THE TIME is A.D. 2092.
THE PLACE used to be Los Angeles, now called THE BASIN AUTHORITY ZONE.
Water scarcity, social breakdown and climate changed have made southern California into a disorganized desert area with porous borders, a swirling mix of invaders from south and east, and private enclaves of the rich and powerful. In this last decade of the 21st century, human beings are not what they seem. Some of them are “naturals”, others are genetically modified, programmed drones, or spliced with other species. Marauding gangs sweep the landscape looking for gasoline, food or water. In the not too distant past, a nuclear explosion in the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station destroyed the unity of the United States, dividing it into regions, sub-regions and incoherent pieces. Power is shared in the Basin by the Authority, a semi-government which keeps “order” and The Corporation, which manages what remains of commerce, some of it in human body parts, genetic splices and rare animals.
Quinn is an investigator for The Corporation, generally assigned to round up clonesloggers, renegades who trade in genetically damaged humans, mining their genes. When he’s called by his bosses to investigate the death of a geneticist named Kamenev at a Palos Verdes Lab, he meets Detective Sergeant Keiko Namura of the Authority who is likewise investigating the death. At the crime scene, Quinn and Namura reluctantly agree to cooperate. When they discover a gigantic virtual beehive and a trove of rare Russian poetry, they know they’ve stumbled on to something unusual.
Theirs is a story of love and escape.
The Swarming Stage – Chapter One
On the GPS Harbor freeway it was business as usual for Detective Sergeant Keiko Nomura. Everything ordinary was in place, the big orange sun plunging into a blue Pacific, washboard ribs of cirrus candy-striped with pink, off to the right a catacomb which had once been Inglewood. What seemed like one hundred thousand bicycles and their riders toiled through a tangle of tent cities and plywood shacks where scavengers mined abandoned habitations for copper wire, plumbing fixtures, and appliances. In the midst of the tent cities were huge dilapidated hospitals, malls converted into mass habitations for tuberculars, private detention centers with attached mental units. Her electric mini hummed to the tune of a thousand nanorobots guiding the way south, while overhead a dragonfly drone scouted terraine, sending out a steady-state buzz. Alone on the freeway in the hot confines of the vehicle, Nomura examined her own emotional state and found a great white cipher.
A digital mist inside the vehicle became a bald virtual head saying, “You have orders.”
Nomura toggled onto her coded frequency which sent coordinates to HQ. In seconds she was transponded to downtown LA where the old municipal building served now as Authority Headquarters. Overhead the dragonfly drone swept its way toward Gardena.
“Category One homicide,” a voice announced from the mist. At that moment Nomura suffered a twinge of existential happiness, both fleeting and sentimental. Long days of nothing followed by long nights of nothing had produced in her an almost flat emotional curve plotted against time. Now at least a corpse was dialing her number. “Habitation CS/607, Palos Verdes Island, Portugese Bend Area.” The holographic head misted down to a gray-on-red digital map of Palos Verdes onto which was superimposed the name: Sergei Vladovitch Kamenev. “Proceed immediately,” came the order from HQ.
Nomura requested site info. “Secured by Davidson,” came the reply in a tight techno-voice. Davidson’s particulars followed, his status as an Authority security assistant with a special portfolio in crime investigation.
When the mist evaporated, Nomura found herself alone again on the Harbor GPS, cruising under robotic control with the sun now half-down against a backdrop of pale pink sky. Up from the flatlands came the sound of jackhammers and chainsaws as Inglewood went under the wrecking ball. Thirty minutes later she reached Palos Verdes and got onto a restricted roadway leading to an old dike on top of which stood a security station. She was eye-dentified onto a deserted asphalt road which disappeared into an almost amusing jungle of great sand dunes and tangled mutant vegetation revealing later a security ramp that rose from the deserted sand dunes into a sky that was now stained dark purple. She rolled the mini down along a ramp and onto the heavily guarded Corporate Science Compound known as Portugese Bend Area, a zone given over exclusively to facilities conducting reproductive, genetic, and agricultural experiments. Five miles past Portugese Bend was the famously forbidding Corporate Genetics Center itself.
At the security station an obviously hung-over security guard with stinking breath checked her through. Once across a wooden bridge she entered an acacia scrub where half a mile later the ground rose into a range of gray elephant-back politic hills. Ice plant clung to the hills and there were scattered eucalyptus. She was stopped by another guard wielding an axe and shotgun, allowed to proceed after showing her Authority ID. Her destination lay another six hundred yards straight east.
Nomura recognized the habitation as one of the Green and Green art nouveau masterpieces constructed in abundance around the turn of the twentieth century. It was now in disrepair, its redwood shingles tattered, the walls pitted by blowing sand, a crumbling front porch. A low native-stone wall encircled the property, and beyond the wall lay a small swimming pool now completely filled with sand. On the grounds were what remained of a topiary. Mutant spirea had engulfed one side of the house, woody arms reaching almost to the roof. Two official vehicles were parked in front of the house, one minivan she recognized as Davidson’s Authority car, another a dented relic hybrid of unknown origin. Before she could park, Davidson came out of the habitation, stood on the fenestrated porch, and waved in greeting. Nomura ungoggled and got out of the electric mini, set its security codes, and walked to the porch. “What have we got?” she asked Davidson.
Davidson managed an ironic grimace. “I wish I knew Detective,” he said. Both were wearing standard issue gray nanofiber pants, silver reflective nanofiber short sleeve sweaters, and reflective silver vests with a large red A on back. Davidson was packing a large butcher knife in his belt.
“When did you begin your log?” Nomura asked.
“1830hrs and some change,” Davidson replied. “The corpse is a genetic scientist working for the Corporation. There’s blood all over the kitchen. I didn’t touch anything but the front door handle.” Davidson gestured toward the dented vehicle out front. “The Corporation sent over a programmed zombie to assist me,” he said with a wry smile. “He’s out back now conducting a search. I’ve set up drone watchdogs in every room and the floating digital is photographing the scene in ten light ranges. I’ll heat-seek the rooms and do the imagery. I’ll cut a thousand images and we can look at them. In my opinion we’re going to need a Lab Tech. There’s some very weird shit going on here Detective.”
Nomura backed from the porch, framing the house with her Third Eye. She had it right—Green and Green, early twentieth century, beveled glass windows, a single weathered gable, shutters. The sense of forest serenity in a time when there were forests. She guessed it was supplied with desalinated water and that it was on the island’s underground power cable. Even falling apart it was special.
“Go ahead and get Lab Tech up here,” Nomura said.
Davidson began working his PC, ordering up a fully authorized Lab Tech with mockup kits, splatter holography and pheromonic capacity.
“ID on the victim is positive?”
“Not yet.” Davidson swigged fresh water from his canteen. “Kamenev,” he said. “Corporate scientist at the Genetics Center.” Nomura allowed her eyes to follow the contours of the house, its clean lines. “There’s nothing online about his project though,” Davidson said. “I checked twice.”
“Is the house air conditioned?”
“That’s the one good thing,” Davidson allowed.
Nomura mounted the porch. “Who found the body?”
“An indentured nomad from Sonora named 413RosaX. The Genetics Center supplies every habitation in the Area with a cleanup crew. They come up here in the late afternoon when UV levels fall. A shuttle loops around the habitation pods and drops off the Indentureds to clean house, swab toilets, do the dishes. This habitation is assigned one female maid. The shuttle driver codes her through the laser barrier, tags her with a temporary implant, and then leaves her alone in the house for two hours. When she’s done he picks her up in the shuttle and takes her to another habitation. This afternoon the shuttle driver dropped her off at 1700hrs, tagged her, and was about to drive away when he heard her screaming on the front porch. The driver reported to Corporate Genetics, tagged himself, then went into the habitation to see what all the fuss was about. There was a body on the kitchen floor. The maid is over at Corporate Genetics. I can bring her up if you want to talk to her.”
“Do we know anything about her?”
“She’s a Mexican maid.”
“The cleanup crews live in a bunker five miles up the road on the way to the Genetics Center.”
“I’ll talk to her later,” Nomura said. “I take it that Kamenev works mostly at night?”
“Cooler, quieter, no UV.”
Nomura walked the length of the porch, surveying the grounds and its disused swimming pool, topiary, the elephant dunes out front with their exhausted stands of ice plant and eucalyptus. An offshore wind was blowing hard enough to obscure footprints in minutes. One look at the laser barrier told her it was worse than useless as security, bands interrupted by blowing sand and transmission constantly marred by magnetic dust. Any hacker could break the barrier. Out back were miles of saltpan and dune, easy to cross at night. Now that her moment of happiness had passed, she was gripped by the emotional torque of a very bad vibe.
She opened her micro chest-unit PC and punched up Kamenev on the Joint Task Force program. In seconds returned a bare bones dossier of the same old shit—Russian visa, Russian educated, natural human, no deviant background, post-Doc status at the Russian Genetics Institute in Moscow, validly registered to his habitation on Portugese Bend. Eye-dentifier fractals, fingerprints, voice print, all properly on file. Top to bottom Kamenev was a highly regarded mystery-man who was working on something top secret. For all Nomura knew he could be Santa Claus.
They went into the house under the robotic eyes of the drones. The main room was large, with a stone fireplace, heavy mahogany and cherry wood furniture, things Nomura hadn’t seen except in art books. “Through here,” Davidson was telling her, pointing out a hallway that led from one corner of the living room through to a kitchen in back. Nomura followed him down the hall, noting three rooms branching off as she went, a single empty bedroom, one library-study, another bedroom. From the kitchen came the smell of boiled cabbage. In the kitchen Nomura was nonplussed by the sight of so much blood, smears and splatters on the floor, ceiling and walls. On its back, legs splayed, lay a male corpse with no head.
“Get that Lab Tech up here now,” Nomura ordered. “The pheromes are degrading and so is the blood. Our splatter patterns are already tricked up by the wind and sand.”
“I thought about shutting the back door,” Davidson said, gesturing at the massive door whose hinges were sprung, the wood jamb splintered. “But you can see it won’t shut. There was nothing I could do about the cabbage on the stove. It had boiled away by the time I got here.” When his PC produced a tiny sound, Davidson read it. “Lab Tech will be here in just a few minutes,” he told Nomura.
“Meet him outside,” Nomura said. “We need instant pheromonic analysis, spectroscopic scanning, and some infrared. There’s no telling how long the back door has stood open. I want a portable X-ray deployed. Scour for DNA. And I want to talk to an official at the Corporate Genetics Center about what Kamenev was working on. Contact them immediately.”
Davidson turned his head as if deflecting the order. “I’m not anxious to take on Corporate Genetics,” he said.
“Make a polite request.”
“I’ll try, but you know how they are.”
“If they balk, I’ll talk to them.”
When Davidson had gone, Nomura studied the room with her deepest concentration, its palette reminding her of abstract art, great swales of blood superimposed on copper cookware, bright pink pottery, the blue German-made stove and attached wooden chopping block. On the back wall one cabinet was standing open to reveal a large silver samovar and some clay pottery with sunflower patterns. A white refrigerator stood chugging electricity.
Davidson came back and said, “Tech is out front. He has the gear.” When Nomura pointed outside, Davidson told her the figure in the dunes was the programmed freak from Corporate Science.
“He’s looking for the head?” Nomura asked.
“For an hour,” Davidson told her.
Back down the hallway, Nomura began with the library. It was a modest room given over mostly to bookshelves which were filled with ROM materials, holographic disks, and leather bound books. In the center of the room sat a virtual reality satellite linkup, a language converter, and headsets. It was obvious that Kamenev could materialize himself in any functioning lab in the civilized world, transmit his calculations, collaborate with other scientists, and conduct joint experiments with traded data and paradigms. Although the number of functioning government labs was declining rapidly, it was a remarkable capacity. Nomura looked up at the drone watchdog, allowing her Zen sense to roam the room, finally landing it on a huge holographic brain shimmering in one corner, a rainbow-colored ovoid with many transparent layers. To Nomura, it looked to be a living thing, organic in nature, not a mass of electrons organized by computer software and laser projections. She thought she could see synaptic activity, the flow of blood, chain reactions.
She spent five minutes with the brain, then turned her attention to the bookshelves just above the fireplace mantle. On the mantle itself stood the framed photograph of a statuesque blonde woman with brooding features. In its near foreground were pigeons. Above, streaming crows against pale cirrus clouds. A line of birch receded off-picture to the right. Nomura contemplated the photo, then picked up a book which lay face down on the mantle. With her rudimentary knowledge of Cyrillic she deciphered the author’s name: PASTERNAK.
“Tech is inside,” Davidson announced, tripping Nomura from her Zen sense. She raised a hand to stop him. When he’d gone, Nomura opened the book to the pages on which it had layed. It seemed to be a poem in Russian entitled “Sparrow Hills”. She read the first line out loud: Like water pouring from a pitcher, my mouth on your nipples.
She went to the kitchen. “I want Tech to go through every room. Something isn’t right here.”
“May I suggest something?” Davidson asked. “Anybody could come across those dunes out back. The laser screws up all the time.”
“I agree,” Nomura said. “Have Tech scan the back door. Our killer came through it.”
She returned to the main room only to find a seedy Lab Tech setting up his equipment. He boasted a shaggy beard and bleary eyes. “Do we have authorization to spend all this money?” he asked Nomura.
“Don’t worry about it,” Nomura snapped.
“What about electricity?”
“Who’s the dead guy?”
“Just forget about his identification. The medical examiner will take care of the dead guy for me. Davidson has your instructions. Get busy.” Nomura detected a hint of reluctance in the Tech. “Screw this up,” she said, “and you’ll be on a scavenger crew down in Gardena.”
When the Lab Tech had scurried away, Davidson returned. “I’ve got him started,” he said. “Anything else?”
“I’m going to inventory the whole house. Make that contact with the Genetics Center and see what you can find out about Kamenev’s project. And what’s the corporate zombie doing?”
“He’s wandering around. I could model the terrain and work up a grid future-pattern. Maybe we could explore the dunes with heat seeking imagery.”
“I’ll order it up if we have a chopper available,” Nomura said.
“Do you have a sense about the time of death?”
“Dead all day I’d say.” Nomura stood in the open front door. It was hot and the breeze was no help. “I don’t think we’ll have a borrowed sky tonight, so it will be dark. Don’t give up searching for the head.”
“I’ll do my best.”
“How’s your cryptography?”
“I’d like to get into Kamenev’s computers before some corporate asshole screws them up.”
“It might be too late,” Davidson said. “While you were in the library, Corporate Genetics invoked the Joint Task Force protocols to ask you down for a chat. That’s what I came to tell you.”
“How long do I have?”
“You report immediately. Also they’re sending some guy named Quinn up here. He’s Joint Task Force. Apparently he’s doing a final medical review right now, but he’ll be here pretty soon. A vice president named Craig is waiting for you down the road at Genetics.”
Nomura stepped onto the porch and took a deep breath. She disliked working Joint Task Force cases. She preferred solitude, and working alone was in congress with her own personality. Other people were like gravity, forces of inertia and weight.