Spiral Architect: Chapter 5

in which Morgan agrees to help a friend in need…

The following is a work of fiction, and not appropriate for all readers.

It wasn’t until I had seen Syd and the Camerons off that I turned my attention to Claire, who had been sending a request a minute. Perhaps she thought I was getting bombarded with other requests that would push hers down the stack, but that had not been the case. Astarte was on the job ensuring that only my friends could get through to me. I was tempted to regret numbering Claire Ashcroft among them, but that was uncharitable annoyance. If she was this desperate to get my attention it must truly be important, because she is typically much more respectful of my time and has better things to do than spamming.

When I got through to her, a videoconference opened in the bottom left corner of my visual field, superimposed over what I saw by my implant tapping into my optic nerves. She looked thoroughly frazzled, her auburn curls askew as if she had been combing her hair with her fingertips, and she was even paler than was typical for her. Most telling, she was wearing a t-shirt she had grabbed out of her laundry pile instead of taking time to select a fresh one. She’d never wear the same outfit two days in a row; it was a rule she set herself to avoid descending entirely into goblin mode1.

“Josefine’s missing,” said Claire, without any preamble. This too was unusual for her; she usually made a token effort at flirting with me, allegedly for my benefit, even though she understood that she wasn’t my type. I had asked her why, once, and she had said that since Christabel never seemed to flirt with me she would, because she thought it was a waste that nobody flirted with me. Sweet of her, but unnecessary. “She hasn’t shown up in Last Reverie Online, Goddess Metempsychosis Online, or Angel’s Necropolis in three days.”

Claire being the sort of media-obsessed techie she was, I figured that these were online role-playing games. I had a general idea of what the first two were about; the former generally involved melodramas pitting plucky bands of rebels against evil empires, and the latter generally involved demonic invasions of Tokyo in every installment. As Naomi had remarked when the last version came out, you’d think the place was accursed. However, I had no idea who Josefine was. Keeping her bedroom playmates straight might have been simple for Claire since she had years of practice in keeping track of the various casts of the series she liked to read and watch, but I did not recall having ever met Josefine. “OK, so you haven’t seen one of your girlfriends in any of the RPGs you play together?”

“She’s not my girlfriend. Well, she is, but only platonically. She’s my bestie.”

“Don’t say that around Nims. She might get jealous.”

That got a faint effort at a smile, but nothing more. Normally she’d remind me that Naomi was her adoptive auntie, and my bestie, but that she’d still ‘have her for dessert’ under the right circumstances. The incorrible flirt was too worried for her usual games, and that worried me. Claire’s flirtation, however unsubtle, served the same function as my cat Mordred’s purring. If it stopped, there was something wrong. “I don’t think you’ve introduced me to Josefine. Want me to grab a maglev to London so we can talk in person?”

She looked away, almost guiltily. “But you’re on the job.”

“It’s easier to get an express to Asgard from London. Most maglevs heading there from New York hit almost every city in the Americas2 along the way.”

“Are you sure?”

“Quite. This will give you time to get yourself together.”

“You mean get my story straight?”

“I said what I meant. That’s sauce on your t-shirt, I hope.”

The audio feed cut out, and the video overlay went black. I wouldn’t worry unless it persisted more than a minute or two. I was glad Claire had retained the presence of mind to cut her camera before taking off her shirt, but it wouldn’t have been the first time she had forgotten.

When the feed came on again, Claire had traded her Doomed Space Marines t-shirt for one depicting a cowboy riding a hydrogen bomb in freefall as if it were a rodeo bull. I had no idea she was a Doctor Strangelove fan, but I should have expected it. She was even more of a hipster than Christabel, Naomi, and I were. She soon acknowledged my notice with an arch look. “Oi. My eyes are up here.”

She must be feeling better now that I’m talking to her. “I had just noticed the shirt. Have you seen them live?”

“Yep. Got my copy of How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Play it Loud autographed by the whole band, too. Maybe I’ll tell you the story sometime.”

“Please don’t. I just want to hear about Josefine, whoever she is.”

“Her name’s Josefine Malmgren. She really is my bestie. We were roomies together at Oxford. She branched into psychology via computer science, but I went about it the other way around. She stuck around long enough to get her doctorate.”

A couple of photos appeared in my visual field. One showed a slim young brunette, shapeless in a cardigan two sizes too large for her and hiding behind wire-rimmed spectacles. The other showed a younger, confident blonde who at first glance couldn’t have been the same person. “So, is she a blonde or a brunette?”

“Blonde at first. She had a bad internship with Echidnasoft; apparently nobody would take her seriously just because she was blond. Bunch of pigs.”

The name of the firm rang a couple of faint bells, apparently the culture had gotten so toxic that the Phoenix Society had nuked the corporation, but I could not recall being in on that job. “So, she became a bottle brunette afterward? Wanted techbros to take her seriously?”

“Yeah. And who shows up but Isaac bloody Magnin. I told Josse that you can’t trust white-haired bishounen3 like him, but did she listen? No, of course not.”

“Isaac Magnin of the AsgarTech Corporation?” The man’s portfolio was entirely too diversified for my liking.

“No, it was Isaac Magnin of the Fluffy Kitten Kult.”

Despite myself, the remark brought a smile. He was exactly the type to keep a fluffy white cat handy so that he could stroke it while gloating; his penthouse office atop the AsgarTech Spire seemed designed specifically to resemble a supercriminal’s lair in a spy movie. It was the sort of conspicuous consumption that in other corporations would have had the rank and file assembling tumbrels and guillotines before you could say ‘income inequality’, but there were janitors at AsgarTech who earned a better wage than Magnin claimed to draw from the company.

It was as if the man couldn’t give his money away fast enough; the interest on his wealth alone was more than the most profligate playboy could spend; there simply weren’t enough hookers or enough blow on the planet even if Magnin indulged in such vices, and the man didn’t even have a dinghy, let alone a yacht. So he paid people working at AsgarTech an emperor’s ransom for sixteen hours of work per week, paid time and a half on every hour over that, and played at being a patron of the arts. The man had practically bankrolled Crowley’s Thoth, and would have bought every copy of every album we dropped if we weren’t good enough to have a modest fandom on our own merit, and all I had to do in exchange was the Phoenix Society’s dirty work4.

Turns out he serves on the Phoenix Society’s executive council as well. That is supposed to be a secret, but Eddie is occasionally indiscreet when drunk. As the man himself once put it, “I don’t have a drinking problem; I have a ‘being a schmuck when I’m drunk’ problem.”

Turning my attention back to Claire, I asked, “Did Dr. Malmgren ever tell you what she did at AsgarTech?”

“Only in general terms. She was under a NDA. But you might find it interesting that her doctoral thesis was about the implications of technologies developed for the Einherjar Initiative and the real-world possibility of something she called T-expressions.”

That sounded almost familiar. “Didn’t you mean S-expressions?”

“Honey-roasted fucknuts, you really do pay attention when I geek out.” Claire was practically beaming, and I suspected that were we having this conversation in person she might have hugged me. “I don’t remember all the details, but Josse had asked me to proofread a draft and while there was a shitload of Lisp code she had explicitly discussed thaumaturgic expressions, not the symbolic kind.”

“Thaumaturgic? As in using a Lisp machine to cast spells?”

“Exactly. She was going on about how the einherjar could do this but only came pre-programmed with a small set of effects, and this set them apart from some other set of robots called lifthrasir.”

Now I was really paying attention. “Claire, please rewind a bit. Did you just say ‘lifthrasir’?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“The term’s been coming up a lot lately. I hope it’s just the old Baader-Meinhof blues, because if it isn’t then the case I got stuck with when I ought to be rehearsing for the Carnegie Hall gig is a lot more complicated than Saul and Iris had let on.”

“Not as complicated as Blackheath, I hope.”

Claire had gotten stuck inside that developer’s new massive multiplayer online roleplaying game, Mirrored Cage, which used computer-guided lucid dreaming technology. Dying in the game didn’t necessarily kill the player in real life, but it was a hell of a lot more traumatic than dying in a game that didn’t require the use of a nightmare sequencer. I had had to go in after her because she had gotten far enough into the game that the AI running it had turned her into the final boss. Why me? Because I could see through the nightmare sequencer’s bullshit. It was how I had gotten through the Milgram Battery, cheating it Kobayashi Maru style5. “I’d rather not repeat that experience.”

“You think you had it tough?” It was hard to tell if Claire’s sudden indignation was real or feigned. “You have no idea what you look like when you take a fight seriously. I thought you were gonna go one-winged angel on my ass. You had final boss music.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Having heard the overblown music in the final setpiece battles in some of Claire’s games, I had no particular urge to know what my theme sounded like. Probably neo-classica shredding backed by a full orchestra and choir. Maybe with a cathedral organ and artillery division, too. “And since I was going to head down to Asgard and ask Magnin some questions, I’ll ask him about Dr. Malmgren while I’m there.”

“You make it sound like a beer and curry run.”

That actually sounded tempting. Maybe on the way back. If this job didn’t turn out to be a global thermonuclear clusterfuck after all.

more in Spiral Architect

date title summary
Spiral Architect: Chapter 1 in which Morgan is late because his day job won't let him go...
Spiral Architect: Chapter 2 in which Morgan gets yet another choice mission...
Spiral Architect: Chapter 3 in which Morgan begins to understand the stakes involved...
Spiral Architect: Chapter 4 in which Morgan finds an unexpected sense of kinship...
Spiral Architect: Chapter 5 in which Morgan agrees to help a friend in need...

about the author

photo of a pale, blue-eyed man in a black coat with long brown hair outdoors in the winter

writes science fantasy inspired by heavy metal and has a day job as a software developer. He is currently writing a new novel called Spiral Architect. He'll use your pronouns, but doesn't care which ones you use with him. You can reach him at contact@starbreaker.org.