Without further ado or fanfare, chapter one of Schism.
Paul watched from the oily street as the saccharine colored lights from ambulances, firetrucks, and police cars bounded over the dank, pulsing scene of the accident. Unlike the other officers, the hood of his blue mackintosh lay between his scapulae, exposing him to the acidic rain that pounded down from the muggy September night. Later, he expected to find his bristle-short blond hair brittle as spun glass, poking out of an irritated scalp. Stepping onto the sidewalk over a clogged gutter, he let two paramedics rush by him. He watched as they picked up a wet, limp body from the gritty cement and laid it on a stretcher. One covered the corpse with a blanket that bloomed red in several places while another fastened it with orange straps. They had a half dozen more to pack away before they could be done. Paul wondered what those people were thinking before the car had careened into them. It was too bad that the last thing that the world had impressed upon their minds was the crumbling remains of Soundview, New York.
Off to the side, a circle of wet, bedraggled people Paul assumed to be the tenants of the darkened building had formed around a police officer who had her hands up in a placating gesture that was having no effect on their clamor. Hopefully the police woman would be able to cull one valuable piece of information from all the noise. Paul wasn’t optimistic though, as under normal conditions there was a culture of reticence and distrust of police. Especially when a potential murder was involved.
An officer with crossed arms over a barrel chest stood on the stoop. Paul looked at him a moment, then past him. Either the car that had plowed into the building or the geomagnetic storm had knocked out power to it because the electricity for the rest of the North East had been up for half an hour. Both occurrences had probably contributed to the decrepit apartment’s further degradation. A lighting tripod had been set up in the narrow foyer, silhouetting the forensic techs walking back and forth, going through different motions.
Paul looked at the car as he walked parallel to it. The roof had puckered right down the middle under a chunk of bricks. Smeared across the driver’s door, streaks of coagulated blood shone blackly against the white light that flooded the area from more of the squat tripods. A spindle of rebar needled through the windshield in over a dozen places, making it droop like moth eaten cloth.
“Detective Mardel,” the hulking policeman on the stoop shouted.
“They’re waiting upstairs. Third floor.”
“They told me in the message,” Paul grunted and moved into the building.
The foyer smelled of cigarettes and stale air. Breathing in, he could taste dust collecting in the back of his mouth, making him salivate so his tongue wouldn’t stick to his palate. Blinding white light from the tripod tore at his eyes and he had to lift a hand in defense against the glare. A chrome glint brought Paul’s attention to a pile of cheap furniture that had been tipped and thrown against the wall. Chairs, an end table, and a rotten couch engaged in an inanimate orgy. Blobs of foam pushed out of torn imitation leather like the innards of a bloated, dead animal. Paul wondered if this had been left here since the flood riots. He shook his head slowly.
The forensic techs in here were dressed in blue rain slickers similar to those worn by the cops, but they wore blue surgical masks that obscured even more of their faces. They were a back-water collection of techs who didn’t qualify to serve in any of the more lucrative departments Acropolis Forensics provided services for so they sent them there. One of the blue humanoids emerged from a doorway to Paul’s right, trailing the smell of concrete dust. Before the door had clanged shut, Paul managed to catch just a sliver of linoleum floor littered with gray debris and the crushed front end of the car jutting awkwardly into the building. Paul turned away and found the stairs that led up to the reason he was called.
Paul stopped in front of an open doorway where a blue form knelt, peeling a metallic strip from the mottled door knob. The figure turned its nondescript face up to Paul and nodded, then went back to work. It must have sent out a ping through the Grid for his identification. Whoever was leading this team would find him.
Please don’t let Darmin be on this, he begged to the emptiness in his head while he slid past the figure and into the small apartment. Before entering the room, Paul unbuttoned the mackintosh, letting it hang open over the rumpled white shirt and coat that sagged around his thin frame.
The apartment was sparse; it could have been almost ascetic had it not been for the clutter that was piled in lopsided mounds around the room. The kitchen was a scrap yard of containers: Mexican, Chinese, burger joints. Some blue person sorted through the mess, handling each slimy container with pinched fingertips despite the gloves. In a cramped bathroom, two blue figures jostled back and forth, trying to maneuver. When one would crouch, the other would stand and vice versa, like pistons. And then, in a chair by the door to the bedroom, like a corrupted nucleus surrounded by scampering blue electrons, was the corpse.
The head hung over the back of the swivel chair, letting auburn hair fall back from a brown, pock marked forehead in which dull green eyes stared out past Paul’s shoulder. A drying trail of vomit extended from the corner of his mouth. One of the corpse’s arms was slung over the back of the chair, its wrist bent with its fingers splayed. Paul guessed that he might have been around mid to late twenties and, judging by the apartment, was at most barely bobbing above poverty line.
“Detective Mardel,” a muffled voice said from beside him. He turned and recognized the eyes at once though the rest of the face was covered in a surgical mask. They were small little beads that squinted and opened like a valve of some kind.
“Darmin. So, what have you got?”
“His name’s Thomas Drole. Funny situation he got himself into, huh?” Darmin chuckled with a sound that should have belonged to a sticking ignition.
Paul suppressed a wince at the attempt at humor and continued. “Who found him?”
“Pretty much anyone who crossed this floor. From what we’ve heard so far, the car hit the building so hard it knocked some doors open and whata-ya know, behind door number three was our corpse.”
“I take it there are no witness statements.”
“Try getting anything out of these assholes. That’s why I stuck the rookie on it. Give her a sense of who she’s protecting and serving.”
“Have a cause of death?”
“Can’t say yet,” Darmin said. “No external wounds of any kind. No detectable trauma. In fact, the rat was still wired into his external memory console.” Paul checked each aspect of the scene as Darmin flung it out.
“Nice array isn’t it?” Paul asked, moving closer to examine the make.
“Bet your ass. Don’t know who he had to service to get it but, man! I wouldn’t think they’d even give someone like him an advertisement pay-off system.”
Paul blew air from between pursed lips. “It’s an Mnemos Legacy model. You’d be serving ad-space for the rest of your life to pay off this kind of hardware.” Paul became self-conscious of the advertisements others saw when their systems pinged him. Having a whole network of artificial nerves and organic computing modules running through his body wasn’t so bad but having everyone know that his cells had been cultured, converted into processing units, then implanted back into him for a price he couldn’t pay was an embarrassment that nagged him.
“Well, we’ll turn it on once we get it back to the lab so we’ll find out how deep our little coffin dweller was in,” he heard Darmin say in an ebullient voice. “It’s gotta be stolen,” he added.
Paul looked at the flat black machine lying on the rough table surface. It was a simple plastic rectangle. Along the front of it little inert LEDs caught the hazy light of the room and reflected it back in sharp points. A power button was set into the middle of the face-plate, its unlit symbol a dark blotch. The transdermal electrodes ran from a port on the far side of the machine and terminated in two adhesive knobs that still clung to the cooling skin of what used to be Thomas Drole.
“Total space case I bet you,” the exasperating voice said. “When we pump his guts, we’ll find a fiesta of colors from some street corner pharmacy. He probably stumbled on a bad combo and didn’t know enough to pull out of whatever he was doing.”
Maybe, Paul thought. It wouldn’t exactly be the first time he’d seen a Grid-skid mixing and matching his pills like a game of Russian Roulette, spin the cylinder, and hit a live round while completely absorbed in another world.
“He’s too young for this kind of shit,” Paul mumbled.
“Huh?” Darmin blurted.
“Nothing. Do you have a possible time of death?”
A crash of broken glass shot through the room from the kitchen, wiping the first part of what Darmin said away with it. “-during the geomagnetic storm.”
Paul turned and stopped at the threshold that opened into the shallow bedroom.
“We’ve found mostly data slides in there. Some hacked storage systems, illegal software. Porn. Typical stuff.”
Another faceless blue forensic technician had stacked orange, plastic squares on the rumpled, slightly yellow and stiff sheets of the bed. In another pile, several obsolete hard drives were laid out. The officer was picking up one slide at a time and passing them under a dark, flat wand that led down through a thick cord to a bulky case that stood on the floor. Paul wondered how much longer the data collector would be functioning. It had been dumped on them by its producer, SpecTools, after they had come out with a new, more dependable model that didn’t have the bad habit of destroying the original copies.
He walked back, feeling Darmin’s eyes on him as he resumed his place before the corpse. There was something eery about the way it looked back at him while connected to its exterior memory unit. The thought of what he was doing before he’d died tantalized Paul. People don’t just die. There was always something unfinished. There was always that one thing that they were going to do, about to do. What was Thomas going to do before he died? What was he looking for?
Paul placed his hands in the pockets of his coat and rocked back on his heels, letting himself get lost in thoughts as they popped up. Before he could get far, he remembered the company he was in. He straightened up and turned, noting how the air tasted particularly sour around where Darmin stood. He could picture the smirk that worked Darmin’s pale lips beneath the round mask, the myopic amusement Darmin must find in his small cues and quirks.
“How soon will you be loading your findings onto the network?” Paul said, staring at Darmin who had picked up a tattered gaming magazine and was thumbing through the pages. Darmin didn’t stir.”When will I be getting the data?” Paul said, louder.
The polished marbles of Darmin’s eyes slid over and locked onto Paul. The small gaze seemed to snap a photo with a little blink, then refocus and meander around the room. “I think we’re done here.” He clapped his gloved hands. When they didn’t produce the crisp and authoritative sound he desired, he pulled them off and tried again. This time the sound sparked and the look-alikes stopped their work. “Alright everybody,” he shouted, his cheeks pulling up the straps that held the mask to his face, “pack it up. The medics will pack the stiff.” Again, the corrosive laugh. Little nervous giggles emerged from here and there around the room but they never meshed.
“Great to have you stop by!” Paul heard as he strode to the exit. He found a certain measure of comfort in being alone in the darkened hall, away from that room and its business. The power still hadn’t been turned back on and maybe never would. He splayed his fingers, feeling the tendons tense, pull at their moorings. On either side of him, doors stood open into dark rooms where things stood in charcoal outlines. It would probably cost too much to fix whatever had been burned or broken. He could picture these rooms six months down the line, the torn wallpaper hanging like charred skin from a body caught in a fire. Rats would scurry around squatters picking through whatever the former tenants had forgotten to take with them.
The transdermals made the connection to the output pad under the skin of Paul’s left forearm. His unique, assigned genetic key signed him into the department’s secure network. His onboard biocircuitry system sent a series of electrical pulses to the occipital lobe of his brain, activating several pathways. Form came first, atavistic, and crude. As the program worked in more detail, differentiated solid shapes into carved outlines, color became noticeable. It was like a colony of algae taped in time-lapse, a spreading pale blue and yellow that covered the three-dimensional image of the NYPD shield then fell away into a nimbus white expanse.
When the entire display had loaded, a small, low-res rendering of the NYPD shield spun at the top of his vision. A command box hung in the bottom right corner of his visual field. When Paul looked down, the images of the department network were superimposed over a small beige external network router surrounded by inlaid, metallic trim that was beginning to peel away. The silver lining reflected a blurred form that he knew to be himself. He touched around his eyes, prodding the puffy bags that had filled with the exhaustion of too many nights fighting sleep and its horrid visions that re-surged when his conscious defenses shut down. A small interactive ticker floated above the external modem, advertising the page for Klein Systems. From a column of large, blocky icons that trailed down the left side of his vision, Paul selected the Department Section list, dialing straight into the forensics system. A short list of cases he’d worked on appeared in gray. At the top, a pulsing green dot marked the case he’d just been logged into. He opened the link and a loading screen popped up.
The chair creaked when Paul sat back, huffing at the delay. In the interim time though, he thought about the apartment. He scratched his head, trying to assuage the burning in his scalp. His thoughts didn’t get far into the strangeness of the scene he’d walked into when the optic output showed a series of files. He selected the report file detailing collected electronic evidence. There had been the data slides and hard drives from the bedroom and the Mnemos and onboard internal circuitry from the body in the main room. He read through the list of items collected.
Fourteen data slides (150 Terabytes each) Location: Bedroom
Three rotational hard drives (2: 1 Terbyte; 1: 10 Terabytes) Location: Bedroom
Klein Systems Direct Track Biocomputer Array
Then nothing. Paul furrowed his brow. Darmin hadn’t cataloged the new Mnemos memory system that had been found with the corpse. He exhaled through his nostrils and leaned against the chipped edge of the composite board desk. At least there was nothing logged from the kitchen. The team’s sloppiness and Darmin’s hasty retreat played in Paul’s favor. Darmin could only notice what he could pick at, what he could exploit. He’d never be able to pick up on the way those green eyes stared back towards the kitchen. There was something Thomas was going for, a last unfinished to-do.
For now, all Paul could do was speculate what it was that he had been going for. Could be that Darmin was right, that he took a bad combo and realized what was happening. Maybe he had been rushing to his stash, trying to piece together what he’d taken so he could figure out how much shit he was in. Could be something else. He needed to get back to the scene. Only this time the leech and his legion of blue blobs wouldn’t be looking over his shoulder everywhere he went.
In the meantime, he had to get in touch with Darmin and find out why the rest of the evidence hadn’t been entered into the system. The windows in his head imploded out of existence, replaced again by the white department background and clunky items. The display faded, just a slight dimming in the contrast, like a cloud passing in front of the sun. Paul blinked and turned his eyes upwards, holding his breath. The bars of bare fluorescents that hung from the ceiling held a steady illumination. Some of them had strands of blue ribbon twisting within them, others only blinked fitfully. Then, in unison, they faded, rebounded, and winked out.
Again, the chair protested as he threw his back against the hard foam. Bright letters announced that the network connection had been lost. The building had been retrofitted with a patchwork electrical system and frighteningly, much of the system was from the turn of the century. It was a miracle that there wasn’t a power failure every other day but it looked like the evening’s geomagnetic storm had pushed the system beyond its limitations.
Several storms usually struck a week now. Paul wasn’t sure exactly how it worked, but he’d heard that somehow the upper atmosphere was weakening, letting too much radiation from the sun in. The end result were changes in the magnetic pulse of the Earth that interrupted everything from communications to vast swaths of the electric grid. There was nothing that could be done about it so instead a centralized system for sending an alert when one of these outbursts was imminent was created. Manhattan’s system would have triggered warning lights and started flashing countdowns on every machine connected to the Grid, letting everyone know that they risked the safety of anything still drawing power when the pulse hit them. The driver of the car that had plowed into the building probably never got an instruction package to warn the driver that time was running out. With no power steering or Sonar Assist, momentum just let the chips fall where they would, even if that was a busy sidewalk or the side of a building.
The Acropolis labs were just across the Castle Hill border, in the Story Avenue industrial park. Acropolis Forensics was a for-profit splinter of the FBI labs that had gotten popular when it came to outsourcing the collection and analysis of evidence. The clock in the left corner of his vision told him that it was close to nine. The traffic would be light which meant he could be there in maybe under an hour. If he didn’t find the Mnemos in the evidence locker, Paul would have to ride through another case that got filed under Unsolved. Another death would disappear into the developing mass grave of Soundview with no explanation for it. He looked up at a window near the ceiling. Glass shards of rain clung to the other side of the pane but it didn’t look like any more would be joining them.