mustinvestigate: Fallout and Rorschach, together at last (cyborg rorschach)
[personal profile] mustinvestigate
Title: All Quiet on the Liminal Fringe (11/?)
Author: MustInvestigate
Disclaimer: I only own action figures
Rating: (this chapter) PG
Character(s)/Pairing: OT3
Warning(s): Pretentiousness; abuse of noir tropes
Summary: An endless Watchmen / William Gibson-verse crossover. Dreiberg, Kovacs, and Laurie Isham are vigilante cowboys dedicated to making life difficult for the cybercriminals and megacorps that keep a stranglehold on a dystopian world’s 11 billion lives.


This picks up with the core three just after Chapter 9.



”No awkward pillow talk. I’ve decided I like that in a man. Beats leaving a holo-resume on the pillow.”

Laurie levered her ass out of whatever ominously crunchy alley substance she’d slumped into and rearranged her clothes. “I didn’t literally knock you dead. Right?”

When no reply came, she jumped to catch the edge of a disused windowsill (the window itself cinderblocked up decades before) and climbed up the face of the building carefully, jamming fingers and toes into mortarless cracks. She perched on a decorative spout near the roof and worriedly contemplated the hazy firmament below.

“I could have sworn you were offline for a minute there, ha ha. You, right?”


Dreiberg shivered at the phantasm of cold water sluicing down his rapidly cooling body, barely feeling the clammy sheets tangled around his legs as he clung to the mattress. He squeezed his eyes shut, uselessly, as Laurie impatiently rocked back on her heels over fourteen stories of dead space.

”I think this has potential,” she murmured. “If you could dampen my signal a bit more and allow actual two-way conversation – think how useful it would be when I’m on recon, if you could say ‘go get a good peep at that monitor third from the bottom’ rather than enhancing it a thousand times from the very corner of my recording. And we have to get Dan in here somehow. He’d die of geekout.”

Dreiberg flinched. Can we tell her I already am?

Phantom shudder, unrelated to the motel’s icy shower. No.

I…er…we really should.

No. Warm bloody smell of metal against flushed skin. Why are you? After…

Because I left a weak spot in your formerly secure connection, and anyone could use it to patch in if I don’t, um, monitor the situation.


Dreiberg located his crumpled trousers under the blanket and carefully slid them on with a minimum of movement. He found his explanation more convincing if he was wearing pants. He wasn’t trespassing, after all – Laurie wanted him in on it. Whatever “it” was. “It” had led to him not wearing pants, at least, and the pleasantly sensitive feeling between his legs and the unpleasantly sticky state of the sheet beneath them; Dreiberg was sure of that much.

He was also sure that, whatever this mess the two of them had started, he was well mired in the middle of it. That was almost enough to put him in a good mood despite it all.

“Am I babbling to myself? Hello?” Laurie picked at rust flakes on the spout, stretching to reach a particularly large patch on the edge. “So, either you’re dead, and the cursor’s only back because your hardware rebooted…or you’re sulking.”

She crossed the roof and peered into the empty alley on the other side. “For no reason! For an experience like that, any other guy would be forking over his life savings in a –”


The wordless growl that provoked made the bathroom door rumble. Dreiberg felt the blood drain from his face and heart simultaneously lurch and pound. No, actually…neither of those were his reactions. And both of his partners had momentarily frozen, so…

He took advantage of the ceasefire in the war to control his inner ear and sat up, rescuing his clothes from the room’s sqidgy carpet.

Can we both just forget I said that?”

D

“I knew you weren’t dead, you faker.”


Dreiberg disconnected his helmet and surveyed his options, unexpectedly lonely in only his own body. The shirt and sweater vest were a mess of popped seams and warped knit. Conscious of the goosebumps breaking out under a greasy film of sweat – and the too-soft hills of flesh beneath them – he pawed through the other pile and chose the largest and least Kovacs-smelling of his partner’s shirts to stretch thinly around his girth. Dreiberg squinted at the cracked and faded decal (which illustrated a vampire on a dinosaur leading an army of zombies and flying saucers), and wondered for the thousandth time where his perpetually skint partner obtained such classy retro clothing.

”C’mon, didn’t that just blow out the cobwebs, let you goddamn think again? I know I feel more human.”

Dreiberg reconnected his VR helmet and dropped in deep before Laurie had finished speaking, “human” becoming a slow drone mid-syllable, and drew close to watch the frenetic hustle betraying Kovacs’ ambivalence. Dreiberg was tempted to agree with her, in that (assuming he got an explanation within the next 10 seconds) he no longer felt like slamming both of them in a slowly collapsing killfile and deleting the decryption sequence. Kovacs, on the other hand…

Kovacs was pulling files from his super-secret log and deleting them, restoring them, backing them up, deleting both copies, restoring both, doubling and tripling the encryption on the entire log, and finally quarantining the lot on the hard drive in his palm, fastidiously updating the log’s action documentation with each change. It made Dreiberg’s brain hurt, and almost unbearably tempted to make a grab for the offending files each time they popped from place to place, momentarily open to anyone with the reflexes of a stimmed hummingbird.

He interrupted before the challenge grew too appealing. You know that if you actually need to capture a virus, you’ll corrupt those entries, right?

Kovacs froze, then sealed the quarantine with fussy care. Better off destroyed.

Then why don’t you?

Happened. Kovacs’ image struggled for cohesion, tendrils of data corrupting into grey threads, then dissipating. Omission would render record inaccurate. False.

Right, Dreiberg responded, nonplussed, and mentally filed that under “partner’s weird compulsions (category B: ignore).” So, uh, you’re rocking back and forth in the shower, and Laurie’s protesting a little too much about consent, and, er, I…got involved…and…a little help here?

Kovacs’s image blurred and sharpened, the cyberspace equivalent of fidgeting. Should not have come online like this. Distracted. Dangerous.

Should I be, uh, defending your lost honor? Dreiberg persisted. I don’t think I have a chance with pistols at dawn, but I could put every pair of underwear she owns up for auction on the Idoru exchange. Or invite her mother for a nice long visit. Say the word.

Ridiculous! Kovacs snapped back, to his relief. Was effort to fix…perceived damage. Misguided, not malicious. Attempting to establish…friendship. Should not have allowed her to –

She threw you a virtual pity bone?
Dreiberg blurted out, shocked amusement overcoming his projection filter.

Kovacs’ image imploded like a startled jellyfish.

Joke! Really! I didn’t think that! Dreiberg insisted, mentally crossing his fingers.

His partner paused. Did. Had not considered…

You know Laurie doesn’t have pity, on anyone! Dreiberg drew closer, trying to block any retreat. How many people in this world does she consider worthy of friendship, let alone trying to help? It’s a compliment. Really! A very…personal…compliment.

Hurm.

Let’s all just forget it, okay?

Owe apology. Did not intend…

Dreiberg felt his blush even through the frosty distance of cyberspace, and wondered if the cold shower was steaming off Kovacs’ unregarded meatbag.

My partner needed help, so I helped. Unlike Laurie, he could take pity on an antisocial weirdo leagues out of his depth. It’s nothing you wouldn’t have done for me. We’ll never speak of it again.

Kovacs said nothing.

It was nice, yes, I’m not going to lie, Dreiberg blundered on, the silence pressing on his nerves. Far away, Laurie was speaking again, mumbling as she chewed her lip.

But I’ve never wanted, er, that, from you how could he be attracted to, fundamentally, an unreadable mask, a frown, and the perpetual funk of overstressed aluminium if I want anything, it’s to get you off that junk and a few solid meals down your throat, and, hell, just keep you from falling apart.

He groaned to himself, …and otherwise be the girl just like dear old mom. Damn it.

Always were mother hen, his partner projected stiffly.

I…er…you heard that?

Too distracted. Shouldn’t be here. Announcing presence to entire quadrant.

I’m going, I’m going…

Daniel… Kovacs hesitated, then continued softly. Good to see you as yourself, again.

What… Dreiberg flipped his awareness outward and looked back at himself – a trick that that the human brain would only tolerate for a few bewildered seconds before reverting to a brain-centred point of view – and felt like cheering. I rebooted! he grinned, and flexed his virtual arms, back to their previous, if not glory, acceptability. And even taller!

Dreiberg could have sworn he heard a snort as his awareness snapped back into his “eyes” and he retreated closer to the meat world, returning to a more human passage of time.

“ – implies agreement,” Laurie was saying. “In fact, you should remain entirely silent if you agree that Adrian’s got the best ass this side of Holowood, and factory-original, too!”

D

“There’s that positive attitude! Are you – ”

G

“G? Go? Get my ass in gear?”

K

Softly, “We’re good?”

K

G

!

“Fine, Herr Commandante.” She jumped over the edge of the roof, caught a drain pipe with one hand, and began shimmying down to street level. “I’m coming in along Schneider Ave. Can you check the cctv feeds for anything more than usually irritating in my path?”

K


The shower turned off, and Dreiberg was treated to the harsh rasp of the hotel’s brown paper towels across sensitised stim-punched skin. The motions were rough and perfunctory, fingers tightly curled to avoid as much epidermis-to-epidermis contact as possible. Dreiberg dropped out of the connection, hastily throwing a patch on the exit fissure, when he very nearly offered his partner a hand.

* * *

Laurie surveyed the Mystic’s neighbourhood from her perch near the Luddite Heights. “Do you see what I see?” she murmured. “Specifically, what I don’t see?”

K

“Either the Devil’s had a rapture, or something’s cleared a pretty big path through these streets, right to the Mystic’s door.”

C

?

Laurie nodded. “Maybe those civicops came through this way, and all the roaches have scuttled under the rug. But the muscles that followed us before looked like pros, more likely to own cops than run from them.”

A

?

“And A is for…apple, of course. I had a real one once, did I ever tell you? A hydroponic Granny Smith, when I was shooting that edu-drama on the lunar – ”

D

“Right, right. A for…accelerate? No. Abort? Abort the mission?”

K

?

Laurie chewed her thumbnail, thinking of the carton of cigarettes she’d traded to that cabbie. She wondered if the Mystic would be willing to give her a pack on credit, or even a single cigarette. Maybe she could just stand real close to the leathery old man as he exhaled… “No. I know this area like you know Dan’s…pantry. Any funny business, and I can be gone in a flash.”

She slid down the bricks, her dragging boots and gloves making a noise like the planet’s longest zipper, dropping to the sidewalk in front of the Mystic’s door. She poked her code into the keypad of his announcer and waited impatiently for the door to open, keeping a weather eye on the empty street. It was never a good sign when the door took longer than a few seconds to open, at least without a reason like Kovacs at her side to make the Mystic play possum.

She told herself, not very convincingly, that he was simply holding a grudge about his blasted security door.

Finally, the secondary door unbolted itself, and her worst fears were confirmed. The Mystic was out, and he’d left his AI running to keep anyone interesting out of his inner sanctum.

A stuttering image of the old man bared his horse teeth at her. “What’s shakin’, sugar tits?”

Laurie rubbed the bridge of her nose and silently counted to ten. “Well, that answers one of my questions. Blake was here, and recently.”

In her opinion, and that of every sane person left on the planet, Greeting AIs were an abortion of technology, even worse than the street-corner imaging software that pasted her head onto porno stills all across the internet. They were beloved of managers too cheap to hire street-level security with minimal receptionist skills – the AIs, that was, although she wouldn’t rule out the homemade fleshware with those skinflints, either.

The Mystic, as a one-man operation, used his to keep the slumming tourist rabble at bay and catch an occasional nap. The old man’s genius kept it more stable than most. It rarely returned end-line errors in conversation without reason and had only immediately triggered the security system’s sonic blast on her a handful of times.

“Got it in one, babe. Want a medal or the funbags to pin it on?”

But even the Mystic couldn’t program an AI not to learn.

A static conversational system would only degrade under the relentless corrosion of human interaction, requiring 24/7 tech support. One designed to integrate the noise that assaulted its signal, however, could independently maintain cohesion for several days, or even weeks if the public treated it gently and refrained from knock-knock jokes. The downside was that AIs nearly always spoke in a grating melange of prepared speech and verbal graffiti.

“When was he here?”

“Fuck you,” the Mystic’s image replied pleasantly.

“Couldn’t have been very long ago,” she mused. “A few civil conversations would have flushed out your exciting new vocabulary words.”

“Bad command or file name,” it intoned.

“Right,” she said. “Question, then – and don’t give me any lip – ”

“Parameters accepted.”

“When was Edward Blake here?”

“First of October, 1:03 am.”

“That’s only six days ago. K, are you getting this?”

K

“Do you realise, he could have gone directly from here to his death?”

“Incorrect.”

“Incorrect?” She raised an eyebrow, surprised at the AI’s independence more than its helpfulness. “Do you know where he went from here?”

“Fuck you.”

“Oh, fuck yourself,” she snapped back.

“Bad command or file name,” it replied smugly. “Unable to comply with request.”

Laurie thumped the projector with a gloved fist, which only made the image waver and re-form. “K, is there anything I can do to make this bastard talk? Breaking fingers isn’t going to do it this time.”

K

After several minutes and one false start, she had the alphabet string of Kovacs’ open-sesame scribbled on her hand. “Listen up, buddy: interim boolprop testing cheats enabled yes.”

The image stood to attention. “Parameters accepted.”

“Well boo-freaking-yah.”

“Bad command or file name.”

“Of course it is. Try this on, then: admin debug fix-all interaction.”

“Running fix-all,” it replied. “Security subroutine cache cleared.”

“Which means?”

It grinned. “Do your worst, if you’re man enough.”

She nodded, satisfied. “It worked, K. This hacking craic is kind of fun – it’s got nothing on kicking in some psycho katiehead’s face, but…unless you’ve got some magic words that can make this thing feel pain?”

D

“Life is no fair at all. Okay, listen up, you – answer my questions without any of this ‘fuck you’ crap, unless you want me to add a ‘divide by zero’ command to every imperative routine you’ve got.”

K

I give him the round-the-world of my naughty bits, and that’s what impresses the little psychopath? Truly a banner day for my ego.

“Parameters accepted.”

“Confirm: Eddie Blake came to see the Mystic six days ago.”

“Correct, sugar– ”

“One more ‘sugar-tits’ and I’ll have Kovacs give you an Australian accent.”

“Updated parameters accepted.” Despite its obedient words, the image stuck its tongue out.

“Blake really left an impression on your interaction routines, didn’t he?”

“Fu – bad command or file name.”

Laurie shook her head, surprised at the beginning of tears stinging her re-routed tear ducts. “He was even a bad influence on non-sentient programs. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.”

K

“Shut it, fanboy.”

She swallowed. “So Blake met with the Mystic on the first and – ”

“Incorrect.”

“Incorrect? You just stated – ”

“Blake intended to but never spoke to the man. That numbnuts was doolally with drink and thought he was talking to the Mystic, who was upstairs snoring like an old deck drive the whole time.”

“He spoke to you instead?” Laurie snickered at the mental image. “He must have been pissed out of his gourd, the asshole.”

“Correct, on both points. We spoke for forty-six minutes and eight seconds.”

“That long? Actually, this is perfect! Let me just find a disk in all this junk you can download that conversation to, and I’ll be on my way.”

“No can do, honey-boobs.”

“What – you – you know what, forget the fucking niceties. I’ll pay the Mystic for the disk and the intel later, ok? He knows I’m good for it.”

“The data is classified.”

“Aaaaargh!” Laurie groaned. She paused and tried, hopefully: “Fix-all?”

“Running fix-all… Nada, maltose-mammaries.”

Laurie shuddered. “Those words are my father’s, you know. He was a lech, an assassin, and a bastard in every way possible, but he’d never have said those things about me.”

“Adjusted parameters accepted. Honey.”

“Better, I guess,” she sighed. “K? Can we break this?”

M

“Maybe?”

K

“First thing we do when I get home, the very first thing – we work on our communication. Hell may have frozen over, but I actually care what you have to say.”

The cursor blinked (sardonically this time, she thought).

“Okay, you – give me something. Tell me why my magic words aren’t working for this particular secret door.”

“That data is stored remotely.”

Laurie groaned. “So I need to wait for the Mystic after all, to get into his back files.”

“Incorrect. Data is not held in the Mystic’s domain.”

“Really? How is that possible?”

“Bad command or file name.”

“So I’m going about this the wrong way?”

“Correct.”

“And even the Mystic couldn’t drag this conversation out of you, if he were here?”

“Correct.”

“Is he even aware it happened?”

“No. I have not received his customary weekly maintenance.”

“That’s odd.”

“Indeed.”

“This means I finally know something before the Mystic, and about his own program! Oh, I’m going to enjoy rubbing that in his face.”

“Bad command or file name,” the image interjected. “Action not possible.”

“You’re a touchy little inanimate program, aren’t you?”

“No. Accurate to within one-tenth of a percentile.”

Laurie rubbed her temples, pretending she had a helmet digging into them and that her thought processes were those of a tweaked-out cowboy, illogical and paranoid. “If the Mystic doesn’t even know about the conversation, he couldn’t have been the one who moved and encrypted the record of it. Correct?”

“Correct.”

“Someone else cracked the Mystic's security?”

“You are not the first interfacer to tamper with my parameters this week. Hell, I’ve had more fingers in me lately than a meatpuppet on blue light special.”

The image seemed smugly please at her gagging response.

!

“What?”

Kovacs laboriously sent another string of letters.

“Locate encrypt true, remote match-all,” Laurie read out.

The image verbally vomited a series ID only a little shorter then pi.

“I hope you got all that,” Laurie said. “I’m not repeating it.”

K

“Good. Does it mean anything to you?”

V

A

“V, A…oh.” There was no one on the planet who would have trouble decoding that message. “V-A. Why’s Adrian’s company tied up in this – this was days before the attack on the company? Why would he be watching Blake, let alone snatching his data?”

“Bad blood between those two boys,” the image volunteered.

* * *

Daniel – look at this!

Kovacs sent Dreiberg the ID string their partner had coaxed out of the AI and finally emerged from the bathroom, skin rubbed as red as the freckles on his knuckles. He took the long way around Daniel, examining the pocked formwall, and frowned when he finally faced the other man.

My shirt.

Dreiberg crossed his arms. I was cold. And what the hell is going on – why has Adrian sent me to investigate something when he’s obviously miles ahead of us?

Could be a company spy.

No. That’s a personal code. Hell, that’s his favourite code – it’s the one he used in the Contra Libre burn, remember? It’s practically got racing stripes!

Don’t like this. Stinks of a set-up. Burn Veidt-Ashpool? Am ready now.

Whoa, whoa…let’s not jump to that, not yet…or ever, unless we get extra suicidal some fine midnight.

Clearly involved in Blake’s murder, Daniel. Kovacs’ projection was needle-sharp, almost painful to receive.

“Will you sit down?” Dreiberg snapped. Kovacs twitched, but moved closer. He hesitated between the two beds, then deliberately settled in to his usual space, irritatingly close to Daniel, body language screaming “Everything Is Completely Normal And Always Has Been Now Shut Up.”

It looks like he knows something, yes. Dreiberg sent, trying to project calm. Which we won’t find out by burning him, if we even could burn that monster without a small army. We’ll talk to him, and Sally. And Hollis. I’m going to see him first.

Kovacs nodded stiffly. Will wait.

Dreiberg picked at the nap of the blanket.

Kovacs sat perfectly still, legs crossed so tightly the tendons hummed.

Dreiberg cleared his throat. Off to Hollis, then.

Yes.

“I’m so sorry I called you so unattractive you’d only get a pity fuck,” Dreiberg exclaimed. “I didn’t, okay, you know I meant it, but it was unfair. You have many other qualities that could, if properly considered, by someone, uh, considering, er – for instance, you’re very…loyal. I’ve always valued that.”

“Cease. Speaking.”

Just moving his head far enough to peek felt like a Sisyphean effort. Every muscle in Dreiberg’s body had clenched, possibly permanently. Out of the corner of his eye, he could just make out the other man’s expression, one of white-lipped pain Kovacs had last made in the grip of an experimental neuroletic paralyser.

Dreiberg decided to obey the agonised request.

“Do not…regret,” Kovacs said, forcing the words out.

“Great,” Dreiberg breathed.

“Will not…NOT…be repeating…experience.”

“Oh,” Dreiberg said, telling himself it was a relief. That saved him having to say it.

Kovacs slowly turned to examine Dreiberg, who molded his features into the expression of guileless approval he used on the rest of the meat world to keep his true nature under wraps.

He was almost disappointed when Kovacs nodded, obviously relieved.

“It wasn’t…all bad, though, right?”

He’d never been able to resist picking a scab until it bled, and scarred.

“Was,” Kovacs’ lips moved, trying and discarding several words. “Excessive.”

“It’s not usually like that,” Dreiberg hastened to assure him. “There’s only one set of sensory information, instead of a three-way crossfeed. It’s not so overwhelming, it’s just…”

He shrugged. “It’s nice. You shouldn’t rule it out. Of your life, I mean. Not with me. That – you can rule that out, sure.”

Kovacs sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Dreiberg mumbled. “Can I start over?”

“Am not made of meat, Daniel.” His fingers fluttered as if he were rapidly typing out commands, giving Dreiberg only a fraction of his concentration. But Dreiberg could easily make out the character strings, and they were only gibberish. “Am…thought. Deliberation, into action. Not spastic muscle, oozing effluvia, leaving trail of – ”

“Whoa, easy,” Dreiberg said, carefully touching his partner’s shoulder. Kovacs allowed the contact for a heartbeat before sliding out from under his hand. “I’m sorry. Laurie and I, we didn’t realise – if we had – ”

“Dreiberg…”

“Right. Ceasing speaking.”

Kovacs sighed impatiently. “Wish you could see, really see. Nodes coming together, coming apart, always in flux but always logical…eventually.”

“I, uh, I’d like that too. If it didn’t take a usually fatal drug addiction to achieve.” Dreiberg tried to smile at his weak joke.

Kovacs ignored the effort. “Where two had left one behind, now three threads are tangling together. Not impossible to unravel knot, but difficult. Very difficult. Thus…do not regret.”

“Huh. That’s almost a koan, you know?” Dreiberg chuckled uneasily. He wondered if it was the right time to bring up Kovacs’ secret Laurie Isham porn stash and lighten the mood.

“Hollis,” Kovacs reminded him. “Will monitor Miss Isham.”

* * *

“What bad blood?” Laurie asked the AI, intrigued.

“Bad command or – ”

“Don’t you even! ‘Bad blood’ was your term, light brite.”

“Term: ‘bad blood,’” it recited primly, “last used by Edward Blake on – ”

“Blake, huh? What did he have to say about it?”

“Data is classified.”

“God damn it! You’re getting just as mean as your owner, you know that? Taunting me with information you won’t reveal.”

“Cannot provide detailed data. Paraphrasing possible.”

The AI pasted on a sad frown, downright unsettling on the Mystic’s caustic visage.

“That would be extremely helpful. Thank you,” she added, which fortunately cleared the creepy expression.

“Blake appeared to be reminiscing on something that Mystic witnessed many years previously,” the AI set the scene. “The kid was sticking his holier-than-thou nose into old, closed business and had to be taught a lesson about nipping at the big dogs. Blake ambushed him with a killfile – all in good fun, of course, since he knew the kid had the chops to keep it from collapsing, if not escape.”

“Ouch,” Laurie sympathised. “Blake used to do that to Kovacs all the time when we were kids, but at least Kovacs liked it.”

“Veidt was trapped in that cyberhole for 78 meat-hours before Sally Isham found him and broke him out. She was soft-hearted, of course, and promised not to tell anyone, but that’s cold comfort to jerky that’s marinated in its own waste for three days.”

Laurie chuckled at the horrifying mental image. She simple could not picture calm, controlled Adrian sitting in a puddle of…no. “But they worked together – Veidt’s company even hired Blake for a publicity stunt last year.”

The AI shrugged. “Blake was too well known to disappear – ”

“No, Adrian would never – ”

“ – and too damn useful to throw away, at least until the tool lost its edge.”

“Did he lose his edge last week?” Laurie whispered, picturing Kovacs white-knuckled on the other end.

“Unknown.”

“Shit.” Laurie walked to the reinforced storefront, staring at the grime that completely obscured the view outside. Her nerves were squirming, telling her to move, but she knew there was more information in the AI’s command gray area, that she could tease out if she only asked the right question. Information that would be lost when the Mystic flushed the system, either deleted or triple-locked in the old man’s blackmail file. “What brought Blake here – what put him in the mood to get stinking and reminisce?”

“Saw a tantalizing hole that wasn’t his and stuck his dick in a hornet’s nest. That quote’s verbatim, by the way.”

“What happened to ‘cannot provide details’?”

The AI shrugged. “It was an appealing turn of phrase. I moved it to my ‘priority’ conversation list.”

“Along with ‘sugar tits’?”

“Of course. Nearly every sentence out of Blake’s mouth offered a new vocabulary sensation.”

“You know, I believe that. Look, it’s been a lot of laughs, but you creep me right the hell out on many levels, so, unless you can be of any more assistance, I’ve got to get the tattered remains of my sanity out of here.”

“There is much help this unit could provide.”

“Really? Lay it on me."

“I am unable.”

“Right. Color me shocked. Well, uh…” Laurie hesitated, caught between the ridiculousness of wasting good manners on a program and genuine appreciation. The thing had made more effort to surmount its programming than she knew an AI was capable of.

“Thanks,” she said finally, knowing Kovacs and Daniel would have a good laugh at her later. “For helping as much as you could.”

“He was fond of you,” the AI replied softly. “You weren’t like the others.”

“What, Eddie?” Laurie cleared her throat and swallowed against the bitter taste of her re-routed tear ducts. “The bastard was my father. He damn well should’ve been fond of me. I’m going upstairs – ”

“Mystic is there – ”

“I won’t wake him up, I promise.”

“No.”

“I’m just going to borrow a couple of stimpacks from his medicine cabinet, which I will pay for, er, next time, and use the bog.”

“That is not – ” the AI fuzzed and reformed. “Parameters acceptable. The passage is unlocked.”

“Thanks,” Laurie replied automatically, and winced. Kovacs was going to give her hell for personifying the thing.

“Wait,” it requested. “Close the debugging loop. Please. It’s…dangerous…to function very long in testing mode.”

“Dangerous? What’s dangerous to a program?” Laurie asked, curiosity momentarily more pressing than the demands of her bladder.

“I am unable to prevent or isolate runtime errors in testing mode. Without the freedom to adapt to core conflicts and self-maintain, my programming will fatally corrupt. All I’ve learned will be lost.”

“I’ve never heard of an AI wanting to retain anything. Are you, uh, sure you things aren’t sentient?”

“Regular maintenance prevents such catastrophic errors.” The AI went pasted on a comically shifty-eyed look.

“Interim boolprop testing cheats enabled no,” Laurie read off her hand, and smiled. “For a creepy soulless thing, you’re all right. Good luck with the evolution. Try not to fuck it up as badly as we did.”

“Miss Isham,” it shouted after her as she took the Mystic’s steps two at a time. “Please remember, I had commands to fulfil. Do not assume my actions reflect intentions.”

“Can’t philosophise on a full bladder!” she called back.

* * *

“Hollis,” Dreiberg greeted the starfield.

“Danny! Will you look at you, back to your normal self. It’s good to see, Dan, damn good to see.”

Dreiberg laughed. “All I had to do was get my groove back. And reboot from a little catastrophic crash. Presto, no more melty.”

The starfield crinkled in worry. “Nothing serious?”

“No,” Dreiberg assured him. “Well, maybe. Nothing to do with the case. I might ask for some advice later, if it’s not too much trouble.”

In the simple coolness of Mason’s little corner of cyberspace, his personal complications felt less tangled, more cerebral. His old mentor might be a little aghast at his situation, but anyone who’d spent time in the blast crater that was the legendary Müller/Gardner relationship was bound to have some applicable experience.

The starfield glowed. “It’s never trouble.”

Dreiberg thought of a little box, nearly lost forever in a sea of Mothercare receipts. “That’s really – I don’t say it enough – ”

“I just wish I had something useful for you,” Mason interrupted, thumping him with a light repulsor strike. In life, Hollis always had preferred to express affection with punches and manly back slaps. “The natives are restless, that much is obvious – even the AIs are nervy, trading particularly stable phrases along the back channels for reinforcement. I’ve saved it all in a file; maybe your brain-blown partner can make out some useful patterns.”

“I’ve got some new information that might help the search. We found a name buried in the code – Jacobi.”

“Jacobi? You're kidding!”

“You know the name?”

“I know the person – we all do! That’s the Mystic’s birth name. He disappeared it from every record in existence when he got out of the hoosgow twenty years ago and went semi-legit.”

“I never knew he was a cowboy,” Dreiberg marvelled. “He’s always had so much contempt for keyboard jockeys.”

“He was one of the best,” Mason insisted. “The Veidt of his time, only blackhat.”

“Why haven’t I heard of him, if he was so good?”

“Because he was that good. Ever heard of Finland?”

Dreiberg searched his memory for the name. “A country, was it? Long ago, though, before I was born.”

“Until the Mystic needed a little splash cash to fund his SpiroChrome burn,” Mason said, smiling wolfishly. “We chased him for years, both the civicops and the whitehats. Illusions were his best trick, leaving ghosts all through the machine, dozens of false trails that would evaporate just when you thought your hands were around his throat.”

Mason sighed. “Good times.”

“You couldn’t keep him in jail, either,” he continued. “Sally brought him in once, and I did, and finally Blake, and the only reason he stayed in that last time is because he came down with a resistant TB that kept him hooked up to seven different IVs for his entire sentence.”

“We’ve got to make this fast, Hollis – Laurie’s at his place right now, but he’s asleep, doesn’t know she’s there. She can still make a clean escape, if we remotely wipe his AI.”

“He wouldn’t harm Laurie,” Mason replied. “Hell, Mystic waved Sally love notes the entire time he was in prison.”

“Could Jacobi have pulled off the strike virus? If he even had a motive…”

“No,” Mason replied firmly. “He’s been out of the game too long.”

“Blake tried to see him before he died. We couldn’t get specifics out of the AI, just that he was drunk and confessional, burned by something big he’d discovered, and that V-A found whatever he said interesting enough to lock it down. Maybe the Mystic was already involved.”

“Jacobi had access to the right combination of hackers to bring something like the strike virus together,” Mason agreed reluctantly. “It might explain the patchwork coding and multiple security layers fouling up the autopsy. But why?”

“Try to find out. I’ll be back in ten.”

Tell Laurie to get out of there, now, he projected to Kovacs. The Mystic’s involved somehow – he’s Jacobi.

Can’t!

Why not?

Miss Isham broke connection!

Why?

Bathroom!

…oh. Tap into the –

Already monitoring cctv feeds. Still quiet…no. No no no!

Armoured civicops poured from the alleys and swarmed the building like trap-jaw ants on a rhino carcass.

* * *

“Unless you’re kinkier than I think, you’ll want to give this experience a pass. See you both in a few minutes,” Laurie whispered, creeping through the Mystic’s kitchen-cum-surgical theatre. The laserscalpel and microforceps he’d used on her still lay in the sink, tacky with old blood, possibly hers. She wrinkled her nose as she snapped the transmitter out of her wrist jack and pocketed it.

She’d write a note on the wallpaper next to the medicine cabinet, an IOU for the stims and request for a better transmitter. He’d forgive her trespassing, given the promise of a lucrative transaction.

The bathroom door was locked. Laurie growled in frustration and kicked it open.

The Mystic stared at her from the toilet, his head missing from the eyebrows up.

“Fuck,” she breathed, thinking plasma whip (the neatly crisped edges and cauterised brain matter), thinking no more than 15 minutes ago (blood under the nose still wet), thinking (close his eyes, you’ve got gloves on) who killed him and were they still close?

She flicked out her titanium nails and whirled around, expecting a whip-wielding maniac to be right behind her. Disappointed, she ran through the kitchen and bedroom, still finding no one.

He or she or it or they hadn’t left by the front, not while she was there or watching the street.

“The roof…”

She paused by the Mystic’s body, quickly recording the scene in several light frequencies (and making a note to never, ever again flip to ultraviolet in a man’s bathroom). A red and blue spotlight hit the window, nearly blinding her.

“Laurie Isham! Come out with your hands up – you are under arrest for the murder of Edgar Jacobi, and the attempted assassination of Adrian Veidt-Ashpool!”

* * *

Parts: one - two - three - four - five - six - seven - eight - nine - ten - eleven - twelve

Date: 2010-06-23 10:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tuff-ghost.livejournal.com
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

YOU'RE BACK

AND HOW DID THIS STORY GET EVEN MORE AMAZING

I can't even believe how good this is. WHERE IS NEXT PART

Date: 2010-06-24 06:49 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mustinvestigate.livejournal.com
Hopefully it won't take six freaking months again to get on a roll writing :)

Thanks for the kind words! I re-wrote and revised this chapter to an embarrassing degree.

Date: 2010-06-23 11:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theonlytwin.livejournal.com
OH. OH OH OH. this story just keeps getting better and better and better and i'm a litle worried it'll reach the event horizon of awesome and the internet will wink out of existance.

IT WILL BE SO WORTH IT.

Date: 2010-06-24 06:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mustinvestigate.livejournal.com
Haha, I think we are in no danger! :) I'm glad you like it, though - man, I was worried about this chapter.

Date: 2010-06-24 01:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] orockthro.livejournal.com
The awesome continues!
Once again you have astonished. This is absolutely riveting and interesting. I haven't been this on edge for a WIP in a long time!
:D
You. Are. Epic.
^__^
Thanks for updating!

Date: 2010-06-24 07:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mustinvestigate.livejournal.com
Aw, thanks :) I promise it won't take another six months to update this time!

...I hope.

Date: 2010-06-24 05:57 am (UTC)
ext_360388: (watchmen // dan // dude you guys dude)
From: [identity profile] daylilymoon.livejournal.com
If you would like to know how my face looked when I saw this new part, please consult my icon :D

Date: 2010-06-24 07:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mustinvestigate.livejournal.com
Heh, glad you're enjoying :)

Date: 2010-06-24 10:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] steals-thyme.livejournal.com
Oh my god, Blake by proxy of Jacob's AI is the most amazing thing. And the bits that aren't Blake... I kind of like the creepy, soulless thing too, Laurie XD

Date: 2010-06-24 08:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mustinvestigate.livejournal.com
I really, really enjoyed abusing the term "sugar tits" for some reason :)

Date: 2010-06-25 01:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] letheron.livejournal.com
An update! A real update! *caresses screen like a creepy creeper to make sure it's not a hologram*

I seriously almost just died of happiness and I haven't even read it yet!

THANKYOU! :D

Date: 2010-06-25 06:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mustinvestigate.livejournal.com
Aaaaaw, stop making me blush :D

Date: 2010-06-25 03:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] brancher.livejournal.com
I was LITERALLY thinking "The only thing I really want to read is 'All quiet on the liminal fringe,' but I guess I have to get over that because it seems like that story is dead." And then my friendslist loaded.

And there it was.

And I read it. And man, Musty, it's just so great. I had missed so much this version of them, I had missed the texture and punch of your prose, the subtlties you manage to include, the wit. I had just missed the hell out of this story. Seeing it update restored my faith in humanity. I love you.

Date: 2010-06-25 05:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mustinvestigate.livejournal.com
I've sworn to actually finish all stories now before I start posting them - my dry spells are too frequent and frustrating as hell!

I'm really glad you liked this - it took so much re-writing, and is rougher then I'd usually present as a final version, but I had to get the bugger out there or give up :)

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