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The Woman in White Marble

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Abaddonian Dream

by M. K. Woollard

ISBN-10: 153365042X
ISBN-13: 978-1533650429
ASIN: B01GJLIHXU

Abaddonian Dream is available in paperback and eBook for Kindle (also Kindle for Android and iPad) and the Nook. The book can be purchased at the following:

Amazon.com
Amazon.co.uk
Barnes & Noble

Androids have returned to society after a failed uprising decades ago. Not everyone is pleased to see them back…

Interpol Agent Hammell is a man without purpose ever since Providence, an A.I.-controlled global surveillance network, took over policing. But a horrific public mutilation sets off a chain of events that has Hammell questioning everything. Has the semi-mythical crimelord known as The Red King returned? Why are the androids so reluctant to investigate? And in a world run by machines, is mankind still in control?

The more Hammell investigates, the deeper the mystery gets. All the while Hammell dreams of escaping a world improving too rapidly around him, leaving him behind. He dreams of making a new life on a planet unspoiled by man or machine. He dreams of Abaddon.

 

M. K. WoollardMatt was born in England but currently lives in Greece with his wife, two sons and his imaginatively named cat, Kitty. He holds a PhD from Royal Holloway, University of London, in the field of structural geology. He worked in a variety of fields before co-founding an online business consultancy company with his wife, which he helps run while writing. His debut novel ‘Abaddonian Dream’ is available through most online ebook retailers.

To find out about forthcoming book releases and receive sneak peeks, join my Reader List at www.mkwoollard.com. You’ll be automatically sent a FREE novelette entitled ‘The First Days of Providence’ right to your inbox. Set in the same dystopian universe as ‘Abaddonian Dream’, ‘The First Days of Providence’ follows Interpol Agents Hammell and Toskan on an earlier case shortly after policing was taken over by a network of androids, satellites and cameras.

To find out more, please follow on:
Twitter @mkwoollard
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An Excerpt from
Abaddonian Dream


PART I: The I.A.

CHAPTER ONE

The best thing about the traffic system being largely automated was that it wasn’t easy to hit anyone, no matter how fast or badly he was driving. Public nats would sense his car coming and would hop right over. He only really needed to concern himself with stationary objects like trees and lamp-posts. And people. There weren’t so many of those around these days, but a few still managed to get in his way. He hadn’t killed anyone yet, though he had helped a cyclist into a hedge and worried a jogger. 

Even with the megaAI running the network, it wasn’t entirely straightforward driving through the city. For one thing, street lighting would only come on as a vehicle passed, in order to save power. Above the speed limit, the lights didn’t always keep up – and even when they did, the road ahead was obscured by the mist; the near-constant mist. It was a good thing he knew these streets. More or less.

“Three minutes,” Toskan’s image on the windscreen said. “Still red.”

Hammell knew it without being told. He had the alert up on the windscreen, along with his partner’s smug, chubby face and the directions to the crime scene. Green arrows were displayed directly over the road, showing him exactly where to go, but he still nearly missed a turn because of Toskan’s attempts at distraction. He braked hard and swerved around the corner, blindly hoping there wasn’t another manually driven vehicle coming the other way.

“Bit risky there,” Toskan said. “Two thirty. Think you’ll make it?”

Hammell didn’t answer. He couldn’t afford any mistakes.

He’d conducted a minor study to make sure of his timings. Theft related crimes from retailers were solved on average in a little over twelve minutes. If the perpetrator wasn’t captured at the scene, they were almost never caught in less than eight. They would always run and quite often they would hide. Stupid, sure, but if they were dumb enough to steal in the first place… The point was that he’d been waiting for one like this. The crime occurred a six minute drive from the station. Statistically that meant he had a greater than 97% chance of reaching the scene before Providence turned the alert from red to green.

And the best part was that Toskan was oblivious; he had no idea the level of planning involved. As far as he was concerned, Hammell had plucked this alert out of thin air. He grinned to himself at his deviousness - and nearly missed another turn. Yanking the wheel around sharply, he found himself on the road where it had happened. Under a minute now - less at this pace, he thought. He was going to-

The alert turned green and vanished. Toskan began to chuckle.

“Motherfucker,” Hammell said to himself as he brought the car to a halt. He could practically see the crime scene from here.

“I’m feeling like champagne,” his partner said. “Are you feeling like champagne?”

“No.”

“I won’t choose the most expensive bottle,” Toskan said. “I’ll choose… the second most.”

Hammell only grunted. He didn’t actually care about the money – as an I.A. he had more than he knew what to do with anyway - but now the drinks tonight would be ruined by Toskan giggling every time he ordered something.

Opening the historical alerts, he checked to see what had happened. His man had stolen a four pound slab of insect-based protein and had run, obviously. Then he’d hidden in a bush. Criminal fucking mastermind, Hammell thought, wondering how he’d managed to pick the dumbest of an already dumb breed. On the bright side, it did mean Toskan would definitely come out now. There was no chance he’d pass up a free night of drinking - not unless Meera had come back.

Turning the car around, Hammell set off towards the office at a more sedate, sane pace, just as a speeding ticket popped up on his implant. Three more points on his license – another ticket would mean a ban – and a hefty fine.

“Perfect,” he muttered to himself. “What a perfect fucking start to a perfect fucking day.”

 

 

Six or seven alerts had popped up so far this morning, but they were all petty and all had gone green quickly. There were none which stayed red long enough for them to get interested. Even if a real crime did occur, the I.A.s would normally give it a day or so before getting anything more than superficially involved. Providence solved 92.7% of all crimes within the first two hours and 98.8% within twenty four. It was a waste of time even trying to investigate, especially too quickly.

Hammell realized he was jiggling his leg, making his foot tap on the floor annoyingly. “Stop it,” he said aloud and Toskan looked over at him.

“Are you ok?” his partner asked.

Hammell nodded, but he was becoming dangerously bored and he knew it was because of yesterday. The problem with having a dry night was that the next morning he wasn’t content just cruising the networks and sleeping. Without a hangover to nurse, he actually needed to occupy his brain.

Toskan glanced at the clock on the wall. “Fancy a coffee?”

“Yeah,” Hammell replied.

“I’ll go, then,” Toskan huffed as he stood up.

Hammell furrowed his brow. “It was your idea.”

He waited in his chair, appearing casual, until the rotund older man had left the cupboard - his semi-affectionate name for the office he and Toskan shared. Then he walked to the door and peered through the blinds to make sure Toskan was going for the lift. When the fat, balding head was out of sight, Hammell grabbed a handful of rubber bands from Toskan’s stash and set off up the stairs. Bounding up two flights, he jogged to the coffee machine in the empty, silent corridor. He crammed himself inside the adjacent cabinet, just managing to squeeze the doors closed, and began pulling elastic bands over his hands and head.

He heard Toskan meander down the corridor and stop at the machine. Remaining still and silent, he waited for the right moment to achieve maximum effect: Toskan had to be holding both cups. He could hear the beans being ground and the water pouring out. His nostrils caught the scent of fresh coffee. Almost there.

This too had been a long-term project; one which he had been saving up for a while. It had taken weeks to slide the cabinet down the corridor a couple of centimetres at a time, getting it as close as possible to the machine without creating suspicion. After Toskan’s victory this morning, he’d decided to speed things along.

Hearing the familiar clunk as the machine finished, he waited for Toskan to press the button again to order the second cup. Only he didn’t. Possibly he was planning on doing something else before delivering to Hammell. Panic set in and he decided that one would have to do. He burst out of the cupboard with a roar, causing Commissioner Yun to hurl scalding hot coffee into his own face.

Hammell stood there, elastic bands distorting his features, aghast. He looked up and down the corridor but Dave Toskan was nowhere to be seen. The Commissioner seemed to inflate as he wiped at the liquid on his face, and Hammell wondered how much of his skin’s reddening was related to burning and how much to sheer fury.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PLAYING AT?!” Yun bellowed.

“Pig boy,” Hammell mumbled.

The chewing out that followed was one of the worst he’d ever endured. Midway through, as Hammell began discretely rolling off the bands - the odd one pinging off riskily - he caught a sly looking Toskan peering around the corner at the end of the corridor. The bastard was grinning.

Coffee was his idea, Hammell realized.

He had to give it to the guy - it was a well-worked reversal. He made a tiny bow in appreciation of the artistry, but Yun caught the gesture. The big man spun around and began to berate a bewildered looking Toskan too, telling him that the people upstairs were right, that I.A.s had had their day and were now worthless, that they were experienced officers who were worse than the greenest wardens, that they were grown men acting like children, and so on. Eventually he blew himself out and left to find a clean shirt, and Hammell and Toskan trudged back to the cupboard like a couple of schoolboys coming out of the headmaster’s office.

Sitting at his desk, Toskan began digging out cold cases, as Yun had ordered, throwing a bunch of them onto a skywall display. “Your pick,” he said.

Going through the unsolved cases, mainly from the time before Providence, was all Interpol Agents were good for now, but the task was a pointless one. The original investigators had worked the cases and failed to get a conviction. The megaAI too had scoured them, and would do so again periodically, and had also failed. Memories had faded, witnesses had passed away. If they hadn’t been solved by now...

What the fuck are we doing here? Hammell asked himself, not for the first time. This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

A case caught his eye and he pointed to it to open it up.

Toskan quickly span around in his chair to make sure the door was closed. “That one?” he said. “You don’t think we should choose something a little less… provocative?”

“It’s a legitimate case,” Hammell said, feeling sullen. Provocation was kind of the point. How else to get through the day? “Possible insurance scam from the days before Providence,” he continued. “Andromorph factory burned down. Suspected arson, never proven.”

“But if Yun walked in now...”

“So don’t look at it,” Hammell said as he tossed a catalogue over to Toskan’s display and then set about checking through the rest of the files.

“Holy hell, would you look at that,” Toskan said as the catalogue opened on a display and a full-sized nearly naked 3D woman appeared in front of him. Unable to help himself, he swiped left and right, changing some of her more obvious features. “Every body part made to order… And you could have her talk football or astrophysics or not understand the difference between a fork and a spoon. This company would even do orifice fittings. Imagine that.”

“Well, now I’m trying not to.”

“You could build your perfect partner,” Toskan said wistfully.

“She’d be fake,” Hammell said as he glanced up, seeing the older man had assembled a model that was the polar opposite of his wife. “And she might try to take over the world again.”

“You’re right,” Toskan said, closing the catalogue. “There’s no such thing as perfect.”

The model blew a kiss and disappeared.

From what Hammell could ascertain, there was no physical evidence linking the owner to the fire. The man had claimed it was electrical, and the evidence had indeed suggested faulty wiring. The question had been whether or not the wiring had been deliberately sabotaged, but it had been burned too badly to be certain. That was where the investigation had faltered.

What else can I add to that? Hammell thought and he swiped away the file angrily. “This is a dead end.”

“They’re all dead ends,” Toskan said with a shrug.

Unlike his partner, Hammell wasn’t able to make peace with that fact. He could feel the blues threatening to descend. They were on the way out and both of them knew it. It was only a matter of time before the two of them would follow all the other I.A.s through the exit. He looked over and saw that Toskan was staring vacantly into space.

Time for another game.

They spent the next hour flicking elastic bands from the doorway of the cupboard at the androids in the main office. Hammell concentrated hard – he’d been on the losing side too many times for one morning. He’d even gone to the store cupboard to dig out a box of his preferred size 19 pale crepe golds; the king of flickable rubber bands. By contrast, Toskan was playing with whatever mix he’d gathered into his drawer, the amateur.

A couple of wardens stopped to watch, amused but without the balls to ask to join in. They were too scared of Commissioner Yun, who could often be found prowling around the building at this time of day. The big man had already threatened to catch them a few minutes back when he’d stepped in a veritable sea of elastic bands near the lift and came close to questioning it.

The androids, for their part, ignored them, even the one Hammell caught square in the main camera eye - a full fifty point bullseye. He tutted; he’d been aiming to hook the smaller LiDAR eye for an automatic win. He was still a full eighty points up when the hour mark passed, signifying the end of the game. Toskan offered his hand and Hammell took it, but his thrill in the victory was short-lived. He wondered why it was that he hated to lose passionately but never found much solace in winning. He mused on whether that meant he was driven by negative emotions, and what that in itself might mean.

He shook himself out of it. Introspection and self-analysis were always a downer. He ordered the android which had been hit last to gather up all of the bands, as per the rule, and it spent the next twenty minutes crawling around on the floor before returning bearing its gifts on a silver tray like it was serving them afternoon tea.

Toskan looked at him questioningly.

“Go ahead,” Hammell said.

The chubby, balding man was absurdly pleased as he snatched up the tray and greedily swept the bands into his already overflowing drawer. Hammell made a point of never reusing pre-fired bands. He would always use a fresh box and usually only of his preferred type. It was part of the reason he rarely lost this game - and why Toskan would never bet on it. Hammell half suspected that his partner only played so he could fill his drawer with more bands. He wondered from where the man derived such joy.


One of the many issues with living in a condemned building was that the lift didn’t work very often and wasn’t to be trusted when it did. The penthouse had been the obvious option when he’d been selecting an apartment, but sometimes he found himself wishing he’d opted for the ground floor. Like tonight. And every night.

Staggering up the thirty four flights of stairs, he collapsed panting into his home. Kitty instantly began licking his face, not necessarily out of affection but because he’d eaten several chicken-flavoured balls on the way up, missing his mouth with surprising regularity. He’d saved a few for her, as was their custom; he dragged himself up and dug them out of the brown paper bag. The cat loved Chinese food as much as he did. He stroked her as she wolfed them down and then, when he felt able, struggled back to his feet.

He ate his noodles leaning over the kitchen counter, shovelling them into his mouth with chopsticks directly from the box, throwing occasional bits of pork substitute down for the greedy little creature begging at his feet. When he was finished, he stared out over the pre-dawn city. Having to climb up two hundred and four stairs every night was a definite tick in the building’s negative column, but the giant glass windows more than made up for it. From here, he could see everything, all the way out to the Reserves. He could see the spaceport with its thousands of lights and sporadic trails of launches as more and more people got out every day; the huge vertical farms commonly known as ecotowers; the solar power receptor station which received periodic blasts from the orbital mirrors to help power the city. He could see the megahospitals where artificial wombs took embryos to full term in safety, with the added bonus of not ruining all those perfectly toned bodies out there. In the distance, he could even make out the silhouette of the truly enormous offshore spouter in the mouth of the estuary, throwing its jet of water so high up into the atmosphere that it helped cool the planet… while paradoxically having the opposite effect locally, covering the city in a perpetual cloud blanket that somehow trapped in the heat and humidity.

He could even see the giant burners which were being prepared - he had a sneaking suspicion that the global cooling project was working a little too well. The official line was that the burners were being constructed to ensure that climate was fully controllable in terms of both cooling and heating, but they were being put up awfully quickly. It seemed perfectly possible that global warming would be fixed by ushering in an ice age.

All of the megastructures he could see were part of a rapidly improving system; a system that Hammell found himself hating a little more each day. Everything was becoming too safe, too sterile. But then he had to ask himself, did he really want to go back to how things were? Was Providence’s ridiculously high conviction rate, and the massive drop in crime because of that deterrent, not better than the dirt and fear and rape and murder that had come before? He had the uncomfortable feeling that it was, and yet he still found himself despising it all. What use is there for a detective in a world without crime?

In his pomp he had fairly hated the criminals he pursued. He’d been driven by a sense of righteousness as he’d worked to bring them down. And yet now he had the disturbing sense that he missed them. What did it say about him that he needed other people to get hurt to have a sense of self-worth? I thought I hated the itch, but really I enjoyed the scratching.

As he stared out at the megastructures, each one a marvel of modern engineering, he couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. The world was changing so rapidly and he was being left behind, like one of the thousands of condemned buildings out in the Reserves just waiting to be bulldozed. He knew it was the alcohol that was making him feel this way - the six bottles of champagne that Toskan had ordered - but that didn’t mean it wasn’t real.

Deep down he knew this was no way to live; a man without purpose, making up stupid, petty games to kill time while chemically blunting his mind. He wondered if this was all he would ever have, if this was all he would ever be. He wondered whether he should just jack it all in, jump before he was pushed, and take the next liner bound for Abaddon.


CHAPTER TWO

Hammell was really paying for that dry day. A steady stream of regulation hangovers were easier to cope with than individual heavy ones, he knew from experience. Last night he’d been too ready to drink, too eagerly awaiting that first sip, and so he had gone, in a word, nuts. Champagne hangovers were bad ones too. Hammell knew the types well enough: Wine of any kind meant a sore head that wouldn’t get better even with pills, with champagne the worst of them. Beer meant a bloated, nauseous feeling. Mixed spirits meant a rollercoaster through sickness, lethargy and aching like he’d been poisoned. Whisky was the softest and easiest to cope with, luckily enough for him.  

In spite of the way he was feeling, he still made it to the office on time for his shift to start. He prided himself on never being late due to alcohol, no matter how much he’d consumed, though he cared less about the state he arrived in.

The only real silver lining of the whole Providence thing was that he could sleep in the cupboard during work hours. As long as he was physically here, nobody much cared what he was doing. Of course, without Providence he wouldn’t have needed to drink so much, but that was a dangerous, spiralling road to go down, especially when the room was already spinning.

Leaning out the door of the cupboard, he collared the nearest android - a high ranking civilian admin model known as a whitetip. He sent it to get him a coffee. As he waited, he sat down on the sofa and looked around at his office. Police H.Q. was a particularly nice building in a particularly nice part of the city, but the cupboard was a shithole. Tucked away in a distant part of the sixth floor, he and Toskan had been relegated to this dirty, cramped little office so they could vanish quietly without causing too much trouble. The state of the place was, in truth, their fault. Neither man was overly concerned with tidiness or cleanliness and the cleaning robots had forgotten they existed. The cupboard had been left to fester, and they hadn’t cared enough to do anything about it. In fact, it had become something of a competition - who would crack first from the squalor?

When the hot, life-saving nectar arrived, Hammell sipped it and then kicked off his shoes, stretching out on the tiny, stained sofa. Clocking on times were staggered now so that every shift could be covered using fewer I.A.s, meaning he had two solid hours until Toskan arrived… If the older man even made it today - he’d been in almost as bad a state as Hammell.

It wasn’t so bad feeling this bad, Hammell decided. Sleeping through the working day made it pass a whole lot faster. He closed his eyes as an alert came in. Ignoring the beep, he allowed his mind to drift away towards peaceful, restorative sleep. But the alert was persistent - it even went off directly in his implant, firing into his head like a thought coming from outside, jerking him rudely back to reality. That’s just not cricket, he thought. Direct firing was generally discouraged, only to be used in emergencies due to how invasive it felt. Annoyed, he mentally opened the alert and saw that someone was requesting the presence of an I.A. at a crime scene.

“You’re kidding me,” Hammell said as he figured out a way to sit up. He thrust the palms of his hands into eyes as his head swum. Today of all days.

As Hammell struggled to recall how his shoelaces worked, there came a knock at the door. “I’m fucking going!” he barked.

The door opened and Commissioner Yun’s giant frame appeared, his face beetroot red - possibly from the coffee burn yesterday, or possibly not. “I.A. Hammell,” Yun said. “You’ve been summoned.”

“I’m going,” Hammell said in a less abrasive tone.

Under Yun’s watchful gaze, he staggered to his feet and stumbled into Toskan’s desk. “I wouldn’t have done that if you hadn’t been watching,” he said as he collected his coat from the rack and headed for the lift, checking the alert as he went. The crime sounded brutal - far too brutal for these days.

Careful what you wish for, his brain told him.

The guard at the checkpoint stopped Hammell’s car and made him wait as it scanned him through the open window. It was an older model; clearly first or second generation, made when soft robotics had still been considered important. It had once been white but now was a patchy yellow-brown, stained by the dust in the near-constant rain, making it resemble an old pillow without the case. Its non-threatening face, happy demeanour and soft, huggable foam body were somewhat at odds with its new calling as a security guard. Then again it was guarding a border to nothing.

Hammell wondered whether the checkpoint could have been erected as a response to this alert. It would’ve been a lightning fast reaction, but that was hardly unusual these days. Whatever the reason, it seemed there weren’t even enough real jobs for androids anymore, which was a worrying thought.

He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel impatiently as the thick, blocky head peered in at him, coming so close that he could read the designation on its forehead: HUBE-117. He could actually hear the motors of its eyes as they focused on him - definitely a model nearing the end of its useful life. Not the only one, his brain chipped in cheerfully. “Thanks for that,” he said aloud.

“Pardon me?” Hube asked.

“Nothing,” Hammell said.

The android had obviously pinged his ID; now it was scanning his face and palm print. All of this just to cross a checkpoint which couldn’t even have been here a few days ago - a checkpoint which led to a glorified nature reserve.

“Is this going to take long?” Hammell asked as he leaned away from the android’s intrusive head, noticing that its fake mouth was fixed in a barely detectable half-smile that was probably supposed to be disarming but which he found mildly frightening. Who walks around with a permanent smile? he asked himself. Only crazy people.

“No, I.A. Hammell,” the android replied brightly, thereby indicating that it had in fact already identified him.

“It already has,” Hammell muttered as the android ducked out again.

He quickly closed the window to keep out the hot, thick air and turned up the air conditioning. No additional cold air came out, but the fans made a louder noise which made him feel better. At least they were trying.

The android was probably only being thorough because of the nature of the alert. It also no doubt wasn’t used to seeing an I.A. in the field, let alone one driving himself, let alone one in a beaten up old car. But however justified its actions, Hammell wasn’t in the mood to countenance them. He’d knocked back enough pills to stock a small pharmacy, but the champagne hangover was staying true to type and his head was still thumping. The alcohol killers were probably making him feel worse, but he didn’t want to risk losing his license and getting fired if some jobsworth android picked up on the alcohol emanating from his pores and breath. They were always looking for reasons and he was determined not to give them any.

His mind wandered onto thoughts of how to destroy a first gen android by hand and his implant began to provide him with helpful tips from the networks. The problem would be getting through the foam to reach the mechanical parts …

“You are cleared for entry,” the android declared suddenly, interrupting Hammell’s rapidly darkening thoughts.

“I’m not landing a fucking spaceship,” Hammell said as he started the engine.

“No,” the android replied all too literally. “You are in a car.”

Hube sent out some kind of signal to open the creaking gate before waving him off in manner too enthusiastic for a security guard. Hammell did not return the gesture.

As he entered the desolation of the Reserves, his mind turned to the matter at hand. He wondered if it really could be as bad as the alert had implied. Things like that just didn’t happen anymore. It surely must have been a mistake or a prank. But who was left in the department who would make such a joke? Only Hammell himself or Toskan, but his partner wouldn’t be organized enough at this time of the morning, especially after last night.

He drove slowly, giving Providence as much time as possible, but the alert remained stubbornly red as his lonely car made its way along a disused four lane motorway. Should have bet Toskan on this one, he thought. He headed down a litter-lined slip road and made his way into a ghost town, a light mist adding to the unnatural, surreal feeling. The streets out here were already returning to nature, even before the wrecking balls, bulldozers and multicranes of the Restoration had arrived to tear everything down. Weeds were the dominant life form, though the odd enterprising tree was also finding its way up through the cracks. Twenty years from now this place would be a forest. All that would be left would be a few stones here and there and the odd overgrown foundation - relics of a dead civilization.

Following the instructions displayed on the windscreen, he was directed over ever more crumbling roads. As he passed empty building after empty building, he began to wonder what anyone had even been doing out here.

He stopped his car when he spotted the rubber ring emerging through the haze: Basic model blocky androids known as boxbots linked into a chain to guard the scene, even though there was no-one to guard against. He took a final sip of his cold coffee and blasted his mouth with another dose of alcohol killer spray. After a moment’s thought, he gave his whole body a quick burst – he was fairly sure it didn’t work that way, but it couldn’t hurt.

Stepping out of his car, the jungle-like heat hit him like a slap in the face - so hard that he almost vomited. It was like he’d opened an oven door - an oven with the humidity of an indoor swimming pool. He felt his pores open in a wave across his body and the sweat began to flow. His car and its air conditioning were even older than the checkpoint android, but just a couple of degrees and a fan were a godsend in these conditions. It was always like this and yet Hammell had never got used to it. Even in winter, the blanket of cloud overhead kept the heat and moisture in, creating a hot seasonless fug that lingered over the city. On days like today it was unbearable.

His heart rate increased as he slammed the car door and began walking towards the rubbers, feeling the sweat patch growing at the small of his back. He hadn’t been to a crime scene in years, let alone one as gruesome as this would be - if it was real. Feeling out of practice, he recalled the very first time he’d ever approached a crime scene, making a mental note to act the same way: Pretend you know everything. React to nothing.

Dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief, he pushed his way through the chunky ring of androids. They allowed him to pass, having been pre-warned of his approach by Hube. It always unnerved him, that - the fact that androids could talk to each other without anyone knowing. People couldn’t do that. Direct brain-to-brain linking had never caught on; it required a clarity of thought that was difficult for the jumbled human mind. Accidental thought projection was too common. Many a man had had his face slapped in a bar without having said a word. Androids though possessed the necessary clarity and could therefore communicate remotely, secretly, even over long distances. It made Hammell wonder what else they might be saying...

He stepped into the alleyway and surveyed the scene. If it was a joke, it was an elaborate one. An ancient fire engine blocked the far end of the alley, squashed into the pavement like a small red tanker run aground. Its container had exploded, the foam reaching an impressive height up the tightly enclosed walls. Its sides were punctured with holes as big as footballs: bullet holes - shocking enough on their own nowadays, even without everything else the alert said was here.

The narrow gap between the buildings was abuzz with forensics androids going about their business. Stein was with them, doing his best to make it clear he didn’t want to be. The lanky lab boss was fully encased in a double-layered bright yellow hazmat suit, even though there was nothing dangerous on site. If there had been, then the neighbourhood wardens loitering around the peripherals not doing much, as was their way, would have been kicked out.

Hammell scanned the ground between the androids for the body, but no body could he see; just two blue overturned plastic barrels which had spilled out a liquid of some kind onto the asphalt.

“So," Hammell said, adopting his most authoritative tone as he addressed no-one in particular, "who’s going to tell me what…” He stopped suddenly as he spotted something in the liquid: A bone. His iEye zoomed in and he made out several shiny shapes, including what appeared to be an eye socket in a beaten-in skull. “...is going on? Is that a man?”

“It was, I.A. Hammell,” one of the forensics androids said from the ground, where it was photographing every inch of pavement with a massive resolution eye-camera wider than its head.

“Well, thank goodness you were here to tell me,” Hammell said. “I was just about to offer him tea and biscuits.”

A shaken looking neighbourhood warden, who had been throwing up quietly on the sidelines, picked his way over, wiping his mouth on the back of his sleeve as he came. “Interpol Agent E. John Hammell?” the warden asked as androids moved smoothly out of his path.

Hammell nodded, the sight and very idea of vomiting enough to make his stomach do a backflip.

“I’m Porter,” the man continued as he extended his hand. “Warden Porter. I… I’m the one who called you in.”

Hammell stared at the outstretched hand before taking it. To his relief he found that it was dry. “So you’re the bastard who ruined my nap.”

“I… I… Sorry?” the warden stuttered.

“Nothing,” Hammell said. “Want to tell me why I’m here?”

“The victim,” Porter said. “He’s still alive.”

“I’m not so sure he is,” Hammell said, glancing back at the skull in the bloody puddle. “I’m no doctor, but…”

The warden pointed to an ambulance parked near the alley entrance. “The other one.”

Hammell raised his eyebrows. “There are two.”

The warden nodded as he glanced down at the big plastic barrel. “I didn’t see that one at first. He was too... ”

“Dissolved?” Hammell offered.

“Something like that,” Porter said. “The other one was… better. Mostly.”

Hammell looked the warden up and down. He was young, probably not long in the service. He probably couldn’t even remember a time before Providence. His face was pale and tinted green. He wasn’t used to seeing sights like this – but who was these days? Maybe this will teach him something about the ghoulish, voyeuristic tendencies of his profession.

“They took everything,” Porter said, sounding shaken. “Everything. He didn’t even have the brains left to crawl out of the acid.”

“Why did you call an I.A.?” Hammell asked.

“Because… Because you’re an I.A.,” the warden said and Hammell stared without blinking to let him know that was not an answer.

“You don’t know what happened here, do you?” the warden said and Hammell began to get impatient.

“I thought you were telling me.”

A triumphant look appeared on the warden’s face and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “That’s right. There was hardly any information on the alert. That’s because…” he paused for effect and looked up and down as if someone might want to overhear. “…Providence doesn’t have any. The network failed!

Hammell stared blankly. “How do you mean, failed?”

“Providence. It failed. All of it.”

“All of it?” Hammell asked.

“All of it,” the warden confirmed.

“Cameras, satellites, surveillors, beacon trackers, pingers, face scanners…?”

“Yes,” the warden said. “All of it.”

“The megaAI?”

“I… I don’t know how else to say it,” the warden said, clearly embarrassed. “All of it. All parts. All of them. Yes.”

His interest mildly piqued, Hammell dodged his way through the android gauntlet, skipping over the liquefied corpse. He reached out towards the downed fire engine, putting his hand through one of the huge bullet holes.

“You are contaminating evidence,” a nearby android said. “Do not touch anything.”

Hammell withdrew his hand without mentioning the fact that he hadn’t touched anything but air, or otherwise acknowledging the android. “Because of the Reserves,” he said thoughtfully.

The warden had followed him, but he seemed not to know if he should have, or if a response was expected of him. “I… I suppose so,” the kid ventured.

Hammell looked around again with a newly critical eye. The streets here were too old, too poorly lit, too narrow. That was part of why this satellite town had found itself on the wrong side of the fence: It was too difficult to monitor out here. And since nobody was supposed to be here anyway, Providence’s presence was minimal. The all-seeing network might actually struggle with this one, Hammell thought with a growing sense of interest.

Before the flicker of excitement could grow too big, he extinguished it with a cold splash of realism. “It’s probably just a black spot,” he said. “The megaAI will catch up when it’s tracked the people coming in and out.” Providence had after all been very successful in the past with drug dealers who had tried using the Reserves for their nefarious trade; this would be no different.

“Sorry, sir,” the warden said, “but it’s more than that. There was a surveillor here, but it didn’t record anything.” He pointed to one of the buildings beyond the alleyway and Hammell saw the familiar white and black bulbous shape.

“What do you mean, it didn’t record anything?”

The warden opened his mouth but was lost for words. “I mean,” he began tentatively, “that it didn’t record... anything.”

Hammell avoided wringing his hands or the young man’s neck. “No images?” he said. “What did it record, noise? Was it switched off? What?”

“No, it was recording fine,” Porter said quickly, almost falling over himself to please and Hammell allowed himself an inner smile. Back in the day he’d been known as the Rottweiler. It was pleasing to find he could still make people jump just by barking a little.

“There are images of the streets,” Porter continued, “but they didn't record… this.” He gestured towards the barrels.

"And you checked it wasn’t just a mistake in the timeline,” Hammell said and the warden stuttered.

“W-well,” Porter began, “I don’t… They didn’t exactly let me check. I was just… there.”

Of course you were, Hammell thought. That was practically a warden’s job description - just... being there.

“But I watched the forensics unit check the data,” the warden said hopefully. “The time and date were right, but there was nothing on the recording. So they ignored it.

Hammell fought not to show it, but he could feel the old wheels starting to turn; he could practically hear them creaking as they shook off the dust. He didn’t want to get carried away, but he was starting to think that there just might be something in this...

“Standard practice, they said,” Porter continued. “No evidence means no evidence. That’s why I called an I.A.” He looked pleased with himself for having finally figured it out.

Hammell looked up at the surveillor, one of around a hundred thousand strewn across the city. Semi-mobile, invasive, ubiquitous, and part of the most successful policing project ever created, it resembled a bubble that had merged with lots of smaller bubbles. He wondered whether it could it have been tampered with without being detected. More likely it was just a mistake - that the warden had got the wrong end of the stick somehow.

“So?” Porter asked expectantly.

“So?”

“So, what do you think?”

“I don’t anymore,” Hammell said. “It’s no longer required.”

He could see the disappointment on the warden’s face - and deep down he felt just as disappointed in himself for saying it. But what did the kid expect? That calling in an I.A. would mean his little mystery would be solved on the spot? Didn’t he know that I.A.s had only marginally greater powers than wardens now? If Providence couldn’t solve this with all of its different agents and facets and technologies, what chance did one solitary investigator have?

“I, um…” Porter said, breaking into his thoughts. He lowered his voice and Hammell knew exactly what was coming. “I… I’ve never seen violence like this.”

“No,” Hammell said, offering no encouragement.

“Well,” the warden said tentatively. “A few of us were wondering… could it be them?

“Them?” Hammell asked, feigning ignorance.

“The Red Hands,” the boy said, almost in a whisper.

“No,” Hammell said, but his mind had jumped to exactly the same conclusion. His implant had even been placing pertinent facts about the last organized criminal gang in the world at his disposal during the drive here. The Red Hands were known to create black spots in Providence to cover their tracks, even multiple black spots for diversionary purposes; albeit usually through unsubtle means such as physically destroying androids and cameras. They had previous - but there had been no Red Hand activity in the city for years. The worst had been in Paris recently, and even there things had gone quiet.

“How do you know?” the warden asked. “Who else would do something like this?”

Hammell grunted noncommittally and turned away. He had what he needed from the boy now and wanted rid of him before the idea occurred that he might somehow help with the investigation. He stalked up to the nearest forensics android, one which had JENN-526 emblazoned on its chest, shoulders and forehead - one of Stein’s.

“You,” Hammell barked, “make sure the androids at the new checkpoints ping everyone who leaves here, not just everyone entering.”

“They already are, I.A. Hammell,” Jenn replied evenly. Androids couldn’t be intimidated or flustered; another reason Hammell disliked them.

“I.A. Hammell,” the warden asked politely and Hammell inwardly rolled his eyes.

Here it comes… “And we should get a list of everyone coming in and out of the Reserves since… since the checkpoints went up,” he continued.

“We already have the list,” the android replied, “covering the past six days. If you check the evidence folder on polnet, you will find it.”

“Excuse me, I.A. Hammell…” the warden tried again.

The ambulance took off suddenly and Hammell watched the surviving victim disappear into the heavy sky. The chunky vehicle only just made it up out of the alley without hitting the narrow walls before vanishing over the buildings, heading off towards the city and its distant megastructures. Hammell would have to catch the guy at the hospital or the station, if he survived that long. He wondered what a person submerged in acid would come out looking like... He glanced over at the bloody, gloopy skull which a forensics android was now picking up and moving into an evidence bag. Somewhere between a man and that.

“I.A. Hammell,” Porter said. “I was just thinking that maybe I could-”

“The beacon will be giving off a signal,” Hammell said to Jenn. “Make sure an alert has been sent out.”

“It’s all been taken care of, I.A. Hammell,” the android replied.

“Then what the fuck am I doing here?” Hammell growled and he gave the warden his most intimidating stare before stomping off back to his car, wiping the sweat from his brow as he went. He didn’t turn back to see if Porter was watching. The kid had got the message, disappointing though that message was.

CHAPTER THREE

Hammell stopped off on the way for his fourth cup of coffee - possibly a mistake, but he was feeling generous and wanted to bring something to make Toskan feel human again. Holding two cups and a bag of pastries made it difficult to open the cupboard door, but he eventually managed, bursting in more dramatically than he’d intended.

“Sorry,” he said before stopping and gaping at the scene before him.

Dave Toskan was sitting behind his desk while in the centre of the room an improbably proportioned naked woman was dancing for him. “Oh, shit,” his partner said as he scrambled and fell out of his chair.

The commotion caused a passing android to nose in. “Is everything-” it began, before Hammell kicked the door shut in its face.

“It’s not what it looks like,” Toskan said quickly as he picked himself up and attempted to regain his dignity. “Stop dancing,” he told the model, which complied, with a pout.

“Toskan, come on, man,” Hammell said wearily as he put the coffee cups down on his desk. “I eat in here.”

“It’s work,” Toskan said, and technically he was right; the model was from the insurance fraud cold case catalogue. Toskan closed the catalogue and the model disappeared sulkily. “Shouldn’t you be out investigating a murder or something? I thought you’d be gone for the morning.”

“Evidently,” Hammell said as he waited until he was sure his partner was decent before passing over a coffee and an almond croissant. “You’d better hope that android didn’t cop an eyeful.”

“It was work,” Toskan protested.

Hammell avoided making a crack about how hard he appeared to have been working and instead sank down into his chair to call up the alert on polnet. Without anything much from Providence, the case file was pretty sparse, filled only with reams and reams of raw, unprocessed data. Hammell didn’t much fancy looking through tens of thousands of photographs - that was a job for the megaAI, which would assemble a full 3D reconstruction of the scene.

“Providence is slow today, eh?” Toskan said as he tucked into his croissant and Hammell thought that he was way too chirpy for someone who’d been as drunk as they’d been the night before.

Why isn’t he suffering like I’m suffering? Hammell asked himself, resenting it.

A DNA profile popped up in the folder and Hammell opened it to find that the identity of the surviving victim had been established. Providence quickly began to compile data about Mr Arthur Beecroft. The file began to fill. Hammell called up the man’s polnet profile, but there was little to see. Arthur had never been arrested and there was nothing to suggest any criminal connections. He was a perfectly legal citizen and there was no hint of any involvement with the Red Hands.

“You’re keen,” Toskan said as he watched Hammell work. “Think you have a chance of beating the network?”

Hammell shot him a look.

“Me neither,” Toskan said.

Opening Arthur’s bank records, he was shocked to find that the man’s coefficient was below zero - and had been for some time.

“Shit,” Toskan said. “How did he live?”

Hammell could only shake his head. His implant began bringing up facts about the megaAI-controlled rating that determined a person’s value to society, and he mused for a moment on whether the coefficient system really was better than the free market system it had replaced, even with the latter’s uncertainty and periodic booms and busts. The economists said yes, but then they would say that - they’d invented it. It certainly hasn’t done much for people like Arthur Beecroft.

The only other data of note to appear so far was from Arthur’s beacon. It had stopped working, of course - whoever had taken it out had been smart enough to know to break it. But though the beacon itself had been taken, its data had been automatically uploaded onto a private network. Arthur, Hammell discovered, was a night owl. He tended to sleep all day and become active from the evening. He usually kept within a one mile radius of his registered address, except for when he took long trips on foot into the Reserves. Intrigued, Hammell called up the logs from the new checkpoints, but over the six days the checkpoints had data for, Arthur had not passed through. He’s going in, but he’s sneaking in. Why?

Hammell sat back in his chair, thinking. There was something in this, he knew it instinctively. He glanced at the alert, half expecting it to turn green as he stared at it. But the two hour prime period had passed already with no conviction. Could Porter have been right? he wondered. Could Providence really have failed?

He spun his chair around to face his partner. “Someone needs to go to his house.”

"And someone will,” Toskan said confidently.

“Some-one,” Hammell said, “not some-thing.”

“Are you being serious?” Toskan asked as he brushed away powdered sugar and pastry crumbs from his mouth. “Are you investigating this? You don’t want to give it a few more hours?”

"Where’s Abash?” Hammell asked, apparently innocently.

“No,” Toskan said flatly. “I’m not going. Why don’t you go?”

“I’m going to interview the victim,” Hammell said. “Where’s Abash?”

"We’re exactly the same rank,” Toskan said. “You can’t order me.”

“I didn’t try to order you. I just asked where Abash is.”

“Abash was fired,” Toskan said, “as you know very well. You went to his leaving drinks.”

“Then Chalanga.”

“Fired. There’s no-one else, Hammell. On this shift, it’s just us. As you well know.”

“Oh,” Hammell said. “Well, then...”

“No,” Toskan said, with what he clearly hoped was finality. “I’m not wasting my time. I’m going to sit here and...”

“Flick elastic bands?” Hammell ventured, watching his partner with a critical eye. He wondered whether Toskan was just trying to avoid the inevitable disappointment that came from going up against Providence, or whether there might be more to it. They both knew what could happen to people who investigated the Red Hands… “I didn’t want to bring up what I saw in here,” Hammell continued. “I really don’t want to ever mention that again.”

“Who are you trying to kid?” Toskan said. “You’d never report me.”

“Not to Yun,” Hammell said. “But the wardens…”

“You wouldn’t,” Toskan said.

He tapped his temple and the iEye within which recorded everything. “I doubt I saw enough to get you fired, but the way you fell out of that chair… It didn’t look good.”

“You’re an arsehole.”

“Hey,” Hammell said, “I just bought you an almond croissant.”

“Send me the address,” Toskan grunted as he snatched his coat from the hook. “But if that thing turns green before I get there, you’re buying me lunch. At La Fête.”

“Set menu.”

“A la carte!” Toskan shouted as he slammed the door behind him.


CHAPTER FOUR

The interview room was a hexagonal structure cut from black sheet metal. It was lit from high above by a cluster of white lights which mingled together into a single bright circle, giving the unnerving impression of being stuck down a well. Arthur Beecroft sat in a cheap metal chair across from a sleek black android with the designation MOR-990; a new model known as a blackshine. As he watched from the observation room behind the blackwall, Hammell considered the fact that trust in androids was steadily increasing as each successive line came out. Gone was the friendliness of the earlier generations. Soft foam exteriors and insane smiles had given way to clinically functional plastic and metal. Mor had the standard bug-eye camera on one side of its forehead and smaller double-windowed LiDAR emitter and receiver on the other, enabling it to ascertain distances much more accurately than through binocular vision. It had a set of legs for getting up and down stairs, but could also deploy wheels to cover greater distances more efficiently. Many of the newer androids used their wheels most of the time, gliding around in a way which Hammell found unsettling.

For all the robot’s innate creepiness, the man looked even more disturbing. Completely hairless with melted, raw, pink skin, his entire body dripped with a protective gel which had soaked through his hospital gown, leaving thick, bloody droplets on the table and floor. Hammell couldn't help but think he looked like a hairless cat - a Sphynx breed, his implant informed him - that someone had fattened up and slathered in KY Jelly, for whatever reason.

Hammell felt for the guy. He’d only been out of surgery an hour, but he was already being grilled by a thing which totally lacked empathy or compassion. Mor made no distinction between criminal and victim. Information was its only goal. The only positive was that Arthur wasn’t aware he was being mistreated. There had been no sign yet that any trace of intelligence remained behind his red, glassy eyes.

The shiny black robot asked its question again: “Who attacked you?”

Again, Arthur responded with vacant staring and drool.

Interviewing androids typically asked few questions, but they were dogged. Mor could patiently wait for hours or even days without ever changing its tone of voice or needing to move. Food and water would be supplied to the interviewee via a shutter in the door, which was designed in such a way that the tray would appear automatically. The interviewee wouldn’t even see the hand of the deliverer - they were cut off, isolated, not allowed to so much as sense the presence of another human being. A sleeping shelf and toilet could be extended out of the wall, but the android would not leave its chair until it had what it wanted. It would stare as a person attempted to sleep, even as they went to the bathroom. It was all designed to put people on edge - and it usually worked.

Not in this case though. Arthur Beecroft had lost too much. His memory chips, his black box, even his implant, all gone. His brain was now frantically trying to rewire around the enormous gaps; it didn’t leave much room for consciousness. He probably didn’t even know what day it was, or what year. He might not even know what a year was. Whoever Arthur Beecroft had been this morning was gone. This flaccid, bleeding, zombie-like creature was all that was left. Maybe in time he could learn to become someone else and live in society again, but more likely he would die in a gutter. These aren’t the kind of thoughts to stave off the blues.

The android asked its question again and Hammell began to suspect that it was keeping to a set time interval. His implant checked back and confirmed it: Four minutes and eleven seconds. That was the length of time Mor had determined was the optimum to elicit a response from this particular person, using some kind of magic formula beyond Hammell’s comprehension. Not magic enough for it to actually work though. When he found he was counting down in the back of his mind to the next question, Hammell decided he’d had enough. His hand darted out to the microphone button. “Ask him something else,” he said, his message audible only to the android. “Anything else.”

“If you would like to ask a specific question, please state it,” came Mor’s reply over the speakers.

“Fine,” Hammell said. “Ask him… Ask him why he goes to the Reserves at night.”

The android complied and the slick, ruined face moved a fraction. Hammell sat up. Is that a reaction? He couldn’t be sure. The man’s face was a mask - a melted mask. He stared hard into Arthur’s rheumy eyes through the blackwall. The sensors were indicating something - increased heart rate, pupils dilated, maybe even a nervous twitch. His skin pores hadn’t opened, but that could easily be because of the acid, or the jelly. Does he understand more than he’s letting on? Is he choosing not to answer? Hammell wondered how those burned out eyes could possibly be functioning. The doctors said they were though - at least partially. They should have been covered while they healed, but no matter how many times the nurses had tried to explain that to Arthur, he’d kept tearing off the patches. They could have sedated him, but his coefficient wouldn’t cover medical care beyond the global minimum, so instead he was bandaged up, covered in anti-infection gel and kicked out of hospital. Worse than that, he was sent here.

“Ask him why he didn’t go through a checkpoint,” Hammell said and the android did so, but Arthur’s heart rate was beginning to slow again and his eyes didn’t so much as flicker. “Ask him if he’s a Red Hand,” he tried, but Arthur had become a statue again. Possibly there had never been a reaction and what he’d seen was just a remnant of whatever had once been going on inside Arthur’s head; a random firing of neurons. Possibly Hammell was finding meaning where there was none.

Sitting back in his chair, he puffed out his cheeks. Arthur is just another dead end. He ordered the man’s things up from temporary storage and then checked the alert. It was still red: Providence wasn’t making headway either, though with tens of thousands of sensor blocks, multiple satellites, a hundred thousand androids and a megaAI to run everything, it could afford the odd blind alley. An I.A. could not.

A couple of minutes later, an admin android buzzed into the observation room and placed a small sealed drawer on the table. It entered a key code to flip the lid and then waited patiently by the door, covertly watching Hammell as he pulled on a pair of latex gloves and began to poke through Arthur’s possessions. Most had been ruined by the acid, especially the clothing; poor Arthur would probably have to go home in his hospital gown.

“Go find him something to wear,” he said to the admin android. “Check the lost and found, the empty lockers, whatever you can find.”

“Yes, I.A. Hammell,” the android replied, but it didn’t move. It had probably already passed the order along on one of its secret networks. 

Frowning, Hammell turned back to the drawer. A white and gold logo caught his eye and he picked out a partially torn and acid-bleached matchbook. Digging deeper, he found the corresponding pack of hand-rolled contraband, safely protected inside a melted plastic sleeve. Tearing off the plastic, he glanced at the admin android as he opened the box and sniffed at the contents. Years ago, he’d been an addict, before tobacco had been criminalized. Lighting one of these now would result in a fine – a fine which Arthur wouldn’t be able to pay. You’d almost be doing him a favour.

His implant began scouring the networks for various factoids about cigarettes and their criminalization, but he mentally discarded all of it in favour of the results from the matchbook’s logo, finding that it had likely come from a long-abandoned pub deep in the Reserves.

“What’s The Happy Trout?” he said into the microphone. “Ask him.”

Mor did so, but Arthur didn’t respond and Hammell went back for one last look, moving aside a ruined, bloody T-shirt, touching what he realised was a tube of lubricant.

“Give it back to him,” he said as he pulled off the gloves, throwing them into a medical waste bin, and the android collected the drawer and left without a word. Sitting back in his chair, Hammell stared at the ruined man on the other side of the blackwall, wondering who he was really and what his story was – and whether Hammell himself would ever know it.

Maybe Toskan’s having better luck, he thought and he opened his iPalm to find out, tossing his partner’s image onto a skywall display.

“Hey,” Toskan said. “How’s the interview?”

“He’s a vegetable,” Hammell said. “The house?”

“A standard pre-Restoration apartment,” Toskan shrugged. “Lots of space with not much to fill it. Barely any food in the cupboards. Aircon on the fritz - it’s murder in here. Oh, and the bedside table is full of antivirals and oddly shaped rubber things. I left Stein playing with them.”

“He’s there?”

“He beat me here, so I couldn’t really get in and touch anything. Not that I want to.”

“He’s a prostitute,” Hammell said in a sudden flash of insight.

“Stein?” Toskan asked.

“Arthur,” Hammell tutted.

“Isn’t he a bit… old for that?”

“It takes all sorts.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Toskan said. “So why didn’t his licence show up? And what about his coefficient or lack thereof?”

“Maybe he’s not a very good one,” Hammell said, thinking that a few things were beginning to make sense. If Arthur was unlicensed, maybe his clients preferred to be outside the system somehow. Maybe Arthur really wasn’t a Red Hand - maybe he was servicing Red Hands. He glanced down at the matchbook in his hand. “Fancy a drink?”

“It’s only just stopped being morning,” Toskan protested.

“So it’s afternoon.”

“Has your hangover even cleared yet? I know mine hasn’t.”

“There’s a bar in the Reserves,” Hammell said as he turned over the matchbook in his hand. “I think Arthur was there.”

“If it’s in the Reserves, it’s closed.”

“So we’ll go somewhere else, if you’re that desperate. Jeez.”

Toskan shook his head. “It’s not worth it, Hammell. If Yun found out…”

“Fine, ok. Tonight, then.”

Toskan shifted uncomfortably. “I… um… Usually that would work on me, but I think Meera’s coming back today. I don’t want to... y’know.”

“Yeah,” Hammell said as he contemplated another night alone with the cat, a bowl of noodles and a bottle of scotch.

“Yeah.”

“I’ll see you back at the office,” Hammell said and he swiped at the display to sever the connection.

“Who attacked you?” Mor asked again and Hammell felt his temper fraying.

“Stop asking,” Hammell snapped into the microphone. “We’re releasing him.”

“We do not have satisfactory answers,” Mor replied. “We can keep Mr Beecroft in custody for a further 46 hours.”

“In 46 hours, he still won’t know anything,” Hammell said and he took his hand off the button and then slapped the console in frustration.

He watched as the android informed Arthur that he was being released and saw the melted man’s face change as he looked up. Is that panic? Fear? He reached for the button again. “Tell him that he’ll be taken to his home. Tell him... Tell him he’ll be alright.”

Mor did so, but mechanically. It was an empty gesture and Hammell knew it. Feeling oddly put out, Hammell buzzed the door open, slipping the cigarettes into his pocket as he walked out. The admin android hadn’t been watching closely enough.

 

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