NovelsSyne Mitchell Science Fiction and Fantasy Author


Part 1


“If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)





Chapter 1


Jasmine Reese was a god.  Standing on an endless sea of data, she cast her net into the waters and drew out strands of conversation, lumps of encrypted transactions like clams waiting to be cracked, and writhing, flopping, calculations.  She walked on pulses of transmissions, riding the waves of networked information exchanged by the ten billion people who lived on the planet--

--then she was nothing. 

The data mask flickered, a strobe of her desk and office walls, then the Net--office--Net--office--Net.  She pulled it off in frustration.  The delicate filigree of wires that crossed her face horizontally appeared intact.  Jaz couldn't see anything wrong with the processor gems that dotted the metallic strands at irregular intervals, gleaming like diamonds.  Inside the six ounces of metal and crystal, however, was fifteen hundred petaflops of computational power.  The problem could be anywhere.

Jaz tried reinitializing the mask.  She placed it on the molded human face sitting on her desk and tapped a button on its throat.  A screen on the plastic face's forehead lit up with diagnostic information that scrolled by too fast to read.  In seconds, the re-initialization was done.

Jaz lifted the data mask, hooked the guide wire over the top of her head, and tucked the temple-snaps behind her ears.  The electronics wrapping her face once again induced electromagnetic currents in her cerebral cortex, and Jaz slipped back into her metaphor.

The seas were choppy and cold.  Jaz stood on the waves and scooped water into her palm.  The falling drops fragmented into tiny blue ones and zeros.  Shit.  She was losing cohesion. 

Jaz willed herself to relax, but the cloud-filled sky flickered in and out with gray office walls, the speckled laminate of her desk, and a gold-and-blue embroidered wall hanging of the Indian god, Ganesh, she'd hung to brighten up the place.  Jaz pulled the mask off, resisted an urge to slam it down, and leaned out the door to call across the hallway.  “Matt, you having any trouble with the Net?”

Matt focused his eyes and turned his head towards her, seeing her through an overlay of neurally induced images.  His shoulder-length brown hair fell in lanky strands over the gem-studded headband he used.  “No.  Seems normal to me.  What's up?”

“I keep losing my connection.  My metaphor drops and I get thrown back into physicality.”

“Have you tried reinitializing the system?”

“Twice in the last half-hour.  I think it's the hardware.” 

“Tragic.”  His eyes grew vague, answering some call Jaz, without her equipment, couldn't sense.

Jaz scooped up the data mask and walked around the corner to her supervisor's desk.  Jonathan Stacker lay in a recliner, hands twitching on the armrests.  His balding head was covered with his perennial baseball cap.  The rig he wore was large, a catcher’s mask studded with emeralds.  Under its wide bands, Stacker’s mobile face jerked and spasmed in rapid-fire emotions.  How funny the connected looked when you couldn't see their visions. 

She knocked on the door jam.  Stacker started.  His gaze searched the doorway blindly for a moment, then his eyes focused on the physical.  “Jaz?”  He looked both happy to see her and concerned.  If it weren't serious, she would have contacted him electronically.

She held up the limp mask.  “Hardware's flaking out.  I want to take it down to Charlie's, see if he can expedite a fix.  Will you authorize the repairs?”

“Let me take a look at it.”

“I've optimized the induction settings.  I don't think it will work for anyone else.”

Stacker peeled off his own rig and delicately wrapped Jaz's around his face.  Seconds later he squinted in pain.  “Och.”  He pulled it off.  “So that's what it's like inside your head,” he said, as she leaned over him to retrieve the mask.


He slipped his own rig back on.  “I’ve authorized a repair invoice.  They're expecting you.”

“Thanks.”  On the way out, Jaz grabbed her forest-green parka off the hook on her door.  The long silk kurta she wore over her jeans wasn't warm enough to keep off the April chill.  She tucked the mask into a pocket and walked out of the building. 

The skyscrapers of East Seattle rose around her, looming glass-and-steel towers built in the early part of the millennium to house Seattle's explosive growth.  Skywalks connecting them cast shadows on the streets.  The manicured grounds of Infotech were a hollow in the high-rise landscape.  It contrasted with the city that had grown up around it, a sprawling office park with shade trees, lawns, and an artificial stream that meandered between buildings. 

Jaz walked past clumps of bushes in all shades of green.  Without her rig, the glowing labels that identified them were gone.  That thorny one, that was some kind of rose, wasn't it?

Traffic was light, mid-day.  Private cars and corporate trucks roared by at synchronized speeds.  Their navigational systems negotiated with each other to optimize the flow of traffic.  Unconnected, Jaz couldn’t hear the mental chatter of commuters as their cars sped them along.  Each driver appeared isolated in his or her own metal-wrapped world. 

The buses ran every five minutes, so Jaz didn't wait long.  She saw it coming, like a shark through slower traffic.  Advertisements for live sex simulations and brain-boosting vitamins blinked and glowed on its surface.  But the bus didn't stop. 

Jaz watched in amazement as it blew past her, not even slowing. 

She waved her hands and chased the disappearing bus, but the driver never looked back. 

“What the--”  Jaz stared dumbfounded at the receding bus, then realized what had happened.  The explanation was simple.  Without her mask, she was disconnected from the Net.  The automated systems on the bus hadn't received a pick-up transmission, and didn't know she was there.  She stomped back to the stop in frustration.

When the next bus came, Jaz was ready.  She waved her hands and jumped in front of it, forcing the bus to slow.  The driver looked at her blearily through a haze of schedules and GPS maps.  Jaz couldn't see them without equipment, but she knew they were there. 

Jaz climbed the steps of the bus.  The man driving put out a meaty hand and stopped her.  “Pay the toll.”

Right.  Jaz sighed.  Nothing about this day was going to be easy.  Payment was so automatic that Jaz had forgotten you had to transfer funds to ride.  Jaz slipped on her sputtering mask.  It must have worked long enough to post the transaction.  The man withdrew his hand and let her board.

The bus rolled past high-rise buildings on Seattle's east side then looped up an on-ramp to highway 520, heading west towards the bridge that crossed Lake Washington.  A monorail tram sped by overhead. 

The people around her were inattentive.  No one's eyes met directly; instead they emoted and interacted with the air, responding to internal conversations and information.  It was like being in a room of autistics.

Jaz watched the scenery with interest.  Normally, she spent her travel time immersed in entertainment, administrative tasks, or catching up with friends.  Now, with no easy connection to the Net, she was absorbed in watching the world. 

The bus turned a corner and the change of light reflected a woman's face in the window. 

The chin and forehead outlined an oval face with skin the reddish-tan of light mahogany.  Her nose was long and straight, curving downwards at the tip.  The eyes were large and deep set.  The woman’s full lips pursed in puzzled contemplation.  With a start Jaz recognized herself.

It had been months since she'd seen herself without a data mask.  She only took it off to shower, and sometimes when she slept.  Without it, her face seemed naked, vulnerable.  Is that what Ian had seen those few times they'd made love without a connection? 

The bus jerked to a halt in front of the multiplex that housed Charlie's Electronics.  The store was on the first floor, part of a strip mall that had been subsumed by a multistory building of wholesale stores and light industry.

Inside was a receiving counter: a pushcart for intake of heavy electronics, a few uncomfortable chairs, and the obligatory artificial plant.  Charlie himself greeted Jaz when she came in.  A picture on the wall behind him showed a man in his twenties, installing Linux networks during the Taiwan-China conflict.  The boy Charlie had been smiled and waved at the camera.  Sixty years later, he was a pudgy man, nearly bald, but with a sharp keen eye.

“That the rig from Infotech?” he asked when she laid the delicate filigree of wires on the counter.


Charlie picked up the mask with hands that were callused from hard use.  He dangled the mask from one pinky and examined it through an electronic loupe.  “Latest Intel Quantum-IV.”  He whistled low.  “Don't see many of these in civilian hands.” 

“I need the high-end throughput for data mining, and Infotech lets me use the rig on my off hours.” 

Charlie chuckled.  “You talented enough to drive a rig like this, I bet you don't get much time off.”

“I like working,” said Jaz, a little defensively.

Charlie grunted and squinted at the mask.  “Bandwidth’s too low.  And I'm not getting a signal from auditory inductors.”  He reached under the counter and brought up a gray oval shaped like the front half of a human head.  He laid the mask across it and data crystals on the front glowed with power. 

“So?” asked Jaz.

“The laser that flips the molecular states is off-sequencing.  Going to take a full rebuild.  We'll have to send it back to the manufacturer.”

“How long will that take?”

Charlie's eyes unfocused for a moment, “Two, three weeks.  Intel's repair facility is backed up at the moment.”

“Weeks?”  Seattle was home to five million people, a third of whom were employed in the information trade.  Surely Intel had a local repair facility. 

Jaz recalled, with a cold feeling of growing unease, that she had donated her old data jewelry to charity after Stacker let her take home one of the new Quantum IV's.  She'd never used her old gear once she had cutting-edge technology available twenty-four hours a day.  Had she given it all away?  Or was there some small piece she kept for sentimental reasons, her first data necklace, perhaps? 

She said, “There must be someone in the city who can repair it.  I can't work--can't do anything--without my interface.” 

Charlie shook his head.  “Not this hardware.  You bring me a standard rig, and I can turn around a fix within twenty-four hours.  Research-grade electronics like this, you need equipment they've only got at the factories.  Of course, don't take my word for it.  Feel free to make inquiries.”

If her rig had been working, it would have taken seconds to verify his statement.  She tried slipping it on and was subjected to rapid cycling of the Net and reality.  Nauseated, she pulled off the mask and handed it across the table.  “Can you put a rush on the repair order?  My whole life is wrapped up in this thing.”

“Isn't everyone's?” Charlie swiped the mask through an IR beam to read the microscopic serial number off the back.  He concentrated for a moment, filing away details for the repair order, then placed the mask delicately in a box with velvet lining.  “I can give you a loaner rig.”  He reached under the counter and brought up a box of old-style wearables, hard clunky glasses that didn't use induction, but instead projected tiny images in the corners of the lenses.  Speakers built into the earpiece provided sound. 

Jaz selected the newest-looking pair.  The rims were tortoiseshell plastic, and the lenses had a slight tint.   She pushed the frames over her ears and activated the glasses.  A tiny screen appeared in the lower outer corner of each lens.  Using rapid eye motion, she navigated to a primitive version of a message dispatch, kept around for third-world countries that couldn't afford the latest technology.  She had to segue through Rwanda to get to something that would handle the low bandwidth of the glasses. 

Please speak your message,” said a digital dispatch service.

Jaz felt her brows knit in frustration.  “Does this thing have voice capabilities?”

“Yeah.  Just speak out loud and a microphone in the frames will pick it up.”

“I have to wander the city talking to myself?  Ugh.  How did folks in the twenties have any privacy?”

The old man shrugged.  “That rig was state-of-the-art, once upon a time...but then, so was I.”  His eyes went vague, as he answered what she presumed was another call.  “I've filed a receipt for you online and put a rush on the order.”

“Thank you,” said Jaz. 

He didn't answer.  The conscious part of Charlie was already helping the next customer, somewhere on the Net.

Jaz pushed through the door of Charlie's Electronics.  Outside was crisp and bright, a rare sunny day in the Pacific Northwest.  The new rig, if it even deserved the name, at least blocked much of the unaccustomed light.  She sat on a bench and transmitted an update to Stacker. 

After an agonizingly long twenty seconds, Jaz was able to connect to her bank, prove her identity, establish a voice-activated password, and transfer funds for bus fair.  She then routed a pickup message to the public transportation agency through the African National Congress linkage, and bounced it off three repeater stations in the Baltic States.  How did feebs manage?  She hoped her rig would be back soon.

On the bus ride back to her office, Jaz tried to connect to her work files.  The wearable locked up trying to process data coming in at a rate faster than it could handle.  The images would stick and then jerk to life, only to freeze again a second later.  Mingled with the rolling gait of the bus, it made Jaz sick.  She stopped and pulled the wearable off.  How was she going to get any work done with this thing?

When she entered her office building Stacker sent her a local-LAN message.  “Back in business?” he asked.

She piped him a simulated groan.  “Hardly.  I've got at least two weeks of down time and a loner rig that's only slightly better than signaling with semaphores.”  Stacker was a pixilated and very flat image on the tiny projection screens.  “Are there any unused rigs lying about?  Anything would be better than this.”

“I'll check, but it's unlikely.  That last wave of hiring left us machine-poor.”  His image faded out.

Jaz sighed and climbed into her office chair, a black padded curve that stretched from her feet to above her head.  It was the latest in ergonomic design, embedded foam gel that contoured to the shape of her body.  She could lay in it for hours, sorting and manipulating data.

Jaz initiated a scanning program she’d written to comb the Net for information.  The glasses were only able to transmit a thousandth of the data Jaz's neural mask handled.  It was like looking at the ocean through a porthole.  The tiny projection lenses could display only a fraction of the data returned by her application.  How could she search and analyze with this?

But she had to try.  Her latest project was to dredge up information about a car crash that occurred on Eighth and Pine last Monday.  The case was scheduled for legal review in two days, and so far, she had only the police reports, some memories from bystanders, and maintenance records on the victim's car.  Surely there were more details out there that would help their client's case.  Saunder and Peter’s law firm was one of their biggest accounts.  Stacker had given it to her because of her skill at sifting bits of information from the surf.

Jaz used her limited field of view to work her way through the Net.  She scanned for data transmitted by the GPS of the second car's driver, or failing that, a video transmission of him talking over the Net about the accident.  If he had thought about the crash to himself while logged on, it was likely stored somewhere in the vast data pool that was the Net.  Because of its distributed nature, transmissions bounced around from server to server before reaching their destination. 

What most people didn't realize was that data jewelry had no easy way to distinguish an external Net-bound thought from a private, internal, one.  Consequently, the data jewelry recorded everything, if only for seconds before making the determination to transmit or delete...and all too often the jewelry transmitted.

Jaz was a data miner.  She sifted through public transmissions: leaky personal thoughts, online conversations, and endless business reports.  AIs were used to do redundant data filtering, but even the best artificial intelligence was not as good a pattern matcher as a talented human brain.  And Jaz was a natural, a prodigy.  She saw the picture in the static of the Net, and could draw meaning from a surf of information that would drown casual users.

Usually.  Right now she couldn't mine even simple conversations.  A snippet of video would flash across her lenses, but by the time she moved the eye-cursor to follow it, the transmission was lost.  After five minutes of effort, she'd gathered exactly six words: How're--later--Could you believe--Fowler, and an image of a woman with a blonde chignon and pearls, probably an avatar.  No one looked that good in real life. 

Just as she was following the sprite, a wave of unrelated information, catalog transmissions and sports results, flooded her lenses.  When Jaz had deleted the irrelevant data, the woman was gone.

How the hell was she supposed to work like this?

When all was going well, data mining was like being the Net.  For timeless minutes, hours, sometimes even days, she had been the ocean, letting information drift through her, coded transmissions like bright flashing fish.  It was simultaneously like being thoughtless and like thinking a thousand things at once.  That intellectual rush, more than money, more than prestige, was what drove her on.

Now she felt like someone watching a two-dimensional movie about the sea.  Without an inductive connection to the Net, the context and subconscious implications of the data she viewed was lost. 

“Stacker,” she transmitted, “any word on a loaner?  I'm not getting much with this wearable.”  There was no reply.  He must be busy.

A flash of information leaped across her field of vision like a salmon in the data stream.  Jaz tried to follow it down into flashing images the glasses displayed, but lost it in multiple z-order layers.  She had to fight her way down through their overlapping two-dimensional representations.  Too slow, the glasses kept dropping frames of video.  Intolerable.  Jaz tweaked the clockspeed on the glasses, driving them as fast as they could go.  Sentences now, she could follow before she lost the signals, but it wasn't enough to do her work; you couldn't build a case out of random sentences. 

The wearable heated up at the temples.  Just a little more.  Sweat beaded on Jaz's forehead.  The REM motion to move the cursor was making her eyes ache, but she was determined to get somewhere.

Jaz's display flickered, strobing her view of reality between the data coming in from the Net and her embroidered wall hanging of Ganesh.  With a scream of disgust, Jaz yanked the off wearable.  The glasses were torturous.  Partial immersion was worse than none.  She cupped her palms over her throbbing eyes.

If she wasn't working, there was only her apartment to go home to; empty white walls, a little emptier now that Ian had moved out.  Work was all she had left.  This misbegotten piece of equipment was keeping her from the one thing that was right in her life.  The one thing she was good at.

Growling, Jaz put the glasses back on.  She initialized a simpler user-interface.  Forget video, too much bandwidth; see the data as lines of text streaming past.  She found herself in a grid of glowing amber letters, streaming by in horizontal lines.  Jaz sank into the imagery, began to read the words as they zipped past her.  By falling into her mindless, Zen state she could read as many as four conversations simultaneously.  With her old rig, she'd been able to process twelve and still keep a skim out for anything interesting.

Don't think about the interface, be the data.  Jaz felt herself slipping into flow.  Yes.  This might work, primitive, but doable. 

The user interface blurred and wavered.  Shit.  She was losing synchronization with the Net.  Come on.  This UI was only a couple of steps up from reading machine code.  The glasses couldn't fail her now.  Pain blossomed into a spike driving through her head.  Jaz whipped off the glasses and threw them across the wall.  They thwacked into the thin room divider with a crunch. 

She doubled over and massaged her forehead.  Definitely not her day.

Stacker loomed in her doorway, the data mask askew on his face, his forehead contorted in pain.  “What the hell was that?”

Jaz pointed at the glasses on the floor.  “I can't work with those things.  Even on a low-image metaphor, they blow up with any reasonable data throughput.  Please, please, tell me there's a loaner rig I can use.”

Stacker walked over and picked up the glasses.  They appeared intact, save for one earpiece that bent out at an odd angle.  “There's not.  I checked with central supply and we're expecting a shipment of new interfaces, but there's nothing in stock.”

Jaz massaged her temples with her fingertips.  “I'll do the best I can--”

Stacker shook his head.  “No.  I'm sending you home.  Take a week or so and relax until your rig arrives.  You've got the vacation time.  I don't think I've seen you take time off in the five years you’ve worked here.”

“Thanks, but I can handle it.  I'll be a little slower than usual, but--”

“No.  Jaz, you're one of my strongest naturals.  You slip into network protocols like the computer's clock cycle is the beating of your own heart.  When you're upset the Net responds.  I've got three people offline right now from the backlash of your little,” he twirled the crumpled glasses, “blowup.”

Jaz's eyebrows rose and she looked at Matt across the hall.  His data jewelry, a wide, gem-studded, headband, was off and he rubbed his forehead.  He wouldn't meet her eyes.

“God, I'm sorry.”

Stacker closed the office door to give them privacy.  He placed a hand on Jaz's shoulder.  “You've been under a lot of stress lately.  You need some time to recuperate.  The Marley case just shipped, and I've got enough slack in the schedule to cover for you.  Take the time off.”

Jaz looked at him, horrified.  “Stacker, I work long hours because I love my job.  This,” she waved her hands to encompass the room around her, “is who I am.”  She thought of her apartment, empty and Spartan, clean only because she wasn't home long enough to make a mess.

Stacker's warm smile hardened.  He leaned close.  “Truth is, Jaz, you haven't been yourself lately.  I know there have been some personal issues between you and--” he held up a hand to forestall her protest “--other coworkers.”

At the reference to Ian, Jaz’s face heated. 

Stacker continued, “I can afford to have you out for a week or so right now.  I think the break will do you good.  What this group can't afford is a talent as powerful as you, on lousy equipment, disturbing the work flow around here.”

Jaz felt her face heat.  “All right.”  She said in tight clipped tones.  “If that's the way it's got to be.”

“Good girl.”

Jaz controlled the impulse not to snarl.  The breakup between her and Ian was as much his fault as hers.  Yet all the bad luck and the blame seemed to be falling on her.  She looked at the closed door.  “Is this a polite way of asking me to leave Infotech?”

Stacker's eyes widened.  “Absolutely not.  Under normal conditions, you're my best worker.  I'm giving you this time off to make it easier for you to stay.”

The words comforted her.  And even if he was lying, she was okay.  Her bank account was filled with years of salary she hadn't taken time to spend.  “All right.  See you when I've got my rig back.” 

“Good, good.  Have fun.”

Fun?  Sitting alone in an apartment with memories of a lover who wasn't there, who had moved in with someone else in the time it took you to say: “What do you mean you don't love me anymore?”  Without even the Net to lose yourself in because the high-gain equipment you'd spent six months adjusting to every nuance of your brain's electric field was broken.  Right.  It'd be hilarious.

Jaz grabbed her parka off the hook on the back of the door and accepted the skewed glasses from Stacker. 

Outside the sun was still bright.  An anomaly in the normally-overcast Pacific Northwest.  She winced against the light and slipped her coat on to block the early April chill. 

The streets were relatively quiet for a Friday afternoon.  Jaz walked down to the light-rail station.  When she put on her glasses to pay the toll they fizzled and displayed static.  She tried to connect, to induce a response with REM motion.  Nothing.

They must have broken when she slammed them against the wall.

Shit.  How was she going to get home if she couldn't pay the fare? 

A rail car came by and Jaz filed in last. 

The conductor looked at her through a pair of silver goggles pinpricked all over with tiny holes.  “Transmit payment, please.”

Jaz held out the broken hardware.  “My rig's down.  I can't access my account.  Please, I need to get home.”

It took the conductor a moment to shift focus from the internal world of tram schedules and passenger volume to see her.  The woman looked impassively at Jaz, the silver goggles making her resemble a cross between a human and a fly.  “If you can't transmit.  I can swipe your disconnected person’s card.”

“My what?”

The door started to close on Jaz.  “Go to the office of disconnected persons.  They’ll issue you a proxy card for transactions. “

“Where’s the office?”

“Corner of Pike and Broadway”

“That's all the way downtown!  How am I supposed to get there?”

“Ms. You’re holding us up.  We’re already three minutes behind schedule.  If you can't pay, you'll have to get off the tram.”

A man looked intently at the driver.  She nodded and let the door--which had been crushing Jaz out of the tram--swing open.  “Your fare has been paid,” the conductor said. 

Jaz sat next to the man who had helped her.  He was in his mid-fifties with an elegant shock of silver running through his black hair.  He favored a monocle, designed like an antique.  A round piece of metal held in place a clear plate.  The glass was filled with thousands of tiny gold fibers, like rutilated quartz. 

“Thank you.”  She held up the broken glasses.  “My real rig went down, and then this loaner rig--”

The man wasn't paying her any attention.  Behind the glass, his eyes were unfocused.  She could see his pupils moving in REM-like motions as he visualized the invisible world of the Net.

His help hadn't been a personal kindness.  He'd just removed an obstruction that was keeping the tram from leaving.

All around her, people were silent, interacting through a medium that was transmitted through and around them.  Even the two children at the back twitched silently, playing who-knew-what adventure game on the Net.  Jaz knew what it was like to be immersed.  It was common for her to connect to Matt through the Net instead of calling across the hall.  Vocal communication was slow, inexact. 

When the tram roared by Jaz's stop, she realized it hadn't picked up her destination from her surface thoughts.  Jaz walked up the aisle to the conductor and asked to be let off. 

She hiked the ten blocks back to her apartment building. 

The lobby doors wouldn't open.  Jaz jumped up and down in front of them, hoping to trigger a pressure sensor.  She tugged experimentally on the handle.  Nothing. 

In frustration, she pounded on the glass-and-steel doors. 

One of the smartly dressed, college-aged women who ran the front office came to the door and peered out.  Jaz held up the broken glasses and pointed to them.

The receptionist cracked open the door.  “Can I help you?”

“I'm Jasmine Reese, in apartment 1475.  My wearable broke and I can't get in the building.”

The woman's eyes clouded a moment.  Pinpoint lights flickered on her solid-circuitry headband, a recent retro look, designed to look like the science fiction media of the nineteen seventies.

After a moment, the woman's face brightened into a professional smile.  “How terrible, Ms. Reese.  Come in and we'll get you set up with a temporary identification bracelet.”

“Since when have the lobby doors been locked?” asked Jaz as she followed the receptionist across the teal-carpeted floor.

The woman--it was hard to remember names without accessing the Net--said, “It's always taken at least a connection to come in through the door.  Standard security.  It keeps...undesirables out.”

“Is that legal?”

“This is a fully connected building.  What reason would a fee--I mean, a disconnected person have to come in here unescorted?”

Feebs.  People who for some quirk of brain chemistry or wiring were unable to use data jewelry.  Jaz had never thought about them before except as dirty panhandlers lining the streets.  She'd always assumed they were unemployed due to laziness or mental illness.  There were lots of jobs that didn't require a connection, weren't there? 

The woman pulled a shiny plastic bracelet out of a drawer and spent a moment wrapping it around a tube that extruded from a box.  Draped over the top of the box was a silver hairnet covered with tiny pearl-like data clusters at each crossing of the wires. 

“Put this on,” the receptionist said, “and we'll record your pattern in the bracelet.  It’ll transmit a standard identity signal wherever you go, so you'll be able to enter the building and your apartment at will.”

Jaz did so, and for a moment, like the sun breaking through an overcast day, Jaz could feel the bright warm hum of the Net surround her.  All too soon it was over. 

The receptionist removed the EEG recording device, stored it, and clipped the bracelet onto Jaz.  It was a tight fit, designed so you couldn't take it off without destroying the plastic.

“How long will you need the proxy bracelet?”

“A day, maybe two.  I'm going shopping for a temporary rig first thing tomorrow morning.”  Jaz flexed her wrist, feeling the cheap plastic bite into her flesh.  “Will this get me on public transportation?”

“No, just the apartment, I'm afraid.  I've set it for a week, will that be sufficient?”

“God I hope so.”

The receptionist flashed a sympathetic smile.  “I know what you mean, I'd go crazy without a network connection.  Good luck.”

The elevator came to her because of the proxy, but she had no way to indicate what floor she wanted to go to.  The whole building was built for connecteds.  The interior was sleek glass and steel, with no buttons or control panels in evidence. 

“Floor twelve?” she said experimentally.  The elevator sat there.  Apparently even old-fashioned voice control had been removed.  She didn't feel like bothering the receptionist again, and no other tenants were in view.

There had to be stairs, for safety, in case the power went out during a fire.  Jaz found them next to the janitor's closet on the first floor.  Her proxy got her through the lock and onto a set of stairs that smelled of concrete and stale air.  Twelve floors later, Jaz reached the hall outside her apartment.

The tile in the hallway was an artificial marble so realistic you only noticed the difference in the fact it never scuffed or needed polishing.  She held the proxy up to the smoky black glass of her apartment door.  Bulletproof and polarizable, the entire door could be made transparent or completely opaque. 

The lights did not come on when she entered.  The proxy controlled access, but nothing else.  She tried the glasses: static.  Jaz crossed the simulated oak flooring to the southwest-facing window overlooking Puget Sound.  She watched a barge carrying orange boxcars drift by, saw the monorail dart between light and shadow as it twisted between buildings, an arterial pulse carrying executives to office buildings.

The room behind her was sparse.  The room of a woman without the time or inclination to design.  White wall-to-wall carpeting, glass walls.  The only splashes of color were the Bukhara carpet her grandmother had sent from India, and a framed print of the Dublin fish market her father has sent for cultural parity.  The low-slung sofa and chair were built on ergonomic lines, also an impractical white.  It didn't matter.  The way things were going, there'd never be any children or pets to worry the fabric. 

The rest of the apartment was in shadow, Jaz walked past the bedroom.  Her bed had full audio-visual hookup, so that dreams could be recorded, or induced.  She had erotic recordings of her and Ian.  Why hadn't she purged those from the system?

The next thought was a stone in her heart.  Had Ian purged the recordings at his apartment?  In one second she fervently hoped so.  In the next she wished just as fervently that he had kept them.

She continued down the hallway to her home office, the most richly appointed room in the apartment.  It was filled with an ergonomic task chair like the one she had at work and a wall-sized rack of data crystals, extra storage for the information she downloaded from the Net.  Surrounding the chair like Grecian columns were her computers.  They rose white and crenulated in staggered heights.  A private network Jaz used to test the data-retrieval programs she wrote, before she released them into the Net.

She checked the wall cabinets.  Yes, as she had feared.  She'd donated all of her old data jewelry to charity when Infotech assigned her the Intel Quantum IV.  Not a lip ring or diadem left.  She was stuck in a fully featured apartment that she couldn't access for lack of an interface. 

“Apartment.  Lights.”

Nothing.  She would be trapped in darkness when the sun went down.  Jaz walked back to her bedroom and pulled out one of the drawers built into her bed's pedestal.  It was where she kept her few personal possessions: a few hard-copies of family photos, a couple of sex toys.  There.  Nestled beside a pile of incense were three white candles and a silver lighter.

Jaz slumped on a chair near the window and watched the city.  It lay far below her like an ant hive. 

The city was awash with transmissions: music and video entertainment, commerce, joking with friends.  But without a rig, Jaz could access none of it.  At her parent’s home in Boston, she could have perused her father’s moldering collection of antique books. 

Here, there was nothing she could do without a connection except masturbate or do calisthenics, and the day's frustrations had left her unenthused about either.

Going out would be worse.  Until she got a new rig, the city was closed to her.  She'd be a ghost, walking between people and buildings that wouldn't recognize her.  Adrift, only able to see physical reality.  Like losing a sixth sense.

Jaz sat in the dwindling twilight, holding her candles to her chest and wondered how she would survive the next two weeks.

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