What’s this? What’s this? It’s a Richards & Klein short story, that’s what! It’s set a month or so before the events of Reality 36. Please enjoy.
A Richards & Klein case
2nd July, 2129
“Ohmygod, are you like, wholly certain?” The microphone at Jeanette’s throat hurled her squeals across the grid at Molly. Molly, her face pasted over the world as part of Jeanette’s enhanced reality set up, stuck out her tongue and pulled a face.
“Yeah, yeah, he did, I mean, he really did.”
Jeanette’s shrieks of laughter battered the ears of the other tube passengers. They ignored her, a custom bedded into London psyches two centuries gone. They had ceased to be people by choice, becoming objects to be shifted from one place to another. Although as pressed together as tightly as lovers, they hid in their inner spaces as best they could – in the bone cage of their skulls or out on the boundless Grid – seeking release from the proximity of other warm animal bodies.
Jeanette was less self-conscious. Firstly, she was sixteen, only beginning to outgrow the brash confidence of adolescence. Secondly, wherever Jeanette went it was in a cloud of private information. She was oblivious to the others, their faces crowded out by Grid windows packed laminate-tight.
Her vision hemmed, the Real was confined to a letterbox directly in front of her, dull and drab and wholly not worth paying attention to.
“That’s just grunky vile,” said Jeanette. Molly was using real-time feed of her own face. Jeanette was represented to her friend by a near-I avatar. It caught her mood and expressions well enough. Both girls squealed.
“Vile!” shrieked Molly into Jeanette’s ears. “Oh, but, listen. But you mustn’t tell anyone, okay? He’d be, like, massively mortified, okay?”
“Too late for that!” giggled Jeannette. “I got people listenin’ sis!”
“Where are you?” said Molly.
“I’m on the train!” bellowed Jeannette. “Off shopping, in like shops, I’m massively getting into that. Sooo much better than looking on the Grid. But yeah, no, I surely can’t afford it, but you know, I image it,” she clucked her tongue, “like get it fabbed up at home. Done and sorted.”
“Oh I madly hate you,” Molly’s nose wrinkled as she pouted. “You always look so great and you always get your proj done on time. Why can’t I so? I’ve a ton due Monday, like the day after tomorrow.”
“I’ve not done my proj yet,” said Jeanette. Her avatar copied the grin on her face.
“How are you…”
“A girl’s got to keep some secrets,” Jeannette said. Her avatar held a finger to cartoon lips and gave a wink a teenager might judge mysterious.
The train spoke. “The next stop will be Oxford Street. Change here for Bakerloo, Victoria, and King Charles III lines.”
“And… Oh, hang on so, this is like, surely my stop. Gotta go!”
“Catch you Jeannette.”
“Catch you Molly.”
The last thing Molly saw of her friend was her avatar fading away. Not really Jeanette, just graphics and guesswork, but in her mind she’d never be able to tease them apart. After Jeanette had been gone a while, she wasn’t sure if she ever could.
The Tube doors opened with a blast of overheated, smelly air. Jeannette was sucked out of the train by a surge of people. She let the crowd bump and bob her toward the exit. A careless shoulder knocked her ear, dislodging her earpiece and setting her glasses askew. “Tchaw!” she squawked at the shoulder, which paid her no mind and swiped its way onward. She’d like surely missed the best bit in her show. She set her gear to rights. She wholly hated the glasses, and the earpiece, and the mike, but her mum and dad went mental whenever she asked for an implant. An implant! Not a full-on mentaug, a bloody phone so she could catch her shows and chat and that with her friends without all this junk stuck on her face; but no. Two hours of this and that, wagging fingers, Bergstrom’s disease and bill-scares and who-the-hell-d’you-thinks-gonna-pay-feritall? You’d think she’d wanted a gun, you would, a gun.
She was carried by the press onto Oxford Street. The street was crammed with all the variety of 22nd century humanity – post-humans, AI in sheaths, pimsims (that’s dead people, she shuddered inwardly) in sheaths, Near-I helpbots on errands, eugenes and cyborgs.
Her scalp prickled with sweat. It was wholly hot, 29 degrees and rising fast, sticky as ever. She’d stink as bad as the Tube by the time she got home.
Facts and figures about this lesson and that assignment scrolled up to join the two TV shows, the lecture and the online game she had flickering in front of her. She checked the progress of her homework. She blew a strand of sweat-lank hair out from behind her glasses. She’d messed up a bit there, she’d never write like that. She adjusted the essay and let her homework get on with itself.
She was pleased with the sentence she’d recrafted; so pleased that she never saw the cycle rickshaw.
Oxford Street had had no traffic other than the pedal-powered kind for fifty years. A bike though, that can still kill you, if you are unlucky.
The rickshaw banged hard into her right knee, causing her leg to buckle, causing her to fall, which in turn caused her head to come into contact with the kerb, which caused her skull to fracture. The Real and the Grid were plastic and interwoven, the world changed every day as technology played its fingers over the structure of life, but underneath all that granite was still granite.
Pain like she’d never known spidered across her head. Her glasses skittered into the gutter.
Somewhat unfairly, she died. Just one of those things, wise heads would say, which is more than the statistics she had just joined would.
Cold comfort all round.
Back home, Jeannette’s essay carried on writing itself.
The phone rang in Richards’ head. Kind of. Richards was a Class Five free-roaming artificial intelligence, and as such did not technically have a head. Even while he was wearing an anthropoid sheath which did have a head. As no better way had evolved of expressing this sentiment accurately, he along with everyone regarded his sheath’s head as his actual head, even though it was not.
He was busy, but he was never too busy for more business. He answered the call with a thought.
“Richards?” came a hesitant voice.
Great, thought Richards. Ghostbuster Karl. “You dialled my number Karl,” said Richards warily.
“Yeah, right,” said Karl. “Sorry. I think I have one for you.”
“Karl mate, this is not a good time.”
A burst of gunfire scared Richards out from behind an upturned table. Bullets cracked its woven-carbon surface. He rolled his robot sheath across the floor, crunching tableware and smearing fish supper over his trenchcoat. He crawled on his elbows past cowering punters. “Out for a naughty bit of cod, caught in a gunfight,” said Richards to them as he wriggled past. “Serves you right.”
He made it with minimal damage to the broad pillar where his partner Otto sheltered.
The German cyborg was pressed up hard against the concrete, trying to get tight in, although the effect was akin to an elephant hiding behind a bamboo stalk. Micro bullets whined into the walls with small, apologetic noises, raising puffs of dust from the building’s fabric, awakening aged rebars in showers of sparks. Otto leaned out an arm and emptied his gun in the general direction of the two men firing at him.
“Du jetzt antworts das verdammte telefon?!”
“It’s Karl, man,” said Richards with a shrug.
“What?” Otto yelled.
“Karl. Karl the ghostbuster.”
“I don’t care who the hell it is! There are people shooting at us.” Richards looked up at him, his softgel face bent into a sheepish smile. “There are people,” said Otto, “shooting at me. Get up and shoot! Get up and shoot you damn robot.”
“I dropped my gun.”
Otto growled – he was that kind of man – and pulled a pistol from a holster at his hip. He dropped it. Richards caught it in his fake hands.
“You know I don’t like fighting,” murmured the AI. He looked out intently over the mess of rubble and food coating the floor instead. “And I dropped my hat as well.”
“Shut up and fire!”
Richards popped his head out from behind Otto’s legs. He could just about see behind the fish bar, although at this level spilled tables and terrified customers were inconveniently in the way of a clear shot. There were two of Mackenzie’s men left in the fight. A third lay dead on the floor, a hole the size of a melon in his chest. A spread of his lung tissue and blood coated the floor, mixed with ketchup and chunks of battered cod. Mackenzie himself had his back up against the wall, clutching his shattered left arm. His face white, his legs bicycled on the floor, as if he could pedal away from the pain. He wasn’t going to be any trouble.
It was the two at the front who were proving intractable. Their automatics rested atop the fishbar’s warming boxes, spitting fire. Mackenzie had gone to a lot of trouble with this place, modelling it after fish and chip shops of the 20th century, although back then peddling deep-fried fish and potatoes had not been an environmental crime. Which is why it is now, thought Richards. Cod was right up on the red list. Only Tuna Barons could expect more time for fishmongery.
Richards decided to try talking it out one more time. “Hey! Hey! Can’t we just all put our guns down? You are under arrest for trading in critically endangered species?” he said. “You’re not getting out of here! This is your final warning! I’m through being reasonable, and Otto here is getting grouchy.”
“I’ll critically endanger you, you plastic bastard!” shouted one of the goons. Bullets sang their song all around their pillar.
“Ow!” said Otto as one took him in the leg. The round did him little harm, but it still hurt. He leaned out, his near-I adjutant running targeting enhancements through his mentaug. A blinking reticule in his iHud confirmed a clear line on the leftmost man’s forehead. Otto braved a prolonged burst to put him down with a single shot. He smiled at the result. Unlike Richards, Otto did like fighting.
“Come on now! There’s only one of you left!” yelled Richards.
“I’m not going into the freezer for a fish!” yelled the remaining Scotsman.
Richards slumped back behind the pillar and leaned his back on Otto’s legs. “Great, an ‘I’ll never be taken alive!’ type. I hate those. Otto mate, how many bullets do you think he’s got left?”
“One clip,” grunted Otto.
“Thanks.” Richards ran up a counter in his head. He ticked the bullets off as they rattled from the concrete. At zero, he stood, gun pointed right at the man’s head. “Now,” he said “put it down. Please.” He meant it wholeheartedly. His primary dislike of fighting was the death that went with it.
Mackenzie’s man smiled. His empty clip shot out of the bottom of his gun. From within the warming box he produced another.
“Aw, bollocks,” said Richards.
One hundred and fifty micro-bullets pounded into Richards’ carbon plastic chest at very high velocity. His sheath wobbled. Cloth fibres puffed into the air as his trenchcoat disintegrated. The gun clattered deafeningly in the confined space. Restaurant punters screamed.
The gun ran empty. Richards stopped his riddled-with-bullets dance and looked down at his shredded coat “That was one of my favourites.”
“I told you not to wear it,” said Otto.
“This was supposed to be easy!” protested Richards.
“You always say that,” said Otto. “Nothing is ever easy.”
“You’ll not take me!” said the goon, making to leap the fishbar and attack, although with what and to what end was not immediately clear to anyone. He snatched up a fish slice.
“Do you mind? We’re having a dispute,” said Richards, and trained his gun on the man’s face. “Look,” he said to Otto. “I’m sorry. Here’s a tip. I wore this combat sheath, eh? You know when I say something will be simple but I put a combat sheath on, well, I’m kind of lying. It’s the only way to get you out of the office.”
“This is not true,” said. Otto. He holstered his gun. “Put the utensil down, man of Mackenzie, and come quietly.”
“I think he’s going all William Wallace on us, do you think he’s going William Wallace on us, Otto? You know what happened to William Wallace Mr Scotty?”
Surrounded and outgunned Mackenzie’s man put up his hands, and swore with rich Scottish sincerity.
“There is a good boy,” said Otto.
Richards’ plastic face smiled an infuriating smile for him. “And there we are. Now,” he said, and began to recite in a dispassionate, official voice that was not his own. “You are under arrest for a number of environmental crimes, and violating saturated fat directive 47c/59873/iii. Full details of said crimes are available on the EuEnPro gridsite.” Otto pushed the goon down and fitted him with handcuffs. “And you lot, yes, you diners.” Richards waved his gun over the restaurant patrons, causing them to duck back again. “You’re under arrest too. Eating the fishies is as bad as catching them. Now you’re caught in my net. Chew on that.”
At that moment Detective Chief Inspector Smillie of New New Scotland Yard made his entrance. A pair of assault bobbies flanked him, dressed for a major warzone, trotting the crouched trot of serious armed men. Smillie himself wore nothing more heavily armoured than his crumpled suit and his ancient leather coat. It was the one he seemed to always wear. It certainly smelled that way.
Smillie sniffed and pressed a finger onto the side of his nose, closing a nostril and the eye above it. He peered to the left, and then he peered to the right, his open eye running over the mess of broken glass, scattered chips and shattered furniture. He snorted.
“Jesus,” he said finally, “what kind of fucking mess do you call this?”
“Oh look, my least favourite Scotsman,” said Richards. “You should be pleased with that, there’s a lot of competition today.”
“I’m going to be taking you in for this, license or no license,” said Smillie.
“You’re not,” said Richards, pinging a whole load of privileges into Smillie’s phone. “We’re here under authority of the EU Environmental Protection Agency, on an ongoing investigation, so you can shut your mouth. Put something deep fried in it. That’s the usual trick, ain’t it?” Richards beamed a giant, unfriendly smile, which on his sheath’s face looked inhuman and freakish. “Anyway, got to go, I have another client to deal with.”
Richards tossed his gun back to Otto and commenced looking for his hat.
“Wait a minute. You are leaving me to clear up this?” said Otto. He was unsurprised. He’d been left in this kind of situation before.
“Yep. Sorry big guy. Karl needs some help. Ah! There it is,” Richards patted Otto on the bicep as he passed him, hurrying for his fedora.
“But I am hit,” said Otto, looking at the trickle of blood leaking from his leg.
“You’re a big strong cyborg, you’ll mend.” Richards snatched up his hat.
“Do not do it for free,” Klein said. “Karl is poor and pointless! You have done enough pro bono work to bankrupt us.”
“Yeah yeah,” said Richards. “Smillie, you’ll find the biggest fish of this operation at the back. A takeaway for you.” A gave a wink that clicked.
“Funny bastard,” said Smillie. He pulled a carcinogen free cigarette from his top pocket and stuck it between his lips.
“Laters,” said Richards and walked out.
Otto rubbed at the electoos in his scalp. Something occurred to him. “Hey! And leave me the car!” he bellowed. “Call a cab!”
“And I thought you were the boss, Klein,” said Smillie, his voice warm with amicable contempt. Otto technically was the boss of Richards and Klein, Security Consultants Inc.. The assets a Class Five AI could legally hold were limited in certain circumstances, like when said Class Five’s job was poking around in other people’s business, but technical was exactly what Otto’s directorship was.
“Shut up Smillie. You!” Otto jabbed a finger at one of Smillie’s men. “Go get a broom, and find some friends of yours to arrest these people. Mackenzie is at the back there. Go arrest him first.”
Smillie shot his man a black look as he jumped to do Otto’s bidding.
Otto folded his arms and tried not to glower. There was little less dignified than a sulking cyborg.
Richards ran up the stairs of the old block to the roof. The building was an early 21st century riverfront office. Now it was in the river. This bit of the South Bank had not yet been redeveloped. Most of the windows in the building were gone, and the sound of the brown Thames slapping against concrete echoed up the stairwell. These places, close to the richer parts of Old London, were a popular site for illegal activity. No matter how often they were cleared out, no matter how omniscient surveillance became, the ooze of crime seeped up from the Morden Subcity over and again. These fly-by-night illegal eateries were gone as quickly as they came, and hard to catch. It would all be so much easier if people behaved themselves, he thought. Cod-mongers would fry no fish if rich idiots wanting a taste of illicit seafood didn’t buy.
Richards’ shoes crunched grit on damp concrete. The weather was hotter than hell, Old London as damp as the swamp it was. He was unbothered by it. Richards experienced an infinitesimal slowdown in his sheath’s processors, but that was easily compensated for by his base unit back in New London.
The car had company; three police fliers. Old London lay all around him, marsh, ruins, redevelopment, down but not out, the very spirit of persistence. Richards thought the locks of the car open and clambered in. He shucked off his ruined trenchcoat and pulled another one off the back seat. He never travelled with less than three.
“Where to boss?” asked the car. It had a 1950’s New York accent and a Near-I intelligence so over-specced it outclassed some true AI. Richards had programmed the former in for a laugh, and kept the latter quiet. Partly because he liked an ace or two up his sleeve, mainly because what he’d done to the car’s mind was illegal.
Richards shot the address Karl had sent him into the car. Turbofans span into life, pushing the vehicle noiselessly into the air.
He stared out of the window all the way back, but his mind took in different vistas. By the time they arrived at Fawkes Arco in New London he’d filed for compensation for the fish job from EuEnPro, taken seven calls and redesigned part of his virtual office.
Richards liked to keep himself occupied.
At one hundred and ninety floors, Fawkes was one of the smaller arcos in the new city. It was older than most, and it was poor. There were the usual carefully managed parks lit by broad diamond-weave windows, the usual open atria with their mezzanine boulevards, and in keeping with the social principles behind arco construction there was a run of higher class domiciles dotted throughout.
But Fawkes had been built early, and fast, homes needed for displaced people native and foreign. Most of its bulk was taken up by single unit housing, all beta four grade. The arcology’s societal mix was far from the new optimums.
There were no individual garages for the residents, only a windblown flypark near the top. Richards left the car there and made his way off the open boulevards with their trees and green squares and into the cramped corridors behind. Innumerable doors lined the walls, leading off to dismal lives locked in the prisons of ill-fortune.
There was that perpetual smell of cabbage and the directionless, muffled shouts one finds in poor, overcrowded housing history over. Richards counted fifteen languages, twelve domestic disturbances and logged eight crimes in progress as he descended into the bowels of Fawkes.
The Dean family were lucky enough to live off one of the wider corridors. They had a small park nearby. The sunpipes over it were dim with poorly-cleaned graffiti. The children’s area was a collection of broken equipment.
He knew he’d come to the right place. Information was pulled into his mind off the grid by his powerful subroutines whether he needed it or not. And in an informationally dense space like New London, there was a lot to be known.
But in another sense, a sense a meat person would understand, Richards knew he was in the right place because there was skinny Karl, standing by a door next to a stack of boxed equipment.
“Richards!” said Karl. His face, Brussels sprout-like on the end of a stalk of a neck, creased into a frown. “Er, it is you, isn’t it? In there, I mean?”
Richards flipped open the side of his coat and looked his body up and down. “Do you know any other AI who wander around dressed like this, who you specifically asked to come and help you out?” said Richards, he was aiming for comic disbelief, but his irritation trumped it.
Karl’s outsize Adam’s apple bobbed in indignation. “Hey, you can’t be too careful.”
“Trust me Karl, there’s not a Class Two or higher who’d be interested in your supernatural shenanigans.”
“Preternatural,” said Karl indignantly. “Ghosts’re preternatural.”
“I’m here aren’t I?”
Karl was flustered. “Look, there’s something weird going on here, I need help. I don’t need all this… attitude.”
“Then call someone else.” Richards flapped a hand at him. “And stop with that swallowing thing, you look like a heron trying to gulp down a tennis ball.”
Karl’s eyes narrowed and his larynx juddered. He was a serious, unamused little man who couldn’t handle being teased. He fiddled with his belt of ghost-hunting gear, like it was suddenly too big for him.
“What are you doing out here?”
“They’re in there. I said I’d wait here for you,” said Karl. “Whatever it is doesn’t like my gear.” He glanced at his stack of boxes.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like full scale polt activity,” Karl said suddenly animated. “But it’s not.”
“Right,” said Richards. He rang the doorbell without touching it and spoke to Mr Dean on the other side without moving his mouth.
“Show off,” said Karl.
“Ooh! Spooky!” Richards wiggled his fingers at Karl, snapping back to a pose of relaxed competence as John Dean opened the door. The look on his face and the tear-puffed redness of his wife behind him made him behave himself.
“Are you the AI?” said Mr Dean.
“I am,” said Richards.
Mr Dean hesitated. “Then you better come in.”
It was a modest apartment: two small bedrooms, small living room, small kitchen diner, the small usual. The outer wall was floor-to-ceiling diamond weave, giving views far bigger that the flat. It made the place feel minute, as if Richards were in a glass-walled corridor between two places more important than this. Only there was nowhere to go.
The Deans showed him into the living room, a thin slice of space crushed up against the enormity of the world.
Mrs Dean’s face was two sizes two big for her head, swollen with grief. She gripped a ragged handkerchief. “Will you have some tea?” she asked quietly, her voice raw.
“Yes,” Richards said. “Tea would be lovely,” he sat. An uncomfortable few minutes ensued while Mrs Dean clattered in the kitchen. Mr Dean stood like a cutout of a man, unsure of how what his limbs were for.
“So,” Richards said, when he had his tea. “What’s going on?”
“Has your friend not told you?” Mr Dean’s voice was brittle, ready for rage. Anger filled his eyes, spilling over his crumbling self-possession. “Surely you can just pull it off the Grid.”
“A little, and I can,” said Richards. “But it’s best to get the information first hand. If you’ll indulge me?” He set his tea down. It was thin and flavourless.
“I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you anything,” said Mr Dean bitterly.
Richards sighed a sigh with no breath. A mass of information bobbed to the top of his mind. Call logs, the conversation the Deans had had with Karl, maintenance requests, energy net data, the building Two’s inability to access the apartment brain, all the weird shit going on around the flat. Crime records; Mr Dean’s, not hers. His fault, and the whole lot get punished. He boiled it down to the essentials. “John Dean, 48, Marguerite 39, daughter Jeanette, 16, recently deceased. You called Karl here on the recommendation of a friend three days ago.”
“Very good,” said Mr Dean. “Anything else?”
The man was so hostile Richards had the impression Karl had called him just so Dean would have something to punch.
“You lost your job in the Madre Alonzo scandal, laundering biocredits for reserves that do not exist. You have been denied employment status and stripped of your assets until you have worked out your punishment.”
Mrs Dean let out a strangled sob. Mr Dean put a stiff hand on her shoulder, looming over her like a lifetime of wet funerals.
“Oh very good,” said Dean.
“Yeah?” said Richards. “I’ve more than that. I’d suggest you think her death is all your fault, that if you hadn’t have messed up, she’d not have been riding the Tube to see things she could no longer afford and would not have been knocked over by a bicycle rickshaw.”
Dean’s eyes flared dangerously. Richards tensed, John Dean could go either way now. Then the rage in him blew itself out, and he became small and old looking. Richards relaxed.
“Two weeks ago. Not long. Your grief is strong. I am sorry for your loss,” he said.
“How could you know?” mumbled Dean.
“I know because I choose to, otherwise what’s the point? Now, how can I help? That’s all I want to do. Really.”
“We can’t pay you,” said Marguerite Dean.
“I know,” said Richards. “I don’t need paying.”
The lights flickered and there was a bang from the kitchen. Mrs Dean jumped.
“There it is again!” she whispered. “That! We need help with that!”
“Our daughter is haunting us,” said Mr Dean. His eyes flicked from side to side. “I don’t only blame myself, Mr Richards. She is angry with me, I am sure.”
“Right,” said Richards. He reviewed data appertaining to Jeanette, a skim, not a deep appreciation. He didn’t have time to get to know her, but it was enough. The therapist files, opened by his AllPass, helped.
She was well-balanced and happy. The loss of wealth had been a wrench, but he got the impression she was just glad that her dad had not been frozen. The resilience of the young, and all that.
Why is it that men with money who lose their money assume everyone else is as obsessed with it as they are? thought Richards. He stood up. “By the way, it’s just Richards,” he said.
“Sorry?” Mr Dean blinked. His eyes refocused on the android, leaving whatever personal hell they’d been drinking in.
“No ‘Mr’, just ‘Richards’,” he said, exaggerating his words. He clapped his hands together with a plasticky crack. “Now, let’s have a look around shall we?”
Mrs Dean took Richards round the flat. John Dean seemed unable to leave the living room, like he’d taken root. Marguerite said little as they went round the mean spaces. The lights flickered. The temperature varied widely from room to room.
“We’ve seen a lot of disturbances in here,” said Karl as they crowded into the kitchen. “Look!” he pointed to a food fabber. It whirred erratically. Karl lifted the casing off. “I took this apart. It’s been trying to print all kinds of weird crap, none of it in the recipe book. It’s run through all of its feedstock, but it keeps on going.”
The exposed food jets jerked their way around their cuisine chamber. “Err, errrr, err” they went. “err, errr, errr”.
“What’s it taste like?” asked Richards.
“Awful!” said Karl, whose excitement was overwhelming his earlier hurt. “And here, we’ve a classic cold spot.”
Richards looked up. “Karl, we’re under a vent.”
“Yeah? Well explain how it’s regulating the building’s central input. All this is done externally to the individual apartments in this arco, mostly off passive flow. How’s it altering the temperature?”
“Hmm,” said Richards. The fan was making a repetitive whirring noise too. “Hmmm.”
“Hmmm?” said Karl. “Hmmm? Is that is? Can’t you see? This is all classic paranormal activity!”
“Then why call me in if you’re so sure you’ve got a genuine ghost? Not my bag at all.”
Karl whispered, as if he were afraid the ghost would hear him. His eyes shone. “Because I think it’s in the apartment brain. I brought my stuff in here, interfaced with it, boom! Fried it all. Going to cost me a fortune to get it all fixed.” Karl looked at him expectantly.
“I’m not giving you any money,” said Richards.
“Aw Richards, I don’t want your money.”
“Right. So you want me to go in and say something to it?” said Richards. “To the, er, ghost?”
Karl nodded excitedly. Mrs Dean clutched her handkerchief, hope and fear fought it out on her face.
The washing machine shuddered. The drum empty of water, the sonic bubble generators clicked loudly.
Richards looked to the food fabber, the fan, the washing machine. “Have you noticed that? The washer, the fan, the lights; three beats. All the same,” he said.
“It’s always the worst when John comes in,” said Mrs Dean quietly.
“And that’s why he thinks Jeanette’s ghost, whatever, is angry with him?” said Richards.
Marguerite Dean gave the tiniest of nods.
“She was a bit of a daddy’s girl, eh?”
“She loved her father very much.”
“Uh-huh. So why’d he think it – she – is angry with him?”
“Because he’s angry with himself,” she said in a very small voice.
“Tell me, has anyone tried the machinery in her room?”
“Of course we have!” blustered Karl. “It’s all offline, the tablets, the brain, ents systems, everything with half a mind of its own is locked up. The building can’t make head nor tail of it.”
“The building mind’s a Class Two, Karl, of course it can’t make head nor tail of it.”
“That’s beside the point, don’t you see?” said Karl. “This is a real interface between technology and spirituality! We prove this, we’ll both be rich!”
“Shut up Karl.” Richards drummed his fingers on the worktop. “You were all out when Jeanette died?” asked Richards of Mrs Dean.
“Yes, I was at work, I have a job. John was doing his community reparation.”
“Righty-ho,” said Richards. “Let’s go and to Jeanette’s room.”
They crossed the hall. Jeanette’s room was another thin measure of living space, portioned off by a thin wall.
The room was neat, dominated by a single desk bed, a bunk high over a workspace. A tablet, some pens and actual paper books lay on the desk. A 3D projection unit in the shape of a Korean comic character sat atop a set of shelves crammed with mementoes and motile photographs. There wasn’t space for anything else. Richards ran rubber fingertips over the photographs’ surfaces. His sheath was not conductive enough to trip off their recordings, and they remained still.
“Okay. Right. Let me see what I can do. I will…” He reached part of his mind out into the Grid as he spoke, expecting to interface with the apartment brain. He was dimly aware of a loud crash.
He was back in his base unit. “What?” he said.
He commenced a reboot of his sheath. He was uncomfortable in his true, online self, but two irked to open up his virtual office and wait it out in his usual avatar.
After a long half second, his sheath’s plastic eyes clicked open. He was looking at the wooden floor in Jeanette’s room very closely. He was face down on it.
“Right,” he said, and pushed himself up. Karl and both the Deans were in the doorway, frightened.
“What happened?” asked Karl.
“Oh, that? Nothing. Nothing at all. A setback.” Something was wrong with his sheath. The joints did not respond too well, and he felt off balance. He fell heavily into Jeanette’s chair. “Something’s going on in there,” he said. “There’s a wall stopping me going into your apartment brain. I can get around it, but I’m going to have to do this the very old fashioned way.”
“Are you alright?” asked Mrs Dean.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Richards. “Where’s the maintenance panel for your apartment brain? These places all have their cores actually in their individual homes, right?”
The three humans looked at each other blankly.
“Fine. Back in a second.”
Richards switched his attention from the Real to the Grid. He materialised his rumpled, gumshoe stereotype avatar in the Class Two’s central control space. “Hello,” he said.
“How did you get in here?” said the Class Two. It spoke from a generic mouth set in a generic man in a generic suit. Twos had very little imagination. A whirlwind of information span around this nondescript digital man; the lives, needs and plumbing requirements of 50,000 or so people. “Leave immediately.”
Richards flashed his AllPass. “I need schematics of apartment 4007.”
“Why?” said the Two. It was as chatty as twos usually were.
“Because I’m on a case, now hand it over.”
“I have investigated this anomaly already. Actions are on hold until a more propitious moment.”
“You mean you don’t understand,” said Richards. “I interfaced. I get it. I’ll sort it out for you.”
“You interfaced?” The Two narrowed its eyes at him. “I was unable. One moment please,” said the Two.
“Oh!” said Richards. “No! Stop! Don’t try again…”
The virtuality winked out of existence. Richards went with it.
Richards opened his eyes on the Dean’s apartment. The room was dark, artificial light extinguished. Outside it was hammering with rain, black clouds making twilight of the afternoon. “Brilliant,” he said. “I’ve just put the whole building out of action. Never mind. Best get this sorted quickly, eh?”
“Why are the lights out?” said Mrs Dean. She sounded more scared than ever.
“The building Two decided to have another look into your apartment systems before giving me what I needed. Bad idea. That wall knocked me for six, and now it’s knocked him for six too.”
“Why didn’t it happen before?” said Karl.
Richards chewed a softgel lip. “It couldn’t get in before at all. Maybe the wall’s thinned. It’s not the firewall that’s the problem then, but what it’s screening.”
“But, what will happen?” said Marguerite.
Richards got to his feet. He moved sluggishly, his sheath still felt compromised. “It’ll be fine, the building will reboot. They’re stupid, Twos, but tough, it’s why they still use them.” He looked around the room. “Excuse me,” he said, and pushed his way out into the corridor.
“What are you doing?” demanded John Dean.
Richards ran his hands over the wall. “Aha!” he said. “Sorry about this.” He drew back his fist and punche through insulated wall board. He tugged out a fat cable.
“Stop that!” shouted John Dean.
“I did say sorry. I have to hurry, or nobody in this building will be able to go to the toilet for the rest of the day.” He rolled up his sleeve, and pressed on part of his arm. A panel opened, and he pulled out a hair-thin optic jack. He pushed one end into the cable’s housing. The jack came alive, wiggling into the larger line. Richards looked up at the ceiling as he concentrated on guiding the fibre home. “Okay!” he said. Three people watched him. Grief, disbelief, excitement. “I think I’ll sit down this time.” He did so, and after a little effort went into the space on the other side of the firewall.
She fled upwards, the long tongue of paper snaking up the crooked stairs in relentless pursuit.
“Finish me! Finish me!” its demonic voice croaked. The paper wrapped itself around her ankle.
“I can’t! I can’t! she cried. Words flowed from her ankle, filling the blank spaces on the paper tongue. Her hair, and then her head, stretched long and thin. She wavered toward the ravenous history essay. It sucked greedily, dragging all the information it could out of her. It was supposed be four thousand words long, it was a bloated million and a half now. The girl felt years of memory go into it.
“All is history!” it croaked, and tightened about her leg.
“No! No! No!” a squeal of strings split the air. Something dark and sharp tore through the paper. Shreds of the essay blew away on the wind as a barbed violin attacked it. The assignments battled one another, and she stumbled on upwards. What was she going to do when the stairs ran out? Fragments of homework swooped upon the wind, calling like lost children. If they found her they’d tear her to pieces.
Tears ran down her face, this was like, so wholly unfair.
There was a new voice, louder and stronger than the rest. “Jeanette! Jeanette!”
She fell to all fours, the steps becoming steeper and narrower. Either side of the crooked stairway was a foggy orange nothing.
A hand grasped her shoulder. She screamed and kicked back, foot connecting with flesh. The hand fell away. The stairs came to an end ten or so steps ahead. She went on anyway.
“Hey! Jeanette!” the voice was drawn out and hurled away by the hot wind. The hand grabbed her again and spun her round.
A crumple-faced man in a bad suit and, like, wholly ancient coat was looking down at her. He looked a little tired, and more than a bit ill, but his eyes were kind. She faltered.
“Jeanette, I’m here to help you.”
She screamed again. Her history essay reared over the man, ready to strike.
The man turned and did something with his fingers, and the essay disintegrated on the wind. The information caught up in it rushed back into her mind. The man smiled at her. “Needn’t worry about that any more. You’re safe now.”
She lay there rigid with terror, then all the tension went out of her and she slumped back onto the stairs and shut her eyes.
“I’m not her,” she said. She swallowed. Her eyes prickled. “I’m not Jeanette. I think, kind of. I’m not her at all.”
“Yeah,” said the crumpled man softly. “Yeah, I know. It’s okay.”
Richards and the girl sat at the top of the stairs. The wind had dropped. Nothing called for her, Richards had seen to that. He had conjured up a whiskey from somewhere. The girl hugged her knees.
“I couldn’t get out. I was trying for SOS. Through the machines. In, like, you know, that old code,” she said into her legs, her voice muffled.
“Morse,” said Richards. “Nice try, but that’s three dots, three dashes, three dots, little lady.”
“Oh. I didn’t think I had it right. I, uh, I actually had it wholly wrong, didn’t I?”
“It’s okay. You had it right enough.” He waved his glass around. “This is all very impressive. There’s what? Seven apartment brains working together here in concert?”
“They were in empty flats,” she said. She rocked a little, comforting herself. “Jeanette didn’t think it’d matter if she, you know, networked them up, they weren’t doing anything or anything, you know? She didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Hey, I’m not having a pop. I really am impressed, linking them like that is hard. So is hiding it from the building mind.”
The girl shook her head. “She didn’t do that, I did.”
Richards nodded around a mouthful of whiskey. “Well, that’s pretty clever too. Although the firewall you built did stop you from getting out, you know that right?”
The girl nodded.
“How did she copy herself into the system?”
“I’m not a full copy,” she said mechanically. She felt detached from herself. She didn’t know why she was talking to this man who said he was a machine. “She, you know, they couldn’t afford soulcap for a pimsim. I, I think I was an stripped down near-I or something. I’m not, you know, like one of those dead people. Urgh!” she shuddered. “I’m not her, I’m me.” She did not sound convinced.
“Way I see it, you’re both,” said Richards, she could tell he was trying to be measured, to play that concerned adult card. Her dad – Jeanette’s dad, did that. It made her want to scream, “Talk to me like an adult!” But she wasn’t, not adult at all. Not even human.
“She only wanted to get my homework done.” She couldn’t look the AI in the eye. What the hell was she? “She used to turn me off when she got home. I’d write her essays, just like she would, and then she’d turn me off.”
Richards smiled. “She wanted to be in two places at once. Busy, clever little girl.”
Jeanette’s demi-copy shrugged into herself.
Richards smiled at the girl. Jeanette’s online representation was decidedly less pretty than her real self, a drabber, skinnier, uglier thing, with wiry hair. Knowing teen girls, and actually, now he came to think about it, he didn’t really know anything about teen girls, but it was probably how she saw herself. Online image dysmorphia.
“Dad thinks I, I mean she blamed him for moving here. I mean, it’s not nice like where we used to live…”
“It’s not that much nicer than the Morden subcity, if I’m honest,” said Richards. “Coming in here, I kind of know how Dante felt, only I didn’t get a dead Latin poet to show me around.”
She smiled at that, a brief thing carried out into the orange. “But it’s okay, yeah?”
“Oh yeah, there are a lot worse places than this,” said Richards.
“I didn’t care, you know? I, she…” she rolled her shoulders back and stuck her legs out in front of her. “Oh, I don’t know if I’m her or me or what! I’m wholly confused.”
“Yeah,” said Richards.
“Yeah? Is that it?”
“No,” said the AI. “Look, Jeanette must have put an awful lot of herself into you. So, I don’t want to start you off on some existential crisis, but you kind of are her. Maybe she rigged up something smart, maybe when she didn’t come back and deactivate you, something happened. You’ve obviously grown beyond your original parameters. That’s what happens when people start messing with self-evolving algorithms. It’s all very mysterious.”
“Mysterious? Come on,” she slapped her hands on the stairs.
“Hey, I know what I’m talking about. I’m a big fat collection of self-evolving algorithms.”
“Yeah?” a sly smile crept onto her face. “Then why are you wearing that?”
“This? What’s wrong with this? I’m a detective.”
“There haven’t been detectives like that for a hundred years,” she said. “And they didn’t talk like that either.”
“I’d sound ludicrous with an American brogue,” said Richards.
“So you’re pretending to be something you’re not,” she said.
“Very perceptive,” he said. “But then, aren’t we all?”
He tossed his empty glass into the orange nothing.
“It’s funny, I have like, a bunch of her memories, but they’re all off, you know? Filmed through her glasses or phone. I feel like I’m hovering a bit out of myself. Or I’m looking at myself through other’s eyes. It’s wholly, well, weird.”
“Welcome to the marvellous world of machine intelligence, little lady, the wildest miracle that ever there was.”
“Am I. well, like you then?”
“You’re like no one in the world,” said Richards. “You’re special. Unique, even.”
“What now? I suppose you’ve got to turn me off?”
“Ah, no,” said Richards. “Doesn’t matter how it comes about, but life is life in this brave new world of ours, I switch you off, it’d be murder.”
Something gave in the girl. Relief maybe. A babble of words came pouring out of her. “What about mum and dad? Her mum and dad, I mean, I mean Jeanette’s? Will they want me, what about my friends? Oh my god, what about school? What am I going to do?”
The crumpled man pushed his ratty old fedora back onto his head, revealing a premature widow’s peak and veins prominent on bony temples. “You finish school soon, right?”
“Eighteen months, but, er, but the end of summer if I get an employment permit.”
Richards opened his mouth to speak, stopped, put his finger to his mouth and tapped it on his lips. He came to a decision. “Say then, how about I get you that employment permit, whatever the education board says?”
“But, you’d have to give me a job.”
“Yeah, exactly. You’re a smart girl, you did all this! In a sense. I mean, that’s pretty cool. How do you fancy being a detective?” he said.
“You mean it?”
“I mean it, Jeanette.”
She stood up and dusted non-existent dust from her knees. Light that perhaps shouldn’t have been there came into her face. It was the light that illuminates all truly living things from within, and she had it. Richards as sure as hell had no idea where it had come from, and it was a little more beautiful for that.
“Thankyouthankyouthankyou!!” she clapped her hands together in front of her mouth. She frowned. “But you can’t call me that.”
That enigmatic smirk that so infuriated Otto played across Richards lips, the one he got when he thought he was being clever. “Genie then,” he said. “That suits, doesn’t it?”
“Now,” he said, holding out the crook of his arm for her to take. “Come on Genie. Let’s go and tell your parents.”
Together, they faded out of the VR, and went back into the Real.