A story in 10 parts
Chapters 1 and 2 were published in Shoreline of Infinity 30.
Chapters 3 to 10 are released fortnightly for free on the website.
The novella Approaching Human will be published in paperback in Autumn 2022.
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Approaching Human 5: Decoy Codeline
Angel DiMatteo was sitting behind her triangular desk, and giving me the stink eye.
“I hope this is important, Mr Zorn. My time is precious.”
I knew that whatever DiMatteo would say today wouldn’t be true. OmniScience was behind whatever was going on with Jake Carrelli. Therefore, I would have to look beyond her mendacity, which would not be easy. Humans are accomplished liars.
“I’ve been following Mr Carrelli’s movements during the past few weeks, seeing if they might lead me anywhere.”
“Staten Island,” I said. “Specifically, the Hanson Clinic. It would appear he booked in there for a certain procedure. I’m not sure what – or what the clinic specialises in. It appears to be off-grid. I was wondering if, as his employer, you might be any the wiser?”
She regarded me noncommittally for five seconds, then said, “I personally arranged for Jake to visit the Hanson Clinic, Mr Zorn.”
“You did?” I was surprised by the admission.
“As part of the project Jake was involved in,” she went on, “it was necessary for him to undergo an operation.”
“The installation of an occipital jack through which the copy of his cerebral identity could be made.”
“I see,” I said. “But … why didn’t you tell me this before, on my first visit?”
“I must admit that I didn’t think it that important.”
I watched her, attempting to work out what to say next. “One thing concerns me,” I said.
“And that is?”
“Why employ a surgeon, one Mr Johan Szabo, who a decade ago was found guilty of professional malpractice?”
DiMatteo did not smile as she replied. “As you say, Mr Zorn, that was ten years ago. Since then, he has done some pioneering work in his field. I judged him the best man for the job I wanted doing, and so he proved.”
“He performed the operation himself?”
“I presume the procedure had never been attempted before, given what was to follow – the copying of a human consciousness?”
Did I see anger flare in the woman’s blue eyes? “If you’re trying to imply that I was placing Jake Carrelli in any kind of danger, Mr Zorn – ”
I held up my hands. “I’m suggesting nothing of the kind, Ms DiMatteo. I’m merely saying that, as the procedure was ground-breaking, then there must have been an element of risk?”
“I assure you – ”
“Especially given the track-record of the surgeon performing the operation.”
Across the desk from me, Angel DiMatteo simmered.
I smiled at her. “Well,” I said, “I think that about wraps it up. Thank you for your time.”
As I was about to leave, she said, “Might I ask how the investigation is proceeding, Mr Zorn?”
I nodded. “Slowly,” I said.
“Do you have any idea who might be behind the hack?”
“Yesterday, I traced a codeline from this building to the comstack of a hacker in the Bronx,” I said, “one Arkady Valutin, in the pay of the Russian mafia.”
She leaned forward. “So the Russians are behind this?”
I shook my head. “That’s what someone wanted me believe,” I said, and explained my reasoning.
“Then who?” she asked.
I considered my words, then said, “Have you ever considered who might have known what line of research Jake Carrelli was working on?”
“That was my investigator’s first line of enquiry,” she said. “We even considered a mole here at OmniScience.”
I was shaking my head. “Look no further than the Chinese,” I said, “and a certain theoretician called Jilpa Chiang.”
I went onto outline my reasoning: the decoy codeline was pure Beijing, and Cathay agents had been known to flame their opponents in the past.
And little Jilpa Chiang had known all about Jake Carrelli’s research.
Not conclusive proof, but I was pretty certain that Jake Carrelli’s cognitive copy was being stripped down to its constituent parts in some Beijing lab.
“How much did Jake know about what went on here?” I asked.
“Fortunately, he was on a need-to-know footing,” she said, then dismissed me with a curt, “Good work, Mr Zorn.”
I nodded and left the office.
Good work? Like hell! I was getting nowhere fast.
I was about to collapse my avatar and return to the office when I heard hurried footsteps behind me. A small woman passed by, and as she did so, hissed, “We need to speak,” and continued at a brisk pace along the tessellated walkway between the landscaped lawns of OmniScience’s forecourt.
She turned left and headed downtown.
The woman turned down a side street and paused outside a cafe, glancing back at me. Then she slipped into the cafe and moved to a booth at the back of the room.
I entered and sat down across from her. She ordered a latte from the waiter and I waved him away.
She nervously fingered a beaded braid away from her forehead. She was sweating.
“You’re Zorn, right? An AI working to trace Jake Carrelli?”
“That’s right. And you are?”
“LaFay,” she said.
“Okay, LaFay. How can I help?”
She stared at me, her eyes taking in the perfection of the simulation. I wondered if her nerves were the result of having to interface with an AI – some people are irrationally prejudiced – or had to do with what she was about to tell me.
“I’ve never spoken to an AI before,” she said.
“We don’t bite, LaFay.”
“You look so … so real, so life-like.”
“I am real, and what’s life-like, after all? But let’s drop the philosophy and get down to basics. How can I help?”
She stared down at her twisting fingers. “I’m concerned about Jake. And when I heard you were investigating… Well, I had to see you.”
Her latte arrived. She nodded her thanks to the waiter and stared at the glass, then looked up at me. “Jake wasn’t the first,” she said.
“To undergo the procedure. At the Hanson Clinic. The…” she reached up and touched the back of her head, “the operation, here.”
“So … who was the first?”
She looked around the cafe, as if afraid we were being observed. “Hans Tallis, a colleague of Jake’s. They were working together. He volunteered to undergo a procedure. Only…” She faltered.
She looked grief-stricken. “Hans died just after the upload. It hit us hard. We were close. We all were. And then … and then Jake underwent the upload, and he disappeared the same day.”
I sat back and thought about it. “And you think…?”
She licked her lips, leaned forward and said, “I think it was the upload procedure, again. It went wrong, and he died. So DiMatteo, she arranged to get rid of the evidence.”
“What exactly can you tell me about the project, LaFay?”
She shrugged. “Next to nothing. It was classified. Just Jake, Hans and DiMatteo were in the know, along with a few of her trusted cyberneticists. The rest of us … we just worked on subsidiary applications.”
“But it was about copying cerebral identities, right?”
She nodded. “That’s right. Uploading human consciousness to graphite lattices. But as I said, I don’t know the details. We were frozen out of the research. DiMatteo made sure of that.”
I watched her as she took a sip of latte.
“Is there someone on your team who might know more?” I asked, “someone who might be willing to talk?”
“That’s just it, Mr Zorn. We know nothing. We’re all in the dark.”
“Was Hans married? Maybe I could talk to – ?”
“He had a husband, Patrick Lyle – an artist. If it might help, I can give you his address.”
I trawled the Cloud and came up with two Patrick Lyles, one in Nyack and the other in Greenwich Village.
“Foster Street, the Village?”
She nodded. “Please don’t let this get back to DiMatteo, Mr Zorn. You promise?”
“I promise,” I said, and thanked her.
She smiled, stood up without another word and hurried off.
I collapsed my avatar and made my way down to the Village.
Patrick Lyle owned a roomy loft apartment overlooking Washington Square.
He was suspicious when he opened the door, and eyed me from head to foot.
Sunlight slanting in from a skylight in the hall must have compromised my projection because Lyle said, “An AI, right?”
“That’s right, Mr Lyle. Call me Zorn.”
“And do you feel that?”
“Feel … what?”
“Anger,” he said. “Zorn is German for anger.”
“I was designated the name by my manufacturer,” I said.
Lyle was tall, fair and what humans would call good-looking. “How can I help?”
“I’m investigating the disappearance of Jake Carrelli.”
He leaned against the door-frame, deflated. “Jake? He’s…?”
“I’m sorry. Did you know him well?”
“He was … he was my husband’s work colleague. A good man. We met socially quite often. You say he disappeared?”
I gestured to the apartment behind him. “I wonder if I might come in?”
“Of course. I’m sorry.” He paused. “Did OmniScience send you?”
“They didn’t. I assure you that I’m working quite independently of the organisation.”
“How can I be sure of that?”
Eyeing him, I asked, “You don’t trust them, Mr Lyle?”
He stood aside. “Please, come in.”
He followed me into an open-plan lounge tastefully arranged with Scandinavian furniture, a collection of pottery and abstract oil paintings, some of which bore his signature.
I lowered myself to a futon and he sat opposite in a recliner.
“To answer your question,” he said, “I honestly don’t know if I can trust OmniScience – if by OmniScience you mean Angel DiMatteo.”
“So you mistrust DiMatteo…” I hesitated. “I presume Hans did, too?”
He ran a hand through his blonde hair and shook his head. “What’s this about Jake’s disappearance, Mr Zorn?”
I considered ignoring the question and pursuing my line of inquiry, but relented. “Jake Carrelli disappeared last week, on the same day his cerebral identity was copied…” I said, “and a week after he had been operated on at the Hanson Clinic on Staten Island.”
“Hans underwent the same operation,” Lyle said, “followed by the uploading a copy of his … his cognitive identity to a smartcore.”
“I can appreciate how painful it might be, but can you tell me what happened after Hans underwent the upload procedure? Was he here, with you, when he…?”
He shook his head. “He was at the lab. He’d been complaining of feeling unwell following the uploading, but he insisted on going in to work the following day.”
“Did anyone at OmniScience tell you what happened, exactly?”
“I received a call around noon, asking me to come to the OmniScience headquarters. Hans was ill – that’s all they’d say. He was dead by the time I arrived. DiMatteo took me into her office. She told me that Hans had suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, and that a fully independent investigation would be started immediately. I was too shocked to take it in. I just wanted to see Hans.”
“And were you allowed to?”
He nodded. “He looked so … so peaceful. As if he were asleep.”
“And the investigation?”
“The report came in last week. It totally exonerated OmniScience from any liability arising from the uploading – not that I expected it to say anything else.”
“I take it that Hans discussed the nature of the project he was working on?”
“He told me about the uploading procedure, yes.” He hesitated, then said, “I wonder…”
He stood quickly, crossed to the picture window and stared out.
“What is it, Mr Lyle?”
He strode from the room without another word, returning a short while later. He was carrying something – a
small silver envelope.
He sat down across from me. “The day he died … when I got back here, I found a message from him on the apartment’s smartcore. A voice-only message. He told me that I’d find a silver envelope – this – in the top drawer of his desk. That was all.” He took a deep breath, nodded, then went on: “I found the envelope, and what was inside.”
Lyle unzipped the seal, and pulled out a single sheet of folded notepaper, along with a data pin.
He opened the note and smiled down at it.
“It was from Hans. He had beautiful handwriting, Mr Zorn.”
“What did he say?”
“It’s a series of instructions covering what I should do in the event of his death. He wanted to be interred at the Long Island grave garden, beneath an oak sapling.”
He fell silent, biting his lips. I have often seen humans do this when they are trying not to cry.
“Do you think he was aware that he might have been in danger?” I asked.
“At the time, I assumed it was no more than a ghastly coincidence. He’d often said he wanted to discuss our wills and funeral arrangements, but I’d always put it off. I just thought – ” He shrugged. “ – I just thought it was a coincidence.”
“And the pin?”
He stared down at it in his hand, smiling. “He wrote that it was to remember him by. He said … he said he wanted a terminal at his grave, and that, when I visited him there, I should install the pin and I would be able to talk to ‘him’.”
“And have you visited?”
He smiled, sadly. “I’ve been to the grave, yes. But I could never bring myself to access the pin.” Tears pooled in his eyes as he stared at me. “Hans… He was fond of tawdry gimcracks… I didn’t want my memories of him reduced to some cheap sideshow.”
He stopped suddenly, looking up from the pin. “You don’t think…?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. Maybe… It’s a possibility. Look, we need to go to the grave garden, install the pin…”
He smiled through his tears. “I’m ready when you are, Mr Zorn.”
“Give me two hours,” I said. “There are a few things I need to do back at the office. I’ll see you at the garden at three.”
He thanked me, showed me to the door, and I collapsed my avatar and headed north.
I stared around my office, wondering if I’d ever see it again.
I’d prepared for this situation, gone over and over exactly what I should do if my investigations ever came to the point where my personal safety – my very existence – was compromised.
There was the very real possibility that my work on the OmniScience case had brought me to that point. At any rate, I was taking no chances.
I made a copy of the End of the World and cached it, surrounded by sufficient firewalls and security baffles to keep out an army, in a fractal cell buried deep in the Cloud. I could meet clients there in future without the authorities, or organisations like OmniScience, being any the wiser.
Next, I called my four backup drones from the wall-safe and watched them hover across the room and alight before me on the desk.
They were on an automatic recording loop so that everything I ever experienced could be uploaded to their cores. Now I accessed the memories of two of the drones and wiped everything I’d learned in the past twenty-four hours. They would remain behind in the office so that anyone who came snooping around, intent on terminating my existence, would find the pair and do what they’d been paid to do.
I designated the remaining drones I2 and I3. I ordered I2 to fly to Staten Island and find out all it could about the neurosurgeon Johan Szabo, and I sent I3 to the Long Island grave garden to meet Patrick Lyle.
They took off and exited through the window vent, and I felt relieved when they were on their way.
Then I got through to Professor Mona Taylor.
“Rob,” she said, smiling at me via her wristcom. “This is a surprise. I didn’t think you’d be in touch.”
“I promised I would,” I said. “Look, I’d like to see you again. This afternoon?”
“Great. I’ll take some time off. The End of the World?”
“Yes, but how about we meet in the real world, first? Central Park at three, say? Beside the lake?”
She wrinkled her nose. “I’ll be there.”
I cut the connection.
If I had a heart, it would have been beating.
Eric Brown has published over seventy books. His latest is Murder Most Vile, and later this year is the SF novel Wormhole, written with Keith Brooke. Also with Brooke, the Enigma Season quartet of novellas is forthcoming from PS Publishing. He lives near Dunbar in Scotland.
His website is at: ericbrown.co.uk
Artwork: Mark Toner
Approaching Human by Eric Brown is a serial in 10 parts. Episodes 1 & 2 were first published in Shoreline of Infinity 30, and subsequent episodes will be published fortnightly on the website from the 7th June onwards.