vantablack :: bloodhounds of detroit :: chapter 4

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ti pendraig

TIME: 18 November 2038, am 03:00:02 est

They spend the rest of the day combing the internet for information.

Protected from the bitter fury of the storm by thick curtains pulled taut, they sit silent and utterly still on the sofa. Hazy green illumination provided by the kitchenette clock casts queer shadows to the carpet edge, leaving the studio otherwise in a pitch blackness.

Their minds are scattered across continents: traversing megametres of fibreoptic cables and satellite uplinks, they are in and out of servers, scouring public video feeds, encrypted databases, hidden corporate networks. Their coding is a seamless amalgamation, wholly in sync. Ghosts in the machine.

Every bit of evidence they uncover is copied to the 50-terabyte drive sat between them, two fingers each resting on the front touchscreen to interface. Aside from the occasional window rattle, its quiet hum is the only sound in the dark.

Precisely three hours past midnight, their searching is interrupted.

7.012 seconds, and they are fully disengaged and returned to themselves. Identical chestnut eyes blink open into the dark.

Shea’s eyes narrow in consideration as he moves his hand away from the drive. Your lead?, he asks silently.

Yes, Connor replies in kind. He is a shadow against shadows, profile a vague impression. She is asking to speak with me. While his voice over mindlink is calm and collected, there’s a moment of hesitation before he continues, Would you like to accompany me?

Shea’s answering refusal is immediate, but tempered. No, she’s your contact. I would be a hindrance at this point in time. Ping me if you need help. Otherwise leave me out of it. Shea can’t see Connor’s nod of agreement but he perceives it nonetheless. An ingrained habit, empathetic.

I’ll set up an AVR chat with standard encryption; that should suffice for a household model. Unless you’re expecting trouble?

Always, Shea replies blandly. Stress levels 8%, steady. She nods to himself. I won’t be far. With a hard blink he enables thermal vision, standing swiftly. The air as he inhales is a cool 14.62°C. His altered gaze sweeps the room; deep blues and purples map the world around him. Connor’s frame is lit up in shades of red, orange, and yellow, fading to green at the extremities.

With sure movements Shea lets himself out of the studio, into a cool-toned hallway. The click of a manual lock behind him is resounding to his enhanced senses. For 3.599 seconds he stills, preconstruction protocols forming a wireframe image in his internal overlay, stark red against blue.

The studio to his right is occupied; vibrations from shuffling footsteps are unmistakable. To his left, and directly across, no life signs make themselves known. He chooses a path. Four long strides forward and, after disabling the smartlock with the brush of his fingers, Shea slips into unit 4-B. A keen gaze sweeps the darkened space with ease of long practice, cataloguing anything of note. It’s a cluttered room dominated by furniture: a full-size bed with scattered blankets wedged beside a 12-drawer Ikea dresser, the balcony doors blocked off by a heavy wood desk littered with ezines, charging cables, and a pair of analogue Anker headphones. Shoes are strewn across the floor of the main room. There’s a faint smell in the chilled air. A deep breath in, and Shea tentatively identifies it as expired foods emanating from the kitchenette. The muted hum of varying electronics is distinctive – refrigerator, microwave, coffee machine, smart speaker. He dismisses the data prompts on make and model as irrelevant. The studio is otherwise empty, abandoned.

For 30 minutes he clears the floors one by one, movements precise and practised. Seven of twenty-two units are occupied, residents sheltering in place against the blizzard and in spite of the city-wide evacuation orders. Two units on the second floor: 2-A and 2-B; three on the floor above, 3-B, 3-C, and 3-E; their own unit 4-E is occupied, technically, and lastly, the shuffling footsteps of 4-F.

The neighbour has quieted, when he returns to their floor. Idly retrieving a leather key fob from his pocket, Shea’s gaze sweeps left from his position in front of the door. Options calculate in his mindspace, fleeting, before being dismissed. The wood moves easily on its hinges, nearly silent; it clicks closed behind him, returning the room to a full dark. He scans the room by rote. Connor hasn’t moved a centimetre, stress levels steady at 11%. Despite himself Shea feels his lips curve briefly into a smirk.

On silent feet he moves toward the balcony doors, steps precise. A silver of deepest black bleeds between the heavy curtains, themselves a vivid purple. He pushes the fabric aside by a finger’s width and blinks hard. The world outside reveals itself a blinding white; lights from far billboards, emergency drones, and auto-taxis paint themselves against the snow in flashes of colour – red, blue, yellow. The flurries have calmed, but fall thickly to bury the street. The glass emanates a notable chill, 1ºC.

Unlike the abrupt flight of most of the building’s occupants, Detroit itself is still largely populated – and its people, largely mobile. It’s a dismal reflection of the citizens’ regard for authority, of economic and environmental realities. With a considering frown Shea spes back and slips the strap of a leather satchel off his shoulders. His eyes find Connor’s shadow against the dark.

As if the keen gaze were a signal, Connor’s brows furrow. 1.504 seconds, and dark eyes blink open. Despite the dim lighting, his expression is easy to read as his eyes settle unerringly on Shea. He is pleased, calm. Stress levels 8%. Mission successful.

I’ve identified our likely activist, he reports over mindlink. The AX400 Kara has agreed to make an introduction, and to liaise with other deviants on our behalf.


Rose Olivia Chapman. Born March 31, 1993 in Warrendale, Michigan. She owns a farm in Holly, Oakland County. She’s known in very select circles for running a segment of the Michigan Underground; she’s responsible for Kara’s safe passage across the border. Kara seems to trust her implicitly.

Familiar with the issues, sympathetic, driven to do something about it, and willing to risk the consequences, Shea summarises internally. Calculations light up like lighting in his mind, electric impulses running probability algorithms as a matter of course. Chestnut eyes narrowed in consideration he asks, The AX400 forgave you for chasing them?

The question darkens Connor’s expression, turning him pensive. Stress levels 9%. His tone is hesitant as he responds, I–yes, I think so. And, quieter, …she apologised to me. Confusion melds with curiosity, disbelief. She told me bad situations drive good people to bad choices, and that Cyberlife is responsible for all of our situations. She said – she said I’m a good person, despite them.

With a muted, brief sigh Shea steps forward across the darkened space to sit gingerly by Connor. The satchel is set carefully at his feet, Shea’s focus steady on his compeer. Stress levels 9%, 10%, 9%. You don’t agree, he says neutrally.

Connor doesn’t answer immediately; the quiet envelops them for 13.27 seconds. When he speaks, his voice is low, doubtful, with an undercurrent of something darker. I am directly responsible for a number of deaths, human and android, on this mission alone. I know the orders came from Cyberlife, but I’ve followed them without question.

Stress levels 10%. A frown pulls at Shea’s face, eyes narrowed. Mindful of his hands placed precisely on his knees, he eyes Connor intently. You’ve followed orders but never without questions, and actually, you’ve always been pretty shit at following orders even from the beginning. The clock light cats a green hue across the curve of Connor’s cheek as he turns his head to look at Shea, a matching frown on his face. The hostage mission in August – you treated the downed officer so he wouldn’t bleed out. It had no bearing on the mission itself.

The mission parameters necessitated working alongside SWAT members on-site, Connor counters firmly. Treating Officer Wilson positively impacted the likelihood of cooperation from Captain Allen, while establishing a baseline with the deviant.

It may have, agrees Shea blandly. And the fish?

Connor’s silence speaks volumes. A memory prompt populates across his internal overlay – a conversation in the Zen Garden, loaded queries amidst the finery of an artificial landscape with no acceptable answer. Amanda. Shea dismisses the memory, minimises the warning prompt. Your AX400 isn’t wrong, Connor. His voice over mindlink is unyielding, but patient. You’ve completed your missions with leeway to use terrible means of accomplishing them, same as I have. The difference, Connor, is in your choices. You opt for the least bad choice in every mission we’ve ever run together – shoot around the civilian, not through them; scapegoat the molester, not the maid; save the fish, and the officer too.

Stress levels 10%, 9%. Unwavering, Shea continues, You make the best choices you can within the framework they locked us in because that is who you are. You give a damn, and damn the consequences. Connor’s expression evens out, slowly, hands relaxing again; Shea forcibly dismisses four memory prompts. The Cyberlife execs made their choices. We’re going to ensure they sink with their ship.

That’s our mission now, ventures Connor, quiet.

With a hard smirk Shea confirms, That’s our mission now. And we always accomplish our mission. His smirk widens as the ghost of a smile steals across Connor’s face. Stress levels 8%, 7%. Leaving Connor to his thoughts, Shea reaches for the satchel; the leather is smooth and inflexible under his fingers, registering just below room temperature at 17.8°C. He sets it in his lap, and unlatches the front clasp.

Guided by feel alone he retrieves a rectangular device from the satchel. Fitted easily in hand, the laminate wood casing matches the room’s coolness. At a gesture Connor takes it from him, expression curious. Shea ignores the implied question as he divests the bag of the pilfered items, placing each in a neat row on the cushion space between them.

Head canted, Connor’s gaze is watchful. Stress levels 6%. Shea smothers a spark of levity before it surfaces, and reaches for the device still held in Connor’s grasp. In the dark his movements are nearly unseen, but keen eyes track him easily. Rather than take it back, Shea tilts Connor’s hand so it faces palm up – and, pausing only momentarily, deftly unfolds the cover. Light floods their optical sensors immediately, blinding for the sixty milliseconds before recalibrating. He suppresses the grin, eyeing Connor’s brief scrunched nose.

The device, in the light, resembles nothing so much as a paperback book, accordion pages comprised of an opaque polyethylene. A pale white 2700k light illuminates the room halfway to the balcony doors and edging into the kitchenette; it reflects in identical chestnut eyes.

Connor doesn’t say anything but his expression, brow raising, says it for him. The occupants took the more practical lights with them, Shea explains blandly.

It’s cute, responds Connor. The amusement is audible.

Oh fuck off Connor. Ignoring the answering grin, Shea refocuses his attention on the small collection arranged between them. Three 20,000mAh power banks, one Eldris Morakniv, four lighters, $847 cash, two sets of leather winter gloves, two sorry excuses for cellular technology. Nothing else was worth taking.

Cautiously, Connor picks up a phone to his left, right hand still occupied. He turns the phone over slowly, curious. This phone is seventeen years old, he says, wonderingly. The plastic of the pale yellow casing is scuffed but without cracks; the screen is dark, unblemished. A brief pause, and he adds, It’s only 8MB. Are you sure it’s functional?

Shea quirks a brow, dismissive of the doubt. It’s a Nokia. They last longer than we do, on average. His amusement grows at Connor’s answering frown. More seriously he continues, Our advocate will need a secure method of communication. Connor nods slowly, thoughtful, as he sets the phone back down.

And the blade? At Shea’s look he clarifies, You have no fewer than three on your person, last I counted. Do you really need a fourth?

Shea’s voice is darkly amused as he responds. Connor, are you jealous?

No, says Connor immediately. Good humour is clear in his eyes. Shea reaches for the sheathed blade, twirling it idly in his left hand. Four rotations, five; he manoeuvrers the blade with easy expertise, before offering it to his compeer, handle first. Connor smiles, gaze shifting from chestnut eyes to the proffered hand. A pause of .0429 seconds and he accepts the knife, expression pleased.

You have Chapman’s address?, Shea asks, serious again.

Yes, Connor nods. Kara has indicated that we’ll meet Ms Chapman when she comes into the city for supplies this afternoon, rather than at her farmhouse. We could go there, but it’s an hour from Detroit, and that’s by car.

The checkpoints would be irritating to deal with, Shea replies mildly. Has a meeting place been decided? Connor answers in the negative and so he continues, When she contacts you again, tell her we’ll be at An Eilifint, near Ferndale Station.

You’re sure it’s open, with the evacuations?

Briefly, Shea closes his eyes. A video log unfurls across his internal overlay, metadata a vivid cobalt blue against the visual void.

When he opens his eyes, Connor is waiting patiently; 2.0721 seconds have elapsed. He says, It’s open. The owner hasn’t altered his routine once since the Kerrytown protests. He even opened the night of the 11th.

Connor accepts the answer easily, nodding again. His gaze is steady, calm. Stress levels 4%. Kara should make contact in approximately three hours with a confirmation from Ms Chapman. I’ll tell her then. You’re going?

I’m going, Shea confirms. As Connor moves to set the light-book atop the sofa arm, Shea eyes the crates stacked by the bookshelf appraisingly. How is her security?

Unknown. Street surveillance is scarce in the outer reaches of Holly, it’s mostly agriculture. In a more contemplative tone he continues, Information on Ms Chapman’s covert activities is limited; I found only two sources, one being her brother Harris Floyd Chapman in Chatham, Ontario. I was able to track his online activity to several underground message boards, although he’s never made outright mention of their actions. The encryption is – decent enough, so I expect they may have avoided unwanted attention from authorities.

What’s their cover?

With a faint smile Connor says, Model trains.

Shea stares. For a scant millisecond it doesn’t compute, processes stalling, before very abruptly it does.

Model trains as a cover interest for an encrypted message board dedicated to facilitating the work of conductors of the 21st century underground railroad for androids. It is – entirely on the nose. Ballsy. He huffs a laugh; sardonic amusement winds thickly through his circuitry, mirrored in identical chestnut eyes. The sheer nerve of it sparks a memory file, one of Connor’s. A sarcastic tenor with the barest rasp echoes in his mindscape: “…but don’t worry, I’m going to leave – though I’m certainly going to miss our bromance.” Recalling the altercation that followed, and Connor’s easy handling of that particular irritant, Shea’s amusement deepens still.

With a slow breath inward, he terminates the unnecessary thought processes and refocuses. You’re embedded in their systems?

Of course, Connor replies, before pausing. A faint rattle of glass panes echoes from the kitchenette, matched by eolian tones outside. In the quiet that follows, the electronic hum of the light-book battery is nearly palpable. Chestnut eyes wander along the neatly arranged items, brows furrowing in thought. He says, Lieutenant Anderson is still under surveillance, but he would help if we ask, I think.

Shea quirks a brow. He broke Agent Perkins’ nose. Kudos to him but he won’t be able to piss without the FBI knowing when and how much. In the lull he adds, quiet, Are you worried about him?

Connor nods slowly. He’s an isolated, depressive alcoholic with access to firearms and a penchant for playing Russian Roulette. For all that I think he’s a good man, he’s now suspended pending charges and alone except for an ageing therapy dog. Connor’s gaze is focused on the retro phones, expression pensive. I asked for a distraction, and he’s suffering the consequences.

Stress levels 6%. You’re not his keeper, Connor.

I know, retorts Connor with an edge of irritation. I know that. He was mentally unwell long before I was partnered with him. And I asked for a distraction – not for him to assault a high-ranking FBI agent in the middle of the precinct! Closing his eyes only briefly, brows pinched, Connor refocuses on the RK800 sat beside him. It was an ill-advised choice. But he meant to help me, to protect Jericho. I am worried, yes; but I’m – frustrated.

Sighing, Shea reaches for the cash to pack it away again. He’s a Millennial with a death wish, and he treated you like shit for three weeks. Threatened to toss you in a dumpster and light it on fire, on day one, he says, tone utterly flat.

Mood swings are common with chronic alcohol abuse, Connor replies tiredly. Stress levels 7%.

Not an excuse, Shea counters forcefully. He jabs at Connor with a phone in hand. Are you frustrated because he could have been useful now if he hadn’t been a stupid drunk, or because you started to expect better, or with yourself because despite his shit behaviour you’re worried anyway?

With a grimace Connor replies, All of the above. Steady hands fetch the quarter from a pocket, rolling it across honey-beige knuckles as Shea finishes repacking the pilfered items. He says nothing further, instead watching intently as the younger android moves to stand. The coin flicks expertly from hand to hand with a ping of nickel alloy; across the room, Shea begins to tuck weaponry into the satchel and onto his person.

By the time Shea is satisfied with his preparations, the silence has remained undisturbed for 9.417 minutes. He’s donned an overcoat of charcoal wool, double breasted and falling just above the knee. The pilfered gloves are in hand as he turns to face Connor, whose shrewd gaze has tracked him persistently. Chestnut eyes are focused, clear, and calm; mission-ready. Stress levels 4%.

With a tilt of his head to indicate the crates at his left, Shea says, Your turn. The edge of a smirk ghosts across his face. He can feel the thrum of electric impulse along his biocomponents, keen for movement. An internal check propagates data across his internal overlay: stress levels 13%, system charge 92%, system integrity 97%. Mission-ready.

As easy patience born of long experience bleeds through him as Connor assembles his own supplies. His movements are precise, his choices meticulously thought out. The handgun goes to the small of the back, tucked securely into a concealed belt holster, while two spare magazines are set aside on the shelf, beside a lone lighter. Shifting the top crate halfway aside, he reaches into the one below, removing a rectangular device the size of a thumb drive. Holding it aloft between two fingers, he turns his head to eye Shea. These are very illegal, he says mildly, angling it toward the light.

Shea’s answering grin is wickedly amused as he replies, And very effective.

Four of the devices are set beside the magazines, Connor quirking an eyebrow in good humour. I won’t ask where you got them, he says lightly; the implied question is blatantly obvious, and just as obviously ignored. The suppressor tucks into a boot lining; three M84s are packed into a small phthalo green pouch of scuffed leather, followed by the magazines. The lighter is pocketed alongside a handful of zipties.

When Connor is suitably outfitted, Shea hands him a coat of his own – wool mohair, grey, ending mid-thigh. Shea buries the smile and sentiment reflexively as Connor shrugs it on, adjusting the collar and sleeves by rote. A considering pause, and he runs gentle fingers down the cuff, brows furrowed as a smile ghosts across his face. With a breath in, Shea dismisses the memory prompt.

Plan?, asks Connor. His tone is all business, eyes focused again on Shea.

I’ve mapped potential safe houses within 1.25 kilometres of the new Jericho. We’ll scout them until dawn, and Jericho’s present setup too. And in the meantime we need to get ahead of the media: forums, archive servers, video aggregates. You know the drill.

Nodding once, Connor replies, Got it. He joins Shea by the front door, pulling first a moss-green beanie and then the second pair of gloves from deep coat pockets. Stress levels 5%, steady.

Their exit to the ground floor is uneventful and quick; no occupants stir, the flicker of blue-tinted lights the only marker of their passing. Silent steps are in perfect sync, systems tuned expertly to their surroundings as they slip out past the heavy metal doors by an empty reception desk and into the winter chill. With a shared nod they set off to the south-west – toward the river and the sunken remains of a ship.

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