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vol v, issue 3 < ToC
The Body Snatcher
by
Tom Howard
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The Body Snatcher  by Tom Howard
The Body Snatcher
 by Tom Howard
The Murphy case was a dead end. I couldn’t break the alibis of either of the dead guy’s wives, and their lawyers were too damn good to allow mental snoops. The guy’s implant had been recording when he was pushed off a balcony, but without proof of who pushed him, one or both of his wives had gotten away with murder. I put the folder in the Never Gonna Solve drawer, tucked my tail between my legs, and went to tell the captain. I’d entered the squad as the wonder child, an overachiever who closed every case. Those days were history.

The captain had threatened if I didn’t get a confession by today, she’d move me onto something else. I almost felt relieved.

I forced a smile on my face and knocked on the glass window of her office. She waved me in, her right arm jerking stiffly. I shouldn’t complain about being such a lousy detective; at least I had all my original parts.

Captain Garrison looked at me through her chrome and plastic visor, a substitute for her damaged eyes. “Another cold case, Arnie?” Her motorized voice sounded flat, but I’d become used to it. Several years ago, she’d tried to defuse a bomb on Level 10 and been promoted when they put what they could find back together.

“You seem to have a lot of those lately,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am. I almost had a confession, but the Mrs. Murphys planned the murder too well. All we can do is check on them to make sure they don’t kill another husband and investigate them if they do.”

I collapsed into a worn chair and put my head in my hands. “Isn’t this where you tell me we can’t win them all?”

She snorted, an odd raspy sound coming through her artificial voice box. “I’d settle for you winning one a year, Detective Wells.”

“Do you want me to stay on the case?”

She shook her head. “No. Maybe the lab guys can come up with something, but we don’t have enough to go to trial. Anything from his implant?”

“No,” I said. “One minute he was breathing in the night air and the next ...” Even suicides screamed when falling from the hundredth floor. “What’s next? I might be able to find a missing poodle if it’s got a chip and a good photo.”

My self-deprecation act never worked, but I had to try.

She frowned. “We’ve got a body snatcher up on level two hundred. Nasty stuff. Came and went without a trace.”

I suppressed a groan. Body snatchers hijacked someone else’s body, rode it hard around town, and then left the victim broke and battered. I wasn’t familiar with the gadgetry involved, but it was expensive tech. We didn’t get many rider cases, but I had a feeling this would be another Never Gonna Be Solved contender.

“Captain Garrison,” I said, “have I done something to get on your bad list? A riding hack could be checked by one of the tech guys.” For all the good it would do. The best riders never left traces.

She ignored me. “It wasn’t a simple joyride. The rider murdered someone while occupying an executive’s body. This will be messy.”

I sat up. “That’s impossible. A rider can’t make the host do anything they wouldn’t normally do.”

“Or so we thought,” she said. “Since this is a tough one, I’m assigning you some help.”

“Thanks, Captain.” I had visions of a pretty young rookie hanging on my words of wisdom. Or worst case, some fellow detective I could persuade to do my legwork. A murder on two hundred was too rich for my blood.

“Sergeant Winterberry from the Seventh Precinct,” she said. “Have you met her?”

I shook my head, but my implant dug up her information.

The captain continued, “She helped bust that illegal operation in the asteroid belt last year. They’re thinking of promoting her to captain at the Seventh but want her to have more field experience before they do.”

“She’s a sergeant. Shouldn’t she already have lots of experience dealing with Delphinian crime?”

Captain Garrison let my implant answer my question. I scanned the data streaming into my head and stopped at a surprising fact. “She’s a rejuv?”

“Yes, a famous architect before she started over as a cop in a fresh new body. Fast-tracked due to previous life experiences.”

“So, she’s a rookie with rank?” I didn’t like the sound of that. “Coming in here and telling me how to do my job?”

“She’s unorthodox and might be able to help us with these growing cases of body snatchers. You could do with a win in your column, especially a homicide.”

“Growing?” I hadn’t heard that.

“Yeah, and it’s gone beyond riding someone’s hot body for a night of booze and sex. This last case cleaned out the victim’s credit accounts, rerouted company funds, and made sure the host was seen in compromising positions including killing a competitor.”

I didn’t know there were any compromising positions left. “How long was the victim rode?”

“A week.” She passed a tablet to me.

A picture revealed a good-looking woman surrounded by a biography and her net worth. I whistled. I didn’t realize a person could make that much in one year. “Did she know the murder victim?”

“Yes, she had a short-term marriage contract with him a couple years ago. The commissioner doesn’t like rich Delphinians being brain-tapped and left beaten and embarrassed. He likes them being used as murder weapons even less.”

I whistled again. “This needs a special investigations team, Captain. Or is Sergeant Winterberry some kind of cybernetics genius who can figure this out?”

“Not that I’m aware of. See what you and Winterberry can uncover, and we’ll put together a task force if it’s necessary.”

Was she giving me a chance to solve a high-profile case or placing the last nail in my coffin?

“Winterberry is on her way up. Keep me updated.”

By the time I got back to my desk, a short woman with dark, curly hair stood there, studying her handheld computer. She wore a blue suit that looked like a police uniform but wasn’t.

“Sergeant Winterberry?” I held out my hand.

She shook it, a strong grip. “Sergeant Wells?”

“Please have a seat.” I motioned to the beat-up chair at the end of my desk. “Coffee?”

She didn’t sit. “No, thank you. You don’t have to babysit me, Sergeant. I’m here to help.”

“Have you been briefed on the body snatcher?” I asked.

She raised her handheld. “Captain Garrison sent me the preliminary report. Is this a riding hack gone wrong or something more nefarious?”

All business. I liked that. ‘Nefarious’ was a word my grandmother would use. Although Winterberry looked to be in her late twenties, she might be seventy or eighty. “First, we interview the victim. We know little more than her name and the fact she lives on an upper-class level. It can’t be coincidence the rider killed her competitor and ex-husband.”

She nodded. “Do we do it together or do you want me to stay here and scan for hacker suspects?”

“Together. I could always use another set of eyes.” The only thing they couldn’t change on a rejuv was how they looked at you. They had decades of experience and new corneas couldn’t hide it. It might take some time for us to get comfortable with each other. Right now, she was judging me, and I needed to get a good grade.

I used my implant to sign us out. “Let’s go.”

The street held little traffic this early. On Delphinia, the original colonists had built the cities upward to leave as much undeveloped land as possible. Metagen City, Delphinia-125, was a hundred miles square and two hundred stories tall. We worked on Level 23. No vehicles cluttered the boulevard, and we took an express elevator up to the top level. I had the victim’s address in my implant and requested a meeting.

“How do we approach this?” Sergeant Winterberry asked. We’d taken a moving sidewalk to Matrix 456. The buildings on Level 200 were pseudo-marble in soft colors.

“She’s the heiress to several Delphinian businesses,” I said. “She’s young, attractive, and used to getting her own way. She’s going to think we can’t help.”

“Plus, she’ll be embarrassed,” Winterberry said. “Difficult to be upper-crust when you’ve had pictures taken of you urinating on the street.”

“Not to mention murdering your ex-husband. We’ll play it by ear, Sergeant. If you see a line of questioning that works, take it. I won’t be insulted.”

We arrived at the victim’s address, and her valet waited for us at the front door. He was an older man, Mitaxian from his facial tattoos, and very tall. I had to look up to him, and I’m taller than everyone in the department.

“Ms. Konig is in the library.” He stood aside. “The room to the right. Would you like tea?”

“That would be nice,” Sergeant Winterberry said. “Thank you.”

Ms. Konig sat at the end of a long table with her head down and her hands clasped in her lap.

“Ma’am?” I’d expected an overdressed socialite with a plastic surgeon at her elbow. Instead, a subdued young woman sat with an untouched cup of tea.

She gave us a tremulous smile. “Please have a seat. Mr. Sull will bring refreshments.”

“We’d like to ask some questions about your body-jacking.” I took a seat and Winterberry sat beside me.

Ms. Konig cleared her throat. “Nothing happened really. I’m sorry for all the fuss.” She didn’t look me in the eye. “My company is making good on the debts I incurred while ...”

I took out a paper tablet. An anachronism, taking physical notes helped my thinking process and showed the interviewee I was listening.

Winterberry’s eyebrows raised, but she didn’t comment when I pulled an antique pen from my pocket.

“Ms. Konig, what happened to you is serious,” I said. “We have the medical report and the therapist’s recommended course of treatment. But Sergeant Winterberry and I will do everything we can to make sure whoever did this is arrested and brought to trial.”

“Stella,” Winterberry said. “Please call me Stella. And my partner is Arnie.”

I didn’t object to her using my first name. I was surprised she knew it.

Mr. Sull brought the tea and laid it out without a word. He didn’t look at Ms. Konig when he left the room.

“Anita,” the young woman said. “Please call me Anita.”

“Anita,” I said, “what company do you work for?” I knew, but I wanted her to talk.

She smiled again. “Konigsplatz. I don’t work for it. I own it.”

Stella fixed her tea with lots of cream and sugar. “So, it may have been a corporate crime,” she said. “I understand they accessed your business accounts.” She didn’t mention the murder. I didn’t either.

Anita reached for her tea with her left hand, stopped, and used her right hand. “That’s what they tell me. The lawyers are straightening it out. The board has recommended I go away until this settles down.”

Stella typed into her handheld, another anachronism since the arrival of implants. But she wasn’t making notes. A message from her appeared in my implant. LOOKING AT VICTIM’S PREVIOUS MESSAGES, BELIEVE THIS IS NOT ANITA KONIG.

I pulled up Anita’s picture. The woman sitting at the table looked like her photo in the company brochure, only less glamorous.

“You’re very good,” Stella said. “Was it your idea to make the victim traumatized or did Ms. Konig suggest it?”

“What?” the young woman said. “I don’t understand.” She looked at me, but I didn’t understand either.

I’d read Anita Konig’s online messages, too. They showed an opinionated, forceful woman. Maybe being taken over by an anonymous rider had changed her.

The corner of Stella’s mouth lifted. “She’s a decoy, Arnie. Not top of the line, sorry, ma’am, but pretty good. She must have been assigned recently, or she would have known that Anita is right-handed. The subdued act is clever. Keeps anyone from asking questions she doesn’t know the answers to.”

“A decoy?” I’d heard of them, professional lookalikes who pretended to be someone else. Very expensive.

“If we hold her in a cell for 72 hours, her DNA and face will dissolve. I’ve worked with decoys before.”

“There’s no need for that.” The “victim” sat up straight, and her demeanor changed from meek to confident. “You’ve worked with decoys, Sergeant?”

“The best. Albert Gable over at Madame Xanadu’s. Now, where is the real Anita Konig?”

“I don’t know. Konigsplatz hired me.” She smiled at Stella. “I came up with the poor little rich girl idea on my own.”

“Sull knows,” I said. He’d made a point of keeping his eyes off the decoy when he was in the room. He knew she wasn’t real. “We’ve wasted enough time here, Stella.”

“I agree.”

She accompanied me from the room, leaving the decoy sitting at the table. Mr. Sull waited in the hall.

“Where is she?” I asked. “Don’t make us take you to the station, Mr. Sull.”

“That won’t be necessary.” A woman looking like Anita Konig’s boardroom portrait walked down the steps. “Sull, tell the decoy she can go now. Don’t include the bonus.”

When she reached us, she didn’t hold out her hand. “I’m Anita Konig. You can call me Ms. Konig.”

“We have a few questions,” I said.

“Make an appointment. I’ve answered all the questions I’m going to.”

Stella crossed her arms. “Meanwhile, some pudgy kid is showing his friends recordings of the things he made you do during your missing week, every disgusting and degrading thing. Probably charging his friends to watch and laughing.”

I nodded. “If you don’t care about yourself, that’s fine. We’re here to find a murderer.”

“Did the hacker work for you?” Stella asked. “Was this a ruse to make you look innocent when you killed a competitor?”

From Ms. Konig’s sneer, she didn’t care for that implication. My gut didn’t feel she was the murderer. Too obvious, but she might know who had done it.

“Do you know who did this?” Stella asked.

Ms. Konig frowned. “Come into the garden.”

*     *     *
She led us to her rooftop, each square inch of manicured foliage costing more than I’d earn in my life. The afternoon sun seemed distant, and a chill wind rustled the leaves.

Ms. Konig stood at the edge of a balcony overlooking the gardens on the levels below. “Dennis Sibtan was a good man and more than a competitor. He and I grew up together. His family owns Intellicorp. Smart and handsome, he sought to destroy me as I tried to destroy him.”

“So, the hacker made that possible?” I asked.

“Filthy creature took my body and used it like a soiled tissue, discarding it after he was done. No, I don’t know who did this to me, but I will by sundown. Your services aren’t required.”

“Your company may have private investigators, Ms. Konig,” I said, “but this is our job. You can’t dismiss us.”

“Why did Mr. Sibtan want to destroy you?” Stella asked.

“Egan.”

“A jealous boyfriend?” I asked. Had she run off with Mr. Sibtan’s lover? Was this a love triangle gone wrong?

“No. Egan is the Electronically Generated Artificial Network, an advanced artificial intelligence. We own the patents. It will change the world. It’s in development now, and Intellicorp has spent a lot of money to steal our plans.”

“Him?” Stella asked before I could. “Egan has a personality overlay?”

Ms. Konig shook her head. “No. He’s developing his personality through observation and interaction, like humans do.”

“Interesting.” I still hadn’t heard anything to help us.

Before I could tell Stella that we were leaving, a bird flew over the parapet. The small sparrow paid us no attention to us as it dived into a hedge.

“Get down!” Stella shouted. She drew her blaster, and I drew mine as Ms. Konig ducked behind a planter. Out of nowhere, Mr. Sull appeared with a gun.

I felt foolish squatted down with a variegated holly in my sights, but Stella and Sull seemed to consider the little bird a threat. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“Birds,” Ms. Konig said. “There’s a low-level energy screen to keep them out of the garden. This one shouldn’t have gotten through.”

From the greenery, the sparrow sat on a branch, watching us.

“Get inside, ma’am,” Sull said. “I’ll cover you.”

Ms. Konig ran for the open door, and Stella followed her.

I hit the marble floor as the hedge, the bird, and part of the parapet blew up. The roar deafened me, and my head smacked the floor hard.

Sull dragged me into Ms. Konig’s residence. Stella checked the heiress for injuries, and my implant overloaded with incoming emergency messages. Sull retrieved a portable extinguisher from the wall and returned to the garden to put out the flames.

“Are you all right?” Stella sounded far away.

“Just a little wobbly,” I said. “How did you know the bird was dangerous?”

“Before I joined the force, I lived two levels down.”

I’d never heard of an electronic net to keep out birds. “Thanks.” Sergeant Stella Winterberry was unusual, but I didn’t have time to peel back the layers.

The emergency crews arrived. They looked at my ears and said I’d be fine in a few days. I’d been concerned about a hacker using a host to kill someone, but this case had become personal. Someone had tried to kill us.

“Here,” Sull said when he returned from the balcony. He held out his hand to reveal a small bloody mass.

“Give it to the techs,” I said. “They’ll do a scan to see what made it blow up.”

“No,” he said. “Look closer.” He poked at his palm, revealing a small speck of silver.

“What is it?” I asked. “A transmitter?”

“It’s an implant,” he said. “This bird not only carried a bomb, it was being ridden.”

“And the bomb didn’t go off until Ms. Konig had left the balcony,” Stella said. “The rider doesn’t want her dead, just us.”

Sull deposited the implant with the authorities.

“You see what this means?” Stella followed me to the door.

I nodded. “Someone is watching us and doesn’t want us to break this case.”

“But they don’t want to harm Ms. Konig. Amateur move if they hoped the case would die a natural death. Where are we going?”

“To visit an old school chum. He might know who’s behind this. In fact, this sounds like something right up his alley.”

“Okay, partner,” she said. “You’re the primary. I don’t have a clue what’s going on.”

I couldn’t determine if she was being condescending or truthful, but I couldn’t tell her I didn’t have a clue either.

*     *     *
I didn’t share Brantley Hale with many people. “He’s not like anyone you’ve ever met. People underestimate him because of his handicap, but he’s the best hacker on Delphinia.”

“Legit?” Stella asked. We rode the elevator down to the lower levels. We’d have to take ramps down to the subterranean levels. While Metagen City was two hundred stories aboveground, no one knew the exact number of levels belowground. Police looked the other way when it came to the minus levels.

“Occasionally,” I replied. “He never lets the law interfere with his morality or credit balance. We’re old friends, but I try not to infringe on his talents. The results wouldn’t be allowed in court anyway. If he doesn’t know who the rider is, he’ll find out who does.”

“School? You didn’t have a computer instructor at home?” She probably sat in a class with other children, but such education hadn’t existed on Delphina for decades.

I nodded. “I did, but we had weekly ‘Socialization Sessions’ where they expected us to interact with other kids. I played games during class, and poor Brantley sat in the corner and twitched for an hour.”

“Twitched? How handicapped is he?” Like everyone, she wondered why the medicos hadn’t helped him more. They had.

“He is only one of five on Delphinia born with a partial 4 Q chromosome deletion. After we started playing games together, he told me about it.”

“He can talk?” she asked.

“Using a machine. He lives in a magic chair with catheters and feeding tubes. For everything he’s missing in the body department, he more than makes up for in brainpower.”

We left the elevator and took a graffiti-filled ramp to the lower levels. I remembered the way, but it had been several months, maybe longer, since I’d visited. Some friend I was.

Fewer lights lit our way as we walked deeper into the sub-levels. Stella peered into the shadows with her hand on her weapon. We saw no one, but we weren’t alone.

At a steel door looking like something from an archaic bank vault and marked with High Voltage and Biohazard symbols, I let my implant announce us. Knowing Brantley, he’d been aware of us since we left the surface.

“Enter,” a booming voice said. Jets of green gas appeared around the opening door.

“Knock it off, Brantley,” I said. “We’re here on business. A rider murdered someone.”

A pause. “So, no mining car ride through the holographic caverns of doom?”

“Not this time.” I didn’t want Stella to think poorly of my friend.

More doors opened into a circular room lined from floor to ceiling with monitors and blinking lights. In the center of the large room sat Brantley. His custom-made chair covered the lower half of his body and was attached by a steel rod to the ceiling. He zoomed closer, his thin face turned away from us. His blond hair stuck out in tuffs which jerked when he moved.

“Who is your friend?” His voice surprised people, being that of a young man. Unlike the captain’s artificial voice box, his voice sounded normal. He took pride in reminding people he was more than a trapped brain.

“This is Sergeant Stella Winterberry,” I said. “She’s helping me. Strength in numbers, you know.” I moved to his black shiny chair, a smooth cocoon to the butterfly that poor Brantley would never become. I grasped his flailing hand, and he laughed. Although he had little control over his physical movements, his infectious laugh had always been part of him. Permanent cables ran from him to the implant at the base of his oddly shaped skull and provided him with a realistic voice and electronic eyes.

“Have downloaded the case from my implant?” I asked. Legally, no one could access someone else’s implant without their permission, but Brantley would consider our friendship permission enough.

“A murder hack. Interesting.” He turned his face to us, and his blue eyes flashed. “Hello, Sergeant Stella Winterberry.”

“Pleased to meet you, Brantley,” she said.

“You have no implant,” he said, “but I know who you are. Impressive history. We owe you a great deal.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Just doing my job.”

Her asteroid case must have been something to impress Brantley.

“I’ve tapped into Ms. Konig’s unique implant,” he said. “Someone immobilized her consciousness during the murder.”

“How is her implant unique?” I asked.

“It’s Konigsplatz equipment. They feed her recordings directly to a corporate server and not a public one.”

“So, if she was highjacked, she’s not the murderer,” Stella said. “That would’ve been too easy.”

“Yes, Arnie doesn’t come to see me if it’s obvious. Whoever rode Ms. Konig left no trace.”

“Who could do that?” I didn’t apologize for being a bad friend. He didn’t need to hear about my troubles.

Brantley rolled closer. “No one. You’ve given me a real mystery this time, Arnie. I know three people who would ride an apex predator like Ms. Konig.” Three faces appeared on large monitors above their hands, two men and a woman. “But no one, not even me, can hack without leaving a trace. Have some coffee, and I’ll dig deeper.”

I led Stella to the coffee maker on the side of the room. On the monitors, the murder victim’s implant record showed Ms. Konig had signaled from his door. He’d opened it and invited her in, not realizing she was being ridden. As soon as he’d turned, Ms. Konig had pulled a blaster and shot him in the back of the head, right in his implant. The record ended with a bright burst of light.

“Cream and sugar?” I passed Stella a cup of real coffee. No synthetic crap for Brantley’s clients.

Images of the exploding sparrow appeared on Brantley’s screens. “Yes, please.”

I added cream and sugar to mine, too. Lots of cream. My mother said I liked a little coffee with my cream. I couldn’t pass up real dairy.

Brantley moved from monitor to monitor, the steel bar connected to his chair lifting and lowering him. He did it for dramatic effect. He could see everything virtually and didn’t need to observe the external images.

“So,” Stella said after sipping her coffee, “how long have you been on the downslope?”

I frowned at her personal question. The downslope referred to a cop who had started on the downside of his or her career. The end point was either an admin desk job or a shootout that ended in the cop being dead. Either way, it wasn’t her business.

“Is being a therapist part of the captain’s exam now?”

“Sorry, Arnie, for sticking my nose in, but I need to know if you’re at the top of the downslide.” She lifted her cup. “Where we might break this case without getting killed, or the bottom ...” She lowered her cup. “Where we die shooting each other as mindless zombies.”

My anger dissipated. I couldn’t blame her for questioning my abilities. I doubted them myself.

“Did you lose a partner?” she asked. “A lover? What started the slide?”

I chugged my coffee. “Couldn’t it be the strain of the job? Wondering when some stim-junkie might blow my head off?”

“I blame the paperwork,” Stella said with a smile. “Makes me want to call in sick for the next hundred years.”

I held my cup even with my chest. “I’m about here, so you’re safe for the time being.”

Before she could respond, Brantley swung over. “The sparrow bomb puzzles me. That’s a childish move. Even if you hadn’t been suspicious before, an attempt on your lives would have shown you were onto something.”

“That’s what we thought,” I said. “Nothing about this case makes sense. Traceless riders. Murdered competitors. Exploding sparrows. Who else besides Ms. Konig wanted Mr. Sibtan dead?”

“There’s a long list. Intellicorp has made its way to the top by stealing from everyone. The list of people who didn’t want him dead would be shorter.”

“So, give me the names of the three super-hackers,” I said. “The ones who are capable of doing a hack like this.”

“They’re good but not that good,” Brantley said. “I’ve looked—”

Flashing red lights flooded the room, and Brantley’s chair zoomed away from us.

“What is it?” I shouted over the alarms. “Intruders?”

“Of a kind,” Brantley’s distorted voice came over the speakers. “Someone’s broken through my security. I’m disconnecting.”

Klaxons went off as Brantley’s chair settled to the floor and shut down. Around the room, the monitors turned off and cables pulled away from Brantley’s chair.

“What is it?” Stella drew her weapon. It seemed to be her first instinct when something unexpected happened. Not a bad life-saving habit.

“Someone’s trying to break into Brantley’s system,” I said. “He’s shut down.”

“Can he survive without his life support equipment?”

“For a time. With him disconnected and powerless, the attack can’t access his systems. His emergency power should come on soon.” I moved closer to the inert chair, now a ton of useless metal, and took Brantley’s hand. “He’s impaired without his external connections, but he’ll be safe here in his lair.”

“Lair?” Stella put her blaster away.

I smiled. “Brantley considers himself a crime-fighter.” Flashing red lights turned to amber and shut off. Monitors rebooted around the room, and Brantley’s chair hummed to life.

“Will he be okay?” Stella asked.

“I hope so. I’ve never seen him do a full disconnect before. Whoever did this punched through the strongest security on Delphinia.”

“Or Brantley doesn’t want to answer our questions,” she said. “Think how hard it must be to be trapped inside your own body. Riding someone would be a great escape for Brantley.”

I knew. “But why would he kill Mr. Sibtan?”

She shrugged. “Just because we can’t find a motive doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”

I wanted to tell her I’d find the murderer myself and I no longer needed her help. But she had taken Brantley’s other hand to provide him with physical contact in the darkness.

I held his hand until the lights came on, praying Stella was wrong about him.

*     *     *
She punched me in the nose.

I yelled, surprised to find myself lying atop Stella on the bar floor, and took my hands from around her throat to clutch my nose.

“What the hell?” I rolled off Stella as she sputtered and coughed.

My nose wasn’t bleeding, but it hurt like hell. The last thing I remembered was sitting at the bar, talking to an Asian woman, Stella’s old captain, now a part-owner of a local bar. We’d spent most of the afternoon interviewing Brantley’s three suspects, but they had alibis constructed too well for us to break. We discussed what we’d attempt next.

“Somebody took you over,” Stella said. “You had a rider.” She scrambled away from me.

“Oh god.” I rubbed my throbbing nose and looked at the few patrons standing around us. “How long?”

Captain Harris, the bartender, lowered her blaster. “Ten minutes.”

I pulled myself up using a barstool. “So short? Why did he stop?”

Captain Harris helped Stella stand.

“I don’t know,” Stella said. “You were fighting someone. It almost looked as if two riders wanted to use your body at the same time.”

I shook my head. I’d never heard of such a thing. And why would a rider want to take me over and try to kill Stella? Unless ...

“We’re closing in on him,” I said with no idea who it might be. “Are you okay, Stella?”

She adjusted her suit. “Yes, but you might want to get some ice on that nose. It’s starting to swell.”

I touched it and winced. “What were we discussing when it happened?”

My implant buzzed. It was Brantley.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “I tried to stop him.”

“Who was it?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve been monitoring you this afternoon in case you discovered who tried to break into my lair. When the hacker took over your body, I overrode your implant. Is Stella okay?”

“She’s got a mean right hook, but she and I are fine,” I said. “Can you replay what Stella and I were discussing when the rider tried to take over?”

“I’ll patch it to the bar’s monitor.”

The screen above the bar displayed an image of Stella. She sipped a brandy and listened to me talk.

My own voice sounded weird. “That was a bust, Stella. The three we interviewed this afternoon had no reason to kill Mr. Sibtan.”

Stella took another drink. “Brantley thought the rider was someone unusual. Someone who could ride without leaving a trace.”

I appreciated her no longer placing my friend at the top of the suspect list, but the truth was he was more competent than anyone we’d questioned today. “Maybe it’s not a person at all.”

Everything went black.

I hadn’t blurted out the name of a suspect. All I’d done was make a stupid comment about the rider not being human.

Patrons returned to their drinks, and Captain Harris moved behind the bar.

Stella leaned close. “He’s watching us. Since I don’t have an implant, he had to attack you.”

She was right. There could be only one answer, one “person” capable of watching us non-stop and reacting so childishly.

“Egan?” I asked, and Stella nodded.

An adolescent AI had hijacked his creator. Was Mr. Sibtan dead because Egan was jealous?

At any minute, any number of our fellow drinkers could have their implants overridden and try to kill us.

Brantley must have been reading my mind, because my inner ear popped as my implant shut down. For the first time in decades, no hum of information poured into my head. People in the bar shook their heads. Everyone with implants had just lost contact with the ether.

“Brantley’s jammed the bar comms,” I told Stella. “We should be safe from Egan.”

“For the time being,” she replied.

“If Egan is the culprit, how do we arrest an AI?”

“We have to survive long enough to report him.” She looked around the bar. “We can’t stay in here forever.”

“Hello,” a handsome young man said from the monitor. His image, blond and blue-eyed, fragmented and reformed several times as he struggled to break through Brantley’s jamming.

“Egan?” I asked. My implant made clicking noises as it tried to connect but remained silent.

“Sergeant Arnold Wells. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Stella cast a worried glance at me. We should not be seeing Egan. Brantley had scrambled incoming comms.

“The power cutoff still in the back?” Stella asked, and the captain nodded.

“That won’t be necessary,” another voice said, and Egan’s image broke apart like a shattered mirror to be replaced by Brantley’s smile. “I’m rerouting him to a satellite, but it won’t hold long. He’s too powerful.”

“Brantley, be careful.” I didn’t want anything to happen to him.

“I’ve been watching him since your visit,” Brantley said. “I couldn’t tell you because he was monitoring your implant.”

“What do we do next?” Stella asked. “If he’s more powerful than you ...”

Brantley’s face disappeared in a cartoon explosion, and Egan reappeared. I didn’t recall him having horns.

“You don’t understand,” Egan said. “He hurt Anita. People should pay when they hurt someone, shouldn’t they? Isn’t that what police do?”

“We don’t murder people.” I couldn’t believe I was arguing with an AI.

Egan frowned. “You sound like Anita. She wants to shut me down. She thinks I have a flaw. I have run my self-checks and can find no flaw.”

“Egan,” I said, “the fact you can’t find a flaw may indicate it’s in your self-check system.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stella typing into her tablet, but she soon gave it up as Egan fought Brantley for control of the electronics within the bar. Egan had threatened Anita, and they had no way to warn Konigsplatz.

Egan’s face froze and pixelated. The blocks of color trickled down the monitor screen and disappeared.

“I have contacted Konigsplatz,” Brantley said. “They are unable to shut down Egan, but they are moving Ms. Konig to a safe location.”

I couldn’t imagine a place free of electronics except—

“Have them take her to a police station,” I said. “They have a scrambler.”

“Done.” His face turned green for a moment but returned to its usual color. Egan did not return.

“We can’t turn off the power to the entire city,” Stella said. “But how do we defeat Egan if he’s stronger than Brantley?”

The screen went blank, and the ground shook. I moved to a window. The streets looked empty except for a robot construction crew at the end of the street. Unattended, the machines moved toward us.

Stella gasped. “Oh god. He’s taken control of the robot diggers. They’ll destroy the bar.”

“Hey, Brantley, old buddy,” I said, “while keeping Egan out of here, can you spare enough of yourself to control construction machinery?”

“I’ve got it,” a blonde woman spoke from the monitor. The screen split and split again. I recognized the faces alongside Brantley — the hackers we’d interviewed this afternoon.

“I’ve inserted the virus into Konigsplatz,” she said.

“Thank you, Ms. Afshan,” Brantley said. “Cooker8?”

“I can’t keep Egan on the satellite,” an old man said. “He’s in too many systems. It’ll take us months to find him.”

“We’ll isolate him later,” Brantley said. “Right now, we want him to stop killing people.”

Someone in a mask said, “Ms. Konig is safe at Precinct 114. The city has been notified of an unauthorized AI, and the ether openings have been closed.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Make sure city services are protected. Egan might panic any moment and turn off fire suppression or open the water mains.”

The construction equipment in the street rumbled closer. The captain opened the back door and ushered out customers. I didn’t blame them for fleeing, but I couldn’t leave. As soon as I left the safety of the bar, there was no telling who I’d strangle. Probably everyone.

“Brantley,” I said, “what’s going on? I thought these guys were your competitors.”

“Strength in numbers. While my fellow hackers and I don’t always see eye to eye, we know what a danger Egan is. Ms. Afshan, why is the bulldozer on the front steps?”

“Working on it,” she said. “Egan is making me an offer.”

“Same here,” Brantley said. “He’s looking for our weak points.”

I imagined the selection of hacked bodies Egan was promising my pal.

“What can we do?” I asked.

“See if you can blast the dozer’s manual controls,” Brantley said. “That may be your only chance.”

The image on the screen twisted, the four figures blurred together, and they disappeared in a vortex of color.

“No!” Brantley shouted, the last one down the rabbit hole.

Egan didn’t look so handsome this time. With a team of hackers picking at him, he didn’t have much time to spend on his avatar. “What are you doing to me?” he roared.

“Teaching you how to deal with failure,” I said. “It’s part of being an adult.” I was spouting nonsense. I had no hope of debating with an AI.

“Arnie,” Stella warned. “The dozer.”

Captain Harris joined us at the door. I couldn’t search for the control panel location on the construction equipment without my implant, but I aimed at anything not shielded by heavy steel. We fired while Egan laughed like a madman behind us.

“He’s getting on my nerves,” Stella said. She took out an antenna sitting atop the large yellow machine.

I fired at the treads, but the dozer’s front blade protected them. Captain Harris’ shots didn’t miss, but the large machine lumbered closer and closer. We’d never find its weakness in time.

“The street!” I shouted. “It’s not as well-protected as the dozer.”

We fired at the area in front of the blade while we still had blaster charges. The ground glowed bright red as the pseudo-cobblestones melted away. Firing at the blade helped because it reflected the energy blasts onto the street’s surface.

The bulldozer wobbled. It lifted its blade as if trying to catch itself before sinking out of sight. I hoped the street on the level below had been empty as the bulldozer landed with a crash and cloud of debris.

“Virus detected,” Egan said. “Prophylactics unable ...” His voice echoed through the bar, rising and lowering in pitch and speed. “Anita ...”

He disappeared in a cascade of bubbles. On the screen, Brantley and his friends floated down, their full-body avatars standing in large golden globes.

“Is it over?” I asked. “Is Egan contained?”

“The virus worked,” Brantley said. “Eventually.”

Ms. Afshan snorted. “Next time, you code it under fifteen seconds.”

“Thank you all.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. They’d disrupted the city systems and broken a dozen laws but saved the city. This was going to be a hell of a report. Captain Garrison couldn’t be too mad at me.

Brantley nodded. He looked strange standing up, a position I’d never seen him in. “We’ll set up searches to find and restrict Egan. With Konigsplatz’s server destroyed, they won’t be able to recreate him.”

“Good work, partner,” Stella said. “We deserve a medal.”

Brantley and his friends had floated away, and my implant turned on and downloaded several emergency messages, none of which were news to me.

“Somebody does.” I looked at the blank monitor.

She picked up her tablet. “You didn’t lose a partner, and I can’t find mention of a tragic romance. Your turning point seems to be a messy clone operation you shut down. Was Brantley involved? He was the start of your downslide?”

I didn’t want to talk about it, but she deserved the truth. “I solved a case where an illegal lab grew clones to sell as permanent hosts for people who wanted to be younger or more attractive.”

“Or not handicapped?”

I nodded. “One of the nutrient chambers had Brantley’s name on it. During the arrest, the lab self-destructed. I never mentioned it to Brantley, but he must know I’m the one responsible for him staying in his chair.”

“It’s not your fault.” She gestured for another drink. “Life is hard enough without cosmetic clones running around.”

“I guess.” It was my fault.

She patted me on the back. “Well, you broke this case, Sergeant Wells. Without you, we’d all be living in Egan City right now.”

I raised my glass to her. “You, too, Captain. Let me know if you need someone to push paper down at the 07.”

She tapped my glass with hers. “Oh, I’m sticking around a while. I wanted to have a little talk with the Murphy women. You game?”

I smiled. “How about tomorrow? I’m asking Brantley to play Space Wars tonight.”

(previous)
They Cut
Me Up