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Great North Roadby Peter F Hamilton
Sunday, January 13, 2143
As midnight approached, the wild neon colors of the borealis storm came shimmering through the soft snow falling gently across Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. It was as if nature were partying along with the rest of the city, providing a jade-and-carmine light show far more elegant than any of the fireworks that had been bursting sporadically above the rooftops since Friday.
Detective Third Grade Sidney Hurst watched batches of late-night revelers staggering along the frozen pavement, calling out greetings or challenges depending on how toxed up they were. Ice, snow, and slush played havoc with the smartdust embedded in the tarmac, blacking out whole sections of the metamesh that governed the city’s roads and therefore making driving with the vehicle’s smartauto a dangerous gamble. Sid was steering the unmarked police car manually, but with the auto managing wheel torque on the slippery road. Their snow tires provided reasonable traction, adding to stability and allowing him to make a decent thirty-five kilometers per hour along Collingwood Street past the cathedral. Radar kept throwing proximity symbols across the windshield, designating a warning for the long filthy dunes of snow that the civic snowplows had thrown off the center of the road.
It had been snowing for two days now, and with the midday temperature spike sticking stubbornly below ten degrees there had been no thaw, allowing the elegant stone Georgian buildings of the city center to become cloaked in Dickensian yuletide splendor. Another proximity warning flashed scarlet, outlining a man running across the road directly in front of the car, laughing and jeering as Sid veered sharply around him. One last obscene gesture, and he was claimed by the swirling snow.
“He’ll never last till dawn,” Ian Lanagin claimed from the front passenger seat.
Sid glanced over at his partner. “Just another two-oh-one file,” he agreed. “Welcome back, me.”
“Aye, man, some Sunday-night reunion this is.”
It was crazy so many people being out in this weather; though for once Newcastle’s traditional nightclub dress code of T-shirt for the boys and short skirt with glitter heels for the girls had vanished under thick ankle-length coats. It was that cold. He’d even glimpsed a few sensible hats, which was almost a first in the fifteen years he’d been with the Newcastle police. Even now—married with two kids, a career that wasn’t quite as dynamic as he’d originally envisioned—he was slightly surprised he was still in Newcastle. He’d followed a girl up here from London, where—like every twenty-something law graduate—he’d been arrowing down the smart and fast career path, alternating jobs between police and private security as if he were an electron bouncing between junction gates. To consummate the grand romantic gesture he applied for a transfer to the local city police, where the career track was equally valid for a couple of years, and the nights could still be spent in bed with Jacinta. Now, fifteen years’ worth of Siberian winters and Saharan summers later, he was still here, married to Jacinta (which at least showed good judgment), with two kids and a career that had taken the kind of direction he’d always sneered at during those long-distant university years when he had passion and conviction and contempt for the way of a world screwed up by the current generation in power and the omnipresent lurking evil of the Zanth. Now experience and its associate wisdom had flicked him onto the more rational track of time-serving and networking to make the final career switch that would see him through the last twenty years before retirement. Fifteen years’ hard labor had taught him real life had a habit of doing that.
“They’ll all sober up by tomorrow,” Sid said, switching his gaze back to the road.
“In this town?” Ian challenged.
“We’ve all got jobs now.”
Sid had been as surprised as anyone on Friday morning when Northumberland Interstellar had finally announced they were awarding contracts for five new fusion stations to be built at the Ellington energy complex north of the city. They should have been built years ago, but such was the way with all big projects that decade-long delays were built into corporate decisions as standard. And that was before regulators and politicians started to intervene to prove their worth. It meant the aging tokamaks at Ellington that currently powered the Newcastle gateway to St. Libra would have to be coaxed along way past their original design lifetime. Nobody cared about that, though, and euphoric Geordies had spent the weekend rejoicing about the announcement. It meant a new surge in the monumental tide of money that already coursed along the city streets, money that was channeled at every corner into St. Libra, to be rewarded by the return flow of indispensable bioil back to the old motherworld. Bioil that kept cars and lorries moving across Grande Europe’s still-powerful trade arteries; valuable derivations allowing planes to fly and ships to voyage. This contract was nothing more than a ripple on that tide, to be sure, but even so it promised additional revenue for the ancient coal town’s manufacturing and service industries, which would devour the digital cash with clever greed to fuel runaway expansion curves on the corporate market graphs. That meant there would be job opportunities at every level. Happy times were officially on their way.
None knew that better than Newcastle’s extensive secondary economy of private lounges, pubs, clubs, pimps, and pushers, who were already salivating at the prospect. Like the rest of the city, they could look forward to a fresh decade of providing a good time to the army of middle-class salary-plus-bonus contractors who would descend upon them. To launch the new era, first drinks had been on the house all this weekend, with second drinks half price.
They had a lot of takers.
“There it is,” Ian Lanagin said, pointing through the symbols scrawling across the windshield as they rolled into Mosley Street.
Up ahead, at the junction with Grey Street, the blue and green ambulance strobes were shimmering over the fractured ice, casting weird shadows across the walls as they competed with the light-haze seeping out of club doorways and shop windows to illuminate the scene. The big vehicle was parked at an angle, blocking half of the street. Sid nudged their car left, aiming to park behind the ambulance. Proximity radar sketched red caution brackets across the windshield as the front bumper came to a halt a couple of centimeters from the mound of snow thrown up by the plows. He pulled his woolen hat down over his ears, zipped up the front of his quilted leather jacket, and stepped out into the bitter air.
The cold triggered a tear reflex that he blinked away rapidly, trying to focus on what he could see. Temperature didn’t affect the ring of smartcells around his iris that shone minuscule laser pulses down his optic nerves, overlaying the street with sharp display graphics, correlating what he looked at with coordinate locations for the visual log he was running.
As per protocol, Sid’s bodymesh—the interconnective network produced by all his smartcells—quested a link with Ian, making sure they remained in contact. Ian was represented by a small purple icon at the corner of his sight. The bodymesh also downloaded the visual log through the car’s cell and into the police network.
It was a NorthernMetroServices agency constable who’d responded to the distress code. Sid didn’t recognize him, though he knew the type well enough. His private Electronic-Identity (e-i) running inside his bodymesh performed a face capture image, logging a man barely into his twenties—and walking about with a swagger that was immediately depressing. Give him a uniform and a gram of authority and he thought he was running the city.
The agency constable’s e-i identified him as Kraemer. It immediately quested Sid’s e-i, which responded by confirming his own rank as well as activating the badge woven into his jacket, which now glowed a subtle amber. “You caught this?” Sid asked.
“Aye, sir. On scene fifty seconds after the report was logged.”
Well inside the agency’s contracted response period, Sid thought, which would help their stats at renewal time. Of course, it depended when the call was officially logged. NorthernMetroServices also ran the Newcastle emergency response center. It wasn’t unknown for the center to alert an agency constable a minute or so before they entered the call into the log, so one of their people could always beat the response time.
“Aggravated thirteen-five. Culprits ran off before I arrived.”
“Fast runners,” Sid muttered. “Seeing as you were here so quick.”
“Thump and grab, man,” Kraemer said.
“His e-i responded with Kenny Ansetal when I quested it. He was barely conscious; buggers gave him a good kicking. The paramedics have him.”
“Okay.” Sid walked around to the back of the ambulance, where the paramedics had sat the mugging victim on its egress platform to perform triage. The man was in his early thirties, with facial features that Sid’s best estimate placed as a mix of Asian and southern Mediterranean origins—which was going to play hell when he came to filling out the ethnicity section of the case file. Of course that opinion’s validity was slightly skewed by the amount of blood pouring out of the large gash on the victim’s brow. There were deep lacerations on his cheeks, too, which Sid guessed had been caused by ringblades. That much blood tended to obscure the finer features of a person’s skin.
“Hello, sir,” he called. “We’re city police. Can you tell me what happened?”
Kenny Ansetal glanced up at him and promptly vomited. Sid winced. The splatter just missed his shoes.
“I’ll go gather some witness intel,” Ian said, already backing off.
“You’re a shit,” Sid grunted.
Ian grinned, winked, and turned away. Even with the biting cold, the mugging had drawn a small crowd, who were still hanging around. What for, Sid never did understand. After all this time in the police it was about the one aspect of human instinctual psychology he could never get a handle on: People simply couldn’t resist watching someone else’s misfortune.
He waited for a minute while the paramedics managed to spray clotting foam onto Ansetal’s forehead wound; then one was sorting out his cheeks while the other performed a quick body check, acting on the information coming out of Ansetal’s bodymesh, fingers probing where smartcells were reporting damage. Judging by Ansetal’s responses, he’d taken some blows to the ribs and a knee. Kicked when he was down, Sid decided. Common enough for a thirteen-five.
“Sir, can you tell me what happened?”
This time Kenny Ansetal managed to focus. “Bastards,” he hissed.
“Try not to move your jaw too much,” the paramedic warned as he sealed up a cheek wound.
Sid recognized the anger and murmured commands to his e-i, which obediently paused the police log using an unauthorized non-department fix he just happened to have in a private cache. “Did you recognize your attackers?”
Ansetal shook his head.
“How many of them?”
A hand was raised, two fingers extended.
Another nod. “Fucking Chinese. Kids it were.”
Sid shook his head fractionally, pleased with himself for predicting Ansetal’s answers. Of course, they were common enough. Ansetal didn’t know it, but an expletive-linked ethnic identification was legally classified as a racist indicator. That would have opened up a whole world of misery for Ansetal in court if defense council got hold of a log with that on it.
“Did they take anything, sir?”
Ansetal juddered as some more sealant was applied to his cheek. “My Apple—an i-3800.”
New model personal transnet cell, Sid recalled, and top-end. He was an idiot for carrying it around the city center at this time of night. But idiocy wasn’t a crime in itself. “I’m just going to recover your visual records, sir.”
Sid held his hand close to Ansetal’s forehead and told his e-i to recover the visual memory. His palm had several smartcells configured for mesh reception, with fixes to handle most formats. The short-term memories from Ansetal’s iris smartcells downloaded into the police network. Sid watched what Ansetal had seen, closing his own eyes so he could study the images in the grid. The recording was a blur of motion. Two shadowy figures suddenly appeared, hoods drawn against the cold. Then everything degenerated into smears of motion as the beating began.
His e-i ran a capture, which showed him both assailants had the same face. Sid grunted at the familiar features: Lork Zai, the Chinese zone star who featured heavily on tabloid show hot lists these days.
“All right,” Sid said. “Now, Kenny, I’m going to give you some unofficial advice. Best if you don’t speak again.”
Ansetal gave him a puzzled look. Sid could almost see the middle-class thought processes clicking around behind his blood-painted skin. I’m the victim here, why are the police giving me warnings? The answer was simple enough, though they never got it: Never say anything that a lawyer could gain traction on in court—so just don’t say anything at all.
“Have you got full-comp crime insurance?” Judging by the relatively expensive clothes, that was a rhetorical question.
A cautious nod.
“Good. Use it. Call their emergency address. They’ll dispatch a duty lawyer to your hospital. Now, the agency constable is going to accompany you there to take a full statement. Refuse to do so until your lawyer is present. You have that right. You also have the right to refuse blood composition analysis. Understand?”
“I suppose . . .”
Sid held a gloved finger to his lips.
A now worried Ansetal nodded. Sid heard a female giggle from somewhere behind the ambulance, and managed to suppress a frown. “You’ll do okay, Kenny. Just keep everything aboveboard and official. Wait for your lawyer. That’s the way to go.”
Ansetal mouthed: “Thank you.”
Sid murmured instructions to his e-i, clearing the paramedic crew to leave the crime scene, then went back to Kraemer. “I’ve authorized Ansetal’s release to the hospital. Go with him to take a statement.”
“Aye, I’ll get to it.”
“Give him time to get some treatment and recover. That was a nasty pounding he got there.” He produced a friendly smile. “It will keep you off the street for a while, too.”
“Appreciate that, man.”
“Then tomorrow I’ll need you to pull all the local mesh sensor memories.” He gestured around at the buildings. The brickwork and concrete would be covered in smartdust, some of which might have escaped degradation from the snow. “Forward them to my case file. He has insurance, so we can probably drag a budget from the company to run a track on the felons.”
“Right you are, man.”
Sid almost smiled—the young constable’s Geordie accent was nearly as thick as Ian’s. The paramedics closed the ambulance doors, firing up the siren as they pulled away. Ian was still talking to the remaining witnesses. Both of them young and female, Sid noticed without the slightest surprise. He’d been partnered with Ian for two years now—they knew each other better than brothers. As far as Ian was concerned the police force was simply the perfect vocation to legitimately meet girls. Dealing with actual criminals came in a very poor second. With not a little envy, Sid acknowledged Ian was very good at his chosen profession. A twenty-eight-year-old gym fanatic who spent his entire salary on good clothes and grooming, he knew every line in the file.
Both “witnesses” were hanging on to his every word as Sid went over to them. Unlike the other onlookers who were now walking away, they had their coats open down the front, showing off their best nightclub dresses—what there was of them. Sid just knew he was getting old when all he could think was how cold the poor things must be. “Anything useful in those statements, Detective?” he asked loudly.
Ian turned and gave him a derisory stare. “Aye, sorry about this, ladies, my boss is a being a pain again. But what can you do?”
They both giggled at how brave he was confronting his superior so directly, how confident and capable. Sid rolled his eyes. “Just get in the car, man. We’re done here.”
Ian’s voice lowered an octave or two. “I will be calling both of you for vital information. Like which is your favorite club, and when you’re going there again.”
Sid closed his ears to further outbreaks of inane giggling.
It was wonderfully warm inside the car. The bioil fuel cell produced a lot of surplus heat, which the aircon chewed hungrily to redistribute evenly from the vents. Sid unzipped his jacket as he muttered instructions to his e-i, opening a new case file on the mugging. A subdisplay on the bottom of his iris smartcell grid showed the file data building up.
“Oh yeah!” a delighted Ian said as he settled back into the passenger seat. “I’m in there, man. Did you see those lassies? Up for it they were, both of them.”
“Our medical insurance doesn’t provide unlimited penicillin, you know.”
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