The stink’s been bothering me since I stepped into the box. It’s mostly the same stink you get in all unpriv’d boxes, sweat and plastic-seal and unwash. Not my problem, really, I’m just here to mop the floors, make the foodprepper counter all cleaned up. But there’s something under the regular smell, and it’s coming from the wall.
Behind the Overlay.
Two rooms, which means kiddies. And I’ve got a half-bottle of Javex still unallocated. I’m reaching for the Remote, and not thinking too hard about it. Swipe, button-push, then hook the thumb under. Like a supersecret combo move in MMABattle.
Something jitters, and for a moment I think I’m hallucinating because there’s this breeze, and dust-motes on sunbeams. Then the nice clean white walls blink out and there’s the standard shit-and-semen, snot-and-sneeze sickness, food smears.
And a dead man, oozing out of a cutaway in the interbox thickwall.
Warren-Hive’s rentacop brigade shows up in less than twenty. A pretty girl, regulation stingspray on her belt, recorder out.
“What were you doing when you found the body?”
“Cleaning the box.” The dead body means I’m keeping to the exact truth.
“You do understand that taking down the last layer of an Overlay is illegal?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Last day of probation means I’m very polite. “I was just looking for some nice mountain or sunflower field or something to keep my mind off the smell, y’kno? The remote was rigged.” Once I found the body, it was.
She raises an eyebrow. “You’re doing time for running bootleg Overlay.” It’s a comment, not a question.
“No ma’am, there was just too much money on my swipe. No Overlay.” Not on me, or a cushy Janitorial Probation would have been as out of my league as a window box.
She sighs. “Not my problem, really,” she says. “Just keep to that story when Forensics shows up.”
Forensics is a three-man team, and they make us stand in the second room, with one of the feds watching over us. Mr. Sharp Coveralls is getting a bit chatty with Ms. Pretty Rentacop.
“Suicide,” he says, shaking his head. “It’s going around a lot these days.”
“You know why?” she asks.
That’s when the other two feds come back in.
“Check this out,” says the one with the be-gelled shag hair. He twiggles the remote, and the dirty walls get an Overlay of a closeup of some milfy chick tied up in a chair, getting her nipples spanked.
“Illegal,” says Shag Hair. The third fed is still quiet, running his beeper around the edges of the foodprepper. “There’s tons of this stuff.”
Ms. Pretty Rentacop throws me a look, then turns back to Sharp Coveralls. “Porn isn’t illegal.”
“With a minor in the house? Course it is,” he says.
Minor? “Where’s the kid then?” I ask. And how long has daddy been decomposing in the wall before they opened the box up for resale?
Sharp Coverall shrugs. “Missing Persons. It’s going around a lot these days.”
Forensics clears out, but Rentacop and I have to wait for Coroner’s Office and then Sanitation Team. Once everything’s flash-cleaned, making my mop-and-soap job look like amateur shit, which it is, we can leave. Except that I get my arm grabbed as I’m about to open the door.
“Not so fast,” says Rentacop.
“House is clean,” I say. “Feds closed the case.”
“I haven’t, which means Warren-Hive hasn’t,” she said. “You’re still on the hook.”
“Bootleg Overlay runner, in a case with bootleg overlays.”
She’s a New Cop! “Lady, every single unpriv’d box has bootleg in it.”
“A man plastered himself into a wall. I want to find his kid, make sure she’s got somebody taking care of her.”
She wants to find the kid. Well give the woman a mule and call me Sancho Panza.
Our first stop’s gonna be the realestate agent, to get whatever info Corporate doesn’t have. Rentacop passes me a little black slipcase.
“Keep your swipe shielded,” she says. Her swipe makes the elevator go up, and way, way over. We go over – north, I think, but what do I know – for a good fifteen before the doors ping open.
The corridor here has a very nice grade of tile.
It turns out that Rentacop and I are in wrong lines of work. She’s reading my mind, because she gives me one of those looks, like ‘can you believe this?’.
The realestate agent has a window. There’s curtains around it, and little curlycue wall sconces with candles in them making a border. Like a shrine. At least he’s treating it right.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” says VJ, coming back into the drawing room. “I just wanted to make sure.”
“Sure, sure,” says Rentacop. Having to watch her face for cues is the only thing that draws me away from the window. “And?”
“He did have a lover. I sold them flats in the same block.”
Then if we’re lucky, the lover’ll have the girl, and that’ll be that. VJ wants to tag along and Rentacop lets him – he’s gotta deal with selling the box again, poor sucker.
Loverboy is a very handsome twenties something with submissive written all over him. He invites us inside, offers us tea. VJ accepts, very polite. Sokanon – Rentacop – says no, so I do too.
“We’re looking for Miss Knox,” says Sokanon.
Loverboy smiles. “Rhea’s with her father,” he says. I want to throw up. “You won’t find them.”
Sokanon reaches for the remote on the foldout coffee table. “Do you mind?”
Loverboy looks uncomfortable for a moment, then shrugs. But Sokanon is already busy thumbing through the box’s Overlays. Standard mountain, city, night sky, and then, as I thought, more nipple spanking. VJ looks away.
“I know where to find Mr. Knox,” says Sokanon, letting the walls simulate a red-and-black plush loveplay dungeon for the moment.
“Really?” asks Loverboy. His eyes are shining. “Are they well? Are they happy?”
Something’s very wrong. The scene in the Overlay has moved onto whips, and VJ is squirming-embarrassed.
“When’s the last time you saw them?” asks Sokanon.
“Two weeks ago,” answers Loverboy, very prompt. “Just before they left.”
“Where did they go?”
“Arcadia,” he says. “They went into Arcadia.”
When Sokanon tells him she knows where to find Knox because Knox is in a morgue, Loverboy doesn’t say anything, just looks at her and me and then VJ. Pleading. Like he’s waiting for us to say ‘Gotcha! Just Kidding!’ Nobody wants to deal with this. VJ clears his throat, gets up, his tea half-drunk. Sokanon pats Loverboy awkwardly on the shoulder, then we make all the appropriate noises and back up out of the box.
“Please call us,” says Sokanon, “if you think of anything that’s relevant.”
Poor bastard would never have known if we hadn’t barged in here. Sokanon reads my mind again, because she makes a voiceonly and then we’re heading to some Corporate storage underlevel, looking for the stuff pre-cleaning grabbed from Knox’s box. It takes us close to forty to get there.
“He’ll feel better, right?” asks VJ on the elevator back towards Loverboy’s place. “If we give him Knox’s stuff?”
“It’s the Right Thing to do,” says Sokanon, the capitals falling into place like cement blocks.
We’ve been gone for three hours. When we get there, and nobody answers the door, and VJ thinks the man’s run, and Sokanon overrides the door, we find Loverboy has hung himself from the shower pipe.
There’s an Overlay playing, more BDSM shit, but if you look at it from the corner of your eye, you see something…impossibly beautiful. Soft sun-green and crystal. And there’s a damn breeze blowing through the box, just for a moment.
“What is that?” asks Sokanon.
Cross hallucination off the list then.
“What?” asks VJ.
The corner-of-eye Overlay inside the spankfest flickers and blinks out. “Timer,” I say. “Or dead man’s switch.”
VJ looks faintly nauseous.
Sokanon looks at me. “Can you get it back?”
Turns out I can’t; I’m just button-mashing now. “This needs a cracker.” Sokanon shouldn’t even be in the box when someone’s cracking, but a cracker’s the easiest person for a bootleg runner to call in favours from. “You go on, file the paperwork,” I say.
Sokanon blinks a bit. “It’s clearly a suicide,” she hesitates. “Don’t need to call the feds.”
Nope. And no need to put up with Mr. Sharp Coverall’s leering either.
“Mr. VJ can come with me,” she says, surer now. “Perhaps he can help me look for patterns.”
“Um…yes. Patterns,” says VJ. He’s not looking at the body, swaying above the dirty bathroom tile.
Lenny’s spread out on the couch, knuckles deep in the box’s firmware. I let him work and go to the bathroom to support Loverboy’s weight enough to unknot the leather cords around his neck, angry red, and lay him down on a towel and massage his mouth and face a little till it looks less sad.
Lenny comes into the bathroom.
“You need to see this.”
The world flickers.
I don’t know how long Lenny and I stand there, and watch the Overlay play across the walls. I don’t know anymore if the breeze is real.
Then I hear a gasp. Sokanon’s standing a few steps inside the box, the door autoshutting behind her. I look over at Lenny. He’s wiping tears from his eyes, hunching up, the way he does around pretty women, thumbing the remote till the Overlay fades into stock mountains.
“What was that?” whispers Sokanon.
Lenny clears his throat. “It’s Blake’s work,” he says. He’s right.
Sokanon’s eyeing Lenny. Memorizing his face. Hope I haven’t read her wrong. “Buddy, you better go,” I say.
“Can I get a copy?”
Sokanon closes her eyes.
“No copies,” I decide. That’s Lenny’s cue. He jets, leaving Sokanon and me to hang around for the Coroner.
Once he’s gone, “VJ and I went through the odour-complaints,” says Sokanon.
“We found four more boxes with bodies in the walls.”
For all the time that it took Coroner to come and go, VJ’s been waiting outside. Now he’s crouched against the wall, a deep vertical crease dividing his forehead into two shiny humps.
“Shall we do lunch?” he asks. I forgive him his forehead.
“Arcadia,” says Sokanon. She’s ordered a distill, same as me. “Only one kid missing though. But what was wrong with these people’s heads?” VJ is eating some diabetic-risk pap.
I snort. “What’s wrong with everyone’s heads? Seriously, you see the names all our parents loaded us down with? Like, Deodar. Who names their kid Deodar?”
Sokanon’s eyes are smiling. “Have you ever seen one?” she asks.
VJ’s shaking his head no.
“You?” I ask her.
“No,” she said. “But I did see the rain, once.”
“I wish I could see the rain,” says VJ. “But our window’s inwall courtside.”
Sokanon and I ignore him.
“Where did you see the rain?” I ask.
“Corporate is big on ‘exchanging ideas’. So they sent me to this conference last year. Huge place, all glass and carpet. Everyone just kept looking up. The movies don’t get raindrops right. They tone the sound of them way down to make room for the music.”
“What was the conference about?”
“How would I know? I was too busy listening to the rain.”
“Well,” VJ leans forward, his elbows on the table, “I’ve just been handed a deal. An outwall Duplex, all corner. Bank’s offering 4.2%. What do you make?”
Sokanon laughs. “Not enough.”
“It needs some good TLC,” says VJ. “What do you make?”
“Level 3B,” she says. It means nothing to me, but VJ purses his lips, pulls out his noteslate. Sokanon’s getting tense, watching him. Even I find myself sitting up. Then VJ shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “No matter how I massage it. Won’t get approved.”
Sokanon and I exhale in unison. But she looks shaken. So I chuckle. “What about me? Can you massage up a mortgage for me?”
VJ smiles, polite.
Sokanon giggles. “Hope springs eternal,” she says.
I splay out my hands in front of me. “We’re all looking for Arcadia.”
The reminder is enough to sober everyone up. VJ’s shiny humps are back.
“So,” says Sokanon, “Who is Blake?”
When Warren & Co. merged with Hive Inc., they started gulping down all the other corps, high and low. Crims took over the crumbling midwall inblock left behind.
“Don’t talk to anyone,” I say. “And don’t believe anything you see.”
I lead Sokanon and VJ past Pappa Peo’s penny arcade-and-auction, and down a long corridor that gets brighter the farther down we go.
“You’re taking us into Underbright,” whispers Sokanon.
I throw her a smile over my shoulder. “Something to tell your cop buddies about?”
“Cop buddies?” she asks. “You’ve been streaming too much.” But she’s smiling. I check to see how VJ’s doing. He’s walking along, but there’s a look on his face. Not the ‘people are dead’ panicface Sokanon shows here and there but a ‘my life’s about to become utter crap’ ulcerface. Don’t blame him. Who’s gonna wanna buy a box that had a dead man in the wall? And this sucker’s got five of them to unload.
At the end of the corridor we turn right into a mirrorgram. There’s a door, ringed with rainbow LEDs blinking in some sort of code I’ve never been able to break. They say it’s Blake’s first test for designers.
“Deodar, with two visitors. Wanna meet Blake – a kid’s missing.”
The LEDs turn blue, and the thin plastic door slides into the wall.
“They’ll let us in, just like that?” asks Sokanon. She’s still whispering.
“Blake is serious about kid problems,” I reply.
The corridor spits disco-plaid at us as we walk through; viola music is creeping its way back from up ahead.
“Holy shit,” says Sokanon, as we emerge into a huge cathedral, stained-glass filtered moonlight playing on the faces of the dancing people around us. They’re dressed in rags, ceramic-white masks gleaming bone white as they twirl round and about us. “This…”
Grinning to myself, I lean slowly to the left till I am stopped, seemingly by thin air.
“It’s Overlay?” asks VJ.
“Overlay and Transmission,” I say. “These people are all in their boxes.”
Sokanon is reaching out on both sides, verifying that we are still, in fact, in the continuation of the corridor. “How can you be so nonchalant?” she asks.
“I’ve seen better.”
“Nothing legal’s ever this good,” she says.
There’s a stage behind the nave. Naked chicks dance around poles to neon pulses of music. There’s a huge audience, men and women, hands down their pants. I grab Sokanon’s wrist, and lead the way right up the steps and onto the stage. She starts with a little yelp as a stripper sways into us, gives us an irritated look, and sashays back to a pole.
“Deodar,” whispers Sokanon, walking quickly so it doesn’t look like I’m dragging her, “they’re here here?”
“So wouldn’t it be easier to walk through the audience?”
“Audience is Overlay,” I say, and look back. A stripper is trying to jiggle her boobs in VJ’s face as he ducks around her.
The stage gives way to a meadow filled with starlight and fireflies, wind making waves in the sharp ankle-height grass.
“You can touch this,” I say, letting go of Sokanon’s wrist and crouching down on the ground to run my fingers through the grass. She copies me, and in a couple of seconds, so does VJ.
“Grass?” he asks.
“Pull some up,” I say. Giving me a ‘am I going to get into trouble for this?’ look, he grabs a fistful, and pulls. His hand comes away filled with white paper-confetti grass cutouts.
“Next update,” I say, “the Overly will be fixed over that hole, so the picture matches every blade of grass again.”
“That’s insane!” says Sokanon.
“No,” I reply. “That’s Blake.”
As we leave the meadow behind and pass through another LED rimmed door, I imagine I can smell a faint whiff of girly soap. They say the Exchange used to be a warehouse.
Another gasp, this time from VJ, for the hundreds of rickety platforms strung up at varying distances above our heads. Overlay crops, all different sizes, hang in the air around the platforms. The walls and ceiling and floor are streaming vid, fast. Real fast.
Sokanon tugs at my elbow.
“Your people steal vid!”
Half my eye-roll is for the ‘your people’. “Of course we steal vid. You think an indie designer can get real vid of a mountain? Gotta cull it from the ads and the movies, crop-and-pump. Bootleg, baby, that’s why it’s bootleg.”
“Why doesn’t Corporate, Fed, shut this down?” Ms. Rentacop doesn’t like that she liked a stolen cathedral so much.
“Corp’s got a taste for quality, same as unprivs.”
Today Blake’s Studio is the bridge of a starship. His designers are busy at the controls around the room, tweaking detail. We enter from the aft-doors.
“O Captain, my captain!” I call.
The large chair swivels around to face us. Blake looks the same as always – white hair, growing in scraggly clumps on his head, full Santa-Claus beard. Milky white eyes.
Sokanon grips my elbow again. She hadn’t expected Blake to be blind.
“Ensign Deodar! It’s a nice day in the Exchange today. Very brisk.”
“Permission to get to the point, Captain?”
“Sir, you’ve designed and sold an Overlay that’s making people kill themselves. And one of them had a kid that’s gone missing.”
His whuffs, and wisps of snowy mustache blow away from his lips. “What kind of Overlay?” he asks.
Sokanon finds her voice. “We call it Arcadia,” she says.
A frown crosses Blake’s forehead. He steeples his fingers, and then there it is. Arcadia, rising up out of the floor of the Starship. The designers stop what they are doing, turn around. Everything is pindrop quiet.
“This?” asks Blake.
“Yes,” I whisper. Then I hear a thud behind me. VJ has dropped to his knees. Arcadia’s hit him harder than I’d have thought.
“Wouldn’t sell this,” says Blake. “It’s for the kiddies.”
That’s when I notice the little fairy children fluttering through the crystal in the distance.
“If Blake says he didn’t sell it, he didn’t sell it. If Blake says he hasn’t seen the kid, he hasn’t seen the kid.”
Sokanon’s face is getting blotchy red. “And you’re just going to-”
“And I’m going to find out who sold it, alright? Just shut up, and follow me.” I realize VJ is lagging behind. “No taking in the sights either, you pissed off Blake’s designers with that ‘you don’t care about kids’ crap.”
All of Blake’s designers start out as Blake’s kids.
Past all the studios and the crop-platforms, right near the asshole of the Exchange is where the fence-sitters set up shop. I’m angry enough that I grab the first fence I see by the shirtfront.
“Somebody sold Overlay Blake made for the kiddies,” I say, my voice a low growl. “You find me who did it, and who they sold it to.”
“Calm it, calm it,” says the fence. “You gonna be calm?”
“Yeah,” I say, and let him go.
“I’ll tell you,” he says, but his eyes narrow as he takes in Sokanon and VJ standing behind me. “It’ll cost you.”
Even a fence-sitter has some self-respect. “How much?” I ask.
“Two point five. Quality.”
Brokeback-fencers will honestly sell out their own mothers for 2.5% of a good Overlay. This guy’s on the up-and-up. “Deal,” I say.
The fence opens up. “Barstool cropped some fragments. Sold them to some fast-talker unpriv.”
“Killed himself a week ago.”
Closing my eyes for a moment, “He sampled the ware,” I say.
“Two point five now?” asks the fence.
“Go to Blake,” I say. “Tell him what you told me, then tell him Deodar promised you pay.”
“Shit,” he whispers, too low for the unprivs to hear. “You’re one of Blake’s kids.”
“No,” I say. “Not anymore.”
Sokanon parts from us first, tired and quiet, but she manages to extract a promise out of me to try to find Barstool’s fast-talker. VJ loses some of his ulcerface once she leaves.
When the elevator is going on five minutes away from her, he clears his throat.
“Her income is on the index,” he says. “But you can claim self-employed. It’s very easy for self-employed to get a high-risk mortgage.”
“The corner Duplex. It’d be a higher rate, but I could get you zero down, cashback.”
“Ten percent overhead,” he says. “Four for the accountant that makes the papers, one point five for the broker, two percent for the bank’s underwriter. I’ll only charge two point five.”
“And what am I going to do when I can’t make the payments?” Kill myself to make Collections go away?
“You can use the cash back for the first couple of months,” he says. “Then…we’ll see.”
“I was born in a hospital. It comes with a birth certificate.”
VJ turns to me, smiling the desperate smile of a drowning man. “So what’s the problem?”
He doesn’t say anything after that.
My rental’s a box halfway in the midwall. The smell of good freezepizza greets me as I walk in the door.
“Bratwurst!” I call. But it’s Hamburglar that comes around the foodprepper counter.
“Brat’s napping,” she says.
I don’t remember napping so much when I was six. Blake would know. But maybe Blake doesn’t keep such good track of the kids that fail his tests. I’ve decided Bratwurst’s gonna be a runner, like me. But the Hamburglar is smart. Brat and I will have to start figuring out how to get Hamburglar a Career.
“Look what Blake gave us,” I say, and reach for the remote. Blake didn’t exactly give it to me, but he said it’s for the kiddies, and I don’t have the whole Overlay, just the fragments that blossom on around us in impossibly beautiful shades of sunlight.
Hamburglar claps her hands. “Oh, oh oh! I remember this!”
So do I. I used to have wings, a long time ago. Fragments of Arcadia won’t make me plaster myself into a wall; I’ve already been there.
Bratwurst is awake and playing fairy, and I’m halfway through imagining Hamburglar with a stingspray belt and pretty braids like Sokanon’s when it hits me. What does a Motive have to do to get noticed around here?
Has to be voiceonly, expensive, but I’m a free man starting tomorrow; running an update to inwall’ll cover it.
“Sokanon, could you look into something for me? For the case?”
“Could you check which realestate agent brokered all the Arcadia boxes? And what happens to a person’s box if they don’t go crazy enough to become wall-ooze, but do get crazy enough to be taken into Therapy?”
Sokanon’s dressed carefully today; she’s looking as Corporate as possible. The other rentacops look just as sharp. Warren-Hive takes fraud very, very seriously, I’ve been told. And Sokanon says I’m allowed to tag along.
“I don’t think he meant to murder anyone,” she says to me in the elevator. “He doesn’t have the stomach for it.”
“What murder?” I ask. “Suicide, Sokanon. All there’s been is suicide.”
Nobody answers the door, so the rentacops bust in. There’s three children – a boy and two girls – sitting on the couch under the window, holding each other’s hands. A dark-haired woman with puffy eyes is standing in front of the closed bedroom door.
“You can’t go in there!” she yells as the rentacops move towards the room. She grabs the one in the front. “You can’t go there!”
The rentacop pulls out his stingspray, leaves her gasping and crying on the floor.
They bust down the door. VJ’s hung himself from the ceiling fan.
Sokanon makes me stand behind her in the bedroom while Coroner comes in to remove the body.
One of the coroners says, “Nice place,” as he cuts down the body.
“Yeah, and suicide plus kids,” says the other, prepping the bodybag on the floor. “Wife’ll keep it if the lawyer’s good.”
VJ’s widowis still gasping and wailing just outside the bedroom door.
“Don’t look so sad,” says Sokanon as we follow Coroner out into the drawing room. “Bad guy bought it in the end.”
“Yeah,” I say. But I can’t meet the three sets of VJ-eyes following us out of the box.
I’ve swiped first, so the elevator will come for me first, headed all the way over and down into the midwall. Sokanon’s going to ride hers to the top, maybe even get another good look at rain when she makes her report to some bigwig.
The light above the swipe-pad goes ping, and she sighs and looks up from the floor. “I just wish I knew where Knox’s kid went.”
I step into the elevator, turn around and swipe on the pad inside.
“Arcadia, Sokanon,” I say, as the doors between us start to close. “She went to Arcadia.”