In the depths of the Tarterus Corporation, a unique experiment in bioengineering has gone wrong . . . and right. The world’s economy is controlled by building sized “Megabrains” which can only be controlled by cloned “Genetics.” A young pair of twins, specially created by the world-regulating Bioengineering Guild, has just discovered their roles in a plot to micromanage the world’s population . . . and want no part of it. Blade Runner meets Barbarians at the Gate as Norma and Cloris go head-to-head to decide the fate of the world--and settling their family feud is the only way to do it!
In a call-back to "The City of Iron and Light," which appeared in Chronicle Worlds: Feyland, Digital Idols is the story of Norma Phastlight, the only Genetic to ever walk out of the Tarterus Crop.'s laboratories and try to navigate the cold, hard, world of 22nd century hypercapitalist America.
Norma returned to Jack’s dorm exhausted but satisfied with her day. She’d shown the guys in charge that she had the chops to do great things and they had seemed to agree with her. Her new Zhip-Chit and sleek black Iode proved it.
She paid the cab with her Zhip-Chit and sent it on its way. The beginnings of sunset bled through thick clouds as she made her way into the front of the building, lugging the equipment case to her room. She unpacked her new gear but found herself too restless to work.
She headed back downstairs, patting her pocket to make sure she had the key. The noise level from last night was gone, replaced by a low buzz of activity. Murmuring voices and clinking glasses, mostly. The bar welcomed her with white noise, shouts, and acrid smoke from DigiCiggies and stimsticks. She hurried to the food machines, popped her Zhip-Chit into one, grabbed the ejected burrito and left. She munched it as she wandered, gazing through half-open doors into empty rooms.
She finished her snack and ducked into a new area: a short set of stairs that led down. The basement, she figured. Dark and dank, and smelly with grease and oil. She crept down to hear the sounds of banging metal, then cursing. Jack’s voice.
Norma followed the corridor, which opened up into the industrial kitchen, then a heavy fire door, and finally, the garage. She could feel the oil and grime in the air adhering to her skin.
Jack’s voice was loudest here. Norma turned a corner to see her new landlady trying to wrestle a long grav-platform into a boxy armored vehicle. “Come on, you lazy son of a—”
“Need help?” Norma called.
Jack twisted around, stumbled back with a yelp of pain. “I told you the garage was off limits,” she snapped.
“I just got back from work. I thought we were meeting your friend.” Norma shrugged and turned to go. “See you.”
“Hey. Hang on.” Jack took a deep breath, held it, let it out. “It’s okay. You’re right. I’m just…in a hurry is all. And this motherless cargo platform is not helping.”
Norma approached cautiously, paying particular attention to the equipment. Standard repulsorlift transport platform, basically a floating metal tray. Norma bent down to examine the settings. “The platform is fine. Just turn it like this…and…there you go.” She lifted her hands away as the platform slid smoothly into the vehicle.
Jack blinked. “You can do that with anything? Like, a stapler?”
Norma snorted. “No. It has to have a microchip in it somewhere. You going to work?”
“I am,” Jack confirmed. She raised her head, looked at Norma speculatively. “You feel like helping me out tonight? I’ll pay you.”
“I’m here. What’s the job?”
“Just a delivery. One of my weekly runs. But it’s a two-person thing and Sally looks a little…terrifying. She offends the client’s sensibilities. Besides, she has to stay here to run the bar.”
Norma nodded. “What do I do?”
Jack made a show of checking Norma out. “The guy I’m dealing with likes blondes with husky voices. Can you drop your voice a few notes? No? Okay, forget it. Chirpy works, too.” Jack pulled a black coverall and a pair of pink rubber boots out of the truck and tossed them to Norma, then pointed to the rest room. “Change in there.” Norma wrinkled her nose at the grimy toilet. There wasn’t even a door, just a dingy curtain. “It’s clean, I promise,” Jack said.
When Norma stepped out of the stall, she zipped up the front of uniform. Pink lettering crossed her chest. “What is ‘Dangerous Delights’?”
Jack slammed the cargo door on the truck closed. “Today we are running the most rigidly controlled substance in the city into the heart of darkness.”
Norma eyes popped. “Stim? Crush? Blanks? Smash?”
Jack grinned as she opened the passenger door. “Sugar.”
“Sugar? You’re smuggling candy?”
“Worse. Cupcakes from an exclusive bakery in Westchester. They don’t want to deal with export licenses and my client hates import taxes.”
Norma giggled. “Jack, you’re a criminal!”
Jack joined in the laughter. “The worst! Plus, the guy who runs the local GoldenYears building knows his charges have spending money and every set of dentures in that facility has a built-in sweet tooth. I pay him to do me a favor and he lets me sell my contraband.”
“Isn’t that sort of dangerous?”
Jack climbed into the truck and settled into her pilot’s chair. “It’s one to a customer so it’s not that bad. Besides, with the number of meds the inmates are on, no one will notice a sugar spike. Also, I have a box set aside just for the staff. Get in, we’re on a schedule.”
Driving proved to be a very different experience than flying over the city in Amanda’s fancy air car. That had been pure luxury. Norma now found herself stuck in a vinyl seat that left no legroom and was too narrow for her to sit comfortably. The rumbling of the road beneath the heavy wheels sent jarring shudders throughout her back, ass, and legs. Whenever she tried to shift her weight around Jack grumbled at her not to touch anything. Norma almost couldn’t help notice that Jack had something very similar to an Iode neuro-point set into the dashboard.
“You don’t look like a Genetic, Jack,” she probed.
“You use that neuro-connect point a lot?” Norma pointed at the dashboard.
“Not for cross-town stuff like this,” Jack said.
“So…what? Dodging remote access surveillance? Drone avoidance?”
Jack frowned. “I could tell you. But then I’d have to kill you. And I’m starting to like you. So let’s not talk any more, huh?”
Norma grinned. “I’m just guessing, but it looks like a terabyte uplink. You’re not careful with that, you could shoot your entire nervous system into orbit.”
“Will you shut up?” Jack muttered. “Practice being perky.”
Norma huddled into her seat, rolling her eyes. “Fine.”
“There!” Jack said. “That voice. That’s perfect! Keep that up, and we’re golden.”
The low brick buildings of Queens rolled by as they drove. Jack followed the concrete ribbon of the highway as it wove its way between neighborhoods. The viewing slit in the door was too narrow for Norma to see much. The building they finally arrived at was tall and wide, gleaming marble and encrusted with limestone. The stonework caught the dying sunlight just right to project a golden glow into the sky. Darkness overtook the truck’s cabin as Jack pulled into a service garage and parked near a security door.
Jack opened the cargo doors and Norma slid the cargo platforms out. Piles of cardboard boxes had been stacked on each. Jack pulled out a pair of caps, sat one on her own head and jammed the other down onto Norma’s. The brim squashed her ears, and she pulled away. “Ow! That really hurts.”
“For an hour, you can let it hurt,” Jack groused.
“Because Genetics don’t do service jobs. And you’re too damn pretty to be a lousy food slinger. So for this to work, you need to pass. Anyone says anything to you, just smile and nod.”
“That’s not going to work. I can barely hear like this.”
“If their lips are moving, just smile and nod.” Jack dropped a triple armload of boxes into Norma’s arms and gave her a not so gentle shove, following with the cargo platform. “Showtime.”
Gray concrete corridors gave way to a freight elevator. The doors opened up into a comparatively cheerful hallway. A carpet the color of dried blood and paneled walls softened the harsh fluorescent lights in the ceiling. There were paintings on the walls, as well.
“Those are new.” Jack stopped momentarily to peer closely at one. “This is real art, not the sort of cheap prints you’d find in a motel lobby. Huh.”
“How do you know?” Norma asked.
“I know a lot of things. I wasn’t born in a garage.”
The answer didn’t satisfy Norma. She hadn’t been born in a garage, either, but the quality of the work was unknown to her. Whatever. She plodded along behind Jack, glancing at the décor, concentrating on not jostling the merchandise off the platforms or dropping her armload.
A tall dark man in a very expensive suit—Norma recognized the cut as something similar to what Mark Levine had worn at their meeting—and diamonds in his ears met them as they rounded a corner and entered the main dining hall. Several hundred folks sat at tables finishing their meals, chatting, complaining, joking with one another. Norma picked up on the mood immediately. There were a lot of smiles in the room, and a few frowns.
“J-Mad,” he said. “You’re late. We talked about that. These folks have schedules.”
“New employee,” Jack said, nodding at Norma.
“Really. What’s your name, sweetie?”
Norma cleared her throat and tried to lower the tenor of her voice. “Norma. I’m just here for tonight.”
“That’s a damn shame. What’s J-Mad paying you? I can triple it.” Then, to Jack, he said, “The usual rules apply. Come see me after you’re done. We need to set a few things straight.”
Norma saw Jack’s mood change completely. She stiffened, her shoulders drew into her neck like a turtle and she said nothing. She loosened up after a moment, plastered a smile on her face, and led Norma into the main room where they unloaded their cargo to the delight of the assembled crowd. For the next half hour, they swiped Zhip-Chits and handed out miniature frosted cakes to their customers. More than a few of them, both men and women, sidled up to them, reaching for something more. Jack managed to avoid grabby hands more easily than Norma did.
One determined fellow hooked his arm around Norma’s waist and squeezed her as she squeaked in protest. “I’m not as old as I look,” he said, grinning.
Jack reached over and took his hand off Norma. “You’re no richer than you look, either, Henry. We’ve had this talk. Take your cake and go.”
Jack checked the gadget’s balance as they folded up empty boxes. “Five hundred cakes, four newdollars a pop. Two grand. That’s a good night, I can pay the whole thing at once. Let’s pack this stuff near the elevator.”
That done, Jack took a deep breath and led Norma to a private room near the end of another hallway. Norma hesitated. As soon as Jack entered, she heard a voice from inside. “Ears? Ears!”
Norma’s eyes widened as she followed Jack. The resident was obviously young, a bit younger than Jack but still older than Norma. A jet black crew cut brought out the lines of tattoos that ran in rows down her neck, and Norma assumed, her spine. Routing circuits, tattooed directly into her skin with conducting ink, Norma guessed. The stranger had apparently just gotten—or been gotten—ready for bed. She sat cross-legged on a chair next to the bed, her hands open and resting lightly on her knees. Norma could see a fine mesh of metal filaments extending over the surface of her skin, radiating down every limb. A sizeable piece of chromed metal enclosed a crescent of her skull just above her right ear. A small, antique Iode sat on the window behind her, lights blinking. Norma could practically smell the wireless connection running between the implant and the console.
Cyblock. The word came unbidden into her mind. Hawthorne had warned her about this. Norma whispered through a mouth suddenly gone dry. “Phastlight?”
Jack scrunched down to meet her friend’s gaze. “Hey, girl, how you doin’?”
Phastlight took a moment to respond. Her eyes took some time to focus but the finally settled on Madrid’s face. “Jack!”
“Yeah. I’m here. How are you?”
Phastlight took shallow breaths. “Cupcakes?”
“Right here.” Jack opened her friend’s hand and placed a chocolate cake with pink frosting in it. “That’s not all I brought.” Jack shuffled to the right so that Phastlight could see Norma. Her eyes opened fully and her face shone with glee. “Ears!” Phastlight became agitated, struggling to get out of the chair. Jack helped her put her feet on the floor, then pulled her up. When she stood, Phastlight was a head shorter than either of them. She reached up, pulled Norma’s cap off her head and ran her hands over her head. She pointed to the bed. “Here. Down. Ears!”
Norma leaned into Jack. “What’s going on?”
Jack got Phastlight settled, then pulled Norma aside. “You’re working for RECON, Norma. This is what happens when you do one job too many for them. See if you can find out what—”
A heavy knock on the doorframe interrupted her. The tall suit from before stood at the threshold of the open door. “J-Mad. Let’s talk.” Jack left the room with him and Norma sat down next to her new acquaintance. Phastlight jammed her cupcake into her mouth, gobbling it down in seconds. When she’d scraped the last of the frosting off her lips with her teeth, she closed her eyes and relaxed. “Now. Hands.”
Then Phastlight took Norma’s hands and everything changed. The wireless connection surged with bandwidth, and a new room blinked into digital existence around them, walls covered with tiny depository drawers like in a safe deposit vault. Phastlight herself changed appearance. She stood straight, her mane of raven hair flowed over her shoulders and down her back. Her eyes were absolutely sane. “Hi, Norma,” she said. “Miss me?”
Norma’s eyebrows knitted as she reached out and added solidity to the environment. “We’ve been running through the LINK together for six years and you never told me about any of this.” Pause. “How did you arrange all this?”
Phastlight giggled. “You’re giving me way too much credit, Ears. Everyone you’ve met was doing their job. I just made a few suggestions. Mostly I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Are you running me now?”
Phastlight made a show of considering the question, even stroked her chin. “Yes and no. I’m giving you a quest.”
Phastlight grinned. “Remember that executable file that Hawthorne got you to open? It’s black technology. Heavy-grade military stuff developed by the Avalon Industrial Group for combat operations. It should have killed you.”
“Weak sauce,” Norma sneered.
“It’s killed four Interfacers in the past year.”
That explained the horrific reaction, Norma thought. “What did I do to myself?”
“Let’s just say that anything you could do before, you can now do better, faster, without leaving a trace. And there are tons of new tricks you can use, too. Once you learn how.” Phastlight drew down her lips in a guilty frown. “Unfortunately, I can’t teach you that. I already gave you every trick I know.”
“So, that line that Levine gave me about a temporary situation was just hot air. Great,” Norma sighed.
“Worse. Hera knows that you exist. But she doesn’t know the details. As you move and interact with people she can track, she’ll pick up on them, but not you. But…Tri-Star Technologies has been hired by Demeter to get you back to Tarterus. That means Hera will be directing local enforcers against you whenever she can.”
“But I was just hired by Tri-Star!”
Faslight nodded. “True. Which makes you company property. As long as that contract exists, they can turn you over to Hera whenever they want. Luckily for you, they want you for something else.”
“I don’t know. It’ll be impressive. You wait and see.” She rubbed her hands over Norma’s head again. “Don’t look so sad. You have big people working on you already, or you’d be on your way back to the labs right this minute.”
Norma started at her. There was only the barest physical resemblance to the woman Jack had introduced her to a few minutes ago, and no mental resemblance at all. “What did they do to you?” Norma asked.
Phastlight sniffed. “I did it to myself.”
“To compete. To be more like a geek. It worked for a while. When I crashed, I hit hard. I never really got back up. You’d think that a petabyte social memory implant would let you swap memories and data between your head-meat and the gear. You’d be wrong. I have very little cognitive ability unless I’m LINKing. How’s that for irony?”
“Too bad you can’t upload yourself and stay here all the time.”
“Theoretically, it should be possible. But not with the gear I have access to.”
“Still sucks,” Norma muttered.
“It’s not a bad deal. I’d prefer to string words into coherent sentences whenever I wanted, but I can also do this…” Phastlight waved her arms. The environment broke into componet pixels and reassembled into a vacation resort swimming pool. In a flash, both were wearing bikinis and holding tall drinks as swimmers caroused and cavorted beneath a yellow sun. The illusion was complete.
She trailed off as her eyes lost their focus. “Jack tried to take care of me for a while. She couldn’t do it. She set me up here, instead. It’s a decent place and she visits a lot. She just goes a little crazy trying to pay for the care every month.” The poolside imagery vanished and the small drawer room re-appeared.
Norma nodded to the corridor. “Are the hallways wired for sound?”
“The whole building is,” Phastlight said. “The GoldenYears franchise is overprotective as fuck. “Watch.” She raised viewing surfaces, turned on a speaker and they were watching Jack and her client arguing by the nurse’s station down the hall.
“I’m paying you a two-fifths my weekly take already. Now you want twice that?” Jack argued.
The tall man folded his arms, his face an iron mask. “She eats. She shits. She gets constant medical maintenance, and a 24-7 connection to the LINK. That costs. I’ve given you a boatload of goodwill on her already, but the tank is running dry right…now.”
Jack’s face reddened but she retained her calm. “How much longer before you chuck her out with the trash?”
“One more month. It’s the best I can do. Unless you have a new account with Tri-Star to tell me about…”
Norma cut the feed. “They’re going to kick you out?” Norma asked. “Can they do that?”
Phastlight sagged. “I told Jack this wasn’t a sustainable deal. She knew that. But, she’s got the whole world on her shoulders and she’s proud. And the financial servers are very heavily secured. Otherwise I’d just lift the cash from some bank, run it through a bunch of sovereign wealth funds, transfer it to a trust account, then fill it with enough income-generating securities to pay for this place and set up a monthly transfer.”
“You’d go directly to jail. The CDA looks for things like that.”
Phastlight cocked her head. “Banks are very complex things, and I hide my work pretty well. But I’m open to suggestions.”
“We just need to restructure the cash flow that she already has,” Norma muttered. More viewing surfaces appeared, charts and graphs displayed funding streams deep in Hera’s holodrives. “I spent an hour in Director Levine’s office today and I have no idea what I’m looking at,” she admitted.
“Watch me.” Phastlight grabbed the displays and started playing with the data, grabbing macros and flinging them against viewing surfaces. “These are her assets. That’s the armored car. That’s the motorbike. That’s the property tax account. Utilities…here. This is the bank account. And that’s the building the bar and restaurant are in.” She paused to examine the displays. “She’s an idiot. She bought the whole place out of cash instead of taking out a mortgage. Now she’s in deep for taxes and insurance. We can fix that.” Screens filled with numbers whizzed by, spreadsheet cells transposing data between sheets too quickly for even Norma to follow. “Okay. The building is mortgaged now, but her cash flow is in a better place. Now to automate the transfers from her account to this place’s…”
“How’d you know how to do that?” Norma asked.
“Jack always had me run the money from one job to another. When she wasn’t barking orders to blind security firewalls and transpose TracSat files.” She looked at the floor for a moment, the met Norma’s gaze. “I love Jack like a sister—like a mother, I guess—but she’s playing you. So is that RECON. They all are.”
“In what way?”
“I don’t know. I can only tell you this. Every few decades the engineers come up with something really new, really special. Something that forces the world to re-balance itself. You and your sister are like that.”
“How do you—”
“I’m Hera’s girl. You’re Daddy’s girl. You have to go home.”
Norma tensed. “I’m not going back to Tarterus.”
“That’s not home.” Phastlight turned her head back to the hallway. “Here she comes.” Their handshake broke and the room dissolved as Jack entered. As it did, Phastlight’s eyes grew unfocussed and her gaze wandered. After a moment it settled. Big smile. “Jack!”
Back in the armored car, Jack drove them home. “What’d she say?”
“Not a lot. She just wanted to compete. To be more like a real Interfacer, is all. She’s a lot more functional when she’s LINKed.”
Jack snorted. “That sounds right.”
Norma hesitated to divulge too much of her conversation with Phastlight but thought the driver could use bit of good news. “She and I fixed the payments to the facility. Now she won’t get evicted.”
The entire car swerved as Jack lost control. When she got back on the road, she yelled, “You did what?”
Norma sighed as she unwound her neuro-tail and plugged it into the last free port in the dashboard’s uplink. “I’ll show you what she showed me. This will only take a minute.”
Jack watched Norma out of the corner of her eye as she drove. The girl flicked a switch, pushed buttons in sequence and...loosened. Her muscles relaxed, her eyes closed. Norma’s face began to flush and her breathing deepened. Jack glanced down to see that the girl’s nipples had hardened. Creepy.
“Here we go...” Norma said.
Even though she remained still, Jack could see a plethora of activity. Norma’s eyes rolled behind closed lids, as if scanning the inside of her eyelids for visual clues to her surroundings. She made noises. Sighs, chirps, sub-vocalized moans, grunts of surprise. At one point, she actually started singing, a wordless scale that rolled from low notes to high and back again, never repeating the same pattern. Jack had seen Interfacers work before, but this looked different to her. Norma wasn’t just interacting with lines of code behind her eyes, she was playing with her environment, as if the subprograms were old friends.
“There we are,” Norma breathed.
Norma smiled, cracked her eyes to look at Jack. “I found your bar. Your whole life in digital form. It’s not pretty, Jack.”
“I need you to tell me that?”
“Your food supplier is breaking the law, Jack. They can’t cut your services off. Not completely.”
“Sure they can, I stiffed them.”
“No, I can see the invoices and payments. You’ve always paid something substantial. Their invoices are not consistent in arrival date or pricing. And, you’re living in a neighborhood that was designated a food desert by CorpGov. I can totally fix this,” Norma boasted.
“Wait, fix? Don’t touch anything!”
“Already done.” Norma opened her eyes. “ MonsAgro won’t stop your shipments and you qualify for a lower pricing tier, so I reset your orders. You’ll get a lot more food delivered each month for the same money.” Pause. “You’re welcome.”
“You just broke fifty different laws.”
“No, I got you back your food.”
“Hera will be all over the discrepancy.”
“No, she won’t. Tri-Star is part of CorpGov, which means they’re tasked with enforcing the rules. Some corporate Interfacer would have fixed it eventually, I just got there first.”
“You’re not imprinted on Tri-Star!”
“I work for them. I have the Zhip-Chit to prove it.”
Jack glowered. “Put it back the way it was.”
It was Norma’s turn to stare, mouth agape. “What?”
“You heard me.”
Norma blinked, folded her arms. “You’d rather go hungry than—”
“I’d rather not get burned by Hera’s CDA goons for something you did. Put. It. Back. Now.” Jack shook her head. “You’re nuts, shickie pop.”
“Yeah, well…it’s back the way it was. Enjoy your starvation.“
Red LEDs flashed intently on the dashboard. Jack’s face morphed into a worried frown. She hurriedly pulled a cord from a compartment, snapped one end of it into the terabyte uplink and the other into a socket above her ear. She flipped switches on the dashboard, and Norma felt Jack connect to her vehicle’s circuitry.
“What’s wrong?” Norma asked.
“Either someone is following us or there’s a sensor echo somewhere,” Jack said. “Let’s take the scenic route home.” Pause. “No. Let’s get you somewhere else.”
“Look,” Jack said, “I don’t get followed. There’s enough ECM gear in here that even TracSats and police drones don’t know who I am. And Phastlight has never responded to anyone that way I saw her do with you tonight. Something’s wrong. ‘Manda paid me to keep you out of sight, so that’s what I’m gonna do.”
“My new Iode is back still your place.”
“Iodes are cheap, life is not. Now settle the frick down so I can lose our tail.”
About the Author
Jon Frater is the pen name of Jonathan Frater, who is the Technical Services Librarian at Metropolitan College of New York. Jon has been writing science fiction for years but has been slowly bringing his longer fiction into the hands of new readers. He’s written articles on library science for Scarecrow Press and MacMillan, and has most recently contributed to Samuel Peralta’s Future Chronicles series: Chronicle Worlds: Feyland, and Alt Chronicles: Legacy Fleet. Jon lives in Queens, New York, with his family and too many cats.
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and check out his work here:
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Fans of comedy and a more traditional style of fantasy role-playing (read: table-top gaming) can check out the podcast, Sci-Fi Writers Playing Old School D&D, at the website http://oldschooldnd.com. Jon plays Rol Belmondo, a fighter.