Excerpt for The Poisoned Oasis by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Mission 2

The Poisoned Oasis


Ethan Somerville

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Storm Publishing on Smashwords

Mission 2 – The Poisoned Oasis

Copyright © 2017 by Ethan Somerville


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Part One

The Police

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Chapter 1

Come on Aileen

Dr Gideon Bacall had called his computer “Aileen” in an attempt to personify it, in the hope a human name would bring it closer to self-awareness. Aileen was actually an acronym for “Artificially Intelligent Life Engineered Electronically” with an “N” thrown in for completeness. It occupied a sizeable corner of the computer room, an ugly cluster of gunmetal-grey databanks, processors, sensors and speakers. The massive contraption hummed and throbbed as though already alive, coloured lights flashing from various sections. All eyes were focussed on the impossibly beautiful woman on Aileen’s large central monitor. Dressed in a tailor-made business suit of dark blue, she acknowledged commands in a cheerful, sing-song voice and programmed body language.

When the computer finally outgrew the constraints of her programming, Dr Bacall would achieve his ultimate ambition - to create life from un-life, a soul for the soulless, an artificial mind. Every day he bombarded Aileen with questions, hoping she would eventually answer with a completely original thought - one that demonstrated complete independence. The gaggle of technicians surrounding him hung onto his every word. He wanted witnesses to his eventual triumph.

One individual, leaning against the computer room doorway, didn’t share the doctor’s enthusiasm. As far as Dr Naomi Vaughan was concerned, Aileen was little more than a very large, expensive paperweight. If machines were to eventually become self-aware, they would do it in their own good time, not when ordered to by an eccentric Einstein lookalike with delusions of grandeur. Stuffing a computer with complicated behavioural programs, giving it blonde hair, a big chest and a stupid name, didn’t mean that it would achieve sentience any faster than the enormous number-cruncher down in the basement. It was as fast, if not faster, and had just as much memory space. Like Aileen, the university mainframe regularly reprogrammed itself so its users could get the best possible service.

Students rested coffee-mugs on its console and called it an oversized abacus.

But Dr Bacall and his toadies would never listen to Naomi. For a start, she didn’t look like Aileen. In her flat-heeled shoes, stained, ill-fitting lab-coat, and mousy hair pulled back in a limp pony tail, she drifted through the university largely unnoticed. Few people knew that for her first PhD thesis she had developed the Sireborg and programmed it to perform a number of simple duties. Dr Bacall, her professor, had simply expanded on her work, and more importantly, made a huge bundle for the Sire by putting Sireborg designs up for sale to private factories.

Fortunately, Bacall and his techs weren’t shallow enough to disregard Naomi’s opinions because of her small, unassuming appearance. She had returned to Bacall’s fold after spending several years working for the late, great Dr Douglas Grayson, the man who once ruled the Sire with an iron fist – literally.

Even though Grayson and other his assistants were long gone, Bacall still feared Naomi. She was only present because of her phenomenal knowledge and unrateable IQ. She didn’t waste time on cute behavioural programs or graphics packages that could make a gorgeous woman live and dance on a screen. But she had the ability to slap a machine together from little more than scrap. Some reckoned she could make a computer run on rubber bands and paper-clips. She had lost count of all times she had coaxed obstinate systems back on line while Gideon Bacall took all the credit. Just because he wrote the glitzy programs that ninety percent of people relied on. No-one was interested what lay inside a machine so long as it did what it was told.

Only one man had known more about computers than her, even before she’d implanted one in his head. After that, well - he had been more than human. Sometimes she really missed Dr Grayson. Had he lived, she would have been his next major project.

No use dwelling on the past, she thought and forced his image from her mind. Bacall and his techs resembled worshippers at an altar as they clustered around Aileen.

His frustration growing, Dr Bacall raked his snow-white curls back with gnarly fingers. “So Aileen - how do you feel today?”

“I am experiencing some difficulty in downloading from the mainframe. Because it is close to midyear exam time, there are a lot of users on the system,” Aileen answered in her beautifully modulated voice. “Also, several sectors in my tertiary hard-drive appear to be corrupted. I will need to run a defrag and a repair program.”

Bacall sighed. “Is that all you feel, Aileen? What about the weather outside?” He gestured towards the open window at the pristine blue sky, flecked with tiny, fluffy white clouds.

“It appears clear, yes, but at approximately five fifteen this afternoon the wind will swing around to the southwest and bring rain,” Aileen answered dutifully. Sensors on the wall outside allowed it to predict the weather - sometimes more accurately than human meteorologists.

“Don’t you think it’s a lovely day?” Bacall insisted.

“It is a good day for outdoor activities,” Aileen responded.

Bacall sighed heavily. He could have programmed Aileen with the responses he wanted, but that wasn’t the point. She had to come up with them on her own.

“Why don’t you give it a rest, Bacall,” Naomi declared from beside the doorway. “Aileen’s no more alive today than it was yesterday!”

Bacall turned, his techs following his angry gaze. “One day very soon she will give an independent response,” he declared pointedly.

Naomi folded her arms. “One day, maybe it will. But bombarding it with questions isn’t the answer. You want Aileen to develop, leave it alone so it can think.”

Bacall wasn’t impressed with Naomi’s gratuitous use of the word “it”. How dare this impudent child reduce his baby to mere spare parts? “Would you prefer I drill a hole in my skull and wire my brain directly to Aileen’s? Inflict my thought-processes onto hers until she starts thinking properly?”

One tech sucked in a shocked breath; that was a bit below the belt.

Naomi tried to slam a lid on her ire and failed. “It might teach her how a human mind thinks ... although I’m not sure whether she would receive any benefits from your brain.”

“That’s enough!” Bacall slammed his fists into his hips. “I’ve had as much as I can take from you, Doctor Vaughan! You have been against this project from the very beginning! You’re off the Aileen project!”

Naomi gaped, one slender hand fluttering to her lips.

“So you might as well go back to where I found you - skulking around the old cryogenics lab!”

“You can’t do that.”

“I just did.” He turned back around to face Aileen and stabbed a few buttons on its keyboard. The attractive blonde stepped forward and took a bow. When she straightened, her business attire transformed into a skimpy, dancing-girl attire, festooned with beads and ribbons. She started to gyrate, long hair billowing around her body.

“This is an outrage!” Naomi marched into the room and shaking a tiny, imperious fist at Dr Bacall. “You can’t kick me off the team! I’ll appeal to the Dean!”

Bacall spun back around. “And whose side d’you think he’d be on? The Oasis’ best programmer - or one of the late grave-robber’s ghouls?”

With that he stalked past her, leaving the techs to shuffle after, each avoiding her gaze.

Naomi swore, hot tears stinging her eyes. What about the robot she had invented, the very first Sireborg that still stood outside the Dean’s office? No, it seemed she would only be remembered for helping Dr Grayson electro-shock those stolen bodies back into life, then transforming them into cyborgs with various mechanical and electronic implants.

By all rights she should have been rotting in gaol. Only her exceptional brilliance had saved her. Yeah right. Exceptional brilliance that had just gotten her booted out of the Special Projects Division! Why the heck did she have to go and lose her temper with that idiot? Why couldn’t she just kept her big mouth shut?” Now she would have to go back to running lectures and tutorials, trying to drum into dim young minds the very fundamentals of computers.

She gazed across the deserted computer room at Aileen. The computer-generated woman also made a convenient screen-saver as she danced seductively. Despite her beauty there was something sinister about her - a coldness that only a healthy dose of humanity could remove.

“Perhaps it’s for the best you aren’t alive,” Naomi told her. “Heaven only knows what you’d do if you were.” She marched from the room, slapping a button as she left. The door whispered closed behind her and locked with a click.

She strode down the pristine corridor, her practical, rubber-soled shoes making no sound on the white Lino. Midmorning sunlight slanted in through a long row of windows running along the left side of the passage, creating bright squares on the floor. Naomi paused at a window and gazed out at the lovely day Aileen had described. The Sire basked in the cheerful June glow, its rounded buildings blending with the carefully cultivated greenery. Six storeys below, students lounged on the hillsides with their textbooks, and walked along the gravelled paths. Sireborgs trailed after a couple. These days everyone seemed to have a personal robot, whether they needed one or not. The things had become status-symbols and Heaven knew what else. Naomi had intended them to be useful things like housekeepers and protectors. But Bacall had written new programs, and now ninety percent of all Sireborgs manufactured were pleasure-bots. Her white-haired old professor was making a killing while she had to go back to lectures and tutorials to make ends meet.

Suddenly the doctor wished she was one of those youngsters, free of her dark past. To be eighteen again, with a head full of music, soapies and pipe-dreams.

“Not unless you can turn back time, dear - and you can’t, because they’ve dismantled Project Eloi as well!” She spun from the window and stomped down the hall to visit the disused cryogenics laboratory. So what if she was fulfilling Bacall’s prophecy? She no longer cared.

Every day she feared she would be denied access, but every day her Sire swipe-card still parted the reinforced doors. Slipping the card back inside her jacket she entered the musty lab and flicked on the lights. The stark white glow illuminated scrubbed plastic-topped benches and bare metal shelves - a skeleton of the place that had once teamed with activity. After Grayson’s death all the expensive equipment had been removed. Only the freezers and their contents remained. Until the government decided what was to be done with the cyborgs they would remain in stasis, caught forever on the thin, wobbly plank between life and death. They were all that remained of Project Lazarus - Dr Grayson’s pride and joy.

She mightn’t have agreed with the late doctor’s methods, but she had supported his ideas. Man and machine were meant to be together, not separate entities. They complimented each other, together forming a whole that was far more than the sum of its parts.

If Aileen ever attained sentience, would it want to be a part of humanity? Of course not. After realising what humanity had done to its planet, it would more than likely want to remove itself. And then what would Dr Bacall be? A god rejected by his creation.

Naomi laughed at the irony as she let herself into the small, circular cryogenics chamber. She shivered, her grubby white lab coat doing little to protect her from the subzero temperature. Nevertheless she bore the cold and flicked on the lights.

Ten airtight sarcophagi lined the curved, womblike walls. Six were dark and empty, only four illuminated from within. Lazarus Cyborgs slept inside three of the coffins, their vinyl-clad bodies softened by the swirling, liquid mists. Heavy goggles covered their eyes and noses, leaving only thin, lipless mouths exposed to the outside world. They were perfectly intact, and would be ready for action as soon as the cryogenics process was reversed - if it ever was.

Naomi admired the creatures, but they didn’t pique her interest as much as the occupant of the fourth capsule. She knelt down beside it, located near the floor. Wrapping a sleeve around her fist she cleared a patch of condensation from the curved plastic wall.

Inside lay a different figure, its pale face relaxed in repose at minus one hundred and seventy eight degrees. She had come to know that visage as well as her own; every mark, every scar, every part of his enhancement. Because of her knowledge of robotics, she had been called in to help Dr Grayson transform the mangled remains of this man into a superhuman cyborg. Then she had performed the same operations on the Lazarus Cyborgs and finally on the doctor himself.

Cables trailed from the left side of the cyborg’s head, from delicate circuitry now exposed and dead. An image enhancer covered the creature’s left eye, and another cord ran down his face to his throat, disappearing beneath a segmented metal collar protecting his neck. There was a gaping hole in his stomach, and through the mist Naomi could see the artificial internal organs she had helped Grayson insert; his heart, battery and drug container. The creature’s mechanical right arm lay still beside him, his own flesh covering the upper part. The lower consisted of six guns and a murderous three-fingered claw, still with red stains on the tips. That arm had once hurled her into a rack of chemical equipment, so hard she had lost consciousness.

But she never thought of how badly she had been injured, only of how powerful the cyborg had been; how he had tossed her like a ragdoll. She remembered the creature smashing his way out of the cryogenics laboratory, hurling techs left and right like tenpins. He had crushed a security guard’s throat with one squeeze of his metal fingers. He had even beaten the enhanced Dr Grayson in single combat. And he had been damaged and in need of stimulants at the time. He had torn the doctor’s head off while one of the Lazarus Cyborgs was twisting a spear in his guts.

Naomi trailed her fingers along the icy glass. “Mission - you are the next step in human evolution, not that stupid computer down the hall!” she whispered. “Don’t worry ... I will find a way to bring you back.”

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Chapter 2

The Last Night of Delia Malone

Twenty-two year old fashion model Delia Malone lay on her side in the hallway of her flat, head lolling at an unnatural angle. A puddle of drool had collected under her slack red lips and soaked into the beige shagpile carpet. Long wavy hair hung over her bare shoulders like a blonde cloak, and she was wearing nothing but a pink satin nightie with pencil-thin straps.

Senior Detective Sapphire Stone knelt down beside the body and picked up one of its limp wrists, moving it left and right. “Rigor mortis doesn’t appear to have set in yet,” she muttered. She pulled a black, boxlike object from one pocket and pressed it against Delia’s dead flesh.

A readout soon appeared on a small screen. “Surface body temperature twenty five point five degrees - that would make the estimated time of death approximately one fifteen.” She moved up to the bruised neck and positioned the medi-scanner above it. It operated like a portable ultrasound machine, bombarding the area with harmless sound-waves. Soon, a detailed picture of what lay inside was revealed. “Bloody hell, this woman wasn’t just strangled,” she muttered. “Her neck’s broken. Or more precisely shattered.” She nudged the head and it moved easily, connected to the body by little more than a thin rag of skin. Tiny bones ground together. Delia’s face expressed a mixture of shock and pain; her death had been brutal but very quick. “The scanner reveals at least three smashed vertebrae.”

Pocketing the little machine she examined the purple bruises on Delia’s throat. It didn’t take her long to come to a disturbing conclusion. “Andy - come here!”

She straightened to her full height of one metre eighty and stepped back from the body so her partner, Detective Andy Byrnes, could check the body out. Although she wore a grey, conservatively cut pant-suit, it did little to conceal the power and grace with which she moved. Only years of intense exercise could produce a physique a physique like that on such a tall, slender woman. “What d’you think?” she asked.

“Yeah - the neck’s completely crushed!” Andy agreed. “Like it was shoved in a vice or something.”

“Now look at the bruises,” Sapphire suggested.

Andy leaned forward, checking them out through his electronic magnifier. His eyes weren’t as good as they used to be, and he found himself relying more and more on the electronic enhancer. “Finger-marks,” he mused.

“Notice anything strange about them?”

He leaned in again, running the electro-mag over the purple marks encircling the dead woman’s throat. “There’s one mark on the right side of her neck and four on the left ... They practically meet at the back ... Good Grief! Her throat appears to have been crushed by only one hand, Saph - One hand!”

“One very large hand that crushed her voice box and shattered three cervical vertebrae when it closed.”

“How strong would someone have to be to do that?” Andy gasped.

“Extremely.” Tucking a strawberry blonde strand that had escaped from her bun, Sapphire marched back down the hall to the front door. A duty officer in a leather jacket stood just outside, making sure curious neighbours couldn’t see what was happening within. A buzz of excited conversation reached the detectives’ ears.

Andy pushed himself to his feet and straightened, rubbing the small of his back. At forty nine, the physical exertion and long hours were starting to weigh on him. Every day he found more grey hairs peppering his golden-brown buzz-cut. “This killer really must have been eating his greens!” he called after Sapphire.

Ignoring Andy’s lame attempt at humour, Saph tapped the duty cop on a broad shoulder. “Any sign of forced entry?”

He turned, a little disturbed by the fact that he had to look up at this stern-faced woman. “None, Detective. Our scanners found no evidence of tampering with the lock, normal or electronic. Ms Malone could have let the killer in.”

“If he was someone she knew, that would explain the look of surprise on her face,” Saph muttered, more to herself than the duty officer. She pushed past him and stepped out into the crowded corridor.

Neighbours in dressing-gowns and pyjamas jammed the narrow, carpeted hall. Sergeant Vitomirov and Senior Constable Charles were currently interviewing the white-haired woman who lived directly below Delia Malone’s flat. Tears streaked her cheeks as she poured out her story.

“I live right under Ms Malone, and I have very sensitive hearing,” she sniffed. “Her wild antics used to keep me awake at night sometimes, especially when that good-for-nothing playboy boyfriend of hers came over.” She dabbed at her watery eyes with a lace-edged hanky. “They used to run all over the unit, laughing and squealing like children.” She gulped, suddenly feeling guilty for all her dark thoughts.

“Did her boyfriend come over tonight?” asked Sergeant Vitomirov.

Someone came over. I heard Delia’s doorbell - she has one of those annoying buzzers - and then she let whoever it was inside. I ... I didn’t hear his footsteps. Delia said something - I didn’t hear what. Then there was this loud thump ... I-I suppose it could have been the sound of Delia’s body falling onto the floor. At the time I didn’t think anything of it.” She swallowed again, tears overwhelming her. Senior Constable Charles patted her on a shoulder.

A tall, blonde man in a trench-coat standing behind the sobbing woman nervously cleared his throat. He was almost as pale as she was. “Um ... excuse me, I’m the one who found her body.”

The sergeant turned to face him, and he gulped, realising that all attention was on him. “Okay. Well, I’d just come back from my shift and I noticed the door to Delia’s flat was slightly open. I ... I thought this was odd, considering the time of night, so I nudged it open to check on her. Then I saw her. She was lying on the floor just inside, and her head ... well, it didn’t look attached. That’s when I called you guys.”

Saph stepped forward, gently but firmly pushing through the closely-packed bodies until she could stop beside the old lady. “Excuse me uh...”

“Sandra Bailey,” Sergeant Vitomirov supplied.

“Excuse me, Mrs Bailey.”

The old woman looked up from her hanky, now a soaking wet cloth. “Yes?”

“Do you know the name of Delia Malone’s boyfriend?”

“Of course! Everyone here knows his name. He’s Alex Lavelle - star of that dreadful show Paradise Lost!”

For a few seconds, the jabbering neighbours silenced. Saph gaped at the revelation. No wonder the hall had filled up like a football stadium on Grand Final day. “Really?’ she gasped.

Mrs Bailey nodded vigorously. “He came over every couple of days to visit her, although I don’t think they were ever very ... serious about each other.”

“Fair enough. Thanks for your help.” Saph pushed her way back to the flat.

She found Andy in Delia Malone’s lounge room, examining her phone. “Listen to this voicemail I found,” he commanded before Saph could open her mouth. He held the little phone up.

“-Not sure if I’ll be able to make it tonight,” a deep, liquid voice began. “I’ve pretty tired. But I will be over tomorrow, I promise, and we can go over my new script if you like. How would you like that? See you then.” Click.

“Recognise the voice?” Andy asked, his eyes gleaming with excitement.

“Alex Lavelle,” she answered without pause. “Star of Paradise Lost.”

Andy’s pouchy face fell. “You guessed that pretty quickly. I didn’t think you watched Paradise.”

“I don’t. Mrs Bailey outside said that Alex Lavelle was Delia Malone’s boyfriend.”

“Aw! And I thought I’d found the evidence of the century!”

“This may be the story of the century! ‘Popular Soap Star turns Murderer’!” She gazed around at Delia’s sumptuous lounge room. Everything was pink and frilly. Even the landscapes on the walls somehow managed to look pink and frilly. She lost count of all the teddy bears and cute dolls in mob-caps and pinafores. “Any idea where Lavelle lives?”

“Sunnyfield Heights - where else?”

“Then that’s our next visit. He’s our prime suspect.”

Andy gaped. “Surely not.”

“Someone came here tonight, someone Delia knew and let into her flat.”

“But Alex Lavelle? He’s pretty muscular, but could he snap a girl’s neck with one hand?”

“There are some pretty frightening steroids on the markets these days. Rich people have made it fashionable to enhance themselves with drugs.”

Suddenly, there was a commotion down the hall and the detectives look up. The police photographers had arrived, and the tiny hallway became a circus as they manoeuvred around the body, trying to take pictures from every angle. When they had finished, Delia Malone’s body was zipped into a black plastic bag and removed. Detectives Stone and Andy followed it out, leaving the duty officer to finish up.

Outside, the crowds had thinned as the neighbours’ exhaustion finally overcame their curiosity and excitement. Rarely did something as terrible as murder happen in their peaceful little community.

Andy followed Saph out into the cold early morning. Stars winked down from a clear black sky, disturbed only by distant wisps of steam from factories. During quieter nights Saph often spent hours watching the sky, and enjoying the fact that she could see the stars. People on the Coast had only grim, grey smog above them, ever-present and always impenetrable.

“On our way to Alex Lavelle’s can we stop and get a coffee?” Andy massaged his brow with stumpy fingers. “I’m rooted. I’m afraid to blink in case I fall asleep.”

“Of course.” Saph led the way to their battery powered Enigma Hatchback, a compact three-doored machine painted a cheerful shade of green. She unlocked it by remote and folded her long body into the driver’s seat. The car was like her; neat, no-nonsense, no frills. No dopy bumper-stickers, no fuzzy toys dangling from the rear-view, no leopard-print seat-covers. It didn’t even have a music-player with speakers powerful enough to shake the doors off. Just the bare essentials. “I could use a coffee as well.”

Saph pressed a finger against the ignition pad, and the Enigma’s internal computer red her print. The engine started with a whine. Saph spun the wheel and backed out of the parking spot, pulling away from the hi-rise unit block. Soon it blended in with the hundred others that made up Leonora Hills. The buildings might have been pleasing in design, with curved walls, decorative balconies and beautifully landscaped hanging gardens, but they were all the same. Saph preferred her own suburb of Preston, where small houses nestled in semi-rural surroundings. So what if it took her an hour to drive to work every morning? It was a very enjoyable and relaxing trip.

“So what d’you think, Saph?” Andy asked, hoping to bring his partner out of her introspective brood. She was quiet too much these days. “D’you think Lavelle did it?”

“Who can say?” she answered evasively.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he did,” Andy continued. “Those Sunnyfield Heights snobs are always searching for new and strange ways of amusing themselves.”

Saph laughed blackly. “I’m sure they’re just like you and me. Now, make yourself useful by calling up Lavelle’s address. I don’t want to be cruising the Heights all night looking for a mailbox with his name on it.”

“Hardy ha ha.” Andy dug out his phone and called up Central Office. It only took him a few minutes to contact the database and retrieve the information they required.

“17 Sunnyfield Road, Sunnyfield Heights,” he told her as he plugged the phone into the dash. He pointed to the map on screen. “That’s right on the beach!”

The navigator came on and started to provide directions.

“Lucky Alex. I’m sure he paid well for the privilege.”

“You know, my Emma absolutely adores Alex Lavelle. She has posters of him all over the walls of her bedroom. Never misses an episode of Paradise Lost. She has all the previous seasons so she can watch them during the summer breaks. If Alex does turn out to be a murderer, her poor little heart will break in half.”

“You seem to know a lot more about the show than me. How about cluing me in?”

“Okay.” Andy took a deep breath. “Paradise Lost started about five years ago. It’s set on the east coast and focuses on the lives of a group in a neighbourhood called Wakefield - a made up suburb, I believe.”

“Set on the east coast?” Saph gasped. “I find that hard to believe.”

“Everything’s filmed in a studio, but they say they have done their research. And Alex Lavelle did visit the east coast when he was a teenager.”

“I’m sure it’s a very true-to-life portrayal,” Saph declared, dripping sarcasm. She had read enough confidential material about the Coast to know that no Oasian writer could ever do it justice. Turning the wheel she pulled out onto the Great Oasis Highway, which would carry them into the very heart of the city. Sunnyfield Heights lay off to the right, on a small peninsula a mere ten minutes from Sunnyfield Boulevard.

Despite the hour, the officers shared the highway with numerous other vehicles; compact electric cars, large supply trucks that ran on alcohol, and the occasional hemp-oil powered machine from the sticks, rumbling along with a large cloud of sweet-smelling exhaust billowing behind it. As Saph wove in and out of slower-moving traffic, she noticed a couple of Enigma anti-grav cars, resembling hovercraft, riding smoothly half a metre above the tar. Their drivers were young and slim, dressed in the latest fashions. They rode with the tops down so the early morning air could ruffle their impeccably styled hair. Rich youngsters showing off their new cars after a night out.

“And I used to think I had the very latest model,” she muttered.

“What’s that Saph?” Andy asked. “You’ve been a bit distracted tonight. What’s wrong?”

“It’s not every night you see a woman strangled by a grip of steel.”

“Sure, Delia Malone’s death was disturbing, but that’s not what’s bothering you. You can’t lie to me. We’ve been partners too long.”

Saph sighed at the old, but accurate cliché. They had been partners for five years. Despite her best attempts to keep aloof, she and Andy had become best friends. She had once made the mistake of pouring her life story out to him.

“Maybe I’m just feeling my age.”

“Your age?” Andy scoffed. “You’re only thirty six, for pity’s sake! Look at me! Forty nine with a bad heart and failing eyesight!”

“Yeah, but you have a wife and three lovely children - a life. What do I have? An ex who stole six years of my existence, and still gives me nightmares.”

“Ah. Look Saph, thirty-six is still young. There’s a woman over in Old Alice who just celebrated her thirty fourth wedding anniversary - shortly after celebrating her one hundred and thirty fourth birthday.”

“You mean I’ll have to wait until I’m a hundred before I find true love? You certainly know how to make a woman feel good!”

Andy patted her arm, marvelling at the muscle beneath her polyester sleeve. “That’s not what I meant, Saph. You’ll find someone, don’t worry. You’re a lovely woman - when you let your hair down.”

Saph simply sighed, depressed by too many recent late nights alone in her little Preston house, sprawled in her black velvet beanbag in front of the TV with a bottle of cheap plonk in one hand. Yes, even her furniture was no-nonsense. She lifted a free hand to the bun at the back of her head, into which she scraped her strawberry coloured hair every morning. Everything about herself was quick and efficient - low maintenance. No wonder men kept their distance. The modern guy wanted a woman who spent a lot of time and effort on herself.

A pink and frilly woman like dead Delia Malone.

“Sometimes men are more trouble than they’re worth,” she growled.

“Settle,” Andy growled. He was about to continue when a sudden gust of wind buffeted the little electric car. Looking up he saw a massive black anti-grav Enigma shot past with a whine of boosted capacitors. Two teenage boys sat in front, whooping and squealing as they weaved in and out of the traffic.

“They just broke about six road rules!” Andy shouted.

“And if I had an anti-grav Enigma, I could chase them and give them a ticket,” Saph exclaimed.

“Don’t worry - I got a picture of their numberplate.” She tapped the controls for her car’s inbuilt camera.

Andy chuckled. How efficient could you get?

Following the navigator, they pulled off the highway onto Sunnyfield Road, which wound its way down to the seaside through rolling hills lined with the most expensive of Oasian dwellings. Some were sickening displays of architecture that defied all laws of physics and good taste. Others were attempts to rebuild the fragmented past; several different styles rolled into one bizarre building. Private individuals hid their houses in mini-forests, leaving only high steel gates to greet the outside world. The new rich occupied freshly-built flats; tiny shoebox affairs towering above the main promenade.

Even at this hour Saph found herself reduced to a crawl through Sunnyfield Boulevard. Partygoers crammed the all-night cafes and clubs, and modern dance music poured from the mouths of underground dance venues, so loud it trembled the streets. Lights flashed on and off in myriads of colours, hypnotically describing dozens of different entertainments. A dancer in scintillating colours gyrated high above the middle of the street, cut off from the rest of the world on her own anti-grav platform.

“That must have cost a bit,” Andy muttered.

“Yeah, right. Stop looking up her skirt.”

A party of teenagers stumbled across in front of them, giggling and spilling their multi-coloured drinks. A shaven-headed girl almost fell face-first onto Saph’s bonnet.

“Isn’t it past your bedtime?” Saph shouted out of her window.

“You’re not me Mum!” the girl shouted.

“Thank goodness for that! I’d have disowned you by now, you little brat!”

“Old bitch,” the girl slurred, then stumbled off after her mates.


“Now you sound old.”

“Har har. Bet if that was your Emma, you’d have dragged her into this car by her ears!”

“Yeah, well - you got me there.” Andy laughed. “I wouldn’t let her anywhere near this place unless she was with at least six friends. Drive-through joint coming up on the right.”

They pulled into the fast-food eatery, ordered a big, greasy breakfast, and then continued without stopping. Somehow they managed to squeeze out of the maelstrom and reach the beach, with its dark blue water sparkling under the starlight. Saph pulled to a stop in a carpark so they could cram their meal in peace.

A couple of swimmers were enjoying the cool early morning, and while they ate, at least three joggers pounded past in their expensive Nicky-brand sneakers. The Oasis never slept. With over fifty million living here, people could never be truly alone. Saph thanked her lucky stars she wasn’t living on the east Coast, where over a hundred and fifty million people fought for space in strip of urban sprawl that straggled all the way down from Cape York to Melbourne, with the most highly concentrated sections in Brisbane and Sydney. No wonder there was no law and order.

“That’s better.” Andy dragged an arm across his mouth. “Feel more human now.”

“Me too. Let’s find Mr Lavelle.”

“His place should be just up ahead.”

“Good. So what kind of a character does he play in Paradise Lost?” she asked as she started the engine, and pulled away from the curb.

“His name’s Alan Boone. He’s a devil-may-care adventurer - a real ladies’ man with a dozen different girlfriends at any one time. But he has a heart of gold - always helps people less fortunate than himself.”

“Yeah. What’s the bet he’s a real bastard in life.”

“We’ll get to find out very soon - we’re here!” Andy gestured out the window, and Saph screeched to a stop outside a tall stainless steel gate - like so many they had already passed. Alex Lavelle appeared to be one of those people who valued his privacy, hiding behind a thick veneer of foliage. The driveway curved into lush, beautifully cultivated pines and other evergreens, quickly disappearing from view.

Saph backed up to the gates, wound down her window, and pressed a button on the shiny new security box.

“Identify yourself.” Saph recognised the digitalised voice of a series 1200 Lockout Security Computer System.

“Senior Detective Sapphire Stone. It is very important I speak to Adam Lavelle. My ID number is 151876E.”

“Processing.” The Lockout was silent for a couple of seconds. “Please press your index finger against the pad.”

Saph extended a long arm out of the window, touching a soft pad beneath the button she had pressed.

“Your ID and print check out. Are you alone?”

“No. Detective Andy Byrnes is with me.” Saph’s partner had to submit to the same scan.

“You may proceed,” the computer intoned. With a click the heavy steel gate unlocked and rumbled softly aside.

“Some government institutions aren’t that heavily guarded,” Andy commented as they crunched onto the gravel drive. The gate rolled closed behind them and locked with a clang.

“Yeah. A bit paranoid for a rich up-and-coming young soap-star, isn’t he?”

“He’s probably sick of being mobbed by hordes of screaming teenagers.” Andy chuckled, but the magnitude of that Lockout Security check had rattled him, and he felt as though the thick conifers were closing in on him. “At least he doesn’t have any armed guards.”

The thick foliage parted, revealing Lavelle’s house. Saph gasped in surprise at the big, but tasteful dwelling. Painted a creamy white, it had obviously been designed by the only Oasian architect with any sense of style. No columns, marble steps or fancy pediments - just a simple, old-world house with a red roof, shuttered windows and ivy creeping up the walls. Lanterns on the drive provided enough illumination for Saph to manoeuvre her Enigma safely to a stop on one side of the drive.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

“It looks like something from the olden days ... from Europe before the ... the you know.”

“The war,” Saph finished. She locked the Enigma and approached the front door. She pressed the doorbell, sending pleasant chimes ringing through the house.

“I don’t think anyone’s home,” Andy remarked after a minute.

“The Lockout wouldn’t have let us through the gate if he was out.” Saph jumped down the stairs and walked around the house, searching for a lighted window. She found none, but at the back of the house, behind the swimming pool and tennis court, she spotted a narrow cobblestoned path snaking down through the bush towards the beach.

“He could have gone down there.” Drawing a torch from one pocket, Saph stepped onto the path.

“Shouldn’t we wait until he comes back?” Andy asked, not liking the look of that dark track.

“If I have to sit down somewhere and wait, I’ll fall asleep. I don’t think that coffee dented my exhaustion. Besides, the sun’s coming up.”

As far as Andy was concerned, it was still as dark as midnight. But he followed Saph into the bush anyway, taking care to stay in the light of her torch. He didn’t fancy a broken ankle on the rocky path.

Soft coniferous branches brushed Saph’s cheeks like feathers, and her pen torch scarcely illuminated two metres ahead. Whoever did Lavelle’s gardening forgot this part, she thought as the heel of her shoe caught on a loose cobblestone. She stumbled forward, swearing under her breath.

“What is it?” Andy cried.

“I’m beginning to think waiting up at the house is a good idea-” Her sentence ended in a squeal of surprise. Andy watched in horror as the torch flew from her fingers and clattered onto the cobbles, rolling off to one side. The area was plunged into darkness. Predawn light coloured the eastern sky a soft rose, but little filtered through to this path. Andy dived for the torch, closing his fingers around it. But before he could lift it, a crushing weight descended on his hand. He howled in pain.

* * * *

Chapter 3

Introducing Alex Lavelle and his Bodyguard

“Be still,” a deep, flat voice commanded.

“You’d better do as it says!” Saph gasped. She felt as though her arm was being ripped out of its socket.

Andy craned his neck to look up at the shadow towering over him, one rubber-soled boot squashing his hand to the ground. He could only make out a massive silhouette. It appeared to be holding onto a smaller silhouette.

“‘It’?” Andy croaked, slowly losing all feeling in his imprisoned fingers.

“What is it, Tommy?” a familiar voice called. Andy recognised it from Delia’s answering machine.

“Intruders,” the mysterious Tommy answered, his voice still flat, devoid of inflexion.

“We’re police officers,” Saph gasped as another torchlight bobbed into view. “Your security system let us in!”

The torch shone in Saph’s face, almost blinding her. Then it illuminated Andy in his undignified position on the ground.

“Release them, Tommy.”

The boot lifted from Andy’s hand and he straightened, massaging some feeling back into his bruised knuckles. The hulk then released Saph and moved to Alex’s side. Neither officer could make out their faces.

“Show me your badges,” Alex ordered.

Rubbing her aching shoulder, Saph obeyed, motioning for Andy to follow. “We need to talk to you - it’s very important. Can we go back to the house?”

Alex sighed. “Okay.”

“Bastard didn’t have to step on me so hard,” Andy muttered as he rubbed his throbbing hand. “He could have broken my fingers!”

“Stop whinging. It almost dislocated my shoulder!”

“Why the Hell do you keep saying ‘it’? Waitaminute, is Alex’s bodyguard a sireborg?”

“Top of the line.”

When they reached the house, it was light enough to see without torches. Alex switched his off as he ascended the back stairs. The Sireborg motioned for Saph and Andy to follow, then brought up the rear. It wasn’t letting them out of its sight, and the artificial gaze boring into their backs gave Andy the creeps. He had never been comfortable around robots.

Alex led them into a large sunroom complete with lounge suite, pool-table, fridge and bar. It was roomy and comfortable, but didn’t look lived in. He motioned for them to take a seat. “I’ll be back in a minute. I want to change out of my jogging clothes. Tommy will get you anything you need, but don’t ask for anything complicated. He’s not a Butler.”

“Sure.” Andy flopped gratefully into brown leather armchair. Saph sat more daintily on a matching lounge. Alex left, but his bodyguard remained, standing silently by the back door with its arms by its sides.

Saph had been right about Tommy being a top of the line Sireborg. It stood two metres tall and was heavily muscled beneath its tight leather clothes. Even though the muscles were only cosmetic - hydraulics controlled the cyborg’s movements - they had been beautifully crafted to the last detail. Saph didn’t doubt they mimicked normal human motion when the creature moved. Most Sireborgs had one of six basic faces, but this one’s appeared to have been modelled on an individual; pale blue eyes, high cheekbones, full lips and strong cleft chin.

It even had hair, a fuzzy blonde crew-cut that must have taken hours to sew into the latex covering its metal skull.

Saph had only realised it wasn’t human when it hauled her up off the ground one-handed. No human was that strong. In response her shoulder gave a painful twinge, and she rubbed it again. Sireborg Bodyguards were programmed not to harm people, but they often forgot their own strength.

“Scary looking cuss, isn’t he?” Andy whispered in Saph’s ear.

She fingered her chin. “I think he’s rather cute. But don’t you think it’s strange that Alex has a custom-made Bodyguard? Aren’t all the made to order ones pleasure-bots?”

Andy lifted his plump hands. “I wouldn’t have the foggiest, Saph - I already know more than I want to about Sireborgs.”

Saph chuckled.

“Sorry about that!” Alex gasped as he returned, now clad in dark blue jeans and sneakers.

No wonder teenage girls like Andy’s Emma went all gushy over him. He was a young woman’s dream. Unruly black hair parted at the centre hung into his eyes, and when he smiled uncertainly at the officers in his game-room, two dimples appeared on either side of his mouth. He had long curling lashes, dark eyes and lips that had probably featured in many a fantasy.

Perhaps I ought to start watching Paradise Lost, she thought with an inward smile.

“Can I get you anything to eat? Drink?”

“We’re fine,” Saph assured him.

“Well, I need a coffee. I’ve hardly slept.” He crossed to the kitchenette beside the fridge and filled an electric jug.

Saph frowned, but made no comment. Only when Alex had settled himself in another armchair did she clear her throat. Andy pressed a restraining hand against her arm, and jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the watching android. “I think it should leave. Don’t those things record everything they see and hear?’

“Sure. Tommy - could you wait outside?”

Without a word, the Sireborg moved across the room and out. For something that was supposed to weigh twice as much as a human, it was remarkably light on its feet. Andy heaved a palpable sigh of relief as the game-room door closed behind it. “Excuse me, but I can’t stand the things.”

“That’s alright. I’m not used to him either. I’ve only had him for a few weeks.” Alex pressed his palms together between his knees and squeezed them. He looked nervous about something, and the sleepless night had coloured dark caverns under his eyes. “So what can I do for you guys?”

Saph didn’t waste any time getting to the point. “Do you know a young woman named Delia Malone?”

“Er - yes. She’s a friend of mine.”

“A friend?”

“We-ell ... a casual girlfriend,” he elaborated, his cheeks reddening. “We enjoy each other’s company, but neither of us want to settle down. She has her life and I have mine. But I love her anyway. What’s wrong? Has something happened to her?”

“She was murdered last night,” Saph answered soberly. “Someone strangled her.”

Alex clapped a hand over his mouth, all the blood draining from his cheeks. “No!”

His reaction looked genuine, but Saph resisted the urge to get up and comfort him. “Alex - we need to know where you’ve been all night.”

He stared, stunned by her question. “Wh-where I’ve been all night?” He was incredulous. “Why, here! I took a couple of sleeping pills at eleven, slept for three hours, then woke up,” he exclaimed. “I couldn’t get back to sleep, so Tommy and I went down to the beach. I decided to wear myself out with some jogging.”

“Can anyone verify your story?” Andy asked.

“Of course!” He paused, suddenly realising the answer he wanted wasn’t within easy reach. “Er. Tommy can.”

“The Sireborg?” Andy exclaimed.

“Yes! He’s been here all night, watching me. Just ask him. He’s a machine - he can’t lie.”

The detectives exchanged glances; Alex was right; Sireborgs couldn’t lie. Nor could their programming be tampered with. But their memories could be erased, and often were to make room for new ones. The average Sireborg’s brain could only absorb a month’s worth of sensory input before it had to be erased or archived. The only information that remained was the original programming and whatever customising its owner had done.

“Call it in,” Saph ordered.

“C’mon Saph,” Andy protested. “We’re trusting the testimony of a computer, for Pete’s sake!”

“Ch-check the Lockout if you don’t believe Tommy,” Alex stammered. “The memory bank at Lockout HQ should contain records of all comings and goings from this place since its installation.”

“Just call the Sireborg.”

Alex cleared his throat. “Tommy? Could you come back in here?”

Immediately, the door swung inwards and the massive robot stepped into the room. It was as though he had been waiting right outside with his ear to the door. Saph smiled, reminded of a small child, but beside her Andy shivered, disturbed by the exact-same realisation.

“Er - Tommy - the detectives have some questions they’d like to ask you. Are ... are you able to answer them?”

“There are no problems with my speech-synthesiser,” Tommy answered flatly. Despite attempts to make it sound human, his voice was still slightly digitised, and lacked modulation and tone, as artificial as the Lockout’s.

“Har har,” Andy muttered.

“Tommy,” Saph straightened to her full height in front of the Sireborg. He tilted its head down to look at her, but his eyes seemed to bore right through her. There was no depth to his gaze, and when Saph looked hard, she could see right through those pale blue eyes and into the circuitry behind. “Are you able to verify Alex’s claim that he has been here all night?”


Saph waited for more information. None was forthcoming.

“Well? Has he been here all night?”

“Yes. He went to bed at eleven o’clock and slept until two fifteen this morning. Then he woke up and we went down to the beach.”

Saph nodded, satisfied by the Sireborg’s bland tone. “I guess that will do. Thank you Tommy.”

“You are welcome.”

Alex rubbed his forehead. “I was only talking to Delia yesterday... I spoke to her answering machine last night. Poor, poor girl.”

“Alex - do you have any idea who could have killed her?” Saph asked.

He gulped, suddenly looking young and vulnerable - nothing like the hard-bitten hero he was supposed to portray on Paradise Lost. Then he dropped his head, massaging his brow. Something was bothering this man. “I ... I’m not sure,” he finally admitted, his voice deep and husky.

“Not sure?” Saph prompted.

Alex sighed. “Why d’you think I have a Sireborg Bodyguard?”

“Screaming teenage fans?” Andy ventured.

Alex laughed humourlessly. “I wish! But they’re the least of my worries. Tommy - could you fetch the blue plastic envelope from my study desk?”

Again the Sireborg departed without a word.

Alex pressed his hands together again. “He has his uses! But I agree with your partner.” He lowered his voice. “He freaks the Hell out of me!”

“He’s only a computer with legs,” Saph assured him.

“Yeah, but still - a computer doesn’t follow you around and look so damn human.” He shivered. “And sometimes he sounds human too - like a mate I can pour all my troubles out to. But I know he doesn’t understand. He’s just a tool, nothing more.” He mopped some thick, dark hair out of his eyes. “It’s really embarrassing, realising you’re pouring your life story out to an overgrown toaster!”

Andy snorted - just as the door swung in and Tommy reappeared, carrying the envelope Alex had requested under one arm. If he had heard his master call him a toaster he gave no sign. His beautifully moulded face didn’t change expression as he handed the folder over.

“Thank you.” Alex took it from him. “Um - could you patrol the grounds for me now? Report back if you find anything unusual.”

“Yes.” Tommy departed, and Andy heaved a sigh of relief.

Alex opened the envelope and poured its contents out on a glass-topped coffee-table. A variety of objects poured out; cards, letters, articles clipped from newspapers and memory sticks. Saph noticed a tiny pink teddy-bear with a bow tied around its neck, and a little gift-box wrapped in pink paper. “What is all this?”

“All sent to me by a secret admirer. Check it out.”

Saph picked up a red card, decorated with cut-out hearts and designs, lovingly executed with coloured pencils. She was reminded of cards she had made for her parents when she was a little girl. “How cute!” She opened it to read the poem inside.

“‘Every night I dream of you

You fill my heart through and through

A simple poem cannot express

A mighty love that is no less

As large as the world is round

My feet rarely touch the ground

I wish you were here with me

Then complete I would be’

“I got that one on Valentine’s day,” Alex said softly. Saph looked up, noticing how flushed his cheeks were.

“It reminds me of something I wrote when I was a teenager,” Andy began. “There was this girl I really liked in year nine, but I could never summon the guts up to tell her. So I wrote her a poem, but I never sent it, which was just as well. Her boyfriend was twice my size, and captain of the football team!”

Saph giggled, and Alex sighed. “Perhaps that wasn’t such a good example.” He rummaged through the pile of articles, examining folded letters until he found the one he wanted. “Read this.” He handed it to Andy.

Andy fumbled it open.

“‘Dear Alex,

How are you today? I’m over the moon. I’ve just seen the premiere of Paradise Lost Season Five and it was brilliant. The way you beat up that drunken attacker was perfect! It looked so real. Can you really fight like that? I would love to wrestle with you.’“

Andy paused to snicker.

“It’s not funny!” Alex protested. “Please continue.

“I’m sorry.” Andy cleared his throat.

“‘The other night I drove past your place again, and wondered what your house looked like. I picture it to be something plain but elegant - large enough to accommodate your needs, but simple - without fiddly extras like all the other houses around the area. I wish I could see inside. It is a place of complete mystery to me, and I suppose that’s what makes it so exciting. Sometimes I find myself thinking what it would be like to climb over your fence and explore those thickly forested grounds. But I would never dare. You probably have dogs protecting your place. Or cameras. Or maybe even bodyguards.’“

“Oh my God,” Saph gasped, and Andy stopped reading. His partner was gaping at a little piece of paper she had unfolded.

Suddenly Alex snatched it from her fingers and scrunched it into a ball. “That’s definitely my head, but not my body!”

“What?” said Andy.

“Just a nudie picture,” Saph assured him.

“Forgot that was in there.” Now Alex’s cheeks could have doubled as tomatoes. He took a shaking breath. “Now can you see what kind of a person I’m dealing with? Just look at that stuff!” He swept a hand through the articles on the table, knocking several onto the floor. “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t receive something from them!”

Saph tentatively rubbed his shoulder. “It’s alright,” she soothed.

“The thought that there’s someone out there obsessing over me day and night really worries me.” Slowly he looked up from his trembling hands. “That’s why I got the Sireborg. Cost me a hundred thousand creds. I’ll be paying him off for the next ten years.” He whistled. “He’d better be worth it when the psycho finally comes over the wall for me.”

Saph shuffled through the letters, memory sticks and cards again, giving each a cursory examination. Although some appeared to have been coloured in by hand, none revealed the fan’s handwriting. They had printed everything out. None of the envelopes had a return address, and all were postmarked “City Central; The Oasis Post Office”. Saph scanned a couple of letters and realised that the fan had carefully omitted all references to where they lived, who they were, and what day they had written their letters. All she realised about them was that they were clearly smitten with Alex Lavelle. “When did this start?” she asked gently.

Alex leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling. “Oh ... about six months ago. At first I thought like you guys - ‘Ooh, how cute’. But then it started getting a bit too intense.” He shivered, rubbing his shoulders.

“Have you check out any of these memory sticks? They could contain a clue.”

“I haven’t been game. They might contain viruses.”

“Good point.” Saph examined the letter with the line “I would love to wrestle with you” line in it again. “It’s an odd line,” she mused. “Not something a woman a woman would write.”

Alex went pale. “You … you think my stalker could be a man?”

“It’s possible.”

Alex looked out through the glass doors, searching for Tommy, and Saph followed his gaze.

Her eyes were drawn to the bright sunlight dappling the patio out the back. Had her eyes not been aching from lack of sleep, she might have thought the morning beautiful.

“Now I’m really glad I’ve got Tommy to protect me! I’m starting to think this stalker wants to abduct me - lock me up in his cellar and do horrible things to me!” He took a deep, shaking breath. “Yes ... I believe someone like that could have killed Delia out of jealousy. If only I knew who he was...” He buried his face in his hands.

Saph decided that no more could be accomplished tonight - this morning. She had to get home and rest before she collapsed. “Okay Alex - you’ve given us a lot to think about. We’ll be back soon to have another chat - preferably when we’re all awake!”

“Of course - I’ll do anything to help. May we take this?” She gestured towards all the correspondence.

“Please get it out of my sight!”

She gathered it up and got to her feet, Andy following. Alex saw them out, leading them through the bright, cheerful house to the front door. The early morning sunlight threatened to blind them as they stepped out. Saph groaned as she unlocked the driver’s side of her car. I feel like sleeping for a week,” she muttered.

“Me too,” Andy agreed as he folded himself into the Enigma’s passenger side. “I’m getting too old for these all-night stints.”

Saph started the engine, and they pulled out onto the driveway. As the gate came into view, a dark figure suddenly stepped out of the thick pines to stand on the side of the road and watch them leave. Saph’s heart lurched in her chest, filling her ears with its desperate pounding.

Andy cursed. “It’s Alex’s Sireborg! He just appeared out of nowhere!”

“I think he was there the whole time,” Saph muttered, trying to still her heart. “He came out to let us know he was watching us.”

They seemed to feel the robot’s eyes on them long after Alex’s estate had disappeared behind them. Only then did Andy think it prudent to open his mouth about the case. “So, what did you think?”

“Well, he’s quite a honey. I can see why people would moon over him. He has the dreamiest eyes and the most gorgeous long lashes-”

“Saph!” Andy protested. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it!”

“Sorry. I get a bit silly when I’m tired. Alright, Alex certainly has a problem, and we’ll definitely need to go through all this.” She patted the blue envelope. “As for Delia, well ... he could have murdered her, and be trying to cover his arse by blaming the creepy fan.” She rubbed at the aching patch under her left eye. “Who can say? How about you?”

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