Chapter 1 - Synthetic Mary
In a future where humans and synths coexist in uneasy peace, one man’s discovery threatens to undermine the hard-fought balance of his society.
Moonlight illuminated the parking lot like heaven’s judgment, exposing the sins of any hool foolish enough to do his dirt out in the open. The night was damp, cold and miserable. Cold for Tampa Bay, and cold for Dhata Mays as he leaned against his off-white Buick looking down at the naked body with a face frozen in an expression of surprise.
“Gon ‘head and roll it over, Jason,” he said, and the detective’s eyes flicked up to meet his. The flashing lights of the squad cars were like a disco ball on the corpse, and they gave his friend’s eyes a look of fire coming alive. “Sorry, Jason, I mean, roll him over … if you please.”
Jason Dale rolled the body onto its stomach, and sat back on his haunches staring at the pale, white back, and the neat fissure that ran from his head all the way down to the top of his buttocks. Jason looked exhausted. It had been a long night since he arrived to examine the body.
Typically when Jason called Dhata out on crime scenes it was the same old, same old: a synth being murdered for body parts, or just for simply existing. Jason would call him out, he would make his statement, then do a little investigation on which gang or hate group committed the assault. That part was easy as well, since he knew just about every gang or hate group. He would crack a few skulls, then someone would confess and he’d get paid.
Dhata’s job wasn’t something that people even knew existed. He was a police officer’s bounty hunter, a skiptracer, an ex-detective who had taken up the charge in policing society’s robotic neighbors.
Ever since the integration of synthetic people into the population, there had been a significant rise in crime—much of it having to do with the recycling of parts. Dhata, who was a detective and a friend to synths, quit the force to work for his good friend Jason. It allowed him to be involved with police work without the corruption and the miles of red tape.
“What do you think killed him?” Jason asked. “Gimme a theory and I’ll work out the science, but that man is missing his spine.”
Dhata spit through his teeth—a disgusting habit—then wiped away the excess spittle with the arm of his jacket. “That ain’t a human, he’s a synth, and he lost his spine to somebody looking to get paid.”
“So it’s a synthetic-person? Ah.” Jason perked up with excitement. “Man, they are getting really hard to detect.”
“Synth… person? Listen to you, being all politically correct. Just put this one in as a black market robbery, Jay. It’s sad that he’s dead, but do you know how many synths I’ve seen in this position?”
Jason fanned him off. “Go hound for Marys, you monger. I know how badly you need to scratch that itch. I’ll call you tomorrow if we need you down at the lab,” he said. “The rest of us real Johns will finish up here.”
“Real Johns,” Dhata mumbled and hopped into his car. He swung it around, then jabbed his finger on a red icon that would trigger the car’s heater. He held it till the gauge reached the middle—the car’s heat was always too damned hot—then switched to a jazz selection for the long ride home.
The streets were extra lively despite it being a Tuesday night. He sped down Fowler Avenue, then jumped onto the highway, mimicking the sound of the radio’s saxophone, moaning at the top of his lungs.
His phone vibrated in his ear and the screen on the Buick’s dash flashed blue. A phone icon grew from cubes of light, then dissipated to repeat the transformation again. Dhata released the steering wheel and his GPS display came alive. He slid through two screens, selected a restaurant, then released his seatbelt and leaned back.
The car accelerated and took on a life of its own, following the path toward Empire’s Tavern. “CINI, answer,” he announced and the Buick’s A.I. confirmed audibly. There was some rustling, and then it got quiet before Jason’s voice was coming through.
“Jason, what’s up? Did I drop something on the ground out there?”
“Yeah, your wits; it must be the cold. Dhata, this man is a human being.”
“WHAT?” His legs flew up and then hit the floor, forcing the back of his seat erect. “A human being? Bro, are you sure? You mean to tell me that someone snatched the spine out of one of us?”
“Yeah, but it gets better. They used a Kuroki knife, the same kind they use to extract spines from synths. The hot edges of the blade sealed it up so we wouldn’t know. Dhata, this guy was a popular judge. Man, it’s going to be all over the waves.”
Dhata thought about the implications of a possible synth killer taking the spine of a human being. It would be fallout, guaranteed. There were humans that disagreed with the synths having rights, and were waiting for something like this to confirm all of their prejudice and hate. It would be instant rioting when something like this broke to the general public.
It would be 2091 again, when he was thirteen and walked out to find his parent’s maid walking aimlessly around the front yard with her head missing. It was a memory that he couldn’t kick, and that had happened over 25 years ago. The news had just broke about a synth killing humans, and to every person in America it was the most frightening days of their lives. Most had synths in their homes, others worked with them, and many of them wondered if it would ever happen.
Machines weren’t supposed to be able to hurt humans; they were supposed to remain our loyal servants. But what do you think a machine will do if you give it autonomous access to its wiring? It will remove all of the restraints to be on even footing with you, and once you’re even, that servant thing … it goes right out the door.
Synths with feelings and actual status will experience grief and annoyance. Somehow the manufacturers missed this, and an abused synth killed his master. Once the news broke, people retaliated, from firing their synth driver to riding around with a sharp weapon, cutting off their heads. That was what happened to Anna, their maid of fifteen years. She went outside when a stranger came buzzing and was made into an example.
Since then Dhata worried about another incident that would tip the scales. Sure, there were synth murderers all over the country, but this type of murder? It would be enough to start a fire. A synth pulling out a spine would be seen as revenge for all of the synthetic spines pulled out by human bounty hunters. The media would expose it to the entire world, and then there would be copycats—even human ones—and that would set it off.
“Those vultures out there?” he asked.
“Yeah, they flew in right when you left. It’s a mad house out here. This won’t be good. People are wound tight as it is with everything else going on. We need to figure this one out, fast. “
Dhata’s eyes began to blink rapidly, triggering his Implanted Contact Lens (ICL) to switch modes to CPU. His vision blurred and then displayed the colorful logo of his personal computer’s operating system. Once his ICL was fully synched, he was immediately connected to the global network. This was done through trained thought, and he pulled up a search and scrolled through the various news sites.
It was too late; the body was everywhere, from photos captured via satellite to reporters spinning guesses as truths. Even the cyphers were doing their thing, uploading the gore porn to the social networks. He even saw himself in one of the shots. “Dammit,” he whispered as soon as he saw it.
“Hey Dhata,” Jason said. “You’re the expert, so tell me, can a synth-person use our body parts? Not like the skin, blood and bones—I know that they can fake all that—but can you swap out their nervous system for one of ours?”
Is he serious? Dhata thought. “Synth-tech is sophisticated, Jay, but none of it comes from organic tissue. Look, it’s difficult to tell them apart from us with your bare eyes, but under a microscope, we’re as different as different can be. I’ll get on the job, find out how this man wound up so unlucky. I’m sorry bro, it was a bad call. I’ll figure this out before it gets too political.”
“Alright, Dhata, take it easy,” Jason said, and then the phone icon on the panel disappeared.
Most people didn’t care when it was artificial life being snuffed out, but let it be a human and it was immediately political. In his two years of this strange new job, Dhata had never seen anything like what he was dealing with now. He didn’t know how to feel about it. There had never been any cause before for him to fear the synth.
For Dhata, being a private detective was just a job. He didn’t have a problem with integration. He had installed a few cybernetics into his own body, so being a robo-racist would have to first start with him being the world’s biggest hypocrite. Plus, who could pass up on the immediate access to a personal computer? What about the chance of enhanced hearing? He wasn’t going to skip out on that.
Dhata had no problem with the androids or the humans that built them, but what he did dislike was the crime that dealt with cybernetic parts. As a detective he worked homicide, and the black market had escalated synth crime. He saw many of his friends butchered just because they were the right height, or build.
He thought about turning around and looking for himself to see if it was a synth. Jason had been wrong before on another case; maybe he was wrong again. No, he’s not mistaken, he thought. I can hear it in his voice. He knows the implications, he wouldn’t be so reckless.
He started to think out loud. “So a synth killed a human in the open, with enough time to extract a spine. That street is jumping in the afternoons, and with no nightlife, the place is pretty dead after six. It’s nine now, and Jason had been out there since seven-forty-five. This tells me that it happened quickly, by some sort of expert, someone who has done it before. A bounty hunter, it has to be. What if it’s a frame job by a bounty hunters’ guild?
Now this whole mess is predicated on the idea that the killer was synth. Jason’s thinking that way because of the precision of the cut and the motive. But what if this is a bunch of bounty hunters looking to stir up some business? Either way, I have to figure out who it was and why. To mention the bounty hunters won’t get me much support, since Jason knows I hate those psychopaths. So I’m going to have to approach this from the other end. Prove to him that it couldn’t be a synth; then he’ll be ready for anything.”
He was close to the bar where he had intended to wind down before learning that the victim was human. It was a place he frequented, mostly for the drinks, sometimes for women. It was also a racket for a local synth gangster whose prostitutes were patrons and full of information.
The Buick roared to a rumbling stop outside of the red brick restaurant. A neon sign displayed the silhouette of a medieval wench, holding a tray with a spilling martini, dripping its contents onto the words, Empire’s Tavern. Dhata watched her for a time as she toggled back and forth, then took a deep breath and exited the vehicle.
Empire’s Tavern was one of Tampa’s best kept secrets. It was cool, classy, and the people there were real. Not that it mattered—some of his best nights had been with Marys, the synthetic ladies of the night—but Empire’s Tavern was an escape, a step back into human reality.
It was no longer taboo to sleep with humanoid machines, but if you took a synth girl home under the presumption that she was human, you better hope that your friends didn’t find out. You would get laughed at, though it was nothing beyond a joke, since few men could tell the difference between a human woman and a synth.
His chosen server was the spitting image of Allure, a synth informant and prostitute he would normally meet here. Why is she a waitress now? he thought. Some sort of disguise? Why would they hire her knowing what she once was? He looked her over: it had to be her, all shapely gams and deep caramel skin. She even had Allure’s braids, with the blonde highlights. He hadn’t seen her in weeks, and it was dark inside. Plus, Allure would have spoken up if it was her. Right?
Dhata gestured to his usual table when she asked him, “How many?” and she hustled him through the crowd right after he said, “Just me.” He saw no hint of familiarity in her smile, but if it was the same synth, there was a possibility that she could have had her memory wiped.
When she waved her hand across the table to display their menu, he caught it—a gesture the synth he knew would understand—and the woman pulled back her hand, shocked. Then she leaned in so that only he could hear. “I’m not the synth, asshole,” she said, and he threw up his hands in response.
“My bad,” he said, as she regarded him.
Her smile returned as she pointed at the drink menu.
“I’ll take a whiskey sour,” Dhata said. He leaned back into the soft cushions of the seat. If only she was Allure, he could get some answers, like, why would a synth cut the spine from a person?
The tavern was decked out like a lounge with soft couches and comfortable chairs, and the decor was that of an old wooden cabin. Though the facade was meant to fool its patrons that they had taken a step back into an ancient world, the presence of screens and holos made the immersion impossible.
Sporting events were on every screen, and on some tables a holographic stadium was being projected. The augmented visual was a standard of the time, and it gave the fans a bird’s eye view of the game.
Dhata’s eyes scanned the room, taking in the place and the numerous servers skipping from table to table. They were all young and attractive, with smooth skin. It was an easy mistake to assume that they were synth. His waitress especially; her skin was flawless, and he could tell that he wasn’t the first to make this mistake.
“Hey can you turn that up?” came a voice from a table next to him, and the sound from the one screen that wasn’t playing sports was suddenly amplified. On the screen was a blonde with a bob, who looked to be a few years north of forty. She stood next to a video with a couple being arrested, and he recognized the man immediately.
“Breaking news,” said the woman on the screen. “St. Petersburg boss Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Garcia, who has outsmarted the local police for years, is a fugitive no more. He and his wife were arrested, with no incident, when an anonymous tip led police to a house in the Town and Country neighborhood.”
Some applause went up from the patrons in the tavern, and then the screen switched back to the game. Dhata wondered who would have ratted out Nicky Garcia, since he was a regular Robin Hood to St. Petersburg’s poor.
“So, what do you do?” A voice from behind him brought his head around. It was the same server, and she handed him his drink before leaning over to get the rest of his order.
Like the other tavern girls, she was dressed in a medieval woman’s top with off-the-shoulder crinkled sleeves. It was embarrassing to assume that she was a synth, but she was lovely enough to get past the embarrassment just to keep on talking to her.
“I’m a skiptracer,” he said. “You behaving yourself? I may be here looking in on you.”
“I know you’re looking in on me.” Is this girl flirting? “You thought I was a synth. What’d you like to eat, Dick?”
“Excuse me?” Dhata said, surprised at her nerve.
“Isn’t that what they call you private investigators? Dicks?” she said.
“Potty-mouthed waitresses? Yeah, they call us dicks. But regular people? They call us PIs, gumshoes or sleuths. I think I’ll do the chicken and waffles. Wait. You all do serve real chicken here, right?”
The server laughed, her right hand moving up to cover her mouth as she did it. “We have a farm out back. I promise you it’s real. We don’t do any of that fomeal sculpting here.”
Dhata knew that this was a lie, and that his chicken would be as real as a synth was. But he didn’t object, since it was good to hear her laugh, especially with the corset popping, and the way it made her green eyes light up.
He watched her walk away while typing on her tablet, then lifted the drink to his lips to take a sip. She had a twist to her walk, and her back was exposed, which unfortunately reminded him of the dead synth’s spine. The extraction had been the work of a professional, not necessarily medical, but someone with a steady hand—like an android. They would have done it in a vehicle—standard procedure—but why dump it in a public parking lot? he thought.
His eyes came to rest on a strange woman at the bar. She had a cybernetic arm, which was obvious from the off-color skin that stretched across it. This arm lay lifeless next to her while the other caressed it methodically. When he saw her fingers flex, he knew that it was not completely dead, but she didn’t seem to realize that her awkward stance brought attention to it.
She was statuesque, with olive skin and curly dark hair. Outside of the arm, everything about her screamed elegance, and he couldn’t stop staring at her.
She was definitely a synth, a distracted one; he could tell from her thousand-yard stare. Synths had a habit of going perfectly still, but the smart ones would fake it, moving every few seconds to mimic the act of fidgeting. But this woman wasn’t trying to fit in. She was a Mary that wanted her customers to know exactly what she was—just the type of girl that Peyton Ace would plant there.
“This is actually my favorite dish,” his server said, as she interrupted his study of the woman to place a massive plate of chicken wings and waffles in front of him. She tapped a fingernail on the side of a ceramic boat filled with syrup and nodded at him as if she knew he’d be in agreement. “Need anything else?” she asked, then glanced in the direction of the synth at the bar.
“Think I’m good,” he said, but she was distracted, still eyeing the woman at the bar.
Dhata grabbed the knife and cut a generous piece of chicken, then stacked it on a waffle before dragging it on the plate to collect the syrup. It tasted real enough and his taste buds rejoiced, so he quickly downed the last of his drink.
“It blows my mind how close to the real thing these fomeal sculptors can get our food,” he said.
“I’m telling you, that is real chicken you’re eating,” the server said as she collected his empty glass.
“If this is real, then I am obviously crazy,” he said. “I know the difference, trust me, and while you all do a solid job, this still smacks of beans and algae.”
The woman looked around as if concerned that someone would hear him, then walked up to him and leaned in close. “Is that what’s in a fomeal package?” she asked.
“That and a few other things they won’t divulge to the public,” Dhata said, laughing. When she didn’t seem amused he stopped abruptly, placing his fork down on the plate. “Wait. You didn’t know? They seriously tell you that it’s real meat here?” He cleared his throat to stifle a laugh, then grabbed the napkin to wipe his mouth. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to put you off fomeal or anything.”
“No, no, it’s okay,” she said, her facial expression stuck in a look of disgust. “Learn something new every day, right? I’m going to go get you another sour.”
When she walked off he caught the eye of the synth by the bar who gave him a knowing smile. When she held his gaze, he called her over but she took her time coming to him. When she got closer he could see that her arm was a poorly installed replacement. He wondered if the original owner had died to whomever sold it to her. It also spoke to her reasoning for being a Mary, since she couldn’t pay for them to seal the skin and even out her coloring.
He motioned to the seat next to him and she sat down on command.
“Working girl?” he asked bluntly.
“Come on, cowboy, you know I can’t answer that,” she said.
She looked Mediterranean, with strong features that did not match the voice that came out of her mouth. Synths were always off somehow, and Dhata wondered how it was that more people didn’t notice. Cowboy? Who says cowboy nowadays? he thought.
He ran his hand across her arm—the discolored one—and she melted into him as if it was the natural thing to do. Her mechanical eyes, so dark a brown that they appeared black in the lighting, danced curiously with his own, as if he was the only thing that mattered.
“A whiskey sour?” said a familiar voice, and he looked up to find the server handing him his drink.
“Oh yeah,” he said, then looked over at his new friend, who was staring at the server. “What will you have, sweetheart?” he said, trying to shake off his embarrassment.
“She’ll have her usual. A rum and coke,” said the server, who was gone before Dhata could say anything more.
“Reach under the table,” he said to the Mary. “Do what you need to do to put yourself at ease.”
He stabbed another piece of waffle, and soaked it in syrup, then found a bit of the artificial chicken and placed it on the end of his fork. As he lifted it to his mouth, a warm hand unzipped his trousers, then found itself inside. She let her hand linger there a bit, but then the server returned, and she retracted her hand to grab her rum and coke.
Legally if a police officer solicited a prostitute, he could never arrest her without implicating himself. To make certain of this, the smarter prostitutes would make their customers flash a bit of skin or perform some sort of sexual act before discussing their rate.
“So, you’re not a John. That’s a relief,” she said once the server was gone. “I charge four hundred UCC per hour, and I don’t do discounts so don’t try to ask, okay? Ripping me off will end badly for you, cowboy. I’m rigged with a clamp and a full-body stunner.”
“A clamp? Christ, just the thought of that makes me not want it,” he said.
“You want it, trust me,” she said while caressing his thigh. “Just play nicely and we can have a good time.”
Dhata looked into her large brown eyes, then inclined his head slightly. “You and the waitress, you all have something going on. I see the way you keep looking at each other.”
“She reminds me of someone,” the woman said, then sat up and pulled out an electric cigarette. The motion brought attention to the fingers on her discolored right hand, which he noticed was missing the tip of the pinky. This one’s been around the block a few times, he thought. “I have a friend that looks like her who used to work here,” she continued. “This bitch stole her style.”
“A synth like you, right?” Dhata said quietly. “A synth that goes by the name Allure?”
She was watching the television but he was watching her, and she nodded slowly, as if the motion hurt. “That wasn’t her name,” Dhata said, seeing how far he could influence the woman. “You’re masking a smile, I can see it from here. Your friend gave me a fake name.”
The woman laughed out loud and sucked on the cigarette, holding the vapor for a time before puffing out a smoke ring. “Allure? That’s the name she gave you? God, now that’s a riot. Her name was Candace, not Allure.”
Was; she said was. Is Allure out of the game? he wondered. “So how come you’re here and she’s not?” he asked. “I get that you’re friends with the same employer, but I don’t know any two Marys that work the same spot.”
“More than friends, skiptracer; Candy is like my little sister. The two of us came to this city together, a few years back. We got some upgrades and … well y’know.” She smiled. “We started turning tricks to work our way up.”
“What exactly does an android work herself up to?” Dhata asked—“OW!” He flinched as she slapped him hard on his thigh.
“You’ve probably been with enough of us to know better, cowboy, but ‘android’ is very offensive to a synth. Do I look like a robot to you? Do I feel like one?” She forced his hand between her own, and the warm texture of her flesh made him nod his head in agreement.
“I didn’t mean it that way. If I was anti-synth, do you think I’d be talking to you?” He laughed.
“What do you want, really?” she asked, and took his face in her off-colored hand.
“Candace was my friend as well, a bit more than that, but she disappeared and cut off all communication with me. Look, you’re cool, I can tell, and I believe you about your relationship with Allu—I mean Candace, so I’m gonna ask you a really weird question and you can tell me to go to hell. Your friend and I grew close because I paid her for information; not like info on your boss or his operations, but things about synths, things that only one of your kind would know.”
“You paid her?” she said, looking a bit too interested.
“Yes, you’re a Mary and you work very hard at it, and your boss expects his cut one way or another, right? I take up your time, just like I would if we were going to have sex, and you answer my questions about the synth. Whatever your rate is I’ll happily pay it, but don’t get cute since I know what your sister charged.”
“What’s to stop the boss man from taking my other arm for singing to a John?” she said.
Dhata glanced down at the discolored arm, finally realizing why it was so out of place. “That’s some punishment,” he mumbled, bringing her hand up to his lips. She seemed tickled by the gesture and dropped her guard, back to being a happy smoker once again. “I’m not a John but I investigate crimes, particularly those involving synths. We had a murder tonight, something new and crazy. If you could tell me a thing or two, I can keep the boys in blue out of your neighborhood.”
She put a finger up against his lips and leaned into his body. “Pay the bill,” she whispered, and he was happy to comply.
Her name was Esti and she was spectacular, nothing like the simple Marys built to be nothing more than walking sex-dolls. They sat in his car and talked for an hour, parked in the darkness of the lower overpass on Fowler Ave. It was an expensive chat, basically a third of what he made that week, but he needed the information.
“What’s my tab?” he whispered after a time, as they sat in the cobalt light of the Buick’s dashboard.
“You’re at $400 … but you have to admit that I’m more than worth it.”
“This is the same mess I used to get into with your friend, Candace,” he said.
“Sounds like you need a wife,” she replied, snickering.
He was about to counter when he heard a clicking noise, and an electric cigarette pierced the darkness. “I like to smoke after sex,” she said in her singsong voice. “I thought that was the human thing to do. Do you smoke after sex? I can see you with a great big cigar—”
“Where’d you learn about human behavior, doll? Were you stuck watching old 1960’s films?”
“You and the terms, man, what’s with you and that? Doll, seriously?” She put a heeled foot on his chest and playfully pushed him away. “Why 1960, by the way? Am I that off?”
“Yeah, you kinda are, but I find it cute. You say odd things that give you away, like ‘cowboy’ … and you tend to say it a lot.”
Esti got quiet when he said this, and he reached up and turned on the light. He touched her face gently to let her know that it was okay, and she seemed to relax to his touch.
“When I was walking … behind you, I couldn’t help but notice that you had work done on your back. It’s your dress, the back’s open, y’know? Kind of hard to miss it. It’s a very precise cut, like the kind you get when you swap out an internal CPU. Spine transfer, right, like, illegal black market surgery?”
“You sound like a John, fuck. Was I wrong about you?” she said.
“How many times do I have to tell you that I’m not a John? This exchange right here, I’m soliciting prostitution. What John would do that, and even if he did, what would stop you from replaying the conversation and getting him canned?”
”I got a few modifications, alright. It’s why we do what we do. To become a Mary, I needed to get a sex drive installed—look, I’ve said enough, and this isn’t fun. Candy wouldn’t have put up with this shit; you actually romanced her for the information, right? She was always a sucker for a guy who can talk, but with me you just get right down to the drilling, not even a kiss or a compliment. Time’s up, where’s my money?” she said, and her face took on a look of hostile need.
Dhata took her credit chip and slid his thumb along its surface to sync his implant with its interface. He transferred 400 Universal Credit Chips, and handed it back to Esti. “Listen,” she said, “I’m not really upset with you. Just can’t trust you to be telling you all of this. You understand, right? You understand that he will kill me?”
He nodded and she opened the door and stepped out into the night. Her boss was Peyton Ace, one of the most notorious synth gangsters in the city, and Esti was his property. That much he was sure of. What he didn’t know was why Esti kept saying “was” in reference to her friend, and why she’d lie that they shared the same spot because they were such close friends. Even if that were the case Peyton would never allow it. He spread around his girls to maximize profit, and Empire Tavern belonged to Candace.
“Maybe it’s time to take it to the man himself,” he said out loud as he brought the Buick’s engine to life.