Note: This incomplete story started as responses to a series of weekly flash fiction writing prompts. I wrote so many of them that I decided they deserved their own page. Will I finish it? I don’t know, but I’d like to keep working on it. It’s fun.
Prior warning: because these are in response to writing prompts, they are likely to be very rough. I’ll revise them periodically, so you may find them different from what you remembered if you read them in their original blog posts.
1: Bora Bora
For some reason, the body hadn’t de-rezzed.
It (she, Andrews supposed he should say) lay on the floor to the right of the bed, in the shadows near the entryway to the deck. Outside, a large, round bathtub sheltered beneath an overhang, beyond which lay the white sand beach.
It took him a moment to recognize the view: Bora Bora. He’d seen it on a holo some years back, recorded before the islands succumbed to the rising Pacific.
Andrews dipped his hand in the bathwater. Still warm.
In reality, it was a simulation of water interacting with his simulated hand and sending signals back to his analog body that registered as warm. He shook his fingers and silently cursed his chief for sending him on this assignment.
“What was her name?” Andrews asked the proprietor, a small, elderly-looking woman with an immaculate black suit and upswept silver hair. He didn’t doubt she was a male programmer somewhere in South America or Australia who’d created the simulation looking for some easy money.
She shook her head. “She never gave me her name, but here’s her contact.”
The woman did nothing, but suddenly the holo address registered in Andrews’ memory. In an instant, he had a name—Rose Smith—and a physical address in New York. He sent the address to his partner and told her to alert local authorities.
“Why didn’t she de-rez?” he asked. It should have happened automatically once synaptic functions ceased.
“I think because they wanted someone to see this,” the proprietor said, and led Andrews to the bathroom, the actual bathroom, with the toilet and sink and shower, not the glorified tub with a view. It was a small but sleek space, all glass and chrome and completely at odds with the island vibe. There, scrawled across the mirror in what Andrews first assumed was blood before he saw the open lipstick tube on the counter, was:
ONE DOWN, 47,456,893 TO GO
“At least it wasn’t blood,” the proprietor said, as if reading Andrews’ mind.
“What difference does it make?” Andrews snapped. “Wouldn’t have been real blood anyway.”
Andrews turned away, annoyed. Just then, Doyle’s reply to his message came in.
“Found her. Dead. No obvious signs of trauma. Autopsy may show more, but go on the assumption that whatever did this happened in the Upload.”
Andrews sighed. Great. How do you track a murderer when the body isn’t even real and the suspects might not even look like themselves?
Andrews replied back: “Can you tell me what’s significant about the number 47,456,893? And don’t unplug her yet. I want some more time with the scene.”
He turned back to the proprietor. “Leave this sim running for at least the next hour. And send me your source code for all this.”
“My source code?” That nearly made the old-lady avatar flicker. “You know how long it took me to program this? You’ve got no—”
“Listen, buddy.” Andrews stepped forward and the old lady flinched, but all he did was pat her on the shoulder—just enough contact to snoop her portal ID and have Doyle look it up. “The Temp behind that corpse,” he gestured toward the body, “is an actual flesh and blood dead person in New York. Now they’ve still got the death penalty. Would you like to give me your source code voluntarily, or would you like me to have you extradited,” he paused as the data came in from Doyle, “from France and see how nice they are to a twenty-three-year-old hacker from Egypt who’s living in Paris on an expired visa? What do you think your chances are?”
The proprietor narrowed her eyes at him. “That’s a fine way to talk to an old lady. You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
“My mother’s dead.”
“Of embarrassment, probably.”
“The source code, now.”
The old lady sighed. “Fine.”
She blinked out of sight about a second after the source code file landed in his inbox. Andrews looked around, recording images of the room and the body and, what the hell, the spectacular view. He’d never get to see the likes of it anywhere on Earth. Not anymore, at least.
Before he downloaded and unplugged, he got another message from Doyle: 47,456,893 was the current population, Temp and Perm, of the Upload.
2: Person of Interest
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Doyle said.
She circled the holodisplay, stopping when she was on the side opposite Andrews. In front of them stood what could only be described as a cartoon character: killer body, silver hair, almost elfin features, and an outfit that looked like it was out of a science fiction vid. And yet, it looked real, in some way that Andrews couldn’t put words to.
Doyle put her hands on her hips. “There are actually people in the Upload who look like this?”
“When you can look like anything you want, nothing is off limits.” He didn’t mention that these were outliers, that most people opted to look the way they did in analog, albeit maybe the way they did in their twenties or thirties, and ten pounds lighter.
Still, he hoped it got his point across: if they were looking for a murder suspect in the Upload, they couldn’t go by appearances.
“For people with sufficient technical skill or the money to pay someone who does, they can change their look on a whim, too.”
“And there’s no forensic evidence in the Upload,” she muttered, almost to herself. “But out here we wind up with a dead body and no witnesses.”
“No witnesses yet, at least,” Andrews said.
Doyle returned to his side of the holodisplay. “Here’s what we’ve got on our vic. Oh, and you were right about ‘Rose Smith.’ It wasn’t her real name.” She waved her arm and the display changed, bringing up a stack of documents and an image of a fortysomething woman with brown, close-cropped hair and narrow eyes to match her sharp-looking suit. “Alexa Grayson, forty-five, executive at Lunacorp. Single, never married, lives in New York City. Parents live upstate, a sister in old Chicago. All been notified.”
The image looked similar to the body in the Upload, but there were subtle differences. Nothing that he could put his finger on immediately, but enough that if he’d passed this woman on the street, he might not identify her as the same person he’d seen in there.
“What was she doing in the Upload?”
“Vacation. Wanted to go to an island, her sister said, but those are kind of hard to come by now.”
Andrews could hear the smirk in her voice and knew what she was thinking: rich, bougie, maybe a little of she probably had it coming. Doyle grew up poor and angry, and had held onto the angry part.
Not that either of them was getting rich.
He glanced over. “Hey, you’ve got a little something on your chin…”
Andrews gestured with his fingers at a streak of film clinging to the left side of her chin. It continued, he noticed, on the front of her shirt. Doyle wiped the back of her hand across her face.
“I had a coffee malfunction with my latte this morning,” she said.
“Obviously.” It was Andrews’ turn to smirk. “For a detective, sometimes your lack of attention to detail astonishes me.”
“It’s just a coffee stain, geez.”
“Probably why you can’t hold on to a relationship. Do you forget their names before the second date?”
“Bite me, Andrews. It’s not like you have any better luck with men.”
“Yeah, but I’m not trying.” He returned his attention to Alexa’s image. “Did she go on vacation with anyone?”
Doyle shook her head. “Solo.”
“Did she meet with any Perms while she was inside?”
Doyle flipped through the document stack. “The staff at the resort were mostly bots, a couple Temps, and the proprietor.”
“Yeah, he seemed nice..” Andrews crossed his arms. “You know what, I want to see him in person. We should bring in that little old granny.”
When Doyle didn’t respond, Andrews looked away from the holo toward her. She held a finger just in front of her ear. When she released it he could just faintly hear the click of the call disconnecting.
“That’s gonna be a little complicated. He’s in the morgue in Paris.”
“Hey, I’ve always wanted to go to Paris.”
3: An Unlikely Suspect
Three things struck Andrews about the man sitting at the incline chest press machine: the first was that he wasn’t wearing a shirt, which had to be against the gym’s hygiene rules. The second was that the machine, sleek, black and angular, reminded him of the yellow contraption Ripley climbed into in Aliens to rescue Newt. The third was that Andrews forgot what the third thing was; the man’s brown eyes transfixed him as he pushed out two more reps.
Andrews had kept up with his regular running routine, but he hadn’t been inside a gym in months. Maybe he needed to do something about that.
The man—who somewhat matched the file photo of Bradford Anders, although his hair had grown out and he was wearing a shirt in the file photo—gently returned the machine’s arms to their start position and hooked his elbows over the handles.
“That’s me. Can I help you?”
Andrews flashed his badge. “Jake Andrews, SLPD. I needed to ask you a few questions about Alexa Grayson.”
Anders Bradford frowned. “Never heard of her.”
“How about Gamal Hamdan?”
“Gamal?” Bradford’s frown remained, but its character changed to concern. He grabbed the shirt at his feet and wiped off his face. “I haven’t heard from him in a week. Has something happened?”
“Unfortunately, he died yesterday.”
Bradford’s face went blank with shock. He let the shirt trail down his chest. Andrews tried not to be distracted by that. He should have made Doyle come do this interview, but instead she was in Paris working with local authorities on the inquest. And probably strolling the Champs Elysees in her spare time, damn it.
“Jesus,” Bradford said. “What happened? I assume it can’t be good.”
“We’re still investigating, but we think it may have been a homicide.”
Bradford climbed out of the weight machine and draped the t-shirt over one of the arms. “Do you have any idea why someone would want to kill him?”
If I knew the answer to that, would I be here talking to you? Andrews resisted the urge to shake his head. People, even if they were devastating to look at, asked dumb questions sometimes.
“We were hoping you could help us with that. He was building and running sims in the Upload for your company.”
“Yeah, but who’d want to kill him? Gamal could be annoying sometimes, but he was a sweet kid.” Bradford moved over to another machine and began doing tricep cable pulls. Andrews tried not to stare at the back of the man’s arms. “Too smart for his own good, maybe,” Bradford added, “but he wouldn’t even hurt a bot.”
“Had he experienced difficulties with any customers of yours?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary.”
Bradford switched between the cable station and pull-ups. This time Andrews found himself face to face with Bradford’s abs as he drew himself up and down, up and down.
I really hope you’re enjoying Paris, asshole, Andrews thought.
“What about co-workers?” he asked.
“I don’t know about other jobs he might have been doing, but he only dealt directly with me and my CTO.”
“I’ll need your CTO’s contact information.”
“Of course.” Bradford hopped down from the pull-up bar and went back to the tricep cable. “Could it have just been a random thing? What makes you think it had anything to do with his work for me?”
He doesn’t know. “We’re investigating all possibilities. Alexa Grayson was a customer of his. Her Temp was found dead in a sim that Gamal programmed, shortly before her body was found in her apartment in New York. Twenty-four hours later, Gamal was also dead.”
“You didn’t know Gamal was doing side work?”
“Gamal’s a contractor. He can work with whomever he wants. But we talked just yesterday and he didn’t mention any of this. Why would he keep that from me?” Before Andrews could answer, Bradford asked another question. “What was Gamal involved in that ties him to this murdered woman? Who else do they have in common? And were their deaths coincidental, or were they using the Upload as a cover for something?”
Maybe Bradford wasn’t so dumb after all. Andrews would have to revise his estimation of him. “All good questions,” he said. “Are you normally this suspicious?”
Bradford smiled, and as far as Andrews could tell, it was genuine. “When you’re the head of the company, it pays to think at least three steps ahead.”
He grabbed the t-shirt again and wiped the sweat off his face and torso. “I don’t know if you have any other questions for me, but I have to get ready for a meeting in an hour. Maybe we can continue this later?”
“I’d prefer it if we finished it now,” Andrews said.
Bradford paused in the doorway to the locker room. “Well, you’re more than welcome to follow me, but you might get wet.”
Bradford stared at Andrews like he was dim. “I’m going to take a shower.”
“Oh.” Andrews looked around. They were the only two people in the gym—it was a small facility with an exclusive clientele, which cost more per month than Andrews’ rent. When he looked back at Bradford, the man was appraising him in a way that made Andrews feel violently self-conscious.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Andrews said. “I need to go see about… another case.”
“Maybe lunch then,” Bradford said.
“I’d still like to continue this today.”
Bradford smiled. “So would I.”
4: A Room with a View
“I’ll confess, I thought we were going to meet in a restaurant.”
“I invited you to lunch. The location was not stipulated.”
Bradford Anders settled his napkin across his lap and smiled across the table at Andrews. It was, as far as Andrews could tell, a genuine smile, the lines crinkling around the man’s eyes. It was at odds, then, with their surreal surroundings: an intimate table for four set in a glass-walled dining room at the bottom of what used to be—well…
“So, what was this place before you turned it into your house?”
“Water treatment plant.”
“You like off-the-beaten-path.”
“I like lots of offbeat things.”
Bradford picked up his fork and let the comment hang there. When Andrews arrived, salads had already been set out on the table. At first he hadn’t been sure he was in the right place—a long driveway off a barely visible access road ten miles outside of town led to what looked at first like an empty gravel lot with a wedge-shaped shed, but then the garage-type door had rolled open and Andrews drove down into a brightly lit tunnel that led to an underground garage, where Bradford had been waiting to lead him… here.
Andrews hoped the signal from his car and his phone’s GPS were both accessible from here. He didn’t think Bradford was out to kill him, but it only took being wrong one time.
He should have made Bradford come to the station for this interview. That’s what Doyle would have done, but Andrews didn’t think Bradford would have offered Doyle a lunch… he almost thought the word “date,” but quickly shifted gears to “meeting.”
Andrews pulled a notebook from his jacket pocket, which made Bradford grin.
“Now that’s quaint.”
“Tech runs out of charge.”
“Pens run out of ink.”
“Tech can be hacked.”
“Paper can be stolen. Or burned.”
Andrews tried not to let the irritation show on his face. “As much as I enjoy a verbal tennis match—“
“I enjoy oral sports, too.”
The blush flaming across his face was one thing Andrews knew he couldn’t conceal. Damn his overactive capillaries. He set down his pen.
“Look, as much as I’m flattered, I have two murders to solve. And I’m on duty.”
Bradford paused a moment. A brief sigh, and his demeanor changed. “Right. Of course. I’ll be honest, I don’t often get to meet eligible people outside of my field who aren’t just interested in the fact that I’m a billionaire.”
“No, I’m interested in the fact that—what makes you think I’m eligible?”
Bradford lifted an eyebrow. “No ring.”
Andrews followed Bradford’s gaze to the ring finger on his left hand. “It’s good to know you’re observant and that you pick up on clues. So what clues might Gamal have left to indicate what his association with Miss Grayson?”
“Not much, I’m afraid.” Bradford pushed back his chair and walked over to the windows. Pressing a hand against the glass, the windows darkened slightly and several holoscreens popped up. Suddenly all business, he began flipping through the displays.
“We’ve reviewed all his session logs for the past two weeks and found no instances where he was in contact with Miss Grayson. We found no unexplained contacts with anyone else either, clients or otherwise.” He swept the displays aside. “Which would indicate that whatever he was doing was off company time and off official records. I’m making all of this accessible to the SLPD, of course.”
Andrews leaned back in his chair. “Too bad it’s a dead end, but I appreciate it.”
Bradford grinned before tapping the glass again. Another set of holoscreens appeared. He nudged one in Andrews’ direction. “Which is why I decided to have a look in all of his private logons and nonbusiness-related accounts.” He dragged the rest of them toward Andrews before moving toward the kitchen on the opposite side of the room from the windows.
“Um, I probably shouldn’t ask how you managed to access this information, should I?” Andrews asked.
“Probably not. Let’s just say he logged in using company equipment and forgot to clear his caches. That sounds plausible.”
The room fell silent as Andrews read through a chat log between Gamal and Alexa, then a readout of his bank account. “I’m assuming you weren’t paying him as much as his savings balance would indicate.”
“No.” Andrews looked up. Bradford’s voice was closer than he’d expected. As he was reading, Bradford had returned to his seat and there were now plates of grilled salmon and asparagus in front of them. “And that resort simulation? Not one of ours. He did that for her custom, and it wasn’t loaded in an officially registered directory.”
“So he was doing that under the table?”
“It would seem so. All our work in the Upload is custom, but it’s not invisible. We get more customers by letting them see our work. What Gamal did here, he tried to hide it away.”
Andrews stared at the holo for a long time, trying to find some way to connect the dots that tied Gamal to Grayson and them to… someone else. “Did it look like he’d done any other custom work?”
Bradford, mid-chew, nodded. After he swallowed, he said, “Four other clients, none of them related, as far as I could tell. If I had to guess, he wanted to go solo and set up his own sim shop. He would have made more money that way, as you can tell, and he wouldn’t have been constrained by our corporate responsibility clauses.”
Maybe he was approaching this from the wrong angle. Killing Gamal might have been cleanup work for whoever had killed Grayson. Just another loose end to tie up.
Or cut off.
“Any logs of who entered the sim with Miss Grayson?” Andrews asked.
“Apart from you and Gamal himself, any other access records have been scrubbed. And pretty thoroughly, too. Anyone else might not even have noticed that they’d been overwritten.”
“But not you.”
Another smile from Bradford. “Like I said, I notice things. Such as the fact that you haven’t touched any of your food.”
Andrews looked down at his plate. “You’ll probably be even less pleased that I’m going to dine and dash.”
“More like just dash, since you haven’t even eaten.” Bradford’s smile widened, and if Andrews wasn’t mistaken, a little bit of that wickedness returned to it. “In that case, you owe me a dinner.”
5: A Beautiful Disguise
“I don’t know about this.”
Andrews and Bradford stood in a white room that wasn’t a room, but rather a compartment in the Upload that Bradford had created where he could get Andrews ready. Andrews couldn’t make out the corners or the walls of the chamber, and he wondered whether it extended indefinitely. That was until an oval mirror popped into existence in front of him, reflecting back his appearance.
And that appearance was… different.
Andrews started to button the shirt that was open halfway down a torso that wasn’t his. At least twice as hairy and three times as broad, the avatar that Bradford had created for him looked as if it had walked out of a romance novel cover.
Bradford brushed Andrews’ hands aside and straightened his collar. If Andrews wasn’t mistaken, he deliberately let his fingers graze his chest, too. “Trust me, this is a very convincing disguise for where we’re going.”
Where they were going was a nightclub in the Upload called Fallout Shelter. Despite a name that conjured images of dank underground bunkers, Bradford assured him it was very high-end. It was also where Gamal had met with Alexa Grayson along with all four of his other private contract sim clients at one time or another. Two of whom had returned to the club a total of five times since Gamal had been murdered, and would hopefully be there tonight.
“You’ve got to be kidding with this.” Andrews resisted the urge to rub his lip. The full, dropping mustache and the bushy beard itches like a thousand gnats. “Can you make this,” he waved at his facial hair,” a little less irritating?”
Bradford smiled. Annoyingly, he wore an avatar almost identical to his real appearance. His hair was a little longer, maybe, his skin a little more tan. And, if Andrews wasn’t mistaken, his eyes were a different color. “You’re really not used to this, are you? You can make that facial hair feel as if it’s not there. Just think it.”
Andrews frowned, which only made Bradford smile wider. He held out a hand and a tablet appeared. As he began tapping the surface, aspects of Andrews’ appearance shifted slightly. The sensation was unnerving: his hair lengthening, his arms swelling and, if he wasn’t mistaken, his pants getting a little tighter.
“You really haven’t spent much time in the Upload, I assume,” Bradford said, not looking up.
“Before this week, no.”
“People can be anything they want in here, including things they can’t be in the analog world.”
“Like being a murderer, for instance.”
Bradford stopped tapping and looked up. “Like being a murderer, yes.” He tossed the tablet into the air and it vanished.
“If anyone can be anything they want in here,” Andrews asked, “why do you still look like yourself?”
Bradford tilted his head, as if he hadn’t even considered that and was trying to figure it out right then. He shrugged. “I guess I just like being me.”
Andrews thumped a hand against the chest that wasn’t his. “Maybe I like being me, too.”
“Yes, but you don’t want to be recognized, right? Hence the disguise.”
Andrews sighed and gestured at his body–or rather, the body that was not his. “So, is this your type of guy?”
“Nah.” A pause. “Although I wouldn’t throw him out of bed for eating crackers.”
Andrews laughed. “I think someone this size would be more likely to throw you around.”
“Want to put that to the test?” Bradford raised an eyebrow and, with clearly practiced slowness, bit the side of his lip.
Damn, he just wasn’t going to stop. “Can we get going, please?” Andrews asked. “I’m still investigating two murders, in case that slipped your mind.”
Bradford feigned a little pout. “If you insist. But don’t think it escaped my notice that you didn’t say you didn’t want to put that to the test.”
“What can I say? Some people get turned on by danger.”
“Maybe, but I’m sure eventually I can figure out what does turn you on.”
6: To the Island
“I’m guessing someone doesn’t want us to pay a visit,” Andrews said.
Bradford, at the wheel, didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. “The fact that we have to get there by boat, even in the Upload, should have tipped you off to that already.”
Andrews lifted his chin toward the black line of storm clouds in front of them. “Those pretty much underline that fact.”
As if in response, a fork of lightning stabbed toward the water, the rumble of thunder reaching them a second later.
“And that’s the exclamation mark at the end of the message saying ‘get out,’” Bradford added.
When Bradford called to say he’d found a lead, Andrews was skeptical—a way to get him to make good on the dinner Andrews owed him. But no, he said they needed to follow this lead into the Upload.
Bradford had isolated three user codes connected with the sim where Alexa had been murdered, but he didn’t think any of them belonged to the killer. More likely, he said, they were decoys or targets. He’d found the idents for two of the codes, but the third was tougher to crack. He traced it to an off-network sim that he couldn’t access from outside, but there was a way in, as in literally a way to enter the sim as an upload, a participant.
Which would not have been Andrews’ first choice, since their two murder victims were killed while their avatars were in the Upload.
And then Bradford had named a price of sorts for the information. “I’m only giving it to you if I get to go with you as well.”
“That’s not a good—”
Bradford cut him off. “I’m not budging on this. Besides, I’m getting a little sick of whoever’s opening up their own private little playgrounds in my Upload.”
For a moment, Andrews used the silent treatment, hoping to draw Bradford out, but the man said nothing. “Fine,” Andrews said, and hung up.
Doyle, who had gotten back from Paris that morning, leaned against Andrews’s desk and grinned. “He wants to be your field trip buddy?”
“Something like that.”
“Maybe you’ll get lucky on this ride.”
Andrews arched and eyebrow. ”Sleeping with a person of interest-slash-low-key suspect? Seems like a bad idea.”
She shrugged. “You’ve had worse, like going in there at all.”
Now that he was standing on the deck of the boat, holding onto the rail as Bradford steered them over choppy waves, Andrews was inclined to say she was right. The wind had picked up, tossing sprays of seawater in their faces. The boat skipped over a swell and landed with a whomp.
“I thought you said whoever programmed this left a way for people to get in,” Andrews yelled to make himself heard over the wind.“Building a door doesn’t necessarily mean they left it unlocked. Luckily, I’m pretty good at picking locks.”
“You’re what—oh, right.” All of this was just a simulation, no matter how real it seemed. Bradford might have been standing at the wheel, but he was actually generating code to bust them in.
“Hang on,” Bradford said. “The next part should be interesting.”
“Interesting” didn’t quite capture the mythic-looking beast, part dragon and part serpent, that erupted from the seafoam ahead of them. Its emerald eyes locked on their boat as it dove through the water toward them. The next moment, they were airborne, the deck splintering below them as the creature surfaced beneath the boat and sent them hurtling skyward before—
Solid ground materialized below their feet, facing a grove of palm trees. Andrews looked behind them toward the water. The boat was gone, but so was the creature. He sighed with relief.
Which was also when he realized he was holding Bradford’s hand. He dropped it quickly.
Bradford looked barely ruffled by the experience. He smiled. “I don’t mind. Besides, it was pretty scary.”
“But not for you.”
Bradford put his hands in his pockets. The man couldn’t help but look smug, could he? “Scarier would have been if I hadn’t gotten us in.” He turned toward the palm trees. “Or maybe scary is whatever’s ahead of us.”
“You haven’t forgotten all of this might have been programmed by your suspect, have you?”
Shit. As much as Andrews hated guns, he wished he was armed right about now.