The video was a snowy mess of noise. Axalis suddenly felt himself with a splitting headache. Text began to appear unbidden in the view of his mechanical eye:
Cymanager override complete.
Firmware compatibility confirmed.
Beginning data merge.
Axalis blacked out.
* * *
Jordan Burk checked the time on his watch. 20:15. He realized he should call his wife and let her know he would be missing dinner again. He desperately did not want to do so, but he forced himself to withdraw his handheld PC and press the buttons to dial his wife's handheld. After a couple rings, her face appeared on the screen. Jordan's wife was attractive, a light blonde with big eyes and soft features. But right now those features were glaring at him.
"I suppose this isn't to let me know you're on your way?"
Jordan hesitated, then finally bit the bullet and said it. "No. We're under pressure to get the case wrapped up before the election, especially with the jumper yesterday, but there's not enough evidence to close it. I need another few hours to look into some more of these loose ends. You should eat dinner without me."
"You know, Jordan, some of us manage to finish our work within the normal eight hours and come home for dinner. Maybe you would make more progress if you took some time to relax?"
"I'm sorry, it's... just this one case. I promise when it's done I'll take a long vacation and we can spend the whole two weeks together."
"I'm not asking for that much, Jordan. I just want you to have dinner together sometimes."
"I'm sorry," he repeated.
"Look, I'll tell Mags to put your portion in the fridge. You can flashheat it when you get back. At this rate, I'll already be asleep by then."
"Thanks," he said downtroddenly, and sat there as his wife ended the call. Finally he returned to his work rig and began reviewing the facts of the Morse Biotronics case again.
To be continued...
Axalis really wanted to pop the memory chip into his wrist socket and see what it contained, but he had no idea where it came from, so that would be a great way to get a backdoor inserted in his cymanager, or worse. Instead, he pocketed it and started walking.
The streets were busy today, like they were every day. Axalis kept to the slow side of the pavement, while to the side of him various autocars hurled by at breakneck speeds, and above him the jetpod channels were themselves growing congested with traffic. Everyone was in a hurry to get somewhere. Axalis himself strode purposefully, though he had no destination in mind, and finally, spotting an shady-enough-looking establishment that he'd never before patronized, ducked behind a heavyset man wearing a thick coat into a black-light-illuminated... café, apparently.
Giving up on his earlier determination to start boozing at this hour, Axalis decided to kickstart his critical thinking with the strongest coffee this place offered, and found a seat near the darkest corner of the building to sort things out. He declined the server's offer to drop reflective sugar flecks into his drink, and, barely even sipping at the bitter black concoction, set to work on deciphering his situation the way he knew best.
First, he dug into his bottommost inside pocket and withdrew a handheld PC. This was an unpopular model, designed for the declining majority of people who didn't have a cymanager and some sort of network access incorporated into their person through implants. This handheld only had enough power to perform the lowest common denominator of tasks -- making calls, locating people and places, ordering groceries, and playing primitive games -- and it was poorly-designed enough that even these tasks were a chore for most people. This clunkiness, while it had done very little for sales of the model, served a purpose for Axalis, which is that it made this model an unlikely target for carpet-bombing hackers. Its designated functions were of little impact anyway, and he had loaded the little device with programs of his own design. He used it as a sandbox and a dummy for interacting with unsavory people and unchecked software. To that end, the model had one feature that was ideal: its battery was very easy to remove and put back in.
Axalis fished around in his pocket until he found the miniscule chip, and clicked it into the memory socket on the handheld PC. He was lucky it was one of the mainstream formats that this handheld supported; then again, if it had been his in the first place as Gladerice had suggested, that was by design, not luck.
Nothing happened visibly on the handheld when he inserted the chip, which was a good sign; he ran a quick analysis using a tool he'd written for this handheld, and it failed to detect any autorunning code or illegally-formatted data blocks that might be used to buffer-overflow his cymanager. He would have Baskerville inspect it thoroughly later, just in case, but for now he was satisfied. The only thing that seemed to be on the chip was a simple video, using only a tiny fraction of the memory chip's capacity. It was in a format designed for playback in ocular implants, so finally he plunged the chip into his wrist socket.
Axalis took another sip of the decidedly spine-tingling coffee as his cymanager picked up the video. Resting an elbow on the table, he covered his organic left eye as, in his other one, playback began.
The Black Spot Port was an establishment with two categories of clientele: the kind who dressed up in motley arrays of jackets, breeches, and silk layers, and made lots of noise and hubbub; and those who wore nondescript gray and black getups, and receded into the noise of the former crowd as if it were a shroud around them and their dealings. It goes without saying that Axalis was normally one of the latter group. But tonight was different.
The audio system of the Port was booming some sort of heavily sliced and re-textured sea shanty when Axalis ducked through the door. He scooted past a fake palm and scraped beyond some cacophony of dreadlocks and bangles that Axalis could only assume had a person beneath. He forced his way to the bar, where a bonnie wench whose busom looked fit to burst from its corset offered mixes of rum and worse. Axalis knew this girl, who went by the name Gladerice, though he had no reason to believe the familiarity was mutual.
"A Dandy Jack," he ordered, "with Elizabeth's Charm." The former was the Black Spot Port's signature drink. The latter was code for a certain additive which the establishment had no license to serve, although its availability was widely known.
But Gladerice looked at him with a dawning shock that culminated in the discrete declaration of, "You!" and left no doubt that no Dandy Jack would be had by Axalis this night, let alone any of Elizabeth's Charm.
"How can you be back again after last night?"
If Axalis had been on alert before, he was now quickly ascending to panic. "I- Why not? It was all, a, uh, misunderstanding."
She glared at him with a look that told him she didn't want to play games. Axalis only hoped she would go along with this one long enough for him to figure out what had happened to him. "The police don't let people off so fast, misunderstanding or not," she hissed.
This was bad. The police? Why didn't he have any recollection of such a run-in? Never in his life had Axalis been so wasted that he would forget being involved with the police.
"Look. Um. Sorry," he said, and left a few coins on the counter without taking anything.
"Wait," the voice of Gladerice sliced through the booming sound of bass and piccolo. "You left this here last night. We don't want anything to do with it." She handed over a memory chip the size of a fingernail.
"Thanks," Axalis said, and left.
Also see Missing Cycles part 1.
This wasn't new to Axalis. More than once in the past he had, in some stupor or other, decided to change his password and forgotten entirely what he changed it to. Normally he would at least remember the fact that he had changed it, not that it mattered much. The solution was the same. Axalis carefully unplugged the transceiver card from his rig. On normal devices, the transceiver would be a tiny circuit built into the device's frame, but for Axalis's rig, he had an entire card module to hold it, specifically so that he could unplug it and run in offline mode. Nothing else was secure enough. Axalis input a series of keystrokes that took him to his secret back-door, culminating in a 14-character secret code he had memorized long ago. His screen sprung to life and logged him in.
After changing his password back to a new value, Axalis plugged the transceiver card back into his computer and began picking up where he had left off. His current job was to investigate a certain politician for signs of anything shady: connections to the underworld, infidelity or sexual deviance, drug history. It was election season, and certain parties would rather not see him return to office, so they paid Axalis to find or create the evidence that would start a scandal. It was all very usual.
It was then that a certain file folder caught his attention. He didn't remember having a folder with his birth name on it. He opened it and started poking through. There were histories and records of his own activities. A copy of his birth registration. An employment history ending abruptly at age 19. There was more. Chat logs linking his birth name to his screenname, chats betwee his account and to his associates in the network. News articles on big jobs that had been associated with his identity. It was as if someone had been investigating Axalis from his own rig, and he didn't remember doing any of it.
Axalis's paranoia began to set in. If his computer had been keylogged, then it was possible that at this very moment, someone was receiving a package containing his personal secret code, the same one used as an emergency backup on all his devices. Sure, running offline as he had done was a decent countermeasure, but only if they weren't caching the data until it went back online. His self-inspection Sniffer, Baskerville, wasn't reporting anything abnormal with either the network activity on his rig or its own identity hash. That wasn't a guarantee that everything was safe, but it was probably a good sign.
As a precautionary measure, Axalis fired up Baskerville's predecessor, Hardy, and set it to work in parallel. Baskerville wouldn't be pleased by the intrusion, but Axalis figured it was better to be a little oversensitive about security right now. Meanwhile he began looking through the documents in the folder about him. Could he have been investigating himself? It seemed strange to forget about it if he had. There was one particular file that stood out to him, labeled Notes, and with almost no contents. It simply had a single address written in it. It was the address of a place Axalis had used many times, as an anonymous meeting spot.
Fueled by curiosity and against his own self-preservation instincts, Axalis decided to head to the Black Spot Port and see for himself. He left his rig in Crawling mode with the caution level set higher than usual, and grabbed his coat. If he was lucky, he was freaking out over nothing, and a quick jolt of the good stuff would clear up his problems entirely. Axalis sure hoped that was the case.
Axalis stood on the brink of disaster. In front of him, the concrete ended and the thick summer air stretched down forty stories before coming to an abrupt end at the street. Behind him, the echoes of footsteps resounded through the stairwell, signaling his incoming pursuers. "So it has come to this," he mumbled aloud.
Jordan Burk kicked open the door to the roof with the full force of resentment. He saw the hacker standing on the ledge top, raised his gun. "Give up, Axalis. You don't have to die for this. Turn yourself in."
Axalis took one look over his shoulder, his face a complete blank. If Jordan had been asked, he would have said it looked like the last emotions had been drained out of the man. The last look was merely an instinctual reaction to being spoken at. Then Axalis took one step beyond, and even before Jordan's reflexes fired his gun, the hacker had vanished from sight. The shot echoed into the dead summer's night as two more police finally reached the top of the stairs. Huffing, and puffing, Lt. Shande asked where Axalis had gone. Jordan didn't hear him.
* * *
Axalis did not dream well. He had once enjoyed dreams of falling, flying, soaring through the endless space of uninhabited air. But he awoke in a cold sweat this time, almost certain he had just faced his own dream-death. You were supposed to wake up before it happened, he thought... but what should happen is not always what does happen. Axalis felt the phantom pain of crushed limbs and a skull leaking his life-blood into the corrupted night.
The radio was blaring out a wake-up call to Axalis when he awoke. "Look around us," it said, "at the world we've made. Look at the achievements of industry. Look at the quibbles of politics. We've spent hundreds of years advancing technology to the point where our lives are meaningless. Our greatest advances and developments have left us with a life that is easier than we can handle. We go to incredible efforts to merely perpetuate our glut of free time--"
He shut it off. Axalis wasn't interested in some pseudo-religious rambling this early in the morning, especially when his head was throbbing like this. He must have had a hell of a night to be so hungover, he thought to himself. Yet, he could not remember a single detail about the night. Where he had been, and why... they were a mystery to him.
Without stopping for breakfast, Axalis fired up his hacking rig. It hummed to life with a familiar rumble, and Axalis punched in his password as usual. It didn't work. He entered the same password again, in case he had made a typo the first time. It still didn't work.