The Invisible Girl, Chapter 1: Airlift
MegaKaleidon had a population just shy of one billion. It had been an ambitious metropolis from the very beginning. Its first ever recorded census put it at 30 million. One year there had been nothing there but fields, the next, a colossus had been erected with the seal of approval of the almighty viceroy himself. It was like a hungry toddler eating everything in sight. It speedily swallowed the suburban areas around it, the villages, the cities, it encouraged an elevated birth rate, attracted investors as well as immigrants, it granted asylum, rehabilitated criminals, and became the number one location where many countries exiled their troublesome agitators. And while it cared for little but its expansion, MegK, as it was popularly referred to, had bred by its blind greed for human life a deadly cocktail for instability and mayhem.
Its political caste was well aware of this and, while some had attempted at times to change the city’s libertarian policies and failed miserably—the encyclopedia entry for ‘liberty’ contained no less than nine direct references to MegK—their overall strategy was to turn a blind eye and hope order would not come crashing down in their lifetime. To such an end, they openly encouraged the formation of gangs and criminal syndicates in the city’s lower layers in an attempt to keep violent elements preoccupied with each other as opposed to the far greater bounty that the city itself represented.
It all made Rul Owlen’s job all the more troublesome. He was a member of the missing persons division of the MegK Armed Forces for the Defense of Public Safety—AFD for short—the mayoralty funded militia. It was made up of 74 divisions, 60 of which were known to the public while the remaining 14 operated in secret and were often referred to as the Subversion divisions.
The apartment where Rul found himself that morning was the kind of sad little box many of the cities’ low born millions called home. There was nothing much in the room. An old mattress in the corner. Dirty plates in the sink. A few worn clothes in a drawer. No pictures on the walls, no sign of technology or personal belongings. It felt bare.
“Are you sure she didn’t just take off?” he asked the building supervisor who had called AFD.
“She was taken, sir, I can vouch for that,” he said and, nearing the window, took away a large plank that had been blocking the view of the wall—or more like protecting against the lack thereof. The wall looked like some mechanical monster had taken a big bite out of it, which wasn’t too far from the truth.
“Did you see the aircraft that did this?” Rul asked as he neared the gap in the wall and looked outside.
MegK in all its glory occupied the earth, the sky, and everything in between. People had long ago stopped counting which building was the tallest in the city, and in the slums and mid-levels, where construction regulations were not so strictly observed, it had given way to the rise of such colossal rickety buildings as the one Rul was standing in at that moment. The air was abuzz with traffic and, given how easily cars passed windows, Rul understood why criminals found it easier to come in that way rather than bother with the stairs—elevators in such buildings were deemed deathtraps and some people even preferred to get into their homes by aircab.
“I live fourteen floors down in the south wing. People from the opposite building saw what happened and told me about it. I came, I saw this, figured she must have been airlifted.”
“The name you wrote in your declaration, it wasn’t her real name, was it?”
“What do you mean?” The supervisor seemed confused.
“It was Blue Magenta…”
“I don’t know, I’ve met people named Blue. I figured her folks might have had a sense of humor.” He shrugged.
“Can you provide me with a picture of her, security footage from inside the building maybe? Names of friends?”
“I only met her once when she moved in, but that was over a year ago and there are so many tenants. She was a skinny little thing. Blond, I believe. She always dropped her rent in the office box. Never had any problems with her. No one complained. No one saw her. As for security footage, there’s nothing past the 20th floor on the inside. No one bothers climbing the stairs higher than that,” he chuckled. “The outside’s a bit of a bother though; the cameras always get smashed by oncoming traffic.”
Rul sighed and looked around the room again. Just as he did, a stray ray of light reflected against something in the corner of his eye. He turned around and, crouching down by the gaping wall, found a thin necklace dangling from the crushed metal rods. He pulled it up and found a jewel hanging from it. He frowned and bagged it.
“The lab techs will be done in thirty minutes,” he assured the anxious building supervisor as two men dressed in white made their way into the room in search of all manner of physical evidence. Rul escorted the man out.
The manager noticed Rul was deep in thought and said, “Don’t worry too much about it, sir. It was my duty to report the incident,” there were penalties for those that didn’t report airlifts, “but if you can’t find her…Well, no one’s going to miss her.”
Just as they were heading out, a woman carrying a plump baby made her way out of the apartment next door. “You’re here about Magenta, aren’t you?” she said to Rul.
“Did you know her?”
“I met her, maybe twice. She kept to herself. I don’t know what she got up to, but she never brought anyone here and wasn’t a bad neighbor…”
“You think you could help one of our sketch robots come up with a picture?”
“Oh, I don’t think I remember her that well. She was small, blond. Her hair was long. Pretty skinny. I was too busy with this little guy to take too much notice of her,” she said apologetically.
“If you remember anything, please give us a call.” Rul slipped her his card.
“I will. You know, I think she was a rather happy person.”
“Why would you think that?” Rul thought back to that bare little room and its constraining walls.
“I could hear her laughing in her room. And if I think about it, there was one other thing I remember about her: she had a beautiful smile.”
The situation of missing persons in MegK was as follows: the supremes – the upper-upper-crust, the elite made up only of the city’s highest officials and their families – allowed themselves to be monitored at all times. They saw themselves as a far too precious commodity to be misplaced. In his long career, Rul had never once come across a case that involved a supreme, although he had heard there had been one or two– probably before the system had been perfected. The upper-crust was a mixed lot, some accepting the full observation dictated by their superiors, some only pretending to do so and others fully rejecting it. Cases in this area were usually easy as the layers of the upper-crust were thinly populated. The AFD’s missing persons division mostly dealt with the middle layers as in the lower layers the density of the population made investigation nearly impossible. The lower you went, the shiftier people got and all those that ran tended to disappear there.
Rul had tried to leave MegK once, after a particularly brutal case had ended with him cradling the corpse of a four-year-old girl. He had thought he would never return. He had planned never to return. He had made arrangements and bought a little hut by the sea in a small village very far from MegK. It had lasted only five days. No matter how much he claimed to hate MegK, away from its bustling life, Rul felt empty. Maybe he was always empty, and the noise of MegK simply drowned out that feeling, but Rul liked it better that way. If he was miserable deep inside, he preferred not to know it.
Rul figured that despite all his complaining, he secretly loved MegK and was proud to be a K—a title given only to those born and bred in the city. MegK encouraged such city pride and, given the outrageous mythology that circulated about it in the rest of the world, and off-world for that matter—some of it true, most of it wild fantasies of over-caffeinated writers who had visited twice making sure they stayed in the shadow of their guides the entire time—people couldn’t quite help themselves from feeling proud. In the end, outsiders might dream and wonder at how one can live and survive in MegK, but there were others—one billion of them—for whom MegK was just the backdrop of their everyday lives.
The city itself was comprised of 54 levels and counting. Its heart was Level 21 in the upper-middle layers, which was close enough for the slums to ascend to and high enough for the upper-crust to descend to. It was named Eon Sphere and it was the conversion place of all the cities’ roads. The place where a third-hand pickpocket and a mid-level dignitary could walk side by side.
That day, the sky above Eon was flooded with the seductive image of Lavi Duras, MegK’s number one starlet, advertising the most fashionable trinket of the day: My Memory, personalized designer-made memory chips that could hold a person’s entire history encased in a fine one-of-a-kind jewel. “Your life at your fingertips,” Lavi said as the necklace trickled down her smooth white fingers like a golden thread from which a geometric tear-shaped crystal hid her precious memories.
Rul rummaged through his pockets and fiddled with the sharp angles of the jewel he was carrying, deciding in the end that it was not of the same design that the luscious Lavi was wearing in the ad. He had for a wild moment wondered if the trinket he had found in Blue Magenta’s apartment didn’t incidentally belong to the starlet.
Rul admonished himself for letting his imagination get the best of him. How could it ever belong to Lavi when he had found it on Level 35, in a poorly illuminated cubicle someone had dared to call an apartment?
He ducked into the first alley, went up two flights of stairs, passed through the busy kitchen of a restaurant, went out the back door, took the elevator to the 25th floor, went down the stairs to level 24½, then turned right, used his ID card and, turning left, entered the AFD Eon Division headquarters. The AFD did not like to have big flashy entrances as they were afraid they might expose them to attacks, though Rul suspected that the Subversion agents always skulking about were the ones actually worried about such occurrences.
Reaching his desk, Rul sat down and took out the My Memory for a closer look.
“Wow, is that a Memory?” Jor Grev whistled loudly and leaned over Rul’s shoulder, making a grab for the jewel, but Rul quickly closed his fist around it. “Present for a lady friend?”
“Present from a lady friend? Although that model looks like it was from the girls’ catalog.”
Rul raised an eyebrow at that.
“I had to get my Jeanie one of them. She would just not shut up about it. She made me look through every single catalog with her. But what can you do, she’s my lucky number seven, I can’t say no to her.” Jor was one of the people taking ample advantage of MegK’s child stipends that increased for every extra child a family brought into the world. He currently had thirteen children, but given that it was considered an unlucky number, he and his wife were trying hard for the fourteenth. Seven times two; doubly lucky, as Jor put it.
“Do you know how they work?” Rul asked. “How I can access it? Someone lost it, but it must be fairly easy to find the person if all their information’s on it.”
“I’ve no idea. You think Jeanie’d ever show me what’s on hers? It’d be like reading her diary or something. Plus we’re missing persons not lost and found,” Jor said.
“I found it at a case site, dangling from a crushed wall. Maybe the girl that went missing dropped it when she was being dragged away. Or one of the kidnappers.”
“An airlift huh? Well, why not just give it to someone in the information bureau?”
“That’s the next step. But I thought I might try opening it myself first. It’s just a fashion trinket; it’s probably easy to crack.”
“I wouldn’t play with it. You might erase all the data. The guy at the shop wasn’t some average clerk, he was a computers’ man. When you get it engraved you have to go up to this top notch lab on the 15th. I think it’s actually a hi-tech gadget, they’re just using the jewelry to up the price and get some attention. I mean anyone could get a well-enough encrypted chip and put all their data on it, but when it’s encased in synthetic diamond and Lavi Duras swears by it, how can you stop the youth from going wild over it?”
“The bureau it is then.”
Rul left the precious crystal with the information bureau, but after not even an hour, it was returned to him with a note specifying that while it could be cracked, it had a self-destruction program attached to it that would wipe out anything on it if it even smelled unauthorized access. The device did however have a serial number so the manufacturer might be able to identify the possessor.
It was through such a series of events that two hours later and after a number of downright humiliating security checks, Rul found himself on the 15th level, being introduced to one of My Memory’s programmers who was low enough on the food chain to be forced to deal with clients in the front offices. The more people you had to deal with, the lower end your job was considered in MegK. Rul thought that probably put him at the very bottom of the scale.
“Marcus Allegorium?” he asked tentatively although the desks were widely spaced apart and large three sided holographic numbers were rotating high above them. That sort of generous distribution of space clearly marked the fact they were in the middle-upper layers.
The man hunched over the computer suddenly spun his chair around, sighed and suddenly putting on an air of forceful cheer asked:
“Let me guess, not happy with the design? It’s just not as manly as you were promised? Your buddies taking stabs at you because of it? Never fear! Our prolific designers have just spun out a whole new collection especially for the extra-butch you! Wait till you see the ad campaign, tastefully done, staring everyone’s favorite gangster-come-boxer Lent Levine!”
“That sounds great, but…,” he took out the My Memory from his pocket, but before he had a chance to explain himself, Marcus said:
“Look, I’m not sure how you made it past security, but we won’t crack your girlfriend’s MM just because you’ve got trust issues. If you want to see it, we kindly suggest you…”
“Would you listen to me for a second?” Rul interrupted him irritated. “I’m not a client. I’m with the AFD. I’m trying to find out who this belongs to.”
“Oh, you’re the militia man then,” Marcus lifted his glasses and looked him over. “You don’t look so scary. If you believed everything you heard, I’d be dead just by looking at you.”
Marcus was fairly young compared to Rul. He looked like he hadn’t been out of higher education for long and had a mischievous air about him that made him seem the type that changed his professors’ avatars into lisping five year olds for the fun of it.
“Ah, those are the subverters, I’m just with missing persons,” he said. He bit his tongue as soon as the words came out. He knew full well that the very mention of that word had triggered an alarm off somewhere in the intricate AFD Data Collection Agency and he would be later forced to write entire reports about the reasons that had prompted him to use it. If they couldn’t get people to not talk about it through threats or confidentiality agreements, they sure tried through bureaucracy.
“Can I have that then?” Marcus extended his hand toward the jewel. Rul gave it to him and Marcus slid it into a viewer. The chip itself was ridiculously small. Rul was not surprised such chips existed, but he always wondered about their frailty. Wasn’t it risky to use them as storing devices? “Ah, don’t worry, they’re sturdy little buggers.” Marcus must have noticed the almost worried look on Rul’s face. “They were expressly engineered for My Memory. It wasn’t so much a question of high technology as of aesthetics. Most of the jewelry is transparent and the chip design isn’t exactly what you’d call beautiful. So we just tried to make it as inconspicuous as possible.”
The screen before Marcus started rolling information at increasing speed. After a few moments, Marcus said:
“Well, I can give you a name, but I’m not sure it’ll help much.”
“Anything to get me on the right track,” Rul said eagerly.
“Lucy? Lucy what?” he asked when Marcus didn’t continue.
“That’s it, just Lucy. It may not even be her real name. Some prefer to use a fake one despite the fact they’re fully aware we’ll be sorting through their entire life history and are likely to come across their real name too, but we do try to be discreet.”
“When people parade their entire lives before you?” Rul asked doubtful.
“It is quite possible. Usually the person the client deals with is a sixth hand handler. So one person accepts the order, three others process and organize the information in three distinct areas, another adds it to the design and a sixth presents it to the client. There is no possibility of the information processors meeting the client and even if they did, most likely they wouldn’t be able to place them given the amount of data they process on a daily basis.”
“So it would be impossible to find out who Lucy was from one of the processors? No one would remember?” Marcus nodded. “How about records? There must be a database of clients somewhere. For book keeping reasons if nothing else.”
“There is a record of the purchase, but the information stored on the MM is purged from our computers 24 hours after the client has received their order. It’s so the clients feel safe. We run on a closed circuit and the security as you may have noticed is very thorough. There are no information leaks.”
“Can you look up the purchase?” Rul asked.
Marcus touched the screen and it seemed to go wild for a moment before the requested information appeared.
“Ah, I’m sorry, it seems it was paid through disposable credit and the client only gave the name Lucy. However, the initial order came up from level 27 if that helps you any. It’s the lowest level we have a shop on.”
“Is there any way you can access the information on it? Without it self-destructing?”
“Without the owner’s presence?” Marcus hesitated. “There’s a protocol we follow. The contractual obligations demand fingerprint identification or the program won’t allow access. There are obvious ways to bypass it by the use of artificial replica– provided you have access to her fingerprints. Once inside, I can disarm the data destruction sequence before the system recognizes the unauthorised breach through behavioral pattern analysis. However…there have to be mitigating circumstances.”
“What if the owner of the memory is missing? If she was taken by someone?” Rul offered.
“If you can prove that the missing person is the owner of that MM, I’ll put an official request through,” he said.
“Well, that should be fairly easy. I’ll bring her fingerprints.” They had plenty of samples from her apartment, but they hadn’t turned up in any of the databases. “If it opens the memory, it’s hers. If not, I can’t ignore the possibility of it potentially belonging to one of the assailants,” Rul pointed out. “What then?”
“Then you’re out of luck.”