The moment she walked into the joint, Dex had known that she was there for him. It wasn’t just the hard look about her, the one that says, “I’ve never been in a dive like this before but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the creeps and low lifes scare me”. It wasn’t even the fact that she stuck out like a naked face. Really, he knew because she walked in. Everyone else would have ported in from a link, but she didn’t have a link. And that meant she’d been looking for this place on the QT and that meant she’d been looking for him.
That was the previous day. The memory of the meeting was fresh but imperfect, so Dex paged over to his viewer. His hands tripped across the space in front of him, moving files and links out of his view. The space he was sitting in was close, but there was enough room for him to easily wave his arms around — he could have expanded his viewer’s size to maybe even double without having to worry about whacking his neighbour. He found the file he wanted and the video image of his meeting the previous day imposed itself over his vision.
Dex, like most people, used one eye for one task, the other eye for another one, with the whole mess at about 80% opacity so he could still just see the physical world in front of him. At work he didn’t really need to see at all, but you never can be too careful. Just because he kept his own screen at a reasonable size didn’t mean that someone nearby, playing with the resolution, wouldn’t inadvertently punch him in the head while just trying to delete some mail.
He flicked a finger to start running the file, but then a chime sounded. Fuck. A call. He’d have to answer it, since that was how he kept his job and got paid. He quickly flicked his fingers in front of him, simultaneously hiding the file, opening a program on the company’s system and answering the call. “Barrett and Brar Upgrades, how may I help you make a better you?”
Dex gave the required greeting, then listened as the customer explained how his new neural sensation enhancer was malfunctioning. Dex had to suppress a chuckle as the guy at the other end of the call’s voice quivered as he spoke. Dex ran through the troubleshooting procedures with the caller, but early on down the litany of questions about configuration and whether the customer actually had turned the unit on, his mind wandered back to the meeting with the new client. And his real job.
• • •
Andersson Dexter had been working for Barrett and Brar for going on ten years now, but he’d been working for The Cubicle Men most of his life. He’d taken a series of fairly dull jobs over the course of his adult life, usually as a Customer Service Rep, just like most of the other Cubicle Men did. Being a Cubicle Man wasn’t a job; it was a vocation.
He had been working for a low end laser keyboard manufacturer, back before the touch screens everyone used now had become common, when he first learned of the organization. He’d been walking home one night after an extra long long shift, when he heard a sound from around a corner. In the previous few months, the local boards had been reporting that there had been a rash of street violence and Dex figured he’d stumbled upon some local hoods trying to stake their claim to this patch of concrete. Dex’s eyes flicked to the corner, where the sounds of scuffling and a few loud bangs and whimpers drew his attention. He tried to ignore the sounds and kept walking toward his apartment.
He got closer and the sounds got worse. Dex thought he heard something breaking and crossed the street. He could see down the alley and saw a couple of young guys beating on a pair of streeters. The victims weren’t even fighting back; they almost looked like inert piles of rags, as the young toughs kicked, punched and spat at them. Dex slunk back against the wall of the building behind him, trying to disappear into the shadows, when he saw a couple of other people arrive on the scene and break up the fight. At first he assumed it was younger or stronger streeters coming to the aid of their compatriots, but then he saw they were all dressed in what looked like Security uniforms. But they weren’t Security from any firm Dex could identify and he was familiar with all the local outfits.
Dex kept to the shadows, half hidden behind a light standard and watched. The men pulled the attackers away and restrained them. Then one of their number methodically socked each one of the attackers in the gut. He must have had some kind of weapon, a stunner or knuckledusters, because each one of the attackers he hit fell like a stone. By the time the muscle man got to the last guy, he didn’t even really need to hit him, the guy was so scared. But hit him he did and the young would-be tough joined his pals face down in the gutter, clutching his gut. Dex waited until these new guys split and when he was sure he wouldn’t be seen, Dex hurried back to his room. Once he was safe inside and munching on a nutrient bar, he pulled up the recording he’d made of the incident.
Since before he’d even gotten his first real job, Dex had spent most of his disposable income on disk upgrades, both locally stored and online backups. Most people recorded their lives to some extent, at least a couple of minutes on delay so they could always save an important or special moment. But Dex wanted it all. He would never be able to afford enough disk to keep it all, but as a rule he deleted only the most mundane of daily moments, so he was easily able to call up the video of these strange men.
He spent most of the night working with the video. He processed it and uploaded it to the public cross referencing engines on the ’nets, looking for any information about the men who beat up the local hoods. He didn’t get very far — the resolution was pretty bad since they were a good distance away and Dex’s default resolution was fairly low to begin with — anything to get more on the disk. He eventually gave up and after a few weeks even stopped looking. He hadn’t forgotten, he just stopped caring. It was too much work for something that was just a passing curiosity to begin with. Then he got the message.
He was at work, asking another idiot customer if the keyboard was connected to a power source, when his messenger tinkled. Dex liked auditory notification, so under the sounds of the customer’s curses he heard the sound of windchimes as the message was received. He brought up the message, which was text only. Dex scanned the message and whispered aloud, “What the fuck.” The customer he was helping stopped his rambling and asked, “Did you say something?”
“No, sorry,” Dex recovered, “Just some background noise here. You were saying…” The customer kept on with his tale of mismatched cabling while Dex re-read the message.
“Andersson Dexter,” the message began.
“You have been looking for us. After analyzing your profile, we have determined that you do not seem to be interested in our services as a client. Therefore we must conclude that you are interested in our operations for other reasons.
“We invite you to meet a representative at the linked location at 1500 UTC tomorrow. We will meet you there.”
The message was unsigned and the return address was a popular anonymizer service. But Dex knew it was the men he had seen handing out some kind of street justice. And they wanted to meet him.
• • •
The link in the message was for a location online that Dex was unfamiliar with, but it was in one of the normal zones. He was confident that he could link into the location and he’d be able to maneuver his avatar without having to deal with altered laws of physics or anything out of the ordinary. But he was still unsure. Dex spent the next day debating with himself about what he should do. First thing in the morning, he’d decided to ignore the message. He didn’t need the hassle. By the time he was on the train on the way to work, though, Dex wasn’t so sure. He couldn’t stop wondering what would happen if he kept the date. Once he’d arrived at his work station he knew that there wasn’t really any question any more. If he let it go, he knew that he’d spend the rest of his life wondering what might have happened and he had enough regrets already.
When the time came, Dex followed the link in the message. He found his virtual self in a large open building that reminded him of the time he’d been in the back of an upgrade salon, only without all the stuff. There wasn’t even a bench to sit his virtual self upon while he waited. Dex couldn’t see any other avatar there and after he’d wandered around and determined that he really was alone, two more avatars linked in. There was one female and one androgynous looking creature and they walked toward him. “Andersson Dexter,” the female-looking avatar said, the voice a decent machine-replicated tone.
“Yes,” he said, one part of his mind prepared to back out of the simulation at the first sign of trouble. A weapon, for example. But these people gave no sign of violence. Seeming to read his thoughts, the one who had first spoken to him said, “Don’t worry. There’s no need to fear. We are unarmed.” After all, Dex had done nothing wrong and as it turned out, these people were only interested in those people who were wrongdoers.
The androgynous one explained that since law enforcement, if you could even call it that, was practically left to the Security departments of the firms, they only protected their own employees and only to the extent that it benefitted the firm. There were plenty of people who were essentially alone in the world and some crimes that would always go unpunished because the victim was unemployed or the crime didn’t actually inconvenience the employers in any way. It was a complicated problem, the avatar explained, but the solution wasn’t complicated at all.
They were part vigilante, part private detective and part cop. The organization operated as a check and balance on its members, ensuring that the individual members didn’t go off half cocked. They had rules, procedures, even shifts. But they operated under the radar, independent of any firm. Their members all had other jobs to ensure they had access to housing and healthcare, but they were expected to work at low level jobs — their real work was being cops where there was otherwise only anarchy.
It was a rousing speech and Dex was impressed. He could tell that he was getting recruited and it didn’t bother him. It didn’t really excite him, either, but they had let slip that there was under the table pay and there were some clear side benefits. The organization had access to some pretty cutting edge personal electronics and he would get to do something more interesting with his mind than ask consumer grade morons if they’d tried turning it off and on.
Of course, he signed up.
• • •
That had been twenty years previously and Dex had risen through the ranks fairly quickly. He discovered early on that he truly liked the work and demonstrated a definite aptitude for it. He first expected that he’d make a pretty good goon, but as it happened he was actually more inclined to sort out puzzles than sap guys on the head, so now found himself as a Lieutenant in the detective squad. The organization took its structure from historical police departments, though functionally once people advanced out of the goon squad, they operated more or less independently.
The organization was really a loose group of individuals who pooled resources and shared information. It didn’t even have an official name. One of the detectives who had worked in Dex’s division years before was a fan of old superhero comics, though, and for laughs started calling the squad the Cubicle Men — nondescript people who work at faceless jobs in cubicles by day and fight crime by night, that sort of thing. The name stuck and soon spread throughout the Namerican branch of the organization and by the time Dex joined everyone in his zone referred to themselves by the lighthearted name.
The captains of each detective squad often assigned cases, though each member of the team was free to refuse a case or ask to work on a particular file. Or a particular detective would get a reputation and clients would just show up. Dex’s meeting the previous day was one of those, but he would have asked to work on this one anyway, if it had come up for grabs. The case was fairly unusual, after all, and Dex did enjoy the strange and unusual. He looked at the still image of his client while explaining to the customer on the call how to calibrate the new neural enhancers. Her avatar was pleasing to his eye, he had to admit, but that wasn’t why Dex was staring. It just wasn’t every day that you got to investigate the murder of your client.
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