When people boil their neuralinks, they are usually in deep trouble within 24 hours. With children, you are notified almost immediately when a link goes offline. But, since Priya Yadav is an adult, I don't get called until someone submits a report. Eleven days!
I pay Mablevi with a two-finger flick in his direction, then tuck the groceries into my bag, but my eyes keep sliding to the sparkling water below, once more at full shine since I exited reading mode.
Chennai, The Jewel of the Waves, they say.
Mixed with the normal bustle of pedestrians and shoppers, painters along the Bridgeway endeavor to capture the beauty of the reefs below, while small groups of city planners from across the ocean gawk at technical overlays of the same view, showing the hidden wave turbines, perhaps, or the server cooling systems or who-knows-what-else.
My overlay is far more grim, and there's no software involved. Snorkeling down, staking yourself within the coral, and popping a neurotoxin has become the most popular suicide method in Chennai. It's so popular, in fact, people travel from across India just to kill themselves here. Suicide tourism.
Hair, it billows in the water just like the plants in the reef. And fish, well, they are not picky about food.
The images of dozens of bodies found this way wash through my mind like the tide. Memories aren't like nueralink data; you can't just swipe them from your field of vision, can't blur them.
I say a prayer to Allah, then apply for the autowarrants I need. The simple task centers me. A couple minutes and I have an address.
I find the first stairs that lead to the Underbridge rail and force myself not to look down at the glittering coral vista through the glass walls as I descend.
I try to believe there is still time for Priya Yadav, but my mind whispers: eleven days.
I always keep a spare uniform rolled in my bag when I go out. It's a simple outfit: a khaki shirt with the red flame of the Department of Investigations stitched onto the pocket, and matching pants with a red stripe down the leg. Not exactly military-crisp after being in my bag, and I don't have the proper boots with me, just my sandals, which is mildly embarrassing.
But to get boots, I'd need to go back to my flat, and who knows if the half-hour spent doing that will be the crucial half-hour I needed to bring Priya Yadav home safely?
I cannot risk it.
The sound of a shakuhachi flute lilts through the air of the rail platform as I tensely wait for the train. It is a soothing counterpoint to the full missing person report, which is reading itself to me at triple speed. He's blind, the flute player, and quite elderly. Japanese, I believe. His body ebbs and flows gently with the music as he presides over the large bronze pan that proclaims him a Busker Monk. I've always found something pure about their Order. To subsist entirely off gifts of passersby, no government sponsorship, no basic income, has an antiquated courage to it.
I offload my produce to him, and he nods his thanks as he continues to play.
According to the report, the month before Priya's link went dead, she filed a request to use all of her accumulated vacation and conservation days, forty-two in all. This was a pattern she followed every six months or so. She'd chosen mountain conservation as her volunteer assignment, which meant just to discharge her duties, she had to spend precious vacation hours to travel to a mountain range.
Me, I do local waterway conservation for my con hours, which is mostly plucking litter from the side of a boat. Also, to be honest, I usually pay a teenager from my mosque to do it, because who has the time?
Priya Yadav, apparently.
She belonged to a tight-knit group of mountain enthusiasts. They'd had an expedition set to start yesterday, tracking eagle populations in the Vindhya range. They'd been the ones to report her missing. The Office of Investigations AI interviewed them, and the sheer volume of manic details in the report suggests none of them were involved in her disappearance.
The AI has flagged a certain bit, though, and I get to it just as I'm stepping across the gangplank into the Skimmer-Train. "Possible suicide note," says the AI in its clinical voice. My stomach collapses at the words and I stumble into my seat before I switch to visual mode so I can read it myself.
I cannot take the AI reading me another suicide note.
I guess by now you have figured out I'm not coming. Zaman is probably freaking about having one less pack drone, and Dhanashree is quietly grumbling about how she's got to shift meals around to cover the food I was supposed to bring. Sorry, guys.
There's something I have to do, something I have been planning a long time. That's all I can say about it. Whatever happens, promise me you won't blame yourselves, okay? Especially you, Hetika. You crazies are the best friends a person could have. If I don't come back, it doesn't have anything to do with you. Got it?
If you miss my snoring too much, I bet Jaheel still has that recording she took to embarrass me. You can always play it on loop to help you sleep.
Love to you, my dear friends.
I reread the note twice before my heart stops pounding. The nostalgia of a suicide note is there. The pleas for friends not to blame themselves too. But it is less . . . declarative.
If I don't come back, it doesn't have anything to do with you. Got it?
She says "if."
Not a variation on the horrifyingly cliché "I've gone to become one with the reef." No, she says "if."
I take a breath to steady myself. There is still hope. And I've been so absorbed in the note that my stop is already coming up.
It's time to see her apartment.
The Slumstacks lie at the far edge of my jurisdiction. Actually, they lie at the far edge of everybody's jurisdiction. The districts overlap here like a Venn Diagram, both to share the greater caseload and to let the captains blame one another when things go wrong.
The Bridgeway connects to it, yes, but the Underbridge rail hasn't worked here for a decade, and all the foot traffic has to squeeze between the shacks slumped against the bridge walls.
Below the Bridgeway, the reef has not taken here. Too much pollution, even with people and robots working nonstop to filter it out. The Development Authority eventually gave up and installed a water barrier to keep the algae blooms from spreading to healthier areas.
The stacks themselves were designed with staggered balconies to allow for mango, banana, and lemon trees, but few of those trees still exist. Instead, the residents have enclosed the balconies with pulpboard for more space.
At the clogged doorway to Priya's building, the Helpnet Sergeant waits, arms crossed over his orange kurta. He presses his lips together under his matching orange-dyed moustache.
Helpnetters love to be conspicuous.
"Antagonist," he says with a tiny nod of his balding head.
"Antagonist," I echo back with an equally reserved nod. Together, the Helpnet and the Department of Investigations represent a unified whole, one seeking mercy, one seeking penalty. He's got the same flame sigil on the breast of his kurta that I do, though his is white. It has something to do with the two-faced Hindu god of fire, but that's about all I care to know. May Allah bring all pagans to repentance.
For missing persons, the Helpnetters and the DI work together, but there's always this theatric production of appearing as adversaries. It helps the credibility of the Helpnet, supposedly.
Plus, some of them are jerks.
"If your sandals will hold together, perhaps you will follow me?" says the Sergeant blandly.
I pinch a smile at him and repress the desire to make fun of his moustache. "As you will," I say.
Each of the towers here has a hospital at the Bridgeway level, but they, like everything here, are overcrowded. The sergeant leads a weaving path through the gurneys and medcarts in the lobby. An elderly white woman is dozing as she receives dialysis beside the door to the lift. She doesn't wake when the lift chimes for us, but she's breathing. Yes, breathing.
I pack into the lift with the sergeant and a half-dozen others. "You have come on an auspicious day," he says. "One of the lifts is operational." This brings a chorus of laughter.
Everybody is always joking with the Helpnetters. That, of course, is their function, to preempt crime with their joviality, to be the friend you call when things go wrong. It's hard not to resent that though. People tend to grow very guarded when they see my DI khakis.
Sometimes I feel like the water barrier, sifting out the sludge of suicides and abductions so the Helpnetters can laugh on the lift with their friends.
Everybody has a function.
The lift disgorges us into a crowded hallway. Every sort of household activity is on display. We step over the outstretched legs of kids sitting against the wall, doing schoolwork. Then we squeeze past a quartet of old men crouching around an ornate Pachisi board painted in the direct center of the concrete floor. Next, a Filipino woman tends a Tandoori oven shoulder-to-shoulder with a white man searing vegetables on a stovetop.
The ventilation ducts that snake into the nearby door are not up to any fire or safety code on the planet. The sergeant notices me noticing and silently dares me to say something.
I don't take the dare.
But I do ask the question that has to be asked. "What is Priya Yadav doing living here? She's got a job that pays far above basic dole."
"Subleasing," says the sergeant. "You know how it goes."
It's a standard feature of the Slumstacks. A family fortunate enough to get an official housing assignment doubles up with another family so they can rent out the space unofficially, splitting the money between them.
"But why do you allow it?" I ask.
His eyes flash. "I allow it because when the ancient food pulp machines jam every other week, she spends hours elbows-deep in other peoples' rotting food to make them synthesize again. In other words, she is a helpful member of our community."
His tone implies pretty heavily that I am not.
I hold up my hands in defense. If I continue to dig into why she lives here, this conversation will get heated quickly. Why wouldn't someone want to live here? What are you implying?
"Can you tell me anything else about her?" I ask.
"She runs the stairs every morning with a very large backpack and some sort of breathing apparatus. I had to assign her an individual time, because the other stair walkers kept getting knocked by her pack when she passed."
"Was she training for something?"
He bobbles his head. "She would not confide in me. Here is her door."
"Are you coming in as well?"
He smiles sharply. "I, of course, scanned the apartment down to the fiber before you came, but I have more pressing matters than watching over your shoulder."
I bite back a retort. This is the system. We're both paid by Chennai. He is doing his job. Rudely, yes. But rudeness should not beget rudeness. Allah loves those who control their rage.
"You serve this place well," I say, pressing hands together and bowing. "Thank you for serving me also."
"Bring her back safely," he says, like an older brother to his sister's suitor.
"In sha Allah," I murmur as he continues down the busy hallway.
As I walk into the small concrete cube that is Priya's flat, I'm greeted by the smell of machine oil and an invite to uplink to her virtual overlay.
I click it, but task the overlay to my right eye only. This way, I can close my left eye to see her virtual space, and switch eyes to view her physical space. I've told some of my colleagues about this trick, and they think it's crazy, but it's the best way to compare the two.
The cosmetic changes a person makes to their virtual space says a lot about them. With Priya, my immediate sense is one of sparse frugality. In the physical world, she has no rugs over the concrete floor, only a tarp in the corner stacked with machine parts. The Department AI flags this as possible city property; apparently her boss mentioned some items brought home that needed to be returned.
Continuing the frugal theme, her virtual space is a stock overlay. Italian Villa, the third option on every basic menu. Half the dorm rooms at University had this overlay. I've seen the same view of the Mediterranean with the same seagulls hundreds of times.
So where did all of Priya's money go? Some people rent a cheap place like this so they can splurge on overlay, but that obviously isn't the case. Was she simply a saver?
Did she just not care?
Here's an interesting thing: instead of a bed, she has a transparent tent. There is not even a mattress in the tent, just a pillow and a sleeping bag spread out over the hard concrete. It looks equally out of place in the Italian Villa as it does in her flat.
Who sleeps in a tent inside their apartment?
And if she boiled her link to live out some kind of back-to-nature fantasy, wouldn't she bring this stuff with her?
Let's see what other outdoor gear she has.
The closet door is a gilded mirror in the virtual world, but dull white pulpboard in the real one. It slides on a track to reveal a single clothes rack and many cubbies. A few coveralls that have seen a lot of use hang beside a lovely emerald green sari that has seen very little. Three hangers are bare though, and there is a lot of empty space left on that bar. Big enough for a giant backpack, maybe? No backpack in sight.
The cubbies suggest she at least had time to pack. There are entire cubbies empty, and judging by how crammed some of the others are, this is not their normal state.
But, then, there is a second tent here in a bag, so unless she has a third, she's not planning on camping.
The bathroom also reveals very little. She has a weather map on the wall where you can watch it from the toilet. It's centered on northern India, but I spot the Vindhya range there, which is where she was supposed to meet up with her friends.
She has no medications in the physical world that have been edited from the virtual one.
In fact, I see nothing that isn't mirrored exactly between the virtual and physical, and that's a problem, because it's usually the discrepancies that tell you the most.
I wander back to the kitchen area. A piece of pulpboard rests on the table, and it's got grooves etched into it, like she's been tracing the same pattern over and over again with her stylus. I scan it, but nothing pings. The concentric blobs tug at my memory, but I can't dredge up where I've seen them before.
I lean against the table and cast around the room, switching eyes: Italian Villa, concrete apartment, Italian Villa, concrete apartment. The real space has no windows. Used to let out into a balcony, but it's been walled off. Is that where the family lives who's subleasing to her? How do they get in and out? Through the adjacent apartment?
I make to leave, go track down the neighbor, but my foot kicks something under the table, something that does not show up in the Italian Villa.
I freeze, then bend down.
No. About that size, but this is some kind of . . . air purifier, maybe? It's got a wide hose attached to the side.
"Alti-MAX," reads the logo.
I blink a picture over to my nueralink, and don't have to scroll far for this whole flat to make a lot more sense. This device simulates the low oxygen of high altitudes, and the hose connects to a variety of permanent or inflatable chambers.
Chambers like the transparent tent in which Priya's sleeping bag lies.
Allah favors the curious!
And look! "Alti-MAX" also makes a portable model for training that has a facemask.
That's what she's been doing on the stairs! She's training for high altitude.
I look again at the trace-marks on the pulpboard. Before you could 3-D model terrain, and before you could ask your nueralink what you were looking at anywhere on the planet, there were elevation maps. My uncle had one on his wall as an art piece.
Priya has traced this one over and over, committing it to memory in preparation for boiling her link.
The computer renders it in a matter of seconds once I give it the proper parameters: Mount Everest.
My jaw drops as the legal info on Everest arranges itself across my field of vision.
You try to trespass on Everest, and you're thrice doomed: once by Nepal, who governs the land it's on, once by the Sherpa people who care for the mountain itself and consider it holy, and once by the International Gaia Tribunal, which provides legal defense for natural heritage sites that have personhood equivalency.
Trespassing on Everest will earn you an internal nueralink embedded in your neck. No boiling that. There are fines too, and likely time working the fields at the rehabilitation farms. Might even be some isolation service like microplastic recovery in the open ocean. She'd definitely never get a city job again, much less be involved in any of her beloved mountain conservation expeditions.
She'd practically have to kill somebody to get a more severe punishment.
My gaze lowers to the flame on my shirt pocket.
It's not the white flame of mercy; I'm not in the Helpnet. By all protocol, I should send this up the chain so they can offload it to the proper Sherpa/Nepalese/Gaia authorities. Afterwards, I should leave with a clear conscience, having done my job.
But I can't.
Because I need to know first. I need to know why on Earth would she risk this.
So, I flip the place. I remove every drawer, collect hair samples in the bathroom, catalogue the machine parts on the tarp, check the air vents, x-ray her composter and the planters on her produce wall for things hidden in the soil, gather samples from the three core spots inside her food pulper.
I even go inside her clear tent, though there doesn't seem to be anything there. I've stopped switching back and forth between virtual and physical views until I'm leaving the tent and see a discolored spot on the inside tent-wall, a little glob of adhesive.
I switch to virtual view then to see a small photograph, only visible from inside the tent. It's old; the color is faded and the middle-aged African man smiling toothily at the camera is wearing old-fashioned winter clothes. The snowy slope in the background is Everest again, according to my nueralink.
On the ceiling of the tent is something else only visible from the inside: the words "because it is there . . ." , another Everest reference, specifically climbing Everest to the summit. It's an emboldening sentiment, for sure, but not the sort of thing that would move somebody to this level of crime.
No, the picture is the more important find here, because the adhesive on the tent wall is real, which means this picture was so important that she took it with her.
I'm about to submit the picture to a database when a call comes in from City Sanitation.
"These aren't what we're looking for," says an annoyed woman without preamble, displaying the pictures I sent of the machine parts.
"That's all there is in the apartment."
"Then she stole very valuable equipment," she says. "She signed out an entire reef bot for home repair."
Unasked-for comes the vision of a teenage boy who committed suicide in the reef, a quadrupedal bot picking its spindly legs through the surrounding plant-life behind his waving corpse.
"There's nothing that big here," I say.
The woman hisses with annoyance and leaves the call before I can tell her to file an update to the report, an update that would add a grand larceny tag.
I look back at the picture of the African man.
Who are you, and what did you make Priya do?
The refugee archive identifies the man as Samuel Greene. Escaped persecution in the former United States in the mid-21st century, before the country fractured.
Samuel Greene left for fear of his life along with nearly a million others. India took about 300,000 and employed them in an early iteration of the conservation corps. Greene went to Sikkim in Northern India. His job: cleaning up trash left by recreational mountain climbers.
Eventually, he got transferred to Nepal and worked on Everest, where he died a few years later. That's where the refugee database left it, but an archived news article told the rest of the story. A climbing disaster in the Khumbu Icefall killed Greene and three others in his conservation crew.
But not before he married a Nepalese woman.
The trail to Priya unfurls like one of those hidden-text novels they make you study in Higher Secondary school, the double-spaced ones with the invisible words in between the lines. The Nepalese woman, Ang Dawa Sherpa, crossed into India soon after the disaster and remarried. That was the visible text. But with the help of a few pictures and some simple date calculation, it was clear that she had either left Nepal pregnant or with an infant in her arms, Greene's baby.
Had she left Nepal in disgrace for marrying an American refugee? Or was she simply trying to escape her grief?
Either way, Priya is 1/8th Sherpa.
I call my commander and ask if he has any contacts with the Sherpa people.
The ancient man I am eventually passed off to is named Wangchu Pasang Sherpa. He's got twinkling eyes that nest in a bed of wrinkles like dark birds' eggs, and a colorful knit hat. "Priya Yadav did apply to join the tribe, yes, but unfortunately her lineage was insufficient."
That strikes me as an injustice, but I don't mention it. "Did she ask for any other concession?"
"She asked for travel rights upon the face of Chomolungma."
He sees the confusion on my face.
"That is the true name of Everest," he explains.
Ah. "And she was denied?"
"Of course. Even the scientific operations granted travel rights are completed mostly by drone. She wished to walk on Chomolungma with her own feet. Alone. Which is dangerous as well as illegal."
"Dangerous?" I ask.
Wangchu Pasang Sherpa brays laughter unselfconsciously. "People died on the mountain when it was strewn with ropes and ladders and staffed with cooks. Now? Without that and with the icefall increasingly unstable? It is suicide."
The word hits me hard. Is that all this is? Suicide? Is the mountain her reef? Will she stake herself there?
I thank him hollowly and end the call.
I'm sitting cross-legged on the floor of her flat so I don't touch anything. Is this all that's left of Priya Yadav? This room that will subleased again the second her rent comes due?
The door opens.
"Ah, it seems you are finished with your snooping," says the Helpnet Sergeant with the orange mustache. "Or are you merely resting from the mental rigors of your investigations?"
I don't have the energy to continue this charade of rudeness. "Do you know anybody at Gaia?"
The sincerity strikes him silent. He rushes to come in and close the door.
"The Green Lawyers?"
"What could you possibly want with them?"
I don't stand. I don't want him to feel threatened. I stay in my spot and tell him everything, full disclosure.
When I'm done, he is stroking his ridiculous mustache with a faraway look.
"But you have not reported her?"
I give the vaguest wobble of my head.
"I don't know," I say.
He studies me. "I may have a contact with Gaia. What do you need them to do?"
I tell him. His eyebrows try to climb up his balding head.
"Only if I get to watch," he says.
The Gaia drone is a high-resolution camera set in a quadrotor that's modified to fly in the thin air above Everest. The Helpnet Sergeant has told his contact that he is using it to give a tour to Slumstack residents. "Which I will do when we are done with this, so I will not be a liar."
The drone is on a proscribed path; we aren't flying it. But we can toggle altitude to some degree and we have control of the camera.
Everest fills Priya's apartment, complete immersion mode. The clouds swirl around us, the wind whipping icy dust off the mountainside like spirits. The nueralink translates the wind to my skin, chapping my face and giving me the sensation that my hijab is flapping loose.
It takes over an hour to spot a blurry pair of shapes making their way up the mountain. Priya has sheathed her climbing clothes in Mirror Sheen so that she blends into the mountainside.
The reef-cleaning bot that spiders its way ahead of her isn't hidden as well. The solar fabric that's draped over its back is white, but it's not Mirror Sheen, and it trails a strange rope behind it, one with yellow tendrils that seem to anchor it to the ground. After Priya passes a section anchored thusly, she changes her clips to access the next section, and the tendrils suck back into the rope, leaving nothing but a quickly-fading outline in the ice.
"She is almost to where Camp III used to be," says Sergeant Chanesh, pointing to a data tag upslope.
We zoom as close to Priya as we can, close enough to see the joyful determination on her face under her sunglasses. Instead of the climbing pickaxe Green carried in his photo, she carries something that looks like some kind of industrial spatula.
I share a look across the gauzy sky with Chanesh before pulling up a search window. It's called a Gecko Stick. A marketing video shows a man using a pair of them to scale the glass side of a skyscraper.
"Look up the rope," says Chanesh.
The rope is harder to find, but when I do, I cringe. "It's pretty gross," I say to him, opening a window over the white face of the mountain to show an animation of how the rope uses the proteins in urine to create a sort of nano particle filament that spreads to anchor itself like the roots of a plant.
Chanesh snorts a laugh. "Efficient!" he says.
And, again, something that doesn't damage the mountain. They apparently used to drill bolts into the rock.
"Do you know what she does not have?" Chanesh asks.
"Recording equipment. At least that I can spot. This is no show for others."
"Because it's there," I whisper.
He looks at me quizzically.
"I think she's planning on coming back," I say. "This whole thing, connecting to her past, challenging herself, it's between her and the mountain. I bet she comes back and never tells a soul."
He considers, floating in the Everest air. "Will you prosecute her for the missing robot when she returns?"
"It won't be missing when she returns, will it?"
He grins. "No. No, it won't."
"Then let's make sure she returns," I say.
Below us, Priya Yadav labors up the mountain of her ancestors, a culmination of training, sacrifice, and extreme risk, made more extreme by the fact that she doesn't have a neuralink to call for help.
But we do.
She doesn't think to look up at the drone. Her thermal hood probably mutes any sound the rotors make that isn't blown away by the wind.
She imagines herself alone.
"I'll take the first shift," I say.
"I will bring some food when I return," he says, and leaves me to Priya and the glorious icy mountainside, which shines in the sun like a diadem.