Human beings aren’t always flesh and blood. Detectives Allen and Jessica Teal are called in to assist a beautiful scientist being blackmailed into stealing bleeding-edge robotics technology. But when high-tech corporate extortion is unexpectedly replaced with murder, the robot prototype becomes vital to the case—and a lifeline to one detective’s past.
A fascinating look at where automation, robotics and security are taking us, socially, professionally… and personally.
The apartment building was fairly typical of newer designs, with a single hallway that ran the length of the floor, no nooks or corners around which to hide, all-enveloping lighting, and cameras set to record any activity in the hall. The London protocols were in effect here, and all public spaces were wired. This included the apartment building’s lobby and the streets around it, with high-res cameras at every doorway.
In the lobby of an adjacent building, a well-dressed couple stood near a wall in a position out of the eyesight of most passers-by but still affording them a view of the outside. The man was about half a head taller than the woman, dressed in a simple but well-fitting sport coat, trousers and fitted shirt, all in matching neovic style. He was handsome, but would never be considered “pretty,” with light skin, medium-brown hair cut short on the sides, cool eyes, and a wide, expressive mouth. His features would be considered classic Continental European, with the possible exception of a nose, more rounded at the tip than straight, that suggested an Irish heritage.
The woman was dressed in a pants suit, also neovic and well-fitting, and more expensive than his clothing by a factor of two. As opposed to her male companion, she was every bit of “pretty,” with straight dark hair, a dusky complexion, sharp but feminine features and an aquiline nose that suggested a Mediterranean background.
Together, the couple looked like they would not be out of place in a fashion site photo spread. A glance from any passerby would have pegged them as a yuppie business couple, perhaps waiting casually for an equally-model-looking friend for lunch; but the couple was in fact hyper-alert to every movement around them and outside.
Jess Teal glanced out at the adjacent apartment building, and sighed. “What was it like in the old days, when you could just sneak up, break down a door and actually surprise someone?”
“Ask the Vincenzos,” Allen Teal replied, arching his eyebrows ironically but not taking his eyes away from the apartment building’s main entrance. “Remember them? NewsFeed says they still haven’t found all the pieces.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jess muttered.
“Are you going to tell me you wish we were back in the good old days?” Allen added. “The days of ‘too many secrets, too little security’?”
He said the last as if he were quoting some manifesto or phrase from a history text. She apparently knew the phrase, too, because she silently mouthed the words as he spoke them. Aloud, she replied, “Okay, maybe not. But at least stake-outs were easier. Didn’t require a hacker to approach within a hundred yards of a perp.”
“If you don’t want my help,” came a voice over the earpieces they both wore, “just let me know. I’ll go get an early dinner.”
Allen and Jess exchanged amused glances. “Just keep working, Marcus,” Allen replied. “How close?”
“Very,” the voice at the other end of the earpiece replied. “Get set up, guys.”
“Okay, stand by,” Allen said, and nodded at Jess. “Be careful, Missus.”
“You too, Mister,” she nodded back, and left his side, walking back through the lobby and following the exit signs to the rear of the building. At the exit door, she stopped on the inside. She took quick stock of herself, and touched a hand to the shoulder holster under her jacket that held her blaser. Satisfied, she said, “I’m good to go.”
“Anytime then, Marcus,” came Allen’s voice.
“Almost there, boss,” Marcus replied over the link. About a minute went by before Marcus spoke again. “Okay, I’ve got all the data I need. I’m pulling the trigger now… and done. Kent should be out in a minute. I still have a twenty on the front door.”
“We’ll let you know,” Jess replied, and pushed open the exit door, wincing slightly at the wall of heat that greeted her. The space between the buildings was a bit more than an alley, not quite a street, but with the usual trash and storage containers that indicated its primary use was utility access. Jess could see the exit door of the adjacent apartment building, just across the alley and a few meters away, next to a recycling pod that was close enough to prevent the exit door from opening all the way. Jess was willing to bet that the door would slam loudly against that pod every time it was opened. Which she expected to happen at any moment.
She glanced up at a nearby corner of the building, and saw the ubiquitous camera globe bolted there. The black ball stared down upon the alley like an eye that was all pupil, simultaneously monitoring in visible, infra-red and probably a few radio frequencies. Chances are, the security people in the building she’d just left could see her on their monitors. But if Marcus had been thorough, any signal that would reach their target would be spoofed and showing an empty alley. Such a task was no mean feat, even with the required permits; and their quarry was an expert hacker, who knew how to spot manipulated security lines (that he was certainly monitoring for his own protection); but Jess was confident in Marcus’ skills. The hacker would be aware of an attack on his system—but would see no one outside of the building, and would therefore choose his favorite escape route.
Which she expected to happen at any moment…
Just as Jess was beginning to suspect she’d guessed wrong, she heard Allen’s voice: “I don’t have him. Jess?”
“Me either,” she said. “We screwed up somewhere. Marcus, are you sure there’s no other exit from this place?”
“Only a maintenance hatch,” Marcus replied, “that you can see from where you are. And he’d have to get through a Madison lock to access it… though, considering his skillset, that may not be out of the question…”
“Taking too long. I’ve gotta go check,” Jess stated, and started across the alley for the door.
“Stay on the front door, in case he—”
At that moment, the door opened, swinging wide and slamming loudly against the recycling pod. A young man stepped out of the door, flinching at the loud bang it made on the pod. The startling noise of the door was the only thing that kept him from seeing Jess first.
Jess, already halfway across the alley and totally exposed, cursed herself for jumping the gun: She knew she had no way to dive for cover, nor could she reach him before he could duck back inside. Her best weapon now would be shock value, hopefully surprising him enough to keep him off-balance. She increased her speed.
“Kent!” she bellowed. “Don’t move!”
But the man was already moving, having jerked about at sound of his name. He saw Jess charging at him, and he ducked back for the building in a panic, trying to grab the door and pull it shut behind him… but his hand slipped off of the edge of the door, and one glance told him he wouldn’t have time to close it before Jess was upon him. He lost perhaps one step in grabbing for the door before disappearing inside.
“He’s at the back, back inside,” Jess reported, glad that at least her surprise shout had kept him from locking the door behind him. As she approached the door, her six years’ training as an Atlanta cop kicked in: She used her momentum and hit the door with her back, forcing it to bang against the pod again, and shifted her weight in order to bounce off of it and enter the building at a new angle, in case her quarry was waiting to jump her. She hit the ground and rolled back to her feet, taking quick stock of the area. Kent was running full-tilt in the opposite direction, and Jess knew enough about the apartment building’s schematics to know his plan.
“Heading for the basement,” she stated, “and probably that maintenance hatch. Allen, go ‘round back and cover the hatch. I’m in pursuit.”
“Be careful,” Allen advised. “He may double back.”
“Noted,” Jess said, and cracked a tiny smile as she drew her blaser. “Marcus, any eyes down here?”
“Just the stairwell,” Marcus replied. “Which he just used.”
“‘Kay.” Jess hit the stairs and took them quickly, pausing at the doorway at the bottom of the landing to listen. Hearing nothing, she shouldered the door open and thrust her blaser forward in a regulation two-handed stance.
And was immediately beset upon by a tall shelf of boxes and cans tilting down upon her. Jess yelped and tried to move out of the way, but the sheer volume of the shelf and supplies bore her down. Fortunately, nothing heavy came down directly upon her, and somewhat miraculously, none of the paint cans actually opened when they hit the floor, but they rolled around under her and the shelving, making it difficult for her to find her footing and crawl out from under the shelving. She had also managed to hold onto the blaser with one hand, but was in no position to fire it now. She heard, rather than saw, Kent escaping from behind the shelf. “He’s gonna reach the hatch!” she shouted as she struggled to get out from under the pile of junk.
“What happened? Are you okay?”
“Cover the hatch!” A stab of pain exploded in her left leg, and she gasped as she tried to twist free. For the first time she noted that her suit was in a shambles, thanks to the tumble against the door and the falling shelf… it wouldn’t be dry-cleaned this time.
Jess finally extricated herself from the junk and headed, favoring her left leg, for the maintenance hatch. Her leg hurt like hell, but the biomonitor in her aide wasn’t issuing any alerts, so at least it wasn’t likely to be life-threatening; she gritted her teeth through the pain and limped on. By the time she reached the hatch, she could see it was open, and heard noises of a scuffle outside. Holding her blaser in one hand, she mounted the access ladder as swiftly as she could on one bad leg and pushed her head out into the open.
Just meters in front of her was Kent, facing down Allen with what had to be the largest wrench Jess had ever seen, which he must have recovered from the maintenance room before he’d exited the basement. Jess frowned in confusion, because she knew Allen had a blaser… why wasn’t he using it? She glanced about, and saw his blaser on the ground and well out of reach. Allen seemed to be favoring his gun hand… Kent must have used that wrench to knock the blaser out of it.
“Kent!” she shouted, and fired her own blaser. The telltale shot of electricity, looking much like a miniature bolt of lightning, arched across the distance and hit Kent in the side as he spun around. But instead of shocking him insensate, the bolt seemed to fizzle against his shirt. His clothes are grounded, she realized sickly.
She tried to shift her aim at his head, but Kent responded by kicking a nearby loose brick at Jess’ head, forcing her to duck down on the ladder. She started to come back up, but Kent kicked at the hatch support strut, and suddenly the hatch came crashing down.
Jess dropped her head as fast as she could, but the hatch tapped her on the head anyway. The impact was slight, but enough to cause her to lose her footing on the ladder. She tumbled back down to the floor, landed on her bad leg, and fell in a heap.
“Oww!” she grated, rubbing her head and looking up at the closed hatch. She found the lock release box, next to the wall, and realized it was secured by a finger-scanner. Kent had probably hacked into it, but Jess couldn’t. She was locked in. Or, rather, locked out of the fight between a desperate young hacker with a forearm-sized wrench… and her husband.
That was Marcus, who knew better than to bother Allen and Jess when they were in a situation. Jess struggled to her feet, and her now-fearfully-blazing left leg, and found she had to lean against the wall to wait for her head to clear. “Marcus, eyes on the alley… clear the cameras. I’m cut off from Allen, I have to go around to the door.” She avoided mentioning the fact that her head was reeling and her leg was wracked, in order to make sure Marcus didn’t waste time asking about her. “Call backup!”
She started limping for the exit. The stairs were tough, but she soon realized that her leg was accepting her weight better as she used it. But she could also see the dark stain on the fabric of her slacks, and hoped she wasn’t losing too much blood. At the top of the stairs, she could almost run. On her earpiece, she could hear sounds of scuffling and heavy breathing; Allen and Kent were clearly at it, trading blows—and, hopefully, dodging wrench-swings. As she struggled along, she began running through all the moves she’d learned in police training, especially those designed to backup and/or protect a partner. Fortunately, Allen was also ex-law enforcement, and his FBI combat training beat out her cop training hands-down.
But that was a big wrench.
Before she reached the door, she heard a sudden flurry of grunts and activity, a pained shout—not her husband’s—and the recognizable sound of a huge wrench hitting the pavement. Then, a rapid thump-thumpathump-thump! Spurred on by the noise, she hit the door, throwing her weight against it as it slammed into the recycling pod, and using it as support as she brandished her blaser.
Allen started when the door slammed into the pod. He jerked around to look at Jess, then the door. “Man, that thing’s loud.” At his feet lay Kent, unmoving. The wrench was about three meters away, behind Allen.
“Oh,” Jess growled, “I missed the whole fight! Was it good?”
“It worked out for me,” Allen admitted, taking quick stock of himself and dusting off his sport coat. “I hope dry-cleaning will get this out,” he commented wryly.
“Lucky you,” Jess said as she pushed away from the door and approached him.
“Stand down, Marcus,” Allen replied. “We got ‘im. Oh, you owe Jess twenty…” Then he noticed Jess’ limp, and the tearing and stains on her slacks leg, and started forward.
“Hold still,” he said as he knelt before her. “Let me see.” Jess stopped, and allowed him to pull up the fabric of her slacks and examine her leg. “Nothing broken?” he asked.
“No… just hurts like hell.”
“What happened to Jess?”
“Bad scrape,” Allen said to both of them. “Bruising, and maybe infected. We’ll get it patched up.” He stood up, paused when he heard sirens approaching from the distance, and turned back to his wife. “Are you sure you’re okay? Didn’t that hatch hit you?”
“You bet it did,” Jess replied, bowing her head and feeling for the lump that was already forming.
“Hatch? The hatch hit you? Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine, dear,” Jess replied, glancing up at the nearest monitor globe as if she could see Marcus peering through it. “Make sure you’ve got the evidence backed up. We’ll see you back at the office.”
“After we visit the hospital,” Allen added.
Jess’ leg was feeling much better as she walked into the office of the Teal Investigations Agency. The doctors had made a quick job of cleaning and laying a healing-aid skin over it, while others tended to Allen’s swollen hand. Nonetheless, she was glad to have Allen to lean on. As they entered, Jess still visibly limping, their office manager, Perry Collins, stood up from his desk. As he approached, his hand drifted up to his bald head, and touched one of several tattooed sigils that adorned his scalp from what would have been his hairline to the base of his neck.
“Hey, how’s the leg? And the head? And the hand?” He looked at the puffy redness of Allen’s gun hand, concern clearly reflected in his eyes.
“We’re fine,” Jess replied, smiling lightly. “Just flesh wounds.”
Perry came around the desk and fell in step on Jess’ side anyway, in case she needed more support. “Flesh wounds are still wounds. Marcus said Kent took a wrench to you.”
“Big as my arm,” Allen replied as he steered Jess into her office and over to her desk.
“Seriously? I thought that was just in old cartoons.” He offered a skinny arm to Jess as she eased into her chair, allowing the light to reflect a shade of green off the body art on his head.
“Oh, no, I saw it,” Jess told him. “That wrench could move a building. Knocked his blaser out of his hand… I think we’ll have to print a new one.”
“Ow, that looks nasty! Let me see.”
Everyone turned at the sound of the fourth member of the Teal agency, who hurried in and reached tentatively for Allen’s arm to hold his hand up to the light. The girl was about as tall and thin as Perry; but with an un-made-up face, hair cut in a relaxed, boyish style, and men’s neovic clothing tailored to hide any sign of a girlish figure, any stranger would have had to look closely to realize they were not looking at a man. She turned Allen’s hand in her own, applying an unladylike grip to his wrist.
“Careful, Marcus!” Jess warned. “Don’t worry, the doctors treated him, too.”
Marcus looked down at Jess, then critically back at Allen’s hand, before she removed her own hand. “If you say so… how bad does it hurt?”
“Not much, they gave me a local,” Allen told her. “Do you have the data ready for our client?”
“Sure, organized and backed up,” Marcus replied, breaking her attention from Allen’s hand. “Kent won’t be able to squirm out of this one… Club Fed will be hosting him for a long time.” She turned to Jess. “How’s the leg, babe?”
“I’ll live, thanks,” Jess replied.
“I think we’ve all earned the rest of the day off,” Allen smiled, and turned to Perry. “We don’t have anything else for today, right?”
“No,” Perry shook his head. “A new appointment for tomorrow, that’s it.”
“New client? Good,” Allen agreed. “For now, let’s call it a day.”
“All right!” Marcus pumped a fist. “I’ve been meaning to check out this new bar downtown. Perry?”
“Sorry, I can’t,” Perry shrugged. “We have friends coming over, and I can use the extra time to help Mira prepare everything.”
“Oh,” Marcus sagged. “Girl-hunting without my wingman isn’t as much fun.” Momentarily, she brightened up. “But if I must, I must. See ya!” And with that, she strode out of Jess’ office to collect her things.
Perry shook his head after her. “She needs a new wingman… someone who’s single, like her… or, at least, can get away more.” He glanced at Jess and Allen. “And I admit, untrad is one thing, but it’s getting strange pretending to other girls that she’s a guy. I’ll never figure out why she tortures herself chasing trad girls, anyway.”
“Hey,” Jess said, “if she wants to freak out trads, that’s her deal. Go on, go home to Mira.”
“Say ‘hi’ for us,” Allen added.
“Sure,” Perry waved as he exited the room. “See ya.”
Once they were alone, Jess levered herself out of her chair. Allen put out a hand immediately to help her up, and she smiled back gratefully. “Will we get a bonus from this job? I’m gonna need a new suit.”
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