This blog showcases the ongoing and in-process work of Nicolas Wilson, full of wierd, fuzzy, wriggly things to tickle your brain. There tend to be several different projects ongoing at once, with their own posting schedules. Nic's publishing schedule briefly broke Nic's brain, but we replaced it with a melted Kit Kat bar we found under his toilet, and that seems to have him back online- better, even. Every November, check back daily to watch a novel birth itself in a month. Expect posting to return to its regular, if slightly assymetrical schedule outside of July and November novel writing marathons. 2014's project will be Next of Kin, a cyberpunk dystopia following a man chasing his brother's murderer.
Looking for books for the holidays? Does your kitchen looks like belongs in the Fallout games? Or do you just need to witness the depths of human depravity in order to prepare for a holiday witnessing... the depths of human depravity? Sounds like you, my friend, need some good ol' after the end of the world yarns.
My post apocalyptic title Homeless will be on sale $.99 November 23rd-29th, as well as these other titles.
Apparently I got a sympathy bump, for having got shot. There was a lag to it; people who watched it happen kind of turned on me. I got blamed for getting my ass kicked and shot with my own gun. But those that came in after were more forgiving. I hated that it was the first thing I noticed after the anesthesia wore off. Well, that and realizing I wasn't dead.
The next thing I realized was that I was back in Jenel's tent, lying in her cot. It was comfier than it looked- though it looked like a medieval trampoline. Jenel wasn't there. There was barely any light. I wondered how long I'd been out, and made the mistake of moving my chest.
The world turned fluorescent for an instant. “New mods are settling in,” I heard in my ear. “That was a new diagnostic, tries to make sensations less subjective and more obvious, so if you're having any kind of implant rejection it's easier for the techs to figure it out. You'll also taste purple, provided it's bright enough.”
“You're not here.”
“I don't spend all day in my tent. I'm picking up some food at the market.”
“Am I safe?”
“Your spores are active. You're the safest person in the dead zone. And I've got a couple of my goons nearby.”
One of the shotgunners from earlier poked his head inside the tent. He seemed less pleasant than last time- and on that occasion he pointed a gun at me. “You didn't tell them I called them goons, did you?” I asked.
“They heard,” she said. “Fresh fruit question. Orange or tangello? A warning, answering this wrong could very well end our burgeoning friendship.”
“We're friends?” I asked.
“Quit stalling for time.”
“I've never been able to bring myself to buy a tangelo. I just... couldn't get past the name, or that one time I did, I thought, can I really afford to buy a fruit I'll be afraid to try, only to throw it out? Come to think of it, that may also come from not understanding where it comes from. Is that a mix between tangerine and yellow?”
She laughed. “Okay, I didn't expect you to take it down the Island of Dr. Moreau crazy hole, but yeah. Oranges, all the way. I know tangelos aren't gene-mod, but I always kind of had trouble feeling like it was something that belonged in nature.”
“They aren't genemod?” I asked.
“it's a cross-breed, like a shorkie-”
“Or a bull-shit?”
“Exactly, smart ass. I don't have anything inherently against genemod; I mean, we wouldn't be able to feed everyone without it- a problem largely of our own making, given how poorly we've made birth control and legitimate sex ed available. But I give the genemod corporations the same side-eye I give the tobacco industry- clearly they've been manipulative about how they want their products shown to the public- though I don't think they're hiding a huge link to cancer or anything, just playing PR games.
“But the tangelo is a particularly strange creature. A tangerine is a dark mandarin orange- not actually a botanical classification. And a pomelo is a green grapefruit. The fusion of the two feels... unholy.”
“You've never eaten a tangelo either, have you?”
“Nope.” She sighed. “And now I feel bad, like I've been profiling my fruit. So we're both going to try a tangelo.”
“All right, but if the tangelo becomes sentient and later bursts out of my torso, I'm blaming you.”
“I think I can live with that. You know, unless both halves of the tangelo have a torso-bursting monster in them.”
“Okay. Well, I'm at the checkout, so...”
“I can wait,” I said. In the background I heard her talking to the fruit vendor, before giving him access to her account. I shifted, ever so slightly in her bed, and I felt pain from my shoulder to my side.
“You still there?” Jenel asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “What did the doctors say, about, uh, getting back to work.”
“I don't know how to tell you this,” she said, and her voice trembled, “but you'll never tutor again.”
“I meant the investigation.”
“I know,” she said. “And that's a tougher question. Because essentially the doctors want you on light duty. If you can manage to get Jim on the other side of a table peaceably, then that's fine. If there's going to be fighting... it could kill you.”
“And if I was going to rest.”
“Weeks,” she said.
“By which time Jim will be gone, and the case will be unsolvable. I'm not even sure why he stuck around this long.”
“Well, he thought he'd get away with it, for one. You two never got along, right, you and John? Knowing that, even I'm surprised you've seen it this far. Two, though, everyone he knows is in this city. If he's going to up stakes, he needs to gather contacts, and try and find some other place he can start over plying his trade. Otherwise he'd be starting completely from scratch.”
“How long do you think that's going to take?” I asked.
“Less time than it'll take for you to heal,” she said quietly.
“I guess that's good,” I said, and realized I was going to have to explain that better. “If it was in some gray area, I think that would be more difficult. But it's black and white. I have to go after Jim.” I sat up, and the blankets fell away from my shirt. “What happened to my shirt?” I asked, and hoped I didn't sound too accusatory.
“They had to cut you out of it,” she said. “Which is probably irrelevant, since it was pretty fucked up with blood, and had a large gunshot hole in it.”
“Yeah,” I said. I liked the shirt, but I don't think that was a recoverable state.
“And my underpants?” I asked.
“No, I took you out of those. They just looked too constricting.” She paused for a moment, to let me picture that, and feel awkward at the idea. “For the surgery, they needed you out of any unclean clothes.”
“I don't suppose you have a comically oversized bathrobe I could borrow for the ride home, do you?”
“Well, it was supposed to be a surprise,” I heard the words and then a partial delay before they came again. Jenel lifted the tent flap and walked inside. She threw a parcel into my lap. I opened it. It was a pair of clothes. “I used some archived footage of you to get your measurements, so they should fit well enough.”
“Thanks,” I said, and started to put the shirt on. “Ah, ah, ah,” I said, when I tried to raise my arms. “Okay, that was a stupid, stupid idea.”
“Here,” she said, “I'll go set the fruit down while you wriggle into the pants. Then I'll help you with the shirt. Okay?”
“Yeah. Just, uh, do me a favor, and think of baseball, or, really anything other than me changing.”
“I'll just hum my favorite opera,” she said. I leaned back into the bed to put my legs through the pants. It hurt, considerably, but nowhere near as badly as raising my arm had. Then I noticed she was pulling fruits and vegetables out of a bag, in a very specific order. Already on the counter was a squash and a plantain. Next she removed a cucumber, a parsnip, and finally, a single baby corn.
“Did you plan that?” I asked.
“Kind of,” she said. “You decent?” she asked.
“I'm pantsed,” I said.
“Just to be clear, does that mean you've got them all the way on, or they're around your ankles? I'll help you get them up, if you need that, I just, want to mentally prepare.”
“Good,” she said. She set the remaining fruit on the counter, and walked to me. She picked up the shirt. “Raise your arms as high as you can without pain.” I lifted my hands about an inch off my lap. “Okay, hurt yourself a little, then.” I raised them about chest-high. It hurt, but it was a manageable strain, rather than the eye-stabbing agony of raising them over my head. She threaded my arms through the holes, then my head, and rolled the shirt down my chest. “There,” she said.
They were a nice fit. I glanced from the clothes, to the food she bought. Then I realized that all of this paled in comparison to the cost of fixing a gunshot, let alone putting new tech in my skull. “How'd you pay for this?” I asked, touching my good hand to just below the gunshot.
“You did. Or you will, anyway. I mean, technically they wouldn't do it until I agreed to cover it, if you flake. But you're not the flaking kind. And even if you were, I know your social security number, mother's maiden name, all of your passwords and your inseam. You couldn't flake if you wanted to.”
“But why am I here? Not that I don't like being here, just, I don't want to inconvenience you, and I kind of would have thought that even a dead zone hospital would have a few beds.”
“They wanted to dump you on the street, when they were done; they weren't happy being sort of forced into your surgeries. I had to talk them into bringing you here, instead.”
“You didn't have to do that.”
“Have you ever slept on the street?” she asked, and I knew what her answer would have been from the way she asked it. She knew it, too, and deflected. “It's no place to recuperate from a gunshot.”
She went to the side of the tent with her stove and started to cut the fruits and vegetables up.
“Is there anything I can do to help.”
“Rest,” she said. “I don't usually cook for anyone. So rest, and appreciate that it pretty much takes a lot of guilt and a gunshot wound to get me into this position.”
“Guilt?” I asked.
She spread the fruits out on a plate, and brought them to me.
“It's probably stupid, but I can't shake the idea that if I'd been more cooperative earlier...”
“I didn't get shot because of you,” I said. “I got shot because Jim's an asshole. And because I got close enough to the truth of things that he freaked out.”
I hated not being able to see her face. “Did I see you?”
“You can right now, right? We didn't hit the part of your brain that interprets vision, did we?”
“I see just fine. Except that you're pixelated. And you weren't, when they were taking me away on the stretcher. Did you do something?”
She hesitated, and I hated the pixelation all the more. “Maybe your interface lost power. It draws most of its energy during operation from heat and circulation. So it's possible your vitals got weak enough it powered down.”
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. That's probably it.”
“But this,” she pointed to one of the slices of fruit, “is a tangelo.”
“It's got a nipple on it, like a lemon. This seems more like a bastard fruit the more we learn about it.”
She took up a slice herself. “Okay, we're doing this together. On two. One,” she lifted hers up to her face, and it disappeared in the pixelation.
“Wait,” I said. “I can't see for the pixelation. How will I know you've eaten yours?”
“Trust but verify,” I said.
“I know you think you saw my face, but... I need to protect myself.”
“And I would never ask you not to. I think I've got a solution.” I pushed my slice towards her. “I'll feed you, and you can feed me.”
She thought it over a moment. “You so much as hum one bar of the Lady and the Tramp and I'm out.”
“One, twooo,” the second word elongated as she moved her face close at the same moment as I pushed the slice of tangelo into her mouth. My fingers touched her lips and lingered, only an instant, and she pushed a slice into my mouth. I bit into it. It was sweet, and juicy, with more tang.
“It's good,” I said.
“And it doesn't feel like a monster's going to erupt out of my stomach.”
“Also good.” I set the plate down in my lap. “Whatever happens, thank you. For everything. I don't know how all of this gels with your whole ethos, and I know some of it pushed well outside of your comfort zone. And I really am thankful for everything you've done for me.”
“People have to help each other. That's what society is. My ethos is really just that it's dangerous for your society- your world- to get big enough that people become abstractions, that you can take them for granted, or worse, use them because they aren't an individual to you anymore. And fucked up as the circumstances, I'm glad you're a part of my world, now. And you will be, from now on. Those new mods. You can only get serviced here. Like it or not, you're part of the revolution, now.”
I smiled. I wouldn't have thought it even a few days earlier, but I thought I was going to like that.
“Investigator Tip: It is common for a bullet wound to render the victim unconscious due to a sudden drop in blood pressure. However, audience members tend to react poorly to any activity that can be described as 'fainting' or 'swooning.'”
I was moving fast, inside a car. “The good news, is I was able to trace the pay car,” Chase told me. “The bad news, it was an associate of his, not a usual pay car, hence why they'd pick up a guy who just shot somebody on a street corner.” I couldn't focus past the pain. “And of course, the worse news, that you're bleeding to death, you already know about.”
I realized I had my hand against my shoulder, that it was wet and warm, and I pulled it back to be able to look at it. The hand was keeping a hole plugged up, and without it there, blood spurted from the wound, and my blood pressure fell enough that I got faint, and smacked my head against the dash. “Ow,” I said.
“Keep fucking pressure on it; I don't want you to bleed out in my front seat any more than you do.”
“Hospital?” I asked.
“I'm afraid you aren't that lucky,” he said.
I tried to pull up a map to see what he meant, but couldn't get a signal. We were already in the dead zone.
“Did he shoot me on camera?” I managed to ask over the course of what felt like a half an hour.
“Yes and no,” he said. “He did, but he's using an app sold as the Reasonable Doubter. It basically systematically alters recording of a crime. It starts out subtle, like right now, it's just added crazy amounts of shadow to your attacker. But it's a progressive thing- attacking the footage in waves. It will try to make sure that the footage is completely unusable. And you might not have noticed it at the time, but he was ghosting another ID, and using a facial blur. At least for the spores. I've got forensics trying to back up your video feed, to see if he wasn't blurred there, but they're fighting with what is essentially a virus in their server, so, who knows what they'll be able to salvage.”
Suddenly the car stopped, and he was outside my door pulling me to my feet. I felt like a marionette, dangling but for the strings holding me up. We limped inside, and it wasn't until the flap fell off my eyes that I recognized we were back at Jenel's tent.
“What the fuck?” she asked, getting up from a folding table in the corner.
“You ought to know,” he said. “I'm pretty sure you've been keeping as much of an eye on the kid as I have.”
“When I saw you pick him up I canceled my call to the ambulance. I assumed you'd take him to a hospital. I apparently gave you far too much credit.”
“This was bound to happen,” Chase said, and lowered me into a chair. “Archer can see his every damned move. He knew he was coming- and when he got close, he mauled him, and shot him.”
“Both you and him need to get out of here.” She pointed a gun at him.
“You want to shoot me, sister? Go ahead. I already know my lenses are off, and I'm disconnected. So you want to put a bullet in me, go ahead- now's the time. But that will bring tactical down on your head- if they don't get a signal I'm okay in the next few minutes- and fancy as you are with a computer, there's no way in hell you've cracked that system. Not that I want a confrontation here- but you know better than me that it's protocol. Anytime an officer sets foot inside a dead zone that the clock starts ticking. You know what won't bring tactical raining down on you? Agreeing to save that stupid, bleeding-to-death bastard right there, and letting me walk out of here. I'll tell them you're cooperating with the investigation by saving our advocate's life, as soon as I'm clear and have a signal.”
“Tell them now,” she said.
Chase sighed, and used the line she opened for him. “You know how I'm calling from the dead zone; don't play dumb right now. Yeah. I picked him up. I took him here because here was one minute away, and the hospital was five or more. It was a judgment call, and it's already been made. The locals have him, and they'll save him if they can, and if they can't... I'll believe they did what they could.”
A moment later, I was being loaded onto a stretcher, and I realized that for the first time Jenel's face wasn't blurred out. She was beautiful, and I didn't think that was entirely the blood loss. I don't know if she let it slip, consolation for a dying man, or if my system was utterly down. Or if I was hallucinating. But I wanted to stay and just stare at her, but they wheeled me away.
“Could you help me find him?” I asked Jenel.
“Seriously? You're a human hemorrhoid; you keep new finding ways to be a pain in my ass.” But she knew that if he had half as sophisticated a mod package as she thought, I'd never catch him on my own. He'd be able to track me and always stay a hundred feet ahead of me.
“Fine,” she said. “I'd start with his GPS.”
“Isn't that likely to be bogus.”
“You'd be surprised. About a third of the time, criminals install all of the fancy, expensive pirate mods and apps, and then don't turn them on or calibrate them properly. But probably. Unless you think he's downtown. Moving too slow to be in a car, too fast to be on foot. He strike you as much of a cyclist?”
“No,” I said.
“Didn't think so.” She shared the GPS map with me. We watched him pull up to a residence. She brought up the street camera correlating with the address. We watched a skinny Asian kid who couldn't be more than seventeen saunter up to the door with a pizza.
“What now?” I asked.
“The nice thing about starting a trace with GPS is it's tied into his IP. Most of the data pushed to our interfaces is routed using an IP. There's only so much you can manipulate an IP before the public servers get wise- and it's higher level, computer Jedi shit. I do it. Our servers do it. But I wouldn't expect a drug pusher to.”
Suddenly a blue dot appeared on my map, inside the dead zone. She was even kind enough to share a map of the dead zone, so I had some landmarks to track him by. He was less than a mile away from where I talked to him last.
“I'd get to him fast,” she said. “He's bound to figure out you're onto him. And the more time you give him, the more dangerous he'll be.”
“You mind if I take the gun?” I asked.
“You'll probably need it a hell of a lot more than I will,” she said. I slid it behind my back, and tucked it under my waistband. I nodded at Jenel as I left.
Walking away from her tent, I noticed I was back on the grid; I wondered how long I had been. At least since I left Jenel- that much was certain from the conversation in the chat. My approval rating was higher than I expected, but the chat had turned actively hostile. I lost another point for 'walking too slow.'
I tried to speed up, but without increasing my speed enough the audience would know they'd gotten to me. I was starting to hate them. I wanted to catch my brother's killer. But I wanted to be free of them even more.
Jim was moving. The trace Jenel had on him was updating in real time, which meant he wasn't more than a few hundred yards ahead of me. But if he made it out of the dead zone, he could get a car and be well and truly gone.
My car was a mile in the other direction, and my account was redlining. Most drivers refused to pick up someone in my situation, because there was no telling if you'd get them to their destination only to find they couldn't pay for the ride. There was an alternate method, for linking a fare to the passenger's account, so when it went dry the ride stopped, but it was complicated, and led to more confrontations than it was ever worth. A paid car driver could simply do a passive credit check, make sure the passenger's account wasn't redlined; it just made things easier.
Jim couldn't convince a driver to pick him up until his GPS was functional; otherwise it was practically asking to be mugged. But it meant that if Jim made it out of the dead zone, he was gone. I picked up the pace. I saw someone ahead I thought might be him, and started running.
He was nearly to the edge of the dead zone. I wanted to call Chase, to have him meet me, or at least have him trace the cab while I grabbed my car. But I couldn't spare the air; if I tried to call I would definitely loose him.
But if he got away, I wanted to be able to tell Chase where I was, before I made it out of the dead zone myself. I knew my GPS wouldn't work, here- the dead zone routed GPS all over, so from moment to moment you appeared on other ends of the zone. I pulled up the location overlay; I figured I could at least give him cross streets. The virtual street signs had been altered, defaced in some places, or renamed for violent sex acts in others. I was pretty sure telling Chase I was on Angry Dragon Drive, just past the cross street of Flaming Amazon Lane, wasn't going to tell him anything.
Jim reached the edge of the zone. I was catching up to him. I wasn't in shape, but I wasn't as fat as he was, either. He paused, and I realized he was making a call.
But he was enough out of breath that to make the call he stopped. It meant I had a chance to catch up. As I approached, the red telephone icon appeared over his face, before disappearing.
“Wait,” I said. “I want to talk.”
“No,” he said, and I mistook his meaning, that he thought I had some other motivation. Then he hit me, and as my face smacked into the pavement at his feet, I realized he meant that no, he wasn't going to talk to me.
He kicked me, once in the shoulder, and I realized that by trying to get up I was just giving him more reason to kick me. I tried to curl into a ball, to protect myself as best I could. He continued to kick, at my spine. With each kick I was less able to hold the curl. Then I felt him kick the gun.
He knew immediately what it was, and kicked me in the neck. Lightning struck, from my head to my hip, and my entire side tensed, then went numb. I felt him slide the gun out of my waist band, felt it against my shoulder, then the compression wave was energy from it firing crested through my flesh like a wave.
Then the bullet hit, fire surrounded by force, burrowing through me, tearing its way through my shoulder then out of my chest. His car pulled up. I tried to raise my hand, and tell him to wait, but I didn't have the strength. He dropped the gun on the curb beside me, then got inside the car.
I held her a long time. I never wanted to ask her anything else, other than what I could do to make things easier for her. But I stayed as she cried because I knew that there could be more she knew, and I needed to know it. Because John's killer was still out there.
When she finally let me go, minutes after she finished sobbing, I braced myself. She wanted his killer found probably more than me. “Was there anything there, anything out of the ordinary, that you could tell me? Anything that might help me find who did this?”
“I would have told you already if there was,” she said. “But if I remember anything, I'll tell you.”
“When did you leave?” I asked.
“11:15, something like that.”
“Okay. I'll let you know if I find anything.”
I believed Tara more than ever before. Not a single process had been out of order. But my interview with her did point to more sophisticated mods than I would have ever believed existed. Which meant I needed to talk to an expert, one who was likely to be about as hostile as possible with me over the idea.
I knew she was at least checking up on me, if not watching avidly. So there was a pretty good chance that she knew where I was headed, and perhaps just as troubling, that she would know what I wanted to ask.
I drove to the same spot I left my car the other night. This time there were no guards, and I walked right into her tent.
“Is this a warm reception?” I asked. “Or just you not wanting witnesses.”
“That depends on whether or not you can play nice,” Jenel said.
“I want to know about some mods- black market ones. I'm pretty sure Jim lied to me, but if I want a shot at figuring out what about, I need to know how he got around my sensors.”
“Why would I tell you?” she asked, almost academically. “Provided those mods exist, telling you is like telling the cops, and rendering them useless.”
“Those mods are the same debate as piracy versus anti-piracy measures, or antigens and antibodies. Your tools will evolve, so will theirs, and if history and nature are a guide, yours will thrive in the wild, while theirs will stake out little pockets they can hope to protect. I'm looking for a killer. Even here, do you really want to protect the 'right' to kill?”
She smiled, and at first I thought it was because I'd made a cogent argument, before I figured out how naïve I was being. She'd figured out a way to screw me- or at least screw with me. “One condition: you let me shut down your cameras.”
“You can do that?” I asked.
“I always could. But I want your permission. Otherwise it would be a violation, me forcing vulnerability onto you- something I wouldn't do without a good goddamned reason.”
“The audience will hate me for it.”
“The audience are an asshole. And they'll hate you for not solving the case more. And ultimately, they're irrelevant, a shock collar around your neck there to keep you inside your little invisible fence; but a week from now? A year. They won't remember your brother, let alone your investigation into his death. But you will. If you fuck it up, it will haunt you for the rest of your days. So fuck 'em.”
I shut my eyes. The little part of me, that lived for approval, that couldn't stand getting anything short of an A going all the way back to elementary school, fought against the idea. I'd only just started winning them back, and this was a little like giving all of them the finger. But she was right. About just about all of it. “Do it,” I said.
My interface flickered through static. The chat entered into conniptions; I made the window so small I couldn't tell they were still sending messages. For the first time in a couple of days, I wasn't on display, wasn't subject to public review. I smiled.
“I wouldn't get too excited,” she said. “First things first, put that gun on the fucking ground.”
Whoops. I shrugged, and pulled it out extra slowly, and set it down at my feet. As a show of faith, I took several steps away from it. “Nothing to do with you,” I said.
“Oh, I know. I conferenced myself into the call with Chase. If it had been intended for me, you wouldn't have come within a hundred yards of here.”
I believed her. “Better?” I asked.
“It's a start,” she said. “So what do you want to know?”
“I want to know what kind of mod could defeat police interrogation software.”
“No, you want to know how to stop it from beating the interrogation software. Still a complicated question, but it pares it back enough to tackle the problem- without me necessarily violating my principals.”
“Okay. So how do I stop it? Chase told me to ask for root access.”
“Root access is a good start, but even that won't really move the needle on its own.” I frowned. “For one, 90% of all of the processing for an interface isn't done locally- it's happening remotely, at the servers- dead zone servers in the case of pirate apps. But even the 10% that is done locally is happening about ten times faster than a human being could monitor the streams- meaning just watching for a program that you know is malicious. You might get lucky, but it's needle in a haystack luck.”
“What, then?” I asked.
“Give me a second,” she said. “I was just having a little trouble finding the damned thing. I don't use it often.” I got a private message with an attachment.
“What's in it?” I asked, hesitating.
“Little program of my own coding. I've used it to root out viruses before. Not in my own system, mind you. I've got a honeypot computer; before I run any programs on my interface, I run them on that. But plenty of folks catch a virus- usually by moving too fast or being distracted, which means it comes from porn, usually. People worry about getting caught with it, so they rush through the warning and ads and inevitably run something they wouldn't if they weren't in a rush to get off clandestinely.”
“How does it work?”
“It runs processes against legit versions of the processes. Any deviation gets flagged and 'clamped,' meaning it stops the process from running. And it goes through all of the active processes, closing off ones that even seem illegitimate, until all you're left with is bare bones processes.”
“Is this the freedom you were talking about?” I asked.
“Freedom doesn't mean we sit around hugging a bunch of communal puppies. Sometimes it's the freedom to try and screw over another human being. And it's also the freedom- and responsibility- to be paranoid enough to protect yourself.
“And this is only a start, because a lot of the higher-level pirate programs mimic for all intents and purposes legit processes. Because you wouldn't want the cops to be able to just do this to passersby. Did you know they've been working on tools to basically force a reboot of an interface- giving them root access in the process? They don't have it, yet, because they would always get too much feedback. A couple of people got electrocuted by their implants when they tried it out. But it's an eventuality. So we've programmed around it. But it should clean up some of the static.”
“And it's not going to screw up my interface?” I asked.
“Or piggyback on your signal back into the police systems. Come on. If I wanted beef with the cops, I could get in there without much effort.”
“How?” I asked.
“Well, for one, they're using outdated encryption. Two, that's when they're using it. There are about a dozen working officers who still aren't using their encryption all the time- including when they transmit their credentials. And that's the low-hanging fruit, not taxing my brain or getting creative about it.”
“So you've thought about it?” I asked.
“I'd be a fool not to. They're my ideological enemies, and the only reason ours isn't a hot war is because they haven't fired the first shot- yet. They will. Because, and this is a dirty little secret, but the dead zones are expanding. They're losing. We screw with their data enough that they might not know it yet- or maybe they're just playing along to put off a confrontation because they're not sure they can win.”
She recognized my uncertainty. “But I'm not going to screw you over just to make my life a little easier. That's black hat work. And I stand firmly in the gray. Even out here, where I'm a firm adherent to a trust but verify ethos, there's only ever so much verification you can have. But if you take that too far, you start assuming your doctor's on the take when he suggests vaccinations, or that science is corrupt when it comes to trying to keep the air breathable. You can't verify everything; eventually, it all comes down to trust- deciding who you will, and won't let have real estate in your life.”
I sighed, and downloaded the program. “I mean, I am going to ghost your ID and empty your bank account,” she said, then laughed. “Kidding.”
“Not much there to drain,” I said. “And you wouldn't be the first to ghost my ID.”
“Your brother?” she shook her head. “What a scumbag. I'm all for making it hard for the government to crack down on drug smuggling, or hurting protectionism, but you can buy IDs- that's the whole point of having a black market, where things can be valuated and people inconvenienced can be compensated. But that makes sense. I thought your name looked familiar. I think he was Conrad when I first met him.”
“So what next?” I asked.
“There isn't one,” she said. “There aren't a lot of spy-catcher tools I can give you in your current state. Most of the rest would require hardware modifications.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You people really have no idea what they put in your skulls, do you?” She sighed. “Part of your interface is a BIOS- it's a default operating system. It prevents viruses from loading on an interface- but it also prevents using an unapproved OS, or pirate programs. The first generation or so of interfaces used a rewritable BIOS, like most computers at the time. But they quickly figured out people like me would take advantage, flash the BIOS, and get up to all manner of mischief. So now they us a one-time-write storage medium. Depending on the manufacturer there are a few different ones they've tried; one of the Japanese manufacturers field-tested an optical disc- a miniature blu-ray inside your brain. Only those are read by lasers, and lasers are hot, so... yeah, that didn't go well. But to run pirate programs they have to yank that out of you, and replace it with a more malleable BIOS.”
“And we don't want to do that?”
“It's invasive surgery- so there are risks that come along with it. And once you start modding, you can't stop. Because there's an arms race- you have to stay two steps ahead of the cops, or they'll find illegal workings in your noggin and arrest you for them. That's a long-term commitment- a change to your entire lifestyle. And I'm happy to evangelize- happier yet to convert the uninitiated- but it's also a decision I wouldn't let anyone make lightly- or under the gun, like you are. But probably most importantly, none of our doctors would do it.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because right now you're chock full of proprietary police code. And if the cops know we opened up someone like you on a whim, that we'd take as much of it while you were out as we could. And they couldn't abide that. They'd have to crack down on us, raid the bejeezus out of us to try and figure how much data we had. Not that they could ever get that genie back in a bottle- but they'd need to know how much of its power was out in the world.”
“So it's existential threat for you,” I said.
“Something like that. But hopefully all you'll need is the spider. We won't know until you find him. But... there's a good chance he's going to know all of this, in advance. I shut down the public feed for those spore cameras. But they're feisty little bastards. They'll latch onto any signal they can and try to transmit- anything to push data back to the mothership. I've blocked them from phoning home, but they're still transmitting. On a data use map you'd be a bright blue snowflake of video streams trying desperately to cram info onto any takers. You wouldn't be hard to find- if he wants to find you.”
“Is that why you asked to shut down my cameras?”
“Yes, and no. Yes, because maybe it could help. But no, because I don't think it will. Jim's tech is decent. I can grab hold of somebody like ShartGurgler's interface like it's nothing, and make her dance. His stuff, is unpredictable. It's got countermeasures, and it's jury-rigged to have different components from different manufacturers work together. One of the benefits of living off the grid is it makes it harder for somebody else to screw with you. But, it means if someone comes at you, they're less vulnerable, too.”
“So Jim probably knows I'm coming?”
“Anything you can do to help me out?”
“I can tell him to behave- that he knows this is an aggression-free zone. He starts shit here, and I will goddamned end it. But I don't know how much that might hold him back. Not far, I'd guess.”
“You could always loan me a pair of your shotgun goons.”
“That's not the way we work around here,” she said. “But good luck.”
That could have both gone better, and worse. On the one hand, nobody shot me. On the other, it was apparently possible I was going to end up needing to shoot myself, and I was carrying a quasi-legal gun for the eventuality. I got the gun tucked away in my jacket before the bathroom override ended- and I wasn't being euphemistic.
I knew I was going to have to visit Tara again, and go harder at her. She was the mother of my brother's son. I didn't want to suspect her, but I didn't have much choice. I tried to put out of my head that the last bits of my brother were mixed with parts of her- that she was shepherding his legacy.
I parked outside her apartment, then walked up to her door. My interface called her inside. “We need to talk,” I said. The lock clicked open. She was hand-washing a pot in the sink, and I walked into the kitchen to stand next to her. She smelled flowery, like a cheap perfume, or maybe midgrade shampoo.
“You should find a place to stop,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. She finished rinsing the pot, and set it to the side to dry. “Want to have a seat?” she asked, and led me into the front room. We both sat on opposite ends of the couch.
“Why'd you shoot my brother?” I asked.
“What the,” she glanced self-consciously back towards her child, making sure he was out of earshot, “fuck are you talking about?”
“As a suspect in his murder, I'm informing you that I need root access to your interface. I'll need you to reboot, and when it asks for permission to share access, for you to accept.”
“And if I don't- if I think that's a gross invasion?”
“It only makes you look guiltier.”
“Guiltier?” she asked. “So I already look guilty?” Her face contorted in a combination of rage and pain. I hated myself already, and that only made my own guilt worse.
“I need you to reboot your interface,” I said again.
“Fuck you,” she said, but from the way she looked down and to the side I could tell she was accessing her menus. A second later my request went through, and she authorized it.
“You want to tell me why you needed that?”
“Because you were with John. And before that, you were a sex worker. You have mods, I'll say quasi-legal ones, that are interfering with my investigation. Root access means I can see your processes- and terminate them. So if I think a process is blocking one of my tools, I can shut it down.”
“You could have asked,” she said, her voice trembling. She was upset. I tried to tell myself to use that- push her harder, still.
“Would you have complied?”
“I might,” she said.
“You're lying. You would have had the same exact reaction, only you would have dug in your heels instead of just getting hurt.”
“You manipulated me?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “Because I wasn't trying to elicit that response.”
“So you were being a dick, just not on purpose.”
“No,” I said, and pulled up her biometrics, as well as her brainscan. “And you don't get to play the sweet, innocent aggrieved girl, because you've been lying to me. So tell me the truth. When did you see John last?”
She thought about lying again. But I think this time she knew I was monitoring, and would know. “The night he died,” she said.
“About eleven o'clock.”
“How?” I asked.
“You already know about the mod that screws with GPS. Well, there's a sister mod, one that only sex workers know about. We guard it close, because so long as it's just being used for sex work, the cops don't have a reason to engineer around it. So about the only way you can get access to it is from another sex worker. When it's active, it cuts you out of any images or video, replaces the pixels where you're standing with 'empty' pixels from moments before your arrived. Makes it like a sex worker was never there. So you wouldn't have seen me come or go on the cameras.”
“And how did you get to his place?”
“I took a cab.”
“How'd you pay?”
She shut her eyes. “Autodeduction from my account.” She felt self-conscious for it. Even I knew that there were cash alternatives that the cabs would take that still allowed for some degree of anonymity. But on the other hand, it was good. Because somebody planning a murder doesn't pay for a cab with their account.
“Why'd you go to see him?”
“I still don't know,” she said. “Except that he was upset. In this kind of haze, of fury, and confusion. I'd never seen him like that. But he was this weird combination of upset and calm. Like he kept talking about the future, while holding Max. I think maybe that's why he asked me over. I thought maybe he wanted to get back together, or at least screw. But he wanted to see Max. It usually calmed him down. And I know this sounds weird to somebody without kids, but, having a son, it changes the way you look at tomorrow. It's brighter, more hopeful; maybe some of that is just because you want a better world for your kids, so you try to will it into existence.”
“Did that hurt you?” I asked.
“Of course. I've always known John was bad for me. He's the human equivalent of smoking. But smoking makes you feel safe, like whatever else is happening in the great wide world beyond your control, that this little piece of now, that's tied into your ultimate destiny, is right at your fingertips. You can touch it, you can taste it, and even if it's killing you, you love it for how it makes you feel in that moment. And I always wanted him- no, I needed him to feel about me the same way, even though I knew he didn't, and that he probably never could.”
“Did it make you mad?” I asked.
“You're asking stupid, redundant questions now,” she said.
“Just answer it.”
“Yes.” Her vitals were straight.
“And what did you do with that anger?”
“I stowed it away, and told myself I'd use it the next time he stopped by for a quickie, to say, 'No.'” She swallowed. “I probably wouldn't have, because telling him no would have been telling me no, and the difference is he would have just fucked someone else, where I would have been lonely and pent-up until the next time. Not that I ever got to chance to passive-aggressively channel that anger.” No deception.
“You didn't use it to hurt him?”
“No,” she said, and it was almost a laugh. “He was Max's father, and I still, I still, today have trouble with the idea that he isn't going to be there to help me raise him. I keep catching myself thinking that it's been a while since he stopped in, and Max would love to see him, and maybe I should think about shaving my legs for him. And he's not ever going to stop in again. He's gone. Jesus. How am I going to raise Max alone?”
“I'm sorry,” I said, and scooted closer in to her.
“Of course you are,” she said bitterly. But pissed as she was at me, and righteously so, she needed someone. So she latched onto my shoulder, and cried.
I slept fitfully, which seemed appropriate. Even with some good painkillers, I was pretty sure Charles Dean couldn't be sleeping any better.
I sighed when I realized I couldn't even pretend to doze any longer. I pinged my bank account. I was broker than usual, and I was usually pretty damned broke. I needed to work, but to do that, I had to finish this case, first. I looked at my investigative notes. I had a long list of suspects, but also nobody who had really shown me much of anything concrete to go on.
There were two more, written in red at the bottom. The two suppliers fighting over John's business. After Jim warned me off, I had been reluctant to talk to them. But it looked like my investigation was otherwise stalled. So I sent Jim a message, to set up a meet. I figured John's new supplier was the safer option; if the old had gotten wind of the deal, I could see them lashing out.
I didn't get an immediate response, so I cooked myself breakfast.
While I was eating, I received a message back. “Latin suppliers reluctant to talk to cops- even advocates. Chinese dealer accepted.” He appended an address, and a time. I had less than twenty minutes to dress and make it across town.
I was glad I showered the night before, though the reason for the shower renewed my shame. But I didn't have time to dwell on it, I jammed on a fresh-ish set of clothes and hurled myself into my car. I GPSed the location, and the time estimate made my stomach drop down onto the street. No matter how recklessly I drove, I was going to be late. Something told me keeping a high level drug trafficker waiting, especially waiting to talk to an advocate, was just asking for trouble.
The traffic was light this morning. I tried not to obsess; I was going to be late, I told myself, no need to road rage.
Finally, I arrived at a nondescript warehouse. The locks had been cut; so we were breaking and entering into our meeting space. It probably made more sense than providing the police with one of their own haunts.
The lights were off inside. My interface automatically adjusted for the difference, and I could see green outlines of boxes, then what I thought was a woman. She was reaching for a manual light switch. I shut my eyes a moment too late, and the fluorescents seared my eyes. I made a show of rubbing them, though without any pressure, so as not to scratch myself again, to let them readjust at an even pace.
When I could finally open them the woman was much closer, close enough to have a conversation, probably close enough to stab me, if she wanted. The proximity unnerved me, but I tried not to let it show on my face. She wasn't letting anything show on hers; it was blurred, like Jenel's.
I reminded myself she was a prime suspect, and pulled up the lie detection app, and her brain scan. Or at least, I tried. Instead, what I got was an image of a cartoon pirate, flipping me the finger while hatefully masturbating at me; it was funny and disturbing at the same time.
“I was hoping to ask a few questions about my brother. I don't suppose any of this means you're going to cooperate.”
“I'm here. My further cooperation depends on you.” She didn't have any detectable accent. I didn't think that could be a mod, since I was pretty sure vocal masks weren't that sophisticated. At least not yet.
“Okay,” I said. “Did you know my brother was considering another supplier?”
“Any dealer worth his beans always is, but that's capitalism. You don't think...” She chuckled. “Qui bono,” she said. “I don't benefit, knocking off customers who are trying out the Walmart of suppliers.” I snickered. “I agree. Chinese goods are often cheap shit, manufactured to fall apart the first time an insect farts on it. But the product I move is quality, sourced from all over Asia to provide the best, consistent highs. You want crap, buy Canadian, buy Latin. You want to make sure you get what you pay for every time, you buy from me. I'm not in this to sell crap; I'm building a brand. I want to be the Mercedes of intoxicants.
“But also: bullshit. John wasn't testing out the Latins. He'd done that already, months ago. Like I wouldn't notice him cutting his usual order by exactly a third- then increasing it the next month by a third to make up for the utter terribleness of the Latin product. He'd eaten shit once before, he wasn't about to do it again- not this soon, and not with them still trying to turn their supply chain into a bizarre auction.”
“I didn't say he was testing out the Latins,” I said.
“Aren't many in this business, not dealing in the kinds of bulk your brother moved. Canadians are an option, at least for anything they can manage to grow up on their tundra. But there's also a premium; they have to pay a Canadian wage, so their product is usually spendy. And they don't cook; they'll refine, but you know, no meth or anything else. The Russians pull from a lot of the same suppliers that I do, or at least the same regions. But they're Russians, so nobody likes the Russians.”
“Why's that?” I asked.
“Afghanistan, mostly,” she said. “Russia's half-Asian, but they look down on us. Like also being part of Europe makes them better, somehow. The catastrofuck in Afghanistan was simply emblematic. Every dealing they've had with Asia has this feeling of, 'get under our boots already.' And you start negotiations like that, you're bound to pay a shitheel tax. Which they pass onto the customers. And not only that, when you step on toes, and there's a supply hiccup, guess whose order goes unfilled.”
“So it basically had to be the Latins.”
“Yup. Which is why it doesn't sound like John. You know who that idea sounds like? His idiot partner. See, I'd figured out they tried out the Latins on my lonesome. But next time we met, to talk numbers, the idiot tagged along. John knew well enough to keep his mouth shut. Jim? Told me he could supply with the Latins for two-thirds what they paid me.
“I said you don't go to the BMW dealership, and tell them you could buy a crap GM for less, so they should really drop the price by ten gs. And they knew the competitor was selling crap, because they'd tried it out. I told them they were lucky I wasn't raising the prices on them- a disloyalty tax- because even at double the price of what the Latins are selling, stepped-on as theirs is, mine would be a bargain.”
“The Latins refused to meet with me. So why did you come here at all?”
“The Latins have spotty tech. Again, they're doing this bargain-basement style, which means half the time their blur mods don't work right. Just last week, a few of them got caught in a DEA sting, because they aren't bright.”
“But you are,” I said.
“I got a woman about a quarter of a mile away with one of the world's largest rifles, technically classified anti-materiel- for shooting trucks and tanks- because it's ridiculously overpowered to use against a soft target like a man- even a man in armor. If this had been a set-up, she would have shot a bowling-ball sized hole in your chest. Then I would have gotten away.”
“So you had an escape plan,” I said. “But that only answers half of the question.”
“Hmm. I had a brother, back in China. He was killed, by a corrupt official. I never really found out why. But I did find out who. And I brought my brother justice. So your... quest, is something I can relate to. And I hope you catch the son of a bitch. I don't know if I could say your brother was a good man, but among thieves, he was about as honorable as you could hope for.”
“Can you think of anybody else who would want John dead?”
“Not the Latins,” she said. “They'd try to kill him with kindness. Send him chocolates laced with cocaine, hookers to snort their shit off of. Putting one mid-level dealer in the ground, nobody benefits.”
“But if nobody benefits...”
“Then somebody lost,” she said. “Somebody got worked up enough that they killed him in a moment's passion.” I didn't have to glance at the chat to know that 'the girlfriend' reverberated through it. “And when it was done, it hurt them nearly as much.”
“Thanks,” I said, “for your help.”
“Your brother was a good customer. Didn't make me a fuckton of money, but I also never had to worry he was going to stab me over a shipment, either. Sometimes it's the little things.”
I showed myself out. I needed to go to Tara's. I wasn't looking forward to it. But I also didn't want to linger. With a rifle like she described, I imagined her friend really wanted to test it out. I didn't want to give her any excuse.
I got in my car and started to drive. I made it a couple of miles before I got a private message from Chase. “Take a leak.” With it came a GPS marker, leading to a coffee shop.
I stopped in at it, and used their restroom. I remembered to pause the feeds when I entered, and as soon as I had I got a call from Chase.
“Yarr,” he said. “Saw you took a meeting with a cartoon pirate. These underworld-adjacent crimes are the worst. Everybody involved has illegal mods- everybody. Means you can't trust the brain scans, or any of the other biometrics. There are ways around it. You can get root access to somebody's systems, to make sure they aren't booting up anything that could interfere with the tests. Or there's the more... thorough solution- that you get illegal mods to counter theirs.
“There is, however, a logistical hurdle- and not just the normal legal one. There's no way in hell anyone who usually puts in the illegal stuff will touch you while you're an advocate. There's a solution- though a desperate one- and I'm not saying you're there yet, I just, I don't want to blindside you with it if the time ever comes.
“You can shoot yourself- through the implants. You do that, in or around one of the dead zones, and they'll fix you up, fill you full of illegal tech, and just drain the funds as available from your bank account to pay for it. Unless they really don't like you.”
“You want me to shoot myself?” I asked. I heard something drop in one of the stalls, and became both embarrassed and paranoid.
“I don't want you to,” he said. “But I wanted you to know that it could theoretically come to that. At some point. And because of that, I left you something in the stall.”
“What kinds of things might make them reluctant to put Humpty Dumpty back together?”
“Typically we're talking things like like child molesters, or dedicated rapists. Usually scum the likes of which they don't want to be able to hide away amongst them.”
“What if I'm investigating one of them?” I asked.
“That might do it, too.”
I checked the empty stall, but didn't find anything. I heard flushing in the other, and waited until it was vacated, and the occupant had left the room. There was a gun taped beneath the toilet. “Is this legal?” I asked.
“Quasi-legal. Taken off a felon during an arrest; he lost it because he had it illegally. It wasn't registered, and therefore didn't have a legal owner. But because it hadn't been used in the commission of any other crimes, it kind of made sense to keep it, for this sort of an occasion. There are still plenty of reasons why a cop might need an unregistered firearm.” That thinking reminded me of why the cops were all but disbanded in the first place. “Know how to use it?” he asked.
“I'm familiar with the mechanics.”
“Well, familiarize yourself with the kinetics. Because there's a better than not chance you'll need it by the end of this investigation.”
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The ambulance arrived before the cops did, and took him away.
When they did finally come, it was Martens, with IA. “You're an advocate, so you beat that man half-to-death in the course of your investigation,” he said. “Hence IA.”
“Hence you?” I asked, and couldn't keep the suspicion from my tone.
“I was familiar with your case,” he said, and shrugged. “Now, you told dispatch that the suspect was in your car, trying to jimmy the receiver, right?”
“You pulled him out, brandishing a bat. When he resisted, IE, wouldn't stay on the damn ground, you hammed him with the bat. I would say batted, because it's more technically accurate, but when I hear batted I think a kitten swiping gently at a piece of string. And judging from the photos snapped by the medics before they carted your guy away, there was nothing gentle about the beating you gave him. It's not every day a man literally spits teeth. But as soon as he stopped resisting, you dropped the bat, and called in the cavalry. And a review of the video will confirm all of this?” I nodded.
“Well I think you pulled me out of bed for nothing.” I frowned at him. “Vehicle with this proximity to your domicile is legally a part of your home. So this homeless piece of trash invaded your home. Which gives you every right to beat the ever-loving shit out of him.” He paused an instant. “Sorry, there, audience, I meant 'poop.'”
“But who was he?” I asked.
“Scum,” Martens said. “If you really want to know, you've got access to the same databases I do. But if you want a word of advice. You really don't want to know. As somebody who's been in those shoes, reading about how Dickensian the guy's life was is only going to make it harder to finish your case. Justice is about seeing that people get what's coming to them; it's only human to sometimes feel lousy about how that plays out. But it's your psyche; damage it at your leisure.”
Martens not acting adversarial put me on edge. Maybe that was because I wasn't going after him. Maybe he thought my beating a man half to death gave him some leverage. Or maybe beating a man half to death made him feel like we had more in common than he thought. Whatever it was, I wanted him to go back to antagonizing me, because this détente was worse.
As soon as he was gone I went back inside and queried the database. I was sure he was right, on some level, that knowing the sob stories of criminals wasn't really going to help. But I nearly murdered a man at the demand of a braying public; I needed to know what kind of man I almost killed.
The sext show as back in full swing, only enough of an audience had appeared for it to justify video chatting. They were role-playing, me and the burglar, only in the show it was now a lady burglar, and it wasn't a bat I hit her with. Under nearly any other circumstances I would have been at least flattered, if not outright aroused.
But I was distracted reading up on Charles Dean. He was, for all intents, scum. He got failed out of a series of schools for multiple attempts to sell drugs to kids. The administrators at the time showed mercy, reported it administratively, rather than calling the cops. At least some of the time. He spent a few years total in juvie for a handful of different offenses. And his adulthood ran much the same way. He had been in and out of court-mandated rehab programs for years.
I was almost starting to feel justified, even self-righteous. This far from the pound of bloodlust, and now that I had a sex show being performed in my honor, my rating increased again. Maybe I deserved to watch a pornographic tribute. I caught a line of dialog from the chat, “SexyPredator: I wanted to get caught in your back seat, so that you'd punish me by getting into mine.” To emphasize, the actress stroked her rump enticingly.
My momentary self-congratulation died when I hit the dependents section of Dean's file. He had a wife, and a kid, and I couldn't not see Tara and Max in them. She worked when she could, but both her and the kid had ill health, and thanks to this being a right-to-work state, her employers didn't put up with any absences whatsoever. I was surprised I even had some information on the family's financials. Roughly 70% of their income came from Charles, and he was going to prison- once he got out of the hospital- which I was sure they'd bill him for.
A shiver shot through me. All of this, over a receiver? A receiver I hadn't even wanted to buy. Jesus.
I closed the video chat window, and started to strip off my clothes. I ignored the innuendos coming from the chat, and muted it, then remembered to engage the autocensor. I needed a shower. Maybe forty.
I checked my messages. Chase's friend had moved my car a couple of miles north and east. I called a pay car; it was obnoxious, having to spend the money for it, when I had a car of my own. But it reminded me of using my own car in the same capacity, while I was working through my tutoring degree.
The tape was there, on the driver's side. I worried about the other side; what if IA had been smart enough to get into the other side to tamper with my car. I pulled up the camera from where I parked initially, as well as the camera from when the car arrived here, and hit play on both in fast motion. A few people paid too much attention to the car as they walked by; one even tested the handle to see if it had been left unlocked. But no one got into the car. I knew it was possible for the footage itself to be doctored, but the time and resources for that were prohibitive enough I didn't even want to consider it.
The car started fine. I got in and drove away without incident. I watched my rearview, and even pulled up cameras as I passed to see if anyone was following me- not that that made much sense, since my home address was essentially public information.
I got enough into the routine of driving home that I didn't even consider the possibility that someone could have broken into my home to wait for me until I was shutting the door behind myself. But one glance around my apartment told me no one else had been here since the morning.
I felt like crap. I wanted to take a twelve hour shower. But I knew I needed sleep, first, and to rinse myself with whatever time I had left. I collapsed into bed, stripping out of only the least comfortable layers before sliding underneath the covers.
But lying in bed I couldn't sleep.
With the monitoring authorities also in bed, my chat had been taken over by a couple putting on a live sext show for tips. On any other night I probably would have laid back and watched, but I was still covered in camera spores, and wasn't eager to put on a show of my own.
I turned on the TV screen on my wall, and my interface dimmed to compensate. I lazily kept one eye on the chat; if it sounded hot I could archive it for when I had more privacy.
I scrolled through the available channels. I hated cable; my subscription got me access to the channels, but 90% of programming, essentially anything you couldn't get at some point in the year on one of the public stations, had an additional fee. Not that the fiber or satellite options were any better, in that regard.
I hit the wrong button scrolling through, and a local news program began to load. I saw the micropayment autodeducted from my account in the top right corner of my interface. Apparently I was watching this. I sighed, heavily.
The local news was carefully crafted with a combination of stories that were so dull they began to lull you to sleep, but were peppered with stories so horrifying you would never want to sleep again. I turned down the volume.
I noticed I had a message, from Tara. It was video of Max, along with a handful of stills. He was rampaging through a block city, snarling and whooping.
I heard a noise outside, and jumped up out of bed. I pulled up the camera outside, and could see there was someone in my car.
The audience saw it, too- apparently they got a feed for any camera I pulled up. The sext show ended abruptly, as the audience demanded I take action. “I'll call the police,” I said aloud. I opened a call, and got the number input in when I saw my approval drop several points. I disconnected. And widened the chat window.
They audience was demanding that I take care of it myself. Apparently, they'd been watching too much investigating; now they wanted action. The sentiment could probably be summed up by this one statement: “Randals10InPen15: You can wait for the police to show up late, if they ever do, or you can use those special powers granted you by the CDA and deal with it yourself.”
Unlike with Liana, this wasn't new rage. This jerk, or at least jerks like him, had been costing me money for years- costing me sleep, costing me sanity. It was hard to feel safe with a steady stream of assholes breaking into the car parked a few feet outside your home. And the money hadn't been trivial, either. I'd probably spent a couple of months' wages on replacing crap stolen from my car. I wanted to hurt him.
The year before, I had a meth-head I was tutoring. His parole was very specific. He had to stay clean, had to get his GED, then had to get a job. There were timetables associated with it. He was freaking out about the test. The pressure got to him enough that he went back to using, and completely missed the test. So he got really high, and somehow blamed me for not calming him down, and tried to bust my door in. He was high, not superhuman, but having someone that out of his mind smashing on your door all night will open your eyes. He arrived before midnight. I called them after a few minutes, when I realized there was no reasoning with him, and he was liable to hurt some innocent passerby. At 5 in the morning I called again, and mentioned he was violating his very strict parole, and would be going back to jail. They showed ten minutes later. I never looked at law enforcement the same.
Besides shaking my faith in the police, it convinced me to get something for home defense. I was dating someone depressive tendencies at the time, and she asked that I not buy a gun; she felt like it would threaten her safety, as well. I couldn't blame her. So I picked up a tee ball bat at a garage sale. It still had a little green price sticker on it. I kept it by the door, though I hadn't had reason to use it before now.
I grabbed it, and was reminded of how light it was. I could swing it one-handed with ease. Though I knew from playing baseball back in high school PE that swinging it was the easy part. It was when the bat connected that you needed all that power to follow through.
I opened the door. The window blowing in my face was bracing, and I shivered. I approached the car from the passenger side. The locks were already disengaged. The thief was hunched over the central panel. He had an improvised tool that he was using to try to get at my receiver. The rest of the car had been essentially passed over.
His foot dangled out of the car, jostling as he worked at the receiver. I grabbed him by the bare ankle and yanked him clear. He knocked his head, first on the central panel, then on the lip of the doorframe. It made him groggy by the time his head hit the concrete.
I kept dragging him, clear of the car, so I could swing with impunity. He tried to get up, put his hands on the concrete and started a push-up, then put his knee beneath himself. I raised the bat over my head, and brought it down. The resulting clang was satisfying; the crunch of bone that accompanied it turned my stomach.
He tried to get up a second time. I raised the bat in almost a golf swing, but as I brought the weapon around, he raised his hand up to deflect it, and the result smashed the skin on his hand open, and likely shattered bones.
He rolled onto his side, and grabbed at my car door handle to pull himself up. I swung again, and the blow glanced off his shoulder, and hit him in the face. The impact knocked him off his balance, and he landed face-first onto the concrete. Blood and white flecks hit my foot. The white flecks were shards of broken teeth.
My approval rating swelled to over 52%. A chant of “Finish Him” reverberated through the chat. At my hesitation, my numbers started dropping again.
There was a bloodied hand-print smeared down my car door. I looked at the bat in my hand, bloodied as well. The damage to the thief was extensive, but he wasn't dead. I realized the lack of weight behind the swings was the only thing that saved him.
“Enough,” I bellowed, and dropped the bat. “I'm calling the cops.”
Crimson Heron was set up in a thoroughly modern building, by which I mean every ridiculous accoutrement they could piss money away on, they did. The glass walls inside the lobby were all covered in film screens- the same tech as my lenses, but several stories high- covered with lush custom programming with production values to rival a feature film. The top of the screen was taken up by a black bar that showed the stock value of Crimson Heron, as well as its affiliates and Sontem's other subsidiary's. If profligacy were a religion, I was standing in the middle of its Vatican.
I walked up to the reception desk. “My brother was here the other day,” I said to the receptionist, sharing John's ID. “I'm going to need to talk to whoever he met with.”
“I'm sorry, sir, but that's not how we work here.”
“It will be today,” I said. “My brother's dead, and I'm looking into his death- deputized to that end.”
“One moment,” she said. She placed a call through her interface, and the red telephone symbol appeared over her face. “I have an advocate here, demanding to speak to one of our executives. His brother was murdered.” She was speaking with legal, or whoever else in their hierarchy was supposed to shield their top people from the outside world. She let out a sigh, then turned back towards me. The phone icon disappeared from her face. “All right,” she said. “I'll find out who your brother met with, and call them down. It will take a few minutes, if you'd like to take a seat.”
She gestured to some leather couches facing the film walls, and I sat down. The moment I did I got another message. “Investigator Tip: Check your chat. Right fucking now.”
As soon as I did, a new user made her first statement. “SanJeneldeClaws: Just found out something interesting. FartGobbler/ShartGurgler/TurdGargler is in the same building as you right now. I'm sending you GPS coordinates.”
A loading bar appeared at the bottom of my screen, but unlike normal, there wasn't any option to cancel the installation. When it was done, I had a new GPS marker, both on my location map, and physically floating at the position where FG was. He was a couple of floors above mine.
Damnit, Jenel. The chat erupted, demanding blood. Some wanted Jenel's, but the rest wanted the troll's. I wanted both. I called up my input, and typed out a private message. “Why do that publicly? You've signed my death warrant.” I sent it.
Her reply was almost instantaneous. “I know. It'll be fun to watch.”
I started another. “If he sees me coming, he'll just have security throw me out.”
“Not at all. I hid that message from his interface. He saw a spambot hocking a penis enlarging cream.”
A man with curly hair exited the elevators. He was sweating like he'd just finished a six minute mile, but his suit was heavy enough you could only see it in his face.
“Conrad?” he asked, as if he didn't know it was me. “Parker.”
“You want to talk here?” I asked.
He pondered it. “No. There's an executive conference room on my floor. More private. More comfortable. And you don't have to go blind from the light show,” he nodded at the film on the wall. “Follow me.”
We got into the elevator. I glanced at the pad, and a red message flashed across my interface, “No access.” A small percentage of the population couldn't use lens tech, mostly because of allergies to nano or the specific alloys used in the designs. Pads in elevators weren't legally required, but companies that wanted to appear progressive installed them, anyway.
He selected the tenth floor. “How did know my brother?” I asked.
“Not here,” he said, and pointed to his eye, then to the upper corner of the elevator. The cameras inside the elevator were too small to see with the human eye, but I was old enough to get the gesture- from when they weren't.
The elevator toned as we reached his floor. He tried not to make eye contact as we walked through the office, not with anybody. He locked eyes with the receptionist, an Asian man in his early twenties, clean shaven, before they both looked abruptly away. Once we were inside the conference room he locked the door. “Recording off,” he said, and sighed.
“More discreet?” I asked.
“What would it take to make this go away?” he asked. Jesus, this guy was an idiot. Apparently, legal hadn't briefed him, in the slightest. They were leaving him dangling in the wind.
“Me finding my brother's killer,” I said. “Until then, I'm on this case.”
Another message appeared over my interface. “Investigator Tip: An advocacy may be terminated in the event that a case can be made that a crime was random, and that the perpetrator had no ties to the victim, and none of the evidence links definitively to any individual. This is a conclusion of exclusion; all other paths must be rigorously investigated, and all other explanations disproven.”
“You should take a seat,” he said, and pointed at a chair across the thin part of the conference table. I did, and he sat down opposite me.
“Why was my brother here yesterday?” I asked.
“Why do you think?”
“Evasiveness only makes me want to dig deeper into you. Don't make yourself a suspect if you're only a witness.”
He closed his eyes. I think he understood on some level I wasn't his enemy, or even trying to antagonize him. “You know what he did, right? Professionally? Well, he was here, doing that.”
“In your office?”
“We were celebrating,” he said, a little indignantly. They really did live differently up here.
“When did you meet John?” I asked.
“I didn't even know his name was John. But I met him back in school- I got my MBA at the local satellite school. I was always the worst combination of anxious and ambitious. I'd get worked up over a test and just flatten the moment I sat down to take it. Stuff I knew, just,” he blew out a breath of air. “And it got to a point where I couldn't relax. Because I was getting so bad that I was convinced I was going to get kicked out of school. Then that got so bad that I could barely sleep, like maybe an hour a night. So my roommate at the time introduces me to your brother. At least around me, he always used an alias- always the name of the star of the most recent best picture. So one year he was Leo, the next Harvey. You know, always different. And he'd act offended if you didn't know his new name. It was a, almost a game,” he smiled.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “They told me you were here because he's dead. He was an acquaintance who made me smile, but you, you're family. I lost my great aunt last year. I can't imagine having to put off grieving to go charging into an investigation like this.”
“I appreciate your condolences.” I felt like I was lying saying that; I wasn't mourning because the parts of my brother worth mourning I'd lost years ago.
“But for the first time I could really, truly fricking relax. And then when I needed to focus I could take a hit of the right stuff, and there was no test or anxiety I couldn't blow through. And then when I needed to party...” he swallowed. “Partying's the only part I still do. I don't really get anxious anymore. But sometimes, when you've closed a big deal, and a little rum in the Coke at the pizza party just isn't enough to get that cute receptionist to come back to your office... that might be the only kind of shyness I've got left.”
“How did your interaction with my brother go?” I asked.
“Like these things go, man,” he said, and frowned. “You really are nothing like him.”
I'd been hearing that my entire life- but usually the person meant it in a, “You're not a low-life scumbag” way. “Walk me through it,” I said.
“Okay. He kept a burner phone, like, an old-school cell. He changes it up every year, or if somebody he knows gets busted- whichever happens first. When he does, he get in touch with all of his clients to give them the new number. So I called him. We've been dealing with each other long enough to know the routine. So long as there hasn't been too big of a price hike the difference don't mean shit to me; all we really need to square things is how much I need, and of what.”
“And what was it this time?”
“Cocaine. It's pretty much always cocaine, anymore. I don't need to take the edge off, or the extra focus. I just need to have fun, and, you know, once you've had a coke-fueled office orgy, it's kind of hard to go back to just egg nog.”
“And when he came by to deliver? How was he?”
“Everything seemed fine.”
“He wasn't tense?” I asked.
“Not that I noticed. I think that could be a professional courtesy; people buying drugs are already on edge, so giving them more reason to be paranoid is likely to freak people out worse.”
“But he wasn't distracted, wasn't concerned, agitated, anything?” Because I sure as hell would be, if I was being squeezed from either side by different drug cartels.
“He did have an appointment,” he said. “I don't know why, but I'd been feeling nostalgic, started waxing on about the olden days, when he'd used to bring stuff right to my dorm. He cut me off, because he had places to be.”
“Is there anything else you can tell me?” I asked.
“Nothing that springs to mind.”
I shared my contact information. “You might want to do the same,” I said. “In case I have a follow-up. It would be easier- and I imagine less disruptive, if I could just give you a call.” An instant later a message arrived with his information.
“I really am sorry about your brother. He was a decent guy, all things considered.”
“What things are you considering?” I asked.
“Well, for starters that his job description was essentially, 'Not a decent guy'. But he was always nice to me. And not just in the paying customer way; a lot of people kiss my ass, but not as many as you'd think are actually kind. I mean, I'll take that over the alternative, but it was nice, is what I'm saying, a positive kind of change of pace. And I'll miss him. Do you, um,” he frowned, and licked his lips, “sorry about this, but I don't really know the protocol, but do you know how to get in touch with his partner?”
“John's partner?” I asked.
“Yeah. I knew he had one; mentioned him a couple of times.”
“In what context?”
“Literally just that he had one. I think once in a strength in numbers, wolves running in a pack sort of way. But that's it, the sum totality of it.”
“I'll probably see him around,” I said noncommittally. But I realized as soon as I'd said it that there was no such thing as being noncommittal when it came to introducing someone to their new drug dealer. My rating dropped. “I think I know the way out,” I said.
I took a step toward the door, then spun back around. “Can you think of any reason to hurt John?”
“Kill somebody to cover up drugs? That's like wetting the bed, and killing your parents so they don't find out. It's insane.”
“Yeah,” I said. I walked out of the conference room. The receptionist looked sheepish at me. I tried to give him a reassuring smile as I walked back, because I had no intention to get him into trouble.
As soon as the elevator doors closed around me, I called Martens with IA. He picked up on the second tone.
“Martens?” I asked. “Did my brother have an appointment with you?”
He was silent for a moment. “I don't know how that's pertinent to your investigation.”
“Well, my interview at CHT indicates he had an appointment to get to once he left here. You helpfully erased parts of his back-up, and those parts would have included the appointment in question. So it would be useful to know if that was the appointment, or if I need to keep looking.”
“He might have called in, to see if anyone in IA was available to talk to him. But that's as much as I can say.”
“Fine,” I said, and disconnected. I didn't feel like wishing him a good bye.
He called them. That seemed like important information. Did it mean he was going to inform to them. Did it mean he already was? I buried the thought, because I'd had it a hundred times. As a family member of someone as lost as John, you scoured his behavior, picked apart his word choices, looking for any possible indication he was going straight. Which inevitably led to anguish and recrimination, because even the times when John truly attempted cleaning up his life, it was a tough road to travel. He'd been out of the job market long enough that employers asked questions, and even if he hadn't, whatever skills he once had were degraded to a point where he was basically a freshly minted high schooler- only without the recent practice with math. So I refused to do that again, to get my hopes up only to have them dashed, one final time.
I was in a noticeably sour mood when Jenel's GPS locater appeared below me as the elevator descended. I wanted to stop on FG's floor, and kick the hell out of the little troll. There was no excuse for screwing with somebody's life like that, and knowing they were close enough to hit with a thrown stone made my blood boil all the hotter. But I didn't have access to the elevator panel; it was automatically taking me to the ground floor.
The elevator stopped at the third floor. Then the doors opened. A message from Jenel popped on my interface. “You're welcome,” she said. I hesitated. Was I going to get tackled by security ten steps in? Worse, was I going to get in far enough to beat the hell out of a stranger? Being enraged was one thing, but confronting someone with that anger was stupid. For an instant I hoped that I could pause long enough for the elevator to close back up, and continue on its way. Perhaps someone had simply called it then changed their mind.
I noticed the chat rallying. They had forgotten Jenel's initial transgression, and were now baying for a troll's blood. And by not giving it to them I could watch as my rating counted down like a timer. Goddamnit.
I stopped off the elevator, and it closed behind me. I glanced at the receptionist for this floor. He was uninterested. He was dressed much better than me; I realized I stood out for that fact.
So I needed to hurry, because it really was only a matter of time before someone called security. The red arrow got bigger as I walked through the cubicles. Cubes were mostly a relic of a bygone era, because they were deliriously expensive. Working from home saw a slight decline in productivity, but unless your company was ridiculously profitable, you didn't furnish this kind of building then fill it with employees.
Which meant the cycle was usually that a growing company would build up like this, then slowly sell off its assets as it went, cutting employees and shrinking, year over year, until it faded away. CHT was on that upward trend, now, but no company could sustain that kind of growth indefinitely, and stockholders have always been vampires; they demand blood, and they'll drink as readily from a company's slit throat as from its spoils.
I was deep enough in my musing that I didn't realize that I was staring at FG, or rather, at three people where the arrow was located. The tallest was a man with dirty blonde hair, handsome in the romance book cover sense of the word. I assumed from his look, and from the way he carried himself, the way he laughed and looked at his workmate for confirmation, that he was one of the last fratboys. Frats survived brick and mortar schools by about a decade, before a series of incidents led to schools nationwide disavowing them.
The workmate was a little more nuanced. He was a follower, the kind of man who had the kind of personality that saw him clinging to someone more socially mobile. Either one of these three-piece douches would have made sense as FG, and they both had punchable goddamned faces.
As I approached I turned my attention to the last member of their group- or really not of their group. She was a short, portly woman with frazzled hair and frumpy clothes. She was carrying a stack of folders piled precariously high, and it was clear from her body language that she was put out. She just wanted by, but the other two blocked her way.
As I approached I heard conversation that sounded like an alien language. They were encrypting their speech, so that only she heard what they were saying. Just as I realized I was thankful I couldn't understand- I got more than enough from their expressions and tone- Jenel helpfully hacked their encryption, and I heard, “as I know your fucking aching for it, that I can see your knees quivering, and can smell your quim moistening, I just couldn't live with myself if I fucked a pig like you. So it hurts me, really, not to be able to give you the pity lay that might fucking save your life. Because I'd have to kill myself. And gun to your head, I think we'd all be better off with you out of your misery.” My fists clenched. I was going to break the douche's jaw, then stomp his balls to a paste to feed to his little scrotal parasite, and then feed the whole parasite into his ass so the world could know by looking at them they there were two symbiotic parts of a douchey whole.
Only I noticed that the arrow wasn't stopping on him. It was on the woman, whose name clearly showed as Liana Thompson. The dirty blonde turned towards his friend, and exaggerated a swing of his arm, knocking it into Liana's folders. I watched it in slow motion, as they tumbled, while she was powerless to try and hold on. And they cascaded, each one pulling the next in succession until she was left holding a stack not a tenth as high.
I was back to wanting to punch the douche. I used their broken encryption to send my own speech their way, just so they knew I heard everything they'd said. “Move along, fratboy,” I started, and he was startled. It took him a moment to put together that I'd heard them, and that I was intervening. A glance at me would have brought up my credentials, but he was balling up his fists all the same. “I'm a deputized citizen advocate, and I don't think I'd even have to stretch to call what you just did assault. I've had a lousy day, and I could really use an excuse to break your justice obstructing face over the edge of this cube wall.” I patted the barrier for emphasis.
He glared, but it lasted all of a fraction of a second before they walked off. Liana was already kneeling, and putting her folders back into a stack she could carry. I dropped to my knee to help, and we did our work in silence.
When we had stacked them back in her arms, we both stood.
She recognized me. She had to. I wanted her to say something. But I realized there wasn't anything she could say, anything she could do. There was no apology big enough for it, no expression of shame that would make me feel better. I'd become a football team she rallied behind or, maybe in her case, a rival team she despised with every fiber of her being. We'd both been dehumanized to a point where I didn't think there was a thing to do, other than be shaken to our cores at how easy it really was to make a person into a thing. She nodded to me, and scurried back and away.
I wanted it all to make sense. That she was bullied at work seemed more karmic than explanatory. The whole damn thing was about as unsatisfactory as it could have been. Worse, I had the violent equivalent to blue balls; blue fists? My blood was pumping, and I needed some kind of conflict.
I kept my irritation bottled up until I was back in the elevator. Then I called Jenel.
“You said it was a he,” I said through clenched teeth.
“Should that matter? Also, you said it was a he, and I played along.”
“It matters, and you know it, and you understand why.”
“Enlighten me. I'm bigger, and in better shape. And for all that I'd liked to have taken a swing at TurdGargler- that woman wasn't it. Maybe some sliver of her was.”
“So for her humanity, you couldn't strike her down- when it was her online lack of humanity that led you to confront her in the first place.”
“I'm not sure what you're getting at.”
“I don't know that I'm getting at anything,” she said. “I find the entire exercise intriguing, but sometimes learning about people is the only motive I have.”
“And what did you learn?”
“That you aren't a bad guy. No matter how hard you get pushed.”
“What if it's going to take a bad guy to survive this investigation?”
She paused. “Well I'll hope it doesn't come down to that.”
TurdGargler posted a link in the chat room as I walked out of IA. “TurdGargler: I'm horrified by this game I found posted under the name DukeGagger. What does everyone else think?” I opened it up. It was a rudimentary game where you could shoot a picture of John by tapping on the photo. Everywhere you clicked, a realistic gunshot would appear. There was an 'alternate firing mode' where you could shoot semen at him from a CG penis. The game encouraged you to use both, to more accurately portray John's death.
Petunia warned TG, but he claimed he was just joining the conversation, hadn't created the game, and wanted other people to denounce it as loudly as he had. I lost several more points, after that, as he ginned up another protest over censorship. I sighed heavily. I wanted to hit someone. But they were random assholes on the internet, and I learned pretty early in life that punching wifi antennae didn't do the trick.
Chase was waiting outside the police department for me, inside his car. “If it isn't my favorite puddle of Santorum,” he said. “Sorry audience; I know you hate the commercial breaks, but your eyeballs mean more money into the DCA program. You're helping stop crime by being pissed off. Plus, it's fun pissing you off. Police override.”
“You know you cost me points every time you do that, right?”
“So?” he asked. “It's not a popularity contest. It's a check and a balance on the extra police powers you've got as an advocate. And the freaks who watch that shit like it's a reality show- are about the unstablest collection of what I'd generously call humanity imaginable. I hate the audience. But I didn't come here to talk about my loathing. How did things go with IA?”
“Strangely,” I said.
“They're pricks. In this particular case, it's starting to look like they're crooked pricks. Martens, by the way, isn't the liaison with the DCA.” I frowned. “The entire office is bugged. We did that years ago, to catch anybody stupid enough to try and corroborate a lie while they're in the police station. He works IA, that much is true. But his interest in your brother... it doesn't exactly feel kosher. The main reason I'm here is to make sure you get away from the station.”
“Why would that be a problem?”
“Because IA are little better than gangsters. They're the only cops left who have any autonomy at all. And there's nobody watching the people who ostensibly watch the watchers- so without oversight, they've become as if not more corrupt than we were at the height of the bad old days. Nobody's giving them a tank, so I guess that's a positive difference, but they control the tactical response team. They're not quite as militarized as SWAT, but I guarantee if John Q. Public got a lens-full of it in action, they'd dismantle IA that afternoon. They won't, though. IA have it set up so everybody around them loses connection to the grid except them. That's the real reason they won't do a raid into the dead zones, by the way. They can't control the pirate networks, so they can't stop news from getting out.”
“What about my car?” I asked.
“I'll have a buddy of mine move it for you.” I creased my brow. “He'll be fine. IA isn't going to put a bomb in your car.” He thought about it. “Not this fast, anyway. That's why we're moving it.”
“Do you really think they might?”
“I think whatever's going on, they're willing to do quite a lot to keep it shut the hell up. And I wouldn't make bets with your safety where they'd draw that line. So keep your head down, keep investigating, and watch your ass.”
“You don't think that solves the murder? He knew something they didn't want getting out, and killed him for it.”
“That's a theory, kid. Fits most of the facts. But it's about as useful in court as a wet fart unless you can back it up. If I had to put money to it, though... they probably didn't kill your brother. It's just not their style. They'd have framed him for a crime, or blackmailed him into cooperating. Murder's a last resort, mostly because it means there's a concerned family member wandering around asking uncomfortable questions. The IA connection is interesting, but I doubt it's relevant beyond that. And the only way to prove either hypothesis is to keep on going with the investigation. They give you his interface?”
I'd forgotten. “Yeah,” I said, and opened it up. At that precise moment, the chat came back on. My rating dipped a few more points. I opened his schedule. He had a long series of stops to make, the ones we tracked on his GPS. Before those, there was the stop at IA. There were several blocks of data corrupted, a few sentences of description lost. “They cleaned off any information about themselves.”
“Duh,” Chase said. “That's why they took it in the first place. But what else is there? You've still got an investigation to complete- which means you need leads.” I sighed huffily. I liked the IA angle, and chasing anything else felt like willfully ignoring the elephant holding the smoking gun. “And it's possible that they left you clues inadvertently- that the things that are now missing will paint a picture, too.”
He was trying to prod me along the right path, and if nothing else he was right. Whining about it wasn't going to get the wiped memory back. “Next he's got a stop at 'CHT.'” I started up a search, cross-referencing his GPS comings and goings with the initials.
“Crimson Heron Technologies,” Chase said, as if I should have recognized it. “Sontem subsidiary. A lot of lens tech comes from them.” I turned towards him, at least as well as my seatbelt would allow. “They had an active shooter on their 'campus' a few years ago. I got tasked with doing the background, in case they needed to prep the negotiator. Instead, tactical shot him through a window,” he said nonchalantly.
“You don't seem broken up about an execution,” I said.
“You wouldn't either, if you remembered the case. Jerkass believed his wife was sleeping with his boss. So he went on a killing spree in the office. But he didn't start with the boss; didn't even check to see if he was in. Killed his secretary, and a whole lot of innocent bystanders. But neither of the people he was pissed off at- who, incidentally, weren't banging. She was fucking his neighbor, the boss was fucking his secretary- both of them were cheating on their spouses, but neither with whom he thought. So an angry, impotent prick opening fire in his office place? I don't mind summary execution. Had he been a dad or a mom having a nervous breakdown because they lost custody of their kids, who took some folks hostage but didn't ultimately hurt anybody? Then I'd maybe have some leeway. But when you start killing people just for being in proximity, I tend to get old testament pretty quick.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I'm feeling mighty wrathful right about now.”
“Good. Fury's a part of being a detective. But you've got to channel it. Use it to smash through the usual socials barriers, like being too polite to accuse someone of murder, or to intimidate them into talking about something that would usually embarrass them too much to mention.”
The car stopped. “Pep talks over. You're here. I'll send you a message as to where you can find your car. He'll leave a single piece of tape with his initials on it. If the tape's gone, or looks like it's been moved or cut, don't get into the car.”
“Seems awfully cloak and dagger,” I said.
“Kid, IA are the cloak and dagger brigade. If they are involved, no amount of paranoia is too much.”
I made it into the lobby before a man with slicked back hair found me. “Conrad, right?” he asked. I nodded, and he put out his hand. “I'm Detective Martens. I'm, I guess you could call me a liaison with the DCA. But I work with IA. My colleague, Detective Chase, was kind enough let me know you were going to be dropping by.”
Chase saw the both of us talking from his desk, flipped us the finger, and smiled.
“He's a retarded child,” Martens said. “I'd like to take you into one of the old interrogation rooms. There aren't a lot of quiet, discreet places to talk. But that's one of them.”
He took a few steps, then glanced behind to make sure I was following him. “You think you want a coffee, some water?”
“I think I'm all right,” I said.
“Okay.” The door opened up in front of him, and I followed him inside.
He took the side with his back to a mirror. There was only one other chair, on the opposite side. I sat down.
“How's your investigation going?” he asked.
“Two viable suspects, so far,” I said.
“I thought you IDed a man at the scene,” he said.
“Jim was there. He doesn't deny it. All I've got is Jim at the scene, but not necessarily when it mattered. And him being there doesn't mean somebody else didn't come, too. But it's looking like I might have to look into John's underworld contacts. His friend, slash partner, says they were caught in the middle of a turf war.”
“What's your read?” he asked.
“I kind of have trouble with motive for the girlfriend. She seemed to be carrying a flame, and be hopeful it would still work out. I know John well enough not to be so optimistic, but I believed her, for what that's worth.”
“The other” Martens asked.
“His partner? He's a criminal by his own admission, so just about everything with him is suspect. He was with him the night he died. He claims he left him alive after an argument.”
“Did you think about bringing him in?”
“I was interrogating him in a dead zone.”
“Ah. What do you think about that?”
“Well, smugglers spend a lot of their time in dead zones.”
“You don't think he maybe went to ground in the dead zone?”
“I don't think that proves much of anything. If my partner turned up dead, I'd go to ground, too; doesn't mean he killed him.”
“Why all the interest in my brother? He was a low-level drug smuggler, maybe a bit of dealing on the side.”
“Your brother was part of an open Internal Affairs investigation.”
“Investigation into what, exactly?”
“We've suspected for some time that someone from within the police department is behind drug smuggling within the city. We've even tracked some of the drugs from the evidence lock-up back out onto the streets.”
“And what does that have to do with John?”
“He was working,” he stopped himself, “I can't really comment who he was working for.” Even saying that much made him uncomfortable. “Police override.” All of the DCA components in my interface disappeared; he gave it a moment to make sure all of the cameras disconnected, as well, then leaned forward, and said in a conspiratorial voice. “Here's the thing. There are parts of your brother's investigation that we can't discuss with a member of the public- not even an advocate like yourself. The information is sensitive; it could hamper the investigation, possibly put the rest of our undercovers in danger.” The rest? That raised my hackles further. He wasn't so much as hinting at the idea, as slapping me in the mouth with it. He wanted me to think John was an undercover cop without saying it- which all but guaranteed that he wasn't.
I got a private message from Chase, with a link to some video. It showed me and Martens entering the interrogation room. It panned, and a pair of detectives entered into the room labeled 'Observation' beside it. I glanced behind Martens, at the mirrored wall, which I realized was one-way, how old-fashioned. Why the hell were there cops there, watching me?
My DCA apps came back online. The chat was full of complaining. They hated the commercial pauses. I noticed my approval rating drop several points, for the inconvenience. But the moment I was back, I noticed a new message in the chat. “ShartGurgler: Too busy jerking off over your dead brother to investigate? Just put these in your spank bank and get back to work.” Then she posted a series of pictures. Dozens of them. She had photoshopped John's face into photos of hardcore gay torture porn- hardcore enough that it looked one step removed from a snuff film.
“Petunia2039-mod: smote ShartGurgler with a swing of the mighty ban hammer.”
ShartGurgler's messages, and mercifully the photos, disappeared.
Immediately an uproar began in the chat over censorship, largely blaming me. Petunia tried to defend me, since I had no say in who she banned and why, but it didn't seem to matter. The controversy was stoked in particular by TurdGargler. I messaged Petunia, and asked what the protocol was with banning. “Once a citizen is banned from the room, their IP is logged and they are supposed to stay away. But the accounts are anonymous to allow for a free exchange of ideas, without fear of reprisal. Since TurdGargler has a different IP, if he says he's not ShartGurgler, I have to believe it.” I lost several more points.
I got another message from Chase. “John's interface?” was all it said. I hadn't thought of that. If he was shot in the chest, and there wasn't any further damage to his skull, he should have had his stored information intact. But the ME didn't mention it, and I hadn't thought to ask.
“Do you know what happened to my brother's interface?”
Martens narrowed his eyes. “We requested it for analysis.”
“Did the ME get a chance to examine it first?”
“Because of the... sensitivity of the information, we wanted to evaluate it ourselves, first. ME pulled the equipment first thing, and handed it to our officer.”
“She didn't mention it.”
He seemed annoyed by the implication. “It's standard procedure,” he soothed.
“Now that you've evaluated it, am I going to have access to it for my investigation?”
“Give me a second.” He typed out a message into a virtual input. “Okay,” he said. “Looks like we've got about another twenty minutes or so before our techs will be finished.”
“All the information intact?” I asked, because I knew the answer.
“We've had some corruption problems. Your brother was running a lot of illegal mods- anyone working in the underground has to. But they aren't all tested as well as they should.”
“What about memory tower back-ups?” I asked.
“We're not sure he had back-ups. The place they were supposed to be was blank- wrecked by his mods. But that seemed intentional- like a man dying of tumors burning his porn so his wife and kids don't have to deal with it later. Computer forensics is looking into it, but he might have had a back-up on one of the dead servers.”
He got a message. Probably the two watching, telling him to shut up, because this seemed like a legitimate slip.
“If there is a back-up on the dead servers, could you even get to it?”
He sighed. “They don't like cops, and mostly don't cooperate with us. Sometimes, if we've got something they want, we can trade- if the information's important enough. And, sometimes, it's worth our while to raid a dead zone- but only in the most extreme circumstances.”
“And these circumstances?”
He smiled. “Unless we find out your brother was Hitler bin Laden, I don't think we need to see what was on his mind that badly.”
“Not even to solve his murder.”
“I get that his death matters to you, and the rest of his friends and family. But a raid? People will die- cops and pirates. To solve one murder? Maybe if it were a political assassination. But solving the murder of one dealer? I'm not paying for that with innocent blood.”
I checked the clock. Less than fives minutes until John's data was clear. “I think that answers all my questions,” I said. “How about getting that coffee now?”
“Sure,” Martens said. He kicked out of his chair, and opened the door out for me. He led the way to the break room. I noted that Chase wasn't at his desk any longer.
Martens showed me where the recyclable cups were, and mumbled something about a busy day. I set myself up with my cup where I could watch the door to the Observation room while I sipped it. I got a message telling me that John's interface back-up was available. I loaded it, so I could look at it whenever I needed it- and because I didn't trust that it would stay available.
After a few minutes sipping my coffee and waiting, the two detectives inside Observation filtered out. I caught eyes with one of them, and nodded.
My interface showed their names and credentials. Internal Affairs Detectives Burnes and Moone. Moone pretended not to notice me, and walked back towards the elevator. Burnes continued to look in my direction, and a little smile grew over his lips.