“V-Verve?” the girl asks, a thrum of fear going through her. Verve is a drug the San Francisco mob, the Ratel, created; it was all over the news feeds for weeks last year. It was meant to be like Zeal, but so much worse. Not a dream you woke up from, your frustrations spent cathartically. Instead you woke up hungry for violence. Pacifica promised they’d destroyed it. What will it do to her? Her limbs are heavy. She tries to move a finger. Nothing.
“Don’t worry, I’ll put it back where it belongs when we’re done.” The girl should feel fear, but there is nothing. Nothing. Until there is. The nanobots converge in her brain, digging deeper, down into the very core of her. The girl’s emotions switch on. She feels everything—the pain in her skull, in her brain, the full horror of what’s happening to her.
“Carina has a very specific type, here in the Zealscape. She kills criminals, perpetrators of terrible, fictional crimes. They are usually men, middle-aged, cocky in their assurance that they are getting away with their wrongdoings. She has killed women, for a bit of variety, often “angel of death” types. Never children or teenagers—which is why the vision of the girl was so damn jarring.”
“Here in the Zealscape, she can lose herself in the hunt as much as she wants. Here, she hurts only herself, as more and more of her body wastes away, strapped in the Chair in the Zeal lounge.”
“The images still play in her mind as Carina totters on unsteady feet. The bee. The rose. The thorn. The blood. The eyes. And then the dead girl with the same mismatched eyes she saw in the dreamscape. Carina knows her Zealscape intimately. Every corner. Every seam. Every brick. She’s built it so carefully over the last six months.”
“Bee. Rose. Thorn. Blood. Eyes, one green, one blue. What do they mean? Is it gibberish, some strange side effect from a virus let loose in the Zeal program subsystem? The part of her that was once a neuroprogrammer is curious, almost itches to find the problem and solve it, but that part is mostly swallowed up by Zeal apathy.”
“It all centers around a group called the Trust. They seem to be a small team of hackers—a little annoyance to Sudice, to be swatted away. Most of their stunts have done little apart from leaking some information, quickly superseded. A few things they found were useful—hurt the company’s stocks, led to some awkward, somewhat embarrassing questions from the government or shareholders. Their last attack went awry and they were meant to have scattered, but recent information from the inside suggests the Trust have reformed. Names: Charlie, Rafael, Dax and Tam. The information still slams into Carina’s cortex, like endless fireworks.”
“VeriChips can be cleared and wiped remotely, with a new personality added in, but that won’t change the serial number on the chip. She could still be tracked if someone was truly determined. So now she’ll have a new one, a VeriChip of a fake, virtual girl, every detail of her life constructed from the moment of her false birth. But the actual chip, with its serial number and make, probably belongs to a dead person.”
“They arrive at the top level. Carina pauses at the floor-to-ceiling windows, looking out over San Francisco Bay. “I missed this view,” she says. Roz never tires of it. Sudice’s building looks out over the Embarcadero, toward the bay, the Bay Bridge standing tall even though hardly any vehicles travel by land any more. Sailboats take advantage of the morning sunshine, the larger boats for tourists setting out to circle the now-condemned Alcatraz or sail under the bridges. Hovercars fly past, smooth as stingrays, light reflecting off their metal hulls. Skyscrapers rise from the sloping hills. By day, the bay is the same steel-gray it always is, but by the time they leave work, the view will be transformed. The buildings will be illuminated from within. The bay will glow green from the algae farms that give the city energy and a food supply. The entrances to the underground MUNI tunnels will shine the same emerald.”
“Roz can’t help but feel a little nervous. It won’t be pleasant, but her team shouldn’t be doing anything unduly dangerous, at least to start. There’s only so much that can be learned from AI humanoids. No matter how lifelike you make them, they’re not flesh and bone. They can never be as intricate a biomachine as the real thing. Cloning was outlawed long ago, and although Roz tried, Sudice has not been granted special dispensation in this case. So she found the next best thing. Risk using real humans and the government gives its blessing, if the people are deemed unimportant enough. Typical.”
“The hovercar rises above the Los Angeles skyscrapers. It’s still full night, a few stubborn stars shining through the clouds. Below them, the world is a lit mosaic. She wonders which lights are grimy Zeal lounges. A few dozen in a city of millions. So many people below, living their lives, not knowing their very autonomy is at stake. Some of them might even welcome it. Ignorance is bliss.”