“Andersson Dexter. It’s been a while.”
Dex looked up at the sound of a familiar voice and his face broke into a smile. He jumped up from behind his desk and in a couple of long strides had rounded it and come face to face with his visitor. Virtual face to virtual face, of course, as this surprise visit was taking place in Dex’s office in Marionette City. Still, even if it was only a simulation, Dex was happy to see his old friend and mentor, Zahara Zhang.
“Zizou!” He opened his arms in a hug-or-handshake shape and waited for Zhang to choose one. She stepped into his embrace and gave Dex a quick squeeze. “What brings you over here?”
“Would you believe me if I said I just wanted to say hi?”
Dex’s former boss rarely gave away much on her face, and she didn’t now, but Dex knew she wasn’t really trying to fool him.
“Nope,” he said, sliding back into his overstuffed brown tweed chair and leaning back. He smiled as the chair squeaked slightly at his weight. His office space was an unusually robust simulation; enough to almost make him feel like it was real. He gestured at the visitor’s chair across the desk and Zhang sat. “So, what’s up, Cap?”
“I haven’t been your captain in a long while,” Zhang said.
“Old habits die hard,” Dex answered, “and while I’d be perfectly happy to shoot the shit with you all day, I don’t recall that exactly being your style.” He leaned forward, a hint of a frown creasing his avatar’s forehead. “Is everything okay?”
Zhang nodded, then shrugged. “I think so? It’s just… something particularly weird has happened. And I have to admit that the first person I think of when I think ‘particularly weird’ is you. So here I am.”
Dex could tell that Captain Zhang was going to tell her story in her own time, and her reluctance to just be out with it aroused his curiosity more than her vague explanations. He knew her well enough after working for her for years that pushing was pointless, so he opened up the lower right drawer of his desk and removed a half-empty bottle of whiskey and a pair of short glasses. It was a flavour-only formulation, neurostim not being Dex’s first choice for mood alteration. Besides, he was working.
He lifted the bottle in a silent question and Zhang nodded. Dex poured two rounds and passed one across the desk. Zhang took it and clinked her glass against the one in Dex’s hand. They each took a sip, then Zhang set her glass on the desk and reached into the inside left pocket of her suit coat.
She pulled out a folded sheaf of papers and passed them across the desk to Dex. She’d forwarded him the file on an encrypted private channel, but the program which generated the illusion of his office rendered all of Dex’s online activities into their analog counterparts. His avatar took the papers and Dex skimmed the contents.
“I’m no lawyer,” he said, “but if I understand this at all, you’ve just come into quite the inheritance. An entire disk block of rez space in the Cuba Quarter? That must be worth a fortune. Congratulations! And condolences,” he added after a short but awkward pause.
Zhang nodded, her lips set in a tight line. “Thanks, but condolences aren’t exactly required.” She pointed at the name listed on the documents. Irina Nightingale, Zhang’s late benefactor. “I have never heard of this person before in my life.”
* * *
“Well, how about someone the squad helped?” Dex suggested. “Maybe it’s not for you, specifically, but what you represent?”
Dex had refilled their glasses as they went over the obvious — a long, lost relative or someone Zhang had known under another name. Of course, she had already thought of those possibilities and her own investigation had come up with no connection to Nightingale.
Zhang nodded, but said, “I couldn’t find any record of Nightingale in any of our files. Besides, why name me personally in the will, if that’s the reason? And how would someone even get my name? I can’t even remember the last time I dealt directly with one of our cases.” A look crossed her face and Dex guessed that she had been inadvertently including him in that “our.” He had worked as a member of the detective squad overseen by Zahara Zhang until he had been transferred to his current unit, which dealt with cases that took place in the virtual world.
That thought tweaked something in his brain and he detoured the conversation. “You think this is something to do with M City?”
Zhang followed the abrupt change of tack easily. “Not specifically. Why?”
“Well,” Dex said, “isn’t that why you’re here? I mean, I know I’m the greatest detective that ever was, but surely there are still detectives on your patch who can look into this for you?”
Zhang laughed at Dex’s false immodesty. “We are somehow managing to scrape by without you, it’s true,” she said, then her smile faded. “The real truth is I didn’t want to give this to the squad. I know how this works, and since I haven’t managed to figure out the connection it means there’s something… complicated going on here. And complicated usually means personal, and personal…”
Dex lifted his glass in acknowledgment. “Say no more. I’ll look into it. And, Cap, thanks for trusting me with, well, wherever this ends up.”
Zhang nodded. “Feel free to bring Lewis into this, too.”
“You know I can’t keep much from her for long,” Dex grinned.
“Besides,” Zhang said, taking the whisky bottle and pouring them both a top-up, “if you can’t trust your revolutionary collaborators, who can you trust?”
* * *
When Dex linked out of M City and refocussed on the physical world he felt the worse for wear. He’d gotten used to long hours online and was even starting to feel comfortable in the repurposed closet he used as a home office. When he was online he didn’t need much space — he’d never gotten the hang of moving in a three-D rendered simulation online while still walking around the physical world, so he liked to find a comfortable spot and just sit when he was online. His old apartment was tiny, built for one, and he used the only chair in the place for the job. But now, that was no longer an option.
He stood and shook the kinks out of his body and slid open the door after knocking on it. If Annabelle was home he knew she’d appreciate the brief warning that he was about to reappear in their shared space. Dex stepped into their living room and didn’t see her there or through the open bedroom door, so he deduced that she must be out.
I’m the greatest detective that ever was, he thought to himself and chuckled. The apartment he shared with his partner in crime and life was a palace compared to everywhere else he’d ever lived, but it was still small enough to know immediately if there was anyone else home. There obviously wasn’t.
Dex performed his usual post-online routine: toilet, glass of water, food brick, look out the window. Evening was setting in, the sinking Mediterranean sun casting a luminous glow over Nice. It was beautiful, so beautiful that Dex wondered for what must have been the millionth time why anyone would ever have thought to create a virtual world in the first place.
He breathed deeply of the slightly salty air, remembering that he was profoundly lucky. Only a few years previously he’d lived in a grimy, grey, cell-like apartment, in a grimy, grey city. It had been a grimy, grey existence from which Dex knew he’d escaped due to no real merit on his part. He’d fallen in with a good crowd, was all. Luck had more to do with it than anything else.
It was dreadfully unfair.
He was so caught up in his thoughts that he physically jumped when he heard the soft snick of the lock slide back.
“Hey,” a tired-sounding Annabelle said as she came into the apartment. She looked sweaty and a bit dishevelled and it had been months since she’d changed her hair, but she looked wonderful to Dex. He kept to the other side of the apartment, waiting for her to come to him if she was going to. Ever since Omnitrack determined that all employees had to physically go into their offices to work, Annabelle had been forced to go out into the physical world more days than not. It was, to put it mildly, not her favourite thing to do.
“I just got back myself,” Dex said, keeping himself still. “You need anything? Food?”
Annabelle shook her head and took a few steps into the apartment. She approached Dex, kissed him lightly, then backed away again. There was a time when that would have been far more contact than she could handle after a whole day out in the physical world, but there was also a time when the idea that the two of them would share a home full-time was beyond laughable.
“I’m not hungry. Just beat.” She flopped onto the chaise longue and closed her eyes.
Dex let her sit for a moment, then slipped into the bedroom. He quickly changed into a clean outfit and called from the doorway, “I could use a walk. I’ll get out of your hair for a little while?”
Annabelle murmured something unintelligible that Dex took to be the sound of agreement. Then she said clearly, “Want to meet at Monte’s in a bit? Say half an hour?”
Dex smiled to himself. “You bet, kiddo. See you there.”
Dex quietly left the apartment and spiralled down to the ground floor. He really did want to stretch his legs, but half an hour would be enough. He could take the long way to his favourite bar and link into M City from there. It hardly even seemed odd to him anymore — sitting in a real world bar full of other real world humans, but focussing on a virtual bar to meet the avatar of the woman with whom he shared a home.
It was just modern living.
* * *
One of Le Rétro’s human servers brought Dex his glass of rum and water, setting it on the table in front of him with a smile.
“Not meeting anyone today?” the waiter asked. Dex was a regular and usually sat in the main bar area with one or more friends or colleagues. Tonight he took one of the small one-person booths along the wall which catered to people who intended to log into the ’nets. Thanks to the everywherenet backbone that a consortium of the largest companies maintained, there was hardly anywhere a person couldn’t log in, so most places expected at least a portion of their customers would be only partially present.
“Had to get out of the house for a while,” he answered, “but my date’s waiting for me online.”
The waiter gave Dex a knowing smile and said, ”I’ll leave you to it, then.” Dex took a sip of his drink, unfocussed his eyes from the bar in which his body sat and linked into Three Card Monte’s.
From one ginmill to another, he thought as the M City bar and his longtime hangout seemed to materialize before him. His avatar instantiated at a table, and not long later a virtual drink, ashtray and pack of cigarettes appeared. It was all an affectation, no different from his avatar’s charcoal suit and the felt hat he dropped onto the table. He’d just lit a cigarette when Annabelle walked into the bar.
Her avatar was a reasonable replica of her physical world appearance, without the tiredness. She made a bee line for Dex’s table, and in contrast to her greeting at the apartment, favoured Dex with a long, deep kiss. She settled in to the bench seat next to him and snuggled close.
“What a shit of a day,” she said once she’d had a deep draught of her own virtual drink.
“What happened?” Dex asked but Annabelle shook her head.
“Nothing special, just the same old crap.” She turned to look at him. “Was there really ever a time I actually liked my job?”
He laughed, though it wasn’t particularly funny. She had liked, maybe even loved her work at Omnitrack once. But in the last few years things had gotten more and more difficult, not just for Annabelle, but for everyone who worked for the major firms.
The worst part was that Dex was entirely certain that it was because of him.
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