Li pulled up a detailed schematic from the tag James bore. It had an unusual design but offered up its meta-data to a standard interogation. The globally unique ID that the tag carried was valid and she was pleased to see that the fields for date, time and originating IP address were all present and correct. A few keystrokes later she had what she needed: he had been tagged as a baby, ten days after his birth, in the middle of the night. The tag was unsigned, but contained an encrypted data segment. Li paused in thought, who would tag him but not want to take a fully authenticated credit?
The computer flashed a warning onto the screen: the IP address was invalid. Well, no, not invalid per-se, more that it was a local-net address meaning he’d been tagged in place. Who, in a manufactured 1860 Victorian environment, had the technology to use personal tracking tags that dated from at least four hundred years later?
Li ran some more tests, setting the computer to crack the encryption and send her the data segment when it was ready. She then added an annotation to the Protocol Seven log, “Specimin A, male, tagged by local (unknown) technologist. Chance of external polution of the environment, low. Investigation into local anomoly undertaken.”
Eric completed the pre-flight checks in good time. He was looking forward to getting away with Li, away from the pervasive presence of the sensor-nets, away from the Captain’s gaze … away to a place he was reasonably sure he could actually talk freely to Li. The prespect of someone else sharing the load of his secret was a heady one and brought a measure of joy to what would otherwise have been a repetitive and mundane task list.
Out of nowhere he caught the aroma of Japanese cherry blossom. He laughed to himself. One side-effect of the combination of the sensor-net neural implants and the pre-existing blindness was the occasional mis-fire of the technology. Scout service medics had tried to explain it to him back in basic training … when it felt like the ‘net was doing a land-grab and burning new pathways into his brain. Apparently his brain had reassigned parts of the disused visual cortext (no longer needed for processing sight) to be used by his other senses. They said it was why his sense of hearing, touch and smell were that much more accute than a sighted person. The fight between his brain and the sensor-net input stream had resulted in something of a stalemate over some territory; both his nose and the ‘net seemed to think it was theirs. The end result was an occasional visual signal that arrived as a smell. The medics placated him by explaining that in other candidates the problem was far stronger to the point of some experiencing seizures. They were pleased with how he had taken to the ‘net usage, clearing him for flight training, should he wish to pursue it.
The rest of the crew, spearheaded by Patrick of all people, had begun laughing about it with Eric. The “incoming call” signal containing a small image of them usually would end up mapped to a smell so they had begun modifying their avatar images and asking him “can you smell me now?” Only Li hadnt preyed on him, leaving her avatar as it had always been, the serene aroma of Japanese cherry blossom.
“Shuttle’s finished pre-flight. Green across the board. Ready when you are.” He reported.
“Eric. We have a problem. The VR matrix is collapsing, we’re going to have to go _catch and release_ on this one. Do you have space?”
Eric looked around the shuttle, “Will he be sedated?”
“Yes, but I could use a hand with transporting him from the isolation lab to your location.” she said
“On my way.”
James found the packing process to be quite relaxing, even therapeutic. He went room to room collecting items into three piles in the middle of the floor. The first stack he wanted to throw out. The second stack he decided that he would give away. The third, and strangely the smallest, was the stack that he planned to put into boxes to take with him. The more he collected together the more he realized that the apartment was far too big for him and he would welcome the change of location. For the time that he’d lived there it had been home. The apartment was in a secluded block relatively close to the river. The kitchen and sitting room windows looked out in a south-west direction at a raised grassy embankment. He has made some enquiries after they’d first moved in and it turned out to have a twofold purpose – firstly as protection from the river flooding and secondly it contained a major sewerline which explained why he had seen workmen walking to and fro, going in and out of man-hole covers at its peak. Several mornings he’d gone for a run along a footpath that snaked along the top of the bank but as yet had never met one of the workers. To the north of the apartment was a railway line that saw infrequent activity. Dirty locamotives would chug past some mornings taking passengers out to one of the country towns, out of the smog.
Six apartments in his block shared a common staircase. It echoed with his footsteps as he carried out armfulls of unwanted junk. Each trip to the trash container behind the building gave him a glance at the grassy embankment. Sometime between third and fourth trip out with trash he noticed a figure standing at the top of it. Between the fifth and sixth trips out James became annoyed, the man was still there, still watching him, sunlight glinting from tools on his belt. The seventh trip to the trash was the lighest load of all and James daudled along, hoping to get a good look at the man on the embankment. He was gone. With a frustrated sigh James sped up, tossed an old carpet-bag into the trash container and turned quickly for the apartment … to find himself face-to-face with Zachary.
The sun glinted off his shaved head and tools on his belt. He was wearing dark work gloves and dark coveralls, perfect to blend into the night but useless on a sunny day.
“Hello James.” he drawled blandly.
James cussed at him in shock. After he had regained his composure he demanded, “What the _hell_ are you doing here? I thought you and Drew worked … I dont know … what do you and Drew do anyway? And was that you watching me from up there?”
“That it was, yes. I was assinged to a work-crew in this area. Thought I would say ‘hello’ …”
James found something in Zachary’s demeanor disarming. The rural accent and plain speech gave him a simple, guile-less manner. It made James wonder if Zachary was even capable of lying. Zach’s voice had trailed off and his eyes had the look of a puppy waiting to be kicked. He waited for James’s response.
James looked at him and couldnt bear to be the one to land a wounding blow on a character that seemed to vulnerable, it was almost like he was waiting for appoval. James was reminded of the golden labrador puppy their family had rescued when he was growing up. They’d barely had enough food for the family so a dog was never going to be a permanent addition.
“Its OK Zachary, you surprised me is all. I have things to do. You have a nice day now.”
Zach nodded slowly and remained standing there as James stepped around him and returned to the apartment, planning a nap.
The docks were particularly ripe when the cab dropped him off, the air felt thick and oily. James pulled his coat arround him and started to walk toward the dockside pub. Halfway there he heard voices and stopped. They were coming from an alley just ahead of him, speaking in a passionate whisper. Two men, James noted as he stepped closer. The wind stole their voices away when it gusted but in between he thought he could make out words. James pressed himself against the front wall of a warehouse and inched closer to try to get some clarity. One voice spoke quickly with an air of command, the other had a country drawl … suddenly the faces of Drew and Zachary attached themselves to the words in James’ head.
Drew let out a frustrated howl, “You _idiot_! Complete and utter tin can! The instructions were clear: keep an eye on him from a distance, make sure no ill comes to him.”
“Top of the embankment is _a distance_ …” Zachary drawled.
There was the sound of two solid objects knocking together, “Ouch!” he said.
“Was your processor fried? Does your RAM pack wobble? These are simple instructions. _The Watcher_ will not be pleased. Idiotic behaviour like this will see you reassigned back to engineering or worse. Look, Zee, you may be the newest off the line, but that’s not a good enough excuse, not any more.” Drew said. Hi voice suddenly lost all emotion, gained a metallic quality, “State your designation and purpose.”
Zachary answered in a similar metallic tone, “Servitor Class, Batch 82, Product 26 of 26. Designation Srv-Z. Observe and protect subject designated James McMannus.”
Drew added a note of command, “Amend purpose: Observe subject designated James McMannus while not being seen yourself. Protect the target at all costs.”
“Purpose updated.” Zachary said.
Drew’s voice reverted to its normal timbre, “Come on. We have drinking to emulate.”
Two sets of footsteps left the alley. James watched the two men, if that was what they were, walking off into the swirls of mist.
James was about to leave the shadows and head down to the pub himself when a gust of wind carried a particularly noxious odor to his hiding place. Panic erupted from the core of him. He closed his eyes willing himself to be still. He fought the urge to throw up. The smell took him to places he _really_ didnt want to go to – hiding outside the Chief Inspector’s office and his wife’s murder scene. He found his mind tracking the approach of the individual by the strength of the aroma alone. With eyes shut he could visualize a man walking at a measured pace toward him. He thought he heard footsteps, one set heavier, the others with a more feminine step. A man, so called, and a woman walking toward him then. Did the woman _know_ what she was walking next to? Chivalry in James screamed for him to run out there and confront the monster, to save her from the fate his Sarah had experienced. Terror had his feet locked to the spot. Panic had his heart pounding and breathing ragged.
The couple drew level with him. A man, six feet tall and wearing black hair loose over his shoulders, walking with a stunning beauty on his arm. The man’s beard had been trimmed into a neat goatee since the last time James had seen him, his clothing rich and aristocratic. In his left hand he measured his pace with an ebony walking cane, the handle a straight extension of the cane, wrought in silver metal.
“Lucas, dear, your views are so … parochial. You should cast your gaze wider.” She said.
“What do you suggest?” he laughed.
The woman laughed, high and ladylike, “Oh. I dont know. Mayor Lucas Wainwright sounds like a good starting point. You can do far better than just the housing authority you know!”
The man gained a mock frown, “Come, come … since when was it a woman’s station to instruct a man on his career?”
The couple paused and she stepped away from him. “My mistake, good sir.” she said, and curtsied.
They both erupted into laughter.
“I take it that the lady Magdalena de Rosa has similar aspirations? Would she accompany me on my rise to power and great … no, greater … ” he corrected, “… wealth? Would she unflinchingly do what was asked of her, whatever was called for, when the time came?” He asked.
The woman looked at Lucas and James could see hunger in her eyes, hear it in her tone, “I would.”
Lucas offered her his arm again, “Then let us celebrate with wine and song!”
James waited a few minutes for the smell to die away. His stomach was churning. Him! He had a name now. How dare _he_ have a devoted woman on his arm when it was him who stole Sarah away! Grief welled up in James and he doubled over, arms clutching his stomach, sobs rising up from the depth of his guts. Tears welled up. Snot poured from his nose. He didnt care as he leaned against the wall of the warehouse. Suddenly the smell returned, pungent and clear, but this time it lacked something. Part of his mind registered it like a recent pot of chilli that he’d made. The flavour lacked a certain _something_. It was thin and weak, but authentically chilli. Or it was a sound, high and shrill but lacking the lower rounded register, a pre-pubescent choirboy singing a hearty drinking song in the place of a grown dock worker. The smell was the same yet different, a note written on old newspaper as opposed to a daily journal written in a leather-bound notebook. His mind went back to the journal of Sarah’s, making a mental note to take a look. He needed a connection back with her, especially after seeing _him_ again. Terror had rooted James to the spot when every fibre of his being wanted to run forward and choke the life out of him.
Without giving him any warning James’s stomach decided it was time to respond to the stress of the evening. It erupted in a multi-coloured stream onto the dark wall of the warehouse, running in viscous waves down the bricks and pooling on the ground. Except that it didnt. It pooled but left a pair of crescents at the far edge as though flowing round an invisible obstruction. Small splatters had landed on James’s shoes and he noticed a similarity, the crescents now taking the shape of the toes of work boots in his mind. He took a step back and the splatters of vomit on the other feet did, but not in time with his own movement. James backed away, tripped and fell on his back. The ghostly shoes with toes and boot toecaps outlined in stinking fluid moved away from him. He lost track of them but the awful stench of death followed them. Suddenly he was aware of the smell that he’d created against the wall of the warehouse. He picked himself up and headed toward the pub, his mind set of demolishing as much whiskey as they would allow him to consume.