Chapter 5: Homo Superior
Highgate, Acamar V
March 24th, 174 Post Set.
The Rapier spun circles inside her parents' Navigator. Irena could not help but grin as she demonstrated that fact with a sharp turn on Remembrance Drive. When she had informed them AHD had hired her they hollered so loud it deafened her to their thoughts. Her brother and sisters mobbed to hug her as well. It had taken hours for Irena to coax her foster-siblings to put their little walls back into place.
Irena buried thoughts of the killer at home. Along with the secret aspect of her job. It saddened her to know she would soon leave her parent's rambling house behind. But there would be no hiding the job from them if she was jacked into the net every day. It was only now, pulling into Kamen District’s Police Station, that she allowed herself to think about the case again. She parked her car in a garage across the street, paying five credits from her now swollen account to guard against the promise of rain.
A world did not get as green as Acamar without plentiful moisture. But the climate was consistent, and storms in populated regions rare. As a result there was no felt need for the fine-tuning of a weather network. Other worlds were tempted. No one had successfully completed one yet. And poorer worlds lamented it was due to the fact AHD saw no reason to research in that direction, given the idyllic nature of Acamar.
A waste reclamation plant left Kamen with an aroma as undesirably unique as its reputation. Irena wrinkled her nose against that stench. Her friends frequented the alleys she watched in search of illegal stims or black-market narcs. Some of them had since turned to vice themselves, if gossips were to be believed. If her parents knew her new job had taken her into this part of the city, they would have launched into near orbit.
She waited for the droning voice to permit her to cross the street, and then backtracked half a block to the squat, prefabricated, plexisteel structure. Irena gave her attire a once over; charcoal slacks with a sky-blue blouse and a light, translucent windbreaker. Her auburn hair remained teased into mussy layers as she reached for the door and found it locked. Frowning, she glanced at the electric eye to the left of the door. Waving her hand in front of it confirmed it was following her movement.
Leaning over the camera, Irena frowned. She was never comfortable talking to automatons. Was it their impersonal nature or her inability to read them? “I...I'm Irena Kerensky. I work for AHD Corporation. They tasked me to meet Miss Genevieve Gammon? Is she here?”
She flinched as the automated voice reprimanded her, “Inspector Gammon is expecting you. Enter and take a seat in the waiting area on the left until an escort arrives for you.”
“Yes sir,” she answered while opening the buzzing door; scolding herself, You called a droid ‘sir’? Smooth.
The waiting area housed an Autovend machine, a broken down couch and a smattering of chairs. On the far wall, an old electronic clock ticked the seconds away. Irena stared at it and glanced down the hall in the vain hope she would be redeemed from the interminable waiting.
Studying the options, she inserted her Highgate Federal Union -backed credit chip and selected St. Aiden's Ginger Tea. She waited twenty seconds for it to dispense into a plastic oblong cup and then sat in the chair a cursory inspection indicated would be most comfortable. There was not much to choose from, but hers did have the remnants of a cushion.
Reaching into her pocket, she claimed a thin device the same hue as her hair. Though with a thought she could change that into any other shade she wished. The device telescoped and curved to match the shape of her round face. Slipping it over the top of her head and down like a headband, it communicated with her neural implant to create a display in the top right corner of her vision, along with a 'Good Morning Irena!'
That message flashed for three seconds until she dismissed it with a thought. Selecting the music section of her Neural Net Interface, Irena pulled up her Progressive Fusion playlist and allowed herself to relax; dismissing its display as she closed her eyes and relished the only time she did not have to actively shield herself from the thoughts of those around her.
'As the pulsing synthesized strings gave way to a plaintive fiddle's final strains, Irena heard whining motivators. An alert flashed before she opened her eyes. When she looked down, a one meter tall Sentrybot waited. Its camera eye, capable of revolving a full three hundred and sixty degrees, was focused on her.
“Miss Irena Kerensky,” a high-pitched, digitized, voice directed. “I'm to escort you through the station. Before we proceed, Department procedures require a personal scan. Please remove any neural interface devices and electronic communication pads. Then stand no more than two meters from me.”
God, droids everywhere, Irena lamented as she set her NNI down on the seat and stood. Her car had an ECP, and the implant allowed her to send and receive calls, removing the need for a second device.
When the electronic eye saw she had complied with its instructions, a red beam emitted from a port just below the camera. It first flashed at her black walking boots and then traversed the entire length of her frame. Irena closed her eyes when it reached her chin, and then waited until she heard the voice announce, “Scan complete. No contraband or weapons detected. Follow me please, Miss Kerensky.”
Scooping up her NNI, Irena took two long strides to catch up with her guide, who led her down a black tiled hall. At the end they arrived at a room. Through the window in the metal door, Irena observed the same sturdy, but cold, furnishings, with desks and chairs fabricated from industrial plastic. A tip board sported suspects, some of which she recognized from the media reports.
Her guide rolled through a floor sensor, and the door opposite the board opened into the adjoining space, filled with officers in blue. Suspicion radiated from narrowed eyes as they regarded Irena in turn. The machine led her to the rear of the room, and an office with a large plexiglass window marked, ‘Genevieve Gammon, Homicide.’ “The Inspector is waiting for you in her office on the far side of the bullpen. Have a nice day, Miss Kerensky.”
Behind the metal desk stood a tall, sturdy woman with hard eyes, a square face, and short black hair gave her a long, look with narrowed eyes and a faint scowl. “Are you a secretary? The Dragon offered me an operative, and you don't look old enough.”
“Dragon?” Irena blinked as she shut the door behind her.
“Kao Lu-Kai sent you, right? Irena Kerensky. Why are you here?”
“Why?” Irena wasn't used to being pressed this way. “Erm, yes Ma'am. I'm newly hired by the Company and never heard Ma'am Kao called that before.”
The officer folded her arms under her chest. “I am Inspector Gammon, Miss Karensky. So what possessed Kao to send you here? Are you even an adult?”
“I'm twenty, Inspector,” she answered.
“Mukky,” Irena wrinkled her nose at the officer's curse as she waved her hand in a forceful dismissal. “I was told to expect frakkin help in catching a serial killer. Instead I'm sent a child to babysit! I assume you have no experience with a gun, do you?”
“I've a G-1 self-defense rating, and training with both energy sidearms and slug-throwers,” Irena answered with a turned-up nose.
A hint of surprise escaped her interrogator, confirmed by the arch of an eyebrow, before Gammon's annoyance reasserted itself. “Great. If someone's nice enough to walk up and tell you he wants to rape you, you might be able to fight him off long enough to run away.”
Irena exhaled through her teeth before pouting. “I've a good reason to be here, Inspector. Or do you believe Madame Kao incompetent?”
Gammon's eyes flashed dangerously as she took two steps around her desk. “I'm waiting for you to speak up, Miss Karensky. Or you can take your skinny ass back to the Towers and whatever files they have waiting for you.”
“Confidentiality?” Irena pleaded.
The Inspector set a fist on her desk and leaned against it. “I don't give a go'am about the Corporation's secrets, Miss Kerensky. But I'm not your frakkin’ nanny.”
Irena's head drooped as she let her barriers fall and sent, “Inspector Genevieve Gammon, I’m a telepath.”
Gammon's eyes widened and Irena felt the officer's initial impulse to reach for her sidearm. She added a pinch to her warning, “Don't do that, Inspector. Or I'll have to stop you. I don't know if I can do that without making you never want to use a weapon again.”
The Inspector winced at the tweaking of her pain impulses. She reversed her gun hand's movement until it was raised to her shoulder, with the palm open toward the telepath. “Sorry, reflex got the best of me.”
“I know,” Irena assured her gently. “Or I wouldn't have tried to talk you out of it.”
Gammon sat on the front edge of her desk, shaking her head as the telepath withdrew from the Inspector's mind. “I'd heard the Corporation was experimenting with mind-benders. I'd no idea the eggheads had succeeded. Why would they risk their secrets with a uniformed nobody like me?”
“The victims are...” Irena paused and picked her words to avoid an uncomfortable deception. “...Important to Special Projects.”
“Uh-huh,” Gammon grunted. “How far do you pick up thoughts?”
Irena cocked her head to scratch her neck. “Officially, I was tested on my eighteenth birthday and rated as one-hundred percent accurate up to a distance of twenty meters.” Then with a wry smile, she added silently, Unofficially, put me on a football field and I can hear the opposing keeper, and that's aside from the other talent. The one I doubt they know they gave me.
She motioned at the door and explained, “This wall’s thickness buffers casual thoughts. Strong emotions still get through, though. And if I focus, I can still hear them.”
Gammon's eyebrow raised and Irena felt the Inspector's skepticism return. So she turned and stared out the window. After ten seconds, Irena began reporting over her shoulder, “The three men by the water cooler are wondering why I can't be their partner. They don't mean it professionally either.”
She glanced at the Inspector while fighting down her blush. “The stocky one is embarrassed about that. Because he apparently harbors feelings for you as well. Don’t worry. He’s not my type. The gray-haired man in the back. The one with a bit of a gut? He's wondering if I'm with Internal Affairs. I'm assuming that’s some kind of monitoring agency. He's very uncomfortable. Should I find out why?”
“What?” the Inspector stood and gaped. “No! Void! Why did I frakking ask?!”
Turning back toward the Inspector, Irena decided she had proven her point and sat down unbidden. Gammon poured two cups of coffee and applied enough sweetener to instantly rot out unhardened teeth. The telepath did not bother protesting her dislike of the beverage before taking a sip with a nod.
“That must be a bitch to deal with,” Gammon commiserated while sitting in a stubby couch next to her.
Irena giggled. “Most of the time it's not bad. My brother and sisters are telepaths. My parents are Advocates for the Corporation. So they have always known and made home safe. I have to be careful with some of my friends.” She shrugged. “And my teachers.”
“Wouldn't it make school cake for you?” the Inspector offered a conspiratorial smile.
“At first!” Irena swept at her hair. “Until I started answering questions too perfectly.” Then she rolled her eyes. “And don't ask about boys. That's just too messy.”
“Wouldn't be right if it wasn't,” Gammon answered with a bitter undertone that led Irena to take a sip of coffee to resist prying as the officer continued, “So what specifically did the Dragon want you to do?”
“I’m to provide assistance in your interrogations.”
Standing, the Inspector offered Irena a hand. “Sounds interesting, Miss Kerensky. Let's give you a line-up.”
* * *
Inspector Gammon led Irena past a number of empty basement holding cells. When she was about to ask about their vacancies, the officer opened the door at the end of the hall. Before the telepath could face the suspects on the other side of the one-way mirror, a wave of emotions deluged Irena. Moaning, she set both hands against the door behind her, or she would have fallen to the floor.
Gammon spun on her heels and caught her arm. “What's wrong?”
“Fear. Anger.” Irena raised a hand to her temple; gathering herself. “Stronger than I'd expected. “ She took a deep breath and stood. “I'm fine now.”
The Inspector, frowned down from her imperious height at her. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Not at all, Irena complained; gathering herself with a deep breath before answering, “It's why I'm here. “
She walked slowly to the window, filtering out the thoughts and emotions from the rest of the suspects to focus on building a bridge between herself and the one furthest to the left. The man possessed tattoos of great cats from Pre-Impact Earth on his arms. Irena moved slowly, lest she leave 'fingerprints' on the subject's mind, revealing herself to him. On the other hand, she had to probe, at least lightly, in order to find answers to her questions. So she could not ask directly. Instead she would have to look for memories matching what she sought.
This one had sold Cardamine and stim trades in back alleys and storehouses. He had expanded his domain to include prostitution. Irena recognized one of the girls from school. When someone had failed to pay, he would send a message, breaking first a finger, and then an arm.
“You slive,” Irena whispered as she withdrew from the suspect's mind before glancing at the Inspector to her right. “What is he being held for?”
“He's a member of the Syndicate,” Gammon answered. “We're hoping we can follow him up the food chain.”
Irena shook her head. “He's not going to get you far enough to matter. They fed him by couriers. If he knew anyone, he'd tell you. He also knows when he gets back on the streets, the Syndicate's going to assume he did talk.”
“Interesting.” Gammon put a hand to her chin. “I'll talk to the Chief about letting him walk. Putting a tail on him should bring out the big fish.”
The choice to use another person as bait, even one as odious as this, left Irena feeling filthy. She had read detective stories and watched the vids at theater or home. It was entirely different to see it done so baldly by people sworn to protect the peace. It left the young woman feeling that part of her innocence had just been stripped from her, and she would never get it back.
Taking another sip of cheap coffee, Irena proceeded through the next three suspects. Nothing in them merited her attention, though she did pause to ask about the third, a tall blond male with the kind of face that made girls like her forget their caution.
“He didn't kill his wife, Inspector,” she announced.
“He's got to be lying to you!” Gammon exclaimed. “He stands to inherit a fortune, and his fingers were on the murder weapon!”
“He picked it up before you arrived. Yes, it was stupid of him. But he saw a mistress after work. His wife was dead when he returned home.”
“Frag me!” Inspector Gammon punched her open palm with the opposing fist. “I was just starting to like having you around. Alright, I'll look for another suspect. But I can't release him until I have a better case than the one we've built. It's too high profile.”
Sor-ry, Irena sing-songed in her head with a shrug. She turned to the last and paused. Unlike the others, this one had given orders. He may have never used the term 'kill.' But he had made clear what he desired. Rewarded those who murdered his enemies. He also had eliminated those 'stupid' enough to draw the attention of the authorities. Will they do the same to you?
“What do you know of this one?” Irena asked while digging deeper into his consciousness.
“Not enough,” Gammon answered with a bitter laugh. “He calls himself Chrome Tempest. We're going to have to let him go in two hours. We've picked him up a half-dozen times before. But nothin's ever stuck.”
“No you won't,” Irena answered flatly and pushed.
“Hey!” Chrome shouted. “What frakking game are you slives playing this time?”
“Game? Murderous pig!” Irena let her sending rumble in his head. “You have no idea.”
She rummaged in his mind like it was a shoe rack. In the distance, she heard him scream incoherently, and blocked it out, along with the thudding of her heart. She shredded every barrier he threw into her path, burrowing deep into his mind. Until at last he offered up what she sought. Then she tore free from him, as unconcerned for his well-being as if her probe had been a barbed knife driven into his brain.
“He has a data account,” Irena gasped; her chest rising and falling. “Consigliere. Access is triple-cyphered. “'Godfather,' with a zero and three to replace the vowels. Then 'Keep your friends close,' and 'But your enemies closer,' for the other two.”
“You'd think men would get tired of that vid. Pre-Impact, and they never issued a remake of it,” Inspector Gammon grumbled. Then she shot her a wry smile. “You better be careful, Miss Kerensky. If you help me solve too many of my cases. I might fall in love with you.” She paused as Irena laughed. “Or find myself rendered redundant and kill you when I get laid off. Who knows?”
“I would,” Irena answered playfully.
* * *
Interrogation was a brown room with soundproofed walls on the ground floor. The desk and chairs were the only furnishing, and as Irena discovered when she tried to edge hers forward, they were bolted to the floor.
Inspector Gammon paced. Her eyes never leaving Chrome as she circled her prey. “We found your account. You're on the hook for a dozen counts of conspiracy to commit murder already.”
He craned his neck to look back at the Inspector; revealing a scar the length of the right side of his neck. “It got hacked. My passwords were stolen. Isn't that what you have her for?” He pointed an accusing finger at Irena. “Little datajacker corrupted my files.”
“Time stamps on everything, Chrome.” Gammon leaned over, planted her hands on his shoulders, and smirked. “We've got you on payouts for contracts, confirmations sent to you from your thugs. We haven't even told Vice about the narcotics sales, illegal implants or unlicensed prostitution. You're going into orbit. When they let you return planet-side, you'll be a broken-down walking corpse.”
He regarded Irena with a malevolent smile; his eyes resting on her chest. “You're too wholesome to be a cop. So what made you the Inspector's bitch? The Department catch you trying to score?” He winked and leaned forward. “You want a little work on the side? I know some people who could make a fresh, innocent girl like you rich.”
Her mouth agape, she fell back into her chair as he laughed. “Are you a virgin? Is that why you're blushing?”
Gammon's fist lashed out, grasping a handful of Chrome's greasy hair as she slammed his head into the table. “I don't think you understand how frakked you are!”
Irena squealed at the blood dripping from his nose. But Chrome wiped it, inspecting his hand, and resumed laughing. “I was kidding! Damn Batsi! You are hot for her, aren't you?”
Gammon wound up to backhand him, but Irena stood and slapped the metal table hard enough to make both hands sting. “You want to know why I'm here?”
Chrome's head turned, a wicked grin evaporating as he met her gaze with eyes almost the same shade blue as her own and gasped, “No!”
In a dark part of Irena's soul she had never known she possessed, a perverse glee rejoiced in his fear. “Why not? Afraid of what the little girl might do now?”
His face contorted in a pathetic attempt to hide the answer from her. Irena cackled and stood over him. “You should be.”
“Alright!” Chrome howled. “I'll sign a confession if you want. Just get out of my head!”
Irena grinned and tweaked his mind on the way out; crossing her arms over her chest with a coy smile. “My little brother does better than you.”
“What are you?” the criminal complained. “I'm going to tell my Advocate about this, and after I walk, we're gonna sue this whole damned planet!”
Gammon gave her a sharp glance, but Irena's smile remained unchanged as she sat on the edge of the table and leaned forward. “Tell him what?”
Chrome's mouth failed to open, his hands shot to his temples and he groaned. The telepath reached out and patted his hand. “You'll never tell anyone I exist. In fact, if anyone ever asks you if mind-benders are for real, you'll laugh in their face and say it's the stupidest thing you've every heard.”
“One day, I'm going to kill you, bitch.” His hand trembled and he snatched at her hand.
Irena slipped out of reach with a laugh. “You'll never hurt me, Chrome Tempest. After you sign your confession, you'll be too worried about staying alive to try.”
She watched as the murderer signed the document, a half hour before his Advocate arrived to release him from custody. Gammon snickered as she showed the lawyer the paperwork. “I think this will make it hard to plead not-guilty, won't it?”
Returning to the Inspector's office, Irena watched her turn her NNI on and then groaned, “Mukky.”
“What?” Irena asked while settling into the chair.
“They found a file in Tempest's account,” Gammon faced her with fists on hips. “He might know something about the murders.”
Shaking her head, Irena answered, “No. He didn't show me anything. If he knew something, he'd have spilled.”
Gammon shrugged and tapped a button on her watch. “You look.”
Sliding her headband on, Irena saw the waiting message, dismissing two others before reading it. “One of the girls worked for him. Why?”
“Maybe he made the offer you didn't like,” the Inspector suggested.
“She was at the Solar Storm? I know that club. Do you think the killer might find his victims there?”
“It's at least worth looking into,” Gammon answered.
Irena felt a sympathy itch from her tattoo and squirmed before answering, “I think so too.”