“Oh, it’s you. I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“Sorry I couldn’t come any sooner.”
“I didn’t expect you to come at all."
The heart monitor's beeping filled the dimly lit room. It was nighttime, much beyond visiting hours, and David had only forced his way in by showing various badges until the nurses had no choice but to legally let him enter.
"Agent Steinberg, call sign: EAGLE--"
"No need for formalities. Just get on with it. Why'd you have to come so late at night?"
"I'm a busy guy."
The former president lay now before David as a husk of a man.
"I hate hospitals. They have this funky smell that messes with my nose."
"Must be the smell of death."
"Don't be so morbid, Mr. President."
"Don't call me that--I hated it even when I was president."
"Old habits die hard. Seems like that's what got you in here."
"Some punk hit me across the head with a backpack full of bricks."
"Well, it felt like bricks," with which he added a laugh that petered off into a cough. "Not as bad as what I hear's going on in Japan, up in Aomori. I plan on seeing it myself, you know?"
"How long has it been since you've been to Japan?"
"Oh, years. Maybe not since the first time I met you. I would like to go give them a hand there, though."
"Always so diligent. Well, I sincerely hope you survive Aomori."
"Don't be so morbid, Steinberg."
"These damn kids. I can't believe there's actually counter-protesters in favour of that damned system. What did we do wrong, David? It's like a whole generation was coddled by both their parents and the companies that made their computers. They can't leave the digital nest, so to speak. The world outside the net has become less real to them."
"These people are scared, Mr. Coleman. The extremes of total complacency and total fear of data collection are possessing the public, and you were just caught in the crossfire. It's either you pretend that every aspect of your identity hasn't become an asset for strangers to trade in the market or you take up arms against suits with no faces who don't actually exist in surface reality."
"Surface reality... when was the last time either of us existed anywhere near that?"
"It's our job to protect it, or at least I hope it is."
"You've always been black and white like that, haven't you? I wish I could see the world so simply."
"It's almost necessary in our line of work. The protests you see out there are a manifestation of this kind of simple worldview--I have to adapt to it to understand it. Their fears are my fears."
"I'm right there with you. Just take a look at that guy they caught today--"
"That guy has nothing to do with it. I know for a fact he's innocent."
"Really? It's because of people like that guy I'm lying here in this bed. The people are afraid of the Net, David!"
"They're afraid because they need to be afraid. It's through that fear that things like the Tri-Surv Network can be implemented no holds barred, don't you think?"
"The Tri-Surveillance Network is more of a pawn than it is an actual threat, I would say. Seeking out the naysayers who organize these protests to take care of them before they bring out the heavier equipment, you understand?"
"I make my presence known at these events because they know I'm important. They know I can't be touched. But as long as I'm strapped to this bed, people will begin to disappear. That's why I need to go to Aomori."
"I hear there's a big one being planned there, since that's where the chips are being made and implemented already."
"And soon enough it'll be all around the world."
"I'm sure Aomori won't be the thick of it, anyway. The NAB is being vilified for this too, you know."
"I know... it's essential that you stabilize things as much as you can so as not to make our presence known."
"I like to think I have it under control."
Coleman looked troubled.
"If only Eriko..."
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize it was still a touchy subject for you."
"No, it isn't. It's been years."
"Still, if she hadn't disappeared like that... maybe we'd be looking at a totally different Net.”
There was a silence in the room. The memory of Eriko Fujioka permeated the space, and David could feel her essence.
The word turned a gear in David's head and he began to recount the last few weeks mechanically.
"Investigated CyberConnect Corporation president Veronica Bain. Discovered a new form of virus--quantum enhanced. The virus was carried out by Yuri Kazcinsky Seto, formerly known for Deadly Flash. Likely instructed by Veronica Bain to do so. Civilian involved: Sogabe, Ryuuji. Age 32, single. Stopped virus. Discovered the leftovers of Durga Fida Sharma. Nothing concrete against Bain. End of report."
"Sogabe? As in the same Japanese guy the NAB is looking for?"
"Word travels fast."
"I've got nothing but time." Coleman motioned toward the television monitor in the corner of the room.
"He is innocent. Likely a cover-up by Bain, perhaps a personal grudge for having blocked her plot."
"It seemed too obvious."
"I looked into it a bit further, too--the story was originally broken by 'News of the World,' an international news congregate funded by both ALTIMIT and CyberConnect. Started sometime in 2010. Incidentally, it's the same source that pinned the blame for the Third Network Crisis on that NAB investigator a while back."
"They're really getting desperate..." Coleman paused to mull it all over for a moment. "Thanks for doing all this work, David. Really, for everything. Ever since Eriko proposed the idea for the NAB, I knew it had to be you two, I knew I couldn't trust anyone else with it, I--" He paused again, and his heartrate had audibly gotten faster. "I'm sorry. Being in this condition has made me a bit sentimental, don't you think? I can see the end of my own life, but it's like watching a line of gunpowder, just waiting for the fuse to burst. I don't intend on going out with a whimper."
"I understand, Mr. Coleman."
"Is Fox okay?"
"Yes, he was discharged recently."
"That's good..." he trailed off, and his heart monitor began to slow down. "Any signs of collusion between Bain and Senator Goldman?"
"None that can be proven, but it's worth noting that if the quantum virus became public it would've been a huge incentive for his campaign."
"He's being played. It's all about the Origin anyway. You said you found the former CC Corp president's work--you don't sound too excited about it. I guess it didn't lead you to it."
"Not quite. I'm having Eleanor examine the data--I can't really say much else about it until then."
"For now, it's a matter of blocking that damned IC Chip. Keep using your NAB cover to block any movements. It's just another piece in the web of the Tri-Surv system."
Another pause as they both considered the facts.
“The Tri-Surv System. What is it really?”
“Hell if I know. I’m not president anymore. Like I said, it's a pawn. My best guess is that it’s a data collection scheme on an unprecedented scale, but what isn't these days? At least, that’s what it looks like on the surface. There’s probably something far more sinister at work here, David. The system itself is developed by ALTIMIT in part with the NSA. There’s no doubt they’re going to be pushing hard for those microchips in each of our necks for the next few years. That’s all that damn Goldman is yellin’ about lately.”
“As long as I'm breathing the NAB likely won't be able to approve any such chip for globalization. There's too many variables that can't get hammered out so long as there's even one complaint. Politics have nothing to do with it."
“The political world as we know it now is an entirely different beast than it was before Pluto’s Kiss. It’s become a stage for ideological mouthpieces controlled by technobureaucrat puppeteers, like a proxy war for some larger conflict among those in charge of the electronics. And everyone’s playing along, too—even Tabitha.”
The name settled strangely inside David. Who was being spoken of was, of course, immediately clear to him: Tabitha Knox, President Coleman’s former secretary. But there were two Tabithas in his mind—the one he had seen on countless news reports at countless WNC meetings, standing right behind the president. And then, there was the Tabitha he had met that day in Amemura all those years ago. The political entity known as Tabitha Knox and the physical being who called herself Tabitha Knox registered in two separate places of his memory.
Knox, in the wake of Pluto’s Kiss, had been the one to draft the 21st Century Hypernetwork Plan, the revolutionary design that shaped the modern Net—held up by the law mandating that all computers be required to run ALTIMIT OS, and was instrumental in positioning government funding to specially sponsored corporations like ALTIMIT to aid software development. In many ways, it can be said that the "brains" to Coleman’s presidency was managed by Knox, whether he fully realized it or not.
“As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Coleman, you were the last great president.”
“Don’t flatter me. I know I was far from perfect, just as any man before me was.”
As the name descended alight into David, its presence in his mind began to grow. Suddenly he was not sitting before Alex Coleman in a hospital bed, but Alex Coleman more than a decade ago, when he was still cramming kanji into his head and alcohol still had an effect on his liver.
He tried to focus beyond Coleman, tried to remember the face of the woman in the blue pantsuit who stood and stared, but the more he stared the darker the impression became. Her figured changed shape and collapsed into a mess of points and lines. The only thing left David could discern was her eyes, cold and relentless, looking off into some void, looking off into an unknowable void, and then Eriko, asking if David was alright, was he alright, she wanted to know, and then—
“I’m sorry. I don't know where I was.”
“Must be tired. It’s really late—why not go home?”
“No, not yet… Mr. Coleman, I’ve got to ask you about Ms. Tabitha Knox.”