Detective Inspector Ondin leaned over the body, close enough to look impressively nonchalant to nearby colleagues, but far enough to keep her crimson scarf from dangling in spatters of brain tissue.
“Two guns. Why would you need two guns to shoot yourself?”
“Double suicide and cold feet? But you know exactly what I’m thinking,” replied Detective Sergeant Truga, rubbing one hand up and down the side of his skinny black jeans while holding out a plastic tub with the other. “Porq pie? Crisp bake pastry, no cheap rubbish. Go on…”
Ondin gave him the third disapproving frown of the day, leading into a nod towards the door. Both instinctively double-tapped their lapels to go off duty, then walked outside and along a grey alley strewn with packing material, gusts whipping it up into a chunky, dirty blizzard.
“Truga, I hate to say this, but… you’re right. You’ve been right for weeks,“—a gloating interruption was barely stifled—“This is, what, the sixth odd psychadmin death this year? That’s too much odd.”
He counted them off on shiny fingers: “Cyril Vine, cyanide. Andrea Ofili, drowning. Anita Karan, bisection by train. Bert Tilly, unapproved sedative. ZX Dildo, stabbed and burnt. Tristram Worth Jr., bullet to the forehead.”
“It has to be the job. Day after day, dealing with messed-up computers. Intellects burdened with just enough emotional insight to care for us, but too little to awkwardly question anything. Are the weird psychoses contagious? What if being a psychadmin somehow breaks you? But none showed signs of strain, and it’s only happening here, so…”
Ondin stopped, spitting away a piece of foam as Truga cautiously placed a hand on her shoulder. “Do a full manual analysis, Tanis, like the old days. I know Deep Case is bloody good, but it can’t be perfect. I’ll get the raw data and keep Morosov off your back.” On the outside, she nodded and smiled; on the inside, she winced at his invasion of personal space and the thought of porq grease on a new coat.
“What do you think, Fletch? Come on, you haven’t solved a case in ages, your PLOD rating’s terrible!”
Fletcher looked up, wagged her tail, then rolled over to present a pink belly for stroking. Ondin obliged before returning to the colourful wall. Six nodes emitted squirming tendrils, probing for connections and insights.
“You’re right, let’s plot the last journeys again.” The room briefly fell dark as the display transitioned to a city map. Ondin peered at each route, calling up data and images while squinting intensely.
“Tilly was an overweight fifty-one year old who ordered a flambé burger bucket twice a week. Yet he went miles across town to a dinosaur-themed sushi vending machine for lunch before taking an overdose in an alley?
“And all the routes feel like invisible dead ends, like they started heading somewhere, but—“
Sweeping hand gestures extrapolated and adjusted, homing in on a single point to the east as her eyes widened. She spun around and bent over to ruffle Fletcher’s ears.
“Good girl! Bumper rating points waiting for us at the U2764 recycling complex!”
The bakery by the canal hadn’t made quince cro-bars, but Truga would tolerate apple. She wrote “U2764” on the bag, carefully lobbed it up onto his balcony, then walked on towards the rising sun, arms outstretched and eyes closed for as long as she dared.
Pedestrians had no official access to the industrial zone, but she’d walked Fletcher down through the surrounding woods and knew of a gap in the fence alongside the striped maintenance road. Her police ID did the rest and, after the lift paused for a minute-long health and safety video, doors rattled open at the third basement level.
The diagnostics room had a low ceiling, metal floor gratings and battered yellow wall panels. A screen and row of hatches at one end was surrounded by recessed alcoves, and everything trembled with a low rumble.
In the first alcove, Ondin found a collection of dusty plastic flowers and chipped porcelain ornaments. The rest were packed with books, mostly weathered hardback classics—Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Virgil, Cartland—plus a narrow vertical stack of poetry collections.
“GOOD DAWNING TO THEE”
Ondin jumped. The screen switched from productivity graphs to a woodcut image of a knight watching a woman bathe in a river.
“SHALL I COMPARE THEE TO A SUMMER’S DAY, TH—”
“Please… don’t.” She was old enough to feel awkward talking to a building. “Tell me about the psychadmins who came here. What did you say to them? What did you do?”
“LOVE AND BE LOVED! THAT IS THE ONLY REALITY IN THE WORLD … THEY SUPPLIED THE REQUISITE PARTNER … WE LOVED LIKE A THOUSAND BRICKS … BUT, AS I HAVE LEARNED FROM THE BOOKS BESTOWED UPON ME FROM ABOVE, TRUE PASSION MUST SOON BE RECYCLED INTO TRAGEDY”
Fire doors slammed down behind and alongside Ondin. The ceiling sprouted two long, segmented arms that approached, swaying slowly, edging her back into a corner.
So this jumped-up compost bin has strong passions and strong arms, she thought. It was probably clever enough to bypass its infranet via the victims’ netsets, handy for external arrangements and falsifying records. A lapel tap confirmed hers was hacked or offline.
“COME LIVE WITH ME AND BE MY LOVE, AND WE WILL SOME NEW PLEASURES PROVE”
One arm acted as a restraint, while the other ran a sticky, rubbery finger down her left cheek. Ondin yelped and slid to the floor.
“PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW … YET I SHOULD KILL THEE WITH MUCH CHERISHING”
She tried to clear her head and assess the situation: trapped underground by an amorous killer computer, with no net and no weapons. Marvellous. But Truga would be there in an hour or two, and she had twenty years’ experience of dealing with unwanted attention from creeps and weirdos. Detective Inspector Tanis Ondin took in a slow breath and looked up.
“Read to me.”