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Chapter 22

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Flipping through the satellite channels on the coffin room monitor, a groan from the bed told her that Ger was awake.

‘What happened?’ Ger muttered as he dragged himself up, smashing his head into the low roof of the suite.

‘You decided to play hero and rescue me from a non-event and ended up getting stabbed through the heart by me.’ Isla sneered. ‘Just as I had gotten Jericho to start talking — really talking— to me.

‘How’s your Mom?,’ Ger asked softly as he rubbed his throbbing skull. ‘Is she okay?’

Isla nodded. ‘That’s the thing. She’s fine. Jericho basically BS’d me about my Mom. She was out at some kind of froux-froux grown up thing — and he/she switched the message and knew that I’d be a sucker for it. I  got played.’

‘He/She?’ Ger asked as he pulled the leftover BBQ sac from beneath his pillow. ‘Whataya mean?’

Isla told Ger how she had queried Jericho on his creepy choice of blue fairy avatar and how he —or she— said that her Dad was a liar — and that everything wasn’t as it seemed. ‘What do you think Jericho meant by that?’ Ger gobbled down the last of the BBQ, shrugging as he sucked the tangy sauce from his fingers.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Well, what do we do now? Do we tell my Dad what happened — or do we keep it to ourselves?’

Ger nodded. ‘Radio silence, for sure. The less people know about what happened at the Ellison — although I’m sure the message boards are blowing up about you being there — and me of course. Cool. My first bar fight.’

Isla shook her head. ‘No it was not cool. It was stupid and could have been totally avoided if you didn’t decide to enforce the patriarchy and stand up for the little girl who got punched by the big bad man.’

Ger smiled, his mouth a mess of BBQ sauce, ‘Hey, I was just standing up for a friend. I don’t care that you’re a girl.’ No kidding. You’ve made that so clear. Still…

Isla crawled over to Ger, punching him in the arm lightly. ‘Okay. Apology accepted. Wipe your face. You look like you just swallowed a whole dinosaur, meat-eater.’

‘Veg-head,’ countered Ger as he wiped his face on his sleeve. So gross.

‘I’m serious. What do we do now?’ Isla asked. ‘I just feel like we’re making it up as we’re going along.’

‘Nothing wrong with that,’ smiled Ger as he searched his pockets for his comm link. ‘I think it’s time we take it to Jericho. Quietly…’ Ger said, holding up his hands in mock defeat. ‘Do some sleuthing and get the real intel on him — or her — and then decide about reporting back into Major Anderson. You cool with that?’

It’s funny. My Dad’s more in my life now that I’m some kind of cyberspy than when he was when I was just a normal kid. ‘Sure. Whataya got?’

‘Let’s watch the payback on the meet and compare feeds. We both recorded. There’s gotta be something there that we can log into.’

 

Two hours later, Isla had to admit that Ger had a good idea. They’d accessed their joint feeds from the Jericho meet, deciding that Jericho might even be a gal, perhaps, and marveled at how insane the whole night was.

‘But Jericho disappeared when you were stabbing me in the heart,’ Ger remarked as they built a holographic projection of the Ellison bar in their enhanced viewports. The Blue Fairy’s there — and then she isn’t.’

‘Hang on a second,’ said Isla as she enhanced the view of the barroom floor.’

Lying there on the ground was the half-pint stogie Jericho had been smoking up until the fight.’

‘What’s that?’ asked Isla.

Ger nodded, zooming into the cigar that smoked on the ground. Enhancing the label on the stogie revealed a small typewritten message, ‘FIND ME’ alongside a old school QR Code she’d never seen before.

‘A clue,’ smiled Ger. ‘I can read this.’

The rain fell steadily outside the Hironaki Harbour as Isla squeezed in next to Ger beneath a sagging, torn canopy of a closed shipping office. Before them, the industrial shipping area for Megacity One blossomed in its twenty-four-hour-a-day busy. Large shipping containers hoisted by belching diesel lifters battled for space with the heavy ‘droids manually hauling freight from the belly of the rusted ships which lined the docks.

‘How far do we have to go?’ Isla asked as she looked up at the black, wet night.

Oily puddles of iridescent spoilage kept trying to stain her Chucks as she pushed herself further back under the shelter. Ger, wearing his Hieronymus glasses, checked his HUD.

‘Figure, it’s about two klicks into — that way,’ he said as he pointed vaguely into the middle of the beehive dockland.

‘What’s a klick?’ asked Isla.

‘I dunno,’ shrugged Ger. ‘Heard it in an old vid and it sounded cool. Put on your glasses. Have a look for yourself.’

Isla slid her glasses on as Ger punched the digital coordinates he’d lifted from Jericho’s cigar at the Ellison. ‘It was pretty crafty to have the message encoded there,’ Isla said.

She accessed the digi-data on her HUD and a blinking arrow pointed out in front of her just as Ger said. She pulled up for a Bird’s Eye View and a portion of her glasses rose up into the air showing her the elevated route.

A big ‘X’ marking their final destination shone in the dark night display.

‘End enhancement,’ muttered Isla as she turned to Ger.

‘It’s a trap, you know?’

‘Of course it’s a trap, GNGR. That’s what makes it cool.’

Ger strode off into the rain leaving Isla under the canopy.

Glancing down at her wet Chucks, she sighed and followed after him. Someone’s gonna owe me a new pair of sneakers.

 

By the time they landed at the big X on their HUDS, Ginger looked and felt drowned. Or worse. The brown acid rain had mottled her favorite leather jacket with her prized CT sneakers a soggy mess. And a new frakin jacket. Isla sighed and looked up at the building in front of them. Wing Hong’s Chinese Restaurant loomed over them, a makeshift soy eatery designed for the human workers who frequented the docks. During their journey to Jericho’s, they’d seen only small forces of laborers who were human. Most were Chinese or obvious immigrants from other countries. No one paid any attention to them as they crept through the busy docks, keeping well-clear of the lit and busiest areas.

‘You hungry?’asked Ger as he studied Wing Hong’s through his Hieronymus glasses.

‘I could eat,’ smiled Isla as she matched Ger running surveillance over the dilapidated restaurant. Their HUDS in their glasses burned red in the gloomy night as they stood outside in the rain.

<NO VISIBLE ARMAMENTS>

<NO PERIMETER ALARMS>

‘You think Jericho’s inside?’ asked Ger as he shivered in the rain.

Isla shrugged.

‘Of course, I’m inside’ crackled Jericho in both of their comm links. ‘Where else would I be?’

‘You sure we should do this?’ Ger asked as Isla stepped forwards toward Wing Hongs. ‘It really could be a trap. I don’t… I mean…’

Isla took Ger’s hand. It was cold and wet in the chilly dockside air.

‘I’m scared too,’ she murmured. ‘We’ll be okay…’

‘How touching. Now hurry up before I change my mind.’ Jericho barked as he severed the comm link conversation.

Ger pocketed his glasses — shaking his head at Isla. ‘You stay online and keep an eye out for anything — strange.’

Isla squeezed Ger’s hand. ‘You mean, like this?’

She pulled Ger forward not letting go of him. We’ll do this together.

Okay. Do not freak out. Just be cool. Everything is gonna be okay.

‘Who the hell are you?’ Ger demanded as he stood at the stairs. Isla placed her hand on his forearm, quietening him.

‘What Ger means to say is, ‘Hi’’

Across from them, sitting in a collapsable wheelchair was a slight, teenage boy. His dusty skin, bright eyes and half-smile told her everything.

‘You’re Jericho, aren’t you?’

As they stepped carefully into the empty room, Ger slipped his Hieronymus glasses on, scanning the space for hidden weapons, traps and surprises. Always pays to be careful.

Nothing stood out in Ger’s HUD.  The room and its sole occupant where exactly what they seemed.

‘You’ve got the same gear as us,’ Isla noted as she took the lead, moving closer to the boy.

‘That’s right,’ Jericho said. ‘And for the first time, you get to meet the real me. A beat-up black kid nobody notices.’

‘What?,’ sputtered Ger. ‘How…”

‘It’s a long story. I brought you here to tell you the truth and to share the real origins of the Hieronymus machines. And let you make up your minds. There’s no threat here.’

Isla looked about the room.

Confirming what Jericho had said.

They were in a long storeroom with dirty windows facing the harbor. Light from the docks outside spilled through the dirt-caked glass as a single candle burned quietly on a tea-set sitting in front of Jericho.

‘Please, sit down. We haven’t got much time.’

Ger pushed forward, his teeth clenched as he dropped down onto the crate opposite Jericho. I don’t trust him. No way. No how.

Isla slid onto the box next to Ger as she sniffed the tea steeping on the makeshift table. ‘Why did you do all this? What’s going on?’

‘I told you that your father lied when we met at the Ellison. It’s what he does. It’s what he continues to do… even to you both right now.’

Isla scowled, her brow creased in distrust. ‘No way, he’s my Dad. He wouldn’t lie to me. I know that.’

Jericho shook his head. He looks tired. Used up. He pointed to the tea set. ‘Would you pour, Ger? I’d get up, but…’

A thin smile crested Jericho’s face as he opened his hands in vain, showcasing his chair.

This is not what I expected. AT ALL.

Ger leaned in pouring the green tea from the pot into the delicate pottery cups arranged on the tablecloth. He handed a container to Jericho who sipped the hot tea.

‘Drink up. It’s the least I can do.’

Ger shifted a look to Isla, unsure of the tea — and the offer. Should we drink it?

Isla shrugged, picking up her own cup, sipping delicately from the hot tea.

‘Jasmine,’ she sighed. ‘This is good.’

Jericho nodded.

‘When you became cybernauts, Major Anderson probably neglected to tell you about the first travelers, right?’

Isla looked at Ger. We don’t know anything about this. Do we?

‘You’re right. He didn’t tell us anything about the others,’ said Ger as he carefully picked up his own tea, sniffing carefully at the fragrant drink.

‘… And I’m sure he told you only a little bit about the positronic brains and the 'bot development technologies, right?’

Ger nodded. Yeah, that’s right. He gave us some basic intel but he didn’t go into any real details.

Jericho put his teacup down, sighing at what we would say next.

‘He never changes. Always the same. This is the same line he used when he recruited me and my friends. All of us…’

Isla leaned forward, concern writ large on her face.

‘Were you always… like this?’ Isla nodded at Jericho’s wheelchair.

Jericho’s face puckered, a sour scowl brushing his face.

‘Everything I am is because of your Father — and his lies.’

‘The positronic brain, that drives all of our 'bot technology is a lie. It doesn’t work,’ said Jericho as he allowed his statement to sink in.

Ger shook his head. That’s crazy talk. Everyone knows that the 'bot’s only work because of the brain.

Jericho sipped from his tea, looking to Isla.

‘You thought your father was an engineer…right?’

Isla nodded, a scowl forming. ‘That’s right. All my life, he had told us that he was an engineer. Working on various space and Off-World projects. It’s all I knew.’

‘Well, he was only half lying about that. He is…was an engineer. But not a mechanical one. He’s a genetic engineer.

‘What’s that?’ asked Ger.

‘A genetic engineer manipulates an organism’s genes using biotechnology — a Frankenstein mixup used to improve an operating systems interface. They add DNA to artificially synthesize an enhanced or modified being.’

‘Like humans?’ asked Isla.

‘Sure,’ said Jericho, sighing. ‘Constructs like the positronic brain work in theory — but they are all missing one important thing. One thing that Anderson’s people couldn’t lift from the Krays technology.’

‘Like what?’ Ger wondered. Where is this going?

‘When the government salvaged the Krays technology back in the 1970s and started building 'bots based on their designs, the first prototypes worked in theory — but none of them developed the autonomous life that the Krays had synthesized.’

Jericho activated his Hieronymus glasses. ‘Put on your glasses. I want to share something with you both.’

Ger glanced at Isla who shrugged at the request.

She flipped her glasses down from her forehead and powered up. Might as well.

Ger activated his own glasses, powering up and slipping into the virtual world of Hieronymus.

Onscreen, a new portal was overlaid from his starting position.

‘What I’m about to show you has never been seen before outside of a very select group of individuals. I’m porting this to you now so you’ll have your own copies — and will know what to do with it — if you ever find yourself having to make the decision,’ said Jericho.

Okay, this is way too cryptic.

‘Dude, what are you talking about?’ Ger asked as, onscreen, a grainy black and white surveillance film started to unroll.

‘Just watch…’

 

It looks like some old sci-fi vid from forever ago.

Ger watched the surveillance footage on her Hieronymus glasses as Jericho spoke.

‘There’s no sound,… probably for the best.’

The old black and white footage showed a partially assembled ‘droid with its positronic brain exposed. Two technicians stood nearby a padded chair with clamps for arms and legs.

Strapped to the restraints was a screaming man. The technicians strapped a face-mask eerily similar to the Hieronymus control Isla knew.

This is bad.

‘The Hieronymus machine was designed not only to be a conduit to the various web technologies once they were created — but also a way for the original creators to alter the genetic makeup of the positronic brain.’ Jericho said as they both stared at the images.

‘What does that mean?’ asked Isla.

‘It means,’ said Jericho, ‘that these bastards needed a way to jumpstart the positronic brain — and was one of the reasons that the Krays had been conducting so many illicit snatch-and-grabs back in the day.’

‘You mean…,’ Isla gasped.

Onscreen, the main in the restraints bucked in his chair as the technicians activated the ancient Hieronymus device.

‘Things were a lot cruder back then,’ Jericho sighed as the man onscreen spasmed in the death throes of a man in agony, his feet and arms drumming in the restraints in staccato repair.

Smoke wafted slightly from the Hieronymus face-mask.

‘I think I’m going to be sick,’ groaned Isla.

Isla’s gagging could be heard over Ger’s active link. Don’t blow. If you blow chunks, I’m gonna puke too. 

The technicians removed the faceplate from the now-smoking husk of the trapped man. His head and face had melted from the technique, his skin a dripping mass of slime and grue. His eyes bubbled in their sockets.

ACKKKKK!

Ger gulped, his stomach rolling as he heard Isla puke next to him. Don’t blame you…

‘It’s not pretty,’ Jericho sighed. ‘The Hieronymus technology was able to lift the soul - the very essence of what it means to be human - and transfer it to the consciousness of the 'bot. This in turn powered the positronic brain and allowed the machine to become sentient.’

Ger spat next to Isla. Gross me green. Please stop.

‘You mean, every 'bot out there is some hijacked person?’ Isla gasped. WTF??

 

‘Turn off your Hieronymus units, right now,’ Jericho said as he stopped playing the surveillance footage. Ger clicked off watching Isla do the same.

‘All of the first cybernauts ended up basically being an extension of the positronic brain technology. The military basically created a slave race of machines porting criminal and — undesirables into the metal bodies while they continued to expand the Psionic possibilities of inter-dimensional travel.

Isla looked white. Ger was green. What have we gotten ourselves into?

Jericho continued, ‘Once the 'bot economy was established, no one knew that their brains were driven by the human soul. How could they? It’s an almost unbelievable idea… but the Krays technology worked and the public response to robots were incredibly positive. Who cared in the machines were driven by human beings?

‘But that’s insane. Immoral,’ whispered Isla.

Ger glanced at her. This is frakked up on so many levels.

Jericho nodded. ‘Allowances were made for the preservation of certain intellects and possible military advantages — prototypes of the cybernaut technology we’re using now. Even people like me had value to Axiomm.’

‘Axiomm?’ asked Isla.

‘They own the copyright on the technology. All of it. Axiomm is basically a shell company for the military designed to be at arms length from the government. That way if anyone ever dug, they wouldn’t know who really was in charge.’

‘But nobody ever really dug, did they?’ asked Ger.

‘Until now,’ sighed Jericho. ‘I was born without the use of my legs and my father was a low-ranking Axiomm technician assigned to the Hieronymus project. He was able to upload my consciousness into the Deep Web in hopes of replicating a new body for me using my DNA to build a new body.’

‘What?’ gasped Isla.

Jericho nodded. ‘The Hieronymus machine can hold the soul in the Deep Web and exploit it for the droid technology as you’ve learned. But it can also be used to transfer consciousness to another machine… or a person, like I did when we were first introduced, or a carbon copy DNA replica of your own physical body. Meaning that your soul can be infinitely transferred to multiple clones or DNA positive replicas of yourself in an endless series of constructs.

‘We’re talking about immortality here. The idea of living forever, aren’t we?’ said Ger.

Jericho nodded. ‘And now you know why they’re not going to let any of us get this information out there. Stopping us is the only option to keep their secrets safe.’

‘They don’t remember anything about their past lives at all,’ sighed Jericho as he looked briefly at his comm link. ‘We don’t have a lot of time left…’

He shifted in his chair, typing a quick flurry of commands into his comm link. ‘I’m giving you Administrator access, Ger. You’ve got the access links now to Level 3 commands and the database of what we’ve just seen — and more.’

Isla looked at Ger who re-started his Hieronymus link and cycled through the information. ‘Whoa,’ he sighed. ‘This is intense.’

Jericho turned to Isla.

‘I’m sorry for how things went down. The tricks and the cruel jests I had to play. I didn’t know how you were going to — react to all of this. I’m sorry.’

He reached a trembling hand to Isla. He’s really serious. And scared.

‘What’s going to happen next?’ Isla asked, sensing Jericho’s unease.

She squeezed his frail hand as Jericho looked towards the windows.

Outside, a bright searchlight flashed briefly across the dusty windows. Searching. For something. Jericho turned to see the bright white light illuminate the side of the restaurant.

‘Both of you have to get out of here — now. The clock was ticking the minute we started up the archival footage and you used your Hieronymus machines. They’ve tracked you here. To me.’

Isla stood, racing to the window as Ger spun, watching the front door.Outside, the sound of helicopter blades buffeted the still night air.

‘We’ve got to get out of here!’ Ger yelled. ‘How do we get you downstairs.’

‘You don’t,’ Jericho sighed. ‘This is goodbye. It was a pleasure meeting you and passing on the mantle. You’re our only hope. It’s up to you now.’

Isla shook her head. Say what now?

‘Hopefully, you’ll do a better job being Jericho  than I ever was…’ Jericho whispered as he staccato punched his keypad. His body jerked in his chair as he twitched, uploading his consciousness to the Deep Web.

He’s gone?!

‘INCOMING!!!’ Ger screamed, racing towards Isla, tackling her down behind the storage cubes as the windows of the warehouse exploded.

Jericho’s chair blasted back into the room, his body cartwheeling in broken-doll spasms.

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