Thursday, October 20, 2011

Human Black Box: Devil's Advocate (part 3)

It's been a while, but after plugging away, I've managed to get a head of the curve. The last scene saw our noble heroes tracking Dr. M&M to an isolated colony on Mars, only to learn that he was famous in another isolated colony.

The hunt for Dr. M&M continues, and the mystery deeps, in this section of Human Black Box.

As always, you can find the archive here, and the character list here.

“If you dig enough, you’ll find something,” Zira said, sitting back in the chair as Chloe walked from the shower, drying her hair off. “You just have to know where to dig.”

“What’d you find?” Chloe asked, throwing the towel on the bed. It’d dry in due time. She fell backwards on the bed, looking up at the ceiling as the lights flickered overhead.

“It took a lot of rep, but apparently the guy was catching a ride to Earth from one of the reclaimer colonies in orbit. I’ve done a Mesh chat with Chingus_Khan901; he’s a reclaimer and he’s got some rep in the reclaimer circles. Also got some Circle-A rep, making him pretty popular with the Barsoomian rednecks. He came flat out and told me that he knew one of the I-Runners, and confirmed that his contact had flown several missions with Dr. M&M.”

“How’d they go?” Chloe asked, sitting up.

“Well, they went mostly as intended, except for the fact that he didn’t know why Dr. M&M had a penchant for wanting to bring back artifacts. We know now that’s because he was using it to pay off his math research, but that’s beside the point. One particular thing of interest was that he brought back an Ego with him on his second to last trip. Dr. M&M wouldn’t share with Khan901 what it was, but Khan901 told me he managed to figure out that it was a cortical stack and guessed it was some kind of ego.”

Chloe furrowed her brow. “Now wait a second. He was bringing back egos?”

“I’m a few steps ahead,” Zira said. “I went looking into the Soul Traders of the Nine Lives Syndicate. I got nothing; he had no ties to them.”

“So why’d he bring that ego back?” Chloe asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m pretty sure we’ll find something in Zygote, when we get around to heading there.”

Chloe stood up, and walked over to the counter to get dressed. The clothes were formless, until she slipped on the bland gray shirt and pants, at which point they connected to her via the mesh and she was able to download a pattern that they promptly assumed.

“What do you mean ‘when we get around to heading there’?” Chloe asked.

“Well, I was searching Experia for recent stories and it turns out that, in the very fine print of the last 10 stories out of the first 40, they were talking about a shooting death in Noctis-Quinjiao. The vic? Identified as Aristotle Jones. That’s one of the lesser known aliases of Dr. M&M; the one that he used when he was working with the I-Runners, and the one that Khan901 recognized.”

“So either someone using his alias was shot…”

“Or the good doctor himself was assassinated,” Zira finished. “I’ve already got us tickets to head out to Noctis-Quinjiao. Hopefully the track won’t take as many twists and turns as it looks like this job is taking.”


There were seedy parts of any town. This part of Noctis-Quinjiao, however, was so seedy that it made Chloe’s skin bunch up at the base of her spine. She felt like she’d need a shower after all this was said and done – neotenic prostitutes, pleasure pods, and other, more “exotic” offerings filled the mist that seemed to pop up and never go away from the minute they entered this part of the city. She walked side by side with Zira, as they walked along the drainage tunnels and basins, which were mostly empty.

Azure: [It’s hard to keep this mist cleared.]

Chloe: [You’re doing a good job of it.]

Azure: [Thank you.]

Chloe looked down at the drainage ditch, following Zira with her hands tucked into the pockets of the green coat she wore. Zira, meanwhile, was a few steps ahead of Chloe; moving at a quick pace but not so fast as to leave Chloe behind.

Zira: [Here’s what I’m thinking. The map of Noctis-Quinjaio shows that his assassination/murder happened a kilometer or so over there. Now, the first place the video cameras picked him up – in a morph that’s not his own – is about a half kilometer that way.]

Chloe: [So he ran through these drainage ditches. Did you get any other video of it?]

Zira: [Funny thing about that. All of the video that’s put up about his assassination – and the guy was shot in front of a huge crowd of people – ends up taken down. Of course, the mesh being what it is, that stuff won’t stay hidden for long. Whoever killed him, didn’t want it to be a secret and they’re doing a horrible job of trying to make it one now.]

Chloe: [Plausible deniability. It’s a swamp gas.]

Chloe caught up with Zira when she stopped, overlooking the drainage ditch.

Chloe: [He was running from someone. Maybe his smuggling the Ego got him on the wrong side with the Nine-Lives boys?]

Zira: [Probably. That’s their gig – there’s also the likelihood that he stole the ego from them to begin with. Which wouldn’t surprise me. I’d be interested in knowing why he wanted to the ego, though.]

Chloe glanced at the concrete drainage basin, frowning and wishing that she’d been using her ghost instead of her Sylph. Of course, if she’d uploaded into the ghost, then she’d loose a day trying to adjust to the body. It didn’t seem to matter which body it was that she used, or how similar to the one on Earth she’d woken up with it was, she still took a day or two adjusting to it. The sylph had enhanced vision, though, and she zoomed in on several brown, rust-like stains on sides of the drainage ditch.

“Hello,” she said, jumping over the hurdle and landing in the ditch. She walked over to them, pausing as Zira hopped down along with her. Her friend stood beside her as Chloe crouched down.

“Is that what I think it is?” Zira asked.

“Blood? Maybe. Hard to tell.”

“This is where a synthmorph would be useful,” Zira commented.

Chloe stood up, following the droplets of blood. When she looked over at one of the shadow-shaded walls, she noticed a large red-brown spray, and then looked up towards the hand-railing.

“Someone was here,” Chloe said. “And someone got shot.”

“I don’t see any empty shell-casings,” Zira said, as Chloe hoped over the drainage ditch and walked onto the street. From here, the trail ended, although overlapping her position on the map in comparison with where Dr. M&M had been killed, it became apparent that there weren’t too many paths he took in order to get where they shot him.

“So there was a shootout before-hand?” Chloe asked, looking back at Zira as she climbed out of the drainage ditch and hopped over the hand-railing beside her friend.

“It seems like a big leap, but we know he came this way, we know he eventually got shot in the head. I’m sending out a request right now on all networks to see if anyone can help me find the video that keeps getting taken down.”

“Is it someone with some power to do it?”

“That’s why I use a pseudonym,” Zira said. “In case it is.”

“Does a criminal faction have that much power?”

“You never know.”

Chloe looked down at the ditch, leaning over the railing and crossing her feet. She was consciously measuring the height of the splatter, and then crafted a silhouette of a biomorph about six-foot tall over it. The shot was roughly at upper torso level; when she put the silhouette directly over the splatter, it was neck level. A shot to the neck would’ve been incapacitating; judging from the blood splatter, the round was fairly large. It was likely to cause some spinal damage, meaning that the morph – even though engineered neural tissue in morphs could regenerate, and medichines helped speed the process up – would’ve been crippled for a while. She adjusted the silhouette, realizing that it was at shoulder level at well.

A shot to the shoulder was every bit as dangerous as one to the neck. But not likely to be one that would cripple the morph.

Chloe: [If that is a blood splatter, and that is from our guy, he got shot in the shoulder.]

Zira: [Which makes me wonder why they didn’t just clean up the blood. After all, they were conscious enough to get rid of the shell casings.]

Chloe looked at the blood, focusing in on parts of it near the bottom of the ditch. Although it was dried, smear lines were still slightly visible.

That was when it hit her.

Chloe: [There was more blood. And they didn’t clean the shell-casings up.]

Zira: [Are you sure?]

Azure: [I’m echoing Zira – are you sure?]

Chloe: [Positive. Zoom on the blood stains at the bottom of the basin. They’re smeared. What kind of basin is that? It’s a drainage ditch.]

Zira put the pieces together.

Zira: [Gotcha. Which means it probably flooded sometime after the shootout and washed everything downstream, shell-casings included.]

Chloe was already searching for the last time that this ditch had been used. She cycled through the information, before it became too much.

Chloe: [Azure, I’m going to put you on info duty. I’m setting you so that you can check the weather reports and flood reports and gate reports throughout the city. Find me the last few times this ditch was used. And then compare to roughly the same time that Dr. M&M was assassinated. Let me know what you find.]

Azure: [Will do.]

Chloe turned towards the building across the street, walking towards it quickly. Zira followed her, as they worked their way through the narrow alleyway, and then into the street on the other side, nearly getting run over by a tuk-tuk.

Zira: [Here. This is right where he got shot.]

Azure: [Found something. It flooded the night of the shooting. The flood gates opened up an hour or so after the shootout.]

Chloe nodded.

Chloe: [Like I thought.]

Chloe looked around at all the flashing lights, the glitz, the glamor, and the activity. There was no way to know now about what happened after the fact, unless they actually found the video. She shoved her hands in her pockets, looking over at Zira. That was when she noticed someone moving around behind Zira. She frowned, and when the figured turned to run, Chloe made chase after him. He wasn’t very fast, although he probably thought he was.

She caught up with him on the other side of the block, grabbing the coat that he was wearing by the collar and throwing him to the ground. He hit hard and rolled, as Zira followed them. Chloe towered over him, as he looked up, blinking in shock. In any other time, he might have been a handsome man. Here, though, on Mars, amongst transhumanity, he was an ugly little creature.

“Who are you?” Chloe demanded. “You’ve been following us ever since we left the building a few blocks over.”

He blinked in shock. “How did you know?”

Chloe knelt down. He was about five foot seven. She was roughly his height in the sylph, although her Olympian morph on Earth had easily been six foot, if not slightly taller. She sorta wished she still had that morph – it would’ve been more useful in trying to intimidate him into admitting who he was.

Zira: [That’s not a normal morph. Too ugly.]

Chloe looked at him as he stumbled onto his feet, dusting himself off. He tugged at the collars of his jacket, and glared at the two women. He turned to walk away, but Chloe grabbed him and spun him around.

“Ow! Ow!” he shouted, nearly buckling as she squeezed his shoulder.

“I’m not even using my full strength. That’s pretty fucking pathetic – I’m in a sylph morph and I can hurt you. I’ll ask again – who are you?”

“Cameron!” He shouted, as she forced him to his knees.


Zira (private chat, #Chloe#): [He isn’t answering mesh chat. I think he might be a blank.]

Chloe (private chat, #Zira#): [Blank?]

Zira (private chat, #Chloe#):
[A flat. A normal human, not a transhuman.]

Chloe let him go quickly.

Chloe (private chat, #Zira#): [Ew! You mean he has diseases?]

Zira stepped in quickly to stop Cameron from making a break for it, hedging him off.

“No so fast,” Zira said. “My friend over there asked you a question. You’ve been following us now for a good few kilos.”

“I don’t know what a kilo is,” he said. “I use miles, feet, and inches.”

Zira looked up at Chloe.

Zira (private chat, #Chloe#): [Miles? Inches?]

Chloe (private chat, #Zira#): [Imperial system of measurement. It doesn’t get used anymore – too cumbersome. The last two nations in the world to use it were The United States and Libya under Gaddafi.]

Zira (private chat, #Chloe#): [If it’s not used, how does our flat here know it?]

Chloe looked at Cameron. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from …” he stopped himself, having to think for a minute. He was incredibly slow; it took a degree of patience to wait for him to come up with his thoughts. Neither Chloe nor Zira had that patience.

Zira looked up at Chloe, and both spoke in unison:

Zira (private chat, #Chloe#); Chloe (private chat, #Zira#): [Jovian.]

Chloe grabbed him by the arm and twisted it around his back, pulling him upright.

“Are you from the Jovian Republic?”

There was a half second wait – he seemed to take forever to respond.

“I’m not. I was born and raised here on Mars.”

Chloe (private chat, #Zira#):
[So he’s not a Jovian.]

Zira (private chat, #Chloe#): [Probably a Brinker.]

Chloe (private chat, #Zira#): [What’s a ‘Brinker’?]

Zira (private chat, #Chloe#): [A collective term. Anyone clade that separates themselves from the solar system at large for any number of reasons – religious, political, philosophical, or just because they’re straight up weird.]

Chloe looked at Cameron.

“So you’re a Brinker, then."

“I’m a born again Christian. I’m part of an Evangelical settlement.”

Zira (private chat, #Chloe#): [So he’s not just a Brinker, he’s an artifact.]

Azure (private chat, #Chloe, Zira#): [A born-again Christian? Those still exist?]

Zira (private chat, #Azure, Chloe): [Well, I know a left-wing Evangelical on Luna…]

Chloe (private chat, #Azure, Zira): [Yeah, but your left-wing Evangelical friend is transhuman. This guy isn’t; he’s a blank. He’s not even genefixed.]

Zira (private chat, #Chloe, Azure): [So you’re suggesting that he’s a biocon evangelical?]

Chloe (private chat, #Zira, Azure): [Either that or he got a raw deal when they reinstantiated him.]

“I chose to be like this,” he said, almost reading their body language. “I still have my God-given body.”

“Why are you following us?”

“I won’t say.”

Chloe (private chat, #Zira#): [He’s a flat. That means we can’t rough him up, right?]

Azure (private chat, #Chloe#): [I’m shocked you’d even think of something like that!]

Zira (private chat, #Chloe#): [Well, there’s nothing to stop us. Flats are second-class citizens on good days in the Planetary Consortium.]

Zira leaned over, almost getting right into his face, and grabbed the nape of his neck with her barehand, pushing her middle-finger hard the back of his neck. He winced and leaned forward.

“You’re lucky. Both of us have a conscious.”

He twisted and broke free.

“You don’t know who I am. I work for the Globe News Network. I’m the Greatest Investigative Blogger of All Time.”

Zira looked over at Chloe.

“It’s not Experia-owned. I don’t know who you are,” she said. “But I have difficulty believing a flat could be great at anything.”

Azure: [Chloe. Don’t be condescending to the flat. I’m sure flats are capable of achieving good things. They got us where we are today – most of humanity throughout history has been flat.]

Chloe shook her head. “Fine, I have difficulty believing a flat could be good at anything in this day and age.”

“What settlement?” Zira asked.

“New Hope,” he said. “And that’s all you’ll get out of me.”

“Someone liked Star Wars,” Chloe said. He puffed himself up, trying to appear larger than he actually was. It was almost comical. Almost like he was trying to intimidate them.

“You won’t get any more out of me.”

Zira shrugged, and then stepped aside.

“Then go ahead and leave.”

He looked confused, and started towards the opening. Once he saw that Zira wasn’t going to stop him, he broke into a sprint, racing away.

“Why’d you let him go?”

“How familiar are you with Old Earth Media Networks?” Zira asked.

“Not very?”

“The network he works for? It’s similar to a defunct news network called World News Daily. There’s a few left-leaning bloggers who remember it, and apparently, those same people believe that Global News Network is the same thing, under different ownership and with a different name.”

“That means exactly nothing to me,” Chloe said, watching him run, and then cut down an alleyway. He clumsily tripped on a garbage can on the way in, falling flat on his face and rolling to a stop out of sight.

“He’s a joke,” Zira said. “The network he works for is a joke.”

“He was still looking for our guy, though,” Chloe said. “That means something, Zira.”

“Oh, I know,” Zira said, holding up an empty metallic ovoid the size of a walnut, trapped between her fore and ring fingers, “that’s why I tagged him. This used to hold a taggant swarm. Now it’s on his skin. It doesn’t matter where he runs – he’s leaving behind a breadcrumb trail that’ll let us follow him half-way across the planet.”

Chloe put her hands on her hips. “Not bad.”

“Thank you, thank you.”

“Flats really do exist, huh?”

Zira nodded. “Yeah. I understand it’s considered a crime against transhumanity to force someone to be a flat. And coming from a civilization that allows corporate indentured servitude and incomplete ownership of your own body, that’s saying something.”

“Well, it’s really no different than buying or leasing a car,” Chloe said.

“No, it’s not,” Zira said. “But still. Sometimes you’d like to have something you could call your own, just once.”

“I own my own body,” Chloe said. “Yay Anarchist collectives and Barsoomians.”

“More like ‘yay open-source genetics’,” Zira said. “So, he’s got a head start. Do we follow?”

“I can’t think of too many more productive things to do right now.”

Zira closed her coat, and started in the general direction that Cameron had gone off in, with Chloe following her.


While they were following Cameron, Chloe sat Azure to run a search for him, and for this “New Hope” colony. He led them right to one of the rail-stations, and that was the point when they opted to let him get away from them, for the moment, and they caught their own train back to Elysium, where they went back to the hotel. After a shower, dinner, and sex, her search turned up something.

“What’d you find on it?” Zira asked, looking over at Chloe.

“Okay, here’s what I learned. He’s not well known on the Mesh. He’s got some C-rep, but not a lot. That Global News Network is an independent paper owned by the New Hope Village colony, which is mostly a biocon-blog that rails against the evils of modern technology. They’re a biocon colony, and an apocalyptic one. Their strain of Christianity hasn’t been seen since the Fall, if not before.”

“There’s a lot of apocalyptic cults out there, Chloe,” Zira said. “An apocalypse tends to create them.”

Chloe lay down beside Zira, who was probably reading through several mesh texts, looking up at the ceiling.

“These are Darbyists,” Chloe said. “The Rapture, the whole deal.”

“Depending up how you view the Fall, the forced uploading of thousands of people by the TITANs is eerily similar.”

Chloe closed her mouth, looking up at the light.

“I don’t know enough about it to say either way. Azure is looking up for me, but that I probably won’t know until morning.”

“I know a little. Just like everything – I know a little, but not a lot.”

Chloe rolled over.

“When you’re done, turn out the light.”

“You’re going to bed already?”

“Yeah – travel makes me tired.”

“Well, good night.”

“You too.”


  1. know what? I'm not even going to attempt to read that until it's in a reasonably big font.

  2. Hahaha

    That showed up *way* different the first time I previewed that.

    Lemme try this again.

  3. I apologize for the uneven spacing - I'll go back and fix that later when I'm not half-tempted to pick up my laptop and throw it at the wall because my patience with blogger has reached it's absolute limit (it's *always* been pissy with me about the "enter" and "CTRL+enter", and I'll hit enter three times and it won't even show that I put a single enter there at all in the preview. But the fourth time will make it jump halfway down the page in the preview.)

    I've never had that problem copying over text documents from MS word. I laugh only because if I didn't, I'd rage.

    At least it's in a readable font size, now. I managed to get that out of Blogger, at least.

  4. I have conquered blogger!

    I'll have to remember this potential for problems in the future and not post when I have to run off to do something else...

  5. The map of Noctis-Quinjaio shows

    Does Microsoft Word allow you to teach the spellchecker new words? OpenOffice and Firefox do. It might help you spell words it doesn't have built in.

    I’d be interested in knowing why he wanted to the ego

    Wanted to what? Get? Have?

    then she’d loose a day trying to adjust


    rust-like stains on sides of the drainage ditch

    On the sides.

    “I don’t see any empty shell-casings,” Zira said, as Chloe hoped over the drainage ditch and walked onto the street.

    Two things:
    1: Zira's talking should be a paragraph of its own.
    2: Hopped.

    [Well, I know a left-wing Evangelical on Luna…]

    [Either that or he got a raw deal when they reinstantiated him.]

    These two, and the two in-between, are missing end-hashes on the private chat markers.

    Both of us have a conscious.


    Azure is looking up for me

    Looking it up.

    The whole Buck thing seems a bit...discordant. Like it's there purely because it amused you and not because it actually makes sense in the story. Especially the GIBAT bit; it would make a bit more sense if he was giving them (perhaps had even adopted) an identity out of a book. GIRAT doesn't come from the book, it comes from people mocking it. (Perhaps he's only pretending to be with the biocons? Hmm...)

  6. Don't dismiss Cameron as "just a flat" like they did...

    Sometimes the best way to hide is in the open, where everyone can see you.