Crystal city
Ariel Cruz and Vladimir Hernández
(Translation: Daniel W. Koon)
       
        For Beverly and Sheila, two young ladies to watch out for

        Sidney had not escaped the postwar savagery.
        Marvin abandoned his friend Greg’s sanctuary and made his way toward the airport. Greg’s psyche had been permanently scarred by the hallucinogenic bombardment unleashed by the secessionist guerillas, so that this friend of Marvin’s was now a mere statistic among the collateral damage of the Australian war. He could never work with him again. A real shame. Marvin took a plane toward HC -- Havana City. He was anxious about returning to Cuba and contemplated the clouds below the Pacific Airlines stratospheric shuttle. Night squashed the twilight. He was thinking of the palm trees in the old enclave of Havana when the microtelephonic implant behind his left ear rang.
        “Marvin,” the voice said. A voice of a woman whispering, sweetly synthesized. He recognized her voice and felt uneasy because this was the same woman who had been calling him the entire previous week; a stranger capable of hunting down his personal number. She never called him twice at the same time of day. He had tried to get his home computer to block her calls, but it hadn’t worked. Whoever she was, she seemed to be good at what she did. Still, Marvin wasn’t feeling paranoid quite yet.
        “Speaking,” Marvin answered. “You keep insisting. I’m going to stop changing my number.”
        “I’m Yona. Don’t hang up. I really want you to listen to me just once. I have something for you.”
        “Somebody’s sent you, Yoto. Otherwise you’d never find my number.”
        “Time’s running out, Marvin. I have a summa from Harvard. Computer science, with a concentration in Virtual Design. That should satisfy you; and I have a task for you.”
        “Sure,” Marvin replied. “If you’re so clever, why don’t you do it yourself?”
        “Because I need an expert at breaking and entering. Someone top notch.”
        Marvin felt a slight chill and so he adjusted the temperature of his clime-control jacket.
        “There is a place I want you to see; in the Net,” she insisted. “When you get home...”
        “I’m not surfing with you, Yoto. I’m not looking for a girlfriend. If you need a date with someone...”
        “My name is Yona,” she interrupted him, but with a patience in her voice that hinted that she could outlast him at this eternal game. “And all I want from you is that you do this one job for me, Marvin.”
        “Not interested,” he assured her. “I’m not taking you anywhere.”
        “You don’t have to take me, Marvin. I’ll take you. You can’t get into the place I want to show you, no matter how hard you try. It’s out of your league.”
        That would be interesting, he thought, but it was just a piece of bait that the girl was dangling at him, trying to get him to bite.
        “And how do you plan to take me there, Yoto?”
        “Yona,” she insisted. “Don’t worry. I’ll find you, and then I’ll take you there.”
        Marvin smiled incredulously.
        “Oh! You think it will be as easy to get inside my console as to get my phone number? I’d like to see that, Miss Harvard.”
        “We have a deal then, Marvin. I’ll see you at your computer inside of five hours.”
        And she hung up. Static. Marvin smiled and ordered a whiskey from the flight attendant.
       
        Marvin had a small apartment facing the north shore of HC, adjacent to the historic section of the city. It had a magnificent nighttime view of the lights of the archipelago of piezoelectric domes a kilometer off the coast. At night, from the balcony of his apartment, the sea resembled a black mirror filled with fireflies. There, with sensitive neurotrode plates attached to his forehead and a physioregulator serum in his forearm, Marvin spent endless hours traveling in cyberspace.
        Cyberspace is the global web of interconnected computers that allows the world of the 21st Century to travel smoothly along its tracks; the virtual medium that characterizes the Information Age, through which millions of users connect daily in order to perform those functions without which modern society would come to a screeching halt.
        Marvin could not remember ever having made the conscious decision to become a citizen of the Net. He had simply done it. It was his culture, a familiar medium of understandable protocols. He hadn’t even studied computer science formally. Programming involved such a crushing quantity of repetitive work that it invariably killed any imagination among the creative.
        He sat on the sofa with a glass of seven-year old Havana Club rum in his hand and stared into the distance. Over time he had succumbed to the charms of that kind of business favored by the Net. He considered himself an efficient manipulator of symbols. He was 25 and was already thinking of leaving behind the intellectual goals of his childhood and hunting for a little respectability in the world of business.
        The only decoration in this tiny cubicle was an old holoposter of the Metropolitan Museum of Industrial History which showed an Islamic Caravanserai of the 15th Century.
        The figure had an external microchip connected to it which, when you touched it, explained how the merchants of the Caravanserai knew all the feudal lords, politicians and artisan masters on three continents. They traveled thousands of kilometers by land, from Genoa to Cathay, selling, speculating, flourishing. Somehow, Marvin saw himself as one of those merchants from the past; en route to personal wealth, using the nodes of this new technological medium that was the Net.
        “Marvin,” the console said. “Hello again.”
        Deeply impressed by the intruder’s skill, Marvin sat down at the keyboard. The three-dimensional cyberspace of the holographic monitor opened in front of him like a complex cloverleaf of roadway.
        “I’m impressed, Miss Harvard.”
        “You should be. And my name is Yona.”
        On the screen a chain of red letters in Arial font appeared in relief:
        Y-O-N-A.
        “That’s your real name?” he asked.
        “Of course not. Now, if you’ve recovered from your surprise, are you ready to move on to important matters?”
        “I suppose I ought to, sweetie.” Marvin attached his access plates automatically and switched on the serum from the bionic valve in his forearm. Cyberspace filled his head like an explosion of colors and geometrical infographics. A small yellow sphere floating in one of the residential cubbyholes of the infrastructural network of Northern HC represented his physical console in this virtual world.
        “Where are we going?”
        “To Crystal City. A telematic.”
        “A virtual city? I’ve never heard of it.”
        “It hasn’t been launched yet. It is a corporate project.”
        “Then we can’t enter. I’m sorry, hun, but I don’t have any contacts who could get me the keys to enter there.”
        “No sweat, Marvin, I’m the project programmer.”
        Yona’s was a voice that seemed to come from all directions. Marvin’s body was no more. They traveled through bluish corridors and complex geometrical configurations, and the rhythmic pulsing of the Net was a ubiquitous throbbing in his mind.
        They headed toward a dazzling pyramid and stopped in front of a simdoor set off by massive columns in a spiral pattern and decorated with stylized sculptures of fantastic beasts. Yona generated a series of characters in front of them, and permission to enter was granted. A virtual menu appeared, floating to the right of Marvin.
        “Video-manicure programs are not permitted in Crystal City, nor avatars alien to this environment,” she explained to him. “You have to either present yourself in your real form or choose from one of the standard morphs preprogrammed by the telematic’s designers. Which would you prefer?”
        “I’d prefer my real form. You’ve already accessed my ID and my databanks. Why should I try to hide from you?”
        “I’ll do the same. And consider that a compliment. I never show my real form.”
        And then, without any formalities, they went in. Marvin experienced the abrupt return to his five senses and he staggered. Someone held him by the wrist. A smooth, agreeably warm contact which slowly left again. At his side was a young woman of medium height. She wore close-fitting jeans, full-length boots and a loose-fitting red-and-black-striped V-shirt. Yona had short chestnut hair that highlighted her black eyes and fleshy lips. Marvin tore his eyes from her body and considered his surroundings.
        They were on a ridiculous, illuminated steel walkway. Bipedal android creatures, clad in metal armor, yet absurdly humanoid, were carrying shopping bags for their owners, and in the heavens there were flying billboards advertising in neon, “Asimopolis Products of Crystal City”. The women were exaggeratedly elegant, walking with their beautiful Dalmatians, and robots in the form of flying saucers carried the leashes of cats and of strange alien pets, while the men wore neoGreek clothes that seemed a bit esthetically dated. The buildings had a grotesque feel and the people were carried on rolling sidewalks, and everything was clean and impeccable, metallic. Rockets, eccentric vehicles of strange design and fogires on silver aerocycles crossed in the sky.
        “I’ve never liked the telematic environments,” Marvin said, turning his attention toward Yona’s eyes. “They’ve always seemed to me to be targeted to an adolescent market.”
        “I’m nineteen, if that’s what you’re asking,” Yona said, locking onto his gaze and favoring him with an enchanting smile. “I agree with you completely, but this is not just a simple telematic environment for teens. The designers of this telematic have aimed to make Crystal City an authentic recreation of the dreams of Isaac Asimov, an old science fiction author who dreamed almost a hundred years ago of a future like this one.” And then she added, bitterly, “Of course, those who wish to live in Asimov’s dreams would have to be gifted enough to be permitted.”
        “It seems authentic enough,” Marvin replied, watching the wide aerial highways that climbed hundreds of meters above the streets, touching the buildings and bordering the crystal towers that filled the visible firmament. It was clear that when this telematic became operational it would be the event of the decade.
        “You made this?”
        “Sort of,” she said as she led him through a side street in the direction of a nearby hill. “It is actually a mixture of various visual landscapes inspired by Asimov’s many books. AI-based virtual architecture, constructed by a ton of 3D generating engines. A very sexy place, don’t you think?”
        “The sexy part is pretty striking,” Marvin agreed, while they sat down on the grass. The rockets, buildings and vehicles were clearly and invariably phallic. Most of the women were blonde and buxom and wore lovely summer dresses that made them especially attractive. But none of them appeared as attractive as the girl at his side with the searing eyes and short hair. Marvin suddenly noticed that the closeness of this woman was driving him mad. He couldn’t avoid it. He glanced at her timidly. The lights proceeding from the rockets on the launching ramp created mesmerizing contrasts in Yona’s face. She pointed in the distance.
        “The most important thing about this virtual world is that handsome heroes always win here.”
        But Marvin did not hear her: he had succumbed to her attraction. Screw the heroes and the rockets; hormones were real. He kissed her on the lips and she let him, calmly, transmitting a surprising reciprocal feeling. She smelled of some type of Parisian perfume, one of the expensive ones.
        The contact was exquisite for Marvin, but somehow he could tell that the girl he was kissing was a virgin. They undressed each other and abandoned themselves to pleasure.
       
        They were returning home. To Marvin’s computer. Free and bodiless again. But something bothered Marvin, somehow.
        He took off the trodes from his forehead and gazed at the image of cyberspace in his monitor.
        “Now you’ve shown me your project. It seems very clever to me, and it will certainly earn you a tidy profit. You’re lucky: only nineteen and already you’ve already got a foot in the business world, Yona.”
        “You’ve finally remembered my name?”
        “Sure, sweetie, but… what do you want from me?”
        Yona immediately replied, “that you destroy Crystal City. I want you to erase every single line of code in this sim.”
        “Destroy this masterpiece?”
        “Exactly.” An inflexible voice. “I’ll even give you the virus to destroy it.”
        Marvin didn’t understand at all.
        “Yona, what sense does it make to pay me to destroy what you’ve created? Is this some sort of insurance fraud?”
        “No, I’m not involved in any kind of fraud here,” Yona replied. “What you’ve just seen is only a demo. The commercial version, much bigger and more ambitious, which will soon be brought onto the market, is in Brussels, locked up in a frozen telematic of GigaCorp.”
        Marvin approached the holographic simulation and whistled. GigaCorp was the leading virtual entertainment company. It had left Disney and Mitsubishi in the dust long ago. GigaCorp was like Sony, or MacDonnell-Douglas; a self-perpetuating monarchy fueled by constant infusions of capital and innovation. Marvin knew its style, and it was something revolutionary. A fresh esthetic.
        “You sold Crystal City to them, to GigaCorp?”
        “Yes, to one of their European divisions. But when I decided not to do things their way they set me up. They said that a new concept like Crystal City required a new method of working, a radically different method of immersing oneself. They sent me a German negotiator, Friedrich Wagner. This guy was very shrewd, all smiles and elegance. He took me to an alternative restaurant, a student hangout, to convince me that I had not sold my soul to the Devil. GigaCorp wanted to put me in charge of a team that would work full time at filling in the details of Crystal City, of adding new situations and personalities in an endless process of narrative embellishment. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. And my potential profits were astronomical. “
        “Sounds cool,” Marvin said, “even for a romantic that would sound cool. How did you respond?”
        “My answer was no. Unconditionally.”
        “That seems like a very drastic response, Yona.”
        “The idea horrified me, Marvin. Crystal City was not something I wished to be buried in,” her voice interrupted. “It was nice that, bringing the game to its next logical step, I could give it my personal stamp, plus, someone was willing to pay me money for it. But I was interested in trying my hand at something grander, more fulfilling.”
        “Typical for a kid her age,” Marvin thought, but he didn’t dare make fun of her.
        “At that point,” Yona continued, and her voice betrayed a hint of sadness, “Wagner stopped smiling and told me it was a matter of all or nothing. The transnational was prepared to patent Crystal City in its own name and I would receive nothing. I was nobody. I could imagine what the courts would say if I dared to demand my rights.”
        “If you don’t mind me saying so, I think you made a fatal mistake, sweetie. Given the choice, you should work with these people, not against them.”
        There was a short pause and then the logo of Crystal City appeared on the holographic screen, projecting out of the FOX-Online icon.
        “It would have been nice to get to know you better, Marvin, but I can see that you’re too immature to help me.”
        “Wait, Yona,” he leaned forward nervously, before the woman’s image abandoned his computer. “I don’t know whether I can help you. I would like to know more about you.” It was strange for Marvin to let himself be dragged along like this, but he didn’t feel that he could fight the need to contact her again. He knew that he was sliding down a slippery slope into her game, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to hold on to her.
        Yona told him: “GigaCorp’s ‘Division’ has developed a commercial telematic version in Europe. They plan to open it to the public within a couple of weeks. I know that they have kept my basic code structure. I have every line of code recorded in my head. I have developed a program capable not only of blowing up all of Crystal City but also of destroying all of GigaCorp’s online services that come bundled with it.”
        “You are very clever, Yona. You made a city and you designed its security system. I don’t think you need me at all.”
        “I do need you, Marvin.” There was something odd in her voice, something he couldn’t put his finger on, but not anything dangerous either. “I need to locate a series of highly illegal access programs in the Net; to pass through the complex system of necessary protocols I need to connect with hackers like you.” Marvin gazed at the apartment’s balcony without seeing anything and scratched his beard, deep in thought. Too many things had happened too quickly. Going up against a transnational like GigaCorp would take him a million miles out of his way. It could cost him his life.
        “I don’t think I can do it,” he said in a low voice.
        “You certainly can do it,” she said. “You’ve done similar things before. Not against such a powerful target, but you have done it.” She paused a second then added accusingly, “Maybe you don’t want to.”
        “I don’t know.”
        “Curious way to put it,” she mocked him. “Name your price, Marvin.”
        Marvin felt the woman’s thrust. Right to the left side of his chest. She knew that he wanted her, that a strange passion was consuming him. Something he was willing to stick his neck out for. She knew that he was involved on more than a business level. He tried to deflect the question of payment.
        “Yona,” Marvin’s lips went dry. “Is there anything between us or not?”
        “That depends on what sort of relation we develop. Given the present situation, it has to be all or nothing.”
        She had him in a corner, but he had no desire to contradict her. “Give me 24 hours and a number where I can reach you.”
        “No problem,” the voice said. “I’ll call you.”
       
        Rain threatened all the way to that part of the dome that covered the historic heart of the city. He had had a strange dream. He had dreamed of old friends and of a sort of reunion. The reunion took place at a hacker bar he used to frequent many years before. There was Miguel, “Spider”, Kelly and others whose names he couldn’t remember, with their extravagant clothes and their laptops, trading jokes and illegal software. There were beers and cigarette smoke at the tables. Marvin watched the scene, but he was not present. He was a sort of avatar. In fact, he saw himself enter with a woman. The woman was Yona, and he smiled happily.
        Marvin told himself that it was a great day to fish. In the Net. He connected and accessed the Harvard registrar’s files. No one named Yona in the last five years. Nobody with a summa in those fields. Then he searched the records that his computer had of his stay in Crystal City and activated a couple of software tools he needed for cracking the University’s database. An hour later the computer displayed the biographical file of a student named Allison Peck, who had graduated three years ago, in 2046.
        The holo showed a 3D of the three summa cum laude computer science students from that year. They were embracing and smiling proudly. On the two sides were two Chinese boys, but the girl in the middle was the same one who had walked with him through the steel avenues of Crystal City; the same one he had deflowered in Crystal City the day before.
        Allison Peck did not have any appreciable record in the NYPD files. He didn’t find much in her files in the other criminal databases that he checked: just a couple of traffic tickets and a delay in renewing her license as a self-employed programmer, all of which meant zip. Which could only mean that someone else was using Allison Peck’s identity. But the girl seemed desperate, needing a helping hand to rescue her from the clutches of the sharks from GigaCorp. Finally he found a brief record of her in the employment files of The Division itself.
        Marvin began to feel nervous. He didn’t know why, but he very much wanted to see her. He would definitely accept this deal. He would try to evade the issue of payment, so as not to seem too mercenary.
        He turned off the access console and sat silently contemplating the bare brick wall. Outside, a silvery rain fell on the city.
        Nightfall caught up with him in a discrete restaurant named Chung-Kuo, but he returned home much earlier than he was used to. The Caravanserai holo cast a red light over the entire apartment which now seemed more empty and solitary than ever.
       
        Large Arial capital letters floated on the screen: “I AM HERE, MARVIN.”
        “Show yourself, Allison.”
        The woman did not show herself on the monitor screen, but she answered, with amusement: “I see that you’ve done your homework, tough guy. I’m glad you found me. I’d expect no less of you. I suppose you have come to a verdict.”
        “I think I’m going to do it, Allison; although I prefer to call you Yona. I suppose that I’ll get used to the idea that you are Yona.”
“You think that you will do it,” she repeated. “I imagine that you are now going to tell me your conditions.”
        “You imagine correctly, sweetie.” Marvin concentrated on the network of phosphors that formed her image. “The first condition is that you forget about the money.”
        “I can pay you, Marvin.” The woman’s voice seemed impressed by his unexpected beneficence. “I can pay you a very generous sum, and I plan to do so. I want to bet it all on the success of your attack.”
        “Save your money, sweet lady. You are definitely going to need it in the future. After the attack, you are going to be totally unemployable. Look, you can imagine that I’m doing this because I’ve never liked those bastard megacorporations and,” he couldn’t resist smiling, “to tell the truth, I’ve never really liked their virtual environments. They seem to me like an unnecessary recreation of reality, as if it weren’t enough for people to live in the real world.”
        “Of course, Marvin,” she said expectantly, “what is your second condition?”
        “I need to see you,” he let it fall from his lips. “Physically. In person.”
        “Forget it. I don’t think that that would be possible right now. The Net is sufficient for our relationship.”
        Marvin sat down, disgusted. He didn’t like this woman’s reticence. She needed him. She had come to him.
        “Yona, you have to trust me. I am going to help you with this, but I need to see you.” He hunted for the words to make his case. “I’ll be honest with you. We are on the same team because you intrigue me, darling. If you didn’t, I certainly wouldn’t launch myself against the big leaguers like GigaCorp. The Net may be good enough for this attack, but it is not enough for the relationship I want with you.”
        “I understand, Marvin,” the voice said, “but we cannot see each other for now. It is impossible. I am too far away for you to come to see me. It’s all very complicated. Think of me like you would of someone who is working with you from another world. I understand how you feel, but we must be careful if we want to succeed. We can’t see each other, at least until this is all over.”
        “Where are you?” he insisted. “In Europe?”
        “I am very far, Marvin. All I can tell you is that I am in a district of Lunar City. I am very closely guarded, believe me. You can’t get close to me without the bloodhounds of GigaCorp catching you. Even I can’t identify them. We must wait. Trust me.”
        “I suppose that I will have to accept it, darling,” he sighed as he leaned back in his upholstered seat. “But I haven’t been able to forget what happened yesterday.”
        “What happened was a lovely encounter, a magical moment,” the voice said sweetly; “but on the other hand it was only a collection of electrical stimuli in your brain. I won’t deny that it was very beautiful for me and an even more important experience. I really was a virgin till then. My body still is. I have had to focus on my career with an inhuman concentration. That is the only way to achieve perfection.”
        “Well then, are we together, Yona?”
        “Certainly, Marvin. And I have the ideal place for us to continue meeting. A substitute that for now should be good enough for us to satisfy our desire for each other.”
        In the holoscreen the image of Crystal City appeared, enclosed in a luminous cube. Inside one could make out the impossible traffic through the steel avenues and the crystal towers in miniature.
        “I will give you the directions to it. An apartment,” Yona said. “We can meet every afternoon in this place, but we must never speak of work in Crystal City. It will be our refuge.”
        “Of course, darling. I’ll see you there,” he nodded, “but I would prefer that there be no more surprises.”
        “From now on, there will be nothing but surprises, Marvin.”
       
        The killer virus was not really very large, but for reasons of security it arrived in his computer from different parts of the Net and came divided into multiple pieces, each one with a different encryption. Yona had supplied him with the passwords and the decryptors. The technical documentation she had sent over the telematic had shown in minute detail all the weak points of the Brussels Sim support. Yona had done an excellent job.
        GigaCorp had moved the online opening of Crystal City up three days. According to the propaganda network, the creation of the telematic was attributed to the ace Giga programmer named Domeneck Lacombe, the same creator whose minor telematic named Dragonika had launched the season before.
        Marvin had realized several things in the last few days. Among them that he was finally in love. It had been a real revelation for him, one which he had thought unattainable. But the last days next to Yona in the dome of Crystal City, the luminous nights watching the starry firmament and the rockets leaving for unknown distant ports, had caused him to understand that he wanted to keep this woman forever. The environment was not what had ignited his feelings toward her but her personality, her way of reaching him, of stimulating him.
        He also realized that, given the complexity of the object to be overthrown, all the success of the operation rested in his ability to negotiate the techno-criminal ecology of the Net.
        Just as in the world of the flesh, in order to commit certain crimes in cyberspace it was necessary to have a prolonged and active presence. He had had to cultivate indispensable contacts to study the economic and legal particulars of each attack, without losing the overall picture. To mix it up with such disperse elements required an ability very rare in the legal world. Cyberspace forced its fugitives to specialize.
        However, from all possible angles, an attack against GigaCorp had to be classified as an extraordinarily quixotic venture and not necessarily worth it. Marvin did not dare to try to imagine what would happen if he failed.
        But he had also noticed that Yona, despite her dedication and despite their ever more frequent meetings, was hiding something very sensitive from him. He sensed something strange in her behavior but he dared not press her now that they were so close to the end. He feared that Yona would turn into a phantom, that she would run away.
        Marvin began to experience a feeling of fear which shook him inside, filling him with nagging doubts.
       
        The day of the attack. The virus ready. Marvin and Yona attacking the very heart of the environment with the equivalent of a cybermissile. The ice of GigaCorp surrounding the fractal pattern of security support for the city. The intrusion programs contaminating the telematic’s defenses like plasma bombs. Disappearing data, swallowed by the invasion of the intruder program. Minds connected to the program entering into shock. The online services strangled by their very own electronic network. The collapse of the system when Yona’s implacable sting of vengeance converted the perfection of Crystal City into a cloud of chaotic electrons, adrift in the neuroelectrical universe of cyberspace.
       
        The lights of the console twinkled and the computer disconnected itself from the Net.
        Marvin removed his neurotrodes and looked at the clock on the console. He had been immersed nearly 12 minutes. He made a call to a local contact and told him he was ready for him to cover the tracks of two people. His and an unnamed woman’s. He called him back. Then he connected his computer and dialed the phone number which Yona had given him before injecting the virus, and he waited for the woman’s answer.
        From the other side of the line there was a modem; a cold regular sound.
        Marvin activated a lateral protocol program between the cellphone network, a GPS and the police files of various cities. An hour later the computer found the receptor in an Asian laundromat in New York. The name of the North Korean owner meant nothing to Marvin.
        Ten minutes later he took a taxi and headed for the NippoCarribean station.
       
        In the express-jet, the air hostess served him a double vodka, Marvin heard the familiar and tranquilizing whisper in the telephonic chip in his left ear.
        “Marvin.”
        “Here,” he said, and he was just about to spill the drink. What the hell happened back there, Yona?”
        “Relax, darling,” she said. “Don’t say a word. Everything is perfect.”
        “I called you, but you didn’t answer.”
        “The telephones are ringing off their hooks between the executives and shareholders of GigaCorp,” the woman was obsessed with their victory. “Very soon the heads will start to roll. I don’t think that the corporation will survive. You did it, Marvin. We did it.”
        “I’m on a jet, Yona. I’m headed to your city.”
        “Of course,” Yona’s voice sounded a little tired. Marvin wanted to protect her, to calm her. He had decided to take her away from New York, away from the Net, away from it all. Some Pacific island, some Crystal City that was not an elaborate facade. “I have a safe hideaway, you’ll see; nobody can touch me. The entry code is Phoenix,” her tone changed. “But I don’t think that getting together would be best for you.”
        Marvin’s heart did a somersault.
        “What do you mean?” he whispered, almost breathless.
        Silence.
        Suddenly a suspicion overtook him.
        “Are you a man?”
        “Not necessarily,” Yona’s voice said. “I’ll wait for you.” And she hung up.
       
        A light snow fell over the city. Flakes of dirty ice that saddened the scarce light of the winter afternoon.
        The laundry was totally anonymous. The entrance was protected by a solid electronic lock equipped with a vocal sensor. Marvin stopped perplexed in front of the barrier until he remembered the entrance code Yona had given him. He spoke the word and heard the clicks of magnetic pins retiring. He entered into a weakly lit fluorescent clearing and the door closed behind him. Downstairs, machines were piled in front of each other in complete abandon; antiquated chrome monstrosities, solid and graceless. It seemed impossible to remove them from the locale without destroying the facade.
        At the end of a hallway there was a stairway. Above, two bathrooms and another room, with both its doors flung open.
        The room was vacant. Except for a console activated by a construct.
        “Marvin.”
        Yona’s voice seemed to come from that grayish piece of hardware. Marvin was about to scream. The construct was the size of an old CD replicator. On its visible face a red and green LED alternatively blinked. Marvin realized that Yona’s personality was enclosed within the logic circuits of this miniscule unit.
        “I’m sorry, Marvin. I told you that everything would be a surprise. I had to deceive you in order to get you to help me. I knew it would be difficult, and I only had my image to win you over with.”
        “Have you been like this from the beginning? A self-aware program?”
        “No. You’re wrong,” replied the voice from the console. “I was a person until my nineteenth year; until GigaCorp did this to me. After that meeting, Wagner arranged for them to take me to the GigaCorp arcology in Des Moines. The doors opened in front of me and closed behind my back. There I ceased to be Allison and was turned into Yona. When I agreed to sign that indefinite contract they knew that I could do it. They attacked me and turned me into this, Marvin. But now that doesn’t matter. They are dying.”
        “How did you get to this place?”
        “I was lucky, in the end. It’s a long story and I don’t have enough time. There was an employee of GigaCorp; I don’t know if he was a malcontent or just a good samaritan, but he represented my only hope of freedom. That person knew where the armored room was where the construct was locked away. He knew how to take it and bring it to this place. He came several times, but one day he never returned. I suppose he must be dead.”
        ”Giga?” Marvin ventured.
        “I don’t think so. If the Corp had reached him, they would be here already. Maybe a mugging or an accident.”
        Marvin walked around to approach the piece of cold hardware that was Yona. The window of the place let in a miserable splendor that bathed everything.
        “What are you going to do, Marvin?”
        “I’m bringing you with me, sweetheart,” he whispered. “Maybe in another place, there might be a way to...”
        Yona’s laugh seemed to come from a child’s plaything.
        “No, Marvin. My system is plugged into Crystal City. When I designed the virus, I foresaw that the algorithm would destroy the neural network which kept me alive. I am dying too.“ A tone of pride returned. “But I am leaving at a good time. The Division at GigaCorp has just been dissolved as a legal entity. Its properties are finished. Their only prayer is that the insurance will cover their loans, but it looks like they won’t. You don’t have to worry about anything. Your bank account will be suitably reimbursed. My treat.”
        “Yes,” Marvin interrupted her sadly. “It seems like this is how you would have preferred it all along, Yona. This means that you never felt the way I did.”
        “You have no right to lecture me. Do you think that I could have abandoned my revenge against GigaCorp to be with you?”
        “I don’t imagine that you would have ever considered that to be enough,” Marvin said, sitting heavily on the surface of the boards. His soul ached.
        “This is not a life, Marvin. I am trapped in a pile of circuits, tied to a virtual existence; false, like you said. I don’t want to live like this, Marvin. I don’t deserve to live like this.”
        He said nothing. He gazed vacantly into the distance.
        “I know you don’t want to accept it, but think about it for a moment,” said the construct. “It would have been pathetic. Maybe you were going to bring me to the bars and your friends’ parties and introduce this object as your girlfriend? Think about it, Marvin. You would keep me as an icon on your console for the rest of your life? That’s not fair, love. And I could never come between you and some other woman. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a person.”
        “I don’t want to give you up, Yona,” he said, and his voice was cracking. “I can’t.”
        “Nor can you prevent my death. You have to understand this, Marvin. My initial plan was to steal one little victory from them, and in the end I’ve stolen two. It’s better to leave a party one minute before the end than one minute after.”
        The LEDs shut off finally, and an ominous silence fell over the place. Marvin remained there, smoking, for a long time, before deciding to leave. Suddenly he had no plans. Now Crystal City and Yona were dead.
        He disconnected the grayish support and tossed it into the pocket of his carryall.
       
        Yashutoshi “Web” Nakazima had lived all his life in Tokyo. The city of neon, incomprehensible for others, was amorous and feminine for him. From the limited store of experience that one could amass in 21 years, Web knew that to abandon Tokyo would mean death for him. But he didn’t mind. He was an unattractive youth, with long hair and enormous glasses with thick lenses. His idea of happiness was to live quietly within his apartment; eating sushi; facing new high-tech challenges nearly every day.
        Web was a computer nerd. People brought him hardware and software that needed to be repaired, transformed, deciphered. Web always solved their problems. He had never met a technical problem he couldn’t solve. He lived for them. His pay was more than sufficient for his modest style of living.
        That morning he awoke and, as was his custom, he checked his mail. In front of his console he smiled with satisfaction. There were two generous payments for a repaired cooking robot and the sale of a personalized neurocoder. Also a pirated copy of a video editing program which a friend from Okinawa had asked him to decode. Finally, a small upstart Australian company was asking him for a confidential consultation on a matter of information protection.
        Web accepted the messages, except for the one from the company. He did not like to leave his apartment. Not for someplace where there would be too much light and attention on his person. And where the hell was Australia after all?
        At noon, after an arduous morning of work, he arose from his tatami and went to the collector on his door. The boy from the restaurant at the corner left him a plate of sushi, celery soup and a container of fries there every morning.
        Today there was something else, a black plush antistatic packet, somewhat heavy and bulky. Web took it to his workbench and opened it carefully. The packet contained a construct, a set of instructions and a wad of Yankee bills, some 100 newdollars. Only once in his life had Web seen a construct, but he knew the technology. It was quite an incredible thing. He timidly examined the instructions and smiled. He would need a magnetic microdetector. The project required a very high level of selectivity and sensitivity to reconstruct the information erased bit by bit by some digital support. Web had no idea of who could have sent it, but he had no doubt that the sender would show himself soon enough.
        Chewing a fistful of fries, he removed everything from his workbench that might distract him, including the money, which he did not bother to count. He left only the “sick” construct and the diagrams on the bench. He had barely finished his sushi when he set himself to the task.

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