Marcus wiped cold sweat from his forehead and gripped his queasy stomach. He’d spent the past ten minutes retching in the toilet. His ribs still felt bruised from the intense pressure of the flight. At least being sick had dampened the feeling of fear as he approached customs. Actual human guards with submachine guns stood near each customs kiosk, so it was a relief when Marcus’s palm scan returned a prompt green signal and the guard waved him through the gate.
Enabling wireless took longer than usual as his account negotiated payment and connectivity rules with the Sheremetyevo airport network. Marcus was relieved when his father’s voice popped into his head.
<Everything okay, Marcus?>
<Yes. I’m through customs. You said there...ah, I see a guy with a sign for me.>
Marcus nodded at the short blond man holding a sign with ‘Saenz’ printed on it. The man grinned and led Marcus toward an exit. A sleek black aircar hovered near the curb.
“Here you are, Mr. Saenz,” the man said in Russian. The card in Marcus’s slot instantly translated the words. Marcus nodded thanks to the man and thrust his traveling case into the back seat before climbing in after it. The seat was incredible--smooth and deep. Is it real leather? No one uses real leather, do they? If not for the excitement of being in such a strange place, Marcus figured he’d have trouble staying awake seated in such luxury.
“Destination?” said the flat male voice of the autodriver.
The Russian chip spelled out his desired response phonetically in easy-to-read letters that looked like they hovered in the air about six inches in front of his eyes. It was awkward, but he read off the address his father had given him. The door closed and the car rose quickly into the gray sky.
The sky...Marcus had known all his life about time zone differences, but it felt unnatural to have everything change so dramatically in so short a time. It had been the middle of the night when the suborbital launched, and now his slot told him it was close to three in the afternoon.
<Have something to eat,> Jorge said.
<I can’t, Papa. I still feel ill.>
<I knew it would be hard on you to fly. I’m very grateful that you are helping me.>
Marcus shook his head, though he knew his father couldn’t see it. <I worry that it is all a waste of time. Do you honestly think they’ll be able to help you, even if they’re willing?>
<I don’t know, Marcus. But they’re the first honest chance I’ve encountered. The longer I live in the Web the further from human I become. What will I be like if they can reconstitute me? I’ve spent years absorbing far more data than any human can handle. My ability to feel, taste, or smell is only simulated in my cradle code. If I am ever to have a shot at a human life again, I must grasp the earliest chance.>
Marcus turned to look out the window of the speeding aircar. He didn’t want to think about the possibility of his father becoming real again. Massive groves of pale birches lined the banks of a grayish-brown river. The buildings they passed had an alien look to them--oddly shaped wooden or concrete structures painted in shades of color Marcus had never seen before--and it struck home to him just what it meant to be in a country so different from his own.
Suddenly they were past the birch forest and zooming over desolate suburbs. Marcus’s eyes were drawn to what could only be the center of Moscow, a thicket of immensely tall skyscrapers reaching to the gray clouds. As they drew closer, he could see a veritable web of moving walkways strung between the buildings at all different levels.
<It’s amazing, Papa,> Marcus said. <Such decay and misery and then...such fantastic wealth and modernity. The vids I watched didn’t do it justice.>
<Here the wealthy live in the clouds,> Jorge said, <while the poor can only stare up at them.>
<So many people. All those aircars. I haven’t seen a city this full of life since I was a child.>
They passed the rest of the trip in silence, as Marcus absorbed the various views of this strange city. He was struck hardest by the sheer amount of activity he saw. He recalled only dimly when Phoenix had been filled with millions of impatient commuters, before Meshing took hold and turned the city into a ghost town. He hadn’t read much about the effects of Mesh addiction on other countries; he’d assumed it was similar everywhere. Apparently he was wrong, at least in Russia.
The aircar began descending into lower lanes of traffic as it drew close to their destination.
<Papa, does Meshing not affect them here?>
<Of course it does. But you must understand, Marcus...it’s an addiction of the rich and middle classes. The poor usually cannot afford upgraded slots or Web subscriptions. Russia doesn’t have much of a middle class, and America, even after the recent civil war, has very few who are truly poor.>
The aircar slowed to a hovering descent near a row of ancient concrete apartment blocks. Across a wide avenue from the buildings was a vast park that was clearly a refugee camp.
<We’re here, Papa.> The door of the aircar slid up to allow Marcus to clamber out. Three boys kicking a soccer ball stopped to stare at him.
<Shouldn’t have ordered such an expensive car, Papa.> He studied the row of twelve-story buildings. <This is a really bad area. I wish you could smell this stench. Must be the refugee camp.>
<Find the building marked with a six.>
<We landed right in front of it, Papa.> The autodriver’s maps were accurate, at least. Marcus walked up to the door set in a small arch. On the wall to the right of the door was a metal pad with numbered buttons. <Wow, this is really ancient stuff. How do we get in?>
<It’s not connected to the Web. Is there a buzzer?>
A rectangle of dirty plastic served as a window in the door. Marcus peered through it and saw a hallway tiled in yellow and white. An obviously broken elevator stood open near a stairwell. To the left was a small desk and a wooden chair, but there was no one to be seen.
Marcus backed up a couple of steps and looked around. His eyes alit on a wide open second floor window, jagged bits of glass along the top and sides of the frame.
<Strange. There’s a shattered window here, looks like it happened recently. What floor was your address?>
<Oh. This place is giving me the creeps.> Marcus kept feeling as if someone was sneaking up on him, but no one was there each time he turned to look.
<Can you climb through the window?>
Marcus walked closer to the broken window and peered up. <Nah, it’s too high.> He glanced down at the scattering of glass. The soil near the wall looked like someone had landed in it. He knelt down to examine the area.
<Looks like someone fell or dropped out of the window. Lucky they didn’t cut themselves badly.> A bit of black with a clean white patch caught his eye, and he reached out to pluck an unusually long slot card from the dirt. Marcus was about to comment on it when the door to his right swung open and a middle-aged couple emerged. They didn’t see Marcus as he leapt to catch the door before it shut.
<I’m in, Papa. Someone opened the door. And I found a slot card...though it’s weird, too long.> He held it up to look at the white label. <Three letters and a date. Friday. Whatever it is, it’s very recent.>
<Get up to the tenth floor, Marcus. I’m dying to know why such important data was accessed in such a run-down neighborhood.>
<Okay, but I’ll have to take the stairs.> He stuck the card into a pocket of his coat.
Jorge’s laughter filled Marcus’s head. <Bet you wish you’d done those exercise sims now, eh?>
Marcus ignored his father and set off up the first flight of stairs. He was huffing badly when he reached the third floor. <I’ve gotta rest.> He put his hands to his knees and bent over.
<Twenty-six years old and you can’t climb three stories without half dying.> Jorge sounded like he was trying to make a joke, but Marcus heard the undercurrent of concern.
<I’ll be all right in a minute.> He wiped sweat from his brow with his coat sleeve. Marcus thanked God for whomever had invented the solar coat. It used the same microscopic layer of solar cells that were used on cars, and the energy was used by the coat to provide heat or cooling as needed.
Ten minutes and several rest stops later, he reached the tenth floor and walked down the thinly carpeted hallway to the burgundy door marked ‘1012’. He pushed the buzzer and waited. A minute passed and he pushed it again. <No one’s home.>
He put a hand on the cool metal of the door, and it opened with a click. <Hey, it’s not locked.>
<Be careful, Marcus. That doesn’t seem right.>
<Tell me about it.>
The tiny entrance hall had warped wooden flooring. The coat and shoe racks held only women’s apparel. A flowery umbrella hung from the end of the coat rack. Straight ahead was an open doorway to what was clearly a kitchen. Marcus’s gaze was drawn to a picture of a young woman on the opposite wall. She was pretty, though not in a classical sense. She had long black hair and high Slavic cheekbones. Her prominent nose told him she likely had some Jewish blood. Her eyes were very slightly turned down in the corners, and though she was smiling, the eyes and mouth together gave her a sad look. Marcus knew he could never be bold enough to approach such a woman, but there was a primal part of him that wanted to hold her, to tell her everything would be all right.
Marcus forced his eyes away from the captivating portrait. A door on the left led to a dark bedroom, while the hall to the right led to a well-lit living room. Marcus took two steps in that direction and froze.
“Madre de Dios!” he said aloud, clutching at his suddenly heaving stomach.
<What is it! Are you all right?>
Marcus started panting in order to stop himself from retching.
<Marcus, you’re scaring me!>
Marcus tried to collect himself. <Sorry, Papa. What have you gotten us into?>
<I can’t see, Marcus!>
<There’s a dead woman seated at a table.>
<You sure she’s dead?>
<Her...> Marcus fought down bile again. <Her head is twisted around backwards. She’s dead.>
The only time he had ever seen a dead person was after his father’s sudden, massive stroke.
<Marcus, you need to-->
<No!> Marcus spun and trotted into the corridor, closing the door behind him. <I’ve got to get out of here, Papa. You’re gonna get me killed.>
<No!> It took all his willpower not to run to the stairwell. Marcus breathed heavily and forced one foot in front of the other. He felt dizzy and stopped with one hand on the wall to steady himself.
<It’s okay, Marcus,> Jorge said. <It’s going to be okay.>
<No,> Marcus said. <It’s not.> He took another step and froze, as a bulky man with a crew-cut, a fleshy red face, and a coat that no one should be wearing in summer stepped through the doorway from the stairs. The man paused a moment and glared at Marcus, then clomped forward on heavy-soled boots.
The man looked like he might walk right by, so Marcus turned his eyes to the floor and started walking slowly toward the stairs. He glanced up as they drew near each other, and he saw the man staring at him with a smirk on his face. Marcus couldn’t help himself and sped up, hoping somehow to put the man behind him, but the man reached out and snagged him by his solar coat, shoved him against the wall.
“Who are you, cocksucker?” The man loomed over Marcus like a giant, and squeezed his hand around Marcus’s larynx.
Choking for air, Marcus had trouble reading the phonetic translation of how he wanted to reply to the man.
<Papa! He’s gonna kill me!>
Marcus had forgotten that Jorge had no means of seeing what had happened. <A big man is pinning me to a wall, looks like he wants to kill me.>
<Tell him you’re a diplomat.>
<I don’t think this guy will care!>
Regardless, he choked out, “Dip-di-diplomat.” He realized he’d spoken in English, then saw that the translation was exactly the same, except the stress should have been on the last syllable.
“Diplomat?” The man hawked and spat on the floor. “Foreign pig! Why did you come here? Tell me now.”
Blood pounded in Marcus’s ears as he struggled to breathe. It was difficult to read the translation. “Looking for...something.”
“In that apartment? What could you be looking for in that apartment?”
The man relaxed his grip slightly, and Marcus gasped for air.
“Tell me now, or I’ll break your fucking neck!” Marcus had never been in a physical confrontation before, and he’d never seen anything like the brutal expression on the man’s face.
The man’s stare turned cold. “Did the general send you? How do you know about the cards?”
“What general? I’ve never seen a general,” Marcus said.
“Fuck your mother, start talking.”
Marcus’s mind scrambled for something to say. “I...I don’t know. I was just told to come here and pick up this card.”
<What card?> echoed Jorge.
<How are you hearing what I’m saying?> Marcus said to his father.
<I can’t hear you,> Jorge said. <I’m reading the translator card.>
“It’s in my pocket,” Marcus said, flapping his right hand at his coat.
“Pull it out.”
Marcus stuffed his hand into his coat pocket and fished out the card he had found below the broken window. He held it up so the man could see it, and saw the man’s eyes widen.
“Where did you get this?” The man snatched the card from Marcus and held it up to his eyes to read the label. “Was this in the apartment?”
<Don’t say yes, Marcus. Tell him you found it.>
Marcus shook his head. “I found it...on the floor over there.” He pointed to the end of the hall past the open apartment door.
“Who sent you here?” The man reached into his coat and drew a gun, stepped back and pointed it in Marcus’s face.