The sun sparkled, split into rainbows by the prismatic windows of the mansion. The architect of this place had had serenity on their mind. White walls and beige carpet contrasted the black sheen of the leather sofa. A large holographic display sat in the center of the room, idly displaying a half-globe of the Earth. With the ubiquity of compact, cheap augmented reality glasses, such a display had little purpose other than to display wealth—AR could display personalized three-dimensional views of anything a holographic display could at a tiny fraction of the cost.
The door frame splintered under the force of a battering ram. Detective Lisa Gotami, clad in body armor, was followed inside by three similarly armored agents. It would be a stretch of the definition of the word “police” to call them that; the Provisional Central Earth Government had created a special department for these investigations. It was odd to be investigating someone they had previously considered an ally, but not unheard of.
The unit split up into pairs, checking the mansion room by room, and there were quite a lot of rooms. Shouts of “Clear!” sounded through the hallway. Once the mansion was cleared, the real work could begin. Gotami removed her helmet, letting her dark hair fall free to her shoulders, and headed towards the study. She had already identified the room that the evidence would be in, if it existed. Part of her hoped it didn’t.
Sergeant Egon Anders watched the feeds of video streaming in from the mansion. Gotami, his underpartner, leafed through a stack of papers as her body camera captured her movements. Paper was a bad sign for Mr. Williams. Most legit, purely Human business was conducted digitally, and though there was often a paper trail to serve as the final backup, it would be odd to keep such a thing in such an easily accessible place. Paper business was usually a sign of Bactaran involvement. The Bactarans who had occupied Earth distrusted computers and networks, and in their situation it was easy to see why. Many aspects of Bactaran technology, especially space travel, were far more advanced than that of Earth, but not computers. While the Bactarans had been desperately clamoring for a way to colonize other planets ever since their own had been devastated by a massive war, Humans had spent nearly a century trying to outdo each others’ best video games. When the Bactarans occupied Earth, their ships’ onboard computers were barely more advanced than the ones that had run the Apollo spacecraft nearly a century earlier. Meanwhile, Humans not only had incredible computer technology, but also experts capable of fully exploiting it. It was only natural that the occupiers had never come to fully trust the technology.
They had seen the value of this technology and were trying to harvest it. Hardware and software experts were gathered at a factory in Palo Alto to help the Bactarans with what they knew—and then there was an explosion. Rumor had it that the bomb was planted by the resistance, intent on keeping one of the few advantages Humans still had over Bactarans to ourselves. Others thought the Bactarans themselves were responsible, oddly enough for very similar reasons—to kill the foremost experts in Human computers. It was a testament to politics and gossip that one act could be seen in such a way as a victory by either side. Further complicating matters were conflicting reports of whether or not any Bactarans had been killed in the attack. The Bactarans, for their part, let the rumors fester, while occupation-friendly propaganda pointed the blame towards the resistance.
A known resistance contact of Hilton Williams during the occupation had recently brought forward evidence that Williams had mentioned bombings in Palo Alto prior to the event seven years ago. When Williams denied the allegation, the Collaborator Fairness Judicial Board had authorized an investigation, detaining Williams for the duration. Williams was not known to have any connection with the Bactarans, but these papers were challenging that assertion.
Gotami pulled out each paper in turn, holding it flat and level to allow her glasses to gain a clear image of each page. The image was scanned and sent to Anders's office in the investigators’ home base, where the servers immediately converted the image to text and began cross-referencing anything mentioned in the page. Familiar code words used by Bactarans and resistance alike were scanned for and noted. Grammatical patterns in the text were analyzed and...
“Bingo,” Anders reported to Gotami. “Lisa, this was written by Silcoff.”
“Are you sure, Anders?” Lisa’s accented voice returned through his earpiece.
“78% confidence on the grammar pattern match, plus 90% on the known code words.”
“Damn,” she swore quietly. “I must admit I was hoping he would not have been involved with this.”
“A great man once said,” Anders replied, “The truth doesn’t give a flying fuck what we hope.”
“Who was this great man?”
“Me. Just now.”
“I am sure that all the schoolbooks will quote you verbatim on that, Egon.”
“Only if they recognize how truly wise I was.”
Anders smiled to himself as he continued to read the notes the computer continued to pour out. Silcoff of the Bactarans was the occupation’s local head honcho, and like most of the Bactarans, they were a pretty nasty piece of work. Anders wasn’t sure why Williams had any dealings with Silcoff at all. Williams had a solid reputation among the resistance. Was he working as a double agent? And ultimately, who for?
Gotami finished scanning—sixty pages overall. Maybe these pages would hold the clues. Anders started reading.
The Palo Alto bombing was widely regarded as the moment the occupation turned deadly, or to be more accurate, deadlier. Before that time, the biggest of the casualties had been limited to the millions of people killed in the initial orbital bombardment of several major cities. In total, between 2050 and 2060, about eighty million had died—a lot of people, but for a decade of forceful oppression by a much stronger enemy, less than one might expect. This could largely be attributed to the apparent reticence of the Bactarans to kill many Humans themselves; indeed, nearly all of the casualties, save for the occasional mass driver bombardment of a city, were from the fighting between the resistance and the collaborators.
That all changed after the Palo Alto bombing. Not only did Human-on-Human violence skyrocket, fueled by the competing stories of the motives for the bombing, but the Bactarans were suddenly much more eager to cause destruction on a massive scale. The occupation ended just four years later, but the death toll in those last years was in excess of two billion. Hundreds of cities had been leveled. Each one sparked Human uprising somewhere else, which brought another retaliatory mass driver attack.
Conventional wisdom held that the Bactarans had lost their need at that point for Humanity to be saved—our electronics experts perhaps were the only resource the Bactarans believed we had. Others claimed that they had simply had enough. Still others thought that they were taking their revenge for a single Bactaran who had been killed in the attack—despite appearances, until the end, there were only a handful of Bactaran casualties. Who knew what history would ultimately have to say about the cause?
Gotami paused before opening the door to the interrogation room, gathering her thoughts. She’d never met Hilton Williams personally, so she would have to rely on the information in his profile. While extensive in many ways, it didn’t help her much in knowing how to deal with him in the room. She knew he had more wealth than he officially admitted to, and didn’t mind flaunting it. And she now knew that he had some contact with Silcoff, but there were enough unfamiliar codewords in those messages that for the time being their actual meaning was more or less inscrutable.
She put on her game face and signaled to the officer guarding the door to open it. She stepped inside, coming face to face with the target of her investigation. Williams was dressed in a light gray suit jacket and black Oxford shirt, both clean-pressed, with silver cufflinks glinting from his wrists. His jet-black hair, broken by purposeful hints of gray, was gelled and spiked. As Lisa entered, he looked her over.
A small grin encroached on his face. “Shot of mocha,” he commented upon seeing her. “Nice.”
She was certain he was just trying to put her off balance. It wouldn’t work. “Mr. Williams, you know what you’re suspected of. Surely you have something more pertinent to say when faced with the person who will be deciding your fate.”
As she walked towards the table in the center of the room, he watched her body closely, clearly enjoying the view more than a suspect really should. He considered her words for a moment, before saying, “Right. And that’s you, new girl?”
She sat in front of him, and his eyes snapped up to meet hers. “I am the lead investigator in your case. I’m hardly the... ‘new girl’.”
He chuckled, but didn’t break eye contact for an instant. “Of course you are. Well, let me be more specific. You’re new enough that my case is above your pay grade.” He paused a second. “But, you’re here anyway. You haven’t briefed your superiors yet, have you?”
His gaze became even more piercing. “So what is your point, Mr. Williams?”
“My point is,” he leaned forward, interlacing his fingers and resting his chin on them, “That nothing I say to you matters, because I’m about to be passed up the food chain to someone important. But... they’d better hurry, right?”
“I’ve got all the time with you that I want. I'm here to confirm what I know, and the only reason I’d leave is simply because I find you distasteful enough to—”
“Wrong.” He forcefully interrupted her sentence. “You’re here because you haven’t found anything solid in my house.”
“Why would you be so sure we haven’t found all the evidence of your selling out Humanity to the Bactarans?” She stood up, and began pacing slowly. “And you weren’t even one of the more sympathetic ones. Most of the people we investigate are technically guilty, did you know that? Even the ones we let go scot free. The truth is, we’re not in this just to screw people. Part of what we do is to determine not simply whether a suspect is guilty as charged, but whether they had a choice. We’re not going to send a man to prison for a decade just because he caved in when his children’s lives were threatened.”
Lisa leaned forward on her arms, looking him dead in the eye. “But you don’t even have that excuse, do you? You did it because thirty billion dollars wasn't even net worth for you, you just had to go for another twenty. You... are... scum.”
He waited, allowing the words to hang in the air for a moment. “Finished?” She nodded. “You’re wrong. Thanks for the speech, though. I'm very much enjoying the sound of your accent. Intoxicating.”
“Mr. Williams, it is time for you to start taking this seriously. We have evidence of your receiving bribes and...” Williams talked over her with “You don’t,” but she didn’t stop. “...being in contact with those monsters...” Again, Williams spoke over her, “I wasn’t.”
“... and plotting the deaths of thousands of our best researchers.” Once more, Williams interrupted, “I didn’t.”
“If you do not start cooperating in this, your life will—”
“Will what? Be more difficult? Complicated? Will end painfully?” He relaxed slightly. “Alright, alright. I give. You want to know my big secret?” He leaned forward onto the table, beckoning her to join him. Certain as she was this was not about to be a full confession, she complied anyway. He whispered, “I’m hard right now.”
“Fine. Rot in here.” She turned to leave.
“I’ll do that. For the next two hours.”
She paused. He knew investigation procedure better than she’d expected. He’d been detained ten hours ago, and with the level of evidence they had, they could only detain someone for twelve hours. She’d been counting on bluffing her way into getting him to lead her somewhere helpful, whether by cooperating or by giving up too much truth in his lies. But he’d been in control of the conversation from the beginning. This was a disaster.
“Go on, new girl. Go get the big boys to do what you couldn’t.”
She turned in place and glared. “You know who I am. You’ve been stalking me?”
“I didn’t know you existed until you walked in that door,” he declared.
“Bullshit. You looked me up before we arrested you.”
“You’re Indian.” She stopped cold at this. “Your accent is still pretty pronounced, so you’ve been here, what, less than a few years? Since the occupation ended, anyway. You’re one of the ones they imported because we lost all of ours.”
Everything he was saying was accurate. After the occupation had ended, there was a burst of professional immigrations from one country to another. Each country, while being dominated by a particular agent of the Bactarans, had suffered particular losses. Some countries had lost most of their farmers, and famines in these parts of the world were just starting to subside. Some had lost their talented businessmen. Many countries had lost their soldiers.
America had lost, among others, many detectives, those who got too close. The new authorities under the PCEG went to a lot of trouble to import talent from countries that still had it. Lisa Gotami, at the time, was a police detective in India. Even the small portion of her paycheck that she sent back to her parents was more than she made when she lived there. She still hadn’t decided whether she was going to make a life here or simply save up and return to India in a few years when things settled down.
“But they wouldn’t be trusting a foreigner with a case this big, which means they don’t know it’s this big yet. So, go on. Tell them. I’ll wait.”
“And just how big is it?” she took a few steps forward. “You’ve been saying the whole time this case is above me. What do you think we’re investigating?”
He grinned. “It’s cute how easy you think I am.”
An hour after she left the interrogation room, the door opened again. Williams's eyes rose to meet the new interrogator's. He was a short, barrel-chested man, and the buttons on his shirt strained against his body's proportions. A barely visible scar traced along his left eyebrow, while another one on his bicep peeked out from under his short sleeves.
"Are you the bossman?" Williams asked.
"I'm who you're talking to now," Egon Anders answered. "Name's Anders."
"Charmed, my friend," Williams smiled, reaching out his hand as far as the chain would allow.
"I'm not your friend." Anders remained standing, but leaned against the table with his fists. "I'm here to talk about the O'Reilly Industries account statement."
Williams blinked and regrouped. "O'Reilly, you said?"
"Your company had dealings with them, right?"
"Sure, plenty. You've got all the company financials, right?" Williams eyed the folder clenched in one of Anders's fists, still resting forcefully on the table.
"You know we do," Anders stated as he dropped the folder on the table. "Of course, some of the bank records didn't survive the last few years of the occupation, which must be why you kept these."
"A man's got to know his business. I presume you know yours."
"I know what I need to know. But here's the thing about these. "I'm pretty sure these aren't just backups. You used these for something, and that has something to do with the Bactarans."
"That's quite a leap, detective."
"I'm the sergeant here, not a detective. And it's not a leap, it's a fact."
"Is that a fact?"
Anders furrowed his brow, having momentarily lost the flow of the conversation. "It... yes, it's a fact!"
"If you say so."
Anders fanned out the papers from the folder, revealing several pieces of correspondence as well as the transaction records. "We've been going through conversations of traitors long enough to recognize Bactaran linguistic patterns."
"Careful, detective. Don't let the big words trip you up."
The sergeant furrowed his brow again, and sat down at the table to glare into Williams's eyes. "We know you were talking to Silcoff," he spoke quietly.
"Never heard of 'em," came the immediate reply.
"Bull fucking shit you never heard of him!" Anders's voice rose. "He's all over these messages."
"It says the name of the person right there on the messages, see?" He tried to point at the printed messages, but was again held back by the chains. "Right... there. James Franklin. That's about as Human a name as you can get."
"A little too Human if you ask me. It's an alias. Bactaran trying a little too hard to sound like your average..." he paused. "....Your average James."
"You don't think he might just actually be an average James?"
"No, I don't. I think he's compensating."
Williams leaned in close to meet Anders's eyes. "A subject on which you are intimately familiar, am I right?"
Anders backed away and stood up, slamming his chair against the table in the process. He turned around slowly, using the moments his backed was turned to regain his composure.
Williams continued on. "You're making a point to show off that scar on your arm, aren't you? Was that from the occupation?" Anders froze where he was, facing away from Williams. "But you're not a fighter anymore. Not the scrappy underdog surviving on wits alone. Now you've got your prey chained up here and you still can't beat me. All your muscles and scars are worthless in here, so why are you showing them off? Do you just need a reminder of the last time you were a real man, detective?"
Anders seethed silently. He closed his eyes and took a breath. He knew that he wasn't getting through. Williams had been in control of the conversation since the moment he walked in, and they both knew it. He turned back to face him, to see Williams's smug, condescending face.
"It's sergeant," he said once more, as he grabbed the folder and left. The door slammed behind him.
"What a fucking prick," Sergeant Anders growled as he stepped out of the interrogation room.
"He is infuriating," Gotami agreed. "Surely we're not going to simply give up."
"Just needed to regroup. It wouldn't have made things easy on us if I beat his face to a pulp just now."
"You mean like Mr. Feldspar?"
"It's a real goddamn shame I had to learn my lesson on Feldspar, because this Williams guy deserves it way more. Wish I could take back my one warning and use it now."
"I don't think the Captain would go for that, and we still need his sign-off to convict the guy. By the way," she moved her hands, manipulating unseen elements in augmented reality, "Silcoff isn't a 'him'."
"Right, right," Anders gruffed in acknowledgement. "Bactarans don't have genders. I keep forgetting."
"Stephen paged me while you were inside," Lisa made one more motion in augmented reality, passing one element from her personal space into public space, allowing it to appear in Anders's space as well. "He found a pattern on the transaction history."
Anders grabbed the numbers that had appeared in his vision and began looking over the pattern highlighted by the department's data technician. "What's up with the threes and sevens?"
"There's too many of them," Lisa explained. "In naturally occurring data, digits occur in a fairly predictable distribution, somewhere between random chance and and inverse logarithmic curve. If a human being tries to invent random-looking numbers, they rarely tend towards this natural distribution." She sensed the technicalities were going over Anders's head, so she brought it back down to the basics. "There are more threes and sevens in this data than random chance would allow, with a confidence of..." She checked Stephen's summary. "Ninety-five percent."
"Well, that's probably good enough for the Captain, if we can link his fake documents to a collaborating motive."
"Isn't fraud a crime on its own?"
"Sure, and we'll pass it on to the DA if we can't nail him on collaboration, but it's not exactly 'beyond a reasonable doubt'," Anders made air-quotes to emphasize the words. "Non-collaborator crimes need that, we don't. There's no jury trials on our side. So the question is, what's the reason for the fake data?"
Anders and Gotami walked into the interrogation room, greeted by a bemused look from Williams.
"I knew someone like you once," Lisa stated as she closed the door behind her.
"I doubt it," Williams responded without a beat in between. "I've never known anyone like me."
"It's true. Back in my home country, he was a big shot, thought he could get away with anything. With his money, with his words, with whatever it took."
"Still with the assumption that I have something to get away with."
"Financial fraud," Anders interjected. "Ever heard of it?"
"If you had me on fraud, you'd have sent me over to the real police by now."
"The thing you need to remember here," Lisa chose her words carefully, "Is that as long as you're suspected of collaboration, our department has complete control over your fate. You live and you die by what we think of you. If we no longer suspect you of collaboration, we will indeed pass you over to the district attorney."
"You'll get to do this dance all over again," Anders picked up the thread. "Except that you'll have to answer for all of your crimes, not just the Bactaran ones."
Williams waited until he finished, then chuckled. "You needed two of you in here to tell me that?"
Lisa produced the printed copy of the fraudulent records. "I know there was a reason that these were fabricated, and I'm sure it's a good one. But I can't figure out what it is."
"That would be news to me. How can I tell you why they were fabricated when I don't even know they were fabricated?" Williams asked, infuriatingly unflappable.
"I have a theory I'm working on," Lisa mused. "I think you created this to be blackmail material against somebody. That means that that somebody was above reproach on their own, so you had to fake it. It also means that they couldn't have had records that disproved yours."
"Oh, go on, sweetheart. Tell me a fairytale."
"I think you were trying to blackmail O'Reilly Industries. If they don't play your game, you release the records, sink their stock price. So all that's left is, what was your game?"
Williams stared wordlessly into her eyes.
"Let's look at the timeframe here. These records are dated from August 2055 to July 2056, so whatever it was had to be after that." Lisa stared into Williams's eyes as she spoke, watching for any subconscious sign of acknowledgement. "Probably years after that, long enough for the real records to get destroyed or hard to find." She thought she saw a flicker, a tiny wince of recognition. "O'Reilly went out of business at the end of 2061, so sometime before then." Another flicker. "Is it Palo Alto?"
Williams put on an exaggerated shrug. A little too much, Lisa thought. Her instincts told her that she was close to paydirt. "You got them onboard with Palo Alto with this, didn't you? Did you have a stake in that plant?"
Williams's face contorted slowly. He paused for a few moments, and finally he relented. "That fucking shit ruined me."
"Say that again?"
"It was going to be the biggest tech monopoly in history. We invested an ungodly amount of money into that plant."
"And you got all three major chipset makers onboard."
"No competition, no alternatives, no equal. And they designed an incredible system, too. It was going to take the world by storm."
Lisa shook her head. "You were poised to profit off of the headset."
"Massively. And then the resistance went and destroyed it."
"How do you know it was the resistance?"
In an instant, Williams's demeanor changed, and he would not answer the question. Lisa had a fleeting feeling she had pushed too far, too fast. But she couldn't back down now. She leaned in closer.
"How do you know?"
"Because Silcoff knew," he said quietly. "You're holding it in that folder."
Lisa looked down at the folder. It contained the doctored financial records, Williams's personal profile—and the messages with James Franklin, the pseudonym of Silcoff. She pulled out the messages and looked over them, parsing the coded sentences with new eyes. One phrase stuck out to her, and she showed it to Williams. Williams nodded. She looked back up at the camera, then stood to leave, ready to go work on the rest of these messages and see what else could be decoded.
Just as she reached the door, she turned back. "By the way, that man that I told you about, the one that you remind me of? He was my brother. He thought he could play both sides and get away with it."
"What happened to him?" Williams asked.
"He is dead," she glared into his eyes. "And I am the one who found the evidence that placed him in the firing line. The innocent are few, and the traitors are many." Lisa closed the door behind her.