Chapter Ten

Eric Lee

42 days before Face’s arrival at Mukhya

The seastead smelled of salt.

At first, the ocean smell had been refreshing. Cho Fei hadn’t been to the ocean in years and years.

But then it seemed to saturate everything. It was with him while he ate and while he slept. It even reached him while he was coding. His olfactory implant was supposed to be able to block and turn off unwanted odours and generate masking perfumes, but somehow the salt smell cut through.

And it wasn’t just salt. It was the smell of life. One thing he hadn’t appreciated about Youdu was how rotten it was on a literal level. Being constantly exposed to water in the form of waves and rain, and not properly cleaned, the converted oil-platform had become infested with some kind of algae or fungus or whatever else cloyed at the corners of the halls and doorways and generated the smell that was with him night and day.

What Fei wanted to do was dive. He wanted to escape this rat-trap and its terrible food, and just return to the clean, pure oasis that was his native cyberspace. He’d been in it just minutes before. He’d lost himself in the strategy of the world before his tea and jiaozi had arrived.

It wasn’t even good jiaozi. How the hell did they mess up jiaozi? Even Fen, his first wife, had known how to cook good jiaozi.

On his farm his shell had monitored him, predicting when he’d need a meal, then contact one of his wives and get her to make him something. From his perspective food showed up like magic, most of the time.

But they’d found him on the farm. He’d seen their microdrone spies. He didn’t know who they were, but he didn’t intend to stick around to find out. He’d left that same day, and told Cho Ah to burn everything if they came.

He missed his wives. He missed letting them deal with things while he focused on matters befitting someone of his importance. He was Eric Lee, the most famous and mysterious person in the world. He couldn’t be bothered with ordering food or telling idiot children not to play with fireworks until after sunset.

“Is something wrong?” asked Myrodyn.

Fei turned his attention back to his screens and controls, letting his armoured avatar run mostly on autopilot. He swallowed his dumpling and said “No. Let’s continue.”

They talked about Divinity a bit more, but the American crime syndicate couldn’t really hold his attention. He thought about Mr Wong, the private investigator he’d hired to investigate his farm since Ah went silent. The suspense was driving him mad, and it didn’t help that Wong had insisted on coming to Youdu in person to give him the report. He was due in any day.

Which was good, because Fei could feel the world shifting beneath his feet.

Lee had been in Acorn’s confidence long enough to learn that the AI had been created by one of Crystal Socrates’ parts. Neurotoxin was also a spin-off of Crystal. The timeline more or less lined up, and the conflict on Olympus made it clear that the android was more capable, and more fragmented, than anyone had dreamed.

Was Neurotoxin the entity hunting him? Was there yet another fragment of Crystal that he wasn’t aware of? Perhaps WIRL was playing him, trying to lull him into a false sense of security by pretending to be an ally. Or was there some more mundane explanation? There were certainly more than a few world governments that had it out for him.

He stared at the map in frustration. The world was too big. There were too many pieces on the board.

Word from Phoenix was that Crystal had landed safely on Mars. That was a relief, at least. It took that term out of the equation, for now.

There was another bang in the background, pulling him out of the space of strategy back into the gritty awfulness that was his new home.

{Idiots and their fireworks,} he thought to himself. It was December 31, and he’d heard rumours that some of the inhabitants of the seastead were planning a fireworks party (with alcohol) on the roof to bring in the new calendar year. He just knew that the noise would keep him up far too late.

Yet another firework went off.

He moved to pour another cup of tea as he explained. “I’m sorry, I think there might be a disturban—”

Before he could finish his thought, the fire alarm blasted to life.

Fei’s hand jerked in surprise, spilling tea on his other hand, and leg. His pants protected his leg, for the most part, but his left hand burned in pain from the scalding liquid.

For a moment he was confused about cause and effect, wondering why they’d signalled an alarm just because he burned his hand.

He dropped the call and shot up, moving towards the bathroom to put cold water on the burn. He’d call the Americans back in a moment.

It was only after a couple seconds that he realized that the fire alarm meant that there could actually be a fire, and that he was in danger.


He flipped open his com (thankfully on his unburnt hand) and tried to clear his head of thoughts of WIRL and Acorn. It was always hard for him to switch tasks unexpectedly.

His hand began to throb, and the sound of the alarm was like a hammer on his ears.

He scanned his monitoring programs. Anomalies were everywhere. His software didn’t know what was happening, but it knew that something was going down.

Fei ran to his door and looked out into the hallway. People were running, though there wasn’t any sign of fire.

His hand was really starting to hurt, and he knew he didn’t have any ice. He froze there for a few seconds considering going back and wrapping a piece of cloth soaked in cold water around his burnt hand. If this was a drill or something that would be best.

But it wasn’t a drill. He could tell.

He walked out into the hall. No shoes.

{I should go get my shoes on…}

Another firework. Louder. Audible above the siren.

Fei ignored his shoes and started walking down the carpeted hallway. For not the first time he wondered who had the stupid idea of putting shaggy, brown carpet in a space that got so moist.

{Disgusting. I need shoes.}

That was a distraction. Mould didn’t matter right now.

Fei began to run.

There was a press of people at the primary stairwell. Bodies were moving towards him, and away. People were shouting. People touched him. Brushed past him. Bumped into him. He hated it. He hated it. He couldn’t think. It was hellish. He strongly considered going back to his room. Even if he burned to death there, at least he could do it without having to deal with all these morons.

It was a stupid thought. He needed to get his bearings.

Someone was screaming about “Police!” in a way that confused Fei. He pushed himself up against one of the walls, out of the way of the swarm.

«We’re under attack!» yelled someone else, in Chinese this time, instead of English.

Far too many people were talking in languages he didn’t know. Indonesian, probably.

He caught the word “feds” being tossed around, as well as “fire.” That didn’t help anything.

The fire alarm died suddenly, and with it came an eerie quiet, as people stopped yelling.

The sound of helicopter blades and gunfire could be heard.

Fei’s hand hurt.

Many people seemed to change their minds about the pressing need to escape the apartments, and turned away from the stairs. Fei went with them, slipping into a flow of people that eventually passed close to his room.

He slipped back in, relieved.

His mind raced as he slammed the door and began to pace around the tiny apartment, looking for incriminating devices and information.

He hadn’t brought much from the farm. If they had his computers…

No. There had been no sign on the net that the government had been involved in capturing his wives and equipment. All his old backdoors had still been intact.

Unless that’s what they wanted him to think…

He snapped out of the thought and refocussed on his room. Youdu was being raided. Fireworks weren’t fireworks. Whoever was shooting back at the authorities was an idiot. There was no way to resist a government directly. They’d be down here momentarily, snapping him in handcuffs.

Or at least, if they were after him.

That was an interesting thought.

Youdu was infamous—a hideout for lots of shady people.

He sat on the floor and tried to ignore the pain in his hand and the sounds in his ears and the feeling of mould on his feet. He’d wash them later. He had to focus.

On the last boat to the seastead there had been a surge of new blood: Chinese expats from Hong Kong. Many looked to be Triad, maybe 14k. The program he’d set up to monitor the textual channels he’d gained access to on the seastead told him that at least one of them was a Red Pole, and based on muscle of the company he kept, he suspected that they were enforcers who were using Youdu as a safe haven to let the heat die down.

Perhaps it was all a coincidence.

{Still, better to be safe.}

He stood up, much more calm, and wrapped his hand in a wet cloth. Then he began to destroy any and all evidence that could be used against him, including wiping his software off the local network. It’d be easy enough to break in again. The one exception was his com, which he simply encrypted behind a façade. It was a measured strategy.

And then he waited.

And waited.

He’d explain everything to Acorn and WIRL later.

His hand continued to hurt.

He washed his feet.

The sound of helicopter blades stopped.

He put his shoes on.

He waited, and ran everything over in his mind again and again.

It was nearly an hour before there was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” he called, sitting calmly on his bed.

The door slammed open as what was clearly a military police trooper pushed into the room behind a huge transparent shield. His entire body was heavily armoured, including his head, which had the look of an exoskeleton in the way the helmet completely covered the face. There were others holding guns in the hall behind.

Fei raised his hands in surrender.

In a certain way, he’d been expecting something like this for a long time. It was almost dream-like in the way it both matched and didn’t match his fears.

The special police swept in, searched him for weapons, and checked his bathroom before leaving. He almost thought they were done with him before another policeman, this one with less armour, came in. His head had no helmet, and he looked to be in his early twenties, but there was no trace of childhood on that hard, angular face.

«You speak Standard Chinese?» the cop asked. Fei could see a golden badge with the five stars of the People’s Republic on his arm.


«Come with me,» he commanded, gesturing to the door. Fei noticed his right hand on the pistol on his hip.

Fei complied.

«Keep your hands behind your head and state your full name,» ordered the cop.

As Fei walked out and down the hall, he said “Mark James.” «I’m from Canada, and lived in Singapore for a couple years before I moved here.» He’d had lots of time to build up aliases that could potentially be used to escape this sort of situation.

The soldier didn’t say anything to that, but instead put a hand on his back to make sure Fei kept walking. Some part of Fei wanted to chastise the idiot for touching him, and reveal that he was the great Eric Lee, just to see the looks on their faces.

They reached the stairs and ascended, passing a number of police as they did, all heavily armed and armoured. It wasn’t entirely clear whether they were, in fact, police. He’d have expected the military to be using bots instead of guys with riot shields, but perhaps the distinction was meaningless. These were heavily armed government operatives sent to capture some set of fugitives. They’d come expecting a fight, and based on what he’d heard earlier, they’d gotten one.

They took the stairs all the way to the roof, where the man who had been escorting him handed him off to another helmetless agent and said «Speaks Standard Chinese,» before going back down, presumably to fetch others.

The second agent stamped Fei’s hand with a 普通话 mark and pushed him roughly out the stairwell door to yet another cop.

The harsh light of the sun made Fei squint as he walked out onto one of the primary flat sections atop the seastead. He didn’t come up here often, but only because he was so busy that it seemed like a waste of time. The sky was a crisp blue, and the wind at the top of the platform was just strong enough to take an edge off the heat. The arms of two towering cranes stretched up above, ready to lift cargo from ships or install the next layer of the structure. The smell of salty ocean doubled in intensity.

He was directed into a queue of men ready to get into one of the two massive helicopters that had somehow both landed on the helipad. Besides the dozen or so authorities, there were a few dozen people sitting silently in rows under armed guard.

There was blood spattered on the roof, as well. He could guess at least two people had died, based on the quantity, but there weren’t any visible bodies. Perhaps they’d been zipped up in body-bags by the cops and put on the helicopter. Perhaps they’d simply been thrown into the sea. Fei didn’t know how these things worked.

The queue moved slowly. A man would get into the helicopter, a couple minutes would pass, then he’d get out and sit with the others. Fei tried to ask what was happening but had only gotten a sharp command to be silent.

Fei took a kind of grim pleasure in seeing so many hardened thugs—the men who had been involved in whatever sorts of criminal things happened on Youzu—be brought face-to-face with their own powerlessness. They had thought themselves so powerful and strong, but they were only that way because the true powers hadn’t moved against them. Or at least, they hadn’t until they had. And now what good were their guns and knives?

It was interesting to note that there weren’t any women on the roof. There were lots of women in Youdu. Most of them were whores, in one fashion or another, but they were still common. It was just one more piece of evidence that the Chinese police were hunting for a particular set of men.

Fei mentally rehearsed his cover story as he waited in line. Then, at last, it was his turn to board the troop transport. The cop on the outside checked the stamp on the back of Fei’s hand and made a hand gesture, before pushing Fei up and into the helicopter.

There were two police inside, both with the faceless helmets. «Sit. Do not speak unless asked a direct question. Cooperate and you will likely be released without further harm.» The voice had the croaking distortion of having come from a speaker on the man’s helmet.

Fei sat.

«Look directly at the camera. State your full name, age, occupation, country of origin, country of last residence, and when you came to this place.»

Fei followed the outstretched finger of man who spoke. Integrated into the forward wall of the helicopter was a screen, camera, keyboard, and a few other ports. There must have been a camera there, as well, though he couldn’t see it specifically. Fei recognized an insignia, the logo for EARCI, and understood that he was looking at the helicopter’s brain. Or rather, he was looking at the interface to the bot that piloted the vehicle.

The prompt for information was printed on the screen, so he didn’t have to remember.

«Mark Fei James. Thirty-five. Infosec Consultant. Born in British Columbia, Canada. Lived in Singapore until about a month ago.» Fei smiled at how easy and confident he sounded. These idiots would never get through his smokescreens. He’d been managing the Mark James profile for a while. There were records in Singapore of his residence, and in Canada of his emigration.

Governments were fools when it came to paperwork. Bureaucracy was a security flaw by its very nature.

«Please turn your head to the right and hold it there,» asked a new voice, from some unseen speaker. This one was female. It must’ve been the helicopter’s AI.

Fei complied, but also asked, «Why turn my head?»

«No questions!» snapped one of the helmeted goons.

«Please look back into the camera and focus,» instructed the machine. It waited for him to comply, then said, without warning or preamble «We killed Jie, Ah, and Fen.»

His wives. The farm.


The words caught him off-guard. Fei could see and feel his eyes de-focusing. He forced himself to swallow, take a breath, then speak. «What? What are you talking about?»

«Please repeat back those names: Jie, Ah, and Fen.»

Fei’s grip on the plastic armrest of his seat tightened. He took another breath to calm himself. «J-jie. Ah. Fen.» His leg was shaking. Not a lot. Just a little. He wanted to hold it still with his hands. He needed to be calm.

«Negative match. Thank you for your time, Mr James. Please exit the aircraft and follow the instructions provided while we continue our search for the terrorists that we’re looking for.»

Fei didn’t remember standing, but he somehow found himself outside the helicopter walking towards the rows of sitting people.

He sat.

The hot sun beat down, now nearing mid-day.

{Did I do it? Am I clear?}

He knew he should’ve been thinking about next steps. He should’ve been strategising about possible escape routes or backup plans. At the very least he should’ve been reevaluating what was going on, given the new information.

But all he was able to think about was how his leg had shook and that digital voice saying «We killed Jie, Ah, and Fen.»

He wasn’t supposed to care about them. He was the important one. That’s why he’d come here and left them behind. He’d get new wives. They were… fungible.

{Move on. Don’t get sentimental.}

His right arm was shaking, now. It pissed him off how little control he had over his body. He grabbed it and took a few more breaths.

It was very good that nobody was allowed to talk. He wasn’t sure he could deal with idiocy at that moment.

He kept wondering if that had been it. Had he really escaped the jaws of death? Had he slipped out of the trap?

{Yes. That’s what «negative match» means.}

Or was it. He couldn’t help wondering if he’d really, truly gotten clear. It was how his brain worked. Too many possibilities. But… it seemed that way, at least.

It took him a while to calm himself down. But he had a while. The cops seemed intent to interview every man on the platform.

They were looking for him.

And he’d slipped through their net.

Occasionally one of the armoured men would yell some propaganda at them about how, if they were released, the Chinese government was not absolving them of any crimes or endorsing their operation of an «illegal ocean structure».

It didn’t matter. If he’d slipped through their grasp, he was free. He could move to someplace else, perhaps in Europe or something, and start over.

{They’ll pay.}

He’d hurt the government. He’d done it before, on a smaller scale. If they’d murdered his wives…

{Maybe it was a bluff. The government wouldn’t actually kill them. That’s not how it works. They’d lock them up, maybe. But why kill them?}

Fei decided that Jie and Ah, at least, were probably still alive. Both of them were smart enough to survive.

Or at least, they’d likely be alive if this was the government’s doing. He noticed a confusion in himself as to who was actually behind this. Acorn was the only one who could’ve known where his farm was. Was he wrong about the AI? What was the intersection between Acorn, the Chinese government, and EARCI?

Had Neurotoxin changed that? Had Acorn already lost weeks ago, and he just hadn’t noticed?

That would mean that WIRL was…

Fei was disrupted from his thoughts by an announcement that processing was complete. Indeed, the queue of men to be interviewed in the helicopter was gone, and the number of those around him had grown.

«Please form an orderly line to return to your homes,» instructed an agent, before repeating the instruction in English. «We will be gone, shortly.»

Fei stood and got in line.

One of the police pointed to a man three places ahead of him in the queue, and two cops came to extract him. He was Chinese and bald, one of the men who had come to Youdu recently.

The bald man was led off towards the helicopter.

Another man was called out. This one, as he was being led away, pushed away from his escort and ran for the edge of the roof, perhaps hoping to dive into the sea, far below.

He made it about a dozen steps before they put a bullet through the back of his head. The man’s body dropped to the ground face-first while the gunshot still rang in Fei’s ears.

Fei flinched away, directing his gaze down at his feet. Despite however much he’d considered himself hardened by the net and his own mental preparations, he’d never seen someone killed in meatspace before. It had a kind of brutal presence and suddenness that no experience in holo had prepared him for.

There was a tap on his shoulder.

Fei looked up to see a tall cop standing beside him, pointing towards the helicopter. The man looked, in his way, more robotic than Crystal Socrates. The smooth, black helmet on his head was articulated to allow freedom of movement without exposing weakness. His hands were gloved, and the gloves sporting inbuilt haptic controls. Not a centimetre of skin was visible.

Fei wondered how the man was staying cool under the equatorial sun of the Java Sea.

The man gestured and pushed, forcing Fei out of the line.

It seemed surreal. Hadn’t he escaped their net? Hadn’t he survived? Why was he being selected? Was «negative match» just a code?

As Fei walked towards the helicopter, he decided that was the most likely explanation. If they wanted him, but didn’t want to arouse suspicion, they’d have processed everyone. But in order to keep him calm and compliant during that time, they’d told him he wasn’t a match.

Perhaps he’d never know if that was the real answer. Maybe whatever crude AI was managing such things had changed its mind.

He guessed that the calm sense of impending death was perhaps what a person in front of a firing squad felt. There was no action he could take to survive.

Somewhere along the line, he’d made one too many enemies, and whether it was a government, WIRL, Neurotoxin, Las Águilas, EARCI, Acorn, or someone else… he’d lost. His pieces had been captured, one after the next. The game was done.

Fei climbed into the helicopter without resistance and let his wrists be bound by plastic handcuffs.









He guessed it was Hong Kong, though nobody would talk to him, and his head had been covered by a black bag when being escorted between cells.

The only way he knew it was a city at all was that he’d clearly been shoved into the back of an auto, and he could hear the sounds of the cars and people around him as they drove.

And then, at last, they came to him in his cell.

There was a serious looking woman in a white coat with a silver briefcase.

Despite being near people, he’d been alone for days. Nobody spoke to him, except to command him to stand up or sit down or walk. The net deprivation combined with his isolation was eating away at his sanity.

He begged the woman to tell him what was going on. He begged her for information about his wives. He’d long since tried to reveal himself as Lee, to get something, anything out of his captors. But they already knew. Or at least, the guards didn’t react. Despite this, he revealed his identity to the woman. Perhaps she didn’t know.

She refused to engage with him, instead directing the guards to hold Fei down.

She took a needle from her case. She prepared it.

He asked what was in it.

She ignored him.

He hoped that it was death.

He’d been waiting for it for days, but it continued to avoid his grasp.

The injection stung and burned, and as the drug traveled up his arm, the pain swept along with it. He swore at the woman.

His heart began to tumble in his chest. His breathing slowed. The world seemed impossibly heavy.

And then unconsciousness took Cho Fei.

His dreams were pleasant. He dreamt of colours and clear skies. He dreamt of breaking free from his body. He dreamt that death was just the beginning, that a beautiful afterlife awaited him, and that he would be reunited with his youngest wife, Jie.

And then he awoke, far too quickly, though it had surely been hours, if not days since he’d been put under.

His waking reality was a nightmare of shadows and metal.