Chapter 1 - Fractured Reality
Consciousness crept up on Cole Westbay, and it wasn’t kind. Sharp pain, like an ice pick being driven into the back of his head.
Nausea racked his body, but he didn’t remember drinking.
He wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep, to make reality go away, but the excruciating pain refused to be ignored. The time in his visual overlay … was dark! What the hell?
He tried to open his eyes, but bright light streamed in through a window. He rolled to his side to avoid the painful light. He reached for the center of pain at the back of his head and winced at the touch. His hand came away splotched with blood.
What the hell was going on?
What did he do last night?
Panic struck. Where was he? How did he get here? Just like that, he bloomed into full consciousness. He wanted to get up and check out his surroundings, but the idea of moving was on par with climbing out from underneath an avalanche. But he couldn’t simply lie there forever. And the pain, fuck, it hurt so bad.
No web connection. His Vitasync neurochip was offline. That was not supposed to be possible. Oh, God.
The disorientation nearly overwhelmed him. His Nubo was instant and always there, like a warm blanket, but now it was gone along with so many bits of his memory. He had lived with the memory assist for ten years, and the neurolink had become a part of him. Without it, pieces were missing. Not just in his memory. He was only partly here.
What day was it? He still had a few things that anchored him, like where he worked, and that the month was February … Shit, he was late for work! Lounis would kill him. Did he have a meeting this morning?
He began to hyperventilate and struggled to catch his breath. He’d felt this many times before, an anxiety attack. An adrenaline rush increased the throbbing agony. Eyes shut, he inhaled deeply and slowed his breathing. His pulse punched at his eardrums.
He sat up slowly, deliberately, afraid his head would shatter into a million pieces if he moved too fast.
A dark-red smear glazed the pillow.
He was in his bedroom. At least that much made sense. But how did he get there? He began to shake uncontrollably.
He lay back down and yanked the sheet up and curled into a protective position. Fetal and pathetic. A miniature miner burrowed away in his head, trying to dig a way out through his right eye.
This all had to be a bad dream … or an aneurysm. Was he dying?
Cold and alone. The shaking got worse. His teeth began to chatter.
Get your shit together!
He sat up again, pushed the comforter away, and stumbled to the bathroom in his boxers.
The lights came on. He squinted into the mirror, half expecting to see pieces missing, but he appeared mostly normal — bed-headed and bleary-eyed, but all there. He focused on getting his breathing under control and stood with his eyes closed. With his anxiety spiraling out of control, and the MyPharm app offline, he needed one of his pills.
After fumbling with the lid, he washed the pill down with a handful of water from the sink. The Xanapam started taking the edge off almost immediately.
The pill did nothing for the pain, however. He searched the shelf but found no ibuprofen, acetaminophen, nothing. The MyPharm app normally did the job using the body’s own chemicals to manage small issues.
The pain was sharpest at the back of his head. He probed the wound again, flinching from the spasm of hurt. Only a little blood. He checked the spot with a hand-mirror, revealing red, swollen skin.
Holy shit. Something had ripped through the skin at the access port and mangled the Vitasync interface. Congealed blood coated the wound. He examined more closely — the chip had been pulled out.
He couldn’t possibly have done this to himself. Somebody did this to him. Why?
He put the mirror on the countertop and clutched the sink with both hands, head down, trying not to think, as if that would stop the agony.
After a futile minute had passed, pain still hammering away, he looked up and studied his face in the mirror. The surreal moment fractured reality. This couldn’t be happening. The person looking back at him looked familiar enough. So, why did he feel so disconnected? He was a ghost inhabiting his own body, tenuously connected. Having the neurolink ripped from his body was akin to having a body part amputated. Or part of his brain went with the missing chip.
Get a grip, man. He was not going to let whoever did this to him win. That part of him still survived. In the debris of his psyche, the fighter fought his way forward.
He needed a plan of action.
Were they missing him at work? His Fone app wouldn’t work, along with everything else, and he didn’t own a cellphone anymore. Nobody could call him, either. Wait a minute. His old tablet had a calling app, and there should still be a set of AR glasses somewhere. Where did he put them?
He returned to the bedroom and searched the drawers, but no luck. Maybe the shelf in the closet. Ever since he’d installed the implant, the need for any other device evaporated. Funny how he could remember that, but not what happened yesterday.
He turned the corner into the walk-in closet. Disaster.
Shoe boxes and clothes were heaped haphazardly on the floor. His pulse quickened, which only made his head throb harder. He squinted hard, trying to limit the pain.
The mess could mean only one thing. Intruder in the apartment. Someone had done this to him. Had they robbed him, too?
Were they still here?
He froze in place and listened intently, straining to hear anything, any sign that someone might be in the condo. There weren’t too many places to hide in a one-bedroom apartment. He slowly squatted and tuned-in to the sounds of the condo until he was sure nobody else was there.
He stood to investigate further when a loud clatter shook him. His heart leapt into his throat. He didn’t own any weapons, had nothing to protect himself.
The sound came again.
The ice maker. Damn it. Better than an intruder, but the moment frayed his nerves even further, if that were possible.
Cole crept out to the living room, and although the room was much larger than the closet, it followed the same motif there — chairs overturned, pillows scattered, and lamps lying on their sides.
The quiet lingered. He was alone. Relief. His heart rate slowed a little. But the mess … His OCD kicked into high gear. Too much chaos.
Start somewhere. Keep moving.
Cole reluctantly resumed his search of the closet.
It was like a bomb had gone off. Rummaging through the piles revealed nothing useful.
He gave up, went back to the living room, and inspected the damage on his way toward the front door. The lock appeared to be broken from the outside. Someone had used a crowbar on the doorjamb, and the door wouldn’t shut all the way.
The disaster in his living room touched everything. All the drawers in the desks and chests were pulled open. Fragments of broken lamps riddled the floor. He could not find the most obvious thing of value in the apartment, his one-piece mediaclient.
The safe! He darted back to the bedroom, stepping carefully in bare feet. The throbbing in his head swelled again.
He moved the rug that covered the floor safe and then pulled the tab for the little door that hid the tiny vault. Palmed the lock and heard it click. Reached in, turned the handle, and pulled the door open. Thank God. Everything was here.
He pulled out the small, red box. Inside, the priceless wedding ring that Grandma had left him was still in place. The ring held a one-carat, marquise-cut stone with a gold-weave pattern in an antique style. It had been passed down through four generations. He still planned to put it on Tesla’s finger someday.
He grabbed the packet from the safe and dumped the contents on the floor — his will, lien paperwork for the condo, passport, birth certificate, old-fashioned ID card, and a few photographs of Grandma fell out. He picked up one photo. She wore her favorite blouse, with her hair all done up. Had it already been a year since she passed away?
Again, his memory surprised him. He remembered his grandmother clearly. However, when he tried to remember the day of the week or events from the last few days, his mind was vacant.
He grabbed the ID and birth certificate and set them aside since he wouldn’t be able to integrate with anyone, then stuffed everything else back into the safe.
Afterward, he dug through the jumble of clothes to find a pair of jeans and a dark-blue, quarter-zip sweater. He put the folded birth certificate in his back pocket, along with the ID card.
He needed to call the police but had no way to do it. If he could find one of his old devices and activate his account, at least partially, he could make some calls. And maybe they could reactivate his lifelog.
Twenty minutes later, after searching everywhere he could think of, he admitted defeat. The only thing left was to ask the next-door neighbor for help. He patted his back pocket — making sure the ID was still there, just in case — and then stepped out into the hallway and down the few feet to the neighbor’s door. Knocking on his door without warning broke several social taboos, especially without projecting a quint, but he didn’t see any alternatives.
Society had evolved over the last fifteen years once augmented reality became all the rage and the price of AR glasses came down. When the Vitasync hit the market and the Quintessence app went online, everyone wanted a quint. Something to project into augmented reality that the chip would interpret as a virtual representation of the person. You didn’t see other people out in public anymore — only their icons, or quints.
The custom embodied stupidity in his opinion. Being instrumental in the development stained his soul, but despite that, he was still beholden to the practice. His already hyper pulse rate jumped even higher. All this anxiety was going to give him a heart attack.
Cole paused briefly, trying to control his breathing, then rapped tentatively at the door. Chris Gustafson worked in finance, and though they’d been neighbors for five years, Cole had never seen anyone visit him. Gustafson’s reputation among the tenants surpassed the average level of geekdom into weird. But Cole gave him the benefit of the doubt. He preferred to think of Gustafson as eccentric.
Nothing happened, so he knocked again, more forcefully. In the middle of the third knock, Gustafson opened the door. The sour expression on his face spoke volumes, adding to Cole’s embarrassment at his lack of a quint and his rumpled appearance. Gustafson was assuredly displaying his quint, but Cole couldn’t see into the AR world without his chip. So, a short, balding man wearing a bright-green body suit with matching green slippers stood in front of him.
Cole suppressed a laugh. He needed Gustafson’s help.
Gustafson couldn’t know that his normal quint didn’t show, and so he continued to work on something in his virtual space. He spoke without looking up. “I want nothing you’re selling.”
“I’m so sorry to bother you, Mr. Gustafson, but I need help.”
“Who are you?” He wore a voice augmenter around his neck, so his speech came out deeper.
Gustafson wouldn’t recognize him.
It never dawned on Cole to consider that, without his quint up and without the automatic greeting interface, even people he was close to might not recognize him right away.
“I’m your neighbor, Cole Westbay. Someone robbed me and disabled my interface. I don’t mean to alarm you, but I have no way to call the police.”
“Disabled? I didn’t know that was possible.” Gustafson didn’t bother hiding his disgust.
The heat rose around Cole’s neck. “I didn’t turn it off, someone else did that for me.” He showed Gustafson the damage on the back of his head.
Bad idea. The gruesome wound would turn most people’s stomachs. Gustafson sucked in a breath.
“Please, I don’t know what else to do. Can you at least call the police for me?”
“It’s done.” Gustafson slammed the door. So much for the sympathy vote.
“Thank you,” Cole shouted through the door. At least Gustafson made the call.
The surreal episode continued uninterrupted.
Burning with shame, Cole returned to his condo and pushed through the broken door. He stopped just inside and surveyed the mess again. Why would anyone break in? He couldn’t remember hearing about a robbery in the last couple of years. Since the Vitasync had gone into widespread use, petty crime had become a thing of the past.
What he wanted to do was crawl into a corner, curl up with an oversized blanket, and make the world go away, but he needed to deal with this mess, this wildly confusing drama.
His assailant did a good job making a shambles of his condo, but they’d left his medicine cabinet alone. Xanapam would bring a high price on the street and would be easy to sell, from what little he knew of such things. Sloppy work for a thief.
A shower sounded fantastic, but the police would be here soon, so he sat on the living room sofa and waited. The headache relented slightly.
With nothing else to do, he racked his brain to remember anything from the recent past. It was like trying to capture a cloud. He had memories of last weekend’s date with Tesla. Pretty sure it was last weekend, anyway. They went out to eat at L’Etoile and then shared drinks with a few friends at a local bistro. They went home early to her house and got cozy.
That memory made him keenly aware of the lack of the Nubo. Ordinarily, he could relive a memory from his lifelog.
Instead, he focused on trying to determine where his memory dropped off.
As far as he knew, nothing like this had happened before. Chips malfunctioned on rare occasions, but there were lots of fail-safes built into the system to warn a customer if something had deteriorated in the chip.
Malfunctions didn’t cause severe memory loss. None of it made any sense.
Eerily quiet, the room provided no distraction. Since he started using the Vitasync ten years ago, he hadn’t been this disconnected. Usually, he would be surfing social media, or watching a movie, or revisiting a memory tranche from his or a friend’s lifelog. And not just that, but he’d lost access to basically everything known to man — how to fix anything, completely trivial tidbits, or historical events back to the stone age. All that knowledge was gone. He felt like a junkie coming down from a bad trip.
Cole was fairly well connected before they invented the chip, having bought into the new wave of augmented reality. He was excited about installing the Vitasync. He had grown accustomed to the Nubo for mundane things. Nobody memorized stuff anymore. Shit! He didn’t know anyone’s contact info. As close as his secretary Kathy and he were, he didn’t know hers. Not even Tesla’s.
Kathy must’ve been missing him. Was this the week of her vacation? Damn, the annoyance.
He shifted, unable to get comfortable on the couch. Where were the police? Why were they taking so long?
He went to the window. The world appeared normal from here but with no augmented reality overlay. The tags, pop-ups, and neon highlights were absent. The city looked undressed.
Scuffling came from the doorway.
He pushed the door open and peered down to find a uniformed policeman standing there, a good six inches shorter than Cole’s six foot four.
The scene was laughable. The cop looked way too young. And the uniform resembled a hand-me-down from the cop’s big brother. The clothes were at least two sizes too big, and the belt stuck out five inches past the buckle. His scuffed shoes and pathetic plastic nametag were icing on the cake.
Had their local police deteriorated this far? Cole didn’t know what to expect, but not this. With hardly any crime, he shouldn’t have been so surprised. Had being a local cop turned into the equivalent of working at a fast-food joint?
No telling how long the cop might’ve been waiting for Cole’s automatic protocol reply.
“Come in, Officer.”
The word “officer” perked him up a little. He tipped his cap and stepped inside. Based on the astonished pout on his face, the scene was apparently not what he was expecting. The look turned to puzzlement, which disappointed Cole. Surely the police could handle a burglary. The police-boy’s reaction left Cole unconvinced.
The officer glared at Cole. “I’m not getting your signal. I need your baseline info for the record.”
“Someone attacked me and damaged my Vitasync. They removed my chip. I’m offline, and I don’t have any backups here.”
The astonished expression returned. “What? I need access to your lifelog.”
“I don’t have access to my lifelog. Everything is down.”
“This is bad.” The policeman shook his head. He started scanning the room with his face, letting his eyes take everything in for the record. “Can you tell me what happened? Start by giving me your name and citizen number.”
“My name is Cole Westbay, and my number is …” Damn it. He couldn’t remember it for the life of him. He kept that kind of stuff on the cloud. His citizen number would be right at the tip of his tongue, a mere thought away.
The young cop glared at him as if Cole were intentionally provoking him.
“I’m afraid I don’t remember it.” The ID card in my back pocket! He pulled out the ID. “I have this, though.” Cole inspected the card, which fortunately contained his citizen number, and then handed it to the cop. By the sneer on the cop’s face, he was still unsatisfied.
“This is very unusual, Mr. Westbay. Just a moment.” The young officer’s eyes darted back and forth as he must have been preparing a contact with his superior — hopefully someone competent.
He put his back to Cole and took a few steps away and began speaking in a hushed tone.
Cole couldn’t make out anything and then the cop got more animated.
“Really. I’m not making this up … yes, sir. Yes, sir. Okay.” He mumbled more before turning back to face Cole. “I have to take you down to the precinct, sir.”
“Well, for starters, you don’t have a lifelog, and from what you told me, it still isn’t active. I’m afraid I have to arrest you.”
On top of everything, this was too much. Cole clenched his fists. He wanted to punch the punk cop, but that would only compound his problems. “Are you fucking kidding me? I get robbed and assaulted, and I’m the one going to jail?”
The police-boy stepped back. “You can take it up with your attorney. Do you understand your rights, or do I need to read them to you?”
“I don’t believe this is happening.” Sudden exhaustion swept over Cole. He got light-headed. Cole sagged onto the couch.
“It’s happening. Let’s not add resisting arrest to the charge.”
“Unbelievable. Fine. Whatever. Obviously, I can’t call an attorney now.”
“There’ll be time once we get to the station.”
“Aren’t you even going to check the apartment for clues?” Cole said, in disbelief.
“Someone is coming over to do that while I book you.” The cop pulled something from his belt.
“You might want to grab a coat.”
February in Wisconsin? Hell yes, he would grab his coat. He found his boots and his parka in the mess and then returned to the living room.
The young officer followed him impatiently. After Cole pulled his boots on, the officer addressed him again, “Please turn around and put your hands behind you.”
“Why?” This was way beyond anything he could even imagine. The ordeal felt like a boxing match, and the blows kept coming.
“Normal procedure,” the cop said.
“I can’t believe this,” Cole blustered in anger.
The policeman held a plastic band about an inch and a half wide and maybe a foot long. He turned Cole around and then placed the strip around Cole’s wrists. The band tightened automatically.
Cole wanted to hide his face somehow. Impossible with his hands behind his back.
“Let’s go, sir.” The boy cop grabbed Cole by the arm to lead him out. “You have the right to remain silent …”