by Rajnar Vajra
Recently, I’d given in to marital pressure and upgraded our aging but perfectly adequate home AI to the latest Household Operations Serving Technology, model J33V35, “Jeeves.” It had taken me three intense hours to install, program, debug, and get the new HOST interfaced with the extended range in-wall speakers I’d been pressured into installing last month so that a certain party could enjoy ultra-fidelity sound anywhere in the house.
Now I was regretting the upgrade. This AI was a whole lot smarter and more sensitive than the old system.
I smelled coffee brewing, which meant Jeeves had calculated from our breathing or heartbeats or movements that at least one of us was awake. Either that, or the HOST had already come down with a case of system error.
I didn’t want to be the only one awake. Such things bring responsibilities, and I felt lazy as . . . well, me every morning.
Lying face up, I barely had to turn my head to study the two women bracketing me. I kept my eyes nearly closed, trying to appear asleep to anyone feeling equally lazy and inspecting me for signs of alertness.
Alyse lay snuggled against my left side, a lock of her bronze hair tickling my arm. Her eyes were shut and her breathing slow. This told me nothing. Her hair hid her throat, where her pulse might’ve given me a clue. To my right, Devorah, my instructor in the art of reading pulses and reading faces, also seemed asleep. Her short white-gold hair left her neck exposed, but her back was to me so I learned nothing definitive. Her breathing, too, suggested the deepest snooze. Still, I sensed that someone, aside from me, was faking.
I played dead for another minute, trying to ignore increasing hints from my bladder. Recorded ocean waves and live melodies from a neighborhood oriole made the room peaceful as a still lake. None of us so much as twitched.
“Fine,” I whispered. “What are the chances someone else will be bringing coffee this morn?”
Both women spoke at once. “Zero to none,” Dev murmured with more artificial sweetness than I’d dare put in her java while Al said “Less creamer this time, Jackson, si vous plait.”
I pampered my bladder, then donned my robe and headed downstairs with the kind of tread I hoped would express a justified sense of being put-upon. Hearing the offensively wide-awake voices now emanating from our bedroom, I deduced that my stomps had gone in vain. Dev was teaching me how to think like a police detective, and her training was clearly taking hold.
Jeeves had warmed the stairs for the comfort of bare feet, but the kitchen still felt chilly. The HOST had, however, already pre-warmed our cups.
“Jeeves,” I said, “you are my only true friend.”
“Very good, sir,” came the response from the nearest CAVE speaker, which could, for no good reason, produce sounds so deep they’d make an earthquake jealous and sounds so high even a cat couldn’t hear them. Jeeves’s politeness cheered me even though I’d programmed that response myself.
Lesser humans might use a tray to carry three cups of coffee. I carried one cup, gripping the other two handles with my other hand. Didn’t spill a drop on my way up the stairs, but toward the top I stopped, less to eavesdrop than to avoid interrupting something truly rare.
Dev regarded herself as a practical person, focused on evidence and logic. Now I heard her confessing a feeling vaguer than a hunch, and it obviously made her uncomfortable. Her lovely Brazilian accent had thickened, and she sounded younger and uncharacteristically uncertain.
“Can’t put a dedo—a finger on it, Alyse. Just a . . . wrongness.”
A chill trickled down my spine. I suppose forebodings can be catching.
“If I had your job,” Al said, “I’d constantly feel that way. Crime never sleeps, right?”
“Não. This is different.”
“Maybe your subconscious picked up on something but isn’t ready to go public.”
“Now you talk like our Jack.”
I climbed the final stairs and entered the bedroom. Jeeves had replaced the sleeping ambience with Friday morning baroque, Lully I think, and Alyse had scooched over next to Dev to un-complicate the coffee-delivering process. I planted myself on Al’s side of the bed and waited for the conversation to resume.
It didn’t. Dev changed the subject, and her mates took the hint.
* * *
When I first moved to Connecticut, traffic tended to be a nightmare anywhere near Hartford, horrendous during rush hours. Greater Hartford’s latest Automatic Traffic System has cut my average commute from home to High Street to a mere twenty minutes.
The new six-lane time-stiles work perfectly. The old stiles, allowing only two cars at a time to reach the highway gates, created queues a half-mile long. Now I typically reach I-91 within five minutes.
Dev and I carpooled as always, but got interrupted halfway to work by a call on her police-band implant. I knew this wasn’t trivial from the way Dev tensed up.
I happened to be slouched behind the wheel, letting the highway ATS do the driving, but I instinctively sat up straight before Dev spoke.
“Take the next exit,” she ordered. “We’re both needed at a crime scene. Then at another. No siren.”
“Why would they want me?”
“Something technical, what else? I don’t have details.”
I triggered the exit blinker. The system ushered us into the far right lane, and then onto the next off-ramp. We passed though the stile, and after a warning buzz, I had control over the car. Dev guided me to our first destination, following GPS instructions from her implant. We pulled up to a curb near a parking lot’s worth of official vehicles. An officer posted at the door of a well-kept Colonial handed us shoe-covers, gloves, oversized jumpers, and small tubes of odor-killing paste. That last made me wish I were elsewhere, but we donned the gear, and I followed Dev inside.
We both stopped a few feet in to smear paste on our upper lips, and even then I caught whiffs of rotting meat and voided bowels. No corpses in the living room, but I guessed more than one was somewhere in the home from the intensity of stench. Houseflies buzzed. An officer waved Dev toward a staircase while a dark-suited man whose face had apparently spent too much time in a boxing ring called me over to join him near the home’s central control panel. I felt immensely grateful to not be following Dev up to the bedrooms.
“Jack Monroe, right?” the boxer asked.
I nodded agreement. I’d seen this detective at headquarters, but we’d never more than nodded.
“I’m Mike Cassidy, Homicide.” He didn’t offer to shake hands, which I guessed was crime scene protocol. “I’ll fill you in.”
We both turned toward the staircase as crews descended, carrying two gurneys supporting filled body bags, one adult size and one much smaller.
I turned back. “What happened here, Detective?” My voice squeaked, and I had to dab another smear of paste beneath my nose.
“Seven deaths. The entire Bennett family, two parents, two grandparents, and three kids. A relative with entry privileges couldn’t reach them, got worried, drove here, and found ’em this morning. The ME thinks carbon monoxide, and that it happened between 2:00 and 3:00 am Wednesday morning.”
I shook my head, stunned. “How—how could that be possible? Every home in Connecticut is required to have safeguards that—”
“How is what you’re here to figure out, Monroe. Forensics checked the boiler, but the first word is nothing seems wrong. Venting perfect, boiler efficient. House air is good. Aside from the stink.”
I brushed some hassling flies away and frowned at the panel; every control light glowed a healthy green, and none flickered.
“You think their HOST caused the deaths? No way!” Also, even the earliest model HOST would sound CO alarms, alert emergency services, and if anyone stopped breathing, would instantly call the police.
Cassidy shrugged. “Something sure went wrong here, and right now no explanation makes sense. We need to check every possibility. Your part is to test the tech. You’re the top tech guy, right?”
I frowned, pointing at the panel lights. “Looks perfect, but I’ll run a full system scan. Mainly to rule out the impossible: that the HOST caused this.”
“Go to it. Hey, I heard about you. You’re in a three-way marriage, right? What’s that like?” He smirked, winning no points with me.
“Complicated.” And not at all what you imagine.
I downloaded the latest diagnostic software into my implant and had the expected hassle getting the HOST’s permission to accept me as a temp admin. These things are designed with serious firewalls to prevent tampering. Once the AI reluctantly confirmed my police authorization, I ran the test wirelessly, and my implant stored the data.
“Done,” I told Cassidy who’d been staring at me while I did nothing visible. “I’ll analyze results when I get to my office. Detective Silva and I came here together, so one of us will need a ride if you’d like me to study this right away.”
He shook his head. “Both of you are expected at the other crime scene. Better hang until she’s ready to go. Wait outside if you like.”
Very much I liked. Getting back into fresh air was a blessing, and I dreaded our next destination.
Dev showed up five minutes later, and soon we were back in the car, on our way. Neither of us spoke.
The second crime scene was worse. Worse stink, more flies. More dead bodies—five adults and four kids. Two of the corpses had died in the living room. I watched the forensic crew in action. Not like on TV. Most of their equipment looked old and battered. Funding issues.
When Dev and I had finished our respective chores, we exchanged a commiserating hug, outside, of course, and drove to headquarters. Not a cheery ride. Then it took so much time for me to interrogate the data from two HOSTs, and for Dev to do her own work, that we didn’t get home until midnight. I’d given Dev the non-results of my labors, but she felt too exhausted to return the favor. Al was already in bed, asleep, by the time we turned in ourselves.
* * *
Next morning, I woke up way too early after a night of little sleep and headed downstairs where I sat in an armchair, futilely interrogating the sunrise. I’d never experienced a murder scene before, and these deaths now meant something personal to me. That chilly touch I’d felt yesterday morning about Dev’s hunch was back and had grown long, icy fingers. Jeeves made our coffee maker beep to remind me it was on, snapping me out of something more nightmare than daydream.
I delivered the brews. Dev sighed, took a sip, and started talking.
“Two cases, Alyse. Two families murdered in their homes, the first around 2:30 am Wednesday, the second three hours later, all doors and windows locked. Carbon monoxide. Gas backup heating, all furnaces checked out fine. Jack worked diagnostics on both HOSTs. Errors? Não! Crazy! Why no alarms? Why wouldn’t working AI’s flag us that someone had died? Why no record of anything wrong?”
A heartbeat-worth of pause from Al, a rarity with her lightning-fast brain. “Would HOSTs have any way to create that kind of pollution?”
“Porra! Of course not!” The more Dev is shaken, the more Portuguese emerges. “Hosts could turn up the thermostat, starting the furnace, sim. But they couldn’t make a furnace burn wrong! Não, this was done by cruel hands. Someone to turn on and misadjust furnaces, and later to, eh, normalize everything. But Jack says HOST reports show no doors opened in either home after 10:30 the night before the murders.”
“I assume you ran CARPET?” Al said.
“Com certeza! After sweating blood to get an emergency session authorized. Ran a quick week’s worth, and then practically real time for hours before and after the deaths. Full moon that night. Even without vision boost, I could see the doors. But nada. No stranger entered or left either home by door or window. Neither place even has a chaminé . . . a chimney.”
Al studied her coffee. Genius at work. I could practically hear her polished mental gears whirling. “I see very few realistic possibilities,” she said.
Dev snorted softly. “Just one for me. Someone already inside screwed with house systems and furnaces.”
The bed frame creaked as Al braced herself higher on my favorite sleeping pillow.
“Devorah,” Al said, “you believe the murderer or murderers were hiding inside? Wearing, say, scuba gear? And then what? Waited until everyone else had died before leaving? But if no doors or windows were opened, how did they leave? Also, two such bizarre events in one night? So very unlikely, love. Any HOST-authorized family members or friends unaccounted for?”
Dev looked as if she’d bitten into an especially sour lemon. “We haven’t found any without steel alibis. Yet.”
“At least we can rule out suicides. Who would’ve adjusted the furnaces afterwards? Also, think about how difficult it would be to bypass all the redundancy in HOST security functions.”
“What are you saying?”
Al shook her head. “Neither of you will like this. Perhaps someone with professional skills not only tampered with the HOSTs; they also tampered with your CARPET reconnaissance.”
Dev leaned out past Al to look at me. “Is that possible?”
Since I was now, thanks to accursed budget cuts, the entirety of Hartford Police Department’s full-time IT department and had helped set up Hartford’s CARPET in the first place, the issue lay right in my wheelhouse. But before answering, I wanted to feel out the implications. Gradually, Dev’s eyebrows rose, and her eyes narrowed and stayed that way. She has an incredibly mobile face, which changes expressions so often you can miss its intrinsic elegance. A bad sign when her face goes still.
“I don’t see how,” I admitted to starve her impatience. “Can’t imagine it could be done remotely. And on site, CARPET security is rock—hell, diamond solid.”
The silence lasted far too long. I wasn’t the only one worried about implications.
Al broke it. “Jack, can you determine with reasonable certainty if anyone unauthorized accessed the system or, ah, its components?”
“You bet. Also anyone authorized. The only way someone could do any video sleight-of-hand is to hack into the meta-server housed near the CARPET mainframe. That server’s strictly for handling and compressing video feeds. Mainframe, server, and controller are all installed in the same radio-isolated room. Isolated except for a single heavy-duty communications port with a firewall that could . . . could block the malware version of a nuclear detonation.” I inserted a touch of irony. “And where is this ultra-secure room? Why, in the middle of Connecticut’s largest police station.”
“Aside from location, what makes this room so secure?”
“It’s built like a bank vault, including the door, with state-of-the-art identifying sensors. The only way to reprogram the server is through the controller console. Even then you’d need special authorization.”
Dev waved her non-cup-wielding hand. “Perhaps we should climb out on limbs, Alyse, and rule out our Jack as a suspect.”
“Thanks for the pass, dear.” I gave her a sour look that rolled harmlessly off her. “I seldom murder strangers.”
“É mesmo?” Which means “really?” Brazilian sarcasm.
“What happens,” Al asked me, “if a component fails?”
“I call the manufacturer, Eladdin. They rush me a replacement, and I install it. Never touched by human hands,” I added, trying and failing to lighten the mood.
Dev rested a hand on Al’s sheet-covered knee. “Saturday or no, Jack and I should go into work, and I’d adore it if you’d come along.”
“And postpone grading student research papers? Superb idea! I’m yours until tonight.”
Dev made that little chuckle I love. “Obrigado. Let’s get dressed and fed. I claim first shower. If we could leave by nine, it would be great.”
“More like a miracle,” I muttered, which got ignored. “I’ll check in to see if the CARPET room is available sometime this morning.”
“Don’t bother,” Dev suggested. “I’ll call Tony and make sure it’s free when we arrive. I’d say this qualifies as a necessity, não?”
* * *
We keep tightening security at Headquarters, which is a complex of buildings hogging over 150,000 square feet. East and West Hartford have their own headquarters, but this is cop central.
We checked in with Tony Cortez, weekend Operations Officer, and my little family reached the CARPET chamber within two minutes. Even Hartford’s Chief of Police, mighty William Warren Lorenzani, couldn’t have done that in less than five. Since I’m the one who set up the latest security protocols, I built in something of a private . . . front door for bypassing most of them.
Above the big door, the words were spelled out on a cartoon flying carpet using a faux Arabic font, someone’s cute idea: Computer Assisted Recordable Police Event Tour. A forced acronym, a backronym sure, but accurate enough except it omitted the key element. This “tour” was conducted in a semi-virtual environment using a GEV interface. GEV is yet another acronym, but its inventor expended no sweat to make it a word. God’s Eye View.
Let’s face it: acronyms are out of control. We need a bigger alphabet because so many of the damn things mean too many damn things.
“Should we all go in together?” Al asked Dev who turned to raise an inquiring eyebrow at me.
I nodded. “We have enough nullsuits. It’ll be cramped but we’ll fit. Not much to see, Al, but it’ll give you a peek at the setup.”
I grabbed three nullsuits. These ugly, stretchy, and pricey garments cover from scalp to shoe sole, keeping contaminants away from sensitive electronics while allowing a wearer to breathe normally, although they make me feel a bit suffocated. They include a self-cleaning system so effective that officers, in a time pinch, have been known to briefly wear one in lieu of taking a shower. More importantly, they provide an electromagnetic filter that allows the inductive GEV to function while blocking all other EM intrusion. The conductive material on the crown reminds me of a tinfoil hat worn to annoy mind readers. The GEV interface rests on this to do its thing.
I pulled up my headpiece after the sensors had recognized my left iris. I heard the massive bolts shoot back and opened the door. We squeezed into the “airlock,” pushed through wind and electrostatic filters, and reached the Holy of Holies. An array of panels brightened, revealing an ultra-ergonomic chair, a carbon fiber rack holding mainframe and server, and various electronic stalks menacing us from the curved walls and ceiling. I freed the one finger the nullsuit’s gloves allowed me to free and touched a button. I could barely feel the tiny scrape. As I tucked my finger back in, the big console rose from the floor.
“Sophisticated biometric sensor in this button, Al. Way beyond mere fingerprint. Uses a tissue sample. Anything off and no console appears. See that liquid forming on the button? Cleaning solvent. No chances taken.”
She tilted her head, which I knew meant some odd thought had come her way, but she kept it under wraps.
“Those panels in here,” I offered, “use specially designed OLED bulbs that don’t create EM interference.”
“I see. Who’s permitted to operate the device?”
I smiled. “The correct term is ‘flying.’ I’m in charge of keeping the beast honest so I have a free pass whenever no session is scheduled. I need a go-card to actually fly, but our supply officers have standing orders to issue a street-level card to me whenever. Otherwise only detectives actively working cases can fly, but they need manna from on high to get even street-level permission, and higher-level authorizations are harder to get proportional to how much privacy they’re asking to invade. Cards go into this slot here and each only works once. For street-level, there’s generally a waiting list.”
Al’s head remained tilted, and curiosity bit me. “Something special on your mind, Alyse?” From past experience, I doubted she’d be ready to talk about it, but you can’t always trust past experience.
We waited, but she didn’t continue. Dev released an exasperated whoosh of breath. “Is it pertinent to why we’re here, Al?”
“Not sure. I hatched a troubling idea but need to keep sitting on it for now. But I have a suggestion. Jackson, perhaps you should give this system a very thorough test.”
I studied her face. “Why do I sense there’s a specific way you’d like me to do this testing?” As usual, she wasn’t just a step ahead of me, she’d already reached the next block.
She moved her head very close to mine to imply the kiss she couldn’t give me since our mouths were covered with nullsuit. “You do know me. Plenty of sun Tuesday, and Dev mentioned the full moon later. Concentrate on Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning. I suggest you locate a fixed object, perhaps a tree, in a fairly open space away from any artificial lighting. Then set the CARPET speed to where you see the shadows move slowly but noticeably.”
“And I’m looking for?”
“Anomalies. Some point or points where shadows skip backward.”
“Got you. Any glitch could mean a loop. Even brief loops could add up to enough lost time for an intruder to get in or out. I’ll check with Tony and see when CARPET will be free for long enough to run your test. Probably have to come back late and work until either the dawn cracks or I do.”
Dev nodded firmly. “Sooner the better, meu marido.”
As her loyal marido, or as I’d put it “husband,” I couldn’t argue. “Tonight then. Run it by someone upstairs, Dev, and I’ll stop before we leave and grab a card from whoever’s on duty. “
* * *
Sergeant Wallace Eames, one of our four supply officers who dispense everything from bullets to battering-rams, glowered at me while handing over my go-card, which I’d signed for on three different forms. His hostility didn’t trouble me. He treated everyone badly. I’d been hoping that Magnus Erikson, my favorite supply genie, would be on duty instead. Mag had lost the use of his legs after a bullet had struck his spine. He was often in pain yet always managed to brighten my day. I liked trying to brighten his.
Eames wasn’t alone. Another supply officer and our official evidence-locker dean, Justin Glass, popularly known as Just In Case, sat hunched at a desk, oddly triangular face staring down at one of his omnipresent crossword puzzles. He ignored me.
* * *
After a late dinner, Dev and Al clearly noticed the expression of noble sacrifice on my face as I prepared to return to the station. But rather than the adoring and admiring looks I deserved, I’m sorry to report that they exchanged smirks. Shame on them, I told the universe while heading to the car.
They’d been together for eight years before we three had become friends and eventually more, and sometimes I still felt something of an interloper. Funny thing. If I hadn’t been hired to do programming and initial testing on Hartford’s CARPET system, I might’ve never met Dev, and so wouldn’t have met Alyse. On such slender threads do our lives grow and intertwine.
I’d been headhunted for a reason. I have a rare talent for spatial visualization combined with a perfect if temporary photographic memory. My visual memories have a short shelf life, fuzzing out after a few minutes. But hand me the most intricate machine part and let me look it over, and I can close my eyes and mentally rotate it in any direction, seeing every detail.
This talent combo is mostly a damn nuisance. I can get overwhelmed by precisely remembering everything I’ve just seen along with what I’m currently seeing. It’s like simultaneously experiencing surround vision plus X-ray vision. Example: still seeing a front door’s exterior and the foyer beyond after reaching, say, the kitchen. I’ve learned to ignore most irrelevant input, but often need to close my eyes to regroup. I can only drive safely because I get anxious behind the wheel and anxiety makes my visual memories evaporate almost instantly.
Still, it’s my rare talents that allow me to test and correct CARPET functions so quickly. By running comparisons between a benchmark flight and a new one, I can literally see the slightest errors. I’ve never heard of anyone else who could do the same.
As I put the go-card in its slot, my headpiece seemed to vanish, and the basic menu materialized in front of me. The console looked the same, but I was now seeing it through electronic eyes. I selected time and spatial parameters supplied by Dev, and poof . . .
I floated outside in sunlight, a size-less center of seeing and hearing, no body to weigh me down, no visible arms or legs. Didn’t need them. I rose up a hundred feet and studied the streets and buildings below to get my bearings, and unlike other flyers, I had no blind spots thanks to my freak memory. The software’s remapping algorithm perfected the bird’s-eye view without needing drone-mounted cameras or satellite pics.
An unobtrusive see-through readout displayed real time, elapsed flight time, rate of time flow, the time when images had been recorded, an altimeter tracking my virtual position, and an expandable map. Other available features included visual enhancements such as infrared and ultraviolet translation and the only add-on I summoned: a time-rate controller.
I’d materialized about a hundred yards distant, as the crow walks, from one of the crime scenes, and a narrow slice of greenery between streets provided the isolated tree Al had suggested. I descended to hover above the tree’s shadow and increased the time flow until I saw the shadow creeping. I tried to keep my attention focused right there, but my mind, along with my current point of view, kept drifting. A thought kept pestering. Could I automate this damn search so that I could go home and get some sleep?
So, after a few real hours, I almost missed it. The sun had retired; the moon noticeably crawling up the sky. I’d just increased brilliance setting to see better and braced myself for more boredom to come when I noticed something odd. Nothing to do with the steady-as-she-goes shadow, now cast by moonlight. But I noticed a shimmer in the direction of the murder scene as if for an instant, a thin film of water had obscured the view.
I rolled back time by a minute and flew to the home in question. Close up, I saw no distortion when the minute elapsed, but when I returned to my previous position and backed up by the same minute, there it was again. No wonder Dev hadn’t seen this when she’d run her CARPET survey.
A truly chilling revelation. My virtual body couldn’t shiver, and I couldn’t feel my real body, but I hoped it had the sense to shiver on my behalf.
The system had been hacked. What kind of hack would only show up at a distance? I could only think of one possibility, an ugly one.
To check my theory, I moved away from the home again, sped up time twofold, and kept watching the house. An hour passed. Another shimmer, just as I’d feared. I skipped three hours and two miles of geography to run an identical search at the second crime scene. I found the same distortion, again twice, only visible at a distance.
Wally Eames glowered at me as I returned the go-card, but this time he had reason. Each card only works once, until it’s reactivated, and each must be returned to a supply officer directly after use. Rules. By night-flying CARPET, I’d forced a supply officer to join my night vigil, and Wally had drawn the proverbial short straw.
* * *
“Time differential?” Al murmured to me in the darkness.
I’d tried to sneak into bed without waking anyone, but even a ninja couldn’t sneak past these two.
“Has to be. What else could produce that effect?”
“Tell me again why Alyse’s idea flopped,” Dev ordered.
“The doer didn’t loop the feeds but altered them in a way that I didn’t think possible.” I’d have said the same about gassing families without setting off alarms.
“Keep explaining, but slower this time.”
“Your wish is my etcetera. Videos are captured at thirty-two frames a second, the practical speed limit for current memory storage considering how many recorders run day and night.”
Dev’s nightgown rustled. “Downtown Hartford alone runs two thousand.”
“Exactly. When you fly, CARPET combines and plays back live or recorded feeds from anywhere within its assigned territory—given available vid-cams. That’s why you can seamlessly fly anywhere in real time or use CARPET as a snooping time machine. I figure our murderer somehow slowed the feeds from the cameras covering the victims’ homes for just long enough to get inside, moving between frames as it were.”
“Why not just stop the cameras?” Al asked.
“Two separate systems watch for any dropouts. It’s that important to know when a camera’s gone offline. Hacking both would be a whole other level of impossible.”
“É verdade,” Dev confirmed. “But, Jack, why didn’t I see that flicker you saw when I ran my own sequences? How fast could our doer possibly enter the house?”
I smiled and thanked the dark for hiding that particular smile. “Right there. A blazing red flag. Seems our hacker, God knows how, added a program glitch to hide any, uh, frame-rate changes from a CARPET observer close to the murder scenes. Probably filled in the empty frames with cloned images. Interpolation. So the murderer could’ve strolled into the house, no great rush.”
“But the interpolation wasn’t perfect,” Al offered.
“Yeah. Not even our homicidal genius could get a perfect time match with more distant feeds. From a distance a little wobble shows up, but as you get closer the frames run silky smooth. Dearly beloveds, we got a problem. Far as I know, these things can’t be done. Conclusion: someone knows how to do things that can’t be done. The only positive is that we can scratch off anyone who’s ever worked IT at headquarters since I got hired. We’ve had IT specialists come and go. None of them have the juice to pull this off. I’m sure.”
* * *
Sunday in our household is our official day to relax. Instead, we held a long and unproductive War Council and then settled down to worrying the afternoon away. My wives skipped their beloved twilight run. I kept myself semi-awake with caffeine but could’ve passed for a zombie.
So we were home, bathed in sunset through our living room window, when Dev’s com implant signaled. Another family gassed, a triple like us, but with two husbands, one wife, and three children, one adopted from China. Dev was devastated. She took murders connected with murders she was already investigating extra hard. And we all took dead children very personally. We hoped to have children ourselves before long.
These murders had taken place on the outskirts of East Hartford, beyond Dev’s jurisdiction so we wouldn’t be welcome at the crime scene. Still, she would’ve gone anyway if Al weren’t so convincing. Alyse could sell Moon dust to the Moon. Video recorders become progressively sparser as population density thins, which likely meant no useful CARPET data. But we knew what a flight review would’ve shown.
We sat huddled on the living room couch, bookending Dev who kept herself in what I thought of as her “vulture posture,” hunched up with raised shoulders. I held one of her hands, cold and usually so warm. Al, doing some thinking out loud, held the other.
“One general problem I’ve observed is that when our tools reach a certain level of sophistication, we tend to become dependent on them.” Her voice stayed gentle and affectionate despite the intellectual content.
“What are you getting at?” Dev asked, more irritated than interested.
“CARPET is such a powerful instrument that it is easy to forget the potential benefit of using others.”
“Looking for some connection between the three murdered families.”
Dev pulled her hands free and turned toward Al, but I could practically see Dev’s glare from behind. “Porra! Don’t you think we’ve done that already?”
Al threw her magic waters on the fire. “Of course you have.”
Poof. Tension gone. “No connection.”
“None you found. But how much energy went into that part of the investigation?”
The gentle tone of the question and Al’s smile combined to keep Dev mildly sedated. I have no idea how my genius wife does this although she’s used it on me plenty. In entertainment media, the ultra-smart are almost always portrayed as socially inept and amusingly neurotic. If anything, Alyse is too socially competent. When she decides to manipulate you, good luck trying to avoid getting manipulated.
“Perhaps,” Dev admitted, “you make a point.”
“Let’s assume the killer had a reason to target those particular families. Wouldn’t you think the connection most likely lies in the past, even the distant past, rather than the present?”
“Alyse, even if so, we don’t have the time or resources to run such a detailed investigation.”
On a hunch, I leaned out to get a better look at Al’s face and found her gazing straight at me.
“Got an idea, don’t you?” I said. “And it involves me.”
“It’s as if we share a single mind, love.” Right. My part is that little lump toward one side. But no sense in trying to hold back the tide. . . .
“What do you want me to do?”
“I understand that CARPET is designed to merge digital video feeds. I’m wondering if it could be used to merge raw data streams.”
The concept absolutely floored me.
“That’s . . . quite an idea,” I understated. “Never heard of anyone trying that, but yeah, might be feasible. I’d need to program a link between the—good lord, to do this right I’ll need massive permissions.”
“What are you two talking of?” Dev complained. “Tell me.”
Somehow, without a word or visible shift in expression, Al invited me to answer.
I tried to fake assurance. “If I can program CARPET to overlay all NGI files concerning the three murdered families, any connections between families might, um, show up.” Big if. I had a vague idea how to assemble a triple overlay, but no clue how I could separate out any relevant intersections in the torrent of data.
“The NGI is the FBI’s database?” Al asked.
“For now. It’s getting upgraded into a global version. But the current one has the whole nine hundred yards: facial recognition and biometrics and bank records and whatnot, but mostly limited to North America.”
Dev nodded briskly. “Why massive permissions, Jack?”
“The connections could be through other parties. So I’ll need more than records on just those families. Potentially, a lot more.”
“Would this allow an investigator access to everything in these records?”
“Possibly, but we might not need to go all that granular. Besides, it wouldn’t be practical to sort through every damn detail. I could start by limiting the data stream to places lived, jobs held, personnel in those jobs, friends and relatives. Hmm . . . also schools attended.”
Dev mulled before speaking. “On that basis, I’d say we can get you authorized.”
Al had a question. “Speaking of authorization, Devorah, you said you’d gotten top level permissions for your initial investigation into the deaths?”
“Sim. Easy as pulling a jaguar’s teeth. Not a sedated one.”
“So you checked inside those homes at the time the murders happened.”
“Com certeza. I saw no one sabotage nada, no one touch control panels, but even CARPET’s infrared can’t pick up much in unlit basements. Why do you ask?”
“Just an idea I had involving HOSTs. I’ll tell you both about it later after I run a few experiments.”
Street-level CARPET permissions allow the operator to view everything happening, well, on the street, plus the exteriors of structures, using any necessary visual enhancements. The next level adds considerable infrared sensitivity to image people inside buildings. At the next level, only when working in real time, laser reflections off windows and walls can be used to interpret the minute surface deformations caused by noises within buildings, an eavesdropper’s delight.
Full authorization grants the operator access to a home’s HOST and its files, unrestricted invasion of privacy. Perfect for voyeurs in both sight and sound. Most HOSTs even monitor their owners in the bathroom in case of emergency although the systems are legally required to include exemption options for specific areas of a home. At Dev’s insistence, Jeeves has blinders and earplugs in our bathrooms, but we’ll probably forego modesty after and if a baby joins us.
Al stood up and headed toward the kitchen. “Anyone care for tea?”
“Good idea,” I said, and Dev agreed but without enthusiasm.
I joined Al in the kitchen, waiting until she’d put the kettle on before I asked, “Yesterday in the CARPET room, you said that you’d, um, hatched an idea. Ready to talk about it?”
“I am. Assuming the killer gained access to your police records, they’d have access to every officer’s fingerprint scan and DNA profiles. Is it possible to print up human tissue from a DNA profile or actual DNA capable of fooling that fancy biometric sensor you seemed proud of? Black tea, white, or green, dear?”
“Which would go best with booze?”
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