September 10, Early Afternoon
“So, Cowan.” CID Detective Jeb Forrester flexed his Helping Hand and watched numbers tick inside the glossy black elevator. “What do you know about the VCD?”
“Violent Crimes Division.” Cowan was fresh off his suspension and eager to work. “All former soldiers, people whose PBAs already had a HARM switch installed.”
Jeb kept his expression neutral, but it surprised him that Cowan even knew what a HARM switch was. Most didn’t. Most would be kind of worried if they knew Corporate One could flip a switch in an agent’s brain and allow them to harm or kill people.
Did Cowan know about HARM switches because of his work as a PBA engineer before he’d joined the CID? That was the explanation Jeb would use. “That all?”
“Um…” Cowan’s eyes went distant. “Wasn’t there a story years ago, about a VCD cop who went rogue? Found a way to flip his own HARM switch and killed three officers?”
“Two.” Jeb turned his gaze to silver elevator doors. “One survived and put him down.”
The Office of Mental Health suppressed all news suggesting you could hack PBAs, which left only one place Cowan could have learned about fratricide at the VCD: the darkSim, an enormous private network based in Switzerland. It mirrored the functions of the Sim and was illegal to visit from the United States, but Jeb knew a great many people did.
Though penalties were rarely enforced, visiting the darkSim was a moddable offense, and Cowan had just all but told the CID he’d been there. The kid really needed to be more careful, but Jeb couldn’t mention that while the CID archived this case in real-time, through both their eyes. He’d warn Cowan later, over noodles, on wireless.
“Who’s the soldier who lived?” Cowan asked. At least he didn’t know that.
“Captain Barondale. She’s one of the soldiers we’ll be working with today, actually.” The elevator doors rumbled open. “Don’t ask her about that incident. It’s an old wound.” The last thing he needed was Naomi Barondale hearing anything Cowan had just said.
They stepped into a hallway on the eighteenth floor of one of San Diego’s luxury stackhomes. Gleaming silver baseboards ran along walls of padded black, with recessed lights providing a soft glow throughout. The floor was soft carpet with a winding floral pattern. If Cowan was impressed by the opulence, he didn’t let on.
Jeb led them down the hallway to a door two from the end, covered in a projected Crime Scene Barrier. It cast a sickly yellow glow across the carpet. He glanced at Cowan.
“Captain Barondale’s partner is Santino Zhang, a Marine. He served two tours in Peru during the recent unpleasantness, and earned some prosthetic legs on the way out.”
“He step on a mine?” Cowan asked.
“IED shredded his tank. He had the option to get realistic legs with synthflesh, but opted for gleaming metal instead. He likes fucking with people who stare at his legs, so don’t.”
“I get it, Jeb. I’m not going to embarrass you.”
Jeb almost smiled. “Never had a doubt.”
The text of the floating Crime Scene Barrier repeated inside their PBAs. “…Restricted. Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted. Access Restricted. Trespassers…”
Using the projector on his Helping Hand, Jeb projected the CID logo in front of the door. He simultaneously pinged the VCD’s general channel over his PBA’s wireless to alert those inside the room. Two-step authentication would ensure those already investigating that he was who he said he was, and that he was authorized to be here.
The metal door popped open as the barrier faded to reveal VCD Detective Santiago Zhang, oversized prosthetic boots filling the doorframe. Zhang’s new legs started at mid-thigh. They looked like gleaming pistons, wrapped in rings, stuffed into metal feet. He wore shorts, a black armored vest with the letters VCD, and fingerless biking gloves.
“Forrester.” Zhang bumped Jeb’s metal fist. “Good to see you, brother.” He smiled at Cowan. “Hey there, little buddy!”
“This is my partner,” Jeb said, “Detective Cowan Soto.”
Cowan nodded, but he didn’t protest his new title. Jeb approved. If Zhang hoped to start something with the new guy, Cowan was going to disappoint him.
“The ant swarm just finished their sweep.” Zhang frowned as he cleared the door. “The captain’s finishing up the remote autopsy. Should have Keller’s cause of death soon.”
“Leroy Keller lived alone?” Jeb’s briefing had specified one murder, but he never trusted briefings, especially when the Office of Mental health routinely suppressed facts.
“Yeah, Keller’s parents live in La Mesa. They authorized the autopsy ten minutes ago.”
Jeb was glad he hadn’t handled that call. Notifying people their loved ones were dead was the worst part about his job. Next time he saw Sarisa, he would ask how Sheila Fisher’s parents were doing.
He took a quick look around Keller’s apartment. Its wide curtains hung open, allowing natural afternoon light to fill the apartment. Augmented reality evidence tags floated on the plush brown carpet, and on several rips in the black leather couches. Those surrounded a dirty glass table piled with empty food cartons.
All the evidence tags were checked out by Captain Naomi Barondale, which meant Jeb didn’t have to worry about missing details. Naomi was one of the most competent cops he’d ever met, but that wasn’t surprising, given her mother had run corporate contracts before the Lathan-Faulkner Act. Arcasia Barondale was practically a legend these days.
Keller’s long shelves held a kitschy mishmash of action figures, glistening metallic trophies, and actual paper books. Behind those, huge windows looked over San Diego sprawl. This was an expensive apartment, but pro-gamers made far better money than a twenty year veteran of the CID. Especially those involved in StrikeForceGo.
Jeb turned to Zhang. “Any thoughts on motive?”
“Somebody was hard up for a quick lay?” Zhang shrugged. “They didn’t crack his private safe or take any of his action figures, even the super rare ones. Even his retro gaming collection is untouched. The only thing missing is Keller’s million dollar sexbot.”
Cowan glanced at Zhang. “Wait, you don’t actually mean—?”
“Oh yeah, I do.” Zhang grinned. “Keller was loaded. Boy owned a fully functional house synthetic, wrapped in synthflesh with a rack big enough to—”
“We get it,” Jeb said, before Cowan could get more flustered. “So you guys think someone murdered Keller to steal his housesynth?”
“That’s my theory,” Zhang said, “but hell, maybe somebody wanted to shake up the finals of SFGo. That’d be a real story, wouldn’t it? Fixing matches by murdering pros?”
Cowan turned a bit less red. “Would that actually work?”
“Keller was top tier, little buddy,” Zhang said. “The semis happened last night, and Keller was destroying the other team before he went linkdead. Happened right before the match ended.”
“Because he got murdered,” Cowan said.
“Seems like it.”
Jeb considered Zhang’s theory, and honestly, it wasn’t as farfetched as some might think. simSports Pros knocking each other off was unlikely — clear circuits couldn’t harm others — but there was enough money involved in pro-gaming to tempt those with means to murder. Jeb had heard betting went into the billions on a good night.
“Body’s in the bedroom. It’s nasty, though.” Zhang raised one eyebrow at Cowan. “Dude, you gotta’ check it out! It’s like pumpkin guts or something. Shit will blow your mind.”
Cowan swallowed. “Jeb, should I—”
“Nothing you need to see.” Cowan wasn’t a VCD investigator, and the CID didn’t handle violent crimes. “Log into the apartment VI and pull the visitor log.”
“Right.” Cowan nodded. “I’ll see what I can find.” His eyes went distant, staring into space. He was likely searching the apartment’s Virtual Intelligence for clues.
Zhang touched his ear, a habit common among ex-soldiers when they received wireless transmissions. Jeb often saw David do the same when he was tired or distracted. Jeb’s husband had been deployed in Peru as well, in one of the suppression wars waged to remove terrorists who resisted PBAs, and though David rarely talked about it, Jeb knew it had been a rough time. Fortunately, PBA redaction dramatically reduced PTSD.
“Remote autopsy confirms the captain’s theory,” Zhang said.
Jeb watched him. “And that is?”
“Captain said not to tell you.”
Jeb smiled despite the situation. “Understood.” Naomi was testing him, a game they played whenever the CID and VCD crossed paths, but only because she respected his judgement. Naomi wanted his theory, not hers. “What’s the body look like?”
“Broken fingers, gouged out eyes, crushed balls. Pretty sick shit.” Zhang led Jeb to the stackhome’s single bedroom, metal legs hissing and clomping.
“The mutilation happened post-mortem?” Jeb prayed the answer was yes.
“Tip top, old man.” Zhang cocked an eyebrow at him. “How’d you know?”
“Just a guess.” Mutilating a body post-mortem was rage, not greed. It implied just killing them wasn’t enough. “So who hated Keller enough to defile his corpse?”
“Lots of people hated this kid,” Zhang said. “Don’t you know who Nemoset is?”
Jeb didn’t. “My husband’s the shooter fanatic in the family.”
“Right.” Zhang frowned and shook his head. “Leroy Keller was one of the top Snipers in SFGo, super elite and shit. Dude got accused of using marksman scripting so often he quit playing in public, just to avoid the harassment.”
It wasn’t uncommon with top tier players to face cheating accusations, especially when slumming in public pleasureboxes. “So he was good.”
“Godlike. Odds were Team Grindhouse would take the trophy this season. Nobody had seen synergy like theirs since the DeathKittens, back before the ex-military got banned.”
Of course Zhang would bring that up. David, Jeb’s husband, had founded the DeathKittens shortly after the Peruvian conflict ended, and gotten banned with all the rest of the military pros when the StrikeForceGo devs rebalanced the game for civilians.
Everything in StrikeForceGo felt real, giving people with real military experience a big advantage, but Jeb thought it was callous to lock veterans out of ranked play. Still, when ninety percent of your player base were civilians, he supposed it made financial sense. No one would play if a small, elite group could murder them with their bare hands.
Zhang opened Keller’s bedroom. Blood and other fluids covered the carpet, and more splattered the beige walls, enough to make Jeb’s stomach turn. The silk sheets of a thick bed were matted with gore. Someone had ripped Keller’s ergochair in half.
VCD Captain Naomi Barondale knelt beside their victim. She was dark-skinned, built like an Olympic wrestler, and had four prosthetic limbs. Unlike Jeb and Zhang, however, Naomi had chosen to replace her forearms and legs with hyper-realistic prosthetics, which took serious dedication. She could crack Jeb’s skull with one punch.
Naomi wore a full body suit with flexible boots, covering everything up to her neck. Her outfit shimmered in the faint light, a sign it incorporated mimetic camouflage reserved for elite soldiers, and her eyes glowed purple, an effect of ocular implants that let her see through walls using enhanced Wi-Vi. Had she been peering inside Keller’s body?
“Got a visitor log for our vic?” Naomi asked.
“My partner’s working on it.” Jeb was careful not to step on any human bits. “Is that all you need for me?”
“I’d also like your insight.” When Naomi crossed her arms they looked perfectly human, though Jeb knew they had reinforced nanofibers inside. “What do you see in here?”
Jeb looked past the gore for puzzle pieces. Leroy Keller’s body was splayed out like a paper doll. His limbs were spread evenly, like he was making a snow angel with his blood. This killer had posed it. Jeb was glad Keller died before this happened, not after.
“This was personal,” Jeb said. “The killer targeted Keller and wanted to dominate him, even after he was already dead. They probably archived this. They wanted a trophy.”
“What else?” Naomi asked.
Something about Keller’s neck bothered Jeb. It was puffy, like he’d been stung by a bunch of bees, and badly discolored. He knelt and stared. “The killer strangled him?”
“With what? I’ve never seen any neck swell up like this, at least this quickly.”
“I have,” Zhang said. “Some drunk idiot stuck his neck in the claw of a construction synthetic to impress his drunk buddies, trying to be all ‘mouth of the lion’ and shit. Another drunk idiot tripped over the activation switch. They shut down the claw, but not in time.” Zhang spread his hands. “Dude’s neck swelled up like a ball sack.”
Jeb realized why Naomi had called the CID. “You think a synthetic strangled this man.”
“Could it?” Naomi asked. Her face remained entirely without expression.
“No,” Jeb said, “or … it shouldn’t be able to.” In all his time with the CID, he’d seen a lot of things that shouldn’t be. “If a synthetic was responsible, it’d be new, and the door was intact, wasn’t it? There was no way for a synthetic to get in here, unless…” Jeb remembered Zhang’s comment about Keller’s missing housesynth. “His sexbot?”
“Is that possible?” Naomi asked.
“Anything is possible, with enough evidence.” Jeb took a breath. “What’s yours?”
Naomi pointed at Keller’s body. “His neck vertebrae were literally pulped inside his body, along with his neck. No human can do that.”
“No unaugmented human,” Zhang said. “I could fuck a kid up like that. Hell, cap, you could pop his head clean off.”
“What kind of sexbot?” Jeb asked Naomi.
“A Companion Triple-F.”
Jeb pulled the schematics from the CID and gave it a once over. Though the Triple-F was almost entirely fiberglass, to keep weight down, it also had enough pneumatic pressure to crush a neck. It also had a hard limit on how tight it could close its fingers.
“A Triple-F couldn’t strangle Keller,” Jeb said, flipping back to meatspace. “They ship with a hardware safety. It can’t close its hands tightly enough to strangle someone.”
“Actually,” Cowan said, as he strolled into the room, “I think that—“
Jeb slapped a palm into Cowan’s chest just before he stepped on one of Keller’s fingers. “Crime scene, Cowan. Body parts. They’re all over the place.”
“Shit, sorry!” Cowan backpedaled. “My filters are up.”
Jeb knew PBAs would warn the user if they got too close to redacted objects, via abstraction, but a severed finger might be too small to register as an obstruction. If someone stepped on Keller’s severed finger, it would simply sink into the carpet.
Naomi’s tone turned cool. “You were saying?”
“I think the Triple-F could do it, ma’am, if you disabled the hardware safety.” Cowan still looked pale. “I found instructions for doing that in Keller’s private cloud. Step-by-step.”
Naomi tapped her chin and frowned. “Why remove a safety that keeps your synth from strangling you?”
Zhang whistled and snapped his fingers. “This kid wanted it to choke him!”
Cowan blinked again. “What?”
“Auto-erotic asphyxiation,” Naomi said. “He’d be far from the first.”
That actually made a lot more sense than Jeb liked. “What about the visitor logs?”
Cowan’s eyes went distant again. “Keller hasn’t let anyone in this apartment for weeks, and no one’s left, but I did find something else. Last night, about ten minutes after Leroy Keller vanished from StrikeForceGo, someone accessed the incinerator tube.”
Naomi glanced at the wall, probably looking through it at the tube somewhere beyond the wall. “A housesynth would just fit in there, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes ma’am.” Cowan’s blank gaze focused. “I mean, captain.”
“So, wait,” Zhang said. “Keller’s sexbot strangled him, mutilated him, and then tossed itself down the incinerator tube?” He snorted. “Must not have paid it enough.”
“Accessing the incinerator logs wasn’t easy,” Cowan said. “The apartment’s VI doesn’t log incinerator usage. The building’s Overlord VI does that, and it’s highly secured.”
Jeb felt a bit of professional pride in his partner. “So whoever hacked the synthetic might have assumed we’d never see that log, or know Keller modified his Triple-F to strangle him. They’d think this was a robbery gone wrong and file it as such. Nice work.”
“Agreed.” Naomi’s tone thawed. “Did you find any other anomalies on Keller’s private server, or the apartment’s VI?”
“Well,” Cowan said, “he was logging at least twelve hours in the Sim a day.”
“How’d he manage that?” Zhang asked. “Loose circuit?”
“No, it’s a simple hack,” Cowan said, “and anyone can do it. You down a script that sets your hardlink clock. Your PBA sets its auto-dump timer off that clock when you dive, so as far as your PBA knows, you’re under your limit. Your hardlink doesn’t regulate that.”
Jeb considered that. Due to the extreme popularity of the Sim, the Office of Mental Health imposed a hard limit on how long anyone could spend inside the simulated reality of a pleasurebox: six hours, followed by a mandatory ten hour break. People who stayed in pleasureboxes too long — simjunkies — often developed Simulation Disorder.
Those people often lost the ability to distinguish reality from the Sim. While clear circuit algorithms prevented them from harming others, people killed in pleasureboxes all the time. If someone in meatspace thought they were in a pleasurebox, they might not think they were hurting actual people, thus bypassing behavioral algorithms. That got messy.
“What was he doing?” Naomi asked. “He couldn’t have spent all that time playing StrikeForceGo.”
Zhang shook his head. “You kidding, cap? Pro players live off sponsorships. If Keller thought practicing six extra hours a day would give him an edge, he’d take it.”
Naomi turned back to Cowan. “What do his archives show?”
Cowan looked at Jeb, then at Naomi. “You didn’t delete them?”
“We can’t even access apartment archives,” Zhang said. “That’s why we call you guys.”
“Oh,” Cowan said. “Then we have a problem.”
Naomi crossed her arms over her mimetic suit. “Our killer erased the archives?”
“If they didn’t, someone else did. So what does that mean for our synthetic theory?”
“It means,” Jeb said, holding back a heavy sigh, “this case remains with the VCD.”
Without Keller’s Triple-F to examine, they had no real proof his sexbot had strangled him. Only Naomi’s suspicion, and her autopsy. Unfortunately, OneWorld’s official statement insisted house synthetics couldn’t be hacked. More corporate bullshit.
The VCD couldn’t accept Naomi’s assertion that a hacked housesynth murdered Keller without Jeb’s confirmation, and now Jeb couldn’t confirm anything. That meant the CID couldn’t take over the case, and it meant whoever had done this could do it again. The VCD handled crime that occurred in meatspace, while the CID tackled crime in the Sim.
Letting some hacker kill people with their own housesynths wasn’t something Jeb could tolerate, orders or no orders. “What’s your next move, captain?” He knew Naomi might be thinking the same thing he was. “You going to follow this StrikeForceGo theory?”
“Not much we can do, in our jurisdiction.” Naomi raised an eyebrow at him. “For now, all we can do is examine our physical evidence and hope for an anonymous tip.”
“Well.” Jeb knew exactly what he was going to do next. “Let’s hope someone calls in.”
* * *
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