Aphelion Issue 294, Volume 28
May 2024
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Do I Feel Lucky?

by Zac Miller

For what he suspected would be the last time, James went out to the balcony and looked out at the city, seeing it not as it was, but as digital overlay re-imagined it. Los Angeles in all its summertime glory, palms swaying in Art Deco glamour, bright neighborhoods sprawling below the endless chaparral. The best elements from the 1920s to the 2020s rolled into the official Los Angeles Net.

Etching it into his mind, James disconnected. The illusion vanished, Los Angeles back to its real self, greenery spilling out from the windows of skyscrapers-turned-arcologies, spacious homes and apartments dotting the miles of dry scrub, the sky clear and blue.

No point in regrets, James reminded himself.

Stepping back into his apartment, he girded himself to make the final steps. James had been in nastier scrapes to be sure, but he needed to be careful. Maybe double-crossing Boss Hong had been riskier than it was worth, but he'd pulled it off.

If James knew one thing well, it was accounting. Maybe it was the rebellious streak in his blood, but he somehow ended up drifting to the wrong side of the tracks after getting accredited back on the East Coast. He made sure that the accountancy AIs for mob families and dealers worked out, occasionally cutting a little bit extra for himself.

He knew how greed had a way of digging graves. Still, opportunity had called. The California Triads had cornered the market on bio-keys a few years ago. Many people wanted to bypass the internal security of their own bodies, set in place for their protection by the Department of Health and Human Services. Rules couldn't compete with the desire to increase endorphins, or adrenaline, or whatever else.

Illegal bio-keys didn't really give a person access, of course. Instead, they just let the user circumvent security, creating an alternate path to the body's control panels for a month or so. Then it'd go blank and the user had to buy a new one. Programmers always had to refine the bio-keys to get past new hurdles put in place by the government, but there was always a way.

Boss Hong had been selling keys in San Diego (gateway to the Mexican market; bypassing the security protocols of the Secretaría de Salud wouldn't be easy but the Triads wanted a shot at it), and told James to make sure everything went according to plan. It did, transfers made in torrents to discerning customers.

James grabbed some of the money for himself and rearranged the books to make it seem legitimate. After that, a small fortune secured in a gene-locked subdermal chip embedded in his belly fat, designed to look like so many biological cells to all but the most rigorous scanners.

James hadn't bothered packing more than he could carry; better to let everyone think he was still home. With any luck, by 5:00 PM he'd be flying out of LA/Ontario in the sort of human-piloted courier plane shorn of Internet connections. It hadn't been cheap, nor had the other two he'd scheduled to fly out at the same time from Fullerton and Long Beach airports, taking his thirty million down to twenty-eight; the chip had cost another mil). But dead men can't spend.

Better get going.

Keeping a brisk pace, James left his apartment and went down the steps to the garden path. He looked back in spite of himself, the horseshoe-shaped complex colored a pale blue, ribbons of green from the rooftop gardens running over the eaves.

Nice place, but there's better on the way.

Before disconnecting from the Los Angeles Net he'd hired a cab from Sun Coast Taxi, set to arrive at 3:15 on the intersection of Klamath and Eastern next to the old El Sereno Recreation Center. His internal clock, linked up like everyone else's to the infallible global timepiece, read 3:01:13, giving him plenty of time to reach the rendezvous by foot.

Still, an uneasy feeling of chaos laced the cool early spring air, premonitions of a disaster waiting to happen.

How was he to know? Without thinking, he brought up a visual cartographic overlay, the endless grid of LA's streets hovering in front of him. Lights signifying unread messages blinked in the corner of his eye, and so did the yellow triangle labeled Sun Coast Taxi #5521, ETA 3:15:00, moving up Valley just about to turn on Eastern.


James jumped back from the Net like a man burned, not believing he'd fall into old habits so easily. Opening up the access controls, he set up a password function. A thoughtless log-on would reveal his position.

James remembered the story of a London snitch who'd once tried to betray a Four-Nineteen Group. Not the smartest thing to do, especially since the snitch's bosses knew all of his information, things like the codes to his vitals.

Four-Nineteen programmers hacked onto the London Net and scanned through everyone receiving at the moment, finding him in seconds. Then, they uploaded a bit of code tailored to the snitch's bio-lock, simulating an allergic reaction to provoke anaphylactic shock. The snitch's throat swelled up and he died in the middle of the street.

James had to appreciate the poetic justice of that. Still, it was hardly reassuring, even if Hong's goons weren't as technically adept as the Four-Nineteeners.

Keep it together, you've done this kind of thing before.

Sure, he had, but the world kept on changing.

Reaching the park, James waited, his clothes getting heavy as they soaked up his sweat. Finally, the yellow cab rose on the horizon like the morning sun. Cruising up the street it stopped a few yards away from James; him being disconnected, it no longer knew to zero in on his location and had to work through visuals.

Close enough!

James jogged over and opened the front door. Earlier, he'd given Sun Coast Taxi access to his bank account independent of his person. No point in having to use himself as an intermediary. As far as Los Angeles Net was concerned, James no longer existed.

"Destination?" prompted the cab.

"LA/Ontario Airport."

James sighed, going slack in the vinyl chair. The cool air-conditioned interior worked to restore him, eroding the dread that had built up ever since the double-cross.

All at once, an unwanted memory wormed into his brain as the cab started navigating to the I-10 E, a story he'd heard back when he lived on the East Coast. Some guy in Cairo had been edging in on Hamas turf, shaking down their junk pushers. Might've been with another group, or maybe just someone with more guts than sense.

Apparently, he'd gotten into a street cab (automated, like James') after causing some trouble. Some Hamas goon managed to hack into the cab's programming and drove it straight off the 6th October Bridge and into the Nile.

Sure, that had been back in the early '40s or thereabouts, back when it was easy to hack a vehicle remotely. The Hamas cab hit was just the trendsetter.

Anything like that happen recently? He thought to himself. Sun Coast Taxi must keep track of disconnected people getting into their cabs, but their records are probably secure. Not like the Triads would start hacking cabs at random, that'd be stupid.

James shook his head.

Can't let this get to me.

He watched the sparse city zoom by in shades of beige and green, the freeway almost empty. Only times it ever got close to crowded was during big events that rich folks wanted to see live; telecommuting took care of most everything else.

James tried to think of the future: of getting a new face, body, and identity in Veracruz. He'd created a dozen different potential models to inspire the surgeons, his favorite an aquiline Indian man he'd named Sanjay. Good enough contrast from his current pale, blonde self. Keep his old look and it'd only be a matter of time before an image search let Boss Hong zero in on him.

He didn't like the idea of surgeons removing his interface equipment, effectively renouncing his US citizenship, but there was nothing to be done about it. James just needed to go where Boss Hong didn't have any direct influence. James' mind turned further out to the brawling, emergent worlds of Lagos and Dar es Salaam. Plenty of opportunities there.

Thinking of his interface equipment, he wondered if Boss Hong had tampered with it. He'd heard of such things before, not done by the Triads but by governments. That story floating around of the Russian agents with killswitches, ready to shut down their bodies the moment they were compromised or got cold feet.

Seems like something Boss Hong would do, he mused, his heart rate skyrocketing at the thought.

But no, he was fine. He just needed to stay calm. Taking deep breaths he felt his tensed shoulders unwind, his heart slow down to a reasonable speed.

Unless, of course, the calm came from outside. He'd heard of that; people's internal chemistry rewired from afar to provoke a reaction. Gene-locks were supposed to prevent that, but if someone had a sample of the victim's DNA and enough time to crack the government-assigned password, it could be done. Usually it happened in marriages gone sour from too many affairs or careless words, but Boss Hong might have had enough information.

James had never personally seen the man, but he'd once shaken hands with one of his underlings. All they needed was a flake of skin. A few people got synthetic skin installed for just that reason, something that never flaked or left DNA residue. The idea had always repelled James. Maybe he'd get new skin at Veracruz, but it'd be the real deal, not artificial.

If they had a sample, some Triad underling could be working right that minute to slow his heart, or even make him go crazy. He had the sudden vision of himself screaming in the cab, nerves lit up from the pain of nonexistent needles burrowing into flesh, him clawing out his own eyes in panic. The cab would reach the airport with a self-mutilated corpse slumped in the back seat.

How would he even know? Or could it be worse? Was he even really in the cab? They made virtual worlds for commerce and entertainment. For all James knew, he might still be in his apartment, or in one of Boss Hong's safe houses, programs feeding him the illusion of escape. It'd be just like the old man to create an entire world to trap him.

James pinched himself, almost laughing at the absurdity. As if that would wake him! He started to sweat again, wishing he had some way to reassure himself of reality. Perception wasn't what it used to be.

"Get a grip!" he shouted.

The volume of his voice seemed to restore some sense of normalcy. He realized that the cab was leaving the freeway.

A trap?

No, he realized, just going down to the airport, its runways in sight. He'd made it. Well, almost, but the TSA wouldn't stop him. Even so, when the cab pulled up at the stop, he felt a sort of premonition. He remembered the idea of a killswitch, perhaps secretly implanted by Triad agents while he slept.

Well, if it happens, at least it'll be fast.

Not like the idea of being trapped in an illusion. Sometimes he wished he'd lived in the 20th century, when you knew what was real, and the world was measurable. James opened the door, his legs reaching out until his feet touched the sidewalk. He pressed his soles on the curb, as if to guarantee their reality.

Last time he'd talked to anyone from Boss Hong's organization had been three days ago, some guy named lilrazor888, his real face hidden behind a smiling cartoon's. He'd fed lilrazor888 a line about making a successful transfer, of course leaving out the money he'd stolen.

What if Boss Hong already knew? The man kept a close eye on his books. James knew how to cover his trails; had fooled plenty of others. But never with so much money, or against anyone as powerful as Boss Hong. For all he knew, lilrazor888 had been the vector of some program designed to alter James' reality.

Moving on instinct, he exited the cab, the door sliding shut behind him. He stared at the airport entrance, squinting his eyes as if that'd let him see through an illusion. He couldn't remember much about what happened after talking to lilrazor888, and the vagueness of the memory seemed proof enough of tampering.

In fact, all he'd done was make the arrangements for transportation. They'd gone so smooth and simple that he was almost suspicious. In a virtual reality program being fed into his senses, there'd be no reason to make it difficult.

Elaborate, but sometimes Boss Hong was like that, according to some. When James first moved to California, he heard some story about how Boss Hong waited ten years to kill a traitor who'd fled up to Seattle, holding back until just the right moment. The man had a relish for the theatrical, and what could be more theatrical than transporting James to a new reality?

Rough hands suddenly grabbed James from behind and his world spun as they pulled him into darkness. He didn't yell when his head slammed against a car's door frame, his body forced into the backseat. James blinked, and through pain-dazed eyes saw the barrel of an old-fashioned .45 gaping an inch away from his face.

I guess I'm in the real world after all, was his last thought before the muzzle flashed, the world going black as the smell of cordite wafted through his ruined nose.


© 2013 Zac Miller

Bio: Zac Miller is a lifelong science fiction fan. His last Aphelion appearance was "Sprint Hack" in the July 2013 issue.

E-mail: Zac Miller

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