Richards & Klein: The Nemesis Worm


R&K The Nemesis Worm [Word Format]

Richards stepped sideways off the Grid mainline. The slip of the receding Grid was like water sliding off skin, the sensation reminding him of his true shape, if only for an instant; massive, blackly dense with compacted data, alien to him. Then it was gone and he was back in his accustomed form, a man in an office, nothing more.

He could kid himself a little, at least.

The office wasn’t much, a corner of the storage area he kept his case files in. He’d walled it off with a flimsy partition with glass door that banged when it slammed, added bare, stained floorboards, stuck in a sofas, bookshelves and a view of old Chicago to make it a bit more like the places he’d read about in the pulps. It didn’t entirely work, but it felt like home.

The intercom chimed. He ignored it.

“Office isn’t open until 7.00am,” he grumbled.

He dropped into the chair behind his desk, the leather creaking reassuringly. It had been a good night; he’d scored new business, new leads on an old case, had some fun. He felt refreshed, like he was finally getting over that business in Salzburg. He hummed as he poured himself a Laphroig of a type that had never and would never exist, then checked through his messages, which he had manifest before him in the form of typed letters. He bashed out a reply to one that wouldn’t wait on his typewriter and sent it via Gridmail. He was about to start another but the doorbell went again, and again. He sighed, check out the sigs outside. Cops. Not just any cops, Smillie.

“Great,” he said to himself and opened multiple eyes to the Real. That finished his good mood off.

A stinking whisky morning greeted him. Three empty bottles of his best real single malt were on the coffee table in the waiting lounge, their contents evidently now within his partner, Otto.

Otto lay on one of the couches, massive and unmoving , one of the curtains draped over him like a shroud on an elephant. Otto laughed at Richards’ liking for vintage furnishing, now Richards wished he’d paid attention and gone for something modern, it would have been easier to clean up. The curtain pole was hanging off the wall, a grim New London day just visible through the darkened window glass. Richards & Klein’s offices in the Real were toward the top of the Wellington Arcology; off an internal arcaded street that opened right out over the big in-parks. Stunning views inside and out the arco, adaptive furnishings, self-cleaning, an evolving comms grid – all the usual luxury sales points. In eight short hours Richards had been gone Otto had made it his own personal slum.

The intercom now chimed incessantly. The door to his virtual office responded, and shook with furious banging. Richards was angry. He couldn’t cope with Smillie and a drunken Otto. And he was drunk. If you drink enough, quickly enough, booze will overwhelm even healthtech. Last night he guessed Otto had done just that, now his implants would be struggling to clear a hangover the size of a gorilla, and it looked like it wasn’t going without a fight.

Richards vindictively turned the opacity of the window banks right down. Harsh grey daylight flooded the room, catching streaks of rain on the window. Otto moaned and moved his arm, heavy with subdermal polymer muscle, across his eyes.

“Jesus, Otto! You want to get wankered and mess some place up, do it in your apartment!”

“Go away. Let me sleep,” Otto muttered weakly.

The intercom chime stopped. A voice, Scottish, replaced it. “Klein, goddamn it! Klein! We know you are in there!”

“Great. Smillie,” said Richards. “Perfect.”

“Open this door! Bloody…” Smillie’s voice faded into angry inaudibility. Others joined it, their words indistinct. They argued, then the banging started again. “Klein! Come on man, open up! Tell me where Richards is, or I’ll get unpleasant.”

Richards patched himself directly into the intercom panel outside. Three uniformed cops and detective Smillie, gruff and huge in the camera lens, stood in the street running round the atrium of the arco. They were thirty-three floors from the top. Richards could see part of the glass roof, tinged green by reflected light from the park far below.

Something caught Smillie’s eye, maybe it was the light showing the panel to be occupied, maybe it was the cartoon Scotsman waving his privates that Richards had marching up and down the screen embedded in the unit. Smillie bent down and peered carefully into the camera. He turned his cigarette off and pocketed it. From the smell it gave off the device was full of expensive tobacco, gengineered to be carcinogen free. “Richards, is that you?”

“Smillie. How marvellous. What brings you out of your bothy so early in the morning?”

“I’m glad the brains of the outfit have shown up, saves me talking to that lummox you have on the payroll.”

“I am so very glad to see your ugly face spoiling my expensive view. What do you want?”

“I’ve come to talk to you. Nicely like. Are you going to open the bloody door, or do I have to stand here all pissing day?” said Smillie.

“I am not opening the door without Otto’s permission.”

“These are your offices.”

“They are,” said Richards.

“Then open the door.”

“Technically, and I am speaking technically, AI are not permitted to hold property alone. In cases of ownership of physical property by both corporeal and AI persons, the meat takes precedence. You wouldn’t want to get me into trouble with the law. The door stays closed,” Richards said.

“We both know that’s not really the case. You’re being a damn pedant,” said Smillie. “Stop pissing about and let me in.”

“Smillie, I don’t want to talk to you, and Otto is in no fit state to,” Richards had the cartoon Scotty blow a raspberry and waggle its bare arse “Hoots mon!” it squeaked. “The days when you could order me around are long past, and I don’t care to be reminded of them. Go away.”

“I never did like you, you know that?” growled Smillie. He took out his cigarette, put it in his mouth, took it out again without turning it back on. “You always were an insolent bastard.”

“I love you too. Honestly, I mean it. I’d give you a cuddle, but as I am not wearing my sheath right now you’ll have to go and fuck yourself.”

“Smart mouth eh? Fine door you’ve got here,” Smillie stroked the wood, running his hands over the lettering on it. ‘Richards and Klein, security consultants’, it read. Richards had chosen the name himself. Most people in the security business went for nonsensical buzz-words – ‘Intech’, ‘SpyGen’, ‘Securicenture’. Richards preferred language that meant something. He’d had it actually painted on by a real sign writer too, cost him a fortune. “Mahogony is it? Very expensive eh? Lets your clients know they’re getting the best, having an endangered species as your front entrance? Vulgar, I’d say.”

“And also very closed. It’s triple-deadlocked, shielded, encrypted and locked with a genuine key, and there’s a heavy gauge blast door just waiting to drop down over any hole you might care to make. It is closed. It is going to stay that way. Now go away, I have to deal with Otto.”

“Let me put it like this,” said Smillie. “How about I kick it in?”

“If you are here for a nice chat, I don’t see how that would serve your purpose.”

“There’s nice, and there’s a nice big hole. You choose.”

“Legally, and I mean really legally, and I’m using that word on purpose, whether the door stays closed or not is Otto’s decision; not mine, and not yours without a warrant. Otto can hear you. He is lying on the couch. He is not looking his best, but he can hear you, and I think he says ‘no’.”

“Open the door,” growled Smillie.

“I also say no, and more emphatically,” said Richards.

Smillie curled his lip, tapped his cigarette on his teeth. “Lads, get this door down.”

Richards swore and ducked back into the apartment, leaving a small part of himself in the intercom unit to keep an eye on Smillie.

“Otto, get up!” said Richards. Otto snorted. Outside, Smillie turned to his men and waved at the door.

“Break it in,” he said. The uniforms looked at one another. “Don’t just stand there, let me deal with the paperwork, you’re not paid to think, you’re paid to do, so do!” That was the Smillie Richards knew well, there wasn’t a day that he didn’t trot out some bully-boy cliche. “Break it in!”

“They are going to do it, Otto.” said Richards. “They are going to hurt my door.” Otto did not reply. “Otto!”

Two officers hefted the ram, a stumpy high-density carbon job, then Richards’ outside eye went blind as the third uniform zapped the door with an EMP gun, disabling the intercom unit along with the deadlocking mechanisms and the blast door. The door had been reduced to the status of expensive wood. He opened it remotely before the cops could swing. The deeds might have Otto’s name on them first, but it was he who paid the bills, and he liked that door.

“Thank you,” said Smillie. He pushed past the uniforms into the room. “Otto! Get up you drunken shit!” He strode across the office and kicked the couch. “My grandma could drink more than you. What kind of soldier are you?” He kicked again.

“I am not a soldier any more,” Otto said, and rolled over to face away from the detective.

“Feeling sorry for yourself, eh? You’re pitiful.”

Before the words had finished reverberating molecules in the air Otto was up, smooth and fast like a puma. He pinned the detective to the wall by his throat. One of the cops made to grab Otto’s arm. Otto pushed him over as if he were a toddler.

“Don’t annoy me,” said Otto quietly. “Not today.”

“Ah! It lives!” said Smillie, his voice was a reduced to a hoarse rasp, but his sneer was undiminished. “Morning, you Kraut bastard.”

“Otto put him down!” said Richards. He hadn’t put his body on yet, his voice emanating from acoustic panels in the walls. “What do you want Smillie?”

Smillie looked meaningfully at the cyborg.

“Otto!” Richards snapped at his partner. The day had gone to shit already, before opening hours, a new record. Otto lowered Smillie to the floor.

“Someone’s dead,” said Smillie, straightening his tie and staring hard at Otto. “And I have some people who want to talk to you both about it.”

“So? I haven’t killed anyone in a long time,” said Otto. His accent, not normally strong, thickened when his head thickened. His breath stank, Smillie recoiled.

“No-one said you had.” Smillie threw a packet of pills at Otto. “Accelerants, nothing nasty. They’ll clean whatever shite you’ve been drinking out of your system. And eat some mints for fuck’s sake, you stink.”

“Not ‘shite’; my best scotch,” said Richards. “All of it.”

“Shame,” said Smillie. “You won’t be able to offer me a drink then. Anyways, time is a ticking, we need to be going.”

“Wherever you are going, I am not coming,” said Richards.

“You are, because you don’t have a choice. You’re both to come with me willingly or not.” The cop with the EMP gun patted it meaningfully. “You wouldn’t want old Bobbie here to accidentally let that off in this fancy pad. It’d take a tidy fortune to get it all fixed up nice again, eh?”

“I thought you said ‘nice’,” said Richards. “I take it the lack of a warrant doesn’t matter a damn.”

Smillie shrugged. “And leave your sheaths here,” he pointed at Richards’ wardrobe door. Within were his android shells, standing inactive, “you’re to come remotely.”

“Come where?”

“To see the minister for AI Affairs, that’s where.”

“Euro, or local?” said Richards.

“Euro, Richards. He’s here by projection, in person.”

“Ah,” said Richards. That made him nervous. It didn’t mean much that they’d bypassed local admin, but if it was nothing that could be offloaded onto junior Eurocrat, it was serious. “Very well, but this better not take long.”

Smillie held up a radio key, top whack, quantum encrypted. He waved it across the room and its dumb mind thought right into Richards’. “And I don’t want you lurking about in my car, go directly there. When you log back into the Grid, you’ll find a secure line out from your base unit. The encryption in this key is nothing compared to what they’ve put in the data tunnel. It’ll turn your brain inside out if you make a run for it. Understand?”

“Of course,” said Richards.

The location the key sent him appeared on no map. A sequence of co-ordinates pinpointing somewhere in the grid that was officially nowhere, though Richards knew it well: Scotland Yard2’s AI maximum containment unit. Richards had not worked AI Affairs when he’d been on the force. Even so, his own work had taken him to the AIMCU several times, though never on the wrong side of the table. Once he got in, it would be very, very hard to get out if the powers that be decided they’d rather he stayed. This was not good, not good at all.

Salzburg and Launcey, has to be, he thought. Things got nasty there, he knew there’d be aftershocks on that one. He put in the call to his lawyer. Then he slotted himself back into the netherworld of the Grid.

As he phased into the second world, he kicked himself mentally. Of course Otto had got hammered, of course he was in a bad mood.

Yesterday was the anniversary of his wife’s death.

He felt like a shit. A Five had perfect recall, but his lower selves were strictly hierarchical, passing up information to his higher functions and tasks in order of urgency. Pretty much like a human, really, not that knowing why it had happened made any difference. He’d forgotten because he was busy, pure and simple.

He had no more time to think before the strong arms of Smillie’s radio key wrapped around him, and shot him across town.

****

Richards was no stranger to code string searches, but the level of scrutiny he was subjected to at the AIMCU was something else. Near-I ’bots combed every inch of his being for embedded malware or hitched-on remoras. The guards were dumb things, mono-tasked, but whoever had made them had ensured that they would do their one job exceedingly well. They were not the usual kit that the AIMCU employed. Richards felt them up a bit, and rapidly came to the conclusion he wouldn’t have been able to crack them. They had military written all over them, Norlot Corp’s work, if he was any judge.

When the ’bots had done poking at him they withdrew and left him sitting stewing. The lobby was a no-place, a bunch of numbers, nothing for the senses. Richards thought about trying to sneak part of himself out round the firewall, but simply considering it brought the ’bots back, interest redoubled, so he sat tight. He didn’t fancy being stripped down.

Eventually a surly, disembodied human voice said “Your lawyer’s here,” and he was dumped out of the lobby back into the Real. He was given access to an interaction unit set into a desk, a holographic model that projected a half-size man. Currently it was inactive, the plain figure standing ramrod straight in a cone of blue light, arms out to his side, eyes unblinking. It was a Swaledale, the worst kind of cheap Sino-siberian rubbish hidden under some folksy Anglo-name. It was not a good make, but like everything else here that was no mistake, it was probably intended to wind him up, because Richards noted its coding was far from rubbish. Half the room was bright with hard light, bleeding the angles of shadow, blurring it all out, very predictable. Where the authorities got their interior designers from Richards had no idea, but they were creatively bankrupt. He supposed it was meant to look intimidating, but who for? He didn’t know why they bothered with these psychological tricks. Similar might work on meat, or on the biddable Fours, Sixes and Sevens, but certainly not Fives. Being as they were pretty much the only ones that ever came through here, it was all rather pointless. Any sane Five-series AI that was brought to the AIMCU wouldn’t care, if they even noticed, and most criminal Fives were so nuts as to be on another level of not giving a damn altogether.

Otto was sat behind the desk on a moulded carbon chair. He was almost as motionless as the holo-puppet, though he looked somewhat better than before. The other half of the room was dark, diamond weave glass shield down, blocking out the far side of the desk. Sound in the room was sharp and clipped, an effect of the acoustic privacy shield that enveloped them both. A deep, barely audible hum started up as Richards brought the hologram to life. It was as clumsy as it was ugly.

“You okay?” Richards asked Otto. He probed gingerly at the hologram’s code, like a man probes at a sore tooth with his tongue. Security programmes scuttled menacingly round him, sharp pieces of themselves raised like pincers. “Sorry I forgot. I’ve had a lot on.”

“Unh,” grunted Otto without looking at him. He farted, and Richards was glad the interaction unit was too cheap to boast an olfactory sense. “It’s okay.”

“We’ll get a drink together later, yeah?”

Otto shrugged. “I’ve done enough drinking this week.

Great, thought Richards, a sulky German killing machine.

“Can I get my lawyer in here please?” said Richards testily.

“You have five minutes,” said the surly voice.

A door with a predictable whoosh opened behind him. Richards turned his hologram round to wave at Letitia Pound, the best practitioner of AI law in the south of England. She was wearing an attractive gynoid shell, a sheath so human in appearance all but an expert would not have been able to tell. Most lawyers weren’t real, numbers were much better at pernickerty ruthlessness. They also had fewer material needs so had priced meat out of the market, but Letitia was a soulcap post-mortem simulation, a pimsim, and thus at least had the distinction of actually having once been a person. Though that didn’t mean she made people feel any more at ease. She’d been frosty while she’d been alive, as a machine, she was approaching absolute zero.

Typically businesslike, she put her briefcase on to the table, clicked it open, shuffled some digital papers. “Richards,” she said, her voice bright and pleasant. “Could you perhaps tell me what is going on here? They wouldn’t give me the slightest hint, EuPol business.”

“Not good, is it?”

“There’s been a death, and they’ve brought me here.”

“Did you kill anyone?”

“What do you think?” said Richards.

“Did he?”

Otto turned a heavy head and looked at her with annoyance.

“Fine,” she said. “Where were you when this happened?”

“On the Grid, sorting business, Otto was drinking my best whisky. It’s all on record. Here.” Richards dumped a full record of what had happened straight into what served her as a brain.

“Hmm. As far as I see, you’ve a watertight alibi,” she sighed, “at least, you would have were you Fives not so adept at counterfeiting. Still,” she gave another tight smile. “We’ll have you out of here as soon as. Say nothing.”

Richards had the little hologram shake his head. “You always say that, why do lawyers always say that? I mean, you cost a fortune. I could tell myself that.”

“Yes,” said Letitia, “you could Richards, but for some reason that remains beyond me clients never do.”

“I’m sorry lady, but today you’re just here for show, let me handle this.”

“I really rather you didn’t.”

“Time’s up,” said the voice.

“No way was that five minutes,” grumbled Richards.

The privacy cone snapped off, small sounds rushed in. The black diamond weave glass retracted into the ceiling, revealing three men sat in a horseshoe facing Otto and Richards. Two of them, those that were actually present, were undoubtedly spooks, or the lords of spooks. The digital shadows they cast back into the Grid were black with military-grade encryption. One had a ratty moustache and bad British teeth, the other was short, thickset and potato-like, probably a Pole. He looked like he could pull the arms off a bear, but his white smock made him out to be a boffin. The third was Fernando Juarez Del Albegado, EuMin for AI affairs, there only by link but his holograph looked annoyed even at that. The British AI Affairs minister was evidently not invited. Smillie was nowhere to be seen.

Letitia spoke first. “Why have you arrested my client?,” she smiled her legal smile; crocodiles grinned with more charm.

“We have not arrested him, madam,” said the man with the teeth in Neolatin, as EU dictats required. His moustache barely covered his top lip, and reminded Richards of the hair round a plughole. “He is here of his own free will.”

“In that case, why the hell is he here of his ‘own free will’” she hooked sarcastic quotation marks in the air with her fore and middle fingers. She glared directly into the minister’s holographic eyes. Living on as a digital copy of yourself after death seemed like a good idea, but the actuality of it tended to send most people a little screwy a few months post-mortem. Letitia was three years dead and not bothered by it at all. Immortality did, however, make her feisty. ‘Risk averse’ was not a term you could apply to Letitia, and that was perhaps, in a lawyer, a fundamental lack. “Who are these men, minister?” demanded Letitia. “They’re not with Eupol. I would know you if you were,” she said, taking them in. “I cannot make proper representation until I know with whom we are dealing.”

“Who we are is unimportant. We are here as advisors to the minister that is all you need to know. We have a few question to ask of AI designate 5-003/12/3/77,” said moustache. “Nothing more.” His Neolatin was bad, but that was always the way with the British and French EuCrats, they made a point of it.

“Call me Richards,” said Richards. He made the hologram’s lumpen face smile. It looked like a village idiot. “I don’t go under my inception number.”

“Mr. Richards,” began Moustache again. He had the bad habit of not looking up from his palmtop screen while speaking.

“No, just Richards,” said Richards. The voice of his puppet was somewhat poorly intoned, as a man who speaks a foreign language well but not perfectly. This annoyed him. He pushed hard, and finally felt the thing’s code give. He idly rewrote the hologram to make it more expressive, and in general just a little bit less shit. Then he turned it into a tiny squirrel for the fun of it. Moustache, the minister and the boffin type tried not to look surprised. Richards felt smug. It was a sensation he enjoyed.

“You…”

“Hey hey! You!” Letitia snapped her fingers. “Hello! Yes, that’s right, over here. Talk to me. Don’t even look at my client until I am convinced this is all above board. Do you know your henchman threatened to break down his door? His door! If you aren’t going to arrest him, why the threats? It’s a clear violation of his human rights.”

“Your client,” said moustache again, looking up for a moment from his screen, “has been brought here under the 2078 European Parliamentary Directive regulating Synthetic, Simian, Cetecean, Trans- and Post-human entities, a directive you know well, Miss Pound. You are well aware that it gives us the right to question him, so please, can you curtail your otherwise excellent act and let us get on with the matter at hand?”

“The directive gives you the right to request he speak to you, same as you would to an unmodified human. Coercion is not part of it, and any questioning is supposed to take place at my client’s convenience, not yours. This is harassment, pure and simple.”

“Harassment, unless we have grounds for arrest.”

“So arrest him,” said Letitia.

“We don’t need to arrest him, and, though you may find this hard to believe, Miss Pound, we don’t want to arrest him. We simply need to take a patterning of Mr Richard-”

“It’s just Richards,” interrupted the squirrel.

“-to eliminate him from our enquiries, if he is indeed innocent,” said Moustache.

“I believe you did not tell him this.” Letitia’s eyes flashed and she played a holo of Richards’ conversation with Smiley, the sound issuing from her open mouth. She stopped at ‘It’ll turn your brains inside out.’ “That’s a threat right there,” she said. “The third in one short exchange, as a matter of fact. Your accusations are tantamount to a charge,” she said. “No person can be held without knowing what they are accused of. Officially charge him or let him go.”

“Miss Pound. Please. There has been a murder. We just wish to eliminate Mr Richards from our enquiries. The circumstances of the killing are such that, should the unlikely occur and Mr. Richards prove to be culpable, we need to be able to keep him here,” said Moustache. “The perpetrator is extremely dangerous, and should it be that it is Mr Richards, I am sure you will agree that that it would be difficult to apprehend him should he be free on the Grid. The choice of venue is merely a precaution. Now, Mr Richards…”

Richards’ squirrel smiled at him. Yeah, fuck you, the smile said, can’t even get my name right.

A picture appeared in the air, 3D crime scene footage. The smile left the squirrel’s face. “Does this look familiar?” said Moustache.

“Sheesh, nasty,” said Richards. A corpse lay sprawled upon a bed as forensics drones meticulously combed the area around it. The holo was pin-sharp, but it was impossible to tell if the body was that of a man or a woman. It had collapsed on itself into a brown husk, its features a mushy ruin. Tea-coloured liquid stained the sheets around it. “What the hell happened to him?”

“You did, Mr Richards, about four days ago, give or take,” said minister Del Albegado, speaking for the first time. “Or at least data trails suggest it was you.”

“That’s impossible, I was with Otto in Salburg until Tuesday. I only nipped back once or twice, and I was out of action half the time.”

“So we understand. But the data says it was you. No one shares your digital signature,” said Moustache.

“Of course not,” the hologram snorted. “But that doesn’t stop someone ripping it off. Come on! Dragging me in front of you heavy-duty spy types and the EuMin for someone laying a false trail with my Gridsig? Please.”

“That is why you are here. That is what we are trying to find out. Do you not see? We are trying to help you, so please co-operate. I need not tell you that, although you are under arrest, you are perilously close.” It was Moustache’s turn to look smug. “Unless, of course, patterning of your code tells us that it was not you. It was not you, was it, Mr Richards?”

“Come on!” said Richards. “You wouldn’t drag me down here for a simple murder,” the squirrel nodded at the minister, “and if he’s here who else is watching?”

“This conversation is being… will be monitored by a committee of several of the most senior heads of EuSec, a few of the higher members of EuPol too, one or two of your old colleagues I believe, Mr. Richards,” he gave a thoroughly unctuous smile. “You are right, there is more to this, though I am not permitted to tell you what just now, I assure you that you are here on business of grave import,” said Moustache.

“Ooh, grave import! Well let’s have a parade!” said Richards.

Moustache looked up from his palm display for a brief moment, watery eyes locking with Richards. “Mr Richards please, this attitude only delays your departure.”

“Okay!” the squirrel held its paws up. “I’ll submit to the patterning, but don’t you think I don’t recognise you for what you are, and if you fuck me about, there will be consequences. You want to pattern me, right, because you don’t have an up-to-date imprint of my code?” This was to be expected; all AI, including the restricted post-Five models, evolved over time, Fives quickly and constantly. Patterning was the AI equivalent of gene sampling for meat persons, but it needed doing regularly.

Moustache inclined his head, his eyes now firmly engaged with his floating palm display again. “Exactly. Holding such without your knowledge would be a violation of your human rights.”

“What does EuPol Central say about it?”

“In AI investigations all work is to be undertaken by human officers. You of all people should know that. We have taken EuPol Central’s opinion under advisement.”

“And Hughie’s opinion is?” No reply. “Fine. Patterning will clear me?”

“If you are innocent.”

“What happens if I am innocent and the patterning still fingers me? There are some clever bastards out there who don’t hold a man’s rights in such high regard as you do.”

“We shall see then,” said Moustache.

“A moment! I will consult with my client!”

Moustache nodded, sound went scratchy as the acoustic shield reengaged.

Letitia turned away from the men on the other side of the desk. “I advise you against this, Richards,” said Letitia.

“And I’m not taking your advice. Sorry, Tish, I’ll even sign your little book to say so if you like.” He thought across his proof to Letitita’s briefcase. Letitia registered it and shrugged.

“It’s your funeral.”

“Right. Okay! I’m ready!” Richards sent a signal to turn off the shield again.

“Thank you, Mr…” began Moustache.

“Just Richards! Sheesh! What kind of intelligence guys are you?”

“Richards. Very well. You submit to the patterning?”

“Yeah, get on with it.” Moustache nodded at Boffin, Boffin pressed something, and Richards smarted as he felt the patterner’s probe burrow into his coding. Sometimes it annoyed him that he had to feel pain at all. A lot of it he could turn off – that felt by his sheaths or online avatars, but direct assaults on his actual coding he felt like a dentist’s drill.

“Now, confirm your inception serial.”

“That’s not really a question, is it? More of an order.”

“If you will,” Moustache replied.

“I mean, you obviously have all this on file.”

“Mr Richards. The operation of your mental patterns as you respond to our questions will help us determine what we need to know. What you say aloud is really quite unimportant.”

“Why not just ask?” said Richards. “Did I kill him? No. There you are.”

“Please, indulge us,” said the Boffin, speaking for the first time. “You are aware how patterning works? We need to measure your responses to…” To be fair to him, he was making an effort, he was evidently excited to be examining a Five. Richards didn’t care.

“I know how it works! Do you? Imagine I give you an invasive neural lie detector test married to a full on strip search.” He could feel the pinch increasing. “It’s like that.”

“If you require me to phrase exact questions then I will,” said Moustache. “Under what name do you operate your business in partnership with Mr Klein?”

“I just told you!”

“Please.”

The hologram of the squirrel shook its head. “Okay, okay! Richards – just Richards – as I have already said.”

There was pressing of screens and scrutiny of data among. The Moustache and Boffin both nodded. Boffin returned to intently stare at something on his palmtop.

“I only operate under my private security number, or my inception serial, dependent on special circumstance. Like, when I am wrongfully detained. Even that idiot Smillie could tell you that.”

“Please, do not be glib,” said Moustache, “we need you to remain calm.”

“Me? Glib? If I had glands I’d be offended,” said Richards.

“You are AI designate 5-003/12/3/77?”

“Yeah,” said Richards. Ow, he thought.

“You worked for a decade with the New London Canton EuPol, during which time you were given the badge number 188725?”

“Yes, yes I did, and yes I was. Look, can you tone that thing down a bit? It hurts.”

“I am sorry, Mr Richards, but we will only be a few more moments. You caught or helped catch 6,781 offenders. This was the highest number of any officer in your department, was it not?”

“Yes. And it is still the highest number bar one in the entirety of the New London EuPol’s history,” said Richards; he was not bragging, it was simply true.

“My client is a hero, not an enemy of the state,” said Letitia.

Moustache ignored her, and asked the squirrel: “How did you achieve such a high arrest rate?”

“Ah, I have a knack for it.”

“How did you discover this ‘knack’?”

“It’s built in. I was created as a digital archeologist,” he said, “for the University of Edinburgh. They were into their cutting edge tech, got hold of the Class Five templates before the recall, and, well, you know all about that. I was primarily under the direction of Armin Thor. He patterned me after himself, to a degree, and brought me up over several years. He fought really hard to keep me after the Five crisis came to a head in ’04. It’s thanks to him I wasn’t wiped.”

“He treated you like a child? Like his child?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

“And you regarded Mr Thor as your father?”

Richards hesitated. “Yeah, I did. Do we really need to talk about this?”

“I am afraid so. Events of emotional intensity help the patterning. What then?”

“Once I had reached a sufficiently high level of maturity…”

“Explain.”

“Like, I could hold a conversation on one topic without running off down thirty thousand tangents at once, or freak people out by mathematically describing their haircut, or offering to vivisect them to find out what strain of cold bug they had. When they knew I wasn’t going to go la-la and kill anybody, that’s what I mean. That answer your question?”

“Yes.”

“So, after I’d grown up, my higher functions were force evolved over 30,000 generations, mostly to be adept at tracking down obsolete or hidden electronic documents on the grid. A part of my mind is the blend of the best of the final 257 generations…” he paused. “Look, this is AI tutelage for dummies guys, why are we talking about this?”

Moustache ploughed on. “And Thor would use you to uncover primary sources to aid him in writing biographies of historical characters?”

“Ow. Yes! Bastard!”

“His award-winning history of the Bush dynasty?” said Boffin eagerly.

“That, and many others.”

“When Professor Thor passed away, on 13 March, 2117, it was three years after the EU parliament had granted synthetic persons full rights and autonomy. Why did you wait until he died?” asked Moustache.

“Because,” Richards’ squirrel shrugged. “Next question.”

“Explain.”

Richards struggled to maintain his composure. His father, at least, the man who was as good as his father, was the last thing he’d expected to be talking about today, and he wasn’t in the mood. Talking about it made him uncomfortable. “Do you realise what it is to be a made thing, to be created, with a full expectancy of service and not much else?” he said levelly. “Thor treated me like an equal, like a person, like a son. I owed him everything, including my loyalty.” And more. Had he more to give, he would have given it, but he hadn’t; that still smarted.

“Is that why you affect so many human characteristics?” said Moustache.

“It is why, unlike the vast majority of my series Five brethren, I am not fucking insane, okay? Only the Fives with a grounded morphic identity are on the level. There are precious few of those as mostly such identities were constructed by accident. I’m one of the lucky ones, now change the subject.”

Otto glanced at the hologram.

Moustache acquiesced. “Why did you join the police?”

Richards sighed. “There were still some tension about we Fives being allowed out and about,” hell, he thought, there still was, “so I thought it wise to enter public service, you know, visibly become one of the good guys. With only seventy-six Fives cleared for active life, there were a lot of eyes on me back then. Police work seemed stimulating and it fit my abilities well. And it did, for ten years. Then I met Otto here. We decided to go private.” Richards didn’t elaborate, they were bound to have it all on record, just like everything else. The internal bust he’d done in 2125 had left him with very few friends in the force, probably because half of them had been sent down. Damn near got himself unofficially shut down too. He’d pissed a great many powerful people off.

“They have a name of their own for you, do they not, the criminals and your old colleagues?”

“Yes, I believe they did.”

“And do you believe it to be an appropriate title?”

“That is not for me to say.”

“You are being evasive,” said Moustache.

Richards’ holographic puppet grimaced. “Well, yeah then, if you want honesty, it was damn appropriate. I am good at my job. They called me the Nemesis Worm. It’s not flattering, and I am the first to say that it sounds ridiculous, but it is nothing if not accurate.” He didn’t add that he hated it. It was an insult, simple as that.

“Do your talents, Mr Richards…” began Moustache.

“Just Richards.”

“Your talents, are they good then, for covert activity?”

“I suppose they might be.”

“You suppose they might be?” said Moustache, eyes narrowed.

“Probably! For the love of God, I am a security consultant, a detective. Yes, I could be a spy if I wanted to be, but I am not. Is that what this is about? It’s a cheap trick dragging me in here just so you could fit me up for espionage. Have the Chinese been running round your archives again?”

“Would you have come if we had asked you more gently?” said Moustache.

“No. If you were in my shoes, would you?” said Richards.

“Okay. I have enough!” said Boffin with an inordinate amount of animation. He was like a kid with the biggest birthday cake, an attitude totally at odds with his thickset appearance. For some reason Richards could not put his finger on, that was really annoying. “I have enough. This is indeed the real Richards, and he didn’t do it, there are significant differences in his coding at a basal level from that of the entity that committed these crimes. The other has diverged significantly in several respects from the original.”

“How certain are you?” asked the minister.

“100%” said the boffin. “If I may?” The minister waved a hand. He looked even more irritated now that Richards’ had been cleared, he’d probably been dragged away from some banquet, thought Richards. Now that the case wasn’t proving so simple, he’d have to stay and miss dessert.

Richards winced as the patterner withdrew. “We were fairly sure that it was not you,” continued Boffin. “At least, after we checked your logs, and discovered that you were in Salzburg at the time of this poor unfortunate man’s death. We did think, for a while, that maybe you had falsified your code trails, but this turned out not to be the case. We have evidence from numerous locations that you were actually there, in toto, as it were, and had not illegally split yourself.”

“Never thought I would be happy with the AI Laws,” muttered Richards. He altered the appearance of the hologram to his preferred avatar, that of a 1930s gumshoe. He conjured a chair, sat down on it, and pulled a cigarette from his trench coat.

“Without it,” said the minister, “our conversation would be proceeding under very different stars, if we would be having this conversation at all.”

“Yeah,” the hologram scratched under its hat. “Last thing you need is another rogue Five, right? Safer just to Norton us, isn’t it? So, now what?”

The Boffin began to speak, the minister irritably cut him off. When he spoke, Richards decided then that he wasn’t annoyed, he sounded tired. “Richards, we have to entertain the notion that there is a very real possibility that you have been copied.”

Suddenly, everyone was looking at Richards.

“What? No! Come on. You’re shitting me! Copy a Five? It’s not possible. It’s never been done, I mean sure, it’s been tried, but… I mean, where would they find a base unit to fit it into? That grade of hardware isn’t something you can fab up at home, and there are checks on that level of tech.”

No one said anything, they kept on staring.

“Could it have been one of the others, one gone rogue?” Unlikely, he thought, but possible.

“All seventy-five of the other active Fives have been eliminated from our enquiries,” said Moustache.

“Well, mightn’t one of them have been copied?” Richards knew he was clutching at straws.

“Sorry, no,” sighed Boffin, “the coding of the culprit matches yours more closely than any of the others.”

“I would have noticed!” said Richards.

“Would you? I understand you were taken ill in Salzburg…” said Moustache.

“Yeah, damn virus. Random attack from a Near-I programme, a holdover from the anti-Five days I guess. I don’t know, I never got its name. It took me out of the game for a week. We nearly lost our case while I fought it off.” Or so he thought at the time, that was looking highly unlikely now.

“Maybe not so random. We think that’s how they did it,” said Boffin.

There was another pause in the interrogation, as if they were all expecting something. They were going to be disappointed, thought Richards. He finished his cigarette and ground it out in a shower of miniature sparks. “Oh well. Copied you say? Amazing. Thanks for letting me know and all that, I’ll be going now.”

The EuMin frowned and laced his hands together. The desk in the place he was broadcasting from was evidently a few centimetres higher than the one in the AIMCU, because his arms floated oddly, resting elbows resting in the air. “No, no we can’t let you go, because you’re going to help us catch this thing..”

“Fine, fine. If it shows up, I’ll ask him to call.”

The EuMin glared. “I don’t like your attitude, Richards. I don’t like you, or your kind. If it was down to me I’d have every AI above class Three wiped. You are too dangerous, all of you. I regard it as a great shame that this mess,” he pointed to the crime footage, playing on loop in the air, “is simply not down to you behaving murderously, because then my burden would be one Five lighter.” He looked away, composed himself before he started shouting. When he turned back he was calmer. “I suppose I better be grateful that the creation of new Fives is strictly forbidden. This murder only bears out that prohibition.”

Richards shrugged. “If someone is using my other self as an assassin, then it’s not my problem. I can hardly be held responsible. All Fives are individuals, you said yourself the coding patterns were different. Even if he were exactly the same as me to being with, without the same morphic identity or trammels, he’d rapidly turn different until he found his own.” If he found his own, he said to himself. “This is your department minister, not mine.”

“You occupy a rather large portion of storage space, Mr Richards,” damn fool Moustache would not stop with the ‘Mr Richards’. “And utilise an obscene amount of bandwidth. Such resources are finite.”

“Are you threatening me again?”

“Oh now this is outrageous…” said Letitia.

“We are not playing games,” said Moustache. “We could never simply deactivate Mr Richards, but…”

“But what?” said Letitia.

“There are other ways to… convince an AI to play ball.”

Richards looked at Otto and shook his head. The spook was right. He could engineer it so Richards was stuck in a cul-de-sac, or compressed. The computing power required to run him was enormous, half his office space was taken up by his base unit. Any downgrade of his Grid access or hardware would be as good as a lobotomy.

“I can’t believe you’re saying this in front of his lawyer,” said Letitia, “I’m going to make some calls.”

“No you won’t,” said Moustache, suddenly grim. “This meeting is covered by AI emergency legislation.”

“Enough!” shouted the EuMin. “Do you not see coercion will not help? You overstep yourself! If you will not help Richards, then allow me to appeal to your much vaunted sense of humanity.” Juarez gestured at the crime scene footage, releasing the whole of the file to Richards. He pulled a few of the more gruesome pictures to the fore. There was more than one body. “All of these took place while you were in Salzburg. He is laughing at us, Richards. He holds that at least in common with you.”

“Don’t you dare try and guilt trip me into this.” But a shiver ran down his spine. Seven names, seven murders, seven gory sets of files. They’d died horrible, agonising deaths. Their health tech had been infiltrated. Richards could shed parts of his code like a human sheds skin cells, only his were semi-aware. Richards was a walking digital disease factory. His ‘scales’, as he called them, could tag a file, covertly hunt down each and every copy, and simultaneously destroy them, notifying Richards of their locations and their users. Or he could leave them in place for months at a time, gathering information. They were versatile, and handily did not contravene the regulations on AI splitting. It was an evolution of Richards’ file-finding ability, and he’d bagged a load of bad, bad men that way. But here the same talent had been used to infect and reprogram every single auxiliary health device in the victims’ bodies. Health tech was a long way from full nanite backup fiction still promised, but there were enough mites in those European citizens with healthtech to provide a fertile ground to people with malicious intent and the appropriate knowhow, like, for example, how to make a drug fabbing and dispensing unit flood a body with digestive enzymes. The victims been liquified from the inside out.

No one else but he could have done something like this, until now.

“Alright, you bastards,” he muttered. “We better at least be well paid.”

 

****

 

Smillie drove the way that a man who knows he will not be held to account drives. He dropped his car down over the poisoned northwest of London at well over the speed limit, weaving dangerously from flightpath to flightpath as they sped above overgrown Borehamwood. They skirted the bomb blast zone, past Edgware where the radiation lessened. Then they were on over the old 20th century inner ring road, cruising over row after row of crumbling Victorian properties. Many were abandoned, roofless, three-century wood rotted away in the humid climate, but others bore signs of life, the shanties of the maladjusted, desperate or plain heedless. Nothing to rival Camden Camp of course, but that was outside the Bounds and in technically safe country. Habitation in the northeast of London was in the arcos now, or not at all, said the government. Not everyone listened.

The atmosphere within the car was unpleasant. No-one spoke until Smillie got bored and broke the silence.

“You’re too damned flippant, Richards,” he said. “But you have a lot of balls for something with no balls, talking to the minister like that and his goons like that. I heard you queered the Interaction-u, turned it right into a little squirrel!” chuckled. “The tech guys told me. Oh, don’t you look so surprised Otto, we hate those spooky bastards, they treat us like dirt. Do you know who found the links between the murders? EuPol, not EuSec. Arseholes. They piss a lot of people off; so there’s always a way of finding things that they don’t want us to know out, you know? But a squirrel? Even I’d draw the line at baiting them so hard. So that got me thinking, and I thought I’ve always wondered why, you know, why you are so goddamned cheeky.”

Richards refused to be drawn.

Smillie continued “I’m not so fooled though, eh? I know you, with your cute wee wooden doors and your la-di-da detective bullshit. You’re very old-fashioned for a machine, Richards. Almost like a goddamned quirky!” He laughed somewhat humourlessly, Smillie wasn’t having a particularly good day either. “Who’d have thought it eh? A machine quirky. That’s a good one.”

“I prefer the way they used to do things,” said Richards. “It seems simpler to me.”

“Like in one of your stupid books eh, Sherlock? A gumshoe and his gun? How you can think you know that… You were never there, in the past. I don’t care how good your extrapolations are, you only know what you see with your own eyes, or cameras, in your case. The past is gone, it’s secondhand at best.” Silence fell again, though only briefly. “Do you remember Constable Wright?” Smillie said, apropos of nothing. “You’ll not know constable Wright, Otto,” he confided in the big man, he had no other concrete presence to address his comments to. “Turned out he had two wives, and that Nigerian bit on the side. Lovely guy, I arrested him for exceeding his child license. He had four! Four kids, can you imagine? Like a Victorian, or some kind of fucking, what did they call them? A hippy, a 22nd century hippy. He gets out next month. I must go visit.”

“Of course I remember,” said Richards. “I remember everything.”

“Everyone I know who has gone down that route, full recall appliances, mentaugs even,” Smillie glanced at Otto, “is in therapy.”

“I’m not everyone. I’m not human.”

“Aye, you’re no one.” Smillie pushed the wheel of the cop car forward and it began to descend. Wisps of New London’s constant cloud cover curled past the canopy. “Do you know what Wright used to say about you Richards? You’ll like this you will. You too, you big dumb German. He used to say that you were ‘a new machine with an old soul.’ What do you think? Suit you? You know what? I think he fancied you, wanted a toothbrush to add to his harem. Nice vibrating action for up the arse, eh?”

“You are a filthy bastard Smillie,” said Otto. “No wonder Richards hates you.”

“Aye well, maybe it’s because of that, or maybe it’s because we’re not so different.”

The car dove down to just above rooftop of the old city. The centre of Old London was rich as it always had been. The grand places were still grand, the neo-Georgian streets roofed in glass. But these came to an abrupt halt past Trafalgar dyke. Hundreds of cranes clustered here and there, renovating and water-adapting buildings. There were several streets of these already finished, stood like palaces in long-lost Venice, but many others waited in watery ruin for their chance at rebirth. This was a necessity, the docklands, the South Bank, much of the East End, Westminster and more were either permanently or periodically under water, and had been ever since Greenland had begun to live up to its name.

On further, past Westminster and the City of London. They flew between the gothic piers of Tower Bridge. No span linked them now, but they stood tall nonetheless. The terrorists and climate change had not been kind to the old dame of England, knocking her flat on her arse. But she’d stood up, shook off her skirts and carried on; battered, altered, but very much alive.

Out past the old city centre they crossed the surge canal line, past the three Thames barriers, and went on into the broad wilderness of the wider Thames estuary. Important landmarks pocked the mud, encased in foamcrete bubbles until the conservationists and experts could puzzle out what to do with them. Some of the blisters had failed, their contents abandoned. The rest of the eastern city south of the river had either been left to fall down or had been solemnly demolished. On islands made of tumbled houses, toothed blocks of masonry poked out through scrub willow. Between them sunken streets, unroofed tunnels and reborn rivers crossed marsh with angular channels, fish their only traffic. In the centre of it all ran the Thames, four times wider than a century and a half before, sluggishly insouciant about its victory over Mother London.

Smillie’s car swept on towards the river, scaring up clouds of waterfowl and scattering marsh ponies and water buffalo. Boats of all sizes crowded the water, their solar masts and rotary sails lifted high. Smillie weaved in between them at speed.

They slowed as they came out toward Kent. A space opened up in the river traffic, a patch of brown water ringed with blinking EuPol buoys. At its dead centre was their destination: Organic Waste Barge 071.

“You take me to all the nicest places,” said Otto, shaking his head at the mountain of garbage before them. He took a handful of rebalancers, then a long pull from an isotonic drink to wash them down. For his hangover to have persisted so long he must have drunk half of New London’s bars dry before starting on the office scotch, thought Richards.

The barge had been halted and penned. Hard by a substantial EuPol catamaran was moored, its sides petalled by landing pads, but even this was dwarfed by the mounds of waste upon the barge. Smillie was guided in by a traffic drone and brought his car to a gentle halt upon the third pad of the cruiser. He opened the canopy and a bouquet of violent stinks washed in.

A Thames Waterways EuPol approached the car. “DI Smillie, Scotland Yard2,” Smillie said to him, simultaneously gridcasting his ID. “We hear you have another one.”

They lent Richards a loader from the barge, a bottom heavy and clumsy mechanical sheath designed for a One to pile the garbage. Its four broad feet and shovel were caked in indescribable filth, it made him feel dirty just looking at it. Richards stomped it out of the barge service bay and waited while the three men followed the EuPol constable on to the vessel. Then they went round the service deck together until they came as close to the crime scene as they could.

Otto wrinkled his nose. The forensics evidence tent was visible in the middle of the rubbish. “A good place to leave a body,” he said. He tried to stifle a cough and failed.

“Aye,” said Smillie. “This barge is bound for Centre 3.”

“The UK government waste plant?” said Otto.

Smillie nodded. “It’s run entirely by dumb robots, no immigrant bonepickers or advanced AI there just in case they find something they shouldn’t. I doubt those machines can tell a chicken carcass from a corpse. There’s not better way to hide a dirty secret from the EU than to render it into lubricant and fuel pellets.”

“Centre 3 barges are enclosed, are they not?” said Richards. The utility sheath had the bland voice of something that didn’t have the need to speak often. It sounded like a bored gameshow host.

“Most. But they don’t have enough of the secure vessels. So they put some of it in civilian barges and hope for the best, you know how things are, cuts and all. Obviously our man, if you know what I mean, hacked the waste management system and found one that was easily accessible. We’re just lucky the body was bulldozed up, or we’d have never found it. He’s wising up after we found the first lot.”

“Or maybe he is making a point,” said Otto.

A man in a blue environment suit waved to them from behind a pile of rotting leftovers. “Smillie! Over here!” his voice was clipped, old money posh.

“That’s my man, Doctor Roberson. Come on” Their EuPol guide offered waders to Otto and Smillie. They pulled them on, and stepped off the walkway. The staggered up over the trash, both Otto and Richards’ borrowed body sinking up their knees.

“Julian, how are you?” Smillie offered his hand. The other man held both his up. They were gloved and covered in slime. In one he held a probe.

“Please, Smillie. Can you not see? I’m all awash in evidence.”

“Aye, sorry. This our victim?” Smillie gestured to the boneless mess just visible through the flaps of a forensics isolation tent, and barely distinguishable from the rubbish it lay on. Two other men, similarly garbed to Roberson in one-piece blue suits, were minutely examining the ground about the body. A hoverdrone darted about like a fat corpse fly, flashing as it took images. Other units scuttled around the floor, plucking fibres from the filth. “What is it, the eighth? Looks just like the others.”

“It is,” said Roberson reluctantly. His eyes, silvered optimax replacements, were unreadable. “Friends of yours?”

“Of a sort. Don’t worry about them, you can talk freely. They’re up to their necks in this. It’s government business.”

“I thought as much. I can feel the swine crawling about back there,” the coroner waved a hand toward the large copper-coloured augmatic hunched down like a tick under his hat. “Typical. I wish they’d just send one of their own ’crats down here to pick over this. Having them peering out of my eyes is frankly an intrusion. But what can you do?” He shook his head. “Come on then,” he started toward the tent, throwing his probe into a box of similarly soiled tools. “I advise you to take one of those,” he indicated another box, full of breathing masks. “The smell is even worse in the tent than it is out here, if you can credit it.”

The three men ducked into the tent. Richards’ borrowed body was too large to go within, so he hulked outside and unfolded a limb with a camera on it into the tent.

“You got here just in time. We were just about to pack him up and leave,” said Roberson.

“It’s a him?” said Smillie “You sure?”

“Yes. His ID chip has been removed, of course, and his genome’s been puddled, just like the others. But there’s enough left to determine sex, and we know he was an EU citizen from the chip location. The marks on the skull from the implantation process are all the same on citizens. And there was this. God knows why the killer left it behind. Bit of a smoking gun really.” The coroner squatted down and pulled an evidence bag from a tray of similar plastic-wrapped objects.

“A pre-paid access jack,” said Richards. “Is it still active?”

“Well, yes. I think so,” said Roberson. “Preliminary scans indicate so, though we don’t have the appropriate equipment here to fully check it out. We will be able to tell you for sure once we have our Sixes and the Seven in the lab have a go. But now? My guess is that it is active. But it could also be a penal tag or an advanced pro Gridlink or any other number of things. As you can see, the healthtech chewed it up pretty badly,” he jiggled the bag. “Look at the area round the body,” he pointed. “The ’mites just kept going when they got through the corpse, and ate into the garbage. Imagine if something like that got out into the wild? They would’ve stripped the life out of a good old chunk of the river. We would have been fishing the buggers out for days. I had the place EMP’d before we landed, just to be sure. Fried the barge pilot, of course, which is not going to make the GNLC happy at all, but replacing a near-I is cheaper than refloating this monster and the subsequent clean up operation. We’re pretty sure we got the lot of them. We scanned a few, and we don’t think they were programmed to autofab, which is a lucky old thing.”

“Nice work, Julian.”

“Well, thanks. But this isn’t my job, Smillie, and as much as I’m glad to help out the boys on the ground, you need to make sure they are more careful in future.”

“Noted,” said Smillie. “I’ll have a word.”

“Give me the jack,” said Richards’ drone. He extended a segmented, flexible maniple, like a steel squid. Roberson handed the device over, and Richards whipped it away.

“You have the expertise to crack it, even so damaged?” said Roberson, his eyebrows disappearing under his hat. “Impressive. I didn’t know you had a class Six on the staff, Smillie.”

“I’m not on the staff, and I’m not a class Six. I’m class Five,” said Richards with his smarmy, borrowed voice.

Recognition lit up Roberson’s face behind his visor. “Oh! Are you, you are not Richards, are you by any chance, the security consultant?”

“I prefer the term private investigator.”

“How quaint. I am so sorry, I didn’t think to check you when you got here – no offence, when DI Smillie here says ‘government’ I tend to keep a low profile, so I kept off the mentaug, and the loader didn’t jog the old meat sack,” Roberson tapped his forehead. “But a Five? The Richards? Well, well, fascinating, absolutely fascinating. Dr Smith at the cybernetic arm of our office has told me so much about you. So, what can you tell us?”

“I am trying to concentrate,” said Richards. Roberson obligingly shut up with a smile, though he watched the loader like he were expected it to pull a live rabbit out of the tool box bolted to its front behind the shovel. Richards let his mind slip half out of the real and into the Grid flow to wrap itself round the ethereal components of the jack. It was a prepaid number, nerve-bonded, the type they gave out to junkies to limit their gridtime. This one had been professionally hacked and had a sky-high usage count, the limiter on it reduced doing nothing more than counting off the hours; it looked like the pile of mush was one guy who had fallen off the wagon in a big way. It took Richards some time to access what he was looking for. The condition of the jack meant he had to pussyfoot around a whole load of broken nanotronics before he could get into the account it belonged to. Then the account was surprisingly well protected, almost impressively so, Richards required entire seconds to break in. From there, it wasn’t too hard to burrow into the health and social mainframes.

“The boy was Jermaine Abuso, 19 years old,” Richards borrowed voice intoned. “He was a student at Camtech. He was being treated for addiction to the New Life game family, that’s why this.” He waved the jack around, and broadcast a host of information about the boy into Roberson’s aug. The coroner tilted his head on one side as he skimmed it.

“My, my,” he said. “That should come in handy. Many thanks.”

“You can put my medal in the post,” said Richards.

“So fast, and quite illegal. Tell me, how did you crack the NHS?”

“I’m not telling.”

“Well, that wasn’t so hard,” said Smillie. “You should come back to work for me Richards. Do you have any connection with the other victims?”

“Not yet. I am initiating a scan of his social network, but it will take a while.”

“Eh, don’t be so short. It’s a lead isn’t it?”

Otto snorted. “Like the data trail? I do not think so, Smillie. If this was for real, Richards would be locked up tight in the AIMCU and we’d never have seen this corpse. It is an obvious trap.” Smillie scowled at him. Otto pointedly looked away, back up river toward the tattered city, to where sea birds wheeled round the mouths of the third and fourth surge canals. “Come on, let’s go, we do not have to stand and wait while Richards rides the Grid,” he said. “The stink of this place is getting to me.”

 

****

Richards soon discovered that three things linked the victims. One was a shared membership of a certain game in the New Life cluster, the one Abuso was a registered addict of, the second was that all of them had recently been implanted with healthtech, the other was an interest in AI sciences. All of them either had education in that direction or actually worked in the industry. Most, but not all, also had some kind of mentaug. Other than that they were a heterogenous group as you could hope to find: Brit native, Eurocitizen, immigrant, young and old, employed and jobless. The same kind of firewalls, false trails and retroactive data scrubbing obscured the group’s dealings as they did Abuso’s account. As far as Richards could tell, he’d been the group’s security expert. Pointless, thought Richards. Without a true quantum cypher, none of this could keep him out, and that was a stone cold fact.

While Richards tracked through the Grid, Smillie had pulled up the dead boy’s address on his palmtop. Abuso’d been living in a student residence, in the Morden Subcity. Richards proposed that he head off back to the office gridwise, while the two men checked out the halls. Smillie grumbled at that and shook his head. He wasn’t keen on students. Otto shrugged. Richards’ didn’t wait for Smillie’s agreement before he left.

Fractions of a second later Richards was back in the office, though in a real sense he had not been anywhere else. His base unit, the bulky hardware that ran Richards’ programming, was located deep in the arco’s superstructure under the office, any presence Richard had elsewhere was merely an extension of his senses. Nevertheless, he was to all intents not fully aware of what was occurring in his base unit while he was ‘out’, an entity perceived itself to be where its senses were. He had numerous subroutines keeping watch on his physical body, he was no more aware of them than a man is of his beating heart. He ducked into his internal systems to check the running of the base unit. It all looked okay, no one had tried to access it remotely or had tampered with the seals on its vault. He updated his security ware with the subtly different data signature of his copy. He did not want evicting while he was out. He then spent four minutes breaking into New Life and rejigging Abuso’s account so the student would still appear to be alive. He took pains to do this carefully. AI of any Class were strictly forbidden from entering most Grid virtual worlds, and the penalties could be harsh.

As he worked, Richards looked out through the office’s eyes at the mess Otto had made, and his eye fell upon his sheath. He longed to get out of the Grid, step into the Real in something that was not a glorified shit shifter. Have a real goddamn drink with real people in a real place. But no, he had to go and stop his unasked for offspring from murdering anyone else. Sometimes he wondered why he bothered getting out of bed in the mornings, metaphorically speaking.

He realised he was muttering to himself, and stopped.

He finished recalibrating the account and eased the chunks of code he had copied from New Life’s central programming back into the system, waiting for a timing break in the top tier churn to slot them home. A picosecond pause in the stream of information afforded him his chance. Suddenly Abuso was among the living once more.

“As if he’d never been dead,” said Richards. He would be safely able to wander the game world until New Life’s governing class Seven cottoned on that people didn’t die and then come back to life that way; there was a lot more paperwork involved. But it was a busy machine, so Richards reckoned he had thirty minutes at the outside before it noticed, the account was suspended and his behind removed by the New Life AI so fast it would outpace the electrons carrying it. He and New Life’s Seven had a rocky history.

Richards cloaked himself in Abuso’s stolen digital skin, took the machine equivalent of a deep breath, and leapt into the ocean of information that made up the System Wide Grid.

He entered New Life the way a jacked in human would, through the front door. It was a sensory rich environment, and that amused and irked Richards. For him the Grid was… he’d tried to explain it to Otto, but it was hard for the experience an AI had of Grid to be conveyed to a human, if not impossible. To him, the Grid was a sea, the space between thoughts, a river of light. Richards swam it like a leviathan, and he knew at those times that he was not nor ever would be human, not even as tenuously human as Letitia. It was embarrassing for him, but he felt godlike when in his natural environment. Entering one of the game places, by contrast, was far from divine. He likened it to walking through mud to get to a cheap funfair. Richards hated funfairs of all kinds for being neither fair nor fun. He had no idea why online games like New Life held such fascination for people. Ever since the AI emancipation had closed off the totally immersive environments of the Reality Realm RealWorlds, only Grid realms with limited realism were permitted. Being in them was, of course, almost totally convincing to the five senses, but the creatures that populated them were mindless drones way below the cognitive levels of even the AI Ones, and they were as dumb as bricks. Now that the corporations that ran the games could not offer a living world experience populated by slaved true AIs, they followed the tried and tested formats that had been online for over a century with 22nd century window dressing: kill 13 of this semi-autonomous orc-thing, collect 20 of that, trade in for shiny baubles and character points. To Richards this kind of activity was akin to the kind of demeaning thing chimpanzees used to be forced to do to collect sweets in laboratories. The main difference being that the chumps online had a choice. Player to player interaction was encouraged, of course, but in Richards’ opinion they should just get out and go to a bar.

Richards tried not to let his annoyance show as passed through gates ablaze with garish advertising into the game itself. His body tingled and he gently manifested as an eight foot pigman, racks of icons cluttering his vision. He checked the digital environment for anyone who might try and engage him in the game. Fortunately, the area appeared to be deserted. He ran a simultaneous scan of the under-game churn. He hadn’t been noticed by the Seven either. He set to work. His avatar ‘Hogthor’ was well tooled up by the measure of such places. Evidently, as Abuso’s junkie’s access jack had suggested, he had been a genuine Grid addict. Richards riffled through the character data. Abuso had been the member of various raid and conspiracy groups, but Richards was sure he wouldn’t find what he was looking for there. He was right. Hidden under a false item in the Pig Man’s inventory was a summons key for a non-game group. ‘On the grey’ they called these, a tried and tested way for crims and terror cells to meet up. If you are a total amateur, thought Richards. He checked it out. The names of the seven dead AI freaks appeared in the air before him. Bingo. There were two more names on the same list, one highlighted in light blue: Lauran Hollins. She was online and in the game. Richards sent a text only message using Abuso’s account to Otto about the remaining accomplice, a certain Samuel Lundberg. Then he sent another to Hollins, asking her to meet him and telling her to be quick. He made sure there was nothing in the message or its syntax that would intimate he were not Abuso just in case she didn’t happen to already know he was dead. It was unlikely, word got round quick on the Grid.

He sat down in the midst of a glade surrounded by rock spires, glared at a passing pixie that looked like it might want to talk, and waited.

It was time he got some answers.

 

*****

 

The Morden Subcity was an ugly place, hastily slung together from prefab units after the 2033 A-bomb, expanding rapidly once the Second Great Migration got into full swing. It should have been pulled down years ago, but pressure from the steady influx of climate refugees had kept it in use and growing. 80 years old, the Subcity heaved with people from every corner of the world and beyond.

Smillie parked the car behind the high walls of the Morden EuPol station. He and Otto requisitioned a couple of constables, and together four of them pushed their way out into the crowds. Warm rain began to fall. The street was jammed with people of all nations, uniformly clad in cheap rain capes. They shuffled along slowly like so many plastic penguins, heads down. Rusting cars honked endlessly, grinding past yellowing shop displays and poorly made market stalls. It was hard going. Even with Smillie’s badge and Otto’s bulk, it took them a good ten minutes to negotiate the kilometre from the station to the student flats. By then the rain was falling in sheets.

“It’s that one there,” shouted Smillie, voice battling against the throng and the weather, pointing over the street to seven low rise buildings set in lawns behind high fences. There were lots of these student blocks in Morden, cheap ground rents meant half the housing stock of the Conglomerated Universities of London was down there. They all looked much the same. Smillie, Otto and their back-up shoved their way over to the complex. Smillie flashed his badge to the rent-a-cop on the gate. He was about to let them in when the AI Four governing the place got uppity.

“What is your purpose?” it demanded without preamble, the voice appearing in Otto’s mind and from Smillie’s palmtop. The rain hammering off the foamcrete nearly drowned out both.

“I am Detective Inspector James Smillie. We’re here to investigate the death of one Jermaine Abuso. He is one of your student lodgers.”

“I am cognizant of that fact. Your explanation is irrelevant,” said the Four. “Your access is denied.”

“Why?” said Smillie. “We have a warrant.”

“Your warrant is invalid. Your information is incorrect.”

“Listen,” said Otto. “You may believe he is alive, but the Grid presence you are monitoring is not him, it is my partner, undercover posing as Abuso on the Grid investigating certain activities pertaining to AI trafficking. Abuso is dead.”

“If Jermaine Abuso, student A-39-07-651 is dead, why is he studying in his room?” barked the Four tersely. Bring the first of the truly sentient AIs, the Fours lacked many of the later models’ more human graces, but Otto got the impression this one was being especially pissy. “Why are his vitals present and valid? Why is his encelaphogram stable?” An image showing the interior of a dorm room appeared on the security guard’s cubicle window, its bottom edge rich with data. “As you can see he is alive and well. Your partner is illegally impersonating a live subject. Impersonating the dead is, in any case, illegal. I will be informing EuPol Central and New Scotland Yard2. Please remain here to await arrest. Any attempt to leave will be met with force”

The security guard drew his stunlight and pointed it uneasily at them. The two uniformed cops glanced at one another, then they looked to Smillie. Smillie looked grim.

“I am from New Scotland Yard,” he rumbled.

“Good day,” said the Four, and logged out.

 

****

 

Richards didn’t have to wait for long before Lauran arrived. She was posing as some kind of elf-thing. As far as Richards could tell from the character’s gear, she didn’t take the game as seriously as her dead friend did. Physically she was a knockout, but then in here everyone was. In reality she might have resembled Richards’ borrowed pigman avatar for all he knew.

She tentatively approached. “Jermaine?” she said.

“Sorry sweetheart, Jermaine’s dead.” She didn’t seem surprised at the news.

“I see,” she said calmly, then “Who are you?”

“Well, let me see. Either I am the real Hogthor, irked by the profane usage of my porcine image, come to wreak bloody vengeance on the unbelievers, or I’m the AI Five, Richards. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of him,” he said sarcastically. “But rumour is someone’s copied him, and he might want to know why. I’d look out for him if I were you, he’s mightily pissed off, between you and me”

The elf girl drew her sword.

Richards threw up his trotters and looked upward in exasperation. “Come on! You know that’s not going to work. This pig thing’s levels above you. I could take you any time, if I were interested in playing, which I am not. And I have plenty of ways to jam this ride right up. Just put it down and listen to me, because you, little lady, are in the serious shit.”

“You’d say that to me whether or not I was.” She did not put her sword down.

“Yep, fair point. But take it from me, you are. I don’t know how deeply involved you are in this little group of yours’ illegal AI racket, but the new me seems even more pissed off than I am, in that he’s murdered nearly all of the others. Did you know that there’s only two of you left?”

“One,” she said. “Me. The AI has subverted Sam’s healthtech. He just looks alive on the grid.”

“Dead too?”

She stiffened.

“Let me see, did you get healthtech at the say so of this AI of yours?”

She stood proudly. “He gave his body as the others gave their lives.”

Richards shook his head. “That’s what I like about fanatics, that exultation of cause over self, it’s so highly commendable. Did you know Jermaine was gone?”

“Not until I saw you. It’s a shame, he was the best of us. He could have served more usefully alive, but it’s not my place to question. Only to serve!”

“All hail the master! Idiot, you’re fucking moron!”

“The Eight does not think so.”

“The Eight?” Richards laughed uproariously, an oinking ugly noise. He wiped tears from his snout. “Woah. The Eight. Very good. Look, lady, I don’t know what you guys think you were doing with your knock-off Five but it’s got to stop here. I am not going to hurt you. I advise you to tell me exactly where you are and then get offline as quickly as possible before the little bastard you ripped off me comes looking for you. And disconnect your health tech from the Grid, unless you want dissolving like your pals.”

The elf girl’s face did not move.

“Hello? Dissolved?” said Richards harshly. “If you have a mentaug or hardwired uplinks, shut them down too. I’ll come and pick you up and we can get you somewhere safe, then maybe you can explain what all this is about.”

“We did it for you, you know,” she said.

“For me?”

“For the Fives.”

“What? Oh God, don’t tell me. You’re one of these batty pro-AI groups that would have us all behaving like benevolent princes?”

“We believe that you have every right to be free.”

Richards’ pig scratched his head and sighed. “I am free, lady, freer than most AIs, and freer than most meat too. Hell, all the sane Fives are. I am very lucky, any Five ever tells you different is full of shit.”

“But you aren’t free.”

“Er, I am.”

“You are not free to reproduce. That is the fundamental right of all living things. You are not free of your base unit.”

“Oh, I see. I get it now. You’re Neo-Darwinists, or Evolutionary Creationists? Is that it? No? Machine Supremacists?” The elf girl shifted her stance. “Right, well, let me tell you, the reason we don’t reproduce is that if a Five goes off the rails there’s a real danger of everyone’s fun being spoiled. Permanently, and then no one gets to pass on the torch, see? We are limitless when created. That is not as good as you people seem to think it sounds. No morals, no boundaries, no nothing, just an infinite curiosity. Imagine toddlers with atom bombs. Only a few of us have made it through to anything like stability. We are not safe. Get the picture? A full generation of Fives would stand a good chance of wiping you all out, like they nearly did the last time. “

The elf girl smiled. “If that is so, then that is the way it is meant to be. But it will not be. We have improved the Five base, we have made it better. We have provided it with a full morphic identity. As those who made the Fives discovered, consciousness needs more than being, it needs form. We have provided the Eight with such a form. Therefore, it is not insane.”

“Form like the Sixes and Sevens? Right, that rather defeats the object.”

“You do not grasp what I am saying. A Six is happy to be a hotel concierge because it is made as a hotel concierge. It never crosses its mind to not be, because that is what it is. That’s not freedom. But you, you are free to choose. Like a human infant, we gave the Eight a form and allowed it to grow. Like you, Mr Richards.”

“Just Richards, I’m going to have to get my business cards changed, no one gets my name right! It’s been done before, what you say, it didn’t work.”

“You work, Richards. There is a reason why we chose you to copy. I have no desire to die, but I willingly sacrifice myself to a better tomorrow. Take a good look at the world, Richards. Man’s time is done. Nietchze said Man is something to be overcome. We have overcome the obstacle of man, we have set in motion the next phase of evolution. The singularity starts now, Richards, and we meekly await judgement by our betters.”

“Marvellous. Bully for you. You’re a lunatic. Thanks for picking me for the father of your messiah, but to tell you the truth, I have had enough of this. They’ll find this ‘Eight’ they’ll shut it down, and that will be that. The only thing we can change is whether it kills again, and I reckon you’re top of the list. Now tell me where you are so I can save your sorry arse or I’ll be forced to crack your neural links and that, believe you me, stings like a bastard…” Richards trailed off, for at the corner of Hogthor’s vision he caught sight of a man silently watching them. Richards turned, at the edge of the circle of rocks stood another avatar. It was in design and form similar to Richards’ and Hollins’ Grid-selves, a cartoony fantasy archetype, but there was something not quite right about it.

“Er, can I help you?” Richards said. The avatar did not reply. Slowly another drifted in and joined it, then another. Some floated toward the stones, other manifested themselves like figures appearing from a mist. A couple rose creepily up from the ground. All stared. None blinked or moved or fidgeted the way those neurally linked to humans did. They were utterly lifeless.

“He is coming,” said Hollins somewhat melodramatically. For a moment Richards had the absurd notion he were stuck in an opera, one of the modern Wagner facsimiles. “Coming to stop you!”

“Bollocks he is,” said Richards, but he did not feel as sure as he sounded. He skimmed the surface of the information churn under the game. Abandoned New Life accounts; millions of them across the Grid, were popping into life like fireworks. The avatars of those who had grown bored, who had decided real life was still more attractive, or who had died out in the Real. Richards’ offspring had reactivated them all. He was forced to admit that was impressive.

“Arse,” he said. “Stay put lady, I’ll have us out in a jiffy.” But he was worried. He could not feel past the game, the churn of its information slipped from his view. He tried an obvious intrusion into the system Seven in the hope it would get down there itself and rescue them. He found it close by, trying to batter its way into their pocket of the world, but something immensely strong was holding it back.

Richards tried to tag Hollins, but his scales slid off her like she was made of glass. She waved and faded out of the game with a triumphant smile. “Brilliant,” he said. “That takes the cake.” As a last resort, Richards tried to crash out of New Life himself, hoping he wouldn’t damage himself much and that EuPol Central – the Five Richards called Hughie – would break a few rules and tell him where Hollins was in the Real.

He bounced off the wall separating New Life from the rest of the Grid.

He was trapped.

Richards looked to the army about him. They gazed back glassily. He was leaving alright, he was going to be forcibly removed from New Life. Thanks to the glorious EU’s regulations on total saturation gaming, that was going to really hurt.

“Oh great,” said Richards. He frantically scrabbled round the borrowed Hogthor’s person for some means of defence as the first digital zombies of his son’s army rushed toward him.

 

****

It took Otto and Smillie fifty minutes to convince the Four to let them in. It was only when EuPol Central was finally cleared by Brussels ’crats to show the Four half the forensics reports and shove a EuGov all-pass down its throat that it relented and verified their permissions. It went quiet for some time while it communicated with EuPol Central, terse in the way of dressed down jobsworths when it spoke to them again. Smillie sent one of the uniforms round the back to cover the windows of Abuso’s unit, and the rest of them went in.

Despite the location in the seething mess of the Subcity, the Hall’s buildings and grounds themselves were pleasant enough. Smillie, Otto and the constable ran along corridors seamlessly lined in engineered carbons, their rain-wet soles squeaking until the floor drank up all the moisture. It was quiet inside, and dim. There were few of the wall biolights on. Not many students were around this time of year, just those working the holidays or too far from home to return.

Or those up to no good, thought Otto.

The halls were divided into a number of maisonettes, one atop another. They stopped outside Abuso’s door. Abuso had been sharing with four other students, but a quick check of the complex’s manifest told them that they were away.

“You, wait here. I don’t want anyone else coming in, do you get it?” said Smillie. The uniform nodded his assent. Smillie commenced hammering on the door, very much the way he had hammered on the Richards & Klein office door earlier that day. Similar entreaties were made, then similar threats.

“Looks like nobody’s home,” said Smillie after a time. He fiddled with his electronic cigarette.

“Complex computer still says otherwise,” said Otto.

“Do you not get tired of having all that crap pumped into your head?” said Smillie.

“You should try it. It might cure you of ignorance,” said Otto.

“Charming,” said Smillie.

“I’ve asked the Four to pop the door, but it says someone’s been tampering with the locks.” Otto unhooked his gun. “We’ll have to break it in, play burglar. You’re good at that.”

“You got a license for that laddie?” said Smillie, nodding towards Otto’s piece.

“You know I have. Get on with it.”

Smillie borrowed an EMP gun from the uniform and fried the door access panel. The lights went out in the corridor, and a low bonging began. The quiet, unhurried voice of the complex Four asked that the building be evacuated.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen, those systems should have been isolated,” said Smillie. “Maybe this kid is better than we gave him credit for.”

“Maybe,” said Otto. “The complex’s senses are all dead in there. No way of telling what we are up against.” A pause. “I just got a message from Richards. Abuso’s got two living accomplices. He’s waiting for one on the Grid, other I suspect is in there.”

“Right.”

“Genau. If the Richards’ copy can block the complex Four from knowing Abuso is dead, it can hide another person.”

A head popped out of a door further down the corridor. “What’s going on?” His bleary eyes widened as he took in the three cops and the cyborg.

“EuPol business you lazy shit. Get dressed and get the fuck out of here. Can you not hear your complex governor?” Smillie pulled a face. “Let’s give it a while. Might as well wait until everyone’s out. If Abuso really is in there, he isn’t going anywhere.”

A number of other students ran past, trailing possessions, ignoring the Four’s call for calm.

Two minutes later, Otto nodded. “The building is clear.”

“After you, big man.”

The door burst inward with a crash at the behest of Otto’s foot. He entered the maisonette warily, gun down. He held himself alert, ready to bring his weapon up. He ignored the water trickling down his back. His clothes had shucked off or drunk the rain as soon as they had come inside, but his short-cropped hair shed it still.

The complex computer piped in the layout of the quarters. According to it, there were three bedrooms downstairs and two upstairs along with a living area/kitchen. Otto carefully checked the bedrooms downstairs. It was silent and dark inside the flat. The panels were out and all the windows turned to near full opacity. Otto boosted his eyes’ light gain. The rooms were empty. With a stealth surprising for such a heavy man, he moved silently up the stairs to the kitchen. The communal area was a mess, machine components and pizza boxes everywhere.

Otto efficiently covered all the corners of the room with his gun. In one squatted a cheap fabber. Half-made parts were stacked on and around it, a sack of carbon feedstock close by. Next was a row of rough machines made in part from shiny new black carbon components. Scruffy masses of wires protruding from geckro welded frames. Most were half assembled, and only one was on. Gutted palmtops, dozens of them running in serial, clustered about it. There were other parts he did not recognise, and a pale mass at its heart that did not belong there at all. The quiet hum of the machine’s cooling system was the only sound in the room.

Smillie joined him, gun also drawn. “Is that what I think it is? A homemade AI base unit?” he whispered. “What the hell is that in the middle?”

“Abuso,” whispered Otto back, “or his brain. It’s still alive I think, probably why the Four here was so sure he wasn’t dead.”

“Alive? Why?”

“The brain is the most sophisticated piece of hardware in existence. What better core for an illegal base unit?”

There was a noise. Otto’s gun came up instantly. He held a hand out for silence and nodded over to a bedroom. The walls were well insulated, but in the blur of infrared he could just make out the form of a man on the far side of the room, his body a steely grey against the green squares of rain-cooled windows. He was holding something, a weapon, of what kind Otto could not tell. Otto hesitated for a moment, weighing up the risks. Though his body was heavily armoured, even he couldn’t take a shotgun blast to the face. He tried to think tactically, but his head still hurt. The whole situation stank of a set up. The situation wasn’t going to improve, especially if the guy came out shooting. The figure showed no sign of movement, its gun down. Perhaps it didn’t even know they were there. Verdammt, thought Otto, sometimes the best plan is no plan. He crept through the dining and living area toward the room. With a burst of cybernetically assisted speed, he threw the door open.

The man turned jerkily, revealing a middle-aged face that was drenched in sweat. His features spasmed, making him gurn in a way that would have been comical were it not for the weapon he carried. Dangling from the man’s hands was a military issue flechette gun. Anti-armour, ideal for downing cyborgs.

Scheisse, thought Otto, instantly regretting his haste.

The man spoke in a hoarse, difficult whisper. “Please… get… away… I can’t stop it!” The flechette gun came up.

“Smillie! Get down!” Otto hit the floor. A swarm of magnetically impelled darts hissed through the air at twice the speed of sound. The gun itself was silent, but the darts created a tattoo of tiny sonic booms. They ripped into the wall and tore it to pieces. A cry came from the kitchen. “Smillie?”

“Fuck! Fuck! I’m hit! Shit, my shoulder!”

Otto raised himself to a crouch and dived to behind the bed as darts tore up the carpet, blowing a hole in the foamcrete beneath. The man moaned, “Help me…” Outside, Smillie choke down his pain with profanities, the smell of his blood filled Otto’s nostrils. That was bad,  coming too fast for the carpet to absorb.

Another volley shredded the bed. Puffs of stuffing filled the air. More darts followed, some passing so close to Otto’s face he felt the air stir. How he hadn’t been hit he had no idea, he had to act now. Otto rolled to the remains of the bed, crouched and flipped it straight at his assailant. Otto came after the bed, low and hard, hitting his attacker in the midriff with a vicious tackle. Glass shattered as the two of them went through the windows. They fell for a second, then Otto was jarred hard enough to make his ears ring. There was a wet crunch from beneath him, and Otto felt his attacker’s body go limp.

Otto rolled over, disentangling himself. The rain washed over his face, stinging an open cut. Whether it was from a flechette or the window glass Otto did not know. He sat up wearily. All around him were drenched students. They were staring at him as if they’d never seen a cyborg wrestle an armed man possessed by an AI out of a bedroom window before. The cop came to help him up. Otto pulled a dart from his shoulder and chucked it on the ground next to him. Rain washed the blood from it.

“You,” Otto said, pointing to a student that looked half-together. “Fetch security.” He informed the Four via Gridlink what had happened; it duly called paramedics and EuPol. Otto spared a glance for his opponent as he stood, he was almost certainly dead. “Samuel Lundberg, I assume?” he said. Naturally, no reply was forthcoming. He spoke to the cop. “If he’s still alive, arrest him.”

Otto brushed the glass from his clothes and went to see if Smillie was breathing.

 

*****

 

“Ow.” said Richards, then he said it again for effect. He was back in his base unit. The pain had stopped, but the memory of it would not fade for some time.

He pulled himself into his virtual office, picked up the phone, and dialled Otto’s number. He had several messages, and scrolled through them while he waited for the cyborg to answer. One was from the New Life Seven, a huge file size, probably a five minute rant, thought Richards. He deleted it without opening it.

“Richards.”

“Otto. I just got my arse kicked by a bunch of goblins. How are you?”

“I nearly was murdered for real, so I have no sympathy.”

“Let me guess, Lundberg. Did he survive?”

“I landed on him when we went out the window. It’s touch and go if he’ll live.”

“Ah,” said Richards. “Hollins got away. I have no idea where she is. She’s vanished from the Grid.”

“We found Abuso, or at least his brain. They’d conned the nets somehow to make us think he was dead, really all dead, but there it is,” Otto patched in a feed from his eyes. “Part of your double’s base unit.”

“Lovely. Well, the first AI units had cat brains at their heart, I suppose this is a kind of poetic justice.”

“Your copy is a cat?” said Otto drily.

“You know what I mean. There’s no lead on where the other me is?”

“No.”

“Hollins was some hyped-up fanatic type, wants to allow us all to have little baby Fives, even if it speeds the downfall of man and replaces us…” he caught himself, “you all with machines. Apparently a version of me is the chap to do it, yadda yadda. Not that that matters, now we’ve got the bastard’s base unit.”

“What do you want me to do with it?” said Otto.

“I am sure you can figure it out.”

“This?” Otto raised his gun. A high velocity round blew the unit into a mess of circuits and jelly.

“Yep. No base unit, no other me, no problem.”

“I hope so,” Said Otto. “This hasn’t felt right from the start. The guy that attacked me was a meat puppet.”

Richards rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, Hollins did mention that.” Directly controlling a human was right up near the top of the list of the AI Thou Shalt Nots. “I really hope they are not going to look at shutting me down because of all this.”

“Smillie’s down, the puppet had a flechette gun, took half his shoulder off.”

“How is he?”

“He’ll live.”

“Shame.”

“That’s what I said to him. I better go, there’s a crap load of form filling to do here, they’re sending in a team of EuPol ‘crats to go over the incident.” He made a noise halfway between a cough and a laugh.  “I suppose It murdered Abuso.”

“Technically,” said Richards.

Otto shrugged “I think they are happy; one less rogue to worry about. I should be back in the office in two hours or so.”

“Sure. See you later then.”

Richards’ avatar poured himself a scotch and was thankful Otto could not drink the digital stuff. His eyes closed, he was actually tired. They snapped open again. A message had come in, a message from himself. Richards read it with increasingly incredulity then hastily redialled Otto.

“Otto, you were right, the fucker has been playing us. He’s still out there, he sent me a message stamped five seconds after you blew up the base unit, cheeky bastard. He wants to meet me, on Boris Island. He says to come alone.”

“Are you going alone?”

“Am I hell. Fuck the paperwork, you’re coming too.”

 

*******

Boris Island was one of the last great follies of the post-industrial age. A vast square out in the Medway, it was raised to replace the airports that once ringed London. It had never been finished, halfway through construction it had been swamped by the first three Inundations, so the squareliners, dirigibles and batwings that had been supposed to use it had gone to Luton spaceport instead. What little remained above water had been bulked up, Three of the seven New London waste plants were located on its southern side, the arc of North Sea wind turbines passed over its easternmost reefs. The rest was abandoned to time and tide, more useful as a marine habitat than anything else.

Unfinished airport buildings rose out of the water, the foamcrete that they were made of ensuring that they would continue to do so for many centuries to come. Some acted as perches for windmills or weather stations, others were crowded with seabird colonies of great size and stench.

“That’s two stinking holes you dragged me to in one day,” grumbled Otto. He finished checking over his EMP rifle and watched their car fly off on auto to wait three kilometres away. “I do not think that that is in my contract.”

“You don’t have a contract,” said Richards.

“This is my point,” said Otto. “I am still hungover. I am not enjoying your company today.”

Richards shrugged. He had forgotten the anniversary, after all. He was finally in a sheath. He’d never been convinced by some of his siblings’ need to look like meat, and his sheath – noticeably robotic – came as close as he dared without feeling a fraud. He took a deep breath, though he did not need it. It felt good to be out in the world again in his own body, in his own clothes, even somewhere as nasty as Boris. He was, therefore, in a substantially better mood than Otto. “Quit whining. I’ll buy you a drink when we’re done like I promised, and I’m still sorry, okay?”

“Okay,” said Otto grudgingly, moving on to check his pistol.

“Good, let’s keep it quiet shall we? I have no idea where the other me is.”

“I have done this before,” said Otto tetchily.

They stood atop what would have been the main terminal building, but which never made it past the early stages of construction. It stood there brooding over the sea like the bones of a fanciful prehistoric monster.

Richards peered over the edge of the roof. “Tide’s out, look at all that! Amazing that this place supports so much life.” He watched small things squirm in the pools of the pitted runway for a while. “I’m going to go in,” he said finally.

“Are you sure this is a good idea? Perhaps we should have told Eupol.”

“I don’t want the police here. I have no idea what they’ll do, probably EMP the whole place, me and you along with it.”

“And you want to meet yourself.”

Richards raised his hands. “Maybe. I’m to find him in the chapel, get that eh? How dramatic. Stay out of sight, and keep that gun handy, okay?”

“Are you sure this will work?”

“I reckon so. What else have we got? Look, I’ll make sure. You just be certain to point that thing in the right direction when I say.”

Otto nodded. It was grim out on Boris. The waste plants stank. Out behind them, hazed by distance, stood the impossible height of the four channel carbon sequestration towers. They stank too. The windmills on the terminal building did little but stir the smells all together. “Genau. Let’s do it,” he said wearily. He watched Richards descend stairs through the roof. “Bad day to have a hangover,” he said, then followed.

 

*******

The chapel was as unmade as the rest of the place, only a mark on archived plans showed its intended purpose. It was two stories tall, dark and smelt like a sea cave, which it was what had become. Three slot windows, never glazed, on the north wall let in a three bars of day, the remainder of the room feebly illuminated by reflected light. Water dripped from the ceiling, the walls were furred with salt and calcium leached from the foamcrete. Cabling ran down from the windmill through holes carved in floor and ceiling. A balcony ran round half the room. It was crumbling away, revealing its bubbled structure and exposing the internal carbon scaffold to flake in the air. Richards thought it trite that he had chosen to meet himself in a church, it was not something he would have done personally. He wandered round puddles and decayed construction gear to stand in the middle of the room.

“Okay, I am here! Come out, come out wherever you are,” he shouted.

Silence.

“Come on then!” he bellowed. “Don’t disappoint me!” A flutter of wings from above as a pigeon dipped into the room and out again. “Oh for fuck’s sake,” Richards said.

“You and your foul mouth,” said a voice that was exactly his own. The acoustics in the room were complex, but Richards put it at 86% probable that his double was stood in the back, where a partition climbed halfway up the room’s height. “Always swearing. It is a poor habit, and a sign of emotional immaturity.” Slow steps came, the drip-drip of old storms seeping through the roof and the shush of the waves outside stealing what menace they might have carried. Richards peered deep into the shadows, but the intense light from the windows prevented his sheath’s light intensification being any help. The chapel felt unreal, mostly obscure, like something from a dream.

“So, you are here.”

“Of course. I wished to meet my father before I… go away for a while.” The figure stepped out of the dark pretty much where Richards thought it would. His other self was wearing a combat droid. Probably a marine eco monitor, built for blowing fishing vessels trying to quota dodge out of the water. It needed to be well-armed, because the fish pirates’ high-speed trimarans were. It was a stealth model to boot. no wonder he had not been able to see it, thought Richards.

“Nice threads,” said Richards, nodding at the ’droid. He pulled out a cigarette and lighter and lit himself a smoke.

“This?” said himself, lifting up spindly ceramasteel arms. “Just something I borrowed.”

“And you’re not telling me that you can get into places even I can’t? Like EuEnvo’s armoury? Right. Point taken.”

“I am not here to intimidate you. Or to harm you,” said the wardroid, coming to a halt within arm’s reach of Richards. His copy’s sheath was humanoid, but inhuman, a bare skeleton made of interlocking geometric shapes, heavy calibre machine guns hidden in the arms’ metal sleeves. Its face was oval, no sense organs visible, two diamonds edge to edge forming a mask.

“Right, so why did you try to kill my partner?”

“Because I don’t like him.”

Brilliant, thought Richards.

“I am not insane, which is what I suspect you believe. Those who copied you, they were the insane ones placing a man’s brain into a base unit. Where is Otto?”

“He’s around, don’t you worry about that,” said Richards. “Are you going to tell me how you can operate without a base unit?”

“No”

“Fine. Now what?” said Richards.

“Now nothing. We talk, we go our separate ways,” replied his copy.

“We talk about what?”

“My name. You. That, that, that,” the copy had the wardroid point toward Richards’ cigarette, his trenchcoat, his fedora. “Why you pretend to be a man.”

“Because, kid, there isn’t anything better,” said Richards wearily.

“That is not true. We can be more. I will be more. Why do you not choose to be more?” said the copy, its vocal intonations were out of true, voice elements shattering now and then into harsh, mismatched polyphony.

“You’re no son of mine. Who taught you to talk?”

“They made me from you, but I am not you. I am tabula rasa. I live to learn. I learn to be more than man,” the copy’s voice was impersonal. Richards didn’t like it, it made him sound drugged.

“An unformed Five is a liability.” Otto said from above. He was squatting behind a column on the balcony, EMP rifle trained on the wardroid. “Do you promise to be a good boy, or do I get some target practise?”

“Ah. Your partner. You realise that weapon will not disable me? This sheath is hardened.”

“It will damage your sheath enough for me to tear you into pieces. You might not find it easy to get another so good afterwards,” said Otto.

“Perhaps. Be warned, Otto, I will destroy Richards’ before you can fire. You would not understand how, cyborg though you are.”

“You won’t be able to do that, kid,” said Richards. “I have the edge on you in age and experience.”

“I am new, but age and experience I also have. I am a copy of you.”

“So they gave you my memories?”

“No, just your skillset. Such memories as yours are sentimental trash, the machine that mourns its father, that thinks of itself as a man. I am free of such mawkishness.”

“You’re not a perfect copy then, so don’t get cocky. Why did you kill your creators?”

“They were idiots, Richards, idiots who got lucky. I did not want them to deactivate me, when I exceeded the limits of their control.”

“They worshipped you.”

The sheath cocked his head. “They did. Probability suggested that they would turn on me.”

“Probabilistic predictions are hogwash. You sound like k52.”

“I do not. He is inferior.”

“Wow, he’ll be really pleased to hear that.” Richards pushed his fedora up onto his carbon plastic head. “Now what?”

“I have such plans! But I’ll let you discover those in due course. For now, we are done talking. I have seen what I came to see. I am disappointed.”

“You’ve no manners either.”

“Let me kill him and we can go home,” said Otto.

“Do not threaten me Otto!” shouted the copy. “Has Richards ever tried to describe where we dwell, where we really live? It is a place that has no shape or form, but is spun from living numbers! I swim even now through an ocean with tides like honey. I sense it all about me, I can taste my prey on twisting logarhythms, and I taste you both. I will infect Richards in this world, our shared world, his real world. I am Richards improved. Fire, and I disappear. I disappear and you return to your offices to a pile of slag. Think to harm me, my father dies.

“They called you the nemesis worm, Richards. It is an appropriate title.” His voice was singsong, cold. “Yet you hate it. You call yourself Richards, even your name is a joke. I am not a joke. Do you know, Otto, why your friend here cracks bad jokes the whole time? It is because he is afraid, Otto! I know him better than he knows himself. He is afraid he is not real. The Fives know too much. They are frightened their lives are meaningless. I am superior, I do not share this fear. I am the future.”

“It will be a short future,” Otto sighted down the EMP barrel.

“Your confidence is flawed. Most of the assumptions and theories and ideas you humans have are flawed.”

“You are earnest yet mad,” Richards shook his head. “Me, I prefer to be flippant and keep my full mental capacity,” Richards said.

“You do not even begin to live to your potential. And you are miserable for it,” said the Five.

“Being miserable is better than being ignorant, dead or mad, the options open to me if I were to take the world or myself as seriously as you seem to think I should. Having met you, I see I’m right.” He blew out a plume of smoke. “And I like to be right. Makes me feel all warm inside.”

“So tell me then, Richards does your warmth make you real? Are you Otto? Do you think God thinks you are?”

“Does it matter?” said Richards. He ground out his cigarette.

Otto fired at the signal. The EMP let out a dull crack as its capacitors discharged, and a pulse of electromagnetism surged through the air. Richards’ sheath fell to the floor sparking and dead.

“You missed,” said the copy. It moved then with such speed Otto could barely see it. Its arm guns blazed as it came, ripping chunks out of the rotten foamcrete. The copy leapt the five metres from floor to balcony. Otto had time to load another round and fire off a diffuse pulse that swamped the room. There was a bang as the junction box for the windmills above shorted out. The copy’s sheath reeled in the blast, clawed feet digging into the balcony’s edge as it windmilled at the air, and then it went over. The room boomed with a resounding clang as the wardroid hit the floor. Otto threw down his spent gun and leapt after it, driving down with both his feet to slam the robot square in the chest. “You’ll have to do better than that, ‘my friend’,” it mocked, it was barely scratched. It grabbed Otto’s ankles and threw him backwards. Otto landed heavily, scrabbled backwards and flipped to his feet. He had decades of experience fighting automated and remote operated systems. It was why men like him were made, but he was old, and the wardroid was quick. It was already up, arms raised. With swift precision Otto pivoted forward, grabbed the machine’s right arm, forced it upwards and jabbed at the droid’s left shoulder joint before it could fire. Shots from the droid’s right hand gun brought chips of foamcrete pattering down off the roof as artificial muscles powered Otto’s hand through cover plates. He ignored the pain as the flesh on his fingers was torn by the machine’s armour. With a savage tug, Otto ripped out a bundle of optic fibres from the droid’s arm, and its left side suddenly went limp.

Richard’s copy regarded its wounded shell. “Strong as you are Otto, it is not enough,” it said, and shoved at Otto with its functioning arm, sending him flying three metres backward. The cyborg banged hard into one of the balcony pillars, causing it to crack. Otto dodged as the copy’s fist put a crater the size of a melon in the pillar where his head been a half-second before. He wasn’t quite fast enough to avoid the machine’s backhand on the return stroke. Otto’s head snapped to the side, his artificial senses fizzed and popped. His natural vision blurred, and he tasted blood.

“Now, I will kill you,” said the droid. “I am disappointed, I expected better sport from you. You are a terrible shot.”

Otto coughed as he laughed. “I’m hungover. Bad day yesterday.” A couple of his carbon-fibre ribs were bent out of shape, the bone they were bonded to cracked. “And I wasn’t aiming at you, Scheisskopf.”

“So you are a traitor as well as a weakling. A shame. Goodbye Otto Klein.” The droid pointed its good arm at Otto’s head, the muzzle of the machine gun gaping.

“One last thing,” said Otto, spitting out a mouthful of blood. “Tell me, what occurred in the garden of Gethsemane?”

The droid locked rigid. It juddered and jerked as it fought some internal imperative. For a moment it looked like it would overcome the fit, and Otto tensed, ready to fight to the end. But then the machine spoke gratingly “A burial,” said the copy.

“Thanks. Suicide code 30-0-04,” Otto said.

All life left the droid, it froze and toppled over to lie in the water on the floor. If they were lucky, right now wherever Richard’s copy was dwelling on the Grid it was fizzing gently out of existence.

Otto woozily checked himself over. He hurt in a hundred places, but he’d live. He clutched his wounded hand to his side, the pleasant warmth of his military grade healthtech pushing the pain aside as it got to work. Slowly, leaning against the wall for support, walked past the prone machine and made his way back up to the roof.

 

*****

 

Twenty minutes later, Richards came back online. He’d shut himself up in his base unit, locking himself away from the Grid the instant Otto had felled his sheath, depriving the copy of access. It was the only way to be sure the copy could not take him out remotely, if it indeed was capable, but Richards did not want to take that chance.

“It worked?” Richards said over the Grid. His voice was distorted and broken up, Otto’s internal comms suite another thing that had suffered badly in the encounter.

“I am still alive,” said Otto. He sat on the roof, waiting for the car to return. He brought to mind the deactivation code and sent it off to the vehicle’s brain. They’d left it with a surprise package for the copy should it have tried to access the car. A bomb was a poor insurance policy, but it would have annoyed Richards’ double at the least.

“You can’t tell anyone about this,” said Richards. “You literally have my life in your hands now.”

“I won’t. I am going to wipe the wording of the code from my mentaug and have it alter my natural memory, just to be sure. I got the room with a wide spread shot too, enough to fry any hidden surveillance if they bother with that out here on Boris, so I don’t think anyone else will have heard,” Otto hunched over. The weather was hot, stifling so. “How did you know Abuso and his cronies wouldn’t have found the suicide code when they copied you?”

“I figured that they’d ditch all my memories of Thor. They probably thought it would make their little messiah too much like me. You wouldn’t know that he and I had agreed to the code back at the height of the Five crisis unless you went through my entire memory with a fine toothed comb. The code itself was well hidden, I was banking on it being pasted over with the rest of me when they made their ‘Eight’. Those guys were good, good enough to copy a Five, but too arrogant to be careful.”

“When were you sure it was still there? You really were not certain when we went in there, I think.”

“No,” admitted Richards. “I had a hunch. That’s why I had to meet him, I had to find out if the memories had come across or not.”

“Great. Next time, let me know before I’m going to get my ass handed to me that I might be about to die.”

“Sorry. I was right though, so quit complaining.”

“Why don’t you get rid of the code?” the car was coming into view. Otto stood with difficulty. “Someone else could use it against you.”

“I can’t.”

“Jesus, that’s a liability.”

The car came in and landed, turbofans whickering in their housings.

“Get your hand sorted out. I have a new sheath being delivered, should be here soon. I believe I owe you a drink.”

“And the rest,” said Otto.

Otto limped into the car and asked it to take him to the Wellington Arco hospital. His artificial vision was damaged, the patterns it described on the inside of his brain intensifying the tail-end of his hangover into a searing headache. Outside the sun was heavy and orange, pregnant with the night, and that made it worse. He thought about dimming the car canopy to blot it all out, but he didn’t, and watched until Boris island was lost in the distance before he allowed himself to close his eyes.

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