It took Rul another two hours to return to headquarters, get the lab to construct the tissue needed to emulate the fingerprints – something the labs usually denied the knowledge of, but that was a far too standard subversion tactic not to have become routine – and then return to level 15 where to his annoyance he was once again subjected to security checks.
“You’d think they’d show a little solidarity to a man in uniform,” he said to Marcus as he rearranged his clothes. However he himself was well aware of the never ending feud between MegK’s security factions. Sometimes they weren’t any better than the criminal organizations they fought against.
“I’ve spoken to the higher-ups while you were away, permission for your inquest has been granted provided the fingerprints do open the MM. Now, let’s see if this really is your girl.”
He slipped the artificial membrane on a finger and pressed it to the fingerprint recognition slot on the viewing device. The name Lucy showed up in ornate writing on the screen then a holographic menu appeared mid-air displaying various options. Marcus’ brow furrowed in concentration as he worked his way through the MM’s intricate security system and disabled all its destructive mechanisms. Once he was done, he resumed his usual lighthearted tone.
“Let’s try something easy first.” Marcus chose the latest pictures that had been added. “Is this her?”
A picture of a pretty blond girl smiling appeared before Rul. For a moment he was baffled by that disarming smile, but then said:
“I have no idea. There was nothing in her apartment, a bunch of clothes and dirty dishes. All it told us was that she’s somewhere along the line of 5 feet 3, with long blond hair, size 3 feet, a skinny little thing. But as to her face, her family, her friends. There was nothing. Can I have a copy of this? I can run it through the MegK citizen registry. There might be a match.”
MegK tried to keep tabs on its population photographically at least, but for the most part failed miserably given its liberal views concerning immigration and birthrate. Non-registry wasn’t even considered a real crime.
“No can do. The information is non-transferable and the MMs can’t be hooked up to databases. We can only add data to the chip, extraction is impossible. It’s one of the safety measures,” Marcus confessed.
“That could work. Nothing prevents someone or something from looking at the information.”
“Might take a few hours to get someone up here. Most of the sketch robots are used by homicide,” Rul said dissatisfied. “I’ll ask for one, but in the meantime, we’re just going to have to sit here and go through all the pictures till something rings a bell,” Rul said. Marcus sighed and a panel suddenly opened ten feet away and a chair made its way to his desk.
“Sit down. This might take a while.”
Lucy’s memory was full of pictures and renderings of objects that had been precious to her: stuffed toys, handmade jewelry, clothes, apartments. She did not keep things like a diary, but there were a couple of awkward attempts at poetry, mostly about sunshine and flowers. From the pictures, Rul figured Lucy had never been outside of MegK. From her childhood pictures, he recognized the 40+ slum levels, always dark and murky, greenish hue on everything, rusty old ground cars with improvised wings that barely flew an inch off the ground.
“You know, they say that if you tried to create an avatar using all the information stored in a MM by a meticulous person such as Lucy, the replica would be 90 to 98% accurate in all its reactions. An almost perfect copy. Of course, that’s all theoretical,” he hurried to add. Those were the kind of comments that would have made people who knew Marcus better instantly suspicious about what he did for fun at work.
Luckily for him, Rul was not one of them.
“Ah, if we could feed these into the city’s virtual map, it could work out possible locations. Although all these backgrounds are so generic…there must be something that’ll give us a clue,” Rul said. “There, that’s the view from the apartment, most definitely.”
Suddenly the space above Marcus’ desk disappeared beyond the large image of a canvas in its original size as the recording specified. It drew a couple of brief curious glances from nearby desks, but Marcus did not seem particularly surprised. Rul figured he must have seen quite a few strange things pop out of MMs.
“A favorite, you think?” Rul asked. He didn’t know much about paintings. It was a pastoral scene of sorts, if woodland faeries and busty shepherdesses had ever had the possibility of frolicking together on the outskirts of MegK.
“Her work actually,” he said pointing towards the signature in the corner that identified it as the work of Lucy. “If she was well known or at least had a display somewhere you could easily identify her by looking for the paintings.”
Rul thought back to the box room, the filthy yellow carpeting, the cot bed and rickety chest of drawers.
“I don’t think she was doing too well. Although if she painted, I wonder where she did it? There was no trace in the apartment of painting utensils,” Rul said.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean she’s still painting. People lose touch with hobbies sometimes. I myself used to play cricket in Ilysian, now I can’t be bothered anymore.”
“Ilysian,” Rul repeated and internally noted he had been right. Marcus was a rich boy of the mischievous persuasion. Ilysian was a level 13 sports club well known for its well-engineered horses and their outrageous pranks. “You may be right.”
“Ah, but seems some are recently dated. Maybe she used one of those big communal painting houses.”
“Or the paintings were never real,” Rul said as the office around them disappeared and they suddenly found themselves in the middle of a messy little painting studio. In it, Rul found all the things missing from Lucy’s room: the canvases, paints and easels. “Was this a real place at some point?”
“No, it’s a composite. I suppose she went around town and whenever she saw something she liked she took a holographic image of it and embedded it into this virtual room,” Marcus said.
“Could she have really done that? By herself I mean?”
“The MMs have very complex reconstruction software attached to them. We try to make people self-sufficient after their first visit here. It saves us the hassle of quarterly data updates. Besides, people who are crazy about MMs are the type that enjoy recording their lives as they happen. Or people who are afraid to forget the smallest details of their existence.”
“Or people who can’t afford a real good life and they’d rather build a fake one,” Rul said grimacing.
“It wasn’t fake. She did make these paintings, virtually, what is it to anyone if she wanted to enrich her experience of virtual painting by pretending she was in a studio?”
“Is this the only virtual room in the MM?”
“No, there’s another one. How did you guess?” Marcus said and accessed the composite before Rul answered. The second room was the same size as her crummy little apartment with the exception that where the windows had been the wall extended into a wide porch and onto one of the idyllic scenes portrayed in Lucy’s paintings. In the corner, where her worn out mattress had been, there was a giant bed covered in intricately decorated pillows and where her chest of drawers had been a wall of shelves spread out containing some of the things Marcus and Rul had already seen. Rul was amazed by how real it all looked. He had dealt with holograms before and was particularly fond of MegK Library’s avatars that were usually polite and pretty looking girls, but there was always a bit of transparency to their texture, always a little hint of the ethereal about them. But Lucy’s room appeared disturbingly real to the point that Rul had to reach out for an object resting on a shelf – a filthy looking teddy bear with one eye missing – to convince himself that they hadn’t been transported to Lucy’s real room somehow.
“I’ll say this for her, she had an artist’s flare and precision. Of course the holograms we produce are of the highest quality, but once the MM’s handed over to their owners they rarely manage to come up with such top notch work as ours.”
“This is why she was happy,” Rul said. “She projected this room over her miserable existence and pretended it was real.”
“As long as only her eyes were fooled, why shouldn’t she? Granted, it can be dangerous if people fool themselves too much. It’s why we’re reluctant to copy things like food, what if people talked themselves into eating imaginary food?”
“And wore imaginary clothes?”
“And drank imaginary tea from imaginary cups?
“And turned into real corpses in a very pretty unreal world,” Rul concluded darkly.
“You think that happened to her?” Marcus asked.
“No, she was airlifted, but somehow I feel she might have been heading that way.”
“Do you want to go through the whole inventory? There are over fifty thousand items listed on it.”
“Do you mind?”
“And be spared the pleasure of talking to the 80 people on my waiting list today? I just couldn’t…” he said with a grin.
The quality of the paintings in the virtual gallery deteriorated as they watched her work in reverse order of its coming into being. And as time moved backwards her expert brush strokes dissolved into awkward first attempts, amateurish sketches and finally into the tell-tale signs of childhood scribbles. Rul was astounded that she had managed to so carefully gather every piece of art she had ever drawn.
“She must’ve had a collector’s heart,” Marcus noted.
After the paintings, came objects, sceneries and finally, a collection of priceless artifacts.
“Now, there’s no way those belonged to her,” Marcus said looking over the objects. “Most of these are museum pieces.”
“Are people allowed to copy them?” Rul asked frowning.
“No, but you can buy a cheap 3D virtual reconstruction at any museum shop. There are good copies too, but usually those cost money. Do you think our little Lucy, however she made her money, spent it all on high-def copies of art?”
“That seems unlikely,” Rul said. “Is there any way she could have taken these herself?”
“Improbable. To achieve this level of detail, the object has to be unobstructed. Most museums have cases of some kind, right?”
“And you’re sure they’re high end copies?” Rul asked and Marcus sighed and magnified the copy by a thousand, covering 20 desks plus clients. Protests could be heard from inside the purple vase, but Marcus did not seem particularly concerned.
“See how clear the reproduction remains? Now if I were to multiply it by a thousand or a million, the clarity would remain the same, you just don’t get that with cheap copies.”
“I see,” Rul said a bit concerned by the ruckus beyond the purple walls and eager for Marcus to release the people he had imprisoned within the vase. Marcus pressed a button and the neat 10 object line reappeared. A furious middle-aged man with a big red nose and daintily arranged blond hair was shooting thunderbolts at Marcus.
“Ignore him, he’s got a choleric personality,” Marcus passed his hand through the air as if chasing away an annoying fly.
“Hmm, can we try and match these to originals?”
“You would have to be connected to an outside network for that,” Marcus said. “Now that you can access the MM, you might as well take it with you and wait for your sketchers. Customers usually have a customized viewer-recorder they carry around with them, they come in a lot of shapes, most commonly armbands and bracelets. Lucy must still have hers, but you can hook it up to a standard viewer,” he paused for a moment and then asked: “You do know how to do that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do!” Rul dismissed his worries and Marcus breathed relieved:
“I thought I’d actually have to come down to Eon myself!”
Another two hours later, still aware of the stench of upper level disinfectant emanating from his clothes, sitting in the nearly deserted office where only a few suspicious looking fellows were disintegrating documents in the back office, Rul found himself incapable of getting the viewer to work. Both the MM Level 15 offices and the information bureau seemed to have called it a day and most of the how-tos he had found floating around the networks had featured only customized MM viewers that seemed nowhere close to the standard design.
A few phone calls later, Jor’s lucky number 7, Jeanie, was standing in front of his desk in her plaited school uniform, having just escaped cram school. Despite a grueling day of school and then more school, she still looked fresh as the moment she had awakened and ready to face another million other tasks at hand. In her father’s own words, she had always been a hyper kid.
“Papa said you’re having some technical problems with your MM,” she said ignoring his somewhat bewildered expression at the sudden young, vivacious presence invading his taciturn world.
“It’s not quite mine,” he said as if to excuse his ignorance.
“Ah, don’t tell me you’re trying to crack one! Your wife’s or something!”
“No, no, it’s for a case,” he said and she instantly went into detective mode, something she had developed from extensive literature on the subject upon learning her father was a militia man.
“No…At least I don’t think so yet…Look,” he stopped her before she could continue with the interrogation. “It doesn’t even need fingerprint recognition any more, I just need you to set up the viewer for me.”
She took the viewer in her hands and after turning it on every side a few times, she secured Lucy’s MM in the middle, then pressing several buttons in a flash, she made the holographic menu pop up.
Jeanie stood up and grabbed her backpack.
“Are you going already? I thought you might stay a bit till I get the hang of it,” he said.
“Sorry, I can’t do that. Looking at another person’s MM… it’s just too embarrassing, it’s like peeking at someone naked,” she said with a little blush. “But if you have any more problems with the viewer, just call the house, I’ll be there!” And she was off.
Given the MM couldn’t be connected to an outside network, Rul wouldn’t have known where to begin to search for Lucy’s artifacts, but that’s why Sparky was there. The AFD’s standard issue sketch robot was a stumpy little thing that barely reached up to Rul’s knees although, if needed, it could rise itself up on spindly legs, much like a bird. MegK’s robots had never outgrown their menial use as androids, humanlike, but not countable within the census, were declared useless by the greedy MegK.
“Sparky, could you please make sketches of the people in these pictures? Then move on to the artifacts and once you’re done with them, please compare them to existent museum databases.” Robots in general only responded to polite requests. If they were addressed harshly they were programmed not to react or perform. While some early creators of robots scoffed at the idea of politely addressing them given they were after all inanimate objects without feelings, public opinion, supported by other experts in robotics, answered that in a way the same applied to animals. They did not understand politeness, but people recoiled when they saw them being treated harshly so to protect some people’s sensitivities the robots were programmed to only respond to politeness. Rul kind of liked it that way. Although he supposed that the animal comparison had brought about the fact a lot of robots were given names, beyond their serial numbers, that sounded a lot like pet names.
Rul took the virtual drawing of Lucy as soon as Sparky finished it and ran it through the AFD’s extensive databases as well as the citizen registry. There were no conclusive results. Lucy was a ghost. Other portraits from Lucy’s memories proved just as ghostly.
When he was done, Sparky displayed his handy work before him in slides of ten virtual sketches at a time and then ran them through museum databases. Out of the 284 treasures found in the MM, 209 were from museum collections and out of the remaining, 75 were considered lost or stolen.
“Thank you for your hard work,” he told the robot. It was the standard phrase of dismissal usually followed by a bow and a silent departure from the robot, but Sparky lingered a moment longer and said:
“It was my pleasure, sir,” and then retrieved. Rul wondered whether, given their purpose, the sketch robots actually had a sense of the artistic and whether spending hours looking at and reconstructing notable artwork was something akin to pleasure to them. Then again, Rul had been the sort of child who had talked to his toys, fully expecting them to talk back.
Looking at the results of his search, Rul felt like the answer was in the 75 missing objects. He checked their background and found that some had gone missing before the creation of the rendering. There were suspicions as to who their new owners were and of course, most of them were names of known criminals. Cross referencing the names with their known areas of operations, it was not difficult to find that one in particular operated on level 35 not far from the place Lucy had lived. The Iron Mongers as they called themselves were low on the criminal hierarchy, but their boss was apparently an upper-level clerk down on his luck that still tried to reach out to his former glory through the filth by – what else – buying expensive art.
It was late, far too late to pay anyone a visit. It would have to wait till morning. He wished that, like himself, people operated without stopping. Especially when it came to cases like Lucy’s, every minute counted. The thought always distressed him. People waiting to be saved and he, the only person awake to do it. He opened the menu of the MM and began again from that bright smiling face, working his way through thousands upon thousands of images, some high-definition MM renderings, some mere 2D pictures, others flimsy translucent images of objects, people and places, until they all became a blur and he fell asleep. In his dreams, he saw the slums, the acid damaged buildings, the grimy vehicles, the filthy children and among them all, faeries with dreamy eyes, luscious vegetation in a million colors and above them all, Lucy and her smiling face.
Continue reading Chapter 3
Originally published as The Invisible Girl, Chapter 2: Lucy, 26 August 2014 on