The following is an exclusive excerpt from Eliot Peper's forthcoming Borderless. Here, the characters log off at the enigmatic offline club, Analog, in a world where controlling the feed is paramount. Enjoy. -the ed
Diana had always liked the way Analog stood apart from the surrounding buildings. Unlike the glistening superstructures or meticulously maintained Victorians that defined the San Francisco aesthetic, the club was the kind of postindustrial stronghold a Viking might build if transported to the present. The hulking black building seemed to absorb all the light unlucky enough to touch it. Bouncers blocked the massive wooden doors, arms crossed and suits straining to contain overdeveloped biceps and deltoids. The name was spelled out in wrought iron above their shaved heads. The place glowered out at the city with self-conscious insolence.
The fact that Haruki wanted to meet here meant one of two things. Either this was such a sensitive mandate that it required a high level of paranoid tradecraft, or he was so enamored with the prospect of a covert operation that he had mined obscure forums, geeked out on espionage dramas, and couldn’t wait to play the part. Either way, she wasn’t going to take any chances.
It hadn’t been hard to trace the supposedly anonymous address from which he’d posted in her secure cache. Once she’d cracked it, it was even easier to link it to Haruki’s public identity on the feed. Then it was just a matter of connecting the dots to his employer, interests, and associations. She aggregated, indexed, and cross-referenced his public data. Pictures of Haruki danced around her field of vision alongside his résumé, tagged posts, group affiliations, demographic profile, music preferences, social graph, and some indiscreet footage indicating a penchant for experimenting with psychedelics. This guy lived ongrid, which could mean a lot or a little. Truth was always the best cover.
“Gerald, Sam, you’re looking sufficiently intimidating today.” Lightning quick, Diana poked both bouncers in their bellies as she stepped between their bulky frames.
The men guffawed, and Sam leaned over to open the door for her.
“Aww, come on, D,” said Gerald. “You’re ruining the effect.”
“Even mighty warriors have to relax sometimes,” she said. “Stop taking yourselves so seriously.”
“People taking us seriously is our entire job.”
“Then you need to do a better one, cuz I don’t.”
“I could toss you out of this joint with my pinkie.”
“Oho, I’d like to see you try.” She balled her fists and hopped around like a boxer as she backed through the doorway. “Show me what you got.” Despite their opaque aviator sunglasses, she knew their eyes were rolling as the heavy door swung shut.
“Harassing the staff again?” said a cool voice.
Diana turned. “Nell,” she said. “What the fuck? How is it that you look so damn stunning every single time I see you? It’s like you have no regard for us regular humans who have mediocre genes, appalling style, and wake up with bedhead. Really it’s just rude how gorgeous you are.”
“Always with the sweet talk.” Nell shook her head, but her pale-gray eyes twinkled, and the corner of her mouth quirked to reveal perfect white teeth. With her pageboy haircut, smooth dark skin, and impeccably cut black dress, she could be the envy of any feed fashion star. A small pin featuring a retro air force insignia was fastened over her heart, and knee-high suede boots completed an aesthetic that was sophisticated and idiosyncratic. “It’s good to see you.”
Nell stood behind a polished wooden podium that was the anteroom’s main feature. A slim vase held a bouquet of lilies of the valley, their delicate white blossoms hanging like tiny bells off bright-green stems. Behind Nell, plush red satin curtains separated them from the club proper.
“Likewise,” said Diana. “How are the girls?”
“Jorani’s going through a bit of a manga phase, but they’re good otherwise.”
“Can’t blame her. Manga’s the shit. I knew she had good taste.”
Nell harrumphed. “Want me to show you in?”
“Nah,” said Diana. “I can handle the disconnect.”
“Go on then, lovely.”
Diana slipped through the curtains and into the room beyond, savoring the rich texture of the fabric. Analog was enormous. Bow-tied bartenders tossed cocktail shakers behind a wide wooden bar that ran along the entire left wall, countless rare liquors filling the shelves that rose behind them. Booths lined the opposite wall, which was covered in medieval tapestries depicting epic battles, fabulous monsters, and scenes of royal grandeur. In a far corner, a jazz trio worked their way through the standards, the vocalist riffing up and down scales in a haunting series of nonsense syllables. It smelled of honey, leather, and paraffin, the latter emanating from the oil lamps hanging from the high ceiling on slender chains, filling the space with warm, flickering light.
Despite her nonchalance with Nell, Diana knew she needed to give herself a moment to adjust. No matter how many times she visited, it was still disorienting.
Profound, disturbing silence that the music did nothing to dispel. No more photos of Haruki. No more neatly correlated logs. No more analytical overlays. Her entire dossier on the man, every digital breadcrumb of his personal history, had vanished.
But that was only the beginning.
Diana’s feed had disappeared. It was the umbilical cord linking her to the buzzing global hive mind, the forum for every strand of cultural conversation, the source of all knowledge, the venue for endless entertainment, the information infrastructure upon which the world was built. Gone. Gone so completely that it might never have existed. She couldn’t access the refractive index of her greenhouse panels, the contents of her secure caches, the Bulgarian folk playlist she’d assembled, the messages in her queue, or the local weather forecast. She was beyond the reach of the familiar cascade of updates and notifications. The steady hum of chatter that dissected every possible angle of any topic or story was abruptly cut off. The inevitable raging controversy over the twice-delayed release of Malignant Kernel’s new album was as inaccessible as the pundits sparring over President Lopez’s next move.
The world was both naked and obscure, shorn of the layers of metadata that made its mysteries legible. She was banished from the digital universe, its ever-present symphony of data reduced to a pervasive and unsettling quiet. The severed connection was a phantom limb, its absence leaving her aching for access.
Diana took a breath. Then another one, letting the jazz, muted laughter, and clinking of glasses wash over her. This respite from the feed was what Analog veterans treasured above all else, while virgins often needed Nell’s guiding hand on their arm just to make it to their seats.
Trying to embrace the information drought, Diana threaded through the tables that filled the space. As always, Analog was busy. Patrons ate, drank, and gabbed. She overheard an entrepreneur pitching a venture capitalist on a new synthetic biology pathway, a pair of old women arguing over a game of go, and a small group of standup comedians regaling each other with rough-cut jokes.
This was a place you came to get away from the public eye. That made it a magnet for the rich and powerful as well as those whose intentions were especially sensitive. Over the decades, the club’s reputation had acquired the sheen of mythology. Diana had heard through the grapevine that Ting-Ting Kuo, the legendary Taiwanese National Security Bureau chief of US operations, had run agents from here while sipping on rhum agricole, running FBI countersurveillance teams in circles. Gossip columnists claimed Lewis Parfit had announced his intention to divorce Sebastian Knight in one of these booths, setting off a socialite quake that had shaken celebrity culture to its foundations from Addis Ababa to Seoul. It was here that Huian Li had been struck with the inspiration to found Cumulus. William Gibson had spent three weeks holed up in a corner working on a novel, refusing to leave until he completed the rough draft of what would become the defining masterpiece of his literary career. Entrepreneurs, poets, technologists, politicians, scientists, builders, and dreamers flocked like starlings. The rumor mill never stopped churning. Famously, only a single person had ever made it in and out of Analog with an electronic recording device intact. Lynn Chevalier, the legendary investigative reporter, had used the incendiary audio to expose Vince Lepardis.
Diana thought about Chevalier every time she visited Analog. How had the woman done it? Even with the benefit of hindsight, nobody could figure it out. Journalism and espionage were sister professions. The only difference was that when they got their hands on something juicy, reporters ran wild like exhibitionists at the Folsom Street Fair while spies filed it away as leverage. When had appealing to the public interest really changed anything? Diana held pros like Chevalier in the highest esteem, right up to the point of publication.
Finally Diana reached the far side of the long hall where a magnificent fire roared in a hearth the size of an ox. She took care not to look too deeply into the heart of the dancing flames. They could conjure dark memories far too easily. Instead, she knelt to greet the three vizslas curled up on the thick Persian rug. The regal dogs lifted their heads, their golden eyes clear and intense.
“Hey, guys, it’s been a while.”
Waves of heat poured over her as she took turns scratching the dogs behind the ears. Up close she could see the strands of gray in their copper coats. One lifted a leg so she could rub his soft pink belly.
“I brought you something.”
They perked up with surprisingly human expressions of anticipation as she slid three pieces of bison jerky from a pocket.
“Don’t tell anyone, okay?” she stage-whispered as she fed them.
They responded with rough licks and wagging tails, which she took as confirmation.
“All right, fellas, enjoy your fire.”
Rising, she made her way to her favorite booth. It was the last one against the wall in the corner closest to the fire. From here she could see the entire club and keep an eye on anyone coming in or out.
An enormous scarlet cocktail topped with a mountain of garnishes sat sweating in the middle of the table. A Caesar. Diana blew a kiss to Virginia, who saluted her from behind the bar. Sliding in, she took a sip and savored the powerful mix of house-distilled gin and Clamato. There were hints of basil and even a touch of passion fruit.
That was the beauty of disconnection. Without the feed, everything was more sensual, more real. Analog should rent rooms by the hour. Sex here would be better than even the best pharmaceutically enhanced orgy.
But Diana wasn’t here for fun.
Across the club, the red satin curtains parted, and Nell led in a newcomer by the arm. The pair paused, giving the man time to adjust. Nell shot Diana a look, telling her what she already knew.
It was time to find out what this job was really about.