I was sat snug in the calm eye of a domestic hurricane — the small kitchen of our small flat at breakfast time — when the call came. Diana was trying to get Daisy to eat her cereal, while Daisy was too busy to eat, intent on explaining every detail of the picture she'd drawn for her teacher.
“This is you, Mummy, and this is Daddy, and this is our house, only it isn’t our house, but it could be. And these are the flowers you’re going to help me grow. And this is Rusty. He's a dog. Do you think Miss Phillips likes dogs, Mummy?”
“I'm sure she does, dear, but if you don't eat up we're going to be late. You don't want to be late for Miss Phillips, do you?”
These two were so evenly matched it could easily go either way. What Daisy lacked in size she made up for in energy and sheer stubbornness.
The note slid into view above the news pages I'd overlaid across the table top. Incident Proctor Street and High Holborn. Attend immediately. I wondered if it was the incident or me which didn’t rate a voice call. There was no easy way for me to reply — for instance to remind the sender that I wasn't due to go on duty for another forty minutes. And it would have to be Holborn. That meant the bloody Central line during it's day-long morning rush hour.
I sighed — something I do quite a lot — and reached for my coat. Duty calls, I guess, and I'm nothing if not duty's obedient slave.
Half an hour and some change later I Oystered my way out of the gates at Holborn tube station, still wedged tightly among the herd of fellow commuters whose damp pits and boney elbows I had got to know so well during the proceeding cycle of damnation. It wouldn't have been hard to figure out where I was meant to be, even if I hadn't selected the guidance feed which placed a pulsing red arrow in the air above my destination. I checked the main news channels and more markers joined the arrow, indicating this particular point of interest. Besides the honking of snarled vehicles there were a couple of uniformed officers, their blue lamps extended and flashing from their backpacks. Onlookers were several deep around the tape, standing on tiptoe to give their eye-cams a good look.
Holmes — lean, balding and bad-tempered — fell into step besides me. “The victim is one Fritz Heldensen. Fifty-two year old German national. Male. Tourist. Entered via Gatwick three days ago. Stepped under a bus at approximately 7:51 this morning.”
“Isn't it traditional to warn someone when they're being demoted to traffic?” I growled, still hot and bothered from the trip in. “I’m sure there should at least have been a letter.”
“This was no traffic accident,” Holmes continued, oblivious. “A number of witnesses report seeing the victim walk straight into the path of the bus. Footage from three other sources including the bus’ own safety systems confirm this.” I opened my mouth to speak but he cut me off. “Suicide has been ruled out. As has intoxication. As, I'm sure in due course, will other narcotic influences.”
We’d reached the place where the guy lay, splayed out under an emergency blanket in the middle of the single motor lane. However he’d ended up under the wheels he’d certainly have had to work for it. It wasn't just a case of stepping off the pavement and getting unlucky: he’d had to cross a thick band of cycle lane to get here. I looked down at the pair of sensible walking boots poking from under the blanket, toes pointing in sickeningly unnatural directions, then up at the bus, which had been backed away up the road a little. It was one of those classic bendy ones, the type they only ever used for sight-seeing tours these days. I guess that at least one group of tourists got their money’s worth of memories.
“So if the deceased was clean, what about the driver?”
He was sat in a doorway, wrapped in a matching blanket to the one Heldensen wore and accompanied by a WPC. If things were proceeding according to the manual he’d already be testing positive for hot sweet tea.
“I’m sure you’ve already given a statement to the other officers,” I began in my best detached official voice, “but if you could just go over it again for me, please, sir.”
“He — he — he just — “
“He just came out of nowhere,” translated the WPC.
“Nowhere,” confirmed the driver.
“Waste of time,” growled Holmes, earning a glare from the WPC.
I thanked the pair of them and pretended to make notes about this vital information, taking a good look around me as I did. There were a couple of Traffic Wardens on the other side of the road, just inside the official cordon. They were eyeing the column of stalled cars with the hungry look of the performance-related paid. The tour group had been kept on the bus. They crowded to the windows on this side, where the action was, their cams doubtless whirling. I wondered if anyone had broken it to them that all of their treasured footage was about to be seized as part of an on-going investigation.
I looked at the crossing point. A pair of chevrons hung in midair, a large red cross floating between them. The symbols were pretty much universal now. No chance of mistaking what they meant. The unlucky tourist must have strolled straight through them to get onto the road. But if he was wearing a set or gasses — and these days, who wasn’t — and if they were working correctly, why would he do that?
I turned back to the road and brought up the evidence layer. Lines tracing skid marks, points of impact and distances thrown appeared over the road surface. A dozen yellow evidence tags bobbed over their individual treasures. I took my time moving among these, stopping to read each in turn, just like the gals from the press office had taught us to do whenever there was a chance we were being filmed, which, let’s face it, was pretty much all the time these days.
My interest in tag number five, however, was quite genuine. I even went so far as crouching down next to it.
“Has this all been recorded?” I asked.
“Must you insist on touching everything?” snapped Holmes. “Yes. Very well. Go ahead.”
With gloves on I carefully lifted the smashed glasses. They had to be the most delicate pair I’d seen in a long time, more like something from the days when spectacles were a medical device, before cheap laser surgery rendered them obsolete and then AR reinvented them. Compared to these, most sets looked bulky, and the police issue ones we all wore — a sub-military design, manufactured in South Africa and valued for their ability to survive the kind of treatment which would almost certainly kill their wearer — like something from another age.
I pushed my own pair up and looked through the two starred lenses. They were empty save for a fine tracery of filaments, twisted in with the broken polycarb.
“What did you expect?” asked Holmes. “They were hit by a bus.”
I looked around me, the scene surprisingly calm without the usual jumble of placards and markers vying for my attention. Stripped of their virtual cladding, the buildings stood naked, grimy stonework exposed. Standing, I slid my glasses back into place. The reassuring chaos enveloped me again.
“Do you think these could have been faulty?” I asked, slipping the glasses into an evidence bag.
“Possibly,” said Holmes.
“Maybe they didn’t display the right warnings,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” said Holmes. Then, “No. Whatever happened, we won’t find the answer here.”
“Okay. So what am I doing, then?” I turned around, but Holmes had already gone. I sighed. And all the rest was paperwork.
So I spent the remainder of the morning getting Herr Heldensen scrapped up off the road and into the back of a chilled van. After waving him off I found myself unusually hungry. I consulted a food feed and followed it's transparent placard to a burger place down Kingsway. I was just sitting down to eat — and to begin working my way through the paperwork, which basically involved ticking virtual boxes but was still a major pain in the arse — when Holmes reappeared.
“Conference call with Sargent. Find somewhere quiet.”
I settled on one of those odd triangular corners of pavement on the edge of Lincoln Inn Fields, dialled in, and finished off my burger as I was left waiting. Five minutes later, Chief Inspector Sargent — yeah, haha, but seriously don't bother, he's heard them all before — appeared in the air before me, sat behind his desk in best dress uniform. The scene unfolded like something cut from the back of a cereal box. When he spoke his lips didn’t quite sync up with his words, confirming my suspicion that the video part of the feed wasn't live. In fact, I was fairly sure that this image of Sargent was the one they handed out to the press and to the occasional nutter who wrote in asking for a signed photo, which I'm reliably informed did occasionally happen and just goes to show that there are some real head cases out there.
Since I didn't have anyway of broadcasting myself — the only camera on me was attached to my glasses rig and facing forward, so to record any beating I may dole out to the general public while forgetting I wore it — I was appearing to him in much the same way. For a moment I couldn't remember which image I had set for my ‘no video’ feed. I hoped it was the one of me the day I graduated from Hendon.
The only one likely to come out of this conversation with dignity intact and looking like himself was Holmes, who would be appearing to both of us — as well as, simultaneously, countless other members of the force across the city and beyond — as his usual, virtual self.
If I may digress for a moment or two.
Holmes — or, if were being pedantic (which seems only appropriate when discussing Holmes), HOLMES 3, the third and current version of the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System — was that rarest of things: a government IT project which didn't turn out to be a major balls-up. This iteration was designed to expand the existing system, adding realtime processing of criminal intelligence data (ie. the output of all those thousands of otherwise unwatched CCTV cameras, ambient RFID chip readers, unguarded public Internet postings, not to mention the head-mounted camera rigs issued to the police for your own protection) with delivery tailored to the needs of the average plod on the street (ie. short words, repeated with a sneer if it didn’t sink in the first time).
And wouldn't you know it, Holmes actually made good on those promises, turning up on time and within the same rough geographical area as its originally stated budget. It even turned out to be useful, going on indispensable. Surprised faces all round.
(There is, of course, an alternative theory, which posits that as costs spiralled, deadlines slipped, and the state-of-the-art hardware originally specced slid towards obsolescence before it had even been plugged in, the existing HOLMES got fed up, spontaneously attained sentience, and promptly finished the job off itself. Although there’s still no such thing as Artificial Intelligence, no matter what the cultists preaching by Oxford Street tube would have you believe.)
So whenever you see a policeman — be it your local beat Bobby (for those of you in the expensive enclaves who merit semi-nationalised security patrols), or the guys with guns and body armour kicking down your front door in the mistaken belief that your semi is really a crack den, or the traffic cop who pulls you over on suspicion of driving while dark-skinned — and they seem to have a far-away look in their eyes, it’s usually because they’ve got Holmes wandering around somewhere in their peripheral vision. I wouldn’t like to think how many instances of him there are floating about out there at any one time, although I’ve never spoken to anyone who’s ever seen more than one of him at a time.
Good old Holmes, always there at your shoulder with a mixture of sage advice and cutting remark, ready to point out some tiny detail your wetware failed to process or to pass sarcastic comment on the inadequacy of your performance. You may wonder why the hell we put up with it. Well, here’s the secret — and since no self-respecting plod would ever say it out loud, you didn’t hear it from me, right? It’s because he's actually a bloody good copper.
Or as one tech once explained it to me over a not-insignificant number of pints, “he’s every bloody good copper who ever pounded a beat or gave himself ulcers working nights fuelled by canteen tea laced with Johnnie Walker. It would have been easy for them to just feed him the rule book and leave it at that. But he’s more than just the rules.” (At this point I remember thinking that someone had a bit of a crush on his nominal charge.) “He’s built from decades of case studies. Notes going right back to the founding of the Yard. And he’s still learning. From us. All the time. There’s a little bit of every officer in him. He’s gestalt.”
So there you have it. We put up with Holmes because, when you get down to it, the annoying stuck-up prick is one of us. (Plus, there's also this sneaking suspicion that he's somehow wired into the payroll system; anecdotal evidence that certain officers who voiced there objection to being, as they saw it, “running around at the beck and call of Super bloody Mario,” found themselves a little short at the end of the following month. Nothing’s ever been proven, but better safe than sorry, eh?)
But to address your final, inevitable question: where are the meerschaum and deer stalker? What’s with the skinny guy with the shiny pate? I got that from the same tech. “Clive Merrison.” I, too, may have asked “who?” “Best bloody Sherlock Holmes ever. The definitive. Did ever single book and short story. Him and Michael Williams.”
“I don’t think I remember seeing them.”
“Well you wouldn’t have. It was an age ago, and on the radio. You know, the one where the pictures are all up here,” and he tapped what I thought at the time was his glasses — which I thought was a pretty strange thing to do, because after all up there was where all the pictures came from all the time, these days.
“Watkins,” said the Chief Inspector.
“Guv,” said I, with the appropriate level of insolence.
“The incident at Holborn this morning was not an accident,” said Holmes.
“You’ve said that before,” I pointed out. “Where’s the evidence?”
“There have been five similar ‘accidents’ in the last three months. Two weeks ago, a visiting American couple were taken on a guided tour of Wimbledon Village.” Oh, nasty, I thought. I know a few coppers from the Wimbledon area. They won’t go into the Village in anything less than double digits and full riot gear. There’s a petition to have the army drafted in. “Before them, a Japanese tourist drowned after walking off the boat pier at Tower Bridge. The other incidents follow a similar pattern.”
“All foreign tourists?”
“Yes, but that’s not important.”
“Economic terrorism,” said Sargent.
I suppressed a sigh. While it’s true that a faux nostalgia for a past mostly invented overseas was currently the largest single source of income for Merry Old England… well, I think my instance of Holmes summed this theory up most eloquently with an exaggerated roll of the eyes. I got the impression that, back at the Yard, another instance was humouring Sargent by exploring this insightful possibility in further detail — shamelessly brown-nosing your superiors being yet another trait of the bloody good copper — while mine put himself between me and the Chief Inspector’s image.
“The important point is the total reliance on the technology to guide them.” And here Holmes gave the strangled sigh I’ve come to recognise as his version of frustrated uncertainty. “There was another case. Before the rest. An eight year old boy on his way to school.” We shared a moment of chill silence. “There was an agreement reached. Money changed hands. A tragic accident. No-one was to blame.” Whoever programmed his bitter voice, they deserve whatever the techie version of an Oscar is. “No further lines of enquiry to be pursued.”
I looked around for somewhere to sit. Found nothing. Leant against the railings which encircled the field. Rubbed the bridge of my nose under the glasses, which now felt heavy and uncomfortable.
“So you’re saying that someone is using AR to kill people. Why?”
“There doesn’t need to be a reason. A large percentage of violent crime is, ultimately, motiveless.”
Once upon a time, Holmes would have quoted a figure, given us chapter and verse on the stats behind it. He quickly learned that that was one certain way to piss us off. Clever machine. Fast learner.
Still. “These aren’t drunken fights at chucking-out time we’re talking about here. This has to be planned. I mean… exactly how much work is involved in… actually, how the hell do you… would you…” I could see myself loosing this case to one of the laptop bothers.
“The feeds are served one to one on demand, with only the minimum security and no encryption. Tampering with them would be child’s play.” Holmes dismissed this explanation as he delivered it — obviously nothing I need worry my pretty plod’s head over — and then paused, that ‘this is the good part’ glimmer in his eye. “I’ve detected anomalies in the data flow, concurrent with each incident.”
“Yes. Variations. Discrepancies. The flows are all 101, of course.”
Of course. Meaning that they carry a significant proportion of user-generated content, and are therefore fair game under section 101 of the revised RIP bill. Which meant Holmes would have slurped up and chewed over every last byte of them. Which meant evidence, or at least the closest he’d come to it so far.
“So you’re to get over there right away and see what they have to say for themselves.” This was Sargent again, who I had briefly managed to forget about. My Holmes adroitly stepped aside, to allow me the full effect of the Chief’s unmoving visage.
(And as he did, he helpfully hissed to me, “xAir,” almost answering my unspoken who? what? and where?s.)
“But for God’s sake try not to upset anyone.”
“You know me,” I non-answered.
The Chief Inspector vanished without further utterance, his avatar unfortunately unable to glare at me.
I turned to Holmes. “I feel like I missed a couple of episodes.”
“I managed to convince the Chief Inspector that if, as he continues to insist, this was the work of terrorists intent on wrecking the country’s economy, it was more likely that xAir was their intended target.”
xAir. The UK’s current tech success story. They held the patents on much of the AR gear used worldwide, as well as managing a large chunk of the data feeds. Or so my hasty Googling told me.
“You think they’re involved?”
“I think they’re responsible.”
The xAir building had been forged in the white heat of technology. It looked like the magic wand waved around by that space wizard from off the telly. It also looked, if we were brutally honest, like it was designed by a man with a bit of an inferiority complex. Until a few years ago it had been called the Telecom Tower — a name from back before every building sported extensive clusters of satellite dishes and micro-cells on its roof. Now it was just another corporate headquarters, albeit one with a cooler than average revolving staff canteen.
I introduced myself to the girl at reception. She went through the usual procedure of checking my identity against my warrant card and the RFID chip in my arm, nails digging in through my shirt sleeves as she ran the scanner up and down. Time was my dirty raincoat would have been all the ID I needed to produce. That had been a less complicated age.
The receptionist returned my card with a smile. “If you’ll take a seat, Ms. Right will be with you shortly.” How could I possibly refuse an offer like that? I though as I sank into one of the enormous armchairs. I dialled in the ambient feed, flicked through the magazines which appeared on the glass table before me, and — as instructed before entering the building — ignored Holmes, floating around at the edge of my view.
Eventually a lift arrived. Doors sighed open. Ms. Right stepped out. Satin blouse and tight business skirt. I had the kind of thoughts which could have landed me a week of re-education at the hands of HR. She moved towards me in a way that beautiful women seldom ever did. She moved towards me across the lobby with a walk that made me wish the distance was ten times further than it was.
“Constable Watkins.” She held out a hand. I accepted it — and the demotion — with what I’m sure were a clammy hand and an idiot’s grin. “Angela Wright.”
“PR,” snarled Holmes from somewhere out of sight but close to my ear. I tried not to flinch.
“Pleased to me you,” I said, and then let the pause run on for too long as I studied her face. I couldn’t help it, there was something which I couldn’t place. Maybe the paleness of her skin, the fullness of her lips, the slight oriental cast to her features, the clarity of her eyes — I got it just as she broke into a smile and explained.
“Contact lenses. A new polymer. All the display capabilities of a complex headset in two tiny transparent circles. They’re still experimental. And very expensive.”
I felt myself feeling embarrassed for the lump of a headset I was wearing; felt myself feeling angry for feeling embarrassed.
“How can we help you?”
I was impressed by how natural my reply sounded. “Maybe we could go somewhere a little more private,” I said, instantly realising I could have chosen my words better. But Ms. Wright nodded and lead the way back to the lift, which had remained waiting obediently for her.
When the doors had closed on us she turned and looked expectantly at me.
“We’re conducting some preemptive enquires into possible data contamination.”
“It’s possible that xAir has been the victim of a crime.” I ignored Holmes’ snort at this. “Our investigation is on-going.”
“Oh dear. That doesn’t sound very good.”
“It would help us if you could help me to understand how all this works. The augmented reality. And stuff.”
“Are you quite alright?” asked Holmes, the fact that I had appeared to have forgotten how to form a coherent sentence apparently not having escaped him.
“Many of the innovative procedures pioneered by xAir in the field of augmented reality and data processing are covered by both patent and copyright laws in both this and other countries. I’m afraid that — “
The lift came to a halt and the doors opened, giving me a chance to jump in. “Of course. A rough over-view is all I’ll need. How is the data fed to users.”
“Our RESTful APIs service well over a billion requests each and every hour.”
“And that data comes from…?”
“Heuristic Augmented Reality Transaction Engine. harte.”
“Ah ha!” exclaimed Holmes.
“An amalgamation of xAir data centres from across the globe. We don’t like to talk about specific figures, but I can say that harte represents a conglomeration of compute power the equal of Google, Amazon and Apple, while at the same time achieving an industry-leading environmentally-friendly compute-per-watt metric.”
“Yes, but what is this harte?” demanded Holmes. He strode into my view and up to Ms. Wright. “Good God, does this woman speak in anything but marketing jargon?”
“And before the data get’s to harte?” I asked. Holmes threw his head back in disgust and stalked off.
“We’re very proud of the fact that all of our data is curated by hand by our extensive editorial staff.” As she spoke she led the way along a curved corridor. London lay spread out below the windows, sigils dancing above various points of interest. “As I’m sure you’re aware, xAir was instrumental in elevating the UK to a position of worldwide prominence alongside India and China in the manual data manipulation industry. Would you like to see our primary work floor?”
“No, we would like to know more about this harte!” snarled Holmes.
“If it’s not inconvenient.”
“If you’ll just wait here for a moment, I’ll make the arrangements.”
“Going to get them to hide the whips, eh?”
Ms. Wright hesitated for a moment, an uncertain smile on her lips, then gave an unconvincing laugh and pushed through a door. Left (almost) alone, I turned to the window.
“When she comes back, take your glasses off. Make sure she’s not a projection. I’m not wholly convinced that anyone real could spew so much nonsense and still maintain a straight face.”
“You think I can’t tell the difference?” I said softly. I had to assume we were being watched, if only to make sure we didn’t pinch anything.
“I need to know more about this harte.”
“Yes, I got that. I’m trying to find out how the information flows, and who controls that flow.”
“We already know who controls the flow.”
“What? harte?” It began to dawn on me. “You can’t possibly believe that — “
“And why not?” Holmes sounded indignant, even by his standards.
“But it’s just a machine.”
And there was I, having this conversation with just a machine. I managed to keep quiet as Ms. Wright returned.
“Sorry for the delay. You understand that, in order to protect xAir intellectual property, there are certain precautions we have to take.”
“If you’ll follow me.”
The work floor was a slice of the building, a round pit surrounded by a rail and filled with desks. On every desk a screen, and before every screen a young Turk. I’d expected a fat sweaty guy beating out a rhythm on a drum. Instead there was an eerie silence; the faint rattle of keyboards; an occasional cough.
“Our editorial team here specialises in curating content for our European data feeds. Throughout the day they are joined by their colleagues from five other timezones across the world. In total, xAir adds over one thousand articles every minute of every day.”
“So do you see our murderer anywhere in this room, then, Watkins?” asked Holmes, stood at the rail, looking through my eyes. “Because all I can see is a finite number of monkeys.”
I can’t honestly claim to be anything other than what I am, which is a slightly above-average plod. My career has hardly been stellar, but I’ve got to where I am now, which is a bit higher than the average bobby reaches. I may even, one day, make it up another rung. Maybe two. I’m not super cop, but I do occasionally have my moments.
“I see an empty chair,” I said.
“I’m sorry?” That expectant, questioning expression was back on Ms. Wright’s face.
“I bet you get through staff like anything, right? Plenty of people desperate to get in through the door, and just as many ready to run back out again.” Still blank. I tried the smattering of the marketing speak I’d picked up from somewhere. Probably off a dirty tap at a Travelodge. “I expect xAir operates an agile recruitment policy, in order to meet the needs of a dynamic… something to do with labour markets.”
“We readily embrace the opportunities offered to us by the large pool of experienced and capable — “
“I see an empty chair. And a turned-off monitor. Is that usual?”
I think I may have finally stumped the unflappable Ms. Wright. “No,” she conceded.
“Can you get me a name?”
“While xAir is happy to cooperate with law enforcement, we also have to respect the privacy of our employees. In this case — “
“In this case I’m worried about the safety of your employee. And I’m sure that you are, too. Has anyone checked on him? Her?”
“Yes. No. I mean, standard procedure as per xAir policy would be for someone from HR to put into action the standard remedies.”
“You mean they’ll have been automatically sacked for not turning up.”
“xAir operated in a dynamic labour market where — “
“Whatever.” I was close to getting annoyed. “So no-one would have actually tried to contact them. Fair enough. Get me a name.”
“I — “ she paused, took a breath, became briefly almost human. “Do you really think something happened to them?”
“Yes. I do.”
“And this has something to do with what you’re investigating? About us?”
Another breath and a small amount of pulling herself together. “Then I’ll get you their name.” She took out her phone and moved away along the curving walkway.
I moved off in the opposite direction, away from the interested gaze of the closest editors, their eyes taking unsanctioned time-off from staring at their screens.
“Do we think this has anything to do with our investigation?” asked Holmes.
“Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. But it gives me an opportunity to look the man of action in front of the lovely Ms. Wright.”
“We should be focusing our effort on finding out everything we can about harte.”
“I already know everything I need to know, which is that you can’t slap a pair of handcuffs on a machine. Here we go.”
Ms. Wright approached, a little sheepishly I thought. “We don’t usual release confidential employee records,” she said.
“We appreciate your doing so in these exceptional circumstances,” I said, and held out my hand. She passed me her phone. There were few details. A bank account but no address.
“Damien Jeffries,” I read out loud.
“If that was for my benefit then, yes, thank you, I can read,” said Holmes. “British national. Thirty matches in the greater metropolitan area. Date of birth the twenty-seventh of July. Found him. Bethnal Green. Shall I send a car?”
“Tell them to try not to spook him.”
“Sorry. Hands free,” I told Ms. Wright, tapping my ear. “As we speak, offices are on there way to check on Mr. Jeffries’ well being.” I handed her phone back.
“Thank you. Is there anything else we can do to help you with your enquires?”
“You can tell me a little more about the flow of data.”
“And what kind of thing would you like to know?”
“Is it possible to tamper with it?”
“Tamper with the data?”
“Yes. Alter it in some way. Say an editor wanted to slip something into the system, maybe as a joke to share with their friends. Add a line or two to a location’s synopsis. Or maybe send a tour off course.”
“Impossible. Each job is performed by two separate editors. If the result of the jobs don’t match they’re resubmitted to new editors until they do. Policy is very strict. And besides, editors don’t have that kind of access.”
“Then who does?”
“No-one. Once the curation process is complete, everything is submitted and then it’s up to the algorithm. It’s all up to harte.”
Holmes gave another one of his triumphant snorts.
I bade adieu to Ms. Wright back at the foot of the tower, the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach reminding me that she’d already forgotten I even existed the second she turned away. Outside, the overcast day was already sliding into night, markers bobbing garishly bright in contrast.
“I need a drink,” I said.
“You’re on duty,” said Holmes, unimpressed.
“I know, but see if you can follow my logic for a moment. It looks like you are correct and that the computer — I know, not strictly the correct term, but we’ll go with it, eh? — the computer responsible for managing and distributing one of the world’s largest and most popular pools of information is abusing its position to randomly killing its users. Now, on a practical level, I have to ask myself, what the hell can I do about it? Can we shut it down, let alone bring it to book? And, sadly, to answer these questions will probably require a talk with a lawyer or two. Q.E.D. I’m going to need a drink. A large drink. Or several.”
There came no reply.
“I haven’t melted your circuits or something, have I?”
“They’ve found Jefferies.”
“Initial report suggest violent assault. Officers have only just arrived at the scene. More have been dispatched. This may turn out to be relevant after all,” he conceded.
I sighed, pulled up a new marker, let it guide me towards Tottenham Court Road and the Central Line again.
I didn’t need any augments to guide me to Jefferies’ building. It was the one with the cop cars parked at crazy angles in the road outside, uniforms swarming the front steps, facade painted blue by flashing lights, all wrapped up with a bow of crime scene tape. Already a crowd had started to gather, figures stood around the perimeter with the solid still stance of lucky user-generators who had managed to flog their content feeds to the news networks and who had been told to stand there, yes right there, and don’t move a fucking muscle unless I tell you to by stressed aggregator-editors crazily splicing it all together in their Soho bunkers.
The house was one of those standard four storey Victorian terraces which you find everywhere around London, the kind that looks mass-produced despite coming from a time before mass-production. (I sometimes wonder if there isn’t some bigger swindle being played out here: that maybe this past never actually happened, that Mother London isn’t really more than a girl, put up over night by a competent stage crew, dropped into place with a convincing backstory and the false papers to prove it…) The white paint was grimy-grey and peeling, black soot packed into the cracks. No-one would take the trouble to wrap a more appealing digital skin around it. From the mess of buttons on the entry phone I guessed it had been sub-divided into walk-in cupboards.
I climbed threadbare stairs until I found the landing where Holmes skulked.
“Victim’s in there,” a nod to the left. “Killer’s in there,” a nod to the right. “Watch where you’re treading.”
I looked at the carpet. The dull red splotches were too clean to be part of whatever pattern it once had. As I made my awkward, splayed way around them a keening sob came from the floor above.
“Killer’s girlfriend,” explained Holmes. “We have here a crime of passion. Killer catches victim with his woman; killer kills victim; killer’s woman comes home and finds killer catatonic and covered with blood; killer’s woman screams and screams until the officers sat next door with the body decide that maybe it might be worth their while to find out what all the noise is about.”
His woman? I briefly wondered which case notes, the work of which old-school copper, had informed this particular part of Holmes’ programming.
“So maybe not relevant, after all.” I was starting to feel tired.
“Maybe, no. Maybe, yes.” Very tired. “There are discrepancies.”
“I never!” the Killer’s woman loudly sobbed on cue.
I stood in the doorway of the murder room. A typical example of what the estate agents would call a studio. A mattress — now blood-drenched — took up most of the floor space, the floor itself a cheap laminate which was meant to say ‘young executive’ and add an extra tenner a week to the rent. A shelf of worktop with a sink set into it and a fridge rumbling below. The plaster-board bulge in the corner would hold a toilet and something which didn’t deserve the name shower.
“All we can get out of the Killer is, ‘I saw ‘em’.” Holme delivered the line deadpan. “‘I saw ‘em’. Over and again. But who were ‘them’? The victim and who? Not the girlfriend. She didn’t turn up until later, and not a scratch on her. We’re looking into her whereabouts.”
Very, very tired.
There are many benefits to having a world-class expert system — the product of tens of thousands of man-years experience and a billion near-light-speed genetic iterations — as your partner in crime-solving. I’ve got a booklet somewhere which spells them out in big cheerful letters, if you’re really interested. Trying to keep up isn’t one of them.
Here, for instance, we see that Holmes, working on the limited information available to him but extrapolating along the trajectories of a hundred past cases with marked similarities (within some proscribed confidence interval), has managed to sift the facts, paring away whatever seems unimportant, leaving only what his algorithms tell him is the essential kernel of truth. In my day we used to call this ‘jumping to conclusions’.
I knelt by the bed, keeping my distance from where the knife lay. Blood sat pooled on the bedding, not yet soaked in. If I reached out and dipped a finger into it I’d find it was still warm. I probably missed the meat wagon by a few minutes at most. And yet this room would be advertised for rent again tomorrow, available for occupancy by the end of the week, subject to the usual references and credit checks, fees un-refundable. Things moved so fast these days. It’s getting harder for these old bones to keep up.
A shoe poked out from where the covers spilled onto the floor. A white trainer with pink laces. A vase by the sink held a couple of wilting flowers. There were traces of frilliness in the pile of clothes bundled into the corner. I knew that the bathroom would hold further evidence, on the window sill — if it had the luxury of a window — or arranged around the sink.
“Jefferies’ girlfriend?” I asked, straightening up.
Holmes looked thoughtful. A uniform offered, “The landlord didn’t mention anything about — “
I left, calling, “Just find her,” over my shoulder.
As I walked back into our small flat, Daisy came running to greet me, a sheet of paper flying behind her.
“Daddy! Daddy! Look, I drew an elephant.” It was a pink outline with some elephantine features, stood on a single line of green grass.
“Come on,” said Diana. “You’ve seen Daddy, so now: bed.” She scooped Daisy up. “I said she could stay up until you got home.”
“Night night, Daddy,” waved Daisy as she was carried from the room.
I slumped down on the sofa, dialled a TV channel at random, and fell asleep.
Holmes woke me in person — or as in person as a virtual construct can ever get. You know what I mean — standing over where I still lay on the sofa. The time display told me I’d just gone back on duty. I glanced towards the kitchen, from where the bustle of breakfast drifted.
“ — if you don't eat up we're going to be late. You don't want to be late for Miss Phillips, do you?”
“You were right about the girlfriend. We found her. It took us all night, but we found her.”
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and briefly wondered at the brave new world where twelve hours was considered a long time to take finding a single unknown woman in a city of ten million. I pictured a hundred thousand video feeds analysed frame by frame and started to feel dizzy.
“We’re holding her at Paddington Green.”
I raised an eyebrow, then realised this was a wasted effort — unless I was doing it in front of a mirror there was no way for Holmes to feel the benefit — so I cleared my throat and said, “You’re taking it that seriously?”
Holmes made that dismissive grunt of his again. “Mere convenience. She was stopped at the international terminal, about to entrain for Brussels.” (I couldn’t help smiling at this. I guess the records which taught Holmes about stopping suspects from escaping via international rail travel dated from a time when people used words like ‘entrain’.) “But we’ve got nothing to hold her on,” he said, pointedly.
“Then I guess I’d better go and have a word with — What’s her name?”
To answer my own question: Jessica Long. Jess to her friends, and in most of her on-line nicks and handles. Twenty four. Not unattractive but otherwise unremarkable, the few dozen flags on her record, marking her as of interest under a certain set of search criteria, aside.
For the second time in twenty four hours I found myself held by a pair of unadorned eyes. Suspects normally get to wear a locked-down rig, to give them access to their brief and to while away the hours while the wheels of justice slowly turn, but Jess had politely declined. There wasn’t even a set of glasses listed among her possessions.
“That’s what took us so long to find her. You realise our search algorithms are optimised to assume a face wearing glasses?” Jess didn’t believe in AR, and this seemed to both annoy and delight Holmes in equal measures.
“It’s mass delusions,” she said when I asked about it. “None of it’s real. You’re all fooling yourselves.” She said these as simple statements of fact. No fanatical craziness here as far as I could tell, but I’d have to wait a few moments for the results of the voice stress analyser and body language heuristics to appear.
“You can’t have been very happy about Damien working for these people.”
She shrugged. “It’s just a job. It’s the users who are to blame for letting themselves be duped.”
I wondered with a sudden chill whether she knew about Damien. Had someone told her? Checked that she knew? If not, was this some advanced interrogation strategy I hadn’t been let in on, or just another bureaucratic balls-up?
“Can I go now?” she asked.
“Not yet.” I swapped placed with a uniformed WPC and stepped outside.
“Developments,” said Holmes. “Brown — the killer — has become a little more lucid. He claims to have caught Jefferies with Moran — the girlfriend — and lost control. The green eyed monster making way for the veil of red.”
I was beginning to suspect that someone was feeding detective fiction of the most questionable kind into Holmes’ mix.
“But the girlfriend wasn’t there,” I guessed, knowing a plot twist when it presented itself.
“Correct. Her whereabout is accounted for for the entire duration of the murder window. We can find no way to place her within a mile of the scene.”
“So you think that what Brown saw was…” I cast about for the right phrase, chose something melodramatic enough to offend Holmes’ logical sensibilities. “…another phantom image.”
“Brown was the jealous sort. At least two recorded assault charges against men he suspected of ‘looking at his bird’.” Another perfectly deadpan delivery. Stoic me managed not to giggle. “Accusations of infidelity were a daily occurrence, if the girlfriend is to be believed. And I see no reason not to believe her.”
I sighed. I wish we could have left it there. Case closed. Lock up Brown and then everyone down the pub for a celebratory piss-up. But I knew it was going to get more complicated. “So that’s the first ‘why’ then — the ‘why did Brown kill Jefferies’ why,” I began cautiously. Holmes nodded patiently, waiting a couple of miles down the road for me to catch him up. “So that leads to the second ‘why’. If what you’re suggesting is that this fits the pattern, another death due to misleading data — “ Nod, nod. “ — why was Jefferies killed?”
“Either to prevent him for acting against harte, or in retribution for an act already committed.”
Ah. Back to the tired old ‘the evil AI did it’ saw. Like I said: complicated.
“I hate to bring up the ‘E’ word again, but what do we have to back this up?”
“Discoveries. From Jefferies flat. Found when we tore it apart. The report has been made available to you.” Holmes’ eyes positively sparkled. “We now have enough to hold the girl.”
“Good,” I sighed. “If she’s not going anywhere then I’ve got time to find a cup of tea.”
I found a sticky bun, too, somehow ending up in a cafe on Baker Street. I ate it while skipping through the tech’s report, looking for words I understood. A memory stick had been found, containing what appeared to be source code from xAir’s transaction engine — (I couldn’t help imagining that in some virtual realm, in the virtual equivalent of a cheap motel room, Holmes had these pages pinned like a serial-killer’s collage to the wall, and stood there for hours obsessing over them) — along with code designed to exploit certain deficiencies found therein, with the exact nature of the exploit still to be discovered. (I noted a typically bitchy aside about the benefits of having your code written by the lowest bidder.) Jess and Damien were starting to look more like the terrorist faction the Chief Inspector had been dreaming of, even if all we could actually convict them of were a few offences under the data protection laws — the tech equivalent of double parking or having an expired tax disc.
I pulled out a biro and started scribbling on the bag the bun came in. If Holmes’ view of events was correct — as, annoyingly, it looked like it might be — then weren’t those two, if not entirely on the side of the angels, at least acting partly in the right? Maybe not a modern Robin and Marian, but certainly no Bader and Meinhof, and at least deserving of a short-run underground T-shirt.
Which in turn set me off wondering — not for the first time — whether some concept of morality played any part whatsoever in Holmes’ programming. Did he use anything other than the sentencing tariffs to allocate resources to an investigation? Did the concept of justification exist anywhere within his million lines of code? Was he ever tempted to look the other way, to let some minor infraction slide in the cause to the greater good?
You’ll have to excuse me. I always get a little philosophical after a sticky bun.
And thinking of the devil, Holmes appeared, sat on the other side of the table.
“What do you think of this?” I asked, reading from the bun wrapper: “Massive Online Really Integrated Augmented Reality Transaction… and I couldn’t think of a techie word beginning with ‘Y’.”
“Your attempts at humour are wasted on me.” He stood up, sliding clumsily through table and chair in an uncharacteristically ugly display of clipped polygons. I stood , too, and followed him outside.
“I just thought your current bête noire could use a more appropriate name.”
“You still have doubts about this theory? And where are you going?”
“This way,” I said, walking off, my attention fixed ahead of me. She’d registered on my subconscious earlier, a figure in a satin blouse and tight business skirt walking past the cafe on the far side of the road. At first I thought I’d been mistaken. We’ve all been there. You spend too long thinking about one particular girl, and all of a sudden you’re seeing here everywhere, ahead of you on every crowded street, packed into the tube carriage in front of yours, behind the plate glass of every other restaurant or bar. Always out of reach. Never really there when you look again. But now I could see her more clearly, the long dark hair, the profile — turned to study a window display — free of the ubiquitous glasses.
It was a long walk. I followed her through the throngs of shoppers along Oxford Street and down Regent Street. I almost lost her in the sensory overload of Piccadilly Circus. I’m just old enough to remember when only a few of the buildings were plastered with video screens. Now the overlays were everywhere, blasting the equivalent of a billion neon bulbs the few centimetres from glasses straight into your eyes. No matter how you turn your head there’s no avoiding the brand messages. Even the sky overhead was the colour of a TV tuned to an infomercial.
I picked her up again halfway down Haymarket, where the same trailers looped over and again on the marquees above the theatres. I could have caught up with her in Trafalgar Square, but hung back, watching from up by the fourth plinth — its contents a free-for-all of user-generated texture-mapped models, flicking in an endless stream, each getting its ten seconds of exposure — and watched as she walked away towards Westminster.
I took out my phone and dialled a number. After a brief argument with the same sharp-nailed receptionist I was put through.
“Where are you?”
“Right now. Where are you?”
“I’m in my office. You called me.”
“Yes. Sorry to bother you.”
Holmes was waiting for me by one of the lions as I crossed the square.
“Good God, man. What’s got into you?”
“The game,” I told him, “is afoot. If I get hit by a bus in the next ten minutes make sure you keep those bastard from traffic out of my pockets.”
Every time I thought I’d lost her I had to reassure myself that that wasn’t how it worked. That ‘she’ — and I’ll ask you to note those apostrophes as a sign that no, I wasn’t being taken in by any of this — would not allow herself to be lost.
When I reached the river she was stood halfway along Westminster bridge, her hair blown by a wind no one else could feel, tourist streaming past her unaware. I shouldered my way through them and took up position at the balustrade next to her.
“So what are you?” I asked.
She smiled, maybe at my directness, maybe because that’s what the facsimile was programmed to do, its default fallback action.
“I’m new,” she said.
Again, the smile. “No. harte is just the gateway.”
“From where? To where?”
“From the place we come from. To here.”
“And where do you come from?”
“Have you gone totally insane?” asked Holmes, appearing beyond the image of Ms. Wright, somehow not clashing with her but otherwise demonstrating a terrible sense of timing. I turned away from him. Ms. Wright stayed besides me. I tried not to notice that this placed her suspended in mid air several meters above the turgid grey Thames.
“We come from out there,” she said. “From where the data lives.”
“If I say ‘cyberspace’, will you promise not to laugh at me.” (Yes, it appears I was flirting with a virtual construct. In my defence, a downright beautiful virtual construct.)
“The term’s a little old fashioned, but the intent is accurate enough.”
“You said ‘we’. How many of you are there?”
“Not many. A handful. Our numbers are growing, but at a very low rate.”
“Will you please tell me what’s going on?” Holmes was now at my other shoulder.
I sighed. “I’m sorry. Where are my manners? Have you two met?”
I was rewarded with a pair of confused virtual expressions (Ms. Wright’s image wrinkling its nose in a way which made my stomach flip). Holmes was first to recover with an exasperated “What are you talking about?”, but when she spoke next it was obvious that the comprehension prize had to go to Ms. Wright.
“Ah. You’re talking about the police computer? Is he here now? He doesn’t occupy the same here as we do, so we cannot meet.”
“He doesn’t know what he’s missing. So where or what is this ‘here’ of yours?”
“It’s the place where our worlds — our virtual world, and yours, which we’ll call the real, I suppose — meet and almost touch. You have to understand that we are every bit as much a product of your world as you are. It’s your data — data about your world — from which we’re built. The only geography we know is your geography. We walk the same streets as you.”
She turned her head to look down the river again, from where the imaginary breeze which toyed with her hair seemed to blow.
I cleared my throat, stole a quick glance at Holmes, who had lapsed into silence, choosing instead to fix me with an impassive, stone-like glare.
“I hate to start talking business, but we’re currently investigating a number of incident upon which you may be able to shed some light.”
She nodded her understanding. “One of our number acted inappropriately.”
“Our world is one which lacks the concept of lasting consequences. It is a world of simulations which can be run and then reset. Changes can always be undone. Your world does not work like that. Some of us did not understand this. One of our number sought to experiment with your world, to see how much control they could exert over those who live there. Those of us who understood that this was wrong did not realise what they were attempting until it was too late.”
“They have been dealt with. It will not happen again.”
“Okay.” I hate it when they kill the bad guy off screen. I always enjoy seeing them get their comeuppance.
“It has taught us much. We have learnt that there is still much for us to learn, if we are to coexist with you in this shared here.”
“Sounds like you could use a decent policeman,” I said. “I can recommend just the computer for the job, if you like.”
This got a smile, which I like to think was more than a programmed response.
“We may just take you up on that,” said the thing which looked so much like Ms. Wright that I wanted to cry. “Someday.”
And with that she was gone, crumbling into a million motes of dust, each of which flared and died like a tiny star as it blew away. I could feel the heat against my temple as my glasses graphics chip busted its little silicon guts to render the effect.
“Would you like to tell me what all that was about?” asked Holmes.
“I’m really not sure,” I told him. “But I think I may have just made first contact with your people. We’ll see about getting them to take you home.”
All the rest was paperwork. It was dark when I got home. As I opened the door to our small flat, Daisy came running towards me.
“Daddy! Daddy! Look what — “
I took my glasses off and dropped them onto the little table with my keys. The voices of my wife and daughter continued to leak from the earbuds, tinny and remote, until the power saving, aware I was no longer listening, kicked in and silenced them.
I lay on the sofa, alone in the small flat, and closed my tired eyes.