The Mirror Man
by Andrija Popovic
Camille knew the moment she picked up the package a Mirror Man would hunt her. They infested the shopping districts. Shoulder forward, she pushed down the crowded street. The consumers parted around her. Focused on their personal networks and visual clutter editors, their early warning systems guided them away from collisions.
No one could see her. She was a blocked object. No one saw the dirt on her boots, or the cracks in her third-hand leather jacket, or the ribbons on her dreadlocks. No one saw the personal network contacts in her eyes flashing red every two seconds.
System failure. Illegal override. Software jailbreak.
The street narrowed into a close alley, dotted with restaurants. Normal eyes would see virtual facades and flashing advertisements enticing her to eat. Jailbroken eyes saw plain signposts with chirping VQR codes embedded in the text.
She grabbed onto a wall, scanning the crowd behind her. Winter air clawed at her throat. No sign of them in the alley, or in the crowd.
“Spare some ‘coin?” Camille nearly shat herself. The old man appeared from under a veil of discarded moving rugs. No one else saw him. Their personal content editors were set to remove upsetting items: Homeless folks, signs of decay, professionals with dark skin or foreign accents – anything and everything which would upset the user.
Which means no one saw the Mirror Men.
“I’m sorry.” She panted between words. “Listen, please, you’ve got to run. Bad things are coming.”
“What? Police don’t bother me.” The old man caught her eyes. When they flashed red, he shuddered and pulled away. “Oh no. Stay away from me! They’re coming for you. I want no part of what you did!”
“OK, I’ll go…” Camille couldn’t blame him. She started down the alley, boots sliding through the wet muck lining the street. She skidded to a halt, grabbing onto a handrail, and hid behind a dumpster.
A figure appeared at the alley’s entrance.
“That’s it. Follow me. Ignore everything else. It’s me you want.” Camille’s breath clung to the dumpster’s metal.
The Mirror Man paused at the alley’s entrance. A featureless chrome mask covered his face. He wore a tan overcoat programmed to fit his body. Black hands, the color of molten rubber, jutted from his sleeves. He walked down the alley, as slow and deliberate as a lava flow.
The homeless man cowered in his corner and piled blankets over his head.
The mirrored face turned. “Hello.” The Mirror Man’s voice was pleasant and plain, like an automated map voice. “You are not registered on the local network. But I’m detecting a personal network signature. This is illegal. Can you afford to pay for the privilege?”
“Oh, God…” The man cried, dragging fingers through his scraggly hair. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I just – I couldn’t get food if I didn’t have it. They won’t see you otherwise!”
“We understand, but that is no excuse.” The Mirror Man raised his hand. His fingers bent back, cracking, and his palm split open. “I have to deactivate you. I’m sorry.”
“No!” Camille yelled, dragging a burner from her coat, but it was too late. A white-hot beam poured from the Mirror Man’s palm. Where it hit the homeless man, clothes caught fire and flesh cooked in an instant. A few passes of the beam left a burning heap of clothes and charred meat. Screams echoed through the alley, but no one noticed. Everyone kept walking, their personal networks tuning out the unpleasantness.
“Oi! Chromehead! Over here!” Camille shot the Mirror Man. The burner beam caught on his jacket. Smoke bloomed from his collar and covered his mask.
The Mirror Man raised his hand. A pillar of flame spilled out and slammed into the dumpster. Her cover squealed in protest, yelling out for assistance from the nearest drone. Camille rolled to the side, hand shaking. She fired another blast. Black smoke billowed from the Mirror Man’s legs.
“Please stop.” The Mirror Man continued on down the alley. “You are currently in violation of several intellectual property laws, including unauthorized use of personal and interpersonal networks. You have also assaulted an intellectual property and network payment enforcement officer -”
“I’ll stop.” Camille grabbed the biter attachment from her coat. She snapped it onto her burner gun. The muzzle closed off, growing a claw. She fired the biter at the Mirror Man. It grabbed his coat and dug in, claw tearing at the charred fabric. The biter threw electric blue arcs at the Mirror Man’s mask.
“Help! Help! Help!” The Mirror Man collapsed. His legs kicked. The muck spilling from the dissolved dumpster soiled his coat. Camille ran up. Tucking the burner away, she pulled a knife free and triggered the blade. It snaked into the Mirror Man, finding his spinal cord and cutting it.
“I’m sorry.” She pulled the contacts from her eyes and dropped them into her Faraday case, next to the housing for the burner and the biter. The signal vanished. The alert stopped. The Mirror Man jerked and gurgled. His coat fell away, released from its owner, revealing a cheap suit underneath. She felt around his ear and found the catch for his mask. It came away with a pop, like a vacuum-sealed can opening.
The Mirror Man gasped. His face was thin and papery, like the surface of a wasp’s nest, but his eyes were bright, sharp, and clear. They were Camille’s color, too. She activated the knife. The blade snaked up along the right eye, under the eyelid, until the eye came free with a wet squelch.
“One down, one to go.”
* * *
Camille walked the streets. Her signal was clear and free. The overlays allowed her to dig under advertisements, to see which “independently funded study” was actually purchased by one or more conglomerates. She could dig into the displays of any shopper around her, reading their lives, even activating or deactivating their personal editors at will.
Her eyes still itched. It would take a few days for them to settle. Even after a thorough hardware and software cleansing, they still reminded her that Camille’s eyes, version one, were in cold storage.
The mask did not itch. She barely felt it. It tucked underneath her hat and easily merged with the reprogrammed tan coat. When she walked down the street, no one saw her, but everyone avoided her. She was a rock in the stream.
One of the Mirror Men approached. It flashed a simple signal, indicating its patrol route and any updates. She flashed a quick signal in response. Her stolen patrol route, often ignored but still active and logged in the enforcement system, appeared on the master map. She raised her hand, but the Mirror Man ignored her, returning to its route.
She walked past one of the VQR codes. It buzzed in her ear. A whirlpool of static danced around the code. Camille inverted her view, and the static cleared. A small red box, paint peeling in long strips of rust, hid under the static. Camille opened the box and returned the package: the burner, the knife, and the contacts. Closing the door, she placed a strip of black tape across the broken lock.
“For the next one.”
Camille turned and faced another Mirror Man.
She wore a simple brown cloak, with a raised hood, and a dented mirror mask. After a moment, the Mirror Man raised her hand. The black-gloved fingers curled and tightened into a fist. “Are you awake?”
Then Camille raised her own black-gloved hand. She raised it high until it reflected in her mirror mask, and she made a fist. “I’m awake and I can see.”
They nodded, lowered their fists, and moved into the anonymous rush of the crowd. As far as the tracking systems could tell, nothing had changed. Shoppers happily consumed. Poorer residents shied away from the Mirror Men, keeping the shopping district clear of undesirables.
Except for one. A dark-skinned lady with slim eyes stopped by the VQR code in Camille’s view. She picked up the kit, stashed it under her jacket and ran down the crowded street. Shoppers moved out of the way.
Camille allowed herself a laugh. No-one ever saw the Mirror Men. Everyone edited them from their feeds, happy they could afford good bandwidth and advert-free content. So no-one, not even the Mirror Men, would see the revolution coming.