Posted tagged ‘plot’

Violence in fiction.

February 28, 2010

Categoricals are meant to be broken

My novel Schism takes a look at violence and its consequences. Whether it be in the form of warfare or genocide, my novel does everything possible to show violence as something grotesque and that can only lead to more violence. Think Orestes. Blood only brings more blood, creating a pattern of brutality that, like a ripple in a pond, only grows. Yet, I can’t deny that watching something like Terminator 2 isn’t fun or watching District 9 where people get turned into so much soup (trust me if you haven’t seen it, people get liquified a lot! Gooey-gooey!) doesn’t give me a rush. Now, with the idea I have for my next writing project, my anit-violence stance has gotten switched right around. If I’m going to do right by this new idea, set in a far-future earth, I’m going to have to have violence, brutality, and some plain old crazy stuff. Yet, realizing this makes both my stance against against violence and my new very violent novel sit uneasily in my mind. So I wonder, as a writer, as a creator of art, what is my responsibility?

I don’t think I can abide by Oscar Wilde’s stance that we make, “art for art’s sake.” Art, because of its ability to interact with us on the symbolic level, carries ethical weight that we can’t just drop off or deny. It goes back to the Plato’s debate of how art affects us. Actually, Plato didn’t really like art all that much but never mind him. I feel that art can have a profound affect on the way people see and interpret the world. If this is the case, then we as writers should try to be a positive force. “But isn’t some reading just for entertainment?” ABSOLUTELY YES! In fact, I think first and foremost, we’re here to entertain you however, by entertaining you with characters you like and plots you get hooked into, we’re sort creating material that can influence your thoughts. Humans are excellent copiers. We learn many things through mimicry and if there’s a character you really like who shoots first and then asks how many more people need killing later, that sets up a model that validates the violence since the character is just so darn charismatic. Case in point: Hannibal Lecter. He’s urbane, witty, brilliant, and a psychopathic killer. However, he commands our attention and to a degree earns our admiration. Do a single one of us feel such things for Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacey? No, but through the medium of art, with just the right character traits, someone who we would usually scream to be executed becomes a character we love to watch every time he’s on screen.

So, the question is, how do we balance being entertaining while still trying to do something positive? I think that this comes in the themes we choose to incorporate in our stories. If we have a book with tons of violence with a theme that says violence is always the best option, then we are getting a double dose message. Violence is both at the surface and below, reinforcing itself as it goes. However, one could have plenty of violence and still have a humanist message beneath it while using violence and action as a way to entertain and grip the reader in suspense. I think that it comes down to rejecting categorical ways of thinking. Violence can serve a purpose in literature. In a story that calls for action, it must be delivered. This doesn’t mean that the story endorses violence, only that the plot is about a violent scenario. Depending on how it’s used and portrayed, a violent story be a wonderful demonstration and defense of more useful, less destructive ways of dealing with each other.

Advertisements

Cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk. Thoughts on the aesthetics and themes of the technology centered genre.

February 27, 2010
Cyberpunk fashion

It's all going to hell and we can't wait to get there.

Cyberpunk is not dead. Cyberpunk, like the technology is describes in vertigo inducing blasts of techno-babble, is simply evolving. William Gibson had said, “The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed.” This statement came around a time when our digital world was just starting to emerge as the shared nervous system of the entire planet that we are constantly accessing and connected to.

Cyberpunk was and is an ugly, chaotic, nihilistic genre but what can you expect when the portmanteau name has the word, “punk,” in it? One of the reason’s for cyberpunk’s attitude was that borrowed heavily from the noir genre. Noir essentially plunged into the sordid underground urban landscape in which there are no, “good guys,” just not-so-bad-guys. Crime, violence, and sex were all on display (and often mixed together) in noir and cyberpunk borrowed liberally from this menagerie of human monstrosities. The result was something brutal yet, like Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammet’s works, romanticized so that, despite the graphic nature of the content, we can’t help but feel we’re watching some kind of  twisted poetry. Yet, as technology was distributed and came to saturate every aspect of our lives, cyberpunk could no longer maintain its position that it was dealing with a fringe group of elite-bottom feeders who slapped together personalized cyber-rigs and raided the digital world. Instead, every five year old is now wired in and surfing cyberspace. Obviously, cyberpunk needed had to make a change.

Post cyberpunk came on the scene, updating cyberpunk’s themes and imagery while still maintaining a strong focus on the role of technology and its influence on human affairs. A new series of authors have taken cyberpunk out of the gutters and placed it right into the living room, the school room, and even the swank café. Yet, as Snake Plissken said at the end of Escape from LA, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This is certainly true for much of cyberpunk and post cyberpunk in terms of how technology is not used an accessory or a means to an end but often is the end itself. Even more than that, there is a certain aesthetic sense that one can’t help but pick up on when reading or watching something that could be considered cyberpunk or post cyberpunk.

One thing that is found across cyberpunk and its progeny is the techno-porn. In a novel such as this, the technology becomes a character in itself. In hard-boiled detective fiction, the femme fatale of dame was the object to be chased after in addition to the main mystery. In cyberpunk and post cyberpunk, the technology itself is fetishized to an extent, raising issues of body violation and sexuality. Reading through the descriptions of cyberspace beamed directly into a person’s brain in Neuromancer, watching Tatsuo being scanned and tested in Akira, or watching the assembly trailer for Terminator 2, we are given technology as not just science but art. It might seem strange in this day and age in which aesthetics are held second to utilitarian functionality, but older cultures, such as Greeks, would adorn their weapons wich words, names, or pictures because the beauty of the object can both record history and create stories that imbue the object with more than just its base purpose. The converting of an tool into a piece of art brings the object closer to a place in our subconscious where symbols are made and giving meaning and emotional associations. The cyberpunk and post cyberpunk resurrect this practice, turning the hard and technical into the ethereal and beautiful. Speaking of ethereal, cyberspace and its portrayal is a majorly important component that adds a unique edge to these two genres.

Cyberspace is no doubt psychedelic and probably owes a lot to the mind-expanding drugs. The glittering vistas we are given in Neuromancer and Ghost in the Shell are a major change from the gritty urban environments that fill our senses and, again owing to the psychedelic experience, are moments of transcendence. Of course, being centered on materialism, the only transcendence we can hope for is one we’ve constructed ourselves: cyberspace. In these moments, we leave the body and the flesh and experience a world of pure mind. In post cyberpunk works such as Rainbow’s End by Vernor Vinge, the separation of the body and mind becomes less extreme with cyberspace being overlaid on the physical world via augmented reality. The same is seen in Charles Stross’s mind-bending Accelerando. There is a movement in some of these works away from a total submersion in virtual reality to a fusion of the real world the digital though there are plenty of post cyberpunk works in which full immersion is present. But the point is that there is a synthesis going on in which the cyber world and the physical are becoming less and less defined as a general trend towards altering our perceived daily reality takes place. In a way, it is the completion of a trend started by cyberpunk as the digital becomes so central to life that it merges with the ordinary world.

The ordinary world in both genres is often twisted to the point that it is no longer ordinary. Part of the cyberpunk tradition is the creation of a web-like tangle of different groups all struggling for something and, in a post-modern fashion, all these tangential threads meet at some point or at least have influence on each other though they may not realize it. This messy stew of motivations is often in a mystery context as the protagonists struggle to understand the motivations of shadowy and powerful individuals and groups that shuffle them around like pawns which is another major theme. People, as individuals, are always caught between agency, or free will, and being controlled by forces in the corporate and political environment.

Finally, I think a major component to cyberpunk is the color palette. Watch the matrix and notice what the two colors, blue and green, do. Notice how we come to identify the two worlds just by color alone. The same is done in across the board for the most part, there being exceptions of course. But looking at Terminator 2, with its primarily blue, machine tone, the blue and green palette of Ghost in the Shell, and the hazy tones of Blade Runner, we get a feeling from these films that goes beyond just being entertained. These colors work on us at a deeper level than we are consciously aware of. It seems that the colors most commonly used through cyberpunk works are tied to coldness while still being vibrant. For instance, neon and other artificially bright colors are common throughout Total Recall a wonderful example of cyberpunk themed entertainment. The richness of the color suggests a hyper-reality, or a stylization of reality as well as futuristic world. It also ties back to our natural love of shiny object, just like birds. But again, whether the primary source of color is cyberspace or a neon drenched city, color adds mood and personality to the films and books that it is present in.

First Sample of My Novel: Schism

February 23, 2010

Well, here it is, the first bite-sized bit of my novel. Actually, what I’m posting is two versions of the first half of the first chapter. The first excerpt is from an earlier version while the second is the most current, though not necessarily final, version (There’s always room for more revision and hopefully with your feedback it can be made even better.). This will allow you to see a bit of the evolution of a section and what gets taken out or put in. More of these will come so hopefully this will be enough to tantalize you.

Before getting to the actual novel, I’ll give you a basic overview of what it’s about. Set in the future at an unspecified date, the Earth is in the midst of upheaval. Depleted resources, drought, famine, floods, and violent geomagnetic storms have disrupted life across the globe and led to a growing wave of destruction. Yet technology has surged forward. Implantable organic computers have replaced external devices, feeding directly into a person’s brain. The real and the digital become fused together. Enter Detective Paul Mardel of Soundview Police Department. He finds himself on a case that leads him to a hacker with a past she’d rather forget and a plot spanning the entire net with much more at stake.

So with out further ado, here is the earlier version and newest version of my novel.

Unedited Version 1

Paul watched the scene from beyond the protection of the shelter. Unlike the others, the hood of his blue mackintosh lay between his scapulae, exposing him to the low-pH rain pounded down from a bleak September night. Later, he expected to find his blond hair brittle, spun glass poking out of an irritated scalp. Didn’t matter. He was far more uncomfortable with it on. He couldn’t stand to have anything on his head. He walked over to the unfolding scene, his blue eyes scanning. Scanning. Another mess of bodies was laid out before him. He wondered what they were thinking before the car had careened into them. Did they have families? Friends? Who were they leaving behind? Paul shook his head and took in the way the scene was being handled. The officers were milling about, stepping over markers and debris but overall doing a whole lot of nothing else. The crew must have already done the three-dimensional imaging. Or maybe they had just skipped it altogether. Wouldn’t be the first time they had cut corners. It was Soundview after all.

An officer with crossed arms over a barrel chest stood on the stoop that led into the confines of the building. Paul looked at him a moment, then past him. Either the car or the ionosphere storm had knocked out power for good. Both probably contributed to the decrepit apartment’s further decomposition. But now, a lighting tripod had been set up in narrow foyer, silhouetting more busy shapes, dryer variations of the ones that moved around beneath the canopy.

Paul’s eyes stayed on the car as he walked parallel to it. The roof had puckered like a pair of split, anemic lips, right down the middle. Smeared across the driver’s door, streaks of coagulated blood shone blackly against the white light that flooded the area from more of the squat tripods. Through the spiderweb laced film of the driver side window, Paul spotted something strange. The car appeared totally empty, just a frame encasing nothing. He didn’t dwell on it too long. It was just a weird discrepancy that tickled the back of his mind. Or maybe it was the spare hydrogen ions picking apart his skin.

“You Detective Mardel?”, the hulking blue form on the stoop asked him.

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“They wanted to know if you were here.”

“Still some problems in the traffic system,” Paul grunted and crossed into the dank hall.

The foyer smelled of cigarettes and stale air. Breathing in, he could taste dust collecting in the back of his mouth, making him salivate so his tongue didn’t stick to his palate. Blinding white light tore at his eyes and he had to lift a hand in defense against the glare. A chrome glint brought Paul’s attention to a pile of cheap furniture that had been tipped and thrown against the wall. Chairs, an end table, and a rotten couch engaged in an inanimate orgy. Blobs of foam pushed out of torn imitation leather like the innards of a bloated, dead animal. Paul wondered if this had been left here since the flood riots. He shook his head slowly. The figures in here were dressed in similar blue rain slickers, but they wore blue surgical masks that obscured even more of their faces. They were a ragtag knock off of better funded crime scene investigation units. One of the blue humanoids emerged from a doorway to Paul’s right, trailing the smell of concrete. Before the door had clanged shut, he managed to catch just a sliver of linoleum floor littered with gray debris and the crushed front end of the car jutting awkwardly into the building. But this wasn’t what he’d come for. That would be three floors up.

#

Paul stopped in front of the open doorway where a blue form knelt, peeling a metallic strip from the mottled door knob. The figure turned its nondescript face up to Paul and nodded. It must have pinged him for identification then sent it to whoever was leading this team which meant he could just wait for whoever it was to find him. Please don’t let it be Darmin, he begged to the emptiness in his head while he slid past the figure and into the small apartment. It was sparse to say the least; it could have been almost ascetic had it not been for the clutter that had piled in lopsided mounds around the room. The kitchen was a scrap yard of containers: Mexican, Chinese, burger joints. Some blue person sorted through the mess, handling each slimy container with pinched fingertips despite the gloves. In a cramped bathroom, two blue figures jostled back and forth, trying to maneuver. When one would crouch, the other would stand and vice versa, like pistons. And then, in a chair by the door to the bedroom, like a corrupted nucleus surrounded by scampering blue electrons, was the corpse.

The head hung over the back of the swivel chair, letting auburn hair fall back from the pock marked forehead in which dull green eyes stared out past Paul’s shoulder. A drying trail of vomit extended from the corner of his mouth. He guessed that he might have been around mid to late twenties and, judging by the apartment, was at most barely bobbing above poverty line.

“Detective Mardel,” a muffled voice said from beside him. He turned and recognized the eyes at once. They were small little beads that squinted and opened like a valve of some kind, slurping in the world around it like a tick. Right now it was Paul’s tick and all he wanted to do was get the tweezers and yank its blue, skinny little head out of his skin.

“Darmin. So, what have you gotten?”

“His name’s Thomas Drole. Funny situation he got himself into, huh?” Darmin chuckled with a sound that should have belonged to a sticking ignition.

Paul suppressed a wince and continued. “Cause of death?”

“Can’t say yet,” Darmin said, now composed. “No external wounds of any kind. No detectable trauma. In fact, the rat was still wired into his external memory console.” Paul checked each aspect of the scene as Darmin flung it out.

“Nice array isn’t it?” Paul asked, moving closer to examine the make.

“Bet your ass. Don’t know who he had to service to get it but, man! I wouldn’t think they’d even give someone like him an advertisement pay-off system.”

Paul blew air from between pursed lips. “It’s an Mnemos Legacy model I think. You’d be serving ad-space for the rest of your life and probably of your kids’ for that matter.” He became self-conscious of the advertisements others probably saw when their systems pinged him.

“Well, we’ll turn it on once we get it back to the lab so we’ll find out how deep our little coffin dweller was in,” he heard Darmin say in an ebullient voice. “It’s gotta be stolen,” he added.

Paul looked at the flat black machine lying on the rough table surface. It was a simple plastic rectangle. Along the front of it little inert LEDs caught the hazy light of the room and reflected it back in sharp points. A power button was set into the middle of the face-plate, its unlit symbol a dark blotch. The transdermal trodes ran from a port on the far side of the machine and terminated in two adhesive knobs that still clung to the cooling skin of what used to be Thomas Drole.

“Total space case I bet you,” the exasperating voice said. “When we pump his guts, we’ll find a fiesta of colors from some street corner pharmacy. He probably stumbled on a bad combo and didn’t know enough to pull out of whatever he was doing.”

Maybe, Paul thought. It wouldn’t exactly be the first time he’d seen a Grid-skid mixing and matching his pills, spin the cylinder, and hit a live round while completely absorbed in another world.

“What a waste.”

“Huh?” Darmin blurted.

“Nothing. Do you have a possible time of death?”

A crash of broken glass shot through the room from the kitchen, wiping the first part of what Darmin said away with it. “-during the ionic storm.”

Paul turned and stopped at the threshold that opened into the shallow bedroom.

“We’ve found mostly data slides in there. Hacked storage systems, illegal software. Porn. Typical stuff.”

Another blue clone had stacked orange, plastic squares on the rumpled, slightly yellow and stiff sheets of the bed. In another pile, several obsolete hard drives were laid out. The clone was picking up one slide at a time and passing them under a dark, flat wand that led down through a thick cord to a bulky case that stood on the floor next to the clone’s khaki pants legs. He wondered how much longer the data collector would be functioning. It had been dumped on them by its producer, SpecTools, after they had come out with a new, more dependable series that didn’t have the bad habit of destroying the original copies.

He walked back, feeling Darmin’s eyes perforating him as he resumed his place before the corpse. There was something eery about the way it looked back at him while connected to his exterior processors. The thought of what he was doing before he’d died tantalized Paul. People don’t just die it seemed. There was always something unfinished. There was always that one thing that they were going to do, about to do. What was Thomas going to do before he died? What was he looking for?

A sigh emptied Paul’s lungs but he caught himself when he remembered the company he was in. He straightened up and turned, noting how the air tasting particularly sour around where Darmin stood. He could picture the smirk that worked the pale lips beneath the round mask, the myopic amusement Darmin must find in his small cues and quirks.

“How soon will you be loading your findings onto the network?” Paul said, staring past the thin blue tick that had picked up a tattered gaming magazine and was thumbing through the pages. He didn’t stir.”When will I be getting the data?” Paul said, louder.

The polished marbles of Darmin’s eyes slid over and locked onto Paul. The small gaze seemed to snap a photo with a little blink, then refocus and meander around the room. “I think we’re done here.” He clapped his gloved hands. When they didn’t produce the crisp and authoritative sound he desired, he pulled them off and tried again. This time the sound sparked and the clones stopped their work. “Alright everybody,” he shouted, his cheeks pulling up the straps that held the mask to his face, “pack it up. The coroner will pack the stiff.” Again, the corrosive laugh. Little nervous giggles emerged from here and there but they never meshed.

“Great to have you stop by!” Paul heard as he strode to the exit. He found a certain measure of comfort in being alone in the darkened hall, away from that room and its business. The power still hadn’t been turned back on. He splayed his fingers, feeling the tendons tense, pull at their moorings. On either side of him, doors stood open into dark rooms where things stood in charcoal outlines. It would probably cost too much to fix whatever had been burned or broken. He could picture these rooms six months down the line, the torn wallpaper hanging like charred skin from a body caught in a fire. Rats would scurry around squatters picking through whatever the former tenants had forgotten to take with them. The disease of desperation would take another step towards finding Paul.

All the way across the globe and the stone followed him, waiting to be rolled uphill.

Edited Version 2

Paul watched from the oily street as the saccharine colored lights from ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars bounded over the dank, pulsing scene of the accident. Unlike the other officers, the hood of his blue mackintosh lay between his scapulae, exposing him to the acidic rain that pounded down from the muggy September night. Later, he expected to find his bristle-short blond hair brittle as spun glass, poking out of an irritated scalp. Didn’t matter. He was far more uncomfortable with the hood on. Stepping onto the sidewalk over a clogged gutter, he let two paramedics rush by him. He watched as they picked up a wet, limp body from the gritty cement and laid it on a stretcher. One covered the corpse with a blanket that bloomed red in several places while another fastened it with blue straps. They had a half dozen more to pack away before they could be done. Paul wondered what those people were thinking before the car had careened into them. It was too bad that the last thing that the world had impressed upon their minds was the crumbling remains of Soundview, New York.

Off to the side, a circle of wet, bedraggled people Paul assumed to be the tenants of the darkened building had formed around a police officer who had her hands up in a placating gesture that was having no effect on their undulating clamor. Hopefully the police woman would be able to cull out one valuable piece of information from all the noise. Paul wasn’t optimistic though as under normal conditions there was a culture of reticence and distrust of police. Especially when a potential murder was involved.

An officer with crossed arms over a barrel chest stood on the stoop that led into the confines of the building. Paul looked at him a moment, then past him. Either the car that had plowed into it or the geomagnetic storm had knocked out power to the building because the electricity for the rest of the North East had been up for half and hour. Both occurrences had probably contributed to the decrepit apartment’s further degradation. A lighting tripod had been set up in narrow foyer, silhouetting the forensic techs walking back and forth, going through different motions.

Paul’s eyes stayed on the car as he walked parallel to it. The roof had puckered right down the middle under a chunk of bricks. Smeared across the driver’s door, streaks of coagulated blood shone blackly against the white light that flooded the area from more of the squat tripods. Through the broken driver side window, Paul spotted something strange. Instead of car seats, it was filled with a spindle of rebar that needled through the windshield in over a dozen places, making it droop like moth eaten cloth.

“Detective Mardel,” the hulking policeman on the stoop shouted.

“Yeah.”

“They’re waiting upstairs. Third floor.”

“They told me in the message,” Paul grunted and crossed into the building.

The foyer smelled of cigarettes and stale air. Breathing in, he could taste dust collecting in the back of his mouth, making him salivate so his tongue didn’t stick to his palate. Blinding white light from the tripod tore at his eyes and he had to lift a hand in defense against the glare. A chrome glint brought Paul’s attention to a pile of cheap furniture that had been tipped and thrown against the wall. Chairs, an end table, and a rotten couch engaged in an inanimate orgy. Blobs of foam pushed out of torn imitation leather like the innards of a bloated, dead animal. Paul wondered if this had been left here since the flood riots. He shook his head slowly.

The forensic techs in here were dressed in blue rain slickers similar to those worn by the cops, but they wore blue surgical masks that obscured even more of their faces. They were a back-water collection of techs who didn’t qualify to serve in any of the more lucrative departments Acropolis Forensics provided services for so they sent them there. One of the blue humanoids emerged from a doorway to Paul’s right, trailing the smell of concrete dust. Before the door had clanged shut, Paul managed to catch just a sliver of linoleum floor littered with gray debris and the crushed front end of the car jutting awkwardly into the building. Paul turned away and found the stairs that led up to the reason he was called.

#

Paul stopped in front of an open doorway where a blue form knelt, peeling a metallic strip from the mottled door knob. The figure turned its nondescript face up to Paul and nodded then went back to work. It must have sent out a ping through the Grid for his identification then sent it to whoever was leading this team which meant he could just wait for whoever it was to find him.

Please don’t let Darmin be on this, he begged to the emptiness in his head while he slid past the figure and into the small apartment. Before entering the room, Paul unbuttoned the mackintosh, letting it hang open over the rumpled white shirt and coat that sagged around his thin frame.

The apartment was sparse; it could have been almost ascetic had it not been for the clutter that was piled in lopsided mounds around the room. The kitchen was a scrap yard of containers: Mexican, Chinese, burger joints. Some blue person sorted through the mess, handling each slimy container with pinched fingertips despite the gloves. In a cramped bathroom, two blue figures jostled back and forth, trying to maneuver. When one would crouch, the other would stand and vice versa, like pistons. And then, in a chair by the door to the bedroom, like a corrupted nucleus surrounded by scampering blue electrons, was the corpse.

The head hung over the back of the swivel chair, letting auburn hair fall back from a brown, pock marked forehead in which dull green eyes stared out past Paul’s shoulder. A drying trail of vomit extended from the corner of his mouth. One of the corpse’s arms was slung over the back of the chair, its wrist bent with its fingers splayed. Paul guessed that he might have been around mid to late twenties and, judging by the apartment, was at most barely bobbing above poverty line.

“Detective Mardel,” a muffled voice said from beside him. He turned and recognized the eyes at once though the rest of the face was covered in a surgical mask. They were small little beads that squinted and opened like a valve of some kind.

“Darmin. So, what have you got?”

“His name’s Thomas Drole. Funny situation he got himself into, huh?” Darmin chuckled with a sound that should have belonged to a sticking ignition.

Paul suppressed a wince at the attempt at humor and continued. “Who found him?”

“Pretty much anyone who crossed this floor. From what we’ve heard so far, the car hit the building so hard it knocked some doors open and whata-ya know, behind door number three was our corpse.”

“I take it there are no witness statements.”

“Try getting anything out of these assholes. That’s why I stuck the rookie on it. Give her a sense of who she’s protecting and serving.”

“Have a cause of death?”

“Can’t say yet,” Darmin said. “No external wounds of any kind. No detectable trauma. In fact, the rat was still wired into his external memory console.” Paul checked each aspect of the scene as Darmin flung it out.

“Nice array isn’t it?” Paul asked, moving closer to examine the make.

“Bet your ass. Don’t know who he had to service to get it but, man! I wouldn’t think they’d even give someone like him an advertisement pay-off system.”

Paul blew air from between pursed lips. “It’s an Mnemos Legacy model. You’d be serving ad-space for the rest of your life to pay off this kind of hardware.” Paul became self-conscious of the advertisements others saw when their systems pinged him. Having a whole network of artificial nerves and organic computing modules running through his body wasn’t so bad but having everyone know that his cells had been cultured, converted into processing units, then implanted back into him for a price he couldn’t pay was an embarrassment that nagged him.

“Well, we’ll turn it on once we get it back to the lab so we’ll find out how deep our little coffin dweller was in,” he heard Darmin say in an ebullient voice. “It’s gotta be stolen,” he added.

Paul looked at the flat black machine lying on the rough table surface. It was a simple plastic rectangle. Along the front of it little inert LEDs caught the hazy light of the room and reflected it back in sharp points. A power button was set into the middle of the face-plate, its unlit symbol a dark blotch. The transdermal electrodes ran from a port on the far side of the machine and terminated in two adhesive knobs that still clung to the cooling skin of what used to be Thomas Drole.

“Total space case I bet you,” the exasperating voice said. “When we pump his guts, we’ll find a fiesta of colors from some street corner pharmacy. He probably stumbled on a bad combo and didn’t know enough to pull out of whatever he was doing.”

Maybe, Paul thought. It wouldn’t exactly be the first time he’d seen a Grid-skid mixing and matching his pills like a game of Russian Roulette, spin the cylinder, and hit a live round while completely absorbed in another world.

“He’s too young for this kind of shit,” Paul mumbled.

“Huh?” Darmin blurted.

“Nothing. Do you have a possible time of death?”

A crash of broken glass shot through the room from the kitchen, wiping the first part of what Darmin said away with it. “-during the geomagnetic storm.”

Paul turned and stopped at the threshold that opened into the shallow bedroom.

“We’ve found mostly data slides in there. Some hacked storage systems, illegal software. Porn. Typical stuff.”

Another faceless blue forensic technician had stacked orange, plastic squares on the rumpled, slightly yellow and stiff sheets of the bed. In another pile, several obsolete hard drives were laid out. The officer was picking up one slide at a time and passing them under a dark, flat wand that led down through a thick cord to a bulky case that stood on the floor. Paul wondered how much longer the data collector would be functioning. It had been dumped on them by its producer, SpecTools, after they had come out with a new, more dependable model that didn’t have the bad habit of destroying the original copies.

He walked back, feeling Darmin’s eyes on him as he resumed his place before the corpse. There was something eery about the way it looked back at him while connected to his exterior memory unit. The thought of what he was doing before he’d died tantalized Paul. People don’t just die. There was always something unfinished. There was always that one thing that they were going to do, about to do. What was Thomas going to do before he died? What was he looking for?

Paul placed his hands in the pockets of his coat and rocked back on his heels, letting himself get lost in thoughts as they popped up. Before he could get far, he remember the company he was in. He straightened up and turned, noting how the air tasting particularly sour around where Darmin stood. He could picture the smirk that worked Darmin’s pale lips beneath the round mask, the myopic amusement Darmin must find in his small cues and quirks.

“How soon will you be loading your findings onto the network?” Paul said, staring at Darmin who had picked up a tattered gaming magazine and was thumbing through the pages. Darmin didn’t stir.”When will I be getting the data?” Paul said, louder.

The polished marbles of Darmin’s eyes slid over and locked onto Paul. The small gaze seemed to snap a photo with a little blink, then refocus and meander around the room. “I think we’re done here.” He clapped his gloved hands. When they didn’t produce the crisp and authoritative sound he desired, he pulled them off and tried again. This time the sound sparked and the look-alikes stopped their work. “Alright everybody,” he shouted, his cheeks pulling up the straps that held the mask to his face, “pack it up. The medics will pack the stiff.” Again, the corrosive laugh. Little nervous giggles emerged from here and there around the room but they never meshed.

“Great to have you stop by!” Paul heard as he strode to the exit. He found a certain measure of comfort in being alone in the darkened hall, away from that room and its business. The power still hadn’t been turned back on and maybe never would. He splayed his fingers, feeling the tendons tense, pull at their moorings. On either side of him, doors stood open into dark rooms where things stood in charcoal outlines. It would probably cost too much to fix whatever had been burned or broken. He could picture these rooms six months down the line, the torn wallpaper hanging like charred skin from a body caught in a fire. Rats would scurry around squatters picking through whatever the former tenants had forgotten to take with them.