The ImagiNext corporate campus clustered around a striated vertical white spire that towered like the mast of an alien sailing ship over the nearby homes and apartment blocks. As Agent Quinn drove past row after row of late 20th century tract housing, Nio could feel the distant magnetic tug from the spire grow increasingly insistent. By the time Agent Quinn’s credentials got them past the guarded gate and into the parking garage, the magnetic field that radiated from the tower completely obliterated all others, and the sensors implanted under Nio’s skull droned at her insistently. She grimaced as she got out of the car. She took her pills from her pocket and swallowed two.
Quinn heard the rattle. “Those are new.”
“Hospital. And no, I didn’t steal them.” She held up the bottle to show him the label. “See? There’s my name.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
“But you were thinking it.”
The main building was clean and starkly white and everything was polished to a high shine. They were greeted and asked to sign an electronic log and then to wait while Quinn’s identity was verified with the Bureau, which took only moments. As Nio passed through one of the glass-and-steel security stalls, she noticed the phones on the circular security desk on the far side, which was also an information hub for visitors. Whatever machinery caused the single, droning EMP surge also irregularly interrupted cell phone signals, and the company conveniently provided its guests with landlines in case of trouble.
A completely bald man, the head of physical security it seemed, met them inside and shook their hands. He explained that the boss was with investors from overseas and asked that they wait in the rotunda, a perfectly round glossy white room at the center of which was a matching globular sculpture. Curved windows on one side looked out on a small garden courtyard with a white pebble floor. The rest of the wall was lined in white placards, each depicting in artistic relief some “miracle” the company was working on. They were spaced apart, leaving ample room for more.
“And what was the name again?” the smartly-dressed head of security asked.
“Agent Quinn of the FBI and Nio Tesla.”
“Tesla. Got it. We had Monroe in a few months back,” he said as he walked away.
“Monroe?” Quinn asked Nio when the doors were closed.
She was scowling at the crudely lava-esque white sculpture. “Manda.” The spherelike top rested just underneath the wide, recessed circular lighting in the ceiling.
“You know her?”
“Just pictures. Celebrity gossip.”
Nio smiled wryly. “I didn’t realize you were into fashion.”
“I never realized the connection. I guess I should have with the name.”
“None of us like to make a big deal out of it. It just invites a reaction.”
Agent Quinn strolled to the window. “Nice zen garden.”
He scowled. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s a projection. There’s nothing there. It’s just a special screen.”
He stepped back. “Nooo . . .” He said skeptically.
Nio walked to one of the placards opposite the “window” and touched it. Immediately, the circular lighting dimmed and the image changed. A dark-haired woman with bright red lipstick was talking as if to a camera. She was dressed in an expensive ladies suit.
“That’s her,” Nio said.
Like Sol, Chancery looked older than Nio remembered. She was a businesswoman now, and a successful one.
ImagiNext billed itself as a technology company, but to date its only commercial success was in pharmaceuticals. Rather than investing in genomics research, as every other pharma company had, ImagiNext targeted the manufacturing process. Using programmable bacteria, the company brewed organic chemicals extremely cheaply. Where traditional chemical plants required expensive precursor compounds, which also had to be manufactured, ImagiNext’s giant vats of specially engineered bacteria could be fed for free—or nearly. They consumed biological waste, much of it human sewage, and converted it with evolutionary efficiency into whatever drug they had been genetically programmed to make. From poop to medicine. And they did it all with almost no human supervision. ImagiNext could churn out industrial quantities of chemicals for mere pennies.
The company was successful and flush with cash, but with maximal efficiency reached and competitors entering the marketplace, the company’s stockholders naturally wanted to know what the founder was going to do next. Reclamation, he told them. Since human waste contains trace amounts of gold, silver, and several increasingly rare metals that the world sorely needed, his plan was to upgrade his bacteria and to extend their use to landfills. Despite a coordinated campaign touting the clear environmental benefits of such an investment, the project was expected to lose money for several years, and afterward only to be weakly profitable, despite that it would change the world.
Used to the massive profits that came from the disruption of pharmaceutical manufacturing, the company’s major shareholders were unimpressed and ousted the man from the company he created and replaced him with Chancery Brontë, whose work with artificial intelligence at Google had earned her a reputation. The new boss quickly raised drug prices everywhere the company had driven out competition. She then fired most of the company’s scientists, changed its name to ImagiNext, and recruited top thinkers in the field of quantum computing. The move extended her reputation for being “bold and dynamic.” Everyone was waiting to see if she could add “successful” to the list. If so, she’d quickly find herself being courted by the top 100.
On the screen, she described how the company was developing “scatter displays” like the one Nio and Quinn were watching.
“—by simply squeezing more and more pixels onto a 2D surface. Our scatter displays are different. They exist somewhere between those older technologies and full 3D holograms, which are bulky, requiring a box full of magnetically movable particles. In fact, what we call a hologram these days is not a hologram at all since it’s three-dimensional. A hologram is the recording of an interference pattern such that a higher-dimensional image is recorded on a lower-dimensional surface. Real holograms should be two-dimensional, and yet look completely real.
“It turns out the cues your brain uses to decide whether an image is real are explicable. We see in stereo, so the first of these clues is parallax, or how objects seem to move relative to an observer in space. As you walk down the street, the sidewalk under your feet changes position quickly, whereas the skyscraper at the horizon doesn’t move at all. That happens at a small scale just with objects on a desk. Turn your head and the wires behind your monitor appear to change position at different rates relative to it and each other. We’re not always consciously aware of that, but our brains are.
“After that, a certain amount of randomness is required. Our brains have learned that the real world has ‘noise’—scratches on a computer casing, the tiny dead spider in the window track, the scuff on the wall from where your chair occasionally hits it, right down to the pattern of dust on the legs of your monitor. That’s all information. We don’t think of it this way, but I’ve just described the history of your office, encoded in its objects and patterns. Computing all of that to complete realism requires as much information as there is in the world, or nearly. Normally, those calculations are costly and time-consuming, even with a supercomputer. We here at ImagiNext can do it—or something very close—with quantum computing, which is why we moved our headquarters to Fermilab, the world leader in neutrino research.
“A normal computer processes instructions strictly. You can’t ask it to make anything up. It can only compute an output based on the rules it was given. But in conjunction with some special kinds of algorithms, what are called ‘non-conformal’ algorithms, a quantum computer can generate the kinds of noise we see in the world. It can also approximate the holographic effect inside a crystal, such as a thin pane of tempered glass, giving us the ability to create images nearly indistinguishable from reality, at least to the casual observer.
“For example, I never actually gave this interview. I was never filmed sitting here. There are no clothes like the ones I appear to be wearing. I wrote these words and emailed them to our technicians, who trained the machine on video footage of me. It captured my speech patterns and movements. Everything else about this was completely fabrica—”
Nio touched another placard and the image changed again. The same woman was standing before a peaceful scene.
“What if we could detect cancer years before it appeared, simply by breathing into a tube? What if teachers could identify children with learning disabilities just by having them press their thumbs onto a screen? What if an app you carry on your phone could listen to a salesperson’s voice and tell you if they were lying? These are the kinds of revolutionary questions we’re asking as part of our groundbreaking Social Dimensions Initiative, a partnership with the US Department of Health and Human Services. The project aims to quantify as never before the complete range of human—”
The image stopped and the lights rose the moment the double doors opened again. The garden reappeared as a sharply dressed, dark-haired woman who looked to be nearing 30 stepped into the rotunda wearing a colorful Chanel suit and matching accessories. It was the woman from the screen. She held a tablet, which she handed to a guard, who took it and stepped away. In the foyer beyond the doors, a group of about ten sharply-dressed business people of mixed races and gender milled as if waiting for their next meeting.
The doors shut with a clatter, and the sound echoed disconcertingly.
“We really must do something about the noise,” the woman said as she approached. She had a faint British accent. Her two-toned suit pants swished as she walked. “This was supposed to be a room of quiet reflection.”
Or a church to you, Nio thought. “The doors still have to pass the fire code,” she suggested out loud.
The two women stood twenty feet from each other and stared. Nio instinctively concentrated on Chancery’s bioelectric field, but there was nothing. Just the constant tug from the tower.
“Goodness,” Chancery said. “It’s really you.”
“Still rockin the fake accent, I see.”
Chancery rolled her eyes. “Same ol’ Nix.”
“Nix?” Agent Quinn asked.
“That’s what they used to call me,” Nio said.
“That’s what we still call her,” Chancery told him. “Or we would if she hadn’t disappeared.” She stepped forward and held out her hand. “Chancery Brontë. How are you?”
Quinn took it. “Ms. Brontë.”
“I’m afraid you’ve caught me completely by surprise. But then, something tells me that was intentional. I don’t suppose you’re working for Vogue these days,” she joked sarcastically.
“How are things with the Brontë Society?” Nio asked. “They still declaring war?”
“Oh my God.” She shut her eyes. “I cannot deal with those people. They will not let up. Apparently I’m not doing anything right! Did you know I’ve sued them for harassment?” she told Agent Quinn. “I’ve explained to them how disrespectful they are to her memory. Charlotte could’ve been anything she wanted, but in that time, women could be professional authors and little else. They couldn’t even own property! In different circumstances, she would’ve been Prime Minister.”
Chancery stopped. She gave Nio a wry look. “Ah, haha. Nice try. But I really do have to be going. If today goes well, we could triple our revenue in five years.” Her shoes clicked on the floor. “Lovely to see you, but please, please make an appointment next time. My assistant can set something up.”
“Hold up, Miss,” Agent Quinn called. “We really just have a few questions.”
“Oh, I’m sure you do,” she mocked. Her lipstick stretched into a smile. “Unfortunately, I can’t help you.”
“Sol called you,” Nio said.
“Yes, and I already told the FBI everything I know. It was a very short conversation. I’m sure you have the notes.”
“You’re lying,” Nio said.
Chancery’s jaw set. “What?”
“You’re lying, Chaz.” Nio turned to Quinn. “That what we called her. She gets that flippant ‘oh-it’s-no-big-deal’ attitude when she’s lying. Otherwise everything she talks about is super important. The most important thing ever. I’m sure it works on most people. If you act like something’s not a big deal, they’ll treat it that way, right?”
“He always loved you. That’s why he called you and not Leo or Max.”
Chaz stopped again.
“You broke his heart. Now you’re gonna piss on it, too?”
“Fuck you.” Chaz turned. “You weren’t even at the funeral. You were the only one not there.”
“If you’re not free to talk here,” Agent Quinn interjected, “I’d be happy to take you to the FBI office downtown. It’s not far.”
“Was that a threat?” Chancery’s lips pursed in shock.
“You can shake your mock authority like a spear all you want, Mr. Baggy Suit. It doesn’t change anything.”
“I’m not obliged to talk to you—now or ever. Unless you’re going to arrest me for something. Good luck with that. Otherwise, I suggest you find my secretary and make an appointment. Goodbye.”
She turned again to go.
“Buy me a few alone?” Nio asked Agent Quinn softly as they both strode after her.
“Will I regret it?”
“Versus losing your job?”
“Excuse me,” he called, trotting forward with an extended hand. “You’re right, of course, Ms. Brontë. Let me sincerely apologize”—he took her hand in his—“for whatever is about to happen.”
Agent Quinn moved through the door ahead of Chancery and shut it behind him. She stormed forward and tried the handle, but it was either locked or he was holding it.
“Ohhhhhoho,” she grumbled menacingly as she took out her phone. Her manicured thumb clicked furiously on the screen. “I am going to have your badge, Agent Whoever-You-Are. This is kidnapping. And you”—she looked to Nio—“are going back to prison.”
Nio slapped the phone down. It bounced once and the screen cracked.
Chaz’s mouth went wide with shock. “Are you insane?”
“You always said so.” Nio grabbed the woman’s neck in a throw hold and rolled her to the floor.
Chaz shrieked and landed hard. She touched her nose and looked at it, checking for blood. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
She started to get up, but Nio pushed her back down and climbed on top of her, holding Chaz’s arms down with her knees and putting a hand over her mouth.
“I know you’re not scared of me, Chaz. I don’t have the lawyers for it. But you have to ask yourself something: if I don’t get what I want—five stinkin’ minutes of your time—am I crazy enough to beat my head against this trash corporate art until I’m bloody and nearly unconscious, and then to call Agent Quinn and tell him you assaulted me? Because if I did, then as a matter of procedure, he’d have to arrest you. In front of your guests. I don’t have the resources to threaten you. But the government does. They have a whole giant apparatus set up to handle exactly this sort of thing. I’m told it turns very, very slowly. You and I both know you have the lawyers to beat the charge. But what will your investors think when there’s smears of blood all over your perfect white walls? Think of the time and money and bad press that could’ve been saved if only you’d—”
“Alright!” she screamed. She pushed Nio up. “Alright. Fine.”
“Same ol’ Nix,” Chaz accused. She stood up and dusted off her Chanel. “Always what you want.”
“No, Chaz. That’s you. I’m here for Sol.”
“Yes!” Chancery admitted with flourish.
“Sol was upset on the phone. More upset than I’d ever seen him. He kept—kept asking how many of us there were.”
“What do you mean?”
“He kept saying, were there twelve or thirteen?”
Nio scowled. “Twelve?”
“That’s what I said! And he made me name us all, and when I finished, he said what about absinthe?”
“Like the drink?”
“And that was it. He said it was all fake.”
“Everything. He said literally everything was fake, and that’s when I told him he should go to a hospital. And he barked at me.”
“I don’t know what to call it! It was so unlike him. In this gruff tone, he said ‘They wouldn’t understand!’ So I said I’d come. I didn’t know what else to do. He said don’t bother, like it meant nothing, and hung up. But I checked my calendar and sent him an invite anyway. For dinner. I was going to be in New York in a couple weeks for work. I texted him to make sure he saw the invite but didn’t hear anything. The next day, I got an automatic response saying he’d accepted, so I thought I’d see him then and we’d work through whatever needed to be worked through. I’m not evil, you know.”
“No?” Nio asked. “Then why didn’t you call someone in New York to check on him, if he was that upset? I’ll tell you why. Because you couldn’t be bothered. You didn’t actually care, and you knew that would be obvious to anyone, which is why you told the FBI—”
“Weeks had passed! Do you fucking get that? It’s not like I was a suspect. I was two thousand miles away in a glass-walled office in clear view of two-dozen people. I only found out when the FBI fucking ambushed me at our appointment. I had no idea he was even missing. By that time, whatever had happened to him had already happened. What good would it have—”
“You didn’t call or text or—”
“You haven’t had a lot of experience, Nix—Che doesn’t count—so maybe you don’t realize it, but men don’t like to appear weak. Sometimes you have to give them space.”
Nio shook her head in disbelief.
“Oh shut up,” Chaz said. “You were always so patronizing. Even in school. ‘Look at me, I hate everything and dress in black. I’m so cool.’ You would’ve done the same thing in my shoes. The difference is, you have nothing, so you risk nothing.”
“The difference is,” Nio corrected, “I would never wear your ugly frickin shoes. But speaking of fire codes, you got a back door to this place?”
“Door? But . . .” Chancery turned toward the front, toward the door Agent Quinn was blocking. She glanced down to the bracelet peeking out from under Nio’s pant leg. Chaz rolled her eyes. “God. I should’ve known. You’re such a child.”
“Well?” Nio asked.
“Yes. The fire exit is there.”
She pointed at a panel in the wall near the curved window. The large round room was made to hold talks and receptions. If it were full of people, there would need to be another exit. It was as large as a double door but rested flush with the frame, disguising its function. It was unlocked and attached to a counterweight such that turning it open was extraordinarily easy. It swung on a center pivot, creating two passages, an entrance and an exit, one on each side.
“Kidnapping, huh?” Nio said.
“Just please GO.”
“Chaz,” Nio called a second later.
“That’s all I know!” The woman objected from the opposite door.
“Not that. After . . . what happened, you know, I got checked. I got everything checked. You should too.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Have you ever asked yourself: how come none of us have any kids?” Nio paused. “Not even the guys.”
Chancery’s anger faded to confusion. Then her face was blank.
“You should get checked,” Nio said. Then she trotted down the staircase and toward the front door.
rough cut from my WIP, Science Crimes Division
cover image “Techunter” by Aedel Fakhrie