No matter how hard the rain fell, it couldn’t wash the past away. As the blood and oil and rare volatiles sluiced down into the storm drains, they took with them the evidence of what had occurred but left behind the unalterable truth.
“He didn’t have a chance, did he?” Ai said, tying her end of the mylar tent to an ornate spike that rose from top of an old brick wall the barely identifiable body was crumpled beside.
“First time seeing a dead body Greensmith?” her partner, Curtweather asked. There was no tenderness or caring in the question. It was a blunt blade looking for an opening to needle her through. It was how the GCPD treated new recruits.
“Seeing a dead body? No. Seeing one that’s this mangled? Yes. The one’s they brought into the forensics courses were more…intact.”
“Pretty gross isn’t it?” Curtweather asked, the smile on his face suggesting that he was waiting for Ai to show the traditional sign of weakness.
She could have faked vomiting, but that would escalate the taunting, which she had neither the time nor the appetite for.
“It’s strange,” she said. “According to his bio-telematics, his readings flatlined ten hours ago but the cause of death was instantaneous. A single cranial blow that destroyed all function.”
“Yeah, someone blew his brains out,” Curtweatherr said, forcing his corner of the mylar sheet to stay in place by wrapping it a light post and tying it into a crude knot.
“Why do all the other damage then?” Ai asked.
“Oh, you do not want an answer to that question,” Curtweather said. “They should have taught you that at the academy. The kind of sick things we deal with? You don’t want to go crawling around in their heads trying to understand them. They’re just not human anymore and if you think too much like them, you won’t be either.”
“Didn’t need the academy to teach me that,” Ai said. “My dad made it clear how messed up people were from the day I could walk.”
“Yeah, he knew the score, and even with that look where it got him?” Curtweather said.
Ai suppressed the rage that boiled in her. She’d done it so often that it was reflexive. Some emotions could be shared. Others were part of her private reserve of psychic fuel.
“Units Curtweather and Greensmith, report status.”
The words echoed in both their audio feeds and scrolled in the general priority alert line that was superimposed over their vision.
“Site secured at present coordinates,” Curtweather said. “Casualty confirmed and identified as Kevin Blasmidtz. Awaiting forensics units for full site eval.”
“Forensics unit dispatched. Prepare to receive new order.”
“Oh this is going to be great,” Curtweather grumbled.
“They can’t pull us off this scene yet,” Ai said, knowing that Dispatch was quite capable of doing whatever Dispatch wanted. “We need to maintain the chain of custody for the evidence until we can turn it over to the Fors team.”
“You newbies are so adorable,” Curtweather said as their new orders began scrolling across their vision.
“Patrol allocation limit reached for Block WC-24-60. Further police presence suspended awaiting Block Council credit extension. Unit Ai Greensmith will proceed to City Center for investigation into automated complaint at Tython Data Center CC-05-01.”
“Seriously?” Ai said aloud. “We’re leaving this with a tarp to cover the scene and a bill to get the forensics team in here?”
“Yeah, and the tarp will be on the bill too,” Curtweather said. “Get in the cruiser, every minute we’re still here is volunteer work.”
They were on Inter-City 5 traveling east into the heart of the Gamma City mega-metro area before Ai judged it was safe to speak again.
“I thought murder and other capital crimes were supposed to have automatic enforcement extensions,” she said. She knew what Curtweather’s answer would be but as the daughter of “Joseph Greensmith, Martyr Cop” she had an image of stubborn righteousness that people expected her to live up to.
“Wasn’t a murder,” Curtweather said without taking his eyes off the road.
Traffic was its typical snarled mess, but the complaint they were responding to originated in one of the city’s “gold zones” so they were able to use the priority lanes without accruing enough “special usage fees” to bankrupt each of them through their next seven lifetimes.
“I’ve seen some extreme Yoga before, but even someone with a spine made out of silly string couldn’t have pretzeled themselves like that,” Ai said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Curtweather said. “Without a bondable eye witness, only the lead forensic tech can make a cause of death ruling. It’s beyond scrubs like us.”
“Forensics isn’t going in there until Block W24 pays for it though,” Ai said.
“Yeah, and without a murder to prosecute there’s not much call for the Block Council to pay for the Forensic boys. It’s a nice system. Keeps us from getting too busy with the Bronzers and missing out on serving the people who really matter,” Curtweather said.
“The City Center crowd?”
“The very same.”
“They don’t pay for us though,” Ai said. “We’re supported two hundred and three to one by the other Block Councils.”
“Sure we are,” Curtweather said. “Salary, pension, and health-tech, all provided for by the good people of Gamma City. You tell me how that works out for you over the next few months.”
Ai swallowed another gout of rage. As if she didn’t know what life was like on a cop’s salary. As if she hadn’t seen her father struggling to get them by through the endless rounds of budget cuts and salary rollbacks. She’d been lucky, growing up a solid Silver citizen. It wasn’t an easy life but compared to the Bronzers, or even worse the Rusties, she knew she should be grateful.
Instead she was silent. Curtweather would fill in the explanations of her behavior that she needed him to believe and she didn’t have to say a word to make it happen.
She was Joseph Greensmith’s daughter, so of course she’d be idealistic and a knee-jerk reactionary against corruption. She would believe all kinds of fairy tales about honor and justice and being sworn the path of the righteous. People wanted to see her as “a chip off the old block”, just like her brother had been, and that’s what they would see.
“So who is our travel time being billed to?” she asked.
The GC Police Academy relied on “accelerated programs”, in part due to the high turnover in the police force ranks. The instructors focused almost entirely on the practical aspects of the job, with a few classes covering the fundamentals of law and advanced disciplines related to police work like forensics, investigation, and special response squads. Back office information like how billing was handled was omitted as irrelevant to a cop’s day to day work. An officer was supposed to obey the Dispatching directives routed to them without question. They didn’t need to know how billing was handled or what each minute of their time was billed out at.
“Probably the block we were in,” Curtweather said. “At least until we cross into the City Center. Depends on the client we’re responding to though. If it’s a serious one then they’ll pick up the whole bill just to make sure we’re not delayed.”
“Is the Tython Group a serious client?” Ai asked. On her display more data about the Tython group appeared than Curtweather could have accessed with a year’s salary. Ai didn’t need it. She’d already memorized everything there was to know about Tython, but her mind worked best when she could free link data bits together and, for that, having it all on tap was a convenient thing.
“They’re not one of mine, but they could be huge,” Curtweather said. “You never know who owns who, or which of these ‘Divisions’ or ‘Groups’ or ‘Subsidiaries’ are part of some world spanning super corporation.”
“All that power and not one of them can stop the NME attacks though,” Ai said.
Neuro-Muscular Enhanciles were the topic of the day across the board on the major news feeds. Curtweather just grunted.
“That’s been blown so out of proportion,” he said. “The Highfall Recon guys are being sold short on what they can do.”
“The NME rampage last week put a half dozen of them in the morgue until the Black Valkyries showed up. And that was just one NME right?” Ai asked.
“That was a raw deal,” Curtweather said. “The Highfall guys were called in late, the critter had dug in, and it was on a electric substation. I mean that was the perfect storm of bad karma for them to walk into.”
“Still though it was just one,” Ai said. “How bad could one enhancile be?”
It was a rookie question, the kind that baited stories out of more experienced officers. Ai knew that and she knew the stories Curtweather was going to tell, but she needed him to tell them.
“You ever meet one, you don’t ask that question, you just get the hell out of there,” Curtweather said.
“Sounds like you’ve seen an NME?” Ai asked.
“Yeah, there’s ones that don’t show up on the news feeds,” Curtweather said. “Ones that are smart enough to start off in the Rusties slums. Nobody transmits about those, but they still send in the Highfall guys after us suckers provide target confirmation and sit reps.”
“I thought our ordinance was supposed to be rated for anything up to a Bio-Berserker,” Ai asked.
“Sure, and if you see any fifty year old tech monsters lumbering around you can take all the pot shots at them that you like,” Curtweather said. “These NME’s are a new breed, new military tech if you ask me, and what we got ain’t enough to tickle them.”
Ai was only half listening to his words. Her attention was captured by a stream of light that cut through one of the building on her side of the car.
“How fast of a response time does Highfall have?” Ai asked, letting real concern show in her voice.
“They’re pretty quick, ten minutes or so, why’s that?” Curtweather asked.
“Something’s throwing out canon fire with enough tracers to make it look like a laser beam,” Ai said. “We’ve got to stop and check it out.”
Curtweather floored the gas pedal.
“We’ll need to take the next exit,” Ai said.
“No we won’t. If that’s an NME then we want nothing to do with it.”
“If it’s an NME then a lot of people are going to die unless we call in Highfall,” Ai said.
“Over there? In a Rusty slum? Don’t worry about it, it’s not like they’re real people in there,” Curtweather said just in time for the road to split open in front of them.
Ai felt herself lurched as the collision prevention systems grabbed control from Curtweather and fought to bring the vehicle to as safe a stop as was mechanically possible.
As it turned out ‘safe’ was a highly relative term. The automatic system did manage to stop the car well before it plunged over the collapsed section of the InterCity highway. Through the smoke and dust though a far worse danger emerged.
Ai knew the thing before her had once been human. In broad terms it still held a reflection of that, with a head, torso and limbs that were cast in a gross parody of what they had once been. In place of flesh and blood though there was nothing except writhing metal, flailing cables and a programmed weapon arsenal that was molecularly engineered from the debris the creature’s rampage had created.
Ten thousand details leapt into Ai’s mind all at once. The positions of the NME, the contents of their environment, the geometry of nearby cover and damaged areas.
The police cruiser wasn’t an oasis of safety, but it could be a distraction. She loaded a program on a delay into its automatic controls.
Her weapon was useless. That stayed in its holster. Safer to discard it entirely but the replacement cost would be difficult to justify.
Her optical feed was her best weapon. That got synced live back to Dispatch on a priority channel with the billing option set as a pass through charge to Highfall HQ.
“Get out of the car on three,” she said.
“Are you crazy? That thing will kill us,” Curtweather said.
“I’ve set the cruiser to ram it and engage pursuit mode. The battery was cracked in the crash just now, pursuit mode will blow it wide open.”
Curtweather’s dissatisfaction with her plan found expression is a stream of profanity but he bailed out of the cruiser on her count of three.
The NME belched fire at the car as it roared toward it and then opened up with a pair of arm cannons that stripped the “bullet resistant” hull off like it was made of tinfoil. Despite the abuse though, the cruiser engaged pursuit mode fifty milliseconds before making contact with the NME and, as Ai calculated, then exploded thirty milliseconds later.
Ai dove flat behind a chunk of rubble roughly twice the size of the car. Thanks to the cruiser’s acceleration profile, she and Curtweather were able to scramble behind it in time to be shielded from the blast.
That was the good news.
The bad news came when Ai peeked around the corner of the rubble and saw the NME getting back on it’s feet. It had lost a large chunk of its outer shell but the human inside, or what was left of them, was still functional.
The worse news could have been that, following the blast, the NME was oriented on Ai, having identified her as the primary threat facing it.
That would have been the worst news of the day, except Ai saw a group of children huddled on the far side of the NME and she knew the moment she shook it’s attention from herself, they would be next in it’s line of fire.