HOPE CITY CHRONICLES
by Todd Honeycutt
Shell didn’t expect the expression on the River Security guard’s face to be kind, but she also didn’t expect the guard to lock her body down.
“What do we have here?” the guard said.
“You got no probable cause.”
“I don’t?” The guard tapped her cuff and scrolled through what Shell assumed were her records. “In trouble once already for stealing. Records show that you sure spend a lot of time down here for a girl so young. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that you were planning something.”
Shell wished that were the case. “It’s a free city, last I heard.”
“Free city, for sure, until you make a mistake.”
That mistake was going to stay with her. Or rather, it was a mistake that her father had made, and that Shell had covered for.
The guard had no badge indicating her name and number. If Shell had kept her rab on, she could at least learn that. But she was ghosting. A simple day, with nothing–and no one–interrupting her. A day at the docks, watching the boats and the water and the gulls, turning over her options. When she had been caught, she had been thinking about the African freighter in the harbor, so far out she wondered if it were in quarantine.
Shell hadn’t been looking for trouble.
“Honest, I just like coming down here.”
“No one just comes down here, Sweetie. This is the worst part of this city.”
That was true. The rest of the city was still new and tall and shiny. Here, with the docks, the cranes, the water, the containers stacked about, nothing was clean or planned or scrubbed or sanitized.
Which was why Shell liked it so much.
“Here’s how it looks to me. Got a girl with a record. Not in school. Likely to be on guarantee for life, but maybe doesn’t like it. Wants more than she can get. Hanging down here, looking for opportunities.”
“That’s not what I….”
“Doesn’t matter, does it?”
Shell struggled against the lockdown. Her body tingled, but didn’t move. Cops shouldn’t be able to do this.
“There’s something you need from me, isn’t there?”
The guard smiled, revealing perfectly white teeth. “You’re a smart one, aren’t you?”
“Not that smart, if I’m here and you’re there.”
With a fluid motion, the guard put something in Shell’s pocket. A light on the guard’s lapel flashed on, indicating that the guard’s sensors were recording. It hadn’t been on before, Shell realized, though it should have been on throughout the encounter.
The guard then pulled the item out of Shell’s pocket. “A keypass?” she said calmly, as if she’d done this many times before. “Looks expensive. Wonder what this goes to?”
Shell looked straight at the guard. “Not mine. She just planted it on me.”
The guard hit a button on her cuff, and the light switched off. “Tell you what. You do me a favor, I’ll do you a favor.”
Shell’s stomach told her that she wasn’t going to like what was next.
Tony waited in the cage for Merdi.
The Ethiopian sailor’s request was odd, cuttings of plants that Tony could get from the ag levels of his apartment building. People coming into port often asked for small batch whiskey, specialty cheeses, foods they couldn’t get elsewhere or had run out of on their ships. Things that they couldn’t get directly at the port stores, because the machines decided to keep foreign sailors confined to their ships and the immediate dock area.
Sometimes, all the sailors wanted were cool toys for their kids. Tony felt for those guys, he really did. Tried to get them something nice, something his kids would have wanted. Didn’t gouge them, either.
But Merdi’s was one of the oddest requests.
Tony looked again at the box. The sailor should have been able to get this stuff anywhere. Though perhaps it was expected that the African Congress played by different rules. Leaves and root stock from a dozen different plants, carefully wrapped and labeled, as requested. After he worked out the agreement with Merdi, Tony pulled the samples from the hydroponic floor below his, telling the caretaker bot that he needed them for his daughter’s science project. Nothing special, far as he knew…tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, broccoli, lettuces, herbs. The kinds of plants every building had on its ag levels, hydroponic floors curated by bots, their steady production distributed to the building’s inhabitants.
Never felt right to Tony. Buildings were for people, not for plants. The bright lights and controlled conditions worked, though.
The city itself didn’t feel right, either, which was most of the reason why he spent so much time at the docks. He felt less under the machines’ eyes, though as much as he hated to admit it, everything the machines had told them to do so far seemed to work.
That didn’t keep him from looking for ways to step outside their care and watchful eyes. Which was why he waited in a jerry-rigged Faraday cage to exchange packages with a sailor.
Decent price, a case of Chinese vodka for not so much work. He’d hand the bottles out to his crew as part of their Christmas presents.
Tony heard footsteps. More than one person.
Merdi appeared around the stack of metal trailers, followed by two other men.
Tony’d bet his last dollar they weren’t sailors.
“You have it?” Merdi asked. His English was heavily accented, but Tony could understand him clearly.
“Where’s the vodka?” None of the men carried anything.
“Gone, unfortunately. Sailors,” Merdi laughed and waved his hands. “Can’t keep them away from some things. But we do not come empty handed.” He pulled a long, thin golden box from beneath his jacket. “Payment here is worth what you’ve brought, plus another favor.”
Tony doubted Merdi’s smile was genuine. The men behind him stayed stone-faced.
Tony pointed to the cuttings. “I thought I already did you a favor.”
“That’s only the first part of what we need.”
Shell wished getting to Central County was more efficient. From the docks, she hopped a tram and within 10 minutes transferred to a train that ran to the center of the city, but the process was never as slow for Shell as it was that afternoon. The guard needed the package by four, which didn’t leave much time to spare.
They had started Hope City with Central County, a base for various government and cultural institutions. From there, they had laid out neighborhoods for 25 miles around, razing everything that originally had existed in its radius–the old buildings and towns and roads–to set up a planned community for a hundred million people. The buildings rose 70, 80, 90 stories into the sky, living units interspersed with meticulously planned park spaces and commercial and industrial units. Integrated communities tied together by trams and trains, an engineering marvel meant to reduce humanity’s footprint on the Earth by concentrating resource use more efficiently. The government created four such cities across the nation, and enticed people’s retreat through the promise of guaranteed income, the offer of tax breaks, and the cessation of government subsidies to those who remained outside.
All of this recommended and managed by the machine intelligences, with proper human oversight.
As the companies relocated, the people followed.
Shell’s father was one of the first, he liked to brag. But Shell never saw it as something to be proud of.
Maybe he was bragging now about being one of the first to leave.
Once she arrived at her stop, she followed the keypad’s instructions to a building that towered above the nearby structures. A large number of drones skittered overhead. A rich area, or maybe because it was a neighborhood so close to the city’s government offices, it simply had more traffic.
Shell held up the keypass; the building’s doors opened.
She had known from the outside that it wasn’t one of those quickly made, cookie-cutter buildings where she lived, meant to hold as many people as it could while adhering to the regs. What was inside, though, astounded her. The first floor ran three stories high, with large abstract paintings filling the walls and glass sculptures tastefully placed on the floor and a pool with a waterfall on the far side of the room. What was she doing in a place like this? She looked for something to stop her, but the bots either remained still or skittered past.
The keypad guided her to an elevator, which took her to the 41st floor. The smell of hydroponics when the doors opened told her it was an ag level.
Shell walked to a glass door, the only one in the small hallway. She hesitated before knocking. What would she say she was looking for? She checked the keypass. It had no further instructions.
The door abruptly opened.
She jumped back. Not whom she expected. An older man in a lab coat, Black, nervous.
“I’m here for a package,” Shell said.
He looked her up and down, as if assessing whether she was capable.
“You got him.”
“Plans have changed. I need to go to who sent you.” He stepped back into the room and tapped something on his desk computer.
She stared at him.
He laid his coat on a couch and picked up a small bag. “We don’t have much time.”
“I don’t understand. I was told….”
He called for the elevator. “Like I said, plans have changed.”
The doors opened, and she followed him inside the elevator. He leaned against the mirrored side looking dazed.
“Will be. What’s your name?”
“Shell. Michelle, Shelley, seashell, shell game, shell shocked….”
“Shell,” she repeated flatly.
When the doors opened to the first floor, Beason led her through to the exit.
Shell turned toward the train station. Beason grabbed her arm. “We need a car.”
She didn’t have that kind of money. Whatever expression her face betrayed, Beason read it perfectly.
“I’ll cover it.”
He flagged a car and they got in. He had a sour smell, or maybe his bag did. Whichever, it filled the small space.
Beason tapped the car seat nervously.
“You do this often?”
“Ride in a car?”
“I meant carry packages.”
“Let’s pretend it’s my first time.”
“Oh,” Beason said. “Glad I’m with someone experienced.”
Shell shrugged, not caring whether he could see her.
It hit her as the car passed through the narrow streets.
That wasn’t a hydroponics floor. It was a lab.
The man’s eyes were closed. She considered having the car stop, running like hell and fading into the crowd and keeping far from the harbor. What were the chances of the guard tracking her down and busting her? How badly did she need the credits?
She only had a half hour left to get this guy to her.
Beason groaned and leaned over, followed by the sound of vomiting. Shell pushed against the side of the car to avoid it, to avoid him, to get away from the smell.
“Pull over,” she called to the car.
“No,” the man groaned. “We’ve got to keep moving, to get there in time.”
“I’ll make it.”
“Pull over,” she said. The car did.
The credits weren’t enough for this.
Shell spied a slim green envelope in his inside pocket and quickly snatched it.
It had more than paper inside. The envelope was padded.
“This is it, isn’t it?”
He shook his head, but his eyes told her something different. She could leave him, get this to the guard, and walk.
The moment after Shell stepped out of the car, a far-off explosion sounded. A cloud of smoke rose behind the buildings from where they had been.
Beason called out, enunciating each word slowly, “Get back in.”
Shell heard the sounds of sirens in the distance.
“For a city with so many suffering people, we don’t see as much of this as I’d expect. Here, especially.” Gilberto Zapata held back his next thought–that back in LA, they’d have seen at least one of these a week. Sam would already know that.
The police bot was a three-foot tall floating cylinder, cameras and sensors covering its body, with a screen for a face so it could alter the persona it projected as the situation dictated. By default, Zapata kept his partner’s screen blank.
“By ‘here,’ do you mean Harbor County or the docks? This is the eighteenth murder this year in the city, first one in Harbor County, none on the docks,” Sam said.
“You certain it’s murder?”
“Probably right.” Zapata walked around the body, perfectly laid out in the small space created by stacks of shipping crates just off the main walkway. “But it’s odd we don’t find more bodies here. Might be easy to toss a body in a crate and ship it out. Or throw it into the harbor.” He looked out across the water. They might want, as a matter of course, to dredge the harbor periodically. He wasn’t going to offer that idea to the machines.
“Possible,” Sam said, and the detective wondered if it were calculating the probabilities and the missing souls who might have gone that route.
Zapata cleared his throat and looked back at the body. Big guy. Had a ceremonial knife tucked in an inner coat pocket. Would have been hard to manhandle. Signs pointed to electrocution. No sign of a struggle. Still possible that it was an accident. Sam had been wrong before.
He scanned the containers for potential sources of electricity. “What do you know, Sam?”
The bot had probably already sent his summary report to the Bureau. “Anthony Titus, senior foreman for the Port Authority. Hope City resident for eight years.”
“Old timer. From?”
“That knife doesn’t look like it’s standard issue with the uniform.”
“Without more specific analysis, I would say it was a ceremonial knife, African in origin.
“Any legal history?”
“Nothing formal since he was a youth. He did have a side business, trafficking with the sailors that came in.”
“Small exchanges of goods. Nothing major….”
An alert sounded from the detective’s rab at the same time as from Sam.
Sam’s screen showed an emergency notice, a building explosion in Capital County.
“Go on,” the detective said. “I’ll take it from here. They’ll call if they need me.”
“See you soon,” Sam said. It shot away.
A formality built into its software. The bot didn’t need to pretend to be anything more than it was, a complex set of programs for investigating crimes. But telling anyone that would probably be some kind of flag for him.
His rab rang. Zapata looked at it. River Security calling. About time they got back to him. That they weren’t hovering about told him much.
Zapata ignored the request. He had a little more he wanted to see before he had the body carried out. Then he’d check Sam’s report, see what it missed. Would be helpful to get a list of who had been around the docks that day and when.
A small patch of dark soil on the otherwise clean concrete floor caught his eye. The detective wondered if Sam had assessed that. He’d have to wait for Sam to return, if not.
The car had been frozen, along with everything else on the road. Whether it was related to the explosion or just a programming glitch, Shell couldn’t say.
She should just find a cop bot and confess everything she knew, which wasn’t much. This was getting weird and big and didn’t have anything to do with her.
Beason flipped a small panel and pushed some switches. The car lit up.
“How’d you do that?”
“They have overrides to pull them off the grid and keep them from traffic control. You want to give it instructions?”
“It’s all yours. I’m getting out.”
He shook his head. “I’m too weak. Plus I don’t know where to go.”
“I’ll punch in the location on your rab.”
“Just get me there,” he said. “Please.” Something about his eyes looked vulnerable.
Shell didn’t owe Beason anything, but he looked to be in awful shape, ready to collapse any minute. And they were close. If she could get this guy to the guard, she’d get the credits and wouldn’t be worried about getting busted.
It was a mad drive between the stopped cars, everyone looking confused at what was happening. When they crossed over into Pecos County, though, nothing was locked down.
Twice, police bots flew by. None slowed down.
They passed into Harbor County and reached the main gate to the docks just before four.
After a long few minutes, Shell parked and took Beason on a walkway that extended along the harbor front. He was unsteady the whole way, so she went slowly. It was now past the deadline; she hoped it didn’t matter.
“That was your building, wasn’t it?” Shell said.
“I didn’t do it, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I only asked what happened.”
“Don’t know.” A pause. “But I’d sure like to.”
Shell hoped she’d find the guard quickly. When she got to the water, the first thing she noticed was that the African ship was gone. It was like a big hole in the harbor, as if it were unusual for a ship not to be there.
Funny thing…Beason noticed it, too.
The guard stepped from behind a blue shipping container. The relief Shell felt was short lived. Behind the guard walked a cop. He didn’t have a uniform, but Shell could tell what he was by the way he walked and how he carried himself. He was thin but not gaunt, his black hair closely shaved, his face accented by a long goatee.
For a brief moment, Shell wondered if maybe they were together, but that wasn’t right. The guard’s expression was not nearly as smug as it had been when she had sent Shell off earlier. And the cop, with eyes that looked like they didn’t miss anything, seemed used to being in command.
Had the guard set her up?
This was not the day she had planned.
They walked straight toward Beason and her.
Only two ways to play this. Deny everything. Or confess.
She guessed there might be a third, depending on what the cop said.
Beason groaned and collapsed beside Shell.
She tried to keep Beason upright, but he was too large and she struggled just to ease him to the ground.
The cop ran over and knelt to examine the body. His hands moved around Beason’s throat, then to his chest.
The guard pointed her club at the cop. She intended to lock him down, as she had done to Shell. Shell couldn’t decide whether to warn him or not. Who was on the right side?
The cop turned toward the guard right before she touched him with the club. She paused, and with a motion that Shell almost missed, the cop touched his cuff.
The guard dropped cold to the ground.
The cop turned back to Shell with a look of disgust.
“Not the brightest person I’ve met today,” the cop said. “Perhaps by several orders of magnitude.” He looked again at Beason. “Medic’s on its way. Anything you want to tell me about him?”
Shell felt the urge to call a lawyer.
“You’re ghosting, aren’t you?” The cop tapped his cuff again, and Shell stood and ran as fast as she could before she felt a mild shock run through her body. She realized she wasn’t far enough away just before she passed out.
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