The First Chapter in the “Blue Sky” Chronicles - by P.J.ANTHONY
CopyrightÓ Brisbane, 1992, 2001, 2006, 2007, 2011.
Deep in his heart, Harry had always known that his best friend, Fredrick Fosdyke, would one day come to no good. Always drifting off in Transient School, always thinking about something that had absolutely nothing to do with anything worthwhile at all. To the others at the VRA, those classmates who jeered and taunted him relentlessly at the Virtual-Reality Academy, he was a feather-brained jerk, always knowing the difficult answers, sometimes even showing signs of true genius, but never fitting in with their self-styled hedonistic fashion of the day.
Fredrick was that unique human being whose mind was always galloping off in a new direction, always seeking solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. Never content to leave curiosity alone, Fredrick could always be found where trouble was brewing, his tattered cap askew, his eyes alive with questions.
And now he lay inert, or, thought Harry to himself, taking extra care not touch anything at the death scene, those few bits of Fredrick's body that were still recognisable lay inert, and were definitely finished with life as Harry knew of it, for a long, long, time.
Harry scratched idly at his balding head, hunched up his shoulders in defeat, then waved the waiting medicos over, to lay claim to the bloodied and shattered remains of his once best friend.
"They didn't get his soul, you know," a soft voice whispered in Harry's water-filled ear. He turned slowly like a lumbering bear, fixing his fifty-year-old cop's eyes on the speaker. A small man, neatly dressed, face in shadow, hands thrust deep into coat pockets, the drizzle forming small rivers of sparkling water where it gathered and was repelled from the small-force field that covered his hat. Nothing in his slightly frumped manner hinted at his intentions, or seemingly postured a menace.
"Why do you say that?" Harry asked, his curiosity overcoming his instincts. Something didn't feel right, it hadn't from the time he had received the emergency call at home. But his gut told him that this dapper little man wasn't any real threat, and his friend Fredrick had spent a lifetime collecting all manner of strange, bizarre friends, of all shapes and sizes, from every level of the six available Strata, and before that, from all over the O/S. This could easily be one of them.
"I saw it all. They didn't get his soul," the stranger stated emphatically. He removed one hand covered in a pale goatskin glove from the depths of his coat pocket, and pointed to a small puddle of slime and mud in which rested a single finger, hooked in the rictus of death like a cracked parrot's beak. Harry scratched his head again, comfortable in the thought that this little man was well qualified to have been one of Fredrick's friends. Obviously weird, and as mad as a hatter. Who bothered to wear simskins in this day and age?
"Did you know him?" Harry asked, his detective's natural caution preventing him from naming the victim. A sudden chill ran down his spine as the little man suddenly looked up into his eyes, the red light from the flashing beacons emphasising the hollows under his cheekbones, making his face look like a well-worn skull. The rain repelling force field that surrounded his hat flickered with a greenish-blue glow, further creating the illusion that Harry was staring into the face of a ghost.
"Yes, like you, I've known Freddie Fosdyke for years. I still do!" he said, laughing softly as he slunk off into the night, only to be temporarily restrained by a uniformed officer at the floating barrier, then waved on his way at a nod from Harry. He could find him again, easily, or why would the strange little man have slipped him a business card? Harry turned it over in his hand, smoothing the water from its surface, and peered at it in an attempt to read the tightly hand-written flowing script.
`Temporal, Majestic, and Intra-Strata Problems Solved' it said, and Harry suddenly felt the chills start to run up and down his spine again, causing him to hunch his shoulders over, cracking his neck cartilages in the process. He held the card up to his face, the better to see the neat lines of small print that scooted across the bottom, so cramped they seemed to almost fall off the edge of the card.
`The difficulty in this plane of existence is that the longer you partake of it, the harder it is to remember the other dimension you have forsaken.
If you believe in the absolute integrity and indestructibility of your soul, then you too can Revert At The Sparking of the C-MOS-FET'
Harry almost tore the card in half, his sudden fury at this seemingly stupid and vacuous mumbo-jumbo boiling to the top of his brain like a volcano. For relative years now, there had been rumours of some out-of-the-way group fostering the intransigent attitude that the techno-migrants were "captives" of some higher intelligence civilisation, spread out amongst the six Strata against their will. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Harry always felt an immense sense of frustration whenever he came across such drivel, but freedom to be stupid in the six Strata was guaranteed by the Individual Rights Chip, and that was that. Every person was free to develop their intellect, and direct the shape of their lives, in any direction they chose. The only limitation was the absolute preservation of the environmental energy balance.
The laws of Thermodynamics and a few other well known energy conservation principles just to list a few.
He breathed deeply, quieting his heart, which had suddenly started to bash his ribcage in anger. He slipped the offending card into his pocket, and started to walk back to his car, the last image of his friend Fredrick looming over him like a nightmare. Somehow, seeing just the tattered remains of someone made it seem all the more unreal.
Harry sighed, letting his mind recover from his shock. Why would someone take out such a harmless crank like Fredrick? A timid, curious man, who had never harmed a living soul in his whole life, and as far as Harry knew, not even squashed a pseudoant or electrobug! He shook his head, almost blindly stepping right through a thin and spindly plain-clothes cop who had been looking for him. He frantically grabbed at the apparition, swaying like a drunk.
"Sorry," Harry muttered under his breath, bouncing off the other cop's personal force field. "Sorry."
" 's okay, Harry. Do ya wanta details?" The Irish-Italian accent fought its way out between wads of synthetic chewing tobacco and bubblegum, but then, Angelito Valmorbida, or just plain Angie to his close associates, was not one known for the finer graces of good grooming. But a better investigative cop you would never find on any of the four hundred PCB's that made up their unique world.
Harry nodded, slouching down somewhat, to match the lower stature of his partner. He flicked the small button-switch on his cuff, allowing his repellent force field to bloom out and cover them both, keeping the worst of the freezing sleet from slipping down their necks, and aggravating his tired bones.
"Wella, everyting 'hokay until twelve-ten relative Universal time, thena the Local 897th. Precinct registered a Halo Disturbance that ran six and six on da Scare Scale. They got a floater down here within seconds, seen nothing, were about to go home, when da poopa hit the sleet." Harry smiled at his partner's mixed metaphors, mulling over what kind of device could generate enough energy to go six-six on the Halo Disturbance Scale.
"Any idea what it was?" Harry asked, passing a synthmint over to his partner, its edible wrapper already dissolving in the humid air, leaving sticky tracks all over his fingers.
"Na. Something that big could tear a hole between all four hundred boards, and we don't got anything like that anywhere that I know off no more. Outlawed from the start, remember?" Harry nodded his agreement. Ever since it had been discovered that the intensity and frequency of the super cooled gallium arsenide plasma lasers, or SCGAPL's as they were know as, created vicious atmospheric disturbances that threatened the very stability of their unique Universe, all Field Effect Transmissions had been outlawed, and the devices that produced them destroyed.
The electromagnetic generators that replaced the SCGAP lasers were just as good, if not a little bulkier, but within a generation or two, it was expected that this slower, clumsier, but less individually satisfying form of earth shaping would be totally accepted by the migrants. No one needed to point out that their very existence and sanity depended on it.
"Go on," Harry muttered, chewing his synthmint.
"Well, it'sa all ona bubble, ya can see it for yourself." With that, Angie fired up what looked like a miniature hand-held colour computer, with an add-on bubble memory disc. A stunningly sharp image swam into the tiny screen, flicked and rolled for a second, then settled down. Angie took up the commentary as the fast-moving camera angles provided by the life-support monitors zoomed into the scene. "It went like this, see. First a three dimensional hole appears 'bout six meters off the grass, just over there. Then these three hoods appear, wearing repellers and optical disguises. They rush up to the stiff, snatch something offa him, then blast him from three sides. Before the floater can get to them, they're back into the hole, which zips shut, and it's all over but the singing."
Harry scratched at his head again, screwing his face up in the process. "Their personal shields contracted to get them down to board level, that I can see. But how did they get back up?" he asked. Angie just shrugged his shoulders. To him, those sort of details were irrelevant. He wanted to taste the blood of the killers, and just as soon as possible. How they worked their particular type of magic was of little interest to the tough cop, whose simple philosophy on life often turned his superior's hair grey.
Harry smiled, content to pursue his curiosity later. He pushed his hands down further into his long coat, as if to help warm them against the biting chill of the induced storm. His world might well reflect the absolute pinnacle of technology, as known to man, but it still managed to bug the living daylights out of the average citizen!
"So we're looking for someone that has access to a space-worm or better, can locate and home in on a single manbios from inside a neutrino-derived FET shield, and has enough generator power to go six-six on the HDS while they're doing it." Harry stroked his chin, furrowing his brow in concentration. "And they have enough clout topsides to come and go undetected. That about it?" he added.
"Yeah. You make it sound so simple!" Angie replied, slapping his partner on the back. They both started off towards Harry's car, sitting calmly forty centimetres off the pavement, dual red and blue beacons beating at each other as they flashed furiously inside their small force screens. It looked impressive, but was anything but, as any cop knew who had tried to chase down any speeding vehicle in one.
"I'ma sorry about Fredrick," Angie offered, opening the hatch for Harry.
"Thanks, he was on my intake. We went through VRA together. Me, I couldn't understand half of what they were getting at."
"Anda Fredrick could?"
"Yeah, Freddie could. So fast, and so well, he was actually creating images of his own before we graduated. Had this idea that if he could design a truly portable VR Generator, he could solve most of the problems that were anticipated with the boilover. Used to send the Teachers nuts, not to mention the Techo's!"
"Ana did he?" Angie asked, his curiosity peaked. Harry paused, considering the question. Did Fredrick succeed with his wild idea? Harry suddenly realised that he had never bothered to find out, and a sudden flush of embarrassment turned his neck and face puce-pink. He shrugged his shoulders, slipping into the small cockpit of the Patrol Floater.
"Don't know. See you at the office." The clamshell door slid silently down after him as he hit the "Locate" button, waited until the compumap flashed its acceptance of his instruction, selected the icon that represented his home, then sat back into the plastic seat as the floater accelerated, whining out into the central traffic flow. Outside, the sleet and wind went about their pre-programmed jobs of making the conditions thoroughly miserable, quickly filling the wake left by the speeding floater with all manner of refuse. While Minendo was basically a clean environment, there always seemed to be little bits and pieces of things flying around, like motes of dust in the late afternoon sun.
Far from achieving the Designer's ambition of preserving elements of Topside normalcy, all the rubbish did was make Minendo look perpetually grubby!
Harry reached out and touched the vision controls, scanning the news faxes and inbound optical transmissions, anything to keep his mind off the disturbing memory of Fredrick's unfortunate demise. Angie's question still rattled around in his mind, so he decided to honour Freddie's memory, and pursue the issue first thing in the morning. If Freddie had made the breakthrough he was so positive was possible, then he'd find out about it, and put Freddie's ghost to rest.
His beeper suddenly went berserk, and instinctively he snapped the video switch on the small dashboard, punching in his personal code. The small screen that carried the moving map display flicked, blanked, then blossomed into life with the chaotic image of Angie, pointing at an unseen camera.
"They've done it again!" he shouted, ducking the swirling blades of an optiocopter that threatened to cut his head off. "Same MO as before, but this time they took out a Commissioner and two Councillors." Harry studied the digital video images of the new crime scene, again personally revolted at the horrific carnage the mysterious murderers were dispatching so wily nilly. The tiny screen only gave him a small field of vision, but he could clearly see bits of human flesh and limbs lying askance, some floating and bobbing wherever manufacturing imperfections had created indentations in the orange-brown PCB, allowing the spent blood to pool.
"Send the bubble to my home," Harry said tiredly, referring to the bubble memory chip that would hold all the different video angles, and commentary. "I'll still see you in the morning."
" 'hokay, Boss. See ya!" On the screen, Angie turned and started to walk towards the milling crowd, just as his image was replaced with that of Control Central. Captain Bellamy's unsmiling face swam into view, over the top of a flashing screen instruction that said, "Overriding local signal".
"Harry," the Captain barked, as if he were talking to a recently trained pseudodog.
"Captain," Harry barked back. Both men smiled, physically relaxing. They were long-time friends, comfortable with each other's strengths and weaknesses, and outside their very necessary professional relationship, still shared many off-duty hours communicating with each other.
"Well, Harry, here we go again," the older man said quietly, bending forward towards the unseen camera. The effect of this was to create the illusion that he was leaning into the front of the cop car, to sit on Harry's lap.
"Yes, looks like it. How much do you know?" Harry asked, sinking back into his seat, letting the cop car carry on getting him home automatically.
"Not much. Just the side band of your last message, and the videocomps of Fosdyke's murder. Sorry, he was a good friend of yours, wasn't he?"
"Yeah." Harry thought for a second, scratching at his head, a habit he seemed to have suddenly adopted for the duration of this particular investigation. "Did you check the EMS levels?" he finally asked. The total energy available, both psuohuman and otherwise, was constantly monitored by a series of Electromagnetic Management Systems spread out across the six Strata, just like in the old days where electrical energy consumption was measured and delivered for a price by Power Companies.
The big difference this time, was that if the EMS didn't do their job exactly, perfectly, and before time, the six Strata could well fold in on themselves, annihilating Minendo, and every virtual presence in it.
"First thing we did. Whatever they're doing, their power source comes from outside. The manbios are down by the equivalent factor of an additional three presences, and we're showing a small leak between boards three and four. Probably caused by the field-effect-transmissions when they broke through with the space-worm."
"Yeah, that makes sense. Have you got ID's on the deceased?" Harry asked, a nagging thought starting somewhere in the murky recesses of his tired mind.
"Yes, exactly as called by Angie Valmorbida. The crimecomp is searching for possible links between the four people removed, and is also searching the entire migrant data bases to establish individual locations at the time of both incidents." Harry thought about that for a minute, while his floater zigged and zagged around the CapaCityTowers complex, seeking his humble home buried deep within its bowels. A modest man of modest means, even in this, the most high-tech city ever built on Earth or any other Planet, he preferred the peace and quiet of the outer fringes of the board, rather than the more ritzy central core.
Besides, from time immortal, cops lived quiet, reserved lives, far away from the flash and dash of their counterparts, the criminal element that always seemed to balance the best intentions of any society with their antisocial attitudes. He smiled to himself at the sudden thought that even in the strangest of circumstances, Mother Nature, or perhaps God? always managed to balance things up!
"Okay, enough. I'm practically brain dead. Let's take this up again in the morning," Harry said, fighting back a huge yawn. The Captain grunted, snapping the connection before Harry could wish him "good night", but that's the way he was. To most people, blunt to the point of eruptive rudeness. To those that worked with him, tightly focussed with no time for fools, but a man who delivered on his promises, and could be trusted, utterly. Two qualities that were in short supply in the New Age of planet-wide chaos and disaster.
Harry's floater glided to a silent stop under the dripping eves of his apartment, and the door hissed open to let him out. He was so tired he barely managed to switch the car off as he struggled out, wrestling with his damp coat.
The next thing he was conscious of was the holographic window pouring buckets of artificial sunlight into his face, and his egg timer shrieking at him to attend the breakfast table. He took the time to quickly scan the pile of data sheets his video had spewed out onto the floor while he had slept the sleep of the dead, occasionally mumbling to himself as a specific fact or detail registered, juggling the flimsy reusable plastic digipaper between slivers of burnt toast dripping with undercooked raw egg.
"Harry, I have a call for you," a pleasant female voice called from the corner of the untidy room. Harry waved one hand carelessly, almost sending globs of yellow egg yoke slithering onto the electrostatic field that fought tirelessly to keep the floor clear. It briefly sparked in pseudo anger, as if to remind him to watch his manners.
"Accepted", he mumbled, not bothering to look at the screen, acknowledging the voice of the auto-summoner.
"Hi, Harry. It's Mike. Angie asked me to run down some reports and things for you, how do you want them?" Harry stopped in his tracks, a sliver of toast poised at his gaping mouth. He wondered what Angie was up to now.
"Downlink them to my car," he muttered, catching a drool of yellow egg just before it broke away from the bottom side of the toast.
"Okay, Harry. No sweat. See ya!" the young datavoice said to an empty room.
As Harry emerged from the microwave cleaner he wondered briefly what it was that had worried him so much last night, but his mind had dispatched the information to the nether regions, deep within his subconscious somewhere, so he let it go and headed out into an artificially brilliant sun-lit morning. He knew better than to try and force something out, before it was ready. It hadn’t worked in the real world, and it had never worked down here.
With his floater safely programmed to take him to his office, he tapped his wrist controller and focussed on the small video screen that faced him.
"Speak to me," he commanded jokingly, happy with the thought that he at least had the energy to crack a funny, even if it was only with a dumb machine!
"Okay Harry, nice to talk to you again," the datavoice called `Mike' said. "Now, first up Angie asked me to track down the last stored movements of one Fredrick Fosdyke, since confirmed as extinct in this Strata......." Harry winced at the emotionless, rational description the master computer had allocated to his friend's sudden death, sucking his breath in between clenched teeth as he paused the data flow. As his pulse lowered, he released the image, which continued on in the same measured tone, as if it hadn't been disturbed in the slightest, ".....since twelve fourteen relative Universal Time, 2011. Do you want the data by day, in reverse order, or ..." Harry cut the computer off, suddenly remembering what had bothered him the night before.
"Quit current data. Specific retrieve," he ordered, watching as the video image of the talking head warped and twisted as it tried to keep up with the sudden change in programme Harry was demanding.
"Subject?" it snapped back, its voice several octaves higher, imitating an angry clerk in the Public Service of long ago. Even in Minendo, City Hall still ran things, as its computers enjoyed reminding everyone at every opportunity!
"Fosdyke, Fredrick, migrant intake twenty-oh-six-six-niner foxtrot. Specific data on miniature Virtual Reality project, all Strata, Topsides, O/S, and all time frames, in ascending chronological order." The screen rippled with fuzzy colours as the video circuit tried to imagine what image Harry would like the data presented by, then simply gave up, switching to a plain white background with a set of ruby red lips in the centre.
City Hall had never had a sense of humour!
"Time zone 2001, month seven, Virtual Reality Academy number #343, USA, subject submitted Patent designs for a portable Virtual Reality unit with an assessed reality performance of 89.90675%. Patent refused. Subject applied for second assessment in month eleven, same year, same VRA, reality performance now 93.76504%. Patent refused. Relative Time zone 2002, month three, Strata five, Virtual Reality Minendo, subject created Halo Disturbance level seven-four, damage sustained on PCB #45473, casualties one hundred and fifty nine manbios units. This event, in conjunction with others of that time frame, led to the banning of all SCGAPL devices in month five. Time zone 2003, month ten, VRA #343 USA, subject applies for third assessment of earlier device, reality performance now 99.8996%. Patent finally refused after full-board review, in perpetuity, month twelve. Subject data-stream ends. No further data on this specific request relative to subject available from any source."
Harry suddenly sat up in his seat, bumping his head on the plasto roof lining as he did so. "Did you say that he applied for a third Patent at the VRA?" he asked. The lips seemed to quiver, as if being asked to repeat something, was more than they could bear.
"Yes." The lips blurred and started to thin out in the corners in anticipation of Harry's next question, which wasn't long in coming. Machines were still quicker than their almost human counterparts.
"He actually applied at the VRA in 2003?" he asked incredulously.
"Yes." As far as the lips were concerned, a fact was a fact, and the video sensor found it hard to cope with the rising body temperature of its user, uncertain as to what images it should create to placate him. It decided, logically, that the lips would do, but rapidly changed both the colour and the shape, not wanting to be discarded as a communication failure, or wilful program.
What it had not sensed was that Harry was deep in thought, completely ignoring the video and the data link, and completely immune to the antics of the datavoice. He now had two bits of incredible information to work with, and his cop's instincts were fairly buzzing.
The floater pulled into the Precinct Station, and Harry, whistling a tuneless melody between stained teeth, eased himself out and walked briskly into his office, ignoring the repetitive calls of the baffled datavoice.
He punched his desk monitor on, ignored his electronic mail, and went straight to his personal, double coded and locked data files. A few short key strokes later and he was sitting back in his chair, feet on the desk, listening to his PC summarise the personal and professional histories of the Commissioner and the two Councillors who had been killed the night before. It didn't take long to find what he wanted.
"Repeat last ten seconds," he ordered. The same sulky voice that had spoken to him in his floater, rearranged its priorities, and complied with his request.
"Time zone 1998 to 2002, subject Ronald Kent served as Chief-of-Staff VRA #343 USA. Migrated under instructions from the Director-General, relative time zone 2003, month one. Confirmed Commissioner, Strata five, on arrival." Bingo! Suddenly he had three pieces of the puzzle.
Harry closed his eyes, letting his cop's suspicious mind roam free around his hunches, his guesses, and his instinct, certain that he was headed in the right direction. The age-old triad of Motive, Means, and Opportunity were still the best place to anchor an investigation, even in the most sophisticated environment man had ever created.
He was sure he now had a Motive. The Means would have to be investigated Topside and O/S, and he was sure that the Opportunity would become more apparent when he managed to nail down the Means. He looked at the computer's screen, his blurred reflected image staring back at him.
"Interrupt. Direct classified call to Oscar-Sierra, contact niner-niner-six, connect now," he ordered. The video rippled its discontent at having to change its mind, yet again, but within seconds, Captain Bellamy's rugged face swam into view, just as a protective scrambler force field erupted around Harry and his desk. From outside, it looked like he had been suddenly attacked by a dense, impenetrable dirty grey fog, which flickered at the edges with an angry electric spark.
"You've put some of the pieces together," the Captain barked, leaning forward so far in his chair that it looked to Harry as if he was about to fall out of the screen and into his lap.
"Yes. But I need your boys to tie some things down for me."
"What kind of things?"
"Research all contacts between Fosdyke and Ronald Kent. Find out who, when, and why Kent was allocated migration. And I need an HD map for the last five years."
"Standard or relative?"
"Standard. But you asked that first question as if there is somewhere else as well. Have you created another Virtual Reality Environment?"
"Maybe, maybe not. I'll get back to you," the Captain snapped, disconnecting before Harry could pursue the point. But his agile mind fairly romped with enthusiasm at this new thought, because if there was a new destination for the migrants, a sister destination to Minendo, then he might have just been given a small piece of information that would help solve another side of the crime triad. Means.
He punched up Angie's communication code, and waited for an acknowledgement.
"Hi ya bossman, what'sa up?" the effervescent young Cop asked, unfazed at being rudely woken up from a deep, and apparently much needed sleep.
" 'hokay. On my way." Harry sat back, using his wrist controller to reorientate the video back to where he had interrupted it, before he had spoken to the far away Captain Bellamy.
"Continue with data," he said, leaning back into his chair, and dismissing the security fog all in one fluid motion. With a loud crack, the electrostatic security barrier disappeared, leaving the smell of ozone in the air, as if a thunderstorm had just passed through the room.
"What subject?" the sulky voice asked, this time from the face of a well-presented middle-aged woman, similar to the newscasters of old. The datavoice had tired of the lips, and was equally tired trying to anticipate Harry's rapid mood swings.
"Councillors, recently deceased. Addendum to Kent data". The screen flickered almost imperceptibly, and the face smiled.
"Continuing report. Time zone 1999, month two, VRA #343 USA, Professor Jon Johannesen appointed to Physical Research Laboratory, with Doctor Edward Summerville appointed his assistant. Both men awarded migration status time zone 2003, month four, appointed Councillors of Strata-Three and Strata-One respectively on arrival."
"So we're looking for the person that awards migration status Topside and O/S, and the person who appoints TOA's in here," Harry muttered to himself.
"I beg your pardon?" the video asked somewhat haughtily, annoyed at the molecular level by the seemingly irrelevant data Harry has just vocalized.
"None of your business," snapped Harry, spotting Angie as he entered the Squad room.
"Hi ya Harry, what's up?" Angie asked, a cheeky grin splitting his handsome face from ear to ear.
"I need you to do some leg work," Harry answered, pointing to the other side of his desk. Angie quickly sat down.
"First, I need to track the physical movements and habits of Fredrick Fosdyke. Any one month period will do, but it has to be thorough."
"And I also need to know who is responsible for the appointment of Strata Officials." Angie's brow furrowed in sudden concentration.
"But Harry, migrants come here with a designated job and title, don't they?" he asked.
"That's what I thought, too. And I guess in most cases, it's true. But sniff around the central core and see what you can find." Angie shrugged his shoulders, it wasn't for him to reason why, and, besides, in the three short relative years he had been assigned to Harry as his assistant, he had learned more about being a good cop than in the previous fifteen years he had spent on the crime infested streets of New York.
Harry watched his young partner leave, then reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the wrinkled business card he had been given the night before. He dialled the communication code and watched, fascinated, by the custom designed screen that popped onto his video. Swirls, 3D geodetic shapes, and a myriad of colours flowed over each other as the little man's face swam into focus. He was obviously a programmer, or knew a very good one, Harry thought to himself.
"I've been waiting for your call," the dapper man said, with the same insane chuckle rattling around his throat as he had made at the death scene. Harry smiled back, now completely sure that he was on firm ground. Confidence was often the precursor of genuine knowledge, and he suddenly looked forward to the conversation. He activated the security fog again, waited until he was sure it had settled all around, then sat back in his chair and put his feet up on the desktop.
"You have a means, or are in direct contact with, someone from Topsides, from Oscar-Sierra," he said, watching for the telltale eye movements that would precede an evasive answer. The video screen had sensors at both ends that monitored heart rate, body temperature, and brain-wave patterns, so lying was almost impossible. But there were always shades of the truth, and Harry believed that his gut was still the best monitor of what was really going down, his natural distrust of machines surfacing again. The little man just smiled, almost serenely, Harry thought. But his eyes were firmly fixed on Harry's, and didn't so much as flinch as he answered.
"Yes. Just like you."
"I see. Is it an official link?" Harry asked.
"None of your business."
"I can make it so," Harry said, the lack of threat in his voice if anything giving an even harder edge to his statement. The little man still didn't waver. Either he was used to pressure from the cops already, or he thought his contacts had the clout to keep them in their place. Harry didn't like this thought, snapping out of his introspective thoughts as the man replied.
"Why bother? I'll answer any question you care to ask, there's no need for you to interfere in my little enterprise." Harry considered his options, finally deciding on the middle course of apparent reasonableness. He could always change his mind later, and besides, his gut still told him that the dapper man was no recognisable threat.
"Okay. First question. Why the scam and mumbo jumbo about other dimensions, and this nonsense about `Reverting At The Sparking of the C-MOS-FET'?" he asked.
"What better cover for someone that has access to the O/S?" the little man counted. "Besides," he added, shifting in his seat so that his face seemed to loom over Harry, "I've turned my ability into a thriving business. I provide a datastream both ways, and just like the Mediums of olden days, I provide a channel, an outlet as it were, for people's anxieties."
"Do you do Séances? Appearances? All that stuff?"
"No. Much better than that. I actually get derived digital video and play it to the customer first hand. They provide the questions, and my O/S contacts find the live personalities - if they are still usable, that is, and generate the computer graphics necessary to provide accurate images and answers."
"How come you've never been detected?" Harry asked, more as a means of giving his mind time to digest what he was hearing than of trying to find something out. He was both amused at the ingenuity of the little man, and horrified at the implications. Trouble was, he wasn't too sure which emotion was the strongest.
"I don't consume any energy that's monitored here in Minendo," the dapper man replied. Harry was stunned. Maybe, just maybe, the big "M", Means, was about to come rumbling through his videcomm, from the mouth of a modern-day shyster.
"What? That's impossible. Everything, both O/S, and here in Minendo, is monitored in both actual and relative time-streams to the quadrillionth of an erg."
"No it's not. There are secret read-only-memory, bio-integrated-intelligent-operating-systems, you know them as ROMBIOS, that go all the way back to the original programmers. I'm not going to tell you where they are, because you could shut them down, and put us all out of business. But the inherent programming subset allows those in the know to tap into a neutrino stream that has more transmission power and provides more bandwidth than anyone knows what to do with. And the fact that I do what I do, and you have never suspected it previously, proves that it works, doesn't it?" Harry reluctantly nodded his agreement. It did at that, and this funny little man was right. If he could find the subsets, he would shut the illegal power stream down if he could. Time to change subjects.
"How long have you known that Fredrick wasn't really in here?" he asked, hoping to catch the little man off guard.
"Since he first arrived. It was my communication system with the O/S that drew him to me in the first place." Harry nodded to himself, it was all starting to stack up.
"He needed to tap into the ROMBIOS source to maintain his presence, just in case the O/S suffered a power spike that threw the grid over to an alternative generator."
"Explain that to me," Harry asked, baffled. He was a cop, not a computer freak, and while he was more than grateful for what computer science had done for him, he never pretended to totally understand what it was all about. The little man smiled, enjoying the prospect of tickling Harry's curiosity. Sometimes a little knowledge went a long way!
"Well, if the O/S grid switched, even for a millionth of a second, there'd be a phase shift in all the computer generated images. Not much, granted, but enough for someone like yourself, or a technician, to notice if you were watching for it." Harry sighed, waving his hand around in frustration.
"Could you put that in plain language?" he pleaded. The little man smiled again.
"If you were directly interfacing with me, say, on the street where we met last night, and the power cycled as I described, I would appear to blink out from your perspective." Harry sighed again, deeply, deciding to let this particular issue go, not sure if pursuing it was worth the brain agony of trying to understand.
"Are there others using these ROMBIOS for illegal power generation?" he asked, trying a different tack. The little man hesitated, as if he were turning the question over and over in his mind.
"Not yet. At least, I don't think so. But you never can tell." His image faded from the video, and inspite of Harry punching back the little man's code, the screen stayed blank. Which meant he had dedicated control over his communicator, as well as his own free unlimited power source! Something he'd have to chase down another time, Harry thought to himself ruefully.
He stood up, killed the security fog, and stretched his arms up over his head to get the kinks out of his shoulders and neck. It seemed the older he got, the earlier his aches and pains started every day.
What a case!
Unknown assassins with a space-worm, secret power sources so powerful that they provided unlimited two way access with the O/S, and little dapper men who earned a living out of conjuring up ghosts of long dead relatives out of computer data files and CGI.
Incredible though it seemed, Harry was forced into believing the evidence as each complex piece turned from hunch and guess, to hard, verifiable fact. Trouble was, he didn't know exactly what he could do about it here in Minendo. He was just about to expand on this thought and sit back down at his desk when suddenly everything around him went grey, wavered and flickered rapidly, then disappeared like so much used security fog.
Harry instinctively snapped on his cuff controller, throwing his force field out to about ten centimetres all around his body, and watched as he suddenly seemed to be standing on a small shiny disc, floating in a perpetual sea of dirty orange mist. Overhead, a radiant blue and orange light flickered, sending bolts of razor sharp white light down past his face. His disc attached itself to one of the bolts, and suddenly he started to rise as if he were in an elevator.
Which I am, he thought to himself, knowing that the proton stream he was travelling in was surrounded by a carbonfibre optic casing. At the speed of light, and even at Harry's relative slower elapsed timeframe, it only took nanoseconds for the plasma disc to reach its destination. Harry recognised the synoptic terminal for what it was, nothing more than a super high-tech bus stop, and stepped off the plasma disc. Suspended in nothingness, he waited patiently, his hands stuffed into his crumpled coat.
The first time he had done this he had been so scared he could not willingly open his eyes!
Within a few heartbeats, a room folded itself around him, and Captain Bellamy, a woman, and two unknown men dissolved into focus, their bodies arriving just a fraction of a second before the floor and the furniture, creating the illusion that they were disjointedly flying through space and then sitting on nothing in the open air! Within another heartbeat, Virtual Reality reigned supreme, and Harry took the liberty to sit down first in a form-fitting chair that had been thoughtfully provided for him.
"Harry, these two gentlemen represent the President, and Marion you've met before," Captain Bellamy said, pointing towards the svelte blond woman with lean, Slavic features, and penetrating blue eyes. Harry nodded to the two Presidential Aides, feasting his eyes on Marion Harper, the VRA Psychologist who had been his last touch of human flesh.
"Hello Marion," he said, his mind struggling to remember the perfumes and textures of her tanned body.
"Hello Harry, you look good," she said. Harry laughed, embarrassed.
"I can look however they choose," he replied, inwardly pleased that she was comfortable with being personal with a completely computer generated three-dimensional holographic image. The Captain drew their eyes with a deliberate cough, waiting until he had their full attention.
"Okay Harry, you can socialise later. You wanted an HD map of the last five years, Fosdyke's relationship with Kent, and the details on Kent's migration. Correct?"
Harry nodded. The tone in the Captain's voice told him all he needed to know about the Presidential Aides, and he could guess why Marion Harper had become involved. The Captain snapped another holovision into being, and a three dimensional cube filled the space between Harry and his inquisitors. Red and green lines interlaced between a green plane and six mustard-brown coloured rectangles, with little sparking blue and white flashes zipping between all seven strata.
"The green lines are our controlled inputs, the red ones are random. No one had thought to look at the HD's like this, it's revealing, isn't it?" Harry nodded, fascinated with the sheer amount of random, and therefore illegal, activity the model of his world, Minendo, was displaying. Activity that could only mean one thing.
"How many contacts were there?" he asked.
"Wrong question. I'll let the expert fill you in," the Captain snapped, pointing to one of the anonymous Presidential Aides.
"Urh, Sir, while each line represents a transmission, the model is too simplistic to give a qualitative picture. The other consideration is the time duration of each contact." Harry looked at the fresh young face of the adviser as he spoke, wondering if he was using drugs to inhibit body-decomp, or if he really were as young and as innocent as he looked and sounded.
"I'm not sure if I follow you," Harry said, looking at the holovision closely. Using a laser pointer, the adviser singled out a single green line within the cube, which seemed to pulse slowly with a life of its own.
"Look here. This data line is sequenced over a long period, say, around three to four months." He moved the electron-thin light, and selected another green line. "This one is pulsing much faster, indicating a short time frame, say, around fifteen relative minutes." Harry nodded, suddenly understanding the key to the images in the cube. He pointed with his own finger, causing a red line to bend around its shape, like a projected image onto a curved surface.
"So this illegal transmission is about two relative hours long?" he asked.
"Can you tell what was transmitted in either direction?"
"Have you done a scan and comparison?"
"Of course, Sir. The data is waiting for you to draw it down. But I can save you a lot of time if you wish." Harry stared at the young adviser, suspicious of his overt politeness. He was a computer image, no more substantive than any other manbios centred presence, locked into the VR world of Minendo. The youngster was still a real, live, human being, albeit not for much longer. Perhaps the O/S was in more trouble than he realised.
"Please do," he asked softly, settling back into his chair, wishing he had his office desk to put his feet up on.
"Well, Sir, taking the five standard year period you requested, there are a total of seven hundred random transmissions, ranging from milliseconds to months in standard length. Loosely grouped, they fall into three distinct categories." The Aid tuned his pointer by twisting a small knob, and it suddenly branched out into three different lines of coloured light, each of which attached itself to a different red line running between the green plane and the six mustard-brown coloured rectangles, that represented the six strata of Minendo.
"The first category we've logged runs up to one standard minute, and carries burst transmissions, compiled data, and compressed video. We believe that the original programmers designed this mode to provide feedback to the master controller, allowing for constant monitoring and fine tuning of the environment you experience within Minendo."
Harry nodded his agreement. He wasn't a computer expert by any means, but being a graduate of the VRA, and having lived in a Virtual Reality Environment for over three relative years, he understood much of what it took to keep Minendo running smoothly. Or at the very least, the appearance of doing so.
"And the second category?" he asked.
"Runs from one to fifteen standard minutes. Definitely illegal, high enough power levels to facilitate real-time transmissions, both data, CGI, and video."
"These are the streams your strange friend uses for his mystic activities," the Captain added. The adviser paused until he was certain that he wouldn't be interrupted again, then continued.
"It's this third stream that the President is really interested in - the one that is obviously being used to sustain artificial VR Personalities in Minendo. It runs anywhere from one standard week all the way to one standard month." Harry shrugged, he had already grown used to the idea that his friend, Fredrick Fosdyke, had used this system, or one like it, for some relative years, and once he had overcome the natural shock of this incredible technological slight-of-mind feat, the broader details were much easier to swallow. And in a very strange way, less threatening.
He nodded silently to himself. Amazing how just the simple process of learning about something reduced the natural fear one tended to experience! And now he had a brand new piece of information, and potentially a very valuable one. The President of the remaining United States was personally interested in this case. And that could only mean one thing.
"How long has the President to live before migration?" he asked softly, watching the eyes of the two "Aides" for any reaction. It wasn't long coming. As if linked by a data-stream one-hundred-and-twenty-eight-bit fibre optic cable, two pairs of eyes narrowed in unison, the pupils dilating to half their normal size. Almost at the same split second, they relaxed, outwardly calm and collected, as the brain behind each decided, almost in unison, on the lie that would be told. Harry saved them the trouble.
"Forget it. Captain," he said, turning slightly in his chair, "I thought that once a migration decision was taken, it was irrevocable?"
"It is. Or, at least, it used to be. As you know from first hand experience, once your "personality" and your "life data" are lifted, and you enter the VRA, your material carcass is disposed of. Permanently." Harry still shuddered at the thought, even six standard years after the fact. Somewhere at the back of his mind an idea started to form, but not fast enough for him to grasp it immediately.
So he played his usual trick with his subconscious, and let it suck in the data, all the better to process it, in its own good time.
"Are the conditions in real-time still coming apart at the same rate as they were the last time we spoke?" he asked. The two Aides instantly went into their snake-eye routine again, giving Harry his answer. He decided to try another tack. "Okay, then tell me about the other VR Environment that has spooked you so much."
Marion Harper suddenly jumped into the conversation, taking everyone but Harry by surprise. "Captain, we're getting nowhere fast with all this hooded secrecy. I thought you trusted Harry." The three men and Harry's image turned to look directly at her, as if she had committed a major indiscretion. Harry broke the tension with a small laugh, waving his hands depreciatingly.
"Hell, guys, you don't have to worry about me. I've made the transition. I've been in there now for six standard years, and as far as I can tell, my psyche is coping quite well. And after all," he added softly, almost wistfully, "it's not as if I can actually harm you, is it?"
"That's not the point," Captain Bellamy said, so quietly Harry had to tilt his head slightly to hear him.
"Then what is?" Harry asked, his cop's instincts suddenly on full alert. Captain Bellamy looked at each of the Presidential Aides in turn, then at Marion Harper. Seeing neither approval nor disapproval, he took it upon himself to make the final decision. If he were wrong in his assessment of Harry, then mankind as he knew it was doomed.
"Harry, what it comes down to, is that your friend Fredrick Fosdyke has unleashed the biggest can of worms you could ever imagine."
"By creating his own VR Image in Minendo, while keeping his Corporeal form out here in O/S?" Harry asked.
"Yes. In a nutshell, that's it."
"With a slight twist," added Marion Harper. Harry raised his eyebrows, trying to deduce what could possibly be causing so much concern. Then the idea at the back of his mind suddenly formed completely, and he had it.
Once again, his instinct to let his subconscious mind do its own thing, in its own good time, had paid off.
"You can't find Fosdyke," he offered. All four humans stared at him, amazed at the speed of his accurate guess. This was a problem they had been trying to come to grips with for over ninety six standard hours, yet Harry, a mere shadow of his former self, had arrived at the core issue in just relative minutes. And from far less data than they had to work with.
"Right again. You certainly haven't lost your touch," Marion offered. Harry laughed, looking at his CGI hands.
"Why should I? From my perspective, the only thing that's changed is I now live in Minendo, not New York. Crime rate's a helleva lot lower, people are nicer, and there's no pollution or disease to contend with, other than the crap the programmers left lying around for realism."
"Fine, fine, but let's get back to why we're all here," Captain Bellamy said, his acidic tone cutting across the conversation like a scythe. "We've lost Fosdyke. That is, if we ever had him in the first place. And there's hard evidence that he isn't the only one who's bucked the system, and is doing double-time."
"Are you saying that his presence at the Virtual Reality Academy was as VR Image?" Harry asked, in a way that only a cop can.
"Yes. At least, for part of the time. As far as we can tell, Fosdyke passed PhyPro - the physical processing we all have to go through to qualify - in corporeal form. Then between that process and the integration procedure, he apparently substituted a VR Image so good it remained undetected until your relative yesterday, when he supposedly died in a blaze of molecular glory."
"And he did it in real time, in at least two planes, simultaneously," added Marion Harper.
"How do you know when he made the substitution?"
"We back-checked the manbios levels at the VRA Health Centre where you made your transition. The records show the EMS levels have been consistently one manbios short since that time."
"You got onto this when you checked the EMS levels after his death?"
"Yes. We had no reason to check the original base information, until we turned up three units missing for supposedly four CGI's terminated. That's what started the alarm bells ringing."
"And the others you suspect of doing the same?" The room suddenly went very quiet again, as if the four humans were reconsidering the Captain's decision to tell Harry everything.
"Harry, six months after we activated Minendo, we fired up an identical VR Environment as a control. Same number of migrants, same social structure, same methods of selection, same VRA preparation. But with a few additions based on what we had learned from getting Minendo up, mainly to do with the time-frame rate, and the reality-scope resolution."
"And when the poop hit the fan in Minendo, you checked this parallel VR world and found that something similar had occurred?"
"Yes. Only this time we found that we've been missing three units since their original transition."
"No prizes for guessing that they were the Commissioner and the two Councillors."
"And you can't locate any of these people in real time?"
"No. Not even the faintest glimmer of a clue. For all intents and purposes, they have literally disappeared off the face of the Earth, or what's left of it."
"But how can that be? I thought every living soul now had an identifiable radiation signature?" Harry asked, confused at this turn of events. In his last days in the real world, it had been this atomic signature that had provided the clues the scientists needed to understand how to transition a personality into a computer chip, without destroying its sanity.
"They have. But the satellites, for whatever reason, cannot detect these four missing people." Harry mentally withdrew into himself for a minute, letting the information stroll unfettered around in his mind. He had the same feeling he always experienced when he was close to solving a tough case, but this time the problem seemed so vast, he didn't know where to start pinning it all down.
Using another old-dog trick, he let his emotions settle, and tried to break the problem down into its component parts. Trusting his cop's instincts, he thrust his hands deeper into his coat pockets, and stared at the foursome from under his projected heavily bushed eyebrows.
"Okay, first things first. Real-time living is still on a predicted count-down to disaster?" he asked no one in particular.
"Yes," replied Marion Harper, "out latest scans show that the Earth's surface temperature will reach one hundred ninety degrees Celsius in five and a half standard years. We're losing population to advanced radiation induced biogenetically-mutated diseases at the rate of three hundred and fifty thousand every standard month, and the suicide rate has escalated far beyond predictions."
"Double the rate at present. Around sixty thousand, worldwide, everyday. And I think that'll just get even worse as time goes on."
"The ordinary people in the street see no solution?"
"Unfortunately, yes. Even with the excellent results from the two VR Environments, we can't move fast enough to reassure everyone that they will have a place in the future."
"Have any of the Isohabitats that were planned got off the ground yet?"
"Yes. Three. One in Alaska, which is now almost totally submerged, one in the Pyrenees, and one in Osaka."
"Are they working out?"
"No. As predicted, man does not easily live in a confined, subterranean environment, for long lengths of time. The only real success to date has been with the two VR Environments, Minendo and Duoendo.
"Anything in Space?" The two Presidential Aides did their joint eye-narrowing trick, telling Harry everything he wanted to know without moving their mouths, so he rapidly moved on.
"Then what, exactly, is the danger the three, sorry, four, missing men pose to the VR Project?" he asked. For the third time the room fell absolutely silent, and it was left up to the crusty Captain Bellamy to answer.
"We don't know for sure, but from what has happened in just the last four days - two relative days for you - it appears that they can change a perceived VR, they can enter and leave a VR at will, and they can actually destroy a manbios within a VR any time they choose." Harry's synthetic blood ran cold, suddenly realising the enormous power his friend Fredrick Fosdyke had unleashed on an unsuspecting, and rapidly dying, Earth.
And right at a time when it didn't need anything but a total focus on the problem at hand.
"Then we have to find them," Harry stated in an emotionless voice.
"And neutralise them," instructed one of the Aides.
"And quickly," added the other, inadvertently answering Harry's earlier question about when the President was scheduled for migration. In view of the not so subtle pressure being applied by the Aides, it must be soon. And Presidents were made to command and lead, not cower in an artificially computer-generated bunker in fear of their very artificial existence being snuffed out by a rogue, supposedly dead, eccentric inventor.
"Has the VR technology advanced sufficiently to allow me direct access to the O/S?" Marion Harper grinned a little smile, self-consciously looking down at her hands. Hopefully, Harry thought to himself, thinking about the last time he had been with her in the flesh just three short standard years ago.
"Yes and no. At least, to the untrained eye, someone that doesn't know what to look for, you could pass for a live human in most static controlled environments." Harry thought about that for a second, then a slow smile started to form, the tips of his lips curling up in a not unattractive way.
"Angie Valmorbida's report stated, and I saw it for myself on the crimepic, that just before Fredrick Fosdyke was so violently eradicated, the killers took a small object out of his hand. I've got three questions." Harry paused, waiting for one of the four humans to take up his challenge. After a quick look around the other three, Captain Bellamy signalled for him to continue.
"Okay, first question. If Fredrick was a computer generated image, like me, but still in control of his body, although I confess I don't really understand that part of it yet, why did the killers have to kill him in Minendo? Why kill him at all? And how do you physically take something from a CGI in a VR Environment like Minendo from the Out Side?" The two Presidential Aides physically moved away from Harry, sinking into their chairs, trying to distance themselves from his incredible questions, the answers to which they obviously didn't have, and equally obviously, scared them half to death. In complete contrast, both Captain Bellamy and Marion Harper positively beamed, and if anything, leaned slightly forward, as if to get closer to Harry's almost perfect three-dimensional holistic self.
"Harry, you've just earned your stripes on this case. I'll let Marion fill you in on the details." Captain Bellamy sat back in his seat, beaming from ear to ear with pride. He had picked Harry originally out of thousands of applicants, more on intuition in the end, so close were the short-listed candidates put up to be the first members of the VR Police Force. And he had been right. Not only did Harry have the ability to dramatically adjust his perspective to the circumstances, he hadn't lost any of his talent in the process.
Marion Harper snapped her own holovision unit on, and three representative temporal worlds appeared, each a different colour. Harry immediately noticed that one world was larger than the other, and had a tiny satellite orbiting it. He correctly guessed that this model represented the Earth. Marion Harper pointed to it with a laser pencil.
"Harry, as you already know, the whole purpose of Minendo was to create a Virtual Reality Environment where the surviving population of the earth could be sent, to live out their "natural" lives in relative peace and harmony."
"We also hoped that it would give us a future beyond the life expectancy of the migrants," Captain Bellamy added.
"Exactly. Because of the incredibly short time frame we're left with, our first choice of a Space Colony has been ruled out, although the Russians and the Chinese are still pushing ahead with something in this area." Marion Harper paused, as if considering what to say next. She moved the pointer to illuminate the blue-grey sphere, looking deep into Harry's synthetic eyes. "At first, we thought a VR Environment in itself could be self-supportive, given an indefinite power supply, and a indestructible shell to house the computers and the Strata required."
"If I remember correctly, one of the ideas at the time of my migration was to combine a deep-space probe with a VRE shell, wasn't it?" Harry asked.
"Yes. But now that we know that the radiation levels are far too high for survival, and that the Earth will cool down again somewhere between one hundred and fifty and two hundred standard years, it seems a better option to keep the VRE's here, safely buried somewhere under ground, like Mount Kosciusko. By a fluke of nature, there's enough blue granite to act as a heat-sink and radiation shield, and all our best predictions show that this area will survive with the minimum earth-form damage." Harry nodded slowly to himself, noting that very little had changed on the O/S since his migration. Still preoccupied with survival, still relying on predictions by "experts", and still trying to reshape the forces of nature to do man's bidding, irrespective of the cost.
"Okay then, let's get back to the point. Unless you've changed the ballgame, there were four inviolate rules that governed the creating and running of a VR Environment."
"A Virtual Reality is only as valid as a unit within it observes it to be. All units in a Virtual Reality must have the same quantum charge. Any interface between a Corporeal unit and a Virtual Reality unit must be conducted in a Virtual Reality Environment. The mind-set of a VR unit must be protected at all costs, even at the expense of a Corporeal unit."
"Exactly. So back to my question. Why kill Fosdyke in Minendo? Surely all they had to do was turn his VR Generator off? Or find his programme link, and spike it? If you stop to think about it, there are literally hundreds of ways you can take out a CGI personality, so why all the drama?" Marion Harper smiled at Harry's forceful questioning, a sad look dimming her eyes.
"Look at these spheres. Think of them as the Earth, Minendo, and Duoendo. Imagine that the generators and the power source are here," she said, pointing to the Earth, "and that the VRE's multiplex commdata streams flow like this." With a snap of her wrist controller, thousands of tiny coloured lines started to flow to and from the three spheres, but always only to one sphere from the earth's position, creating an inverted "V" shape."
"You're deliberately limiting a migrant's ability to experience a VR to just the one designated Environment?" Harry asked.
"Yes. We are. But your friend Fosdyke's VR Generator jumps that limitation. Look." The lines representing the two-way data streams between earth and the two VR Environments suddenly became jumbled, like so much spaghetti, the three spheres almost completely hidden by the mixed data streams. Harry suddenly sat forward in his chair, staring at the holovision.
"You mean he can go into either VRE at will?" he asked, both shocked and excited by the prospect at the same time.
"It seems so. But there's more. In a way, it's the most exciting opportunity of all, and perhaps our biggest headache." Harry sat back, relaxing his whole body, letting his mind free up to cope with what he was learning. He had a fair idea what was coming next, and a small smile of anticipation started to form in spite of his efforts to hold it back. His friend, Freddie Fosdyke, had out smarted them all!
"In a nutshell, Fosdyke created a miniature portable generator, powered by a minute radiated crystal. He not only can go to any VRE at will, he can make and take his Virtual Reality Environment with him!" Captain Bellamy sat back, as if the effort of summarising the problem had drained all his strength. Harry nodded, finally understanding why his friend had been so hard to locate, and therefore so brutally destroyed.
"By "killing" him so publicly in Minendo, they reduced his hiding places by one, is that it?" he asked.
"Yes. What you don't know, is that Fosdyke managed to get himself into Duoendo as well."
"And they cut him down there too?"
"Violently. Even more dramatic than the first time. It seems that if you don't have a manbios to `lock' you into your VRE, you need some sort of electronic `key' to facilitate your existence, at least as seen and experienced by others. What they destroyed, along with Fosdyke's CGI, was this `key'. We've always know this, but it never seemed all that important before." Something at the back of Harry's agile mind started to tick, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.
"Then that leaves him somewhere in the O/S?" Harry asked. And for the third time, the two Presidential Aides did their snake-eye trick in unison, and Harry's heart started to beat faster as the implications sunk in. He looked at Marion Harper, then at Captain Bellamy, and their air of expectation confirmed his hunch.
"So Freddie's loose somewhere in the O/S, but as a CGI, carrying his very own VRE around with him?" he asked softly, working through the possibilities of such a feat. If the CGI was good enough, Fosdyke was literally unstoppable, unless they fluked on his Corporeal form. And that could be living or stored anywhere on the remaining surface of the Earth. For that matter, there was no guarantee that there was only the one VR Freddie Fosdyke!
"Have you tried to find his Corporeal form?" he finally asked.
"Of course. But without opening every Cryogenic crib, digging up every grave, and physically body ID-ing every human left, there's no possible way of finding him." Harry seemed to withdraw into himself, his image partially thinning, as if had turned side-on to the four humans, or someone had reduced his available power.
"How does this portable VRE of his work?" he asked, filling out to full size again.
"It takes a "snap-shot" of the three-sixty degree horizon every five milliseconds, then creates a scaled reflection around the CGI of Fosdyke. Anyone looking at or interfacing with him sees what they expect to see - a human looking form interacting with the surrounding environment. Since the wavelength of our natural light has changed so much, the minute flicker you can sometimes see around a Computer Generated Image looks just like you'd expect around a normal Corporeal form. It's virtually undetectable." Marion Harper sat back in her chair, fascinated with the speed Harry was absorbing and analysing what he was hearing for the first time. A very unique mind, she thought to herself, momentarily sorry that their liaison three standard years before had only lasted such a short while.
Perhaps there would be possibilities in the future? She shuddered, inwardly frightened of what this thought really meant to her. Harry saw her reaction, but couldn't fathom its cause.
"But you can pick it if you know what to look for?" he asked her, smiling to ease her tension.
"Where to look, more than what to look for. The time-fold the VRE creates at the base of the CGI image leaves a tiny rippling effect, like a small wave hitting the edge of a pond. If you're not wearing Polaroid glasses, you can see it under his feet when he moves."
"Trouble is, what with the frequency change of our light, if you don't wear the Polaroids, you go blind," one of the Presidential Aides added. Harry adopted his thinking pose again, then his image turned towards Captain Bellamy.
"When did he visit you?" he asked, smiling at the thought. He could imagine that Fosdyke's presence would have sent the blood temperature of the two Presidential Aides sky-high. The crusty Captain had the good grace to laugh, knowing when he had been caught out in a deliberate omission.
"Yesterday. That's your this morning. Walked into headquarters as bold as brass, and asked for us to establish a link to you."
"Did you question him?"
"Tried to. He seemed very agitated, mumbled most of the time, said that he needed you to help calm us down, and communicate. That he had solved some problem or other he had been working on, and needed your help to make it work."
"What did you tell him?" Harry asked, curious as to why Fosdyke had sought him out specifically, after such a long absence.
"At first we thought he was in Corporeal form, and tried to restrain him. We threw a force-field canceller at him, then tried physical restraint. You can guess the rest." Harry laughed, imagining the shock of the Police when they flew at Fosdyke, only to fall through his CGI straight into the hard concrete floor of Police Headquarters.
"What happened then?"
"Fosdyke took a second or two to realise what we had attempted. That confused us for a while, then we realised just how smart he was." Harry looked confused, trying to work this new wrinkle out. Then he got it.
"He used a time-shifted GCI on you?" he asked incredulously.
"Yes. Seems he was time-streaming in three locations at once, and was caught out when we did something unexpected. His attention was somewhere else." Harry suddenly had a flash of inspiration, and his image seemed to glow with renewed energy.
"You're running Duoendo at a different time-rate to Minendo," he stated, excited by the fantastic opportunities that such a development would open up. The two Presidential Aides lurched forward at the same time, then, again in unison, sat back in their chairs. They had been forewarned that Harry was the smartest Cop to ever migrate, but the speed with which he had guessed, or deduced, such accurate responses was phenomenal. Had they remembered that Harry's time-frame was running at half theirs, in effect, giving him just one relative second for every two of their standard ones, they would have been even more shocked.
"Yes. We've had a major breakthrough in that regard. Duoendo runs at one-tenth normal time. You are experiencing half-rate, so you can imagine the enormity of this technical achievement." Harry was suddenly elated and shocked, both at the same time. Slowing the VRE's down to that level meant that he would still be functional in a hundred and fifty standard years, around about the time the Scientists estimated that the Earth would have cooled sufficiently for Corporeal life to resume on its surface. But if his Corporeal form had been disposed of, then he would have nothing to "go" back to.
And suddenly he understood the magnitude of Fosdyke's invention - and the reason why someone was so dedicated to taking it from him, at whatever cost. He decided to keep this revelation to himself for the time being, momentarily unsure of who to trust with it.
"Can you apply this new time-frame to Minendo?" he asked. Marion Harper shrugged, almost casually, as if the issue was of no real importance.
"Of course. Once you're stored as an electronic manbio, we can speed you up, slow you down, or even transfer you between VRE's if we have to."
"But it's the speed the Virtual Reality is running at that dictates the pace of the manbios, isn't it?" Marion Harper gave his image a shrewd look, pleased at his technical knowledge.
"Yes," she answered, "it is." Harry nodded. Another piece of the puzzle fell into place. If Fosdyke could control his time-stream, then he could jump from VRE to VRE no matter what speed they were running at, so long as his image and his "instant" surroundings were synchronised. The critical issue then, was how he had, or was going to, store his Corporeal form for the duration of the Earth's blow-up, for it was now quite obvious that this is what he intended.
"Tell me all about Kent and his two councillors," Harry asked, now more than satisfied with the progress of the case. With any luck, he would be out of this decidedly unfriendly standard time-stream and back into his own life-lengthening one before dinnertime, and free of all the attendant drama.
Captain Bellamy snapped a holovision on, and the three dimensional shape of Ronald Kent warped into view. At the base of the image, the data Harry had already reviewed back in Minendo rippled by, until it reached a point in current standard time.
"You already know he migrated in 1999, month one. Before that he was Chief-of-Staff at the VRA where you did your orientation and conversion."
"Why was he instructed to migrate? By whom? And who allocated him to Commissioner status in Minendo?" Harry watched the two Presidential Aides carefully, waiting for them to give themselves away. He thought he had already guessed most of it, and was inwardly pleased when the good Captain confirmed it for him, the same split second their snake-eyed routine went into overtime.
"He had advanced radical cancer, the same type that is killing off most of the population. At the time he migrated, he had less than seven standard weeks to live. It was pretty close as it was." Harry nodded, only too well aware of the problems experienced with the electronic imprinting of a manbios from a Corporeal form that had degenerated beyond a certain point. "As for the who, it was his brother. Kent was appointed to the VRA by the President, then granted migration status. His job as Commissioner had been promised to him as part of his original deal."
"Once a power broker, always a power broker," mumbled Harry, starting to see the logic of the whole mess. He focussed on the Captain, forcing himself to appear calm. He didn't want the Aides to get wind of how much he had guessed. "Okay, one last little point. I take it that there is still only the one sure way of storing a healthy Corporeal form for the duration?" he asked. Marion Harper's eyelids fluttered quickly, then steadied down to her usual seductive glare. She glanced at the Captain as he answered, as if they shared a secret the Presidential Aides didn't.
"Yes. Cryogenic Cribs, either thrown into orbit, or stored in a heat-stable environment. But even then we believe that the radiation levels will eventually rise so high, that nothing will stop them. Why?"
"Just checking. I need to think this through, can you send me back?" he asked. The Captain looked at the Aides, then at Marion Harper. He finally shrugged his shoulders.
"Take as long as you need. And keep in touch." The Captain shimmered, disappeared, and suddenly Harry was back on his disc, shooting downwards at a blur. He evolved next to his desk, shook himself as if he were getting rid of errant raindrops, then sat down in his chair, carefully placing his long legs across the top of his untidy desk.
"Hi ya, boss!" Angie Valmorbida's face swam into view, and Harry turned to look at his monitor.
"Angie, what's up?"
"I gotta all thata info you wanted."
"Give it to me short."
" 'hokay. Fosdyke's movements for any month. Harry, they all the same. He's at the core for twelve days, then disappears for ten, back for twelve, then goes again."
"No idea. Just disappears. No register of him at City Hall, no EMS monitors, nothing." Harry nodded slowly, starting to see a pattern in Fosdyke's movements.
"Who gives out the jobs in Minendo?" he asked.
"No-one. It'sa like you said. When you get here, you already know what you gonna do."
"Thanks, Angie, you can go home. Catch up on some sleep."
" 'hokay boss, see ya!" Angie's smiling face retracted into a pinpoint of light, leaving Harry's screen strangely empty. He thought for a few more minutes, then pulled an ancient tattered notebook over, and drawing an even older old-fashioned fountain pen out of his jacket pocket, started to write copious notes, shedding all the data he had absorbed onto the lined yellow pages. For once, he was truly happy with the incredible detail the VRE of Minendo provided him with. It was almost like living back out in the O/S before his forced migration. He found himself smiling as he worked, pleased that he had a hard angle on the case, and even more pleased at the ramifications of the case itself.
Perhaps there could be worthwhile life after death, after all!
Captain Bellamy turned to Marion Harper, and handed her a strong Scotch on the rocks. "What do you think?"
She studied him for a full minute, her eyes noting the small, almost invisible brown blotches on his face that hinted at the rampant disease that was slowly consuming his intestines. "He'll work it out. Weather or not he comes up with something than can help us, I'm not sure. But he sure is fast." She tilted the cut crystal glass to her lips, allowing the mellow spirit to roll over her tongue, and slowly down her throat.
"We need to find Fosdyke. We need to hold off the President. And we need to be able to control a VRE from within, completely isolated and independent from any interference from outside." The Captain saw the sparkle of energy in Marion's eyes as she absorbed his summary, and not for the first time he thanked his lucky stars that God had given him such a beautiful and clever sister.
"Harry put his foot right on it when he asked me about the Cryogenic cribs. As soon as he works out that the only true alternative is an electronic Corporeal form, stored in the same VRE as the manbios, he'll be off and running."
The Captain sighed, his form suddenly seeming to deflate, and he slumped down into a leather chair, his body hugged by its rich tanned folds. "By God, I hope so. What he doesn't know is that we've only got about four months left before we all migrate or die, once and for all." She looked deep into her glass, as if seeking guidance in the swirls and sparkles the amber spirit made as it rippled over the odd-shaped ice cubes.
"If anyone can do it, Harry can. We'd better be ready for him," she said, turning to look fully at the Captain, her hazel eyes electric with contained energy. As one of the very few humans left that had not yet been struck by one of the new crop of virulent diseases, she radiated health and vitality, in direct contrast to those around her who were propped up by drugs and chemicals.
The Captain nodded, accepting her judgement. He reached for his miniature phone, and called the main Computer Laboratory. With any luck, the first prototype of what was to be known as a "Manbiot" should be ready soon for his inspection. Hopefully, before he either was forced to migrate to one of the VRE's, or he died.
He idly wondered if he would like living in it as much as Harry obviously enjoyed living in Minendo, and if the two of them would ever manage to share the same Environment again.
The little man's face swam into Harry's vision, finally settling into the regular frame of the monitor. Harry's feet, as usual, propped on the desktop, cut off a small corner of the screen, so he shifted them to one side and leaned slightly forward in his chair. The little man smiled, outwardly quite relaxed, but the small lines that flowed from the corner of his twinkling eyes twitched nervously, giving away his inner turmoil.
He knew Harry had something on him, but he didn't know what.
"Can I help you?" he asked, just the faintest flutter in his voice. Harry stared straight back at the image, letting the tension build. He had decided on his strategy over breakfast, and without hesitation, let the little man know just how much trouble he was in.
"I'll make it quick. I'm not interested in your illegal use of the ROMBIOS. Or your scam with the O/S. But if you don't immediately help me, I'll have your manbios pulled, and cancelled without notice." Harry let the threat sink in, then pushed his obvious advantage. "I want immediate contact with Freddie, on his own, as a singleton, in any form or VRE he chooses. Private and confidential, just between him and me. Can you do it?"
"Erh, yes. At least, I can contact him. But I can't guarantee that he will do what you ask." Naked fear rippled across the little man's eyes, as the finality of Harry's threat reached deep down into his memory core. With his Corporeal form disposed of five standard years ago, without his manbios, his electronic "personality", he would cease to exist in any plane, forever, irretrievably. Something that didn't bear thinking about.
"Then you had better do your best." Harry snapped the monitor off, and sat back, stretching to place his linked hands behind his head. He expected action, and got it.
The stars of the Southern Milky Way swam into view, as the spaceship gradually rolled around its spine, keeping each face of its huge surface continually moving in and out of the deadly carcinogenic rays being emitted by the blue-white dwarf Star that now almost totally blocked the Sun. Known simply as "Alpeaso-113", after the Spanish Astronomer who had first sighted, and claimed due credit, for the greatest and possibly final discovery of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the Star loomed large in everyone's mind. Where it had come from, deep beyond the edges of the viewable universe, no one knew. It had just appeared from behind a massive undiscovered black hole one day, on a two hundred year orbit of destruction.
Funny thing was, it was smaller in mass than the Earth's Moon, but threatened the Earth in a way that had previously been thought impossible. Like a flaming out of control comet, Alpeaso-113 moved inexorably closer every minute, sucking the very life out of humanity with its sheer atomic brilliance.
"I thought you'd like to see this," Freddie said, handing Harry a weightless sucking-straw attached to a drink bladder. Harry sucked some of the pale pink fluid, noticing the faint smell of almonds. If this was an artificially generated virtual reality environment, it was a very good one.
"Thanks. But how in hell are you doing this? Captain Bellamy said that the only other VRE that has been successfully built, was a similar Environment to Minendo." Harry looked at his friend, lying back in a mild-gravity hammock, seemingly absorbed with the outside view of deep space. Suddenly Freddie smiled, as if remembering an enormous joke.
"You always were a super-straight!" he laughed, and with no discernible effort warped them both into another VRE, this time a sparsely fitted-out Winnebago, parked high on a cliff overlooking the ocean. From the position of the sun, with its ever present, ever growing black spot, Harry guessed that they were somewhere on the edge of the Pacific ocean, and that meant that they were probably somewhere on the Southern coast of California. Harry went to suck on his drink, only to find that he now held a Tom Collins in a crystal goblet, with green mint and a small umbrella hanging over one side. He hid his surprise, and sipped slowly, watching his former friend from over the rim of the weighty glass.
As a cop, and a good one, he had learned the value of patience, and how to control his emotions. It had stood him in good stead during his long career.
"Harry, compared to what I can do, Minendo is like a bitter-sweet piece of ancient history." He stood up, and walked in a slight crouch to a well-fitted video entertainment system, and reached for a small black infrared controller.
"You're real!" Harry shouted, so startled he dropped his drink, which promptly spilt all over his lap, spreading a mottled stain over his otherwise grubby coat. Fredrick Fosdyke smiled, nodding slowly, waiting for his friend to catch his metaphorical breath.
"Yes, I am. And that should tell you something about the power of my invention." Harry stopped his mopping up, eyebrows furrowed in concentration.
"This is not a VRE. It's real, too," he said in a hushed voice, hardly believing his own eyes.
"Right again. But you needn't worry, I've got you wrapped securely in a three-sixty VRE that exactly matches this reality, so you shouldn't feel too out of place." Harry sat back into his seat, the implications of his experience temporarily overwhelming him. It was one thing to live in a VRE, permanently, but quite another to suddenly find yourself back on the O/S, as nothing more substantial than a holographically projected computer generated image.
"But how do you do it? And why aren't you .........." his voice trailed off as his capricious mind finally caught up with the situation. He smiled, radiating sudden warmth and confidence, proud of his friend and his mighty achievement, yet scared to the very synthetic marrow of his bones by its implications. "I get it now, you bastard, I get it now. And now I know why everyone wants your body!" His forehead suddenly creased in concentration as a stray thought crossed his mind.
As if reading Harry's very thoughts, Freddie shook his head. "No, they can't tap into your manbios and read this, or track us, for that matter, I've locked them out. That's a by-product of the process." Harry stared at his friend, open-mouthed, the opportunities mind-boggling, even for him.
"Well I guess I'll have to take you in then," he said, grinning from ear to ear, seeing the funny side of a CGI who only now existed as a computer code in a VRE, trying to apprehend a real live human being!
"I think we need to talk first, then you should go off on your own. I'll join you when they get a little more used to the idea." Harry thought about it for a standard second or two, realised that he had little ability to actually influence Freddie, or do anything but look and learn, and decided to go on his hunch. Freddie had always felt "right" to him, one reason why they had struck up such a firm friendship in the O/S prior to their VRA experience.
"Okay, play it your way. Just don't disappear on me," he said, forcing a stern look to underline his seriousness.
"Don't worry, Harry, I won't let you down. If it hadn't been for you, I wouldn't have fluked onto this process in the first place." Freddie turned up the volume on an old Western Song called "Mississippi Blue Grass", and the two men hunkered down, one to discover the future form of the human race, the other to try and bargain for the rest of his very life, both real and generated.
"It's all about power and control," Harry flatly stated, refusing to grace any of the twenty or so self-confessed Very Important People in the room with a direct look. He was counting on keeping them edgy, a little off-balance, because he had precious little to go on, in real terms, just the observations of an out-of-control genius, and the experience of a computer generated Cop, living out his days in an artificially created Reality. Not an awe-inspiring combination, he thought to himself with a rueful smile, but it was all he had, so he gave it his best shot. Angie Valmorbida fidgeted nervously next to him, and the Captain and Marion Harper sat mute just off to one side, happy to watch what eventuated.
The VRE that had been specially created for the occasion, in keeping with the original Third Law of Virtual Reality, "Any Interface between a manbios and a Corporeal Being must take place in a Virtual Reality Environment", was an old-fashioned Court Room, set up as it was in the days of Congressional Investigations. Someone had a warped sense of humour. The President, his wife, several Aides, the Chief-of-Staff, the Joint Chiefs' Representative, and the heads of Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines and Special Services were there, along with a private recording Engineer and thirty odd Scientists from the two VRA projects - Minendo, and Duoendo. Now that the Earth was literally fighting for its life, squabbles between different Countries and Political Factions was almost nonexistent, but old habits died hard, and the Military still tried to stick their bib into anything that looked interesting, just in case an opportunity came up where they could score valuable points in the who-would-live and who-would-die game now being played out.
"As you all appreciate, even now, none of you are really comfortable talking to a computer created image. I know, I felt the same way before I went through the VRA." Harry let the rumble of disagreement die down, as the Military Men tried to outdo the Government Civil Servants in forced bravado. Fact was, even with the superb conditioning of the Virtual Reality Academy, and after nearly six standard years of actually "living" in a VRE, somewhere not too far from the centre of his being, a dark, nasty, uncomfortable thought still lurked in the hidden recesses of Harry's brain. The kind of thought that screaming, kicking, sweating sanity killing nightmares are made of.
"Now, as we all know, the issue that is forcing us all to accept the limitations of migration to VRE's for survival is the inability of the human body to withstand the incredibly virulent cancers and mutated diseases that have been produced by the radiation of Alpeaso-113, the white dwarf Star that suddenly popped up out of nowhere, and now looks like being around for about two hundred standard years or so." Several heads nodded in agreement, happy that Harry was as last talking facts, not feelings. "According to Marion Harper, as of 0300 hours standard time today, there are less than five million corporeal beings on the Earth that are not yet affected by mutated radiation-induced diseases. However, this figure is degrading by 8% daily, as I understand it, giving you just four to five months before there will be literally no human body alive that is unaffected, not carrying some malignancy to some degree or other."
The silence in the room was deafening, and given that the human beings were constrained in a comfort couch, with a weighty helmet strapped to their heads, in order to be able to participate in the created Virtual Reality, this was no small achievement! Harry continued, watching closely to see who would give themselves away first. "However, we all know that for a corporeal being to be successfully migrated to a VRE, the disease-state cannot be too far advanced, or the neural-synapses are so screwed up that a "healthy" personality cannot be imprinted on a manbios - the computer chip that makes all this possible in the first place." Again, several heads nodded in agreement. "And we all know what that means."
"Physical death," muttered one of the Military men, as if he were speaking a dreaded curse against his will.
"Yes, total cessation of the physical, mental, and spiritual being, at least as you know it on the O/S."
"What's this got to do with someone killing off manbios in Minendo?" snapped the President, finally unable to hold onto his temper. As Harry had since worked out for himself, the President was dying, and apparently quite quickly, making his migration to a VRE or some other substitute existence all that more urgent.
"Quite a lot, Mister President, quite a lot. If you will just give me a little time to set this all up for you, I'm sure you'll agree that it was worth the wait." Harry stared directly at the President, whose eyes glowed with suppressed fury. As the elected President of the United States just four years in office, he was having great difficulty in balancing the enormous power he could wield over affairs-of-State, with the almost total lack of control he had over the rapid degeneration of his body, and the inevitable crumbling of the civilisation he had held so dear to his heart for all of his adult life. He nodded curtly, motioning for Harry to continue with a withering hand.
"As we interface right now, at this moment, you are all constrained on a comfort couch, with a computer-linked biosynaptic brain helmet surrounding your head. Correct?" All the heads in the room nodded, some with a smile, others with a grimace. The helmet weighed nearly one hundred pounds, more than a human could easily support unless lying down, and even then, it was by no means a comfortable experience. "The problem with VRE's has always been that once you are imprinted onto a manbios, there's no way back into corporeal form." Again all heads nodded in agreement, as this was the major issue that had perplexed a dying world, from President to Pope to ordinary man in the street. On the one hand, you could "live" out a useful life inside a computer, hidden deep in the bowels of the earth somewhere, while on the other your flesh and bones were disposed of like so much garbage, never to be revisited again.
"Now, because of the fact that the Earth's surface will soon become, literally, an uninhabitable boiling cauldron for around one hundred and fifty years, it's been agreed by International Convention to dispose of the corporeal form of any personality who is successfully imprinted onto a manbios." Silence again, followed by a scratching noise as someone shifted their position, the bionic helmet amplifying their uncomfortable thoughts for all to share. On cue, Angie leaned slowly forward, resting his projected arms on the top of the decorative Attorney's bench.
"Nowa, Mister President, howa would you like ita if you could live down here with us, but still keepa your corporeal form in the O/S?" he asked, allowing Harry to scrutinise all the eyes in the room for the slightest give-away twitch of fore-knowledge.
"But that's impossible," exploded the President, starting to stand, then, remembering who he was and where he was, folded back down into his seat. "Firstly, no-one can protect themselves from the mutated cancers, and secondly, nothing that we've made or constructed can withstand the super heating of the Earth's surface." The angry faces of the Military men lent support, and for a fleeting moment Harry hoped he had got it right. Marion Harper came to his immediate rescue, and with an edge to her voice that belayed any protest.
"Absolutely correct, Mister President. But just suppose for a moment that a healthy person could be protected from the radiation diseases. What then?" Every head in the room turned to look at the President, as if he had the answer to the most important question on Earth, which, in a sense, he did.
"Then," he drawled, scratching his chin, his hands trembling with the thought, "the Space Habitats would come into their own. We could populate the Stars, and, hopefully, repopulate the Earth in centuries to come."
"Exactly." Harry looked at the faces of the most powerful men still alive on the O/S, knowing now that his instincts, and his gut-driven deductions were spot on. "Space has always been the attractive solution, but the radiation from the white dwarf is too intense, and defies any form of shielding we have come up with."
"Cryogenic storage is only as good as the possibility of someone existing in two hundred years to reverse the process," offered Angie, feeling the first sparks of energy flow through the room as Harry zeroed in on his target. "Not to mention the risk of either radiation or heat contamination during the two hundred years they are stored."
"And an existence within a VRE is all one way," finished Marion Harper, "once you're imprinted on a manbios, that's it as far as a corporeal existence is concerned."
"What about your experiments with robots and the like?" fired back the President.
"Still limited, and will eventually be only as good as we can make them now, because there'll be no-one alive in two hundred years to make them better."
"I see." The President scratched his chin again, then turned the full force of his azure blue eyes on the image of Harry. "Your partner asked me a question. Does that presuppose that you have the answer?" he asked.
"Yes. But to convince you, I need your indulgence."
"What for?" asked one of the Presidential Aides who had been present in the Captain's office. The President waved him down, gesturing to Harry.
"You have it. But it had better be good." Harry smiled, knowing that he had his fish on the hook, and now all he had to do was reel him in gently.
"Thank you, Sir. Angie, when you're ready." Angie nodded, and switched on a holograph, throwing a massive multidimensional image into the centre of the courtroom, out of which the body and smiling face of Fredrick Fosdyke emerged. He bowed towards the President, bobbing his head.
"Mister President, Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your time." Three of the Military men and both Presidential Aides leapt to their feet, then hastily sat down again when they realised that all they were seeing was a projected image, within a Virtual Reality!
"The mysterious Fredrick Fosdyke," the President said, looking towards Harry. "Well done, Mister Roberts, well done!" Harry ignored the compliment, gesturing for Freddie to sit down, which he did, with rare elegance and style.
"Mister President, I said earlier that this case is all about power and control. I meant just that." Harry stood, and walked slowly towards the holograph of Freddie, sitting relaxed in what would have been the witness chair in days of old. "You see, my friend here, way back in 1994, discovered a better way to make and project VRE's. But no one would take any notice."
"Back in 1994 the World was panicking after the discovery of the white dwarf," the President interjected.
"Exactly. VRE's were the domain of the Japanese and parlour games. Then Japan suddenly disappeared in a volcanic upheaval, and it was left to Silicon Valley to perfect the techniques."
"Which they did."
"Which they most assuredly did. What, with billions of dollars of Government money, the whole might of the Military-Industrial Complex behind them, they did twenty years work in two, resulting in the successful migration of fifty thousand manbios to Minendo."
"And the development of Duoendo," added the President. Harry nodded, pleased with his progress so far.
"Yes. And the covert development of at least six more VRE's that you don't know about." The room suddenly erupted, people standing then sitting, standing then, in frustration with the severe limits of their participation in the Virtual Reality Environment of the old Court House, sitting again. Harry waited until the hubbub died down, then motioned to Angie.
"There are sixa VRE's, running ona different time frames, orbiting the Earth righta now in Military Satellites," Angie stated, enjoying immensely the shock reflected on the faces of all the so-called Very Important People in the room. "Eacha one has a booster attached, and is easily capable of getting up into a geostationary orbit ata some time ina the future." Harry waited for Angie's news to sink in, then delivered what he hoped would be a telling blow to the conspirators, for that is what he had come to see them as.
"And in loose synchronous orbit with those satellites are six habitats large enough to hold about one thousand corporeal forms in permanent cryogenic storage," he added, watching the Military men get even more and more uncomfortable.
"The radiation will kill them, destroy them, before they can be regenerated." The sad way the President said it left Harry in no doubt that he already knew about the satellites. And the lack of response by the Presidential Aides this time made it obvious that what they had planned was one type of VRE for the VIP's, and the other type for the rest. He sighed, suddenly depressed with the thought that even in Man's greatest time of need, there was going to be a false discrimination in the way the survivors would try to live through the disaster. He shrugged his shoulders, there was nothing he could do about it, indeed, it was still up to those on the O/S to maintain and guarantee the survival of the existing VRE's as it was.
An uncomfortable thought at the best of times, which this wasn't. Time to move on.
"What if you could protect the stored bodies from the radiation?" He asked.
"Impossible! That has been researched over and over since day one. No-one's even come close."
Every head in the room snapped towards Fredrick Fosdyke, the almost forgotten man in the tense discussion between the two Cops and the President.
"You have what?" demanded the President.
"I have found a way to protect a human being from the radiation." Stunned silence flooded the room, and for a brief second not even the normal background static of the electronic imagers could be heard. Freddie got up from his seat, and walked slowly towards the table that Harry and Angie were seated at. At almost the same time, another image of Freddie formed behind the President, and started to walk down the isle between the Presidential party and the Military men.
"You see, Mister President, not everything in life comes to those with the biggest cheque books. Freddie has the ability to exist in any VRE, and remain in corporeal form, all at the same time. Further more, and I've seen this with my own eyes, Freddie's corporeal form can survive in cryogenic storage for the duration, without him having to be imprinted on a manbios!" A cascade of shouts and comments broiled around the room, finally settling down into a dull roar of protest. Here was the Holy Grail, the harbinger of Life, and some crazy nobody had control of it! Incredible, unbelievable, and totally unsustainable. One by one the Military men snapped out of the VRE, no doubt to immediately trace Freddie's electronic footprint. Harry smiled to himself. Let them try.
"Originally, Mister President, we believed that once a manbios was imprinted, and the personality successfully migrated to a VRE, the corporeal form had to be disposed of because there was no known way of maintaining it free from radiation poisoning." Marion Harper paused to catch her breath, amused as the Military men snapped back into the VRE, obviously furious that they had found no way to exercise control over the preceding, or the two Cops and Freddie Fosdyke. The good Captain had seen to that by isolating their power supply, and hiding their manbios in his portable computer, which was safely tucked away under his inert form in the comfort couch.
"But if you can protect the cryogenic cribs, then we can hope for a rebirth!" The President was agitated, he kept thinking that he had other things to do, even though none were as important as the implications of this meeting.
"Yes Sir, but only if we devise a way to re-enter the corporeal form." The two images of Freddie Fosdyke now stood side by side next to Harry, facing the President. One stood perfectly still, while the other became quite animated.
"And I can do that, Mister President, if only you and your goons would stop hunting me down and wasting my time!" he shouted, pointing at the President. "Three times I tried to give you, and the people, the results of my research, and three times you threw it back in my face. Well, now it's too late." His voice thundered around the courtroom just as his image snapped out of the VRE, leaving just the ghost of a memory behind. Harry stood up, leaning forward on his knuckles.
"Mister President, I'll leave it for you to establish which of your Aides, and which of your Military men have betrayed you. Your brother and his two henchmen have already paid the ultimate price for their duplicity, how, I won't go into at this time. Although, God knows, you have betrayed us all equally as much. But understand this," he said, as Angie stood up beside him, "before we entered the VRA we were guaranteed certain things. Rules were formed, and agreed to, to protect our existence. In return, we were to provide a fast-track learning experience for those of you who followed. By attempting to create your own Environments, at the expense of the people, you have ultimately betrayed our trust. What ever happens to you now, you deserve!" And they both snapped out of the VRE together, leaving the second image of a laughing Freddie standing in isolation next to the empty desk.
"Harry, I've got a call for you," the pretty operator said, breaking into his thoughts. It was forty relative days since he had confronted the President and his men, and he had heard nothing of the consequences of the meeting. He used his wrist controller to light up his monitor, swinging around on his chair to look into its dull surface.
"Captain." Neither man smiled, obviously submerged in their own thoughts.
"You've got a new migrant intake, and I want you to go meet them."
"Why? There's a procedure for that."
"Just do it!" The look on Captain Bellamy's face left Harry in no doubt about the outcome of the argument, so he shrugged his shoulders, snapping the controller off. He walked disconsolately out to his floater, dialled in the necessary map reference, and settled back to let the little car do its job. Nothing felt the same, now that he had discovered that the O/S was running their own agenda. He had lost confidence in his future, in the future for any of the manbios in Minendo or any other VRE, for that matter. If they were to be manipulated by the O/S, there was little they could do to stop it. The whole game depended on trust and belief, and since the Court House meeting, Harry had precious little of that left.
Even in the most technically brilliant time of mankind, the simplest human traits of honesty, trust, and mutual dependency dominated the mind of man.
He stepped out of the floater, looked up at the imposing facade of City Hall, and slowly walked up the fifty-one steps, one for each of the States he and the other manbios had left behind in the O/S.
"Mister Roberts!" called a tall, lanky man, hidden in the shadows of the reception area.
"Mister President!" Harry replied, genuinely surprised as the lanky man came into the light. Harry reluctantly accepted the outstretched hand, unsure of his feelings.
"Let's go for a walk," the President said, capping Harry on his shoulder, and steering him back outside. The two men negotiated the stairs, the paused, while the President made a show of sniffing the air, searching the bright blue sky for familiar contrails from high-flying jets. "Ahh, it's just as the book says. You truly are reborn!" He started off down the street, Harry slow to catch up. The President paused again at a rocky mound, on which had been placed an old wrought-iron lattice bench. He indicated with one hand, and seeing a flicker of interest in Harry's eyes, sat down. Harry joined him, although at a slight distance.
"I must say, Mister President, you're looking a lot better than the last time we met." The President gave him a searching look, then smiled.
"Yes, I am, aren't I?". He seemed to be considering his next words, his hands suddenly fidgeting. "Harry, Marion Harper explained to me what you - that is, I am one now, too - but, erh, well, she explained how you all must feel in here with people on the O/S able to manipulate you at will." He stared into Harry's soul, holding his eyes with the sheer force of his sincerity.
"It doesn't feel good, if that's what you mean." The President nodded.
"Harry, I'm sorry. You can't imagine the pressures that are on the Office of the President. You have no idea just how twisted everything can get with all those well-meaning people yapping at you. Your priorities seem to change by the minute!"
"And now?" Harry asked, thawing slightly, his gut still in a turmoil from the constant stress of worrying for the past five relative weeks about his future.
"And now, I've joined you down here in Minendo. I didn't have a choice, of course, at least, not as to when I migrated. But I could have chosen any of the VRE's available, including the ones in space." Harry leaned back on the cool metal bench, enjoying the psudo-physicalness of it sticking into his back and shoulders.
"Why Minendo? We go the fastest, we're the oldest, and from what I understand from Freddie, the hardest to change." The President nodded, a small smile spreading across his tanned face.
"All true, all true. But with me here, I think some priorities might be shifted, don't you?" he asked. Harry turned to look directly at the President, in his new form, at least twenty years younger looking than he had been in the Court House.
"But you have no more control in the O/S than any of us do," he said quietly, crossing his legs.
"Ahh, but I do. And it's all to do with your friend Freddie!" The President laughed, slapped Harry on the back, and stood up, forcing Harry to join him. "Harry, with your talent as a Cop, your friend Fredrick's genius, and with my political clout, we can go to the Stars. Do you want to know how?" Harry looked puzzled, then suddenly relaxed. It was a beautiful day, and his Cop's gut told him that this tall, rangy new migrant standing opposite him was clean, probably even telling the truth. Or at the very worst, what he believed to be the truth. Harry shrugged his shoulders, thrusting his hands deep down into his pockets.
"Why not?" he said, setting off down the street. One hundred yards behind, like a good electrodog, his floater silently rose up off the footpath, and discretely followed.
Harry looked over his shoulder and smiled, as a fleeting thought flashed through his brain. Some things never change!