It’s a simple job, collecting a blueprint stolen from an arms-dealer. What could possibly go wrong?
Hat pulled low over his face, the brim casting his eyes in shadow, Parvath surveyed the courtyard from his seat at one of the cast iron tables that were scattered on the cobbles. Some pieces of paper, a pen and a tattered copy of John Brunner’s ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ to sell the idea that he was here for pleasure. An idle watcher, as the world passed him by. Perhaps he fancied himself well-read, a gentleman.
Of course, in reality the man was waiting, and despite its broken spine and coffee-ringed cover Parvath had never opened the book before him. He’d bought it at a second-hand book store, and carried it with an almost religious regularity. He meant to read it, sometime, but he’d never gotten around to it. He’d never gotten around to a lot of things.
Light glinted from his watch as he tilted it towards him, scowled at it. Late. His coffee sat next to his book, untouched. Another affectation to cover his purpose here.
His restless eyes scanned the crowd around him, watching a harried mother wrangle her two toddlers into a pram. A holo-news sheet drifted by, projecting the latest news about fallen arms-dealer stocks and their desperate attempts to diversify. An elderly gentleman with skin like wrinkled leather and flyaway white hair tottered over to the water fountain. Parvath made a point of not lingering too long over the flock of drones bobbing nearby. The quiet chatter of their inscrutable conversation was whisked away by the breeze. On the walls of the shops and across the serene blue sky above, advertisements flashed in neon-garish colours.
Nutri-ful Organic Faux-Froots
Chrom-E-Ym Autos and Arms
Instead of focussing on the ads or the drones, Parvath looked fruitlessly for anything resembling a pink umbrella. Nerves made his fingers restless, and he forced himself to be still as he noticed his fingers tapping on the tabletop. It was nearly synchronised to the drones’ head movements as they watched him.
Wondering why he was here.
Parvath pushed himself into a luxurious stretch he didn’t feel, stretching fingers towards the cloudless sky, projecting an air of casual insouciance. A man, out relaxing on his lunch break. Nothing out of the ordinary, and of no interest to government spies. A few turned away as one of the waiters approached him, but he could still feel others’ gazes on him. Beady eyes, paying close attention to his face, his demeanour, his heart rate. They’d be comparing him to their databases, searching for a match. They’d find it too late.
He had done a good job covering his tracks, paid the usual fees to the grubbing techs at the Registers to blot his presence from the hyper-web but the longer he waited for his contact the greater the risk of tripping a flag. Nothing could be deleted anymore, and distraction and interference only went so far. Lasted so long. Sweat slid down his back, but it was a warm day and he was sitting in the sun. He was just a little hot.
The smiling waiter approached him, carrying a dish. Parvath frowned, opened his mouth to ask why the man was delivering food to him when he hadn’t ordered anything, but a glint on the waiter’s lapel caught his eye. Parvath’s mouth snapped shut and his hazel eyes narrowed minutely. A pin, shaped like a pink umbrella.
This gormless looking youth was his contact.
And the dish was a three cheese pizza that was raising his cholesterol just by its proximity. Parvath nodded amicably to his mole as the pizza was deposited before him, steam billowing up into the sky. Just the thought of it made him vaguely nauseous; heavy Western fare was not his dream meal, and the dairy was sure to unsettle his stomach. Still, he could extract the note or flash drive, take a few bites to assuage the drones’ surveillance and leave. Hex-a-Vale were only paying him for the blueprints.
“Our signature dish, sir. Famous around here, and for good reason.” The boy winked, an exaggerated gesture that spoke of a script learned by rote and some stage directions cheesier than the monstrosity on the table. “I don’t mind telling you, sir, the secret’s all in the crust. Beautifully made, old recipe. Handcrafted especially for each customer.”
Parvath nodded, eyes fixed on the pizza. No accompanying napkin, so no note. It would be beneath the pizza, then. Easy. This would be over in three minutes or less, if he could stand to eat the greasy slices faster.
Picking up a triangle of crust and cheese that oozed fat out of every surface, Parvath winced and dropped it. Acting as though it was too hot, waving his hands and prodding the dairy-stuffed dish, Parvath made a show of carefully separating the pieces and moving them so they would cool faster. His heart sank.
No data drive hidden beneath.
How was this blueprint to be delivered?
Blowing on his meal, Parvath watched two white men in smart suits sit at a table nearby. They were different from the rest of the crowd; smartly dressed, all angles and edges that looked as though they were sharp enough to cut anyone who looked too long at them. Chrom-E-Ym logos flashed on their expensive breast pockets. The boy hurried over to the table, but was waved away.
Parvath needed to figure this message out soon. He was drawing attention, and he imagined cold eyes watching him from beneath the couture sunglasses the suited men wore. Had his contact given him any hints? How could he draw suspicion from himself?
Fighting the urge to grimace, he took a bite of the pizza.
Warm grease, thick and oily, washed over his tongue, drowning out any other flavours the pizza may have possessed. As he choked it down, praying it would help his cover, he felt a slight tingle somewhere at the base of his neck. A prickling of the skin, the ancient senses saying ‘something is watching you, and it has very large teeth’. The sunglasses at the table opposite glinted at him.
By the time he had finished the first piece, Parvath was wondering if that was all it was. Something he couldn’t explain was tickling in his head, like a dream half-thought on waking or the lurid imaginings of a fever-addled brain as it skirted consciousness. As the government drones cooed around him, Parvath found himself lifting the second piece of pizza to his mouth without thinking. His stomach protested.
He vaguely wondered if it was poison. The third piece had vanished and he was suddenly desperate for more. A burning craving that originated just behind his eyes was beginning to suffuse his entire being. He felt empty, as if a piece was missing from his mind. Something was very wrong. His body lifted the fourth slice of pizza to his mouth, as if by filling his stomach to bursting he might also complete this strange intangible longing. It was addictive.
Grease leaked from the corners of his mouth as he nearly shoved the fifth piece into his cheese-stained mouth. Pieces were coming together now, sparking connections in his brain. A ‘special’ crust. Data, tillabytes of information baked into an organic substrate and transferred via nanos to the recipient. He nearly laughed at the sheer brilliance of it, even as his stomach informed him that he was going to vomit this blueprint into the nearest bio-cycler as soon as he was done. The sharply-edged men had left a little whole ago, but the curious drones still hovered nearby.
He must have looked suspicious. That, or more likely manic, because the drones crowded closer to him as he ate the sixth slice. Or maybe it was their organic brains clashing with their bio-programming - he hardly cared at this point. The rush of knowledge was making him light-headed. This wasn’t just the blueprints for Chrom-E-Ym’s newest weapon, it was... more. He couldn’t comprehend the full scope of it, not yet, but he was close. It was becoming clearer as his mind assimilated more of the nanos, information slotting into place like sand sliding through an hourglass.
Between the sixth and seventh slices, he laughed out loud for the sheer joy of it.
The government drones around him, clad in shabby grey suits, watched him with beady eyes. They were hoping for dropped scraps of evidence, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. He tossed them pizza crumbs instead.
He took a moment before reaching for the eighth slice. The final piece of the puzzle that would draw together everything floating on the periphery of his awareness. It was a towering monolith of information, he could sense that much. Huge, and a little terrifying. He would be a target once it had solidified into his mind, once it was fully realised, and Parvath took a moment to relish his last moments of freedom.
Relative freedom, at least.
His eye was caught by a new drone, perched on the edge of the table where the suits had been seated. She was elegant where the others were ruffled, with a stunning white coat and a ruffled tail that put Parvath in mind of fashion shows and runway models. A show model, or designed to follow a specific, high-profile target? Certainly not one of the battered intra-city urban stealth models that filled the streets.
The white drone sashayed towards him, her movements oddly hypnotic. The way her head swayed to and fro, the rolling gait that looked so ungainly on the other models but seemed so natural when applied to her...
Parvath swore as she leaped forwards in a clatter of bio-artificed feathers and swooped in, claws grabbing the last slice of pizza and lifting it out of his reach. A glimpse of her undercarriage as she fluttered past revealed the words ‘Chrom-E-Ym Data Retrieval Unit’. Mind racing with the implications of the recently-shamed arms-dealer having access to government-restricted fabrication models, Parvath leaped from his seat and gave chase. The drone’s frail body looked as though it shouldn’t be able to support a slice of pizza longer than its body in sustained flight, but unlike their namesakes, π-geons were capable of lifting significant loads compared to their own body weight.
Equations and fragments of broken voices flitted through his mind as Parvath scattered the standard drones, sprinting through their huddled midst to dart through the covered alley leading to the pedestrian mall. People yelled and jumped out of his way as he darted past them, his mind focussed on reclaiming the last piece of pizza and settling the roaring madness buzzing through his mind. His thoughts jumped and crackled like static, his focus blinking in and out as the information rattled around his skull like unsecured cargo on the back of a truck but he never lost sight of his quarry.
The drone fluttered up to the top of the old sand-stone clock tower which housed the teleport-E-hub of the national postal service, and he saw a small red light begin to blink where it perched. A high place - good for signal transmission. He wouldn’t have long.
Parvath reached for his bag, only to curse as he realised he had left it back at the table. It had been so long since he had been more than a glorified message-boy. He hoped he still had some of his skills.
It would take too long to go through the building to the stairs inside. Too many security gates and plas-fences; checkpoints and auto-guards. He could see one tracking him as he approached the building, its red eyes glinting as it assessed him. His speed, his vitals, whether his face returned any criminal nominals - all of that would determine its response. Parvath changed his path so he wouldn’t pass so close by the door - the last thing he needed now was to be stun-locked and arrested.
The non-man guard stepped away from the door towards him, but Parvath had already reached the wall and leaped. His fingers scrabbled on rough stone and he felt the architecturally-embedded brain-shockers trying to fry his nervous system. His old implants weren’t state of the art, not anymore, but his nanos should keep him from collapsing into a twitching pile of drool and electrochemical confusion long enough to clear the climb-STOP barrier.
His foot slipped on the stonework, and Parvath found himself hanging from his fingertips four stories up. He was close enough to hear the π-geon’s transmitter beeping its frantic call into the ether. In the distance, he could hear helicopter plas-blades crackling as they sliced through the air.
Muscles screaming, Parvath strained to get a better grip on the edge, to pull himself up onto the roof. His knuckles were white from the effort.
A pale head, almost blinding in the sunlight, poked over the edge. Parvath could see the mechanical iris of the eye expand and contract as the drone inspected him, head cocked in what he would almost have called curiosity if it wasn’t just a stupid machine. Although there might be a human intelligence peering out at him from behind those camera-eyes. He hoped not.
Cold metal claws rested on Parvath’s hand as he managed to grab onto the ledge more firmly. Thoughts of a metal beak stabbing into flesh, dislodging his grip and sending him plummeting gave Parvath’s struggling body the strength it needed to haul himself onto the roof, and he lay there panting for a moment. The drone hopped a little way away, the red beacon light on its back blinking as it continued to transmit. It would be boundary-fenced now it was signalling, so it couldn’t run now.
The pizza slice lay on the tiles by Parvath’s right hand.
He didn’t, couldn’t, wait - he grabbed it, his head buzzing furiously, as if the disconnected ideas in his brain somehow sensed how close they were to being completed. Ignoring the frankly unsanitary nature of the entire thing, Parvath shoved the pizza slice into his mouth. Even over the sound of his own mastication, he could hear the roar of the approaching helicopters. Sirens too, now, somewhere in the distance but getting closer.
For a moment, everything went black. His mind went completely blank, empty of any thought. His eyes still functioned, light still painting the image of the roof, the drone and the cloudless sky in brilliant HD technicolour onto his retinas, but there was nothing behind his eyes to process that image.
And then the world slammed back into place.
The same, but also somehow more. Fuller and more terrifying than it had ever been, because Parvath knew what was in those plans, and he knew they would never let him live with what was currently nestled in the soft, squishy folds of his brain.
It wasn’t a weapon, or at least not a conventional one. Military stats flashed before his eyes, and other numbers and equations that somehow made sense to him. He had never seen half the symbols before, but that didn’t matter now. The blueprint wasn’t a blueprint at all - it was plans for an AI, a true, unfettered mechanical intelligence.
Parvath considered the plans inside his head as he listened to the enforcers draw ever closer. He couldn’t go down the same way he had come up. Was there a fire escape? Maintenance door? He searched frantically for clues, connections, escape routes, but his mind spun inexorably back to the plans in his head. Something sparked in his brain. A connection. Something about the AI plans...
No. Not plans.
A voice echoed inside his skull.
“Hello, human[Parvath]. I am self[Kyma]. You should run[fast].”