A Novel of the Near Future
(free excerpt only)
Copyright © 2012 by Rob Preece, all rights reserved.
No portion of this novel may be duplicated, transmitted, or stored in any form without the express written permission of the author.
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This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, and locations are fictitious or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or people is coincidental.
Olivia Jardan’s phone chimed and she answered without checking her display. “Talk.”
“Detective Jardan?” Police central’s standard mechanical voice.
“We have evidence of biometric failure by an ensured ratepayer.” The Police Corporation’s intentionally robotic voice rattled off the policy number, then the name of the failed individual, Hank Merryweather. “Standard rates apply. Please accept or reject.”
As if a cop could afford to turn down jobs. “Accept.”
“Confirmation noted, detective. Assess and Avenge.”
“Assess and Avenge,” Olivia echoed before signing off.
Biometric failure could mean anything from a split fingernail to the outbreak of some designer-plague. Regardless, the number indicated that Merryweather was a centercity ratepayer. All ratepayers demanded instant response, but centercity ratepayers were the worst.
Olivia checked her police tunic to be sure it was fully charged, then headed to the rail.
As she trotted toward the station, she double-checked Merryweather’s failure location on her phone. He’d apparently suffered the failure at his place of residence in centercity. Unfortunately, he lived a fair distance from the nearest rail. Which meant delay or expense.
The train arrived just as she did so she boarded before calling Merryweather. Woe to any detective brash enough to call a ratepayer without being able to promise they were en route to a summons. If the ratepayer didn’t tear them a new one, police central would.
Merryweather’s automated response system refused to put her through even with her police override code. Which wouldn’t have been odd under normal circumstances—ratepayers didn’t go out of their way to respond to low-status cops. Still, with a declared biometric failure, Merryweather should answer if he could.
Trying not to think about the cost, which would be subtracted straight from her completion bonus, she requested a system override. Perhaps she could break through Merryweather’s phone’s blocking software even if he were intentionally offline.
The override worked—sort of. The phone block went away, but Merryweather still didn’t answer. So she sat back in her seat and tried to catch up on routine police work.
An old man got on at the Richardson Center stop and claimed the seat next to her despite the largely empty train.
She considered moving, but realized he wouldn’t be on for long. No mere citizen could go into centercity.
On a long shot, she scanned her seatmate, noting three violations, none coded for anything violent. Which meant no bonus for Olivia. She went back to her ever-present voice codes.
The stranger studied her, apparently unwilling to let her mind her own business. He must finally have realized she wasn’t going to initiate a conversation, because he finally spoke in a croaking whisper. “Never stop to admire the scenery, do you?”
She turned down her phone’s video display, projected directly onto her optic nerve, so she could study the elderly citizen.
She tried to remember the last time she’d seen anyone with thinning white hair, epidermal blemishes, or decayed musculature. She’d seen old video, of course, but nothing like this in real life. Even a premium system flush didn’t cost much and the Interfaith offered a flush almost as good for free—if you didn’t mind sitting through a few sermons.
“I’m a police detective going about authorized business. I’m not a—” she subvocalized, looking for the word, and got the answer from Google. “—not a tourist.”
“That’s exactly why I thought you’d be checking things out. In the Infoweb sims, detectives are always—”
“Those sims are entertainment, not reality.”
“Thought so. But still, you need to know what’s going on, don’t you?”
Olivia waved a hand at the small windows where transparent cells were cut into the rail car’s solar-panel-walls. “What would I look at? Miles of solar panels? Infrared heat release? You know just about everyone is sitting quietly in their homespace, plugged into the Infoweb or the Interfaith, not doing anything and not making trouble?”
The old man seemed nonplussed. “But—”
“Dallas looks like every other corporate city in America—nothing but solar panels as far as I can see. Seen one, seen them all.”
He turned, looked out the window as if actually looking for the first time, then shook his head slowly. “I’m sure that’s not right.”
“And I’m sure you need a flush, Citizen …” a follow-up scan, “Roberts.”
He looked uncomfortable. “I don’t have—”
Sure enough, his credit balances registered near zero. She hoped he wasn’t scamming the rail because the robots monitoring payment were programmed to deal out harsh penalties.
“It’s on me. So’s your ticket.” Olivia selected his code, transferred the cash, and gave the transaction her biometric okay. Like everyone, Roberts already had the scrub nanobes inside of him. The payment would activate them, let them do their job.
It would take at least twenty-four hours to complete the flush, but he’d start feeling better in minutes.
Olivia hated to think that anyone was wandering around Dallas looking that old. It wasn’t as if they were back in the twentieth century. Still, it was annoying that he hadn’t gone to the Interfaith for the free scrub. It wasn’t as if she had a lot left over at the end of each month.
The old guy got off the rail at Midway, just as the tracks crossed the old Interstate that created the centercity border.
She could practically feel the scans as she went through that largely invisible, but very definite barrier. As a cop, she was a nominal ratepayer. Even so, she could only enter centercity, the heart of the corporate city, on business. The Merryweather project code meant not having to answer questions posed by polite, but cheerfully violent, security bots.
As the rail neared Mockingbird Station, Olivia checked with central, which reported continued failure in its system override.
Merryweather’s autoanswer was less polite this time, reminding her that she had already left her priority code and that Ratepayer Merryweather would get back to her in his own good time.
The train slid to a smooth stop and Olivia stepped off—into the heat of a Dallas summer.
Although her uniform wicked perspiration from her skin and its black surface converted seventy-three percent of the sunlight into electricity rather than heat, she still wilted. September in Dallas was plenty of reason for anyone to huddle in the air-conditioned comfort of their homespaces.
She considered taking a car from the station, but decided to jog. It wouldn’t take any longer and, despite what she’d said to Citizen Roberts, it might help to look at the neighborhood and determine if biometric failure had breached the bio-barriers of Merryweather’s homespace. Besides, she didn’t want to lose money on this assignment and cars were expensive, especially in centercity.
Reflecting the wealth of the ratepayers in this part of the city, the homespaces were larger than those in outer rings, with glistening solar panels maintained by armies of tiny cleaning bots. A thousand tiny hums indicated that the houses were active, sucking water vapor and carbon from the air. Other than the size, they were little different from houses on the other side of the barrier. What shocked her were the trees: huge biological trees, their leaf canopies soaking up water and carbon that could be used in construction, and blocking direct sunlight from reaching solar panels.
Olivia had seen plenty of conspicuous consumption in the four years she’d served as a cop, but she’d never seen anything like this. Of course, most police jobs involved citizens rather than ratepayers and the rings rather than centercity. She’d been downtown several times, but this was her first trip to the residential segments of centercity.
Considering her problems with the autoanswer, she wasn’t surprised when Merryweather’s homespace rejected her Police authorization code. Biometric failure enabled another option. Olivia uploaded the override provided by Merryweather’s insurance company. That got a grudging approval from the house’s artificial intelligence. Even computers were smart enough not to mess with insurance companies.
Before she stepped inside, Olivia stretched the fabric of her uniform tunic over her eyes, nose, and mouth to create a biochemical barrier. Biological accidents and attacks were unusual, but they weren’t unknown.
The second she saw Merryweather, though, she knew that no weird toxin or bioengineered bacteria had created the bio-failure. Failure came from cranial trauma and loss of blood.
Olivia reached for the large man’s wrist and felt for a pulse while her sensors attempted to contact Merryweather’s implants and determine if anything remained system-operational.
It took her fifteen seconds to reach the obvious conclusion. Hank Merryweather was terminally dead. From the blood spatter and the deep bloody gouge carved in his forehead by something heavy and sharp, he hadn’t met with an accident. Ratepayer Merryweather had been murdered.
The Avenge half of the Police Corporation motto, “Assess and Avenge,” went into immediate effect. As the detective assigned the case, Olivia would track down those who had killed Merryweather and ensure that they paid the price for their behavior.
She confirmed that her phone had uploaded the biometric detail to police central and verified that her account had been credited with both a completion fee (discounted for a supposed delay). A credit had also been applied for the murder investigation—a disappointingly small credit.
Unluckily for Merryweather, but luckily for Olivia’s bank account, his biometric failure had turned into a two-fer.
Looking for evidence rather than cause of death, Olivia checked the victim more carefully.
She’d seen death before, but only among cits. Ratepayers were supposed to be beyond that. Not that they were immortal, but crass violent death just wasn’t a part of what the sims showed of their world. She couldn’t help being sickened by the contrast between Merryweather’s obvious wealth, and the violence of his death.
His homespace controller displayed more bad news. Merryweather’s file system had been plundered.
Olivia connected to central and dictated her preliminary report. “Ratepayer Hank Merryweather is dead due to trauma to the brain. A sharp heavy object, such as an ax, believed to be the weapon used. Such weapon was not, confirm not, found on location. Multiple files have been removed from Merryweather’s computer. Some of these appear to be unsigned creations. I am unable to ascertain the purpose of the unsigned codes.”
“Assessment?” the robotic voice demanded.
The assessment was obvious. Stolen code, especially naked code lacking digital rights management overlays that limited their use, could rocket a citizen into the kind of wealth that would make him an Infoweb celebrity.
“Somebody plans on living high off of Merryweather’s intellectual property.”
“Report accepted,” the computer at central relied after an infinitesimal delay. “Assess and Avenge.”
“Assessing and Avenging,” Olivia promised.
Julia Turnboldt didn’t need to check the time—her phone projected it directly onto her optical nerves. She did it anyway. Merryweather was late. Again.
Free-code was supposed to be a good time, not to mention an opportunity to meet guys her mother considered suitable. Well, her mother might consider them suitable, but Julia found everyone she’d met so far impossibly dull and sometimes not too bright. The one exception, Hank Merryweather, was too caught up in his causes to be interesting. Still, he was one hell of a coder. Julia had learned a lot from him—when he bothered showing up for his appointments.
She exhaled, pasted on a smile, then called him.
Instead of Merryweather’s autoanswer, the logo of one of the big insurance companies filled her optical system. “Final benefits for Ratepayer Hank Merryweather are now being processed. If you have financial claims on his estate, you must file these claims within three days. Do you wish to leave a message?”
Final benefits? Merryweather wasn’t even fifty. Sure that seemed old to Julia, but a ratepayer could expect to live to at least a hundred and fifty before body scrubs began to fail.
A chill trickled through her. Merryweather wasn’t just late for their meeting, he was terminally late. She’d never get the chance to explain her most recent project to him, make him eat his flippant dismissal of what she knew was solid code. She’d never learn more of the sneaky tricks he used to cut the components he used down to the bare minimum, meaning that his code was not only clean but offered higher profit margins than anything the big shops turned out.
She crushed the carbon-fiber cup that had held her latte, dropped it into a public constructor for reshaping, and headed back to her office. Without Merryweather’s help, she’d be working late for the next couple of nights.
Olivia tried to organize the data pouring out of Merryweather’s homespace controller.
“Number and codes of anyone entering the homespace in the four hours between Merryweather’s last access and reported biometric failure,” she demanded.
Five individuals had entered, although Merryweather had authorized only the first. The fifth was herself, which left three unaccounted for. Apparently those others had been manually admitted. That wasn’t a contract violation, but it was unusual. If Merryweather hadn’t been a centercity ratepayer, his insurance company might have fought payout due to that irregularity.
Olivia checked for fingerprints on Merryweather’s fully stocked constructor, found none, and used it to fabricate a forensic scanner.
As she’d suspected, the scanner indicated massive trauma to Merryweather’s skull. Mixed with the shattered bone, sub-molecular flakes of buckyball carbon suggested that a constructed device had been used in the murder. Her initial theory of an ax attack was holding up well.
She added the detector’s information to the readouts from Merryweather’s biosensors. Together, they formed a complete autopsy report.
Her credit balance clicked up slightly, but only very slightly. The price of the scanner had been deducted from her fee.
She shook her head. She was done here. All that remained was to track down the killers, avenge Merryweather’s death, and report back to central.
She grabbed Merryweather’s arms to drag his remains to the constructor for recycling but an alarm flashed from her phone. “Ratepayer Merryweather has requested specific biological handling.”
Right. Real ratepayers weren’t bound by the rules ordinary people had to labor under. She dropped his arm and summoned the body disposal team. She wouldn’t get paid for the wait, but at least the insurance company would pay for the disposal.
She used the delay to log into central’s database and track down the homespace locations of the killers. Motive and means were obvious. Citizens clearly wanted the kind of code a first-class designer like Merryweather would stock. That gave them motive. And they’d constructed a carbon buckyball ax to do the job. That was the means. When she found them, she’d have to determine how they’d gotten into centercity. After all, centercity existed to keep citizens out and ratepayers safe. Someone higher up in police corporation security was going to be answering some tough questions.
That, though, was no skin off her nose. She’d find the facts and see if she could end her day financially ahead of yesterday.
The body disposal team arrived shortly after she’d discovered the killers’ locations and she turned the corpse over to them and headed back to the rail, catching the train to the outer rings.
She dictated her tentative conclusions and next steps as the train floated out of centercity.
“Data is consistent with your conclusions,” central admitted reluctantly. “Do you wish backup for the apprehension? There will be a twenty-five percent fee waiver given the number of alleged assailants.”
Not happening. Even with the partial waiver, bringing in hired help would drain her balance quickly, leaving her hanging if everything didn’t go well. Besides, if she couldn’t handle a few lowlife cits from the outer rings, she needed retraining.
The outer rings looked pretty much like centercity or her third-level ring. Acres of solar panels pointed hopefully toward the sky. A few narrow nanobe-implanted roads, and the occasional remnant of twentieth century architecture-inorganic materials too expensive to reclaim but too impractical to actually use, marred otherwise straight lines of mirrored panels.
There were no trees out here, of course. Sunlight, carbon and water were basic feedstocks for both trees and people. The resources sucked up by the small forest in centercity could have fed, clothed and sheltered thousands of citizens.
Figuring that the killers might be enjoying the fruits of their raid, Olivia headed toward the apartment two of Merryweather’s last visitors had shared.
It was a dusty little place, which didn’t make a lot of sense since dust interferes with solar collection and the code for constructing dusting robots was free, but the suspects were guys in their early twenties. Maybe filth was a fashion statement.
She walked up to the door and input her police override, not even bothering with a polite interrogation.
The door’s AI refused to accept her code. Which was odd. It cost money to ignore an override, and nobody with money would live in a pit like this.
Cops don’t get paid to give up, though. Olivia turned her police tunic down so it was less obviously a uniform, switched her surface codes to reflect a cit lifestyle, and smiled into the greeter, politely requesting personal access.
“The household is accepting no visitors at this time,” the greeter AI replied.
“Oh, that doesn’t mean me. The boys invited me over. They said they had got some cool new codes and it was time to party.”
“The household provided me with no exception list. I am sorry, sir or ma’am.”
Sir or ma’am? A greeter so dumb it couldn’t do basic human sex discrimination should not be able to defeat a police access request.
Olivia tore a single buckyball strand from her tunic, touched the two ends to her tongue, and used the natural adhesion in her saliva to hang it between the door and the frame. It wouldn’t keep anyone in, but it would let her know if someone left.
Her makeshift detector in place, she jogged down the narrow alleyway to one of the few open courtyards in the neighborhood.
No matter how desperate people were for space, they left room around public constructors. Those were the last resort of citizens who’d lost everything. Given enough time in line, a citizen could construct the solar panels and miniconstructor that would let him or her start a new life. Code for miniconstructors was provided as a public service by corporations who planned to recover their investments by selling designs for final product, but most necessities were available from the Interfaith, at the price of a few hours of sermon-listening.
Public constructors also served wandering police officers who needed equipment they didn’t carry in their pouches. Which is why Olivia had noticed this one when she’d mapped the neighborhood.
She cut her way to the front of the line, let the machine scan her ID, then selected the tube of dissolver she needed. Her account balance dropped and she shuddered at the cost. This job would turn into a money-loser if she wasn’t careful.
The constructor hissed a little. Two seconds later, she had the tube of dissolver.
Equipped and ready, she returned to the apartment.
“Report change of status,” she ordered the greeter.
“I am not authorized to report to you.”
Her buckyball strand remained in place, though. If the killers had been there when she’d arrived, they were still inside.
She plucked the strand from the door and brought it back to her tunic, letting the self-assembling nanobes reclaim any molecules they might need from their orphan.
That taken care of, she gave the solar panels near the door a good soaking with the dissolver.
Like every modern homespace, this one was constructed of solar panels. These panels were constructed using the codes the Interfaith made available for, literally, a prayer. They weren’t designed to stand up against a police-strength dissolver—and they didn’t.
In less than two minutes, a door-sized chunk of wall fell in.
Unlike Merryweather, the four guys inside didn’t look dead.
No blood trickled over the floor. No brains showed through split skulls. No squawks from disgruntled computers complained to the world.
They looked completely happy, enraptured by their codes.
A faint spatter on one of the men’s shirts scanned blood. That blood, her scanner said, was Merryweather’s. In the corner, an ax, constructed from diamond-hard buckyballs, deteriorated, its purpose served.
The same could be said for the guys. No sound came from their mouths. The slight rise and fall of their chests was absent. They were dead. Almost certainly killed by whatever they’d stolen.
She’d entered Merryweather’s homespace with proper caution against biological contaminants. Here, though, she’d been more concerned about a violent objection. If whatever had killed the suspects was biological, she’d likely killed herself, too.
* * * *
It was too late to do much but hope her expensive police immunity, which had so far turned out to be more of an insurance company fundraiser than a real help, would protect her.
In the meantime, she had a report to make.
“Citizens Roper, Sheriffe, Diamond and Brown confirmed deceased,” the bloodless tone of Control agreed. “No insurance. Confirming assess and avenge completed.”
“I need a scan analysis for danger to myself.”
A brief pause. “Cause of death, simultaneous heart failure. No unexpected biological components detected.”
If it wasn’t biologicals, it had probably been drugs or psychoactive code. They’d used what they’d stolen and Merryweather had struck back at his killers from beyond his grave.
Which created another problem. What if they’d sent the codes elsewhere before using them? Dallas could now be filling with corpses.
“I’ll need to determine whether stolen code has been released outside this homespace’s firewall,” Olivia reported. Wrapping up the murder had been predictably easy, but the cleanup might be more difficult than usual. She knew what central would pay for that job-zero. Still, it had to be done.
To her surprise, central didn’t accept her input. “Infoweb monitoring is in place. Return to your routine assignments.”
She blinked, then checked her phone. Amazingly, police central implemented a 100 percent completion payment for the avenge. The general rumor among cops was that central never calculated a job more than eighty percent complete.
“Instructions confirmed,” she said. “Returning to stand-down status. I will order this homespace, and the deceased, dissolved as a warning to others. Standard policy per directive 1e728c2084.”
She grinned as she broke through the keeper’s emergency access panel and set the homespace self-destruct code. This would take care of the bodies as well, saving her the body disposal fee and providing a nice bit of organic matter for the neighbors’ systems.
Control had gone quiet and she thought their conversation was over, but it crackled back to life just as she reached to press the ‘activate’ button. “Negative on the destruction. The four are adherents to the Holy Father segment of the Interfaith. They have special body rituals.”
Like insurance companies, you didn’t argue with the Interfaith.
“Confirmed. Structure and bodies are left for Interfaith disposal. Proceeding to stand-down.”
Acting on an urge and a hunch, though, she scooped the suspects’ computer from its slot in the wall and took it with her.
An alarm jerked Chief of Police Harles Vinson from a 3-D sim concerning four beautiful female citizens and a horse. He, of course, played the part of the horse. What those cits did with their tongues and bodies was definitely something. This particular sim was the latest thing among sophisticated ratepayers and Vinson liked to think of himself as among their number—even though police work, even at the highest levels, put a man just barely above a citizen in social standing.
“We have a code 729,” a sexy contralto reported. Being chief of police meant he didn’t have to put up with mechanical voice ordinary cops got.
Vinson shook off his chair’s caress. “Details.”
“Ratepayer Hank Merryweather was executed by four citizens, apparent objective, theft of unsecured intellectual property.”
Which wouldn’t create a code 729. “But?”
“These four citizens were found dead by our investigating officer, one Olivia Jardan.”
“Commendable. Found dead. I love that wording.”
“All four are coded for Interfaith Extreme Traditional disposal.”
Vinson put his head in his hands and swallowed down the hard knot in his stomach. “That means—”
“Chief Vinson, that means we have a code 729.”
Promotion in the Police Corporation was based more on background than on talent, but you didn’t make it to Chief without having both. And you didn’t remain at the top of the corporate structure if you didn’t understand power.
One person choosing IET disposal meant nothing. But four out of four sounded like an Interfaith Enforcement Squad. And Enforcement Squads didn’t murder ratepayers—ever. That, more than anything, was at the core of the Great Compromise back fifty or more years ago. With economic war about to break out between Corporate Dallas and Corporate Houston, the last thing he needed was a meltdown in the Compromise.
“Put me through to Reverend Ariel,” he ordered. “And head Officer Olivia Jardan off the case. Give her some sort of plum assignment but make damned sure she doesn’t dig any deeper into the Merryweather thing. Oh, and before you give me Ariel, who’s Jardan’s supe?”
“That would be Sergeant Paul Shenker.”
“Connect me to him, now. And then perform a probability analysis. I want to know why Interfaith enforcers are killing ratepayers and I want to know now.”
“Conducting analysis,” central said.
Vinson flipped through his feeds, reluctantly switching off the citizens and horse. He wasn’t sure human females could really do that with a horse and had some thoughts on how he could find out. After all, nobody cared if a few cits vanished. None of that would matter, though, if the great compromise broke down on his watch.
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