It began like any other day, which is the way these things usually do. I was at my office on the New Frisco docks, watching the tourists outside, and trying hard not to think about how long it had been since good news had walked through my office door. I was also losing a game of holographic backgammon to the holo-image projection of my trusty, though occasionally annoying, computer compatriot HARV.

“So I catch the SIMFOLKS security guy, red-handed, stealing parts from the droid manufacturing plant. And I literally mean, red-handed. He was smuggling a hand out in his lunchbox. You know what I mean?”

“Oh, yes,” said HARV, with a dignified smile on his face. “I understand the irony of the situation.”

For some reason, whenever he projects himself, HARV likes to take the form of an elderly, balding English gentleman (or at least how HARV computes the optimal elderly, balding English gentleman should look). I guess he thinks that it gives him an air of distinction. I’ve long since regretted letting him download the old Wodehouse stories. His Jeeves sometimes gets a little annoying.

“Okay, so I say to the guy, ‘All right buddy, hand over the hand,’ which I thought was pretty funny. He runs into the spare parts room, grabs a droid femur and takes a swing at me. ‘How ’bout I give you a leg up instead?’ he says. From there the body parts and the puns just started flying left and right. ‘No thanks, I’m already armed.’ ‘Nice suit. Is it double breasted?’ ‘Now that’s what I call a bowel movement!’

“Finally, I grab a couple of droid heads, one in each hand, and slam them upside his head like a pair of cymbals. He falls unconscious to the floor and—I can’t believe I do this—but I stand up and say out loud, ‘I guess two heads really are better than one.’ ”

I smiled. HARV smiled too, but only slightly, and there was an awkward silence. Then HARV quietly said, “I’ll bet he was really disturbed at that turn of events.”

“It’s a joke, HARV.”

“Actually, I think the term ‘humorous anecdote’ is more accurate.”

“Either way, it’s supposed to be funny. You get it?”

“Well,” said HARV, “I understand the anatomical references and your use of common phraseology in an ironic manner, but wouldn’t it have been more accurate for your last line to have been, ‘I guess two android heads, when used as blunt trauma-inducing weapons, can cause severe concussive damage?”

I turned my attention back to the backgammon board. “Forget it,” I said, “I should have known better than to waste the story on a computer.”

“Yes, well forgive me, boss, if I don’t quite grasp the subtle concept of witty PI banter. I guess I’ll just have to be content with the ability to perform three billion separate calculations in a nanosecond. Frankly, I’m surprised that you managed to survive all those years without me.”

(I should mention at this point that, although HARV likes to take on the form of a proper English butler, his attitude and speech patterns aren’t the least bit proper, British or subservient. He’s the world’s most advanced computer and he doesn’t let you forget it.)

“Now if you will kindly just roll the dice and take your turn. I am anxious to claim yet another victory.”

I sighed and looked at my bleak options on the backgammon board.

“How about this: A guy walks into a bar with two chunks of plutonium sewn onto the shoulders of his shirt …”

“Please, spare us all the anguish and roll the dice.”

I shook the two holo-dice (that weren’t really there—even though a good portion of my brain thought they were) for an annoyingly long time, just to get on HARV’s circuits a bit, and then made my roll. The dice bounced around the holographic backgammon board (which also wasn’t really there), much as you would expect real dice to bounce around on a real backgammon board (although not quite).

Even if the holo-dice hadn’t been semitransparent and slightly aglow, I would have somehow still known that they weren’t real dice. This puzzled me for a nano, and I started to wonder why. Then, I thought to myself that I was starting to think too much about this. I’m a Private Investigator, after all. I’m supposed to answer questions, not create them. And yet, inevitably, in order to properly answer questions, one has to first ask questions. That’s just the way the world works. Why is that? I thought.

Then I realized that I was getting way too philosophical for this stupid game, so I turned my attention back to the dice just as they ceased their simulated tumbling on the simulated board.

Double sixes.

There are times (most times, actually) when double sixes is a good roll. This, however, was one of those rare instances when it wasn’t. HARV had my captured piece solidly blocked in with two of his four remaining pieces sitting squarely on the number six slot. I was trapped.

“I find it hard to believe,” I said, not trying to disguise the disdain in my voice, “that you’re not loading these dice. I’ve rolled three doubles this game and every one has been worthless.”

“Oh, please,” HARV responded, in his best calming, almost-but-somehow-not-quite-human, voice. “I am the most sophisticated computer on Earth. Why would I want, or for that matter, why would I need, to cheat to win a simple game of backgammon?” He paused for a nano. “Besides your third roll of the game was a double two, which you found quite useful. Perhaps you wish me to replay it for you on the wall screen in super-slow motion?”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“As well you should, as I have no reason to lie. You have simply run into a series of unfortunate, but very possible, circumstances in this game of chance. Dice in motion are random objects, as you know, and subject to all laws of probability. Results of such probabilities cannot be accurately predicted nor controlled. It is the chaos theory in action.”

“What I want to know is how come the chaos theory always seems to be in action when it’s my turn to roll the dice?”

HARV’s holographic image picked up the holo-dice and shook them, ever so properly, in his hand. As he did so, he lectured, also ever so properly, as only he can.

“If you don’t mind my saying so, boss, you are fixating on the negative. You should be thankful that your bad luck at this gaming table does not necessarily translate into bad luck in the more important areas of life. You are, for instance, very fortunate when it comes to armed combat. You have been fired upon one hundred twenty-seven times in your career and have been wounded only thrice, each of those minimally so. You are also quite fortunate in the area of romantic interpersonal relationships. Or have you forgotten the lovely Dr. Electra Gevada. Quite honestly, your luck in this area is truly an example of the chaos theory run amok. Even I, the most sophisticated computer on Earth, have trouble computing what exactly such a beautiful and intelligent surgeon sees in you.”

“There are some things, HARV, that are beyond even your abilities.”

“True,” he reluctantly agreed and tossed the dice. “But they are few and far between.”

We both watched in silence as the dice rolled along the holographic board, like two very symmetrical tumbleweeds, before finally coming to rest.

Double sixes.

As I mentioned earlier, there are a few rare instances in backgammon where double sixes can be a bad roll. This, of course, was not one of those times.

“Oh, my, it appears as though I’ve won again,” HARV said with a slight, but nevertheless very noticeable, smile. “If I were counting, this would mark my fifth victory in a row and my tenth victory over the last eleven games. It would also be my 94th victory in the last 99 games and my 500th victory in the …”

“But then, you’re not one to count, are you HARV?”

“Of course I am,” HARV countered. “I’m a computer. It is what I do.”

“That’s it. We’re using real dice and a real board next game.”

“Fine,” said, HARV. “Bring them out.”

I thought for a nano, then mumbled under my breath.

“What was that?” HARV asked.

“I said I don’t have any real dice. I don’t think they make them anymore.”

“Just as well,” HARV said. “You probably wouldn’t know how to work them anyway.”

“Excuse me, but whatever happened to helping me count my blessings?”

“Ah, yes,” HARV continued, “your blessings. Well, aside from surviving numerous altercations involving heavy ordinance and being romantically involved with someone several steps above you on the social register, you also have what one would describe in the current vernacular as a ‘way groovy’ job!”

I will tell you now. There’s something very strange about hearing the world’s most intelligent computer use the term “way groovy,” but I’d grown accustomed to HARV’s eccentricities.

I am considered by many people (most people who know me, actually) to be a bit of a throwback to a bygone era; why else would I choose to be a private eye in the twenty-first century? Personally, I like to think of myself more as a Renaissance man: living comfortably in the present but fascinated with the past. Truth to tell, I was born in the wrong century. I am endlessly (some would say compulsively) fascinated by anything and everything twen-cen. It was a simpler time when everybody wasn’t “wired” to everything else. It was a more stylish time. A better time? Hey, I’m not naïve. But the cars were a lot cooler back then and, in my book, that counts for a lot.

I’ve been a licensed private eye for thirteen years. I got into the business in what they call a “down time.” It was the height of the age of information, and the general public, who at that time had the world at their fingertips and eyeballs via the cellular net, had no real use for investigators. After all, you don’t need someone to dig up dirt for you when you’re standing in the middle of a dustbowl. True, it takes a special skill to know the right place to dig, but it’s hard making that argument when the CaffeineCorner down the street is giving away copies of The Complete and Unabridged History of History Volumes 1 and 2 on a nano-chip free with every purchase of a quadruple latte.

So over the next few years the rank and file of the gumshoe population dwindled substantially. The old-timers, some of them grand old men from the heyday, living, breathing specimens of Marlowe-esque history, gave up the game. A lot of them passed away over the years. Many just retired and moved to New Florida. Ten years ago, the World Council stopped issuing licenses and private eyes became an endangered species. To the world at large, PI had become nothing more than the area of a circle divided by the radius squared. Before I knew it, I was the last licensed guy on the PI register, and the associate partner position at my buddy Randy’s software R&D lab was becoming a very real temptation.

To make matters worse, the PI void was about to be filled by the seamy underside of society. No, not organized crime. The entertainment industry.

EnterCorp, the world’s largest entertainment conglomerate, realized that there was a profit to be made from human misery and suffering by recording and netcasting it to the masses. EnterCorp created a private eye subsidiary corporation they ironically called DickCo, and the company now does a lot of the work formerly done by freelance PIs.

They actively recruit PI wannabes (thugs mostly) and employ them to do “investigative” work (totally unlicensed, of course). Who cares about a license, after all, when you have the shadow-support of the third largest corporation in the world behind you? Basically, DickCo assigns its operatives regular cases, covers all their expenses and pays them a regular, comfortable level salary. Operatives go where they’re told go, investigate what they’re told to investigate, and bust whatever heads they are (unofficially) told to bust. It’s a sweet life … if you’re a thug with highbrow pretensions. Unfortunately, the world still has its fair share of those. It just goes to show that there’s a big difference between a PI and a dick.

Why does EnterCorp do it? Well, part of the package that comes with your signing on the virtual dotted line is that DickCo has the right to record your actions at all times, twenty-four/seven, and netcast your work-related experiences on any of their many reality-based net shows. All operatives are fitted with netcast cameras that are surgically attached to their retinas (I call them dick-cams). Tracking devices are implanted in their necks so, in a pinch, satellite cameras can locate them to get dramatic overhead shots of their adventures. And the most popular of the rank and file get netcast “and one’s,” a sidekick whose sole job is to dutifully get the proper coverage of the operative (and sometimes provide comic relief or a sounding board in order to easily provide exposition).

EnterCorp made me an offer when they were just starting up. Needless to say, I thought the terms stunk worse than an angry unwashed skunk eating old fish and extra stinky cheese, and I turned them down flat.

Still, I didn’t want to quit the PI business. After all, what other job lets you set your own hours, carry a cool gun and get paid to snoop around?

Then five years ago I had, for lack of a better term, my breakthrough case. I won’t bore you with the details, but it involved YOM, which was short for “Yesterday Once More.” They were a teleport delivery service that promised to deliver packages back through time. Their motto was “When it really should have been there yesterday.”

The City Council, at the very strong urging of Fedport, YOM’s competition in the delivery service market, was worried that traveling so casually back and forth through time threatened the world as we know it and hired me of all people to set things right (there was a budget crisis and the city hadn’t allocated much money for protecting the fabric of time, so I was all they could afford).

Within a week, I had shut YOM down and reality as we knew it was safe once more. Actually, it turned out that YOM wasn’t really delivering packages though time at all. They were just hypnotizing their customers through subliminal advertisements to convince them that they’d received the packages the day before. So all I’d really saved the world from was false advertising.

Still, the press latched onto the story for a time, and I began what I thought would be my fifteen nanoseconds of fame. Then it was discovered that I was actually the last legally licensed Private Investigator on earth, and that sort of gave new life to my marketability.

A week later, I was hired as the private bodyguard for that teenage holovision starlet. I can’t remember her name. You know, the one with the hair? After that I did talk shows and the net circuit. A year later I saved the city when a deranged pilot tried to crash a twen-cen satellite into Fisherman’s Wharf, and since then I’ve been a bit of a minor celeb in this part of the world. I haven’t exactly stayed one hundred percent true to the Sam Spade mold, but every organism learns one way or the other that when the times are changing, you either adapt or die.

“By the way, boss,” HARV said as he re-racked the backgammon board. “We received our first of what could be several angry overdue rent notices this morning from your landlord.”

“What do you mean, overdue?” I asked. “Didn’t you pay the rent?”

“I’ve been dragging my feet, so to speak, on the finances in general.”

“Any particular reason why?”

“Well, at the nano,” HARV said, “your finances are stretched a bit thin. A few client payments are overdue and your residual check from the last net special was, shall we say, underwhelming.”

“Yeah, maybe Randy was right and we should have called it ‘Zach Johnson versus the Bikini Babes from the Planet Bimbo Thirty-Eight D.’ ”

“Be that as it may, you’re not, as they say, flush with investable capital at the nano.”

“So, we need to raise some creds in a hurry.”

“As always, boss, your keen grasp of the obvious overwhelms me. And may I take this opportunity to remind you of the very generous offer extended to you last week by the good people at OmegaMart to celebrate their new store opening.”

“Forget it.”

“It’s good money, boss, for a simple personal appearance.”

“Forget it, HARV,” I said. “I’m not doing it. Gates, I’d rather do anything than another one of those DOS-awful ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

And at that nano, three cheap-looking thugs in expensive looking suits crashed through my office door, turning the simulated wood into so much simulated kindling (funny thing, irony).

My first reaction was, “Why don’t thugs ever try the knob,” which, however incisive, wasn’t very much help at the time. My second reaction was, “This is not a good thing,” which was more pertinent to the matter at hand but overly obvious and, again, not all that useful. This is why I never trust my first two reactions to any crisis situation.

Carol, my secretary and probable future niece-in-law, followed the thugs into the room, shrugging her little shoulders apologetically. Carol is an extremely smart little girl, brilliant actually. She has the mind of a world class physicist. She’s the niece of my fiancée, Dr. Electra Gevada, and, when she’s not attending classes at the university, she works part-time as my receptionist.

One other thing, she’s also a psi (short for psionic), Class 1 Level 5, which makes her exceptionally powerful. However, because she’s young, her talents are still a bit raw. She’s very gifted at reading minds, and only slightly less skillful at mind control. She has trouble at times with her telekinesis and she tends to lose that ability under pressure, but, hey, she’s just a kid and you can’t really expect her to be perfect. Besides, she’s cute as a button.

She’s been recruited by nearly every government, corporation, and gaming casino in the new world (psi’s are rare and in high demand in the business world). She was even kidnapped once by a fifth-world country in the hopes that she’d become their secret weapon and the key to their world dominance. That actually got a little ugly and, as a result, I’m no longer able to purchase my favorite brand of macaroons. But that’s another story.

“Sorry, Tío,” she shouted to me, as the snarling thugs, with blasters drawn, formed an ominous a semi-circle around my desk. “My mind blasts didn’t stop them.”

Smart guy that I am, I realized then that this day wasn’t going to be so ordinary after all.