There were about as many coins as she could count in as many pockets as hands existed. Reaching through the mud to grasp them, to wipe off the sticky gore, only to see they were as blank as the fingers she had held just hours ago. A day? A half? Aaran pulled the blanket away from her body, sweating and uncomfortable. She put hands in her hair and heard the familiar humming of the motors in the left.
“Oog, Yale. Yale?” She stopped, rubbing her throat. Sound like someone garrotted me, she thought, tapping the touch sensitive switch for her bedside lamp which dimly lit the squeeze bottle she sought. A pull and some later she remembered he was on shift at a hospital, doing research for his new book. She groaned and flopped back down on the bed, tossing over the meaning of the dream.
What’s money got to do with Simuplex? Most recipients are covered by the Crown or private insurance. Unless … flakkit.
In a flash of recollection, she grabbed a housecoat and made for the livingroom. On its hook was a headset she could use to voice chat Janus Wintertide. Six rings later a voice more throaty and just as raw answered groggily, “The blasted shard you want, Vanadyl?”
“Sorry Jan, just a question. You remember Goward?”
“No, Forward. The …” she blinked sluggishly and grunted frustration. “Flakkin’ trying to say Gowan Ward. The Drima!”
Janus laughed coldly. “That was a messy business. Tore up a bloodless body. We never could figure out how he was still alive after bleeding out like that.”
Memories of the blood-soaked apartment sparked momentary nausea. Aaran shook her head and supplanted the mental imagery. “Might have an answer. Do you have … Do you remember if he had fingerprints?”
On the other end Janus paused, thinking, as if the memory of holding the arm she had dismembered wasn’t detail enough. “I guess so. Yeah. Yes. He had fingerprints. Left them in the blood trail on the wall. What’s this about?”
“Don’t know yet. Can you get me some data?”
“Of?” she bit down expectantly.
“Anything that tells us what he was made of.”
“Ultra-super-crazy-high resolution image scans of cellular composition? From memory? Aaran. I need something if I’ve got to be up tonight doing this for you.”
“I’ll put you on contract as a consultant. How long will you be?”
She made some thoughtful noises, then said, “Three or four hours if I rush it.”
“Don’t rush it. It might have to stand up against the Crown.”
“Then that’s eight. Probably six, but you know.”
“Full day’s work. Start now?”
Janus gave a little sigh. “Alright. It’s not time critical, is it?”
Aaran walked over to the fridge for some food. “I’m not getting any sleep either. Yeah it’s critical. In just a little while DEWAR will have a workup for you to run a comparison on. If I’m right this could be big.”
“That could be good. Work has been slow lately, and the Alliance doesn’t salary well. What’s living wage for two girls who need to look great?”
Aaran ‘tsked’. “You in a paper bag is front cover material, Janus. How is Plum?”
“On solids now. I’d thank you for referring me to Namiki again, but that gets pretty tiresome.”
“And she’s been through the cosmetic surgery?”
“Almost couldn’t tell her jaw was … oh flak,” she hiccuped emotionally, ending on a sombre note. “Promised myself I wouldn’t cry so easily anymore. Oh, scratch it. She looks like herself. Almost.”
“I’m glad. We’ll get together again soon. Thanks for the help, Janus.”
“What about you?”
“Scared. Plum gone from social to freak. How did you handle it? When you rushed the … when, you were hurt?”
“It was a dumb stunt. Now, you don’t mean ‘freak’, do you?”
“She said it, so she must feel that way. She nearly died, I can’t imagine worse than that.”
“Then you’re in the right headspace. If it weren’t for Mama my Papa wouldn’t have ever let me outside again. That’s feeling like you let the world down. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“So being with her is what matters? She got attacked, not like she made a mistake.”
Not quite what I mean, Aaran thought. “Injuries happen. She almost lost her life. Have you seen Kraven for a reference yet?”
“No. No I haven’t. Not yet. Guess I better get to it, huh? Plum’ll be up for her meds in a little bit.”
Aaran signed off with a reassuring word. She had a lot of research to do.
~ @ ~
The medical benefits of memory restoration were long understood and meticulously implemented. Law governing therapeutic use of brain performance modifications was thorough and exhaustive. Oversight and regulatory bodies were expertly staffed and Crown mandated with attractive compensation packages. Public trust was at an all time high, but that could be said of any organization yet to break trust. In opposition to lawful medical applications, virtual neural-networking for entertainment proved expensive and psychologically damaging, effectively ruining profit opportunities, according to investor guidance and critical review.
Drima history was short and varied, but its documentation was erratic and inconsistent. From enthusiast reviews of entertainment venues to hobby journals of Soul Encode and others, the available selection of factual information was questionable at best. A reheated bowl of stew and filtered water later, she was decided that one hundred thousand dubious writings required a substantial boost in feasibility.
Thankfully, she had access to Whitegraft PD data stores and a few handy search routines courtesy of Buddy Namiki, her android ex-partner. Tax records could be had but would take time to clear, so Aaran pinpointed the one industry that never fails to run afoul of the law: Adult entertainment.
“Three months ago …” she muttered, tipping a glass to her lips, “Ajay Banderos filed suit against Tandy Blastrail … for … breaking his will?” She made a curious face and scanned ahead. “No, I see. He was dominated, and the Drima failed to recognize his safe word. It broke into memories of his past and … assaulted him as a child?”
The law was perilously behind these kinds of interactions, she understood. A sensationalist article wrapped up the subscription-selling event. “…Settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, and … the Drima hotel shuts down six months later. Bankruptcy. Let’s see if Whitegraft PD received a complaint …”
Sure enough, on the night of the ‘alleged’ assault, Ajay reported directly to Penny Broken, then a low-ranking officer on patrol near the scene. In court the charges were dismissed, but an appeal brought other acts of indiscretion on the part of Tandy to light. “… Leading to the settlement. Penny wasn’t called to testify. Not a witness … Hm …”
Local media at the time had obtained access to the financial transactions between the two parties but were unable to disclose exact figures due to ‘inscrutable encryption methods’. Aaran surmised that the lawful access of Hard-ID encryption stood in the way of privilege, perceived and real. “Scrap. Oh, well. Not really important …” Aaran yawned, “The shard? Aw, three in the flakkin’ morning.”
As Aaran wound down her search, a handful of fatalistic fantasy works denouncing the fates and dreams of Drimas prompted another angle. A quick search for ‘Drima Fan Stories’ turned up an amateur archive of stories with no genre unexplored. Aaran took note of the total story count boasted upon the entry page: “Thirty one thousand, eight hundred and two. Flak. I don’t think Sunrunner 8080 was this big.” She then glyphed a copy of the site summary to the local Relay and bookmarked its location in her external memory.
~ @ ~
The next day Penny Broken was livid, but no one understood exactly why. Even fewer were concerned except to duck whenever she would throw something or raise her voice. As the ranking superior, minding her meant keeping to themselves and doing exactly what they were told. Broken was not known for her restraint but was recognized as the hard edge to Milne’s softer attitude.
Aaran wasn’t about to withstand pithy blows or unwarranted venting and required some coaxing to accept an invitation to review the results of Grimes’ sleepless hunt for clues. Perhaps the flood of glyphs, messages and calls from individuals professing to have seen or slept with the bloodless clones served as a point of curiosity.
Myst provides an energy boost but is physically exhausting without proper nutritional supplements. Grimes favored potato wedges, but since breakfast was the only option, he had hashbrowns instead. With a bowl of several helpings, he prepared a summary of his findings for DI Penny Broken. Would she complain about the sparsity of leads, too?
Aaran had particular timing, but after talking to twelve other officers, she knew Grimes was at the top of the food chain. Indeed he did not seem to notice, nor remark at her appearance. Looking up from his screen but not changing the angle of his shaven head, he began: “Out of thirty-seven leads just two were legitimate. I can say that because we have memory data lawfully obtained from the witnesses.”
Aaran scoffed, reached for a few hashbrowns. “And the rest?”
“Co-operative as a bag of detonating explosive. Broken forwarded a message in advance against anything less than strictly legal. Now that don’t make … what I mean is if this has to stand up to the Crown, like you say,” he made a face. “If it does, then two is enough. Blasted myst.”
“Yeh. Do me a flavor and add this to the store,” she relayed, transmitting the glyph signature privately.
Grimes reviewed the summary and whistled. “Broken had a run in with a Drima victim? How’s it relate to this case?”
“Who’s on this right now?”
Grimes fingered the edge of the hashbrown bowl. “Ashton and Musil.”
“Ashton can bag the money trail if he puts the request into DEWAR pronto. That’ll be proof of profitability and that Drimas can be industrialized and exploited.”
“It’s a little vague.”
“So far it’s what we’ve got.” Aaran swept a hand at a few misguided bangs. “What do you think about DEWAR’s report?”
“It’s not very specific, which is unusual …”
“Unless there are high rank permissions protecting information stores, like we figure.”
“Just about the only switch that’s working on the board as of now. You sleep much last night?”
She stifled a yawn. “No.”
“Filing authorization request with the Crown is going to take a long time, especially if they are sheltering industrial patents.”
“Could be military, too. I’ll put in a word with Representative Castlegar.”
Grimes took a swig of Myst. “Okay. Why do Drimas want real bodies, anyway?”
“Why do we want real fabric? Fast cruisers?”
“Oh.” A flash of puzzlement dashed in front of his vision, lifting his eyebrows and replacing them afterward. “Right, but how’s it possible?”
“How? There’s a brisk trade in prosthetic bodies for Drima performers, but it’s strictly regulated. Either you pay for the hardware and expertise or you skirt the system,” she explained hastily, impatient. “Look at it like this; either somebody’s doing work on the side or this a completely illegal private enterprise.”
“I still don’t — ” Lewis Grimes eyes were glazing with fatigue. Aaran stifled a chuckle and realized she was talking to a man with less than full cognitive abilities.
“Question is how they’re making a profit, not how they’re manufacturing the raw material.”
Lewis scowled. “I get it. What’s the hook, is that it? Fake a body for a Drima and get them hooked on it somehow. Shards, Aaran. Ah, sorry.”
“No, that’s okay. Been there,” she replied, patting his shoulder. “Listen to this: I spoke with Janus Wintertide. She and I watched a man bleed out but not die. Red blood, not the synthetic stuff you might expect.”
Aaran nodded. “He died, but not before she removed his arm by force. We think it was the same type of body as Ulysses, and we’re trying to establish how long they’ve been on the market. Smells to me like greed and profit strolling hand in hand. A dreamy, horrid, ruinous fantasy. How do we prove it?”
“Yeah, the Crown and DEWAR sure are playing it close to their chests.”
“Sure enough. What do you think?”
“Oh I don’t know anymore. I’ve compiled the reports from our two witnesses into a glyph. You should have the key for it from Broken.”
“C’mon Grimes, one last spout before you go under.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s nerve wracking. Wrecking? Shards. I’m going on vacation next week. I think someone’s got credits and no moral or ethical standards. What bothers me is the excess and access. Who can afford this ‘cept scrids in Sketchline? That’s what I think.”
“Yeah. However, even if we can substantiate everything, it could be there was no legal wrongdoing.”
“So it’s a waste of time anyway? Bad warranty or some scrimp? Flak,” Grimes cursed, rubbing a palm on his scalp in frustration. “Scratch it. I’m done here.”
“Alright. Thanks Grimes.”
“Lewis. Call me Lewis. So blasted strange, but y’know I’d be bored if it weren’t. Just what it is.”
Aaran nodded and palmed another handful of his breakfast. “Normal is what we’re used to. I’ll brief Broken, you head home. Drop her a glyph though, she’ll pop a button otherwise.”
“Yep. It’ll be your turn next time.”
At that moment Janus completed her task and transmitted the encrypted results directly to Aaran. What would have taken hours to decode was reduced to a brief bathroom break thanks to Buddy’s remote dedicated server which he had affectionately provided for her use. The results were disturbing, but useful. Not only had she identified manufacturer markings, she independently linked them to the death of the same three year old child.
To Be Continued…