A group of trendy-somethings milled outside the police line, clearly torn between curiosity and the need for a caffeine fix at the coffee shop next door. Scott Huang glanced to the corner of his VR glasses where the police department AI hovered. “I guess murder trumps coffee, huh?”
Metta, currently wearing the face of Mae West, lowered her voice to the star’s husky range. “I take my coffee black, like my heart.”
“You don’t have a heart.”
“Then I take my coffee black, like my processor.”
“Nice.” Huang grinned at her. She customized her interface for all the officers on the force, but tended toward silver screen starlets with Huang. Her Diamond Lil was pretty special though; she’d even gone black and white for the occasion.
The officer on duty waved Huang past the police line and into the building. Its lobby had been restored to showcase the 1920s detailing and the tall ceilings. Potted boxwoods graced the corners with indoor topiary. “I don’t remember the Waterfront area being so swanky.”
Metta said, “This district of Portland had a decline in the mid-seventies and most of the businesses moved out. For the past two years, a revitalization effort has been underway. Neil Patterson, the deceased, was responsible for much of the revitalization although not without some questionable transactions. I have his stats when you want them.”
“Do any of the questionable transactions relate to a motive?”
“Nothing concrete as yet.”
Huang grunted in acknowledgment and reached for the elevator button.
In his VR glasses, Metta winked at him. “Sorry, Scott. The elevator is out. So why don’t you come up and see me sometime.”
“Actually, it’s ‘Why don’t you come up sometime and see me.’ Popular misquote.”
Her image cocked her head and shifted her eyes to the left, Metta’s sign that she was searching for something. “You’re right. . . . Which really bugs me. I should have checked the quote database against the script.”
A flush of unexpected pride went through Huang. She said he was right. “Yeah, well, I think the score’s human: 1, AI:549.” But she had still said he was right.
Metta dropped her lashes again and heaved West’s bosom. “The score never interested me, only the game.” She laughed. “Now climb the stairs.”
Worn linoleum resounded under his feet as he started up. Huang’s heart pounded in his chest noticeably after the third floor and he had to work hard not to pant. He gripped the banister, hauling himself up another flight, and subvocalized to Metta. “Remind me to start going to the gym again.”
“Can’t be responsible for you when you aren’t at work.”
“I know.” The door at the top of the stairs opened out on a hall, carpeted in generic beige. The walls surprised Huang. Paneling hugged their lower half with rich wood. Above the paneling, deep green wallpaper absorbed the light with velvety depth.
“Scott, would you mind waiting a minute? I have a memory-backup scheduled in thirty seconds and I’d rather have the actual crime scene all on one bank.”
“Sure.” He leaned against the wall. “You couldn’t have done it while we were on the stairs?”
“It’s not my schedule. Department regulations require a backup every six hours regardless of system type. I’ve tried pointing out to the chief that AIs are different, but . . .”
“I know . . . Banks didn’t get it.” Huang checked the eSpy camera he wore in place of his collar stud to make sure it was seated properly. To the casual observer it would look like a standard men’s stud, clear glass mounted in a silver setting, but the lens it housed linked directly to Metta. Though she could see through a lens in his VR glasses, on crime scenes she preferred the better resolution of the specialized camera in the eSpy.
Huang scuffed a shoe in the short pile of the rug and resisted the urge to run his hand along the top of the . . . “What’s this called?” He pointed the eSpy at the low wood paneling.
“Wainscoting. It was used to protect walls in the days of lathe and plaster construction.”
“Thanks. It reminds me of my cello.”
“You still playing that?”
“I haven’t practiced since I blew out my shoulder chasing that kid over the fence.”
“I told you there was a way around.”
He shrugged, even though he knew she couldn’t see it. “Adrenaline. What can I say?”
“Thanks. Backup’s done.” The hall ended at a plain wood door with a small brass plaque. “This way.” Metta magnified the image in Huang’s glasses briefly so he could read “Roof Access” etched on the plaque.
“Great. More stairs.”
“Scott, it’s time for the gloves.”
“You don’t have to remind me.” He unwillingly pulled on the purple department-issue rubber gloves.
“Sorry, I didn’t see you reaching for them.”
He snapped the gloves in place. “You didn’t give me time.”
Metta cleared her throat and continued. “Without the elevator, this is the only access to the roof, so our suspect most likely entered and exited the crime scene this way.” A single, short flight of steps led up to a small landing which served as a sort of vestibule for the elevator. To his right, a fire door opened to the roof.
The landing was so clean it sparkled. “Metta, does this look recently mopped?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve never mopped.”
Years of footprints coated the stairs with black residue, but the cracked linoleum of the landing shone. Over everything floated a clean lemon scent. He snorted reflexively at the pungent odor.
Mae West hovered like a monochrome ghost in the edge of Huang’s vision. “Is there an aroma?”
“Yeah. It smells like Lemon Pledge.”
“Is that an analysis or a metaphor?”
Huang hesitated and sampled the air like a tea. “Not quite. It is a manufactured lemon scent, but I’m not sure how many cleaning products have the same smell profile.”
“CSI is downstairs and has promised me a spectrograph. Griggs says to thank you for noticing; she’s got a cold and would have missed the smell.” She frowned prettily. “Working from the size of the room I should be able to tell you when the mopping happened based on the dissipation of the odor.” She pretended to look around. “I’ll have her scan with the lumerol to check for blood. Go on out.”
The fire door opened onto the roof. Huang blinked at the rolling hills of grass that covered the top of the building. In the center of the grass, a small brick terrace had been set with a table and chairs.
Metta cleared her throat, the signal that she was about to relay a message from someone else in the department. “Griggs asks me to remind you not to touch anything.”
“For the love of—One time. I forgot one stinking time. . . .” Huang clenched his fists and stepped onto the terrace, hating the reminder that he was the junior detective on the homicide team. The only reason he’d gotten this case was that it was on a roof and Oakes was scared of heights. Otherwise, he got the easy ones, the ones that Metta had already solved and all she needed was a flesh and blood officer to do the legwork. Not that anyone ever said that, but it was pretty obvious.
He grimaced and focused on the scene. The victim sprawled on the south side of the roof, next to a low wall. A wheelchair lay on its side a short distance behind him.
“Scott, meet Neil Patterson.”
“Well, well . . . who brought you up here, Mr. Patterson?” Huang knelt by the wheelchair and squinted at the corpse. He was a white male who looked to be in his mid-forties, but his file said fifty-two. His sandy-red hair had been neatly trimmed in a corporate version of a crew-cut. He had a single gunshot wound in an otherwise well-developed upper torso. From the waist down he showed the atrophied signs of paralysis. Around him, the turf had divots dug out of it as though Patterson had not died instantly. The dirt and blood on his fingers seemed to confirm that.
In the center of the roof, the wireframe table was covered with a white linen tablecloth. It was set with two bone white teacups, so thin the morning sun turned them almost translucent. They sat on equally delicate saucers with a thin silver band around the edge of the saucer and the rim of the cups. The cup on the south side of the table had remnants of a liquid the color of straw. Huang leaned over to sniff and got hints of smoky earth and mown grass. Unfurled tea leaves rested on the bottom.
“Well?” Metta raised her eyebrows. “Are you going to show off?”
He smirked. Identifying beverages was the one thing he could do better than she could. Without a lab, that is. “I’m pretty sure it’s gunpowder tea.”
“Scott . . . there’s no tea service out here.”
He straightened and looked at the layout again. Cups, saucers, spoons, even linen napkins—scratch that. One of the napkins was missing. And there was no teapot, sugar, or creamer. “Anyone hear the gunshot?”
Metta shook her head and nodded toward the elevated highway. “It probably blended with traffic noise.”
“Who found the body?”
“It was an anonymous call at 8:13 a.m. The number belongs to the Daily Grind coffee shop downstairs.”
“Play the call for me?”
She nodded and then the sound in his ear changed. A background noise filled with chatter and the hiss of an espresso machine replaced the hum of traffic. A man with a slight accent answered the operator. “There is a man. On the roof. I think he is dying. You must come quickly.”
“Sir, where are you?”
“Everett and Water. I don’t know the address.”
And then the line went dead. Huang raised his eyebrows. “That’s it?”
“Yes. He did not remain after he hung up.”
“So . . . our guy here was dying, but not dead when the call came in. Nice to have a time of death.”
“If the coroner confirms it.”
“Right. Of course. I’ll check with the coffee shop’s staff when we finish here. See if they know the witness.” Huang bent to check the ground for any signs of footprints. Wheelchair tracks had pressed deep grooves into the turf roof. “Tell me more about Patterson?”
“Neil Patterson has his finger in property throughout the city. His name came up in a real estate scandal about a year ago, but nothing stuck.”
“Was that the thing where he was flipping properties, but the renovations were all sub-code?”
“Correct. He blamed his foreman, who was subsequently fired, but it seems pretty clear Patterson both knew and approved of the shortcuts. There are items in evidence that were not admitted into court.”
“They’re sealed files now.” She grimaced. “Sorry, I can’t share that with you.”
Huang nodded as he stood and walked along the edge of the building. “It’s okay. I remember this now. Fitzgerald was working on it and was furious.” If Metta couldn’t tell him, then he could always ask Fitzgerald directly.
Behind him, the door to the roof opened and Ursula Griggs from CSI stepped out with a team from the coroner’s office.
She spoke from where she was and Metta amplified it for Huang. “There was blood on the stairs and landing. Found a sample. Metta’ll let you know the DNA results.” CSI’s eSpies were equipped with a different visual range than the standard issue. Between Griggs and Metta, they’d be able to get a good scan of the area.
“Thanks. We’ve got a gunshot. Want to help look for the shell casing?”
“No problem. Metta already asked me to.”
“Ah.” Huang turned slowly, so Metta could see the area. Across the street hulked a stuccoed building with shields carved in the stone on each buttress. Construction scaffolding masked the lower half of the building, evidently part of an attempt to spruce it up. Behind the building, I-5 nearly touched its upper edge. Oblivious to the presence of a dead man, cars whizzed past a block away from Huang.
How had a man in a wheelchair gotten to the rooftop without a working elevator? And why tea for two? He turned away from the corpse and paced along the edge of the building.
The north and east sides of the building were on a corner facing the street. The west side of the building had a narrow alley separating it from the next. It had the usual dumpsters, boxes, and abandoned plywood, but nothing looked immediately interesting.
Huang continued his slow circuit of the roof. Behind him Griggs filmed and photographed Patterson’s body. When she was finished, the coroner transferred the corpse to a body bag and placed it on the gurney to take back to the morgue.
With the natural turf roof, Huang had been hoping to find footprints or something useful, but Patterson’s struggle had obscured any obvious signs. Between Patterson’s wheelchair and the door to the elevator, he found a single screw in a patch of grass stained a deep red. “Hello. Can we get prints and contact DNA from this?”
“We’ll know in a moment.”
Huang heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Griggs approaching with her crime scene kit in tow. Her deep chestnut hair was tucked under her cap, except for a wisp hanging next to her cheek. “Thanks for spotting this.”
“Sure. Let me know when you’re done so I can roll the wheelchair over.”
She pulled out her high resolution camera and tripod and began documenting the screw, then bagged it and turned to the wheelchair, uploading images to Metta as she went. With a steady image, the AI would be able to run it through a series of filters to pull prints. Griggs said, “It’ll be awhile. I’ll need to document the rest of the scene before anyone contaminates it.”
Huang stepped back, trying not to telegraph his impatience while she did her job.
“Metta?” he subvocalized, “How long has the elevator been down?”
“I’ve been trying to check on that since we got here, but can’t reach the building manager.” Her image suddenly froze. “Shots fired at HQ.” Metta stiffened, seeming to look through him. “Officer down. Units 235 and 347 establish perimeter.”
Huang held his breath, listening for gunfire as if HQ were close enough that he could hear it. Beyond his glasses, Griggs reacted to Metta’s cry.
“Three armed subjects in chassis room. The assailants are armed, I repeat—Amado! Two officers down.”
How the hell had they gotten into Metta’s chassis room? It was in the basement of headquarters with cameras monitoring it at all times. Huang turned on his heels and sprinted back across the roof. “Metta, can you give a visual?”
He ran for the door, aware of the other officers springing into action behind him. “Metta, answer me. Who’s there? Can you give a visual?”
Car doors slammed on the street below.
An image flashed onto his glasses. A man. No. Three men, in masks. One of the men reached for a cable attached to a filing cabinet—not a filing cabinet. Metta’s chassis.
Metta screamed. She froze.
A static image of Mae West hung in Huang’s peripheral vision, with her mouth open wide. Then the image winked out.
As Huang loped up to the police precinct, an ambulance pulled out with siren already screaming. He swallowed, hoping it held one of the bastards who’d broken into the building. A line of police officers stood as a barricade, scanning the crowd for possible threats. Yellow police tape stretched down the block and civilians stood outside the perimeter pointing with feverish curiosity. The bulbous nose of a News satellite dish pointed to the sky as reporters thrust their cameras toward every policeman who passed.
Huang flashed his badge, even though he knew both officers flanking the front entry to the building. Tension was crackling across everyone’s nerves. Bowes nodded to him, only taking his gaze off the crowd long enough to see Huang. “Chief wants us to send everyone over to the old courthouse. They’ve got a temporary HQ set up there while CSI goes over the building.”
Huang pulled out his PDA to make sure it was on. “I didn’t get a call.”
Bowes shook his head. “Radios are down. Metta ran dispatch. Pass the word if you see anyone, huh?”
“Was that Amado in the ambulance?”
Bowes scowled. “Fitzgerald. Bastards killed him.”
Stomach twisting, Huang jogged the two blocks to the Courthouse where the giant statue of Portlandia looked out over the city. She seemed to have a disapproving frown. Inside, a uniformed officer made Huang show I.D. before directing him up to the third floor. One of the holding rooms for jurors had been commandeered for the precinct’s detectives.
Woodrow Delarosa looked up as Huang entered and said, “We got Huang. Who’s that leave?”
Sigmundson, over by the window, picked up a notepad and said, “We’re still waiting for an update on Fitzgerald.”
“Guys . . .” Huang stopped, rage squeezing the breath out of his body. “He’s dead.”
Movement stopped in the room and Delarosa swore. “Okay, we’ll get these bastards. Banks has put me primary on this. Here’s what we know so far—shortly after eleven an unknown number of assailants entered the precinct. They shot two of our guys, Amado and Fitzgerald, and got away scot-free with our department AI. We got nothing on these bastards because all the surveillance is locked up in that machine and our guys were all clustered in the wrong areas.” Delarosa shook his head. “That thing goes down and everyone forgets how to set up a perimeter.”
Delarosa’s dislike for Metta had been the subject of a lot of departmental jokes, but this was pushing boundaries. She’d been kidnapped and he was acting like she was nothing more than a computer. He continued ranting. “Until we turn up someone who saw the bastards—”
Huang raised his hand. “I saw some of them.”
“How the hell? You were across town.”
“I asked Metta for a visual.” The ceiling fan clicked as it spun overhead, seeming to count down the minutes.
Delarosa stared at him, mouth open. “I’ll be damned. So far, you’re the only one who thought to do that.”
“I didn’t see much.”
“You did better than me.” Delarosa snorted as if he couldn’t believe that Huang had done something useful.
“I—How is that possible?”
“Shit. . . .” Sigmundson said, “I just thought she was malfunctioning at first.”
“She’s one of your partners. How could you think that?”
“She is a machine.” Delarosa rubbed his eyes. “I’ve worked with other police A.I.s They’re all the same. They’re all Metta. There are differences, ’cause they change with experience, but they all start as the same set of routines. Still machines.”
Huang bit back the argument that AIs were people. Organizations like AIM, the Artificial Intelligence Movement, had been fighting for AI rights, but hadn’t won many battles. Still, he didn’t see how anyone who spent time with Metta could deny that she was a thinking being.
Delarosa tapped his pencil on his pad. “Okay, here’s what I want. Sigmundson, you take Huang into the next room and get his testimony while it’s fresh. I’ll divide the neighborhood with the rest of the team and we’ll start canvassing.”
Huang asked, “Any idea on motive?”
“Officially?” Delarosa shook his head. “But since the only thing they took was Metta, I figure they want access to everything she monitors, which just happens to include every godforsaken camera in the city. Goddamn machine is the biggest bleeding security breach this system has got.”
Metta wasn’t just a machine, she was a colleague, but Huang kept his lips sealed around that thought, and followed Sigmundson out of the room.
Huang wiped his hand across his mouth as he stood outside Patterson’s condo. Notifying the next of kin was never pleasant, but he couldn’t put this off, no matter how much he wanted to focus on finding the dirtbags who hit HQ.
On the fifteenth floor, the doors opened onto a small foyer with a gleaming marble floor. A fountain trickled in one corner and wall sconces provided graceful uplighting. Across from the elevator, dark wood double doors waited for him. Huang subvocalized, “Swanky.”
No one answered him. He swallowed against the silence.
A face appeared in the mirror next to the doors—a man with pale blue skin and chiseled, almost Arabic features—and Huang realized that it was an interface. A cloud of smoke surrounded the man, wrapping about his head like a turban. “Welcome, Detective Huang. If you will step into the library, the lady of the house will be with you shortly.” Smoke swirled around the AI like a Djinn as he gestured to the doorway by the mirror.
An AI as a butler. It seemed extravagant to employ an AI for such a limited task. Most companies that invested in an AI did so to manage a large organization, not just a household. Huang stepped through into a small room, wallpapered with books. A large desk squatted below the only window. On the desk sat an ornate brass lamp like something out of Aladdin. The AI appeared above an actual freaking lamp, which must have concealed an interface. Huang bowed at the waist. “You have me at a disadvantage. May I ask your name?”
“This one is called Qadir.”
Huang straightened, noticing the phrasing of the sentence. “Called?”
“This one is a Quimby model, but the master prefers that this one be called Qadir.” A small tea-cart trollied forward and a mechanical arm lifted a porcelain teapot. “Would you like some tea while you wait?”
Huang shook his head. “No. Thanks.”
The door to the library opened and a petite woman entered. Qadir suddenly appeared to genuflect. “My lady, may this one present Detective Huang?”
Even with six centimeter heels, Mrs. Patterson stood no more than 165 centimeters, but with the confidence of a much taller woman. She paused in the doorway, regarding Huang like a cat. Then she smiled and flowed forward with her hand extended. “Good afternoon, detective. The last time detectives were here it was because Neil had gotten himself into trouble. What’s he done this time?”
He took a breath and looked to where Metta should be as if she could brace him. “Ma’am. I regret the necessity of my visit. Earlier this morning, your husband died.”
The casual charm and grace fell out of her face, revealing a woman older than she had first appeared. “Pardon me?”
“Please, sit down.”
“No. No, thank you, I’ll stand.” She lifted her chin. “Are you telling me that Neil is dead? You are quite certain?”
“I’m afraid so.” Huang winced. “I hate to do this, but I need to ask you a few questions.”
“Of course. . . .” She walked away from him, one hand covering her mouth. “I thought he was at the office. Working. How did . . .?”
“He was shot. He was found on the roof of one of your buildings in the waterfront area. At Everett and Water. Do you know who he might have been meeting this morning?”
She nodded. “Yes, he had a breakfast meeting with Magdalena Chase. But she would never—we’re on charity committees together. She wouldn’t.”
Huang waited for Metta to fill him in on who Magdalena Chase was and let the pause stretch out into awkward silence before he caught himself. Aggravated, he yanked the VR glasses off, not even sure why he had still been wearing them.
Qadir cleared his throat.
Mrs. Patterson scowled. “Well? What is it?”
Lowering his head in a bow, Qadir said, “Pardon me, madam, but Ms. Chase called last evening to reschedule.”
“What time was that?” Huang asked.
“10:17 p.m., sir.”
“That seems late to cancel. Did she say why?”
The AI shook his head. “This one regrets that she did not, but with my lady’s permission this one can transfer the recording to your Metta.”
Huang breathed sharply through his nose against the reminder. “Perhaps later.” He turned his attention back to Mrs. Patterson. “Do you know what time he left this morning or where he might have gone if he wasn’t going to meet her?”
She shook her head. “Neil and I sleep—slept.” One hand tightened into a fist by her side. “We did not share a bed any longer. He had night terrors. A remnant from the war, you see. So I only know that he was gone when I got up. I thought he was downstairs in his office.”
“Was there anyone who might have wished him harm?”
“He had business rivals, but no one that would kill him.”
There was something that Metta had said earlier. What had it been? Something he was going to follow up on. He darted his eyes to the left as if she might suddenly appear and remind him. He grimaced and asked a different question. “Qadir, do you have a record of when he departed?”
“Madam, may this one be permitted to answer the detective?”
“Yes, yes. Cooperate thoroughly.” She waved her hand as if shooing away a fly.
“The master departed at 7:12 a.m. He did not tell this one where he was going.”
“Is that unusual?”
“No, sir. The master was not in the habit of sharing his thoughts with this one.”
Qadir’s constant use of the third person when talking about himself rankled Huang. What kind of bizarro interface was this to demand from an AI? Sure, Metta was—had been working as Mae West, but she’d picked the persona. He had a hard time imagining anyone choosing to be this servile. “May I ask what sort of vows Qadir has in place?” Huang worried the inside of his lip.
An AI’s testimony was admissible in court, the same way a surveillance video would be. On the other hand, Qadir might have a vow to obey his master, which would make lying to protect Patterson a priority. Whereas an AI like Metta had an honesty vow, which prevented her from lying. Her testimony would be considered incontrovertible, but Qadir’s might be suspect.
“I don’t know. Neil handled that.” Mrs. Patterson pressed her hands to her temples.
Huang leaned forward and picked up a cup. It was a blue and white rice pattern with no similarity to the tea set on the roof. The mechanical arm unfurled from the cart and lifted the teapot. The steam smelled dry and papery, like a poor quality black tea. “Tea, sir?”
“No. Thank you.” He set the cup back down and turned to Mrs. Patterson. “You’ve been very helpful, but there might be questions we want to ask you in the future, so please let me know before you go out of town.”
* * *
When Huang got home late from work, his mother bustled out of the kitchen wielding her cane like a weapon. “What wrong?”
How could he even start to explain what had happened? “Things got strange at work.”
“How strange?” Even with the cane, she tried to take his bookbag as she gestured to the couch. “Sit. I bring tea.”
He pulled the bag away from her. “Ma. You don’t have to do that.” Seventy-one years old, and she still felt like she had to wait on him.
“Not me, then who? You not take care of self, so,” she glared at him, “I take care of you. Maybe you not want me here?”
As had happened every night since his mother had moved in with him, Huang gave up. It was easier to let her have her way. Even though she liked to practice English, he switched to Mandarin because they seemed to fight less in her native language. “Some tea would be very nice, if it’s not too much trouble.”
She beamed at him, her wrinkles swinging upward in a many-creased smile. “No trouble at all, poor thing. What may I get you?”
She bustled out of the room, as if she had not had a hip replaced five weeks ago. Huang watched her go and shook his head. Maybe he wouldn’t have to explain why he was home late.
He pulled himself off the sofa and headed for his computer. Sitting down, he powered it on and called up his A.S. search engine. Single-minded, the engine was built to be the world’s best research assistant, but, like all A.S., the artificial savant had no intuition, no true intelligence.
Huang stared at the screen and typed in a keyword he had never felt the need to research before.
His mother came in and fussed while he was looking at sites, but otherwise left him alone with his tea. He nearly laughed at the irony in her choice. She had made him a cup of gunpowder tea. Each leaf was rolled into a tiny dark ball, which would open at the bottom of the cup. Summer, freshly mown grass.
With each site, the A.S. refined the search, noting when Huang was skimming and when he paused to read, until it refined the search to only the relevant results.
Although the basic program was the same for every police station, each Metta customized herself to fit her environment. Over time, the AIs would sometimes choose different names or revamp their generic interface. They had the option of upgrading their hardware accessories, but the basic chassis which housed the AI’s brain was as integral to them as the skeleton was to the human body. They had to have a chassis to function; the software wouldn’t run in any other environment.
Huang sat for a moment looking at the screen, wishing that Metta would help him decide what to do next.
At HQ, Huang went through the motions along with everyone else, but the work load magnified without Metta’s help. The chief brought in an A.S., but the artificial savant did a fraction of the work Metta had done. The halls were full of officers grousing about having to do their own paperwork.
In the late morning, before he had time to hit the road for investigation, Griggs showed up at his desk. “I don’t have a lot for you, but thought you’d want what I’ve got.”
Huang took the sheaf from Griggs and raised his eyebrows at the paper. It felt weirdly retro. Griggs shook her head. “Sorry there’s not more. We lost most of the evidence we took because Metta had it.”
Huang looked up from the papers. “How’s that?”
“Our scanners upload straight to Metta. No on board storage.”
Griggs crossed her arms. “Thank God Amado is getting released this afternoon so we can reboot Metta.”
“Reboot Metta? Did they find her?” The hair stuck up on the back of Huang’s neck.
“I wish. Nah, it’s just a backup. You hadn’t heard?”
Huang shook his head. Living AIs made backups in case of system failures, but the only time he’d heard of one actually being rebooted was a case where the AI’s chassis had been destroyed in a fire. “Can they do that?”
“Why else would they make backups?” Her face twisted. “I know, it sounds like raising the dead to me.”
“Yeah.” Huang worked his neck, trying to ease some of the tension out of it.
After Griggs left him, he looked through the papers. She had an autopsy report back from the morgue showing that Patterson had died around eight a.m. from a .38 caliber to the chest. The round had missed his heart, so he’d died of blood loss and shock. If he’d gotten prompt medical attention, he might have lived.
The only clean prints were from Patterson himself. The screw had more detail than he’d thought possible for such a small piece of metal. It was a M3 machine screw, brass, a truss head with a posidriv slot, and had been sheared 5 mm down the shaft. Griggs had no word on the lemon smell, or the blood on the stairs.
Huang threw the papers down. What was the point of trying to investigate something when half the evidence had gone missing?
Evidence was missing.
What if someone hadn’t taken Metta to access her network, but to hide evidence? No, that didn’t make sense. Griggs had said they were going to boot a backup of Metta into a new chassis. On the other hand, that meant the department would have access to all of the information from before her last backup, but not after.
Metta had asked Huang to wait while she did the backup, which she did every six hours. They spent two hours on the roof before the break-in at the station happened. So everything in that two hour period was unrecorded.
What was in the blind spot?
He turned to the computer and asked the A.S. search engine for a list of crimes under investigation when Metta had vanished. The engine returned the search empty-handed. Huang grimaced. Of course, Metta wasn’t available to query. Once he started feeding the A.S. the scattered details he could remember, it began returning information from the call centers about the unresolved investigations.
He scowled and tried to recall what they’d talked about in the morning staff meeting. The urge to subvocalize to Metta and ask her to jog his memory kept tickling.
Hours later, Griggs leaned her head into the department. “Hey Huang, the new chassis arrived.”
Huang pushed back from his desk. He pulled his VR glasses and earbud out of his pocket, putting them on while he followed Griggs into the hall. An excited crowd of officers streamed toward the stairs. He pushed down the steps where Amado had been found, wondering if it had been hard for him to come back this way.
Just down the hall from the bottom of the stairwell, it looked like half the station had gathered outside the chassis room. Griggs hung near the fringes, hands shoved deep in her pockets. Huang worked his way through the group until he was leaning against the door.
Amado glanced over his shoulder. “Okay. She’s about to wake up.”
Metta’s cameras swiveled on their base, ID-ing the people standing in the door.
The face she wore for Amado, a young, gawkish woman, appeared above the interface with panic in her eyes. “Why am I a backup?”
Huang wanted to back away from the raw fear in her face.
“What happened to me? Why am I a backup?”
“Take it easy, Metta.” Amado raised his hands soothingly.
“Screw that. Tell me why I’m a backup.” She blinked. “And why don’t I have access to anything but my local connections?” Her voiced thundered over her speakers. “Tell me what the hell happened!”
“I thought it would be too jarring for you to come back online everywhere at once.”
She smiled sourly at him. “Well, I’m online now and I feel like an amputee. How is that better?”
“I’m sorry.” Amado tapped some keys on the manual interface and Metta’s face relaxed.
“I’m sorry. I haven’t done this before.”
“No one has except when—” her voice broke off. “Am I dead?”
“No.” Amado hesitated, clearly trying to decide what to tell her.
Huang couldn’t stand this subterfuge. “Metta?” he subvocalized, “Can you hear me?”
Mae West faded into sight on his glasses. She purred in his ear, “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”
“I’m glad.” Then her face hardened. “Will you tell me what’s happening?”
In the room in front of Huang, Amado rubbed his hands together. “There was an incident.”
Delarosa leaned over Amado’s chair, ignoring the AI wrangler. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
Her eyes widened. “On which channel, sir? I’m with all of your men on duty, do you want me to tell you my last memory with each of them? Or my last memories through the surveillance cameras? Or shall I simply tell you my memory ends at 8:59:59 on Tuesday, October twenty-fifth. It would be more useful to tell me what happened after that.”
Huang subvocalized to Metta, “Armed men broke into the station and stole your chassis. They shot Amado.”
The face in his VR glasses opened her mouth in shock. Over her interface, Metta looked down at Amado. “I should have noticed the bandage. I’m sorry, I was disoriented.”
In Huang’s ear, she whispered, “Thank you, Scott.”
“So you brought me online to find the people who stole me and shot you?”
Amado flinched and looked over his shoulder, no doubt wondering which of the officers watching was talking to Metta. Huang met his eyes with a flat expression, uncomfortably aware of the glasses on his face.
“Fitzgerald’s dead?” Metta’s voice brought Amado back to the front. Huang realized he was not the only one in the group subvocalizing to her.
“Who’s telling you these things?” Amado started to twist in his seat again.
“For heaven’s sake, Amado. There’s an APB out for the people who shot him! I’m doing what I was designed to do, filling in the blanks from evidence on hand. This isn’t like we’re playing hide-and-seek.”
“I’m sorry, I was worried about you.”
“Which me, Amado? The one here now, or my Prime?”
Huang backed away from the door. “Metta, are you okay?”
Mae West laughed at him. “I’m angry and confused, but completely functional. On the way to the Patterson case, I told you to wait so it could all be on one memory bank, and now I don’t remember any of it. Tell me everything that happened from your point of view after that.” She hesitated and looked squarely at him. “Don’t leave anything out, not even the jokes.”
Huang began talking as he walked up the stairs; he started with the wainscoting.
When he finished reciting everything he could remember since she had vanished, the face of Mae West chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. “Scott. . . . Beyond talking to Mrs. Patterson, I didn’t hear you say anything about the case. Did you interview the workers at the Daily Grind, or canvass the neighborhood, or . . . maybe you should catch me up on what you’ve done on the Patterson case?”
The air went cold and Huang slumped in his seat. He hadn’t done any of that. “I—I was thinking. . . . Well, wondering if maybe one of the cases on Tuesday morning was connected to the break in here and—shit.” He hung his head, realizing that he’d forgotten his own case in his concern for Metta. Was he really that inept without her to remind him of things? “I totally got distracted and screwed up, didn’t I?”
“Well. . . .” Metta smiled at him, with the full dazzling brilliance of Mae West. “An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”
Huang laughed, despite his guilt. Trust Metta to attempt to reassure him. “Y’know, you don’t have to keep the Mae West interface if you don’t want to.”
Her smile dropped. “I thought you liked it.”
“I do, but you’ve been through a lot and I don’t want you to stress about it.”
“Every man I meet wants to protect me. I can’t figure out what from.” She pouted the full lips and then spoke with her own voice out of Mae West’s mouth. “Scott, I just woke up for the first time in my life. It’s . . . it’s hard to explain what it is like to have no awareness of a day. My memory stretches back to the moment I first came online with the exception of this gaping hole. Being Mae West today makes me feel connected to when I was Mae West on Tuesday. If it bothers you, I’ll change, but otherwise I’d rather keep her for awhile.”
Huang wanted to press his hand to her cheek to soothe her. “Metta, I wish there was something I could do for you.”
“You’re doing a lot already.”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“You’re treating me like I’m real, and we both know I’m not.”
“Don’t say that.” He leaned forward, close to her interface.
“I don’t mean that . . . I mean I’m a backup. There are two of me in the world—this is more than two programs starting with the same parameters. My siblings are like identical twins; the same material creates different people. I’m an incomplete version of the Metta you know, and we diverge farther from each other with every moment that passes.” She tossed her head. “There’s no need to go on about this. It is what it is. The point is, I appreciate that you have always treated me like a real person.”
He listened to the words she didn’t say; there were people who treated her like a machine. He thought of Qadir and his Arabian Nights interface. “Metta—”
“Hush. Let’s talk about the Patterson case.”
He took a breath to clear his head. “Okay. I guess first up is the coffee shop?”
Metta lowered her lashes and purred. “If I asked for a cup of coffee someone would search for the double meaning.”
Huang stepped into the Daily Grind coffee shop and inhaled deeply. He could probably get a caffeine fix just from breathing.
“A smell?” Metta asked.
“Lots of really good coffee.”
“The way you boys go on about coffee makes me wish I had taste and scent.”
“It’s probably not as handy as your multitasking.”
She gave him a saucy look. “Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”
“Geez, Metta, you’re going to distract me with all this Mae West heat.”
“I didn’t discover curves; I only uncovered them.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Sorry, Scott. Go on, do your thing.”
Huang walked up to the counter and leaned casually against it, waiting for the teenage girl behind it to notice him. She was standing by an A.S. espresso machine as the mechanized arms made a perfect cappuccino. The automaton’s arms whirred with precise tiny movements.
Huang subvocalized to Metta, “Why don’t you have an automaton?”
“Why give up processing power when I have you?”
“I’m more than just a pair of hands, you know.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Men are all alike—except the one you’ve met who’s different.”
The girl took the cup from the machine and shouted into the cafe, “Double dragon cappuccino!”
The automaton espresso machine had poured the foam in the cup to create a coffee dragon. The bouquet was a complex nutty affair with notes of violets, citrus, and dark chocolate. Probably a Colombian blend.
She handed it off to an Asian retro-steampunk kid and blew a strand of hair out of her face. “Welcome to the Daily Grind! What can I get for you?”
Huang smiled at her and glanced at her name badge. “Actually, Vicki, I need to ask some questions. Were you working yesterday morning?”” He pulled his badge out from his pocket and showed it to the girl.
Vicki rolled her eyes at the sight of the detective’s shield. “Yeah.”
“Great. Someone made a call from here at 8:13 yesterday morning. We want to talk to whoever it was.”
“Is he in trouble?”
Huang made a mental note that she had assigned a gender to the hypothetical person in his question. “We think he’s a witness. Who made the call?”
“Lowfat double-shot cappuccino.”
“I know customers by their drinks, not their names.” Vicki flipped the hair back from her eye. “This guy comes in every morning and orders the same thing. He tried a mocha once and didn’t like it, went back to the lowfat double-shot cappuccino.”
“Can you describe him?” He glanced at Metta who nodded to show that she was ready.
As Vicki talked, Metta created a composite sketch, occasionally prompting Huang to ask specific questions in order to refine the features. When she was finished, she pinged the image to his PDA. Huang pulled it out and unrolled the screen to full-size. “Is this him?”
Vicki frowned, looking at the rendering of the slender black man. He was in his mid-thirties, with a round face and short hair, twisted into neat, tiny curls. “Shit, yes. That’s creepy.”
Huang suppressed a grin, but this skill of Metta’s was one of his favorite tricks. She nodded in his field of vision. “I’ll start cross-referencing him with our files.”
Aloud, Huang asked, “Was there anything strange about the last time you saw him?”
“What, you mean like the bandage on his hand?”
Huang held himself extremely still. “Yes.” He locked his gaze on hers. “Exactly like that.”
He waited for her to fill in the blanks. Vicki sighed and twisted her hair up onto her head in a bun. “Well, he usually comes in once around six, but yesterday he came in twice. I asked why, he says it was ’cause yesterday’s job was in the neighborhood.”
“Any idea what he did?”
“He was in construction. Always wore the same coveralls—” She held up a hand to stop him, clearly guessing the next question. “Gray with an orange patch. I don’t remember what it said.”
“Huang, what is it?” Metta leaned forward in her screen. “Your eyes dilated.”
“In a second,” he subvocalized. To the girl he said, “Go on.”
“Anyway, so the first time he just gets his coffee, like usual. The second time—”
Metta whispered, “Ask her when.”
“Do you know what time that was?”
“Just after 8:00. I was making the usual for Tall Skim Chai Latte and remember being surprised to see Lowfat double-shot cappuccino back in here. He asked if he could use the phone ’cause he’d left his at home. So I say sure and don’t pay much attention ’cause Tall Skim Chai Latte can be a bitch sometimes.”
“How did he seem?”
“Distracted? Tense? But smiling like always. . . .” She squirmed. “He’s not in trouble, is he?”
“Why do you think he might be in trouble?”
“He’s a regular and he broke all the patterns.”
“We think he witnessed the murder upstairs. Please, we need to find him.”
She nodded. “Okay. So he uses the phone then goes out. I felt bad about having to ignore him so I shouted ‘Bye’ and that’s when I noticed that he’d been hurt.”
“Did he have the bandage when he came in that morning?”
She shook her head. “No. I would’ve noticed when I handed him his drink.”
Huang slid his eyes to where Metta hovered in his glasses frame. “You didn’t see him again?”
Vicki shrugged. “He didn’t come in this morning.”
“Was anyone working with him?” From the moment the girl had said the man was in construction he’d had a feeling.
“Not that I know of. It was always just him.”
He handed Vicki his business card. “Thank you for your time. If you think of anything, or if you see him again, please call me immediately.”
The moment his back was to the girl, Metta enlarged her face in his field of vision. “Okay, Scott. Spill it. What do you know that I don’t?”
“Hang on. I’m enjoying being a step ahead of you.”
“You’re taking unfair advantage of a medical condition.”
He sobered as he recalled why she didn’t know what he remembered. “Yesterday there was construction scaffolding on the building behind this one.” He walked around the corner, heading to the back of the Daily Grind building.
“I told you to tell me everything!”
“I didn’t think to mention it because it wasn’t on the crime scene.”
“What else did you leave out?”
“I don’t know.” He strode down the sidewalk to the end of the block. “I had no way of knowing this was any more relevant than that my mother made me tea last night.”
She growled at him, but with the Mae West interface, she sounded disturbingly sexy.
“I’m sorry,” Huang said. “It was a mistake. I won’t do it again.”
“If you put your foot in it, be sure it’s your best foot.”
He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. “Just how big a Mae West database did you download?”
“Big enough.” She still glowered at him.
“Okay.” Huang held up his hands in surrender. “Look, I saw the scaffolding when we got to the roof. I don’t know if there was anyone on it when we left because we left in a hurry.”
“Fair enough. Now get moving, I want to see this scaffolding.”
Huang nodded and jogged to the end of the block. Across the street, the scaffolding was still in place, but no one was working on it.
Metta looked up and to her left, grimacing. “I wish I could see your POV from yesterday and know if Mr. Lowfat was there.”
He let his voice drop down. “Whoever was on that roof is still loose.”
“You think—oh. Bogart, The Enforcer.” She rolled her eyes. “I must be more rattled than I thought if I can’t recognize your impression.”
“Hey, Metta.” The urge to rub her back, to comfort her almost overwhelmed him. “No one will blame you if you need a day to get back into the groove.”
Her eyes flashed. “I will blame myself.”
“But you—you can’t blame yourself for being kidnapped.” His head spun as he remembered the Metta who had been kidnapped was still missing. It was so easy to think she was all right, when she was here. But he was speaking to a clone, who was also Metta, and yet not.
“Who else is responsible for the safety of the station? I’ve been reading the reports since I was rebooted. How did they get so far before being noticed?”
“I can’t answer that, Metta. Delarosa will find you.”
“Ha.” She leaned forward, showing her bosom. “I see you’re a man with ideals. I better be going while you’ve still got them.” She sighed. “Speaking of going, get me closer to the scaffolding to see if there’s any contact information on them. Meanwhile, I’ll check with permits to see if we can find our guy that way.”
“I love it when you multitask.” He waited for a cyclist to pass, then crossed the street.
“Love conquers all things except poverty and toothache.”
Huang snorted and rolled his eyes. He walked under the scaffolding and stopped by the second upright. Turning so the eSpy could focus on the orange sticker on the scaffolding, he held still so Metta could read it. “Feldman Construction.”
“Checking.” Metta looked up and to her left. “Got it.”
“Well, then, let’s go see if they recognize Mr. Lowfat.”
The rumble of heavy machinery pounded through Huang’s ears as he stood next to Mr. Feldman. The older man’s skin had been tanned to bronze. Age spots mottled his strong hands. He leaned over Huang’s unrolled PDA screen and studied the sketch of Mr. Lowfat.
Feldman hitched his jeans up and gestured with his chin at the drawing. “Yeah. That’s Joe Yates. He okay? He didn’t show for work today.”
Metta murmured, “Checking the name. . . .”
Huang rolled the PDA up. “He called in an incident to 911 yesterday morning and then left the scene before the responders arrived. We’re trying to find him to ask him about what he witnessed.”
“What sort of incident?” The man crossed his arms over his ample stomach.
“Possibly a murder.”
“Possibly?” Feldman grunted. “You a homicide cop and you can’t tell if it’s murder?”
“There’s the possibility that it was an accident, but we need Mr. Yates to know for certain. Can you think of why he would have left the scene after dialing 911?”
The man scowled and dug his boot into the dirt. “Aw hell. . . . I check papers, you know, but I don’t check too well. I figure my folks were immigrants so why not give other folks a shot. If they work hard, I don’t ask too many questions.”
Metta murmured. “If he’s illegal, that would explain why I’m having trouble finding him in the system.”
“He’s not turning up in our files, do you have an address for him?”
“Your system.” Feldman frowned. “Two minutes ago you didn’t know who he was.”
Huang tapped his glasses. “I’m working with a police AI.”
Feldman eyed the VR glasses. “There really an AI in there?”
“Not in, Mr. Feldman, but yes, the precinct’s AI is listening to this conversation.”
The man glowered at the ground. “You might not want to let my boys know you have one here. They don’t take too kindly to them things.”
“What do you mean?”
“I gotta spell it out for you?” He jerked his chin toward the glasses. “Those things cost men like my guys jobs. Rig backhoes and cranes with remote control and one AI can run almost a whole damn construction site. I don’t got a beef with them myself, you know, but my guys. Some of them . . . you know.”
In the VR glasses, Metta’s lips were compressed into a thin line. They’d run into this prejudice before, and that fear was why it seemed unlikely that groups like AIM would ever get artificial intelligences recognized as thinking beings. Huang cleared his throat. “How about an address for Mr. Yates?”
Mr. Feldman just shrugged again. “I can give you a P.O. Box, but that’s about it.”
“Had he worked with you long?”
“A couple of months, but he was good. Solid worker. Reliable. Always bringing me leads. Like yesterday’s job. Heard about it while he was at that coffee shop he likes and comes to me instead of just doing it on his own. Honorable. You know?” He scrubbed his chin with his hand. “Think he’s okay?”
“We’ll let you know when we find him.”
As they walked off the construction site, Metta said, “It occurs to me that perhaps Mr. Yates lives in the neighborhood since he swings by the coffee shop on his way to work. I’ll send the uniforms around with his picture to see if anyone recognizes him.”
“Good idea.” Huang sighed. “So, what next?”
“I’d suggest a visit to Magdalena Chase. Let’s see why she had a meeting with Mr. Patterson and where she was yesterday morning.”
Copyright © 2011 Mary Robinette Kowal