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©2018 Mike Chapman

Volume 2.1: 'Bread and Wine'

Despite being on duty, Pete was reading “Catholicism and the Quantum World” again and tapping his teeth in a disconcertingly irregular pattern. He was clearly engrossed, which meant that his thoughts were going to accumulate until they all flooded from his mouth.

 

I raised my file in front of my face, a thin paper dam against his enthusiasm. It was another cold case: a kidnapping five years ago, which made it stone cold. I was struggling to muster enough enthusiasm to read it.

 

"So...transubstantiation..." he started without raising his eyes from his eBook.

 

“Which is what exactly?” I sighed, lowering the file.

“The bread and wine offered during Communion becoming the literal blood and body of Christ.”

“Ah,” I said, cursing his new-found enthusiasm for Catholicism. He'd converted after his cousin died and was gradually working his way through the literature.

Neoquantum theory states that physical objects can be in several places or several states simultaneously...right?” he continued.

 

They used to say that anyone who said they understood quantum theory was a liar or wrong. No-one says they understand neoquantum theory.

 

I mumbled noncommittally.

 

“So...from a scientific perspective, the wine can simultaneously be blood and wine and the bread can simultaneously be flesh and...”

 

The office opened and Chief Inspector Kirby entered.

 

“How can we help you, ma'am?” I said, standing and smiling as if we'd just been interrupted hard at work.

 

Nobody came by Kidnapping any more. Of all of the Serious Crime Bureau offices, we were the ones with dust on our shelves. Now that everyone had a cranial implant that constantly broadcast their location to the Grid, no-one abducted anyone anymore - except for very occasionally when the kidnapper was especially determined, unconcerned about their victim's welfare and owned power tools.

 

It hadn't been that way when I'd enlisted: the pond had dried out around me until I was left gasping in the puddle at the bottom. I didn't know why Pete joined the Kidnap Office: presumably, it gave him ample time for reading.

 

“You've got a live one,” she said grimly.

 

“Who's been taken?” I said.

 

“Randolph Carter,” she replied. “Randolph Carter's vanished.”

 

***

 

Our motorcade raced through deserted streets; every building had been locked down to prevent us being impeded.  Glowing slashes of red had been projected across the side roads, blocking the progress of angry commuters. Today, we were important.

 

Randolph Carter was a big deal. Everyone knew it so and so did he. Every time he fell ill, it was priority medical. Every time he heard a bump in the night, it was priority dispatch from our precinct. Yes, he was a technological prima donna, but he was a vital prima donna. The world was so dependent on the Echoes he’d invented that everything would grind to a halt without him.

 

Pete and I read through his file with an unaccustomed urgency. For weeks, I'd been gently browsing through the cold cases whilst avoiding the eye of anyone in management. Pete had been reading every book with 'Catholic' in the title. We weren't used to pressure.

 

“Nothing from his tracking implant,” he said, flipping through the pages. “No witnesses either.”

 

“Just his Echoes,” I corrected. “They'll give some useful information, but nothing that can be admitted in court.”

 

Pete looked confused.

 

“No legal status,” I reminded him. Pete couldn't afford an Echo yet, so he wouldn't have read through all the paperwork. I'd had my first one created last year. Echoes were invaluable as a multitasking tool and they were a potent status symbol too, especially if you had more than one. I'd started saving again already.

 

The city's wealth got more ostentatious the further in we drove, I thought. Already, the summits of the buildings were lost in the clouds and we hadn't even reached the centre yet.

 

“Towers of Babel, perhaps?” I teased. Pete ignored me.

 

Randolph Carter's personal skyscraper or, strictly speaking, stratoscraper, was crammed with supercomputers, all refining the original 'Echo' design. His personal power station for it all was buried somewhere deep beneath his tower; the upper reaches sprouted fronds above the clouds to dump all that thermal waste and the cooling system formed ice in the height of summer. Carter's tower was a different universe.

 

Our motorcade stopped outside and regular officers ushered us towards the entrance. I took a moment to look up; I staggered. The building was a glass spear stabbing into space.

 

Commander Crais waited just inside the door. Her cheeks were flushed and she shifted uneasily. No wonder: it was an impossible crime being investigated by two officers so rusty we were practically historical artefacts and she couldn't replace us easily without seeming panicked.

 

“Where's the rest of your department?” she barked once the door shut.

 

Pete and I looked at each other.

 

“We're it,” I explained. “When Sinclair retired, you chose not to...”

 

I trailed off under her gaze. There was an uncomfortable silence.

 

“I'm going to be your back-up,” she announced. “As officers in my precinct, I trust you both implicitly to handle this case effectively, but...”

 

We waited for her to finish the sentence, but she didn't.

 

“I’ll take you up,” she concluded. That hurt. All three of us knew that Kidnapping had the lowest success percentage of any department, but that was only because there were never any new cases! That four per cent clearance rate was hard-earned and she knew it!

 

The tower's elevator just had two buttons: GROUND and SKY. The slight juddering as it hurtled upwards made me feel nauseous; the pressure was already getting to me.

 

“You’re looking white,” whispered Pete. “Eat something.”

 

I did as he suggested, fishing an energy bar out of my coat's pockets. Even though my Echo was at home doing chores, it still needed energy to function. I was still struggling to compensate for the energy drain on me and I doubted I'd ever get used to the permanent itch in the small part of my brain that was now my doppelgänger's private domain.

 

“You realise,” Pete said, “that this exactly what I'm talking about. You eat food, it's converted into energy and that energy becomes spiritual, transferring to...”

 

“Echoes aren't spirits,” I interjected. “They're quantum duplicates.”

 

“And how exactly does your energy disappear from you and power your Echo?” he asked, smirking. He knew I wasn't going to be able to explain it, but also knew my pride wouldn't let me back down.

 

“Spooky entanglement,” I said. “A common Physics concept.”

 

“And what is that, for a layman like me?”

 

“Quantum-entangled objects immediately affect each other over infinite distances,” I said, wishing the elevator doors would open.

 

“And how exactly does that work?”

 

“Listen,” I snapped. “I don't need to know how it works. As long as people like Randolph Carter understand it, that's fine with me.”

 

“So...” Pete said as his trap snapped shut, “there's this indefinable, yet powerful, force that you can't explain and rely on others to interpret for you, having faith that they understand it better than you do. Interesting...”

 

I gave him a look. Crais studiously ignored us both.

 

The door hissed open and we stepped out into the home of the richest person in the world. Inventing of quantum duplication would do that for you. Now everyone could use their Echoes to run multiple errands and jobs simultaneously, as long as the secondary tasks weren't overly complicated. Nearly everyone on the planet had at least one and they'd all paid handsomely for the privilege.

 

The view all that wealth had bought was breath-taking in a figurative sense and, if the windows cracked, in a literal sense too. Giant cloud systems swirled far below us like a stirred saucer of milk, punctuated by darker knots and flashes of lightning. It felt like we were floating in space.

The apartment's rooms were decorated in an aggressively minimalist style: all anonymous white surfaces and sharp edges but with shocking splashes of colour, including a familiar book cover on the coffee table.

 

Pete stooped over it.

 

Catholicism and the Quantum World? My word, I am in heady company!” he beamed.

 

I ignored him; he was going to be unbearable after this.

 

“What's been found so far, ma'am?” I said, turning to Crais.

 

“Absolutely nothing,” she replied. “He was reported missing from an Applied Quantum States board meeting this morning.”

 

“Tracking implant?”

 

“No signal,” she continued. “We co-opted the sensors on the exterior of Carter's tower, which increased our scanning range to nearly two thousand miles. Still nothing.”

 

“That's impossible,” I said. “Even if he was underground, we'd get a signal. Even if someone had taken it out by force, it would've triggered an alert on the Grid! Even if he was dead in a ditch, the post-mortem battery is good for...”

 

Crais nodded towards five figures stood quietly by the far wall. They weren't blinking or breathing. They were Carter's Echoes: all of them identical with their careful beards and razor cheekbones.

 

I took her point. If his Echoes were still functioning, Carter was still alive somewhere, sustaining them with energy.

 

“Can't we just ask them where he is?” Pete asked.

 

In unison, they scratched their left eyelid with their right index fingernail, then picked between their upper two incisors with their right thumbnail. Their synchronisation was damn spooky.

 

“They're entangled, not psychic,” I said, before turning back to Crais. “Is there any security footage? Are Carter's visitors logged?”

 

“All of the lobby's security measures were switched off for four hours last night,” Crais said grimly. “The Echoes said they didn't see anyone do that.”

 

“Fine,” I said, starting to pace back and forth across the immaculate carpet. “Can we track him during those four hours using the data his implant pinged to the Grid?”

 

Crais shook her head.

 

“We're too high up for the Grid,” she said. “There’s no forensic evidence either. Without any explicit directions forbidding it, the Echoes cleaned the entire apartment before we arrived.”

 

Pete and I exchanged a look.

 

“Commander, could I have a word with my colleague?” I said, clasping Pete's elbow and steering him away.

 

Once she couldn't hear me, I asked through a forced smile:

 

“What the hell are we going to do? No forensics! There're no witnesses and no proper goddamn surveillance!”

 

Pete winced at me taking the Lord's name in vain, but took out his tablet computer and browsed through the accumulated evidence of the case so far.

 

“Anything?” I asked despondently.

 

“Um…the surveillance cameras in the lobby showed decorators arriving at 0900 while Carter was out at a meeting. I’ve got them entering the elevator with brushes, sheets and tins of paint. They left about 1800, carrying their stuff. Carter arrived home, entered the elevator at 1915 and the lobby's security coverage cut out at 1916.  It didn’t resume again until 2320 and no-one entered or exited the building afterwards until the first officers arrived this morning.”

 

I nodded. The painters must’ve sabotaged the security systems in preparation for Carter's abduction.

 

“I’ve sent a Grid alert to bring them in,” he said, pre-empting my request.

 

“Can you get security footage from the buildings around the tower too? Somewhere, we'll see them bundling him into a vehicle,” I suggested. “I’ll interview the Echoes while you find it.”

 

That was easier said than done: Echoes were useful, but not smart. They were a pale imitation of their originator’s intelligence; they lacked initiative and their own sense of self. When I went to find them, they'd all reverted to doing menial chores in the spotless kitchen: polishing counter tops, sharpening knives and mopping the floor.

 

“Excuse me,” I said hesitantly. It was ridiculous to be nervous around the five figures; it was like being afraid of five computers or five microwaves. However, they’d all turned in unison to look at me and that was unnerving.

 

They all looked exactly like Raymond Carter: thin and pale, but lacking his famously intense stare and his infamously restless fidgeting. They also lacked the IV bag that was a permanent fixture on his arm, buffering his body and mind against the incredible strain of sustaining five Echoes simultaneously.

 

“I want to talk to you about your Originator,” I said slowly, making sure I didn’t overtax them. “I would like you to describe what happened yesterday evening.”

 

The one closest to me spoke; the other four watched it closely.

 

“There were men here. Then they went. Then the Originator arrived. Then he was no longer here,” it said.

 

I rolled my eyes slightly. Echoes weren’t smart enough to draw conclusions or make inferences, but this was ridiculous.

 

“Where did the Originator go?” I tried. “Did he go with the decorators?”

 

“Yes,” it said. “He went with the decorators.”

 

There was a lengthening pause.

 

“Did they take him forcefully?” I prompted.

 

“Yes,” it said. “They took him forcefully.”

 

The hairs on the backs of my arms prickled. A genuine abduction! I had no idea where he was or how they’d managed to shut off his implant, but this was real police work now!

 

A discrete cough behind me told me that Pete had been listening in. I turned and he was leaning against the door frame.

 

“A quick word?” he said quietly. By the time I turned back to the Echoes, they’d already defaulted to their prior tasks. The sound of the knife grating against the steel set my teeth on edge.

 

I followed him out, but I kept glancing over my shoulder at them. It was strange seeing five Echoes at once. Everyone I knew had just one. The news sometimes showed a celebrity dragging three around as an entourage. Five copies was something new. Rumour said that Carter created them all when he started work improving the Echo design, just before firing his entire personal office staff. Total security then, but the strain of maintaining five simultaneously must have been unbearable.

 

Pete caught my gaze.

 

“Something doesn't add up,” he said. “We caught the painters arriving at work like nothing had happened; the arresting officers don't think they know anything. They said that one of Carter's Echoes booked them in to paint his apartment, but they sent them home before the job was finished.”

 

“Get uniform to squeeze them,” I said. “The Echoes say the painters snatched him and they don't have the imagination to lie.”

 

Pete held up his tablet. It played the footage of the painters leaving the building with their ladders, brushes and paint, but it was obvious that they weren't carrying another person.

 

“Maybe...” I said, before trailing into silence.

 

Pete frowned and played it back again.

 

“Where are the dust sheets?” he said. “The carpets here are worth a fortune, so they would've been everywhere. They're not carrying any.”

 

It was true.

 

“I'll get the uniforms to ask,” Pete said and left to make the call.

 

While he did, I wandered around the room, carefully looking at the white carpet. Nothing: no spots or flecks of paint. A glint low on a wall caught my eye and I stooped to look. It was a sliver of tape holding a shred of plastic in place.

 

Pete returned.

 

“They said that the Echoes said to leave the sheets in place,” he said, frowning.

 

Crais called me over.

 

“I've had surveillance footage gathered from around the tower. As far as I can tell,  Carter arrived but never left,” she said.

 

I started feeling sick and my eye started to twitch, synchronised with the monotonous scrape of knife against steel from the kitchen.

 

“I'll get the sensors scanning the city again,” Crais said. “If only the Grid reached this high, eh?”

 

A thought slowly surfaced.

 

“Ma'am...if we're using the tower's sensors to scan the city and the Grid can't see in here, is anything looking in the apartment?”

 

“He's not here, Detective,” she said. “We would've noticed.”

 

“Please do it,” I replied, hairs standing on my arms.

 

She booted the implant tracking application on her tablet. It immediately starting pinging, multiple overlapping noises, registering everyone within range.

 

“Carter, Randolph,” she muttered, narrowing the search.

 

The pinging noises dropped away until there was just one left.

 

“He's in the damn apartment!” she said.

 

She turned, scrutinising the display.

 

“That way...” she murmured, pointing.

 

It came from the kitchen. The five Echoes stopped their tasks and gazed blankly at us as we entered.

 

I followed her in.

 

“Excuse me,” she said, gesturing one of them out of the way as she headed towards a cupboard.

 

The signal from Carter's implant shifted too. Crais turned, shocked. The signal was coming from the Echo.

 

“Are you Randolph Carter?” she asked, bewildered.

 

“I am now,” it replied. “We all are now.”

 

The Echoes all nodded.

 

It was then that Crais noticed that the signal wasn't coming from the figure's head, like all implant signals do but, rather, from its gut.

 

All five figures, simultaneously, picked their teeth again.

 

***

 

Crais returned to the station to try to work out how to prosecute five individuals who weren't legally people. Pete and I went to a bar to get drunk, but we just sat at our table, silent and unmoving.

 

I spoke only once.

 

“But...he can't be dead. If he's dead, then where's their energy coming from?”

 

Pete muttered something about sharing in the body and the blood, about energy and about spirit and about life.

 

I didn't speak again.

 

When it got late enough, I went home; Pete went to help Crais. She'd be trying to manage the news around Carter's murder, though how you resolved a global panic I had no idea. After all, there were a lot of Echoes in the world. There were more of them now than there were people.

 

She needed help, but I was done. I felt sick to my stomach.

 

I unlocked my front door and stepped inside. Everywhere was silent, except from inside the kitchen: the rhythmic click of a knife chopping. My Echo was preparing a meal.

This story was discussed by the fine people at the Literary Roadhouse podcast. Thanks!