A Feeble Gleam of Stars
Winkies and words twinkled across her retinas. “;-) ;-) ;-) Amitteee hz a boyfrend! Amittee hz a boyfrend! ;-) ;-) ;-)”
The message scrolled left into Amity’s peripheral vision. She grinned and waved at her friends as their autocab pulled away. Amity skipped happily for one, two steps, then three but made herself stop and walk the rest of the way. She palmed the biolock on the door frame. Her face slid from fading giddiness to practiced world-weariness when she spotted her parents watching the Wall in the living room.
“How was the dance?” Mom said. The Wall sensed it had lost its audience and froze, waiting for the command to resume. “Did you talk to any cute boys?”
“Mom!” The girl stretched the word by a syllable; in her head it sounded like “moron.” Amity didn’t believe Mom would recognize a cute boy if one kissed her on the mouth. Mom chuckled and exchanged winks with Dad.
“Go on up to bed. Amber’s sleeping, so ixnay on the oisenay,” Mom said. “We’re leaving for Grandma’s early tomorrow.”
Amity offered both parents perfunctory cheek pecks. The softporndrama on the Wall had already reclaimed most of their attention.
Amity jogged up the stairs to the bathroom. Eleven minutes of scrubbing and brushing later, the teen was in her room. She flopped on her bed and brought up her onboard’s menu. Amity closed her eyes and scrolled through the pictures she’d taken at the dance until she found one of Kyle Latham, widely regarded as the cutest boy at school. They’d danced all night, and she’d let him put his hands on her breasts while they kissed. The picture she had of him smiling, his blue eyes flashing, was a keeper. She attached it to an email and addressed it to the girls from the taxi: “Hndz off, beetches. Heeez all mines. :-)”
Amity cracked a king-sized yawn. She got her syncband from the nightstand, the faux terrycloth circle glowing softly in the dimming room, and stretched it around her head. The onboard made contact, and a day’s worth of school notes, photos, and voice recordings streamed to the Cloud. While Amity slept, the onboard would download her schedule, summarize her required school readings, and update her newsfeeds with the latest in music, fashion, and celebrity gossip.
Amity’s personal CloudPal, KittyKat15, shot her a message in Wizard-World font: “Hi, BFF. Wud u lik a Sweet Dream?”
Amity moused “yes,” and followed KittyKat15 through the menus to a romantic-themed comedy. She entered “Kyle” for the name of the dream’s love interest. KittyKat15 adjusted the image of the romantic lead to suit Amity’s new favorite picture, and the dream began to play.
Amity didn’t notice the seizure that made her piss herself and grind her teeth together fifteen minutes later. She was with Kyle, and he was being so sweet. The wind played with his hair, and his eyes sparkled as he leaned close to kiss her.
“I love you,” she said.
The dream stuttered, and Kyle’s cute face blinked into an eyeless mask. “Ditto, babe,” he said. Kyle bit into Amity’s forehead, his suddenly huge mouth full of tiny, sharp teeth.
Davis Wood took a pull from his beer and settled into the battered recliner. The ancient computer in his lap beeped synchronicity with its distant target — an automated observatory on two acres of the Sonoma desert Wood had inherited from his grandfather.
Wood strained to see the heavens through the light pollution and smog, but the only things in view from the observation platform he’d hammered together on his condo roof were the moon and a few of the brightest stars: Alpha Centauri, Canopus, and Arcturus. He held up his beer in salute.
The antique beeped again, and Wood turned his attention to the thin screen. He hadn’t visited his observatory — a rust-pocked Airstream trailer and a slightly-better-than-amateur broad-spectrum array — in more than a year, and he was always relieved when the laptop assured him it was still there. He tapped coordinates into the computer, setting the array’s tracking motors into motion
For months, Wood had been observing a stellar speck he suspected might be an undocumented asteroid. In another week, maybe two, he’d have enough data recorded to attempt a registry. He planned to name this one after his daughter, Molly, who he saw in person about as often as he saw his observatory. The first asteroid he’d found bore his ex-wife’s name, and he saw her even less.
Wood fished another beer out of his cooler. The laptop played four bars of an old pop song, and Wood tapped the screen to open a tiny window to the desert sky. The stars shone brightly for a moment and flickered into a blue “lost signal” alert.
“Lousy piece of —.” Wood sat his beer down with a thump and flinched when an object near his elbow vibrated.
His badge. Wood woke it with his thumb and hooked the wireless receiver over his left ear. “What’s up?”
“The chief wants you in. Nightside’s already on site, but it’s going to bleed into your shift.” The voice in Wood’s ear paused. “There’s a dead kid. Her teenaged sister is the primary suspect.”
“Give me forty minutes.”
“I’ll pass it on. Good morning, detective.”
The house was late twentieth century and well-maintained. The two hydrogen-fuel Volvos in the driveway smacked of an upper middle-class lifestyle. The white picket fence looked like something out of a snuff film, though, shamed by yards of crime-scene tape and tinged spastic red by the lights of the ambulance. Wood crumpled his coffee cup and tossed it onto the passenger-side floor. He flirted with the idea of driving right by the crime scene and finding out where the road went, but he signaled and pulled into the driveway instead.
Wood showed his badge to the blue at the gate. He didn’t know many of the nightside cops and didn’t expect they would know him by sight.
“Detective Wood,” he said. “Dayside homicide.”
The blue took him inside, past the living room where the parents sobbed to a police counselor, to a pink bedroom on the second floor. Inside, blood spatters made Silly String patterns on holoposters of fairy-tale princesses and unicorns. Four large men were crouched around a tiny body on the floor. One man, tieless and rumpled this late in his shift, rose as Wood approached. He pulled off one purple vinyl glove and offered his bare hand. “You look like you spent the night on the roof.”
“That was the plan.” Wood shook his former partner’s hand. “What’s the feed?”
Detective Sean Ossinger sucked his teeth. “It’s ugly.” He pulled the badge off his belt and peered at its small screen. “Victim is Amber Cobb, age six. Primary is Amity Cobb, age fifteen, the vic’s older sister. According to the house biolock, Amity Cobb came home at 2247 last night. Parents say she was at a dance.”
Wood peered at his own badge, where a twin to Ossinger’s notes was now appearing.
“Sometime between 2323 and 2430, which is the best guess on the little girl’s death, big sister went bat shit.”
Wood grimaced. “Rodney, strike ‘bat shit’ from the file.”
Wood’s Watson app, a police near-smart that could sift data faster than Sherlock Holmes, beeped confirmation. On the badge’s screen, the words flashed twice and vanished. Ossinger shrugged and continued. “The teen left her bedroom and, without waking anyone else in the family, bludgeoned her little sister to death with an antique jewelry box and started eating her brain.”
Wood’s eyebrows rose.
“Wait, there’s more,” Ossinger said, raising his pointer finger, professor-style. “Sometime before the attack, big sister ripped all the hair off her own head and gouged out her eyes.”
“How’d she kill her sister if she couldn’t see?”
“The Force? Lucky guess?” Ossinger squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose between two thick fingers. “She’s lived in the house all her life. Probably wasn’t too hard to feel her way along.”
Wood felt a tickle in his sinuses and fumbled a handkerchief out of his pocket in time to catch two quick sneezes.
Ossinger shook his head. “No one’s allergic to the Cloud, Wood.”
“Then why am I sneezing?” Wood smiled at the familiar exchange and wiped at his nose. L.A. was the first of the big cities to seed its air with Cloud nanobots, each of them doing the jobs once held by servers, routers, and wires. Wood knew he was allergic to the nanoscopic computers; he could almost feel them blinking and beeping in his sinuses. Every doctor he’d gone to had told him it was impossible, but, if that were so, why had he only started sneezing when the Cloud came? He sneezed again. “Where’s the suspect?”
“Ambulance hauled her off about twenty minutes ago. Real mess. Won’t speak. Just growls and makes this, like, screeching noise.” The cop shrugged. “It’s too bad. She’s a pretty girl. Mom and Dad say she has all kinds of friends. Good grades. The perfect kid.”
“Anybody see anything?”
“It’s an older house. Modernized, but not fully wired. It doesn’t know who opened what door when.”
Wood looked down at the little girl’s body. Her light blue pajamas were dark with blood, and skull fragments and bits of brain tissue clotted what little he could see of her curly blond hair.
Ossinger looked sick. “She was still stuffing pieces of it into her mouth when we got here.”
Murray nodded when Wood walked into the bar. “The usual?”
Wood blew his nose. He couldn’t remember Murray’s last name but knew how the balding man had lost his left foot and that he’d been the nightside bartender at Third Base long before Wood started frequenting the place.
Wood’s usual was three fingers of scotch, no ice. He expected to order more than a couple. Amity Cobb was under heavy sedation, so he’d spent the day and a good part of the evening questioning her friends and going over her Cloud presence with Rodney. Wood had set Rodney to comb through several weeks of pictures, school notes, and MyLife updates looking for a reason the girl might have turned murderous. The near-smart had come up dry. Amity Cobb, at least the one Wood knew from her files and friends, was a typical kid — although not quite as perfect as her parents believed. One classmate had called her a slut on a public board, and Rodney collated several pictures, video files, and messages that added up to at least one drinking party and three sexual encounters in the past month. Amity also tended to cheat on her English homework.
Wood sipped some scotch. As he set the glass down, he felt someone sit down beside him. Recognition made him grin, and he extended his hand to accept a low five. “I was hoping I’d run into you.”
The newcomer’s hand smacked deftly into Wood’s. “You break your little telescope again?”
“Maybe. Mostly I was just looking for comic relief.”
Miles Trolan was one of Wood’s oldest friends. They’d both gone to college to study astronomy. Wood turned cop, and Trolan went on to get his doctorate and tenure at a university observatory about seventy-five miles outside the city. Trolan sipped the dark beer Murray set in front of him. “You look like hell.”
“Long day,” Wood said. “Dead kid. Pretty messed up situation.”
“There are easier ways of making a living.”
“Don’t rub it in.” Wood finished his scotch and ordered another. “Distract me. Dating any star-eyed coeds?”
Trolan scooped a handful of peanuts out of the bowl in front of him and juggled a few into his mouth. “Nobody new. A couple from my greatest-hits collection.” He chewed thoughtfully. “There’s not much going on. Got some static on the radio arrays. The old SETI guys had a quick circle jerk, but there was nothing cohesive in there the near-smarts could dig out. It’s trash.”
Wood tasted his new drink and put it back on the bar. “The dead kid’s about Molly’s age. Couple of years younger.”
Trolan nodded toward Wood’s drink. “Finish that.” He caught the bartender’s eye. “Get us a couple more.”
The six o’clock alarm was less than welcome. Wood showered — full hot, then full cold, then full hot — until he felt human. He’d left Third Base after last call and headed up to his roof to look for the asteroid. The laptop worked just fine, but the observatory refused to sync up. Wood hoped it was a software glitch and that nothing had gone wrong at the site.
Shivering, Wood wrapped a towel around his waist and signaled Julia, his condo near-smart, to start breakfast. She told him there was a message from Molly.
“Is she okay?” he said.
“Fine,” Julia said. “Her mother got her a kitten, and she wants to know if Mr. Sprinkles would be an appropriate name for it. Shall I play the message?”
Wood thought about the little girl with the smashed-in head. “Save it for later.”
Fifteen minutes later he was dressed but tieless, drinking mediocre coffee and checking the messages on his badge. What he saw there made him run for the door, his eggs cooling on the counter.
Wood’s new partner, Brian LeClair, met him at his office door.
“I heard,” Wood said. “Two more last night. Same M.O.”
“Different sexes but they’re about the same age.” LeClair checked his notes. His tie was perfect. “Families are in the same income range. Vics are an older brother in one case, two slumber-party guests in the other.”
“Suspects gouged out their own eyes and made a good attempt at tearing out their hair. Victims were bludgeoned to death as they slept, brains partially consumed.”
Wood dropped into his chair. He wanted a drink. “Could this be a new e-drug? Something they uploaded into their onboards?”
“I already ran the idea through my Watson. It didn’t come up with anything.”
“Send your parameters to Rodney,” Wood said. “He’s been around a lot longer and might have a few more tricks.”
LeClair sat down in Wood’s guest chair. “Any other ideas?”
Wood whistled tunelessly. “Maybe it’s some kind of teen-murder pact thing.” He ran his hand through his hair. He wished again Ossinger had turned down the promotion. “You stay on the suspects. Interview their friends. See if the subs know each other. I’ll check with the morgue.”
The city morgue was four floors straight down and cold. Wood knew the facility was spray sterilized once each shift, but he always thought the white walls looked like they’d feel greasy if he brushed against them. He kept his hands in his pockets and used his shoulder to push open the swinging double doors.
Paul Keefe, the city’s dayside chief medical examiner, claimed he kept his head shaved for “hygienic purposes” but never said why he also shaved his eyebrows and seldom removed his dark glasses. The medical examiner’s handshake was chilly and damp, and Wood had to force himself not to wipe his palms on his pants. Keefe laced his fingers in front of his stomach. Wood thought Keefe’s hands looked like pale spiders and tried not to breathe through his nose.
“I scanned the reports on the way down, Doc. I’m looking for something off the map.”
“Off the map.” Keefe’s mouth quirked. It might have been a smile. “Eleven victims, each death resulting from blunt-force trauma to the head —.”
“There are only three vics. Two from last night, one from the night before.”
“I know who is in my morgue, detective.” The pale scientist pulled his badge from his belt and slid his long finger across the screen. “Eleven. Similar causes of death. All showing partial consumption of their brain matter.” He gave his little smile again. “Would you like to count them?”
“Eleven over how long?”
“The past fifteen days.”
“It must be a mistake.”
Wood thought LeClair still looked too pretty to be a cop, but at least his tie was crooked now. “Rodney checked the files. The reports are all there. They just weren’t linked.”
“Eleven nearly identical violent deaths in fifteen days, and no one saw a connection?”
“It’s a big city.” Wood took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. “Besides, we’re all app happy now. It’s possible no one actually saw the files.”
“Why didn’t the Watsons find it?
“The others were sort of scattered around. Four were reported by private security out in the Hills.”
Wood pulled the stats up on his desktop. The ten suspects were all in their teens, with upper middle- to upper-class lifestyles. They all had loving families, good grades, and lots of friends. And, somewhere in the dark, all of them had opted out of the human race.
LeClair rubbed his chin, and Wood heard the rookie’s fingers rasp on the respectable five o’clock shadow there. “The media’s going to be all over this.”
“Maybe. The Watsons didn’t pick it up. Maybe the newsbots won’t, either. What did you learn about the suspects?”
LeClair leaned back in his chair. “Not much. Friends and family didn’t see it coming. The usual. They synced their onboards within an hour or two of the incidents.”
Wood rubbed his eyes. He doubted any of the suspects would have written up a conveniently detailed murder plan, but if it were a pact of some kind, they might be acting on a schedule. “Anybody check to see what they downloaded?”
“Not that I’ve seen.”
Wood woke up his badge. “Rodney, get me a warrant for a download of the Cobb girl’s onboard.” He glanced at the time; there was no way they were going to get the doctor out this late. He was probably at home with a trophy wife and a Mercedes. “First thing tomorrow.”
Wood drove home and dragged himself up to his roof. The laptop linked up with his observatory this time, but the array only offered a test pattern: a repeating scale of high-pitched tones. A hasty phone call and half a week’s pay bought Wood enough time on the university’s array to get the asteroid data he needed. Trolan gave him a big break on the price, but the exchange left Wood feeling even wearier. He remembered the first time he’d taken his ex wife out to the desert to see the stars. They’d lain naked on the cooling metal of the trailer roof and talked about a future that never happened. Wood opened another beer. The array was a link to happier times, and the stars it usually showed didn’t care how far he’d fallen.
From the hospital lobby, a nurse directed Wood down a hallway and through an unmarked door to a surgery-viewing gallery. Wood hung his coat up and peered through the smudged observation window.
Amity Cobb was strapped to the table, screaming wordlessly. Oozing scratches marred her pale scalp, showing where her fingernails had scraped and cut the skin as she ripped out her hair by the handfuls. Her eye sockets were packed with synthgel. Veins had ruptured in the girl’s face, sending a spider web of hematomas across her cheeks. Amity tested her restraints wildly, straining her thin arms and legs against the Kevlar straps. A burly orderly held the girl’s arm still so a nurse could administer a sedative. Minutes ticked by before Amity went limp.
“Nearly a double dose this time,” the doctor said. “Mark it.” He turned to the window separating Wood from the operating theater. “What am I looking for?”
Wood cleared his throat and forced himself to look away from the girl he’d last seen smiling from her MyLife page. “Just give me what she got in her last download.”
The doctor signaled his team, and they began to put sensor patches on the girl’s bald head. Wood glanced at the nurse. “She said anything?”
“We kept her sedated for the first twenty-four hours.” The nurse studied the room on the other side of the window. “She’s not violent unless someone’s in with her. Just sits and moans in the corner. Once in a while she gets up and tries to walk around the room.” Amity was lost in the sea of scrubs and lab coats; the only part of her Wood could see from the window were her feet. Her toenails were painted purple. “She’s blind, but she doesn’t feel her way around. She’ll take a step and sort of screech. Then she’ll take another step, screech again, and so on.”
“Sounds like she thinks she’s a bat.”
The nurse offered a wan smile. “It doesn’t work. She’s run into the wall twice that I’ve seen.”
Wood blew his nose. “How long is this going to take?”
“Depends on how much she has in there.”
The onboard technology was nearly two decades old, and Wood knew every attempt to put the tiny computers into the heads of anyone over twenty-two had resulted in brain damage. It had something to do with the plasticity of the adolescent mind; the kids could adapt to the onboards where adults could not. Few people over thirty had the things. The onboards weren’t cheap, either. The little computers were digging the generation gap deeper and creating new fronts in the class war.
Wood counted on his fingers. His daughter Molly would be eight in September. Two years too young for the first stage of onboard implantation.
The intercom pinged. “That’s it,” the doctor said. “You got it all.”
Wood watched Amity’s dream, hoping to spot a hidden message or post-hypnotic suggestion. It was drivel. Girl meets boy, boy screws it up but works hard to win her back. Girl learns valuable lessons about being strong on her own but opts to forgive the guy anyway. Wood pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Experience had taught him a different lesson.
He turned his attention to the files downloaded to Amity’s onboard. According to the CloudPal, KittyKat15, Amity should have received a download of her next day’s schedule, several articles about fashion and celebrities, the newest album by Subservient Puppies, and an annotated synopsis of the first three chapters of Catcher in the Rye. But neither Rodney nor KittyKat15 could find a trace of those files.
“Rodney, list the files we do have by type,” Wood said. Wood’s desktop filled and overfilled with words and numbers. “How many of each sort of file are we dealing with?”
“There are 13,000 image files, 230 video files, 2,700 sound files, and 30,033 executable files. The image and video files are blank.”
“Are the executable files apps?”
“What about the sound files?”
“They are identical. No voices or coded messages I can detect.”
The hiss of background noise came out of the desk speakers. Then a single, high-pitched pulse. Then another, even higher. The pulses came quickly, about once a second, increasing in pitch. Wood winced, but the pulses stopped before he could ask Rodney to pause the recording.
“The recording continues for another twenty minutes,” Rodney said. “The pulses are now beyond the range of adult human hearing.” The near-smart paused. “Now they are above all human hearing.”
“Stop the playback before we wake up every dog in the city.” Wood drummed his fingers on the desktop and studied the list of files on the screen. “Rodney, is your virus protection up to date?”
“As of five minutes ago.”
“Update it again and then execute one of the smaller files. Override code Wood7T6.”
“Confirmed. Executing file.”
The desk screen flickered to blue, then went back to normal, then to blue again. Wood slammed the big red button marked “emergency disconnect” and crossed his fingers. The desktop went dark. He thumbed his badge awake. “Rodney, reboot and report.”
The small speaker made a long screeching noise. The Watson responded with its usual start-up message, but its simulated voice sounded like it was being dragged through piles of broken glass. “This is Rodney. Why can’t we all just get along?” The badge screen went blue, then black. Wood counted to thirty and tried again. Nothing. Rodney had gone down a half dozen times in the five years since he’d been activated, but he usually rebooted in seconds. The badge had never crashed; it was tied into everything in the precinct. Wood slid his thumb across the screen several times.
He tossed the useless badge on the desk and got up to look for a phone, hoping the mysterious application hadn’t crashed the entire network. He’d already catch hell from tech support for overriding the virus protocol.
When Wood left the office three hours later a new badge was riding on his belt, but Rodney was still offline.
It was last call at Third Base by the time Wood walked in. Trolan was several beers ahead, and his broad face was flushed.
“I hope you aren’t thinking about driving home.” Wood climbed onto an adjacent stool.
Trolan flapped his hand. “I’ll be fine. Trust me, I have a doctorate.”
Wood grunted. The bartender had his back to him, and it wasn’t until the server turned that Wood realized the man was a stranger.
“Where’s Murray?” he said.
“Dunno.” The bartender dropped a coaster on the bar. “Murray got attacked, someone he knows got attacked, maybe he attacked someone .... I deleted the message right after I called in to say I could pick up the shift.”
Wood ordered a double and a beer to make up for lost time, then looked at Trolan. “Do you know Murray’s last name?”
“No,” Trolan said, staring into his beer. “Guy gave me the same line; I don’t know what happened.”
“Without his last name it won’t do much good to ask Rodney to —.” He shook his head. “I keep forgetting.” Wood picked up the drink the bartender set in front of him. “I killed Rodney today.”
The astronomer raised an eyebrow. “Technically, that’s impossible. Rodney is not alive.”
“Call it what you want. He’s down for the count.”
Trolan signaled for a refill. “What about the backup?”
“The tech guys restored him five times. Each time he locked up and deleted himself.”
Trolan patted Wood on the arm. “There, there.” He took a drink. “How did it happen?”
“I ran an executable file we found on a suspect’s onboard.”
“Nothing the tech guys or cybercrime have seen before.”
“You’re lucky it didn’t get into the entire system.”
Wood swallowed some scotch. “Yeah, lucky.”
LeClair was already working at his desk when Wood came to work the next morning. “The network seem slow to you?” the younger man said.
“I just got in.” Wood handed the fresh coffee to his partner. “Don’t thank me. I spit in it.”
LeClair opened the top of his cup without looking. “I heard about your Watson.”
“I’m crying on the inside. It got me thinking, though. It’s not a drug, right? So what if the Cobb girl caught something from her onboard?”
“Like a virus? Can that happen?”
LeClair scratched his chest through his open collar. “You calling the onboard manufacturer or am I?”
Wood crumpled his cup and bounced it off the side of a recycling bin. “You are. I bought the coffee.”
Wood signed out a temporary Watson to help him with a report on a nice, simple wife-on-cheating-husband homicide. He filed the report around noon and leaned back in his chair. “Another hardened criminal off the streets. Miller time.”
LeClair walked into Wood’s office. “How about another coffee, instead.” He offered Wood first pick from a bag of doughnuts and outlined his interviews with the onboard manufacturers.
“So ...” Wood rubbed at his face. “It’s not their hardware’s fault and, anyway, they aren’t responsible for the psychotic actions of their customers. However, they can make no claims, or guarantees about the safety hazards posed by illegal apps, viruses, malevolent near-smarts, or corrupt downloads.”
“You got it. And one guy did say a corrupt download or virus might, in theory, be able to affect a user’s brain. That’s the whole idea behind the e-drugs. They’re just designed to do it.”
LeClair was about the right age. “You got one?”
“An onboard? No. My family didn’t have the money.”
“That may be a lucky break for you. We need to check the other suspects. You want to make the calls, or should I?”
“You make the calls.” LeClair grinned. “I bought the coffee.”
Wood arranged for next-day downloads of all the perps’ onboards. The warrants came easy. The media still hadn’t connected the dots, and the police commissioner was eager to close the case before it did. Wood also put in a call to his precinct captain to give him an update. Wood’s badge beeped as he ended the call. Two messages had arrived, nearly a photo finish.
Message one was a small relief: Murray was alive, but his wife had been attacked on the street. The attacker had escaped; the woman described him as a bald man with scabs on his head. He’d come at her with a brick, screaming inarticulately. Responding officers reported the attacker was likely high on PCP derivative. The second message was a disappointment: The Tech Department had given up on Rodney and erased his back-ups.
“Looks like it’s you and me, kid.” Wood re-activated the temporary Watson. “Log yourself permanently assigned to Detective Davis Wood. Your name is Amadou.” He spelled it.
“Amadou. Confirmed,” the Watson said. “Will there be anything else?”
“Clock me out. I’m going home.”
“Confirmed. Detective Wood, please be aware there has been a power outage in the parking garage. Emergency lighting is operational, but illumination has been reduced by seventy-five percent.”
The elevator wasn’t working either, so Wood took the stairs down to the parking level. The bad lighting improved the looks of the parking garage but filled it with shadows.
“Lovely.” Wood checked the strap on his holster and set off in the direction of his car. His footsteps echoed from wall to wall, the only sound louder than the hum of the emergency lights.
Wood slid his thumb across his badge. “Rod —” He scowled. “Amadou, start my car, please.”
About fifty feet ahead Wood’s aging ChAMP responded with a surprised honk and a quick double flash of headlights. The lights stayed on for a few seconds then faded to embers. Wood swore and hurried to open the driver’s side door. He punched the start-up code into the keypad. The dashboard lit up with an alert: “Charge insufficient for operation.” The words flashed four times before fading to black.
“Shit on toast.” Wood couldn’t remember the last time he’d had the car serviced, and the ChAMP wasn’t talking. Rodney would know, but Rodney was gone. “God damn.” The condo would be a hike, but Third Base was only a dozen blocks away. He could walk to the bar and catch a cab home from there. The ChAMP would be safe in the parking garage. Julia could get it picked up in the morning.
Wood hand-locked all the doors and headed down the ramp to the sidewalk. He liked the feel of the pavement under his feet. L.A. was his city, and he heard her best when the dark sky closed over the top of the buildings, and the normal people went home to their families. Wood grabbed his handkerchief and sneezed into it violently. “God-damnned nanobots.”
The streets were mostly empty. With the near-smarts running things and modern entertainment being what it was, a lot of people never left home anymore. What was the point? Nearly anything they could want was at their fingertips. The only people who came out at night were kids and —
A panicked scream echoed ahead and to the right. Wood broke into a sprint, pounding around the corner. As he ran, he pulled his gun, something he’d done only a handful of times outside the shooting range. Ahead, next to a parked car, a youth was being attacked by a ragged bald man. Wood yelled, his voice automatically amplified by the crowd-control system built into his coat. “Police! Freeze! Police!”
The bald man turned, and the detective’s muscles threatened to turn to agar. There was nothing human in the attacker’s face and nothing comforting about the length of rebar clutched in his hands.
“Drop your weapon,” Wood said. “Get on the ground. I am a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. I am armed, and I will shoot if necessary.”
The attacker studied his length of rebar for a moment and fixed his wild eyes on Wood. He screamed, loud and high enough to send a chill down Wood’s spine and make his throat ache in sympathy. Screeching again, the bald man lifted the bludgeon over his head and charged.
Wood fired three times. The rusty rebar slipped from the man’s hand and clattered on the ground. Wood kept the muzzle of his gun trained on the attacker as the bald man dropped to his knees and fell backward on the pavement.
Wood had shot well, three slugs right into the middle of the bald man’s chest. In seconds, the man was staring into darkness deeper than any Wood had seen through a telescope.
Wood led the kid he’d saved to a nearby bench. “It’s alright. You’re safe.”
The kid was almost certainly a prostitute. He tried to look anywhere but at Wood or the slain attacker, and he shivered against fear and cold. Wood pulled off his coat and draped it around the teen’s narrow shoulders. “You’re going to be okay.” Wood knew the transmitter in his pistol’s grip had sent an emergency signal to police headquarters as soon as he’d drawn the thing. There’d be a cruiser on scene in minutes.
“He was, like, watching me from across the street,” the kid said. His right forearm bent in the middle, the break suffered in self defense. “He just ran at me. I didn’t say nothing to him. He was making this sound, like a dog’s squeak toy. You know?” The kid shivered. “All the time he was hitting me. He kept making the noise.”
Wood walked back to the corpse. A few locks of hair were still attached to the man’s raw scalp. His pupils were dilating rapidly. The detective sat down on the curb near the body, trading his view of the corpse sprawled at his feet for the feeble gleam of the stars above. After a few minutes he woke up Amadou and put in a call to LeClair. “I think we’ve got another one. Get a download as soon as you come in.”
The meat wagon picked up the body twenty minutes later, and Wood caught a ride with a blue the rest of the way home.
The alarm cut through his sleeping-pill haze at nine the next morning. Wood’s body felt heavy, and he sat on his bed and held his gun for a long time before replacing the three spent cartridges. He stopped for coffee on the way into work.
“Trade you,” LeClair said, waving a printout.
Wood handed over the coffee, his eyes fixed on the report in his partner’s hand. He scanned the sheaf of paper summing up the contents of each perp’s onboard. “The same kind of files as the Cobb girl had. The same shit that took out Rodney.”
“They’ve all got it. It’s got to be a virus.”
Wood put a call in to his captain. Four hours later he was in the captain’s office.
“Congratulations,” the captain said. “A security patch just went live. GooglePlex is writing a worm to destroy any copies of the virus still in the Cloud.”
“That won’t get them all,” Wood said. “Some funny guy probably has a portable drive full of them.”
The older man shrugged. “It’s out of our jurisdiction. GooglePlex is international. We sent it all up the line to Homeland Security and Global Cybercrimes. It’s a terrorism case now.” He clapped Wood on the shoulder. “Take a couple of days off. Go see that kid of yours. Mary?”
“Molly.” Wood leaned forward. “It’s not over. The guy I shot had eyes. Something’s changed.”
The captain’s eyes grew flinty. “It’s over. A nice little case to give to media. Protect and serve. We’ve done our jobs.”
File it under Somebody Else’s Problem, Wood thought as he walked back to his office.
LeClair met him at his office door. “Don’t bother going in there,” he said. “The network just went down.”
“Probably some kind of security measure. It knows there’s a virus going around and doesn’t want to get sick.”
“What the hell are we supposed to do in the meantime?”
“It’s Friday. We saved the day. Go home early.”
Wood thought about the police captain, upstairs washing his hands of the whole thing. “Hell with it. I will.”
On his way out the door Wood called Trolan to tell him he was going to stop by the observatory and bum a few upgrades for his array. The professor laughed and said there was shareware, free to download, that would do a better job than Wood’s outdated commercial package. “Bring your laptop by, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Then Wood called his ex-wife and reminded her that the custody agreement allowed him to take Molly for long weekends. “We’re going out to Sonoma,” he said. “I’ll pick her up in the morning. The kitten, too, if she wants.”
It was full dark when Wood pulled his rental car into a parking spot near the university’s observatory. The ChAMP was in the shop, its recharge resulting in nothing more than the car’s alarm going off, the piercing tones making Wood wince and force a shut down.
Trolan was in his office, halfway through a fifth of whiskey. Wood sat in Trolan’s guest chair. “Didn’t I buy you that bottle three years ago?”
Trolan slid it across the desk to Wood. Wood took a slug and wiped the bottle’s neck on his sleeve. “What are we celebrating?”
Trolan stared at his desk.”The end of the world? Proof of extraterrestrial life?” He looked up at Wood. “Pick one.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Trolan slid a handheld across the desk to Wood. “Wake it up.”
Wood picked the small computer up and woke it with a thumb swipe. A disfigured face took up most of the screen. The face was eyeless, with skin like Silly Putty. It contorted as its mouth opened again and again to reveal rows of tiny, sharp teeth.
“Don’t turn the volume up,” Trolan said. “It won’t stop screaming. I already have a headache.”
Wood continued to look at the face on the handheld. He felt cold, and wanted another slug of the booze. “What is it?”
“The virus the newsbots are talking about. The one that made those people go bat shit. It’s a lifeform. Was a lifeform. I don’t know. Maybe it still is.”
“I don’t get it.”
“The static I told you about. This was in it. Millions of them. They just started showing up on the screens a couple of hours ago.”
Wood rubbed the back of his neck. “Some kind of program.”
Trolan shook his head. “We think they used to be biological. Probably from the Andromeda galaxy. A sun there went nova a million years ago. They uploaded their brains and shot them into space.”
“They’ve been traveling for millennia. Disembodied. Losing coherency.” Trolan stared at his glass. “They didn’t come down here alone.” He woke his desk terminal. It showed the L.A. network map with a red overlay. Even as they watched, the overlay grew, sending out tendrils in all directions.
“What’s that?” Wood said.
“It’s a near-smart. Maybe even a full A.I. It came down with the signal. It’s in the Cloud. It’s in all our near-smarts.”
“What’s it doing?”
“Serving and protecting. Making a new home for its charges.”
Wood pointed at the center of the overlay. “That’s my precinct.”
“Now it’s a fortress. Maybe an incubator.”
“Keeping them safe from the worm.”
Trolan nodded. “They’re evolving. Getting stronger. Learning.”
“And hunting works better if they keep the eyes intact. They figured that out. They’ll beat the worm. The onboards are still vulnerable.” Wood woke his badge. “Amadou, get me LeClair.” He looked at Trolan. “How many of your people have them?”
“About half. But it’s worse than that.” He shuddered. “It’s in the Cloud, and the Cloud is in us.”
“Detective LeClair is out for the weekend,” Amadou said.
“Get me the captain’s office, then,” Wood said, without taking his eyes from his friend. “The Cloud nanobots are in us. Why is that a problem?”
Trolan closed his eyes. “Every breath, every swallow.” His eyelids fluttered open. “They took samples of human brains, Davis. Why would they do that?”
Wood’s heart stumbled and picked up its pace. He felt it hammering in his ears. “They were analyzing it.”
“Breaking it down with stomach acid.”
“They aren’t going to stop with the onboards.” Wood looked at his badge. “Amadou, where’s my god-damned call?”
The Watson spoke, its voice dragging itself from the badge’s speakers. “Too late.”
The lights went out, and the barely audible whine of the ventilation fans ceased, leaving behind a few moments of shocked silence. Outside the room, Wood heard a chorus of sharp gasps, as if a dozen or more people had abruptly forgotten what it meant to be human. Then the screeching started, and the screams.
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