The nest of the inner city was glazed by the sun creeping over the horizon. Its shadows were slowly moving over the outer city. The spiky skyscraper was back to its glory, rebuilt with a deep blue color from halfway up. It was unique, but fit into the landscape and stood as a reminder for the incident, as well as a reminder of the beauty of the city.
The helicopter made a turn from the glowing nest in the distance towards the slums below, descending into the slowly awakening underbelly of the city. The helicopter landed on top of a flat building next to the market. The pilot took off with hundreds of eyes watching from below. V and Z slid down the pipes of the building and walked along the early birds occupying the market. They still had their shabby prisoners outfits and soldier jackets on, but only a few people gave them looks for it. No clothing style was really out of the ordinary down here. They grabbed a few snacks and fried food on the way and stuffed half of it into their mouths before they arrived. Even though their body did not need it, it was still deeply ingrained into their minds, gave them clarity, and released tension.
The hideout was as they had left it, but the warehouse in the building next to it had stored their delivered packages. The young clerk was confused and slightly angry when they picked them up. It had not caused her any trouble, but the dozens of boxes had been here for months. They reminded her that it was precisely what they paid for, and she went quiet in agreement.
One side of the room was filling up with packaging, while equipment was covering the other. In the back of the room, there was a small shower, and they took turns.
Half-naked again, they laid down in their pods. They felt like proper beds because of the mattress; Something they had not seen or felt in months. They slept for a few hours, then ate the rest of the food from the market. Even in their new bodies, they still felt tired and exhausted from time to time. Something in their synthetic brains was clinging onto the idea of exhaustion and tiredness, even needed it every once in a while. It would take time for it to fully disappear, but at least it made them remember that they were still somewhat human, although pushing the boundaries.
The 1B incident had been world news and had the exact effect they assumed. ELIM went bankrupt and DELPHI took over the market. Only a few months were enough to swap around the market share. Sellers were now bribed to only selling DELPHI, and people rushed to switch their implants. The prices were even lower than before the incident, and DELPHI allowed loans for people in the lower social credit brackets. Usually, loans are only given to people with an average or high social credit score, people who were highly likely to pay it back within the next years. Extending it to the poorest people was a losing bet, as those would never be able to fully return the money.
The 1B incident had been called 1B because one billion people were affected on the night. Of those one billion, around one million had died. Z managed to dig out the server logs of the now offline ELIM servers. Someone had distributed their updated code a few minutes after being arrested, and it was updated again a few hours later when they were already outside the country. Three well-known politicians had died in the accident. Overshadowed by their corruption were the things they had done in Kaiser’s interest. The planned raid on ELIM, the freezing of all assets, the update and hotfix for the implants. Kaiser’s news network was celebrating the swift actions of the government as a remarkable job in a time of crisis. The same politicians passed the new regulations for implants, but nobody could make the connection to Kaiser or DELPHI. While the new regulations seemed long overdue, they were written favoring Kaiser’s imperium. NGO investigators in charge of checking regulations were owned by Kaiser. DELPHI, who was bound to take over the market, had increased its production by several magnitudes with a new production site just outside the city and was now entirely owned by Kaiser. The shares of the politicians who had died were handed to him for free.
While the slums had been in chaos for weeks after the incident, the inner city had barely changed or noticed. Nearly all deaths had happened in the slums. With 50 million living in the outer city and ten in the inner, the distribution was obviously screwed. Out of the 113 death in the inner city, they could trace back 68 with connections to Kaiser and his companies. In the outer city, the connections were in the thousands. He had cut loose ends.
Their next destination was DELPHI HQ, located inside the nest of the inner city. DELPHI had a few floors of office space in a large office complex. Several tall buildings were connected in a circle with each other, forming an oval shape. On both ends, they curved wide towards the ground and looked like a giant wave building up at the shore. The buildings were connected through glass tunnels that went around and through the buildings like snakes. It almost looked like a smaller representation of the inner city, but instead of highways, monorails, and subways, it had bridges, tunnels, and escalators.
Before they could head out, they had to take care of one piece of missing equipment. Once the sun had set, they got on their way.
Old street lamps sparsely lit the dark alley, and the puddles of water were reflecting the red brick buildings around them. It was past midnight, and they had not seen anyone in the streets for a while now. Drips of water and the wind were the only sounds besides their footsteps. This district was officially part of the old city, but high enough above water for people to still live in. It was once part of Chinatown before most moved further up. Now only a few remained. Old shops and people who wanted to be left alone. Surprisingly, it was clean of trash, crime, and junkies. As they walked down the street, the lamps behind them turned off one by one. Oljac gave them a proper show. Z smiled; he enjoyed the tense and quiet atmosphere. The last lamp that was still lit ahead of them was above a small sign written in Chinese. “Sad Rabbit.” As they entered through the old wooden door with carvings of ancient history, the light outside vanished.
Their eyes adjusted to the darkness inside the shop, and they made their way along the rows of different colored textiles hanging on the walls. In the back of the room, a wooden door was decorated with carvings of animals, humans, and the powerful forces of nature. They needed a moment to find the three symbols: A rabbit lunging out of the grass, a lone soldier throwing his sword on the ground, and the shape of a Chinese character spelling forgiveness, hidden in the leaves of a large tree.
They put their fingers on the symbols, and after a few seconds, a quiet click opened the door. It slid to its sides and revealed the white room behind it. All surfaces in the room were moving and flowing into each other. Small ripples flowed through the room as they walked on it. The walls were curvy and had no edges as they reached the floor and ceiling. At the end of the room, the milky wall started to bend, and something slowly moved through it towards them. The milk disappeared, and the form of the person became clear until the last drop of milk dripped back onto the wall. A gigantic man was standing before them. He was so muscular; his white clothes were about to burst. His massive shoulders were broader than both of them standing together, and he was at least two heads taller. They had to look up to see his face instead of his massive arm and chest muscles. The light in the room was concentrating on him and brightened up everything except his face. Only the long black beard growing down to his chest was visible. The sides of his beard slightly raised themselves; he was smiling.
“It has been a while since the last time. You two have changed, as well as I.”
“You sure have, the beard fits you well.”
She smiled. It was the smallest change compared to the once skinny Oljac they had worked for.
“You know why we are here. We had to destroy the old clothes you gave us and need new ones.”
“You both know my condition.”
There was no reason for them not to be honest with Oljac. He knew everything that was going on behind the scenes and probably already knew what Kaiser had planned. Oljac raised one eyebrow and walked along the walls, touching it with his hand, and small ripples moved through the entire room. His steps were not making any sound as he was not wearing any shoes. He did not care about the money for the new trans-clothes. The money was only symbolic because it had meaning and value for them, not him. Revealing their plan was more valuable to him than anything else they could give. It gave him information to project the future and insight into how it could play out. How far would they come? And how far without his help?
“We need to get access to DELPHI’s implant code and find out what Kaiser has been planning. If it’s bad, like 1B, we need to stop it. We will go to their offices and then wherever it takes us. And to be honest, we miss our old clothes.”
“You two got pulled into something way bigger than you expected.”
Oljac was once a man that had experimented with AI chips. One day, he managed to build a connection between his mind and the AI and became something different. Because it happened during the early days of AI development, almost nothing had security or protection against it. Oljac gained control of nearly every system connected to the internet and built himself backdoors everywhere. He became a silent observer, a god of the grid, which turned him awfully close to a real god. A god that likes to play around and have fun. That was the reason he had helped them back then and why he was helping them again today.
When Hagger had given them the impossible job, Oljac was the client. They had to extract an old asset, a body of his, rotting in a government laboratory. The obvious way would be to hack into the government systems, infiltrate the compound and somehow get the body out, but that was way beyond their capabilities. They took their time and studied the compound until they found out about body transfers to other labs happening every other month. Instead of infiltrating the government, they infiltrated the shipping company. As its employees, they entered the facility and used fake documents to get out with Oljac’s body. They brought the body to Oljac but were attacked and nearly killed moments later. Oljac had watched and decided to help them survive. He patched them up and gave them a set of trans-clothes as their reward. Over the next years, he hired them under different names, and they gave him access to government and corporate information, hidden and buried in the deepest corners he could not reach.
“The last time you were driven by anger against a system using you to clean up its mess. I watched you change; become wiser and overcome your anger. But you became tired. Stuck in a never-ending loop of crime and violence. You always wanted more, and here you are, ready to transcend to the next stage.”
The tips of his beard moved up again, and a large armchair materialized out of the milk. He was still as tall as they were when he was sitting.
“What will happen is inevitable, but I am curious to see what you two will turn it into. It will be fun to watch. I already prepared what you need. Good Luck.”
Milk flooded the room and Oljac disappeared. The flow pushed them out through the door and back into the shop. The wooden door closed behind them, and the milk on their clothes evaporated.
‘I did not know that he had a materializer. Must have cost him billions.’
‘This one seems pretty old. The newest models print with many materials in real-time. This one only printed one.’
Small lights inside the shop, as well as the ones on the streets had turned on again. On a table next to the large carpet hanging from the ceiling, two paper boxes were waiting for them. Inside were the familiar black clothes. They stripped off in the middle of the room and put them on. The only thing that had changed compared to their old ones was the internal hardware. Z touched the small chips worn into jacket, pants, and shoes. The chips were custom made, and their IDs interchangeable. If they should ever swap bodies again, they could reuse them. A small detail from Oljac. They both grinned like happy children that had just received the gift they always wanted.
The atmosphere had changed outside. It was cold, refreshing, and they could hear the cars on the highway nearby. In the distance, a dog was barking. It would take a few hours before they would arrive, so they toned the windows of the taxi dark and slept for a while.
The office complex was built on a large open space, slightly tilted up towards the buildings. On the greenery inside the ring of buildings, people were sitting on benches and grass and enjoyed the sunny weather. The ones who decided to look at V and Z quickly averted their eyes once they looked back. Nobody wanted to get in their way. Their outfits and tattoos were working as intended.
Several glass tunnels were coming out of the ground and made their way up into the complex. With grass and plants around it, they ascended like branches of a tree. One tunnel slowly took them up to one of the buildings, and then further to the observation platform floating on top of the entire complex.
They got themselves a cold shake and a sandwich from the vending machines built in a circle around the middle of the platform. The platform, slightly about the height of the complex, was a well-known tourist location. Entirely out of glass, you could spend hours looking at the small humans below or the skyline all around.
It was noon, and the sun started to burn on their sandwiches. The half-blue skyscraper was many kilometers away but stood out from all the white and mint towers around it. Each building in the complex around them had a slightly varying design and was different in height and width. Aside from the two curved buildings at the oval edges, the rest of the buildings had a rectangular shape with the snakes going through them. They could see the DELPHI headquarters from up here. Three floors in the middle of the tallest building. Many of the employees were about to come up here for their lunch break.
“Oljac made us pay double for the clothes.”
V sighed. She had almost expected something like that. Z took a sip from his shake, then continued.
“It’s not making us broke by any means, just makes me question his intentions.”
“Maybe he knows that we can’t do anything and will die in the process. A smart way to make a quick buck.”
“Maybe. Or he just wants to test us. See how we react. Playing god also means playing devil. I bet he gets most fun by raising the stakes.”
“But why does he not simply take our money when we are dead? It’s not like he couldn’t.”
“Being god does not make you selfish, rather the opposite.”
The first DELPHI employees arrived out of the mouth of the snake, and the vending machines started to get busy. It was their sign to leave the relaxing view behind and find out more about the recent undertakings of the fastest-growing company on the planet.
They followed the snake and walked down a long spiral until they entered the wide doors to the offices. Humans did not monitor their face and identity recognition software, and the servers were standing in the basement. They had gotten access long before they arrived.
The young woman sitting at the reception did not bother to look or ask them about their visit. She was occupied with a game that was running on her monitor. V poked Z, and he approved of her idea. The game pinged, and the young woman was selected as the winner of the day. She screamed and jumped up in front of them while completely ignoring them at the same time. She had just won a coupon for one of the fanciest restaurants in the inner city. The restaurant was usually booked out for months and would cost her a small fortune to dine in, but now she had a reservation for four. The only hook was that she had to go to the restaurant in person to confirm her identity by this evening. Actually, she had three days to claim the prize, but Z had tinkered with today’s rewards system to get her out of the office. The young woman did not bother the slightest about them standing in front of her. She smiled and left.
The DELPHI offices weren’t offices. They were a playground for adults. VR spots, lounge areas, a bar, and vending restaurants. A small gym occupied by management, who were just holding a meeting on the elliptical machines. The only thing they could not find in here were actual offices. One floor below were sleeping pods, sauna, swimming pool, showers, a large storage room with all the implant models of the past years, and several workstations on which engineers experimented with implant parts. It reminded them of a scaled-up and professional version of their workstation from the implant shop years ago. They watched the three women for a while, who were wearing safety helmets and goggles. They blew up an implant and broke out into laughter. V smiled, and Z joined them. They were stress-testing a model way beyond reason, and of course, it would blow up, but that was the point. They wanted to blow it up for fun, seeing how far they could push it. V and Z had done the same countless times.
Although the new implants were nothing spectacular from a technology standpoint and very similar to the previous models, the software had been rebuilt from scratch. V and Z had tried to get access to the inner software code, but the encryption software was written well enough to last at least a few more weeks of them trying. They did not have time, which meant they needed to get straight to the vault and find the secret sauce Kaiser was hiding.
A small side door was leading to the floor below. Nobody had been down here for a while, and all electronics were disconnected. The old offices, from the time before DELPHI had billions to blow on anything they wanted. It was slightly depressing. The desks had collected several centimeters of dust, and the footprints of people who had recently walked around were visible on the ground. They passed photos of the previous CEO with his employees that were covering the walls. The CEO had died many years ago and was already over 90 in the pictures. A quick search and an old online interview revealed how different his approach towards the implant market was. He knew that ELIM was manipulating the market, but that was not his concern. He wanted to make his product available to the poor so that they could have a chance in this world. They were not directly competing with ELIM, but they still had to make a profit somehow. They could never reach the low prices he had hoped for in the interview until Kaiser had taken over. Kaiser had scaled-up production, and the new implants were cheaper than the old CEO could dream of. He would have been proud, although not when thinking about what Kaiser was planning to do with the implants and his company.
Almost at the end of the offices, they found the small storage room they were looking for. The documents of the past years printed on paper. The digital versions were secured tightly, and nobody could get access, but the original paper versions were just chucked into the old storage room. It was the weakest link in the chain and felt way too easy. Either someone was utterly incompetent at his job, or this was a trap.
They unlocked the cabinets of documents with a small drill. They were only partially sorted, making it a lot harder to find what they were looking for. V had a bunch of patents in her hands and scanned through them. DELPHI had always made their patents public for everyone to use. It supported small no-brand companies and innovators, and therefore the market as a whole, as the best innovators usually came from the outside and pushed the technology forwards.
DELPHI still had to pay the license fees for several ELIM patents, but then the payments had stopped about a year ago. She quickly looked up the patents on the online registry and found out why. ELIM had slowly and silently opened up the patents that DELPHI was licensing. Kaiser had made sure that DELPHI would have as little hurdles as possible and take off as soon as he jumped ship.
Z found several government papers directly addressed at the DELPHI CEO. The government had turned into Kaiser’s little bitch. The Investments into ELIM had cost them a lot more than their reputation. They had to re-adjust their entire infrastructure for DELPHI products and replace thousands of implants for government officials. They were reliant on the newest DELPHI hardware and software, and in return gave DELPHI tax cuts and preferential treatment. Even though the government had tried several times, they were not getting any share of the company. It was denied and blocked by Kaiser and made the government even needier. If Kaiser wanted money, he would have already sold parts of the company to the government. There was something else DELPHI was working on, which was only mentioned on several internal papers.
“G-A1 had a full pass; we are starting the next phase with your approval.”
“G-B11 is getting implemented into production. Ready for internal launch.”
“Project Goliath has been tested and approved. We will start shipping with all new models.”
The last message was from a report a month before the 1B incident. Whatever they had worked on was running on all models that had been distributed after. The messages all came from the labs of the manufacturing plant outside the city. A massive plant built on water, several kilometers away from shore. They had their next destination.
Hagger’s face tensed up in pain. Although his leg had fully healed, the nerves inside were still sensitive and flared up throughout the day. The doctor said it would take a few more days, but it had already been two weeks since then. He would go to a proper doctor next time and not one illegally operating, but he was running low on cash, so he had no choice.
He knew the kid still had the wallet, which meant he had to visit him again as soon as possible. Four million Eurodollars were gone, and he had killed all his friends for it. The kid would not stand in his way. He’d blow up his shop if he had to.