In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns

In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns

by Elizabeth Bear

Originally published in Asimov’s, January 2012

pompeii pegasus by xueexueg

Police Sub-Inspector Ferron crouched over the object she assumed was the decedent, her hands sheathed in areactin, her elbows resting on uniformed knees. The body (presumed) lay in the middle of a jewel-toned rug like a flabby pink Klein bottle, its once-moist surfaces crusting in air. The rug was still fresh beneath it, fronds only a little dented by the weight and no sign of the browning that could indicate an improperly pheromone-treated object had been in contact with them for over 24 hours. Meandering brownish trails led out around the bodylike object; a good deal of the blood had already been assimilated by the rug, but enough remained that Ferron could pick out the outline of delicate paw-pads and the brush-marks of long hair.

Ferron was going to be late visiting her mother after work tonight.

She looked up at Senior Constable Indrapramit and said tiredly, “So this is the mortal remains of Dexter Coffin?”

Indrapramit put his chin on his thumbs, fingers interlaced thoughtfully before lips that had dried and cracked in the summer heat. “We won’t know for sure until the DNA comes back.” One knee-tall spit-shined boot wrapped in a sterile bootie prodded forward, failing to come within fifteen centimeters of the corpse. Was he jumpy? Or just being careful about contamination?

He said, “What do you make of that, Boss?”

“Well.” Ferron stood, straightening a kinked spine. “If that is Dexter Coffin, he picked an apt handle, didn’t he?”

Coffin’s luxurious private one-room flat had been sealed when patrol officers arrived, summoned on a welfare check after he did not respond to the flat’s minder. When police had broken down the door–the emergency overrides had been locked out–they had found this. This pink tube. This enormous sausage. This meaty object like a child’s toy “eel,” a long squashed torus full of fluid.

If you had a hand big enough to pick it up, Ferron imagined it would squirt right out of your grasp again.

Ferron was confident it represented sufficient mass for a full-grown adult. But how, exactly, did you manage to just… invert someone?

The Sub-Inspector stepped back from the corpse to turn a slow, considering circle.

The flat was set for entertaining. The bed, the appliances were folded away. The western-style table was elevated and extended for dining, a shelf disassembled for chairs. There was a workspace in one corner, not folded away–Ferron presumed–because of the sheer inconvenience of putting away that much mysterious, technical-looking equipment. Depth projections in spare, modernist frames adorned the wall behind: enhanced-color images of a gorgeous cacaphony of stars. Something from one of the orbital telescopes, probably, because there were too many thousands of them populating the sky for Ferron to recognize the navagraha–the signs of the Hindu Zodiac, despite her education.

In the opposite corner of the apt, where you would see it whenever you raised your eyes from the workstation, stood a brass Ganesha. The small offering tray before him held packets of kumkum and turmeric, fragrant blossoms, an antique American dime, a crumbling, unburned stick of agarbathi thrust into a banana. A silk shawl, as indigo as the midnight heavens, lay draped across the god’s brass thighs.

“Cute,” said Indrapramit dryly, following her gaze. “The Yank is going native.”

At the dinner table, two western-style place settings anticipated what Ferron guessed would have been a romantic evening. If one of the principals had not gotten himself turned inside out.

“Where’s the cat?” Indrapramit said, gesturing to the fading paw-print trails. He seemed calm, Ferron decided.

And she needed to stop hovering over him like she expected the cracks to show any second. Because she was only going to make him worse by worrying. He’d been back on the job for a month and a half now: it was time for her to relax. To trust the seven years they had been partners and friends, and to trust him to know what he needed as he made his transition back to active duty–and how to ask for it.

Except that would mean laying aside her displacement behavior, and dealing with her own problems.

“I was wondering the same thing,” Ferron admitted. “Hiding from the farang, I imagine. Here, puss puss. Here puss–”

She crossed to the cabinets and rummaged inside. There was a bowl of water, almost dry, and an empty food bowl in a corner by the sink. The food would be close by.

It took her less than thirty seconds to locate a tin decorated with fish skeletons and paw prints. Inside, gray-brown pellets smelled oily. She set the bowl on the counter and rattled a handful of kibble into it.

“Miaow?” something said from a dark corner beneath the lounge that probably converted into Coffin’s bed.

“Puss puss puss?” She picked up the water bowl, washed it out, filled it up again from the potable tap. Something lofted from the floor to the countertop and headbutted her arm, purring madly. It was a last-year’s-generation parrot-cat, a hyacinth-blue puffball on sun-yellow paws rimmed round the edges with brownish stains. It had a matching tuxedo ruff and goatee and piercing golden eyes that caught and concentrated the filtered sunlight.

“Now, are you supposed to be on the counter?”

“Miaow,” the cat said, cocking its head inquisitively. It didn’t budge.

Indrapramit was at Ferron’s elbow. “Doesn’t it talk?”

“Hey, Puss,” Ferron said. “What’s your name?”

It sat down, balanced neatly on the rail between sink and counter-edge, and flipped its blue fluffy tail over its feet. Its purr vibrated its whiskers and the long hairs of its ruff. Ferron offered it a bit of kibble, and it accepted ceremoniously.

“Must be new,” Indrapramit said. “Though you’d expect an adult to have learned to talk in the cattery.”

“Not new.” Ferron offered a fingertip to the engineered animal. It squeezed its eyes at her and deliberately wiped first one side of its muzzle against her areactin glove, and then the other. “Did you see the cat hair on the lounge?”

Indrapramit paused, considering. “Wiped.”

“Our only witness. And she has amnesia.” She turned to Indrapramit. “We need to find out who Coffin was expecting. Pull transit records. And I want a five-hour phone track log of every individual who came within fifty meters of this flat between twenty hundred yesterday and when Patrol broke down the doors. Let’s get some technical people in to figure out what that pile of gear in the corner is. And who called in the welfare check?”

“Not a lot of help there, boss.” Indrapramit’s gold-tinted irises flick-scrolled over data–the Constable was picking up a feed skinned over immediate perceptions. Ferron wanted to issue a mild reprimand for inattention to the scene, but it seemed churlish when Indrapramit was following orders. “When he didn’t come online this morning for work, his supervisor became concerned. The supervisor was unable to raise him voice or text. He contacted the flat’s minder, and when it reported no response to repeated queries, he called for help.”

Ferron contemplated the shattered edges of the smashed-in door before returning her attention to the corpse. “I know the door was locked out on emergency mode. Patrol’s override didn’t work?”

Indrapramit had one of the more deadpan expressions among the deadpan-trained and certified officers of the Bengaluru City Police. “Evidently.”

“Well, while you’re online, have them bring in a carrier for the witness.” She indicated the hyacinth parrot-cat. “I’ll take custody of her.”

“How do you know it’s a her?”

“She has a feminine face. Lotus eyes like Draupadi.”

He looked at her.

She grinned. “I’m guessing.”

Ferron had turned off all her skins and feeds while examining the crime scene, but the police link was permanent. An icon blinked discreetly in one corner of her interface, its yellow glow unappealing beside the salmon and coral of Coffin’s taut-stretched innards. Accepting the contact was just a matter of an eye-flick. There was a decoding shimmer and one side of the interface spawned an image of Coffin in life.

Coffin had not been a visually vivid individual. Unaffected, Ferron thought, unless dressing one’s self in sensible medium-pale brown skin and dark hair with classically Brahmin features counted as an affectation. That handle–Dexter Coffin, and wouldn’t Sinister Coffin be a more logical choice?–seemed to indicate a more flamboyant personality. Ferron made a note of that: out of such small inconsistencies did a homicide case grow.

“So how does one get from this” –Ferron gestured to the image, which should be floating in Indrapramit’s interface as well– “to that?” –the corpse on the rug. “In a locked room, no less?”

Indrapramit shrugged. He seemed comfortable enough in the presence of the body, and Ferron wished she could stop examining him for signs of stress. Maybe his rightminding was working. It wasn’t too much to hope for, and good treatments for post-traumatic stress had been in development since the Naughties.

But Indrapramit was a relocant: all his family was in a village somewhere up near Mumbai. He had no people here, and so Ferron felt it was her responsibility as his partner to look out for him. At least, that was what she told herself.

He said, “He swallowed a black hole?”

“I like living in the future.” Ferron picked at the edge of an areactin glove. “So many interesting ways to die.”

#

Ferron and Indrapramit left the aptblock through the crowds of Coffin’s neighbors. It was a block of unrelateds. Apparently Coffin had no family in Bengaluru, but it nevertheless seemed as if every (living) resident had heard the news and come down. The common areas were clogged with grans and youngers, sibs and parents and cousins–all wailing grief, trickling tears, leaning on each other, being interviewed by newsies and blogbots. Ferron took one look at the press in the living area and on the street beyond and juggled the cat carrier into her left hand. She slapped a stripped-off palm against the courtyard door. It swung open–you couldn’t lock somebody in–and Ferron and Indrapramit stepped out into the shade of the household sunfarm.

The trees were old. This block had been here a long time; long enough that the sunfollowing black vanes of the lower leaves were as long as Ferron’s arm. Someone in the block maintained them carefully, too–they were polished clean with soft cloth, no clogging particles allowed to remain. Condensation trickled down the clear tubules in their trunks to pool in underground catchpots.

Ferron leaned back against a trunk, basking in the cool, and yawned.

“You okay, boss?”

“Tired,” Ferron said. “If we hadn’t caught the homicide–if it is a homicide–I’d be on a crash cycle now. I had to re-up, and there’ll be hell to pay once it wears off.”

“Boss–”

“It’s only my second 48 hours,” Ferron said, dismissing Indrapramit’s concern with a ripple of her fingers. Gold rings glinted, but not on her wedding finger. Her short nails were manicured in an attempt to look professional, a reminder not to bite. “I’d go hypomanic for weeks at a time at University. Helps you cram, you know.”

Indrapramit nodded. He didn’t look happy.

The Sub-Inspector shook the residue of the areactin from her hands before rubbing tired eyes with numb fingers. Feeds jittered until the movement resolved. Mail was piling up–press requests, paperwork. There was no time to deal with it now.

“Anyway,” Ferron said. “I’ve already re-upped, so you’re stuck with me for another forty at least. Where do you think we start?”

“Interview lists,” Indrapramit said promptly. Climbing figs hung with ripe fruit twined the sunfarm; gently, the Senior Constable reached up and plucked one. When it popped between his teeth, its intense gritty sweetness echoed through the interface. It was a good fig.

Ferron reached up and stole one too.

“Miaow?” said the cat.

“Hush.” Ferron slicked tendrils of hair bent on escaping her conservative bun off her sweating temples. “I don’t know how you can wear those boots.”

“State of the art materials,” he said. Chewing a second fig, he jerked his chin at her practical sandals. “Chappals when you might have to run through broken glass, or kick down a door?”

She let it slide into silence. “Junior grade can handle the family for now. It’s bulk interviews. I’ll take Chairman Miaow here to the tech and get her scanned. Wait, Coffin was Employed? Doing what, and by whom?”

“Physicist,” Indrapramit said, linking a list of coworker and project names, a brief description of the biotech firm Coffin had worked for, like half of Employed Bengaluru ever since the medical tourism days. It was probably a better job than homicide cop. “Distributed. Most of his work group aren’t even in this time zone.”

“What does BioShell need with physicists?”

Silently, Indrapramit pointed up at the vanes of the suntrees, clinking faintly in their infinitesimal movements as they tracked the sun. “Quantum bioengineer,” he explained, after a suitable pause.

“Right,” Ferron said. “Well, Forensic will want us out from underfoot while they process the scene. I guess we can start drawing up interview lists.”

“Interview lists and lunch?” Indrapramit asked hopefully.

Ferron refrained from pointing out that they had just come out of an apt with an inside-out stiff in it. “Masala dosa?”

Indrapramit grinned. “I saw an SLV down the street.”

“I’ll call our tech,” Ferron said. “Let’s see if we can sneak out the service entrance and dodge the press.”

#

Ferron and Indrapramit (and the cat) made their way to the back gate. Indrapramit checked the security cameras on the alley behind the block: his feed said it was deserted except for a waste management vehicle. But as Ferron presented her warrant card–encoded in cloud, accessible through the Omni she wore on her left hip to balance the stun pistol–the energy-efficient safety lights ringing the doorway faded from cool white to a smoldering yellow, and then cut out entirely.

“Bugger,” Ferron said. “Power cut.”

“How, in a block with a sunfarm?”

“Loose connection?” she asked, rattling the door against the bolt just in case it had flipped back before the juice died. The cat protested. Gently, Ferron set the carrier down, out of the way. Then she kicked the door in frustration and jerked her foot back, cursing. Chappals, indeed.

Indrapramit regarded her mildly. “You shouldn’t have re-upped.”

She arched an eyebrow at him and put her foot down on the floor gingerly. The toes protested. “You suggesting I should modulate my stress response, Constable?”

“As long as you’re adjusting your biochemistry…”

She sighed. “It’s not work,” she said. “It’s my mother. She’s gone Atavistic, and–”

“Ah,” Indrapramit said. “Spending your inheritance on virtual life?”

Ferron turned her face away. WORSE, she texted. SHE’S NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO PAY HER ARCHIVING FEES.

–ISN’T SHE ON ASSISTANCE? SHOULDN’T THE DOLE COVER THAT?

–YEAH, BUT SHE LIVES IN A.R. SHE’S ALWAYS BEEN A GAMER, BUT SINCE FATHER DIED… IT’S AN ADDICTION. SHE ARCHIVES EVERYTHING. AND HAS SINCE I WAS A CHILD. WE’RE TALKING TERABYTES. PETABYTES. YOTTABYTES. I DON’T KNOW. AND SHE’S AFTER ME TO ‘BORROW’ THE MONEY.

“Ooof,” he said. “That’s a tough one.” Briefly, his hand brushed her arm: sympathy and human warmth.

She leaned into it before she pulled away. She didn’t tell him that she’d been paying those bills for the past eighteen months, and it was getting to the point where she couldn’t support her mother’s habit any more. She knew what she had to do. She just didn’t know how to make herself do it.

Her mother was her mother. She’d built everything about Ferron, from the DNA up. The programming to honor and obey ran deep. Duty. Felicity. Whatever you wanted to call it.

In frustration, unable to find the words for what she needed to explain properly, she said, “I need to get one of those black market DNA patches and reprogram my overengineered genes away from filial devotion.”

He laughed, as she had meant. “You can do that legally in Russia.”

“Gee,” she said. “You’re a help. Hey, what if we–” Before she could finish her suggestion that they slip the lock, the lights glimmered on again and the door, finally registering her override, clicked.

“There,” Indrapramit said. “Could have been worse.”

“Miaow,” said the cat.

“Don’t worry, Chairman,” Ferron answered. “I wasn’t going to forget you.”

#

The street hummed: autorickshaws, glidecycles, bikes, pedestrials, and swarms of foot traffic. The babble of languages: Kannada, Hindi, English, Chinese, Japanese. Coffin’s aptblock was in one of the older parts of the New City. It was an American ghetto: most of the residents had come here for work, and spoke English as a primary–sometimes an only–language. In the absence of family to stay with, they had banded together. Coffin’s address had once been trendy and now, fifty years after its conversion, was fallen on–not hard times, exactly, but a period of more moderate means. The street still remembered better days. It was bulwarked on both sides by the shaggy green cubes of aptblocks, black suntrees growing through their centers, but what lined each avenue were the feathery cassia trees, their branches dripping pink, golden, and terra-cotta blossoms.

Cassia, Ferron thought. A Greek word of uncertain antecedents, possibly related to the English word Cassia, meaning Chinese or mainland cinnamon. But these trees were not spices; indeed, the black pods of the golden cassia were a potent medicine in Ayurvedic traditions, and those of the rose cassia had been used since ancient times as a purgative for horses.

Ferron wiped sweat from her forehead again, and–speaking of horses–reined in the overly helpful commentary of her classical education.

The wall- and roofgardens of the aptblocks demonstrated a great deal about who lived there. The Coffin kinblock was well-tended, green and lush, dripping with brinjal and tomatoes. A couple of youngers–probably still in schooling, even if they weren’t Employment track–clambered up and down ladders weeding and feeding and harvesting, and cleaning the windows shaded here and there by the long green trail of sweet potato vines. But the next kinship block down was sere enough to draw a fine, the suntrees in its court sagging and miserable-looking. Ferron could make out the narrow tubes of drip irrigators behind crisping foliage on the near wall.

Ferron must have snorted, because Indrapramit said, “What are they doing with their greywater, then?”

“Maybe it’s abandoned?” Unlikely. Housing in the New City wasn’t exactly so plentiful that an empty block would remain empty for long.

“Maybe they can’t afford the plumber.”

That made Ferron snort again, and start walking. But she snapped an image of the dying aptblock nonetheless, and emailed it to Environmental Services. They’d handle the ticket, if they decided the case warranted one.

The Sri Lakshmi Venkateshwara–SLV–was about a hundred meters on, an open-air food stand shaded by a grove of engineered neem trees, their panel leaves angling to follow the sun. Hunger hadn’t managed to penetrate Ferron’s re-upped hypomania yet, but it would be a good idea to eat anyway: the brain might not be in any shape to notice that the body needed maintenance, but failing to provide that maintenance just added extra interest to the bill when it eventually came due.

Ferron ordered an enormous, potato-and-pea stuffed crepe against Indrapramit’s packet of samosas, plus green coconut water. Disdaining the SLV’s stand-up tables, they ventured a little further along the avenue until they found a bench to eat them on. News and ads flickered across the screen on its back. Ferron set the cat carrier on the seat between them.

Indrapramit dropped a somebody-else’s-problem skin around them for privacy and unwrapped his first samosa. Flocks of green and yellow parrots wheeled in the trees nearby; the boldest dozen fluttered down to hop and scuffle where the crumbs might fall. You couldn’t skin yourself out of the perceptions of the unwired world.

Indrapramit raised his voice to be heard over their arguments. “You shouldn’t have re-upped.”

The dosa was good–as crisp as she wanted, served with a smear of red curry. Ferron ate most of it, meanwhile grab-and-pasting names off of Coffin’s known associates lists onto an interfaced interview plan, before answering.

“Most homicides are closed–if they get closed–in the first forty-eight hours. It’s worth a little hypomania binge to find Coffin’s killer.”

“There’s more than one murder every two days in this city, boss.”

“Sure.” She had a temper, but this wasn’t the time to exercise it. She knew, given her family history, Indrapramit worried secretly that she’d succumb to addiction and abuse of the rightminding chemicals. The remaining bites of the dosa got sent to meet their brethren, peas popping between her teeth. The wrapper went into the recycler beside the bench. “But we don’t catch every case that flies through.”

Indrapramit tossed wadded-up paper at Ferron’s head. Ferron batted it into that recycler too. “No, yaar. Just all of them this week.”

The targeted ads bleeding off the bench-back behind Ferron were scientifically designed to attract her attention, which only made them more annoying. Some too-attractive citizen squalled about rightminding programs for geriatrics (“Bring your parents into the modern age!”), and the news–in direct, loud counterpoint–was talking about the latest orbital telescope discoveries: apparently a star some twenty thousand light years away, in the Andromeda Galaxy, had suddenly begun exhibiting a flickering pattern that some astronomers considered a possible precursor to a nova event.

The part of her brain that automatically built such parallels said: Andromeda. Contained within the span of Uttara Bhadrapada. The twenty-sixth nakshatra in Hindu astronomy, although she was not a sign of the Zodiac to the Greeks. Pegasus was also in Uttara Bhadrapada. Ferron devoted a few more cycles to wondering if there was any relationship other than coincidental between the legendary serpent Ahir Budhnya, the deity of Uttara Bhadrapada, and the sea monster Cetus, set to eat–devour, the Greeks were so melodramatic–the chained Andromeda.

The whole thing fell under the influence of the god Aryaman, whose path was the Milky Way–the Heavenly Ganges.

You’re overqualified, madam. Oh, she could have been the professor, the academic her mother had dreamed of making her, in all those long hours spent in virtual reproductions of myths the world around. She could have been. But if she’d really wanted to make her mother happy, she would have pursued Egyptology, too.

But she wasn’t, and it was time she got her mind back on the job she did have.

Ferron flicked on the feeds she’d shut off to attend the crime scene. She didn’t like to skin on the job: a homicide cop’s work depended heavily on unfiltered perceptions, and if you trimmed everything and everyone irritating or disagreeable out of reality, the odds were pretty good that you’d miss the truth behind a crime. But sometimes you had to make an exception.

She linked up, turned up her spam filters and ad blockers, and sorted more Known Associates files. Speaking of her mother, that required ignoring all those lion-headed message-waiting icons blinking in a corner of her feed–and the pileup of news and personal messages in her assimilator.

Lions. Bengaluru’s state capitol was topped with a statue of a four-headed lion, guarding each of the cardinal directions. The ancient symbol of India was part of why Ferron’s mother chose that symbolism. But only part.

She set the messages to hide, squirming with guilt as she did, and concentrated on the work-related mail.

When she looked up, Indrapramit appeared to have finished both his sorting and his samosas. “All right, what have you got?”

“Just this.” She dumped the interview files to his headspace.

The Senior Constable blinked upon receipt. “Ugh. That’s even more than I thought.”

#

First on Ferron’s interview list were the dead man’s coworkers, based on the simple logic that if anybody knew how to turn somebody inside out, it was likely to be another physicist. Indrapramit went back to the aptblock to continue interviewing more-or-less hysterical neighbors in a quest for the name of any potential lover or assignation from the night before.

It was the task least likely to be any fun at all. But then, Ferron was the senior officer. Rank hath its privileges. Someday, Indrapramit would be making junior colleagues follow up horrible gutwork.

The bus, it turned out, ran right from the corner where Coffin’s kinblock’s street intercepted the main road. Proximity made her choose it over the mag-lev Metro, but she soon regretted her decision, because it then wound in a drunken pattern through what seemed like the majority of Bengaluru.

She was lucky enough to find a seat–it wasn’t a crowded hour. She registered her position with dispatch and settled down to wait and talk to the hyacinth cat, since it was more than sunny enough that no-one needed to pedal. She waited it out for the transfer point anyway: that bus ran straight to the U District, where BioShell had its offices.

Predictable. Handy for head-hunting, and an easy walk for any BioShell employee who might also teach classes. As it seemed, by the number of Professor So-and-sos on Ferron’s list, that many of them did.

Her tech, a short wide-bellied man who went by the handle Ravindra, caught up with her while she was still leaned against the second bus’s warm, tinted window. He hopped up the steps two at a time, belying his bulk, and shooed a citizen out of the seat beside Ferron with his investigator’s card.

Unlike peace officers, who had long since been spun out as distributed employees, techs performed their functions amid the equipment and resources of a centralized lab. But today, Ravindra had come equipped for fieldwork. He stood, steadying himself on the grab bar, and spread his kit out on the now-unoccupied aisle seat while Ferron coaxed the cat from her carrier under the seat.

“Good puss,” Ravindra said, riffling soft fur until he found the contact point behind the animal’s ears. His probe made a soft, satisfied beep as he connected it. The cat relaxed bonelessly, purring. “You want a complete download?”

“Whatever you can get,” Ferron said. “It looks like she’s been wiped. She won’t talk, anyway.”

“Could be trauma, boss,” Ravindra said dubiously. “Oh, DNA results are back. That’s your inside-out vic, all right. The autopsy was just getting started when I left, and Doc said to tell you that to a first approximation, it looked like all the bits were there, albeit not necessarily in the proper sequence.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” The bus lurched. “At least it’s the correct dead guy.”

“Miaow,” said the cat.

“What is your name, puss?” Ravindra asked.

“Chairman Miaow,” the cat said, in a sweet doll’s voice.

“Oh, no,” Ferron said. “That’s just what I’ve been calling her.”

“Huh.” Ravindra frowned at the readouts that must be scrolling across his feed. “Did you feed her, boss?”

“Yeah,” Ferron said. “To get her out from under the couch.”

He nodded, and started rolling up his kit. As he disconnected the probe, he said, “I downloaded everything there was. It’s not much. And I’ll take a tissue sample for further investigation, but I don’t think this cat was wiped.”

“But there’s nothing–”

“I know,” he said. “Not wiped. This one’s factory-new. And it’s bonded to you. Congratulations, Sub-Inspector. I think you have a cat.”

“I can’t–” she said, and paused. “I already have a fox. My mother’s fox, rather. I’m taking care of it for her.”

Mine,” the cat said distinctly, rubbing her blue-and-yellow muzzle along Ferron’s uniform sleeve, leaving behind a scraping of azure lint.

“I imagine they can learn to cohabitate.” He shouldered his kit. “Anyway, it’s unlikely Chairman Miaow here will be any use as a witness, but I’ll pick over the data anyway and get back to you. It’s not even a gig.”

“Damn,” she said. “I was hoping she’d seen the killer. So even if she’s brand-new… why hadn’t she bonded to Coffin?”

“He hadn’t fed her,” Ravindra said. “And he hadn’t given her a name. She’s a sweetie, though.” He scratched behind her ears. A funny expression crossed his face. “You know, I’ve been wondering for ages–how did you wind up choosing to be called Ferron, anyway?”

“My mother used to say I was stubborn as iron.” Ferron managed to keep what she knew would be a pathetically adolescent shrug off her shoulders. “She was fascinated by Egypt, but I studied Classics–Latin, Greek, Sanskrit. Some Chinese stuff. And I liked the name. Ferrum, iron. She won’t use it. She still uses my cradlename.” Even when I’m paying her bills.

The lion-face still blinked there, muted but unanswered. In a fit of irritation, Ferron banished it. It wasn’t like she would forget to call.

Once she had time, she promised the ghost of her mother.

Ravindra, she realized, was staring at her quizzically. “How did a classicist wind up a murder cop?”

Ferron snorted. “You ever try to find Employment as a classicist?”

#

Ravindra got off at the next stop. Ferron watched him walk away, whistling for an autorickshaw to take him back to the lab. She scratched Chairman Miaow under the chin and sighed.

In another few minutes, she reached the university district and disembarked, still burdened with cat and carrier. It was a pleasant walk from the stop, despite the heat of the end of the dry season. It was late June, and Ferron wondered what it had been like before the Shift, when the monsoons would have started already, breaking the back of the heat.

The walk from the bus took under fifteen minutes, the cat a dozy puddle. A patch of sweat spread against Ferron’s summerweight trousers where the carrier bumped softly against her hip. She knew she retraced Coffin’s route on those rare days when he might choose to report to the office.

Nearing the Indian Institute of Science, Ferron became aware that clothing styles were shifting–self-consciously Green Earther living fabric and ironic, ill-fitting student antiques predominated. Between the buildings and the statuary of culture heroes–R.K. Narayan, Ratan Tata, stark-white with serene or stern expressions–the streets still swarmed, and would until long after nightfall. A prof-caste wearing a live-cloth salwar kameez strutted past; Ferron was all too aware that the outfit would cost a week’s salary for even a fairly high-ranking cop.

The majority of these people were Employed. They wore salwar kameez or suits and they had that purpose in their step–unlike most citizens, who weren’t in too much of a hurry to get anywhere, especially in the heat of day. It was easier to move in the University quarter, because traffic flowed with intent. Ferron, accustomed to stepping around window-browsing Supplemented and people out for their mandated exercise, felt stress dropping away as the greenery, trees, and gracious old 19th and 20th century buildings of the campus rose up on every side.

As she walked under the chin of Mohandas Gandhi, Ferron felt the familiar irritation that female police pioneer Kiran Bedi, one of her own personal idols, was not represented among the statuary. There was hijra activist Shabnam Mausi behind a row of well-tended planters, though, which was somewhat satisfying.

Some people found it unsettling to be surrounded by so much brick, poured concrete, and mined stone–the legacy of cooler, more energy-rich times. Ferron knew that the bulk of the university’s buildings were more efficient green structures, but those tended to blend into their surroundings. The overwhelming impression was still that of a return to a simpler time: 1870, perhaps, or 1955. Ferron wouldn’t have wanted to see the whole city gone this way, but it was good that some of the history had been preserved.

Having bisected campus, Ferron emerged along a prestigious street of much more modern buildings. No vehicles larger than bicycles were allowed here, and the roadbed swarmed with those, people on foot, and pedestrials. Ferron passed a rack of share-bikes and a newly constructed green building, still uninhabited, the leaves of its suntrees narrow, immature, and furled. They’d soon be spread wide, and the structure fully tenanted.

The BioShell office itself was a showpiece on the ground floor of a business block, with a live receptionist visible behind foggy photosynthetic glass walls. I’d hate a job where you can’t pick your nose in case the pedestrians see it. Of course, Ferron hadn’t chosen to be as decorative as the receptionist. A certain stern plainness helped get her job done.

“Hello,” Ferron said, as the receptionist smoothed brown hair over a shoulder. “I’m Police Sub-Inspector Ferron. I’m here to see Dr. Rao.”

“A moment, madam,” the receptionist said, gesturing graciously to a chair.

Ferron set heels together in parade rest and–impassive–waited. It was only a few moments before a shimmer of green flickered across the receptionist’s iris.

“First door on the right, madam, and then up the stairs. Do you require a guide?”

“Thank you,” Ferron said, glad she hadn’t asked about the cat. “I think I can find it.”

There was an elevator for the disabled, but the stairs were not much further on. Ferron lugged Chairman Miaow through the fire door at the top and paused a moment to catch her breath. A steady hum came from the nearest room, to which the door stood ajar.

Ferron picked her way across a lush biorug sprinkled with violet and yellow flowers and tapped lightly. A voice rose over the hum. “Namaskar!”

Dr. Rao was a slender, tall man whose eyes were framed in heavy creases. He walked forward at a moderate speed on a treadmill, an old-fashioned keyboard and monitor mounted on a swivel arm before him. As Ferron entered, he pushed the arm aside, but kept walking. An amber light flickered green as the monitor went dark: he was charging batteries now.

“Namaskar,” Ferron replied. She tried not to stare too obviously at the walking desk.

She must have failed.

“Part of my rightminding, madam,” Rao said with an apologetic shrug. “I’ve fibromyalgia, and mild exercise helps. You must be the Sub-Inspector. How do you take your mandated exercise? You carry yourself with such confidence.”

“I am a practitioner of kalari payat,” Ferron said, naming a South Indian martial art. “It’s useful in my work.”

“Well,” he said. “I hope you’ll see no need to demonstrate any upon me. Is that a cat?”

“Sorry, saab,” Ferron said. “It’s work-related. She can wait in the hall if you mind–”

“No, not at all. Actually, I love cats. She can come out, if she’s not too scared.”

“Oouuuuut!” said Chairman Miaow.

“I guess that settles that.” Ferron unzipped the carrier, and the hyacinth parrot-cat sauntered out and leaped up to the treadmill’s handrail.

“Niranjana?” Dr. Rao said, in surprise. “Excuse me, madam, but what are you doing with Dr. Coffin’s cat?”

“You know this cat?”

“Of course I do.” He stopped walking, and scratched the cat under her chin. She stretched her head out like a lazy snake, balanced lightly on four daffodil paws. “She comes here about twice a month.”

“New!” the cat disagreed. “Who you?”

“Niranjana, it’s Rao. You know me.”

“Rrraaao?” she said, cocking her head curiously. Adamantly, she said, “New! My name Chairman Miaow!”

Dr. Rao’s forehead wrinkled. To Ferron, over the cat’s head, he said, “Is Dexter with you? Is he all right?”

“I’m afraid that’s why I’m here,” Ferron said. “It is my regretful duty to inform you that Dexter Coffin appears to have been murdered in his home sometime over the night. Saab, law requires that I inform you that this conversation is being recorded. Anything you say may be entered in evidence. You have the right to skin your responses or withhold information, but if you choose to do so, under certain circumstances a court order may be obtained to download and decode associated cloud memories. Do you understand this caution?”

“Oh dear,” Dr. Rao said. “When I called the police, I didn’t expect–”

“I know,” Ferron said. “But do you understand the caution, saab?”

“I do,” he said. A yellow peripheral node in Ferron’s visual field went green.

She said, “Do you confirm this is his cat?”

“I’d know her anywhere,” Dr. Rao said. “The markings are very distinctive. Dexter brought her in quite often. She’s been wiped? How awful.”

“We’re investigating,” Ferron said, relieved to be back in control of the conversation. “I’m afraid I’ll need details of what Coffin was working on, his contacts, any romantic entanglements, any professional rivalries or enemies–”

“Of course,” Dr. Rao said. He pulled his interface back around and began typing. “I’ll generate you a list. As for what he was working on–I’m afraid there are a lot of trade secrets involved, but we’re a biomedical engineering firm, as I’m sure you’re aware. Dexter’s particular project has been applications in four-dimensional engineering.”

“I’m afraid,” Ferron said, “that means nothing to me.”

“Of course.” He pressed a key. The cat peered over his shoulder, apparently fascinated by the blinking lights on the monitor.

The hyperlink blinked live in Ferron’s feed. She accessed it and received a brief education in the theoretical physics of reaching around three-dimensional shapes in space-time. A cold sweat slicked her palms. She told herself it was just the second hypomania re-up.

“Closed-heart surgery,” she said. During the medical tourism boom, Bengaluru’s economy had thrived. They’d found other ways to make ends meet now that people no longer traveled so profligately, but the state remained one of India’s centers of medical technology. Ferron wondered about the applications for remote surgery, and what the economic impact of this technology could be.

“Sure. Or extracting an appendix without leaving a scar. Inserting stem cells into bone marrow with no surgical trauma, freeing the body to heal disease instead of infection and wounds. It’s revolutionary. If we can get it working.”

“Saab…” She stroked Chairman Miaow’s sleek azure head. “Could it be used as a weapon?”

“Anything can be used as a weapon,” he said. A little too fast? But his skin conductivity and heart rate revealed no deception, no withholding. “Look, Sub-Inspector. Would you like some coffee?”

“I’d love some,” she admitted.

He tapped a few more keys and stepped down from the treadmill. She’d have thought the typing curiously inefficient, but he certainly seemed to get things done fast.

“Religious reasons, saab?” she asked.

“Hmm?” He glanced at the monitor. “No. I’m just an eccentric. I prefer one information stream at a time. And I like to come here and do my work, and keep my home at home.”

“Oh.” Ferron laughed, following him across the office to a set of antique lacquered chairs. Chairman Miaow minced after them, stopping to sniff the unfamiliar rug and roll in a particularly lush patch. Feeling like she was making a huge confession, Ferron said, “I turn off my feeds sometimes too. Skin out. It helps me concentrate.”

He winked.

She said, “So tell me about Dexter and his cat.”

“Well…” He glanced guiltily at Chairman Miaow. “She was very advanced. He obviously spent a great deal of time working with her. Complete sentences, conversation on about the level of an imaginative five-year old. That’s one of our designs, by the way.”

“Parrot cats?”

“The hyacinth variety. We’re working on an Eclectus variant for next year’s market. Crimson and plum colors. You know they have a much longer lifespan than the root stock? Parrot-cats should be able to live for thirty to fifty years, though of course the design hasn’t been around long enough for experimental proof.”

“I did not. About Dr. Coffin–” she paused, and scanned the lists of enemies and contacts that Dr. Rao had provided, cross-referencing it with files and the reports of three interviews that had come in from Indrapramit in the last five minutes. Another contact request from her mother blinked away officiously. She dismissed it. “I understand he wasn’t born here?”

“He traveled,” Dr. Rao said in hushed tones. “From America.”

“Huh,” Ferron said. “He relocated for a job? Medieval. How did BioShell justify the expense–and the carbon burden?”

“A unique skill set. We bring in people from many places, actually. He was well-liked here: his work was outstanding, and he was charming enough–and talented enough–that his colleagues forgave him some of the… vagaries in his rightminding.”

“Vagaries…?”

“He was a depressive, madam,” Dr. Rao said. “Prone to fairly serious fits of existential despair. Medication and surgery controlled it adequately that he was functional, but not completely enough that he was always… comfortable.”

“When you say existential despair…?” Ferron was a past master of the open-ended hesitation.

Dr. Rao seemed cheerfully willing to fill them in for her. “He questioned the worth and value of pretty much every human endeavor. Of existence itself.”

“So he was a bit nihilistic?”

“Nihilism denies value. Dexter was willing to believe that compassion had value–not intrinsic value, you understand. But assigned value. He believed that the best thing a human being could aspire to was to limit suffering.”

“That explains his handle.”

Dr. Rao chuckled. “It does, doesn’t it? Anyway, he was brilliant.”

“I assume that means that BioShell will suffer in his absence.”

“The fourth-dimension project is going to fall apart without him,” Dr. Rao said candidly. “It’s going to take a global search to replace him. And we’ll have to do it quickly; release of the technology was on the anvil.”

Ferron thought about the inside-out person in the midst of his rug, his flat set for an intimate dinner for two. “Dr. Rao…”

“Yes, Sub-Inspector?”

“In your estimation, would Dr. Coffin commit suicide?”

He steepled his fingers and sighed. “It’s… possible. But he was very devoted to his work, and his psych evaluations did not indicate it as an immediate danger. I’d hate to think so.”

“Because you’d feel like you should have done more? You can’t save somebody from themselves, Dr. Rao.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “a word in the dark is all it takes.”

“Dr. Coffin worked from home. Was any of his lab equipment there? Is it possible that he died in an accident?”

Dr. Rao’s eyebrows rose. “Now I’m curious about the nature of his demise, I’m afraid. He should not have had any proprietary equipment at home: we maintain a lab for him here, and his work at home should have been limited to theory and analysis. But of course he’d have an array of interfaces.”

The coffee arrived, brought in by a young man with a ready smile who set the tray on the table and vanished again without a word. No doubt pleased to be Employed.

As Dr. Rao poured from a solid old stoneware carafe, he transitioned to small talk. “Some exciting news about the Andromeda Galaxy, isn’t it? They’ve named the star Al-Rahman.”

“I thought stars were named by coordinates and catalogue number these days.”

“They are,” Rao said. “But it’s fitting for this one to have a little romance. People being what they are, someone would have named it if the science community didn’t. And Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sufi was the first astronomer to describe the Andromeda Galaxy, around 960 A.D. He called it the ‘little cloud.’ It’s also called Messier 31–”

“Do you think it’s a nova precursor, saab?”

He handed her the coffee–something that smelled pricy and rich, probably from the hills–and offered cream and sugar. She added a lump of the latter to her cup with the tongs, stirred in cream, and selected a lemon biscuit from the little plate he nudged toward her.

“That’s what they said on the news,” he said.

“Meaning you don’t believe it?”

“You’re sharp,” he said admiringly.

“I’m a homicide investigator,” she said.

He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small injection kit. The hypo hissed alarmingly as he pressed it to his skin. He winced.

“Insulin?” she asked, restraining herself from an incredibly rude question about why he hadn’t had stem cells, if he was diabetic.

He shook his head. “Scotophobin. Also part of my rightminding. I have short-term memory issues.” He picked up a chocolate biscuit and bit into it decisively.

She’d taken the stuff herself, in school and when cramming for her police exams. She also refused to be derailed. “So you don’t think this star–”

“Al-Rahman.”

“–Al-Rahman. You don’t think it’s going nova?”

“Oh, it might be,” he said. “But what would you say if I told you that its pattern is a repeating series of prime numbers?”

The sharp tartness of lemon shortbread turned to so much grit in her mouth. “I beg your pardon.”

“Someone is signaling us,” Dr. Rao said. “Or I should say, was signaling us. A long, long time ago. Somebody with the technology necessary to tune the output of their star.”

“Explain,” she said, setting the remainder of the biscuit on her saucer.

“Al-Rahman is more than two and a half million light years away. That means that the light we’re seeing from it was modulated when the first identifiable humans were budding off the hominid family tree. Even if we could send a signal back… The odds are very good that they’re all gone now. It was just a message in a bottle. We were here.”

“The news said twenty thousand light years.”

“The news.” He scoffed. “Do they ever get police work right?”

“Never,” Ferron said fervently.

“Science either.” He glanced up as the lights dimmed. “Another brownout.”

An unformed idea tickled the back of Ferron’s mind. “Do you have a sunfarm?”

“BioShell is entirely self-sufficient,” he confirmed. “It’s got to be a bug, but we haven’t located it yet. Anyway, it will be back up in a minute. All our important equipment has dedicated power supplies.”

He finished his biscuit and stirred the coffee thoughtfully while he chewed. “The odds are that the universe is–or has been–full of intelligent species. And that we will never meet any of them. Because the distances and time scales are so vast. In the two hundred years we’ve been capable of sending signals into space–well. Compare that in scale to Al-Rahman.”

“That’s awful,” Ferron said. “It makes me appreciate Dr. Coffin’s perspective.”

“It’s terrible,” Dr. Rao agreed. “Terrible and wonderful. In some ways I wonder if that’s as close as we’ll ever get to comprehending the face of God.”

They sipped their coffee in contemplation, facing one another across the tray and the low lacquered table.

“Milk?” said Chairman Miaow. Carefully, Ferron poured some cream into a saucer and gave it to her.

Dr. Rao said, “You know, the Andromeda Galaxy and our own Milky Way are expected to collide eventually.”

“Eventually?”

He smiled. It did good things for the creases around his eyes. “Four and a half billion years or so.”

Ferron thought about Uttara Bhadrapada, and the Heavenly Ganges, and Aryaman’s house–in a metaphysical sort of sense–as he came to walk that path across the sky. From so far away it took two and a half million years just to see that far.

“I won’t wait up, then.” She finished the last swallow of coffee and looked around for the cat. “I don’t suppose I could see Dr. Coffin’s lab before I go?”

“Oh,” said Dr. Rao. “I think we can do that, and better.”

#

The lab space Coffin had shared with three other researchers belied BioShell’s corporate wealth. It was a maze of tables and unidentifiable equipment in dizzying array. Ferron identified a gene sequencer, four or five microscopes, and a centrifuge, but most of the rest baffled her limited knowledge of bioengineering. She was struck by the fact that just about every object in the room was dressed in BioShell’s livery colors of emerald and gold, however.

She glimpsed a conservatory through a connecting door, lush with what must be prototype plants; at the far end of the room, rows of condensers hummed beside a revolving door rimed with frost. A black-skinned woman in a lab coat with her hair clipped into short, tight curls had her eyes to a lens and her hands in waldo sleeves. Microsurgery?

Dr. Rao held out a hand as Ferron paused beside him. “Will we disturb her?”

“Dr. Nnebuogor will have skinned out just about everything except the fire alarm,” Dr. Rao said. “The only way to distract her would be to go over and give her a shove. Which–” he raised a warning finger “–I would recommend against, as she’s probably engaged in work on those next-generation parrot-cats I told you about now.”

“Nnebuogor? She’s Nigerian?”

Dr. Rao nodded. “Educated in Cairo and Bengaluru. Her coming to work for BioShell was a real coup for us.”

“You do employ a lot of farang,” Ferron said. “And not by telepresence.” She waited for Rao to bridle, but she must have gotten the tone right, because he shrugged.

“Our researchers need access to our lab.”

“Miaow,” said Chairman Miaow.

“Can she?” Ferron asked.

“We’re cat-friendly,” Rao said, with a flicker of a smile, so Ferron set the carrier down and opened its door. Rao’s heart rate was up a little, and she caught herself watching sideways while he straightened his trousers and picked lint from his sleeve.

Chairman Miaow emerged slowly, rubbing her length against the side of the carrier. She gazed up at the equipment and furniture with unblinking eyes and soon she gathered herself to leap onto a workbench, and Dr. Rao put a hand out firmly.

“No climbing or jumping,” he said. “Dangerous. It will hurt you.”

“Hurt?” The cat drew out the Rs in a manner so adorable it had to be engineered for. “No jump?”

“No.” Rao turned to Ferron. “We’ve hardwired in response to the No command. I think you’ll find our parrot-cats superior to unengineered felines in this regard. Of course… they’re still cats.”

“Of course,” Ferron said. She watched as Chairman Miaow explored her new environment, rubbing her face on this and that. “Do you have any pets?”

“We often take home the successful prototypes,” he said. “It would be a pity to destroy them. I have a parrot-cat–a red-and-gray–and a golden lemur. Engineered, of course. The baseline ones are protected.”

As they watched, the hyacinth cat picked her way around, sniffing every surface. She paused before one workstation in particular before cheek-marking it, and said in comically exaggerated surprise: “Mine! My smell.”

There was a synthetic-fleece-lined basket tucked beneath the table. The cat leaned towards it, stretching her head and neck, and sniffed deeply and repeatedly.

“Have you been here before?” Ferron asked.

Chairman Miaow looked at Ferron wide-eyed with amazement at Ferron’s patent ignorance, and declared “New!”

She jumped into the basket and snuggled in, sinking her claws deeply and repeatedly into the fleece.

Ferron made herself stop chewing her thumbnail. She stuck her hand into her uniform pocket. “Are all your hyacinths clones?”

“They’re all closely related,” Dr. Rao said. “But no, not clones. And even if she were a clone, there would be differences in the expression of her tuxedo pattern.”

At that moment, Dr. Nnebuogor sighed and backed away from her machine, withdrawing her hands from the sleeves and shaking out the fingers like a musician after practicing. She jumped when she turned and saw them. “Oh! Sorry. I was skinned. Namaskar.”

“Miaow?” said the cat in her appropriated basket.

“Hello, Niranjana. Where’s Dexter?” said Dr. Nnebuogor. Ferron felt the scientist reading her meta-tags. Dr. Nnebuogor raised her eyes to Rao. “And–pardon, officer–what’s with the copper?”

“Actually,” Ferron said, “I have some bad news for you. It appears that Dexter Coffin was murdered last night.”

“Murdered…” Dr. Nnebuogor put her hand out against the table edge. “Murdered?

“Yes,” Ferron said. “I’m Police Sub-Inspector Ferron–” which Dr. Nnebuogor would know already. “–and I’m afraid I need to ask you some questions. Also, I’ll be contacting the other researchers who share your facilities via telepresence. Is there a private area I can use for that?”

Dr. Nnebuogor looked stricken. The hand that was not leaned against the table went up to her mouth. Ferron’s feed showed the acceleration of her heart, the increase in skin conductivity as her body slicked with cold sweat. Guilt or grief? It was too soon to tell.

“You can use my office,” Dr. Rao said. “Kindly, with my gratitude.”

#

The interviews took the best part of the day and evening, when all was said and done, and garnered Ferron very little new information–yes, people would probably kill for what Coffin was–had been–working on. No, none of his colleagues had any reason to. No, he had no love life of which they were aware.

Ferron supposed she technically could spend all night lugging the cat carrier around, but her own flat wasn’t too far from the University district. It was in a kinship block teeming with her uncles and cousins, her grandparents, great-grandparents, her sisters and their husbands (and in one case, wife). The fiscal support of shared housing was the only reason she’d been able to carry her mother as long as she had.

She checked out a pedestrial because she couldn’t face the bus and she felt like she’d done more than her quota of steps before dinnertime–and here it was, well after. The cat carrier balanced on the grab bar, she zipped it unerringly through the traffic, enjoying the feel of the wind in her hair and the outraged honks cascading along the double avenues.

She could make the drive on autopilot, so she used the other half of her attention to feed facts to the Department’s expert system. Doyle knew everything about everything, and if it wasn’t self-aware or self-directed in the sense that most people meant when they said artificial intelligence, it still rivaled a trained human brain when it came to picking out patterns–and being supercooled, it was significantly faster.

She even told it the puzzling bits, such as how Chairman Miaow had reacted upon being introduced to the communal lab that Coffin shared with three other BioShell researchers.

Doyle swallowed everything Ferron could give it, as fast as she could report. She knew that down in its bowels, it would be integrating that information with Indrapramit’s reports, and those of the other officers and techs assigned to the case.

She thought maybe they needed something more. As the pedestrial dropped her at the bottom of her side street, she dropped a line to Damini, her favorite archinformist. “Hey,” she said, when Damini answered.

“Hey yourself, boss. What do you need?”

Ferron released the pedestrial back into the city pool. It scurried off, probably already summoned to the next call. Ferron had used her override to requisition it. She tried to feel guilty, but she was already late in attending on her mother–and she’d ignored two more messages in the intervening time. It was probably too late to prevent bloodshed, but there was something to be said for getting the inevitable over with.

“Dig me up everything you can on today’s vic, would you? Dexter Coffin, American by birth, employed at BioShell. As far back as you can, any tracks he may have left under any name or handle.”

“Childhood dental records and juvenile posts on the Candyland message boards,” Damini said cheerfully. “Got it. I’ll stick it in Doyle when it’s done.”

“Ping me, too? Even if it’s late? I’m upped.”

“So will I be,” Damini answered. “This could take a while. Anything else?”

“Not unless you have a cure for families.”

“Hah,” said the archinformist. “Everybody talking, and nobody hears a damned thing anybody else has to say. I’d retire on the proceeds. All right, check in later.” She vanished just as Ferron reached the aptblock lobby.

It was after dinner, but half the family was hanging around in the common areas, watching the news or playing games while pretending to ignore it. Ferron knew it was useless to try sneaking past the synthetic marble-floored chambers with their charpoys and cushions, the corners lush with foliage. Attempted stealth would only encourage them to detain her longer.

Dr. Rao’s information about the prime number progression had leaked beyond scientific circles–or been released–and an endless succession of talking heads was analyzing it in less nuanced terms than he’d managed. The older cousins asked Ferron if she’d heard the news about the star; two sisters and an uncle told her that her mother had been looking for her. All the nieces and nephews and small cousins wanted to look at the cat.

Ferron’s aging mausi gave her five minutes on how a little cosmetic surgery would make her much more attractive on the marriage market, and shouldn’t she consider lightening that mahogany-brown skin to a “prettier” wheatish complexion? A plate of idlis and sambaar appeared as if by magic in mausi’s hand, and from there transferred to Ferron’s. “And how are you ever going to catch a man if you’re so skinny?”

It took Ferron twenty minutes to maneuver into her own small flat, which was still set for sleeping from three nights before. Smoke came trotting to see her, a petite-footed drift of the softest silver-and-charcoal fur imaginable, from which emerged a laughing triangular face set with eyes like black jewels. His ancestors has been foxes farmed for fur in Russia. Researchers had experimented on them, breeding for docility. It turned out it only took a few generations to turn a wild animal into a housepet.

Ferron was a little uneasy with the ethics of all that. But it hadn’t stopped her from adopting Smoke when her mother lost interest in him. Foxes weren’t the hot trend anymore; the fashion was for engineered cats and lemurs–and skinpets, among those who wanted to look daring.

Having rushed home, she was now possessed by the intense desire to delay the inevitable. She set Chairman Miaow’s carrier on top of the cabinets and took Smoke out into the sunfarm for a few minutes of exercise in the relative cool of night. When he’d chased parrots in circles for a bit, she brought him back in, cleaned his litterbox, and stripped off her sweat-stiff uniform to have a shower. She was washing her hair when she realized that she had no idea what to feed Chairman Miaow. Maybe she could eat fox food? Ferron would have to figure out some way to segregate part of the flat for her… at least until she was sure that Smoke didn’t think a parrot-cat would make a nice midnight snack.

She dressed in off-duty clothes–barefoot in a salwar kameez–and made an attempt at setting her furniture to segregate her flat. Before she left, she placed offering packets of kumkum and a few marigolds from the patio boxes in the tray before her idol of Varuna, the god of agreement, order, and the law.

#

Ferron didn’t bother drying her hair before she presented herself at her mother’s door. If she left it down, the heat would see to that soon enough.

Madhuvanthi did not rise to admit Ferron herself, as she was no longer capable. The door just slid open to Ferron’s presence. As Ferron stepped inside, she saw mostly that the rug needed watering, and that the chaise her mother reclined on needed to be reset–it was sagging at the edges from too long in one shape. She wore not just the usual noninvasive modern interface–contacts, skin conductivity and brain activity sensors, the invisibly fine wires that lay along the skin and detected nerve impulses and muscle micromovements–but a full immersion suit.

Not for the first time, Ferron contemplated skinning out the thing’s bulky, padded outline, and looking at her mother the way she wanted to see her. But that would be dishonest. Ferron was here to face her problems, not pretend their nonexistence.

“Hello, Mother,” Ferron said.

There was no answer.

Ferron sent a text message. HELLO, MOTHER. YOU WANTED TO SEE ME?

The pause was long, but not as long as it could have been. YOU’RE LATE, TAMANNA. I’VE BEEN TRYING TO REACH YOU ALL DAY. I’M IN THE MIDDLE OF A RUN RIGHT NOW.

I’M SORRY, Ferron said. SOMEONE WAS MURDERED.

Text, thank all the gods, sucked out the defensive sarcasm that would have filled up a spoken word. She fiddled the bangles she couldn’t wear on duty, just to hear the glass chime.

She could feel her mother’s attention elsewhere, her distaste at having the unpleasant realities of Ferron’s job forced upon her. That attention would focus on anything but Ferron, for as long as Ferron waited for it. It was a contest of wills, and Ferron always lost. MOTHER–

Her mother pushed up the faceplate on the VR helmet and sat up abruptly. “Bloody hell,” she said. “Got killed. That’ll teach me to do two things at once. Look, about the archives–”

“Mother,” Ferron said, “I can’t. I don’t have any more savings to give you.”

Madhuvanthi said, “They’ll kill me.”

They’ll de-archive your virtual history, Ferron thought, but she had the sense to hold her tongue.

After her silence dragged on for fifteen seconds or so, Madhuvanthi said, “Sell the fox.”

“He’s mine,” Ferron said. “I’m not selling him. Mother, you really need to come out of your make-believe world once in a while–”

Her mother pulled the collar of the VR suit open so she could ruffle the fur of the violet-and-teal striped skinpet nestled up to the warmth of her throat. It humped in response, probably vibrating with a comforting purr. Ferron tried not to judge, but the idea of parasitic pets, no matter how fluffy and colorful, made her skin crawl.

Ferron’s mother said, “Make-believe. And your world isn’t?”

“Mother–”

“Come in and see my world sometime before you judge it.”

“I’ve seen your world,” Ferron said. “I used to live there, remember? All the time, with you. Now I live out here, and you can too.”

Madhuvanthi’s glare would have seemed blistering even in the rainy season. “I’m your mother. You will obey me.”

Everything inside Ferron demanded she answer yes. Hard-wired, that duty. Planned for. Programmed.

Ferron raised her right hand. “Can’t we get some dinner and–”

Madhuvanthi sniffed and closed the faceplate again. And that was the end of the interview.

Rightminding or not, the cool wings of hypomania or not, Ferron’s heart was pounding and her fresh clothing felt sticky again already. She turned and left.

#

When she got back to her own flat, the first thing she noticed was her makeshift wall of furniture partially disassembled, a chair/shelf knocked sideways, the disconnected and overturned table top now fallen flat.

“Oh, no.” Her heart rose into her throat. She rushed inside, the door forgotten–

Atop a heap of cushions lay Smoke, proud and smug. And against his soft gray side, his fluffy tail flipped over her like a blanket, curled Chairman Miaow, her golden eyes squeezed closed in pleasure.

“Mine!” she said definitively, raising her head.

“I guess so,” Ferron answered. She shut the door and went to pour herself a drink while she started sorting through Indrapramit’s latest crop of interviews.

According to everything Indrapramit had learned, Coffin was quiet. He kept to himself, but he was always willing and enthusiastic when it came to discussing his work. His closest companion was the cat–Ferron looked down at Chairman Miaow, who had rearranged herself to take advantage of the warm valley in the bed between Smoke and Ferron’s thigh–and the cat was something of a neighborhood celebrity, riding on Coffin’s shoulder when he took his exercise.

All in all, a typical portrait of a typical, lonely man who didn’t let anyone get too close.

“Maybe there will be more in the archinformation,” she said, and went back to Doyle’s pattern algorithm results one more damn time.

#

After performing her evening practice of kalari payat–first time in three days–Ferron set her furniture for bed and retired to it with her files. She wasn’t expecting Indrapramit to show up at her flat, but sometime around two in the morning, the lobby door discreetly let her know she had a visitor. Of course, he knew she’d upped, and since he had no family and lived in a thin-walled dormitory room, he’d need a quiet place to camp out and work at this hour of the night. There wasn’t a lot of productive interviewing you could do when all the subjects were asleep–at least, not until they had somebody dead to rights enough to take them down to the jail for interrogation.

His coming to her home meant every other resident in the block would know, and Ferron could look forward to a morning of being quizzed by aunties while she tried to cram her idlis down. It didn’t matter that Indrapramit was a colleague, and she was his superior. At her age, any sign of male interest brought unEmployed relatives with too much time on their hands swarming.

Still, she admitted him. Then she extricated herself from between the fox and the cat, wrapped her bathrobe around herself, stomped into her slippers, and headed out to meet him in the hall. At least keeping their conference to the public areas would limit knowing glances later.

He’d upped too. She could tell by the bounce in his step and his slightly wild focus. And the fact that he was dropping by for a visit in the dark of the morning.

Lowering her voice so she wouldn’t trouble her neighbors, Ferron said, “Something too good to mail?”

“An interesting potential complication.”

She gestured to the glass doors leading out to the sunfarm. He followed her, his boots somehow still as bright as they’d been that morning. He must polish them in an anti-static gloss.

She kicked off her slippers and padded barefoot over the threshold, making sure to silence the alarm first. The suntrees were furled for the night, their leaves rolled into funnels that channeled condensation to the roots. There was even a bit of chill in the air.

Ferron breathed in gratefully, wiggling her toes in the cultivated earth. “Let’s go up to the roof.”

Without a word, Indrapramit followed her up the winding openwork stair hung with bougainvillea, barren and thorny now in the dry season but a riot of color and greenery once the rains returned. The interior walls of the aptblock were mossy and thickly planted with coriander and other Ayurvedic herbs. Ferron broke off a bitter leaf of fenugreek to nibble as they climbed.

At the landing, she stepped aside and tilted her head back, peering up through the potted neem and lemon and mango trees at the stars beyond. A dark hunched shape in the branches of a pomegranate startled her until she realized it was the outline of one of the house monkeys, huddled in sleep. She wondered if she could see the Andromeda Galaxy from here at this time of year. Checking a skymap, she learned that it would be visible–but probably low on the horizon, and not without a telescope in these light-polluted times. You’d have better odds of finding it than a hundred years ago, though, when you’d barely have been able to glimpse the brightest stars. The Heavenly Ganges spilled across the darkness like sequins sewn at random on an indigo veil, and a crooked fragment of moon rode high. She breathed in deep and stepped onto the grass and herbs of the roof garden. A creeping mint snagged at her toes, sending its pungency wide.

“So what’s the big news?”

“We’re not the only ones asking questions about Dexter Coffin.” Indrapramit flashed her a video clip of a pale-skinned woman with red hair bleached ginger by the sun and a crop of freckles not even the gloss of sunblock across her cheeks could keep down. She was broad-shouldered and looked capable, and the ID codes running across the feed under her image told Ferron she carried a warrant card and a stun pistol.

“Contract cop?” she said, sympathetically.

“I’m fine,” he said, before she could ask. He spread his first two fingers opposite his thumb and pressed each end of the V beneath his collarbones, a new nervous gesture. “I got my Chicago block maintained last week, and the reprogramming is holding. I’d tell you if I was triggering. I know that not every contract cop is going to decompensate and start a massacre.”

A massacre Indrapramit had stopped the hard way, it happened. “Let me know what you need,” she said, because everything else she could have said would sound like a vote of non-confidence.

“Thanks,” he said. “How’d it go with your Mother?”

“Gah,” she said. “I think I need a needle. So what’s the contractor asking? And who’s employing her?”

“Here’s the interesting thing, boss. She’s an American too.”

“She couldn’t have made it here this fast. Not unless she started before he died–”

“No,” he said. “She’s an expat, a former New York homicide detective. Her handle is Morganti. She lives in Hongasandra, and she does a lot of work for American and Canadian police departments. Licensed and bonded, and she seems to have a very good rep.”

“Who’s she under contract to now?”

“Warrant card says Honolulu.”

“Huh.” Ferron kept her eyes on the stars, and the dark leaves blowing before them. “Top-tier distributed policing, then. Is it a skip trace?”

“You think he was on the run, and whoever he was on the run from finally caught up with him?”

“It’s a working theory.” She shrugged. “Damini’s supposed to be calling with some background any minute now. Actually, I think I’ll check in with her. She’s late, and I have to file a 24-hour report with the Inspector in the morning.”

With a twitch of her attention, she spun a bug out to Damini and conferenced Indrapramit in.

The archinformist answered immediately. “Sorry, boss,” she said. “I know I’m slow, but I’m still trying to put together a complete picture here. Your dead guy buried his past pretty thoroughly. I can give you a preliminary, though, with the caveat that it’s subject to change.”

“Squirt,” Ferron said, opening her firewall to the data. It came in fast and hard, and there seemed to be kilometers of it unrolling into her feed like an endless bolt of silk. “Oh, dear…”

“I know, I know. Do you want the executive summary? Even if it’s also a work in progress? Okay. First up, nobody other than Coffin was in his flat that night, according to netfeed tracking.”

“The other night upon the stair,” Ferron said, “I met a man who wasn’t there.”

Damina blew her bangs out of her eyes. “So either nobody came in, or whoever did is a good enough hacker to eradicate every trace of her presence. Which is not a common thing.”

“Gotcha. What else?”

“Doyle picked out a partial pattern in your feed. Two power cuts in places associated with the crime. It started looking for more, and it identified a series of brownouts over the course of a year or so, all in locations with some connection to Dr. Coffin. Better yet, Doyle identified the cause.”

“I promise I’m holding my breath,” Indrapramit said.

“Then how is it you are talking? Anyway, it’s a smart virus in the power grids. It’s draining power off the lab and household sunfarms at irregular intervals. That power is being routed to a series of chargeable batteries in Coffin’s lab space. Except Coffin didn’t purchase order the batteries.”

“Nnebuogor,” Ferron guessed.

“Two points,” said Damini. “It’s a stretch, but she could have come in to the office today specifically to see if the cops stopped by.”

“She could have….” Indrapramit said dubiously. “You think she killed him because he found out she was stealing power? For what purpose?”

“I’ll get on her email and media,” Damini said. “So here’s my speculation: imagine this utility virus, spreading through the smart grid from aptblock to aptblock. To commit the murder–nobody had to be in the room with him, not if his four-dimensional manipulators were within range of him. Right? You’d just override whatever safety protocols there were, and… boom. Or squish, if you prefer.”

Ferron winced. She didn’t. Prefer, that was. “Any sign that the manipulators were interfered with?”

“Memory wiped,” Damini said. “Just like the cat. Oh, and the other thing I found out. Dexter Coffin is not our boy’s first identity. It’s more like his third, if my linguistic and semantic parsers are right about the web content they’re picking up. I’ve got Conan on it too–” Conan was another of the department’s expert systems “–and I’m going to go over a selection by hand. But it seems like our decedent had reinvented himself whenever he got into professional trouble, which he did a lot. He had unpopular opinions, and he wasn’t shy about sharing them with the net. So he’d make the community too hot to handle and then come back as his own sockpuppet–new look, new address, new handle. Severing all ties to what he was before. I’ve managed to get a real fix on his last identity, though–”

Indrapramit leaned forward, folding his arms against the chill. “How do you do that? He works in a specialized–a rarified field. I’d guess everybody in it knows each other, at least by reputation. Just how much did he change his appearance?”

“Well,” Damini said, “he used to look like this. He must have used some rightminding tactics to change elements of his personality, too. Just not the salient ones. A real chameleon, your arsehole.”

She picked a still image out of the datastream and flung it up. Ferron glanced at Indrapramit, whose rakish eyebrows were climbing up his forehead. An East Asian with long, glossy dark hair, who appeared to stand about six inches taller than Dr. Coffin, floated at the center of her perceptions, smiling benevolently.

“Madam, saab,” Damini said. “May I present Dr. Jessica Fang.”

“Well,” Ferron said, after a pause of moderate length. “That takes a significant investment.” She thought of Aristotle: As the condition of the mind alters, so too alters the condition of the body, and likewise, as the condition of the body alters, so too alters the condition of the mind.

Indrapramit said, “He has a taste for evocative handles. Any idea why the vanishing act?”

“I’m working on it,” Damini said.

“I’ve got a better idea,” said Ferron. “Why don’t we ask Detective Morganti?”

Indrapramit steepled his fingers. “Boss….”

“I’ll hear it,” Ferron said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s crazy.”

“We’ve been totally sidetracked by the cat issue. Because Chairman Miaow has to be Niranjana, right? Because a clone would have expressed the genes for those markings differently. But she can’t be Niranjana, because she’s not wiped: she’s factory-new.”

“Right,” Ferron said cautiously.

“So.” Indrapramit was enjoying his dramatic moment. “If a person can have cosmetic surgery, why not a parrot-cat?”

#

“Chairman Miaow?” Ferron called, as she led Indrapramit into her flat. They needed tea to shake off the early morning chill, and she was beyond caring what the neighbors thought. She needed a clean uniform, too.

“Miaow,” said Chairman Miaow, from inside the kitchen cupboard.

“Oh, dear.” Indrapamit followed Ferron in. Smoke sat demurely in the middle of the floor, tail fluffed over his toes, the picture of innocence. Ferron pulled wide the cabinet door, which already stood ten inches ajar. There was Chairman Miaow, purring, a shredded packet of tunafish spreading dribbles of greasy water across the cupboard floor.

She licked her chops ostentatiously and jumped down to the sink lip, where she balanced as preciously as she had in Coffin’s flat.

“Cat,” Ferron said. She thought over the next few things she wanted to say, and remembered that she was speaking to a parrot-cat. “Don’t think you’ve gotten away with anything. The fox is getting the rest of that.”

“Fox food is icky,” the cat said. “Also, not enough taurine.”

“Huh,” Ferron said. She looked over at Indrapramit.

He looked back. “I guess she’s learning to talk.”

#

They had no problem finding Detective Morganti. The redheaded American woman arrived at Ferron’s aptblock with the first rays of sunlight stroking the vertical farms along its flanks. She had been sitting on the bench beside the door, reading something on her screen, but she looked up and stood as Ferron and Indrapramit exited.

“Sub-Inspector Ferron, I presume? And Constable Indrapramit, how nice to see you again.”

Ferron shook her hand. She was even more imposing in person, tall and broad-chested, with the shoulders of a cartoon superhuman. She didn’t squeeze.

Morganti continued, “I understand you’re the detective of record on the Coffin case.”

“Walk with us,” Ferron said. “There’s a nice French coffee shop on the way to the Metro.”

It had shaded awnings and a courtyard, and they were seated and served within minutes. Ferron amused herself by pushing the crumbs of her pastry around on the plate while they talked. Occasionally, she broke a piece off and tucked it into her mouth, washing buttery flakes down with thick, cardamom-scented brew.

“So,” she said after a few moments, “what did Jessica Fang do in Honolulu? It’s not just the flame wars, I take it. And there’s no warrant for her that we could find.”

Morganti’s eyes rose. “Very efficient.”

“Thank you.” Ferron tipped her head to Indrapramit. “Mostly his work, and that of my archinformist.”

Morganti smiled; Indrapramit nodded silently. Then Morganti said, “She is believed to have been responsible for embezzling almost three million ConDollars from her former employer, eleven years ago in the Hawaiian Islands.”

“That’d pay for a lot of identity-changing.”

“Indeed.”

“But they can’t prove it.”

“If they could, Honolulu P.D. would have pulled a warrant and virtually extradited her. Him. I was contracted to look into the case ten days ago–” She tore off a piece of a cheese croissant and chewed it thoughtfully. “It took the skip trace this long to locate her. Him.”

“Did she do it?”

Hell yes.” She grinned like the American she was. “The question is–well, okay, I realize the murder is your jurisdiction, but I don’t get paid unless I either close the case or eliminate my suspect–and I get a bonus if I recover any of the stolen property. Now, ‘killed by person or persons unknown,’ is a perfectly acceptable outcome as far as the City of Honolulu is concerned, with the added benefit that the State of Hawaii doesn’t have to pay Bengaluru to incarcerate him. So I need to know, one cop to another, if the inside-out stiff is Dexter Coffin.”

“The DNA matches,” Ferron said. “I can tell you that in confidence. There will be a press release once we locate and notify his next of kin.”

“Understood,” Morganti said. “I’ll keep it under my hat. I’ll be filing recovery paperwork against the dead man’s assets in the amount of C$2,798,000 and change. I can give you the next of kin, by the way.”

The data came in a squirt. Daughter, Maui. Dr. Fang-Coffin really had severed all ties.

“Understood,” Ferron echoed. She smiled when she caught herself. She liked this woman. “You realize we have to treat you as a suspect, given your financial motive.”

“Of course,” Morganti said. “I’m bonded, and I’ll be happy to come in for an interrogation under Truth.”

“That will make things easier, madam,” Ferron said.

Morganti turned her coffee cup in its saucer. “Now then. What can I do to help you clear your homicide?”

Indrapramit shifted uncomfortably on the bench.

“What did Jessica Fang do, exactly?” Ferron had Damini’s data in her case buffer. She could use what Morganti told her to judge the contract officer’s knowledge and sincerity.

“In addition to the embezzling? Accused of stealing research and passing it off as her own,” Morganti said. “Also, she was–well, she was just kind of an asshole on the net, frankly. Running down colleagues, dismissing their work, aggrandizing her own. She was good, truthfully. But nobody’s that good.”

“Would someone have followed him here for personal reasons?”

“As you may have gathered, this guy was not diligent about his rightminding,” Morganti said. She pushed a handful of hair behind her shoulder. “And he was a bit of a narcissist. Sociopath? Antisocial in some sort of atavistic way. Normal people don’t just… walk away from all their social connections because they made things a little hot on the net.”

Ferron thought of the distributed politics of her own workplace, the sniping and personality clashes. And her mother, not so much alone on an electronic Serengeti as haunting the virtual pillared palaces of an Egypt that never was.

“No,” she said.

Morganti said, “Most people find ways to cope with that. Most people don’t burn themselves as badly as Jessica Fang did, though.”

“I see.” Ferron wished badly for sparkling water in place of the syrupy coffee. “You’ve been running down Coffin’s finances, then? Can you share that information?”

Morganti said that he had liquidated a lot of hidden assets a week ago, about two days after she took his case. “It was before I made contact with him, but it’s possible he had Jessica Fang flagged for searches–or he had a contact in Honolulu who let him know when the skip trace paid off. He was getting ready to run again. How does that sound?”

Ferron sighed and sat back in her chair. “Fabulous. It sounds completely fabulous. I don’t suppose you have any insight into who he might have been expecting for dinner? Or how whoever killed him might have gotten out of the room afterwards when it was all locked up tight on Coffin’s override?”

Morganti shrugged. “He didn’t have any close friends or romantic relationships. Always too aware that he was living in hiding, I’d guess. Sometimes he entertained co-workers, but I’ve checked with them all, and none admits having gone to see him that night.”

“Sub-Inspector,” Indrapramit said gently. “The time.”

“Bugger,” Ferron said, registering it. “Morning roll call. Catch up with you later?”

“Absolutely,” Morganti said. “As I said before, I’m just concerned with clearing my embezzling case. I’m always happy to help a sister officer out on a murder.”

And butter up the local police, Ferron thought.

Morganti said, “One thing that won’t change. Fang was obsessed with astronomy.”

“There were deep-space images on Coffin’s walls,” Ferron said.

Indrapramit said, “And he had offered his Ganesha an indigo scarf. I wonder if the color symbolized something astronomical to him.”

“Indigo,” Morganti said. “Isn’t it funny that we have a separate word for dark blue?”

Ferron felt the pedantry welling up, and couldn’t quite stopper it. “Did you know that all over the world, dark blue and black are often named with the same word? Possibly because of the color of the night sky. And that the ancient Greeks did not have a particular name for the color blue? Thus their seas were famously ‘wine-dark.’ But in Hindu tradition, the color blue has a special significance: it is the color of Vishnu’s skin, and Krishna is nicknamed Sunil, ‘dark blue.’ The color also implies that which is all-encompassing, as in the sky.”

She thought of something slightly more obscure. “Also, that color is the color of Shani Bhagavan, who is one of the deities associated with Uttara Bhadrapada. Which we’ve been hearing a lot about lately. It might indeed have had a lot of significance to Dr. Fang-Coffin.”

Morganti, eyebrows drawn together in confusion, looked to Indrapramit for salvation. “Saab? Uttara Bhadrapada?”

Indrapramit said, “Andromeda.”

#

Morganti excused herself as Indrapramit and Ferron prepared to check in to their virtual office.

While Ferron organized her files and her report, Indrapramit finished his coffee. “We need to check inbound ships from, or carrying passengers from, America. Honolulu isn’t as prohibitive as, say, Chicago.”

They’d worked together long enough that half the conversational shifts didn’t need to be recorded. “Just in case somebody did come here to kill him. Well, there can’t be that many passages, right?”

“I’ll get Damini after it,” he said. “After roll–”

Roll call made her avoidant. There would be reports, politics, wrangling, and a succession of wastes of time as people tried to prove that their cases were more worthy of resources than other cases.

She pinched her temples. At least the coffee here was good. “Right. Telepresencing… now.”

#

After the morning meeting, they ordered another round of coffees, and Ferron pulled up the sandwich menu and eyed it. There was no telling when they’d have time for lunch.

She’d grab something after the next of kin notification. If she was still hungry when they were done.

Normally, in the case of a next of kin so geographically distant, Bengaluru Police would arrange for an officer with local jurisdiction to make the call. But the Lahaina Police Department had been unable to raise Jessica Fang’s daughter on a home visit, and a little cursory research had revealed that she was unEmployed and very nearly a permanent resident of Artificial Reality.

Just going by her handle, Jessica Fang’s daughter on Maui didn’t have a lot of professional aspirations. Ferron and Indrapramit had to go virtual and pull on avatars to meet her: Skooter0 didn’t seem to come out of her virtual worlds for anything other than biologically unavoidable crash cycles. Since they were on duty, Ferron and Indrapramit’s avatars were the standard-issue blanks provided by Bengaluru Police, their virtual uniforms sharply pressed, their virtual faces expressionless and identical.

It wasn’t the warm and personal touch you would hope for, Ferron thought, when somebody was coming to tell you your mother had been murdered.

“Why don’t you take point on this one?” she said.

Indrapramit snorted. “Be sure to mention my leadership qualities in my next performance review.”

They left their bodies holding down those same cafĂ© chairs and waded through the first few tiers of advertisements–get-rich-quick schemes, Bollywood starlets, and pop star scandal sheets, until they got into the American feed, and then it was get-rich-quick schemes, Hollywood starlets, pornography, and Congressional scandal sheets–until they linked up with the law enforcement priority channel. Ferron checked the address and led Indrapramit into a massively multiplayer artificial reality that showed real-time activity through Skooter0′s system identity number. Once provided with the next-of-kin’s handle, Damini had sent along a selection of key codes and overrides that got them through the pay wall with ease.

They didn’t need a warrant for this. It was just a courtesy call.

Skooter0′s preferred hangout was a ‘historical’ AR, which meant in theory that it reflected the pre-21st-century world, and in practice that it was a muddled-up stew of cowboys, ninjas, pinstripe suit mobsters, medieval knights, cavaliers, Mongols, and wild West gunslingers. There were Macedonians, Mauryans, African gunrunners, French resistance fighters and Nazis, all running around together with samurai and Shaolin monks.

Indrapramit’s avatar checked a beacon–a glowing green needle floating just above his nonexistent wrist. The directional signal led them through a space meant to evoke an antediluvian ice cave, in which about two dozen people all dressed as different incarnations of the late-20th-century pop star David Bowie were working themselves into a martial frenzy as they prepared to go forth and do virtual battle with some rival clade of Emulators. Ferron eyed a Diamond Dog who was being dressed in glittering armor by a pair of Thin White Dukes and was glad of the expressionless surface of her uniform avatar.

She knew what they were supposed to be because she pattern-matched from the web. The music was quaint, but pretty good. The costumes… she winced.

Well, it was probably a better way to deal with antisocial aggression than taking it out on your spouse.

Indrapramit walked on, eyes front–not that you needed eyes to see what was going on in here.

At the far end of the ice cave, four 7th-century Norse dwarves delved a staircase out of virtual stone, leading endlessly down. Heat rolled up from the depths. The virtual workmanship was astounding. Ferron and Indrapramit moved past, hiding their admiring glances. Just as much skill went into creating AR beauty as if it were real stone.

The ice cave gave way to a forest glade floored in mossy, irregular slates. Set about on those were curved, transparent tables set for chess, go, mancala, cribbage, and similar strategy games. Most of the tables were occupied by pairs of players, and some had drawn observers as well.

Indrapramit followed his needle–and Ferron followed Indrapramit–to a table where a unicorn and a sasquatch were playing a game involving rows of transparent red and yellow stones laid out on a grid according to rules that Ferron did not comprehend. The sasquatch looked up as they stopped beside the table. The unicorn–glossy black, with a pearly, shimmering horn and a glowing amber stone pinched between the halves of her cloven hoof–was focused on her next move.

The arrow pointed squarely between her enormous, lambent golden eyes.

Ferron cleared her throat.

“Yes, officers?” the sasquatch said. He scratched the top of his head. The hair was particularly silky, and flowed around his long hooked fingernails.

“I’m afraid we need to speak to your friend,” Indrapramit said.

“She’s skinning you out,” the sasquatch said. “Unless you have a warrant–”

“We have an override,” Ferron said, and used it as soon as she felt Indrapramit’s assent.

The unicorn’s head came up, a shudder running the length of her body and setting her silvery mane to swaying. In a brittle voice, she said, “I’d like to report a glitch.”

“It’s not a glitch,” Indrapramit said. He identified himself and Ferron and said, “Are you Skooter0?”

“Yeah,” she said. The horn glittered dangerously. “I haven’t broken any laws in India.”

The sasquatch stood up discreetly and backed away.

“It is my unfortunate duty,” Indrapramit continued, “to inform you of the murder of your mother, Dr. Jessica Fang, a.k.a. Dr. Dexter Coffin.”

The unicorn blinked iridescent lashes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You’re talking about something I have killfiled. I won’t be able to hear you until you stop.”

Indrapramit’s avatar didn’t look at Ferron, but she felt his request for help. She stepped forward and keyed a top-level override. “You will hear us,” she said to the unicorn. “I am sorry for the intrusion, but we are legally bound to inform you that your mother, Dr. Jessica Fang, a.k.a. Dr. Dexter Coffin, has been murdered.”

The unicorn’s lip curled in a snarl. “Good. I’m glad.”

Ferron stepped back. It was about the response she had expected.

“She made me,” the unicorn said. “That doesn’t make her my mother. Is there anything else you’re legally bound to inform me of?”

“No,” Indrapramit said.

“Then get the hell out.” The unicorn set her amber gaming stone down on the grid. A golden glow encompassed it and its neighbors. “I win.”

#

“Warehoused,” Indrapramit said with distaste, back in his own body and nibbling a slice of quiche. “And happy about it.”

Ferron had a pressed sandwich of vegetables, tapenade, cheeses, and some elaborate and incomprehensible European charcuterie made of smoked vatted protein. It was delicious, in a totally exotic sort of way. “Would it be better if she were miserable and unfulfilled?”

He made a noise of discontentment and speared a bite of spinach and egg.

Ferron knew her combativeness was really all about her mother, not Fang/Coffin’s adult and avoidant daughter. Maybe it was the last remnants of upping, but she couldn’t stop herself from saying, “What she’s doing is not so different from what our brains do naturally, except now it’s by tech/filters rather than prejudice and neurology.”

Indrapramit changed the subject. “Let’s make a virtual tour of the scene.” As an icon blinked in Ferron’s attention space, he added, “Oh, hey. Final autopsy report.”

“Something from Damini, too,” Ferron said. It had a priority code on it. She stepped into a artificial reality simulation of Coffin’s apartment as she opened the contact. The thrill of the chase rose through the fog of her fading hypomania. Upping didn’t seem to stick as well as it had when she was younger, and the crashes came harder now–but real, old-fashioned adrenaline was the cure for everything.

“Ferron,” Ferron said, frowning down at the browned patches on Coffin’s virtual rug. Indrapramit rezzed into the conference a heartbeat later. “Damini, what do the depths of the net reveal?”

“Jackpot,” Damini said. “Did you get a chance to look at the autopsy report yet?”

“We just got done with the next of kin,” Ferron said. “You’re fast–I just saw the icon.”

“Short form,” Damini said, “is that’s not Dexter Coffin.”

Ferron’s avatar made a slow circuit around the perimeter of the virtual murder scene. “There was a DNA match. Damini, we just told his daughter he was murdered.”

Indrapramit, more practical, put down his fork in meatspace. His AR avatar mimicked the motion with an empty hand. “So who is it?”

“Nobody,” Damini said. She leaned back, satisfied. “The medical examiner says it’s topologically impossible to turn somebody inside out like that. It’s vatted, whatever it is. A grown object, nominally alive, cloned from Dexter Coffin’s tissue. But it’s not Dexter Coffin. I mean, think about it–what organ would that be, exactly?”

“Cloned.” In meatspace, Ferron picked a puff of hyacinth-blue fur off her uniform sleeve. She held it up where Indrapramit could see it.

His eyes widened. “Yes,” he said. “What about the patterns, though?”

“Do I look like a bioengineer to you? Indrapramit,” Ferron said thoughtfully. “Does this crime scene look staged to you?”

He frowned. “Maybe.”

“Damini,” Ferron asked, “how’d you do with Dr. Coffin’s files? And Dr. Nnebuogar’s files?”

“There’s nothing useful in Coffin’s email except some terse exchanges with Dr. Nnebuogar very similar in tone to the Jessica Fang papers. Nnebuogar was warning Coffin off her research. But there were no death threats, no love letters, no child support demands.”

“Anything he was interested in?”

“That star,” Damini said. “The one that’s going nova or whatever. He’s been following it for a couple of weeks now, before the press release hit the mainstream feeds. Nnebuogar’s logins support the idea that she’s behind the utility virus, by the way.”

“Logins can be spoofed.”

“So they can,” Damini agreed.

Ferron peeled her sandwich open and frowned down at the vatted charcuterie. It all looked a lot less appealing now. “Nobody came to Coffin’s flat. And it turns out the stiff wasn’t a stiff after all. So Coffin went somewhere else, after making preparations to flee and then abandoning them.”

“And the crime scene was staged,” Indrapramit said.

“This is interesting,” Damini said. “Coffin hadn’t been to the office in a week.”

“Since about when Morganti started investigating him. Or when he might have become aware that she was on his trail.”

Ferron said something sharp and self-critical and radically unprofessional. And then she said, “I’m an idiot. Leakage.”

“Leakage?” Damini asked. “You mean like when people can’t stop talking about the crime they actually committed, or the person you’re not supposed to know they’re having an affair with?”

An urgent icon from Ferron’s mausi Sandhya–the responsible auntie, not the fussy auntie–blinked insistently at the edge of her awareness. Oh Gods, what now?

“Exactly like that,” Ferron said. “Look, check on any hits for Coffin outside his flat in the past ten days. And I need confidential warrants for DNA analysis of the composters at the BioShell laboratory facility and also at Dr. Rao’s apartment.”

“You think Rao killed him?” Damini didn’t even try to hide her shock.

Blink, blink went the icon. Emergency. Code red. Your mother has gone beyond the pale, my dear. “Just pull the warrants. I want to see what we get before I commit to my theory.”

“Why?” Indrapramit asked.

Ferron sighed. “Because it’s crazy. That’s why. And see if you can get confidential access to Rao’s calendar files and email. I don’t want him to know you’re looking.”

“Wait right there,” Damini said. “Don’t touch a thing. I’ll be back before you know it.”

#

“Mother,” Ferron said to her mother’s lion-maned goddess of an avatar, “I’m sorry. Sandhya’s sorry. We’re all sorry. But we can’t let you go on like this.”

It was the hardest thing she’d ever said.

Her mother, wearing Sekhmet’s golden eyes, looked at Ferron’s avatar and curled a lip. Ferron had come in, not in a uniform avatar, but wearing the battle-scarred armor she used to play in when she was younger, when she and her mother would spend hours Atavistic. That was during her schooling, before she got interested in stopping–or at least avenging–real misery.

Was that fair? Her mother’s misery was real. So was that of Jessica Fang’s abandoned daughter. And this was a palliative–against being widowed, against being bedridden.

Madhuvanthi’s lip-curl slowly blossomed into a snarl. “Of course. You can let them destroy this. Take away everything I am. It’s not like it’s murder.”

“Mother,” Ferron said, “it’s not real.”

“If it isn’t,” her mother said, gesturing around the room, “what is, then? I made you. I gave you life. You owe me this. Sandhya said you came home with one of those new parrot cats. Where’d the money for that come from?”

“Chairman Miaow,” Ferron said, “is evidence. And reproduction is an ultimately sociopathic act, no matter what I owe you.”

Madhuvanthi sighed. “Daughter, come on one last run.”

“You’ll have your own memories of all this,” Ferron said. “What do you need the archive for?”

“Memory,” her mother scoffed. “What’s memory, Tamanna? What do you actually remember? Scraps, conflations. How does it compare to being able to relive?”

To relive it, Ferron thought, you’d have to have lived it in the first place. But even teetering on the edge of fatigue and crash, she had the sense to keep that to herself.

“Have you heard about the star?” she asked. Anything to change the subject. “The one the aliens are using to talk to us?”

“The light’s four million years old,” Madhuvanthi said. “They’re all dead. Look, there’s a new manifest synesthesia show. Roman and Egyptian. Something for both of us. If you won’t come on an adventure with me, will you at least come to an art show? I promise I’ll never ask you for archive money again. Just come to this one thing with me? And I promise I’ll prune my archive starting tomorrow.”

The lioness’s brow was wrinkled. Madhuvanthi’s voice was thin with defeat. There was no more money, and she knew it. But she couldn’t stop bargaining. And the art show was a concession, something that evoked the time they used to spend together, in these imaginary worlds.

“Ferron,” she said. Pleading. “Just let me do it myself.”

Ferron. They weren’t really communicating. Nothing was won. Her mother was doing what addicts always did when confronted–delaying, bargaining, buying time. But she’d call her daughter Ferron if it might buy her another twenty-four hours in her virtual paradise.

“I’ll come,” Ferron said. “But not until tonight. I have some work to do.”

#

“Boss. How did you know to look for that DNA?” Damini asked, when Ferron activated her icon.

“Tell me what you found,” Ferron countered.

“DNA in the BioShell composter that matches that of Chairman Miaow,” she said, “and therefore that of Dexter Coffin’s cat. And the composter of Rao’s building is just full of his DNA. Rao’s. Much, much more than you’d expect. Also, some of his email and calendar data has been purged. I’m attempting to reconstruct–”

“Have it for the chargesheet,” Ferron said. “I bet it’ll show he had a meeting with Coffin the night Coffin vanished.”

#

Dr. Rao lived not in an aptblock, even an upscale one, but in the Vertical City. Once Damini returned with the results of the warrants, Ferron got her paperwork in order for the visit. It was well after nightfall by the time she and Indrapramit, accompanied by Detective Morganti and four patrol officers, went to confront him.

They entered past shops and the vertical farm in the enormous tower’s atrium. The air smelled green and healthy, and even at this hour of the night, people moved in steady streams towards the dining areas, across lush green carpets.

A lift bore the police officers effortlessly upward, revealing the lights of Bengaluru spread out below through a transparent exterior wall. Ferron looked at Indrapramit and pursed her lips. He raised his eyebrows in reply. Conspicuous consumption. But they couldn’t very well hold it against Rao now.

They left the Morganti and the patrol officers covering the exit and presented themselves at Dr. Rao’s door.

“Open,” Ferron said formally, presenting her warrant. “In the name of the law.”

The door slid open, and Ferron and Indrapramit entered cautiously.

The flat’s resident must have triggered the door remotely, because he sat at his ease on furniture set as a chaise. A grey cat with red ear-tips crouched by his knee, rubbing the side of its face against his trousers.

“New!” said the cat. “New people! Namaskar! It’s almost time for tiffin.”

“Dexter Coffin,” Ferron said to the tall, thin man. “You are under arrest for the murder of Dr. Rao.”

#

As they entered the lift and allowed it to carry them down the external wall of the Vertical City, Coffin standing in restraints between two of the patrol officers, Morganti said, “So. If I understand this properly, you–Coffin–actually killed Rao to assume his identity? Because you knew you were well and truly burned this time?”

Not even a flicker of his eyes indicated that he’d heard her.

Morganti sighed and turned her attention to Ferron. “What gave you the clue?”

“The scotophobin,” Ferron said. Coffin’s cat, in her new livery of gray and red, miaowed plaintively in a carrier. “He didn’t have memory issues. He was using it to cram Rao’s life story and eccentricities so he wouldn’t trip himself up.”

Morganti asked, “But why liquidate his assets? Why not take them with him?” She glanced over her shoulder. “Pardon me for speaking about you as if you were a statue, Dr. Fang. But you’re doing such a good impression of one.”

It was Indrapramit who gestured at the Vertical City rising at their backs. “Rao wasn’t wanting for assets.”

Ferron nodded. “Would you have believed he was dead if you couldn’t find the money? Besides, if his debt–or some of it–was recovered, Honolulu would have less reason to keep looking for him.”

“So it was a misdirect. Like the frame job around Dr. Nnebuogar and the table set for two…?”

Her voice trailed off as a stark blue-white light cast knife-edged shadows across her face. Something blazed in the night sky, something as stark and brilliant as a dawning sun–but cold, as cold as light can be. As cold as a reflection in a mirror.

Morganti squinted and shaded her eyes from the shine. “Is that a hydrogen bomb?”

“If it was,” Indrapramit said, “Your eyes would be melting.”

Coffin laughed, the first sound he’d made since he’d assented to understanding his rights. “It’s a supernova.”

He raised both wrists, bound together by the restraints, and pointed. “In the Andromeda galaxy. See how low it is to the horizon? We’ll lose sight of it as soon as we’re in the shadow of that tower.”

“Al-Rahman,” Ferron whispered. The lift wall was darkening to a smoky shade and she could now look directly at the light. Low to the horizon, as Coffin had said. So bright it seemed to be visible as a sphere.

“Not that star. It was stable. Maybe a nearby one,” Coffin said. “Maybe they knew, and that’s why they were so desperate to tell us they were out there.”

“Could they have survived that?”

“Depends how close to Al-Rahman it was. The radiation–” Coffin shrugged in his restraints. “That’s probably what killed them.”

“God in Heaven,” said Morganti.

Coffin cleared his throat. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

Ferron craned her head back as the point source of the incredible radiance slipped behind a neighboring building. There was no scatter glow: the rays of light from the nova were parallel, and the shadow they entered uncompromising, black as a pool of ink.

Until this moment, she would have had to slip a skin over her perceptions to point to the Andromeda Galaxy in the sky. But now it seemed like the most important thing in the world that, two and a half million years away, somebody had shouted across the void before they died.

A strange elation filled her. Everybody talking, and nobody hears a damned thing anyone–even themselves–has to say.

“We’re here,” Ferron said to the ancient light that spilled across the sky and did not pierce the shadow into which she descended. As her colleagues turned and stared, she repeated the words like a mantra. “We’re here too! And we heard you.”

–END–

for Asha Cat Srinivasan Shipman, and her family

Image credit: Pegasus fresco from Pompeii by xueexueg on Photoree. (source) Used under Creative Commons.