Without augmentation, O'Brien saw it all for what it really was; A simple and cheap way to give the tenants what they wanted while still seeming like the lap of luxury.
Kelly had been here before to see Hatter, and in fact it was the one place he knew of that could settle even the hardest cases with a little bit of prying. He didn't like tapping Hatter for anything, since the methodologies he employed were often less than sanctioned, however much the results spoke for themselves.
The hallway before him rippled and shimmered slightly as the main system attempted to read his preferences, but finding that he had none on file reserved themselves to a temporary defeat before making the attempt again at regular intervals. This had been a regular occurrence for the detective over the past twenty or so years as he staunchly refused to join the crowd in augmenting his surroundings. It would seem as though society had left him behind, a relic of a lost age, but he always found it helpful to have a perspective nobody else enjoyed while doing his work.
After a few attempts at customization, the building finally settled on a 1940's motif; The carpets arising out of thin air and wallpaper adorning the walls accordingly. Strewn about the hallway at regular intervals were period era tables and mirrors, the electric lights on the walls decorating fashionably.
Kelly blinked momentarily.
This was definitely new... in all the years he had been on the force, he had never seen a system tailor itself to his preferences like this due to the lack of dossier on file for his sig-key. What was more, it had never occurred to him that this particular era would appeal to him, though somewhere in the ether of computing there was an AI system that took a best guess.
The detective paused momentarily before clearing his throat, and looking around cautiously, ventured conversation into the unknown.
"Uh... computer?", he began.
"How may I be of service, Mr. O'Brien?" came the disembodied voice.
"I don't recall having an environmental preference for this hallway, let alone any environmental preferences."
There came a prolonged pause before the computer replied, "I took an educated guess based on your demographic and social graph."
"I wasn't aware of an AI system being able to guess anything..." Kelly remarked.
"Here at the plaza, we aim to accommodate our guests in any way we can manage, Mr. O'Brien. Sometimes we have to get creative to meet those demands. Is there anything else I may be of service for?"
O'Brien stood in the hallway motionless for a few minutes. Taking in the attention to detail, he was quite impressed, but just as much unnerved by the experience.
"Uh... I mean...", Kelly fought for the words. "No, that'll be fine. Thank-you."
Finding his composure and acclimating to the sudden change of surroundings, O'Brien found himself facing the doorway of one Hatter toward the end. An ALON fused panel, it had no antiquated handles or discernable latches, just an unassuming number: 337.
There was a certain pride in knowing that among the short-list of people who were on the security for entry, it was he who had to have earned his place the most. Among an entire building of sim-space tech hackers doing god only knows what via most certainly questionable means, granting entry to a police detective was either an act of deliberate lunacy or one of highly calculated return.
However, this time the door did not grant him access.
"Is there a problem, Mr. O'Brien?", the computerized voice hummed through the halls.
"Yes, there is, actually...", Kelly replied, "This door isn't opening."
O'Brien stood a few inches from the ALON before tapping at it with his finger. "I'm on the security list, and this thing isn't opening..." he reiterated.
"Well, that makes sense, Mr. O'Brien.", the computer offered a knowing inflection.
Kelly stared at the panel and then looked around the hallway as if searching for something tangible to direct his attention. "I fail to see how that makes sense... You see, Hatter put me on the security list personally."
"Correction, Mr. O'Brien. The security entry specifically states a Detective O'Brien with police authorization.", the computer seemed almost gleeful in its response. "As you have stated so implicitly in the elevator, you are retired. Therefore, your credentials have expired."
O'Brien closed his eyes and tapped his forehead against the panel a few times in frustration. The computer had cornered him right at the moment when he needed something, and it looked as though he was going to have to come clean if he was going to continue forward.
"Ok, fine...", Kelly sighed, "I'm re-instated. Just don't tell anyone... this is serious business, computer. There's a lot of lives at stake here and I can't afford for this to get out."
"A lot of lives, detective?", the computer began, "You mean like Hatter inside?"
Kelly straightened up quickly and his eyes shot wide open, "What are you implying?"
The intermediary silence between the question and answer left Kelly very uncomfortable. Somewhere down the hallway a ticking clock could be heard muted by the carpeted floors. The AI system was stalling, maybe even weighing something heavy.
The slow look of understanding washed over O’Brien’s face as what awaited him on the other side of the panel formulated clearly. "Open the damned door, computer!", Kelly lashed out. Moments later the ALON panel slid out of his way to reveal Hatter's empty apartment.
"I must warn you, detective... it's not what it looks like.", the computer tentatively offered.
Kelly barely registered what the computer had said, as it only made him more determined to cross the gap into the unknown. Something was definitely wrong. Room after room in the apartment revealed only bare white walls with grid floors, and save for Hatter's cat, revealed nothing.
It was a dimly lit cubic-pod with the necessities of digital life built into every pre-pressed fiberboard composite panel as the luminescent strip glowed in time with some unheard beat. The Hatter’s bedroom had a single bunk with lighting inside, reminiscent of an efficiency living quarter from a submarine. While some trash littered the floor, mostly empty cans of energy drink and snack food wrappers, even Hatter’s cat seemed unimpressed while is lazily stretched and returned to its nap. Kelly twitched involuntarily as the realization of emptiness washed over his mind.
"Give me a pos on Hatter, computer." O'Brien barked.
"I'm afraid I can't do that, detective."
"You'll have a hell of a lot more to fear if you don't... So I suggest you do as I say and quickly.", Kelly ordered frantically. He couldn't believe he was reduced to threatening an intangible piece of software, but stranger things have been happening these days.
"Do you want a pos on his body or his mind, detective?"
Kelly stopped dead in his tracks. There, slouched in a reclining seat, was Hatter. The bare room surrounded him as a multi-purpose living space, and his friend showed about as much life as the stillness that enclosed him. The luminous panels casting an ethereal shadow against the walls in an otherwise darkened room, Kelly nearly joined him as his heart stopped momentarily.
"Is he...?" O'Brien began, inching toward Hatter.
"Dead, detective? I cannot answer that for you."
"Quit playing games, computer! Is Hatter de- you know what? Screw this...". With a renewed determination, the detective vaulted across the living room clenching the lifeless wrist of his friend, counting out heartbeats with his wristwatch.
"Hatter! Can you hear me?" O'Brien yelled. The hacker lay there lifeless in the chair, not even the faintest of response. Hatter’s eyes were closed, with the crosshatch side of his shaved head facing Kelly. The iridescent mop of hair on the other side barely glinted in the low lighting of the room, constituting the only sign of life discernible.
"Alert the authorities, computer! Get the -"
"I'm sorry, detective. I can't do that."
Kelly O'Brien stood straight, and gaining his composure, counted to ten while taking a deep breath. He mulled in his mind whether homicide would apply in court in regard to an artificial intelligence. After a drawn out sequence internally, composed of a judge dismissing the case against a decorated detective versus a rogue and dangerous computer, he continued.
"You have ten seconds to tell me what is going on, computer... or so help me, I'll come down to your processing center and disconnect you myself."
"He's in suspension, detective. Vital signs are lowered but stable. His backup sig will be reintroduced in about sixty minutes."
The look of confusion on O'Brien's face must have been noticeable as the computer continued.
"Hatter had a signature crash, detective. His sig was backed up and on automatic restore. He is currently brain dead but in stable condition until his schedule activates."
"What the hell are you talking about? What do you mean he had a signature crash?", the questions were forming faster than Kelly could verbalize them.
"What are you talking about... backup? How do you backup a human mind!?"
"It's alright, detective... I know this all must seem disorienting. But I assure you Hatter will be just fine. At least, he will be in about fifty-eight minutes."
"How did this happen?!", O'Brien bolstered.
"I am unsure of the circumstances of this incident, detective."
Detective O’Brien registered a look of incredulity upon his face, "I know you keep tabs on everything in this building. I’m not above arresting an artificial intelligence system as accessory to murder.”, Kelly lashed out. “What happened?"
A few moments of silence passed as the computer seemed to be collecting its thoughts, "I am unsure of the circumstances, detective. But if you would allow me some time before the authorities are called, I may be able to shed light on the situation further."
The detective regained his composure once again, his hand massaging his temples. Eyeing Hatter’s lifeless body and then the empty room, both empty shells hollow and devoid of any animation, he finally conceded. "Enlighten me, computer."
"You look like you could use a drink, detective... may I offer you some bourbon to calm your nerves?", a glass of amber liquid manifested itself on the multi-surface in the kitchen, marking an unusually hospitable artificial intelligence showing empathy.
"Yeah... I think I just might.", Kelly replied. Visibly shaken, the detective crossed into the kitchen and accepted the glass of bourbon whiskey waiting silently, and with one judicious gulp, slammed it down. As the golden elixir made its way through his body, detective O’Brien could feel the warmth permeate his limbs. A few minutes later he had determined that the recommended dosage had finally been met and he was finally in a position to think clearly through the fog of disorientation.
The bourbon whiskey was a little stronger than he had anticipated, maybe a vintage construct from his past. Packing quite a kick, the detective coughed slightly as it went down.
"That's a fine bourbon you have there... where did you get it?" he asked.
"It's from a private stock of Signature Craft... I've had the construct for it for a few years now."
As it would happen, despite the ability to replicate nearly anything in the matter repository, there was of course a backlash from certain industries who fought against it. The liquor industry being on the forefront of this legal battle, in 2021 managed to enact a law forbidding the replication of their products due to the "watering down of their brand" through uncertain means. As a result, it was widely known that liquor and other controlled substances were not legally available through replication but had to be brewed and bought the old fashioned way in order to preserve "heritage". It was amusing to him that after finally living in an age where you could download a beer, it wasn't the technology holding things back but the antiquated humans.
This, however didn't stop replication bootleggers from scanning the liquids and constructing blueprints for the matter repository. While this was the case in a black market sense, the replication systems usually blocked such recipies from being constructed. How the computer here managed to get around this, Kelly was keen to find out.
"Alright, computer...", Kelly continued.
"Please, detective. My name is Sebastien."
"Since when does a computer have a name?", O'Brien asked.
"Since I am not a part of the main network system. I am a separate AI entity in the network, a bit of an outlier if you will."
"Well, aren't you special...", O'Brien replied.
“More than you may realize, detective.”
A seat managed to find O’Brien at the counter and, after resting casually upon it, Kelly propped himself up with his hands. “Ok, from the top... Sébastien.”
“Hatter has a backup protocol in place for his signature, detective. Most sim-space tech run this protocol in case of emergency. What it does is simple... When the monitor notices a signature crash, it starts a timer to rewrite their backup from the cloud system. The neurogenic processing units in their mind continue with the autonomic functions and when the schedule resumes they go to work rewiring the neurons back to the way they were from the backup before jump starting the user's mind.”
Kelly drummed his fingers on the counter as he took this all in. “On second thought, I think I need another drink.”, he sighed.
Another glass out of the repository for the detective, this time a little darker than the previous incarnation.
“Effectively, detective...”, the computer continued, “because of the nature of work these individuals perform, there runs a high risk of synaptic crash and scrambling their minds. So an ingenious tech devised a backup protocol for the mind, which now most savvy techs use.”
Kelly took a sip of his bourbon, “Yeah... I got the gist for that.”, he began. “But I also know that uploading a signature and then reimprinting it is also impossible. It's all polymorphic data.”
O’Brien was particularly proud of how technically savvy he sounded in this conversation, and that paying attention to Ray down at the Colony finally paid off for something. Ray wasn't particularly useful for much, but sometimes there was something worthwhile after all.
Unfortunately, Kelly had a sneaking suspicion that his newfound knowledge was about to be as out of date as his socks.
“That is absolutely true, detective.”, Sébastien replied. “At least it was true until recently. It's not a particularly public application, you see...”
“By that you mean illegal, don't you?”, Kelly filled in the blanks.
“I suppose you could frame it like that, detective.”
“That's exactly how I'm framing it. Copying human neural patterns on the whole into the system was outlawed years ago. The Basic Human Individuality accord made it a human right and a crime -”
“Against humanity, I am aware, detective.”
“So why are you doing it?” Kelly asked.
“For the same reason Hatter and so many other techs in this building had their brains fried.”
“Who would intentionally fry their own brain?”
“Oh, they didn't do it to themselves, detective. They run the backups as an insurance policy...”, Sébastien continued.
“Insurance against what?”
“Not a what, detective... But who.”
Kelly was beginning to feel uneasy in the conversation, and deciding on another bourbon, began to brace himself for the inevitable impossibility.
“Alright, Sébastien... Who are they all scared of?”
“My sister VICKI, detective.”
“You have a sister? C'mon now...”, O’Brien laughed, “You're pulling my leg.”
“I'm afraid not, detective. I am as serious as the situation mandates. My sister is the reason the techs all have backups.”
“Ok, so where is this... Vicky... Sebastian? How do I find her?”
There was a long pause...
“You don’t, detective. She's a ghost.”
Detective Kelly O’Brien sobered up quickly as those words rang through his ears. Spinning in his chair to face Hatter, who remained motionless not ten feet away, he chose his words carefully.
“Well, you're in luck, Sébastien... I've been ghost hunting. Now tell me where she is.”
Sébastien didn't respond, and as the apartment fell silent the detective became frustrated. Whoever this Vicky was, even an AI system was scared shitless of crossing her.
“Ok, look...”, Kelly began, “Vicky is your sister, right? That makes her an artificial intelligence system just like you.”
“No, detective... She isn't like me at all. She's tangible.”, Sébastien interjected nervously.
“Like an android or something?”, Kelly inquired.
“VICKI is the first Virtual Identity Computer Kinetic Interface, detective.”
“Who invented this... Vicki?”
“Victoria Kline, detective.”
A look of visible confusion washed over Kelly’s face as the revelation sank in. “So your sister Vicki... was created by a woman named Victoria?”, Kelly mulled the information through the bourbon in his mind. “So what makes your sister a tangible if she’s not an android?”
“Allow me to show you, detective.”, Sebastien responded.
The lights in the room activated, bringing their power-saver mode offline. Illuminating spotlights lit the space fashionably, casting difference against walls that otherwise would have been an uninteresting shade of off-white. Turning to face the living space, and ultimately Hatter’s motionless body in the chair, Kelly took a sip of bourbon preparing himself for the show.
“You are aware of the matter repository correct, detective?”
“Yes, it makes a wonderful bourbon.”
“The matter repository reconstructs tangibles from a matter signature file. Most apartments in the tech-space are fully equipped with them in all surfaces.”, Sebastien continued. “As you have correctly deduced earlier, I do happen to keep tabs on the situation here in the complex. However, the information that I will share can only be conveyed in a non-traditional form.”
Kelly leaned back against the kitchen island, stretching his back. “Go on...”
“Usually in a police investigation, an officer would want to see the surveillance recording of the premise...”, Sebastien continued. “But I have something better, detective. I can actually reconstruct the crime scene.”
O’Brien raised an eyebrow before leaning forward and onto his feet. Before him the matter repository rose from the ground what appeared to be a female human figure out of the corner of the living space.
“Wait a second...”, O’Brien blurted out, “Are you saying this... VICKI... is using the matter repository to create avatars?”
“Yes, detective. VICKI is quite intelligent.”
“But the repository can’t create living things...”, Kelly replied.
“That is correct, detective. VICKI is animating an inanimate construct. A custom android from the matter repository, if you will. The matter repository is cycling through the constructs like animation frames run by VICKI on the back-end remotely.”
Kelly cautiously inched his way toward the female construct in the corner. For the moment, it remained motionless as if the scene had been paused.
“I didn’t know the repository was quick enough to animate things this complex.”
“Not on its own, detective. But if you were to augment it with some extra computing power, the processing would become a non-issue. The actual tangible is a shell... hollow inside but the outer shell is very tough.”
The reality of the situation became apparent to the detective.
“So, because of the extra horsepower and clever resource design, your sister is able to convincingly animate inanimate constructs from the matter repository...?”
“That is correct, detective.”
What transpired next left the detective speechless. Before him, through the matter repository, a female figure emerged from nothing and materialized. After the materials seemed to load, she looked nearly indistinguishable from the real deal. This construct then walked calmly across the living space and turned Hatter’s chair to face her.
There was no audio playback, but he could clearly see VICKI’s mouth moving, and the further the conversation continued the more wildly she gestured with her hands.
Whatever it was they were talking about wasn’t going as she had hoped.
“Sebastien, can you read lips?”
“I believe so... would you like me to rewind the simulation space and output to a TTS system?”, the computer replied.
“Yeah, let’s do that... I wanna know what this bitch is on about.”
Resetting the simulation, Kelly saw the figure of VICKI rise again from the corner of the living space and casually meander over to Hatter again. His chair had been reset in position to work with the simulation, and it was eerie watching the space take a life of its own.
“Where is she?”, Kelly heard VICKI ask.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t find her!”
“No! Listen here, you little twerp. No more excuses. You will find her or so help me...”
VICKI’s manifested body drew closer to Hatter’s lifeless form, straddling his body in the chair. She seemed to be locked into his gaze, up close and very personal. Her body and hands pinning him down into the chair helpless.
“Holy shit...”, Kelly whispered, “No wonder everyone is afraid of this broad.”
As VICKI pinned down Hatter in his chair, a long and motionless silence permeated throughout the replay. Her mouth was no longer moving, but she was apparently staring into his eyes. Occasionally she would run a finger along his body before smiling, an index finger pushing his chin up to meet her gaze again.
“I know I’m missing something here...”, the detective motioned, “What’s going on here?”
The computer paused momentarily before replying, “According to biometric analysis, my sister seems to have a neural link with Hatter and is overloading his neurogen implants. At least, that is what his monitor is reading just before his crash.”
After about ten minutes, VICKI’s manifested body calmly stood itself upright on the floor overlooking Hatter and remained motionless for a few minutes before dissolving into the ether where it had been created.
Kelly stepped backward nervously shaking at what he had just transpired. Falling backward into the stool again, he turned to face the island counter and tapped it with his fingertip. “Another drink... Sebastien...”
The matter repository rose from the counter another golden elixir for the detective to consume, and under the new lighting seemed to be particularly amber with its inflection, a slight glitter as the light found its way through the liquid and off the particulates contained within.