Steele City Stories #4 - Peacekeeper
By Richard Kelly
"Open up," I say, rapping on the door. "I know you're in there, so open up."
A minute later, I see a face appear on the other side of the dingy glass. Brown eyes study me through a smudge of fingerprints and neglect, then the man on the other side smiles. It's a brief expression, almost cursory, but the lock on the door clicks and it swings open.
I step inside.
"Thanks, Raf," I say, and the thickset man shrugs and heads behind the counter.
"Your usual?" he asks.
"Please," I say, sliding into a booth.
The restaurant, Capelli's, is hardly the shining jewel of Falcon Point. In fact, it sits on the edge of the district, where it can rub shoulders with some of the less savory areas of Steele City. Capelli's isn't upscale enough to pull the crowds from the rest of the Point, and it's not the sort of food-tourist destination that would make anyone bother coming here from Market Square or Lexington Heights. On the other hand, it's just slightly too nice for folks from The Rails or Duffy, and so Capelli's floats in between stable market demographics, subsisting off of intermittent visits from the sleepless and the weird.
It's 5:30 AM, and I've been up since that time yesterday, so I make an involuntary noise when Raf sets the pot of coffee down in front of me. Not bothering to look at him, I pour a mug and knock back a sip of unadulterated night. It scalds my throat.
I crack a sugar packet and pour its innards into the cup.
"Thanks, Raf," I rasp.
Raf just nods and goes back to the grill, where two eggs and four pieces of bacon are already sizzling.
You can tell we're still in Falcon Point because it's all real. The eggs, the bacon, the coffee. None of it knows what a soybean is. Twenty years ago, that wouldn't have been a big deal, but then came the quakes and the riots and the resource insecurity, and the making cheap food out of laboratory protein, genehacked soy, and crickets, and finding a place like this became a small miracle.
Raf brings me my breakfast without any kind of ceremony, sliding the broad white plate in front of me with a satisfying rasp as it crosses the flat plastic tabletop. "Long night?" he asks.
"They're all long," I say, and he takes the hint and moves away. Official opening time for the diner is a little closer to 6:30, but he and I have an agreement. He lets me in at forsaken hours and I tip like a tightrope-walker in a hurricane.
I spear an egg, fold a piece of toast, and daub it in the mess that runs out. Then I take a bite.
If there's anything that's closer to God than eggs and bacon and a real pot of coffee at 5:30 AM, I haven't met it yet.
There's a screen in the corner of the restaurant and Raf turns it on. It's been set to VULTR News. Talking heads banter back and forth in holographic display while the ticker-tape scrolls around them.
This early in the morning, both newscasters are AI, but plenty of viewers like that better than people. Sure, they'll occasionally forget what emotion they're supposed to read a line with, but their computer-generated faces are pleasant enough to look at, and the scripts they've been given usually make them sound natural enough.
Raf scrapes the debris from my breakfast off of the grill and begins doing inventory. The news is white noise in the back of my thoughts while I tear off a piece of bacon, but then Raf says "hundreds of them?!" and I look up sharply.
The news has switched to a special report and I scrub my eyes with the back of one hand while I study the screen.
"Authorities are still investigating the events that occurred last night at the Greenfield market," says the AI anchor, his tone and facial expression flickering back and forth between upbeat and grave. "Many citizens in the Rails district are still reporting disappearances of friends or family who went to the market. Have we had an update on the situation, Susan?"
Susan, the co-host, glitches somewhere in between a smile and a frown. "Not yet, Mark. This could be the biggest single Splice attack on Steele City citizens since the Willowwood Killer ten years ago." In between the smile and frown, all I can see are her teeth. "Boy, I sure am glad the Peacekeepers are around," she continues, and finally her programming settles on the smile. "They'll be working round the clock to make sure the citizens of the district are safe."
Raf just kind of stands there, staring at the display, blinking.
I already know what happened in the Rails. I've been out all night because of it.
I say nothing.
Into the silence, the AI newscasters continue to speak.
"We can't thank the Peacekeepers enough," says Mark, "but we have to keep in mind, they can't do their job alone. If I see something, it's my job to report it. The Peacekeepers can't see what's happening in all parts of the city at the same time. Not with surveillance camera vandalism on the rise. So it's people like you and me that need to be vigilant, Susan. We have to do our jobs too."
"I saw someone suspicious just the other day," begins Susan, and the feed cuts to stock footage of an old cellphone, the kind they still use in the bad parts of town. "I sent a picture of him to the Peacekeepers right away. It's easy, with the new United Constable Services app, SafeT, which you can download by clicking--"
All the while, Raf hasn't looked away from the broadcast.
"Hey, Raf," I call out. "Could you change the channel?"
Raf shakes himself, then starts loading a napkin dispenser. The dispenser, like the restaurant, is a relic of the past. With disposable paper being a minor luxury item, most restaurants use cloth or synthetic fiber, but not Capelli's. Capelli's is the exception to just about everything.
Shoving a thick handful of napkins into the dispenser, Raf sets it aside. "Every channel's been talking about the Splice attack," he says, not reaching for the remote. "They even have footage of this big, ragged, blue creature. It makes me wonder if I'm safe here."
The words are mild, but there's an edge to Raf's tone that I immediately dislike. He hasn't given me an indication of having politics before. I hope he's not starting to develop them now.
"Splice attacks don't happen around here," I say, jabbing my fork through the last of my bacon, "because in this district, the Peacekeepers are welcome. You make them start to feel unwelcome, it gets harder for them to patrol. That's usually when the creatures start showing up."
"Of course," says Raf slowly. "And the creatures don't do nearly as good a job at policing."
His face is perfectly calm when he delivers the line, but the words sound like a critique and I can't quite keep from bristling a little. "Not unless your definition of policing includes watching something from the sewers eat your leg," I say curtly.
"Most people's doesn't," Raf agrees. "More coffee?"
I've already worked my way through most of the pot. My breakfast is down to breadcrumbs and egg-yolk-smeared ruins. I've still got an hour before I have to be back on shift.
"I'll just nurse this," I say, gesturing with the coffee cup. "Thanks."
Raf nods and turns back to his task. Meanwhile, the news is still playing.
"As long as we're talking about the Peacekeepers," says Mark, Susan having apparently finished her commercial, "do we have an update on yesterday's attack on the organ clinic?"
The sentence punches through the bleary haze of early-morning exhaustion and fresh caffeine. I look up.
"The manhunt is on, Mark," says Susan, perhaps with a little too much relish, "we have a sketch of the perpetrator, provided by one of the clinic's technicians, and we have been cleared to release it to the public." The camera cuts to a composite sketch of a male suspect wearing a frightful long-nosed mask, and I sigh in irritation.
No one's going to recognize him from that. It's why we've been reviewing municipal camera footage and interrogating people from the night market instead.
Of course, she could've drawn a Da Vinci and it wouldn't have mattered much. The technician has almost certainly lost her job by now.
Meatpackers are supposed to resist robberies, since the organs they're preparing are worth more than it costs to employ them. Instead she just handed them over. No clinic will have her now, and that's four years of study at a Prometheus trade-school down the drain.
For a brief moment, I'm glad I don't have kids.
Then Raf says "you think he was hungry?"
I glance over at him. "Who?" I ask.
"The boy who robbed that clinic," says Raf.
I look at him closely. "Why would you say he's a boy?"
Raf shrugs and gestures to the sketch, still on the screen. "The face underneath the mask looks young. Besides, that is the kind of crime a boy would commit. Young people don't think they have anything to lose, so they take stupid risks. Robbing a clinic is a stupid risk."
"Alright," I say. "And what does it matter if he was hungry?"
"Hungry people do stupid things," Raf says. "It's why I run a cafe." He shrugs. "Maybe when there are fewer hungry people, there will be less crime."
I shake my head at that. "There'll always be crime. It's human nature. It doesn't have anything to do with who's hungry." I push away my plate, then down the last swallow of coffee. "If he was hungry, he could've just gotten a job. Instead he did something that he knew was wrong."
"Did he?" asks Raf. "You get hungry enough, a lot of your logic starts to go out the window."
I'd never figured Raf to be a philosopher, but apparently the news is bringing it out of him this morning.
All the more reason for me to get out of here, I suppose.
"I'm not buying it," I say, dropping a scattering of credits on the table. "He was wearing a mask. You're not a good person if you have to wear a mask."
"Well," says Raf, "then I hope they catch him. This is a big city. Good or bad, it's easy for a single person to blend into the crowd."
"Tell me about it," I say, and I leave the diner to merge with the stream of early-morning commuters.
It's a little after 7:00 when I get into the Market Square station. The Peacekeeper station is on the other side of the district from where Steele City PD's neglected headquarters sit, and somehow it still manages to overshadow them.
The official police force has been dwindling, year after year, ever since we were given their municipal contracts in 2033.
That was a difficult year for everyone. No one likes change, especially not the people being downsized, but things have gotten better since.
The police have stopped trying to step on our toes, and we've left the city's parking tickets and noise complaints for them to take care of.
I walk up the steps to the Peacekeeper station and the sentries out front snap salutes at me. They're wearing powered armor, the kind they used for raids and patrols, and their gauntlets stop just short of their tinted faceplates.
I salute back, and then shake my head in amusement. I'm plainclothes right now, but I know their visors can do visual recognition. I don't have nanotech Enhancements like they do, but they seem to respect me anyway.
Maybe it's because I don't just push papers around a desk.
Inside the station, I navigate the hallways until I've reached my office, and then I sit down and stare into the distance for a few minutes. I spent all of yesterday setting it in motion, so I know what I'm waiting for. It's barely an hour before it happens.
My communicator, a Diversified Applications Beetle, beeps. The Beetle is a sleek piece of plastic and metal that sits over my left ear. They're favored mostly by business-types and lawmakers, so I've gotten in the habit of hiding mine on my person when I leave the district, but it's lightweight enough that it's easy to forget I'm even wearing it.
I tap the side of the device, once for talk-only. Two taps would give me a full HUD, but I don't need that here.
"Corporate Liaison Paul Hamon," I say. "Go ahead."
There's a pause from the other end of the line. Then a staticy voice says "sir, we've found him. He's been living in a tenement in Duffy. Do we have permission to carry out the raid?"
I allow myself a brief smile.
This is what happens when you work with the best of the best. The police should have been privatized a century ago.
"Stay put, Lieutenant," I say, "and give me the coordinates. I'll join you."
He rattles off the numbers, which the Beetle grabs and plugs into its mapping software. According to the GPS, the spot is twenty three minutes away, but it only takes me fifteen.
Accompanying the boots on the ground on important operations is technically within my purview as the liaison between Prometheus Corp and Steele City's branch of the Peacekeepers, but not a lot of Liasons embrace that responsibility.
The tenement doesn't look like much--a drunken scraggle of brick that somehow survived the quakes of the 30's but never got completely rebuilt. I'm in a parking lot on the blind side of the building, in the back of a van with three fully armored Peacekeepers. I'm pulling on my own armor, but even with all the convenience upgrades Prometheus has been making, it's still a chore to get into. I have my lower body and chest sorted out, but the gauntlets are slow going.
It's an interesting feeling, wearing all that extra plate. Some of the new guys get a little addicted to it, putting the armor on whenever they can, but most of them grow out of it. The ones that don't spend a lot of time on patrol.
"Any movement from the suspect?" I ask.
We're not the only team on site. There's three others, plus a pair of snipers and spotters.
We don't take chances when a target is Enhanced. We've learned that the hard way.
"No movement," says Wharton, the Lieutenant I'd spoken to over the comm. He looks as faceless in his armor as any patrolling Peacekeeper. The only way I can recognize him is by his voice, which is how it's supposed to be. The armor we use on raids is the same armor we use on patrol. That way when we show up the thing you're seeing is the job, not the person, and you don't know what the job is there to do.
This keeps criminals on edge, and it keeps us from being targeted when we're not wearing our armor.
I finish with my gauntlets, finally, and they hum to life as the suit starts feeding them from its internal power source.
"You ready?" I ask Wharton.
The tinted faceplate nods.
"Good." I pull on my helmet, obscuring my face. "Let's clean up the streets."