Automan and all character names therein are owned by the American Broadcasting Company and Twentieth Century Fox. All characters are fictional and resemblance to any persons living or dead is coincidental. No copyright infringement is intended.

Automan: Dual Core
By Sailor Chronos

Chapter 1

22 May 2002

Carolina was just packing up at the end of her shift when her superior Lt. Baker dumped several folders on her desk. "Here's a good one for you, Officer Baines," he said with his usual sarcastic courtesy. "There has been a rash of burglaries at electronics stores in the area. No witnesses, nothing caught on any security cameras, and no alarms were triggered."

"If there was no alarm, it could have been an employee," she theorized.

"The store owners have sworn that all their employees are trustworthy, and all were accounted for at the time of the break-ins. But somehow, somebody was able to access the stores without even picking the locks. The only things that were taken were top-of-the-line circuit boards and computer power supplies."

She pondered for a moment. "The E3 is on this weekend," she said, with a sinking feeling in her gut. "There could be hundreds of potential suspects."

Her boss was confused. "What's E3?"

"Electronic Entertainment Expo," she explained, having not expected the middle-aged man to know. "It's an annual trade show for computers and video games, held at the L.A. Convention Center."

"Then I suggest you get yourself over there and have a look around. I've got enough to worry about already."

Traffic through downtown was a nightmare as usual, and she was forced to park her car a fair distance away from the convention center. Before she went in, she sat with the CD player blaring Laura Branigan's Hot Night as she perused the files. There was nothing much to add to what had already been summarized: expensive equipment had gone missing with no sign of forced entry. Security footage was no help: one second the equipment was there, the next it was gone; obviously someone had doctored the film. The only witness to one of the burglaries had been a man who was sitting on a bench across the street. He had described the thief as a "purple ghost", but since he had been drunk at the time, his account was suspect.

With a resigned air, she put the files in her briefcase which she locked in the trunk. Perhaps there would be something at the con that was worth her time.

She ended up spending more time at the convention than she thought she would. There were huge display areas for the "big three" game manufacturers. Many other companies showed off hardware and software. A long row of concessions sported toys and T-shirts; Lina was tempted to buy a shirt bearing an enlarged image of Pac-Man on it with the caption "Byte Me".

Then, near the back of the hall she noticed something that took her completely by surprise: a small booth with a banner that said "Capital W Creations" had a crowd of about thirty people clustered around it. A nondescript, brown-haired young man whose name tag read "Justin Woodruff" had just started his spiel.

"I'm sure most of you have heard of the Virtual Woman, the artificial intelligence game and chat-bot," said Justin to the crowd. "However I have taken it one step further: a fully interactive, intelligent hologram. I call it Virtual Man." He indicated the screen on the table next to him that showed the image of a tall, brown-haired man dressed in a dark skin-fitting suit similar to that of a scuba diver. Its neck and waist were sporting broad purple bands.

"Are you talking about something like the Doctor from Star Trek?" someone asked, sounding sceptical.

Justin grinned proudly. "Exactly!" He turned and typed a few commands. The image disappeared from the screen, and beside the table there stood a translucent 3D rendering of the same image. It slowly walked the length of the booth, then pivoted and returned to its original position. From this perspective, glittering purple pin-stripes could be seen running down the sides of its body, arms, and legs.

Then to the surprise of everyone except for Justin, the image spoke in a clear bass voice. "Good afternoon."

Murmurs rippled through the crowd, then scattered applause.

"Thank you," Justin said a little smugly. "As you can see, Virtual Man isn't solid. But I have a working theory that I am fairly certain can be put into practice: with enough power, this image can attain substance. He will FEEL real."

Now there were expressions of disbelief. "Mr. Woodruff," said a man in a dark business suit, "I have been an electrical engineer for 20 years. There have been many attempts in the scientific and military communities to create similar constructs, but no successes were ever reported. The electricity requirements alone to run even a small one would power an average town for a day. While your hologram remains impressive, I highly doubt that you would be able to create anything close to that which only exists on television." Some people in the back of the group chuckled.

Most of the onlookers drifted away, but a few gathered around the display to look more closely at the image that was standing in the booth. Justin pretended to be interested in the questions they had, but inside he was seething. How dare they ridicule his hard work? Just because he was barely out of college didn't mean that they had the right to brush him off! But little did they know what they would soon be in for...

Unnoticed, the slim woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair strode quickly out of the display area. When she reached an outer hallway of the conference center, she looked quickly in both directions to make sure there was nobody in earshot, and then she made a call on her cellphone. "Hello, Walter? It's Lina. We need to talk."