If you could feel the pain of others would you be any less likely to hurt them? What if you had no choice? Would you want to be physically connected to your killer?
This is a new one for me. I’ve seen a lot of weird crime scenes in the last four years but this is something else. Clearly murder; but only one body. Hart steps past the white suits, busy dusting away, and says what we’re all thinking.
“Where’s the other body?” I’ll be damned if I know. We’ve already swept all three floors and anyway it’s a knife to the heart. It’s not like the victim took their time dying. By all accounts we’re missing the assailant’s corpse and there’s not a hair in this module that doesn’t belong to the poor guy lying dead two feet from me. I need to get outside.
“Hey Carson, where you headed?” Hart shouts after me.
“Smoke,” I grunt back at him. It’s a reflex. I wasn’t born in Autumn. (Weird name for a city if you ask me but no one else seems to mind.) The Fibre won’t let me enjoy them anymore but I still carry a pack in my coat. The way the things can clean you out you’d think I’d be good smoking fifty a day but I guess it doesn’t work like that. Part of the pleasure comes from doing the damage and the Fibre won’t allow that. So, I carry them around and I hold one between my lips but it always goes back into the box.
“Strange business huh?” Hart seems to be able to move around without a sound.
“Stop creeping up on me! You know I don’t like it.”
“Relax boss, just came to tell you, forensic boys are done.”
“And?” but I know the answer before he gives it to me. Nothing. Not a trace of anybody else in the module except John L. Was this unprecedented? Surely this had never happened before. I must be the unluckiest chump this side of Brighton River for this to land in my lap. Because make no mistake I had to solve this case, and fast. If this got out to the public there’d be anything from mass panic to a bloody revolution although how that would work is beyond me.
There’s a fair lot beyond you at the moment old man.
Another smoke finds its way between my lips. Time to go to work.
“So what’s the story on John’s wife?” I shout over the noise of the workroom. We’ve got an eleven-man team on this including three from Special Procedures. The woman from SP, I forget her name, Panosi-something, gives me the answer.
“Left him two years ago. We’ve got her address; she’s living out of state; dropped the fibre. Looks like a strong alibi from the new family though.”
“Chase it up. We need something we can sink our teeth into.” I’m trying to keep the frustration out of my voice but it’s tough. Day three and we have less than nothing to go on. It looks like a suicide for god’s sake. That’s how mad this whole mess is.
The thing you have to understand about the Fibre is, it won’t let you hurt yourself. It’s in control of the tissue down to the finest level. Just thinking back to those weeks of training and edification workshops makes me feel sick. They really burn it into the back of your mind before you can sign up. An entire city, just one giant experiment. It sounds like some bad science fiction. Yet here I am and the thing has been running almost as long as I have. Still they need to bring in people from the outside. Mostly teachers and scientists by the truck-full. And occasionally lawmen.
“Boss, Yates has picked up Maggie Allen on Paramount Avenue!” Hart pipes up. Finally! The woman was the last person seen with John when he was still breathing. Where the hell had she been for the last three days?
“Right, let’s get over there now! And bring what’s her name, Panzi-,”
Moral Fibre is a robot that lives under your skin. The description still makes my flesh crawl. I never liked the idea of the actual thing but what it promised seemed worth it. As the patrol pod winds its way to Maggie Allen my mind flits back to that big reveal as I sat alongside all the other prospective citizens.
Good question. No it doesn’t control your actions but it can prevent them. Millions of tiny picobots are transmitting and receiving information from your brainstem to every major nerve group in your body. They are also communicating with the Fibre in other people’s bodies.
That was the selling point you see. The Fibre could communicate across bodies. They were programmed to prevent harmful actions against yourself but not against others. Any pain you inflicted on another person would be transmitted via the Fibre to your own body and felt as though you were the victim. Violent crime in Autumn was non-existent when I arrived. Murder was a legend. The Fibre would match the severity of harm with pinpoint precision. A killing blow would strike both attacker and victim dead in one fell swoop. The brain’s pleasure centres could be manipulated. Those who may have found pleasure in pain before simply found that now they didn’t. It was that simple. If the Fibre in a woman’s body detected certain levels of stress or intoxication the pleasure centres in a man’s brain could be switched off. Pleasure could be easily converted to disgust if a person took action against an unconsenting party. Rape had become impossible.
Now all of this had led to some pretty creative ways to commit crimes without hurting anybody but that was alright with me. I needed to be kept in the job somehow. For the last four years I had spent most of my time at the department chasing peeping toms and petty thieves. It was closer to that promised utopia than I could have dreamed of. And now this.
“Poor John, he was a real sweetheart,” Maggie Allen purrs beneath her ridiculous hairdo. The huge beehive of dark hair is at odds with her tiny frame squeezed into an equally ridiculous short, red dress. She crosses her legs again much to the delight of Detective Hart.
We’re sitting in a dingy bar which seems to be solely lit up by garish pink neon. For a city built on the virtues of morality its obsession with neon is in my opinion, its cardinal sin.
“Did you return to his module with him after you left the bar?” I’ll probably forget her name again soon but I like agent Pannozzo. She’s no nonsense and she doesn’t do small talk. I’d swap her out for Hart in a flash but I guess I’m stuck with him.
“Yeah we went back there together. He’s a romantic, John. Always puts roses on the bed. Just the petals I mean. All around the pillows, you know?”
“So you slept with him and then?” Agent P doesn’t bat an eyelid as she continues on. These SP types are from the early days of Autumn when the Fibre was just starting out. Pannozzo might be older than me though she doesn’t look it. Maggie feigns a wounded look and adds,
“I was gonna stay the night with him for free but he got a call from some friend of his. Said I had to leave real quick.”
“Who was the friend? Did you see him?” I jump in without thinking and earn myself a dark glance from P.
“I never saw him but I can guess who he was. John was always going on and on about this guy, Coffee. Said he was some kind of genius or something; gonna make us real rich.”
“What’s his real name? What else do you know about him?”
“I don’t know nothing else about him. John always just called him Coffee and said he was like a good friend, you know?” Maggie says and slumps a little on her barstool. I leave Hart and P to take the rest of the statement and head outside for some air. The sunlight surprises me as I step outside. Sitting in that bar I’d felt like it was closer to midnight. So Maggie and John went back to his module together that night. That explains the female hairs we collected on the sweep of John’s home but it doesn’t explain how John ended up in the module next to his. Nor does it even begin to explain the knife in his heart. The door swings behind me as P and Hart make their way out of the bar with Maggie. We’ll need a full statement on where she’s been for the last three days but something tells me it won’t be of much use. Anyway, we have a lead. No face and no real name but Coffee had just jumped to the top of the very short list of most wanted people in Autumn.
Day five sees us taking the pod almost to the edge of Brighton River and into Shima district. The faux-Japanese ‘everything’ reminds me once again how much people managed to screw up a city they built from scratch. It must have seemed brilliant in some idiot’s mind to build a truly multicultural place to live by importing the look and feel of various countries wholesale. The result was that those nationalities who moved to Autumn had stuck to their respective districts like it was law and racial tensions had become an ever present, if non-violent, problem.
“What time is it?” I shoot at Hart, who’s busy pestering Panzo…Agent P across from me while she determinedly ignores him.
“5:40, boss.” He replies without missing a beat. That smile is really starting to wear on me. Hart could do with a smack around the head but I guess growing up in Autumn he’s never been in a fight in his life. You’d think a life without fear would make people careless, and it does, but there was always the chance the fibre might not stop you being run down by a pod or jumping out of a window. Of course, being run down had never happened once in the history of autopod use. How could it? And jumping out a window is all well and good until the Fibre heals you up right there on the pavement after you land. That’s if you even manage to trick it into thinking you aren’t suicidal. Attached to your brain, the Fibre had a limited ability to detect even the intent to self-harm. The scary thing is, and it’s something we’d all do better to forget; the Fibre won’t let you die until its time.
The tow would not match the severity of harm with pinpoint precision. A killing blow would strike both attacker and victim dead in one fell weoop.
“I guess we’ll make Shima bridge before 6:00,” I mutter. Next to me Penelope Aster is busy priming the netguns. One for each of the four of us. We’d get four chances if this guy bolted and I liked those odds.
“Make sure they don’t go off on you, Penny” Hart jokes from his side of the pod. Aster pulls a sulky face and looks like she’s going to reply then thinks better of it. She’s been on the team a year longer than Hart but seems to have become the most likely victim of his teasing.
“Shut it Hart or you’ll find yourself in a bloody net” I snap and Hart sits back in his seat with a grin. I hope the intel on Coffee is sound because if I’ve spent an hour in a pod with Hart for no reason I am going to be pissed.
Agent P is still staring out of the window as we glide into Shima proper and the generic neon signs of central Autumn transform into clusters of brightly lit kanji. The streets narrow so much they can only accommodate two sets of pod rails and our progress slows somewhat. As soon as Maggie Allen had given us the name Coffee, the team had been put on data filtration and IS to see if they could sift something out. With no hits for anyone using the alter ego Coffee most of day four, it had fallen to Agent P to gift us with a stroke of genius. Every district in Autumn had default records in English except for Shima district and Shenyang. After searching for 珈琲 (coffee)in the Shima records she had struck gold. Hundreds of hits for a person using the name operating out of Sakura Clubhouse. Why John L had been involved with a club in Shima nobody could guess but I very much intended to find out.
As the pod grinds to a halt outside Sakura, Aster hands me my netter and makes to open the door. I pull her back gently and go over the plan one more time.
“Alright, you all know how we want to play this. Agent P an…”
“Pannozzo sir?” Hart clarifies.
Pannozzo and I are taking the lead on this one,” I growl, “and you two are here as back up only. Under no circumstances are you to interact with or attempt to detain anyone unless instructed. Are we clear?”
“Clear, sir!” Aster confirms.
“Crystal, boss.” Says Hart.
Why had the Fibre been programmed to allow people to inflict pain in the first place? If the system was sophisticated enough to prevent any form of self-harm, then why had the same technology not been used to directly stop people from harming others. What was the purpose of this “eye-for-an-eye” response which dealt equivalent damage to an attacker? It had been explained in the workshops but I was still dubious.
Human morality is based on the possibility of evil. If we are unable to commit evil acts, then who is to say what we do is good? If there is only one choice, then there exists no choice at all. In Autumn, your choices are not taken from you. You are free to do as you choose. Only the system of punishment has changed.
Even at the time it had seemed off. What had struck me most was the nature of the Fibre itself. At its core it was just a computer program. Someone had created it and someone had designed its programming. Someone, somewhere had told the Fibre what is right and what is wrong. I couldn’t argue that the Fibre hadn’t improved people’s lives. The people of Autumn were happy and safe. But something didn’t feel right. Maybe I’m not smart enough to know what that something was but it was there. I knew it was there.
“We know you can speak English, so cut the crap!” Agent P is unfazed by the scowling face of the man known as Coffee as he stares back at her defiantly. Wrapped in the thick black cords of the net and dumped unceremoniously in the back of the pod, the thin Japanese man couldn’t look more pathetic. The man had been issuing a steady stream of what I assume was cursing since we hauled him to the pod. I had been waiting for him to calm down but P had obviously had enough.
“Yes, I can speak English.” Coffee speaks up, with only the slightest accent. P and I look at him from across the pod. I wonder whether it’s better to leave the interrogation until we get him back. But if he’s in the mood for talking I might as well let Agent P do what she does best.
Aster and Hart had been left back at Sakura to do a sweep before catching another pod back to the station. The club had been an oddity. None of the usual staples you might expect of a comfort house. No bar or alcohol; no curtained backroom alcoves. The insides of the clubhouse had been a sombre affair more reminiscent of a funeral home. I’m glad Hart isn’t with us. When Coffee had run, it had been Hart’s net that had immobilised him after Aster and mine’s near misses. I’m sure he’ll be insufferable for the next couple of days. I suppose I should be thankful really. It had been an easy collar and maybe now we’d finally get some answers.
“We want to ask you about your friend John. John L.” Agent P presses on and Coffee squirms on the seat.
“What about him? I haven’t seen him for more than a month.” There seems to be a hint of pleading in his voice. Was this man the killer? It didn’t make sense.
“Why did you kill him?” I blink in shock at the bluntness of P’s question. Just like that? She’d better know what she’s doing. We have no recording equipment in the pod.
“Me! Why? I didn’t do that. I wouldn’t… How could I…” Coffee trails off quietly but he looks terrified. Agent P is silently watching him. She’s obviously waiting for something. Coffee’s eyes go wide as he realises his mistake.
“No information regarding his death has been released,” Agent P speaks plainly. “You say you haven’t seen him for a month but you knew he was dead.”
This all seems too easy. Coffee looks defeated already. But it’s more than that. He looks like a man who wants to give up; a man who’s tired of hiding. It’s time for me to wade in.
“Coffee.” The man jerks nervously at the sound of my voice and looks across at me with frightened eyes. He knows what I’m going to ask.
“What happens in Sakura Clubhouse?”
Could the killer have been an outsider? The thought had crossed everyone’s mind but it was just impossible. To start with, the border guardrail system was unbeatable. Getting into Autumn without taking Moral Fibre was strictly prohibited. Even if someone managed to get in there would be no way to move around the city. Every process from public transport to simple door access needed a Fibre ID to operate. The killer would have had to get in, destroy any doors or obstacles in their path and then escape on foot. The crime scene showed this clearly wasn’t the case.
You might wonder why we couldn’t run a check on which Fibre IDs had accessed the doors of John L’s and the adjacent module that night. Well, thanks to the moralising bigwigs in charge of this experiment, none of the data is collected. A violation of human privacy they call it. Tell that to the poor guy with a knife in his heart. Sure, there could be a one percent chance that this is a murder committed by an outsider but we would’ve caught them by now. There’s no way an outsider can survive in Autumn without leaving a trace. No, whenever I find myself involved it’s never that simple. Call it a karmic deduction.
I take the smoke from the pack and place it between my lips. My hands are shaking slightly and this cigarette is old and limp. I’ll get a new pack with the import deliveries next month but until then I’d make do with this box. These things are about the only way I can keep a sense of normalcy in this place. Coffee is twenty minutes into his recorded statement on the other side of the glass and I’m struggling to hold it together. Agent P looks calm in there with two other SP agents. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
“They come to us, they always come to us first. We don’t advertise but they find us. They just want a way out; for it all to end.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Agent P pushes on. “Why not just drop the Fibre and leave Autumn. Nobody is keeping them against their will.”
“You weren’t born in Autumn! I’ve had the Fibre since before I can remember. That’s life; to me and to them. Do you even know what the world outside looks like to us? Do you?” I can see the thin veins of Coffee’s forehead bulging as he leans towards P.
“It’s hell. There’s nothing to stop anyone from hurting you out there. I’ve heard stories… Stories of monsters who hurt people for fun. Injuries that never heal. Who’s gonna go out there and live like that?”
“If it’s so bad out there, why try to end things h…” P doesn’t get to finish her sentence.
“Because we’re sick. All of us. The Fibre is running this show. I don’t even know if what I’m feeling is me or just the Fibre screwing with my head. I think things I’m not supposed to and feel depressed, then I’m happy again and I can barely remember what I was thinking about in the first place. A lot of us can’t sleep… can’t sleep.” Coffee puts his head down onto the desk between his folded arms. He looks exhausted. Agent P isn’t finished yet though.
“Who is controlling this operation? Who started Sakura?”
“I don’t know.”
“Bullshit! Who do you report to?”
“There’s no one.”
“If you want any leniency in your sentence, you better hope to hell that you give me a name in the next five seconds.” Coffee looks up from the desk. His eyes are bloodshot and his lip is trembling. Even from behind the glass I can see the man is done. Agent P is just talking to an empty shell now. If they push him too hard he’s likely to snap upstairs. I step into the room knowing this is about to wrap for the day. There’s something I need to know. P and the other SP agents glare at me as I draw Coffee’s gaze. I need to know.
“Coffee,” I look right in the eyes of the thin Japanese man shaking in his chair.
“Who killed John L?”
Coffee looks back at me with a weird expression. I can’t place the emotion; it’s not despair anymore or even fear at all. His eyes swell as tears begin to form at the creases. It’s pity.