Jack Newman shouldered past the six-inch reinforced alloy frame of the self-driving armored personnel carrier into SoMa town, San Francisco, shards of glass and crumbling asphalt crunching beneath his tactical boots like the rib cages of small mammals. He squinted through mean wind that tasted of burning batteries, to take in the broken majesty of AT&T park. Half of the Giants Stadium had collapsed like some 20th century rendition of the Roman Colosseum, its steel bones digested by the stomach acid of Pacific sea salt and the floor-by-floor demolition of state budgets. The more obscure consumption of the United States by its financial élite, that infestation of white-shoed tapeworms who devoured all legitimate business, all productivity, leaving nothing but stinking piles of economic feces and fraudulent bank paper where metropoli once boomed.
The Bay itself had gone the color of bile, the ocean heaving nauseous from a trillion tons of anthropocentric carbon, vomiting itself across South Beach Harbor parking lot and playground, washing wrecked yachts across the highway against bent street signs and abandoned cars and the dark windowless husks of skyscrapers. Shoals of trash and untreated sewage festered and smothered whatever remained of the coastal ecosystem. The bodies of poisoned fish, seals and whales were left to rot, the fly-ridden flesh thin and grey and everywhere, like black and white photographs of Nazi camp mass-graves.
It’d been ages since Jack had actually seen un-mediated, unpolished urban decay in meatspace, let alone actually had to wallow in it, and it made his skin crawl with a kind of ambient tension and Rousseau-esque guilt. It made his head hurt more to think about what it meant that he felt such revulsion toward reality. Visions of the Agent Smith-Morpheus showdown asserted themselves like popup ads into his mind’s eye.
"I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it." The smell, that’s what it was. The smell of burning ash and rotting garbage and dead mammals. All of these un-targeted, un-personalized stimuli, all this terrible ‘serendipity’, this unprogrammed experience. It was viscerally repulsive to Jack. He closed his eyes, nudged the microprocessors in his corneas awake with a three-thought Ideocode sequence -- visualising his mother's face, the melody to All Along The Watchtower, and the memory of his first successful assassination with a humanoid drone. He clicked his heels together for good measure. An Encephalock reader membraned over the tissue of his cerebral cortex, scanned the chain of neural firings in his brain, unlocking a transparent cerulean HUD of timestamp, taskbar, and compass that crept into his peripheral vision. With a wink at a virtual tab, Jack papered over the sight of disgusting reality with the clinical rectilinearity of his AR-overlayed email inbox. He felt instantly better. Even if it was a wall of X-Pandgen penis enargement gene-therapy spam and messages from his wife hounding him over some birthday party planning he couldn't be bothered with. Even the ubiquitous marquee ads for depleted uranium flechette pistols that kept chasing him across the net were a comfort as they scrolled over the tangled snarl of a sixteen car pile-up in South Beach playground. No place like home.
It was unusual, to say the least. The heavy brass had called Jack and his team of Troubleshooters out of the bunker arcology down into San Fran, demanding in-person oversight of the investigation. That never happened, especially not beyond the Ameribank City barrier. RPLCNTS and air drones were teleoperated in the field from climate-controlled C&C hubs, or programmed for autonomous detective-mode as the primary means of on-the-ground actual police work. That was the CyberSec M.O. If human beings were called out of the green zone into the battlefield, it meant someone very high up was personally pulling strings. Strings such as the fat end-of-the-year bonus that had suddenly appeared in Jack’s bank account, one which his immediate supervisor would never authorize, not even for cluster-bombing an abandoned Costco full of World Class War jobless insurgents. Not that Jack had an argument with the money, per se.
A Valkyrie drone transport was crouching near the crime scene. The Emergency medical drones had made it in time to stop the bleeding but the kid had slipped into a coma, and all the king’s nanites couldn’t put his prefrontal cortex back together again. Multiple cerebral contusions, face smashed unrecognizable- Jack hadn’t seen that kind of gutty gore since the Compton prison guard robots went AWOL from a bad firmware update, pounded the inmates’ skulls into corned beef with fire extinguishers. That incident had been a bitch to cover up. It took the cleaners six hours to scrub the goopy chunks of brain and hemoglobin from the cell walls and bars. The cover story about a facility-wide prisoner revolt had been a stretch, but necessary to ward off all the Human Rights and Anti-Robot organization limpdicks salivating at the chance to score political points against the big-box automated prison industry. Jack had pulled multiple Red Bull-powered all-nighters taking down whistleblower blogs and humanitarian sites using DDoS hacking attacks, shouting down activists in forums and chatrooms with an army of AI-run counter-poster accounts. Jack nipped all attempts to expose the incident in the bud. The spin team CGed black faces onto all the released security footage; the undying fear of the angry black man could always be counted on to sway public opinion in a pinch.
But this wasn’t an airbrush job for the corporate Elite; for the first time in months, Jack was actually being asked to solve an honest-to-Gnossis crime.
"I’m feeling like a real police officer, I think I need to up my dosage," Jack bantered into his mic.
"Book ’em, Dano." Stasia laughed back, exiting the vehicle beside Jack, ballistic leather-analog creaking as she slapped him on the shoulder.
"The boy, one Justin Diamond. Stable condition. Son of Alistair and Margaret Diamond, Divorced. Father is a senior executive at Vitanet Medical. Former governer of New Hampshire and New Jersey. On the board of the American Medical Association. Duck-hunting buddy of President Vanderlyle’s old man."
"Vitanet? Jesus. That explains, well, everything. Of course the trillionaires can afford to buy their own personal investigation into their son’s near-murder."
Jack pulled up the boy’s files into an unused section of retina real estate, thankful for the overlay’s breakup of the real-world overload. The brick and mortar was starting to grate on his eyeballs.
"Last connectivity, today, 9:34 AM. Via a dVice Ubiq." Jack fiddled through the kid’s pockets, coming up with only lint and date-rape pills.
"No dVice on him. Looks like someone out there is running around with stolen hardware. Let’s run it by the registries."
Jack examined the area surrounding the chalked outline, stepping over the metal column of a fallen street lamp, fluted green metal blistering with rust. There was another dead body, thirty feet away. A spider crawled over to the mess, scanned the face and took a DNA sample. A tiny hooked implement like a dentist’s scraper ejected from the forensic bot’s mandibular area. It used the scraper to extract a dollop from the pool of blood beneath the corpse’ head. The blood had congealed in a pothole like strawberry Jell-O.
The results for the second victim were instantaneous, and the dossier tabbed itself like a playing card beside the primary’s file.
"Amit Garcia. Ex-accountant. Former Ameribank City citizen till a few months ago when his citizenship was revoked due to consecutive delinquent payments."
"Double homicide? Or a separate incident?" Stasia hypothesized.
"Maybe. Hard to say. It’s dangerous, chaotic out here in the Bay Area. Life expectancy rates aren’t so great."
"Chaotic? Aren’t we going to at least look into it?"
"He had his citizenship taken away for failing to make payments. That means this guy’s a Deadweight. An Unemployed. He doesn’t count as a person as far as we’re concerned." Jack pointed to Amit’s former white collar office shirt, turned grey from living in the street, as if it was QED.
"As far as we’re concerned? So we’re going to look the other way?"
"As far as our bosses are concerned. We’re not being paid to investigate deaths of unimportant individuals."
Stasia performed a Premium Internet search with Amit’s facial biometrics.
"Look, there’s a video of Amit and some other jobless San Franciscan tearing at each other’s throats. A human dogfight. It’s got fifty thousand hits on the ‘Tube and is circulating semi-viral on Friendbook. It looks like Justin here wasn’t exactly innocent." Stasia held the jittery clip up in Jack’s face. Jack feigned incredulity.
"We don’t know that. It could’ve been anyone filming the brawl." Jack said.
"’San Fran Food Fite to Teh Deth’, uploaded 9:34 AM today by Darkshado, registered name: Justin Diamond." Stasia held up the streaming video of the soon-to-be-dead Amit having his head crushed against the point of a fire hydrant by another unemployed Deadweight bum. A cracking teen voice laughed and wagged a bag of fast food at the starving Deadweights, egging them into killing one another in sick gladiatorial fashion.
"It’s just high schoolers being stupid high schoolers, that’s what they do. Things got out of hand." Jack brushed the video aside.
"Jesus, somebody is dead, Jack! And this rich little silver spoon brat was directly responsible. We have to do something."
Jack sighed, pulled an Altoid tin from the inner pocket of his double-breasted trenchcoat, one of the few pieces of dumbware he kept on him for sentimental value.
"I said I feel like a police officer, Stas. But that’s not what we are. Police don’t exist anymore. We’re Troubleshooters. Sooner or later you’re going to learn what that means." He offered her one of the flat white cylinders. She turned away.