Obviously, my next stop would have to be Gary Lester’s residence. It was well past lunchtime at that point, but I just couldn’t leave a lead like that hanging. Apparently, working on the penthouse floor didn’t necessarily come with the privilege of living there, because he lived about 30 floors down. Instead of walking all the way back to the central elevators, I caught a ride on one closer to the outer wall, hopefully, I could save myself another long walk.
According to the LPD files, Lester had dropped off the grid somewhat, at least physically. No one had seen him in months, but his online accounts were still active, and he was still listed as an employee of the company, so he hadn’t been fired. It wasn’t all that strange, considering that programming is certainly a job you could do from home, but the timing seemed suspicious to me.
I arrived at his floor after another nearly hour-long elevator ride, which I mostly spent lamenting the fact that, according to his file, the suspect lived in the basement of a pad repair shop near the central elevators. I hadn’t saved myself a walk at all. Lester’s floor was not nearly as soothingly grimy as my own. In fact, I was surprised at how much nicer it was than mine, but anything was better than the cold, sterilized luxury that was the penthouse floors. However, I did catch a glimpse of genuine sunlight through someone’s open door as I was passing, so I knew we must have been just above the cloud layer. Sunlight never got through to my place, after all.
Lester’s residence had a stairwell leading down to it on the outside of the shop, so I didn’t have to bother going through the trouble of convincing anyone upstairs to let me in. The naked bulb at the top of the stairs had long blown out, and I thought about citing the owner for negligence just for annoying me. I rounded the corner at the bottom and knocked on the door. To my surprise, it slowly swung open.
The apartment was dark, with the faint light from the neon ads outside barely reaching past the threshold. I entered cautiously, drawing my gun and flipping the switch on its integrated flashlight. The cold beam of light showed me scores of empty delivery boxes that were stacked nearly to the ceiling, and there was no furniture other than a fold-out table and a single chair. I also noticed a faint hum coming from somewhere in the second room. I hadn’t expected this kind of squalor. Maybe down on my floor, but not up here. I crossed the room and pushed the door open with my free hand. That’s when I found Gary Lester.
Laying there on the discolored mattress he looked like a corpse, smelled like one too, but I could barely see his chest rising and falling. Very slowly, as if he were asleep or in a coma. His body looked fragile, emaciated, and deathly pale. He was dressed in a tank top and pair of boxers that both looked as though they had once been white, but had been stained and faded into a wretched brownish-grey. The body was bathed in blue light from a pair of softly glowing VR goggles wrapped around his face, their cables slithering out from the back of his skull and across the floor into the darkness.
I recognized a Nethead when I saw one and I didn’t think I would be able to get any answers out of him here. Typically, if you pull their plug a Nethead will either scream uncontrollably or just attack you on the spot. They didn’t usually enjoy being confronted with our reality. It was painful for them once they had gotten to a certain point. I was going to have to go meet him in his reality.
I had always hated VR. Its vibrant colors gave me a headache, and there was no sense of weight to anything so I always thought it felt like a cheap cardboard playground. I knew that this time it was going to be worse too because there was no spare set of goggles that I could find. That meant jacking into the cerebral interface sockets of my neural implants, which I had heard could be rather painful.
Using my pad as a sort of neutral meeting ground, and firewall, between my mind and his, I finished connecting everything together. It took about fifteen minutes, and I found that I still had Banks’ dead pad in my pocket. I didn’t think Lester would mind if I charged it up while we had a chat. To my surprise, plugging a cable directly into my brain wasn’t actually painful at all. However, the sudden shock to my nervous system and violent warping of my reality was…unpleasant. I felt my body collapse to the floor as I stood there and watched my world melt away.
In the darkness before me, colored sand began to rain down. It piled up and formed into the shape of a new world. One built on images of a land long gone from this Earth. The black void above brightened into a glaring blue sky, as infinite emerald hills rolled out as far as I could see. A log cabin stood close by, nestled in a small grove made up of repeated copies of the same tall old pine tree.
I entered the cabin and there sat Gary Lester, in front of a falsely cozy fire. The interrogation program on my pad was set to project a safe, soothing environment. I didn’t think I needed to start him out on the full prison-camp settings. He was clothed in a white t-shirt, faded jeans, and he looked much healthier than he did in real life. His face was round and happy and bearded. The dark hair that had been wild and unkempt back in the real was now pulled back neatly into a ponytail. He turned in his chair to face me as I entered.
“Why did you bring me here?” He asked. “I recognized the LPD cyber-interrogation and avatar-seizure programs, so I know it must be important.”
“You don’t know? Andrew Banks has been killed, and I have been told that the two of you had a fight some time ago.” I told him.
“Andrew is dead? What happened?” His eyes widened in shock when he heard the news.
“I’m working on finding that out. How bad was the fight? Did it get physical?”
“No, not at all. I’d never hurt Andrew, he was basically my only friend.” A look of genuine pain crept to his face, and he turned his eyes to the floor.
“So what, he didn’t want you to get hooked on VR and throw away your life in favor a fake one?”
“You sound just like him, you know. I had nothing out there. One friend. No family. No girlfriend. Just meaningless stuff in my apartment and meaningless nights out at the bars. In here, with what I know, I am like a god. People come to me for everything. This fake world is more real to me than your world ev-”
“Wait, wait.” I held up my hand to stop him. “Had Banks been seeing anyone recently? Is there anyone else he was close to?” Lester’s talk of a girlfriend had given my brain a jolt. I had been too focused on him as the killer.
“No, not recently. I think he said that his last relationship ended pretty roughly, about two years ago.”
“Do you have a name for this girlfriend, or do you know why they stopped seeing each other?”
“Her name was Doroteya Prescott, but he was pretty quiet about their relationship. I don’t know what happened between them. Apparently, she is some higher-up management exec, and they were keeping it on the D.L. Something about company rules and guidelines.” He punctuated his statement with a heavy shrug.
“Did Banks ever tell you about any money problems?”
“Yeah. Andrew made me swear to keep everything a secret, but I suppose that doesn’t matter now. He told me that he had been visiting the lower levels for years, spending his family’s fortune on, well, regular sexual services.” He squirmed uncomfortably in his seat.
“And that was enough to wipe him out?” I inquired.
“No, not entirely. A week ago he found me in a chat room and told me that someone was blackmailing him. He didn’t say who. He said they were asking for more than he could afford, and that they said he should just skim some off the top of the company’s accounts.” Lester started to look nervous.
“Did Banks say anything else in that chatroom? Anything at all?” It sounded like Lester was possibly the last person that the victim contacted before he died.
“Well, he mentioned in passing that some of his implants were acting up, so I pointed him to a site that develops diagnostic and stress-testing software. It’s super useful for tune-ups.”
“Which implants did he mention?”
“Just that his ocular overlays were glitching out, and some minor coordination problems in his hand prosthetics. Why? Does that have something to do with his death?”
“Just trying to be thorough.” I had briefly thought that perhaps those glitches were evidence of early intrusions by the hacker. Just another dead end.
I asked several follow up questions, but Gary didn’t have anything else of note to tell me. I thanked him for his cooperation and sent him back into the Extranet. Back into his virtual life. I awoke in the real laying in his dark, bare apartment next to his stinking, lifeless body. It might as well have been a corpse, considering how much its owner cared about it. My head felt like someone had tried to burn a hole through it, and pulling the cords out of my skull didn’t exactly feel pleasant either. At least I knew where I had to go next because chances are always good that the ex is behind it. But I cared a bit more about my body than Lester cared about his, and I needed some food first.