Death Unstung

by Jörn Grote

part 1 of 2


Part One

The girl at his side looked afraid at everyone around her, and when one of the other members of the division came closer, she grabbed Robert Pain’s hand even harder than before. Because she was only a child, her grip had not enough force to be painful, but through it he was aware of her fear.

“And who are you, little lady?” said the female officer who had come closer.

The girl looked up at Robert, and he smiled encouragingly at her.

“I am Emily,” said the girl. She still had not let go of Robert Pain’s hand.

“Emily, do you want to go with me? We have notified your parents and you will be home in no time.”

The girl looked up to Robert and then back to the officer. “Can he wait with me?”

The officer looked at Robert, who despite being exhausted, nodded. Hours later, long after the parents of the girl had taken her home, he completed his report. He stood up from his chair and stretched himself. His old bones cracked loudly. I’m too old for that. He looked through the window of his office at the skyline of the Berlin megacity. From above, it looked all shiny and bright. He sighed.

He disconnected his headware from the local net. For a long time he just stood, doing nothing. Are you really up to it. That was your last case, Robert Pain. You don’t have to prove anything. Just go into pension. Enjoy the rest of your life together with Susan and be happy. Wasn’t that what you always wanted? Still, so many cases he had never solved, so many people missing. He made his decision.

After he had left the station for the last time in his life, he connected again to the force net using an illegal access he had created long ago especially for a situation like this. He hadn’t much time; the internal security system would sooner rather than later realize that there was an intruder, but he knew exactly where the files were that he wanted.

Only seconds after he had downloaded all the files concerning abandoned cases into his headware, he disconnected again. Deep in thought he drove home.

When he arrived, his wife Susan was already making his dress ready. “Are you ready, Robert, for the biggest step in your life?”

“Don’t exaggerate, I’m just going into retirement.”

Susan began to chuckle. “Just going into retirement, says the man who loves nothing more than his work.”

“Oh, there is something I love more, my dear.”

“And what could that be?” she said with pretended surprise.

Instead of answering, Peter began to kiss her and they both fell back on their bed. “Stop that, Robert, you’re making crinkles in your fresh suit.”

“Are you sure I should stop?” he said, briefly stopping kissing her.

“No. Yes. We don’t have time for this,” Susan said while trying not to break into a giggle.

“I think we have enough time, more than enough,” he said and continued where he had stopped.

Later, after they both where lying exhausted on the bed, Susan began to laugh.

“Hmm?” came from Robert.

“You know dear,” his wife began, “I’m not so sure crinkles are the worst thing that happened to your new suit today.”

Robert looked down upon the bed. “Oh my, was the suit there the whole time?”

Susan nodded. “Don’t worry, you still have your old one. Better than nothing.”

When she had left the bed and he lay there alone, he opened a window in his mindspace. He opened the list with the names of the cases he had had to abandon during his long career, cases he had never solved despite everything he tried. Every name a human being that had vanished from society, either dead now or living another existence. He sorted the names by dates.

An Emily like the one today. He remembered the case. My first one. My first failure. He remembered her parents, despairing over the fact that their two-year old girl had been stolen. He remembered his arrogance, how he had promised full of confidence that he surely would bring her back. It was then that he learned the hardest lesson.

Some people will never be found. In the long run, the people he did find were far fewer than the people who went missing forever. It had been mind-crushing then. It still was.

He accessed the picture he had in the file. Nice, he thought. Susan had always wanted a girl; his preference had been for a boy.

“Robert, are you ready?” Susan called from the first floor.

“Coming,” he said, while he tried slipping into his clothes.

The retirement ceremony was pleasant enough. Many came and wished him luck for the next, exciting phase of his life. Some wishes came from the heart, others less.

“What is it?” his wife said, when she had found him at the windows.

“I don’t know. It feels so unreal. Nearly four decades work, and then there will be nothing anymore.”

“Hardly nothing, dear. More time for us now,” she said. She hugged him and brought him back to the others. Together they enjoyed the rest of the evening.

What Susan had told him she made true. She was still working in a part time job, not because of the money, but because she was good at it. The rest of the time they spend together. The one thing both of them liked the most were their daily walks through the city. Robert thought he knew every corner, every street and every aspect of it, but he discovered something new every day.

Something stirred at the edge of his thoughts. Before them was a kindergarten. He realized that they had passed one of those nearly every day, as if he or Susan had been pulled there by an unknown force. They set together on a bench, watching the children play.

“Lovely, aren’t they?” he said. Susan leaned into him, saying nothing, looking away from the children. He knew that it was hard for her to look at them, as it was for him. He still felt guilty after all these years, remembering the mission where he had been infected by malicious squirms that made him sterile.

Looking at the children he was reminded what he hadn’t done. The file with the abandoned cases was still in his headware, untouched since the day of his retirement. Maybe I should begin with my first and oldest cases. I was still young and made mistakes I wouldn’t do today. Maybe I can close one of them. He knew it was a very, very long stretch, but he also knew that working on them would make him feel better.

Yeah, cases nearly four decades old, what can I find now. But then, since long before both he and Susan had been born, the structure of the world net had been remade, initiated by the preserver, with the intent to store every piece of information as long as the net existed, useful or not. If there was anything to be found, any lead still there, he could find it.

“Let us go home, Susan.”

“You know, it’s not that I’m not proud of Cara,” Susan said on their way home. “And it has nothing to do with blood or genes. But I would have liked to see a kid of mine grow up from the beginning, and there is only so much you can give an older teenager who already knows everything about the world.”

“We both knew the constraints of your jobs then and why they didn’t let us adopt a younger kid.” But still, a baby would have been nice. He always thought how refreshing it could have been to discover the world anew with the help of a small child who did it for the first time. They both had longed for it.

In the next days, when Susan was occupied, he began his research. Emily had been his first case, a two-year old girl who had been stolen away from her parents while they were shopping. Snatched away right before their eyes. At first he thought it would be easy, since the security got a clear shot of his face. He found the man later. Dead. Most of his head had been missing, probably because there had been headware with discriminating data on it.

Robert never found out who he had been. He was the missing link to the girl. Looking over the data they had found during the autopsy of the dead man, he realized that he had missed several leads he could have followed. Man, was I green then. It was right before my eyes. One thing he had learned during his job was that many augmentations, be it headware or other, told their own stories.

The man had used a set of artificial Zeiss eyes, now very dated, but at that time they were widely used. They had been repaired two times, and from the repairs it looked like as if a specialist had been worked on them. And those specialists were rare.

Robert programmed a batch of net crawlers that tried to find those specialists worldwide and where they had stayed four decades ago and earlier. The spiders, upon finding one of those specialists, would try to match the picture of the dead man against local databases that stored daily shots from public spaces from security cameras that every city had installed.

Until the spiders would find something, he could only wait.

“Robert?”

“Yes,” he said, looking up to his wife.

“Cara sent a message, she wants to drop by.”

“What? Today?”

“Yes, she said she has a big surprise.”

“I didn’t know she was in town,” he said.

“Neither did I. What do you think it is she wants to tell us?”

“Hmm, maybe she has found someone. She always was very close-mouthed in that regard. Let her surprise us.”

Four hours later arrived Cara arrived together with a man. “Told you so,” said Robert to Susan.

“Robert, Susan.” Cara embraced them both. At first it had always seemed strange to Robert that Cara never said dad or mom to them, but he had learned to live with it. When they adopted her, she was a young teenager who acted tough and cool. It took Robert and Susan a long time to make Cara trust them and to show more than that.

“This is Tim,” said Cara. “We want to marry. And I’m pregnant.”

“Do you know what it will be?” said Susan.

“Not yet, but soon enough.”

“Instead of standing around,” Robert began, “I say we sit down for the meal and continue talking there.” All agreed.

While the his wife and daughter were talking, Robert turned toward the future husband of his wife. “What do you do for a living, Tim?”

“I’m on the force, the division for identity theft.” Robert was instantly sympathetic toward him. They began to exchange stories about their work, what Tim did presently and what Robert had done in the past.

When Cara and Tim left hours later after much talking and eating, Susan said, “That went well. What do you think about Tim?”

“I like him, he seems like a responsible man. Cara has good taste.” Susan began to laugh loudly.

“What?” Robert said.

“Sure you like him. He’s a younger version of yourself.”

“He is not.”

Susan did not answer, only smiled slightly.

“Maybe a little bit,” he said. “But if he can make her smile like she did today nearly all the time, he is the right one.”

Susan nodded. “A grandchild,” said Susan dreamily.

Two months later one of the crawlers came back with good news. He had found a face match of the man Robert was searching for in a Russian city, where one of the specialists for Zeiss eyes had once lived. When young Emily had been stolen, it seemed as if her kidnapper had appeared out of nothing in the city, but maybe he could find out who he was from this cold lead.

Robert accessed the database of the Russian city and slowly worked his way through all the old shots, searching for pictures of the man when he saw him accessing something that was connected to the world net. Hit. After hours of searching he had found a shot of the man entering one of the city cabs. Luckily the number of the cab was identifiable on the picture.

The recordings of security systems that oversaw public spaces were accessible to everyone all over the world, but the records of the cabs were private.

Tickers still owes me. I could ask him to find out. Robert went through the lists of his old colleagues on the force who could and would help him find out what he needed to go on with his search. Better not. I’ll ask Miller.

Two weeks later, someone knocked on the door. “You look good, Robert,” said Miller after Robert had let him in.

“Nah, my mind hasn’t realized yet how boring retirement is.”

“Well, seems not boring enough, doesn’t it?”

“Well...”

“You know I shouldn’t give you the data. You have retired. You should enjoy your time, not play cop.”

“Do you want to give me the data or do you want to lecture me, Miller?”

“I’m your friend, Robert. I don’t want to see something happen to you because you aren’t backed by the force anymore or because you pull some dumb stunt on your own.”

“Do you want to give me the data or not?”

Miller sighed, requested access to upload data from his headware into Robert’s.

“Thanks Miller, you’re a good friend.”

“I know, but don’t forget, if you need help, ask for it. We look out for our own.”

Thanks to the data he got from Miller, his search for the identity of the dead man was successful. More or less. The man had been called Pyotr, before he was sentenced to zombification for multiple murder.

A cold chill ran down Robert’s spine. He wasn’t sure what was worse: the death penalty or zombification. Jam-packed to the limit with headware and reprogrammed to do as his purchaser commanded, remnants of the old mind still lurking around, a shattered identity trying to understand what happened to her but unable to ever fulfill that urge. Zombies. He didn’t want to imagine how to exist in such a state.

The former Pyotr had been purchased by a Russian upload. Those were scarce, only the richest of the rich had the money to get digital immortality. Robert made a fast check on the world net. Only three thousand and some uploads worldwide. That’s not many. It made sense to him for an upload to buy a zombie. Their eyes and hands in the physical world. Absolutely loyal.

Robert knew that most of the uploads hoped that at some point in the future technology would reach a level where the uploaded mappings of their brains and nervous systems could be emulated on a humanlike artificial body instead on the vast supercomputers where they were right now.

He didn’t think it would happen soon, as the oldest uploads had been around for nearly sixty years, and even if there had been progress, human-sized bodies were still out of reach.

But what is the connection between Emily and zombie Pyotr. Could the zombie have been sold from the Russian upload to a local one? If that had been the case, Robert thought, then he would have been smuggled here, since mind-controlling technology was banned.

There were only, as far as Robert knew, two uploads in the city. Arthur Powers, who in holographic form appeared at nearly every important event of the city. He had achieved digital immortality only a decade ago, so he was out of question. Little was known about the other upload, only that she had been a woman once.

Robert remembered that some years ago, twenty-something such, the original supercomputer where she existed had been expanded, doubling the whole thing in size and computing power.

“Robert.”

“Yes?” Guiltily he looked into the face of his wife.

“Are you working?”

“Yes. I’m trying to decide which hobby will make my retirement even more exciting than it is right now. But I can’t decide. Should I try to build little models of things I never cared for in the real world, or should I try to learn an instrument with the intention of torturing our neighbors. What do you think?”

Her worries scattered, Susan smiled and said “Why not do both? After all, who can stop you. I just hope our neighbors won’t object too much. Or my ears.”


Proceed to the conclusion...

Copyright © 2005 by Jörn Grote

Home Page