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Detective Arjan Heiko is accustomed to the darkness that lay beneath the surface of civilization.

These excerpts represent the some of the key concepts covered in the story, as well as my writing style. I am looking for feedback regarding how well this communicates the story, the characters, the settings and the conversations in a believable and understandable way.

Chapter 1 Excerpt

“This is a shithole,” Arjan said to nobody in particular.

“As most tourist traps are,” Torre agreed. Almost subconsciously he added, “but you talk too much,” something he’d repeated automatically at least a dozen times per day since his assignment to Arjan. Torre did his best work within the silences, but his new boss incessantly filled them.

“Do you know the definition of rhetorical?” Arjan grumbled.

“I think it means screw you,” Torre replied around a genuine smile.

“That’s ‘screw you, boss’,” Arjan corrected, which broke a bit of the tension that had been building up since they had begun their ascent.

Arjan was a seasoned professional, having held this particular position with the NYPD for more than three decades. And although he appeared to be in his fifties with close-cropped salt and pepper hair and beard, an age his wife was particularly fond of, he was in peak physical shape for a twenty year old lab perfect specimen. Even though the tailored genes and therapies certainly helped, it was his demanding physical exercise regimen that kept him there.

As they ascended, Arjan stood perilously close to the edge of the platform, watching the ground recede at a vertigo inducing clip. He fidgeted with the crime scene pass that hung from a lanyard around his neck, old analog tech he hadn’t used in years, but necessary where they were headed.

Babel, or Atlas as it had been officially named, was way outside their jurisdiction. However, Arjan had convinced the lead detective that this case could be tied to a string of murders in the NY area. So Detective Duane Mancy of the Dallas Metro Police Department had agreed to give him access to the crime scene and his case files.

Arjan considered what he’d gotten mixed up in with this field trip to Babel. Almost 30 years ago, in 2033 one of the Perot daughters had employed then cutting edge nano-construction techniques to build “Atlas, the city of the future”. The project had begun well enough, with the machines feeding off the raw materials of a 5,000 acre base between Dallas and Houston. For every story the structure grew down, creating parking, maintenance and storage complexes, it rose another 5 stories.

As it shot skyward, its height quickly surpassed even the super structures of China. During the first five years of growth, the top architects competed with the top user experience designers from other industries, including fashion design and product design, to program the most amazing structures and spaces. Within their safety parameters, the machines dutifully fulfilled their dreams.

What had been an experimental industry with techniques cautiously tested against capitalistic restraints, quickly became a boom industry for construction and economic growth around the world. Atlas was the poster child for success and rapid expansion. Physical expansion, and the expansion of new technologies and techniques being developed at a lightning pace to keep up with the new problems Altas’ growth presented.

Cultures from all over the world began to integrate into the tower. Those proximities brought minor frictions and conflicts, which gave way to the first uses of the nickname “Babel”. The name probably wouldn’t have stuck though if it weren’t for the tragedy of “the fall’”. Atlas was drawing unprecedented attention from inventors and tenants and governments and corporations… and of course hackers.

“The Fall” hadn’t toppled the tower physically, but the damage was just as enduring. The hackers had managed to undermine the stability of the structure, while curating new structures of their own ideological bent. They wanted a monument to humanity’s hubris, a testament to greed and excess, and they got it.

By the time the hacker’s construction schema had been subdued and expelled, Babel was a 2,300 meter jumble of mostly unlivable space. Although they managed to remove the one hundred meter high effigy of a man jumping from the upper floors in a business suit, as well as the fifty meter high rendering of Proverbs 16:18, which proclaimed that “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall”, Atlas was bankrupt before any significant portion of it was declared safe for occupation again.

And that occupation led Arjan to “The Faithful”, a group of nut jobs he had been considering in earnest since he boarded the jet this morning.

“What’s that?” Torre said over the rush of wind.

“Ah, uh… nothing,” Arjan said absentmindedly, not realizing he’d spoken aloud. “Was just thinking about The Faithful is all”.

The platform they stood on wasn’t part of Atlas proper, but part of a massive scaffolding that had been attached during the reclamation period; a safe way for construction bots to get about without having to interact with the Atlas structure itself. Little more than a maintenance elevator, the platform had nothing but thin rails at waist height, run round with safety anchors and straps.

Vicious gusts of wind tore at their jackets and threatened to topple them both, while the DMPD crime scene bot attending them was unaffected. The bot was Dallas blue and silver, and stood about the height of a man. Its eight articulated limbs were bunched together in one thick tapering stalk below its cylindrical torso, giving it the appearance of a giant mechanical exclamation mark.

Torre had been looking for the right time to push Arjan about the real purpose of this expedition, but just hadn’t managed. The connections from this murder to their own case was tenuous at best, and he was sure that a judge wouldn’t grant them jurisdiction based on a loose psych pattern and zero physical evidence. The fact that Mancy had agreed to let them mettle, had practically thrown the case at them, had only added to his suspicions.

If Torre knew one thing about this trip, it was that he didn’t know one honest thing about it.

“So boss,” he said, his courage finally coming along in a single heedless hail marry, “What the hell are we doing here really?”

Arjan looked up abruptly, the question clearly startling him from his contemplations. There was a drawn out pause before he answered, which included a sideways glance at the bot, the glance carrying a subtext of “not in front of the kids”.

“I thought we…” he started. “The profile showed that the victim and the staging of the scene…”

“Were vaguely similar at best,” Torre interrupted, his concern and confusion comingling to manifest as indignation. Indignation at being kept in the dark, at apparently not having the trust of his superior. “There’s something you don’t trust me with. That’s the bottom line here.”

At that last statement, Arjan’s expression jumped from pleading to pained. His eyes softened and Torre thought he saw a hint of moisture in his eyes. Arjan’s next words hitched in his throat as he spoke them, his breath barely controlled.

“I’m… I’m sorry Torre,” he said earnestly and took a deep breath. “I’m so sorry.”

The seriousness of Arjan’s expression, the heartbreak Torre saw there frightened him in a way that he couldn’t rationalize. For a split second, Arjan thought Torre might be about to jump from the platform, or pull his weapon and shoot him before turning it on himself.

But that instant passed and Torre saw through Arjan’s eyes that the sorrow there hadn’t broken him, it has resolved him, girded him up against whatever he was doing here.

“I’m sorry that I can’t tell you more,” Arjan continued. “But it isn’t for lack of trust in you. I don’t want you dragged into this. It’s to protect you.”

Arjan sighed dramatically and looked back over the edge.

Torre let the silence draw out and considered the implications.

“You should have stayed in New York like is said,” Arjan finally added regretfully. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Well this brilliant detective, you can be pretty dense,” Torre practically spat. “You come into the office this morning, clearly upset, saying you’re going down to Texas to check on a lead… and you practically order me to do some busy work on the Sojourn case. The Sojourn case, I mean really. That thing is practically a cold case.”

“Well I…” Arjan started.

“Well you? Well you couldn’t have done more to wave a red cape in my face is what,” Torre said, the anger abating, being replaced with… pity, fear? “I’m supposed to be here for you, I’m your damned partner.”

“Okay, okay,” Arjan said, holding his hands up in surrender. “I promise I’ll read you in if what I’ve learned ends up being true. I promise”.

After Torre let that hang in the air between them for a long moment, Arjan added, “It’ll be fine, just give me some time to sort a few things out. No need to rile everyone up over something that might not be true.”

“How did you get Mancy to cave?” Torre asked, not quite changing the subject.

“Oh that,” Arjan chuckled. “That was easy. Nobody in their right mind wants to deal with the Faithful. They hate the authorities, hate technology, practically run this place like its own sovereign nation. Mancy didn’t give up his investigation to a couple of interlopers, no. Mancy is just letting us go do something he had no intention of doing. Without us, this murder wouldn’t even be investigated. Not really.”

Torre looked pointedly over at Babel’s tortured structure as it raced by, and then up at the top floors just becoming visible in the haze, and twisted his mouth and closed his eyes in contemplation, resignation.

“Okay,” he finally agreed. “You have today.”

They rode the rest of the way without conversation, besides Arjan’s nervous chatter to himself, buffeted not only by the winds, but by the elevator’s changes in direction to avoid strange outcroppings or large gaps in the structure. Finally, they entered through the floor of a small room and came to rest with a solid clunk. The sudden silence was undercut by high pitched whistling of the wind as it tried to follow them inside.

Surprisingly, they weren’t greeted by anyone at all. The room was barely big enough to fit the elevator, plus a foyer sized area in front of a pair of large wooden doors. The doors were out of place here, with a deep carving of large gates flanked by two winged angels. To the right of the doors stood a small table, and on the table sat a clay tea set, a large wicker basket, and a candelabra of well-worn candles, which provided the only light.

Arjan went to the table and picked up a hand written note. “Its paper,” he laughed. “honest to goodness, wood pulp paper I think”.

“What does it say?” Torre asked, moving over to run a hand along the one of the angels’ faces.

“Detectives,” Arjan recited. “Welcome to Babel. Thank you again for adhering to our customs. The basket is for your electronic devices, and the tea is for the cleansing of your bodies before entering.”

“Holy shit,” was Torre’s reply and they both laughed.

They had been warned by Mancy that there were some special considerations when entering The Follower’s domain, but he hadn’t made it sound serious and he hadn’t elaborated. Now they wondered why he had sent the bot with them at all.

As if it heard their thoughts, the bot moved for the first time since joining them. Three of its legs unhinged and it stepped over to the table, extending a fourth limb into the teapot. Almost immediately, it said “No biological or technological threats detected, although there non-threatening minor traces of THC.”

“It’s got marijuana in it?” Torre asked incredulously.

“Just drink it,” Arjan instructed as he poured them each a cup of the steaming greenish liquid.

Chapter 2 Excerpt

“I think I’m done here,” Mark said. “Really, c’mon now,” he added with more pleading than he wanted.

Mark was clothed in the body of a 30 something athletic male. His figure had generic trans-European features, the sort of base model that nobody with enough credit to choose would ever do so willingly. Over that, he wore military fatigues, which he hoped would subtly convey his commitment to the cause. His fingers fiddled with an input stylus, rhythmically tapping on the sturdy oak desk that separated him from the doctor.

Dr. Hannie Raske, Fourth Protectorate Senior Psychographer, glanced at the fidgeting stylus and then back to her tablet where she pretended to enter something, understanding that drawing attention to his nervous tick would only stress him further.

“Mark,” she said in a comforting tone, “this isn’t an evaluation, just a checkup. We aren’t due to make any decisions for a while now.”

“You keep saying that,” Mark complained, “but badgering me about what happened isn’t helpful, or fair for that matter. Let me get back to work already.”

“Yes, the work,” she agreed, “we all want you to get back to work, but you know this isn’t ultimately about you.”

“So let me get back to it,” he said.

“We can move that way,” she conceded, “once we finish the checkup.” She offered Mark a refill of water from the pitcher on the desk, but he waved her off nodded at her pad.

“Good,” she said with a genuine smile. ”That’s good. So… Mark, do you believe that this is the Prime reality?”

“Yes,” Mark said with a sigh, having answered this question more times than he could count.

“And why again do you believe that?” She continued.

“Because it must be believed,” Mark recited. “Doubting this reality might be a sim only messes with your head. Wait, is that what you think? Oh god…”

“Hold on, just humor me for a moment,” she said, leaning forward. She thumbed her pad off and set it face down on the desk; the next part would be off the record. “But what if I confided that this wasn’t Prime?” she whispered.

Mark glanced around conspiratorially. “This isn’t funny, doctor,” he said with an edge to his voice. He leaned in as well and took in the depth of her eyes. “Not funny in the least.”

“But if it wasn’t…” she pressed, holding his gaze.

“Then I guess the hell with you, and with this,” Mark said. He considered how worthless another reality would be if it were as mundane as actual reality, the Prime reality, and then he realized just how useful a sim like that would be to a psyche profiler and it chilled him.

The absurdity of the situation suddenly overtook him and he laughed so hard and so genuinely that it was infectious, and the doctor found herself laughing with him.

Without warning, he had the stylus to her eye, his other hand gripping her hair roughly, and the laughter died as abruptly as it had overcome them. The pitcher of water clattered to the floor with a splash.

“Doctor,” he said calmly.

“Mar…,” She started, but he cut her off by pressing the stylus to her pupil.

“I’m no fancy psyche profiler,” he said, a cold resignation filling him, not anger. “I don’t have a degree in screwing with people to find their breaking point. But I’ll tell you what keeps me sane, even when dealing with crap like this.”

She stared at him, waiting for him to continue, and he wondered what he saw in her gaze. Was it fear, understanding, excitement? He had hoped to get some sort of reaction from her, but he couldn’t read her a bit.

“I am sane because I know it doesn’t matter whether or not this is Prime, doctor,” he said finally. “This you, is as potentially real as any other. The pain of losing an eye, or the immorality of taking your life… I have to act as if I am in Prime unless proven otherwise. I have to know that in order to function.”

“Good,” she said around a wry smile. “Sorry about pushing you, but can we continue now?”

Mark took in her gaze for another long moment, sighed and pulled back, the stylus falling to the desk as he sat heavily back in the chair and sunk his head into his hands. “Go on, go on…”

Neither of them moved to clean up the spill.

“Yes,” she agreed, making a point of straightening her blouse and sitting upright. “Tell me again, when you watched the replay,” she asked, “How did you feel about your actions, about the catastrophic loss of life they caused?”

“For crying out loud, are we going to do this every week?” Mark complained, true anger showing for the first time this session. “You know damned well that wasn’t me. You can’t hold me responsible for what they did after we diverged.”

“But we…” she started.

“But nothing,” he interrupted again. “I agreed to eighteen copies of my mind, and at the time those copies were created, they were me for all intents. And those people, they agreed to be put into combat drones for a 6 month tour. I, uh… we agreed to that in exchange for getting decent humorph bodies of their choosing upon completion of the tour.”

“And unfortunately one of them snapped, killing the rest of his platoon and his Sargent,” Dr. Raske added empathetically, no hint of recrimination in her voice. “It’s my job to assess the possibility of one or more of the other seventeen doing the same, or worse.”

“But they’re not me, damn it,” he practically shouted. “Not me.”

“I know, I know,” she said placating. “But look at it from our standpoint, look at it from the standpoint of those other seventeen men. Everything is on hold until we assess the situation, and you are… patient zero for lack of a better word.”

He put his head back in his hands, unable to make eye contact with her and said, “I passed your profile and your entry tests, so I know that must piss you off. So why not just run a copy of me through a few thousand cycles of a sim of that situation to see what I do, see if that anomaly repeats.”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss other methods that may be at our disposal,” she stated. “But that would have its own set of costs and pitfalls you know. Besides, only ones created from the same seed as the others would be relevant, and besides, it would be illegal without your permission to create another divergence.”

“Oh,” he laughed. “Illegal, is it? Can’t do that,” he said with a wink and a nod.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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