The Armada: Chapter 1 Excerpt

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There’s a certain level of indolence that creeps into the psyche of those who have undergone the transubstantiation that typifies the acolytes of the Transhuman Synergist Movement. Their money buys them into an exclusive club, one that rotates the turnstile of a new epoch and promises them freedom from physical ill and its comorbidities but brings with it an apathy that is only matched by their egos. Karl Newhouse, the famed scion of an investment banking conglomerate called Onyx, had not bought into his father’s worldview; had shed his seemingly pre-ordained beliefs in the bifurcation of our species and set himself up as the pariah in a family of physically and mentally augmented billionaires, preferring instead to publicly rail against the senatorial oligarchy in which he had been born into.

I held a large measure of respect for him, even if I were a bystander on the sidelines who had never met him and only saw him on television screens. I never would meet him, either. Alive, at least. His lifeless body, the lower half fitted into tight fitting boxer shorts, was found lying haphazardly on the carpeted floor of his cabin on a riverboat casino with the powerful enough engines to sail the seas that had been coming back from its three-day sojourn in the Bahamas. It was the summer of 2064, and the prevailing notion that amongst people of low income was that families of a higher order would trample them. Thus, when news broke that Karl Newhouse’s head had been nearly decapitated and the skin of his neck had been scorched so deeply the skin emanated a smoky residue, for the most part life went on without a hitch.

The riverboat, named the Concertina, had enough rooms to carry over one hundred and thirty people, plus thirty staff, around the world if it wanted to, and was slim enough to fit into the river byways that had been cut out by construction contractors when the sea levels rose to a point where Miami had become a new Venice. It was a riverboat in name and partial function, its compact size giving it the ability to traverse upstream on the Miami River, all the way northwest to Highway 27 and back again, stopping at designated areas for those seeking to risk a few bucks for fun or feel the thrill of waging a weekly paycheck in the hope that they’d write a rags to riches story at the expense of the corporation which operated the boat, as though they thought those stories were not mere myths but attainable realities. It also housed a powerful enough engine and fiberglass hull to go out onto open water.

Canvassing the immediate area for witnesses to the murder had proved to be a fruitless endeavor. Many occupants in the cabins adjacent to or opposite of Karl Newhouse’s were not in their rooms at the time of death, which was around 7:30 P.M. the previous evening. Those few occupants who were in their rooms hadn’t heard a thing nor remembered any suspicious activity. I wondered if they knew they were within earshot of the probable screams of appeal and begs for mercy from one of the most well recognized faces in the country. A ‘do not disturb’ sign was posted outside the door when custodial employees were forced into the cabin upon reaching the cruise ship port on Dodge island, just east of downtown.

Karl Newhouse wasn’t the only victim. The body of a young woman was also found, half her head blown through, the cranium deformed, the bone streaked with flecks of blood. She was completely nude, her skin bronze, her hair raven black, eyes wide and filmed over. A leather purse on the nightstand next to the bed held her ID. Her name was Lila Rifkin, twenty-four years old. Her driver’s license was expired and with it was an expired pilot’s license and a departing airline ticket for Manhattan to take off in the morning. Karl’s wound was of a grislier nature. It fit the familiar patterns of a carbon dioxide gas laser, an invisible beam of enormous power that is usually reserved for welding and cutting in heavy industry.

From the outset, the most puzzling aspect of the case was the evidence that was left behind at the scene, namely, the murder weapon itself. It was a Magnum Desert Eagle .50, outfitted with an attachment for the gas laser in question and contained a clearly printed serial number on the barrel that could be easily traced. A few casings were found next to the poor woman’s body and her wounds were of the typical firearm nature. Newhouse’s ignominious death, marked by the discharge of a gas laser, was meant as a statement of some sort I couldn’t yet fathom. Why pop the woman in the head with a bullet but sear the skin of Newhouse’s neck with a gas laser? Perhaps it was to give the media something macabre to report. They had most likely wanted to instill dread in others who were involved with Karl.

My partner was Erin Cortez, a lithe, sleek, street-smart detective who exuded a variety of conflicting personality traits that would give any psychologist a reason to doubt the veracity of their profession. One side of her head was shaved to a buzz cut, the other side a full mane bearing a cascade of purple and red streaks inset with fiber optic coils that protruded from a neuro interface the size of a dime which was grafted into her skull. We had been an item once, and our brief dalliance flared with the fleeting passion of a flash fire extinguished by a lack of fuel, leaving us spent and unsure of intentions from its outset. But that in no way diminished the affection I bore her nor made me feel resentful that it didn’t last. She was the toughest, smartest, and most loyal detective I knew.

As we stood outside on a third-floor gallery spanning the length of the riverboat, facing the neon signs and glassy monoliths of downtown, the twilight painted the sky in bright shades of purple and pink as the low orange sun slid beneath the rim of the earth. The gallery’s thick, reinforced biocrete beams were festooned with algae green and sunflower colored electric gas tubes, their neon glow commingling in the foreground of my vantage with the magenta sky, as though permanently encasing the moment in amber. It was a refreshing vista that breathed new life into me after I was numbed to the core by the crime scene. I heard the whine of rusty engines issuing from jet-fuel surfboards. Their daredevil pilots commandeered them into my field of vision, passing in front the ship, flumes of acrid smoke expelling from the exhaust pipes above water whilst the propellers of their engines slid them across the bay as though they were skaters on ice.

Erin’s gaze met mine. “You know, Frank, in my mind’s eye, I always had Karl Newhouse was perpetually dressed in full regalia. You know, that purple and gold sequin shirt he always sports during televised town hall meetings they air on the LGN channel,” she said.

Sported,” I corrected her. “You actually watch LGN?” I asked and rubbed the corners of my eyes with my thumb and forefinger, fighting back the urge to sleep. I imagined a swell of vipers bearing their fangs, dripping with neurotoxic uppers, heralding the onset of a much more distressing hallucinatory crucible. The effects from neuro capsules and brain boosters I had taken the night earlier had not fully tapered off. Any pill addict will tell you that in moments of stress or self-loathing the crack of an endorphin capsule between your teeth envelops you in a blanket of pleasure and warmth. What they don’t want to admit is how harmful they are in the long run, as every split capsule contributes to a fantasized existence, wrapped in kitsch vellum, concealing a parasite that leaves you drained of rational thought.

Vague outlines of speech filled the space between us and then I felt Erin shake my shoulder. “Hey, Frank! You finally decide to eighty-six your brain?”

I shook my head and slapped myself under the chin. “Sorry, I got a little bit distracted.”

“You asked me if I watched the Local Government News and I said only when I’m visiting my mother. She was a fan of Newhouse. I’d ask if you knew he was about to start a run for a seat in the House, but I know you stay clear of politics.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “I know of Karl Newhouse. Your mother found an ostensibly good soul to latch onto. He was a fighter and wanted to loosen the grip that the bio-mech and synthetic biology companies have on the fiscal activities of the state. You think the guy who popped him was hired by one of these companies who opposed Karl Newhouse, maybe even his own family’s own?”

“What’s the motive, Francois?” she asked, teasing my name, a bit disconnected and disinterested.

“Karl claimed to have firsthand knowledge of his family’s company’s dirty secrets. Take the ties to dictatorial foreign governments, where hidden shell companies engage in the arms dealing trade and solicit private military companies to put boots on the ground in exchange for capital.”

“All of that is conjecture. I don’t even think Karl believed it.”

“Then there’s the violation of environmental laws, fraud, antitrust violations, bribery…” Her sentence trailed off.

“Erin, scientists like to delude themselves into thinking they live in a technocratic fairyland, but who controls the capital? Who lords over the technologists? It’s the America our grandparents all lived through. President Michael Morgan can’t do anything about Onyx Corporation because his own company, Morgan Enterprises, frequently retains Onyx’ services, using their money and security apparatus to establish high priced arcologies for aristocrats around the world.”

“The president never asked for what his father handed down to him.”

“And when the boy matured to a man, saw the system for what it was and always will be, he folded, left the table, and set himself up in a limousine that streaks between the stars and never stops.”

I could see how my joyless rambling had obliterated Erin’s natural effervescence. We played off each other well, but that doesn’t mean I liked my side of the equation. Off the job, you could usually find Erin jumping between the bars and clubs of downtown, lost in merriment, ministering to the gleeful spirit that lived within her. Though I am young, not even halfway to eighty, I clocked out every shift with lethargy and a mélange of depressing thought patterns that characterized my father before he walked into a virtual pleasure den, jacked himself into a virtual reality snowscape at the top of the Appalachians, and watched the sun’s declension below the ridgeline whilst the smoke from the machine’s overuse of power filtered between his ears. It was his way of clocking out of a life far removed from what he dreamed of as a youth in the burgeoning cityscape of 2030s Miami, when the tops of the spires began to be obscured by black clouds and the ignorance of a future armed conflict with China painted itself on the happy faces of the electorate.

The Miami Metro Major who oversaw the homicide unit’s day to day operations, Jonathan Alvarez, joined us out on the riverboat’s gallery and squinted through the neon light bathing the air in a phosphorescent luminescence as the red cast of the setting sun burned out. He wore a force field vest over his deep blue and purple tunic, with an earpiece for citywide closed-circuit communications between the various sectors.

“What do you two make of this?” he asked, folding his arms across his chest, the night’s humidity stringing beads of sweat across his creased, tan forehead.

“Not much to make of it yet,” I said. “I’d venture first and foremost this was a classic contract hit by a professional. He left a weapon with serials because there’s also a frame job in the working. Just a bone for us to waste our time with. He or she would like us to trace the serial to somebody, probably with a long rap sheet, while he either leaves the city for another enterprise or leaves our radar and jurisdiction and becomes somebody else’s problem.”

Alvarez nodded in agreement. Erin disengaged her cybernetic apparatus. The beaming lights of downtown flared like a neon-soaked bonfire under a starry sky, and the colossus that was the Miami Police Department headquarters, built and expanded from the old Intercontinental Hotel of yore, gleamed between the towers of the business district on Brickell.

“I can’t refute your conclusions, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy hearing them,” Alvarez said.

“Erin and I will write it up and perform our due diligence,” I said. “We’ll notify his family and that of the woman’s, check up on who’s the registered owner the weapon, and run perform background checks on every damn crew member and employee on the cruise ship. But we can’t interview them all. That’d be 160 interviews at least plus transients that came and went without booking a room; a colossal waste of time and resources. Still, there’s a good chance we’ll find possible suspects who are plugged in to organized crime or run the paramilitary circuit.”

“We’ll be firing in the barrel,” Erin said. “People don’t contract paramilitaries for hits because then a pattern emerges which we can follow so we can zone in on an easy batch of targets. I think our perp is independent.”

“As in?” I asked.

“As in a pro. An independent contract killer with no ties to any organization, criminal or otherwise.

“Off the radar,” Alvarez said.

“Off the grid,” I said, nodding.

“You think about why somebody with a fortune like Karl Newhouse was staying in one of the cheapest rooms on the ship?” Erin asked.

“You’re right. Doesn’t seem like he’d do that,” I said. “The guy might have publicly shunned his access to wealth and power and built himself up as the champion of the have nots, but that doesn’t mean he privately lived as a monk or would take up residence in the slum sectors to complete the process. I think he knew there was a target on him, so he kept a low profile and checked into an inconspicuous room. Not to mention he’s married and that woman in the cabin is not his wife.”

“People must have recognized him. We need to put out a notice in the news asking those who were on the ship and felt they saw Newhouse to come forward,” Alvarez said.

“No sign of forced entry. What do you we make of that?” I asked the heavens pensively.

“Could refute your theory of a dispassionate professional,” Alverez pointed out to Erin, crossing his arms and tensing.

I watched the waves break along the levees of the intercoastal, the sea undulating in wavy forms, the departing light ribboning the surface, which had the multiform iridescence of sapphire.

“We’re gonna have to get all closed-circuit surveillance footage from the entries and exits of his cabin’s section from the time he was last seen in public,” I said. “There’s cameras all throughout the hallways in the cabins of this behemoth. We’ll see our man on a feed from one of them,” Erin said. She gazed jadedly out to the water as the last light of the sun left her face. “Just have to find him.”

“Besides a physical body make up, I don’t think we’ll have a face to match,” I said. Alvarez and Erin nodded, understanding my point. Facial recognition software would easily pinpoint the identity of the perpetrator if he was picked up by the ship’s surveillance feed, but a hunch told me his face wouldn’t return a match. Unscrupulous plastic surgeons were always on tap, and not only were they all too willing to screw on a new face for the right price, they could work with a biomedical engineer to pull up your digitized genome and alter pinpointed areas to fool DNA scanners.

Alvarez took a few steps forward and leaned against the gallery’s Spanish grillwork with his arms outspread, hands gripping the rail, his head bowed, as though a great weight had nested between his shoulder blades. “Alright, you two take a trip over to Karl’s wife first. Then, we question his parents and some head honchos of Onyx. I’ll make sure the news outlets put out an entreaty for somebody to come forth if they recognized Karl. I can already hear the chief’s words in my ears, telling me how much of a high-profile case this is going to be and that I should pull out all the stops.”

Alvarez fished for a pack of smokes from his pants pocket, still staring at the placid, black water, and held them up over the back of his shoulder, eyes on the water. I took the pack and lit one up, then offered one to Erin. She screwed her face into a look of incredulity at my offering. I held the pack back over Alvarez’ shoulder. He took it and said, “You know, you’d think they’d appoint somebody as the mouthpiece for the department who doesn’t have a voice which sends splinters flying down your ear canal. Whenever he opens his mouth with that north-Atlantic accent that sounds like Cary Grant, it’s just so fucking irritating. Not to mention the man is an omnivore, and I don’t mean in a strictly culinary sense.”

Alvarez let out a small wheeze of a laugh, then stretched his back and stood erect, as though he had used the gallery and us as his confessional and confessors, respectively. “I’ve said too much. Start casting a web. The surveillance feeds should be sent to you directly, no later than tomorrow morning. I already have three open homicide cases over the last few weeks, excluding these two. Please, don’t let it drag out to five.”

With that, Alvarez gave a mock salute and trudged toward the end of the gallery where the gangplank connected the riverboat to the docks of the port. Soaring media hover cruisers, their beams flashing back and forth upon the scene, hovered motionless above us. News crews from three separate stations had vans posted in one of the parking lots, their reporters asking departing passengers questions of which they probably didn’t feel equipped to answer.

Faintly, I recognized the face of Veronika Martinez, the most notable crime reporter in the city. Her hair was the color of sunflowers and flowed down to just above her hips. Her skin was the color of curdled milk but was smoothed out, as though sculpted by potter’s clay. She was photogenic and known for the candid deliverance with which she used to illustrate through words the underbelly of a society caving in on itself, all the while condemning police brutality in the slum sectors and the widespread surveillance that characterized the state. It was well more than halfway past the midpoint of the century, and anyone from years past who did not foreshadow for their descendants an Orwellian future of limited freedoms and viral intrusions upon their privacy were either too insular to care or too optimistic in their prognostications.

Me and Erin walked along the gallery, our faces half cast in chromatic light. We disembarked from the ship and made our way over to my parked cruiser next to the ambulance that would take away Karl Newhouse away in a bodybag on a gurney. Multiple strings of yellow crime scene tape and other police cruisers blocked off the streets. With a wider vantage point out in the open lots of the port, I took in the grandeur of cruise ships of leviathan proportions docked on either side of the much smaller riverboat casino.

Inside the riverboat’s central gambling hall were slot machines, blackjack and poker and craps tables, antiquated pinball machines, and even a mini-race track below decks, above the staff quarters and engine rooms, where mini bio-mechs whose speed was controlled by randomized algorithms zipped around their lanes. All of it was under heavy surveillance, but I didn’t think that Karl Newhouse had boarded the riverboat because he wanted to purely have fun, exposing himself out in the open. A part of me firmly believed that he felt his life was in danger and made an impulsive decision to seek anonymity on an inconspicuous vessel, normally cluttered with pimps and hustlers and half-synthetic prostitutes who catered to the needs of low rent ruffians laundering a recent score or blue-collar industrial workers and private security thugs risking their shitty paychecks because the system was designed to maintain their low level in society’s economic strata.

It was the last place the scion of a billion-dollar synthetic biology conglomerate would go, and it added the benefit of an escape down into the Caribbean, where shell companies for shady corporations assisted in tax evasion and money laundering. Then I rummaged through my mind’s file cabinets of conspiracy theories I normally kept for myself to visit on rainy days, when the gloom of thunderheads pervaded the upper reaches of the sky and veins of electricity forked amongst the clouds. Had Newhouse gone south specifically to engage in illicit business? Had he hidden for ulterior motives? Have ideas about financing a political campaign using illicit funds? Had his whole adult life been a charade to achieve a foothold in the upper echelons of power?

I was getting ahead of myself, but I didn’t know if I knew that at the time. See, most people believe that the narrative of their lives can be easily manipulated to suit the reality they desire by way of conscious, rational decision making. Perhaps there are those who can do that. But it is my experience that the trajectory of our life is one fashioned by the unconscious, our motivations not available for introspection, our activities determined by automatic processes of the mind of which we are wholly unaware.

A crescent moon sliced a piece of the sky, the strobe lights of police cruisers spun in the dark, and the headbeams of news crafts and Miami Metro Skyhawks hovered all around us. A swarm of media members were huddled around Major Alvarez, but he refused to speak of the identity of the victims or their cause of death. A press conference would be held in the morning for that. Me and Erin got in my cruiser, punched a coordinate for Karl Newhouse’s home address in Coral Gables, and hopped on the highway due south.

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