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Skin Deep

Skin Deep

Page 9

“I know. And I am. The feds are sending CDC officials tonight. The engineers are going to be quarantined; I probably will be too. I haven’t told anyone else yet. But Stephen, the government is wrong; they’re looking at this wrong. This isn’t about a disease, but about information.”

“The corpse,” I said, nodding. “How could I3 let this happen? Didn’t they consider that he was literally a walking hard drive?”

“The body was to be cremated,” Yol said. “Part of an in-house agreement. It wasn’t supposed to be an issue. And even still, the information might not be easy to get. Everyone here is supposed to encrypt the data they store inside their cells. You’ve heard of a one-time pad?”

“Sure,” I said. “Random encryption that requires a unique key to decode. Supposed to be unbreakable.”

“Mathematically, it’s the only unbreakable form of encryption,” Yol said. “The process isn’t very practical for everyday use, but what people were doing here wasn’t about practicality, not yet. Company policy insisted on such encryption—before they put data in their bodies, they encrypt it with a unique key. To read that data, then, you’d need that exact key. We don’t have the one Panos used, unfortunately.”

“Assuming he actually followed policy and encrypted his data.”

Yol grimaced. “You noticed?”

“Not the most interested in security, our deceased friend.”

“Well, we have to hope he used a key—because if he did, the people who have his body won’t be able to read what he stored. And we might be safe.”

“Unless they find the key.”

Yol pushed a thick folder toward me. “Exactly. Before we arrived, I had them print this out for you.”

“And it is?”

“Panos’s net interactions. Everything he’s done over the last few months—every email sent, every forum post. We haven’t been able to find anything in it, but I thought you should have it just in case.”

“You’re assuming I’m going to help you.”

“You told Garvas—”

“I told him I’d find the corpse. I’m not sure I’ll return it to you when I do.”

“That’s fine,” Yol said, standing up, taking his sunglasses out of his pocket. “We have our data, Stephen. We just don’t want it falling into the wrong hands. Tell me you disagree.”

“I’m pretty sure that your hands are the wrong hands.” I paused. “Did you kill him, Yol?”

“Panos? No. As far as I can tell, it really was an accident.”

I studied him, and he met my eyes before slipping on the ridiculous sunglasses. Trustworthy? I’d always thought so in the past. He tapped the packet of information. “I’ll see that Garvas and his team get you everything else you asked for.”

“If it were only your company,” I said, “I’d probably just let you burn.”

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“I know that. But people are in danger.”

Damn him. He was right. I stood up.

“You have my number,” Yol said. “I’ll likely be on lockdown here, but I should still be able to talk. You, however, need to make a quick exit before the feds arrive.”

“Fine.” I brushed past him, heading toward the door.

“Finding the decryption key isn’t enough,” Yol said after me. “We don’t know how many copies of it there are—and that’s assuming Panos even followed encryption protocol in the first place. Find that body, Stephen, and burn it. That’s what I wish I’d done to this whole building weeks ago.”

I opened the door, stepping out and waving to Ivy, Tobias, and J.C. They fell in with me as we walked.

“J.C.,” I said, “use that phone of yours. Call the other aspects. Send them to the White Room. We’ve got work to do.”

Part Two

8

I’ve got a lot of aspects. Forty-seven, to be exact, with Arnaud being the latest to join us. I don’t usually need all of them—in fact, imagining more than four or five at a time is taxing, something I can’t do for long. That limitation is yet another thing that makes my psychologists salivate. A psychotic who finds it more tiring to create his fantasy world than live in the real one?

On occasion, a job comes along that requires extra effort, and I need the attention of a large number of aspects. That’s why I made the White Room. Blank walls, floor, and ceiling painted the same uniform matte white; smooth, cool surfaces, unbroken save for lights in the ceiling. Soundproofed and calm, here there were no distractions—nothing to focus on but the dozens of imaginary people who flooded in through the double doors.

I don’t consciously choose how my aspects look, but something about me seems to appreciate variety. Lua, a Samoan, was a beefy fellow with a vast smile. He wore sturdy cargo pants and a jacket covered in pockets—appropriate for a survivalist. Mi Won, Korean, was our surgeon and field medic. Ngozi—forensic investigation—was a six-foot-four black woman, while Flip was squat, fat, and often tired.

It went on, and on, and on. They’d joined me slowly, one case at a time, as I’d needed to learn some new skill—packing my overcrowded brain with an increasingly diverse array of proficiencies. They acted just like real people would, chatting in a variety of languages. Audrey looked disheveled; she’d obviously been napping. Clive and Owen wore golfing outfits, and Clive carried a driver over his shoulder. I hadn’t realized that Owen had finally gotten him to pick up the sport. Kalyani, decked out in a bright red and gold silk sari, rolled her eyes as J.C. called her “Achmed” again, but I could tell he was growing fond of her. It was tough not to be fond of Kalyani.

“Mister Steve!” Kalyani said. “How was your date? Fun, I hope?”

“It was a step forward,” I said, looking around the room. “Have you seen Armando?”

“Oh! Mister Steve.” The diminutive Indian woman took me by the arm. “Some of us tried to get him to come down. He refused. He says he is on a hunger strike until his throne is returned to him.”

I winced. Armando was getting worse. Nearby, Ivy gave me a pointed look.

“Mister Steve,” Kalyani said, “you should have my husband Rahul join us.”

“I’ve explained this before, Kalyani. Your husband is not one of my aspects.”

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