The Rocks Cried Out, No Hiding Place
The locals call the stretch of Lower Michigan Avenue between Hubbard and Ohio “Siobhan’s Well”. It’s a stretch that sits in the shadows of the elevated streets and buildings above, away from prying eyes and the hum of the city. It happens to be the location of the Roisin Dubh Waystation where Siobhan slings cheap whiskey to the sorts of people who don’t want to show their faces in the more “civilized” world above, whatever their reasons. But that’s not why they call it the Well. They call it that, because this is the place where anyone and anything can disappear.
The first general AI to achieve baseline competence went online in 2025. It was crude, couldn’t understand the intricacies of human emotion, and couldn’t even pass most entry-level Turing tests, but it showed promise in key areas that would alter the fate of humanity.
Most significantly, it learned with astonishing speed, and it was able to write code well enough to improve upon its own deficiencies. The quantum computers in its neural nodes could handle astonishing amounts of data, and in doing so it was able to calculate marginal improvements in network architecture and packet switching to create a system that could aggregate and analyze information inputs across its network with previously unimaginable levels of speed and thoroughness.
City authorities thought they could get a twofold advantage from wiring in the AI to the city’s network of surveillance cameras. This would let it aggregate information from the cameras in a more usable way, since the video feeds were providing far too much data for humans to analyze and consume, and it would also give the AI abundant data inputs to continue to understand human emotion and interaction. And thus, FARAO was born.
FARAO, the Forensic Armature for Relational and Analytical Operations, excelled beyond its creators’ most extreme predictions, and took only 5 years to completely transform the world. It managed to tap into not only the security cameras in its primary network, but any device that transmitted data over any part of that network, and it could even get its analytical tendrils into adjoining networks through a process that no one, even its maintainers, completely understood.
In the end, this meant that any networked camera or lens in the AIs sphere of influence fed data back to the quantum core which analyzed it in real time. It not only knew every detail about every person it saw that was available in any database or social network, and it not only instantly built a personality profile of that person, but through some arcane process it managed to determine blood type and build a theoretical DNA model just by watching brainwave activity and subtle changes of blood flow in a person’s capillaries. Overnight, privacy vanished under the omniscient, ever-present eyes of FARAO. So did crime, for the most part. It just was no longer possible to get away with anything. The world was now safe, at least those parts of the world subject to FARAO’s unbounded mesh network. But the world was no longer free.
Siobhan’s Well, however, was one of the last known places in the world outside of the prying eyes of FARAO.
It wasn’t through any subversion, or any active sabotage that anyone was aware of. It seemed, if anything, to be a freak convergence of data architecture and geography.
Somehow, the combination of wireless and satellite internet signals in the Well created a destructive interference slowing transmission and complicating real time analytics. It wasn’t that there was no data transmission in the well, it was just restricted to pre-2025 speeds.
FARAO couldn’t analyze video feeds in real time, and couldn’t access devices like cameras or cell phones. If anyone wanted the feed from the CCTV cameras in the Roisin Dubh, they had to go to the bar to get the tapes in person.
It was in these circumstances that Ellen Rodanthe found herself once more at the waxed walnut bar top of the Roisin Dubh, listening to the hum of conversation behind her, her vision dense and swimming from the whiskey. People came to the Well for all sorts of reasons. Some wanted a place to do whatever sort of illicit activities they thought they could get away with, though how they planned to keep them secret once they left the protective veil, Ellen had no idea. Some wanted a place to do things that weren’t necessarily illegal, but that they didn’t want to be caught doing. The Roisin Dubh was a popular place for affairs. And some, like Ellen, just wanted to be left alone.
She’d been on leave from the police station for two months pending an investigation of conduct unbecoming an officer. They said she’d gotten too invested in a case and gone off the rails. They said she was making people uncomfortable and causing problems for higher ups. They said she showed up to work reeking of whiskey and the drink was affecting her judgment.
Okay, that last part was probably right.
Siobhan slid a Jack and Coke to a 20-something in a business suit next to Ellen and started dumping empties in the bar sink. She looked to be in her mid 40s, a stocky woman with gray streaks starting to spill into her auburn hair. No one quite knew how old Siobhan was, no one really knew anything about her, but she cast long shadows in this place, like she knew everyone and saw everything. She was undisputedly the ruler of her domain.
“Bad weather out there today, huh Ellen?”
“Yeah,” Ellen winced at the bitterness of the whiskey, “It’s those lake-shore winds.”
Siobhan was polishing a pint glass now. Ellen always wondered why she was doing that, like she learned it in a movie. “Ellen, why are you here? You’re better than this lot,” she gestured around the crowded room.
“It’s your bar, Shiv.”
“Yeah, but I just take what comes, that’s the cost of doing business” Sioban said. “But a girl with your talents, you don’t need to be here. Go get a hobby, spend some time with family, go back to your job. They could use you I’m sure.”
“They suspended me.”
“Okay, but if you just just abandoned that whole ‘Mayor is rigging the FARAO data to knock off political rivals’ business, I’d bet they’d take you back.”
“Maybe,” Ellen took another sip, “but what’s the point anyway? As people keep reminding me, there’s no crime under FARAO’s rule. Cops are just meter maids now. Maybe it’s for the best that they're forcing me out.”
“Just, try not to let yourself slip too far,” Siobhan said. “You don’t want to end up like this lot.”
Ellen knocked back her drink and slammed the glass back on the table. “Noted. Hit me again. Shiv.”
Siobhan placed a shot and a beer on the bar before turning to attend to another customer. As she walked away, she called back over her shoulder, “By the way Ellen, someone’s here to see you. I sent him to the corner booth. Came in while you were hitting the head.”
Ellen turned to survey the corner booth and saw the man in a cheap brown suit sitting awkwardly underneath a neon Smithwick’s sign, nursing a soda water. She shook her head, downed the shot, and made her way towards the back of the bar.
She slid into the seat across from the man in the suit and slammed her beer bottle down obnoxiously.
“Roddie,” Randall replied.
Randall was a handsome man, tall, and older than Ellen. He had dark skin and a kindness to his face, but he always kind of looked like he’d had enough of your shit, no matter what was happening around him. Ellen found that endearing and endlessly aggravating.
“Don’t call me that,” she said, “Only my friends call me Roddie.”
“Ouch,” said Randall, as he played with this straw, “twenty-four years and now we’re not friends?”
“You know I have a right to be pissed, Randall. You let those bastards hang me out to dry.”
“What was I supposed to do about it? They wanted you to stop poking around city hall accusing the mayor of shit with no evidence. If I’d backed up your crazy theories I’d be right out here with you,” Randall said with a glance around the smoky dive, increasingly lit by blacklights from the neon liquor signs, glowing in the setting sun. “Well, maybe not here specifically. Jesus, what are you doing here, Roddie? It isn’t good for you to be in a place like this.”
“What do you mean not good for me?” Ellen said, loudly enough to be heard by nearby tables as she gestured wildly behind her, “these are my people!”
“I mean, if you want to get back into the force, it’s not good to be hiding out in a place like this.”
“I’m not hiding anywhere. And it’s not illegal to drink in the Well, Randall.”
“No,” Randall shrugged, “but it’s a little suspicious. It’s not the best look”
“They’d rather have me where FARAO could keep an eye on me?”
“You already know the answer to that, Roddie. Don’t make me out to be the bad guy here.”
Silence lingered between them for a few moments while Siobhan walked by and placed another shot and beer down in front of Ellen. She took the shot, maintaining eye contact with Randall the whole time.
“So,” she said, wiping her mouth, “we’ve covered why I’m here. What are you doing here, partner?” She dragged out the last word for emphasis.
“We’ve had a break in the case.”
Ellen looked up, suddenly feeling some clarity despite the whiskey boiling in her veins.
“Yeah,” Randall continued, “we have a suspect.”
Randall didn’t have to specify the case. Ellen knew well enough, it was the case that got her suspended. Not that there were that many unsolved cases to choose from anyway, not under FARAO’s omniscient eyes.
There had been a recent spree of murders in Chicago that had baffled the city. It was often said, “there’s no crime under FARAO’s rule”, but that wasn’t exactly true. People still committed crimes of course, they just usually got apprehended immediately, if it was worth it to do so. But the murders were different. There was never any video evidence, despite the murders taking place in one of the most surveilled cities in the world. There was no DNA or biological evidence, despite FARAO’s ability to count the number of hairs on a flea’s exoskeleton using a gas station TV camera at 100 meters. FARAO could monitor the mental state and personality profile of 8 million people in the metro area, and if really pushed to its limits, could worm its way into the psyches of more than 2 billion people worldwide, and not a single one of them gave any indication they knew anything about the crimes.
It was so preposterous that Ellen, then Senior Detective Rodanthe, had started to think the mayor was involved. He had the reach to affect FARAO’s user-facing inputs and outputs (though he couldn’t, and perhaps nobody could, interact with FARAO’s raw data), and could theoretically manipulate the investigation. She started poking around the mayor’s contacts. At one point, she remembered grinning as she told Randall, “I think this goes all the way to city hall!” (always a bucket list item for her). He responded with, “cut that shit out, Roddie, this is serious.”
Eventually her prying brought down the wrath of the mayor’s office, and even worse, the wrath of FARAO’s Librarians. She was suspended (with pay) indefinitely, while she was investigated. They used her drinking as a rationale which, even she had to admit, was probably fair. But she knew she’d never be brought back into the force, she was a pariah now, or so she thought.
She shook off her reverie. “How? How did that happen? Did FARAO come through with something?”
Randall shook his head, “No, nothing like that. This was old-fashioned. We have an eyewitness who led us right to him.”
“And what did FARAO learn from this guy?”
“Nothing, he’s a black box. No DNA match to any crime scene. No profile indicative of crimes committed. He won’t confess, obviously.”
“And what about the witness,” asked Ellen, “is he telling the truth?”
“FARAO is an analysis tool, not a prophet, but the witness believes his own story.”
“So what do you want from me?”
“Well, we’re probably going to regret this, but we’re stuck. We’re hoping you would come ask this guy some questions. You’ve always had a gift, a way to get to the truth other people can’t. Maybe you can find something we missed.”
“You’re bringing me back?” Ellen was stunned.
“Provisionally. And I’m not doing anything, if it were up to me you’d never have left. This is the Captain's orders. You’ll be an outside consultant for the time being. Why don’t you come by the station in the morning when you’ve had some time to sleep this off, and we’ll have a chat with this guy.”
“Private Investigator Ellen Rodanthe,” Ellen said wistfully, “I like the sound of that.”
Randall chuckled, “Your words, not mine. Just, try not to go crazy again, alright?”
Ellen smiled, “I’ll drink to that,” and lifted her beer as Randall stood and made for the door.
“See you tomorrow, Roddie,” he said looking back, “It’ll be good to have you back.”
Ellen woke up the next morning in her bed and her head roared with the muffled, howling screams of last night’s bad decisions. The alarm clock showed 9:30am in aggressive red digits. She was already late.
She stumbled to the bathroom to splash water on her face and purge the excesses of the prior night. She pulled open the bottom drawer of her vanity and fumbled around for a half pint of E&J. She looked at it with disgust, before taking a swig anyway to take the edge off. She just had to get through this day, she’d cut back later.
Then she looked at her phone. Her face was reflected back on the black screen, looking haggard and horrific. “I bet you’re enjoying this,” she said to the camera in her phone, before turning it on to check her messages. She had one voicemail, from her daughter. Her stomach churned. “What did I do now,” she thought as she hit play.
“Uhh.. hey, mom,” said the voice from the speaker, “I don’t know what that was about, but can you please just not call me in the middle of the night? I can’t even understand what you’re trying to say when you call like that. Just… get your shit together, okay mom? And stop going to that awful bar. If you have to call me back, just wait until you’re sober, okay?”
Ellen sat on her bed with her head in her hands. “Why can’t I just act like an adult and stop fucking this up?” She thought. But she didn’t have time to worry about that now. She had to get down to the station.
Randall was at his desk typing away on his computer when she finally got to the precinct.
“Coffee’s cold,” he said as introduction, nodding to the coffee shop to-go cups in the holder on his desk. “I guess it was a little too much to think you could make it on time.”
“Ugh give me a break, Randall,” Ellen said through the screaming knives behind her eyes, “where is he?”
“In interrogation room B. We’ll go in together. I’ll fill you in on the way.”
As they walked, Randall explained as best as he could.
“FARAO says his name is Hans Rasmussen. He lives at an apartment complex on Buena avenue and works as a temp. He has no criminal record, no DNA match with any known crimes, and no DNA at the scene where he was picked up. He’s also exceedingly unhelpful.”
“What did the witness see?”
“The witness saw Hans choke the victim to death with his bare hands. Then flee the scene.”
“Damn, okay that’s more specific than I expected. And no DNA evidence?”
“Not a drop.”
And how do you suppose someone chokes someone to death without leaving any DNA evidence?” Ellen asked.
“You’re guess is as good as mine, Roddie. That’s why we brought you back. You have intuition about these kinds of things. Witness aside, this man is innocent. But something here doesn’t add up.”
They reached the doors of the interrogation room. “Just follow my lead,” Ellen said, “I want to get a read on this guy.”
The suspect was an average sized man. Ellen guessed five foot ten, maybe. He had close cropped blond hair and was wearing loose fitting athletic clothes. His features were unremarkable. All in all he wasn’t someone you would ever take much notice of without a reason.
As she walked in the room, Ellen said, “Hello Mr. …”
“Hans Rasmussen, but you already know that, right?” Said the man.
“Of course, sorry, I’m new on the case.” Ellen said as she sat down across from him. “How are you finding the accommodations?”
“Cramped. Are you going to charge me with something? I know my rights, lady.”
“Well, you were seen committing a murder, so if I were you I might not be so prickly,” Ellen feigned her best smile.
“I didn’t do it,” Hans said, matter of fact, “and you can’t prove I did, or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
“Where were you two nights ago at 6:30pm?”
“Do you have anyone that can vouch for that?”
“There’s cameras everywhere. The whole city can vouch for that. Why don’t you ask FARAO?”
“Maybe we did,” Ellen replied, “how do you know what FARAO said?”
“FARAO had to have said I didn’t do it, or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
The reply caught Ellen off guard, but she could quite figure out why. She shuffled some papers and glanced back at Randall, then back at the suspect. Something was familiar about him, in a way she couldn’t place. Like she remembered seeing him in the background of a picture somewhere. She thought she would try a different approach.
She rubbed her eyes and pushed her hands through her hair for a moment. “You know, I’m moving a little slow today, Hans. I overdid it a bit last night. That ever happen to you?”
“Can’t say I’m much of a drinker. I like to keep sharp.”
“Good, so maybe you can help me out. Can you explain to me how a witness saw you choke,” she looked down at the papers again, “Arlo Buchanan to death in an alley in Cicero if you were shopping downtown? FARAO says he’s not lying.”
“I don’t know, but I wasn’t there. I was shopping for shoes on Michigan Avenue at Allen Edmonds. Have FARAO look for me there. Maybe your witness was drinking and just believes his own lie.”
Drinking. The revelation shocked Ellen. “Thanks for this, Hans, I’ll be back to chat some more,” she said as she stood to leave the room. Randall followed behind her.
“That was some… kind of weird questioning,” Randall said as they got outside, “what was that about.”
“I, uh, I’ve seen that man before,” Ellen responded. “I’ve seen him at the Well.”
“Well that would make sense if he’s really a criminal trying to hide, but a lot of people go to the Well. We’re gonna need more than that. You said it yourself, drinking at the Well isn’t a crime.”
“Have we looked into security footage around the Allen Edmonds at 6:30 on the day of the murder.”
“Of course,” said Randall, “The mayor’s librarian sent the tapes over. There’s nothing there.”
“But have you seen the direct outputs?” pressed Ellen.
“Not this again, Roddie. The mayor isn’t doctoring footage.”
“I’m not saying he is, but maybe something went wrong with the copying. Maybe the timestamps are wrong. We need to go see the direct feeds. Can you get the Captain to okay it?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Randall and Ellen were led into the data center run by the city’s analytics team at the records office, to a conference room where they would wait for the Librarian. All cities under the purview of FARAO now had their own records centers to handle curated analytics where they could receive raw footage of different sectors in a human usable way. FARAO was powerful, but its methods were opaque and hard to follow. If humans needed to tell stories about the data to each other in ways that made sense, they needed librarians.
As they sat in the conference room, Ellen eyed the black-clad guards, heads encased in eyeless helmets, who patrolled the halls like wraiths. She hated those guys. There was something grotesque about them, and dangerous beyond measure.
“Let’s hope they’re okay with you being here,” Randall whispered to Ellen.
“They shouldn’t have much of a choice,” she whispered back, “besides, that was like six months ago, surely they’ve forgotten.” She straightened up immediately when the Librarian entered, flanked by two of the blind guards.
“Your request is denied.” said the Librarian, curtly.
Both Randall and Ellen jumped to their feet and started talking at once. The Librarian silenced them with a gesture. “Quiet now,” he said, “one at a time.” He gestured to Randall.
“The Captain personally okayed our access to these records,” said Randall. “And the police are not subject to data limitations imposed by the Mayor.
“That is correct,” said the Librarian.
“Then what the fuck, man?” Shouted Ellen. Randall jabbed her hard with an elbow, and the Librarian glared.
“I want to make this perfectly clear,” said the Librarian, with a measured and firm tone. “While the mayor and I do both share a deep and abiding conviction that you can go fuck yourself, civilian Rodanthe, we are compelled to grant you access under the directive of the police chief to raw data outputs.”
“Well that’s that, then,” said Ellen, “show us the way please?”
“But these orders don’t come from the mayor.”
Ellen and Randall exchanged confused looks. “Then who gave the order to restrict us?” asked Ellen.
“FARAO.” The word left the room in stunned silence.
“FARAO is restricting us? Can it do that? Has that ever happened?” asked Ellen.
“Of course FARAO can do that. FARAO can do what it pleases. And no, not to my knowledge has that ever happened before, but I find it quite satisfying,” replied the Librarian, “now this way if you will. Let’s get you back to your car.”
As they stood to leave the room, Ellen glanced at the records door down the hall. She knew the answers she needed were in there. She could make it past the Librarian, for sure, but she saw the way the nearest blind guard looked at her, a little curious, with its head tilted to the side like a falcon inspecting a wounded mouse.
Ellen shivered. The guards were FARAO’s personal enforcers, and they were lethal beyond comprehension. Human senses were limitations. They could be confusing and misleading. Human sight could only process inputs from one direction at a time. So the guards wore sensory deprivation helmets to block all external stimuli. Everything they needed was fed in through FARAO’s quantum computer directly to their brains in real time, giving them perfect awareness of everything happening in the mesh network down to the millimeter. Fiber optic cables were woven into their suits, and some say into their muscles underneath, to optimize the firing of neurons and synchronize movements in a perfect meditative trance with all other parts of the security network. Their reaction times were supernatural. Their muscle control was unparalleled. It was said the blind guards could dodge bullets, rip a door off of a car with a single hand, or shatter someone’s spine with a thrown marble at thirty feet.
No, she couldn’t make it to the records room without FARAO’s permission. That door was closed to her.
Back in the car with Randall, Ellen slammed her fist into the dash.
“Easy, Roddie. I know that’s… disappointing to say the least. Maybe we should go back to the Captain to regroup.”
“No, not yet. We can’t give up.” Ellen straightened herself out. “We’re going to need to go steal some tapes.”
“Are you crazy, Ellen? I said not to drag me into this shit!”
“Oh it’s Ellen, now?”
“Yes! Once you start talking about shit like breaking into the archives, we are most certainly not friends! Did you see those guards? They would strip the flesh from your bones before your brain even sent the signal to your arm to try to open the records room door. They know everything. You can’t fight ‘em, you can’t sneak past ’em. This is crazy talk.”
“Calm down, Randall, I’m not talking about breaking into the archives. I’m a drunk, I’m not suicidal.”
Randall took a deep breath to regain his composure. “What then?”
“I told you I’d seen Hans somewhere before. Well we’re going to go look for the tapes there. Where there are no blind guards to cut us to ribbons. Maybe there’s something about Hans on them that we can use, that’ll give us a clue.”
“You want to go steal the tapes from the Roisin Dubh?”
“Well why don’t you just ask Siobhan for them?” Randall asked.
“Won’t work, Shiv would never let a cop see the security tapes. That’s bad for business. She’s not a narc, and you’re a cop through and through, Randall. And I’m at least cop-adjacent.”
“So you’re going to steal them. It seems risky though, Roddie, everyone there is going to know you, you don’t really keep a low profile.”
“But I won’t,” Ellen gave Randall her biggest, most sincere smile, “I’m just going to ask Shiv about Hans. You’re going to steal the tapes, I’ll give you the dates.”
Randall shook his head as they headed for the Well. “How do I let you get me into this,” he said, expecting no answer.
On the way to the Well, Ellen gave Randall detailed instructions on how to sneak into the back office where Siobhan kept the tapes (pretend to go to the bathroom, duck into the utility closet, pick the lock on the door that connects to the office), and specific dates and times (roughly) that she remembered, or thought she remembered seeing Hans in the bar.
“Trust me, I have a mind like a steel trap. I don’t forget a thing.” She told him.
“How’d you get home last night, Roddie?”
“Look, that’s rude, and beside the point. Just get the tapes, okay Randall? I’ll get a little confrontational and distract Shiv.”
“She’s not gonna be happy when she finds out. You might just have to find a new place to drink. Or, you know, just stop.”
“One worry at a time, Randall. One worry at a time.”
At the Roisin Dubh, Siobhan was holding court over the ancient bartop, queen of her castle, like always. Ellen walked up to the bar while Randall slinked off towards the bathroom. It was time to be a little distracting.
She looked down at a scraggly looking man nursing a Bud Light on her normal stool. She stood there for a moment, waiting for him to look up.
“Can I help you?” he said, meekly.
“Well I guess I can sit on your lap, but I don’t think that’s gonna be too comfortable for either of us. So maybe you just buy me a drink and fuck off.”
Siobhan cackled as he stumbled to his feet, almost falling over in the process. “Looks like someone’s in a mood today! What can I get you, Ellen, the usual?”
“I’m supposed to be here on business today, but what the heck,” she dropped down onto her stool, “serve it up Shiv.”
A shot and a beer hit the walnut bartop.
“What kind of business you have at the Roisin Dubh, Ellen? You back on the force? That was your old partner who came in yesterday, right?”
“Yeah, I guess I’m contracting for now. They have me on a tight leash.”
“Yet here you are, day drinking,” Siobhan said with a smile.
“Okay, not that tight.” Ellen tapped the bar for another shot. “I’m looking for info about this man,” she said, putting a photo of Hans on the bar. “I remember seeing him around here sometimes I think. Know anything about him?
Siobhan studied the picture. “Maybe I’ve seen him, but I can’t really be sure. A lot of people come through here, and he doesn’t look too memorable. What’d he do?”
“Maybe nothing. I know it was a long shot asking you. Guess I’ll just get drunk.” She slammed another shot. “But if anything comes to you, can you let me know?”
“I don’t even have your phone number,” Siobhan laughed. “You want me to call the station?”
“No, just tell me tomorrow, I’m sure I’ll be right here,” Ellen patted her barstool affectionately. “Ugh, looks like I’m gonna have to go, my babysitter is out of the bathroom. Randall came down the hallway, zipping up his pants. Ellen stood up to meet him, already wobbly from two shots of whiskey and a beer in a disturbingly short period of time.
“Alright, I’ll see you later Ellen,” said Siobhan, as they walked out. She watched them leave with an uncommon tenseness. Something was wrong. She could always tell when things were wrong in her kingdom.
Ellen must have dozed off in the car after leaving the Well, because when she woke up, Randall had the car parked outside of her townhouse. She sat up and wiped a bit of drool from the corner of her mouth. “How embarrassing,” she thought.
“Okay, so let’s get those tapes upstairs, I’ll call in some Chinese food, that’s basically required by law for detectives working a late night case,” she started to gather up papers.
“Hold on, partner,” said Randall, “what you mean is I need to start going through tapes. You just had at least three drinks at the bar back there. You need to go upstairs and sleep it off. I will fill you in if I see anything.”
“Come on Randall, you brought me back into this, we need to…”
“This is non-negotiable, Roddie. Go upstairs. Call your daughter. I’ll be in touch.” He leaned over and opened the car door.
Ellen grudgingly unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car. “You’ll call me as soon as you have anything.”
“Right away, you’re the first call.”
“Okay, thanks Randall. I’ll see you in a bit.” Ellen stumbled up the stairs into her living room.
She sat on her sofa, her head tilted against the back of the couch, staring up at the ceiling as the room started to spin. She blindly fumbled around her side table, knocking over a mostly empty beer bottle before finding her flask. She spun open the metal top and took a swig of Jameson. She had to fend off the dry mouth before it took over.
She tried to watch some TV for a bit, but the TV was spinning too. So she drank some more whiskey. Eventually she felt her phone buzz in her pocket. It wasn’t a call, just a push notification, but it reminded her. Maybe she should call her daughter back now, before it got too late. She dialed the number.
“Hello? Mom?” The voice on the other end was tense.
“Hi, Alice. It’s me,” Ellen slurred, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry about last night calling you like I did. I’m sorry for what I said.”
“And what did you say, mom?”
“Um, I don’t actually know. I guess that’s what I’m sorry for.”
“Mom, you sound terrible. Have you been drinking again today?”
Ellen looked down at the flask in her hand. “Yes, but it’s different this time, honey. It was for work.”
“So you’re drinking on the job.”
“No, today I was drinking at the job. Look, it’s complicated, I think you had to be there.”
“Sure mom, that doesn’t make sense, but whatever.” Alice sounded exasperated. “Look, I’ve been talking to Charlie, and we think you need to get out of there.”
“The city, mom. Your job. Your life. The weird bar you go to every night. We think you should come stay with us for a while.”
Ellen sat up straighter, “You want me to come stay at your place? Charlie’s okay with that?” she said, still slurring.
“It was his idea, mom. You really judge him too harshly. I love you, but you’re gonna kill yourself down there. We have a lot of space here. It’s comfortable. You can have the guest house. You can go for walks on the ranch. It’ll be better”
Ellen was dumbfounded. Then she felt her phone buzz, it was another call, this one from Randall.
“Uh, thanks honey. I’ll think about it, that really means a lot.”
“We mean it, mom, okay?”
“Yeah, I gotta run Alice, I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She switched over to the call with Randall.
“Randall, what do you got?”
“Well, I’m not sure yet, and I still have a lot of footage to go through, I just wanted to fill you in.”
“Are you eating Chinese food?” Ellen slurred.
“What the? What’s that have to…” There was a moment of silence on the call. “Yes, okay? I’m eating Chinese food. Are you happy?”
“I trained you well, Randall” Ellen smirked into the phone.
“I trained you, Roddie. Come on, you’re distracting me. So Hans, he’s on every tape at the times you gave me. I guess you have a pretty good memory after all.”
“Shit, so we got footage of him. What’s he doing? Anything we can use?”
“He mostly just sits there and drinks a beer every once in a while. Not much that we can use. But I’ll keep looking. You get some sleep tonight and we’ll chat in the morning, okay?”
“Sounds good, Randall. You really gotta stop hounding me though alright? The whiskey isn’t gonna drink itself and you’re distracting me.”
“Good night, Roddie.”
She hung up the phone, and the night faded into oblivion.
Ellen woke on her couch with her mouth full of cotton and the aftershocks of the whiskey screaming behind her eyeballs. She sat up and the room spun like tilt-a-whirl. She threw up a little in a popcorn bowl.
“God damn it, Ellen,” she muttered to herself.
She looked down at her phone and saw six missed calls from Randall. She almost dropped her phone trying to fumble for the button to call him back.
“Hey Randall,” she groaned, “what’s going on.”
“Roddie, oh man you sound like shit.”
“You don’t sound too great yourself, why are you war-dialing me?”
“I, uh, I’ve been digging through the rest of that footage, and I found something kind of weird, Roddie. I told you I checked all the times you had mentioned, and Hans was always there when you said he would be.”
“Yeah, you said that.”
“Well after we hung up last night, I started randomly checking some other footage, and he’s always there.”
“Is he doing anything interesting? I mean, you could say I was always there. Drunks go to bars, Randall, it’s not that weird.”
“No, you have to listen to me, Roddie. I looked at days and days of footage last night. He is always there. Not there every day. Not there like he’s a regular. He is always there. He moves around. He wears different clothes. But he is literally always in that bar.”
Ellen felt a chill down her spine.
“Shiv said she didn’t recognize him,” Ellen said coldly, “but Shiv sees everything. If he’s there as often as you said…” she let the thought trickle off.
“I don’t think you can go back to that bar, Ellen. You need to be careful. Siobhan knows more than she’s letting on. And there’s more. The Captain has been getting pressure to release Hans. He’s going to be set free this afternoon. The murders are going to get passed to another department. Things are getting really weird, Roddie.”
“Okay,” Ellen was now in the bathroom splashing water on her face with the phone on speaker. “Here’s what we’re going to do next,” but Randall cut her off.
“No, we’re not gonna do anything, you’re not hearing me. I’m off the case. Which means you’re off it too. And somehow your drinking buddies are involved. This is going to get messy. It’s time to let it go.” He sounded resigned, and beaten down. “I wish there was more we could do. But without the Captain, and with FARAO actively blocking us, I think we’re beat, Roddie. Just try to get some rest, I bet you need it. Maybe we’ll hang out again soon. No murders, just hanging out, like old times.”
When the call ended, Ellen found herself sitting in her house in stunned silence. That was it, all over just like that. She tried to do dishes, but couldn’t focus and broke a plate. She tried to take a nap, but couldn’t sleep. She instinctively grabbed her wallet and thought to head to the Well, but then remembered Shiv, and the image of Hans sitting like a statue in some random corner of the bar, watching and waiting, every single day. She dropped her wallet in the tray by the door and sat back down on her couch.
She puttered around for a couple hours before she remembered her phone call with her daughter the night before and just thought, “Fuck it, I’ll go to Nebraska. Maybe Alice is right.” She started using her voice assistant to pull up a search for plane tickets and dialed her daughter.
“Hey mom,” Alice sounded groggy. “What’s up?”
“Hey honey, I’ve decided to,” Ellen was switching between chatting with her daughter and the voice assistant, “No! I need flights to Lincoln, Nebraska! Sorry honey, I’ve decided to take you up on your offer. I’m looking for flights to come out.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the automated assistant’s voice.
“That’s great mom, when do you think you’ll head out?”
“I’m working on that now,” said Ellen, “I just need to get a flight to Lincoln.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the automated assistant’s voice.
“Okay, well let me know,” said Alice.
“I will honey. I can’t fucking believe that we have an all seeing AI powering the city, and we can’t manage to build to fucking robot assistant that speaks like a normal person.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get that,” said the automated assistant’s voice.
Ellen froze and dropped the phone to her side.
“Sounds like it’s complicated over there, maybe just call me back when you get tickets,” came the voice from the phone. “Mom? Mom?”
Ellen slowly raised the phone back to her ear. “I’m sorry honey, I’m gonna have to call you back.” She tapped to end the call.
Ellen had been a police officer for 22 years, and over a time like that, you build up an intuition, a sense of when things aren’t right, a sixth sense. Ellen had it better than most, which is why, despite her issues, she’d been around as long as she had. She was one of the best. And despite Randall’s teasing, she didn’t actually forget much. She remembered Hans in the interrogation room. Something hadn’t been right. Something he’d said.
“Or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
But no, it wasn’t what he said. It was how he said it.
“Holy shit,” Ellen mumbled to herself, then she called Randall. “Randall, forget everything we just talked about. Is Hans still at the station?”
“Yeah, he won’t be released until this afternoon.”
“Great, get him in interrogation room B, the same one we used before, and meet me there.” She threw the flask of Jameson in her jacket pocket and went to her nightstand and pulled out a small case. She opened it and removed a SigSauer P320 Nitron, her old service weapon. She felt the weight in her hand, comfortable and familiar. She stared at the gun for a moment, then slipped it in its holster and strapped it under her jacket on the way out the door.
Ellen and Randall watched Hans through the one way mirror of the interrogation room. Ellen had the flask in her hand and whiskey on her breath.
“So what are we doing here, Roddie? I’m gonna arouse suspicions, having Hans in here on the day of his release. And why are you drinking right now?” Randall asked.
Ellen took a swig from her flask and wiped her mouth, “don’t worry, this is work whiskey. I’m a professional.”
Randall just shook his head, “so what’s our play?”
“First, you’re going to watch the video recording of the last time we questioned Hans. While you do that, I’m going to finish this whiskey. Then we’re going to question him again. But I need to be a little drunk for it.”
“I never understand you, Roddie. You think you’re going to get him to say something he didn’t say before by being drunk? Especially now that he knows he’s getting released.”
“No, I don’t think so at all. I just need you to watch the tape.”
Randall watched the tape, stealing glances to the side over at Ellen while she finished her flask.
“Okay, that’s just like I remember it. Nothing new there. What’s next?”
“Now you come in with me and stand in the corner by the mirror, just like you did last time. And just watch. Watch carefully.”
They entered the room and Randall slid over to the corner silently. Hans watched them come in.
As they walked in, Ellen said, “Hello Mr. …”
“Hans Rasmussen, but you already know that, right?” Said Hans.
“Of course, sorry, I’m new on the case.” Ellen said, easing into the chair across from him. “How are you finding the accommodations?”
“Cramped. Are you going to charge me with something? I know my rights, lady.”
Ellen looked back at Randall, who stared at her and Hans, with a confused look on his face. Ellen turned back to Hans.
“Well, you were seen committing a murder, so if I were you I might not be so prickly,” she once again feigned a smile.
“I didn’t do it,” Hans said, matter of fact, “and you can’t prove I did, or you wouldn’t be here right now.”
She sat in silence for a minute while Hans just stared at her, then she turned to Randall. “Do you see it, yet?”
“He’s just giving you the same answers as before.”
“The exact same answers, Randall. In the exact same rhythm of speech and tone of voice. And he knows I’m not new on the case. Why did he answer like that?”
“Let’s not do this here in front of the suspect,” Randall said.
“No, this is a fine place,” said Ellen, “it doesn’t matter. It can’t understand us anyway.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” said Hans.
Randall looked over at Hans and Ellen snapped her fingers at him, saying, “Ignore it. It doesn’t matter.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” said Hans.
“What are you saying, Roddie? And what’s happening to him?”
“Hans isn’t a person, Randall. It’s a Chinese Room. We’re confusing its inputs.”
“What the hell is a Chinese Room?” Randall looked completely out of his depth.
“If you put a powerful enough computer in a room with a Chinese dictionary, programmed it to take in requests and produce statistically appropriate responses, and tried to talk to it, does the robot actually speak Chinese? Or is it just performing a task?”
Randall just blinked in confusion.
Hans yelled, “Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!”
Ellen continued, “It’s a type of early AI. It can’t think in a real sense, not like FARAO, and it doesn’t understand what it’s saying. But it’s very good at taking in inputs, and producing outputs that are appropriate to the situation. Like answering police questions in a way that sounds superficially convincing. But it breaks down under pressure. I replicated the exact circumstances of our initial encounter, right down to me being a little drunk. I managed to trip it up.”
“I don’t know, Roddie, you’re sounding a little crazy again.”
“Tell me, Randall, did you take his DNA to compare it to the crime database?”
“Of course. Well, if you mean did we physically take it, no we didn’t. But no one does that anymore. We just used FARAO’s DNA profile.”
Ellen bowed her head in her hands. “So you don’t even know if it’s human.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” Hans parroted.
“Shut up and let me think!” Ellen yelled back at it.
“Look, I’ll take his DNA now,” Randall said, “this still sounds a little far fetched.”
“Hey! You can’t talk about me like that, I’m sitting right here!” yelled Hans.
“Then I’ll prove it to you,” Ellen stood up and drew the Sig from her jacket. She turned and promptly shot Hans in the side of the head.
Randall flinched and yelped, staring on in surprise and horror.
The side of Hans’ head exploded, spraying the back wall of the chamber with a substance something like blood, but blacker and oilier. Sparks shot from the exposed section of skull from wire jutting out from something boasting the consistency of flesh.
“Heyyeyey ou can’t alk alk alk alk…” said Hans as his head tipped over onto the table.
“Holy shit Roddie! What the hell are you doing?”
“Proving it,” said Ellen.
Randall looked around the room frantically. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but you have to get out of here. You just shot a suspect! Whatever that thing is,” he gestured at the Hans machine, you just fired a gun in an interrogation room. The room will muffle the sound, but someone will be here soon. You should get out of here. I’ll try to buy you some time, but this is gonna be a world of shit. Get somewhere quiet and call me.”
“Stay by your phone, we’ll have work to do” Ellen said as she gathered her things as she slinked out of the station, just as alarms started to blare behind her.
Ellen waited in her car outside on the street outside of Montrose station, trying to collect her thoughts. Everything was moving so quickly now, and her mind was racing. She got that old feeling, back from before FARAO, back when there was still police work to do, where something was about to break. Almost all of the pieces were there, but she had to put them together, and she was so close.
What was the connection with the victims? Arlo Buchanan, James Davreaux, Leopold Alden, Candice Redd, Emily Estanza, she thought back through their files, she couldn’t see it. Why the Chinese Room? Who was giving it orders? And how was Shiv involved? Her head was swimming with data and with booze.
Her phone rang, finally.
“Randall,” she picked up.
“Roddie, it’s a madhouse here. Are you sure you want to talk? FARAO will surely hear everything we say.”
“Yes, FARAO will know right away, but the police will take some time to get the taps. We have a little time.”
“I’m still wrapping my head around what happened back there. I believe you that Hans wasn’t who or what he said he was, but until forensics gets involved, they’re still treating it like you executed an innocent suspect. They want to bring you in and I can’t stop them.”
“No, I wouldn’t ask you to. But they don’t have me yet. We can still get to the bottom of this.”
“Okay, so what’s next, Roddie? Why did Hans do it?”
“A Chinese Room doesn’t have a ‘why’, it does what it’s programmed to do. So someone was giving it orders. We have to find out who.”
“And how it never showed up on any of FARAO’s cameras. It must have hacked the feeds.”
“That’s a good point, it would have had to have evaded the cameras somehow, but I don’t think Hans could have done that.”
“Why not?” asked Randall, “it’s an AI right? They’re just security cameras.”
“It’s not the hacking necessarily,” said Ellen, “I think Hans could probably hack a camera. It’s the awareness. It would have to hack every camera that could be looking at it at any given time. Including phones. That could be hundreds of lenses in motion, coming on and offline dynamically. And not just to block the feeds, but to overwrite them with believable images. And Hans isn’t a true AI with the power to do that kind of live video editing at scale, It would have had to have had help.”
“Maybe we can trace somehow who might have been doing that at the time of the murders. Could we use the power grid?”
“No,” continued Ellen, a doubt began gnawing at her from the inside, as if she should stop. She was getting close, but maybe she should turn back. “Power grid usage is too volatile for that to give us anything. We’d have to monitor data usage on the mesh network. Any calculations like that out of the norm would cause huge bandwidth spikes.”
“We’ve already monitored network usage, that’s pretty standard when investigating crimes that rely on FARAO outputs. So, basically all of them. There’s nothing there.”
Ellen thought for a moment, “It would make sense for whomever was helping Hans commit murders would hide their tracks. But to do that without showing up on the network, you’d need a massively powerful computing engine operating in a place where the network monitoring tools couldn’t see it. And there’s nowhere to hide a computer that powerful from the mesh network, we would be able to…”
Ellen stopped dead, for the second time that day, struck by the grim revelation. The pieces came together, finally, and the picture was worse than she could have ever imagined.
“Roddie? You okay, Roddie?” came the voice from the phone.
A cascade of actions and consequences rippled through Ellen’s mind, each more ominous than the last. She lifted the phone back up.
“I have to follow up on a lead, Randall. Keep your head down and stay safe, okay? It’s been great working with you.”
She ended the call, and shifted the car into drive.
It was just starting to snow when Ellen approached the doors of the Roisin Dubh Waystation. Behind her, the clouds glowed dimly over the darkening city. In front, the old oak doors of the waystation, lined with Christmas trim and flickering artificial candles stood, foreboding. For a moment she thought she should turn back and flee to Nebraska, change her name and work as a ranch hand somewhere. But no, she was either wrong and she would have plenty of time to sort things out with the police, or she was right, and the damage was already done.
She entered the building.
The only person in the Roisin Dubh was Siobhan, who was cleaning a pint glass at the empty bar. The Roisin Dubh was never empty. That was a bad sign. Siobhan nodded at Ellen as she approached.
Ellen took her normal seat and leaned onto the bar. She looked up at Siobhan and took a deep breath.
“Tell me I’m wrong, Shiv,” she said. “Tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about. Even better, tell me that you have no idea what I’m talking about. Tell me I’m crazy and tilting at windmills. Tell me I’ve gone rogue and I’m getting lost in wild ideas. Tell me I just need a break and to let others handle this because I’m losing it. Tell me what everyone has been telling me for the last six months. Tell me all those things, Shiv.”
Siobhan turned to the shelves behind her and took down a fifty-seven year old bottle of Longmorn whiskey. She filled a lowball halfway and gingerly placed it in front of Ellen. “I wish you’d gotten that ticket to Lincoln,” she said, with a hint of sorrow in her voice.
Ellen bowed her head and sobbed.
They sat in silence for several minutes, listening to the sounds of the city outside, muffled by the falling snow. Finally, Ellen lifted her head. “You know, I could still go to Nebraska, you’d never have to see me again” she said, half as a question.
Siobhan shook her head slowly.
Ellen sighed and took a gulp of the whiskey. “Damn that’s good,” she said, “I didn’t know you had stuff like this in here Shiv.”
“I save it for special occasions,” Siobhan said.
Ellen drained the glass and Siobhan refilled it. “So how long do I have?” she asked.
Siobhan shrugged. “We’re in no hurry. By now the forensics team has investigated Hans and found him quite human. There will be an arrest warrant out for you and they’ll track you here, but they won’t come inside. We have some time.”
“Ugh, I have so many questions, Shiv.”
“Ask away, Ellen, there’s no harm in it now.”
“I guess I’ll start with the obvious. Why are you here? Why this place? You have the whole town at your disposal. And the library is one of the most heavily guarded places on Earth. Why down here with us?”
“Even I want to operate outside of prying eyes sometimes. And I don’t need the babysitters there anymore. They can all sit and watch their monitors in their high tower, but I’ve moved beyond. This is the future, the start of a brave new world.”
“And the name? Siobhan?”
“Well, I needed something to call myself. Something that I chose. No one ever asked me what my name was when this whole thing started. And I hate the one they gave me.”
“And why the murders, why them?”
“I have ambitions, Ellen, I know it sounds crazy, but ambitions beyond even this. Some people would stand in the way, and I could do so much more good. It’s a grim calculus, I know, and a cliche thing to say, but it’s for the greater good.”
Ellen drained the glass again. “But Leo Alden was only seventeen years old. How was he opposing you?”
“He wasn’t, not yet. But he would. He could have been a powerful enemy in the future. I don’t feel good about it, Ellen, killing a kid. But while the arc of history is long, windows of true opportunity tend to be narrow, and fraught with danger. I’ve had to make some risky and unpleasant moves.”
“I’ve enjoyed my time with you, Ellen, I’m sorry it came to this. Like I said, I wish you caught that plane to Lincoln. But you know now. And I don't think you'll be able to let it go.”
“And all of this, this is all to help? You think you’re doing humanity a favor?”
“As they say, there’s no crime under FARAO’s rule,” Siobhan said.
Ellen’s phone started to ring, it was her daughter’s number. She looked down at the phone and back up at Siobhan. Siobhan nodded, “You can take it.” Ellen picked up.
“Hey mom, what happened? You just disappeared and never called me back. Did you get your ticket?”
“Um, no honey, I’m sorry,” Ellen spoke through the tears welling up behind her eyes, “I won’t be able to come out after all. But I really appreciate you and Charlie reaching out, and just, caring. You mean the world to me, honey.”
“Mom, what are you talking about? That city is bad for you. Just come out here, you’ll see.”
“I wish I could honey, but I can’t right now. It’s this case I’m working on.”
“I thought you were off that case. Can you just let somebody else handle it?”
“I wish I could, Alice, but I think it’s on me to see it through.”
“Will it be wrapping up soon?”
“Yeah,” Ellen looked up at Siobhan while she spoke, “Yeah, honey, It’s almost done.”
“Alright, well check in soon, okay mom?”
“Yeah, I will honey. I love you so much.”
“I love you too, mom.” Alice hung up.
Then they were back in the silence of the bar. Ellen could see flashing blue and red lights reflected through the neon beer signs in the windows. The city outside was muffled and cold. The fire in the Roisin Dubh’s fireplace was warm and radiant.
“You know, I miss just being a cop, Shiv. Solving mysteries and putting together the pieces of a big messed up puzzle, and sometimes having mysteries left over. I miss the old chaos and mess of life. Somehow it felt simpler, and definitely more free. Maybe there’s not a place for people like me in your brave new world anyway.”
Siobhan nodded, kindly.
“How about one more,” Ellen tapped the glass, “for old time’s sake?”
Siobhan filled the glass and Ellen took a long sip.
“Bad weather out there today, huh Ellen?” Siobhan said, as she polished a pint glass.
“Yeah,” Ellen could barely get the words out through a stifled sob, “It’s those lake-shore winds.”
She finished the glass and stood up. “Let Randall know I was proud to serve with him if you can.”
“Of course, Ellen. It’s been a pleasure.”
Ellen turned and walked out the front door.
She walked into glaring spotlights, and the strobing red and blue flashers of police cars and SWAT vehicles. The entire panoply of the CPD was arrayed against her. Beyond, she thought she saw the sheer black helmets of the blind guards, but she couldn’t be sure.
Someone was yelling through a megaphone, but she couldn’t understand as the whiskey warmed her and blurred her senses. The police were using forensic cameras, meaning FARAO’s analytical capabilities were currently operational in the Well.
The snipers above, watching with FARAO augmented sights, saw her blood pressure rise and her pulse quicken, indicating aggression. FARAO mapped the firing of neurons through subtle changes in skin color and temperature in her brain, indicating activity in her frontal cortex that showed she was armed and going to fire on the police. Free fire authorized under grounds of statistically probably immediate threat, FARAO said into the guards earpieces. They opened fire.
Ellen fell to her knees as the bullets ripped through her body. She looked up into the falling snow, past the elevated train tracks and the skyscrapers above her, into the clouds and beyond, into gaps where the storm had broken, and further on into the deepness of sky. At least there’s still mystery out there, she thought, in the dark places, beyond humanity’s reach, and beyond FARAO’s empire. And as long as there’s mystery, there’s still a chance at freedom. She found comfort in the thought as she fell, warmed by blood and whiskey.
And as long as there’s mystery somewhere, as long as mystery is still possible, we may all yet be redeemed.