Chapter 5

Samuel could think of two kinds of people who might go unregistered: criminals hoping to escape the law, and illegal immigrants. The latter were unheard of, due to the Agglomerate’s great wall. The former were almost as impossible since the Link had virtually abolished all crime: no theft or mugging was worthwhile when the police could easily track any stolen goods. Furthermore, all homes had been installed with a Home System, even the Fringes. Samuel assured me that all Home Systems were programmed to provide residents with all basic needs, regardless of financial status; poverty had, in one fell swoop, been eradicated.

“A homeless person, then,” I proposed.

He looked at me incredulously. “Those don’t exist anymore either. Link-tended Livecrete provides cheap housing for all, and the basic needs clause in Home Systems means that even the poorest, broke bum is not denied a home. And don’t even think of saying it’s an alien. I don’t believe in that shit.”

“Why yes, let’s dismiss the most fitting solution we have right away,” I said, without actually believing in aliens. We went on to dismiss Faeries, vengeful ghosts and malevolent spirits.

Instead, I set myself to the task of watching the Link replay over and over again. I zoomed out, looking for some external force, out of sight. I zoomed in, looking for some detail we had missed. It amounted to little more than a tiny flicker a split second before the actual collision report. Meanwhile, Sam had gone to the garage, to inspect the van. He called me and said: “Listen to this: they’ve taken the van apart, but it looks like it’s been sliced in two, and then glued back together, done so cleanly the mechanics only noticed when they disassembled the thing. And it gets weirder yet: when they tried to reassemble the van, the two halves didn’t fit together anymore.”

“I’ll be right there,” I responded.

“Just Link here. It’s quicker,” Sam said, remembered that I was new to all of this and explained that it worked similar to the plug-café: he had an ARG in his office I could use, which he could connect to the garage via his Personal Connector. I followed his instructions and soon found myself standing in the garage, while physically still being in Sam’s office. Yet I could see, smell and touch everything.

One of the mechanics had just found the reason the two halves no longer fitted: the left side was longer than the right side. “It’s warped,” I said, going purely by intuition, and followed to explain it: “Imagine you hold a stick in the bend of a stream. The water must flow around the stick and for the water that does so on the outside of the bend, the stick creates a longer detour than for the water that flows past it on the inside. This reduces the density on the outside; effectively, the water gets stretched.”

“So you’re saying the left side of the van got stretched as it was forced to bend around something, which is why it’s longer?” Samuel asked.

I nodded, but knew it solved fewer riddles than that it raised: “We still don’t know what forced the van to split in halves, and what forced the two halves back together.”

At that point, Samuel decided to call it a day, claiming he needed time to think. I think he was ready to give up on the case and file it away somewhere.

I went home and decided to try out that Personal Connector that Sara had mentioned to be somewhere in my house. This PC, as Sara called it, was attached to a lounge chair similar to the ones at the plug-café and in Sam’s office, complete with ARG. I turned in on, which provided me with the familiar blue and white loading screen, reading ‘ARGOS 2.0 loading.’

Sara’s tutorial instructed me on how to use it to connect to any person, object or database that was also connected to the Link. I queried several databases on the technical specifics of modern vehicles. I learned that vehicles had their PC installed on their left side and reasoned that, at the moment of the split, the left side was desperately trying to get itself back on track, which would solve the riddle of why it did not simply follow its momentum and crashed into the other side of the road. There were no documented cases of any vehicle being sliced in two and fusing back together, though. Not as if slicing vehicles in two wasn’t a rare enough occurrence by itself.

At that point, I followed Samuel’s advice to let the mystery lie for a moment and tried to connect to the plug-café. This resulted in a message: ‘404 error: place not found.’

I tried various other places and could visit just about anything in the Link: stores, banks, town hall, and most cafés and restaurants indeed. The only exceptions were places with where off-limits: VOC places, mostly. But they simply scanned my Link ID and denied access, rather than return an error. Just by a means of test, I looked up my old home. If there was any place that was guaranteed to be unconnected, it would be the Fringe.

Against all expectations, I found myself standing in front of a house. It was plain and basic, but well maintained. This is not it, I told myself. My parents didn’t even have a proper address, whereas this house most certainly had. And yet the street pattern matched. Everything matched, as long as I imagined more rubble and waste everywhere. Even the wall of Seawind was there, in the distance.

Hesitatingly, I dared to ring the doorbell. A few seconds later, I stood in front of Mom. She looked at me in awe, and I returned the gaze. Then, I was swept up in the mighty bear-hug of a woman who had done manual labour all her life.

“Welcome home, darling. Why didn’t you say you were coming? How are you? Do they feed you well? I have some stew if you want it. Are you thirsty? What would you like to drink? Do you have laundry with you?”

The wave of motherly questions crashed over me. I chose not to even try answering at all and simply commented how much had changed here. “I honestly thought I was at the wrong place.”

“Oh, everything is so much better now. Just look at it. We have electricity and running water. We can receive and send mail. I can do the groceries from my chair. I honestly couldn’t believe it when they offered to connect us. All of us, that is. We’re not the Fringe anymore. There’s even a movement in Seawind to tear down the wall. They say it’s so rude towards their neighbours,” She said as she led me into the house.

“Hypocrytes,” I whispered to myself, but decided to not ruin Mom’s delight and hope at someday being seen as a real human being by those upper class snobs.

Dad, of course, immediately asked me after my studies and work. And my medal. They had seen the ceremony and were incredibly proud of their war hero son. I obliged them, rather than argue how much I hated the thing. I didn’t wear it, of course, but in the Link, that was easily fixed. ARG-OS confirmed that I was indeed permitted to wear the Silver Lion and an instant later, it appeared on my shirt.

Only when they had me speak of my past three years in Libya, did some of my resentment come to the fore. I never spoke out openly against VOC or anyone affiliated, except for Captain Vanderwal, and gave a detached, emotionless account of my time with Mo’s Resistance. I should have known that Mom wouldn’t fall for that. That year had been the time of my life, and it showed in my detailed account of my projects, the challenges I overcame and my proudest achievements. I tried to alleviate their confusion over my exciting life as prisoner of a terrorist group by saying: “Even as a prisoner, I had more freedom and more respect than VOC has ever given me.”

With those words, the gloves were off, and I went into a rant against VOC, including even the tiniest and pettiest grievances. It resulted in another hug from Mom, but Dad didn’t like it. VOC had been the source of this family’s income since before my birth. VOC had been a good employer. VOC provided and maintained the Link connection of their house. VOC was, in many ways, holy. It resulted in a heated debate and I did not leave the house on good terms.

Angry and upset, I tried connecting to Annie’s again, but once again received only the ‘404 error.’ Thus, I called a taxi and drove there in the flesh. I learned later that the youngsters that frequented Annies, that is, people of my age, who had not spent the past five years in Libya, called this ‘P-space’, as shorthand for ‘Physical space’ and as crude joke for the only reason they had to leave Link-space.

At the café, the same waitress, whom I assumed to be Annie, welcomed me and guided me to an empty seat. She asked if I had returned for the tea, but I wanted something stronger. Even Libyan whisky would go in rather well at that point, but I received yet another tea recommendation from behind me. Spiced tea, he argued, was great when you wanted something fierce. I relented and ordered a spiced tea.

When I asked him his name, he said: “Last time, you called me ‘Mo’,”

I apologized, with a stumbling attempt to explain my hallucinations, and said that I’d rather call him by his real name.

“With a twinkle in his eye, he said: “I don’t mind being Mo.”

“But I do!” I blurted out. “You’re not him, and you’re not his ghost.”

With a chuckle, he responded: “Then you may call me Mr. Grave.”

I gave up. “Go ahead and mock me, if this is all a game to you.”

“Isn’t it, though? For all of us, playing with our Alternate Reality Gear, pretending to be who we want to be, closing our eyes to the not-alternate reality which still sustains our bodies?”

Mr. Grave, for he wouldn’t give me his real name, asked me what I wanted out of this life, and so we talked over our tea of studying and engineering, my hopes of completing my education, the joy I found in building, and the creativity of unorthodox solutions. He listened with relentless curiosity, and when I felt like I had exhausted the topic, he asked me what I hoped to do after graduating. I had to admit that I really had no idea.

With a laugh that I was growing accustomed to, he proposed that I should become a brilliant, mad-genius kind of inventor. I argued that I was well on the road to going mad, at least, with my hallucinations and the impossible case of the split van haunting me. I laid that conundrum in front of him, curious what he’d make of it, but his reaction was a playful “Must’ve been one sharp-as-hell knife.”

I laughed with him and bid him a good night after he extracted a promise to visit more often. In the taxi home, I mulled over his words. A blade that could cut a van in half clean was a theoretical possibility, if not a practical one. At home, I asked Sara if there was a place where one might find answers to fiendishly difficult questions. She suggested the RAUU, which I had already considered, but she offered another interesting option: ARG-OS, the program that ran Link-space, was capable of creating just about every conceivable scenario. Supposedly, students and researchers alike used it for simulations and test runs of conceptual prototypes. I decided not to wait for a university lecturer to instruct me, and queried ARG-OS for a tutorial. I was provided with last years university textbook on ARG-OS modelling and dove right in. The first light of dawn was my queue to give my wearied eyes and head some rest.

My Personal Connector woke me late in the morning with a message from Samuel: another anomaly had occurred, this time at one of the old, abandoned subway stations: the gates had registered a ‘break in’, though no trespassers were detected. I hopped into the ARG and joined Samuel on site. A fence had been cut open, leaving a small hole. “At what age do kids generally receive a PC?” I asked as I crawled through, remembering well my childhood hobby of exploring the Agglomerate’s ruins.

“They’re locked out of most functions until they come of age, but everyone’s registered at birth,” Samuel said.

“What about a small, home-built robot?”

“Must have a PC,” Sam dismissed it.

“And if it doesn’t?” I pressed on.

He looked down at me, puzzled. “How would that work? It needs a PC to navigate.”

I stared at him a moment. Was he serious? Did he not know that but a few years ago, there was no CivLink? That self-driving vehicles used a large array of sensors to detect other traffic? When he doubted me, I assured him that I could build one, just to prove it.

Whether I successfully convinced him turned out to be inconsequential. As we explored the old station for clues, in the dust and dirt that had piled up over the years, we found footsteps. The size of the feet and the pacing indicated an adult male of average size, not a kid and certainly not a robot.

“Looks like we have an unconnected after all. It’s been a while since I hunted a real criminal,” Sam said with a sense of anticipation.

He answered my quizzical look with: “I joined the police force for justice, not mad puzzle-solving.”

“And you expect to find him simply by following the tracks like it’s a wild animal?”

“Like I have to,” he responded with a wide grin. He had already queried ARG-OS for every model of shoe that matched the footprints, every store that sold any of these models and every customer that had purchased a pair.

“Worst-case scenario: we’ll have too many hits to sort through,” he said confidently.

The result that did come up wiped the smug grin from his face: “0 matching shoe models found.”

“Impossible!” he screamed at his PC. “Every manufactured model is registered somewhere.”

“Home-made, or customized,” I argued.

When Sam gazed at me in perplexity, I said: “You can hardly call a shoe a complex piece of machinery.”

“So Mr. Criminal thinks he’s clever, doesn’t he? But he’s left such a pretty trail for us to follow.”

“Alternatively, we can choose to not get lost, unconnected in the maze of subway tunnels when the next break-in report comes in,” I said.

Samuel clearly required an explanation, so I provided: “The Link depends on satellite data, which means it doesn’t work underground, unless extra equipment has been set up to support it. In the case of obsolete tunnels, I doubt anyone went through the effort. Which means we would be stuck in the dark, literally and figuratively, once our criminal resurfaces at another station.”

Samuel blinked at me once and then decided: “I’ll send a surveillance drone to every subway station, including this one. Wherever he goes, we shall have a full scan of him.”

Three days later, our criminal still hadn’t resurfaced, but we were swamped in reports of every anomaly conceivable; vehicles that had veered off course for no discernible reason, objects that had fallen from windows without anyone touching them, people that had experienced a temporary disconnect, and perhaps strangest of all, cases where we couldn’t even find the anomaly itself. These, we dismissed as false alarms.

After a week of this madness, I started to look for a pattern. Any pattern. I categorized and plotted on graphs anything I could think of. I made large spider-webs of cause-and-effect relations, and after each of them, I despaired at the chaos.

Samuel joined in with his own ideas of potential patterns and at some point had, in a moment of brilliant simplicity, plotted every anomaly we had encountered so far on a map. It was a scattered lot, and a mathematical regression provided a trend-line of questionable probability. Filtering out all the false alarms did little to improve it. In the mood of ‘why the hell not’, I plotted the false alarms only, filtering out all actual anomalies. The result was a clearly drawn arrow, pointing perfectly along the trend-line.

“What do you think, genuine clue or prank of the century?” I asked Samuel.

He agreed that one was as likely as the other, and thus, it was our best clue yet. Which meant that we would follow it to the end of the earth if we had to. We didn’t ask who had drawn the arrow, or might even have the power to do so.

>> Chapter 6

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