Remarkable Objects – An Aaran Coates Mystery

This is the result – after some necessary editing – of the challenge I began alongside NaNoWriMo in November. My first police drama. Enjoy!

Remarkable Objects
By Simon Woodington

Face first on the pavement, no sign of trauma, foul play or … anything that a keen eye or diagnostic hand could detect. Detective Inspector Penny Broken frowned and unfolded her arms with the synthetic crinkle of weather resistant jacket, gesturing at the nape of the neck, the back of his thick legs, vaguely suggesting the ‘usual’ vulnerabilities. She prefaced lightly: “He was no vagabond. Ordinary as they come; clothes covered in ash from a day at Westbarrow. Ulysses Joinfellow, unmarried, age thirty-six. A loner by the looks of his complexion and social profile. We’re running the ID. He had twenty credits on him, unmarked.”
“Think he had a date?” guffawed a uniformed Whitegraft officer from the street side.
“With unmarked credits? Twenty credits wouldn’t impress anyone not already starving,” Aaran Coates growled skeptically and lifted the still-warm hand of the corpse, palm down on the cracked pavement. “But you won’t know for certain until you run his name through the local Relays for reservations.”
“I dunno. Stalfos makes good pizza. Cheap.”
Aaran shrugged.
“Eh … Broken?”
DI Penny Broken shot him a menacing glance, and he disappeared into a officially painted Whitegraft Territory cruiser. Aaran was irritated by Penny’s enigmatic request to examine this corpse, but as a favor to the injured CDI Patsy Milne, she could hardly refuse. Pestering her seemed unwise, so instead she continued observing the scene and its characteristics. Amazing how quickly one forgets the basics.
“Not a wound, and I’d guess no sign of internal damage either,” she remarked, taking a cloth from her pocket to pat her forehead. The floodlights were surprisingly hot, even on this cool night.
“What makes you say that?”
Penny arched her neck, straining to see over Aaran’s head where she was pointing. It was a tattoo, an inch in diameter, but more like an impression. A serial number in code? She slapped her forehead with a white gloved hand. “You’re joking. Midway, take a snap of that and submit it to HQ. Don’t forget to leave auto on, this time. What are you … just leave that there. Grimes is busy, he’ll look after it.”
“Yes Ma’am.”
With a restrained grunt, Aaran rose from crouching, pressing a hand against the brick wall for support along the way. Turning to face Penny, she removed the medical gloves and dropped them into a basket near the scene set up by the forensics team. She began wiping the powder from her palms by rubbing them together. She said, “Now you’re going to tell me why I’m here.”
“Wasn’t because anyone noticed there was Simuplex flesh involved. I don’t know, Aaran. Bloodless corpse and that vat-grown stuff? I don’t know.” Penny smirked with a flick at her dripping bangs. It wasn’t raining, but the moisture was weighing down her thin, green-brown hair. She was further irritated by the fact that Aaran did not appear to be at all affected by the damp.
“I might.”
“That’s what the boss said.”
Penny arched an eyebrow. “Have it your way. It’ll take some time to scrounge up something on that mark. Hungry?”
At half-past one in the morning, Aaran could ignore the growling of her stomach only until they arrived at the deli. Penny ordered a sandwich, and disinterestedly Aaran eyeballed the special. Behind the counter the young man buried a grimace. Penny observed, “Dad’s away, Plester?”
“Just offside for a few days with Uncle. Call me Jacy, okay? Hey, miss, you mind ham substituted for the roast?”
Aaran shrugged. “You spice it much?”
“Yeah. Cured for twenty hours in apple cider. What was that sound a while ago?”
Penny and Aaran exchanged a glance. The former jutted her jaw and asked, “What did you hear?”
“It was like something deflating. A balloon, maybe. Store audio probably picked up somethin’ more useful’n what I remember. Here you go.”
Aaran gave it a wiff; the meat was quite pungent and the bread still moist. She lifted a card and proffered it to the payment machine. Catching the total, Aaran dismissed the authorization notice. While Penny was waiting for her sandwich she prodded Jacy about the noise. He said, “Should I wait up for somebody to come for the recording?”
Momentarily distracted, recognition passed in front of his eyes. He laughed, “Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense,” He walked to the back room and shortly Aaran and Penny received an encoded glyph of the audio data. When he returned, he said, “Just a PGP code. ‘Easy as pie.’ That’ll open it for you.”
Penny wiped the corners of her lips where traces of lettuce and ranch dressing had gathered. “It’s what?”
“ ‘easyaspie’ I suspect,” Aaran supplied. “This is good.”
“Uncle likes it like that, but most don’t. Yeah, no caps or spaces, alphas only. No tricks.”
Aaran sampled the sandwich and looked up when Penny gave a start, locking eyes with her. She gestured for Aaran to join her. “A little oddity with Joinfellow’s birthdate: We can’t verify his birth with hospital records because his was destroyed in The Burn.”
“Crown archives?”
“No match. Could be clerical, but there’s nothing for his Hard-ID, either.”
“That mark on his body wasn’t registration or serial code,” Aaran commented a few bites later.
“No. No official brand uses that mark. Who’s on research?”
Penny swallowed and took a gulp of water. “Baines. Hasn’t got anything yet.”
“Pull the local Relay files and have someone go through them.”
“That’s not …”
“Standard procedure? Forensics will, but they’re swamped, too. Could take hours for them to report anything useful.”
Penny wiped her mouth again, brow furrowed. “Suppose so. All right, I’ll do that.”

An hour later Penny and Aaran were staring at a screen with an audio technician of the hobbiest sort. Neatly dressed, it was apparent he had no taste whatsoever. Penny solicited whinges to Aaran in the lab, having commented moments before about the availability of qualified personnel. He was droning on about – of all things – how Alliance standard compression produced hard to analyze recordings.
“Can you do it, Pierce?” Penny asked, leaning forward with borrow furrowed at meaningless waveforms.
“What’re you askin’ him? It was a loud, extended fart,” Aaran chuckled. She gulped from a bottle of water. All that laughing was thirsty work.
Pierce’s apprehensive grin fluttered away as Penny glowered at him. He suggested, “I would have more confidence if I could see the source. I-I could isolate the point of origin and filter out crosstalk from environmental variables … but it’s as you said. An instance of colossal flatulence. If it weren’t for all the signal loss, I really would be more confident.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Penny said, thumping the desk with a palm. “Just scan on your way out. Anything else you want to report before you go?”
“Well … it’s,” he paused, scratched the backs of his hands. “I need some time to pick out a secondary source. It’s just below the frequency the codec cuts out.”
“Hits bellow the frequently?” Penny blurted.
“It is below the frequency,” Pierce reiterated.
Aaran patted his shoulder, understanding his meaning. “You want access to the Relay?”
Penny’s eyes grew wide.
“I couldn’t?”
Aaran smirked. “You just paid me in full for a long, dreary month, Pierce. Penny will clear it for you. Leave the timecodes with the desk sergeant. It’ll give you a chance to flirt with her.”
He blushed, wrapping his thumbs in his tie somehow. “Oh I couldn’t. She’s not single?”
“Take it while the getting’s good. No risk, no venture. Thanks for the help.”
Pierce stood there, eyes darting between hers before he nodded thankfully. He then collected his bowler cap and pressed his broad thumb onto the bio-reader at the entrance. It chimed affirmatively. Penny gave a huff, eyes on as he experimented with swaggers, heading to the front. Her eyes traced the desk edge and slowly up Aaran’s prosthetic left arm.
“You’re a pain,” she said, propping her head on one arm. “How do you know so much about Relays?”
“Husband’s a Relay operator. Well connected one at that. You didn’t even dive my file?” Aaran countered, and Penny wasn’t certain of her intent. She squinted, running a finger along the upper edge of the blue-tinged waveform.
“So that’s the … sound? All of it? No … if, if, that’s a complete sound, this bloopy thing, then that bit,” she indicated the cut top edge of another waveform looking like it was climbing up from the bottom. “That’s the other sound he thinks was lost?”
Aaran tilted her head with a shrug. “Guess so. Leave it to the geek, Broken.”
So much wisdom in such little fashion sense, Penny thought. She stood and began to leave the room. Aaran automatically followed. “Won’t be another few hours until DEWAR completes its workup, but maybe Baines has something for us.”
Baines had nothing for them. A toothache and nearly too many painkillers, red-faced from the pain, he was on the cusp of completing a twelve word report that stated just how little there was to be had. For the present. Penny glanced over the conclusion and told him to go home before assigning the task to Grimes.
Lt. Lewis Grimes extrapolated from Baines’ results the reason for his assumption. Dipping fried potato slabs into reddish sauce, he swallowed, then said, “No registered mark matches the files. DEWAR sent us a preliminary, maybe that’s what Baines was doing. Yeah, the Locker was empty, but they’re staying on it.”
The ‘Locker’ was an Artificial Intelligence that collaborated directly with the Crown to authorize – and deny – access to sensitive or otherwise classified data stores. It was also called ‘The Office of Redumdancy’ due to the frequency of authorization errors compared to prior systems.
“Someone must have a lead if they bothered to send us a prelim,” Penny insisted. “What was it? What did they say?”
“They did have a lead, but … just a tick,” he said, tapping through several entries. “Here we go. Oh … Just another incident in Ansile Colony. Same mark, but on a three year old boy. Like our stiff, no injuries.”
“And it took them this long to link the two because?” Penny prodded.
“Doesn’t say,” Lewis replied flatly.
Aaran was reading over his shoulder and found occasion to remark, “Preliminaries don’t require oversight review codes. Get that filed. I see … Was this a reprimand for submitting this without the signature of your superior? They let it go this time, but it’s hard to blame a guy who’s in that much pain.”
“Give him a—uh, yeah. The guy—Joy, Joinfellow, had no family, and neither did the kid. No one even knows his name. Ansile officers have it out on the street now, and there are public glyphs … might generate some leads. Sketchline is holding their APB under advisement.”
“Under advisement? What’s that mean?” Penny growled.
“Probably don’t like the smell of it. Forward the request to the Representative and the Commissioner. Would you agree with that, DI Broken?” Aaran eyed Penny significantly.
“Do it. This is no time for them to be protective. It could shake some loose nails out of the woodwork.”
Aaran shook her head minimally and remarked, “I doubt it. Simuplex is medical use only.”
“Simuplex? That artificial flesh stuff?”
“Not so expositional there, Grimes. This isn’t the legal kind, or the Locker wouldn’t have passed it over in a prelim. Off brand synthetics are pretty convincing these days, but DEWAR needs time to run tests on the samples they have. You know. To be sure.”
“It’d be obstruction of justice,” Penny noted.
Aaran negated again. “Government secrets, patents and credits. No criminal liability, no access.”
Penny folded arms over her chest and huffed. “Flakkin’ medicos and their profit margins. How long will they take?”
“Eight – probably ten hours,” Grimes grumbled, stuffing another wedge into his mouth.
“I’m going home. Ping me if there are any developments,” Aaran said, and Penny nearly threw up her hands.

There were about as many coins as she could count in as many pockets as hands existed. Reaching through the mud to grasp them, to wipe off the sticky gore, only to see they were as blank as the fingers she had held just hours ago. A day? A half? Aaran pulled the blanket away from her body, sweating and uncomfortable. She put hands in her hair and heard the familiar humming of the motors in the left.
“Oog, Yale. Yale?” She stopped, rubbing her throat. Sound like someone garrotted me, she thought, tapping the touch sensitive switch for her bedside lamp which dimly lit the squeeze bottle she sought. A pull and some later she remembered he was on shift at a hospital, doing research for his new book. She groaned and flopped back down on the bed, tossing over the meaning of the dream.
What’s money got to do with Simuplex? Most recipients are covered by the Crown or private insurance. Unless … flakkit.
In a flash of recollection, she grabbed a housecoat and made for the livingroom. On its hook was a headset she could use to voice chat Janus Wintertide. Six rings later a voice more throaty and just as raw answered groggily, “The blasted shard you want, Vanadyl?”
“Sorry Jan, just a question. You remember Goward?”
“Tusk Foward?”
“No, Forward. The …” she blinked sluggishly and grunted frustration. “Flakkin’ trying to say Gowan Ward. The Drima!”
Janus laughed coldly. “That was a messy business. Tore up a bloodless body. We never could figure out how he was still alive after bleeding out like that.”
Memories of the blood-soaked apartment sparked momentary nausea. Aaran shook her head and supplanted the mental imagery. “Might have an answer. Do you have … Do you remember if he had fingerprints?”
On the other end Janus paused, thinking, as if holding the arm she had dismembered wasn’t detail enough. “I guess so. Yeah. Yes. He had fingerprints. Left them in the blood trail on the wall. What’s this about?”
“Don’t know yet. Can you get me some data?”
“Of?” she bit down expectantly.
“Anything that tells us what he was made of.”
“Ultra-super-crazy-high resolution image scans of cellular composition? From memory? Aaran. I need something if I’ve got to be up tonight doing this for you.”
“I’ll put you on contract as a consultant. How long will you be?”
She made some thoughtful noises, then said, “Three or four hours if I rush it.”
“Don’t rush it. It might have to stand up against the Crown.”
“Then that’s eight. Probably six, but you know.”
“Full day’s work. Start now?”
“Flak that.”
“Start now.”
“Alright. It’s not time critical, is it?”
Aaran walked over to the fridge for some food. “I’m not getting any sleep either. Yeah it’s critical. In just a little while DEWAR will have a workup for you to run a comparison on. If I’m right this could be big.”
“That could be good. Work has been slow lately, and the Alliance doesn’t salary well. What’s living wage for two girls who need to look great?”
Aaran ‘tsked’. “You in a paper bag is front cover material, Janus. How is Plum?”
“On solids now. I’d thank you for referring me to Namiki again, but that gets pretty tiresome.”
“And she’s been through the cosmetic surgery?”
“Almost couldn’t tell her jaw was … oh flak,” she said, ending on a sombre note. “She looks like herself. Almost.”
“I’m glad. We’ll get together again soon. Thanks for the help, Janus,” Aaran replied.
“Uh huh.”
“What about you?”
“Scared. Plum gone from social to freak. How did you handle it? When you rushed the … when, you were hurt?”
“You don’t mean ‘freak’, do you?”
“She said it, so she must feel that way. She nearly died, I can’t imagine worse than that.”
“Then you’re in the right headspace. If it weren’t for Mama my Papa wouldn’t have ever let me outside again. That’s feeling like you let the world down. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“So being with her is what matters? She got attacked, not like she made a mistake.”
Not quite what I mean, Aaran thought. “Injuries happen. She almost lost her life. Have you seen Kraven for a reference yet?”
“No. No I haven’t. Not yet. Guess I better get to it, huh? Plum’ll be up for her meds in a little bit.”
Aaran signed off with a reassuring word. She had a lot of research to do.

The medical benefits of memory restoration were long understood and meticulously implemented. Law governing therapeutic use of brain performance modifications was thorough and exhaustive. Oversight and regulatory bodies were expertly staffed and Crown mandated with attractive compensation packages. Public trust was at an all time high, but that could be said of any organization yet to break trust. Early virtual neural-networking for entertainment proved expensive and psychologically damaging, effectively ruining profit opportunities, according to investor guidance and critical review.
Drima history was short and varied, but its documentation was erratic and inconsistent. From enthusiast reviews of entertainment venues to hobby journals of Living Code and others, the available selection of factual information was questionable at best. A reheated bowl of stew and filtered water later, she was decided that one hundred thousand dubious writings required a substantial boost in feasibility.
Thankfully, she had access to Whitegraft PD data stores and a few handy search routines courtesy of Buddy Namiki, her android ex-partner. Tax records could be had but would take time to clear, so Aaran pinpointed the one industry that never fails to run afoul of the law: Adult entertainment.
“Three months ago …” she muttered, tipping a glass to her lips, “Ajay Banderos filed suit against Tandy Blastrail … for … breaking his will?” She made a curious face and scanned ahead. “No, I see. He was dominated, and the Drima failed to recognize his safe word. It broke into memories of his past and … assaulted him as a child?”
The law was perilously behind these kinds of interactions A sensationalist article wrapped up the subscription-selling event. “…Settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, and … the Drima hotel shuts down six months later. Bankruptcy. Let’s see if Whitegraft PD received a complaint …”
Sure enough, on the night of the ‘alleged’ assault, Ajay reported directly to Penny Broken, then a low-ranking officer on patrol near the scene. In court the charges were dismissed, but an appeal brought other acts of indiscretion on the part of Tandy to light. “… Leading to the settlement. Penny wasn’t called to testify. Not a witness … Hm …”
Local media at the time had obtained access to the financial transactions between the two parties but were unable to disclose exact figures due to ‘inscrutable encryption methods’. Aaran surmised that the lawful access of Hard-ID encryption stood in the way of their privilege, perceived and real. “Scrap. Oh, well. Not really important …” Aaran yawned, “The shard? Aw, three in the flakkin’ morning.”
As Aaran wound down her search, a handful of fatalistic fantasy works denouncing the fates and dreams of Drimas prompted another angle. A quick search for ‘Drima Fan Stories’ turned up an amateur archive of stories with no genre unexplored. Aaran took note of the total story count boasted upon the entry page: “Thirty one thousand, eight hundred and two. Flak. I don’t think Sunrunner 8080 was this big.” She then glyphed a copy of the site summary to the local relay and bookmarked its location in her external memory.

The next day Penny Broken was livid, but no one understood exactly why. Even fewer were concerned except to duck whenever she would throw something or raise her voice. As the ranking superior, minding her meant keeping to themselves and doing exactly what they were told. Broken was not known for her restraint but was recognized as the hard edge to Milne’s softer attitude.
Aaran wasn’t about to hear a word of it, and required some coaxing to accept an invitation to review the results of Grimes’ sleepless hunt for clues. Perhaps the flood of glyphs, messages and calls from individuals professing to have seen or slept with the bloodless clones had something to do with it.
Myst provides an energy boost but is physically exhausting without proper nutritional supplements. Grimes favored potato wedges, but since breakfast was the only option, he had hashbrowns instead. With a bowl of several helpings, he prepared a summary of his findings for DI Penny Broken. Would she complain about the sparsity of leads, too?
Aaran had particular timing, but after talking to twelve other officers, she knew Grimes was at the top of the food chain. Indeed he did not seem to notice, nor remark at her appearance. Looking up from his screen but not changing the angle of his head, he said, “Out of thirty-seven leads just two were legitimate. I can say that because we have memory data lawfully obtained from the witnesses.”
Aaran scoffed, reached for a few hashbrowns. “And the rest?”
“Co-operative as a bag of detonating explosive. Broken forwarded a message in advance against anything less than strictly legal. Now that don’t make … what I mean is if this has to stand up to the Crown, like you say,” he made a face. “If it does, then two is enough.”
“Do me a flavor and add this to the store,” she relayed, transmitting the glyph signature privately.
Grimes reviewed the summary and whistled. “Broken had a run in with a Drima victim? How’s it relate to this case?”
“Who’s on this right now?”
Grimes flicked a stray hair with a forefinger. “Ashton and Musil.”
“Ashton can bag the money trail if he puts the request into DEWAR pronto. It’s proof of profitability, and that Drimas could be industrialized and exploited.”
“It’s a little vague.”
“So far it’s what we’ve got.” Aaran flicked a hand through her bangs. “What do you think about DEWAR’s summary?”
“It’s not very specific, which is unusual …”
“Unless there are high rank permissions protecting information stores.”
“Could be. You sleep much last night?”
She stifled a yawn. “No.”
“Filing authorization request with the Crown is going to take a long time, especially if they are sheltering industrial patents.”
“Could be military, too. I’ll put in a word with Representative Castlegar.”
“What’ll that do?”
“Might pull down otherwise unreachable fruit. She’s got no patience but a lot of love for us grunts.”
Grimes took a swig of Myst. “Okay. Why do Drimas want real bodies, anyway? How would somebody do it for ‘em?”
“How? There’s a brisk trade in prosthetic bodies for Drima performs, but it’s strictly regulated. Eitehr you pay for the hardware and expertise or you skirt the system,” she explained hastily, impatient. “Look at it like this; either somebody’s doing work on the side or this a completely illegal private enterprise.”
“I still don’t—” Lewis Grimes eyes were glazing with fatigue. Aaran stifled a chuckle and realized she was talking to a man with less than full cognitive abilities.
“This is high tech, sophisticated and specialized. Profitability depends on resource and necessity. Simuplex relies upon the medical industry and plentifully insured.”
Lewis scowled. “I get it. What’s the hook, is that it? Fake a body for a Drima and get them hooked on it somehow. Shards, Aaran. Ah, sorry.”
“No, that’s okay. Been there,” she replied, patting his shoulder. “Listen to this: I spoke with Janus Wintertide. She and I watched a man bleed out but not die. Red blood, not the synthetic stuff you might expect.”
“Sounds grim.”
Aaran nodded. “He died, but not before she removed his arm by force. We think it was the same type of body as Ulysses, and we’re trying to establish how long they’ve been on the market. There’s a mix of expertise here that can only exist without regulatory constraints. Greed and profit strolling hand in hand. A dreamy, horrid, ruinous fantasy. How do we prove it?”
“Yeah, the Crown and DEWAR sure are playing it close to their chests.”
“What do you think?”
“Oh I don’t know anymore. I’ve compiled the reports from our two witnesses into a glyph. You should have the key for it from Broken.”
“C’mon Grimes, you’ve been a part of this from the start.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s nerve wracking. Wrecking? Shards. I’m going on vacation next week. I think someone’s got credits and no moral or ethical standards. What bothers me is the excess. Who can afford this ‘cept scrids in Sketchline? That’s what I think.”
“S’what I figure. And even if we can substantiate everything, it could be there was no legal wrongdoing.”
“So it’s a waste of time anyway? Bad warranty or some scrimp? Flak,” Grimes cursed. “Nevamind. I’m done here.”
“Alright. Thanks Grimes.”
“Lewis. Call me Lewis. So blasted strange, but y’know I’d be bored if it weren’t. Just what it is.”
Aaran nodded and palmed another handfull of his breakfast. “Normal is what we’re used to. I’ll brief Broken, you head home. Drop her a glyph though, she’ll pop a button otherwise.”
“And thanks.”
“Yep. It’ll be your turn next time.”
At that moment Janus completed her task and transmitted the encrypted results directly to Aaran. What would have taken hours to decode was reduced to a brief bathroom break thanks to Buddy’s remote dedicated server which he had affectionately provided for her use. The results were disturbing, but useful. Not only had she identified manufacturer markings, she independently linked them to the death of the same three year old child.

Penny gave Aaran about a minute to clear the air. Descending upon her from a height of authority would serve no purpose and even frighten her quarry away. Penny Broken could see that she was not the sort to be caught in her talons so easily, besides. Aaran instinctively batted a question at her, and amused at the concentration that tensed her face.
Penny slathered annoyance all over Aaran’s presentment, but was inclined to settle with the results of Janus Wintertide’s labor. Activity and a good excuse could keep the heat off if you knew just how and when to apply them: Not too often but with gravitas. Penny wanted hard copies but knew she would have to fill out more forms to get them. Glyphs, permissions and signatures, she was grousing.
“If this goes to court the Crown will have everything in print and reimburse your costs. Form 234A, Section 2: Crown Required Hard Materials.” Aaran lifted a cup of randomly befruited water to her chin and inhaled lightly. “That glyph is full disclosure, with witness statement and Hard-ID authorization.”
“A pretty credit we paid, too. That case was last year, closed without contest. Who gave you the power to sub-contract government agents for police investigations?”
“I did. You could have. It’s all Crown approved, and DEWAR is trawling the glyph as we speak. So what’s the problem?” Aaran took a sip and sighed. “Not clear enough from what you see? Need the cliff notes version?”
She growled, scratching nails across the bevel of CDI Milne’s desk. “It’s a match. Cosmetically they’re unique, but they’re twins. Not twins. Clones.”
Of course there was more to it than that, and Aaran said as much. “There is black market for bodies grown to be inhabited by Drimas. How they’re paying for the procedure is anybody’s guess, but this is lucrative business.”
Distracted by the wealth of information and its practical application, Penny calmed very quickly. “Digital entertainers implanted into physical bodies? How would they conceal their facilities? That’s what we’ve got to find out. By that I mean you and your blasted connections.”
“Janus surmised they have no fixed location and operate ad hoc, on demand. An existing customer would answer a lot of questions right now. So you had the techs look at Joinfellow?”
“I did, and they bored me to tears with talk. I’d just like it if someone—what now?” her voice dropped off. She reached forward and tapped a glossy device on her desk. “Broken.”
“Weller, sir. We’ve got a glyph in from Talon about a live … uh, kinda alive? Witness? Injured in Harvest Yield Terrace,” stated a rushed sounding baritone over the connection. “What do you want to do?”
“Kinda alive? Is she dead or not? Who’ve you sent?”
“Sorry sir, don’t know. We haven’t sent anybody.”
“And why not?!” she flared.
“Ugh,” he coughed. “Your orders.”
Aaran grinned and Penny snarled. “Then someone had better glyph me the registration records for this woman. She have a name?”
“There’s no identification markers, sir. Nothing at all.”
Aaran quirked an eyebrow, adjusting her coat. “This could be our break. C’mon Penny. I’ll drive.”
“Flakkin’ shards you will. Is my cruiser charged?”
“Yes sir.”
Two minutes later they were pulling out of the department’s underground parking lot. Penny had conceded the driver’s seat to Aaran, freeing up hands to review the report.
“This is a flakkin’ mess. It would be Weller, he’s encoding glyphs unaided again. A woman accidentally lacerated an artery on a … chair? Desk? A thimble? What? Shards!”
Aaran chuckled. “Reggie does that too. Can’t form a complete sentence without backup.”
Penny flicked her a knowing glance. “Forbid anyone who can’t run code without help from using the system this way. This Gideon fellow is a housecleaner, and instead of notifying the local Relay called us for assistance. I don’t … what is this nonsense I’m reading? Can that be right?”
“What is it?”
Penny flicked her a knowing glance. “Apparently Gideon Marcus fellow is a veteran … and its stated here that he performed first aid after … the woman after fell and cut her neck open. Arterial laceration. On something.”
Aaran grimaced. “A medic, perhaps? Was there no significant other? Neighbours? No one noticed?”
Penny shrugged. “Searching for known associations based on Gideon would be pointless. He must be well trained to treat a potentially fatal injury. Still doesn’t explain why he’d call the police …”
“Hang on, he can tell us. We’re here.”

Gideon was a Simuplex recipient in the form of a complete arm graft, according to his record, which he provided during introduction as a way of greeting. Apparently he was completely mute, a psychological condition resulting from his involvement in the last war. He made an attempt at signing, and when Broken made no notice, Aaran introduced herself by the same means.
He began by telling her that Trust Faraday was not dead. Penny paced around the scene, eyes lancing the blood-soaked mop Gideon used to keep the floor as tidy as possible. Gideon signed to Aaran that he had no implants, and he knew the woman personally.
“You’re signing to him?” Penny demanded.
Aaran thanked him and looked irritated at her. “Yelling won’t help. He’s deaf, too. He doesn’t read lips well. He’s just one of those who wants to be left alone.”
“I don’t get it, he helped her? What do you—”
“I’m getting to that.” Aaran turned back to Gideon and asked about communicating with Trust. Gideon’s stocky arms moved rapidly and Aaran prompted him to slow down, apologetically. He indicated that she needed treatment before she could communicate again.
“What’s he saying?”
“Call an ambulance.”
Penny and Aaran followed the emergency vehicle to Bethany General, answering as many questions as she could along the way. “Bethany’s has specialists who are experienced with local crime related injuries. In Whitegraft we get more bio-terror and drug trade than any other territory.”
“Alright, saying that makes it sound obvious. Why isn’t that woman dead? She should have bled out in the time he took to find her.”
“Gideon told me her body doesn’t need blood. It needs a catalyst agent provided by the manufacturer, which he found in supply. It was the last thing Trust told him before she lost consciousness.”
“Now just a tick. A catalyst?”
Aaran grinned a little, maybe at the grisly carnival performance, maybe at the fascination of it all. “Blood in that body is a carrier for the catalyst, which works like a battery, a power source. It’s cosmetic for the life the Drimas are trying to live. Without it …”
“So that’s the hook,” Broken agreed. “It’s not the body that costs. It’s the upkeep.”
“Right. Trust’s accident just broke open this entire case, and we have legal precedent to pursue the suppliers.”
Penny let out a deep sigh. “Ulysses wasn’t attacked. His batteries just died. Not quite legal precedent, but a tangible lead at least.”
Aaran nodded. “The unmarked credits may have been part of a payment for more of the catalyst.”
“Flakkit, Coates. You sure know some … interesting people. Janus Wintertide might get to sleep a little better if we can shut down this operation.”
Aaran slowed the cruiser as they entered a right turn intersection on an incline. “I don’t think they’re getting better at it, but just finding the right customers.”
Penny mused. “The Drima Hotel would have been prime retail space, but they were bankrupted.”
“No, they just moved house. You know how it works.”
Penny nodded. “Yeah. So?”
“It’s not like they need a lot of space to sell this product. It’s the promise of a new life; we get glyphs for vacation packages, insurance and spa treatments all the time.” Aaran accelerated as the ambulance wailed through an intersection. “I’m more interested in the bill of materials.”
“Which should be similar to Simuplex?”
“Yep. The Crown should answer the rest of our inquiries now that we’ve got this information. Why don’t you go back to the station to see how that’s going?”
“You want to have a word with Trust and Gideon?”
“Trust won’t like the idea of giving up her body, but I don’t see an alternative.”
The hospital loomed, white, blue and brightly lit in its maroon pitch backdrop. Aaran pulled up to the curb behind the white and red ambulance, getting out while the crew unloaded their passenger. Over the hood of the cruiser, Penny remarked, “She’s facing a jail term anyway for conspiracy and links to bio-terrorism. Everything to lose, nothing to win.”
Aaran snarled, but buried it. Penny’s harshly logical viewpoint grated. “The Crown won’t be any more cooperative. Do you want to grind this out in court against the resources of organized crime or do better?”
Penny couldn’t argue with that, in fact, she didn’t. Instead she asked, “What’s better?”
“I don’t know that yet. But … listen, Gideon was very familiar with that body, and it’s not because he’s a Simuplex recipient. Like he’d done it a hundred times before.”
Aaran frowned, then said, “I figure he was a medic and has ties to this … product. Simuplex wasn’t an official military project, not at any time. It’s not in the records, not even the de-classified redacted files. I checked.”
“Representative Castlegar.”
“That’s scratchplate.”
“No. I have it from the highest authority that no applications were filed to the Crown, but it must have been out there.”
Penny walked around the front of the cruiser and gazed at Aaran with dramatic skepticism. “How do you keep a project that big off the books?”
“The same way you keep anything off the books. You do it yourself and don’t tell anyone. Put Grimes on a search for exceptional unit performance – or statistically unlikely survival rates – just after a period of high casualties just prior to The Burn.”
“If you say so. I’ve glyphed him those very words. Where will you be after you plumb these two?”
“Probably at Stalfos mulling over a few things.”
“Right.” Penny gave a wave and departed for the station.

Stalfos happened far sooner than Aaran hoped. Trust was comatose and non-communicative, but Gideon accepted Aaran’s offer to dinner. The Waytrain connected Bethany to the pizzeria with just a two minute walk, and Gideon had an interesting observation after they ordered.
‘You are a veteran, also.’
Aaran chuckled with closed eyes, then answered simply, ‘Yes.’
‘Where? With whom?’
‘The KnightsMage. A government unit organized to marshal young wish endowed women.’
Gideon’s blocky face turned curious. ‘Women only?’
‘Hard to explain,’ she signed, then took a sip of water.
‘Please do.’
Aaran took a deep breath. Gideon’s skin was like pressed earth, but his yellow eyes yielded to her something young and sheltered, unmarred by the atrocity of war. She smiled lightly. ‘If my husband met you, he would like you. You’re the kind of gentle man he could trust.’
‘Thank you, but I am not interested in meeting him. Will you please explain? Just that?’
That reminded her of the delicacy of his mindset. ‘Yes, of course. Most of the men had gone … and died already, and before The Burn, just before, The Crown decided that only wish endowed citizens could join the fight. I was pretty young, but not … so young. Sixteen. Soon after Carso Haradin learned of it, he bombarded Canor.’
Gideon nodded sympathetically, eyes lit with memory.
‘Anyone outside the shields was gone. Communications with the colonies was cut off, and The Crown put every desperate project it had into play. Arks, weaponized drones and cyborgs, and … then The KnightsMage. I pulled a stunt and rushed the shield, lost my arm and leg, but shortly after my wish was granted and someone on Ansile noticed.’
‘You lost your arm and leg? You don’t use Simuplex to replace them?’
‘No. It wasn’t viable for me for a long time, and when it was, I decided against it.’
Gideon blinked, stupefied. ‘Why? Don’t you want to feel again?’
Aaran’s expression turned critical. ‘You could talk and hear again.’
‘I … don’t need to. If Trust isn’t there, then I don’t need anything.’
A young man set down two medium pizzas, plates, utensils and napkins. He smiled graciously and invited them to enjoy their meal before departing. Aaran and Gideon ate quietly, and afterward, she paid the bill and they returned to Bethany General.
‘Does she know?’
The question came after a period of silence, watching Trust’s regular, even breathing. They were told she could wake any time at all, which meant minutes, months, or years. No one could be certain.
Gideon nodded. ‘Yes. I proposed to marry her.’
Aaran had seen stranger pairings, and was not at all surprised. ‘That’s oddly romantic. Would you want to hear her voice?’
‘I promised to get an implant if we married,’ he signed sharply, face tense. ‘It was terrible to work on her. Black Set has his hooks in her, and even if I get them out she’s gone. I won’t lose her.’
‘There’s more, isn’t there.’
‘Yes, but I can’t say.’
Aaran searched for eye contact. ‘If you could tell me without exposing your plans, would you do it?’
His rough-skinned hands clenched. ‘Yes.’
‘I have a way, but I need you to name her supplier. You have to take a risk, and so does she.’
‘Risks are fodder.’
Aaran allowed herself a grin. ‘Good.’

The desk sergeant languished a passing glance at Aaran but paused on her companion. She measured him up and decided to let Aaran set the tone. The fit of her new rank and the uniform that went with it gave her confidence.
“Where’s DI Broken?”
“Need to talk to her?”
“Cafeteria. Who’s this,” she asked, gesturing with a writing implement of some variety toward her company.
“Gideon Marcus. Grab me a guest card, will you?”
No deference at all, Aaran reflected, handing Gideon the card that would run interference for any required Soft-ID sign ins during his visit. ‘I don’t need you signed in here as a material witness,’ she signed to him. ‘I don’t think you’re going anywhere. Your Hard-ID is tracked by Relay because of your military record and training. You’re too valuable to go missing.’
‘I want this to be over tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then next week. If not next week, then next year. As long as Trust is alive I don’t care how long.’
‘Follow me and don’t touch anything unless I tell you to. Some readers don’t look like readers and aren’t very selective.’
Gideon nodded obediently. Two halls and one floor down later, Aaran and Gideon entered Research and Records. Pierce was anxiously tapping away at a keyboard, filling out a report. So engrossed, he didn’t notice their arrival until they sat beside him. With a start and grunt, he sat back, smiling awkwardly.
“I did it! Look! Wait, who? Gideon?” His smile broadened. He signed, ‘Hi! Oh … this can’t be good news. Why are you here?’
‘Trust had an accident.’
‘Ah flak. So now they know.’
“ ‘Now they know’ ?” Aaran snapped. “You knew? Oh blast it, of course. It’s in Gideon’s statement. Known associations …”
“Hey, I wasn’t hiding anything. Gideon’s a failsafe,” Pierce remarked easily. “I’d bet my Ark on him anyday. It’s in his war record. Not a single casualty in his whole career.”
‘What are you saying?’
Aaran scrutinized Gideon and signed, ‘Is it true you had no deaths in your tours of duty?’
Gideon closed his eyes, scrunching his face.
“Hey, Gid …” Pierce started.
“No, give him a moment,” Aaran demurred.
‘It’s for Trust. It’s for Trust. It’s all for Trust I do it.’
‘Do what?’ Aaran started to sign, then murmured, “Oh flak.”
“What is it?” Pierce was mystified, staring wondrously at his friend.

“Let’s have it.” Penny was patient. Gideon had the answers and all of the missing pieces fit. The interrogation room was cool but not cold, jug of water full and not flavored, cups ceramic, not plastic. This was Gideon’s confession. Aaran served as his mouthpiece, speaking directly as he signed, uncommonly emotional.
“Carso Haradin had the odds against us, emotionless tactics and no fear of losses. In the academy we were like paper plane pilots, promised death, not victory. Soldiers on the ground in our best gear fought for days, outlasting no one. Turned into ash, piles of molten metal.
“I was laughed at as a medic. No one believed in the morale of a young recruit, but I was not going to be shaken. I had a trick. A wish, actually. I did not tell my superiors, not even my friends, but I could heal others. Regrow limbs, restore vital organs. Brain tissue. Any part at all.
“The Watershed Unit formed a pact and declared that I was their secret weapon. Not to be shared with anyone. If I happened to heal non-unit members, they were approached and ‘obliged’ to take the pact as well. It was good to be a hero. Of course my superiors noticed, they weren’t stupid.
“They wanted to reprimand me, to promote me, to congratulate or curse me. They couldn’t make up their minds. In the end they decided to leave me where I was doing the most good, saving the most lives. Unfortunately they moved our unit to heavier action zones. That’s when I lost my arm.
“I couldn’t heal anyone then. We started taking ‘unacceptable’ losses again, and I could do nothing. Except that there was a fellow who talked to me. He promised that if I cooperated with him we could save people again. What could I do but accept his offer? He was a strange, but kind fellow.”
Penny raised her hand and Gideon looked at her. “Who was he?”
“Araski Temparo.”
Aaran gave a little gasp. “Frei Temparo’s father. Fourth Trail Medical, the manufacturer of Simuplex.”
Gideon knew the facts and must have understood what she said. ‘He reverse engineered the tissue my gift creates to replace what is destroyed.’ Aaran repeated this aloud and turned to him, signing, ‘You’re not to blame for this, Gideon.’
Listlessly he nodded, but determined, ‘Someone has made it into a criminal trade, Aaran.’
Penny blinked. “What did he say?”
“He’s just saying that he feels responsible for the black market Simuplex.”
“That’s nonsense,” Penny replied. “If it wasn’t you, Gideon, it would have been someone else. The criminal trade of art isn’t the fault of the artists. This is theft of something precious. A gift. A blessing.”
Aaran signed her words to him but looked forlorn. “He said he’s doing this for Trust, Penny.”
“So ask him what it is he’s doing.”
He answered.
“Protecting a Simuflesh Charge trafficker.”

Gideon wasn’t considered a flight risk, but was a valuable witness in the case against … an ironic situation of mystery. Penny made him Aaran’s responsibility, but she didn’t mind. Meanwhile, The Crown volunteered a complete profile of Simuplex, its patents and the legal standing of Fourth Trail Medical. Penny was annoyed, Aaran was unimpressed. Lewis Grimes scanned the document and declared that Fourth Trail was off limits. “Or so this blasted thing says.”
“Profit and military application,” Penny recited. “You ever get tired of being right, Aaran?”
Aaran lifted an eyebrow slightly. “Was that appreciation I heard? Ever been in a fight, Penny?”
“I’ve got scars but no kids,” she remarked tersely. “So?”
“Cyborgs will break you without a thought, so you have to know them, like you’d know the right shade of lipstick for a date.”
Penny clicked her tongue behind her teeth. “I get it. Grimes, what’s their stance on Trust?”
“Fewer the better? No, oh … you mean the victim. That’s … a little bizarre. Representative Castlegar put in an application for her to be taken in by the Stargazers Program. It was accepted, and they’re covering her medical costs. So, she’s being treated like any other victim of criminal exploitation.”
“Ignored unless she breaks the law or is of some use to it. Doesn’t matter. She’ll be safe. Give me a moment to tell Gideon the good news,” Aaran said, rolling her eyes as Penny shot her a look. “Did you want to be the bearer of good news?”
Penny aimed for withering glare, but then sighed. “I’d hit you, and what would that tell him?”
“That you’ve got a mean right.”
“How’d you know I … flakkit. I’m getting a drink,” she snapped and departed briskly.
Gideon smirked, sipping at a still warm mug of hot chocolate. Setting it down, he signed, ‘I understood some of it, but is Trust truly safe from the law?’
‘Sort of. They’re requiring her to register a Hard-ID, but there’s no timeline on it. Probably sooner than later. She needs a legitimate body or they’ll confiscate hers. How soon can you get her one?’
Gideon squinted at the floor, then up at the lights and back to Aaran’s face. ‘You knew all this time? I cannot marry her until she wakes up, and my insurance won’t cover her until then.’
But you can’t do anything illegal to ensure her replacement body is paid for, Aaran thought worriedly. ‘We don’t have to skirt the law to keep Trust safe. Would you be opposed to having a prosthetic body for her for a while?’
Gideon’s face went blank, head tilting forward into deep consideration. ‘It could work?’
‘It’s been done. An electronic brain functions just as well in a prosthetic body and their owners have equal representation under Whitegraft law as any other citizen.’ Which was, Aaran thought, exactly what was housed in Trust’s braincase. ‘What do you think?’
‘It is so much, and I want to ask Trust what I should … no, at least, if I could have her approval.’
‘Might be possible. Look Gideon, we have some time. I have a friend who may be able to wake her so we can do all that. Can you stay with Lewis here while I contact my friend?’
‘Thank you.’

The proposition was risky at best and though in common practice, resource intensive and equipment specific Doctor David Namiki elaborated, steeped in repair orders and official inquires. Aaran smiled, comforted at once by his typical overbearing attitude and dotage.
“She’s in Bethany General,” Aaran interrupted deliberately.
“And you’ll pay for everything?”
“Stargazers will pay for everything,” she parroted. “Satisfied?”
“And consent?” David’s long face stopped mid-smile when she would not reply. “No consent?”
“She’s non-communicative.”
Aaran shook her head at the small screen and shifted on the narrow, uncomfortable plank that served as a seat in the privacy assured room. “Her fiancée communicated with her just after the accident, but not since. He’s close to the technology and doesn’t want to incriminate himself.”
“He’s entitled to specialist consultation, and I can implement total privacy under Title 8.”
Aaran let out a thoughtful ‘hmm’ and smiled. “You could, and Gideon could do what he needs to.”
David shed his staunchness and indulged in a moment of excited curiosity. “I’ll make sure I’ve got enough space to record the entire session. If he doesn’t mind.”
“I’m sure he won’t. Thank you, David.”
Closing the connection prompted Aaran to stretch and put the final piece together: Bait the trap. Trust’s supplier had to go down and give up his dependents in the process. On the way to Grimes’ office, she received a message from Representative Reggie Castlegar:
“Aaran, would you believe Trust Capacity is the most popular, successful, and stable Drima of the last generation? She led a campaign to promote Drima contributions at the polls. I am aware that my policy of recognizing the rights of Drimas improved our relations. You don’t get to tell me none of this is altruistic, but maybe I believe this is love, deep down, in my cold, political heart. Oh hush.
“Trust Capacity Marcus. The name of the first married Drima in Canor history. I like it; burden of proof by pomposity alone. Oh, I trust by now you’ve got Dr. Namiki busily working out how to move her to a legal body? Good girl. How do you plan to shut down the distributor of Simuflesh Charge without jeopardizing everyone who depends on him? I’m glad I don’t have to figure that out, but if I can help I’m just a glyph away.
“Stay in touch, reckless girl.”
Gideon could not help but agree to all of Aaran’s conditions in light of her generosity, though he was less certain about the risk to Trust in shutting down her supplier. He laid out for Grimes a diagram that he had just one contact in the tidiest hairdressers this side of the Shiv. The Crown approved a network layout of his contacts but disappointment set in as none were found.
‘I do not know how Dale keeps in touch with us. I thought he used Relays like everyone else,’ Gideon repeated. ‘Unless he has a wish that makes it possible.’
‘Not a wish. Look,’ Aaran started, typing a name so that a profile appeared on Grime’s screen for their benefit. “A Catalyst Omen. Dale Regal is an alias for Carson Dial or Electric Sniper. He traded his wish for the ability to interact with wireless signals without cybernetic implants. He has a previous record but by all accounts went straight. Out on good behavior, or so we believed.”
“Flak! How’d a guy caught hacking the Decade Chamber ever get out of prison?” Grimes gasped.
“A monitor implant enables DEWAR to packet sniff his traffic …” Aaran’s voice drifted off, pondering. “Apparently he’s bypassing it. Bring him in. Gideon’s word is enough. While we’re packing him off to prison and taking him permanently offline, he can make up a list of all the contacts we need.”
“Who should I send and not tip him off?”
Aaran blinked and gave it some thought. “You’re right. Gideon, let’s go have a chat with Dale. Now I think about it, I knew him once before he decided wishes were a bargaining chip for power.”
When Aaran began to leave, she stopped when Gideon did not immediately follow. Slapping her forehead, she tapped his shoulder and signed to him that they were going to arrest Dale Regal. Confused but compliant, he followed as she waved off any suggestion of backup.
“Of course, that’d be no better than … Lewie you idiot,” Grimes sighed.
Aaran borrowed an unmarked police cruiser and checked the charge of her Blade. Gideon signed, ‘Do you think he will be that dangerous?’
‘I never hedge my bets,’ she replied curtly.
Dale’s corner of town was upscale; fresh money and the bravado of masking the past with as many layers of taste, poor and otherwise, as was feasible. Houses no less than three storeys, natural lawns mowed every weekend, patios bedecked with furniture and weather shielding of the most affordable kind. Children with a taste for expensively farmed fruits and vegetables and every expectation credits could provide.
“Aaran!” Dale chorused, a panic stricken ballad terminated in its opening notes. “How long have you been away? Ten years? Six years? Oh, who cares?”
A rainbow spectrum of hair care products and tools of the trade presented themselves on glass shelves between reddish wood wall beams. The ground was spotless, not a trimming abandoned. Scissors never needed sharpening in Dale’s shop.
“Five,” she responded sharply, leveraging a brief glance at Gideon and courting a chair but not sitting. “You’ve met Gideon Marcus.”
“How is Trust?” he asked with a touch of undisguised malice, not bothering to sign.
Gideon smiled in reply and signed, ‘Fine, Dale.’
“Comatose, actually. What put you back in the hands of the Black?”
Dale smiled hideously. “Simuflesh hair is exquisite. Never splits or loses its color.”
“Reprogrammable, too. Trust prefers copper-green,” Aaran replied quickly. “That’s how you got your start, isn’t it? Tending Simuplex hair, until Black Set came to you with a better deal.”
The grimace was not meant to be seen. “What could you mean?”
Dale glanced at and over Gideon with a concealed snarl. He flipped his shoulders forward, tilting his head to the side. “A deal? By the Pillars, Aaran, are you here to harass me about keeping a few people alive? Friends? Family? Dear Shards woman, I’m no criminal.”
“Then what?”
Dale heaved a dramatic sigh and plunked down on a chair facing her. “Do you know what it’s like in the Candlestick? Oh, you’d call it Kindlewist. I almost gave up on women until Trust. She’s special. Gideon trusts me. I’m not the man I used to be.”
Aaran quirked an an eyebrow as he opened his shirt. A four inch wide scar ran from his stomach up to his collarbone. He buttoned it up again. “I came back to this place and some thug almost gutted me. Gideon saved my life. I made an agreement with the thug to sell the Charge, but ate the cost. You think it was easy? I stay in the black because of my legit clients.”
“And you’ll lose those when Black Set finds out you’re talking to me,” Aaran stated with a note of regret. “You still passed Charge along to the customers.”
“As a gift! What was I supposed to do? This is deplorable!”
‘He quaffs everyone this side of town, Aaran. He will cooperate,’ Gideon signed quickly.
‘You had no idea he was doing this?’
Gideon shrugged. ‘Trust might have told me once, but I didn’t think about it. I never asked her about how she got Charge for her body.’
Aaran took a breath and glared intensely at Dale. “You will cooperate, and we’d better move fast now that Black Set is wise to it.”
Guiltily he grinned. “As you wish! What should I do?”
“Mark every one who accepts your ‘gift’. Surveillance can be placed on every one of them and Black Set will be damned to make any stupid moves,” she growled. “How many are we talking about?”
Dale rolled his light eyes. “Oh, thirty or so, but … just eleven or twelve have Simuflesh bodies.”
“Good blasted gravy Dale,” Aaran gasped. “You had me for a moment. Now you’ll have to come with us to the station.”
He slouched in his chair. “That’s it. I’m ruined.”
“Not if you don’t mind getting some hair on this floor. There are a lot of girls in the Stargazers who could use a good haircut, and I’m sure …”
He darted up and clasped both of her hands in his. “You wouldn’t! Oh Aaran! Thank you!”
Awkwardly she smiled. “So glad you haven’t given up on women … you’re welcome.”
“But, what about … the rest?”
Aaran shrugged but privately pinged him an address. “Somewhere we won’t get ambushed or shot, okay? Let’s go. ”


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