Contents

Approaching Human

Eric Brown

A story in 10 parts

One: Gel-Tank Atrocities

Two: The Disappearance of Jake Carrelli

Three: Played Like a Patsy

Four: Partially Human


Chapters 1 and 2 were published in Shoreline of Infinity 30. 

Chapters 3 to 10 are released fortnightly for free on the website. 

The novella Approaching Human will be published in paperback in Autumn 2022.

Let us know what you think about a regular serial here on the Shoreline of Infinity website. Tell us via our Contact Form.

Approaching Human 3: Played Like a Patsy

Eric Brown

Approaching Human

Eric Brown

A story in 10 parts

One: Gel-Tank Atrocities

Two: The Disappearance of Jake Carrelli

Three: Played Like a Patsy

Four: Partially Human


Chapters 1 and 2 were published in Shoreline of Infinity 30. 

Chapters 3 to 10 are released fortnightly for free on the website. 

The novella Approaching Human will be published in paperback in Autumn 2022.

Let us know what you think about a regular serial here on the Shoreline of Infinity website. Tell us via our Contact Form.

I spent an hour picking through the data supplied by DiMatteo. One hour of my time was an eternity in the Cloud, given that I was concentrating on nothing else and running the data through parallel checks.

The hackers who raided OmniScience were clever, and the way they covered their tracks was little short of brilliant. I began to fear I was dealing with people well out of my league: the government, say, or a foreign state.

Not that I was going to let that stop me.

I took another hour to refine my investigation.

I needed help, so I activated the four drones I keep as backups and set them to work in the Cloud.

I concentrated on tracing the algorithmic codeline the hackers used to work their way through the Cloud, then past the OmniScience security barricade and into the organisation’s smartcore. The trick was to locate the spore they’d left in the smartcore and trace backwards. The trouble with this was that the hackers knew how to lay a false trail, seeding their mazy way through the code with decoys and dummy runs. My copies and I must have spent ninety per cent of our time backtracking down dead ends and blind alleys.

And then we got lucky.

One of my copies, through a process of elimination, traced a codeline back through the Cloud to a starting point that had its locus in the physical world: Little Russia, Harlem. Specifically, a restaurant on Gibson Street called the Red Samovar.

So I concentrated my attention, and that of my copies, on breaking down the security that surrounded the place. The fact that a restaurant was barricaded as if it were a government department was significant. I knew I was on to something.

And when all my probes failed, I decided to visit the Red Samovar in person.

Time was when Harlem was a no-go area, a warren of crumbling brownstones and dark alleys down which only fools ventured. Then, as is the way of things, some enterprising tycoon bought up a few blocks and pumped in the dollars, gentrifying the tenements and asking top dollar for loft spaces and open-plan apartments. The bourgeoisie flocked in, followed by the culinary camp followers: chic bistros, exotic delicatessens, and restaurants of every ethnicity and their five-star chefs.

The Red Samovar was a busy high-end eatery popular with Russian émigrés, diplomats and lecturers from the nearby university.

The sun was going down when I flew my drone in through the entrance and lodged myself on the ceiling, taking everything in.

Harried waiters waltzed between crammed tables balancing trays of salted herring, blini and pelmeni. The restaurant sold twenty-five different brands of genuine Russian vodka, and it seemed that at least half of the clientele were blitzed on the stuff. Polyglot conversation drowned out the Ossetian folk music blaring from the speakers.

A room on the second floor was the one place in the building that was cocooned in an impermeable security baffle. Try as I might, I couldn’t get in via the Cloud. And when I flew myself up the stairs and scanned the corridor, I found the entrance to the room itself bristling with cyber-alarms. It would be suicide to go anywhere near the room.

So I retreated and concentrated instead on scanning the identities of the men and women who passed back and forth through the entrance.

I ran a dozen facial recognition checks, and came up trumps.

Dimitri Petrov was a Bulgarian expat wanted in Sofia on charges of money laundering, extortion and suspected murder. He worked in the Red Samovar as a waiter, which was a bit of a comedown for someone high up in the Bulgarian mafia, but adequate cover in the interim.

I tracked him back and forth as he hurried up and down the stairs from the eatery to the secure room, ferrying messages.

After an hour, he took a cigarette break and slipped through a fire door to the relative cool of a back alley. I assumed my real-world persona, and followed him out just as the swing door was about to close.

He started when he saw me, grunted something and turned the other way, taking a lungful of nicotine.

“Dimitri Petrov?”

“Who’s asking?”

“Someone who knows what you’re hiding,” I said in flawless Bulgarian.

I’ll give him this, he didn’t so much as flinch. “What do you want?”

“The name of the hacker, or hackers, in the secure room.”

He told me, in the colourful argot of the Sofia underworld, to perform a coital impossibility, smiling at his wordplay.

“Sergeant Goran Rostov,” I said, “of the Sofia Homicide Department is looking for you. In fact, he arrived in New York just last week.”

He grimaced: not much – a mere flicker – but enough to tell me I’d struck a nerve.

“Goran happens to be an old acquaintance of mine,” I said.

He turned and stared at me, his gaze hostile.

“What do you want?”

“As I said, the name of the hacker up there. The number one.”

He stared at the glowing end of his cigarette, considering his options. “You’ll be wanting Arkady,” he said as if I were dragging every syllable from his mouth with red-hot tongs, “Arkady Valutin.”

I checked the Cloud and came up with an address. “Five, Twenty-Four Golding Street?”

He grunted an affirmative, his face like thunder.

I turned my back on him and set off down the alley.

I was hoping he’d jump me, try to slip a knife in my unprotected back – I wanted to see his surprise and shock when he realised I was a projection.

But he resisted the temptation, flicked the butt of his cigarette to the ground, and pushed back into the building.

And all the way to the end of the alley, I wondered why he’d ignored his atavistic impulse to run me through with his flick-knife.

I collapsed my avatar and flew east.

Twenty-four Golding Street was a rundown flophouse in the Bronx, and apartment number five a crime scene.

A squad car stood in the street, with a couple of bored cops shooting the breeze before their shifts ended. It looked as if whatever had happened up there had taken place a few hours ago. I slipped my drone through the door and up the stairs.

Another cop stood sentry outside a partially closed, fire-blackened door. The apartment had been torched. I made out blistered walls and charred furnishings. My olfactory ability registered the unmistakable reek of cooked meat. There was a corpse in there.

I saw a couple of officers in the room, discussing the case in lowered tones.

I made my way back down to the street, assumed my avatar and approached the cops.

I showed my accreditation and they looked me up and down, evidently unaccustomed to dealing with AIs.

“I’d like a word with the officer in charge.”

One of the cops nodded and spoke into his wristcom. A voice crackled in reply.

He nodded. “Go on up.”

Once more, I made my way into the building and up the stairs. The cop on guard duty had been told I was on the way. He stood aside and I slipped into the room.

The relevant detail was the corpse seated before a desk. The victim was a blackened twist of charred flesh and bone, contorted almost beyond recognition. The comstack on the desk was similarly blitzed. The only difference was it didn’t smell as bad.

“So,” I said, “what happened?”

The officers eyed me.

“Victim’s one Arkady Valutin, in the pay of the Smolensk Bratva. Seems like the competition didn’t like him reaming their Cloudspace.”

“Someone came in with a flamethrower,” the second cop said.

“One way to get the job done,” I admitted. “But a little excessive?”

“Their way of sending a signal,” the first officer said.

A signal, I said to myself, wondering.

“You working on the case?”

“Just passing,” I said, before hurrying from the apartment.

Outside, I collapsed my avatar and headed back to the office, worried.

On the way, I conducted a dialogue with my copies that lasted all of a half a second. It went something like this:

Me: “The codeline back from OmniScience?”

Me2: “Too easy. A set up.”

Me3: “And the hacker at the Little Samovar?”

Me4: “A plant?”

Me5: “And the warning?”

Me: “You got it.”

I’d been played like a patsy – but whoever was behind this had made it just too obvious. The Russians were not the bad guys.

But I thought I knew who might be.

Back at the office, I concentrated on the afternoon of Jake Carrelli’s disappearance.

He’d last been seen leaving the OmniScience headquarters a little before four o’clock, one week ago. I tapped into all the surveillance cameras in the area: he stepped through the sliding glass door of the building, and walked down the curving pathway between the landscaped lawns, his jacket slung casually over his shoulder. I trailed him from half a dozen different cams, concentrating not only on the man himself, but on the other pedestrians – and the vehicles in the streets. I logged nothing suspicious, no tails or loitering cars.

Rather than take the subway home, he turned along a pedestrianised street lined with cafes and bistros. Only one camera functioned in this vicinity, and all I got was a long view of Carrelli pausing outside a bar called Luigi’s as a couple exited, then stepping through the sliding glass door. The time at the bottom-left corner of the screen read 16:01.

The very fact that only one camera offered up its images from that fateful afternoon rang alarm bells. It was a busy pedestrian thoroughfare that should have been scrutinised by the cams of local police and private security firms alike.

I ran a check on the five other cameras in the area. Three had been down for maintenance that afternoon. One had developed a fault just before four, lasting for an hour. The last one had become mysteriously misaligned, and instead of showing a shot along the length of the avenue, was pointed redundantly at the sidewalk.

This couldn’t be mere coincidence.

I dug deeper, and my suspicions were confirmed.

Someone had wormed their way into the security system a week ago. They’d ordered spurious maintenance checks on three of the cams, directed one at the ground, and infected another with a virulent strain of malware that rendered it redundant for an hour. That left the camera positioned at the very end of the avenue and very little to go on.

I set my copies to trace the codeline to see who might be behind the sabotage. I got nowhere fast. Whoever was responsible for Jake Carrelli’s disappearance had done a neat job of covering their tracks.

I left the office, headed downtown, and assumed my avatar at the end of the busy avenue.

The owner of Luigi’s, the bar which Jake Carrelli had entered that Tuesday afternoon, was a huge balding thug with Sicilian heritage and a mistrust of authority hardwired into his Latin DNA.

I beamed my accreditation into the air before him, followed by a pic of Jake Carrelli.

“Sure, I know Jake,” he grunted. “Regular here.”

“How regular?”

“Like three or four times a week.”

“Alone or accompanied?”

“Usually with a crowd of colleagues from that OS place along the way.”

“He came in here a week back, around four. You see him then?”

He peered at me. “Why the interest?”

“Jake’s missing,” I said.

“Missing?” He scowled. “That’s a real shame.”

“So … you saw him that day?”

He shrugged. “A week’s a long time in this business, Mr Zorn. I get a lot of trade, and I can’t recall every face.”

“I’d like to scan your security,” I said.

The big man scowled, but knew better than to argue. He’d comply, eventually, even if it took a court order to force him.

He gave a gruff-voiced command to his comm system and an image appeared in the air above his desk. He grunted another order and the image blurred, then resolved: it showed the interior of the bar, and the entrance.

“What time did you say?”

I told him to start it running from just before four o’clock.

The image blurred again, then sharpened.

A timeline in the top-right corner read: 15:59.

We watched as customers arrived, a steady flow of men and women coming in for alcoholic refreshment after a hard day at work.

The seconds ticked towards 16:01, when Jake Carrelli was due to show. I peered at the image, through the glass door, at the pedestrians strolling back and forth along the avenue outside.

But 16:01 came and went, and Carrelli was nowhere in sight.

I had him play the sequence from five minutes to four until five past the hour. There was no sign of Carrelli outside the bar.

He flicked me a glance. “Got the day right, bud?”

I thanked him and quit the bar.

I ordered my copies to tap Luigi’s security codeline and investigate if it had been doctored. Seconds later I received a negative. Jake Carrelli had not entered the bar on the afternoon he’d vanished.

I went back to the security cam long-shot of the avenue and watched him stroll along, jacket slung over his shoulder. He paused outside the bar and then stepped through the sliding door.

I watched the image again and again, then traced the codeline – but as far as I could tell, it had not been tampered with: the image it showed was bona fide. Jake Carrelli had entered Luigi’s at one minute past four.

This could only mean one thing.

It was the image of Jake Carrelli himself, leaving the OmniScience building and strolling down the avenue, which had been doctored.

Eric Brown has published over seventy books. His latest is Murder Most Vile, and later this year is the SF novel Wormhole, written with Keith Brooke. Also with Brooke, the Enigma Season quartet of novellas is forthcoming from PS Publishing. He lives near Dunbar in Scotland.


His website is at: ericbrown.co.uk

Editor’s note

Approaching Human by Eric Brown is a serial in 10 parts. Episodes 1 & 2 were first published in Shoreline of Infinity 30, and subsequent episodes will be published fortnightly on the website from the 7th June onwards.

—Noel Chidwick

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