“Not a mark on him, Sarge,” Victor noted.
“You sure he’s dead?”
Sergeant Lemov could imagine what was going on behind Victor’s impassive features. He was certain that, had the robot been programmed for facial expression, he’d now be displaying a sour look. The sergeant wished he had been, because then, he could do his own part and ignore it.
“Yeah, he’s dead. You can sometimes tell by the lack of breathing.”
The forensics technician standing a couple of feet away tried unsuccessfully to stifle a laugh, and the sergeant did make a sour face. But he said nothing. The damned robot might think he was a comedian, but he was actually a pretty good cop. Better than his last partner, anyway. Stupid lush nearly got them both fried too many times to count – only loyalty and the code had kept Lemov from turning him in, and only time had cured the loss when he’d finally plugged into an unprotected jack and killed himself.
“Fully human?” Lemov asked.
The forensics technician took a step towards them and replied. “As far as we can tell, yes. Unless the modifications are under the ribs. We have to scan him anyway.”
“Cause of death?”
The techie shrugged. “Anybody’s guess. Overdose. Aneurism. Heartbreak.”
“Results in an hour?”
“Unless it’s something really exotic, yeah.”
“Have you ID’d yet?”
“Yeah, guy called Villeneuve. Kim Villeneuve.”
Lemov walked away, Victor jogging to catch up.
“So now what? Back to the station to file the report?”
“Nah, we’ve got half an hour to burn. Send the report in on the mindnet, and I’ll thumb the authorization when we get back.”
“Done,” Victor said.
“Good, want a donut?” Lemov walked purposefully towards a bright neon banner on the corner.
The robot said nothing and Lemov chuckled. “You really need to get your faceplate updated so you can show some emotion, Vic. That way, when you give me the huffy silent treatment, I can at least tell that you’re offended.”
“Those faceplates are for fashion victims. I’m proud to be a robot, and I don’t need to go around emulating humans.” The robot sat moodily on one of the chairs while Lemov asked the teen at the counter for a half-dozen, glazed.
“So what do you think?” he asked, sitting down to face the robot.
“It’s not the type of place where you’d expect to find a dead human. That’s a mostly robot area. And a clean, bright and safe one at that.” Victor’s voice was melodic and warm, but still would never be mistaken for biological, it was much too even.
“Maybe he was walking along and just had a heart attack or something. No foul play at all?”
“That is a possibility, but why would anyone be walking there?” the robot said. “There’s a slidewalk and bus link just a couple of blocks away. The most likely reason to be where we found him would be precisely to avoid being seen.”
“And that makes it likely he’s been murdered.”
“I think so.”
“Yeah,” Lemov sighed. “I guess you’re right. Come on, let’s get back to the station. I’ll even let you drive while I eat. And, in the meantime we can check out this guy’s family, known mindnet acquaintances and see if we can tell why he’s no longer among the living.”
The robot favored him with another blank stare. The car, of course, was fully automated.
The station was a building from that era in urban development just before the advent of concrete and steel construction. It was a masonry building five stories tall that had been too small for the department since the middle of the twentieth century, but was too beautiful to replace. The cops, human and otherwise, had voted more times than they could count to keep their tiny cubicles instead of moving to some soulless tower block.
Lemov thought that most of his human colleagues had voted the way they had out of sheer future shock. He knew that he certainly had. After watching half the jobs on the force go to robots over the course of his career, he wanted some things to remain exactly the same. According to Victor, the robots had voted in favor of maintaining the site because that’s what the humans wanted. Nothing was less attractive to the robot psyche than making waves.
The morgue was in the basement – when the building had been built, this layout had been chosen to allow bodies to be sent down a chute. The chute had long been abandoned in favor of the service elevator, but it was still there, yet another reminder of a simpler time.
The robo-doctor was an older model, its scratched light-blue metallic surface telling the story of a being who had no interest in the way others saw him. It nodded as they entered.
“Hey Doc,” Lemov said.
“Good morning Lemov, Victor.”
“Good morning doctor. I hope you’re well.”
“I’ve been stuck in the station all night, and your corpse is the first interesting thing that happened. The mindnet hookup in here is twenty years old and slow! I haven’t been this bored in ages.”
Lemov grinned. “Good thing you’ve got us, then.”
“It would be, if you guys would shoot a suspicious-looking character or two on general principles instead of just picking up stray bodies and bringing them in. Now that would keep me busy. Maybe I should talk to the captain about giving you guys a bodycount cuota. Anything less loses you your Christmas bonuses.”
“Too late, I already tried that, using the ‘it would be therapeutic and good for morale’ argument, but the captain sent me to hell. He is such a prude about unnecessary violence,” Lemov said, shaking his head.
Victor broke in. “What have you got for us, Doc?”
“My first guess would be suicide.”
“Huh?” said Lemov.
“Impossible!” said Victor.
“I know, the forensics team sent me the images of the crime scene. I know it didn’t look like a possible suicide, but the body scan doesn’t show any other possibility.”
“Could you be a little more exact?” Lemov said.
“Certainly. Please give me a moment while I send the full file to Victor. Thank you. I’ll take it from the top. This,” he pointed at the body in the sealed bag, “is Kim Villeneuve. Fully human and in acceptable physical condition save for a slight seasonal allergy. The cause of death was a nervous system overload from an overpowered brain jack. Simply put, he jacked into a system with too much power for an unaltered human. In his case, the current instigated through his synapses was too much for them to take.”
“Not exactly. The jacking point sends information straight into the mind by stimulating electric currents in the brain, allowing interaction with the mindnet. Jacks for unaltered humans send a relatively small amount of data through, which allows limited mindnet access. But it’s supposed to be a good complement to the purely visual and aural use of the net.”
“Now, if you send too much information through the jack, quite a few things happen, but the most important is that synapses normally used for unconscious functions such as breathing and making the heart beat get rerouted to, for example, mindnet porn appreciation.”
“Well, at least he died happy,” Lemov smirked. “Couldn’t it have been an accident? Wanted to up his girlie content and killed himself by mistake?”
“Not likely. The jacking hole in pure humans is smaller than that in modifieds or robots. A plug capable of doing this kind of damage normally wouldn’t fit a human jack. But this guy had modified himself to use industrial grade equipment. That means he was expert enough to know what he needed, and therefore enough to know the consequences. Which means he did it on purpose.” The doctor paused and looked each of the policemen in the eye. “Suicide,” he concluded.
“Only one thing, Doc,” said Victor. “There were no jacking points where we found the body.”
The doctor shrugged, a thoroughly human gesture. “That, my detective friends, is your problem, not mine. Only one last thing. He had traces of cable insulation on his right hand and there was absolutely no sign of any struggle – not a mark on his body. He did this to himself, guys.”
“Thanks a lot,” Lemov said sourly. They walked to the elevator.
Once the doors closed, Victor spoke. “I don’t think it was a suicide.”
Lemov laughed. “That is the understatement of the year. Of course it wasn’t suicide. Why would anyone go to all that trouble just to kill himself? It’s much easier to jump out a window. Hell, Doc knows it too, even if all his evidence forces him to a different conclusion.”
“So we look for the second person?” Victor inquired.
“Which second person?”
“The one who carried him from wherever he died to where we found him. You can’t die the way this guy did without a jacking point. And, according to my schematics,” Victor paused for an almost unnoticeable fraction of a second, “the nearest jacking point was a hundred feet away and about four stories up.”
“Maybe that’s a good place to start. Right after we talk to his known acquaintances.”
Villeneuve’s friends and family had been a complete waste of time, or at least that was how it looked to Lemov at this stage in the investigation. Which left the jacking port.
The jacking port was in a small office occupied by way too many paper binders – why were some records still kept in binders? – and an overweight, pallid man with a walrus mustache. He glared at them when they entered.
“Cops!” he spat.
Victor’s right ear glowed slightly. Enough for Lemov to see, but not enough to frighten the guy at the desk. It was a predetermined signal: the robot had scanned the guy’s retinal patterns and come up with a match. This one had a criminal record.
“Good eye,” Lemov said. “I’m sergeant Lemov, and this is Detective Victor. We just want to ask you a few questions.”
“Yeah, right. Like I haven’t heard that one before. So how long do we dance before your Frankenstein throws me through a wall?”
“We won’t do that unless you make it necessary. I hope you won’t do that?”
“It wouldn’t cause me any pleasure,” Victor chimed in.
The guy looked at them, said nothing.
“You answer our questions, we’re out of here in ten minutes.”
“Okay,” the man said sullenly. “I ain’t done nothing.”
“Good. I need you to tell me about the jacking station in this office.”
The man seemed genuinely surprised, and Lemov immediately relaxed, and sighed inwardly. Whatever the man was hiding – and it was pretty obvious he had something going on – it had nothing to do with the body they’d found. But they still had to go through the motions.
“It’s a jacking port. Two outlets, one detuned for human use, which I use to check our inventory, and one for the robot. He comes in a couple of times a day to move boxes.”
“And nobody else uses this port?” Victor said.
“No. Only I know the access code, and we’ve got pretty decent anti-hack on the locks.”
Lemov made a mental note to have someone at the department take a closer look at this guy. What would anyone want to hide behind expensive anti-hack in an office full of paper?
“Can we see the usage records?”
The guy relaxed a little. “Sure,” he said, punched a couple of keys on the desk. “What’s your comm code?” he asked Victor.
“There you go, then. Are we done?”
“Inactive at the time,” Victor declared.
Lemov was about to turn around and leave, but the hunter’s instinct told him he could still learn something before going. “There’s a small, uncovered parking bay near the corner. Have you ever seen anything suspicious there?”
“Nah, walk by every day, too. Only ones who ever use it are the scramblers.”
“Scramblers? What’s that, some kind of gang?” This could be just what they needed.
“The scramblers? No, they’re just a group of robots. Stand around maybe fifteen minutes and leave. They’re harmless.”
“They never interact with anyone? Try to sell them flowers or recommend a mindnet site?”
“Nope, they just congregate at random hours, stand around for a few minutes and walk off.”
Much to Lemov’s disgust, that was all that was forthcoming, and they had no information on any other shady activity, so they had to leave. As they returned to the station, Lemov was thinking about what their next move might be, in a bit of a funk because the ever-present security cameras hadn’t been focused on the bay at the time of death, which would have cracked the case wide open. But even in his despondency, he noticed that Victor was unusually silent. Normally, the trick was to get him to stop talking whenever they were in the car. The problem with a robot that had a microwave link to the mindnet was that he was always receiving some new tidbit which he felt you ought to be interested in. And whenever they had a couple of minutes of downtime, the robot would open up all his mindnet links. But now, he produced no sound at all.
They rode along moodily.
In this part of town, the night was as dark as the blackest pit of hell. Whie the rest of the city was bright, friendly and clean, this area was just clean. The denizens had long since decided to take out the streetlights and the maintenance crews had decided against replacing them for the hundredth time. Anyone who couldn’t see by infrared was unwelcome here.
Fortunately, the infrared function in the car’s windscreen was working just fine. Lemov could see a hundred yards ahead without much trouble. And he saw exactly what he expected to see: Victor.
As soon as he saw the general direction the robot had taken on leaving his downtime bay, he had come here and parked the car, lights off. He knew where Victor would be heading, and he didn’t want to be spotted – there were some areas of the city where a car, even following distantly, would be sighted immediately. Mass transit had reached the point where only the super rich bothered with cars.
This area wasn’t super rich. As a matter of fact, it was as much of a dump as any robot area ever became. Sure, it was spotless, but it also a part of town where the less fortunate robots spent most of their time, the ones that, through having an unfortunate position when the emancipation laws were passed were unable to afford all the best upgrades, and therefore were relegated to second-class jobs and second-class citizenship. It was also the area where “robot crimes” were committed.
Robots were, of course, unable to commit crimes against humans. Their hard-wired programming, and the so called “Frankenstein clauses” in the emancipation laws, as well as the multiple human-controlled central kill-switches all guaranteed this.
But there were some things within robot society that were frowned upon by other robots. And those things took place here, when most “normal” robots were in their downtime bays. And they took place at night, in a place that humans never went to; the pitch blackness was enough to discourage any but the most determined people. There was no human-owned property here, either, so no one but the robots really knew what went on, except that it wasn’t against any human law.
And the robots weren’t telling. And despite some humans’ belief that this was undoubtedly a sinister sign that something dangerous was going on in the robotic slums, Lemov had been in the police business too long to believe it. He’d watched closely as robots evolved from just barely self-aware jumped-up industrial machines, surprised at their new rights and unable to fully harness the emotions running through them, to the suave, worldly, eminently updated creatures of today. And he could read them; the robots weren’t hiding anything – they were embarrassed by what went on in this part of town, by the ways other robots perverted themselves.
Victor ducked into a doorway. There was nothing really special about it, but Lemov had already observed a couple of robots go through. It was the door with most traffic on the block – the only door with any traffic so far – and that made it significant.
He briefly debated going inside, but decided against it. He would be perfectly safe in there, surrounded by robots, he knew, but it would probably interfere with whatever Victor was doing. And one thing that time had taught him was to respect a partner’s instincts: if the man – metallic or otherwise – felt that he could get the info needed better alone and unaided, then there was probably a reason for it.
Lemov had known there was something on the robot’s mind that afternoon, but had said nothing. He’d had a hunch that Victor would do a little impromptu investigation – robots were less predictable than they’d been five years previously, but they were still an open book to a person who made his living reading others. Staking out his partner’s digs that night had been a no-brainer.
Besides, there was only one question that Lemov had to ask the robot, and he believed that it was the one that had driven Victor from his downtime. It was also, most likely, the key to the whole thing.
Unfortunately, that meant waiting for the robot to emerge, something that could take quite a while to occur. So he sat in the car, thinking about the case, and still unable to think of anything else he might have missed that caught the robot’s attention and caused him to go off on his own. He always came back to the same thing.
Eventually, a robot that the computer identified as Victor limped out the door, alone. He seemed, at some point of his stay inside the building, to have suffered damage of some sort to one foot. He walked towards his left, away from Lemov’s car.
Lemov chuckled and ordered the car to drive after him, matching his pace when they caught up. He lowered a window.
“Rough night?” he said.
The robot turned his head sharply, and, for the millionth time, Lemov found himself wishing that his partner were human. He would have truly enjoyed the look of shock on the other’s face had that been the case. He had to settle for the surprised turn of the head, but that was life.
The robot didn’t answer, looked ahead and kept walking.
“Come on,” Lemov said. “Don’t get all huffy on me. I caught you fair and square, and now it’s time you let your partner in on what you’ve discovered.”
“How do you know I wasn’t just in there for some personal reason?”
Lemov gave him a look of incredulity. “You?”
Victor stood beside the parked car for a couple of seconds, and then shrugged – a completely human gesture. He walked around the car and climbed into the right-hand seat.
They drove in silence for a few blocks, in the general direction of Victor’s plugin niche.
“So, what, exactly, is a scrambler?” Lemov asked him.
The robot turned sharply, and Lemov once more found himself thinking that he would have preferred to see the shock on the metallic features, no matter how much it would have creeped him out. This impassivity took half the fun out of showing your partner how smart you were.
Victor seemed about to deny any knowledge, and had even begun to say so, when he thought better of it. “How did you guess?” he asked, finally.
“Easy, the only thing I didn’t understand about our conversation with that sleazeball this afternoon was the whole ‘scramblers’ thing. Normally when that happens, you jump in and ask about it. But you didn’t this time, and that made me immediately suspicious. I’ve been around quite a while, so when I don’t know something, I notice it. And the only reason I didn’t ask this guy what he meant was that I was curious as to why you didn’t ask. I could always ask someone else about the scramblers – I wanted to see how this one played out.”
The robot remained silent. Probably working out his emotions, a process that always made robots a little slow.
Lemov decided not to wait.
“So, are you going to answer my question? What are scramblers?”
“I think it’ll be easier if I just show you.”
The darkened alley was silent, completely devoid of any sort of life, whether carbon- or silicon-based. This, in itself was not unusual, since the street was normally used for daytime deliveries by courier robots and automated trucks. As a matter of fact it was off-limits to humans because the movement within was much too fast for merely organic reflexes to cope with.
Lemov himself could only come here inside the car, and even then, he had to use his police-issued security override.
“What are we doing here,” Lemov asked.
“Just wait. Nothing dangerous.”
They sat in tense silence for nearly fifteen minutes, Lemov watching the LEDs on the dash dance around as Victor surfed the mindnet and the police networks.
Suddenly, with no prior warning, seven robots appeared at high speed from different directions, clanging unconcernedly down the alley, and converged on a point some fifty feet in front of the car. They each extended their jacking cables and plugged into the port of the robot on their left, forming a connected circle. Then they became motionless.
“What’s going on?” Lemov asked. The group before them was unlike any in his previous experience: some of the robots were job-specific models, while others were humaniform. Some obviously well-to-do, sporting the latest modifications, while others were well-worn and obviously poor. Not the sort of mixture one saw every day.
“That,” Victor replied, “is a scramble.”
“What’s it about?”
“They plug their high-traffic cables into each other’s jacks, disconnect from the mindnet and remove their firewalls. Then they share memories.”
“What, like sending their holiday pictures?”
“No. All their memories. They empty their caches and swing the memories from one to another.”
“I have no firsthand experience of the matter,” the robot replied. Lemov could have sworn he saw the other shudder. “But I have been informed that it is a sensation unlike any other. That your awareness feels as though it grows, multiplying until it’s five, six or in this case seven times bigger then normal. As many times as the number of robots in the scramble. It supposed to be like flying or being immortal or omniscient.”
“And what’s the downside? From the way you talk about it, I assume it’s some kind of robot taboo.”
“It’s complete mind-melding. Total openness. The rape of the mind. Afterwards, it’s said that you can’t quite remember who you are for a few minutes. And not all the memories you take with you are yours. And not all of yours are still in your head.”
“Wow,” Lemov said, shaking his head. He suddenly felt that the world had moved on without him. That he belonged in a time where you could still build a machine as smart as you wanted without having to give it rights and acknowledge its condition as a living, conscious being. “But I still don’t understand what this has to do with our corpse.”
Lemov understood perfectly, but was unwilling to voice the idea himself. Victor had no such compunctions.
“I believe Villeneuve plugged himself into a scramble, and some parameter went slightly off. And killed him.”
Lemov swallowed. “And your little jaunt tonight?”
“Was to see if I could find out who organizes the scrambles on the street where we found him.”
“And you did.”
Lemov immediately classed the robot as shady. The metallic exterior was old, scratched and of a model at least twenty years out of date. And yet the police scanner showed that its memory and processing capacity was state of the art, much higher than what most robots could afford.
The robot was immobilized. Lemov had ordered the station to use the kill switch to shut down this one’s limbs. There’d never been a recorded rogue robot, but he didn’t particularly want the honor of being dismembered by the first to be discovered. He had no illusions about his ability to defend himself against a robot. If the other attacked, he would have to rely fully on Victor. And if Victor was too slow…
The robot stared impassively. “I know my rights,” it said. “You can’t detain me without a warrant.”
“Not for any more time than is reasonable for questioning,” Victor replied. Both robots were playing a game, since both knew the procedural code forward and backward. It was hardwired into their systems.
They’d already established that he’d been the organizer of the scramble that had killed Villeneuve. It had been as simple as getting a subpoena for a memory dump. He hadn’t been present that night, but he’d known everyone who was. The biggest surprise they’d found was that Villeneuve was a repeat customer. This wasn’t an experiment gone wrong. It was business as usual gone wrong. Lemov felt his gorge rising.
“I had nothing to do with Villeneuve’s death,” the other robot blurted out.
“Like hell you didn’t! How could it not occur to you that humans, at least unmodified humans like Villeneuve aren’t built for that kind of mental interfacing?”
“Hey, he had a compatible mindnet jack. He worked fine in the groups. I even made him demonstrate his capacity before letting him join a group. Hell, at first I couldn’t find robots willing to get into a detuned group, but then the word got around that with this guy plugged in, you could feel what it was like to be human. I had to beat the customers back with a stick after that.”
“You say the group was detuned.”
“Yeah, in case you don’t remember, we’re hardwired so we can’t kill humans. I couldn’t just let him plug into a full-power group, could I? Would’ve killed him for sure, and that, unlike this, actually would have been my fault.”
“So what happened?” Victor asked.
“Power surge. Happens. The grid’s been unstable these last few days due to the construction work on the central control mainframe.” The robot said it without any remorse; Lemov could hear the unconcerned shrug in its flat voice.
“And you just let him go on with this, knowing a random flux could kill him?”
“Hey man, don’t get all Asimovean three laws on me. You know as well as I do that if I don’t kill him directly, I’m in compliance. He knew the risks, and how he managed them was his business, not mine.”
Lemov knew the robot was technically right, but his disgust at the sheer unnaturalness of the death imbued him with a need to know. He unlocked the immobilizer, and the robot made to leave.
“Why?” Lemov called out after him. “Why did he do it?”
“Look man, I don’t get too intimate with the customers, but he said that it was better than any human drug. Better than sex. Like he was god, and knew everything and never forgot anything.”
“God, what a sicko.”
The robot laughed, a surprisingly human sound.
“All the scramble organizers have human scramblers now. I only had one because that’s all the market I had. I’m a bit more upscale and my robots are more traditional. It’s getting so popular that in some areas there are more humans than robots in the groups.” The robot walked off.
Lemov refused to believe that.
“Go to hell,” he whispered after the departing figure. He turned to Victor. “C’mon, I need a drink”
Twenty minutes later, they were called in, as nearest unit, to take a look at the body of a pretty teenage girl, found dead in a deserted alley. She was fully dressed, and none of her possessions were missing.
There wasn’t a single mark on her body.