of getting your blood drawn.

“This is almost pleasant. The Veebot at the police station had my arm pinned down so tight I thought they were going to keep it.” One of Brian’s eyebrows climbed toward his hairline, but he didn’t ask why Py would have been at the DPD, getting his blood drawn.

“I don’t know how they managed to sell those dinosaurs. It’s like getting mugged by your doctor. Although, I guess for the police it probably helps with their tougher customers.”

Once the blood was drawn Brian offered to escort Py to the exit, which he accepted. Py wasn’t a social outcast per se, but certainly more discerning in who he interacted with than the average person. He wasn’t much of a networker either, but even he could see the advantages of having someone like Brian on your team. Py had to wonder if Cain had deliberately chosen Brian as the best possible person for Py to work with, or if it was pure coincidence that Py was talking with a man he actually liked.

They were almost back to the maglift when a squeak of a voice from behind made both men jump.

“Excuse me. Mr. Py?”

“Just Py,” he said automatically as he spun round.

“I’m sorry?” The girl chirped, acknowledging Brian with with a small nod before turning back to Py “Say again?”

“Just Py.” He replied shortly. “Py is my given name, so the title Mr. Py is gibberish.”

“I’m sorry, Mr...I mean, Py.” She continued, clearly flustered as he turned back to continue walking to the maglift with Brian in toe. “Dr. Whitechapel asked me to bring you a message.”

“Oh really?” Py remarked not slowing down. “How is Ben? I haven’t seen him in a while.” Py was surprised to hear from Ben outside of their arranged Alice beta user check-ins. He’d filed several digital reports over the past weeks, but didn’t have anything face-to-face scheduled for a few more days.

“I think that’s my cue to go.” Brian said, clearly uneasy at the mention of Dr. Whitechapel. “I’ll let you know when I have some results.” Brian shook Py’s hand with a ‘good luck’ expression on his face before giving the squeak-ish woman a nod and walking off into the warren of shining white walls that made up his floor.  

Py took a better look at the girl as Brian departed. She was a mousy little thing, the type often found in and around laboratories. Though she wore the same black scrubs as Brian, the dark cotton bulged to accommodate a rather large sweater, a feature Py recognized as common among the female occupants in the Underground.

“So, what does Ben want?”

“Well, that is, Dr. Whitechapel wanted me to say, or rather, what he wanted me to ask...he wants to know if you’ll come down and meet him in the lab? He says Alice wants to see you.”

The nervous little creature could have been Py a decade ago, before life and experience had given him some perspective. He would have had more patience with her had she not presently represented a very small fish in a very turbulent ocean of thought. She was clearly uncomfortable, both in life and to be around. What was Ben up to? He hadn’t sent an email. He hadn’t texted. He hadn’t notified Py through the very encrypted, very private Alice-Bridge. Instead, Ben had sent Miss Mouse here, inconveniencing not only her, but Py by way of social convention. Py couldn't just stuff her in his pocket like an unwanted text, he was forced to acknowledge her in the here-and-now. Expected to suffer her politely. Expected to give a response by way of the social contract. Py had to consider that this was some sort of test. To see if the awkward messenger would crumble under the weight of her assignment. To see if Py would sacrifice social niceties to indulge his perpetual obsessions. If Ben had reviewed the Alice Query logs from yesterday he would have seen that Py had been up nearly the entire night compiling a corpus of poisons and diseases not only unrelated to his current assignment, but well outside the bounds of the beta program. Py didn’t know if Ben was aware of the Alleyman Project, but if he didn’t know he was clearly sniffing.

“I can’t come now, sorry. I have a date with legal, I’m afraid.” Py said, turning and pushing onward to the exit. “But tell Dr. Whitechapel I send my compliments. Alice is performing very well.”

“Ahh, well, Dr. Whitechapel wanted to know why you were asking Alice about the deaths in the alleyway? And something about pharmaceuticals….? I think?”

Py stopped and heard the gentle shuffle of feet behind him do the same.

God damn you Ben. Why must you make things so difficult.

Py turned to face the girl again.

“Just tell Ben I’ll come by when I can.”

Py took a step away before stopping unexpectedly. He faced Miss Mouse again, a puzzled expression on his face.

“Wait... you said Alice wants to see me? What does that mean exactly?” The thought had blown by Py before in his desperation to escape. The idea that Alice might want to see him didn’t make sense in context. Perhaps his mind had filtered her words for this very reason. Did Alice really ask for him? Or perhaps this girl, in her nervousness, had misspoken.

She shrunk a little at the sudden stop and unexpected question, appearing even smaller now than she had before.

“Oh, well she’s worried.”

“Worried?” Py asked tilting his head a little to one side. “That seems a very human concern to attribute to a data engine^” Py was doing his best to be non threatening as it seemed any amount of criticism increased the girl’s anxious tendencies.

“I, well.. I guess I don’t really know^” She squeaked back, immediately aware of the vacant failure her response represented.

Py gave a sigh of resignation. “I’ll come by when I can. Enjoy the rest of your morning.” Py made sure the dismissal was more explicit this time and turned again for the exit. The thought occurred to him a few steps away from the maglift that he hadn’t asked her name, or for that matter how she’d found him. Py was inquisitive by nature, and they were tempting questions, but less tempting than the desire to reach the maglift before she said anything else.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Query 1.04: Harlequin


Mark was putting away his gear for the day. The oscilloscope was tucked away in the corner with inputs empty; all its cables neatly wrapped and ready for whatever analysis needed doing in the morning. His microscope was already swung out and away from his station, his soldering iron tinned and properly stowed. He’d just finished the addition of some status LEDs to a breadboard for the benefit of engineers who weren't blessed with oscilloscopes, or the wherewithal to use them. Say what you would about management and their prejudice, stuffing him in a dark corner, repeatedly passing him over for promotion, but Mark made the prototypes that kept the company running and any engineer in ‘the know’ came to him when things got muddy.


He paused a moment at his workstation, debating if emails could wait until morning. There were a lot of issues with the iris recognition modules in the new security drones: ICs in brown out, IO lines with impedance mismatch. The little things the amateurs missed. The little things that make and break projects. Leaving things unfinished was not in Mark’s nature. The unanswered mail would rest all night like a splinter in his mind, but it was late and Mark had to admit that he was done.


Most of the office lights were down and the hallway echoed the familiar clip-clop of his own tired feet. The security door beeped pleasantly to acknowledge his departure as the magnetic lock disengaged, and the hydraulic rams gracefully swung the heavy door outward. Mark took the short elevator ride to the the parking garage and nestled comfortably in his car a moment later.


“Home.” he said, the long day making his voice flat and affectless.


“Going Home.” The car replied in its pleasant synthetic voice. Mark had always hated that voice. Atvia Motors had buried keyboard input for the built in GPS when they expanded voice control in the new model year. Typing may seem archaic to some, but even a short conversation with your car was more irritating to Mark than a long conversation with an actual person. Once again, power users had been forcefully relegated to the realm of the lowest common denominator.


Every year the garage became less relevant as more citizens normalized to the growing fleet of affordable driverless cabs. Even more scarce were cars with good old fashioned rubber wheels. Mag Lev was the way of the future and a service Delphi offered publicly on all major roads, but Mark didn’t spend all his time in the city, occasionally visiting relatives in the outskirts far beyond the range of Mag Lev. Plus, rubber still gave the best feel when the accelerator was down. It had survived with the connoisseur much like the standard transmission. No enthusiast would be caught dead without it, regardless of inconvenience.


Oberon Corporate headquarters loomed over Mark’s departure. Where the building would block the sun in the day, the lights in and around never let proper darkness encroach on its territory. This edifice was weight pressing on Mark’s back until the car finally pushed into the welcome repose of night, beyond Oberon’s domain.


Now, the word ‘night’ in Delphi was not synonymous with ‘dark’. White diffused light beautifully illuminated the clean city streets. Tiny lantern drones with bright glowing bellies hovered over the road, piggybacking on the Mag Lev system. Even now pedestrians strolled the tiny shops and restaurants of the Uptown district. The nooks and crannies that radiated like little veins between the holdings of the various megacorps were filled with life. In other parts of the city these thoroughfares would have been nothing but dirty little alleys, but here they thrived with couture fashion and rave 4-seat restaurants. High profile executives and noted scientists, flush with cash, fed the sprawling micro economy. Young engineers, full of love and hope, escorted interests on their special days. In the more sparse areas, between the little alcoves, lantern drones would occasionally break formation and follow directly overhead, faithfully providing clear personalized light to supplement the tender ubiquitous glow that hung persistent, like a blanket, over the entire district.


Shit peddlers. Most of them, anyway. All decorated and polished, glittered and shiny. Mark could see through the fakeness, through the veneered and gussied exterior to the septic brown. First adopters enabled the flow of garbage by purchasing buggy, overpriced gadgets and hideous impractical clothes. They dined on impossibly perfect, photo worthy meals, made with techniques they didn’t recognize and exotic spices many of them couldn’t even taste.


Then there was Old Town. Almost like falling off the edge of the world. The bright illumination gave way to a patchwork of antiquated streetlights. Perfectly paved roads transformed into serviceable asphalt. A coarse gravel sound under the tires replacing the oh so gentle hum of the manicured thoroughfares in Uptown. The apartments and shops here had a strange, ageless sensation. The vinyl siding on the ‘newer’ buildings was indestructible and would have been utterly ignored by time if not for the thick oily dust that had sloughed over them in thin greasy sheets. Windows were foggy and unwashed. Alleyways were dark and impenetrable in the night.


As Mark moved deeper into Old Town, the buildings were brick and steel, sweeping Art Deco corners and crowned tops, designed to match the vintage aesthetic of the 1920s. This was Delphi’s first heyday, before the Great Depression ended the age of the skyscraper. Reclaimed bricks and wood pushed the boundaries of the illusion, but anyone familiar with the architecture of the period could see the influences of modernism and postmodernism, revealing original from counterfeit. Although the point was largely moot, since virtually nothing built before 1950 was still standing.


Street by street, Mark glided through the stucco and painted concrete into a place of comfort and security. All the inane questions of his managers, all the interruptions of his peers, the million inconveniences of occupation were left behind in the short jaunt from Oberon to Old Town.


The car settled to a stop at a red light behind a few other late night commuters as a small slew of hovering cars glided along the cross street. Mark watched them pass with some small interest, meditating on the inevitable infiltration of the corporate monster.


Clang!


Mark turned his head sharply as the loud crash sounded in the alley to his left. Squinting, he peered through the window into the darkness at a classic steel and chrome scooter, draped in a distressed, feminine form.


Unmistakable, especially to the more discerning gearhead, there it was. Laid over on it’s side, the 2010, GTS 300 Vespa. Restored to the iconic canary yellow, the chrome of its side mirrors and trim winked in the flickering backlight of the alleyway. More impressive still, wrenching at the machine to pull it upright, was a woman.


Even from a distance, in the rather poor light, the silhouette was enough to make Mark’s jaw go decidedly slack. In that moment Mark beheld what seemed a contradiction - an antique scooter and a contemporary female. Her pants had to be painted on, with patterned webbing along the legs to expose skin of an almost iridescent white. Her riding jacket was much the same, tight and form fitting in a way only diet, exercise, and doctoral augmentation could provide.


It was a bad place to break down and a bad time of night to do it. That Vespa weighed over 300 pounds dry and by the way the girl was fumbling it was clear she’d never laid it over before. Mark couldn’t leave a damsel in distress, especially when he was so perfectly the man for the job.


“Car, pull over and roll down driver’s side window.” The car quickly reversed and parked against the curb. As the window came down the young woman dropped the scooter the few inches she’d managed to lift it from the ground.


“Miss...do you need any help?” Her head jerked up and Mark thought he’d frightened her, but her face split into a smile of perfect teeth, white as her skin in the flickering light.


“Would you? I was trying to take a shortcut when this died on me.” Her hand splayed open indicating the Vespa. “I’ve never laid it over before, and turns out I can’t even lift it.” Her head bobbed downward with her hand coming to rest at the back of her neck. Her posture was shy, embarrassed even. Mark couldn’t believe his luck.


“Of course I’ll help!” Mark said, a little louder than intended, pulling open his door and making his way toward the woman.


……………………………………………………………………………………………………………..


The particulars may have changed, but the art was the same. The tiny Mark, moving to complete his quest as the noble hero.


Choreographed.


...patient…


The movement. Life, even the facsimile of life, was incredible.


The damsel, lovely in the moonlight.


...a little cut…


Mozart, even Beethoven, couldn’t move their fingers so deftly. So poetic as to inspire bravery and romance with a tug this way, and a tug that. Dance, the bait danced and her partner danced too.


Caution.


The Mark was so plump with answers.


...a little string…


From here everything was small.


Patience. Always patience. A moment, or a hundred.


To strike too soon was to fail.


The illusion will not hold forever.


Soon he will be suspicious.


Small things were beautiful and they never looked up.


……………………………………………………………………………………………………………..


As Mark drew closer to the mysterious woman the stench of the alley grew more palpable. His nose was flooded with the scent of decay, probably emanating from one of the many rancid piles of trash. The sweet, sharp fragrance of her perfume was dramatic, mixing strangely with the rotten smell. Her lipstick was dark, almost black in the dim light of the alley. From this distance he could see thin lines of it moving from the corners of her lips, across her cheeks, up almost to her ears. It gave her face a strange costumed appearance, like she’d fallen out of a Victorian masquerade.


As Mark moved into the alley she backed away to give him room, her motion smooth, almost gliding.


She turned her face sheepishly as he watched her. Mark understood. Getting stranded in a dark neighborhood in such sparse attire would feel awkward for almost anyone, he imagined. As she began her next phrase he saw tiny white glints emanating from the deep lines of her lipstick and Mark thought for a moment he could see the tips of her teeth peering out from the sinister makeup. Whatever she said, Mark did not hear it. Her shoulders, just visible beneath the deep neck of her tightly fitting jacket, were unnaturally thin. When her arms moved they raised slightly, as if she were shrugging with every gesture. The thick, black choker around her neck seemed jagged and too tight, like it was eating into her. For a moment, Mark imagined the thinnest ray of light shining through her neck. Mark’s gaze became uneasy and he moved it to her deep round eyes for the comfort he thought he would find in the acknowledgement of his chivalry, but there was no comfort. The eyes stared unblinking. Their size, far larger and rounder than he had ever believed possible. What eyes he had imagined as almond and lush under the shadow of her hair had the sickening sheen of an old, peeled grape.


The girl leaned down again as if to retrieve something from the ground, but at the last moment she collapsed like a ragdoll, her arms and legs twisting in on themselves to create a disjointed pile of clothing, skin, and bone.


Up to this point Mark had, with some success, been able to relegate the inconsistencies of the situation firmly behind his desires to be a ‘good samaritan’, ‘help a damsel in distress’, and the optimistic hope for a little reciprocation. But with the literal collapse of his muse, the urgency of those more base impulses were screaming at him to GET THE HELL OUT!


Mark twisted to run, every muscle poised to launch toward the car and safety...but the alley was blocked. There was no street behind Mark anymore, no car, no safety, just a massive hulking something that stretched the breadth of the alleyway. Mark wondered how he hadn’t heard it. Something that big didn’t move without being heard. Whatever it was, it was black. Not a familiar black. Not the black of a raven, or ink, or asphalt. It was a nightmare black. A hungry black. A place where light went to die. Suspended in that voided space was an outline. A rorschach arrangement of thick yellow lines. Was it a face? A skull? Elongated and grotesque, Mark couldn’t tell.


Before he could take another step, another breath, thick limbs, hard and strong as steel hooked under his arms and legs and began lifting him into the air. It was not a forceful gesture. It felt almost loving as he was pulled toward the creature. Mark began to wriggle in the things grasp, only to find two impossibly sharp points had been fixed at his temples. Mark’s body jerked instinctively and he found that, while his lower body flailed about, his head was held fast. Mark didn’t realize he was screaming until the sound of his voice was gagged by the force of something darting into his open mouth. It scraped against his teeth, prying his jaws apart.


In a way Mark didn’t understand, that he would never understand, the needle end of the thing in his mouth jointed upward and punctured just behind his uvula. It pushed into Mark’s cerebellum and with a jolt Mark began to remember… and then remembered no more.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Query 1.03: Early Bird


7:30 sharp and Py’s leather soled shoes scraped the surface of Cain’s short, stiff carpet. Even at the top of the tower they expected the stuff to be bland and last forever. It had taken a few quirky double steps to align his footfalls with the chime of the half hour, but Py knew the effect would not be lost on Cain who was occasionally a smartass and practically the inventor of the dramatic entrance.


Py liked Cain, which is more than most can say about their boss. He was easy to talk to. Easy to jest with. More than that though, Py liked the raw competence with which Cain navigated the world. It was that duality of playfulness and proficiency that made Cain unpredictable. But while jest was his hobby, serious was clearly his profession. The man was a jaguar with a ball of yarn. Cute, until he’s hungry...or annoyed. Or thirsty. Or until the moon was full. Or until he didn’t have his gilded bag of crackers. Cain was cute until it was too late. Cute until he was behind you in the darkness and you realized you were all out of yarn.


It was all too clear that this was a predator's lair. Pictures on the wall displayed him with giant trophy fish, thundering race cars, and peaking, majestic summits. Every picture showed a man possessed of a fierce competitive essence. Even a picture of Cain simply lounging in a recliner suggested that no other person could lounge more effectively than Cain.


Cain was only just beginning to show signs of age. His black, slightly thinning hair adorned a head fixed firmly atop a fit, strong body. Cain would often peer over the top of thin, black glasses he used mostly for reading, but clearly enjoyed for the weight of experience and power they invoked. He had a strong square jaw where fine lines had appeared on the forehead and at the corners of his bright amber eyes. Cain’s mouth always seemed to contain the promise of a smile and that almost-smile was present now. This Vitruvian Man was wrapped in a charcoal suit Py suspected was worth more than the entirety of his own wardrobe. Cain’s unshakable confidence - the untouchable confidence of a man with a set of invincible, contract negotiated, corporate artifacts. The Golden Handcuffs: benefits, payments, immunities, indulgences, and other things Py could only guess at. Things designed to ensure Cain’s loyalty should anyone ever try to poach Vergeron’s most able employee. And of course, the Golden Parachute, requiring Vergeron to pay an exorbitant amount should they ever need Cain to go away. Py suspected that should Cain ever need to leave it would be quite the show. A flashy fun adventure starring Cain jumping from a plane with a cocktail in one hand, a cigar in the other, and lesser people all around him, screaming as they plummeted to an inevitable stop.


Cain had himself a corner office and, without question, one of the best views Delphi had to offer. Rather than start the conversation, Py walked over and gazed out into the vast cityscape.


Vergeron had the distinction of sitting at the peak of the commercial district, a testament to what money and the material sciences could accomplish when put together. From a distance the Vergeron tower looked to be a perfect ovoid, a shining egg, looking over Delphi in silent elegance. Inviting, yet aloof. The tuxedo you rented for your brother's wedding or the pearl necklace everyone could afford, but still makes you feel, for a moment, like aristocracy. This was the image Vergeron had worked hard to invoke: sleek, spotless, smooth, and safe, bereft of the hesitation and terror innovation so often inspired in the masses. The great egg’s exterior lattice superstructure was rumored to be made of a single sculpted piece of high density, translucent polymer that focused all sunlight into a series of photovoltaic solar cells that powered not only everything Vergeron related, but some unknown amount of Delphi’s infrastructure. The black polymer had an eerie appearance despite the architects best efforts to maintain the otherwise comforting shell. The efficiency with which the polymer captured light created an unnatural black, a void, impossible to understand if you haven't seen it with your own eyes. Even in the darkest of night the spider web of black could be noticed by its absence, any windows illuminated from the inside flying like diamonds set in space, hovering strangely.


New Delphi was a tremendous example of starting from scratch. Huge sections of the city had been burned and abandoned during the height of Rapture. In time, great monuments and parks had been erected to honor the memory of the contemporary folk heros of the great plague. The unfortunate consequence of any disaster and subsequent restructuring is the violent, predatory consumption of land. Like any fresh carcass, the apex of the food chain will devour the most desirable parts and leave the gristle for the vultures. Bulldozers and cranes pressed the few remaining occupants into the ‘nobody-cares-where’ as towering megacorps formed New Delphi, taller and shinier than in any part of its history. Other, smaller bits of corporate architecture speckled the horizon until there were none at all, coming to the shadowed mass of muted blacks and browns that was Old Town.


Py had seen the view before and saw none of it now. He stood in a kind of parallel world, his vision blurred, the visual cortex repurposed for deep thinking. He was lost in the intellectual curiosity of the previous evening. He was tired, and still a little euphoric at the revelation that he was not only still alive, but unlikely to be contagious. Obsession dictated that a small part of his thought process linger on the idea, even while work and personal issues were pressing. The ideal scenario, in Py’s case, was a hybrid of theses many worlds. He wanted Cain to allow him to direct some portion of his time into research. It was what he’d be driving for with this meeting, whatever Cain’s intentions.


“Explain again how you ended up in police custody?” Cain asked, not looking up from the various and sundry screens and interface systems of his light-desk.


Py remained facing the window, placidly addressing Cain’s reflection rather than turn and face him directly.


“I was examining a dead body. It was all perfectly innocent, I assure you.”


“Your assurance is noted. Honestly it reminds me of the first time we met. Only there were more bodies, and fewer lawyers. You never did get the chance to examine them yourself. Forced to survive on just the coroner's report and a few tasteless press photos. I wonder if you’re not developing some kind of fetish?”


Py shrugged and turned around. Cain had put his glasses aside and looked at Py with that promised smile now full on his face. Py was glad Cain was in a good mood. It made what was coming easier. “It was sufficient to confirm my hypothesis, besides I’ve examined the symptoms in other patients, I know all too well what I would have found there.”


“Indeed!” Cain said, “And it was enough to bring you to my attention. But that is neither here nor there. You remember your assignment? You were suppose to find out why people will buy the Chronicle for a dime when they could get the Times for seven cents? “


Now that’s a bit of an oversimplification.


Py’s assignment was to discover why Hearst Communications newspaper division was outperforming NYT International’s newspaper division 2 to 1. Once he discovered the “why” Py was tasked with developing countermeasures. The assignment was a curveball, only just fitting into Py’s wheelhouse as far as expertise went, but he suspected some influence brokers from NYT’s board of directors were involved in this and that his placement at the head of the inquire was for trust reasons more than anything else. It had seemed interesting enough. Something new that Py could sink his teeth into. Interesting enough… until last night.    


Py didn’t have the answers Cain wanted. He’d only begun working the assignment when he found the body. Cain was just doing what any boss in his position would do, bring an employee to task for being distracted while on the job. Still, Py did have some information.


“The NYT machines reject transactions.” Py said.


“Which machines?” Cain asked, clearly puzzled.


“Have you ever heard of the Federal Right of Information Act?” Cain gave a little shake of his head, so Py continued. “It basically states that every person has the right to know what’s going on in the world around them. That every person should be able to get there hands on a cheap, reliable source of news. With the baby boomers gone print media saw a crisis. The only thing holding them together was the traditionalism of a bygone few who worshiped at the altar of tangible, touchable product, and with them in the ground they found they were soon to follow. Depending on which conspiracy you adhere to, the government was worried about the loss of jobs and taxable industry after machine learning had completely replaced the report writing sections of the profession.” Cain’s smile got a little wider at that. Py didn’t know for certain, but he suspected one of Cain’s first acts as Vergeron’s CEO was to negotiate the replacement of certain biological assets with robotic ones at most major news outlets. “So, news became a protected commodity. The FRI Act was an easy sell. Now the federal government provides subsidies to all printed media that can reasonably be defined as news, making possible a long list of jobs from the person who changes the ink cartridge all the way back to the guy who chops the logs. Some pessimists think that the government filtering money into the news industry might make for biased editorials. Whatever side of the fence you land on though it’s basically just a screen capture of the website distributed on an industrial scale.”


“I’ve seen the paper machines on the curb. I hadn't given much thought to why they’re there. How many people are actually buying these papers?”


“Not many… and more than you’d think. They’re popular with the homeless, good for blankets and kindling. They're popular with teachers and parents for pinatas and baking soda volcanoes. They’re popular enough that almost every machine I checked needed to be restocked.”


At least, the Chronicle needed to be restocked.  


“Most digital currency vendors have a minimum transaction amount to offset the cost of making the transaction. A vendor must provide special authorization for any transaction that could result in a loss of income based on fees. Something NYT overlooked when they discounted the paper to compete against HC.”


“How many sales could this really cost them?”


“Not many in the direct sense. I have to imagine that word of mouth about a paper that no one can buy might be damaging to their reputation. Enough maybe to explain at least part of the discrepancy in sales, but they only discounted their paper a few days ago. Even if this was an international screw up it doesn’t factor into the data we were given.”


“Well, good to know you managed to get something done despite wasting time in police custody.” Some would have thought Cain was being dickish, and he was, but there was no malice in it. He was doing it because that’s what Cain did. Sarcasm was a social weapon and one that Cain had spent years honing to say and do things others would be crucified for even mentioning. It served him well, if money, power, and prestige where metrics for such things. Unfortunately for Cain, Py had a tried and true defence against Cain’s more sardonic tendencies - complete and total disregard.


“Productive as I could be, given the situation.”


“Alright, I’ll see the client’s informed. Anything else?”


And here we are. Moment of truth.


All last night and through much of the early morning Py had considered how best to breach the subject of his discovery. He’d asked Alice more questions and firmed up the data he had before running and rerunning simulations in his head of how this talk with Cain would go. He’d finally decided to make an appeal to expertise, his own in this case. It was one of the few things he knew Cain would respond to and certainly one of the stronger cards he could play. He just hoped it was enough.


“I had an interesting encounter last night with an undocumented toxin or pathogen. I did some research and as of now I have 34 candidates who are strong possibilities for having died of this unknown agent and another 4 who are likely in my position of having survived contact.”


Cain looked across his desk with a kind of fatherly, patient resignation. “Old habits do die hard, don’t they.”


Py ignored him and pressed forward, enthusiastic and unfazed by the not so subtle implication in Cain’s words. “Of course my first concern was to eliminate the possibility of an epidemic. Since, according to Alice, the 34 deaths occurred over a period of about 4 ½ months, I don’t think that’s the case.”


“Alice...that’s Ben’s project?”


“Yes, I’m one of the BETA users. I’d been planning on using her to analyze distribution trends for the newspaper.”


“But then you got distracted.” It was clear that Cain was doing his best to gently maneuver Py away from his latest of seemingly endless distractions. Py, for his part, was having none of it.


“I haven’t completely eliminated the possibility of disease, but now I’m leaning more toward something chemical than biological. I did find a fairly harmful toxin that’s being distributed in Delphi, although it wasn’t the one I was looking for.”


“And you deduced this how… using Alice?” Cain looked sceptical and for good reason. Py was burying the lead here, but Cain was hesitant even to entertain the idea that Py had something convincing enough to let his employee stay his current course.


“Actually you might find this interesting. Cross referencing several medical records I noticed trends in elevated anxiety, depression, disorientation, lost time, and loss of consciousness leading to several accidents and self inflicted injuries. I was able to loosely associate these symptoms with specific neighborhoods and then, more specifically, to a handful of pharmacies. The toxin in question seems to be part of a new prescription medication called cycolobensinite, distributed by Genos Pharmaceuticals. Although only medications from certain pharmacies seem to be contaminated. Given the regularity of the trend I suspect the contamination could be intentional.”


“...come again?” In all the things Py could have offered, in the incredibly tiny subset of possibilities he knew would be of interest, the head of a competitor was top of the list. Cain’s eyes had widened at the statement, his pupils had dilated, and he’d unconsciously moved forward in his seat. Py had his full attention.  


“I think different pharmacies are receiving different medications all labeled under the same name.”


“Why would they do that?”


Py couldn’t help but smile. “Well, if I were a less scrupulous version of myself, I’d say they’re attempting to skip the last year of clinical trials by running controlled experiments on the general public.”


“That’s, that’s brilliant!”


“You mean diabolical, right?”


“Yes, diabolical,” Cain waved his hand about as if shooing a fly, “and you figured this out using Alice?”


“She’s quite clever, but Alice doesn’t have everything I require. I’ll need forensics if I’m going to learn much more.”


“About the pharmaceuticals?”


“No, the other toxin. I was hoping you might indulge me and let me track this thing down.”


Cain brought his elbows up and rested them on his desk, crossing his fingers under his nose, all the better to fix Py with that same weighing gaze that Officer Logan had given him just a few hours ago.


“How sure are you?”


Py gave a snort of laughter. “As confident as a sleep deprived, massively caffeinated beta user of an experimental data engine with seeming access to an unverified corpus of medical records can be.”


Cain relaxed noticeably at that. It seemed Py’s self referential nature was enough to soothe some of his misgivings.  


“Py, Genos is a big company with a substantial lobbying power. An accusation like this could cause a lot of trouble if we're unable to prove it.”


“The test is simple if we can get samples of the medication. We probably have all of the equipment needed on-site. How you present this publicly, I leave to you and the lawyers to sort out.”


“Well said. Discretion being the best part of valor, keep this to yourself for the time being. I’ll let you know if I need anything else from you in this regard.”


“Understood...now, about my project?”


Cain let out a sigh of resignation. There were few relentless enough, brave enough, and with enough capital to ask favors of Cain in the best of circumstances. Py managed it regularly.  


“Alright Py, how much is this going to cost me?”


“Given what I estimate the value of the information to be, minus legal fees, limo crackers, and my bonus, I guarantee you’ll at least break even.”


“Let me and the lawyers be the judge of that.”


“Don’t worry, I don’t want anything too extravagant. I need to analyze some samples from the alleyway. I’d like access to any police forensics, and of course, time to put everything together.”


“I’ll ask after the police forensics, but I make no promises. Send me specifies and I’ll see what I can do. Just remember that section 3 of your non disclosure/non compete is still in effect, so anything related to your own case needs to go through our attorneys, and in regard to that, you have a meeting with your lawyer in an hour. I expect you to make it.”


“I figured it was unlikely I’d escape lawyers for long anyways. I know I already asked about police forensics, but if you could try and rush my blood test, I’d really like to see that first.”


Cain started laughing. Not a snort, or gafa, or giggle, but a deep boom that filled the room and made Py want to join in. If not for the fact Py knew he was being laughed at.


“What’s so funny?”


“Hahaha..you..ha...you really think they’ll have the results of your blood tests!?” Cain said, bringing himself under control. “Py, the city labs are months out. If you got your results this year I’d be impressed. This is one instance where your past experience is a little skewed. Just use our facilities. You’ll have everything you need by EOD and a more thorough suite of tests, besides. I recommend that’s where you start.”


Cain tapped his light-desk and a soft bluish light touched his face.


“I’ll put you in contact with a lab manager in the Underground. You can run all of your analysis tasks past him. Now, I’ve got work to be doing and so do you. In the meantime, don’t forget about the Times.”


“Alice and I are talking about it tonight.” Py said, making his way out. His mind was nowhere near the NYC assignment, but he felt it unwise not to offer Cain a farewell placation. “I have a few ideas on what might be going on.”
……………………………………………………………………………………………………………..


The door closed behind Py with a soft click, and Cain was left in the silence of his lair. He had to shake his head in amazement at the innocent destruction with which Py traveled the world.


Cain often wondered if Py was aware of the deep consequences his small musings caused, of the ripples he created, drowning lesser beings without thought. Billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and the health of people dependant on medications from Genos Pharmaceuticals throughout Delphi, destroyed in a single mornings exercise. And all because it tangentially intersected with Py’s latest curiosity.


“Glados.” With that single word a familiar face appeared on the desk in front of him. It was a kindly face, one that had seen him through some of the more sensitive moments of Vergeron’s history. There was always a beautiful face on the floor, the exact kind of face one would imagine given Cain’s power and reputation. He was too vain for anything else. Behind that facade was Glados. Cain had terminated dozens of aides, all of them having kept more in line with this vain aesthetic, but none could do the job to his satisfaction. Until the frumpy grandmother he’d taken on recommendation inherited the mess of his many previous broken assistants and had it all in proper order by the end of her first day. Since then, Glados was as much a fixture of Cain’s day as the perfect coffee she had waiting for him every morning and the decanter of scotch that remained bottomless since her arrival. “Py has an appointment with Miss Chiller in an hour. Make sure he gets there. Ask Chiller to tie him up for a few hours. I need to verify some information. Also, put together a dossier on Genos Pharmaceuticals. And set up a meeting with Ben Whitechapel regarding Alice. I think it’s time we had a project review.”