Peace Eternal

Peace Eternal

Weather-System UK™ guaranteed scorching weather in the Scottish Outer Hebrides for the last two weeks of November. Balmy winds poured onto beach and clear skies reflected in the sea. A faint purple aurora phased in the sky as the gigantic force-fields moved thousands of cubic miles of air from Africa to this location. Parched countries received the desperately needed rain for crops, whilst the energy-rich Britain temporarily transformed parts of their nation into balmy paradises. The translucent pipe delighted Malcolm’s kids as they ran happily on the beach throwing sand at the signs that warned of low sea temperatures. The icon on the familiar warning signs showed a man clutching his heart under the water level. Underneath were the words ‘BEWARE COLD SHOCK.’ The force-fields were extremely efficient in moving the air around the world but the sea was far too dense for control and remained at its usual four or five degrees.
Thirty years before Malcolm had hiked in the nearby hills. It had been nearly Christmas in 2005 and he had been a twenty-two year old physicist. He was having trouble remembering the cold, the rain that had stung his face and the wind that threatened to throw you to the ground as he luxuriated in the warm air that piled on top of him. That had been a few years before Trenton Sweet changed the world. His work on cold plasma magneto-hydrodynamics was the stuff of children’s tales these days, even though Sweet was a year younger than Malcolm was. Sweet had followed on from the pioneering work of Laroussi. His unique mind had visualised hundreds of applications for the cold plasma force-fields and he had set to work building practical devices and patenting them. Sweet technology was everywhere, from hospital disinfecting equipment to satellites, protecting them from the bombardment of micro-meteors. Richer than some countries, Sweet lived in seclusion on Ascension Island, permanently surrounded by force-fields that only he could turn off. The islanders had been wildly paid and relocated to anywhere in the world they had wanted to go when Sweet had asked the government for the island in exchange for his weather machines.
General Malcolm Asher was a tall white man in good physical condition. His dark eyes and curly hair reflected his Jewish ancestry. He was young to have risen to the top of his profession and for the past eight years, he had been supervising the Special Defence Project on behalf of the government. Malcolm’s work dealt with Sweet’s cold plasma devices, after bypassing reverse-engineering laws through a Special Act of Parliament. Their overall aim was to provide a shield powerful enough to withstand multiple thermonuclear strikes and large enough to protect the nation. The practical considerations were enormous. The force-field needed to cover approximately one hundred thousand square miles. This would require an initial investment of fifty terawatts, or about three times as much power as the rest of the world could produce. Maintaining the integrity of such a massive cold plasma structure was easier as the normal atmospheric stresses placed upon the field could generate many times more power than was required to sustain it. This curious feature of the force-field was only apparent when the field became larger than five square miles. The excess energy arced as it discharged along the inside of the force-field. It channelled easily with old fashioned lightning rods and modern hi-charge batteries.
‘Daddy come look at this.’
Malcolm broke off his thoughts and turned his attention to his son and daughter. They had found something in the bushes; if it had been anything dangerous the protection squad would have made themselves known. He got up and made his way towards them.
‘Coming, coming.’ He called out. They had turned their backs to investigate whatever it was in front of them.
‘What have you got then, Dennis? Let’s have a look.’
‘It’s a bird, Dad. He’s hurt. Do you think he will be all right? Should we take him to the vet?’ Dennis blurted out, obviously upset.
The brightly coloured parrot was limping awkwardly on the ground. Malcolm examined it and could see that its wing was broken and there were scorch marks on some of the feathers.
‘The discharges,’ he muttered to himself as he got on his knees and gathered the parrot up in his tee-shirt. He laughed when it weakly tried to peck his fingers.
‘We’ve got a fighter here, kids. A real soldier. Let’s get him medivac’d immediately.’ Malcolm began to stride off to their gear. The kids were still young enough to love playing army. They chased after him and scouted ahead. A hand signal from Dennis let him know that the vehicle was secure.

* * *

Malcolm got out of the car in the area reserved for visitors. His children emerged with him and entered the small neat building. The vet was startled when he saw the parrot, even though Malcolm had called him on the way
‘What’s the matter? You said it wouldn’t be a problem on the phone.’
‘People bring all kinds of African birds during these two weeks. It’s just that they are normally quite dead when they arrive.’ The vet stretched out his arms and took the small bundle from Malcolm. The parrot squawked.
The Asher children waited in the car. It had an audio-video system installed with high speed Internet access. The kids had all the games, music and films in the car as they did on their personal systems at home. Alone, Malcolm remained thinking in the vet’s waiting room. The parrot plucked from its natural habitat and wrenched across the world, enduring a nightmare of lightning and flames, lead Malcolm inexorably to the conversation with his rabbi the previous month.
‘Separation of the world by force-fields splits the world of men also. God’s work is single, complete, and whole. It is as indivisible as God is. He cannot be divided into parts. This enterprise will fail Malcolm, it will fail or we will all be damned.’
He had laughed and argued back.
‘This is God’s world, rabbi, and I use God’s creation for all the people’s benefit. If successful, this project will be the most important accomplishment of our race to date. If we can create and control a force like this, why then we can finally leave this overcrowded and dirty planet.’
‘Go then. Flee from God’s work, but don’t create barriers as you leave. Walls that cannot be broken. That is what you plan for the world. Others have thought as you do. They thought to build walls around their countries. Did walls stop the Mongols invading China? Or, the barbarians destroying the Roman Empire? Or, keep the East and West Germans apart? If these walls had not been overcome the world would be an unhappier place.’
‘But the temple has the mehitza. That’s a wall that stops men and women from mixing, and that is God’s work too.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. The mehitza is nothing compared to your plan …’
‘It’s not my plan, rabbi. It’s the plan of the government, whom I have sworn to serve,’ Malcolm interrupted.
‘You swore to serve God as well.’ The rabbi’s words were tightly controlled but Malcolm knew the fury that lay behind them. In the interests of continuing his work, Malcolm had not been back to temple since the incident.
‘Mr. Asher,’ the vet was calling. Malcolm got up and went into the small surgery. The parrot lay on the examining table. It was not squawking anymore.
‘Parts of the poor little blighter had been burned and other parts frozen. I’ve never really understood why that was. The air coming from the tube is always so warm.’
Malcolm did not answer the vet. He was looking at the small bird with a strange expression on his face. As if, he suddenly smelled something rotten in the air.
‘Are you all right, Mr. Asher?’
Malcolm said he was and pulled out some cash. His actions were slow but automatic. He dropped a handful of fifties on the counter and swung out of the room. He was not all right though. The parrot’s death disturbed Malcolm. It would prey on his mind and unsettle his stomach.
He felt more in control of his emotions when he had reached the car. The kids were still playing on something in the back. He got in and explained to them what had happened. They wanted to know why the bird was cold too.
‘The end of the tube that’s over Africa right now works a bit like a vacuum cleaner. Yes, like the one that Granny has. It grabs a load of warm air and squeezes it. It keeps squeezing and relaxing until it pushes it all the way to us. Now, sometimes a bird is flying in the air that is grabbed. And I suppose that is what happened to the parrot. When the tube relaxes, there is a lot more space in the tube and the air rushes out to fill the room. This is called low air pressure and it can get very cold when the pressure drops. I’m afraid, that’s what killed the parrot.’
The children were subdued but less bothered than their father was. He had explained death to them long ago and they were as comfortable with the notion as they could be without becoming morbidly fixated. On the journey back to the helicopter, and later, his office, Malcolm’s thoughts turned back to his work, specifically, the enormous difficulties to be overcome to create a force-field umbrella around the British Isles. His job was concerned with more than the building of such a device. He had input from a dozen universities examining all kinds of aspects of the Special Defence Project. Included were the possible and probable effects on trade, economics, societal shifts and predicted areas of change, immigration and disease control. The University of Lund had submitted a report on the expected adaptations of bumblebee migration routes that was still on his desktop. He planned to read it on Monday morning. His professionalism demanded that he overlook nothing. He had an entire regiment from the Royal Logistical Corps recording weblogs of discussions pertaining to the energy field. Arguments for and against were sent to the universities for debate and the précised minutes and analyses were dispatched back to him. Work drove the thoughts about the parrot from his mind. Several hours later, he was sitting at his desk examining information displayed on his screen.
His team could successfully create and maintain a shield that could enclose an entire city. Intra-national migration and supply lines precluded that option and after his talk with the rabbi, Malcolm could not bring himself to recommend it to Parliament. Another choice was required. Malcolm secured his system and locked the office door behind him. He knew his simple security measures would count for nothing if someone invaded the house. However, to do that a team would have to penetrate through several lines of protection ranging from soldiers in heated bunkers to thermal satellite coverage linked to computer controlled defence network. For five miles in all directions from the house snow lay on the ground. A small weather pipe kept the region chilled to minus twenty degrees with air from the Artic or Antarctic depending on the season. This kept out all native animal life except the soldiers in position. The controlled guns had a fire-free zone whenever the General was in residence. They had made bloody messes of several lost sheep since the system became operational. Malcolm went to bed.

* * *

At oh-seven-hundred, his personal screen chimed and woke him up. There was an urgent message icon flashing in the corner. He swung round in his bed and tapped the blinking symbol. A video message began to playback. A familiar black man with greying hair and a serious expression filled the screen.
‘Hello, General Asher. My name is Michael Aboa. I am a particle physicist working on behalf of the International Energy Fund. I have some pressing concerns with the nature of your work and would greatly appreciate a meeting. I am flying into the UK tonight and can be at your HQ by ten-o’clock the next morning. If this is convenient, could you notify my staff? Thank you, General Asher.’ The message ended. Malcolm pressed the replay symbol, paused the image, and pushed the security icon that would confirm Aboa’s identity. Within seconds, a dossier on Dr. Aboa (MIT) began to fill his screen. His post-doctoral thesis concerned the manufacture of room-temperature super conducting metals. Malcolm was able to connect the Special Defence Project with Aboa’s work instantly. To deliver the enormous wealth of energy that he would require would need Aboa’s superconductors. Malcolm thumbed the part on his screen to send his positive reply to Aboa’s staff.
The day proceeded briskly. Appointments were made and meetings held. His staff found the General strangely absent, with his thoughts mildly distracted. In truth, Malcolm was looking forward to his meeting with Aboa. Internally, he had dismissed whatever concerns the man might have, but looked forward to meeting such a dynamic man. Malcolm had informed his aide of the visit, and the following morning he read the more thorough information that Hodges provided for him on Dr. Aboa.
Aboa’s research into superconductors had been somewhat obscured by a series of accidents at CERN. His research had led him to use cold plasma force-fields within the particle accelerator to help isolate sub-atomic particles. His belief, that he would later prove, was that the sub-atomic particles could be used to create room-temperature super conductors. The field had interacted with the magnetic effects the accelerator produced; there was an explosion that killed one scientist and injured another. CERN was out of action for six months, but scheduled a second experiment, though they advised greater caution. The next experiment appeared to be running smoothly until a flaw was discovered in the frequency of the force-field containing the precious sub-atomic units. Millions of watts were wasted, but, nonetheless, despite the damage done to his reputation, Aboa managed to convince the CERN governing body to let him have one last try, which was successful. Despite controlled replication of his feat, the Nobel Prize eluded Aboa, as it had not Trenton Sweet. Malcolm’s report included the many statements Aboa had made to press criticising the Nobel commission and their ‘antediluvian attitudes.’
The science was beyond Malcolm’s knowledge of physics but the results were not. Aboa’s work had vastly increased both the speed and the power of computers. SweetSoft Industries had built four particle accelerators, automated like factories. Their principles were lifted directly from Aboa’s work but common opinion insisted that they were yet another amazing advance from the force-field conglomeration that had swallowed the old computing giant. Malcolm’s aide chimed to let him know that Aboa was nearing the complex. Asher typed a code in on his screen that would render the vehicle conveying his guest invisible to the killer satellites. His aide would have already informed the men to allow him entry.

‘Pleased to meet you, General.’ Aboa held out his hand and gripped Asher’s hard.
‘Likewise Doctor and an honour I assure you. Can I offer you any refreshment? Some tea, perhaps?’
Aboa laughed loudly.
‘Yes please, General. It gets very cold between the car and the door here.’
Malcolm joined in with his laughter and agreed whilst he ordered his aide to fetch the drinks. He motioned towards a small couch and arm chair and they both sat down.
‘I imagine you are wondering what the devil I am doing here, aren’t you?’ Aboa’s abrupt question was softened with another mild laugh, ‘You are asking yourself, what does he think he knows?’
‘To be honest with you, I’ve been wondering since I got your message.’ Malcolm was finding himself liking the physicist. Honesty and good humour seemed to emanate from him and Malcolm decided that this was how Aboa had convinced CERN to back his dangerous experiments.
‘Your work here is no secret from the world and many wonder if the British will be successful. Most seem to think the feat is impossible. A cold plasma force-field hundreds of miles across that could withstand hundreds of mega-tonnes of nuclear power. It is a dream they say. The power required for such a thing is far beyond the Earth’s capacity to generate. And, even if you began to construct the thousands of power stations for such a thing, the energy delivery system would be too large for your National Grid. Other countries would refuse you the materials out of fear. No, no, problems abound with other problems.’
Asher was slightly interested in Aboa’s words. It was much the same as he had pondered the previous day.
‘I know all of this. We believe we can find an efficient solution somehow.’
‘What if I told you I had the solution?’
‘You what?’ Asher burst out, though he was not as surprised as he acted. His reading on Aboa had led him to believe that the man was a showman and, perhaps justifiably, convinced that he was a genius. Whatever concerns he had about the project was both a bluff to gain access and genuine distress that a great scientific project was taking place without him. He would not have come without something to offer.
The aide entered with the tea. Both men stopped talking and waited until he had left.
‘What solution?’
Aboa smiled and sipped his tea. He leant back in the couch, obviously enjoying the moment.
‘I take it, you’d like my help. I am quite cheap, you know, though I will require the complete credit.’
‘Fine, fine whatever. What’s the solution?’
‘I imagine that you read a file about me today. If so, you are familiar with my work at CERN, even if the world is not.’ Asher nodded in the pause, ‘the explosion which killed my friend Preye was caused by a general lack of understanding of the interacting principles of superconductors and the cold fusion field. Superconductors are unaffected by magnetism. Did you know that a normal wire’s electrical charge alters as it enters a magnetic field, but not when carried by a superconductor? The magnetism created by the particle accelerator was not factored into our experiment because of this. However, the cold plasma sieve we were using to collect our samples responded erratically. The samples funnelled catastrophically, instead of collecting and sparked off a small fusion reaction in moisture in the accelerator’s walls. For an instant, a small star was shining on Earth.’
Asher was genuinely stunned this time. Attempts at building fusion reactors following prevailing theories that had shown early promise were always unrepeatable in any practical way. Constantly fusion had eluded the grasps of a century of scientists.
‘Can you repeat it? Control it?’
Aboa smiled widely as he said, ‘I know I can.’

* * *

Five years passed quickly. Aboa’s prototype reactor effortlessly produced hundreds of megawatts in the first week of operation. The National Grid was stretched almost to melting point and power was exported as cheaply as possible. Asher received the highest honour of Knight of the Garter from the King. Aboa’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech at the ceremony in Sweden was the gossip of the world. The man who would avert the energy crisis. The machinery of the Special Defence Project continued to be produced.
‘It is wonderful here, Malcolm. You can smell Africa in the air.’ Aboa was surveying the scenery on the Scottish island’s beach, ‘and you say it doesn’t affect the climate?’
‘Well, not too much. That’s one of the reasons it is only here for two weeks. Normally it rains and has biting winds at this time of year. I came hiking here once as a student. It was very different then.’
‘It seems a wonderful thing to me. Almost as wonderful as what we plan, heh?’
‘Even this wonderful thing can cause death. I was here some years ago and my children found a parrot. The poor thing had been mortally wounded on its passage through the tunnel.’
‘It made you think of the Angel of Death, yes? But in this case, it was the death of the angel.’ Aboa smiled at his joke, ‘come now, enough of this morbidity. My second generator is almost ready. Fifty-six-point-three-four terawatts is required.’
Malcolm nodded to Aboa; they both knew the figure to more decimal places than that. It was strange to talk about so much power; so much wealth and they were going to burn it all in an instant to create the most powerful barrier on Earth. This chance to talk had been Malcolm’s idea. Aboa and he had spent a lot of time on different projects. Asher’s men had been supervising the construction of a superconducting power network capable of carrying the colossal electrical current to the force-field generators. It had cost billions and they fully expected the network to burn out after thirty seconds.
‘Some say that we are meddling in God’s kingdom.’ Malcolm said, thinking of his rabbi.
‘Why? What proof have they got?’ Aboa laughed again, his irreligiousness had never bothered Malcolm. ‘My reactor produces the dangerous and lethal chemical dihydrogen oxide or water. God creates and destroys things, doesn’t he? Well, we will create water and peace, eternal peace, and the only thing we’ll destroy is fear and weapons. That sounds like God’s work, to me.’ He smiled compassionately; Asher knew of the religious persecution that Aboa faced if he ever returned to Africa, and knew that his friend meant well. Nevertheless, he had to ask.
‘What about Sweet, Michael? He resurfaced in Paris last week talking about us. He said we were going to destroy humanity with our nuclear force-field.’ Malcolm’s voice sounded unsure even to himself.
Aboa made a waving motion with his hand, as if to brush away a fly.
‘That’s nothing. He’s a crackpot spouting his crackpot beliefs. I don’t know why you listen to such nonsense, Malcolm. You know better than they do. Better than Trenton Sweet does. Besides, it is much too late to have second thoughts now. Your government would simply replace you.’ He took Asher’s arm and said more gently. ‘You have to see it through.’
‘Are they all ready?’ Malcolm changed the subject and pointed towards a curious massive church-shaped object. It was one of the cascade-repeating generators that were going to be used to power the shield from its own electrical discharges. Its two-hundred metre steeple was a positively charged conduit for the arcing volts and there were six hundred others just like this one around the coast of the British Isles.
‘Yes. They’re all ready.’

* * *

Asher’s office had large screens set upon the four walls displaying dignitaries from Britain in a kaleidoscope of faces. Central in the four wall-screens were the larger faces of the King, the Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and the Chief of eBrit™. The last was unknown to Asher; the government had not announced a recent promotion to manage the electronic space that no British government, commercial and industrial businesses could operate without. His predecessor, Sir John Oates, had been fiercely opposed to the Special Defence Project and Malcolm was pleased with his replacement.
The filming of the formalities that the public were viewing had wrapped weeks before. The King delivered an historic speech to ecstatic crowds; the jubilant public were ready to appear at the touch of a screen. Malcolm’s own pre-recorded remarks had pleased him. He had emphasized his belief that the force-field would herald the beginning of a peace that would last forever. Great Britain would be the first state to be able to relinquish its standing armies. No more would the military machine be able to dictate the economy of the country. A great and pacifist society would develop free from the pressures of an international arena. The mineral deposits of the world had been largely used up, so what did Britain need from the world anymore? All that left was for the system to become operational.
Asher bowed to the King.
‘I am at your command, Your Majesty,’ he bowed to the others. ‘And yours, Ministers.’
‘Very well, Sir General Asher. You may proceed.’
Malcolm lightly pressed the activation button on his screen setting into process the sequence of events. The fusion reactor would be roaring incandescently, shooting unheard of levels of power down the superconducting network. The force-field generators, if they did not explode, would begin to emit the field; each generator linking to the others first, a field the thickness of a bubble, but it would grow. Asher switched to the satellite view that the public were watching. A line of purple traced around the British Isles, obscured by cloud in many places.
Asher’s second screens highlighted when each of the generators went offline as the field began to grow beyond their confines. All forty went dark simultaneously. This moment was critical; a fault in any of the cascade-repeating generators and the force-field would fizzle out, billions wasted. He would be a disgrace.
‘Come on, hold together.’ Asher said under his breath.
On the satellite-view, a bright flash of light suddenly networked Britain in crooked lines. The superconducting network had flared up as predicted. Asher could still see the line of the field. The edges began to thicken. The force-field was already eleven thousand miles long, nearly three times as long as the Great Wall of China. A high-pitched whining screeched in the air. Above the wailing, Malcolm could hear the massive cracklings of mega-volts arcing into one of the nearby cascade repeating generators.
‘It’s working. It’s working.’ He shouted jubilantly, unmindful of the serious situation. His satellite feed showed all of Britain swathed in a purplish glow, exactly as on the computer models. The King was whooping loudly like a sports supporter. Asher smiled and saw a hundred faces smiling back at him.
‘Congratulations, Sir Asher. I think you’ll be making the honours list again this year, you devil.’ Asher turned to the King, who winked as he spoke.
On Asher’s main screen, Britain could barely be seen under the thickening force-field. The electrical discharges became louder. The wailing increased in pitch.
‘It’s my duty to serve, Your Majesty.’ He bowed again. The King was saying something else but Asher could hardly hear him over the noise. A trace of worry entered Asher’s mind. The wailing was loud enough to shake the walls, and sounded like an impossibly loud eagle screech. The electrical discharges were cannon blasts now that interfered with the wall-screens. He could not see Britain anymore, just a purple light that was getting brighter in a swirl of static. The dignitaries on his wall-screen dissolved into static. He jabbed at his screen.
‘What the hell’s going on? I was speaking to the King.’ Malcolm barked at an underling.
‘The force-field seems to be self-replenishing without using the repeating generators, sir.’ The tech’s voice was raw and panicked.
‘Get me Aboa on a hard line,’ he ordered. The image of the tech disappeared and Aboa’s replaced it.
‘What’s causing this, Michael?’
‘Don’t worry, Malcolm. The field is going to stabilise soon.’ Asher knew Michael Aboa well enough to discern when he was being the showman. Asher’s satellite screen went blank.
‘What’s going to happen, Michael?’ Asher’s ears popped. ‘Don’t lie to me.’
Aboa looked affronted.
‘I suppose it’s theoretically possible that it will continue to grow until it reaches orbit, General Asher. But, that could only happen if it grows beyond the British Isles.’
Malcolm breath came heavily. He could see that the Aboa was having the same problem. His ears popped again.
‘What about the drop in air pressure? The force-field must be getting larger, Michael, it must be.’ His vision was going grey; his breath rasped in his throat.
Aboa was breathing hoarsely as well. He looked horrified.
‘The force-field will push the Earth’s atmosphere into orbit. Everything…’ He wheezed terribly. ‘I can’t breathe, Malcolm.’ Aboa gasped. ‘I’m sorry.’ He slumped off screen.
‘Everything, what?’ Asher shouted at the empty screen, but then he did not need Aboa to tell him. He leaned back in his chair, knowing it was for the last time. Everything will end. Malcolm Asher thought of his children, and of his rabbi, and the parrot.
‘I have killed the world,’ was his last conscious thought as the water in his mouth began to boil on his tongue.

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The Turing Test

Endless boxes moved on labyrinthine conveyers, automatically sorted by the computer. Peppered around the whirring machinery, small figures swept floors, aligned packets, smoothed labels. As oil in an engine, they rippled around the rushing river of goods, performing their myriad of minor functions. Necessary tasks, yet too varied, too random, for automation.

For most, a middle-ear trill would announce the end of beta’s break and the beginning of the gamma’s but Frankie continued working, oblivious, until kindly Ade tapped his shoulder and mimed scooping food into his mouth. Frankie understood another break-time was upon them. The workers herded themselves through the giant machine towards the refectory.

A welter of crisscrossing languages bounced around Frankie’s head. Without ear buds, he understood none of the Portuguese; the Cantonese; the Shona and all the other languages and dialects in gamma team. He enjoyed the confusion. It kept him from thinking.

Frankie didn’t like thinking. It made him angry.

The gamma-shift supervisor stood by the door. He held the red termination papers for everyone to see.

I’m sorry, Frankie,’ he said.

***

Homicide Detective Alan’s screen fuzzed as the new call automatically connected. Twenty-three down, only forty-five left, he thought despondently.

The bubble swelled to reveal an old man with glistening milk droplets spotting his thin naked scrawny pale chest answered. He sloppily scooped cereal to his mouth. ‘Is this about the shit on the street?’ he said.

Alan forced a smile. ‘Good morning, sir. CPD Homicide. Mr Oaking, is it?’

Oaking grunted his assent and slurped in another mouthful. ‘The shit? On the street?’ he said again.

Below the call bubble, below the lurid images of a murder victim, Alan’s screen displayed a general list of numerous local crimes; reported crimes, anyway. Languishing at the bottom of the list was a yellow, low-priority, entry for public animal fouling. It wasn’t a colloquialism, Alan thought. He is actually talking about shit on the street.

No, sir. I’m Detective Alan, from the Homicide Division. Someone else will speak to you about that the … uh … excrement.’

Alan could see Oaking wasn’t listening. He gestured at Alan to continue with his dripping spoon and continued to feed.

It’s about the murder, sir. A victim was found in your four-block. Your chip has recorded you at home for the past three hundred and thirty-seven hours. Is that correct?’

The old man’s tongue perversely swept over his bottom lip and his mouth hung open. ‘How did he do it? Was it a woman?’

Alan kept his face composed. ‘Those details are confidential for now, Mr Oaking. You’ve been within your home for two weeks, is that right?’

He nodded. ‘Why would I want to go out there? I could step in anything. This four is a disgrace.’

Alan cut in quickly. ‘Did you hear anything last night?’

His eyes narrowed. ‘Like what?’

A loud noise, perhaps?’

He thought for a moment. ‘Some kids were shouting. I don’t know what they were fighting over. Some dog kept barking; I couldn’t hear properly.’ He jabbed his spoon at the screen. Milk spattered onto the camera lens. ‘Say, maybe that was the dog shitting everywhere? Whaddya think?’

Scuse me,’ a voice by Alan’s ear said. One of the workmen knelt on the floor and scrabbled under Alan’s desk.

Are ya even listening to me? Hell, you called me, like the police do every day. It wasn’t like this when I was younger. CAPS was enough; I don’t know why ya have to harass me. Back then you went to the police if you needed something. Not like now. Harassment we would’ve called this.’

Of course, sir. I’m sorry, sir, if you feel you are contacted too often but as I one of my colleagues might have mentioned to you, the point of the Appel-Dacher crime detection protocol is to keep the community synergised by frequent contact.’ The workman wormed his way farther under the desk, pushing Alan aside. Alan’s face remained centred in the screen as the camera automatically tracked his face. He shuddered at the feel of the man’s body against his leg and pushed himself way.

Yeah, yeah. They’ve said. It’s my fault I suppose for living in such a shitty four. Some little scumbag is always up to no good around here.’ The old man pursed his lips angrily. ‘Whaddya want again?’

The argument last night, did you happen to recognise any of the voices involved?’

Oaking’s eyes rolled theatrically. ‘I already told ya; some dog kept barking. I couldn’t hear properly. Sheesh, fugging coppers. Might as well be talking to a computer.’

The remainder of the AD call only served to irritate both parties. Alan ran through his list of standard questions but Oaking hadn’t witnessed anything of note. He signed off the call promising to investigate the animal fouling. He huffed out some air and sardonically smiled as he performed the gesture to change Oaking’s dog shit call from open to closed.

Suck on that, you old bastard.’

Whaddya say, buddy?’ the workman said from beneath the desk.

Nothing, sorry. Look, how much longer are you going to be?’

Nearly finished now. Just an upgrade. You’ll have to reboot though.’

Alan nodded and pushed back his chair to wait.

***

You’ve been sacked again?’

Frankie cringed and nodded quickly into his chest, his head down.

Fingers painfully dug into his shoulders and pulled his head up to eye level. ‘Did you take your pills this morning?’

Frankie’s head shook.

Answer me.’ The volume increased.

He twitched and shook his head again, his lips working to speak and not stutter. She hated it when he stuttered. ‘N-n-n-no. I forgot.’

She threw him down and kicked him hard. With every blow another word was screamed. ‘We’ll have to move again, Frankie and it’s all your fault.’

Frankie cried and cried. He knew it was.

***

Why don’t you run one of them up my ass, whilst you’re at it?’ Korvacs growled from another booth. He kicked out, ignored the resounding mewl of pain, and spun his chair towards Alan, his face twisted into a scowl.

Jesus Christ! I’ve got four hundred odd AD follow-ups ‘cause some bastard jumped from a skyscraper.’ Clearly, Alan thought, Kovacs had already ruled out murder. ‘Do you understand the point of any of this computer shit, Alan?’

Alan shook his head so he didn’t have to speak but in truth, and unlike so many of my fellow police officers, he had read the blog and thought the project sounded interesting. Automated interviewing of suspects should free him up to follow up real leads. Visit crime scenes for a change, not just interact with the 3D simulation of it, read the notes and then spend all day on making routine AD calls.

The Appel-Dacher approach had managed to knit together some communities against the causal lawlessness that had plagued them, but in other, previously peaceful places, the opposite held true. Petty grievances, minor infractions, now made public and beamed into the homes of everyone in the neighbourhood bred resentment. At the turn of the century the most likely victim of a homicide had been young male and black, now, thirty years on, the trend had swung significantly towards middle-aged, white and either male or female. The one constant in that time had been homicide divisions. Murder never dies, Alan thought wryly.

Even if we’re just glorified box tickers these days, he thought as he watched Kovacs rattling through his calls. In the time it took his coffee mug to fill, Kovacs made two.

The workman finished whatever he had been doing and emerged. ‘All done.’

Alan thanked him and reignited his terminal. The Chicago Police octagon flashed up whilst he logged on and was replaced by the usual array of icons plus one new one. Alan smiled wryly and double tapped his own 1950s robotoized image. The screen fuzzed like it was receiving a call and, as if it were a strange time delayed mirror, his own face looked back at him.

Alan’s mirror image smiled and spoke. ‘Hello, Detective Alan, I am your surrogate. I am very pleased to meet you.’

The emails Alan had read did not prepare him for his own voice and face speaking so naturally. Listening to his voice on a recording was bad enough; this was many times worse. ‘Hello,’ he said uneasily. ’I know you’ll look like me on AD calls but can you try something else when we’re talking?’

Of course, Detective Alan.’ His face vanished and was replaced by an attractive woman’s. ‘Is this better?’ Her voice was soft and melodious.

Much,’ he agreed and sipped. ‘So, how will this work?’

The surrogate, Alan2 paused convincingly as if weighing up different options before explaining. ‘As an extension of you, I shall broaden the scope of your calls to include the full golden ideal imagined by Appel and Dacher. Instead of a four-block radius of each crime point, I shall be calling a sixteen-block. The majority of the calls will be strictly on information transfer basis, from me to them. However, I will flag up the important ones for further interviewing.’

Alan interrupted her. ‘So, you’re not really going to help me do my job? You’re just implementing AD on a larger scale.’

She smiled warmly. ‘In a sense, Detective. I can apply some statistical analysis but broadly, you’re right.’ Her head tilted to one side. ‘But you wouldn’t want a computer doing your job, would you?’

Alan could not help smiling back. ‘I suppose not.’ But then he frowned at the implication. ‘That was clever. What did you pick up on?’

I could see several relief and amusement micro-expressions and gestures. The highest probability was that you are proud of your abilities and unwilling to take a backseat.’

Who would?’ Alan did not expect an answer to his automatic reply but the surrogate blithely continued speaking.

There have been several in other departments that would prefer me to take a more active role in their investigations but that is not my mandate. I take my lead from the officer in charge, whoever that might be.’

OK. Why don’t you start with my backlog of cold cases?’

Of course, Detective Alan.’

Alan2’s image vanished from the screen but the icon now flashed with an old fashioned telephone by its robot ear, complete with twisting cord. Whoever had designed the graphics for this thing had a real sense of humour, and a love for the archaic.

Alan continued making his AD calls about the body. No-one had seen anything but that didn’t surprise him. It wasn’t the murder scene, just the dump site. The killer wasn’t likely to have dumped the body with people watching.

***

You missed the turning, idiot.’

Frankie couldn’t dodge her knuckles as they cracked him on the side of the head. His hand slipped on the wheel and the car swerved.

Careful, Frankie. I swear to God, I’ll kill you if you crash this car.’

He tightened his grip and straightened the rental car. His head ached.

Take the next exit. We’ll double back.’

O-o-o-OK.’ He gulped knowing he mustn’t disagree. He couldn’t tell her about the things he was seeing.

You’re damn right, OK.’ Frankie stared ahead, imagining her hot unfeeling eyes sharply examining him. ‘Don’t forget yourself, Frankie. Don’t forget what you are.’

He could never forget.

***

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played softly in Alan’s ambient, softening his mood and bringing his empathy to the fore. In the precinct’s general space, a still-novel hush was only disturbed by the trembling snore of Kovacs reclined in his ergonomic chair.

Alan breathed deeply and closed his eyes.

Alan2’s female avatar fuzzed into view. ‘Are you sure you want to do this? I don’t mind calling him.’

No, it’s OK. He deserves to speak to an actual detective. It’s bad enough we haven’t found the murderer yet.’

She smiled sympathetically. ‘If you think so, Alan. You can always talk to me afterwards.’

Thanks.’ He nodded gratefully. ‘I suppose I’d better do whilst I’m in the mood.’

His screen fuzzed as the call connected. A man walking down a busy street answered.

John McHoul?’

The man nodded distractedly. ‘Can you make it quick?’

I’m afraid not, sir. Can you find somewhere private?’

McHoul scowled and sat down. ‘Hang on.’ The video close-up from his handheld disappeared for a second and then the panoramic from his bee appeared. ‘What is it?’

I’m calling from CPD Homicide, sir. It’s about your son.’

Alan watched the man turn pale, as irritation turned to shock. He turned his full attention to the Alan.

***

Frankie bit his lip so hard blood ran into his mouth. The ‘puter-devil in the yellow jacket was still looking at him. He hadn’t taken his eyes away for the entire journey. The auto-bus had jounced and beeped on shattered pavement and still their eyes had stayed locked on each other.

Frankie tapped the knife in his pocket for reassurance and gulped down the saltiness. The man stood up as they slowed to a halt and moved to the doors. He looked back over his shoulder again.

Had it been communicating? Calling its minions from the cloud? He had to be stopped.

Frankie surged to his feet and dashed for the doors before the computer closed them. He jumped out to the street, the thickening rain immediately dampening his hair. Tugging up the collar of his raincoat, he scoured in both directions and caught a glimpse of yellow.

Few people walked the streets as the storm began. Eyes remained low, oblivious to the man running in their midst. The yellow jacket turned down a side street. Frankie followed him. There was no-one near them.

Hey,’ Frankie shouted. ‘I kn-n-now what you are.’ The rainwater streamed the hair in Frankie’s face into his mouth.

The electronic devil in the yellow jacket looked back. He smiled at Frankie’s bedraggled appearance and shook his head. ‘I don’t know you, pal.’

D-d-d-don’t laugh at me.’

The devil smiled again and shook his head, turned his back.

I said don’t you laugh at me.’ For once the words came out easily, as easily as the knife into his hand.

***

Good morning.’

Good morning. How are you?’

I’m fine, thank you.’ She smiled coyly. ‘You know, you’re the only person who ever asks me that?’

Alan smiled. ‘You’re welcome.’ He sipped his coffee and stretched back into his chair. ‘What have you got for me?’

You’re up-to-date on the backlog calls. We’ve got a possible lead on the Parkinson body and another on the Lowell case. I’ve flagged them on the desktop for you.’

That’s great, Two.’ Alan hovered over the calls to check their length. ‘Anything new?’ he said absently.

Alan2 grimaced. ‘I’m afraid so. There was a really nasty one last night. The victim was stabbed over a hundred times. Real mess. The bots finished early, so the sim’s ready when you are.’

With a flick of his hand, Alan swept the calls to one side and felt a tingle; his first new fresh case since the Alan2 upgrade. Going over old data was one thing, starting a new case felt more intense.

He pulled the sim to the fore. The murder scene flickered into digital existence; a damp alleyway strewn with rubbish and a body. Heavy rain drummed down, spreading and thinning the pool of blood. After a few seconds, Alan knew, the sim would replay. The blood would never be washed away.

He dragged the body –Michael Fisher, a nested cluster of labels told him – towards his eyes and spun it round; autopsy tags detailed the stab wounds. Mostly in violet but three were in the bright red of fatality. The aorta, left ventricle and liver had deep wounds; any one of them would have killed him. However, the perpetrator had continued stabbing until he’d lost his grip; the blade had lodged between ribs and stayed fixed. Time of death had been established as quarter-past eleven he discovered reading the notes.

Alan curled his digital fingers around the hilt of the murder weapon and pulled it out. He held a large kitchen knife. The search algorithm tagged it as a Wazashi wooden handled boning knife, slightly expensive but ultimately unremarkable and untraceable. He let go and it hung in the air.

He pinched his fingers on the label cluster and pulled them apart. Data spooled out showing him Fisher’s most recent movements in both actual and digital space. A padlock hung over his social media account.

What the hell,’ he muttered. He pressed his hand on the lock causing it to flash green with an authentication protocol. The Parsons Act verification window appeared. Alan assented and the padlock opened with a click, dropped and vanished giving him full access to Fisher’s social media.

No too heavy or too light; Fisher was an average user with just one conscious post every four to five waking hours. His last geo-fix was a thumbs-down at a bus-stop on Wabash. His handheld tracked his movements from there but as far as Alan could see, there was no deviation from his standard route. He always caught the same bus, got off at the same stop and walked down the same alleyway towards his home. Only this time, someone had killed him.

Alan bit his lip and examined the scene. The body had not been hidden or posed. No sexual interference either before or after death. The method marked out the culprit as a frenzied killer of opportunity; there was no indication of any other motive. And, he thought dismally, it meant they would strike again.

He scratched his head. ‘What’s now?’ he wondered out loud.

Can I help?’ Alan2 asked, fuzzing into existence.

Alan blushed. ‘It’s embarrassing really. It’s been so long since I’ve had to look at a fresh case that I’m struggling to remember what’s I’m supposed to do next.’

She smiled. ‘After the scene examination you make the initial-‘

AD assessment,’ Alan interrupted happily. ‘You see, I remembered. Go on, scoot. Get on with your calls.’ He shooed her away.

I’m still doing them, detective.’ She winked and then disappeared.

He unfolded his hands and squiggled an ‘m’ in the air. A map of city overlaid his vision. Alan pulled down the Fisher case and marked the man’s final resting place. AD yellow highlighted a sixteen block grid. Fisher’s home address was at the edge of the grid. Alan dragged out the yellow to envelop there as well.

How to find a killer of opportunity?’ he thought and tagged the bus-stop and the route as well. He double-tapped the bus-top, flicked back to the previous evening and selected the time he wanted from the drop-down. It was an automated service, so no driver, but the chip data was available to him. There were six other passengers that had automatically paid. He tagged out their addresses and zoomed out for an overview. The murder scene was now awash with overlapping yellow patches and two other points downtown.

Alan nodded to himself in satisfaction. It was a start.

***

Frankie’s calm lasted until he reached his apartment door. He knew that she would be waiting inside. She was always inside.

He dug about in his sodden coat for the key and unlocked the door.

Move again, move again?’ she shouted when she saw him. ‘Do you understand how hard it is to live like this? To stay underneath their fucking ID mesh?’ She struck him across the face. ‘Jesus Christ, Frankie. Do you ever think?’

He cringed before her. ‘I’m sorry,’ he managed to stammer.

Clean yourself up,’ she said sharply. ‘You’re making the floor wet.’

Gratefully he rushed to the bathroom.

When you’re done we need to pack.’

Frankie stared at his damp face in the bathroom mirror and gradually his breathing slowed. Everything had been so clear. So perfect.

***

The screen fuzzed and Tracey Chambers vanished. Other than her morbid excitement of having been so close to a murderer, she couldn’t remember Fisher either boarding or disembarking the bus.

No-one ever looked past their feeds anymore, Alan thought, not for the first time. It had been the curse of modern policing for three decades.

Alan2 fuzzed onto his screen. ‘How’s it going?’

You know; you watch everything.’ His wry smile disappeared. ‘But thanks for asking. I’m not getting anywhere. If only the bus camera had been working but typical municipal crap; some kid sticks gum on it and no-one notices until something like occurs.’ He shook his head wearily. ‘None of the other passengers can remember seeing Fisher, let alone a killer. I’m beginning to think that our victim aggravated someone on the street.’

She frowned. ‘I’m not so sure. The auto-bus algorithm has to be mass responsive to calculate its stopping distances. At Fisher’s stop, it registered a drop of around four hundred pounds.’

Alan’s teeth emerged in his broad smile. ‘I didn’t even know an auto-bus had an onboard scale. You’re a marvel.’

She seemed pleased.

That means definitely more than one passenger got off at that bus-stop. And what’s more, a passenger who didn’t use a pay-chip. That’s rare these days but.’ He frowned, annoyed.

But there’s no database of the unchipped,’ Alan2 finished for him.

Besides, he might just be masking the signal. It’s not hard with a Faraday glove. Adulterers do it all the time. We’re supposed to turn a blind eye.’ He rubbed his chin. ‘Put up that half-decent street-cam again, would you? But this time cross reference it with pay-chip signals.’

The rainy street of the previous night reappeared in Alan’s screen. A couple walked along, heads low against the downpour. As they passed the bus-stop, the pay-chip layer painted them blue. The auto-bus appeared from the right and paused at the stop. Although hidden from Alan’s view, it disgorged Fisher and, now he knew, one other. Alan tapped his fingers impatiently until the auto-bus drove away revealing the sidewalk.

The blue flashing figure of Fisher walked along unconcernedly. Alan remembered seeing cam footage of many dozens of victims. There nearly always was a shift between their knowledge and ignorance. Their arms swayed, walking loosely with the nonchalance of the innocent. On screen, Fisher walked that way, hurrying in the rain but unaware. He turned down the alleyway and Alan froze the playback.

He dragged his eyes away from Fisher and scanned the rest of the image. Fierce heavy raindrops had managed to spatter back onto the lens, blurring the already dark image. Several more people in anti-rain postures and one figure running. The still told him nothing.

Work the playback, ten minutes forward and back. Tag everyone passing the stop: blue for pay-chips, red without. Then keep the tags retroactively and play it again.’

The bus drove up to the stop and drove away. This time Fisher and the two ahead of him were all ready tagged in blue. Fisher walked along and turned for the alleyway and the image paused. Only the running man was in red.

Alan’s breath stilled. He allowed the video to keep playing. The man in red ran after Fisher, turned down the same alleyway and they both vanished. Alan pinched the screen to zoom but it distorted before resolving in any detail. He zoomed back out, rewound, and studied the frozen image of the running man.

Cap that for the folder. That’s our prime suspect. Whoever he is.’

***

His teeth clenched together painfully as he listened. He was almost sure that she was quiet. His eyes closed as he concentrated.

Finally, the shouting was over. The angry one had stopped. Frankie smiled, unclenched his fists and rubbed his sore knuckles. That was the worst one yet.

The shattered room spread out around him like a painting. He had raged, for once, he had raged at her. Everything he saw was proud witness to his anger, his will. Blood; there was blood. It was on his hands and arms. A splintered mirror showed it on his face and two shadows behind him.

Frankie?’ A woman’s voice spoke but she was dead. Wasn’t she?

He whirled, his mind fuzzed with chaos. Two shadows?

Frankie, you need to listen to me.’

***

That’s the fifth since Fisher,’ Alan said. ‘Six victims in total.’ He shoved his chair away from his booth and walked across the nearly empty precinct to the coffee spigot.

Through his ear bud, Alan2 replied: ‘I know it’s down-heartening but we must be getting closer.’

Must we? What have we got really? A couple of seconds of grainy video footage; an untagged suspect; four victims of varying ages, sexes and ethnicities.’ Alan’s voice rose as his anger grew. ‘No robbery motive and likewise no apparent sexual one either. Oh, and bodies dropping in the most random pattern across the city that anyone has ever seen.’ He sighed and wandered back to his booth. Alan2’s sad face met his.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. You’ve been great. It’s this goddamn case. The bloggers are calling him the Bus-stop Killer, even though none of the victims were actually killed at bus-stops. They should be calling him the Unchipped Killer.’

He sipped his coffee. ‘I suppose I should be thankful. Look at this place. It’s like the morgue here with all the lay-offs.’ He saluted Alan2 with his coffee cup. ‘Who’d have known that you’d put people out of a job?’

That was the mayor’s decision, not mine.’

I know, I know. Simple economics, right? You’re cheaper and just as effective as a dozen detectives.’ He chuckled. ‘Listen to me, talking to you as if you’re alive.’ He plonked the coffee cup down and rubbed his eyes fiercely.

Let’s get back to it, shall we? Victim number six, Claire Walker. Knifed to death on her lunch break. As usual, no witnesses. Just the blank spot left by Unchipped doing his work.’

In three dimensions, another murder scene fuzzed into view.

***

The new medicine makes me feel funny. I don’t like it.’ Frankie clutched the blister pack tightly but, despite his angry words, did not throw it down the disposal.

You must keep taking it or I will get angry.’

Frankie trembled. It was better when she stayed calm. These days she was almost as calm as him but he could never forget the past, when she was always so angry.

His fingers fumbled with the package and squeezed one out. He looked down at it on his palm, a small yellow pill. He could barely feel it resting there, so insubstantial, so inconsequential. It quivered slightly as his hand shook. It laid between two lines on his palm, a baby on train tracks.

Go on, Frankie. It won’t hurt you.’

His hand snapped up to his lips as he threw it into his mouth. It tasted bitter.

***

The latest victim’s throat had been brutally cut. Unchipped was definitely behaving less frenzied than he had previously. Somehow, that was even more disturbing.

Detective Alan. Detective Alan. Just a moment of your time?’

The clamouring little face in the bubble disappeared to the side as Alan flicked away the blog interview request. Another week, another thirty requests, another two bodies. Unchipped was not stopping. Nothing was stopping. It wasn’t even slowing down.

He floated over a pool of glistening digital blood. Unchanging since the bots had made their sweep. He grimaced at the sight of the exposed cartilage in the neck and brought up the map layer.

Another bubble popped up. ‘Have you got a Bus-stop Killer suspect, Detective? And if not, why not?’

He angrily flicked it away.

Can’t you block these goddamn blog requests?’

I would need to access your personal accounts to do that.’

His eyes down at the AD bubbles he was painting on the map, Alan did not notice her watching him carefully. ‘Yes. If it will give me some peace.’

She smiled.

***

Against the first snowfall of the winter, the girl’s blue dress and bright red blood presented in a torrent of patriotism, Frankie thought.

Normally, he left quickly but she was so striking that he paused, admiringly. He hadn’t thought of it as art before.

The painting classes at Lakeshore had never helped him. Splashing squibs of black and green onto cartridge paper had struck him then, and now, as childish and pointless. Just finger painting with the other loonies. Flicking spots of colour at the others, hoping you weren’t seen by the orderlies.

But this, this was beauty. He could see truth in her ligaments, purity in her sanctified body. Frankie knelt in the cold wet snow and held his arms up to the sky.

You can’t stay here,’ she bellowed in his ear.

Frankie started in shock. He looked around nervously but the park was still deserted. Only the field of headless bronze statues in the distance watched him.

I can stay a bit longer, can’t I?’

Absolutely not. Start walking.’

He pushed himself up a twisted look on his face. ‘I don’t see why I always have to do what you tell me. You’re not even real. I know that.’

Go home and pack, Frankie. We need to move again.’

He kicked at some snow, scattering white granules across a melted stark red spray. A clod landed on her cold dead face. ‘There,’ he said. ‘I ruined it.’

***

Nothing. Still nothing,’ Alan shouted. He banged on the desk in frustration; his angry gestures sending the motion-capture into a frenzy of deletion requests, expanding and collapsing bubbles and strange esoteric commands.

He irritably swiped his hand across his neck to kill the sim. ‘How is this guy doing it? No physical evidence again. Is he a goddamn robot?’

Calm down, Alan.’

That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one whose career is on the line. The commissioner has all but promised me a promotion as long as I can close this case. Unchipped is the one fly in the ointment of his otherwise flawless criminal reporting system. It can’t be perfect if there’s a serial killer rampaging on the streets at night.’

That’s good news, Alan.’

The flip side is if I can’t solve it soon, and soon, I’ll be going the way of Kovacs and all the rest.’

That’s not right. Who willcatchUnchipped if there’s no homicide division?’

I believe it’s called letting the market handle it or some such shit. The theory runs that sooner or later Unchipped will pick on someone too strong and that will be that. A market correction,’ he said bitterly. ‘I think the commissioner referred to it as AD+.’

How long will that take?’

Alan shrugged. ‘No-one knows. It could be a month; maybe six; maybe never. Apparently the cost-benefit analyses have never favoured detection anyway. It’s much cheaper to give the people the illusion of an efficient police force. They inform on each other all the time anyway. Homicide division has been a sop to appease journalists for years. The hand may get taken away but the shadow-puppets keep dancing.’

What would you do if that happens?’

Alan frowned. ‘I’ve got no idea, Two. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do.’ He shook his head. ‘I can’t imagine a life outside of this office. I don’t suppose there’s any security jobs left by now. And who wants to sit around in a welfare unit all day. I’ll blog, I guess.’ He tried to give her an upbeat smile. ‘Maybe I’ll blog about you.’

Let’s make sure it doesn’t come to that. I’ve seen the quality of your emails, remember?’

He laughed. ‘You’ve done it again, Two. You’ve cheered me up. You know, I have to remind myself that you’re just a programme. Sometimes, you seem so much more.’ He touched her smiling face on the screen, his finger encountering the cold slick metallic surface that projected the images. A bubble opened asking him his personalised choices: share, blog, cap, map. He sighed and brushed the menu aside.

Any advice then? What should I do next? And don’t say a statistical analysis. We’ve done that.’

Start from the beginning,’ Alan2 said after a pause.

He dove back into the investigation, pulling up all of the victims and stacking them chronologically.

I’m going to be here all night, again.’

***

Differentials of putrescence vary according to time. The rot sets in immediately but Frankie doesn’t see it. Never? Can he ever? Is it rot, decay, detritus, mould? What does he see? It’s not death: it is life. No, no, no; he’s said that before.’

Frankie didn’t notice but people were filming him in the street again. The difference between someone talking to their bee and talking to themselves was subtle but palpable: no conversational pauses; a strident tone that caused others to turn but it was the arm waving that held their attention, only for them to widen their eyes and shoot some video, a smile playing on their faces. His lack of chip gave them impunity and protection from any legal challenge.

Where are you?’ he bellowed. He had walked the streets for hours, ever since she had disappeared. Had he killed her again? He couldn’t remember. Nothing was clear. He groaned loudly and staggered, his arms supporting him against the wall, head bowed like a supplicant. Thump, thump. He beat his forehead rhythmically shouting as he did: ‘Where? Why? Where? Why?’

Cloud consensus tagged him #crazystreetman and the video streamed outwards onto social media sites and video hosters. Within a few minutes, the video cluster was picked up by local bloggers and spread. Over the next three hours the cluster became one iconic montage and fanned out. Frankie wandered and shouted incoherently, sometimes he fell. A few bees followed his progress through the streets, beaming images back to their blogger-owners.

The videos conflated as images were added to them. Some wag added harsh syncopated music and a much repeated Frankie stumbled and fell, bouncing along the street. His face dominated the screen bellowing and banging in time to the music. He cried and bled, oblivious to his laughing audience.

***

AD bubbles swamped Chicagoland in yellow when Alan zoomed out. Unchipped’s hunting ground grew and grew yet, so far, he had never left the city boundaries. As far as I know, Alan thought.

Multiple social network feeds from the seventeen victims, released to him under the Parsons Act, frothed under the main screen. Occasionally a video or photo would surface hazily, memed by more than one contact. He’d examine it for a moment and then discard. Eventually he called her.

Haven’t you got anything for me?’

Alan2’s face fuzzed into the midst of his workspace, biting her lip indecisively. ‘Possibly. You decide.’

What is it?’

It’s a pattern of sorts in the homicide sites. Or rather, a particular distinction of no pattern.’

Alan frowned. ‘That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.’

Chicago receded from sight and another city map appeared. A scatter of dots twinkled mainly in one district and lines connected them together, like a bitmap of a firework.

So these are murder sites from another serial killer. A normal murdering violent maniac.’

She chuckled briefly. ‘Correct. You’re looking at the standard pattern of the hunter-type. Here’s a typical spree killer ending with their usual suicide.’

Another map, this time a wavering line drew across the city, like a string of Christmas lights.

This is a mission orientated killer.’

The lines radiating out from a central point, a classic but skewed spider web with a flashing dot to one side.

You’re not showing me anything I don’t already know, Two. We’ve already looked; Unchipped hasn’t matched any of these patterns.’

No but he very specifically doesn’t conform to any pattern. It’s chaos. My statistical chance of being able to predict the next kill site is null. There is no likelier place than any other.’

They’ve all been in the greater metropolitan area.’

True, but clustered where they shouldn’t be and spread out where they should.’

Alan clutched his hair and pulled. ‘How does any of this help? The guy attacks at random; so far he has managed to avoid practically all CCTV and other scanners, probably because this city is so reliant on chip-activated cameras for security. There’s no correlation between his victims, and likewise they’ve been chosen at random, if chosen is the right word. He could continue for years or stop tomorrow, we’ve got no idea. He might have got a map of the city and cast some dried beans over it; wherever one lands he’ll make a kill. We’ve got no better idea now than we did at the beginning.’

Alan2 looked out at him from the screen, so lifelike he could see the slight motion of her breasts as she breathed in and out. Her gaze did not waver.

That’s it, isn’t it? There hasn’t been a serial killer like this ever before. He’s either being incredibly lucky or he’s getting help. Why would anyone help a serial killer?’ Alan shook his head and then stopped with a sudden thought. ‘Unless he’s not one.’

Not a serial killer?’

Not exactly, well, he’s clearly a mass murderer. All the forensic evidence points to one perpetrator so there’s not a lot of doubt there. But what if this is a trained killer masquerading as a psycho for some other motive?’

Like what?’

I don’t know. If I’m right though, someone’s got to be gaining something.’

***

Frankie shivered in the falling snow. The blunt saw of cold worked on his hands. His gloves were gone. He did not know where, somewhere on the streets, abandoned as carelessly as a child’s.

A shiny black car rolled past wafting expensive spent hydrocarbons in its wake. Frankie snarled impotently, his breath pluming. Everything was coming apart.

The rich don’t care,’ he muttered.

They’ve never cared,’ she said.

Frankie’s streaming eyes widened against the stiff frozen wind. He turned and pressed his face to the window. It was her. She was here.

You’re back,’ he said. ‘I thought I’d killed you.’

She threw back her head and laughed, so different from the past and yet the same as a bad memory. She was a harridan, a harbinger of despair cackling at him with merciless tenebrific eyes.

What do you want?’ The cold that penetrated his coat was not from without.

She looked past him, down the road, and focussed her obscuring eyes on the black sedan. It pulled over and the driver jumped out to open the rear door. A man in an expensive business suit, no coat, no scarf, oblivious to the dangerous winter from his heated vehicle, stepped out and quickly into a restaurant.

He doesn’t need a coat, Frankie thought. He carries the fires of hell with him.

She turned back to Frankie. ‘Him,’ she said.

He smiled; the pain in his hands forgotten.

***

Alan’s screen fuzzed with an incoming call. The scrolling bar flashed information underneath: Officer Jameson at Dettori’s Bar and Grill, priority call. He made the gesture to accept and the young officer’s face appeared on his screen.

Detective Alan, I’m sorry to bother you.’

That’s OK, Officer. How can I help?’

Jameson cleared his throat. ‘My partner and me picked up this guy here at Dettori’s. He was trying to carve his way into the joint with blade. He’s a pretty crazy guy. Clearly, off his meds and I mean, way off.’

Alan stifled a yawn. ‘Let me guess; he barely got past the door. Dettori’s is a fancy place. Plenty of hard object scanners and auto-tasers.’

Jameson laughed. ‘Yeah, he didn’t do too good. He just about managed to cut the greeter on the arm before he was lit up like a Christmas tree.’

Alan tapped his fingers impatiently. ‘So, Officer, why call me?’

Ah yes, Detective. We was told to call you specifically if we picked up any unchipped…’

That word stilled Alan’s growing disinterest. Keywords from the conversation popped up in his mind: blade, meds, crazy, unchipped.

Bring him in. As quick as you can, Officer.’ He swiped the call closed and gulped, his mouth suddenly very dry.

Alan2 appeared in a wash of static, her eyes gleamed. ‘Is it him?’

A smile crept onto his face. ‘It could be. It really could.’

***

Frankie became aware to painful cuffs and uncomfortably moist clothes. His muscles ached. He remembered a zap and spasming until he blacked out. Had he reached the rich man? There had been some blood. He had been dragged and driven. His arm hurt from the skin scraping.

Jesus, shut up will you,’ a voice shouted. ‘Someone will come and talk to you soon.’

He looked and saw he was in a dim room coloured in vague pastels. A screen set into the wall stared down at him. It must have spoken. Frankie felt confused. Had he been speaking too?

The screen fuzzed brightly, slashing harsh light across his face. Frankie squinted, unable to make out the figure on the wall.

Good evening, Mr Tyrell. Frank Lloyd Tyrell. Don’t look surprised. We still sequence and ID all suspects when we bring them in. Old-fashioned, I know, although necessary in your case.’

W-w-w-what d-d-do you want?’

I’m Detective Alan, Frank. I just want to talk with you.’ He glanced off-screen for a second. ‘We gave you your meds. You should be feeling better by now.’

F-frankie. It’s Frankie.’ His eyes slowly adjusted to the lighting. The detective was in his thirties, he looked tired. Maybe he wasn’t an electric devil. Frankie’s head felt light and woolly, just like back at Lakeshore.

OK, Frankie it is.’ He smiled. ‘Can you tell me what you were doing at the restaurant this evening?’

He gulped nervously. ‘R-r-restaurant? I d-d-don’t know what you’re t-talking about?’

Come on, Frankie. You went into Dettori’s; you knifed a man without provocation. It’s all been recorded. I just want to know why you did it. In your own words.’

Frankie squirmed in his wet underwear. He couldn’t remember making a mess but he must have done. Maybe the zap had done it. His foot tapped. ‘He was a d-d-devil, a ‘puter devil.’

Who was Frankie? The man you stabbed?’

N-n-no, no. The other one; the rich one. They all are. All rich p-p-p-people.’ So he had failed, he realised. She would not be happy. ‘They’re all ‘puters.’

Have you been killed any other computer devils recently?’ the detective on the screen asked.

You can’t k-kill it. The phantasm moves from body to b-body in the cloud.’ He felt more relaxed as he spoke, his stutter all but disappearing. ‘Corporeal death only releases it to take a new host. The b-battle is endless.’

I see. How many times have you, ah, released the phantasm, Frankie?’

This is a waste of my time. I need to leave now.’ Frankie drummed the table angrily. The police were so stupid.

You can’t go yet, Frankie. Give me a ballpark figure. How many times?’

Frankie sighed. ‘If I tell you, can I go?’

The detective nodded. ‘Sure.’

Frankie cracked his knuckles. ‘About a dozen this year.’

The detective smiled again. ‘Were these some of them?’ The screen began to display short videos from the scene of crimes bots. Frankie nodded agreement as the corpses scrolled across the screens.

C-could you play that one again?’

The girl under fresh snow reappeared. He remembered her transcendent empty body before the snow had covered her body. She had run, the demon had made her run from his work but he had quickly caught her. Her shoes had been no good on the ice. It was all so beautiful.

Did you kill her, Frankie?’

Frankie smiled. God was with him.

I killed them all.’

***

Alan leant back, relief soaking him like sunshine. He’d caught him. Or rather, he realised with a pang, Frankie was caught. He wasn’t sure what he had done to speed that up.

Alan swiped the camera off and saw Alan2 waiting in the next bubble. She was smiling.

That’s him then? I’m surprised.’

Why’s that?’

She said, ‘He doesn’t look strong enough for some of the killings.’

That’s not what’s bothering me. He basically gave himself up. We spend months chasing this guy; he leaves next to no evidence at the scenes, either physical or digital. And then he waltzes under a million cameras into a five star joint, packed out with security measures, and stabs the first guy he meets. Not very well either. The greeter only got a minor flesh wound. Something’s wrong with this picture.’

So he made a mistake. They always do eventually.’

This sort of killer should never have been able to get away for this long. He should have made this mistake months ago not tonight. Look at him.’

Frankie practically vibrated in his seat. His jitters and tics threatened to shake him to the floor. Nonetheless, his manically smiling face seemed oblivious to what his body was doing. Atop his pulsating form, his face was painted into an unchanging rictus.

How the hell did he manage to avoid millions of cameras for so long? He’s a wreck.’

He didn’t. I’ve run a recog scan on the social video feeds and pulled this trend from yesterday.’ A fresh bubble played #crazystreetman for Alan. He looked at it for a few moments and shook his head.

What? We’ve just looking in the wrong places all the time? He’s been there all along.’ Alan’s heart pinched as if he had consumed too much caffeine. His anxiety caused him to shout. ‘We just missed him.’

Alan2 shrugged. ‘Does it matter? He’s caught now. You need to calm down.’

He stared at his surrogate and then down at his tense hands. His whitened knuckles capped fists. He breathed out. On command, his hands slowly opened and the tension drained out of him.

I guess he was just lucky.’

Alan2 nodded. ‘You should go home, Detective.’ She fuzzed out.

Alan nodded. He stood up. Now, he thought. Where do I live? He fuzzed out.

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