Penny gave Aaran about a minute to clear the air. Descending upon her from a height of authority would serve no purpose and even frighten her quarry away. Penny Broken could see that she was not the sort to be caught in her talons so easily, besides. Aaran instinctively batted a question at her, and amused at the concentration that tensed her face.
Penny slathered annoyance all over Aaran’s presentment, but was inclined to settle with the results of Janus Wintertide’s labor. Activity and a good excuse could keep the heat off if you knew just how and when to apply them: Not too often but with gravitas. Penny wanted hard copies but knew she would have to fill out more forms to get them. Glyphs, permissions and signatures, she was grousing.
“If this goes to court the Crown will have everything in print and reimburse your costs. Form 234A, Section 2: Crown Required Hard Materials.” Aaran lifted a cup of randomly befruited water to her chin and inhaled lightly. “That glyph is full disclosure, with witness statement and Hard-ID authorization.”
“A pretty credit we paid, too. That case was last year, closed without contest. Who gave you the power to sub-contract government agents for police investigations?”
“I did. You could have. It’s all Crown approved, and DEWAR is trawling the glyph as we speak. So what’s the problem?” Aaran took a sip and sighed. “Not clear enough from what you see? Need the cliff notes version?”
She growled, scratching nails across the bevel of CDI Milne’s desk. “It’s a match. Cosmetically they’re unique, but they’re twins. Not twins. Clones.”
Of course there was more to it than that, and Aaran said as much. “There is an illegal market for bodies grown to be inhabited by Drimas. How they’re paying for the procedure is anybody’s guess, but this is lucrative business.”
Distracted by the wealth of information and its practical application, Penny calmed very quickly. “Digital entertainers implanted into physical bodies? How would they conceal their facilities? That’s what we’ve got to find out. By that I mean you and your blasted connections.”
“Janus surmised they have no fixed location and operate ad hoc, on demand. An existing customer would answer a lot of questions right now. So you had the techs look at Joinfellow?”
“I did, and they bored me to tears with talk. I’d just like it if someone — what now?” She reached forward and tapped a glossy device on her desk. “Broken.”
“Weller, sir. We’ve got a glyph in from Talon about a live … uh, kinda alive woman? Injured in Harvest Yield Terrace,” stated a rushed sounding baritone over the connection. “What do you want to do?”
“Kinda alive? Is she dead or not? Who’ve you sent?”
“Sorry sir, don’t know. We haven’t sent anybody.”
“And why not?!” she flared.
“Ugh,” he coughed. “Your orders.”
Aaran grinned and Penny snarled. “Then someone had better glyph me the registration records for this woman. She have a name?”
“There’s no identification markers, sir. Nothing at all.”
Aaran quirked an eyebrow, adjusting her coat. “This could be our break. C’mon Penny. I’ll drive.”
“Flakkin’ shards you will. Is my cruiser charged?”
Two minutes later they were pulling out of the department’s underground parking lot. Penny had conceded the driver’s seat to Aaran, freeing up hands to review the report.
“This is a flakkin’ mess. It would be Weller, he’s encoding glyphs unaided again. A woman accidentally lacerated an artery on a … chair? Desk? A thimble? What? Shards!”
Aaran chuckled. “Reggie does that too. Can’t form a complete sentence without backup.”
Penny flicked her a knowing glance. “Forbid anyone who can’t run code without help from using the system this way. This Gideon fellow is a housecleaner, and instead of notifying the local Relay called us for assistance. I don’t … what is this nonsense I’m reading? Can that be right?”
“What is it?”
“Apparently Gideon Marcus fellow is a veteran … and its stated here that he performed first aid after … the woman after fell and cut her neck open. Arterial laceration. On something.”
Aaran grimaced. “A medic, perhaps? Was there no significant other? Neighbours? No one noticed?”
Penny shrugged. “Searching for known associations based on Gideon would be pointless. He must be well trained to treat a potentially fatal injury. Still doesn’t explain why he’d call the police …”
“Hang on, he can tell us. We’re here.”
~ @ ~
Gideon was a Simuplex recipient in the form of a complete arm graft, according to his record, which he provided during introduction as a way of greeting. Apparently he was completely mute, a psychological condition resulting from his involvement in the last war. He made an attempt at signing, and when Broken made no notice, Aaran introduced herself by the same means.
He began by telling her that Trust Faraday was not dead. Penny paced around the scene, eyes lancing the blood-soaked mop Gideon used to keep the floor as tidy as possible. Gideon signed to Aaran that he had no implants, and he knew the woman personally.
“You’re signing to him?” Penny demanded.
Aaran thanked him and looked irritated at her. “Yelling won’t help. He’s deaf, too. He doesn’t read lips well. He’s just one of those who wants to be left alone.”
“I don’t get it, he helped her? What do you — ”
“I’m getting to that.” Aaran turned back to Gideon and asked about communicating with Trust. Gideon’s stocky arms moved rapidly and Aaran prompted him to slow down, apologetically. He indicated that she needed treatment before she could communicate again.
“What’s he saying?”
“Call an ambulance.”
Penny and Aaran followed the emergency vehicle to Bethany General, answering as many questions as she could along the way. “Bethany has specialists who are experienced with local crime related injuries. In Whitegraft we get more bio-terror and drug trade than any other territory.”
“Alright, saying that makes it sound obvious. Why isn’t that woman dead? She should have bled out in the time he took to find her.”
“Gideon told me her body doesn’t need blood. It needs a catalyst agent provided by the manufacturer, which he found in supply. It was the last thing Trust told him before she lost consciousness.”
“Now just a tick. A catalyst?”
Aaran grinned a little, maybe at the grisly carnival performance, maybe at the fascination of it all. “Blood in that body is a carrier for the catalyst, which works like a battery, a power source. It’s cosmetic for the life the Drimas are trying to live. Without it …”
“So that’s the hook,” Broken agreed. “It’s not the body that costs. It’s the upkeep.”
“Right. Trust’s accident just broke open this entire case, and we have legal precedent to pursue the suppliers.”
Penny let out a deep sigh. “Ulysses wasn’t attacked. His batteries just died. Not quite legal precedent, but a tangible lead at least.”
Aaran nodded. “The unmarked credits may have been part of a payment for more of the catalyst.”
“Flakkit, Coates. You sure know some … interesting people. Janus Wintertide might get to sleep a little better if we can shut down this operation.”
Aaran slowed the cruiser as they entered a right turn intersection on an incline. “I don’t think they’re getting better at it, but just finding the right customers.”
Penny mused. “The Drima Hotel would have been prime retail space, but they were bankrupted.”
“No, they just moved house. You know how it works.”
Penny nodded. “Yeah. So?”
“It’s not like they need a lot of space to sell this product. It’s the promise of a new life; we get glyphs for vacation packages, insurance and spa treatments all the time.” Aaran accelerated as the ambulance wailed through an intersection. “I’m more interested in the bill of materials.”
“Which should be similar to Simuplex?”
“Yep. The Crown should answer the rest of our inquiries now that we’ve got this information. Why don’t you go back to the station to see how that’s going?”
“You want to have a word with Trust and Gideon?”
“Trust won’t like the idea of giving up her body, but I don’t see an alternative.”
The hospital loomed, white, blue and brightly lit in its maroon pitch backdrop. Aaran pulled up to the curb behind the white and red ambulance, getting out while the crew unloaded their passenger. Over the hood of the cruiser, Penny remarked, “She’s facing a jail term anyway for conspiracy and links to bio-terrorism. Everything to lose, nothing to win.”
Aaran snarled, but buried it. Penny’s harshly logical viewpoint grated. “The Crown won’t be any more cooperative. Do you want to grind this out in court against the resources of organized crime or do better?”
Penny couldn’t argue with that, in fact, she didn’t. Instead she asked, “What’s better?”
“I don’t know that yet. But … listen, Gideon was very familiar with that body, and it’s not because he’s a Simuplex recipient. Like he’d done it a hundred times before.”
Aaran frowned, then said, “I figure he was a medic and has ties to this … product. Simuplex wasn’t an official military project, not at any time. It’s not in the records, not even the de-classified redacted files. I checked.”
“No. I have it from the highest authority that no applications were filed to the Crown, but it must have been out there.”
Penny walked around the front of the cruiser and gazed at Aaran with dramatic skepticism. “How do you keep a project that big off the books?”
“The same way you keep anything off the books. You do it yourself and don’t tell anyone. Put Grimes on a search for exceptional unit performance — or statistically unlikely survival rates — just after a period of high casualties just prior to The Burn.”
“If you say so. I’ve glyphed him those very words. Where will you be after you plumb these two?”
“Probably at Stalfos mulling over a few things.”
“Right.” Penny gave a wave and departed for the station.
~ @ ~
Stalfos happened far sooner than Aaran hoped. Trust was comatose and non-communicative, but Gideon accepted Aaran’s offer to dinner. The Waytrain connected Bethany to the pizzeria with just a two minute walk, and Gideon had an interesting observation after they ordered.
‘You are a veteran, also.’
Aaran chuckled with closed eyes, then answered simply, ‘Yes.’
‘Where? With whom?’
‘The KnightsMage. A government unit organized to marshal young wish endowed women.’
Gideon’s blocky face turned curious. ‘Women only?’
‘Hard to explain,’ she signed, then took a sip of water.
Aaran took a deep breath. Gideon’s skin was like pressed earth, but his yellow eyes yielded to her something young and sheltered, unmarred by the atrocity of war. She smiled lightly. ‘If my husband met you, he would like you. You’re the kind of gentle man he could trust.’
‘Thank you, but I am not interested in meeting him. Will you please explain? Just that?’
That reminded her of the delicacy of his mindset. ‘Yes, of course. Most of the men had gone … and died already, and before The Burn, just before, The Crown decided that only wish endowed citizens could join the fight. I was pretty young, but not … so young. Sixteen. Soon after Carso Haradin learned of it, he bombarded Canor.’
Gideon nodded sympathetically, eyes lit with memory.
‘Anyone outside the shields was gone. Communications with the colonies was cut off, and The Crown put every desperate project it had into play. Arks, weaponized drones and cyborgs, and … then The KnightsMage. I pulled a stunt and rushed the shield, lost my arm and leg, but shortly after my wish was granted and someone on Ansile noticed.’
‘You lost your arm and leg? You don’t use Simuplex to replace them?’
‘No. It wasn’t viable for me for a long time, and when it was, I decided against it.’
Gideon blinked, stupefied. ‘Why? Don’t you want to feel again?’
Aaran’s expression turned critical. ‘You could talk and hear again.’
‘I … don’t need to. If Trust isn’t there, then I don’t need anything.’
A young man set down two medium pizzas, plates, utensils and napkins. He smiled graciously and invited them to enjoy their meal before departing. Aaran and Gideon ate quietly, and afterward, she paid the bill and they returned to Bethany General.
‘Does she know?’
The question came after a period of silence, watching Trust’s regular, even breathing. They were told she could wake any time at all, which meant minutes, months, or years. No one could be certain.
Gideon nodded. ‘Yes. I proposed to marry her.’
Aaran had seen stranger pairings, and was not at all surprised. ‘That’s oddly romantic. Would you want to hear her voice?’
‘I promised to get an implant if we married,’ he signed sharply, face tense. ‘It was terrible to work on her. Black Set has his hooks in her, and even if I get them out she’s gone. I won’t lose her.’
‘There’s more, isn’t there.’
‘Yes, but I can’t say.’
Aaran searched for eye contact. ‘If you could tell me without exposing your plans, would you do it?’
His rough-skinned hands clenched. ‘Yes.’
‘I have a way, but I need you to name her supplier. You have to take a risk, and so does she.’
‘Risks are fodder.’
Aaran allowed herself a grin. ‘Good.’
To Be Continued…