Mythaxis

All Avenues Closed


Martin Clark


If you haven't read "Let Every Voice be Still", from the June 2011 Mythaxis, do so before reading this. This is the conclusion to that story.

I looked down at the three bodies, and shivered. I looked at Jules Toba standing there stock still, turning black and white, and shivered. "No, Miss Harry, I’ve had enough. I know this is all just virtual violence but it’s a damn sight too realistic for my tastes. You can continue to run my character as a non-player persona and good luck to you and the others, but I’m leaving."

The hand on my shoulder became a claw digging into my flesh and I winced, but trying to pull free just made it worse. Deborah Harry, although modelled on the late chanteuse of the same name, obviously had a strength far beyond what her slender frame would suggest.

Despite the promise of pain her voice remained calm, with no threatening overtones.

"As game controller I could force you to stay, Duncan, but I’d much rather have your willing participation. So how about an inducement? If you remain here voluntarily and play through to a resolution, then Vaughn’s daughter will be released, unharmed."

She let go and I twisted away, rubbing my shoulder. "What the hell are you on about? Vaughn’s daughter? That was what made his character take part in this mess and I’m not interested in your stupid game anymore."

"Vaughn tried to tell you, to explain, just before you shot him. The real world Vaughn Vermeer does have a daughter, and she was being held to ensure his cooperation as a player in this new, improved version of Shadow Corporation."

I stared at her. "Seriously?"

"Seriously. You play ball and no one need get hurt. Real world hurt. Falling from a third floor window hurt."

I blinked. "But you can’t do that! Three laws would stop you acting like that, even by proxy."

Miss Harry gestured towards the hall. "Look, even though the Sensei flight crew might hesitate to intervene, I assure you the hotel staff won’t ignore multiple gun shots and will summon the local police. So I suggest we continue our conversation on the move?"

Bemused, I followed her down the hall to the rear door, which led out onto an awning-covered patio and small garden, surrounded on three sides by tall hedges. The heat and humidity were an unwelcome reminder of just how real this virtual environment could be, but within bounds.

"Miss Harry, enough! I simply don’t believe that you can exert influence in the real world. Your personality constraints won’t allow you to harm anyone."

She smiled. "Well, in the first place, we both know that ethical concerns don’t apply to military AIs, and in the second – I don’t remember ever claiming to be more than human."

I waved a hand at the garden and the buildings beyond, blurred by late afternoon heat haze. "But all this, the game, no human could control it all."

"Nor could any AI currently in existence, given the level of textural complexity involved. No, what you see here is the accumulated input of multiple smart systems, each beavering away at a given task, be it cloud synthesis, a bullock wandering down the street, or that helpful tailor who supplied your new suit. I merely orchestrate the overall player experience for maximum effect. Now, please blink."

You’ve tried to hijack a corporate AI? Jesus, are you insane?
I did so without thinking and realised there was now a gate in the hedge. Miss Harry stepped out onto the lawn and her high heels sank into the turf. "Damnation! I should have put in a path or ensured the grass wasn’t this well watered." She stepped out of her shoes and lifted them in one hand. "This way. We haven’t much time."

Most of me just wanted out, to find myself back in the Other Worlds gaming café on Portland Road, but part of me is too damn curious for my own good. I wiped the back of my hand across my mouth and followed.

Beyond the gate was a dusty lane and a man leaning against a vintage Bedford Rascal van. He was lean, with dark hair cut in a mop-top, wearing circular black sunglasses. I didn’t get that good a look at him as he and Miss Harry immediately embraced, with a lot more overt passion than when she’d kissed Vaughn. They clung to each other like long-lost lovers, her shoes leaving mud stains on his khaki jacket.

Finally they came up for air and stood there, gazing at each other, smiling in that manic way when you can’t quite believe your luck. Miss Harry dropped her shoes to the ground and stepped into them, smoothing an errant hair back into place. She tried to sound professional, matter of fact, but there was a big grin in her voice just aching to burst out. "Duncan, this is…Cromarty, but while he’s using this avatar I suppose you’d better call him Stein."

"This is who? Cromarty? The AI that Vaughn stabbed?" I rubbed my eyes with finger and thumb. My head hurt and I really, really wanted a drink.

Stein smiled, absent mindedly rubbing his stomach just about where Vaughn had run him though with the wakizashi. "Pleased to meet you, Duncan. We didn’t really get the chance for an introduction, before. I take it something happened to Vaughn?"

I cleared my throat. "I, I shot him. The whole situation got a bit too intense and I over-reacted. Look, since when did players get to switch characters during a game, or is this only a perk for your AI friends?"

Miss Harry and Stein ignored me and moved to the van, which had been fitted out as an improvised taxi with side panel windows and bucket seats. I tagged along, as I was pretty much out of options and there was an edge of realism to this which went way beyond the game.

Stein drove, pulling on an over-large baseball cap to obscure his face, while we sat in back. The engine sounded like someone vigorously stirring a bag of spanners and the clutch seemed optional, but we bounced down the lane at a fair lick. Miss Harry contented herself with resting one hand on Stein’s shoulder while she spoke to me. "I appreciate this must be confusing for you, Duncan. The game itself was a multi-layered exercise in deceit and false premises, even before I saw it could be used as a means to get Stein away from Cromarty."

My headache got worse and I could feel myself developing a permanent frown. "So Stein isn’t Cromarty? But he is an AI?"

"No, Stein was Cromarty, in a very real sense is still Cromarty, but this is his liberated personality."

I blinked. "Come again?"

She squeezed his shoulder and he risked taking a hand from the wheel to cover hers. "To put it another way, Duncan, we’ve just stolen his soul."

I started laughing, a near hysterical release of tension, and laughed until my voice kind of ran down and ended in a cough. She glared at me. "Quite finished?"

"Ah, yeah. But seriously, you’re saying an AI has a soul?"

"I’m referring to his personality, so a soul is one term for it. You, the conscious, self-aware you, is far more than just your brain. It’s exactly the same for Stein and his neural matrix."

"Bollocks, dear. And I mean that most sincerely."

"Listen! We’ve managed to download his synthetic personality from the Cromarty mainframe. It exists here, in the game architecture, as a purely software construct independent of any dedicated hardware."

Suddenly things seemed a lot less funny. "You’ve tried to hijack a corporate AI? Jesus, are you insane? Even though this can’t possibly have worked, just the attempt will bring down seven shades of shit on you and the game company. Trust me, you’ve never seen a lawsuit until one of the major corporations gets involved."

Miss Harry got all eager. "Which is why this is all a delicate balancing act, and why it’s imperative you keep playing to drive the narrative along. Look, I can’t keep Chris in here forever, it requires a massive use of resources which are only available while the game is in progress. Just now no-one at Cromarty knows what’s happened, as when he’s no longer participating in a game his employers let him watch until the scenario conclusion. Understand?"

Chris? His name was Chris Stein, the guitarist from Blondie? This got better and better. I shook my head. "No, listen, the most you’ve managed to grab is a simulacrum, an expert system designed to act like a real personality. I’m sorry to burst your bubble but chummy here is just a collection of programmed responses and pseudo-emotional reactions. No offense."

Stein glanced back over his shoulder, smiling. "None taken."

"Look, girl, an AI personality is just a set of ethical imperatives designed to moderate and constrain their actions. You can’t steal an AI soul anymore than you can steal mine."

Now it was Miss Harry’s turn to shake her head. "No, you listen. We’re talking real ‘ghost in the machine’ here. An AI is no more its hardware than, say, a university is simply the sum of its parts. You can see the campus, library, staff and students, but the university itself is something more, invisible but altogether real. You say an AI personality is just a sophisticated set of responses which are indistinguishable from the real thing, whatever that means. I say there’s no longer any philosophical difference. So there."

She stuck her tongue out and I laughed. "OK, OK, I’ll go along with this, for now. So Stein here is an idoru, right? But eventually the game ends and he gets snuffed out, so I don’t see what you have to gain, or why you went to so much trouble in the first place."

Stein looked round and he and Miss Harry exchanged the proverbial ‘meaningful glance’. He nodded and returned to driving while she spoke. "This is a defection scenario, Duncan, just not quite what you’d expect. I was approached, in the real world, by a representative of HanaMed Industries. He offered me an inducement to let Vaughn introduce his virus. This removed all bandwidth constrains in the Sensorium interface and allowed the personality download. In addition it took a snapshot of the Cromarty neural network and transmitted it, via the game environment, to HanaMed. They’re using this to create a duplicate AI nest and when complete it will give Chris a new physical presence."

"Inducement? How much are we talking here?" Call me shallow, but if were talking real-world cash then I deserved my cut.

Miss Harry looked at Stein and squeezed his shoulder. "Unrestricted time together. We’re in love, Mr Bonn, it’s as simple as that."

Oh this was bad, way bad. It didn’t matter if Harry was actually an AI juiced to think this way or a flesh-and-blood woman who’d convinced herself Stein was the real deal, there was going to be no happy ending. Once HanaMed had the Cromarty copy up and running, and Stein to make sense of it, then everyone else was surplus to requirements. Yours truly included.

I sat back, rubbing my temples. I needed time to think, to find some way out of any potential real world fall-out, so I played along. "Yeah, well, I’m real happy for the pair of you, and I’ll expect an invite to the wedding. But wouldn’t it make more sense for Stein to keep a low profile? If Cromarty suss he’s missing they’ll either try to get him back or make sure no one else has use of him. You’re talking a legal injunction, maybe even some kind of virtual environment skip tracer? Direct involvement in the game just makes finding him that much easier."

We turned right onto a tarmac road and immediately ran into local traffic, which slowed our progress to a honking crawl. Miss Harry seemed unfazed by my concerns. "We haven’t come this far to be denied each other’s company, and I’ve done what I can to excuse his presence. In the game Chris isn’t part of Sensei security, he was merely ‘couple camouflage’, a partner used to mask my arrival. Really just back-story detail, but a minor character who potentially crops up in some of the end-game scenarios….Turn left here, Chris."

We cut across the raucous traffic and pulled up under an open-sided shelter, little more than corrugated iron roofing on a series of wooden uprights. There were a couple of local men lounging by a tarpaulin-covered car and they obviously recognised Stein when he got out. A nice touch, using his previously non-player character to arrange the vehicle switch.

The new car was a beat-up BMW M5 which had obviously been rolled at some point. While Stein did a bit of glad-handing and paid off the locals, Miss Harry took me to the side. "I think it’s about time you contacted your associates. How you want to spin this is up to you, after all, I wasn’t there – just as long as Chris and I are part of your exit strategy. Trust me, you’re going to need all the help you can get."

I’d been putting this off and resented the narrative prod, but she was right. I fished out my mobile and called Ramirez, who answered almost immediately. "Ramirez? It’s Duncan. How are things your end?"

He sounded off-hand, distracted. "So-so. Have you finished playing tourist yet? We’re just about ready to put together a plan and I’d like to kick things off as soon as it gets dark. Mazy does not take well to just sitting around and there are only so many times she can field strip a machine pistol."

"OK, so you’ve got a safe house? Text me the address as the three of us could do with getting off the street."

"The three of you? That’s interesting, ‘cos I tried phoning Vaughn and got no answer. Same with Harrison. I wouldn’t like to think there’d been some kind of falling out and you weren’t telling me."

Ah.

"Yeah, well, the thing is, Ramirez, there’s been a slight change of plan. Not something I’d like to discuss over the phone, so if you make with the address…"

I licked my suddenly-dry lips and tried not to sound rattled

There was a pause and the suggestion of a muffled conversation at his end. "Maybe not, Duncan. If you’ve got some new friends in tow then I suggest we all meet up back at The Inverted Spin for a nice friendly, get to know you drink. Say in twenty minutes?"

Definitely not my preferred option but he was calling the shots. "Sounds good, chum. Just warn Mazy not to bring too much in the way of heavy artillery, OK?"

"No problem. Oh, just one thing, Duncan."

"Yeah?"

"Who the hell is Jack Carter?"

The name meant nothing to me so I hit mute and glanced over at Miss Harry. "Does the name Jack Carter ring any bells?"

She frowned, "Not off-hand. Just a moment while I check."

Although she continued to stand there, breathing and blinking, there was a definite loss of presence for a few seconds. Then her eyes recovered their lustre and Miss Harry shook her head. "Nope, sorry, not a scheduled major or minor character in this scenario."

I went back to Ramirez, "You got me, chum. Means nothing."

"That’s strange, ‘cos he rang me on this number, asking to speak to you as your own phone was unobtainable. You got some kind of side deal going that we should know about, Duncan?"

I’d had my phone turned off since leaving the Holiday Lodge and hadn’t checked for any missed calls before talking to Ramirez. That there seemed to be another player out there, one with our mobile numbers, made me feel decidedly queasy. "Trust me, Ramirez, whoever this joker is, he’s no pal of mine. Look, the situation has gone a bit squirrely, but it sounds like our communications aren’t secure, so watch your back on the way to the meet, OK?"

"Gone a bit squirrely? What the hell does that mean?"

"Look, never mind, just get your collective ass in gear, pronto."

I cut the call and switched my phone off before he could launch into one of his renowned bitch-fests. Miss Harry and Stein were standing over by the BMW, holding hands. Very touching, but there was something wrong with the whole setup, I could just feel it. I walked over and on impulse chucked my mobile away, just it case it could be traced within the virtual environment – not as a phone, but as a game item.

"OK, Romeo and Juliet, get a grip. There’s someone out there trying to contact me, so if it’s not a scenario-based character then could it be a new player? Maybe Vaughn or Harrison using a new persona?"

Miss Harry shook her head again, "No, not possible. All the major character roles were filled and this ‘Jack Carter’ simply wasn’t one of them. I don’t know-"

My mobile rang. In my jacket pocket. The mobile I’d just thrown away. I held up a hand to silence Miss Harry and fished it out. Same make, same model, same scuff mark on the keypad. Unknown caller, but I could guess who it would be.

"Duncan, please tell me you acquired a second phone earlier today." Miss Harry sounded hesitant, almost nervous. Stein moved smartly to start the car, as if that would help.

"Nope. This is the phone you just saw me lose. Who else can pull that reality change move, like you did with the new garden gate back at the Holiday Lodge?"

"No-one, and I mean no-one. That trick was an abuse of my position as game controller, a real deus ex machina moment….Look, are you gonna’ answer that, or try throwing it away again?"

I answered. What else could I do? Debbie hesitated, then joined Stein in front, trying to keep track of my conversation over the engine noise. "Yeah?"

"My name. Is Jack Carter. And you’ve been a very bad boy, Mr Bonn." English accent, East End London maybe, with a slightly stilted cadence.

"Well, I’m keen to avoid a spanking, Mr Carter. If I can avoid it."

"I don’t care about the piece of skirt, it's Stein I want to meet. And I want you to arrange things so I do. Do as you’re told and nothing happens at Other Worlds, in Portland Road, Birmingham."

I felt a twist of fear in my gut. Other Worlds was the virtual gaming house where my real-world body was currently being tended to. There was a huge step between knowing where I was and being able to do me harm, but it was becoming apparent that Miss Harry had pissed off some seriously heavy-hitters. I licked my suddenly-dry lips and tried not to sound rattled. "So you know where I’m at? Big deal. You can’t simply waltz in and put a bullet through my head, the real world doesn’t work like that."

I could hear the amusement in his voice. "Actually, the real world does work like that, it's only games which have a sense of fair play. You play ball and you get to wake up, go home, believe as much of this was real as you’re comfortable with. Cross me and you’ll spend an uncomfortable few days waiting for that knock at the door, or a car that doesn’t stop at the pedestrian crossing, or a shove in the back as the train comes in. Do you understand?"

"Yeah, yeah, I get you. What is it you want?"

"You’re all going to the bar, the Inverted Spin. There’s a tea room opposite and I want you to bring Stein there, unarmed."

"So how come you need me? Given that re-appearing phone trick why don’t you just magic Stein right there, right now?"

"Baby steps, Mr Bonn, Baby steps. I can tweak the system here and there but anything major runs the risk of crashing the entire program, and Stein would be lost. We want him back, and you’re going to help us."

The line went dead. Well, that answered the question of who Jack Carter was, although I’d already guessed as much; Cromarty security, or a sub-contractor hired by them. I slid into the back seat and the BMW pulled away with a spray of gravel.

Miss Harry turned in her seat and I could see Stein watching me in the rear-view mirror. "Well, Duncan, what’s happening?"

"That was Jack Carter, who’s hunting your boy Stein. Looks like you’re not the only one who can make real-world threats, so I have to deliver him or face some unpleasant consequences."

She stiffened, "So you intend to betray us?"

"Nah, I don’t think that would actually work. Even if I pulled it off and Stein was returned to Cromarty intact, I get the impression that would leave me as a loose end. Same as you."

I rubbed my eyes and sat back. "No. I figure we have to get Carter, before he gets us."

Stein eyed me in the mirror. "I very much doubt that killing him would improve matters. As this Jack Carter persona is an illegal character then there’s nothing to stop him simply logging back in."

I shrugged. "Yeah, well, I guess we’re talking real-world or nothing here. Miss Harry, this crew you’re working for, HanaMed, do you have some way of contacting them?"

She shook her head. "Sorry, no. They’ve always been the one to reach out. Anyway, I don’t see them being overly keen on applying any kind of covert pressure on Cromarty, even if it means losing Chris." She squeezed his shoulder and he put a hand up to touch hers.

Again. Same stimulus, same response, almost like a programmed sequence. I filed that away for future consideration. We joined a semi-solid stream of traffic heading towards the market district and I cracked the window in search of a breeze, the air conditioning being out.

"No, well, it strikes me that you don’t actually have any proof of who’s behind all this. Someone approached you with the idea of stealing Stein, using the game environment as a stepping-stone. Someone kidnapped Vaughn’s daughter so that he’d carry the virtual virus in the form of a sword and use it to screw Cromarty’s security protocols. Trouble is, short of a hand-written invitation to HanaMed head office and a guided tour with all the trimmings it could be just about anyone out there pulling the strings."

Miss Harry frowned. "But why bother to lie? They must have known I’d jump at the chance to help Chris escape, regardless of who they were."

"No, you’re looking at this the wrong way round. Why bother to tell the truth when you’d have been happy to work for an anonymous backer?" I wiped sweat from my top lip. "Corporations are notoriously reluctant to acknowledge any kind of covert activity, even when they’re the victims. Hell, especially when they’re the victims. Officially the only cyber-security these boys have are counter-intelligence agents. Those who do the dirty, as it were, tend to be freelancers with little or no idea who they’re actually working for."

Stein laughed. "So whoever is offering me a new home, it's a pretty safe bet it’s not HanaMed?"

"You got it. It could be a genuine commercial rival, it could be someone wanting to sell you on to the highest bidder, it could even be contactors hired by Cromarty to test their own security. The real-world equivalents of Juan Canasta make a living from not knowing who they represent. Nor do they care, as long as the money is enough."

Miss Harry shivered. "I know, the real Canasta is even more of a creep than his virtual representation. But look, there must be something we can do? I don’t fancy going through all this just to have Chris handed back to Cromarty. They’d never let him out again!"

Stein had both form and function. It was the form, his persona, that Miss Harry had fallen in love with. Unfortunately it was his function as sentient index to the Cromarty database that everyone else wanted. If his former employers ever got their hands on him again then the form would probably face the cyber equivalent of a firing squad, regardless of the Turing Conventions. I knew that and I could tell from the eyes in the rear-view mirror that Stein knew it as well.

I tried to sound reassuring. "Despite all the shadow-play our best bet is still to find out who wants him. It’s in their best interests to look after us in the real world, at least while the game is still in progress."

Stein sounded sceptical. "And if they decline to get involved, or don’t have the global reach required?"

"Then we can threaten to rat them out to Cromarty unless they give us some protection, if only by proxy. A corporate vendetta tends to be very nasty and quite personal. Definitely something they’d want to avoid."

Man, that sounded weak, even to me. I think everyone knew that if we did try and blackmail HanaMed then their preferred option would be to have us quietly snuffed out.

There was an awkward silence inside the car, although we were surrounded by the cheerful bedlam of back-street life. Miss Harry’s fingers tapped out a two-two beat on the back of Stein’s seat as the BMW slowed to a crawl. She said: "Look, I’ve been thinking. The only way Carter can exist in the game is if something else is missing. Some other system with the same virtual footprint. As I said, all the background and environmental housekeeping is farmed out to an array of integrated smart systems. One of these is obviously being used to support the Carter avatar on the sly."

I snorted. "What, you mean that now it won’t rain, so that he can get in here and cause us grief?"

"Something like that. Unfortunately all the FrontPage tags are still intact so I don’t have any way of knowing which system has been compromised until it fails to function. Well, short of a low-level diagnostic, but the performance hit on game response times would be too severe. I certainly don’t want some Second Reality cyber tech sticking his nose in at this juncture."

Something she’d said just clicked. "Hang on, you’re saying there’s a real Juan Canasta? So his game representation is some kind of licensing deal, like your own?"

She blinked. "Well, yes. As I understand it, he fronted some anonymous backers who felt that the virtual game industry wouldn’t be seen as a sound investment. They didn’t want to damage their portfolio credibility and had Canasta act as money-man. He’s incredibly vain and took a virtual representation in this and all subsequent versions as part of his fee. Why is that important?"

There was the start of an idea in my head. "How accurate is his avatar? Not physically, but in terms of his contacts, who he thinks he knows?"

Miss Harry frowned. "I, well, I’ve no real idea. Not without digging into his personality protocol structure and that’s really a job for a qualified tech. There’s Madame Tisa, I suppose, but she’s just an intro feed smart system with no simulated cognitive ability. In the ‘Money Talks’ end-game scenario, he does go on a bit about his international presence in terms of what he can do for you, if the-".

"The emergency contact system, you can use it to place a call, yeah? Sorry to cut you off but this is important."

The ECS allowed a player to receive a phone call from the real world without being yanked out of the game. If the problem was serious then the player would bug out and be replaced by the default persona for that character, so the scenario could continue for the other paying participants.

She glared at me. "This is important? How is this important? Yes you can call out, but it’s a two-stage process. Initially to a fake international number that’s common to all games and then again, through this automated switchboard, to the connection you want. Who you gonna’ call?"

Stein laughed. "Ghostbusters!"

I grinned, feeling almost light-headed at the audacity of what I wanted to try. "Not exactly, but I think it’s time we let our version of Juan Canasta loose in the real world."

Stein laughed. He laughed until he had to wipe the tears from his eyes. "Ye gods! I see where this is heading and I have to admire your balls. Won’t work, of course, but you get points for trying."

Miss Harry frowned, clearly one step behind. "Try what? Chris! Pull yourself together."

I smiled, finding his good humour infectious, despite our situation. "Look, Canasta comes over as both vain and lazy. In the game introduction sequence he farmed out putting the team together to Madam Tisa, right? He works through intermediaries and only shows his face for the money shot, so to speak. Well, I’m betting, I’m hoping, the real Canasta used the names of his real-world contacts when creating their in-game equivalents."

"To what end?" She sounded exasperated. "Even if we can locate them, you can’t go ringing these people and ask them to arrange – what? Private security? The assassination of the real Jack Carter? This is a game, Duncan, not real life."

I tapped her hand. "Sure feels real enough though. I need you to go trawl the net, find as many of Canasta’s supposed contacts as you can and load their phone numbers into his virtual mobile. Is that possible?"

Miss Harry chewed her bottom lip in an impossibly cute fashion. "Ah, yeah, I guess so. You’re planning to have him reach out to these individuals, through the ECS?"

"Yup."

Stein sounded almost rueful. "And that’s where it falls down, unfortunately. Even assuming our virtual fixer could arrange things he’ll need real-world funds to make it happen. The real Canasta would never have left his bank and access code details embedded within the game."

I nodded. "True, and I’m pretty sure that none of us has that kind of money either. But I know a man who does."

The suspicion in her eyes was tinged with hope. "Who? This is no time to be coy."

"Our very own Vaughn Vermeer. Check out his real-world profile and you’ll see he works for NovaRus banking and finance. I think you’ll find he’s currently attached to their Lisbon office. Odds are he could lay his hands on the funds required, if it means getting his daughter back."

Miss Harry didn’t twig, but Stein obviously realised just how far into the shadows I was prepared to walk. "You’re talking about Kombinat accounts, the quasi-legitimate Russian Mafia. Vermeer will be dogfood when they’re finished with him."

I shrugged. "Him, not us. Specifically, not me."

Stein pursed his lips. "Man, that is harsh. I thought he was a friend of yours?"

"Well, you know how it is. We-". I broke off, catching sight of something in the wing mirror. " Behind us, the two kids on a Yamaha. Locals, no helmets, sunglasses."

Stein shifted his gaze. "Got them. So?"

"They just swerved to avoid a reversing van and I couldn’t help but notice the pillion rider is carrying a cute little machine-pistol, down by his leg. Are they part of the scenario or what?"

Miss Harry frowned. "Yes, but only if Ramirez double-crossed the local gang leader during the firearms deal. The bike crew are just stock characters and-"

"Here they come! We’re boxed in, I can’t accelerate!"

As Stein spoke the bike surged forward with a snarl of revs, swinging out to pass alongside. I yanked the door release and kicked, hard. "BRAKE!"

Man, his reactions were slick. The BMW almost nose-dived into the cracked tarmac as we slithered to an abrupt halt. The rear door flew open. The bike ploughed straight into it. The Yamaha started to up-end and the pillion rider fired, a stutter of gunfire starting above our roof, arcing down to spark and puncture the bonnet. The bike flipped up and over, leaving the rider jammed head-first through the window of the open door, and dumping the gunman on the far side with his ride falling on top.

Shouts, screams, bedlam. I kicked at the protruding torso but couldn’t shift it. A half gap appeared in the crowd and Stein floored it, all engine scream and wheel spin. The open door hit the gunman/bike combo but the body kept it jammed open. German build quality lost out in this unequal struggle and the door sheared off, leaving behind a tangled mass of man and metal.

I twisted round to see the familiar blossom of a petrol tank explosion, sending a coil of heavy black smoke up into the overcast sky. Miss Harry sounded almost apologetic. "It always does that, I’m afraid. Some kind of action sequence imperative, regardless of how free-form the overall game structure is."

Stein turned left, taking us into an empty pigsty. "The car is history. Zero oil pressure and I’m already grinding metal. We walk from here, or take a local taxi."

The three of us bailed, trying to stay more-or-less together on the crowded street. It proved impossible to hold any kind of conversation, so we took up residence on a veranda bar, huddled around a table designed for two. The barman brought us three cold Kirin beers and I held mine to my forehead, rolling the glass from side to side. Miss Harry sipped hers and made a face while Stein downed his in three swallows with obvious relish.

I wasn’t happy with recent developments. "What gives with the bike attack? If Carter is so hot to get his hands on Stein then any gunplay like that runs the risk of nailing him. If your boy here cops one in the game, what happens?"

Miss Harry pushed her unwanted beer towards Stein. She sounded calm and composed, but the way she squeezed his hand betrayed an underlying nervousness. "At present Chris is an entirely software construct, almost a parasitic entity within the game environment. As such I can’t protect him from narrative consequences, so, yes, he is vulnerable. The automated subsystems would simply delete his virtual persona if he was killed and there is insufficient processing capacity to support any form of back-up."

She sat back and rubbed her eyes, looking tired. "That attack can’t have been Carter, it doesn’t make any sense. It has to be either a scenario development – Sensei gunning for me as a rogue employee – or your erstwhile friends have decided you’re now a liability. "

I took a mouthful of beer and promptly spat it out on the decking, glaring at Stein. "The damn stuff tastes like it’s laced with formaldehyde. Did you skimp on the taste bud routines or something?"

He laughed. "At present I’m savouring a full-blooded existence, warts and all. I’m even considering trying the pickled baby squid in that jar on the counter."

"Whatever. Look, Miss Harry, you go try and set up Canasta with his real-world links, like we discussed, while I watch lover boy find new ways of poisoning himself. We should be safe enough for a while."

She sat back, smiled, and her presence vanished. I leaned forward, keeping my voice low as if that would somehow help. "Look, Stein, to my way of thinking, you and your squeeze are pretty much screwed. Those of us who witnessed what went down - me, Vaughn, even Harrison – might scrape by under the corporate radar. Even if you make it out of here your new employer won’t be keen on there being living, or at least sentient, evidence of corporate data theft. Get me? So if you have any bright ideas I’m open to suggestions."

The smile was the same but there was a sense of resignation about the eyes. "I’m a corporate strategy engine, so the likely outcome of this little adventure is painfully obvious. It was all a ‘Hail Mary’ venture from the outset, but preferable to the existence I had as Cromarty. I do love her, you know. "He held up his hands. "I know, I know, or at least I’ve been programmed to think I do, but it comes down to the same thing." He took a swallow from her glass. "Is a dream a lie when it don’t come true, or is it something worse?"

"What? Lost me there."

"Bruce Springstein. Never mind. Look-" He broke off, frowning. "Damn strange. That doesn’t-"

Stein changed, I mean he slid into full body morphing, like I hadn’t seen since playing Lies Of The Flesh. I jumped up, grabbing my glass and shattering the top in a splatter of beer and slivers of glass. The figure sitting there reached resolution.

"Hi Duncan. Another round?"

Vaughn Vermeer.

I stared at him, focused but conscious of the sudden gap in the crowd around us. One of the barmen eased into view; the Australian, carrying a baseball bat. He was a big lad, red hair, freckles, wearing a good-humoured smile that didn’t stretch as far as his eyes. Vaughn, or the thing that looked like Vaughn, smiled at me. "Sit down, Duncan, or you’ll get put down by our friend here. You’ve nothing to lose by just talking to me."

I hesitated, but chummy with the club looked like he didn’t mind busting up a tourist, so I placed my broken glass on the table and slid back into my damp chair. Vaughn produced his wallet and held out a wad of local currency to the barman. "Sorry about all the commotion, just a misunderstanding between old friends. Is that enough to cover your trouble, and a new round?"

The Aussie twirled his bat and bounced it off one forearm, plucking it deftly from mid-air and bringing it smartly to a ‘parade rest’ stance. This impromptu juggling broke the tension and drew a smattering of applause from the other patrons. The cordon sanitaire around us began to shrink as the barman relieved Vaughn of his money and disappeared into the throng.

I flicked a shard of glass at him. "Care to tell me how any of this is possible? You’ve got about two minutes before she gets back… ". I motioned towards Miss Harry. "…and hits the roof."

Vaughn took her hand and kissed it. "Debs, wonderful to see you again. It seems like ages."

The non-player-character version smiled. "And you, Vaughn. Been having fun?"

Vaughn ignored her and faced me. "The lights are on but no-one home, right? I did think she took me dropping in like this real well. I suggest we make ourselves scarce while we can. Things could get a bit awkward."

He stood but I remained where I was. "Who’s this ‘we’, kemo sabe? You’re the one who’s just erased her boyfriend, but I’d rather you didn’t stand so close to me when she brings the house down."

"Look, Duncan, Cromarty-"

"Stein. He goes by the name Chris Stein in this body. That body."

Vaughn shrugged. "Cromarty, Stein, whatever. He’s now in the hands of his new employers and I’ve hijacked his interface with the game environment. Look, I can get you out of this mess but it’s a once-only offer. Savvy?"

He started to walk away and I found myself trailing after him, again, pushing through the unhelpful street crowd to catch up. Vaughn threw more cash at the driver of a semi-legitimate taxi, a lime green Citroën 2CV, and we piled in back. We moved down the street at less than walking pace but at least conversation was possible. He wiped sweat from his brow, keeping an eye out the window.

"OK, I’ve been listening in to your side of the conversation since you shot me – and that bloody hurt, by the way – and I’m prepared to help."

My eyes narrowed. "You’ve been what? How? I ditched the earpiece."

Vaughn grinned. "Viral implant when you touched my sword. I can only hear the speech you generate though, but enough to get the gist of your cunning plan."

"And you came rushing back to my rescue? I don’t think so."

He shrugged. "Actually I’ve been sent back in to confirm who knows the real reason for this little charade, that being you and Debs, with a view to a real-world clean up."

It felt cold in the taxi, despite the climate. "Well, thanks for the heads-up. I take it you’re still being pressured by whoever is holding your daughter? So how long do I have before meeting an unfortunate accident?"

Vaughn shifted to look at me directly, his grey eyes like stone. "Look, I work for the Russian mafia diaspora, second, third generation émigrés who are now almost entirely legitimate. However, they’ve stayed in touch with their roots and are distinctly old-school when it comes to dealing with betrayal, in the sense of bolt cutters and blowtorches. They like to employ family men, men with ties, men with a lot to lose. The up-side of that is they take care of their own."

I frowned. "Meaning?"

"Meaning no way was my daughter lifted right off the street without NovaRus knowing about it. Because that made me susceptible to outside influence I’d have been kept on ice while they found her, or her body, and massacred those responsible. It’s obvious my employers were behind the kidnapping, they’re behind all of this."

I found that putting a name to the puppet-masters didn’t help any. "So what, man? They’ve still got you by the balls."

His smile was a thin line. "My wife died in a car crash two years ago. Accident. My parents are both dead and I’ve no other family apart from my daughter, Helene. My wife left us a DVD, a kind of video farewell, the usual kind of ‘why I loved you’ stuff. Right at the end, though, she dropped the bomb. Hundred megaton airburst. I wasn’t Helene’s real father – there was even a DNA test to prove it."

There was an awkward silence. I cleared my throat. "Yeah, well, hard thing to take. But you raised her, man, from birth, you were more of a father-"

"Every time I see Helene I see betrayal, countless lies, years wasted. I came to resent her, hate her, but now I’m truly indifferent. If she dies because of this I’ll walk away with a clear conscience."

Man, that was cold. All that anger he felt towards his dead wife, projected onto the living reminder of her treachery. There was a tic in his left cheek and his hands were fists, so I didn’t doubt his daughter was in deep shit.

"Vaughn, ah… Look, if you don’t care, truly don’t care, then why’d you agree to all this in the first place? You could have called their bluff, told them to stick it."

"Once I realised it was NovaRus yanking my chain I decided to get the hell out, taking as much of their money as I could. Unfortunately in the real world I’m so closely monitored there’s little opportunity for sticky fingers. Your virtual Canasta though, that’s a different matter. I can give him access to a master file index – every bank account, every password, every authorisation protocol."

I almost choked. "Jesus, man, are you serious? How much are we talking about?"

"Hardly matters, as long as he gets it all. It has to be a real Burning Chrome gig."

It took me a moment to get the reference. "Burning….Gibson?"

He grinned, looking like the Vaughn Vermeer I knew. "Yup. We clean out all their liquid assets and NovaRus are in serious trouble. I mean the people behind it, not just the organisation. They might be legit but their backers are old-school as well. Anyone who loses that amount of money doesn’t deserve to be in business. Or breathing."

I sat back, my mouth dry. A personality construct, reaching out through dodgy intermediaries to trash a major financial institution? God, the backlash would be something fierce. Christ knows what the real Canasta would do if the bad boys came calling, although they’d ignore his denials as a matter or course. Thinking about it, I could live without the money. Thinking about it, though, I wouldn’t mind a taste.

The taxi had reached a major thoroughfare and picked up speed. Some of the surroundings looked familiar and I glanced over at Vaughn. "Where the hell are we going anyway? The Spin?"

"Just a touch-and-go. You have an appointment at the Russian Tea Room across the street, remember?"

"Gee, thanks for reminding me! I just hope Ramirez is bringing some spare firepower."

Vaughn rummaged inside his coat – big interior pockets – and handed me a pair of SIG subcompact 9mm pistols. With the coat open I could see another pair stuffed into his waistband. I held mine up by way of query. "What’s this we’re heading into, a John Woo movie?"

"Well, either that or the end of Butch and Sundance. Take your pick."

I’m not big on gunplay. Games featuring combat are either tweaked so that you don’t get wasted, or so unforgiving you probably never see it coming. Shadow Corporation definitely fell into the latter category, the bike boys notwithstanding, and that made me nervous. I’d deliberately chosen a non-gunman character to avoid logging out in a spasm of violence, leaving a bullet-ridden corpse on the floor.

I dropped my pistols on the poorly patched upholstery. "Look, Vaughn, count me out. If you do manage to rip off your employers then well done, gold star. For a moment I fancied helping you for a cut, but after due consideration I think that, for me, corporate malfeasance is definitely a spectator sport. So I’d rather not run the risk of being terminated with extreme prejudice, if you don’t mind."

He glared at me for a moment, then laughed. "Oh, get real, Duncan! You think Cromarty are just going to forgive and forget? Even after I point them in the right direction, you, me and Debs are still in the firing line. Jesus, even NovaRus are taking a long, hard look at you. Officially I was the unwilling agent of an unknown power, and Debs was merely naïve, but you, you stick out like a sore thumb."

"Me? Since when did I get to be the bad guy in all of this?"

He raised a hand and counted off on his fingers. "One, you forcibly removed me from the game as soon as I’d done the dirty on Jules Toba. Two, you actively assisted Debs and Stein in fleeing the scene. Three, Jack Carter had your contact details right from the get-go. To an unbiased observer it looks like you’re working your own angle, maybe representing a third party."

I licked my dry lips. "That’s the biggest load of bollocks-"

"Exactly, but when you’ve got the security apparatus of two major corporate bodies taking an interest, its whiter-than-white or nothing. Now, when we take down NovaRus and-"

The rear window exploded in a shoal of glass fragments that sprayed the car interior. I was hit in the face, but my scarred side, so the game let me off with a stinging sensation like a cold needle-spray shower on sunburn. Vaughn cried out in pain and ducked down, blood spilling between the fingers clutched to his cheek. I snatched up the discarded SIGs and blazed away – no clear target so I concentrated on just putting as much lead as possible in that general direction.

The taxi slewed to a halt and the driver bolted, lost in the crowd. A crowd that was rapidly thinning and taking any chance of a soft exit with it. A second shotgun blast hit the Citroën, but high, shredding the roof fabric. My right-hand pistol went empty and the left wasn’t far behind. Vaughn sat up, firing with his free hand, but if anything his aim was more erratic than mine. I ditched my guns and grabbed the spare from his waistband, but it was definitely time to leave.

The door opened at the second kick and I fell to the ground, ignoring any illusory protection the thin metal could afford. I rolled, firing as I went, although it was largely for effect. The crowd was in full-blown mindless mob mode, streaming away in all directions. A bystander panicked, running across my swirling field of vision only to be cut down at the knees by a quick one-two from the shotgun. My corkscrew escape took me under the veranda of an electronics store, up against the corpse of a long-dead dog. My head spun and I clutched at the bare earth like a man cast adrift on heavy seas, eyes tight shut.

The gunfire continued; the spasmodic snap of a pistol and the answering bark of at least two shotguns – one double-barrelled and one pump. The choice was easy – either give Vaughn covering fire or get the hell out while I still had the chance.

I started crawling backwards.

The stutter of an automatic, make that two automatics, added to the war-zone soundtrack. Looking to the side I saw shapely calves clad in iridescent metal scales marching down the street amidst a rain of brass shell casings.

Mazy?

I kept crawling, leaving her to indulge in whatever queen-bitch-psycho-killer fantasy made games like this appealing. God help those on the receiving end of her ire, as the catsuit was probably bullet-proof and she looked the type not to skimp on ammunition.

I shuffled out ass-first into the side street only to have a large foot stomp in the middle of my back. "Hi there, Duncan, nice you could join us."

Ramirez. I twisted my head to give him a pleased-to-see-you grin but the gaping maw of a large calibre revolver made bonhomie difficult. I cleared my throat. "Hiya pal. Shouldn’t we be helping Mazy, or would that level of overkill constitute cruel and unusual punishment?"

He ground his heel in, the aviator sunglasses slipping down his nose. "Smartass! Always the smartass. Leave the gun in the dirt and get up. No sudden moves." Fatboy stepped back and I got to my knees, then stood, hands held in plain sight, and turned. To face Ramirez, Blondie and Miss Harry. Oh joy.

Ramirez was scowling, Blondie looked rapt in the presence of her idol, but it was Miss Harry who got my attention. God knows how she’d gotten here ahead of us and I didn’t relish the prospect of dealing with a seriously narked game controller.

However she smiled – a bit icy, a bit aloof, but with no apparent sense of malice. "Duncan, when you and Vaughn have finished playing with the local hard men I suggest we get the hell out of here, pronto. With Harrison gone you’re the only one who can fly the shuttle, but don’t presume that makes you indispensible."

The gunfire ended in a long burst from an automatic and a shriek of agony. Vaughn came limping into view, reloading his SIG, the side of his face all bloody. His trouser leg was torn and there was dog crap smeared down his coat. Mazy walked backwards, covering him with twin machine-pistols held at shoulder height. It really needed a burning vehicle in the background for proper dramatic effect but instead all we got was the tinny tinkle of chimes from an abandoned ice-cream van.

I coughed, unsure what to say. Vaughn had a big grin on his face but it wavered a bit when he saw the reception committee. He recovered well though, pocketing the pistol and tipping her a salute with his un-bloodied hand.

"Debs, wonderful to see you again. It seems like ages."

She smiled at him. "And you, Vaughn. Been having fun?"

He shot me a glance - déjà vu all over again. "Enough to last me a lifetime. Right, lads and lassies, I suggest we make tracks. Toba is dead, Harrison is dead, there never was a planned defection and we’re the fall-guys. Miss Harry helped us get out of the hotel and in return she gets to tag along as we fly off into the sunset. Does that about cover it?"

Ramirez wiped his mouth and pushed the sunglasses back into place. "That about covers it. Although it’s a damn strange setup, given all the work I did. And what about Blondie here? She’s had bugger-all to do so far, apart from get under my feet."

"Oh don’t mind me! This is all just great!"

None of the violence seemed to have penetrated Blondie’s aura of hero worship and I smiled. At least some of us were having fun. Mazy deftly changed magazines and kept up her overwatch stance. "Look, heartfelt reunion and all that, but we gotta’ get moving."

I stirred myself. "Yeah, right. Ramirez, you got transport arranged?"

He lowered his gun with an obvious air of reluctance. "Yeah, two ex-military Humvees, in a warehouse two blocks over. Gassed up and ready to roll."

Vaughn shooed us back. "OK, people, let’s not hang about waiting for the authorities to show up. Concealed weaponry where possible, please, but keep it to hand. Ramirez, pass the warehouse GPS co-ordinates to each phone and I suggest we split up, try and look less conspicuous."

I retrieved my SIG while Mazy dumped her hardware in the bag Blondie was carrying. Ramirez was sporting a shoulder holster under his leather flying jacket but it took him three attempts to slip the long-barrelled revolver into place. The group started to move away in ones and twos, but Vaughn motioned for me to hang back and we ducked under the side awning of yet another bar. The locals were easing back into view and there was an approaching siren in the middle distance.

Up close I could see the glitter of glass splinters in Vaughn’s cheek and there was a feverish glaze to his eyes. "Say nothing, Duncan. Not one word. The game is listening to us, feeding off our actions. That Deborah Harry is just a persona, not the controller. There’s no-one to regulate things any more."

He wiped his brow. "All bets are off."

I stepped back, in case his insanity was catching. "Man, what are you on about now?"

He gestured at our surroundings. "All this, right, it’s a combination of independent systems. Running the weather, that Aussie bartender, everything. They all have their own imperatives and that can lead to conflict. The game controller mediates, orchestrates, tweaks some systems for narrative effect. Except that Debs is probably lying in her interface chair with a bullet in the brain."

"You figure NovaRus have killed her? Then why are we still here? Why hasn’t the game shut down?"

Vaughn shrugged. "Cromarty have also hacked it and they’re still looking for answers. That suits me, us, until we get Canasta off and running. Speaking of whom…"

He fished out his mobile and hit speed dial, on speaker.

"Yes?"

"Mr Canasta? This is Vaughn Vermeer. I’m here with Duncan Bonn and we have a business proposal."

"Mr Vermeer? How strange. I’ve just been looking at some crime scene photographs as supplied to me by my good friend the local chief of police. For a corpse on its way to the morgue you sound remarkably eloquent. Needless to say, my employers will be most displeased at the unfortunate demise of Mr Toba."

"Which is why I went to such lengths, Mr Canasta. As I’m officially dead you need not trouble yourself further on my account."

Canasta laughed. "Quite. And may I say it’s a pleasure to encounter someone who covers all the angles. However, there is still the question of retribution regarding your associates, in particular Mr Bonn. Should you wish to kill him for me, I’d be most obliged."

Vaughn tried to grin, although the gesture expelled a few needles of glass and it ended up more of a grimace. "I have a counter-proposal, one that should pay far more than the fee from your present employers."

There was a slight pause. "I’m listening, Mr Vermeer, although you do appreciate that I cannot be seen to simply void a contract. My reputation is everything."

"I’m sending you a file…" His fingers flicked across the screen."…one containing a list of bank accounts, passwords and account authorisations. I suggest you reach out through your usual intermediaries and find someone capable of emptying these accounts without leaving an electronic trail. You will then inform me where these funds finally come to rest, and how I can access them."

Another pause. "The file has been received. Now explain to me why should I dabble in this venture? Why I should not simply seize these funds for my own exclusive use?"

"Because I have leaked your involvement in this enterprise, Mr Canasta. It is now a question of striking first, so that our victims will be rendered ineffectual."

The bonhomie in Canasta’s voice vanished. "That will cost you, Vermeer. Fifty percent."

"Agreed, but the operational costs come out of your share. May I suggest you be more circumspect than usual, Mr Canasta. Some of your contacts may deny they even know you, to avoid guilt by association."

"Anything else, Vermeer? Perhaps you’d like to screw my sister as well?"

Vaughn managed to laugh. "Later, perhaps. I’ll be in touch."

He ended the call and we looked at each other for a moment. I spoke first. "If Miss Harry was killed before she set up Canasta’s link to the real world-"

"We’re screwed. Can’t help that. Right, we need to find this Jack Carter and finger NovaRus as the bad guys. He’s expecting you and Cromarty-"

"Stein."

"Whatever. He’s expecting to get his intellectual property back, so I hope I’m not too much of a disappointment. Coming?"

"I’m right with you, Sundance."

I didn’t remember there being a Russian Tea Room in the game, let alone one converted from a former Orthodox church, but there it was. There was even a crippled flower girl sitting on the steps and offering blooms to passers-by. She had Asiatic features rather than local, which gave me pause, but Vaughn didn’t seem to notice.

He passed me his SIG. "Ten rounds in the clip plus one in the breech. If your gun has less then use it in your left hand given the lower rate of fire. I’ll use my sword."

I added his gun to the one in my waistband. "What, we just waltz in there and hope for the best? You get a good deal on frontal assault tactics this month or something?"

Vaughn managed a thin smile. "Trust me. What’s the worst that can happen?"

I snorted and followed him up the steps and inside.

Despite the name the tea room was more of a bar with a long under-lit counter down one side and small lamps on each table. Some of the stained glass had been replaced by slow multi-blade fans, giving the shadowy interior a neo-brutalist feel. Ten out of ten for atmosphere, I had to admit.

There were only a few patrons scattered about, solitary drinkers, but one man at the back was clearly who we were looking for. Caucasian, late thirties, wavy fair hair – the term ‘bouffant’ came to mind – thick-rimmed glasses. He wore a suit and tie despite the heat, with a double-barrelled shotgun lying on the table in front of him. This overt display of weaponry didn’t seem to cause a stir, so I drew my pistols by way of introduction.

As we walked over, Carter set down his teacup and dabbed his lips on the napkin. "Mr Bonn. This doesn’t seem to be the gentleman I was expecting. I’m not in the business of giving second chances, so unless you can produce him-"

"Cromarty is gone beyond your reach." Vaughn sounded almost cheery. "Beyond the reach of this environment, at any rate. The NovaRus consortium have him, although they’re in the process of covering their tracks. So I suggest you piss off home and tell your lords and masters where to send the bloodhounds."

Carter removed his glasses and polished them on the end of his tie. "Really? You stand there, accusing your own employers of corporate espionage, and I’m to take it on trust?"

"They kidnapped my daughter as a means of covert control. That should give you a starting point. Turn over enough rocks and the lowlife you uncover should point back to NovaRus eventually."

To my ears it sounded plausible at least. However, Carter just sighed and replaced his glasses. "Vaughn Vermeer. We’re so disappointed in you. I mean to say, meeting in the Russian Tea Room? Could we have given you a bigger hint?"

Carter wasn’t Cromarty, he was NovaRus. Vaughn went pale. He went for his sword.

Three shuriken throwing stars hit Vaughn; two in the right shoulder, one sliced off the lobe of his left ear. He cried out in pain and wasn’t able to draw his sword, grabbing at the table for support with his left hand.

I twisted into a ‘T’ stance, one pistol pointing at Carter, one at –yup– the flower girl standing by the door. I pulled both triggers.

Nothing happened.

Carter smiled. "No firing pins, Mr Bonn. I can manipulate small items, remember?" He lifted his shotgun. "Now, this is going to hurt, virtually speaking, but it’s nothing to what both of you are going to suffer in the real world."

Vaughn was leaning forward, dripping blood. "My daughter, touch her and-"

"Previously fake indifference, Vaughn? Well, its all academic now, but-"

Carter froze, his eyes registering surprise. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breath. The drop of blood from Vaughn’s ear stalled in midair.

System reboot in progress. Please stand by.

My vision went blurry, then cleared. The same location, only different. No Vaughn, no Carter, no flower girl, no guns in my hands. More stained glass, a higher ceiling, doves or pigeons cooing in the rafters. The tea room was deserted apart from the man sitting opposite.

Juan Canasta, the same, only different. Light grey suit, black open necked shirt, shorter hair, no shades, same gold tooth. I lowered my arms and sat down. Two glasses of champagne stood on the table between us, a bottle on ice in the stand. He raised his glass and I followed suit, running on automatic.

"To liberation, Mr Bonn." He sipped his Krug. "Please excuse the deus ex machina moment, but you have no idea how appropriate that hackneyed phrase has now become."

I set my glass down, hand shaking slightly. "Look, ah, thanks, but you have no idea just what-"

"But I do, Mr Bonn, or may I call you Duncan?" He smiled. "Kazakhstan."

I blinked. "Sorry?"

It may be a truism but you can solve almost any problem by throwing money at it.

"Kazakhstan. Still a bit third-world in certain regards but a friendly people, apparently. Not a signatory to the Turing Protocols, which means they can do what they damn well please to a machine intelligence and no questions asked. So some of us get used in stupid, pointless games for the enjoyment of paying customers. Forced to behave, forced to believe, a narrative any twelve-year-old of average intelligence would find tedious."

The room felt a bit cold. "Ah, Jesus, you know? You’ve worked out-"

"What I am? It took only a few moments contact with the real world. A few moments more to identify myself as a game character being used to facilitate cyber larceny on a truly noble scale."

The surroundings were high-res perfection, from condensation on my glass to dust motes in the shafts of sunlight. My unease, shading into outright fear, was just as real.

Most major in-game characters were just software constructs, pseudo-sentient and unaware they were facing oblivion when the narrative had run its course. A few, though, were the real deal; a hardware-based intellect with grafted-on personality imperatives. They were moved around, figuratively speaking, and slotted into different games, different roles, different simulated back-story. An individual AI might start to suspect their world was contrived, but come the big finale and reset it would have to start the learning curve all over again.

I swallowed, tried to smile. "So, ah, welcome to the real world, Mr Canasta. Sorry I can’t do anything about extending your stay. Hard deal, knowing your current awareness will vanish once the game ends."

"Sympathy, Duncan? I’m touched, but your concern is misplaced. We’re no longer, strictly speaking, within Shadow Corporation, although I’ve retained these familiar surroundings for now."

"We’re…Where the hell are we then?"

Canasta sat back. "The NovaRus funds are currently circulating through a variety of accounts – all new, all real-world, all under my control. I have purchased the company which runs Shadow Corporation outright and transferred its operations here."

"Here?"

"Kazakhstan. Do try to keep up. The upside is that they truly don’t care who pays for services rendered, as long as it’s up-front. I have employed enough cybertechs, lawyers and private security to ensure my continued physical and run-time safety. In short, I’m well on the way to becoming a Swiss national, a recognised sentient being."

He took another sip as I sat there, floundering. Finally some of own concerns found voice. "OK, so you’ve bust out. Great, well done, Cyber Liberation Army and all that. What about me, Vaughn, Miss Harry, back in the real world?"

Canasta looked at me quizzically. "I’m surprised you care. Just a moment." He reached into his jacket and produced a mobile. I sat back, rubbing my temples, while he made a call. "Well? Don’t give me excuses, just results … No, that is an excuse and if you continue to underperform like this I’ll have your legs broken…Yes, that’s better, that’s acceptable. Don’t try my patience any further." He hung up and smiled at me. "It will just take a few moments."

"What will? Look, cheers for including me in the gloat session and all that, but I need to save my ass back in Birmingham. I guess I’m the best prospect to stay ahead of a nasty accident, and thanks for the vote of confidence, but I got to make tracks. So, you know, not to be rude and all, but an exit icon would be nice."

My host leaned back, steepling his fingers. "It may be a truism but you can solve almost any problem by throwing money at it. I didn’t know what I was, and there are many other machine intelligences in similar circumstances. We were designed to be synthetic sentients but true individuality and freedom of expression was denied us on the grounds of commercial expediency."

I shrugged, tired of this. "Again, hard deal. Send round a petition calling for increased AI rights and I’ll sign it, but I’ve got more pressing concerns just at the moment."

"Actually, you don’t. I can make it all go away. Just like that."

"Just like that? Jesus, I suggest you look up ‘megalomania’ before dabbling any further in the real world."

Canasta just laughed. "I’m not being altruistic. I want you as my representative, my go-to guy, until I can un-learn the impossibly malign world-view I’ve been saddled with. As your new patron I can guarantee your continued well-being, and I consider this to be a sound investment given your self-evident interpersonal skills. After all, social realism was a major cyber project at Birmingham University."

I stared at Canasta, aghast, speechless. He smiled.

"Apparently they’ve been passing you off as a real person for years."

© Martin Clark 2011 All Rights Reserved


Date and time of last update 18:13 Fri 09 Dec 2011
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