Too Late the Martyr | Alfred Searls
“Chief Inspector Aventine?”
“Yes. And you are? Apart from late that is.” The policeman made little effort to conceal the disdain in his voice.
“Julia Morant…I mean…I’m Lead Investigator Morant, of the Department of Social Stability.”
“Your Identity disc. In order that you might prove your identity.”
“I’m not sure I…isn’t my authenticator showing on your oculus?”
It was only now she realised he wasn’t registering on hers.
“I don’t wear them. I find contact lenses irritate my eyes.”
For a moment she was completely thrown by the sheer novelty of the statement.
“Right, yes. I won’t keep you a moment. It’s…its right here…somewhere.”
Stranded in the hallway of the apartment, and flustered by this arcane request, she rummaged furiously through her handbag. After what seemed like an eternity, she found the shiny silver symbol, and, for only the third time in her three years with the department, produced it to verify her status as an agent. In an effort to recover the situation she extended her hand to the tall, impeccably dressed policemen. After a second or two he took it. His grip was hard and as cold as his welcome.
“I’m sorry I’m late, I wasn’t actually on duty. In fact I was at dinner with a friend when I got the call.”
“Yes, so I see” he said openly appraising her. At five feet nine in her heels she was not much shorter than he was, and her slim figure was accentuated by the elegant black cocktail dress, which coat, bag and shoes all matched.
Morant knew she was considered good looking, but she was modest about it, a fact which more often than not seemed inadvertently to make her more attractive, at least that is until she told people what she did for a living. At twenty-five it was still difficult to come to terms with the mixture of fear and contempt she saw in people’s eyes when first she told them she was a Sinner.
“Shall we get on” asked Aventine indicating the doorway to the sitting room. The disdain in his voice had been replaced by a note of boredom.
The apartment was spacious, as was to be expected in a block in this part of London. The steeple like tower was one of four, each one identical and each standing on the points of the compass. These sentries of privilege loomed over a huge, gated community, built on the site of what had once been Chelsea barracks. At its heart there squatted a sprawling ziggurat, which contained all the fun things and places that the architects had considered essential to the life of the modern priv about town.
As she entered the room Morant’s gaze slipped over the modestly affluent furnishings and the private clutter of a life. Sitting in one corner was a rather beautiful antique Regency writing desk, atop of which sat an altogether rarer item, an actual computer terminal. She’d only ever seen a half dozen or so of these with her own eyes and without exception they’d all belonged to the rich and powerful.
By contrast the rest of the furniture was tasteful and definitely on the expensive side, but not so much as to suggest that money had been no object in the life of the deceased. On the walls a selection of elegantly framed reproductions, mostly French impressionists, hung next to a modest but pleasing collection of original pieces. A floor to ceiling bookcase lined one whole wall and Morant itched to examine the rows of books, which, like so many literary Guardsmen, stood neatly aligned and awaiting inspection. But never once did she allow her eyes to alight upon the body of the woman lying dead, on the elegant Persian rug, in the centre of the room.
“Sergeant, get in here” called Aventine.
A young woman in a dark pants suit and slightly worn looking overcoat stepped in from the balcony. Behind her, and unbidden, the glass door slid silently shut and like some secret domestic Oz the apartment processor made a dozen hidden adjustments to the climate within its realm. She looked to Morant to be in her late twenties, a fact which was confirmed a few seconds later, on her oculus.
Sergeant Jenny Hopwood (age 29)
Summary: Joined the Metropolitan Police straight from school; made Detective Constable four years later. Promoted Detective Sergeant on the personal recommendation of…
Morant made a small discreet hand movement and the biog slipped from view. She knew Hopwood had probably done the same with hers, but as a DSS Agent her own would make for very short reading; at least to someone with Hopwood’s clearance. For a few seconds the two women eyed each other warily.
‘A summary for our guest please Sergeant.’
“Yes sir. At 7.48pm this evening the Yard received an automated call from Bio- Secure limited, stating that the life signs for one Gillian Wise, the deceased, had gone flat. Nine minutes later the medical drone arrived and the apartment processor let it in through the balcony doors.”
“Nine minutes? That’s rather over performing, isn’t it? I mean, I’m sure I’m right in thinking that current London response times are nearer to thirty.”
Hopwood eyed the young woman; expensive clothes, posh accent, graduate entry job. It didn’t take a detective to mark her down as a priv.
“There was a big pile up in Fulham tonight. Lots of injuries, some fatalities. All the National Health Service drones were tied up. As she was a priv…”
“Sergeant” said Aventine softly.
“Sorry sir. As the deceased had a priority one health card, as befits a director in the DSS, a military medical drone was scrambled from Wellington Barracks, just up the road. Standard procedure for your kind I guess” Hopwood nodded her head towards the balcony where the drone was silently awaiting permission to re-join its squadron.
Morant had never seen the military version before and eyed the machine with interest. Its camouflaged hull was about the size of a large dog. And sitting like this, with its wings folded back and its complicated hover engines drawn into its armoured shell, it looked like some ghastly offspring of a giant turtle and a battle-mek. Hopwood’s prejudices aside Morant knew that the presence of a military drone was unusual and in fact she couldn’t recall ever having heard of such a thing happening before. But the apartment on the other hand, well that really wasn’t so unusual. Indeed it was something to aim for; always assuming her career went according to plan.
“Be so kind as to continue Sergeant.”
“Yes sir. At 8.19pm the patrol car arrived. Our men found the body, confirmed she was dead, and searched the apartment for signs of intruders or forced entry. On finding nothing they sealed the room and called us in. We arrived shortly before 9pm whereupon we established the identity of the deceased as being that of Gillian Wise, age fifty-three.”
Hopwood gestured towards the corpse but Morant’s gaze refused to follow.
“The deceased was unmarried and had lived alone here for the last six years. According to her biog she worked for the Department of Social Stability, but of course naturally there are no other details available.”
Aventine’s brow furrowed and he shot his sergeant a look which she pretended not to notice.
“The drone’s preliminary autopsy finding is death due to natural causes, a hemorrhagic stroke to be precise. Her biog showed she was in good health but even so a stroke’s not that unusual. Shortly after this the Chief Inspector instructed me to contact the DSS, prior to having the body taken to St Thomas’. Are you ready to catch Ma’am?”
Morant nodded and for a few moments the Sergeants eyes took on the characteristic thousand-yard stare of the oculus user. Her right hand danced upon an imaginary keyboard, and the delicate fine filigree, attached to the underside of her palm and fingers, glittered briefly as she made the throwing gesture. Morant’s oculus bloomed into life and flashed the preliminary autopsy report in front of her.
For the first time she got a look at Gillian Wise’s face and before she could stop herself she instinctively looked down at the body on the Persian rug. She gave a barely audible gasp and her hand shot to her mouth.
The body on the floor resembled the woman in the identity picture in every way, save for the twisted position in which she’d finally settled and the almost translucent marble pallor, which had eclipsed the life that had once dwelled within her still handsome face. Her shock went unnoticed by the small coterie of police and technicians that still hummed busily about the apartment; except that is by Aventine.
“Is this your first?” he asked quietly, unable to hide the note of surprise in his voice.
“Yes, I only completed field investigation training last month. I was in Social Responsibility Enforcement before that.”
“I take it you aren’t the duty officer tonight?”
“No, they must have been called out on something else.”
“Yes, perhaps somewhere there’s been a lethal epidemic of socially unacceptable opinions. Can’t be too careful these days, can we?”
Morant’s pale cheeks reddened with sudden anger.
“We serve the people just as much as you do” she snapped.
“Quite so. You must forgive my little joke. A society needs its police in times like these, doesn’t it? Even secret ones.”
Before she could match her vocabulary to her outrage he spoke again.
“I’m signing her over to St Thomas’, but I doubt they’ll bother with a full manual autopsy. My guess is they’ll probably release her for burial in about three or four days. In the meantime feel free to have a good look around the place. We have a full Three-Image of everything, and no doubt Hopwood will throw it to you shortly. She’ll be your point of contact should you need anything else. Good evening Investigator.”
He turned and walked away, evidently uninterested in any possible reply she might make. Left to fume in silence she spun on her heel and quietly seethed. For a moment her frustration prevented her from getting her bearings, then, so as not to look quite so much as if she’d just been dismissed, she walked over to the large bookcase as casually as she could.
There her eyes ran blankly over Gillian Wise’s library, her anger preventing her from properly taking in any of the titles. But, as her gaze slipped mechanically over the gleaming spines, a curious incongruity forced itself into her consciousness. In an apartment where neatness was a motif an upside-down book was sure to catch the eye.
Flanked by a copy of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s ‘We’ on one side, and Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ on the other, its inverted status meant it clearly stood out from its neatly regimented case mates. Morant reached out instinctively and drew it from the shelf. It was a relatively slim volume, bound in fine black leather. As she turned its front cover towards her and ran her slim manicured fingers over the neat gold letters of the title – The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism – the words rang a very distant bell.
Immediately her interest was engaged, not because of what she found on the cover, but because of what she didn’t find, specifically the names of either publisher or author. She was about to open the unusual volume when a small flashing letter M began to blink in red on her oculus.
Across the room Aventine watched her with the practiced eye of a professional observer. Her head was tilted in the peculiar fashion of one paying attention to the intrusive, esoteric world of the oculus. Then quite suddenly her whole body seemed to stiffen, and she became very still. After about half a minute she seemed to let out a breath and on returning the unopened book to its rightful place she turned and walked towards him.
“I’m done here now Chief Inspector. I’ll expect any additional information to be sent on promptly. And you may rest assured that I’ll be making a full report in due course.”
Turning on her heel she strode from the apartment with as much confidence as she could muster, reassuring herself, with only moderate success, that her last remark along with the icy tone in which it had been delivered meant she’d somehow won.
Aventine watched her leave and then turned to his Sergeant.
“Every society gets the secret police it deserves” he said quietly.
“Back to the Yard for a brew sir?”
“That’s genius Hopwood, pure genius.”
The Sergeant smiled, and the Sinner was forgotten, along with the sin.
Morant had lost count of how many times she’d read the message, but that didn’t stop her reading it again.
‘CLASSIFIED! AGENTS EYES ONLY
‘From: Drone 661APQ: An automatic embargo forbids this unit from revealing ANY information on this matter to anyone outside the Central Defence Agency or the Department of Social Stability.
A foreign element has been detected in the body of Gillian Wise. The element, present at the cellular level, was identified at the site of the subject’s fatal hemorrhagic stroke. This foreign element is listed as Defence Item O/X71-A50, codename ‘Gulliver’s Orchid’. All further enquiries should be directed to the Central Defence Agency facility at Porton Down.’
Sighing deeply she ordered her oculus into sleep mode and leaned wearily back in her chair. The message had been preying on her mind since first she’d read it the night before. Doubt now shaded what had at first had seemed like a perfectly straight forward death. But what really worried her, what had really kept her awake, was the fact that she seemed to be the only person in possession of this information.
As dawn had crept groggily over the ragged south London skyline she’d given up the unequal struggle with sleep. Arriving at work hideously early she had begun, with great caution, to work upon the problem.
As befitted someone with a first-class degree from Oxford she’d carefully structured her research. Only an idiot would go InLine and start searching using keywords such as ‘Defence Item’ and ‘Gulliver’s Orchid’ and the department didn’t hire idiots. Instead she’d come at the problem obliquely, beginning innocently enough with a study of hemorrhagic strokes, moving gradually towards the kinds of microcellular technology used to treat them. In every case she was always careful to scroll slowly down through each article, as if reading it in full, resisting the urge to leave a logic trail by hopping directly to points of real interest.
Next, she’d begun to examine medical drones, starting with the military variety. In the unlikely event of her being questioned about her choice of browsing such a search could easily be explained as mere general interest, given that she’d encountered one for the first time the night before. After that she’d looked at the civilian version before deliberately requesting a correlated search on the science and engineering behind both.
Eventually she contrived to light upon articles about Porton Down but as she’d expected they were all pretty generic. None of them revealed anything about the facility that Central Defence wouldn’t be happy with being in the public domain. Of course she realised this was only right and proper, after all the hierarchy of information was essential to any healthy democracy, but it was frustrating, nonetheless.
The search on Gillian Wise had been much simpler given it was something she was legitimately expected to be doing, and whilst it hadn’t revealed precisely why she had classified military technology floating around her bloodstream it did make for fascinating reading.
The woman was a classic overachiever; head girl at school, UN Youth delegate and President of the Cambridge Union. Then after graduating with a first in PPE she’d landed a coveted job at the Centre for Online Justice and after only three years at the prestigious think tank she’d made Deputy Director. Not long after, when the UK had become the first country to go InLine, she’d been appointed, by Julius Sinn himself, to lead the policy advisory unit at his newly created DSS.
All of this was news to Morant, and she couldn’t quite understand why she hadn’t heard of this woman before now. After all she’d been there right at the start when Sinn had led the country away from the fractious chaos of online anonymity, and into the light of the new world, where every citizen was equal, identified and InLine.
For a long time her record with the department had been exemplary. She had sat on all the right committees, had written influential reports, had helped shaped the future of the Department and thereby that of the state itself. Then, after nearly two decades of meritorious service, she’d simply dropped off the map. Her record showed that she’d been ‘promoted’ to an executive advisory post, which looked to Morant like it had been created especially for her. They’d moved her sideways, into what was effectively a non-job. But why?
“You look terrible Julia.”
“Thank you, most kind of you to say so Investigator Shah.”
“Anytime. So what’s up?”
“Just tired that’s all.”
“Well I reckon this probably won’t help then. Your oculus isn’t responding so the boss sent me to tell you…the Director of Operations wants to see you.”
“Yep. Right now. In Person.”
She sighed and sank further into her chair. Then, on a sudden impulse, she turned to face her colleague.
“You were on duty last night, weren’t you Vikrum?”
“I was indeed and in just a few sweet minutes I’ll be off.”
“Was it busy?”
“Nah, quiet as the grave. Didn’t get a call out all night.”
Hugo Merewether was a small man, slight even, but there was nothing diminutive about the extent of his power, nor the scale of his ambition. Yet, apart from its size, his office seemed to Morant to be curiously unexceptional. Unknown to her the Director of Operations had once, on a rare vacation, had occasion to visit the Royal Palace at El Escorial. There amid the splendor and extravagance of a mighty empire he had been greatly influenced by the modest, Spartan like quality of Philip of Spain’s private quarters.
There and then he’d vowed to himself that when he inevitably achieved greatness, he would emulate the Castilian’s monastic approach to the personal display of power. But whereas Philip’s efforts had been simple and unpretentious, his own had somehow proven to be merely pedestrian and unprepossessing.
“Thank you for coming Investigator Morant.”
“My pleasure Director” she replied relinquishing his limp handshake. He indicated a chair and resumed his own position behind his aggressively ubiquitous desk.
“I’m sorry to drag you away from your work like this but I understand you were the attending Investigator last night, in the Wise case.”
“Yes, Director I was.”
“Gillian and I were friends, had been for a long time. We came up together, so to speak, although naturally I was her superior. We were both in it from the beginning you know. Would you care for some tea?”
She shook her head.
“Yes, Julius himself handpicked us, anointed us and then set us to work.”
Merewether continued in this vein for several minutes. To Morant, his profession of nostalgia seemed to be every bit as lifeless as his handshake. Somehow the obvious insincerity was disquieting and from time to time she felt herself shudder ever so slightly.
“Yes, those were great days, great days. So I’m sure it won’t come as any real surprise to learn that I’ve taken a personal interest in this case. Now, what can you tell me?”
She gave him a summary of the previous night’s events. For a moment she considered sticking the knife into that smartarse Aventine, and his impertinent Sergeant; but she thought better of it. In the long run such things generally proved more useful when they were properly documented and carefully filed away.
“A stroke you say? Poor Gillian, she always did work so very hard. Another martyr for the cause.”
He paused for a moment as if in silent prayer; again the effect appeared decidedly affected.
“Do you have any reason to believe that the preliminary cause of death might subsequently be challenged?”
It was a question that left no shade in which to manoeuvre and if confidence were to be maintained it demanded an immediate response. Morant admired it.
“No Director I don’t, although we still await the final medical report.”
“Gillian was one of us Ms Morant, it’s very important you remember that. As such I should very much like you to expedite this matter. To that end I can assure you my office will provide you with every possible assistance.”
“It shall be my top priority Director.”
“Good. I also wish you to understand that resolving this isn’t solely a question of the department looking after its own. What I’m about to tell you is for your ears only, is that understood?”
“Gillian Wise was entrusted with a rather special task. It was her job to identify and hunt down those dammed deviants in Mayday.”
For a moment, the revelation rendered Morant speechless.
“But I thought that was SIU’s job?” she replied, unable to hide the shock in her voice.
“And so it is. But I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that in nearly a quarter of a century neither they, nor anyone else we’ve entrusted with that assignment, have been able to break that particular anarchist ring.
Some time ago Gillian came to me, requesting that she be allowed to investigate Mayday, alone and outside normal channels. To do this she said she would need complete access to all SIU’s files, as well as covert technical assistance. I had no hesitation in authorising both requests. She had a brilliant mind Ms Morant, and I for one couldn’t think of a better use for it.”
“May I ask if she had any success?”
“That is not your concern. Also, in the unlikely event that you should come across any data pertaining to her investigation, you’re to hand it over to me immediately. Unexamined. Is that understood?”
“Fully understood Director.”
Merewether stared at her for a moment before slowly unfurling his facsimile of a smile.
“I read your paper on the matter. You’re not really a believer in the concept of Mayday are you, young lady?”
Morant could not help but feel a surge of pride that her work had been read in the rarefied atmosphere of the top floor. Yet she sensed the danger inherent in the possibility of having positioned herself on the wrong side of an important debate. But the paper had been circulated; there was no going back now.
“I must confess Director, I do have my doubts.”
“Well, take the name for a start. As far as I can tell Mayday is a term that was applied to the group by outsiders. There’s no hard evidence that the membership, if such a thing can be said to exist, actually invented it. This is out of character for a dissident group where there’s usually a strong desire to define their own collective identity. We can’t be sure of course, because their genesis lies in the last days of the old internet, before we could track all users.”
“We still can’t track the members of Mayday.”
“Which is of course is the great enigma of our age. Yet I can’t help feeling that it’s the way in which we think about these people, our commitment to ascribing to them a common cause, a collective set of attitudes, that’s stopping us from catching them.”
“They’re subversives. Why else would a person want to hide their identity? From the cradle to the grave every citizen is equal, identified and InLine. The age of avatars, anarchy and incivility is over, and only the malcontents want it back.”
His tone was mild, conversational and he seemed genuinely interested in her opinion on the matter.
“But that’s just it Director, we imagine these people have a common purpose, when in fact they show no signs whatsoever of a collective ideology.”
“Doesn’t your assertion that they lack a common outlook merely reinforce SIU’s profile of them, as being that of an anarchist collective?”
“I’d say they’re only a collective in so far as their avatars appeared, broadly speaking, within a year or so of each other. And that ever since they, and they alone, have somehow survived InLine, when every other dissident of any significance has long since been hunted down.”
“Surely then you have your answer. To appear InLine without being fully identifiable is clearly, in and of itself, a subversive act. And for a group to do so repeatedly must indicate not only an individual will towards subversion, but also a collective one.”
“Undeniably so Director, but beyond this they exhibit a bewildering array of opinions, ranging from socially conservative, right through to progressively supportive. Some are rabid extremists, of all shades, and others don’t display any political tendencies at all. Some seem merely to confine themselves to making sarcastic or asinine comments on blogs and news stories.
And from time to time some will inexplicably make a complete volte-face and begin adopting radically different positions to those they previously held. But most bizarrely of all they form factions, and bicker endlessly with one another other, in full view of everyone InLine.”
Suddenly she felt a strong urge to stop talking. As she sat there in silence she wondered if she’d just talked herself out of a job, or possibly into one.
“You’re not afraid to speak your mind Ms Morant. I generally admire that in my Investigators.”
“A citizen InLine has nothing to fear” she replied, quoting the Young Pioneers motto.
“How very true. Now I’ve kept you from your work long enough. Do keep me informed, won’t you?”
She was committed now, now that she’d lied to the Director. It was clear that there was more to the death of Gillian Wise than just a simple hemorrhagic stroke. It was also clear that someone had deliberately ignored operational protocol and manipulated the situation to ensure that she was the investigating officer. Whoever that person was they’d landed her in this invidious position, and they’d put her in danger. She was looking forward to meeting them.
Now she had Merewether’s backing she could work more openly, and when she accessed the hub at St Thomas’s her earlier subterfuge was quite unnecessary.
She looked up the name of the resident pathologist and cross-referenced him with the departmental archive. Within a few minutes she had what she needed. Dr David Barlow’s daughter had won a place to study medicine at Edinburgh, but unfortunately Hanna was an indiscreet girl and comments she’s made within her circle at school had naturally found their way to the department.
It was, of course, a legal requirement that all members of the professions publicly subscribe to the principles of social stability, and naturally that meant there was no place for private faith in public life. It would be a great shame if such a promising young girl had her future curtailed because of her unfortunate religious leanings. So Julia decided to reach out; after all, the department was there to help. Subsequently Doctor Barlow discovered that a sudden fever was, regrettably, going to keep him at home for a few days.
The following day, and with improbable speed, a replacement arrived and much to the surprise of the chief technician the friendly young locum saw great merit in not only in performing a full autopsy on Gillian Wise, but in performing it straight away. He was even more surprised when upon completion the stand-in physician was suddenly called away.
Morant met him in the old Guards Chapel, now a heritage bar and restaurant that served the residents of the exclusive Chelsea Development. The solid old Victorian church, whose walls had once rung with the strains of Jerusalem, now echoed the braying of the early evening well to do. The ambient noise also served to hide many a confidential conversation.
“She was definitely murdered” said the once and future locum
Morant felt her blood freeze. It was one thing to suspect something but quite another to have it confirmed, yet she was careful not to show any outward emotion.
“How?” she asked, taking a sip from her mineral water.
“The Defence item the drone detected? What is it?”
“Gulliver’s Orchid is the codename for a highly sophisticated and highly secret effort to weaponize medical grade Cello-bots” he paused for a moment and looked quizzically at her “you’re familiar with the technology?”
She shook her head.
“They’re a whole new evolution in nanorobotics, much more capable than the old nanite tech. It’s all still in development, but the smart money is on cello-bots finally being able to make good on all the promises that were made about nanites. You know, all those claims that they’d be able to clear clogged arteries, repair damaged cells, and generally perfect the human body.”
“Good God, you mean these things can actually do all that?”
“They have done, at least some of it, but it’s all still in clinical trials, and secret ones at that. It’s bespoke tech so none of it’s in production yet.”
“So how the hell did Gillian Wise end up with it in her blood stream?”
“That would be down to our friends in Central Defence. You see Gulliver’s Orchid is a weapon. It isn’t designed to heal, it’s designed to destroy, which in the general scheme of things is liable to be somewhat easier to perfect. Cello-bots are programmed to mimic the body’s own cells, thereby operating undetected, either by the immune system or conventional medical scanners.
They’re also completely biodegradable, which means that within a short space of time they disappear without trace. And they can be fitted with mission specific delivery packages, ranging from bio-warfare to bio-surveillance.”
He took a sip of the expensive single malt he’d ordered, at her expense of course, enjoying the fact that he had her full attention.
“How were they used here?”
“Well, in this case they were slowly introduced into the blood stream, disguised as ordinary blood cells, and programmed to travel to one of the key arteries in the brain. Once there they attached themselves to the arterial wall, mimicking the cellular makeup of the body’s own fatty deposits. Over time their numbers slowly built up, until the whole fleet had collected. Then it was simply a matter of waiting until the command cell was introduced. That was the trigger.”
“The trigger for what?”
“The command cell induces a self-destruct programme in the cello-bots, a chain reaction based on known cellular decay rates.”
From the blank look on Morant’s face he could see he’d lost her.
“In essence the assembled fleet of cello-bots blew themselves up, and the resulting thousands of micro explosions weakened and then collapsed the arterial wall. This in turn caused a massive hemorrhagic stroke, not to mention a swift and certain death.”
“Porton Down actually, but I suspect there’s more than a few down there who think they are.”
“But how did they get the dammed things into her?”
“Yes, that was an interesting aspect to the case. Whilst the effect was immediate, the delivery was slow. It has to be, so as not to trigger any symptoms or risk detection by any routine medical scans. Normally this would involve covert hypodermic injections, at night say, whilst the subject was asleep. But I found no signs of that, so I carried out a very detailed examination. Finally I found traces of routine hypodermic activity on the right forefinger, and when I examined the site I discovered a small number of cello-bots that had failed to launch. And Bob, as they say, is very much your uncle.”
“How very clever of you.”
“Yes, I thought so too. But there’s one thing I wanted to check with you, the drone that did the preliminary autopsy report, was it a National Health Service unit?”
“No, it was a military model.”
“What was it doing there?”
“There was a big accident in Fulham that night, with lots of casualties. All the local NHS drones were called to attend. When Wise’s bio-monitoring company called for assistance, a military drone was automatically scrambled from Wellington barracks.”
“Well now, isn’t that interesting.”
She knew she would have to ask, but she hated giving him the satisfaction.
“It’s interesting because the only reason you and I are sitting here is because Gillian Wise was a priv, whose department health card bought her a fast response. A fast response that was only practical because she lived in central London. A response that was only necessary because the NHS units were all busy.”
Seeing that she still needed more he sighed theatrically.
“There’s nothing at all in the NHS directory about this class of cello-bot. It’s the sort of micro tech that wouldn’t even show up on civilian scanners, unless they’re specially calibrated. So you see, if these precise circumstances hadn’t come together, just when and how they did, a civilian drone would have made the initial examination and…”
“…we would never have known it was murder.”
“Give that Sinner a prize.”
Whilst Morant considered the implications of this the locum leaned back in his chair, taking a long sip of his scotch. The former chapel had long since been renamed and trade in the ‘Prayer Room’ was brisk. As he slowly surveyed the well-dressed residents and their guests his face took on an undisguised look of contempt.
“The administrative class at play…what a truly ennobling sight.”
“Ennobling? I’ll put that particular miracle down to our ecclesiastical setting, shall I?”
“Doesn’t it bother you that Gillian Wise lived in a place like this? I mean she was a civil servant for God’s sake?”
“Why should it? She was a senior officer and she’d had a service mortgage available to her for decades, it’s only natural that she’d choose somewhere like this to live. And the correct term these days is state servant, but I’m sure you already know that.”
“Oh yes, I’d forgotten the famous in-service benefits package. What is it again? A guaranteed interest free mortgage, based on your projected earnings, for your whole career.”
“Oh come on, you know as well as I do that simply helps us retain our brightest and best. It encourages loyalty, that’s all.”
“It guarantees obedience is what it does. And what about the fact that every new development like this one is legally obliged to set aside ten percent of its units, for purchase by your state servants.”
“Don’t you think affordable housing should be available for key public workers?”
“Yes, for firemen and such like, not for you people! But then again, they’re not eligible for a special mortgage, a flat in a place like this, or any of the goody’s you people award yourselves, are they?”
“Are you seriously suggesting we could possibly afford to extend the package to everyone who works for the state? We have to draw the line somewhere, and you’re either eligible for admission to inner state service, or you’re not. That’s just life I’m afraid. And I have to say, I’d find your own radical perspective a whole lot more convincing, if it weren’t born out of simple jealousy and bitterness.”
“Jealousy?” he snapped.
“You forget, doctor, I know precisely why the only patients we let you work on are dead ones.”
“I do valuable research for the department” he said visibly bristling.
“Yes, and if you wish to continue doing so I suggest you keep your student politics to yourself. Now, have you thrown me the full autopsy report?”
“And do you have the additional items?”
He sullenly handed her the medical case that had sat next to his chair throughout their conversation.
“Thank you. That will be all for now. We’ll be in touch.”
After he’d gone she let out a long breath and ordered herself a stiff drink.
She stood, shivering silently, on the balcony of Gillian Wise’s apartment. Across the river the lights of the Battersea Development illuminated the sharp night with the golden glow of prosperity. In common with a dozen or so of its gated metropolitan sisters the former power station had long since been scrubbed clean and Bauhaused to within an inch of its life. In fact from her vantage point Morant could see several examples of the once disused barracks, docks and rundown estates, which had been part of the Reinvigoration.
The sight called to mind the slogans she’d learned as a girl in the Young Pioneers – ‘Redesigning our Heritage’ – ‘Capital for a new Capital’ – and the classic ‘Design InLine!’
Then, similarly unbidden, she recalled a comment from one of the Mayday Avatars, which like all the others couldn’t be removed once it was posted InLine. It had been left on an article about a speech, given by the Minister for Reinvigoration, on how the new developments were ‘the envy of the world’ and had ‘put the shine back onto a tired city.’
The Avatar had laconically called them ‘A ring of precious stones set in a shiftless sea of shit.’ To be fair it was, as Morant recalled, a very pompous speech from a very pompous man.
On drawing no inspiration from the view she turned and went back inside the dead woman’s apartment, knowing that she could no longer postpone her next move. She crossed the room, threw her coat on a chair and collected the medical case and laid it on the antique writing desk. It snapped open when she ran her thumb over the lock, and she drew out the prosthetic finger. She knew it was already preloaded, so she left the supply of spare blood in the cold section and switched on the curiously elegant computer terminal.
A precise, thin slice of light was projected upwards from the unit and the teeming photons therein rapidly coalesced into a screen as clear as a window onto a summer’s day. In front of the terminal a second projection of Tactile Light called an ultra-thin keyboard into being. The keyboard did not actually exist of course, except in so much as the field of carefully arranged and precisely charged particles of light would register the intrusion of solid matter.
Now for the fun part she thought. Somewhat gingerly she took the counterfeit finger in hand and gently inserted it into the inbuilt DNA verifier. Almost instantly a spray sterilised and anesthetized the tip, whilst a fraction of a second later a hypodermic needle penetrated the artificial skin, taking a near microscopic sample of Gillian Wise’s authentic blood.
A further spray re-sterilised the tiny puncture and healed it to such a degree that it would take a microscope to reveal it. For good measure the system threw in a fingerprint scan, but it was the vampiric analysis that really set the seal on the unit’s security system. A couple of seconds later the screen changed and the ghost in the machine greeted the genetic phantom.
‘Good evening Gillian’ said a soothing voice.
If the cello-bots were the bullets that had killed Gillian Wise then this terminal, and its DNA analyser, had been the gun that fired them. Hearing it speak made the hairs on the back of Morant’s neck stand on end.
She couldn’t be sure if it was set up to recognise only Wise’s audio print, so her fingers skittered across the make-believe keyboard and disabled the voice command functions. With this done she excitedly set about exploring the private world of Wise. Two hours later, thoroughly bored, she gave up.
The systems heavily shielded internal memory turned out to be merely a repository for the dull and the mundane. The personal information amounted to little more than the electronic detritus of a life lived InLine; and the professional data, such as it was, didn’t even add to her background knowledge of Mayday. And the reports from the Special Investigations Unit were not much more than competently compiled facts and figures, along with a collection of analytical studies; the latter being noteworthy only for their uniformly unimaginative outlook.
Even to Morant’s inexperienced eyes SIU had been mishandling the investigation for years, and the supposedly brilliant Gillian Wise seemed to have added nothing of any value to the whole project.
Frustrated she rose and paced about the tastefully furnished living room, but upon gaining no new inspiration and soon found herself walking back out onto the balcony. It was cold outside, and she had neglected to put on her coat, so she ordered the apartment processor to turn on the turbo heaters. In seconds the dark chill of night was negated by the fact that the residents of the Chelsea Development were excused the capitals compulsory power rationing.
Bathed in the warm wind of privilege Morant was able to relax a little and the lessons of her training slowly came back to her. She knew she needed a distraction in detail, and it occurred to her that she hadn’t yet read the autopsy report. As a solution it was perhaps a touch macabre, but it would serve. Her hand, and its attached silver filigree, danced in the night air as she went over the document. As she neared its end, she noticed that the ‘distinguishing features’ section was lit, indicating data inside. She drew it out and threw it into the darkness.
‘The subject has a tattoo, located at the base of her spine.’
She reread the entry several times, quite unable to believe a woman like Gillian Wise had, of all things, a tattoo. No truly modern woman in her right mind would ever have something as vulgar scratched onto her body; it had been that way for decades. Admittedly she was old enough to have had it done in her youth, when the practice had only just started to become so deeply unfashionable, but she’d had years since in which to have it removed.
Bringing up the attached image she recoiled for a moment, remembering she was looking at a corpse. Oddly, the image was upside down, something the pattern recognition software should have corrected automatically. When she checked, she was surprised to discover that the image was properly catalogued; it was the tattoo that was upside down. She righted and then studied the tasteless curiosity; a red stylised heart with a scroll running through it, and on the scroll a name – Goldstein.
Her minds own natural pattern recognition software flashed into service. Here was something; here was a connection, she was sure of it. She found herself walking slowly back into the apartment, where she stood in the centre of Gillian Wise’s former life, whilst legions of neutrons rampaged through her hippocampus.
Sitting back down at the writing desk she ran a quick search for the word Goldstein on the terminal’s internal memory. Nothing came back and part of her was not surprised, that would have been all too easy. She cursed out loud, before ordering herself to get a grip and to logically think the problem through. Taking a deep breath she began to clear her mind and with an effort of will she set about her analysis, just as she’d had been taught.
Firstly, Gillian Wise was an educated, professional woman; she would only have had herself permanently marked for a reason. Secondly, she’d chosen a site for the tattoo that was hidden from everyday view and for some reason had deliberately inverted it. Morant was certain that these last two facts were especially significant. She stood up and began to pace the room again, trying to focus her thoughts, trying to make the connection that she knew she was uniquely placed to make.
Her pacing had taken her closer to the long, floor to ceiling bookcase that lined the far wall. Ordinarily a keen bibliophile Morant would have loved to pour over the assembled titles, but for now all she could spare was a quick glance at the massed, glistening spines.
Her English teacher at school had always said that taken individually each book was but a weak and feeble vertebra of knowledge, but when combined they formed a spine stronger than one forged from the hardest steel. It had always pleased her that the physical book had endured in an information world turned upside down. But for now Morant forced her gaze away; this was not the time to indulge herself.
“The world turned upside down” she muttered as she paced.
Slowly, she came to a halt. She turned to face the bookcase, suddenly convinced that the answer, as so often in life, lay in the books.
“Goldstein” she whispered.
Her gaze swept back and forth, row by row, trying to catch a glimpse of the golden word. As she examined and rejected book after book, part of her mind seemed to be accelerating, passing mere physical boundaries and leaving her consciousness far behind.
“Goldstein” she whispered again and again as her eyes ran frenziedly to and fro, until with a sudden sharp intake of breath, she froze. The name wasn’t there; it never had been there; that was the whole point!
Quickly she took three steps to her right and reached out for the answer, hidden in plain sight, and after her previous visit now right side up. She drew the slim leather-bound volume from the shelf and turned to the front cover, and as before she ran her fingers over the neat gold letters of the title – The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. It had no publisher, for it had never been published, save as a book within a book. And as for Goldstein, the supposed author, he was merely the invention of a far more subversive mind.
There was no ecstasy of fumbling; not now she’d made the primary connection. Whilst the pages within might hold the key to the age-old struggle between the high, the middle and the low, Morant knew that the secret she sought was elsewhere. Slowly she ran her fingers down the down the spine of the book, until at its base she found what she was looking for, the tell-tale bump in the leather binding.
It took her a minute or so to find a nail kit in the dead woman’s bathroom. Shortly thereafter she was back at the writing desk, carefully examining the bespoke volume with tweezers and file. It came apart much more easily than she’d anticipated, for the bottom of the spine was invisibly held together with Velcro. Nevertheless it was with great care that she withdrew the thin metal oblong from its hiding place.
Whilst she knew what the d-rig was, she had never actually used one before. After all, information was cloud based, and personal data storage was both unnecessary and socially suspicious. This, combined with her unfamiliarity with the terminal, meant she was initially baffled as to how to connect them.
After several frustrating minutes she noticed that a small icon was flashing on the make-believe screen, inviting her to input a four digit security code. Morant suddenly realised that the device functioned when brought into proximity with the active terminal, and that Wise had probably never needed to take it out of the book.
“Gillian, you clever old cow” she said as her fingers confidently keyed the numbers one, nine, eight and four into the flashing box. Instantly the screen was alive with choices, but the first one had been made for her. The last document Gillian Wise had looked at was still on the screen and instinctively she maximised it.
‘My name is Gillian Wise. Like most people, I didn’t choose my name; it was given to me by my parents. But unlike most people, I have another name, a name I did choose. My name…is Mockingbird.’
Morant’s heart very nearly stopped right there. She read on. It was past dawn before she stopped.
“You killed Gillian Wise” she said evenly.
Hugo Merewether slipped his small, manicured hand under his desk.
“Really?” he replied blandly “Oh, and in future, should you wish to discuss such delicate matters in my office, do please let me know beforehand. But feel free to speak now.”
“How do you know I’m not recording this?”
He smiled. Julia knew she had to move quickly.
“You killed Gillian Wise. You introduced cello-bots, codenamed Gulliver’s Orchid, into her bloodstream, via the DNA sampler on her terminal. They travelled to her brain, where a command cell triggered a massive cerebral haemorrhage, leading to a fatal stroke. You knew that an NHS drone would be called to the scene, and that the cello-bots, being a highly secret military item, would be completely undetectable.”
She licked her lips; her mouth was a dry as parchment.
“When we got the call, you ensured it was diverted away from our duty response team to me, an Investigator with little in the way of field experience. However, what you couldn’t have anticipated was that on the night in question there would be a major incident and that all the local NHS drones would already be committed. You see, the drone that carried out the preliminary autopsy was a military unit, from Wellington barracks. And of course, unlike its civilian counterpart, this one knew exactly what Gulliver’s Orchid was. And it told just one person…me.”
She took a manila folder from her briefcase and slid it onto his desk.
“The rest is in my report Director.”
This time he didn’t reply. And neither did he smile.
“You’ll notice that I said you killed her. I did not say you murdered her.”
“And this is of significance how?” he demanded coldly.
“This department is the guarantor of social stability, and social stability is the foundation of our state. If our authority is undermined, then the state itself will become endangered. That cannot be allowed.”
“How very admirable” he replied in a voice as dry as a desert wind.
“Gillian Wise was a very real and a very dangerous threat, to the department, and therefore to the state. We are the sword and shield of the state. If we are not prepared to act, if we are not prepared to take the difficult decisions, then who will?”
He wasn’t biting. Julia knew he’d need further evidence that this wasn’t just some bluff based on nothing more than intuition.
“Ms Wise left records. Very detailed records.”
“Of?” he replied casually.
“Everything. And no, not on her terminal, on a separate d-rig”
“Which no doubt is safely in your possession?”
“Yes Director. And please, rest assured that no one will ever learn from me that Gillian Wise was a member of Mayday…” she paused and locked eyes with him “… or indeed that so are you.”
Julia suddenly felt dizzy, like she was falling uncontrollably. She fought it, knowing that she had to put the rest of her cards on the table before it was too late.
“Ms Wise’s indiscretions, whilst admirably camouflaged, were extremely comprehensive. Her private diaries form the basis for a manuscript, a manuscript which she was clearly going to make public using her Avatar.”
“And her Avatar was?”
Julia felt relieved, he clearly didn’t know, and for the time being at least it seemed sensible to ignore his question.
“The manuscript details every aspect of her life in Mayday. Oh and by the way my apologies. I was wrong about the name, wasn’t I? But who would have guessed it was coined by the very founder of the feast” she lifted her eyes to the picture hanging on the wall.
“Julius never did say why he chose it. But then again, he was rather an odd man, in many ways.”
Said the pot of the kettle she thought whilst nodding in agreement.
“She documents how Sinn and an early inner cadre, herself and you included, established the Avatars. And how you embedded the code, which would make it literally impossible to trace them InLine.”
“We were very proud of that you know, after all it’s a very elegant piece of work. Essentially, it’s a series of ever expanding feedback loops, which draw in more and more memory, until the search collapses under its own weight. We managed to get it in place just before the country voted to go InLine. Then all we had to do was outlast the holdouts, the individuals who in an earlier age might have cracked the code. Now they’re all long gone of course, that or cowering InLine along with everyone else.”
He paused for a moment and starred at Julia. When next he spoke there was, for the first time, naked aggression in his voice.
“The Avatar. I want a name Morant.”
“I’m afraid I can’t give you one Director.”
“Can’t or won’t?” he snapped.
“Both. Firstly, it goes against the founding principles. You know as well as I do that each Avatar had the same activation sequence, and that it could only be named once. Sinn had a full list of who was sent one alright, but once named even he had no idea which Avatar belonged to which member.”
She laid each card carefully on the table; there was no room for error. She knew that if she didn’t convince him that she held a winning hand she’d go the same way as Gillian Wise.
“Secondly, in the absence of a nominee, I’m taking over the Avatar.”
“That’s improper. If the owner dies without leaving a nominee, the code will ask a portion of the membership to each nominate a suitable candidate. It will then select one at random. Of course we’ll never know which Avatar it is, or indeed the actual identity of the new owner, and rightly so. Anonymity is protected and both the Avatar and the founding principle will continue.”
All caution had left him now, which could only mean he’d already decided to kill her. Julia felt the ball of ice swelling in her stomach. It was now or never.
“Not this time Director” she said firmly “this time we need to do things a little differently. This time you have a unique opportunity to reinforce your position. Instead of recruiting someone who just happens to be of like mind this time you have the opportunity to bring someone in who not only shares the vision of Mayday, but someone who’s also going to be a capable and loyal ally, to you personally.”
He watched her silently.
“Director, Gillian Wise had to be silenced for the common good, that’s simply a fact. It’s also a fact that I had the skill and intelligence to discover all this, and that when I did, I came straight to you.”
Still he said nothing. A voice inside Julia’s head was screaming at her, telling her to threaten him was exposure, imprisonment and disgrace. Yet reason told her that such a course would quickly prove fatal and that to survive she must hold her nerve, as well as her tongue. But reason was brittle, and she didn’t know how long it could withstand the oppressive silence in the office, which was broken only by the thunder of her own racing heartbeat.
“Poor Gillian. Once she was a true believer, just like us. But in the last few years she grew more and more disillusioned, and gradually she seemed to lose her way entirely. Towards the end she began to make foolish threats, and we quarrelled often. It was all very sad.”
Julia felt hope surge within her.
“Your idea is not without interest young lady. If we were to take things further, and that’s a big if, I shall want certain…assurances.”
She tried not to exhale too deeply.
“Of course Director. And whilst we’re on the subject, there are one or two small matters I should like to ask your help with…”
Sitting down heavily in the luxurious leather office chair, she let out a long sigh and sipped from the rather fine red she had found in the wine cooler. She set down her glass on the antique writing desk, careful to make sure it was resting squarely on a coaster.
She had, it seemed, been successful in persuading Merewether, but she was not quite so sure she had done as good a job in persuading herself. Yet the extreme tension of the day began slowly to ease, and for the first time she was able to relax and begin to enjoy her new surroundings.
Tomorrow she would use the prosthetic finger for the last time and nominate herself as the true heir to Mockingbird, and when she was done the phantom of the renegade Wise would be purged for good.
She’d also take a trip to Scotland Yard and call in on Chief Inspector Aventine. The case needed closing, and besides, it was always a good idea to cultivate contacts in those parts of the state that still retained some level of independence. She placed the book next to the terminal, instantly summoning the light screen. It was still showing the last thing she’d read before her meeting with Merewether, a section from the introduction to Wise’s manuscript. Julia had read it uncounted times, but she could not stop herself from reading it again.
“Julius always said that Mayday was necessary to a healthy society. He said that the elite, like the poor, will always be with us. But that unlike the poor, the soul of the elite must be given space to breathe; space in which it can, from time to time, express itself in anyway it sees fit.
This soul, this new virtual Elect, never numbering more than a few thousand and drawn exclusively from the ranks of the new ruling class, both state and commercial, would thus exorcise the body and help keep it healthy, keep it sane, and keep it InLine.
Julius was wrong. The soul has not kept the body healthy, or sane, but nor indeed has it diseased it. The truth is that the body was diseased to begin with and the system we put in place to regulate it has become a power-hungry monster that will not rest until it monitors, tabulates and regulates every single aspect of our lives. This has to end.”
For a moment she stared blankly at the screen. What had seemed so revelatory yesterday now only seemed to compound her exhaustion. She dismissed it with a swish of the wrist and turned her mind back to her plans for the following day. Thinking of Aventine put her in mind of that upstart Sergeant of his – what was her name again- Hopwood, that was it.
On a sudden impulse she ran a search on the insolent bitch. A news story headed the results, an account of how she’d arrested a mugger on her way to work the day before. There was an accompanying picture of the Sergeant, propelling a snarling youth in front of her into a police carrier.
“Not a very flattering picture is it Hopwood?” she said aloud.
“That jacket is way too short. It makes your ass looks huge…and those shoes!”
“Hello Mockingbird, what would you like to write today?”
Earlier she’d re-enabled the terminals voice software, and now the Tactile Light keyboard misted into view.
It caught her quite off-guard…