Pigs can fly, and they’re flying right into our roost. There ain’t nobody here but us chickens...
I found a secluded spot in the changing room of Selfridges on Oxford Street, spoke the security code into my pocket computer, and hit erase. All my once valuable Intel account numbers, now useless and incriminating, disappeared off to digital nirvana, shredded according to American Federal standards and then scrambled still further by encryption software I’d bought from a Bosnian hacker for half a million Euros. I was clean. If somebody came after me during the crackdown, there wouldn’t be any evidence that my diversion of American hedge funds to non-existent bank accounts had anything to do with me. No more of that stolen Yankee money for my pocket, at least not for a while. But there was a bright side. I wouldn’t be spending any time in penal stasis, like the majority of London’s vast hacker population.
Leaving the changing room, I handed the glitter suit I’d been pretending to try on back to the attendant and returned to the clothing racks. Despite the convenience of holographic on-line shopping, there was still something enticing about seeing all the latest clothing styles side by side on their hangers. Real shopping was never going to die, unlike real fucking. Lightweight strap-ons had become remarkably affordable and easy to use. Many people had decided that pleasuring themselves was far more satisfying than having to deal with the annoyances of actual people. Singles bars had become rare, and pornography even more profitable. But shopping was different. I loved searching for the latest attire in a physical shop. You never knew what you wanted until you found it, and the quest was almost more fun than the purchase. It was expensive, but I’d always had the extra money it cost to shop in person.
At least, I had done until a few minutes previously. I was at a loss. My most lucrative ever vein of fraudulence had reached an abrupt end. I had to find another scam, but I also needed to lie low. The easiest place to hide from police is right under their noses. That was why I got involved with COSI - the Central Office for Strategic Intelligence, and the very organisation that had captured most of my criminal colleagues.
I’d heard about the new spate of Mind Invasions from the news bulletin my Home Information System retrieved for me daily. That was, the one day a week I bothered to read the fabricated garbage the culture industry fed into Infonet. The bulletin reported how famous scientists recently returned from cryogenic sabbatical were being kidnapped and their minds drained of useful information. They were then left as vegetables, their consciousnesses irretrievably submerged in the noodle soup which was all that was left of their brains. After a bit of research into related vacancies, I’d applied for a job with COSI searching the neural highways of these unfortunate victims for clues. My fake qualifications in psychology and neurolectric interfaces, plus a natural talent for verbal diarrhoea, easily landed me the post. I started immediately. It was good cover, particularly as the job meant I could pretend to be a hot-shot neuro-psychologist. Nobody understood what it was I did, including me, but everyone agreed it was important. I also hoped that whoever was doing these Invasions would approach me to become a partner. It looked like a lucrative business, and I wanted in after the Intel Fund fiasco.
My first research subject was Eric von Kühnert. Before his kidnapping, he had been a fibre-optics expert on loan from Siemens to the postal service. He was a loner, with a taste for topless-bottomless bars. During a night hopping from bar to bar he’d been caught by the mind invaders. They’d picked him up when he was concentrating on one of the artificially-structured beauties at Pee Wee’s Strontium Gold, an establishment that specialised in girls just over the legal age, although many were probably under. His favourite drink, fittingly entitled a Kesey Cool-Aid Special, had been laced with that age-old perennial LSD while neither he nor his musclebound bodyguards were paying attention. As a result he’d had very little hold on reality when they came to get him. They’d easily disposed of the bodyguards. These two had been found a week afterwards, decapitated and naked in the deep freeze of a local French Restaurant.
Large traces of the LSD were still in the scientist’s bloodstream when he turned up at his apartment a few days later. Nobody was really sure how he’d made it into the heavily-guarded South Kensington mansion building without anyone noticing. But he’d been there for over a day when they discovered him, sitting calmly in a leather armchair.
There was something very strange about von Kühnert’s blank psyche, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Nosing around with the VR rig in the empty corridors of his mind, I could find nothing personal about him at all. The standard rig I was using reminded me of the remote control sets I’d operated when I was serving in the European Rapid Response Air Force. I had shot down two U.S. F-55s over Portugal without leaving a bunker in Hertfordshire. What a stupid war - six days long, with only thirty casualties (most of them from friendly fire) and nothing proven. Europe, with the newly-enlisted Ukraine, was an easy military equal of America. There was no point in any kind of competition between them except through trade. But even legitimate international commerce had become a stalemate, the major markets being so well protected by import taxation. The true battle was being waged by the underground businessmen such as myself, acting illegally in any country we chose. Many of us worked for the big corporations directly, although no company would admit it. That was how the most important goods moved across international boundaries, and how economic advantages were taken by one country over another.
The inner highways of von Kühnert’s strangely absent mind were like the empty tunnels of New York’s disused subway – dark, dirty and dreamlike. I was using the VR rig’s Hypermove function to speed my way through these tunnels while the plan of this neural maze was recorded on the flash memory of the Philips T1000. I intended to take a closer look at the schematic later. Instead of organised search, I was randomly hunting around to see if there was anything there. All I found was empty space. According to the scientific paper I’d skim-read the night before, with this kind of search you’d normally come up against all kinds of personifications of the subject’s thought processes. It wouldn’t be so easy to move around. You’d draw to a halt in a few virtual metres, unless the subject was unusually open and didn’t mind giving out personal information, which nobody really was. Von Kühnert was totally devoid of anything, yet he wasn’t dead. If he had been, there wouldn’t have been any structures to see at all – merely swirling polygons like those produced by early VR systems. This kind of random geometry was the end product of a graphics mapping system with nothing to map. I once logged into a guy’s mind during the last four minutes of his life after I’d shot him, for kicks. It’s hard to describe the scenes I witnessed - certainly nothing like the media cliché of green fields and sky. What I saw was due to the system having less and less to lock onto as the brain activity of the dying person faded. The distinct pictures that were conjured up, mostly evil-looking naked hermaphrodites, blurred into multicoloured polygons in eerie ways, then fizzled out. It was a sight far more beautiful than the Aurora Borealis, and far less expensive than a trip to Scandinavia. I don’t even remember what this particular person’s name was. Life had become pretty cheap, unlike information. He’d meant to forcibly obtain some facts worth rather a lot to an international pop music bulletin. Instead he’d had his vital internal organs splattered all over an adjacent wall.
COSI was an interesting place to work, especially as it was the Establishment, or what was left of it. Most of world government had been replaced by the infrastructure of multinationals. All that was left were police forces and the penal system, and even they were biased towards the people who donated large quantities to law-enforcement funding bodies. So, in reality, I was working for organised industry. It was more like being a private investigator than a forensic cop, not that I really had any qualifications to be either. I was reporting directly to Vanessa Carmichael, COSI’s director of digital investigations. She was an incredibly tough and resourceful woman.
Carmichael had landed the top job after her predecessor was removed in a wave of adverse publicity. It was a typically British scandal. Apparently he’d been using his position of power to extort sexual favours from up-and-coming hopefuls, male and female. In exchange for bizarre acts of perversion, he offered a healthy career path. He’d tried this with one very promising young lady and she’d threatened to expose him. Similar situations had happened to him countless times, but he was such a pro at the espionage and enforcement business that he either knew something about his accusers to shut them up, or he had them quietly killed. But this particular lady had been too smart for him. She was totally clean, beyond blackmail, and had efficiently dealt with every assassination agent sent. She knew when each one was coming and somehow headed them off with blackmail of her own. Eventually COSI’s director of digital investigations had to step down in a hail of controversy. The woman did well after the incident. She was none other than Vanessa Carmichael herself, his successor.
I didn’t want to cross someone with that kind of reputation. Nevertheless, I was surprised that a law-enforcement professional so respected and feared among the criminal community should fail to notice my shady identity. I didn’t have any convictions and I’d never been explicitly implicated in any of the collapsed illegalities with which I’d been involved. But I expected that such a paragon of investigation would have some information about me which even I didn’t know existed. If she did, it hadn’t stopped her signing me up. Maybe it even improved my job prospects – it takes a thief to catch a thief and all that.
I entered Carmichael’s office for the first time to report on my initial trip into von Kühnert’s cerebrum.
“Sit down”, she ordered before I’d even finished walking through the door. She looked only slightly older than me, but her voice had an imperative quality mine could only partially make up for in charm and seduction. I sat down in a comfortable cloned-leather chair - still an expensive item, despite the new cloning expansion slots for the latest pocket computers. Carmichael looked at me with a thoroughly undecipherable expression. She was strangely attractive, for a slightly plump woman perilously closing in on middle age. After a time, during which I felt like I was being given a full-body X-ray and sonogram, she spoke:
“Well, Mr Dean, what have you got for me today?” was all she said. And then the first sign of any emotion: her lips curled upwards slightly at the edges, in what must have been a vain attempt at a smile. It looked more like a symmetrical facial tic in slow motion.
“He’s totally wiped, Vanessa,” I began. “I don’t know why they didn’t just kill the poor vegetable off.”
Carmichael nodded. She looked a little bemused by my use of her first name. “Memory is just biological disk space. Data is never fully wiped for someone who knows how it has been shredded,” she proposed.
“And that’s the big problem,” I continued. “We have to find the specific way his mind has been erased after they got what they wanted out of him. What exactly was he working on when he was abducted?”
“I’ll get Industrial Intelligence to put something together for you. It’ll be on your home system when you get there this evening. You can study it tonight.” I nodded sagely, and then there was a silence of a good many seconds.
“Any chance of a drink?” I ventured, in an attempt to loosen up the atmosphere. There was a further pause in the proceedings as Carmichael had her secretary, an extremely effeminate dwarf of a man, fetch me a coffee-flavoured mineral water. When this had arrived and I’d taken a few sips I outlined my plan of action. “Look, Vanessa, I need to make a study. I know what it’s like inside a dead person’s mind, but I want to compare this scientist’s blank brain with the insides of naturally intellectually-challenged minds. I think the differences between the two could give me a clue as to exactly where amongst his empty passages the ghost of von Kühnert’s consciousness lives. I want to go to the Nexus-7 Neurological Institute with clearance to venture inside a few of their permanent holidaymakers.”
Nexus-7 was the leading hospital for chronic mental illness, situated on the Moon. All the most incurable psychopaths and prematurely senile people were sent there, either by their loved ones or private police forces like COSI. I didn’t really want to go to Nexus-7, but it would be a good excuse to enjoy the Moon’s famously debauched nightlife. It would also give me time away from direct COSI surveillance, just in case someone with a more lucrative offer wanted to get in contact.
“You’re quite a harsh little man, aren’t you?” interjected Carmichael with surprising acidity. “A typical scientist.” For a moment I thought she could hear what I was thinking. I frowned and rejoined, “I beg your pardon?” There was another weighty silence while I surveyed her and she stared at me with that unreadable impassive face of hers. I wondered again what she knew about my true background. Then suddenly the uncomfortable moment was over.
“Of course, every avenue will be laid open to you without question,” said Carmichael. The mood had changed in a very random way as if her previous comment had never existed. I was unusually perturbed. I could manipulate most people, particularly women, but working out what was going on in Carmichael’s mind was beyond me. I concluded with resignation that she was probably smarter than I was - not something I was used to. “Would you be ready to travel tomorrow?” She continued. I nodded, still frowning. Carmichael rose from her chair and I was slightly diverted by the swing of her hips, which seemed out of place. Something about her made me think of a severe old matron in the body of an expensive holographic porn queen, or maybe vice versa. She rested herself on the edge of the desk in front of me and fixed her eyes on mine with total confidence. “This Mind Invasion business is beginning to be a bit of a problem to our industrial friends. Rounding up all the hackers hasn’t helped. It’s fundamentally important that we sort the situation out as soon as possible. It’s also very much in your personal interest. I do hope you understand.”