by Mark Budz

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In a world where image is everything, where the past is more real than the present, the rich can reprogram everything—and cast themselves in the starring roles. Everyone else is nothing but an extra. . . . 

As part of the supporting cast, Pelayo survives as a test subject for the latest electronic skin and philm technology, which brings past trends and famous people to vivid life on his body. His cousin Marta works at a cinematique offering cheap skincense, image grafts, and nanimatronics. That’s where she meets Nadice, an indentured worker smuggling illegal ware to escape an exclusive resort specializing in kitschy environs. But Nadice is hiding something far more contraband: a forbidden pregnancy she can’t explain but is determined to protect. When Marta tries to help, both women disappear.

While Pelayo searches for his cousin, homicide detective Kasuo van Dijk investigates a mysterious death that may involve a new kind of e-skin–mass-mediated ware that will lead him to Marta, Nadice, her employer—and a diabolical plan to deliver humanity kicking and screaming into a frightening new age of information. . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553902570
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/25/2006
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 464
File size: 532 KB

About the Author

Mark Budz lives in northern California with his wife, fellow author Marina Fitch. His short stories have appeared in Amazing Stories and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He is the author of four novels, Clade, Crache, Idolon, and, most recently, Till Human Voices Wake Us.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

White-hot fog. It boiled over the halogen-lighted streets--scalding to look at but cool against the skin.

Kasuo van Dijk pulled his overcoat tighter against the dank mist, shut the door to his unmarked car, and stepped onto gritty concrete.

This part of North Beach was philmed in classic noir. Most of the storefronts and apartment building facades were a melange of grays and blacks lifted from The Maltese Falcon, Raw Deal, and half a dozen other celluloids from the 1930s and '40s. In places, some of the architectural and decorative elements had been colorized. Vivid greens, reds, and blues bled from the shadows, saturating the landscape with flamboyant contusions of color borrowed from Romare Bearden and Warhol.

Nothing was ever what it seemed, he reminded himself. Nor was it otherwise.

A few blocks east of Hyde, toward Telegraph Hill, the decor changed abruptly to the delirious exuberance of Gaudi and Hundertwasser. Organic transmogrifications not unlike the Peter Max-, Bob Masse-, and Roger Dean-fueled psychedelia of Haight-Ashbury. To the southwest, van Dijk could just make out the staid browns and clean, if somewhat stark, Edward Hopper lines of Pacific Heights.

Van Dijk took a moment to philm himself in a composite image of Toshir Mifune, from Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and Hiroyuki Sanada from Yaji Yamada's The Twilight Samurai. The pseudoself--humble demeanor hiding implacable, barely restrained violence--was what people not only expected from him, given his first name, but respected. It was part of the job, like wearing a tie and an HK 9mm minicentrifuge.

He started toward the small brick-and-corrugated-sheet-plastic warehouse that had been converted into low-income apartments. A uniformed officer stood guard outside the first-floor entrance, the tip of a cigarette flaring from time to time like the beacon in a lighthouse.

The uniform's name appeared in front of him: Kohl, Peter. Van Dijk cleared the eyefeed with a quick mental Delete and turned his gaze on the street cop.

"Detective." Kohl pulled himself out of his slouch.

"Who else is here?" van Dijk asked.

"My partner. Janakowski. He's inside, waiting for you and the crime-scene boyz to show." Kohl took a final calming pull on his Hongtasan, then flicked it nervously away. The butt hissed as it arced to the ground, sputtering out before it struck the damp concrete. Oily steam snaked up from a half-empty cup of black coffee at his feet.

"Who found the body?"

"One of the residents." Kohl blinked as he accessed an online police log. "Girl named Lisette," he said, reading from the plog. "Age eleven. Lives in the apartment just down the hall, supposedly with her mother. But Mom ain't around. Hasn't been for a while, by the look of it."

The victim's apartment was on the second floor. Van Dijk checked the elevator for obvious evidence. It was out of order. That left the stairs. Stairwells tended to collect all kinds of DNA-marinated detritus. Cigarette butts, half-empty plastic bottles, crushed cups, pinched bubble caps, shattered eye droppers, and dermadots for those who couldn't afford or didn't want direct deposit via mechemical assembly. As he mounted the concrete steps, a number of crumpled candy wrappers chirped to life, regaling him with cheerful play lists and animated nanoFX.

In the hall, van Dijk made his way past Teflon-white doors set in gray cinder block. Janakowski waited on the left, at the far end. As van Dijk passed the next-to-the-last door on the right, it opened a fraction, revealing a pair of luminous blue eyes. The eyes met his for a beat, then retreated. The door snicked shut.


Van Dijk moved past the door, dropping the thin smile from his face. He greeted Janakowski with a curt nod.

"You need me for anything, Detective?" The officer stepped away from the sealed door and hitched up his belt, anxious to get going.

Van Dijk tipped his head back down the hall. "That the girl?"

"Yeah." The officer nodded, his jowls ruddy under the strident LED ceiling lights. Someone had taped red paper, printed with white flowers, to the panels. The black desiccated shadows of dead bugs speckled the underside of the paper and the dim lantern glow.

"Keep the kid company till I'm finished in here."

"I gotta take a leak."

"In that case, you better get Kohl to relieve you."

"Very funny, Detective." The officer ambled down the hall, his brow furrowed in concentration as he messaged his partner.

Van Dijk logged into SFPD central data, allocated a new library for the case, then pushed open the door to the victim's apartment.

The body was philmed in vintage Hollywood. It had that silver-screen patina, glam even in death. Angelic hair, sassy red lips, gold-sequined gown, a cheap diamond necklace and earrings. Except for the costume jewelry, it was all high-end ware, all programmable.

Van Dijk mentally queried the SFPD datician assigned to him. Image ID?

"The philm appears to be a composite of Barbara Stanwyck and Gene Tierney," the sageware said after a moment.

The woman lay on a tempergel futon against one wall. Glossy satin sheets covered the mattress. A fluffy down comforter, white as snow, spilled off the end of the bed like a glacier.

Record, van Dijk thought, activating the nanocams embedded in his retinas. Visual. Audio. Ambients. Auto upload. Save.

There was a brief delay as the microvilli array of nanoelectrodes in his skull picked up the neural firing pattern for each command and relayed it to a brain-computer interface interpreter, which in turn routed it to a datician for implementation.

He panned the room slowly. Intermittent temperature, humidity, and time readings blinked along the bottom of his field of view. Other than the futon, there wasn't much. A table and chair. A graphene d-splay screen, tuned to some ambient meditation channel soft-focused on lotus leaves. A collapsible plastic shelf, bare except for several pairs of shoes, loose jeans, large hats, and a cheap canvas jacket big enough to lose herself in.

Lose herself from who? van Dijk wondered. All that nice philmware. Why would she want to hide it, even if it was ripped?

Through the window opposite the futon he had a clear view of Telegraph Hill, all blue-striped trees and green-scaled buildings.

Where she was headed--or what she was running from? Either possibility seemed likely.

Nothing in the bathroom. The usual assortment of toiletries, hair- and toothbrushes, patchouli-scented soap. No makeup, but then she wouldn't need it with the philm she was waring. Nothing in the tiny kitchenette, either. There was no stove, only a hot plate on the countertop. The refrigerator was small, barely large enough for the six-pack of bottled water and jar of Cajun simmer sauce. It wasn't the kitchen of a chef. Which meant she'd eaten out a lot, probably at the fast-food franchises along the Marina and the Embarcadero.

Van Dijk turned his attention to the body. It looked as if the woman had been dead for several hours. Exactly how long was hard to tell at this point. Her skin was cool, but electronic skin skewed all of the normal postmortem signs of death, everything from body temp to lividity and rigor. E-skin typically slowed the rate at which a body cooled, but not always. He wasn't even sure of her age at this point. 'Skin had a way of overwriting not just the physical but the perceived. The mind filled in blanks it shouldn't, the way it did a missing word, supplying implicit meaning rather than explicit.

"ID," he said out loud, scanning the victim's DiNA code. There was a brief pause as the datician searched for the information.

"Unknown," it replied over his earfeed. "Not On File."

NOF meant one of two things: either the bar-code-encrypted concatenation of her DNA had been tweaked, or she was an unchipped and undocumented immigrant.

The cause of death wasn't immediately obvious. There were no external injuries--strangle marks, suspicious discolorations, blunt trauma contusions, knife or bullet wounds. No blood or other fluids.

That left the less obvious. Drug overdose, or viral or bacterial infection from dirty e-skin were the most common. Internal injuries were possible, as were natural causes, but not likely under the circumstances.

Which were . . . ? Van Dijk had no idea.

Footsteps echoed in the hallway. Van Dijk stood. End, he thought, terminating the superimposed readout just as the crime scene unit, led by Leslie Apodaca, appeared in the doorway.

"All yours," he said.

"What have you got?" Apodaca said. She was a petite woman, short in both height and temper. Even her hair, as close-cropped as that of a soldier or Buddhist monk, sent a clear don't-mess-with-me.

"What you see." Van Dijk nodded at the body. "I just got here a few minutes ago."

"Who is she?"


"Figures." Apodaca messaged her team to scan for finger- and blood-prints, residual heat. They sprayed every bare millimeter of the room with chemical tweezers in the hunt for soft DNA, fibers, hazmat, and biomat.

Van Dijk headed for the door. "Don't forget to copy me on the report."

"You're not gonna stick around?" Apodaca didn't bother to look up from the body.

"I'm saving myself for the autopsy."

The door to the kid's apartment stood open a crack. As he stepped inside, a toilet flushed. The small studio apartment was sparsely furnished--none of the furniture matched, he noted--and empty. The door to the bathroom opened and Janakowski came out, zipping up. "I was gonna bust a pipe," he said.

"Where's the girl?" van Dijk said. "Kohl looking after her?"

Janakowski shot a panicked glance in the direction of the kitchen, where a Vurtronic d-splay pasted to one of the cupboards flickered with Chinamation ghosts. "She was right there."


The Transcendental Vibrationists were downloading a new philm. Or getting ready to, Pelayo Tiutoj thought.

Instead of the familiar collection of rose-stem bones and clockwork joints the TVs had been screening for months, there was nothing but static.

Background radiation from the universe.

A small group of worshippers had gathered in the War Memorial park across the street from Iosepa Biognost Tek's downtown Santa Cruz office. Pelayo counted five in the gathering. The TVs huddled in a tight cluster at the foot of a squat palm, rocking in unison and chanting benignly to themselves. Their loose, resham-style robes had coin-sized pieces of glass sewn onto the fabric, which spat thorny flashes of light at him.

The other loiterers in the park were doing their best to avoid or ignore the meditation session. They sipped cappuccinos. Window-shopped the d-splays pasted to the bricks of the central clock tower. Watched the graphene leaves on the War Memorial tree flicker with the faces of the dead.

One of the TVs looked up, caught Pelayo's gaze, and held it with vacant black eyes. A whiff of lilac skincense drifted in the air, sticky with perspiration. The man's lips moved.

"What?" Pelayo asked before he could catch himself.

The man's lips moved again, a barely audible hiss of burn-in-hell vitriol. "Slavation is near."

Pelayo flipped off the TV. Knee-jerk response. Most TVs didn't hemorrhage goodwill. They couldn't give a rat's ass what people thought of them. They knew, deep down in their sanctimonious hearts, that they were ascending to the Omega point while everyone else rotted in this pisshole of a life.

A sly Mona Lisa sfumato darkened the corners of the TV's mouth before he bent his head in prayer.

Santa Cruz. The town had always been schizophrenic. Place couldn't decide if it was a retirement community or a Mecca for hippie nostalgia and political radicals. Social activism on one hand and conservative fundamentalists on the other. Self-styled liberals came to steep in the tireless counterculture aura and convince themselves they really were open-minded. Others came to be part of The Endless Summer surf scene, to connect with the vampires in The Lost Boys, or walk in the footsteps of the Tick Talk Man in Cryptaphica.

Pelayo shifted his attention to the off the shelf philms the street crowd was waring. He liked to stay current. Fashion changed quickly. There was no predicting a smart mob. No forecasting when a spontaneous commercial consensuality would precipitate out of the cinesphere.

Nagel was popular, with his noir, razor-edged beauty. So was Beardsley--erotic, sensual. Still in demand after a month, along with the usual Jung at Heart variations, Giger cyborganics, and Picasso-inspired cubism that always seemed to be in vogue. There were even a few F8 cameos. The band had recently uploaded a new cast. The song, titled "As F8 Would Have It," had spiked at number one at least once a day for ten consecutive days. A megahit. So now all of the pop cult philmheads and vidIOs wanted to look like they'd just stepped out of the cast and onto the sidewalk.

The majority of the e-skin out there was grainy, relatively low-res. Most philmheads could only afford secondhand, street cheap, or black-market celluloid. Thin membranes of programmable graphene--fabricated out of nanoscopic semiconductor threads--that were capable of displaying not only graphics but texture. As a result, Pelayo saw a lot of monochromatics cruising the streets--stripped down black-and-white pseudoselves that people hoped to colorize later.

Pelayo was lucky; his 'skin was fully chromatic. One of the perks he received as a test subject for Iosepa Biognost Tek. IBT provided him with the latest experimental ware. The only downside was, he never knew what he was going to look like until it was too late. Last time around, he'd ended up with Aubrey Beardsley breasts, Jackson Pollock hair, and Tiffany-esque stained-glass lips. Mix-and-match shit he wouldn't normally be caught dead in.

This time, he hoped, would be different.

He returned his attention to the TVs. They liked to think they were different. But they were just the same as everyone else, philming themselves to change the way they looked and who they were on the outside. Do it long enough, and in theory that was who they would become. Hyperreal and ultimately hyperstantial. That was the plan--the hope.

He logged into the public datician and checked the time: 9:46. Fourteen minutes until his appointment. He'd gotten the message yesterday. Short notice, and a couple of weeks sooner than expected. Usually, he went twelve weeks between reconfigures. This time it had only been ten. Something had come up.

Which meant there might be bonus pay, if the philm required more than the normal amount of debugging.

He hurried through the morning crowd, jostled by Rhett Butler and a three-hundred-pound Dorothy with bulging red slippers. Last thing he wanted to do was arrive late, piss Uri off. Motherfucker could crimp wire with his asshole.

Crossing the street, he passed a kiosk newscreen that was airing an advertisement for Atherton Resort Hotels. It showcased a massive building that had been philmed as a Tibetan monestary. The hotel had been built into a mountainside. It had featureless stone walls with tiny windows, and looked more like a fortress than a resort.

"The perfect retreat," a voice crooned over his earfeed. "There is no other place like it in the world."

There were Atherton resorts all around the world, rephilming reality for those willing to pay. In Third-World countries they took on the ambiance of theme parks, philmed in old Hollywood movies that sensationalized or glamorized these places. In Africa, it was Casablanca. In Baghdad, it was Lawrence of Arabia. Mexico looked like The Night of the Iguana or any number of other films with quaint stucco villages, contented donkeys, and cheerful mariachis clamoring about love.

"Leave the world behind," the voice-over said. A walled garden blossomed on the screen. "Cast yourself in the world of an Atherton resort today."

That's what Atherton sold: e-scape. People were desperate for something, anything, to change their lives. Pelayo could feel that same urge tugging at him. Deep, umbilical, the need to find a way out, to change either himself or the world. Grasping at whatever shadows he could to make that happen.

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