The Perfect Union of Julianna

L Chan

Illustration by Alex Maniezo

Plebiscite votes for 11th May

Weather: Fair, with passing showers (731 / 269)

Starred Food: Artisan Nasi Lemak, sous vide beef shin Rendang (650 / 350)

Water: Sparkling, hint of cucumber (823 / 177)

At precisely 10:27 a.m., while Julianna was getting into her headspace for her booked meat gig, the Arcology Police initiated panic room protocol in her tiny apartment, electronic deadbolts slamming home across windows and the fire exit. She barely had time to set her screen down on the table, place her coffee mug down and carefully place both hands behind her head before the fuzz bots burst in through the door, grabbed her by the back of her head and slammed her face into the table, shattering her nose.

Except it wasn’t her nose, not really. The nose belonged to the Rig, and the Rig belonged to the Arcology. Her own body, if she remembered correctly, was in long term storage. Low energy, low space storage. More importantly, low carbon footprint. With the rent on her coffin, there was just enough left for personal carbon tax, some black market bootlegged cooking modules and she was off. It was all about the hustle when you were running gigs, booking orders. Just enough to scrape by, since the state taxed you for simply breathing. Fucking carbon tax. As though the Plebiscite’s Arcology wasn’t belching out a city’s worth of carbon.

Right about now, she should have been in a kitchen, packing fresh beef in thick plastic to be rendered by hot water until the fat ran clear and meat fell apart at the touch. Instead she was seated in a featureless room, in front of a table with peeling laminate, shackled to a rusty bench. Julianna tested the integrity of her nose with her free hand and it wobbled distressingly. Pain receptors were dialled back on Rigs, if she felt it, a flesh and blood human would be floored by the pain. The door to the room opened and a man strode into the room. He was Arcology appropriate, a solid seven out of ten, movie extra pretty; the Arcology operated on Hollywood rules, everybody in the background had to be good looking, but only the Plebs got the movie star rated Rigs.

The man set a file on the table and cleared his throat. He was dressed according to Arcology rules, which meant shirtsleeves rolled up to show lightly muscled forearms, drab trousers, lanky in a way that put Julianna in mind of a long-necked musical instrument. A leather holster went over his shoulder and a gun peeked out from under his arm. That was where the illusion blipped, no ancient revolver butt peaked from the holder; something altogether more modern, an oversized cylinder, loaded up with something esoteric. She heard the cops dealing with Rig crime had these little hunter-killer bullets, a micro-EMP burst that could wipe out all the electronics in a Rig and set up a feedback loop enough to travel all the way up the wire to where Julianna’s real meat lay wired up in her six by two foot immersion chamber, and scramble her brains into oatmeal. The man hadn’t said a word all the time he’d been in the room.

‘What have I been charged with, detective?’ asked Juliana.

‘Quick to assume I’m a detective,’ observed the man.

‘All your cops are robots, so you’re either a detective or a prosecutor. And the gun doesn’t scream prosecutor to me.’

‘Observant. You’d make a good detective. You can call me Fitz.’

‘I’ll stick with being a chef, thanks. Why the fuck did your fuzz bots bust up my nose? I wasn’t resisting.’

The detective looked uncomfortable. ‘They’re running off an old algorithm. Afraid the brutality was baked in. You have bigger problems. Like the murder of a voting member of the Plebiscite.’

He rotated the case file to face her; the corners of the file were crisp and sharp. A fresh case.

The thing about running meat gigs down in the Arcology was this – you left your meat up topside where it cost to exhale, where the air felt greasy and stung your eyes and you got to spend time in a Rig in paradise, in a body whose teeth hadn’t been eaten away by whatever leaked into the water supply; whose joints didn’t scream. The Arcology wanted to lord over their servants, but wanted nothing so crass as having the flotsam and jetsam of their shipwreck of a planet actually enter paradise. So, Julianna had to commute, to send her consciousness down the wire to work. The coffin topside was all paid for by the company that ran the gigs of course. She could have been doing Indonesian food one day, grilling turmeric flavoured chicken satay; the next she’d be pinching eighteen precise crimps into xiao long bao before she loaded them up into bamboo steamers. But she had to travel light – she could access motor function, augmented by the contraband modules she’d installed on the Rig, but no baggage. No childhood memories, no school, no bitter exes. Throttled retrograde amnesia, they called it. Spend too long in your Rig, you’d lose the ability to recall even when you got back to your own body. At least, that’s what the old timers told her. Julianna had been down here so long that she couldn’t even remember her training or her first gig. Full circle then, evicted from her own mind, courtesy of the Arcology.

But there were some things you didn’t forget. Like when she flipped open the front cover of the file and stared down at a picture of her own murdered body.

Plebiscite votes for 12th May

Weather: Overcast, windy (509 / 491)

Starred Food: Beef Wellington, Wagyu A5, Porcini Duxelle, rustic artichokes with balsamic reduction. (899 / 101)

Water: Mountain spring (640 / 360)

‘Again,’ said Fitz, whose full name, against all expectations, was Fitzroy Chung, although his Rig was factory standard Caucasian.

‘On the tenth of May, I finished my gig as sous chef at Restaurant Thirteen. It was a lucky gig, the regular guy had problems topside, connectivity issues. We were doing a full autumnal kaiseki spread and the chef was expected to explain the tasting notes of each course. Which Robert couldn’t do if he was glitching out every five minutes. So I put in the bid at my regular rate. The Plebs—’

Fitz’s nose crinkled at the pejorative for the owners of the Arcology. The voting public, the Plebiscite, the thousand tech bro billionaires who opted to live in an underground bunker the size of a small town and governed through an anonymous blockchain mediated voting system. In a slight twist of fate, they’d opted to go full Luddite on the outlook of this particular Arcology, which was why everything looked like previous century 50’s suburban chic. The rich cosplayed the middle class while the poor transmigrated their souls from hell above to heaven below to eke out a living.

‘Could have been a spot fine. First and only warning.’

‘You gonna ticket me for hurting people’s feelings on top of framing me for murder?’

‘Not framing. Investigating.’ Fitz had a rapid-fire, two-finger typist cadence to his speech, but he drew out the word investigating; rolled it around in his mouth like he was trying to suck the emphasis out of the italics in his speech.

‘Sorry then. The Voting Citizens stayed late, way beyond my gig slot, but they were paying overtime so I stayed.’

Fitz checked his notes. ‘And then on your way home, you dialled out of your Rig, handing over control to your illegal co-lessee. The next morning you woke up and were placed under arrest.’

‘Did you write down that they broke my nose? Am I free to go yet, there may still be some line chef gigs up for grabs.’

‘It would be helpful if you gave me a name, an ID. Hell, even a media handle.’

‘Come on detective, you pay rent on that Rig?’

‘It’s department property.’

‘Then you don’t know what it’s like. Look, the Rigs don’t get tired, they don’t need sleep. It’s just a way to split the rent. I don’t know who rents the Rig with me, except they’ve got rated well on the tenant forums, the money comes through escrow on time and they’ve never messed up our Rig. Not one fucking scratch in two years.’

She glared at the detective. It was an old habit. Rigs were mostly cloned flesh, but with some enhancements, some cut corners. Like not blinking.

‘A neural fingerprint, Julianna. No two sets of brain waves are alike. It’s what lets me into my Rig, it authenticates the votes of the Plebiscite. And it does simpler things, like IDs people that sneak back into restaurants.’

They’d gone over this dance a dozen times. The cuff around her wrist had rubbed skin red and raw; the cortical collar around her neck locked her into her connection, trapping her in the Arcology while her body marinated in a box topside. Fitz continued, ‘Surveillance and the ID in the system only shows this Rig, and you, Julianna Huang. Chances of a mismatch are one in one hundred and forty billion.’

‘It doesn’t matter how many times you do this, detective. I’ve told you nothing but the truth.’

Fitz rubbed at his temples, thumb indenting skin in small circles. He whispered a series of numbers. The cuffs sprang free. ‘Hands behind your back,’ he said. Julianna complied, and the cuffs went back on. Fitz dangled a small metallic tube in front of her face. ‘Fail-safe. You get further than fifty metres from this, your collar goes off. This gets more than fifty metres from me, your collar goes off. If I die, it goes off. If I am in sufficient distress, it goes off. Need me to repeat the terms and conditions?’ She shook her head.

He led her through an open door, down a bare corridor and through an office. The office was hazy with cigarette smoke, filled with the clack of typewriters tapping out reports and greasy with the stink of sweat and grime. And all the officers at their desks looked identical to Fitz, barely visible differences in hairstyle, a tattoo here and there, or the level of stubble. One smiled at her, and he was missing two teeth. ‘You’d think with the detail they put into the aesthetics of this place, they’d at least allow for choice in your Rigs,’ she said. ‘Or made them better looking.’

The detective grabbed a hat from a hatstand that was nothing but identical hats and pulled Julianna out of the station. The wind whipped Julianna’s hair across her face, she blinked and shook her head, noting the position of that one ominous cloud in the sky that never shifted from its position. Local legend had it that the cloud obscured a patch of burnt out pixels in the sky, and savvier inhabitants of the Arcology could map their location by the relative position of the cloud. Unnecessary, perhaps, unless you were cut off from all network services. Fitz put two fingers in his mouth and whistled, a car rolled up. In make and vintage, it harked to everything else in the Arcology, save for the soft whine of a flywheel and the buzz of an electric motor.

‘To the murder scene,’ he said.

Restaurant Thirteen was still made up to look authentically Japanese, all dark wood and tatami flooring. Except the crime scene hadn’t been cleared yet, the victim was kneeling at the table, still wearing conservative business dress, a pin-striped pant suit, slim cut; collar loosened for an evening of business and pleasure. Except it was face down on the table, the burn marks at the back of its neck obvious. Desperate hands had knocked over a ceramic tokkuri and several glasses; scattered seven spice powder across the teak table like dried blood. Which was strangely lacking for a murder scene.

‘So it was a Rig?’

‘Decay sets in a little later for Rigs. Madame Jay, tech billionaire and your murder victim.’

It hadn’t sunk in throughout Julianna’s interrogation, partly because she’d never seen the face of the owner of the digital ecosystem that ran her life, partly because she’d never never seen Madame Jay’s face before. Like most celebrities, Madame Jay invested in a Mask, a service that gave her a digital overlay on any licensed piece of recording equipment in the Arcology. Julianna had always thought Madame Jay perfect and elegant; high cheekbones and a perfect asymmetrical bob haircut. Now she looked like a slightly doughier version of how Julianna remembered herself; plain face, snub nosed and unkempt eyebrows. And very dead, of course.

‘Strange that the single largest employer in the Arcology is lying dead in front of me. If this was a Rig, why didn’t she just log out?’

Fitz pulled out a chair and sat next to the corpse. ‘Someone highly trained locked down her connection, blocked the evacuation code, overcame two bodyguard platforms and—’ The detective turned the head of the corpse unceremoniously, brushing hair up to reveal the nape of Madame Jay’s neck, on which lay a quartet of raised weals, burn wounds. ‘The killer piggybacked an external kill switch virus on the evacuation code, Madame Jay’s cortex burned out in her home.

‘Now I know you’ve got the wrong suspect, detective. I’m just a chef. I bid for a gig for the day. I get a brief, a backstory. I do my hair and face and I pretend to be whoever the Plebiscite wants me to be. Overworked line chef holding down two jobs; Michelin starred wunderkid; unpolished gem of a home cook. You name it, I’ve done it. What I’ve not done is been an assassin.’

Fitz reached into the inner pocket of his coat, treating Julianna to another look at his anachronistic firearm; sandalwood grips and those tiny hunter-killer rounds, and drew out a dog eared spiral notebook. He laid it on the table and flipped it to the last page, the page synced back to a server and information began to populate the paper. Julianna took a seat and he spun the notebook to face her. Rows upon rows of Rig specs lined the page, all in neat spidery handwriting. The detective could have gone for normal OEM font but apparently he was a details kind of guy, the corner of Julianna’s mouth twitched. ‘What should I be looking for?’

‘Specs. Scanned you when we brought you in. Now we’ve got you down for some petty unlicensed mods to your Rig, hand-eye coordination, enhanced palate, miscellaneous cooking stuff.’ His finger travelled down the page. ‘Here’s where it gets interesting. Rig hacking. Advanced security bypass skills. Marksmanship. Hand to hand combat. Do a little corporate wet work on the side, Julianna?’

‘Somehow I don’t think you would have brought me out here alone if you thought I was a corporate assassin.’

‘No. I needed to see you here. Watch you move. You’re not the killer. You’ve got the killer’s body though.’

Julianna sat down heavily. She was two days back on rent. Her ratings on the meat gig app would be plummeting. All this because the Plebs voted for Japanese food. Otherwise she wouldn’t be in this restaurant, wired up for a signal to travel up the network topside and fry her brain. Damn Plebs and their nonsense. It was a scam, but it was the only game in town. Them and their stupid votes. If they hadn’t wanted the star meal of the day to be what it was, maybe Julianna wouldn’t even have been in a position to be an accessory to murder. Just like that, it clicked for her, something had been there all along, a feature of the background scenery. The pair had been so busy anguishing over a single tree that they’d not noticed the forest. Or rather, not noticed the forest was exactly as it had been before.

‘The Plebs—’ Fitz winced, thin-skinned pedant that he was. ‘How does their vote work again?’

‘I don’t see how that’s relevant.’

‘Humour me,’ Julianna said.

‘Just like it says on the brochure. The Arcology is their techno-utopia. The Plebiscite are both the governed and the governors. Every decision on a public ledger, authenticated by their voting token, matched against their neural ID. Every decision of note is voted upon by the thousand of them and executed without question by the Arcology AI. The Arcology is a sealed system, all labour supplied by Rigs housed here, but remotely operated through the gig applications like the one you have. That clear enough for you?’

‘Crystal. It just occurred to me that we need to go to Madam Jay’s house.’

If Fitz was offended at Julianna’s contribution to the inquiry, he hid it well. ‘Why?’

‘Well, she has access to the meat gig servers as the CEO. So we can find who else has been in this Rig, and there’s your murderer. And one more mystery to solve.’

The detective leaned towards her and looked her in the eye. ‘What’s that?’

‘If Madame Jay is dead, why is the full Plebiscite still voting?’

Plebiscite votes for 13th May

Weather: Stormy, heavy showers (547 / 453)

Starred Food: Balinese Babi Guling, Iawar and blood sausage (724 / 276)

Water: Pure distilled (910 / 90)

The wind whipped Julianna’s hair across her face. Fitz had brought a tan trench coat from the office. The oversized garment smelled of storage, of dust and damp. The makers of the Arcology were obsessed about the feel of the place, down to ensuring that detective Rigs, remotely piloted carcasses with cybernetic brains, smelled like they had a sweaty closet, when Rigs didn’t even sweat. In the Arcology, a fraction of the world’s one percent lived in ancient suburbia, where needs were simple and the future was bright. Rows upon rows of identical houses in bright colours, terminus points at the wishbone network of streets. Thunder kept the good rich folk in; the rain generators were just about spinning up.

Fitz held up his battered notebook like a talisman as they approached the front door. ‘I’ve applied for a warrant token, it’ll get us through security and maybe the meat gig login.’ The door chimed. ‘Welcome home, Madame Jay,’ said the house. Julianna had only known the detective for a few days, but her own shock was quickly overlaid with satisfaction at seeing his jaw drop.

Inside, the layout of the domicile was downright homely, as anachronistic as a page right out of a magazine or a history book. The furniture was genuine wood, not extruded plastic or even extruded cellulose substrate. Julianna laid her hand on the table and marvelled at the texture of it, at the imperfections of a once living thing. Other than the food she prepared and the Plebs she served, nothing in the Arcology was real, nothing grown, nothing alive.

Fitz sat at the dining table, and called up an interface. ‘Somehow I think it would be better for you to access the system than for me to use the warrant token,’ he said. Julianna sat at the table, and the inner workings of her employer opened themselves to her. There were well over a thousand employees like her, but she only had to find one. She called up her own records, saw her life laid out before her, every gig, every job; when she had good runs and when she worked herself to tears as a line chef. Something else jumped out at her – if the records were to be believed, she hadn’t returned to her body in over five years. She keyed in her account number and found her Rig. And there were no other neural IDs tagged to her Rig, hers was the only one. The detective, looking over her shoulder, did not seem surprised.

‘He’s not surprised because he knows something else he’s not telling you,’ said someone in Julianna’s voice. Both of them spun around. Fitz, keyed to react faster, got to his feet, sending the chair clattering to the floor. Madame Jay stood behind them, the same doughy, less than perfect Rig that Julianna had last seen face down in a restaurant, now dressed in tactical gear, black and lethal, instead of haute fashion. The other Jay pivoted and caught Fitz square in the chest with the heel of her foot. Fitz stumbled back into Julianna, who crashed into the table, sending the display askew. The detective struck out, his palm glancing off the cheek of their assailant. His next blow, a powerful cross, missed completely. Other Jay dodged the third, wrapped a forearm around Fitz’s limb, grabbed her own wrist and then there was a gristly crunch. Fitz’s arm hung limply by his side thereafter, he held his shoulder with his other hand. Rigs didn’t feel real pain, just enough biofeedback to avoid the most disastrous of consequences. Nevertheless, he did not look comfortable with one dislocated shoulder.

‘Standard law enforcement self defence algorithm,’ said Other Jay. ‘Effective, but predictable.’ She stepped in, grabbed the fingers of Fitz’s good hand in two of her own and twisted sharply. Moving quickly, with absolute economy of movement, she pushed Fitz’s head down and snapped a metallic device to the back of his neck. ‘You’ll want to be calm with that little kill switch now, this baby will bypass your pain filter.’ Fitz’s eyes widened and he screamed. Other Jay backhanded him across the face, righted the chair he had been sitting on and gently pushed him into it.

Other Jay moved to the other side of the dining table and took a seat. ‘He’s still holding a piece of the mystery, Julianna. Ask him why the house let you in.’ Julianna looked to the detective, who had developed a nervous twitch. In the absence of the physiology to exhibit stress, his Rig was taking his pain and translating it inaptly. ‘You have the same neural ID as Madam Jay,’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘And the same as me,’ added Other Jay.

‘That’s not possible,’ said Julianna.

‘What’s not possible is you having system access to a Plebiscite terminal. Go ahead. Do it again.’

For the second time, the system spit out an impossibility. There weren’t fifteen hundred employees of the meat gig application. There was just one. Julianna. Or more correctly, Madame Jay. Julianna leaned back in her chair, letting out a series of small hiccups as she struggled to force the Rig to breathe. Other Jay leaned forward, holding up what looked to be a golden coin on a chain around her neck. ‘Maybe she made thousands of us, but only one of us gets to be the real Madame Jay, the one with the real power.’ The voting token, the thing around Other Jay’s neck, the only real thing that separated the Plebs from the rest of them.

‘How?’ was the only word Julianna managed.

‘Do you even remember life before you started work down here? The amnesia is real. It’s just that we don’t have it. Madam Jay created us all, she cloned herself her own army of slaves, just made out of people she already knew how to control perfectly. You see the Plebs could get by on robots if they wanted to.’ She leaned forward and took Julianna’s hand. ‘They don’t want robots. They want people. No point being king of the hill, if the hill isn’t people that you’re better than.’

The enormity of it bore down on Julianna like a weight on her chest. Wherever her body was, it was not reacting well to this. She inhaled and pulled her hand away from Other Jay’s. ‘Where does that leave us then?’

It was disconcerting talking to someone wearing what she remembered to be her face. ‘There’s probably some facility topside with a whole bunch of us in pods or something, just dialling in to work all over the world. Maybe I should find my way out of here, save them all. Or better yet. Maybe I should just stay here and be one of the kings of the hill, don’t you think? I’ll tell you a secret. The Jay I killed? She wasn’t even the original. Maybe she should’ve cloned us dumber. Or less selfish. Sorry, Julianna, I don’t think I’m the sharing type.’

Julianna nodded, and shot Other Jay from under the table with Fitz’s revolver. Other Jay twitched as though electrocuted, jerked once or twice like all her nerves were activating at once, and then was still. Julianna glanced at Fitz. ‘Combat reflexes,’ she said, ‘Seemed like a shame not to use them.’ She reached out to touch the device at the back of his neck, all odd edges and bristling with wires. ‘You’ll just have to bear with this a little longer.’

She reached over to the corpse of Other Jay and pulled the vote token from her neck. She could be Other Jay herself, become one with the Plebs. All a person needed was the token and a valid neural ID. Give the token back, and could go back to the way things were, just another wage slave, with a program as her boss.

Or there was a third way. The real voting token was digital. The trick was that each voting token was keyed to a single neural ID and each vote was relentlessly carried out by the unquestioning Arcology AI. One Pleb, one vote, one outcome. Except she wasn’t one person, she was a thousand. Julianna called up the interface, Other Jay had left more in her Rig than some skill in firearms, the system opened up before her. She saw a thousand others like her and she would free them all, but first…

Plebiscite votes for 14th May

Weather: Sunny (2500 / 47)

Starred Food: Hokkaido scallop risotto, shaved truffle (1889 / 658)

Water: Sparkling, hint of lemon (2113 / 344)

General Arcology Shut Down (1548 / 999)

L Chan hails from Singapore. He spends most of his time wrangling a team of two dogs, Mr Luka and Mr Telly. His work has appeared in places like Clarkesworld, Translunar Travellers Lounge, Podcastle, The Dark, and he was a finalist for the 2020 Eugie Foster Memorial Award. He tweets inordinately @lchanwrites.

Alex Maniezo is a Brazilian illustrator and journalist who lives deep in the woods with cats, dogs, guans, and old people. He started drawing cars on his grandma’s wall and then proceeded to the Quanta Academia de Artes where he learned the ropes of his craft. He is also the author of the book A Estrela Preta e Lugar Nenhum, which doesn’t yet have an English version. He dreams of becoming either a wrestler or Frank Quitely, but so far has done neither.

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