Chapter 4 - The Neon Gods We Made

 Chapter 4 - The Neon Gods We Made

Content Warnings: Suicide, Depression


  The life of a Legatus doesn't tend to stick to a fixed routine. In The Legion (the military police of The Republic) Legati are second only to the Praetor themselves who oversees every division and precinct. The Praetor reports directly to the Senate and is given Supreme authority on how to handle individual cases and threats. It's an incredible amount of pressure and responsibility that most people, seasoned veterans all, only take on for 3-4 years. 

  Praetor Chroma was not most people. She had served as Praetor for 13 years, beginning as one of the youngest to take the rank in her 40s. During her time, The Republic had faced various new threats from both inside and outside her borders, especially with recent diplomatic tensions between other mega-cities and bio-domes. Throughout it all, she had brought a calming and dignified presence as the face and brain of The Legion. 


  The sun is only just rising in the horizon as I sit bolt upright in her office. Staring out the window in silence, a single crack of hazy light is slowly descending down her face. The coral pink hair she wears in a short bob-style is swaying gently in a breeze that doesn't actually exist. The same hypnotic rhythm is captured by the black and gold robes which cling snug against her body. Once the light makes its way to her eyes, the crack is smothered and an artificial screen kicks on in place of the window, displaying a beautiful morning unclouded by dust and pollution. She turns around and finds me staring directly at her. Her black eyes, deep as the night sky, consume me. Every part of her body has the same rhythmic pulse and shimmer of a Duoverse avatar, except for those abyssal orbs. 


  "You already finished the report?" She asks, used to people freezing in her gaze. 

  "A while ago. I didn't want to tear you away from the sun," I respond. 


  The life of a legatus doesn't tend to stick to a routine. The only fixed schedule I have is making sure that my plants are safe in their black house before sunrise when I've taken them out. Other than that, I may begin and end work at any hour, with investigations sometimes taking weeks on end. For Praetor Chroma on the other hand, the day always begins at the same time. 10 seconds of natural sunrise before the filters turn on to protect her vision. 

  She smiles for just a second before grabbing a pair of glasses from her desk and slipping them onto her face. Now she's seeing the world just like the rest of us, the pulse and shimmer of The Republic coming to life all around her. I slouch slightly, separated from those imprisoning depths by a thin film of aqueous lens. 


Art by Luoji: https://twitter.com/a_luoji/status/1510977523873505281


  "I don't see why you'd give this mission to me, Praetor. Surely a more senior Legatus would jump at the opportunity to serve Valdie?" 


  "Valdie," real name Archibald Jimmy, was an incredibly popular stand-up comedian who all members of The Republic had grown up with. Despite beginning his career 40-some years ago, Valdie had managed to stay a fan-favorite all that time. After a short hiatus due to alcohol abuse a decade in, he had returned stronger than ever and consistently delivered daily short-form content and a weekly show that made light of the news while spiraling into his own brand of fast-paced humor. He was absurdly wealthy and known to be generous to all those around him, often spoiling random people he met while disguised in public. Legati couldn't legally take bribes for work, but there were no rules against receiving gifts after an investigation was complete and so it was well known that the richest clientele were leapt on by senior staff and given priority.

  "You're the only Legatus I trust for this case." Praetor Chroma said it so matter-of-factly, I was taken aback. 


  "I wouldn't want to impose myse-" 

  "Cut the courteous bull," She says, expression unchanged - That whisper of a smile. "I'm not giving you a gift, I'm assigning the best man for the case." 

  "Yes, Praetor." This is so different from her calls and messages. No mirth and humour of the past.

  "You read the file. Now let me give the additional details. The scavenger hunt the I'mprint has been leading fans on -the second clue involved Jimmy's P&S spelling out a message in Morse Code." 


  My eyes grow wide in shock at the revelation. 


  "-And there it is. As I said, you're the only Legatus for this one. Do a thorough investigation," she commands. I nod in assent, eyes unfocused as my mind still processes the Praetor's words. When I finally return her gaze, she's taken the glasses off and now she's the one letting me enjoy my moment in silence. She still has that gentle smile on her lips, but her eyes have a slight spark to them now. Starlight in an empty nebula. I stand and salute her, realizing all too late that the conversation has already ended. I had my mission and I was the best man for it. 


  I've already mentioned the pulse and shimmer of the Duoverse. When augmented reality first became a common part of life in The Republic, the technology still wasn't perfect. It worked by creating a digital environment that projected itself over reality. At first it was just used to make the world look more attractive. The heavily polluted air, dyed orange and brown, returned to its former clear look. For the first time in generations, users could see the sun in the sky as it was tracked in real time using satellites. 

  Very quickly companies caught on to the popularity of the technology and invested in it, creating advertisements and customizing their own corporate buildings to entice the massive amount of people viewing the Duoverse all the time. The alternate reality required a ton of data and computing power to process, so it wasn't fully live. Instead it would update every 2 seconds or so, which created a slight bloom effect like an old CRT screen being powered on.

 

  As the technology developed, so did its uses. The pure white blocks that made up the megacity - painted with a thick layer of paint so white that it almost completely reflected the harmful solar rays - became a varied cityscape of towers, each with their own individual style. Some choose to stand out with architectural designs from the past - castles and pagodas influencing their visuals. Others took a more entrepreneurial approach, essentially becoming advertising space for the highest bidder or themselves. It wasn't long before the technology allowed each individual to customize their own appearance with an avatar that replaced them in the Duoverse. 

  In modern times the Duoverse was the world that most citizens of The Republic viewed at all times. Whether using headsets, glasses, lenses, or the II implants which replaced human eyes themselves, it had become difficult to live in The Republic without experiencing the same reality as everyone else. Implants and peripherals had come so far at this point that even sound, smell and taste could be fooled, leaving only touch to remind one-another of the reality hidden beneath the virtual mask. They tried to program in touch too, dear listener. The experiments... didn't go well even on animal subjects. When they tried to move on to human 'volunteers' even the most powerful marketing firms in The Republic couldn't dissuade the backlash.

   While the servers and technology had advanced along with its uses, people had gotten used to the pulse and shimmer it began with. Many considered reality without it to be dull and bland, ostracizing those without a Duoverse avatar and avoiding The Republic outskirts which tended to be too poor to afford customized visuals for their buildings.

 

  I've taken a very roundabout way to say it, but the simple fact is that the pulse and shimmer of the Duoverse is a feature and meant to be fixed in its timing and style. There had been rumors on the net that a virus was going around causing everything a user viewed, Duoverse or not, to pulse and shimmer. The company that ran the technology (Mirari Industries) assured everyone that editing the P&S in any way was impossible, but most users weren't afraid of the virus anyway. As long as you had the money to keep up subscription fees, you basically never saw anything without the Pulse and Shimmer anyway. I had tried to investigate the leads myself shortly after making the rank of Legatus and found only mockery from my coworkers who, like the public, didn't give a damn about it whether real of fake.


  I'm not some history loving LARPer, myself, dear listener. While I may visit a renaissance faire or complain about new technology occasionally -I am a boomer of my own time after all- I don't yearn for a simpler time as a small minority of The Republic do. I just personally hate those ass-pulls you get in stories that deal with reality bending and would rather avoid that becoming my... reality? Question mark. 

  Don't lie, you know exactly the ones I mean: the top keeps spinning, the detective's eyes glow like a Synth's, what if The Matrix was actually another false reality of its own? I refuse to become a cliché. I see reality for what it is, refusing to shy away from the ugly parts, while embracing the gift of ignorance that lies provide. Hell, I even hacked my own IIs to let me cycle between the real universe that Praetor Chroma sees, the Duoverse that most citizens see, and the heavily bloated free version which constantly spams you with ads about sexy I'mprints you can rent for a low, low price that will do anything. 

  And, I've rambled on for far too long again. Forgive me. 


*************


  At this point I'm in my car and heading towards Valdie's penthouse in the center of the city. The file that I was given informed me that my beloved childhood comedian had a secret. He hadn't written a joke of his own in more than 20 years... or depending on how you looked at it, the him from 30 years ago was still writing his current jokes. 


  "So... it's been your ancient I'mprint writing your material for the last 3 decades," I confirm, sheepishly, from the man himself.

  "why mess with perfection," Valdie asks, cool as a cucumber.

  His voice is confident, filled with arrogance and perhaps a small hint of challenge? His Duo (Duoverse avatar) has been unchanged since I was born. Vivid green hair styled in a long mohawk and exaggerated make-up like a clown's. Bright white skin, crimson lips, all that's missing is the big red nose. He's wearing a bright purple suit on top of a silver dress shirt that's buttoned only half-way. The image is striking - iconic. 

  I freeze for a moment in his neon-green gaze.


  As long as I've lived this man has been the voice of our generation. He knew how to break down news stories in a way that let you absorb information while also laughing off the darker and more intense moments. I'm not ashamed to admit that I hear a lot about The Republic from him first, not concerned enough to browse news sites or self-flagellate by viewing social media. For the second time in a day, I simply stare back in silence at a loss for words. I won't make it a habit, don't worry. I love hearing my witty remarks far too much. 


  Thankfully, I'd recently learned a trick for dealing with situations like these. If you've ever heard someone tell you to imagine your audience in their underwear, it's basically like that. I blink my eyes twice and the pulsing vision in front of me dims, replaced instead by a bald, overweight potato of a man, completely in the nude. This was unethical, devious, a violation of people's privacy in The Republic's standards and yet not at all illegal since Mirari still hadn't found a way to make not viewing the Duoverse illegal... yet. They'd have to give away free IIs or make poverty illegal first and they were still working on the latter.

  Seeing the true versions of Republic citizens would reveal more than any background check. The nudity was unexpected, I admit, but not unheard of, especially as I was currently in his living room. The poorer citizens in The Republic had to wear full suits to protect themselves from the environment. The middle class would usually have treatments to protect themselves and replace skin or even limbs as issues arise. The incredibly wealthy on the other hand tended to opt for becoming cyborgs almost completely. Whole limbs, were often replaced if not most of the body, though with those as wealthy as Valdie it would be hard to guess at, as silicone and polymer flesh looked almost identical to the real deal. It was rare to find a citizen of The Republic who cared so much about their physical appearance however. Even the fake skin over cybernetics were usually just so it felt real in contact with another Duoverse user. 


  The man sitting in front of me was now incredibly wealthy, yet he had made himself that way through his own work. Growing up with your own flesh and blood seemed to have a way of making you appreciate it more. Something I didn't have to worry about, though not due to being born with a cybernetic spoon in my mouth.

  There's the red nose! His skin was a patchwork of cherry-coloured radiation burns and pasty pink skin grafts. The little hair he had was grey and those piercing green eyes were instead the dull grey IIs most of us had. half of his face was also lazy compared to the other, a clear sign of past stroke. Archibald Jimmy was just a man like any other. A man who couldn't believe that so young a Legatus dared to meet his gaze so confidently. 

  The spell was broken. This wasn't the larger-than-life Valdie who cracked wise at every and any target, reducing man and disaster alike to a punchline. It was just a man, same as me, who needed my help even if he wasn't going to admit it. I blink twice more and smile lopsidedly at the comedian, refusing to back down from that pulsing glare.


  Valdie clearly misreads this pause as he is the first to break eye contact and look pointedly at a spot on the wall to my side as he continues. 

  "I see myself as an actor nowadays, kid. Who has time to actually keep up with the news cycle anymore? If I use my own I'mprint to keep up with a few things, what's the big deal?"


  "There is no big deal," I agree. "It's literally you writing your jokes. Most popular personalities have teams of writers and publicists as well as social media managers and agents. You using only your own I'mprint for 30 years is frankly incredible." I reach forward and grab the small glass of water I had been presented at the beginning of the meeting and take a small sip. 

  Bitter, salty. I freeze in thought once again, considering the liquid I had just drank. It had a weight and taste to it that I had only experienced once or twice before in my life. Mineral water. Not the electrolyte balanced drink offered as hydration to athletes or the pure H2O that ran in our taps, but real organic mineral water that must have been sourced from some deep underground vein untouched by human contamination. Valdie just had it laying around. 

  "Incredible."


  "It's not all that amazing," the man assured me. "It's actually 3 I'mprints. One for the news show, one for working on specials and one just for social media interaction." Once again we had a miscommunication. His eyes were turned back on me but there was a warmth to them now instead of the frost. "The hard part is keeping each one from learning about the others."

  "Why do that?" I ask.

  "They just last longer. I used to let them all know about each other but they would always have to be rebooted in about a month. When they think I'm doing everything but their job they usually last a year or so. Well, not the social media one. That one still gets 2 months at most, but what can you do?" He says this all with a nonchalant shrug that I simply nod in response to.


  I'mprints without some form of physical body always had a pretty short lifespan. With some physical form to interact with the world in, adaptation to life as an I'mprint was easier and some could survive years if not decades. They weren't given the autonomy or rights of a human, but they could atleast function in the world as machines or pets as humanely and organically as their owners allowed. Valdie had enough money that he could easily have a whole regiment of I'mprints in android bodies that looked and even felt real if he so chose. 

  I'mprints of other people could only be licensed rather than purchased. The original person the I'mprint was a copy of, would receive a monthly paycheck from Eidolon (The company behind I'mprints) based on how many people currently licensed their I'mprints. Celebrities did particularly well off of this with some licensing their I'mprints to do hourly 1 on 1 interaction, give a relationship experience to the client or of course the myriad of adult entertainment options that required expensive hardware.

  When it came to those that were just code however, things became more erratic. I'mprinting technology allowed I'mprints to feel human comforts like sleeping, eating and the sensations of having a body, but they never quite did the trick. Digital I'mprints all eventually began showing signs of damage. Eidolon had been trying to overcome this limitation since the technologies inception but so far had no luck. I'mprints would begin to question things that had no answers and become frustrated with their existence. A nihilistic, agitated computer program was the last thing anyone needed to be paying for but thankfully for users it was an easy enough fix.

  Turn it off and on again. The method as old as tech-support.

  Rebooting an I'mprint was a sure-fire way to return it to day one settings. The only problem was that you'd have to then start from scratch with their memories as well. The I'mprint boyfriend you had, no longer recognized you. The nanny you trained so well no longer remembers how you like your house run. The copy of yourself from 3 decades ago has to be caught up on jokes you've already made, to make sure you aren't telling the same ones over again. They reset to the same memories they had when they were first I'mprinted.


  "Does the social media one not get sleep or something?" I ask. According to the file, none of the I'mprints had any form of physical bodies, so it's pretty weird that one is so drastically different from the others.

  "None of them sleep, or atleast not really," Valdie replies. "I pay extra to have them feel like they rest to keep them going strong, but it happens instantly."

  "Damn," I almost whistle rather than reply. Even as a legatus who focuses on incidents involving I'mprints and the Duoverse, that's news to me. I'd heard of I'mprints being accelerated to be able to do more work in less time, but to accelerate their sleep patterns down to no time at all was game changing. Someone in my tax bracket wouldn't be seeing that kind of technology for years of course. Not that I even have any I'mprints. Plants and alcohol are more than enough companionship for me. "Then what do you think makes the social media one break down so quickly?" I ask.

  The response I receive is a dry laugh, not at all his usual cackle during his shows. "Never been on social media? My head would go splat in less than a week!" His every word is punctuated with exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures to demonstrate his head "going splat."


  Sure enough, I hadn't had my own social media account for years. Neither the time nor the tolerance for others remained enough in me to hang on to one. Despite The Republic only having a population of 16 million, the vast majority of its citizens was near-constantly active on one of the social media platforms. A barrage of images and videos detailing every last minute of every citizens day was constantly uploaded. Despite that bread and circus, everyone was always trying to shout over one-another to affirm that their view point was the correct one and showing off just how intelligent, kind and worldly they were. Not too different from your social media today, but with less cute animals.


  "-And just to confirm, Mr Jimmy, the I'mprints have been coordinating despite you rebooting all of them at the same time?" 

  "Right-o! -You can call me Valdie by the way. It started on social media so we rebooted that one early, but then it was the joke on my weekly show that had a literary reference or whatever and we rebooted it too. Then was the pulse and shimmer code, so we rebooted all 3 thinking that they must have been communicating somehow, and now there's been websites set up and messages hidden in images, references in the stand-up -it makes no sense!" On the way over to Valdie's apartment I had read through the report carefully and it seemed I understood the case better than the man himself.

  "Did someone else make the report by any chance?" I ask before taking another sip of water.

  "My assistant, Katherine. Sharp as a knife that one, in intellect and criticism." I could hear his ego deflate along with the tone of his voice mid-sentence. "I could call her in if you'd like?"

  "Thank you that would be-" 

  "Katherine, doll!" Valdie was already making arrangements, clearly having made the call as soon as the thought was spoken aloud. His booming voice filled the room, allowing me to quietly sigh without causing any offence. Meeting a childhood legend is far less fun than you'd think. Never meet your hero... and never let them be naked in front of you. It doesn't end well for anyone.


*************


  As soon as he was done making the call, our host had excused himself, ensuring me he had some vital work to attend to. In the Duoverse he literally disappeared, engaging some form of privacy mode that allowed him to become invisible in his own property. I blinked twice, watching, to make sure that he actually left the room at all. The door that opened as he left revealed a lavish bed with unkempt sheets and nothing else before it closed behind him. Vital work, indeed. Katherine Bea met me at Valdie's apartment in less than 10 minutes. 

  This new client was far more approachable than the last. Long black hair tied into a ponytail, a simple blue suit with a matching pencil skirt and white blouse. The only striking feature about her were the bright green eyes that almost matched Valdie's. I reached out to shake her hand and felt her grip, firm, yet soft to the touch. The feeling of wealth. She had Cynet arms like me, but hers were covered in false flesh to give the feel of a human body. It was only thanks to the advanced sensors in my own fingertips that I could feel the mechanical movement. Otherwise she appeared perfectly human to any outside observer.


  She on the other hand felt the cold metallic grip of my handshake and didn't bat an eye. Her gaze met mine with equally cool confidence, or perhaps indifference. My own Duotar is hardly different from reality. What you see is what you get. I've no reason to hide my two Cynet arms, in fact they give a good warning to potential criminals that I won't be easy to deal with. I'm similarly lax with hiding the implant at my throat or the dull grey IIs which I refuse to pay extra to customize. The only real difference between my Uni and Duotar is that I never have to worry about the way my pale skin flushes at the smallest physical exertion, how my hair always ends up in wet clumps that reveal too much of my scalp and that my jacket is always wrinkled and at this point slightly faded from years of rough use. The pulse and shimmer also highlights the red against black that makes up my aesthetic from head to toe.

  Wait... the pulse and shimmer.


  With a blink I see my arm come to life in front of me and reality shifts ever so slightly. Katherine Bea looks familiar, but not quite. Her hair is a rich auburn, still pulled back in a ponytail, but with a perfect fringe that frames her features. Her skin is as pale as Valdie's and contrasts the bold features of her almond eyes and cherry lips. Those neon green orbs are staring back at me as an eyebrow arches a little in challenge. Instantly I release her grip and return my hand to my own lap. This woman, several years younger than me smiles playfully as she takes a seat on the sofa, crossing one leg over the other. 

  She thinks I was struck by her beauty. Close, but not quite. Struck by my own idiocy would be more accurate. I've never been in a room where everything was exactly the same in reality and the Duoverse. Matching designer sofas and chairs, a table made of marble in the center, walls that were unblemished by age or damage, trimmed with tiles of gold and black. Valdie spent a fortune on furnishings that almost no-one would ever see. 

  Then there was Ms. Bea herself. For most people their money goes into their Duotar first and foremost. It's one of the reasons its considered an invasion of privacy to view someone's Uni without their permission in The Republic, and another of the many that those on the outskirts who don't view the Duoverse are shunned and ostracized. Ms. Bea must have spent a fortune in surgery and upkeep on her Uni, even managing to avoid the sun most of her life. It was likely she hadn't breathed unfiltered air since birth. Even though she was called over early in the morning she had gotten here in no time at all looking so presentable. Moreover, her Duotar really wasn't that different from her Uni either. This was a woman who was wealthy beyond anything I'd ever seen and yet strangely down to earth.


  "Ms. Bea, it's a-"

  "Katherine is fine," she cuts me off instantly. Her voice teasing in a more youthful way than her appearance suggests.

  "...Katherine. It's a pleasure to meet you. The files give me a general idea about this incident, but could I ask you some more questions? Valdie seems to think you'd know best." A flicker of something in the green there. Was it pride?

  "I should hope so. I manage all the fools, unfortunately. Just call me the jester whisperer." She shrugs in the same exaggerated way as her boss, waits for a reaction that doesn't come, then continues: "the I'mprints I mean... They can be a handful. What would you like to know?"

  "This ARG began with a post on socials? What exactly was it?"

  "A blessing! It was years since Valdie had gone viral! What do you expect with 30 years of the same material? Then that image appeared and The Republic went wild! Viewership and engagement went up all over!" Katherine had gone from leaning forward, to throwing her arms up in the air and finally held one finger up in front of her face in triumph. Her personality was so different from her appearance that it was giving me whiplash.

  "An image then," I confirm. "It was just a selfie of Valdie, right?"


  Her painted lips twitch slightly, but the smile doesn't fade. "Yuppers, it was the big man. He had a cheeseburger in his hand which was dripping with blood. The caption said 'Time for some new blood.' It was pretty weird, but only really got attention once the message was found." Katherine's eyes were practically glowing as she waited for my response.

  "And what was the message?"

  "There was a clock on the wall behind him. analogue," she continued, having earned the audience participation she so clearly needed. "Pretty weird, right? It stuck out like a red nose! No one uses an antique like that anymore!" 

  True enough, I noted. The entire internet was just an eye or hand movement away. Clocks in The Republic were never needed and not in fashion like several other antiques were. The closest most people come to seeing them was on steampunk-themed Duotars.

  "Anyway, the time on the clock was 2:18. Some commenter pointed out that The Book of Martyrs, chapter 2 verse 18 says 'Those who have come before may have sinned, but let us not repeat their mistakes or squander this which they provide.'" She quoted the text in a monotonous voice that mocked the preachers so easily ignored on the streets. To cap it all off Katherine even feigned a loud snore which I couldn't repress a chuchle at. "It laughs!" she pounced on the impulse immediately. "I was starting to think The Legion had drones as Legati!"


  "You're more than just Valdie's assistant, aren't you?" I ask, still smiling slightly. Katherine sits back in her chair. Her arms cross over her stomach as she waits in silence. Her style of speech, the way she moved, the lack of any concern when discussing important matters, it was all so familiar. "You've learned all his mannerisms. You must be a huge fan."

  Katherine's confident pose held still as ice. Even this pose was just the same as Valdie back when he first started comedy. It was before my time, but while I was a child my whole family had watched recorded files of his stand-up to pass the time. Nothing live, but it was something. Back then he had moved a lot more and used his whole body in his routine. Nowadays he still had the exaggerated movements but they were limited to his face and hands, and he never made his own sound effects.

  "Isn't everyone?" she asked calmly. "He was always so full of life. It was a dream come true, getting this job 4 years ago. I'd only been out of The Legion a few months."


  It was hard to imagine the Katherine Bea I saw before me during her conscription in The Legion. From 16-20 every citizen of The Republic served their time equally... except for the most wealthy who were often deemed too vital by patrons and employers who happened to be family friends. Shocking that someone as obviously wealthy as her hadn't taken the same route. She seemed lost in thought for the moment so I took the opportunity to snap her out of it myself.

  "That was only the first message right, Katherine? What about the rest?" Her eyes paused on me as if taking me in for the first time. Her voice, along with her eyes had lost their spark of life as she continued:

  "Oh, right, the fools game. It'd be easier if I just showed you. Open up." She placed two fingers on the side of her neck for a moment and a small box of light appeared in my vision.


 Cheshire_Kat requests pairing.

 Allow?


  I nod in silence and the box expands to take up a quarter of my vision. The image of Valdie is visible for just a second before it disappears, replaced with a paused video file of a live show.

  "You want anything to eat by the way? This will be a while and I could really go for a beef burger."

  "I... think I'm good." I reply cautiously. The way she emphasized the beef caught me by surprise.

  "Valdie's treat. This is a business brunch after all." The confident grin is back on her face as a delivery app replaces the video, and details the ridiculous prices that idiots pay for "real meat." She thinks she's putting me in my place. Too bad you know nothing about me. Shameless might as well be my middle name.

  "Sure. Throw in a milkshake and onion rings?"

  "You got it, Legatus." I can't help glancing at the subtotal before it disappears. Meat really is murder nowadays.


*************


  Two hours later we've finally gone over the whole case and recapped the game so far. A cryptic message hidden in an image, a joke in the form of a poem where the first word of each stanza formed a sentence, the pulse and shimmer Morse code, another image on social media but this one had exif data that linked a part of The Republic that had been geotagged. The messages all had similar meanings but in different words. It was all Martyrist rhetoric about Doomers -The humans who lived before the fall- and how modern humanity needs to do better. That was as far as the ARG had gotten so far. The geodata on the last image directed fans to a warehouse in South-East Greater Republic, but none of the players had found another clue there yet.

  Consider me thoroughly pissed off. Dear listener, you've heard me complain about those stories that make you question reality and challenge it without giving a definite answer but this is yet another of my pet peeves. If you're going to tell a story then you damn well better have a plan for how it ends that can be inferred from its themes and structure. There's nothing more aggravating than finding all the pieces of a puzzle and realizing that the creator was just winging it and hadn't given you enough to infer it's conclusion early on. Sure, slip in some red herrings, but we need those Chekhovian guns firing on all cylinders too!

  Katherine assured me that I had all the information that either she or the group of fans playing along with the ARG knew so far. Moreover, both her and Valdie had assured me there wasn't any tampering with Valdie's I'mprints that could have allowed them to perform a coordinated effort like this while being rebooted.


  "I'm happy for you to chat with the fools," Katherine offered once we'd gone over all the clues. "The big man and I have both tried asking what they're up to when a new clue is discovered but they play dumb no matter how many times we ask.

  A recording is played through my IIs of a Valdie from another time. It's still the same look as his current Duotar, but the colours are more muted, his hair longer and lashes more full. Duotars don't age, so those that like one look basically don't age in the Duoverse. His past look was simply more youthful and cute. Fashion trends had changed while the man himself stayed the same. I hear Katherine's voice ask about the Geodata and see the I'mprint perform a familiar exaggerated shrug. From Katherine's shorter perspective the shrug looks even more dramatic and a little intimidating.

  "I read over 600 comments an hour and respond to five percent of them while planning 4 social media posts a day and reading ever piece of criticism and meme that is posted my way. Do you really think I have the time to play games within that?" The Valdie I'mprint finishes the response with a hearty laugh that sounds hoarse and tired by the time he finishes. "Three more kids just told me to kill my self while we've been talking. You think I can get back to my adoring fans now?"


  "You still haven't rebooted that one?" I ask, a little worry creeping into my voice sub-consciously. 

  "He's at the end of his rope." Katherine confirms my suspicions without emotion. "Two months working social media with no breaks will do that to you. The fans love the interaction though! His bants are getting even more cutting! We would have retired him a few days ago but then the picture came from him so we'll keep him going until the investigation is through. Just let me know if you want to interrogate him." 

  I shake my head resolutely. "I'd rather check out the warehouse first and see if I can find anything myself." In two large gulps I finish the little banana milkshake left in my cup and stand up. "It was a joy meeting you Katherine. I'll let you know what I find."

  She stands, smooths her skirt out with a tug of her fingers and then leads me to the door. "Can't wait! Don't WEAR yourself out, out there!"

  A single chuckle escapes my lips on the way out the door. It's not easy for anything to escape me on a job. "Maybe you should be writing his jokes," I tease. The elevator doors close so fast behind me that I almost lose my heel. I meant it as a compliment... What's wrong with cringy puns?



*************


  It's early afternoon as I arrive at the warehouse and the sun is scalding. Normally I'd hardly notice how intense the sun was, only feeling its glare for a few seconds between my car and the next shielded building. Unfortunately this ARG was just as viral as Katherine had said and all the underground parking as well as several rows of the outdoor lot were taken up by other players.

  The second my arm pushed open the door of my car an alert flashed to life in my IIsight. I blink it away, well aware that I need to seek shelter and jog to the building with two metal hands shading my face as best they could.

  The warehouse, located far from the center of The Republic was just that. It served no additional purpose other than storage and distribution and as such the company that owned it had gone with the simplest look it could in The Duoverse. From the outside it was simply a box made out of light. While I was approaching, it had displayed a message that storage containers were available at low low prices for a limited time and now as I rushed into its shade it was advertising Nyx umbrellas. "Strong enough to turn even the mid-day sun to night." Can't imagine how insulting the targeted advertisements feel for those who don't pay for an advertisement-free experience.


  Inside, the warehouse is flooded with a slow trickle of Republic citizens, mingling in little groups and wandering around. Some of them have Valdie themed avatars, with porcelain skin, crimson lips and verdant hair. The rest are the usual personalized styles that get repurposed for each individual's "unique" personality. Demons with red or blue skin and horns to match, animal hybrids with varying degrees of furriness, mascot characters that were hardly human, and then of course the always beautiful 'average' looking people. If they had any blemishes then they only added to the look, from well positioned scars to tiny beauty marks in specific shapes.

  These were the average citizens of The Republic. Given the tools to look any way they wanted to, they chose to mostly appear like a cosplay convention, Rennaisance faire and cyberpunk LARP got scheduled at the same venue. The wealthier citizens even had effects on their Duotars that allowed them to leave trails behind them, burn like fire, shine like ice or glow like stars. Imagine VR Chat with hyper-realistic graphics. It takes some getting used to, but it sure makes life interesting.

  I had half a mind to blink and return to the Universe but one thing made me stick with the distracting Duoverse: The smell! I had no clue how long this flock of fans had held the atrium of this warehouse hostage, but with how many there were in such a small enclosed space there was no chance I was switching back to reality. Perhaps changing one sense at a time is something I should ask the professor to look into. He sees my current modifications as illegal enough, but if he were witness to this lack of human hygiene he might reconsider.


  "Ohhhh, a legatus!" some sort of animal girl exclaims as she looks me over.

  I may be a detective, but you look at a girl with fluffy pointy ears and a tail and tell me for certain what type of cat, fox, lion, dog, etc. it is! 

  "Looks like we'll have to sniff out the trail fast, wolf pack! The Legion is on our tail and we won't have them taking our prey!" She is in full performance mode, touching the tip of her nose with one finger and posing with it to the side before spinning around to show off her tail for a virtual camera that I can't see. Another fun feature of the Duoverse: everything is virtual, so entertainers like the -I assume- wolf girl here can get the perfect angle for their live streams and recordings. While on duty my Duotar is unable to be recorded, instead appearing in the stream as a black silhouette with a red outline. That doesn't stop her from posing alongside me before I push past.

  Several other citizens in the sea of bystanders have similarly twisted their backs towards me and begun narrating to an unseen audience. So much for keeping this a quiet investigation.


  A lanky man with a perfectly spherical afro rushes over to me as I'm still considering where first to start inspecting. He has a clipboard and pen at the ready as he sputters out "If you want to stay, you need to at least pay for something -could I offer you a storage locker or container? We have the best security in the south east -and long term payment plans you NEED to lock down today." The entire speech came out in one overworked breath before he finally took a deep inhale and looked me over.

  His eyes zig-zag from left boot to right hand, to left arm and finally at the insignia on my chest. Everywhere his eyes zoomed saw black, red and white, finally ending with him looking me in the steely grey eyes. "Oh, Legatus, are you here on official business?" he asks seeing me for the first time.

  "Unfortunately. I'll just be taking a look around. Nothing serious. I take it you've heard about the ARG?"

  "Of course! Mixed blessing it is. I've earned more this week than I have in the last year, but its been hectic as all hell." He wiped his seemingly clear face with a sleeve that came away damp. Either he was too poor to afford a Duotar that reacted to the elements, or he had it set to hide his sweat. It reaffirms my suspicion that it would have been terrible actually smelling this room. "I don't get old Valdie though. He doesn't rent anything here. Why he chose this as a location in his game is beyond me."


  "Of course you dont," a smug voice chimed in from behind. A short man swaggered out from behind the employee and and rested a skinny elbow on his shoulder. "Only real fans understand the importance of this place." Each syllable oozed with the weight of self-entitlement and unearned confidence. Staring at the man... possibly boy, his look certainly fit. Dark green hair slicked back against his head. Pure white skin with a bright yellow set of painted lips. His outfit was a one-for-one replica of Valdie's but blue instead of purple.

  "Nice cosplay," I say, realizing he needs some input from me to continue. The clowns all seem to. What follows is several seconds of silence as the warehouse employee looks between us before shuffling out from under the man's weight and backing away through the crowd with a muffled "-whole damn circus."

  "...Thanks. It's a one of a kind you know. The duo Valdie wore in his early years. Cost me a fortune." His confidence seemed shaken at first but he quickly came back to himself, flicking up the collar of the blue suit.

  "Valdie had a non-fungible auction?" I ask, surprised that someone as wealthy as he would sell parts of his history. The man is attached to his own rotting skin.


  "Oh yeah! This, tons of art, he even had I'mprints to rent back in the day." The man exclaims lifting 4 fingers into the air in each hand, split in the middle in what I assume meant 'V for Valdie?'

  Right, not even his biggest fan here knows that those I'mprints still exist. They're just not availaible for fans to rent anymore.

  "He auctioned off a ton of stuff from his start-up days during his bout of alcoholism and cancellation. This duo is just one of the treasures floating around on the net from that period."


  "What do you mean about real fans knowing the importance of this place? Did Valdie work here before becoming a comedian or something?" I guess, fishing for a concise answer instead of another flex.

  "Close but not quite, legatus. No, this humble abode wasn't his place of work BEFORE becoming a comedian, but it's not surprising that you're unaware."

  Annnnnnd, there he goes. I wonder if he'd be less talkative with a hand around his throat?

  "There aren't even recordings of the performance after all, only stories -legends!" The man has come to another flamboyant pose, one eyebrow raised well above the other like a perfectly curved tilde extending the silence. "a-pparently Valdie gave his first ever performance here, see? He rented out a whole floor of the warehouse and invited a ton of people. One just happened to have the money and connections to make his next debut a real headliner event! 'Clowining the Fools!' His first masterpiece!"

  That one I knew. I'd always thought that Clowing the Fools was Valdie's first ever performance. It went viral because a then nobody appeared out of nowhere with a 2 hour stand-up roast of not only other comedians he deemed scared of the public and sanitized, but also several praetors and other celebrities. Who knew that his first hadn't even been recorded? Well, no, that can't be right either. Everything was recorded, even 40 years ago when IIs were only visual and cutting edge technology, everybody had headsets. They must have bought all of the footage and made sure there were no copies floating around the net. Had Valdie said something that had to be hidden from the public? I ponder this new development silently as his biggest fan continues spewing love for Valdie. If there was anyone to ask...


  "-Legends?" I interrupt the man's clearly rehearsed monologue, stunning him into what may be his first silence. "What do the stories say about Valdie's performance here? It's pretty wild that no-one has any recordings, right?"

  The fan's face lights up with glee, pride reigniting his love for an audience. "A feast for the senses!" he announces with Shakespearean gravitas. "He had the whole crowd dying with laughter and contemplating their own place in the world. It's been said that it was even better than Clowning the Fools, with more biting commentary, more theatrics and more Valdie!" Another double V appeared on the fan's fingers as he nodded rhythmically in a trance.

  "Anything connected to Martyrism by any chance?" My question snaps him out of his daydream and back to boring reality.

  "They existed back then? ...no clue, but no-one cares enough to mention -wait! Is that what this all is!?" The fan's voice has become a shriek that manages to cut through the roaring chorus in the atrium. "Legatus, you're a genius! It's a new stand-up special on those Martyrist freaks! He's going back to his roots and doing a full special on one topic! I wonder if they'll record it here!? I need to post this immediately. D'you mind if I take a picture?" Before I've even raised a hand or refused his request his IIs have flashed gently and a shutter sound echoes around the now quiet room. "Oh, privacy settings? Right, makes sense, could you turn 'em-"


  I push past the clown and head through the sea of Valdie fans now murmuring in little groups and recording messages for social media. It takes a painfully long minute but I finally see the lanky employee from before, typing away at a virtual desktop in the corner, clipboard floating next to him in the virtual air.

  "Excuse me-"

  "Yes, yes, just a minute, we're just freeing up some old spaaaaace... how may I- oh, Legatus! Sorry, sir! What can I help you with?" The monitor and keyboard flash away as the overworked employee lifts his wrists off the desk. 

  "I was wondering if you could do a quick search through your records." Midway through the sentence I realize that the buzzing room behind me has fallen silent. Doesn't take a detective to realize that every word is being feasted on by the dozens of flies on the walls. I sigh, before lifting my eyebrows and touching two fingers to the side of my neck. A nod of my head sends the message to the employee who connects to my network the same way Katherine had earlier.

  "I need to find anyone who has rented an entire floor of the warehouse." The man, Joseph_Velox if his DV name is to be believed, hears my voice loud and clear even though I speak no words. Clearly unused to II Interface Messaging, he simply nods back in response and three names and their floors appear in my IIsight. For now, just think of II Interface Messenger as Discord but with 4 of the 5 senses as possible methods of communication. The service caught on a while ago, but it's still a little uncomfortable to some users allowing other people access into parts of their sensory data.

  No need to take a look at all three of the results. A disembodied grin flashes in my mind as I see the final name in the list. Katherine Bea didn't even bother using an alias to rent her boss' next performance space. The pair has just led a legatus on a pointless pursuit. That was a crime, but it was one that would only carry a fine for someone as well regarded as Valdie. A hefty fine for any normal person that would be roughly what he spent on me and Katherine's burgers.


  Another sigh escapes my lips as I unpair with Velox. I really should start charging The Legion per sigh at this point. "Thanks for the cooperation," I say, crossing the room to a nearby elevator and thumbing the up button. The warehouse is abuzz with excited chatter as Valdie's fans eye me cautiously and more than a few surround the already overworked Velox with questions.

  "Legatus, what did you find?" It's the man wearing Valdie's lost Duo who has the courage to join me at the elevator. "I helped you out, right? Come on, let a bro in on your next clue!" I stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for Katherine and Valdie's floor, turning back to face my informant.

  "Just think about what you told me and Martyrism," I respond coldly. "Really put yourself in Valdie's headspace when he was desperate and selling that Duo of yours. I'm sure you can do that and you'll see what I did."

  The man is beaming with joy as I finish giving him the hint. I must have just complimented him. I suggested he could be similar to Valdie. Of course he didn't see what I was actually saying. One of Valdie's biggest fans, yet he talks with such pride about feasting on what was almost the corpse of his carreer when he fell off. You're going to have a fun time trying to connect any of that to Martyrism. I certainly can't.


  Martyrism is an extremist offshoot of Apologists. Apologists themselves are just a bunch of different philosophical groups that survived into The Republic. Individually each group only has a few thousand members in their congregations and there's certainly no crackdowns or laws against any of them. Of course the deeds that Doomers and indeed Megacity founders did to survive in the current world go against many doctrines, as do so many of the technologies that allow The Republic to flourish. It was only after Republic citizens -supported of course by the rich corporations who provide those technologies apologists hate- began ridiculing and ostracizing all of them as one group of 'Apologist Zealots' that Martyrism was conceived.

  To grossly oversimplify, Martyrists believe that Doomers, those who lived before the fall of civilization and the formation of megacities and biodomes, have done so much bad to the planet that we, their descendants, all of humanity, must die for their sins and allow the planet to heal without us. Martyrist cells will occasionally try to make a name for themselves with violent acts against The Republic, but so far have been a small nuisance compared to the amount of attention they receive. Corporations and The Legion like to make them out to look worse than they are, as they're certainly a threat, but in doing so they've rallied more Apologists and unaffiliated citizens to their cause and strengthened the idea of them being a rebellion in the making.

  If Martyrism had anything to do with Valdie's ARG marketing for his next show, I had no idea how it fit but using The Book of Martyrs, their manifesto, in his hints certainly did work to make The Republic more interested in what he was up to.


  The 84th floor of the warehouse was more confirmation that this had all just been a marketing ploy. The entire area was open plan and unremarkable. While it pulse and shimmered with the light of the Duoverse there was no real design other than its purpose of open storage. Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble arranging hundreds of chairs into a makeshift audience, all facing one wall of the room. 

  I wandered aimlessly among the empty pews which would later be filled with the congregation currently in the atrium along with many more. I had no doubt that Valdie would try to make this all up to me with my very own VIP seat. Not exactly the reward I would have asked for, but who would say no to seeing one of their childhood legends live. As a legally obligated witness no less. Fun.


  Two fingers on the button at my neck made the call to Valdie. He answered on the 5th ring, voice still groggy from the 'important work' he had left me for in the morning.

  "Fulgur, I didn't expect to hear from you so soon. Have you solved our little I'mprint problem? What was it?"

  "I solved it," I reply, managing to keep my frustration out of my tone. "I still need to know how you managed to control the speed of the pulse and shimmer." There was a moment of silence followed by rustling of what I assume were his sheets.

  "Isn't that your job? I thought you'd solved it? Ask... whoever it was yourself."

  "Enough." This time the frustration did fill my voice. "I found the warehouse all set up for your next show. You're the one who was controlling the ARG, not any I'mprints."

  Theres a pause of several seconds as I hear liquid pouring in the background. "What warehouse!? Kid, I am a busy man and that sounds like an accusation. Do I need to call your Praetor and get a new legatus?"


  I damn near screamed out loud at his dismissive tone, but instead took a deep breath and gritted my teeth. "The warehouse where you performed your first ever stand-up. I found the floor that Katherine rented along with the seating." At this point I'm gesturing with my left arm as if he can see any of this. Perhaps I'm the one becoming too used to IIM.

  "Huh... oh... I see." Valdie sounds like he's finally waking up and I hear shifting and footsteps as he clearly makes his way out of bed. "You found Katherine's set up. Sharp as a knife, like I said. I didn't expect it to happen so fast." He sounds fully awake now, but also distracted. He's sad, and barely hiding it. Something more than just being found out. There's no way he's so worried about the punishment after he called The Legion. "Well done kid. I'll call Chroma and let her know that you exceeded all of my expectations. Just keep this warehouse thing between the three of us okay. I'll pay whatever fine I have to for wasting The Legion's time and I'll prepare something special for you. Just wait till you see what-"

  "-Mr Jimmy," I cut in. He freezes mid-sentence and for once lets the silence hold until I continue. "I still need to know about the pulse and shimmer. How did you control it?"

  "I'll tell you in a few days okay kid?" His voice is regaining its confidence with each word. "It really isn't that big of a deal. How about you come by my place on Wednesday and we'll talk about it over dinner?"

  "I can't close the case until I find out. I can be over in a little over an-"

  "-I'll pay whatever fee the legion wants for the next few days! Just take a holiday, kid -tell you what, I'll send you a few thousand creds and you have a good one!"

  Oh, and what happened to that confidence? No more sadness, now it sounds like fear. I can practically smell it. "A little over an hour, Valdie. I'll see you soon." I hear some protest on the other side as I disconnect the call. I had thought everything was coming together but it seemed that even Valdie wasn't aware of the whole story.



*************


  Valdie's apartment tower feels more foreboding as I approach it this time. It's late afternoon and the sun is already setting in the Duoverse casting the pristine tower in contrasting orange and black. Each floor of the building seems to have allowed its leaseholder slight control of it's appearance in the Duoverse. The whole thing is polished stone, but different colours and patterns make up each one, selected by their owners. Up at the top were the two floors of Valdie's penthouse in green and purple, more audacious on the outside than the refined look within.

  Despite all of the different looks, there was one fact that cemented the entire building. Pulling into the parking garage underground I am greeted by three cameras and two layers of thick metal gates that wait for me to call an apartment or use my authorization code. How many automated turrets are currently aimed at me, I was unaware of, but the answer was certainly higher than one.

  On the way in I had punched in Valdie's code and awaited his authorization from above, but this time I say confidently "Fulgur Ovid, Legatus, division 505." The two layers of metal gates slide up and down respectively like the jaws of a giant with an overbite and I make my way forward to park and take the elevator to the brain of the beast.


  Several seconds of calming elevator music later the doors open to the living room I had met Valdie in earlier. Unlike the calm and warm welcome I had been met with before, I was now greeted with shouting that quickly became hushed whispers. "Ahh, legatus. I didn't hear you buzz up." Valdie's voice quickly found the strained confidence he managed over the phone. He and Katherine were sat around the marble table, both unable to hide their annoyance.

  "I didn't want to bother you. You knew I was coming after all and you are such a busy man." He winced at the comment and looked a few times between Katherine and myself. "I can wait if you'd like to finish your conversation," I offer.

  "No. We can deal with this first. You want to know about the ARG, right? Katherine can help you with anything you'd like to know."

  Katherine let out a frustrated sigh that was half way to a growl before turning her furious gaze on me. Her voice had lost the joy it had this morning as she simply asked "What do you want to know?"


  "The third clue. You hid a message in the pulse and shimmer. That isn't meant to be possible. It isn't illegal, per se, but it's peculiar. How did you do it?" Her painted lips twitched as she audibly clicked her tongue.

  "No clue, legatus." She held her hands up with the palms facing each other. "I paid a guy to make it happen. He did his job and went on his way."

  "Not good enough. I need to know who and how he did it."

  "For fuck- I found him on an anonymous, unlisted site. I can get you the link but the payment was untraceable and I doubt he answers questions. What does it matter!?"


  That was where I hit my limit. These clowns had been all smiles when they thought they were in control, but the mask slipped as soon as life caught up with them. I slam the bottom of my fist into the table. The sound echoes throughout the room with its own weight. As I continue speaking my own voice lowers atleast an octave.

  "I don't give a fuck about your petty squabbles. Whether he likes your marketing strategy, the idea of him doing another show in his premier location or the fact that you lied to him about the I'mprints doesn't matter to me. Quit taking your butthurt out on me and pretend to be as helpful as you were this morning."

  "It's not his show. It's mine!" Katherine moans as she leans back in her chair. "I want this on the record! I've been writing most of his material for the last 2 years! He has no right to stop me going solo!"

  Valdie gasped and jumped out of his chair immediately, fists clenching tight as he tried to keep his own voice steady. "I wasn't stealing her material. She was feeding it to me without telling me it was her. I swear, I thought it was the I'mprints!"


  My mouth is hanging agape in silence as the pair continue to squabble back and forth. I'd put together the fact that Valdie didn't know about Katherine's plans based on his reaction during our call, but this was otherwise unexpected.

  "You've been writing his material and saying it came from the I'mprints?" I ask Katherine. The only answer I receive is a solemn nod. "Then... the ARG was also set up by you and not Valdie? The warehouse is going to be your debut?"

  "Is it so hard to believe!?" she screams, rising out of her chair to meet my stare. "Valdie here is afraid of his audience. He has been for decades. That's why he just gets on the stage and performs jokes written by others! I... write the jokes. I see the comments. I'm not afraid of the people hating me." Katherine sat back down in her chair, crossing one leg over the other and looking away from both me and Valdie. Glancing over at Valdie, he is still staring at his assistant, but with concern and pain etched clearly on his features to replace the anger from before.

  Well, I won't be getting my answers until this drama unfolds so let's deal with the circus. "Stage fright?" I ask, doing my best to create a soothing tone.


  Valdie looks directly at me, then away quickly, and finally down at his own hands, fidgeting with the skin at his fingernails. 

  "More than that..." his voice is almost as a whisper in response. The big man Valdie who had mocked The Republic for decades now shrunk back in his chair looking like a deflated party balloon. "PTSD. It was early into my career. I made a joke about Jessica Aranea -she was CEO of Mirari at the time. They were pushing through legislation to make it illegal to view someone's Uni without their permission. It was no secret that Aranea was more Cynet than flesh at that point. Covering Cynets in fake flesh wasn't in fashion then, but her Duo made her look all flesh. ...I just meant that she was cold-hearted. More machine than man. It was a play on words. She was basically making it illegal to be poor!"

  "It was just a joke." Katherine had calmed down now and reached over to pat Valdie on the knee. "I've been telling you that nobody blames you, old man."

  "...They did. They should."


  Valdie began to make quiet muffled sobs as he moved to a wall and touched a tile which opened up to reveal a fridge. As he began preparing a pitcher of mineral water from a fancy looking bottle. I stared off into space, ignoring Katherine's penetrating gaze. A search for Jessica Aranea appeared within my IIsight.

  The first result was all it took. An encyclopedia article on Jessica Aranea listed her early life, career, philanthropy, followed by death and aftermath in the contents. Suicide. Valdie's joke had gone viral and been followed up by a leak of Aranea's Uni, clearly taken without her knowledge. That only led to more ridicule and memes being created. She held out for a few months expecting it to end like most jokes do, but every time she came back up in the news she was harassed with a new wave of taunts. She took her own life and was found in her home by The Legion when she hadn't shown up for work.

  Mirari Industries did their best to use the suicide in their lobbying against viewing people's Unis, citing it as an example of the harm done by breach of privacy, but the legislation still failed.


  "Valdie got cancelled after she committed suicide." Katherine notes quietly. "He began drinking himself to death. Sold most of his estate and was on his way to joining the 'tin-woman.'" Valdie audibly sobs at one of the many terms he had used to refer to Aranea as Katherine thunders on. "He found a way to come back from the brink though."

  "The I'mprints?" I ask.

  "Bingo!" Katherine points finger-guns at me, having returned to her usual expressive self. "It seems the big man is fine doing the jokes as long as he doesn't have to write them. That's all he does now. He doesn't write, doesn't go near a comment section or review. He just performs the routine written out by the Valdie from before the comment sections tore him to pieces. -Oh, and my material... which I'm ready to take solo."

  Katherine doesn't even seem to understand that it wasn't the fans that broke Valdie, but rather that he himself blames his joke for Aranea's suicide. She's much more cut out for this than he is. "Cheshire Kat gonna be your stage name?"

  "It's a work in progress. That or Chatty Kathy." As she said this her Duotar flashed from the Valdie inspired look to a more youthful and laid back cat girl with a huge grin and tanned skin, then a more dignified looking woman; basically like her current Duotar but with purple eyes, blonde hair and no clown make-up. "Depends on whether I decide to go for stand-up focus or news-comedy style."


  Valdie touches two fingers to his neck and a pitcher rises up from a compartment on the table along with three glasses. He fills one for himself, placing the pitcher back in the center for any of us to take. I have to blink twice to confirm what my IIs are seeing and yes, even out of the Duoverse there are wedges of lemon and lime that have been unceremoniously dumped into the water. Another search appeared in my IIsight. 6 years... It takes 6 years for a lemon tree to bear fruit. 8 to 10 for a lime! The underground greenhouses The Republic runs usually work at all times to grow the simplest of crops for the average citizens' nourishment. The privately owned ones on the other hand still devote so much time to this. Rich people really live different lives.

  "I don't mind you going solo. You lied to me though. You made us reboot those I'mprints time and time again for no reason. Can't you imagine what that must feel like!?" Valdie has already filled his glass and takes a solemn sip. He's staring patiently at Katherine who just clicks her tongue again before turning on me.

  "Now you see why I added the Martyrism references, right!?" I open my mouth silently and simply twist my head to the side in confusion. "Oh come on, he's acting like the I'mprints are people! Like things said on the web matter! He's practically a Doomer at this point."

  I look to Valdie who is currently wearing the expression of a disappointed father. With his white and red complexion I can't help but find it funny. Soir Bleu. 

  To the side, Katherine, currently Chatty Kathy is pouting with both her arms and legs crossed up on the sofa. 

  Then there's me, blank faced and really only wanting this conversation to end along with the case. Keep it neutral. I don't have a horse in this race. The pair had wasted The Legion's time which would net them both a fine but clearly neither had any issue with money. Valdie was fine with letting Katherine go solo and didn't seem particularly mad that she used his platform to practice and market her debut. He even tried to protect her being found out by me at the end. Their only issue was a personal one. A difference of generations. Valdie cared about the actions of his fans as if they were ramifications of his own and even sympathized with I'mprints - data and code -ones and zeroes. Katherine just seemed disappointed with the father figure in her life. Might have wanted to reveal everything whenever she debuted and expected him to be proud of her when she did.


  "Does it matter?" I ask earnestly. "Valdie, you still care about Katherine, right? Hell, you'll probably help her with her debut." He nods, at me, turning to Katherine. "-And Katherine, you still care about Valdie?" Her eyes narrow and she opens her mouth to argue but I simply raise a hand continuing, "if you didn't care you wouldn't be so concerned with his response to your game. You might not like everything he does but you certainly give a damn about his opinion of you." She pouts again, looking away for a second as she nods in confirmation.

  "Then can you please... stop fighting for long enough to send me everything you have on the hacker who helped you with the pulse and shimmer? My job is done. I just file the report, you pay the fine and I'll leave you two to make up."


  "You can't file the report!" Katherine has uncrossed her arms and is leaning forward, looking between me and Valdie. After a pause she continues, alarmed: "You report all of this and it'll get to the media! No-one will show up to my debut!"

  A chuckle escapes me as I turn to Valdie for some support but he offers me none.

  "Can you just say that I was the culprit for everything? Katherine will give you all you need, kid. The Legion doesn't need to be bored with the details." He's giving me a pleading look, eyes wide and those crimson lips pouting like a child's.

  Suddenly I'm the bad guy? Why does trying to stay neutral make you everyone's punching bag!? 

  Leaving out a large chunk in the report won't do any harm as the issue has already been solved. Hell, 505 shouldn't have even been dispatched for this petty drama. The I'mprints and Duoverse had nothing to do with it. What The Legion doesn't know can't hurt them, can it?


  The silence hangs in the air for what likely feels an eternity to the pair in front of me. It comes to an end as I touch two fingers to the terminal on my neck and confirm the sending of a detailed report. "The Legion doesn't have time to clown around like you two do. I've wasted enough of my time." As I finish speaking I see the pair react to a flashing notification in their IIs. Before I've fully stood up Katherine has pounced on me, clearing the distance between us instantly and slapping me with that powerful cyborg hand of hers. 

  "Fuck you, wolf. Crawl back to your pack!" The resulting sting hurt, but was nothing compared to what she could have done with a punch. Valdie is out of his chair too and waving his hands in front of his chest.

  "She didn't mean that! You don't have to-"

  "Assault of a Legatus!?" Katherine was half-way to the door when she spins in spot to glare at me. Her entire body is twitching in rage at the notification only she can see. 

  "That one's automatic thanks to your expensive Cynets," I confirm. A chorus of swear words follows as Katherine slams the elevator call button with her palm. If she has any sense she'll be heading directly to the barracks to turn herself in as suggested by her IIs. 6 months is the minimum sentence, but it will increase if she does anything else stupid. 

  "You can both rot in hell! I told you not to call The Legion but you just wouldn't listen! When I get out, my debut will be all about how pathetic you are!" In the elevator now she transforms into the Cheshire Kat Duotar then hits a button. The last I see of her is a full body gesture of what she thinks of me, both middle fingers high in the air as the elevator doors close and I'm left standing in awkward silence with Valdie.


  My childhood idol, Valdie. He is staring at the elevator doors with tears welling up in his eyes. As I make my way over and press the same call button gently, he calls out to me. "Legatus!" tears choking back the rest of the sentence. I turn my head to the side but don't quite look at him. "Thank you for your service."

  Stepping into the elevator, a calming sigh escapes my lips as I punch in the 4th parking level and turn to bid Valdie farewell. He's already turned away from me and touched another tile on the wall. It opens up to reveal a single bottle of some dark liquid. Looks expensive and old. Thirty years if my detective instincts are on point.


*************


  The life of a legatus doesn't tend to stick to a fixed routine. It's 8pm -5 days since the long day I spent being fooled by Kat. I'm marching down the halls of Dormitory building 13 - my home. The 71st floor is where I, along with many others of The Legion rest between shifts. The night has been routine so far. Hunted down an I'mprint some rich fool had put into his expensive sex doll. He was her first victim. A few bruises litter my stomach and chest, as well as a steady flow of blood staining my shirt as it drips from the corner of my mouth. Thick thighs save lives, but when they're made out of steel, they can really make you squeal.

  What snaps me out of routine is a small purple box left unceremoniously outside my door. I pick it up, stepping into my apartment as the door opens in response to my arrival. There's a card taped to the side which I flip open and read carefully. 


Legatus,

thanks again for all your effort yesterday.

I heard from the praetor you love two things.

Hope this will bring those worlds together.

Enjoy it while you can

and come by tonight for a real drink!

Valdie.


  Yesterday, I wonder. It must have taken a while for this to get here. Or he just forgot to send it for a few days. Regardless, two things? I stare suspiciously at the box, wondering what it could be. What does the praetor think that I like? 

  Retrieving a knife from my tool box I carefully sever the tape holding the top of the box closed. There's a waft of a familiar scent that instantly brings to mind calming memories. Gin? She does know me! I take the box over to the kitchen unit and flip it open, expecting an expensive bottle. What greets me instead is a mess of spiky green leaves bulging to the edges of their purple prison. I rip open the four sides of the box to expose the whole gift and find that I've been given a tiny tree in a jet black pot of soil. A plastic slip plunged into the dirt tells me it's Juniperus Communis Compressa - a dwarf juniper tree.

  I stare in disbelief for a solid minute before finally thinking to search how much a healthy tree like this would cost.

  Huuuuhh!? That's more than I make in a year! More than some make in a lifetime!

  I walk the luxury over to my bedroom and open up the large black and red safe beside my bed. Inside are three other plants, all luxuries of their own but nothing compared to their new roommate.


  Over the years I've ended up working for many incredibly wealthy individuals. Due to this, a detective who lives paycheck to paycheck, barely supporting his drinking and entertainment habits has somehow acquired a horde of wealth in house plants. A spider plant, English ivy and even an unknown fern are cozily tucked into the small box.

  During the daytime they sleep in the dark, shielded from the harmful radiation that our cheap apartment building doesn't completely block. The small lead-lined safe is called a black house and used by fools who decided to keep plants despite not living in a suitable home. Fools like me. At night, small solar LEDs in the bedroom bathe them in nutritional photons, allowing them to continue growing. This backwards day and night cycle let's me actually enjoy their air purifying qualities while never at risk that I'll have to be out late at work and come home to find them dead from burns or mutation.

  When I was first gifted one (a tiny vine of ivy) I saw it more as a burden than anything else, but nonetheless did my best to keep it alive. I had to buy all the equipment to sustain it as well as adjust my routine so that each morning I was actually home began with hiding it away.

  Somehow the fact that I'd managed to keep it alive got out and more and more of my clients decided that I must love plants. The alcohol well dried up and I've been instead spending a fortune on purified water and an ever expanding collection of LEDs. Despite my best efforts, the life of a legatus doesn't stick to any routine and several had died when I was kept away from home for extended periods. Had praetor Chroma been telling people that I liked plants? The second thing must have been gin. That one she at least got right.


  As I hold the already 9-inch-tall plant up to my 1 foot tall black house, I realize that yet another upgrade is going to be in order. There goes all of my expendable income for this month... I guess I will take Valdie up on that offer for a drink while I can.

  Only, that turns out to be an impossibility. I only get as far as the outdoor parking lot beside Valdie's apartment tower. The spots are overflowing with cars and surrounding the building is a huge crowd of the same people that had been at the storage warehouse. Far more, and out in the open air since the sun has already gone down. Driving past slowly I see several at different times walking over to the building to place flowers, candles and signed notes in front of a large virtual mural of the man I had come to drink with. He's opening his arms, laughing and bowing one last time for his public.

  They're holding a vigil for the comedian who drank for 4 days straight then stepped out of his window. My childhood idol Valdie. Blinking twice makes Valdie disappear and shows me the pitch dark of The Republic at night. The ground is only lit up by the candles that his fans have left at the foot of his virtual image. That flickering light reveals the dirty grey cement covered in years of grime. A patch of pale white is visible right where the man still stood tall in the Duoverse. The cleaning robots had scrubbed hard to get his gore out. The only reminder that Valdie's body had hit the ground at this exact spot. The spot where his fans now stood to take selfies with his virtual mural.


  Guess I missed the last call...

Comments

  1. This is my favorite chapter so far. Love it! Looking forward to more.

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  2. "Thick thighs save lives, but when they're made out of steel, they can really make you squeal."
    Legatus really do be speaking the truth and nothing but the truth

    This chapter is another win for my heart shattering into pieces!

    Thank you for the amazing chapter and the artwork of the Praetor is fantastic!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Immediately suspicious; I really don't mean to be but it feels a little too huh alls well that ends well and I'm just suspicious at this point. Gotta go back and reread to make sure but some thing fishy is going on-
    The reason for his suicide is uh. Actually what is the reason for his suicide I'm curious because it looks like he shouldn't be prone anymore? Though tbf the previous case that led him to drink so heavily in the past got brought up again but still sus! Sus I tell you! Resolved itself too easily, funny as heck but too easily so somethings afoot here- Fulgur gets another plant! I'm excited for whatever you have planned!! Thank you for the chapter and thank you to the artist for their beautiful art!!

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    Replies
    1. Maybe something else happened in the few days it was mentioned the package got sent to him that was omitted? Katherine already went to serve her sentence, doesn't make sense for her to escape and do something to Valdie when she left saying she'll debut and talk crap about them. That, or the package was sent late on purpose to Fulgur and by the time he went to Valdie's place, he's dead. It's definitely sus with the timing, if Fulgur managed to receive the package like how the note said about the timeline, then there could be the possibility of Valdie and him chatting. Then again, it could've just been how things work in their world in the eyes of Fulgur. Brilliant execution of ending the chapter too!

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  4. each chapter is better than the last!! i love the inside narration style in this chapter the humour was amazing social comentary on point and grey morality with a not so slight tinge of tragedy 11/10

    ReplyDelete

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