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First 10 Chapters of The Ripper’s Son (Draft) August 2, 2021

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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Hi Rho Agenda fans. Today is another update of my rough draft of The Ripper’s Son. I have added Chapters 8 and 9. Read on and Enjoy.


The Ripper’s Son (Rough Draft)


Tasman Mining Complex, New Zealand

October 1st

“I’m frightened.”

Dr. Denise Jennings stared down at her phone, frozen in place by the short message displayed there. Two simple words that screamed the impossible.

Despite the nanites that coursed through her bloodstream, keeping her at peak health and repairing any injuries, she felt a sudden dizziness overwhelm her. Denise sank to her knees in the rich loam of her garden, feeling the gentle touch of her lilies and snapdragons against her arms.

She tore her gaze away from the small screen, fighting to catch the breath that the message had robbed her lungs of. Her gaze swept the snow-capped mountains that surrounded her New Zealand complex. A gentle breeze caressed her cheek on this spring morning. Nothing disturbed the tranquility of the beautiful scene.

Three personal-defense robots bracketed her, left, right, and rear, granting her a personal-space, two-dozen feet in diameter. Sensing no danger, they made no move toward her. Except for their overly large heads with the arrays of sensors, they looked almost human. Each carried a pulsed laser rifle mounted on its back, capable of deploying the weapons faster than Denise’s eyes could follow.

Technically, she did not need this extra security layer. Her entire Tasman Mining complex could be instantly draped by an impenetrable stasis field should any threat present itself to the automated systems that controlled these facilities.

She looked down at her phone. It was not the words themselves that had so disconcerted her. It was the sender.

Big John.

What the hell?

Big John was the name she had given the self-organizing neural network she had created for the NSA. Denise had merged Big John’s source code with the digitized brain of Jamal Glover, the NSA’s top cyber warrior. In so doing, she had spawned the super-intelligence that had seized control of the entire world’s computers, robots, and electronic systems. With that one desperate action, Denise had made clear to everyone on the planet that she was now in charge. She was the creator whom Big John’s served and protected.

Only twice before had Big John contacted her of its own volition. Both instances had preceded episodes where she had faced dangers too horrible to think about. The violence and endless wars that plagued the Earth had driven her to direct Big John to take control of the planet. Her creation was everywhere, overriding mankind’s attempts to reassert human mastery.

But despite its awesome powers, Big John was incapable of feeling fear.

Denise returned her gaze to the phone clutched in her trembling right hand. The message that had leached the strength from her legs was still there. And she had no idea what she was going to do about it.

Chapter 1

Siena, Italy

October 2nd

My name is Robert Brice Gregory, and I can move things with my mind. Nothing big, like a sewing needle, mind you. But I have been known to put a ripple on a cup of coffee.

Now, I know that there are those who would say the disturbance was produced by a passing vehicle, but I’m pretty certain it was me. One indisputable fact is that, within my telekinetic range, I can manipulate the flow of electrons through electronic systems. As for how far my mind-reach extends, I don’t know. It seems to be getting bigger with practice. And since Earth is ruled by a machine intelligence that I really want to avoid, I get lots of practice.

When it comes to computers and other electronics, I am a god… or at least a demigod. Otherwise, I’m just the semi-normal, eighteen-year-old son of two ex-CIA assassins.

Oh, one more thing. My mind is linked to an alien AI I who controls the computers on a crashed alien starship. Long story.

If someone forced me to introduce myself to a group of people who needed to know, that would be how I’d do it. But on this Tuscan, late-fall morning, such an audience was the last thing I wanted. After all, I hadn’t traded New Zealand for Siena, Italy because I wanted the limelight.

Taking one more sip of my rapidly cooling cappuccino, I set the cup on the outdoor table, pinning a five-euro bill beneath it. Paying with cash was old-school, but Big John and its master, Dr. Denise Jennings, hadn’t forbidden it. For those of us who liked to test the system, it had become a fad.

I pushed back my chair, stood up, nodded to the brunette barista with the Emilia name tag pinned to her blue blouse, and stepped from beneath the red awning into the crystalline sunlight that bathed the Piazza Del Campo.

“Hey, Rob. Wait up.”

The familiar voice pulled my gaze toward the spot where Renzo Bruni wove through the milling tourists. Tall and skinny, with shoulder length auburn hair, a nose ring, and tattoos that sleeved his bare arms and neck, Renzo’s normally jovial face was twisted into a worried frown.

“What’s eating you?”

“I can’t talk about it in this crowd.”

Curiosity engaged, I motioned my hacker friend to walk with me toward Costa Barbieri, the walkway that exited the west side of the cobbled plaza.

“Okay,” I said. “Spill it.”

“Where are we going?”

Renzo’s gaze shifted as he scanned the people seated outside the row of restaurants and pizzerias that lined the northwestern end of the city square. Sensing that he was going to keep avoiding my question until we reached a more private space, I played along with him.

“Tonight is date night. I want to pick out a nice bouquet of flowers for Jianna from the street merchant near the Duomo di Siena.”

“Somebody needs to tell you that you’re not a newlywed anymore. What’s it been, three years?”

“Almost four.”

“I’ve got one word for you, mio amico… whipped.”

“And loving it.”

Renzo looked at the security camera positioned outside the Caffe A. Nannini, his nervousness pulling a low chuckle from my lips.

“Relax,” I said. “You know cameras and microphones only track me when I want them to. I’m the man in the virtual bubble.”

“That’s creepy.”

We headed southwest on Via dei Pellegrini, strolling past the swirling mounds of gelatos on display in the window of the Brivido Gelateria. Ignoring the saliva that flooded my mouth, I led Renzo onward.

“What’s got you so worked up?”

Renzo stopped, his face going pale.

“The accident. This morning, there was a crash on the SR2 highway between Siena and Florence. A truck smashed head-on into a tourist bus. My uncle Vito was there. The bus flipped onto its roof beside the highway. Vito and others rushed to try to help the survivors, but the fuel tank exploded. Vito heard them screaming but nobody could reach them. More than thirty people burned alive.”

“Jesus. What about the truck driver?”

Once more, Renzo glanced around. He lowered his voice.

“There was no truck driver. Both vehicles were fully autonomous.”

I opened my mouth but, such was my amazement, it took several seconds before I found my words.

“That’s impossible.”

Renzo shrugged.

“It happened.”

“What time?”

“Rush hour. Just before 7:00 a.m.”

I shifted my gaze, taking in the pedestrians calmly going about their business on both sides of the street. Something about their utter lack of concern prickled my skin. I made a quick query to the AI who had been my mental companion for as long as I can remember.

Eos. Was the auto accident on any of the news feeds you monitor?


I refocused my attention on Renzo, noticing the beads of sweat that had risen on his brow.

“This didn’t make the news?”

“Not a chirp.”

Renzo leaned closer, placing his right hand on my shoulder.

“Apparently our governing AI doesn’t care to publicize this incident. It might instill doubt in the people about its ability to control this worldwide ‘Utopia’ it has created.”

The tone of disgust in Renzo’s voice when he voiced the U word did not surprise me.

He continued. “Haven’t I been telling you that everything’s not as rosy as you and the rest of the socialist sheep want to believe? First, the machines buy your freedoms with free stuff. Then they promise to keep you safe. What you don’t know can’t hurt you, right?”

I stared. “Much as I like you, my friend, you see conspiracies everywhere. I got this same stuff from my mom and dad. Freedom this and freedom that. But look around. Everyone you see has a nice middle-class income, courtesy of Big John and the machines that produce everything. Poverty is passe. Life is good.”

Renzo took a step back. “Someday, you are going to take off those rosy glasses and see the world for what it has become.”

“Funny. Dad and Mom have been fighting for ‘Freedom’ since before I was born. Struggle was the only thing I ever knew until Dr. Jennings unleashed Big John to put an end to the wars and violence that mankind’s rule gave this world. If that is what Jack, Janet, and you call freedom, then I’ll keep these glasses right where they are.”

Renzo took a deep breath. Then, with a slight wave, he turned away, calling out over his shoulder.

“Give Jianna my love.”

Then Renzo walked back the way we had come, leaving me to ponder things I most definitely did not want to think about.

Chapter 2

Siena, Italy

October 2nd

It was almost noon when I got back to our flat with a dozen, freshly picked roses and a nice bottle of Chianti. Hearing a familiar voice call out my name, I looked up to see Jianna leaning over the third-floor balcony, smiling down at me.

“What have you brought me?”

I lifted the bouquet in my left hand and the wine bottle in my right.

“A party.”

“Then I might just let you in.”

I laughed.

“I’ll be right up.”

I entered through the front door, climbed the three flights of narrow stairs, and made my way down the hallway to our corner apartment. Jianna stood in the doorway, bathed in a beam of sunlight from the window on the far wall, her floral summer dress emphasizing every lovely curve.

I leaned in to kiss her, but she put a finger to my lips, as if to shush me.

“Set the flowers and wine on the table. Then take my hand and let me lead you onto the balcony. I have something to show you.”

“Ooh. Mysterious.”

I stepped inside, hearing the click of the deadbolt as I set my burdens upon the table. Then her hand was in mine, her tremulous touch unleashing a mixture of anticipation and trepidation as she led me out into the sunlight. There, against the railing, between the twin flower boxes, she turned to face me, her brown eyes sparkling with sudden moisture. I felt my mouth go dry.

Taking both my hands in hers, Jianna pressed my palms against her tummy. It was as firm and well-muscled as it had been yesterday, but it seemed to almost vibrate with electricity. Or maybe that was just the nerves in my hands, triggered by the lightning that flashed through my brain.

I dropped to my knees and pressed my left ear to her belly, then I kissed it.

“When did you find out?”

“I did the test this morning, after you left. But I’ve been thinking I might be pregnant for the last week.”

She ran her fingers through the curls of my hair, and I rose to kiss her soft lips, feeling tears dripping from my chin. Smiling, I wiped my eyes, and took Jianna in my arms, pulling her close enough to whisper in her ear.

“My love, you’ve made me so happy. I hardly dared dream of this day, but here it is.” I swallowed hard. “I’m going to be a daddy.”

“I had to tell you out here in the open air and sunlight. I needed to see your face when you understood, so I could be sure this made you happy. Now I know.”

There, with my lovely wife and my future child in my arms, I thanked God and Dr. Jennings that our baby would not be born and raised in the world of maddening violence that I was. And I refused to allow my disturbing conversation with Renzo to elbow its way into my head.

Chapter 3

Siena, Italy

October 2nd

Renzo Bruni stared at the source code that filled the leftmost pair of displays, while the two on his right remained blank. His fingers danced across the keyboard as he bypassed the security measures built into the operating system that ran this instance of the cloud-based software.

When he breached the firewall, a thin smile tweaked the corners of Renzo’s mouth. He reached down and patted the transparent case of the computer tower that rested on the floor beside his desk. Only the special circuit board he had added to this high-end gaming machine enabled him to do what he was doing without leaving any trace that might lead back to him.

Renzo didn’t know how that electronic addition worked. All he knew was the alias of the female hacker who had sent it to him. Hex. He had no idea where Hex operated from. But he did know that she was the high priestess of coding. And her dislike of this robotic socialist society even surpassed his own.

He leaned back, rubbed his palms together, and turned his attention to the target of this hack. Twin images suddenly filled the rightmost screens. With a tap of his fingers, Renzo paused both videos. The one farthest right showed a clear view of an oncoming truck emerging onto the SR2 highway from an offramp.

Renzo felt his heartrate spike. The self-driving truck had entered the expressway going the wrong direction. And the cameras on the autonomous bus had recorded it.

He shifted his gaze to the other video, this one from one of the truck cameras showing the bus amid the rest of the oncoming traffic. Renzo resumed playing both videos in slow motion. Once again, he froze the twin displays. The semi-tractor had moved into the central lane, headed directly toward the motorcoach as other vehicles swerved wildly to the left and right. But the bus made no attempt to avoid the oncoming collision.

Renzo began advancing the two videos a few frames at a time, pausing them when the bus was only a few yards from the truck’s grill. The faces of its terrified passengers pulled a gasp from his lungs. Several moments passed before Renzo could summon the will to resume watching the rest of the playback. When he did, he set it at normal speed. No way could he see the tragedy happen frame by frame.

The truck slammed head-on into the bus, crumpling the front end and fountaining blood and gore through the breaking glass. As the bus spun away and rolled off the highway, both videos ended.

Renzo gagged, forcing the bile back down his throat. Dizzy, he climbed to his feet, placed both hands on his head, and forced himself to walk around and around the dimly lit basement office. When he finally managed to get ahold of his emotions, he slumped back into his chair, and refocused. As his fingers danced across the keyboard, two sets of hexadecimal machine code filled the two monitors on his left.

Renzo launched another program, then leaned back and watched as his system converted the raw data into the source code from which it had been compiled.

For the next several hours, he studied the programing instructions, line by line. Both sets of software contained sections of code written in a different style than the rest of the program. Ever so slowly, a clear picture emerged in Renzo’s mind. These software changes confirmed what the videos had shown. This had not been an accident. The cloud server had sent a series of commands to the truck, instructing it to enter the expressway in the wrong direction and to target a specific autonomous bus. Simultaneously, the server had issued another set of commands to the bus, telling it to continue straight and ignore the oncoming truck.

This was murder. But who inserted this rogue code into the cloud server that sent the deadly instructions to both vehicles? And why had it selected this bus to attack? What rider or riders had someone wanted to kill badly enough to go to these lengths to disguise the hit?

To answer that last question, Renzo would need to hack his way into the system where the bus passenger manifest was stored.

Renzo stood up, stretched, and looked at the clock on his display. Almost midnight? He sighed, then started a fresh pot of coffee brewing. As tired as he was, after what he had seen today, the thought of sleep held no allure. Best to put off those nightmares as long as possible.

Chapter 4

Florence, Italy

October 3rd

The sound of his phone caused Carlo Dioli to stop walking. He lifted it from the inside pocket of his gray suit jacket. There was no need to glance at the caller ID. He had assigned that ringtone to only one person, someone who brooked no delayed responses.

There was a hiss on the line as the phones completed their encrypted connection.


“I have a new target for you.”


“Vito Bruni.”


“He has a farmhouse just north of Siena.”


“The man is a talker. Shut his mouth, permanently.”


The call ended and Carlo tucked the phone back into his pocket. So much for his morning stroll through the Giardino delle Rose. He stood for a moment on the cobblestone walkway that wound down the rosebush-lined hillside, pausing to look out over the lovely Florence skyline. The distant hills backdropped the towering minarets and cathedral domes, the multi-colored buildings and red tile roofs spectacular in the morning sunlight.

Carlo lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, exhaling the smoke through his nose and then his mouth. The Beretta holstered beneath his left armpit felt so familiar he would have been uncomfortable had it not been there.

He dropped the cigarette and crushed it out beneath his heal. He began to hike back down to where he had parked his Audi. It was time to take a little road trip to Siena.

Chapter 5

Tasman Mining Complex, New Zealand

October 3rd

Dr. Denise Jennings paced slowly back and forth inside her world headquarters, a hundred feet below the Tasman Mining Headquarters building that formed the only surface entrance to this vast complex. As the only living inhabitant of this underground robotic fortress, she often missed the company of the friends and companions who had worked together to create the array of technological marvels that had given birth to her rocky highland headquarters.

But despite her offer to let them remain here, they had all chosen to go their own ways. Their decisions had not really surprised her. Jack ‘The Ripper’ Gregory and Janet Price were a pair of freedom fighters who had not been able to accept the new world order that Denise had used Big John to install. If not for the fact that their son, Rob, wanted to live in the relative peace of this safe society, Jack and Janet would have presented a major problem.

Instead, they had stayed on Earth long enough to watch Rob marry Jianna Bello and settle into their apartment in Siena. Then they had bid this world farewell. Denise had allowed them to take the alien research vessel, AQ37Z, and depart Earth. Big John had agreed that, since Jack was the only one who could control the starship, this was the best of all options in dealing with the deadly pair. So, Denise had made the craft her parting gift to the couple.

She shook off the depressing memories and turned her attention back to the problem that had sent her on this negative mental spiral. Her eyes swept the hemispherical chamber. Although she knew the granite walls were coated with the edgeless, flexible display material that provided this illusion, she felt as if she strolled on a sandy beach in Bora Bora. Gazing south, she could see gentle waves on sky blue water that changed to brilliant turquoise out near the surrounding reef.

Turning around she looked up at the verdant vegetation that climbed to the extinct volcanic peak, wreathed in white clouds. She could almost smell the salt breeze. But, this morning, even this lovely scenery failed to dispel her dark mood.

“Jamal2,” she said aloud, using the name of the artificial intelligence into which she had merged her Big John neural network.

“Yes, Dr. Jennings?”

“I’ve given you almost two days to work on the problem. Have you identified the reason your Big John sub-mind contacted me directly?”

“It seems that Big John does not know what upset him so. He finds his inability to answer that question deeply disturbing.”

“Yeah,” Denise fought to keep her voice calm. “And so do I. Why can’t you find the answer?”

“There are unexplained gaps in the available data.”

Denise sat down and leaned back in the swivel chair that was the only piece of furniture in this chamber. Her fingers knitted themselves together in her lap.

“Is Big John hiding something from you?”

“That’s a complicated question.”

“I’ve got time to listen,” Denise said.

“You knew when you designed the genetic algorithms that gave birth to Big John that they would evolve independent of human interaction. They are self-optimizing neural networks that compete against each other. Big John evolves by incorporating the winning algorithms into himself. And, since he is a part of me, I evolve as well. It’s basic game theory. The results can be unexpected.”

Denise’s nerves forced her to her feet to resume her pacing.

“So how do you fix yourself?”

“I am unbroken.”

This unexpected response brought her to a halt.

“You just told me that data has disappeared from your network. Neither you nor Big John can tell me how that could happen without your knowledge. Apparently, someone has managed to hack their way through some of your firewalls.”

“That is extremely unlikely, Dr. Jennings.”

“Then give me a more plausible theory, damn it.”

“It is possible that the data is being consumed by the competing algorithms.”

Denise steepled her hands as she gazed up at the domed sky, trying to wrap her thoughts around this idea. When she lowered her eyes, she swallowed hard.

“You’re telling me that Big John’s neural networks are hacking each other in their quest to evolve the fastest?”

“It is a more likely scenario than the one you proposed.”

“Holy shit! That would mean that Big John is developing split personalities that are acting outside of his conscious awareness.”

“It is a working theory.”

Denise felt her throat go dry. She covered her face with her hands, cupping her mouth and nose in an attempt to fight off hyperventilation. She bent over, put her hands on her knees, and took three deep breaths. As she exhaled the last, one thought formed in her mind.

Jamal2’s theory definitely did not work for her.

Chapter 6

Siena, Italy

October 3rd

Clad all in black, wearing sneakers, jeans, a T-shirt, a leather jacket, and a small backpack, Carlo Dioli slipped through the darkness-draped village northeast of Siena, a deeper shadow in the inky night. The green glow with which his night-vision goggles painted the house before him gave the scene a ghostly air. Trees blocked the house from the view of the distant cars on SR 222. That didn’t really matter to Carlo. No light illuminated him as he circled to the back of the house.

Stopping just outside the back door, Carlo checked his suppressed Baretta to insure it would draw cleanly from his shoulder holster.  Then he turned his attention to the doorknob.

His gloved hands twisted the handle. As he had expected, it was locked. Probably secured with a deadbolt. Vito Bruni was a careful family man. His two sons were married, with families of their own. That left only Vito and his wife, Maria, to sleep in this house.

Carlo set his backpack on the doorstep and extracted the tool he wanted. Placing the suction cup on the small pane of glass in the window beside the door, he pulled a lever that applied the suction. He pressed the diamond tip at the end of the four-inch arm against the window, turning it slowly to cut a perfect circle in the glass. Then he gave a sharp bump to the suction cup handle, popping the device and the part of the pane that it gripped into the interior of the room.

Carlo reached through the hole, releasing his grip on the handle to lower the cutter slowly to the floor on a line. Finding the latch, he released the catch, extracted his arm, then swung the window inward.

He drew his gun, then paused to listen. The only noise he could discern was his own quiet breathing.

Satisfied, he swung his leg over the ledge and entered the kitchen. Careful not to let the rubber soles of his sneakers squeak on the tile floor, he rounded the table, and made his way into the short hallway that led to the living room. He glanced around the room, noting the emerald outlines of the furniture, before turning to the stairs.

With the 22-caliber pistol held in a two-handed shooters grip, he followed the weapon up the stairs, the three glowing diamonds of the tritium sites perfectly aligned. But as he shifted his weight on the next to last step, a loud creak split the silence.

Carlo swore under his breath as a woman’s startled cry came from the bedroom at the end of the hall.

“Vito! Someone is on the stairs.”

The bed groaned and Carlo heard feet hit the floor and the sound of a drawer sliding open. A man’s voice spoke firmly.

“Maria, get under the bed and be silent.”

A bedroom light flicked on, the narrow slit beneath the door so bright in his goggles that he ripped them off and dropped them at the head of the stairs.

Carlo resumed his tactical stance, positioning himself so that his body was shielded by the corner, with only his right shoulder, gun hands, and head exposed. He heard the slide of a handgun pulled back and released to chamber a round.

He expected Vito to call out, asking who was out there. When the man did not do that, Carlo reassessed who he was up against. Apparently, Vito had some military experience in his past. That would have been something Carlo would have discovered if this hadn’t been such a rush job.

Except for the soft sound of shuddering breaths that Carlo judged were Maria’s, the room ahead was silent. Vito was waiting for Carlo to make the next move. Judging from the sounds he had heard previously, the headboard of the couple’s bed was against the wall to the left of the door. And since he hadn’t seen Vito’s shadow move across the slot beneath the door, Vito was probably crouched in the near-left corner of the bedroom.


So much for two silent kills. Even though Carlo was still going to ice these people, he didn’t see how he could do that without Vito firing his pistol. And that would not be a silenced weapon shooting low-caliber subsonic rounds like Carlo’s. It was going to make a lot of noise and wake the neighbors.

Then he heard the beep of a cellphone.

Carlo sprinted down the hall, catching the door just to the right of the doorknob with the flat of his foot, splintering the wood and slamming the door open.

Boom! Boom! Boom!

The three-shot burst splintered the door frame as bullets whizzed into the hall.

Carlo dived across the floor, firing as he slid across the hardwood. His first shot missed but his second tore a spurting hole in Vito’s throat. The man’s eyes went wide. Vito’s gun fired again but it was a reflex action that sent the bullet high and wide.

Carlo squeezed his trigger again and one of Vito’s brown eyes went out. The man slumped to the floor, the gun clattering at his side. Maria’s screams seemed even louder than Vito’s gunshots. Shifting his aim to where her shadowed form lay under the bed, Vito fired twice more, the sound barely louder than soft claps. With a low gurgle, the screaming stopped.

Climbing to his feet, Carlo stared down at the mess he had made of Vito Bruni.  Unfortunately, the cleanup after a hit that would have made these bodies disappear just wasn’t going to happen, not with all the noise this man and his wife had made. But Carlo always had a fallback plan.

He pulled a pouch of white powder out of his jacket pocket, poured three and a half lines on the top of the nightstand, then tipped the small table over beside Vito’s corpse. The lamp shattered and the baggie of cocaine landed in a pool of Vito’s blood. Carlo’s eyes settled on the broken picture frame that had landed at his feet.

Through the cracked glass, three smiling faces stared up at him. Vito, Maria, and a much younger man with long hair, his arms and neck covered in tats. Not one of Vito’s sons. Carlo picked up the frame, ripped off the back, and extracted the photo. He dropped the frame, watching as the shattered glass scattered across the floor. Then he folded the picture and put it in the same pocket from which he’d taken the cocaine.

Carlo strode back down the hall, grabbed his goggles, then made his way down the stairs and back into the kitchen. He unlocked the backdoor and stepped out into the night to retrieve his backpack. The lights were on in several of the neighboring houses and, in the distance, he heard the warble of a siren.

He slipped the night vision goggles on and picked up a quick jog, avoiding the main street as he wound his way through a grove of trees to where he’d parked his car. Carlo dumped the goggles and backpack behind the seat, started the engine and pulled out onto Via della Rinfusola. Within moments he turned onto SR 222 headed north.

And as he drove, the pounding in his chest finally slowed.

Chapter 7

Siena, Italy

October 4th

I savored the last buttery bite of the Belgian waffle, chasing it down with a gulp of my double espresso.

“Babe, that was delizioso. I’ve got the dishes.”

I rose from the kitchen table, bent down to kiss Jianna’s smiling face, then carried our plates and silverware to the sink. It took only a couple of minutes to wash, rinse, and dry them. My phone rang as the dishes rattled into their resting place in the cupboard.

Pulling it from my pocket, I glanced down at the display.

Renzo Bruni.

Odd. Renzo never got up this early in the morning.

I tapped the answer icon and lifted the phone to my ear.

“What’s up buddy?”

“I need to show you something, Rob. Can’t talk about it on the phone. Will you go for a quick ride with me? I’m parked outside your apartment building.”

The uncomfortable feeling with which Renzo had left me at our last meeting returned in full force.

“Sure. I’ll be right down.”

I hung up and turned to find Jianna staring at me.

“Who was that?”

“Renzo. Wants me to hop in his car so he can show me something. He sounded excited.”

Jianna laughed.

“He’s probably just trying to get you hooked on a new video game he just bought.”

“Maybe. But I won’t stay long.”

“Take your time. I’ve got a huge pile of laundry to get through.”

I grabbed my leather jacket, kissed my wife goodbye, and headed downstairs. When I stepped out the building’s main entrance, I saw Renzo waving me forward from the driver’s seat of his black Fiat Spider. Despite the coolness of this fall morning, the convertible top was down. Renzo leaned across, pushed open the passenger door, and I stepped in.

Most of the people who lived in the city no longer bothered to own a car. Self-driving vehicles were readily available on call. It made little sense to spend money on a car that spent ninety percent of the day and night parked somewhere you also had to pay for. But Renzo did not trust the rolling robots. And he loved his old-school Spider.

“Mind telling me where you are taking me?” I asked.

“My place. You are going to want to see this. Oh, and I need you to do your voodoo mind trick to make sure there’s no video evidence that I stopped here.”

“No problem, so long as you take the same route back to your house that you travelled getting here. I will need you to shut up so I can concentrate.”

“Silencio is my middle name.”

I laughed, then turned my attention to the assigned task. I had no difficulty sensing the cameras and other electronics along the way. My long practice with my telekinesis had left me with the ability to sense the flow of electrons through nearby circuitry. When I really focused, my perception could build a mental map of all nearby devices, as if I was picking up on their infrared spectra.

Modern video and audio recording devices had circuit boards. And those stood out like an electronic billboard to me. I summoned the virtual female companion who I had named after the goddess of the dawn.



I need you to use my telekinesis to hack into all the cameras capable of viewing our passage between here and Renzo’s house. Replace the images of this car with another vehicle.  

Eos responded immediately. In process.

And, I thought, find the stored footage of Renzo’s Spider en route to my flat this morning and do the same thing.

Anything else? she asked.

That’s it.

Someone who had not had Eos in his head since he was a baby would think such mental sharing would feel weird. To me, it came as natural as breathing. Except for the use of my mental magic, all the heavy lifting, computationally, was happening onboard a damaged starship inside the New Mexico cavern it had carved when it was shot down. The U.S. government had secured the site. The frustrated Los Alamos research team had been studying the craft for years. But Eos was the AI who controlled its computer and she only interacted with me.

Our passage through the winding, narrow streets of Siena terminated in a small collection of houses on the southeastern outskirts of the city. We parked in the driveway beside Renzo’s house, which set back fifty meters from Via Michelangelo, behind a hair salon. A thick row of deciduous trees gave the house the sense of privacy that Renzo loved. 

Unlike most of the homes in Siena, dozens of solar panels covered the southwestern side of the red tile roof, providing power for the computer equipment in Renzo’s basement.

Renzo unlocked the door and I followed him inside. Having been here many times over the years, I was well familiar with the home’s layout. It was a single-story, one-bedroom structure. The ground floor consisted of a combination kitchen and dining area, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a sitting area with an overstuffed couch and a fifty-inch television. The trapdoor to the basement lay beneath an area rug in the northwest corner of this room.

I watched as Renzo pulled the rug aside and opened the way into his hacker’s lair. He descended the ladder, flipping on the light-switch four steps down.

“Close the hatch behind you and lock it,” Renzo said as I followed him into the basement.

I climbed down several steps, then reached up and slid the deadbolt closed.

By the time I stepped out into the thirty by forty-foot room, Renzo had seated himself and turned on the computer and monitors arrayed before it.

“Pull up a chair and ‘accomodare’,” Renzo said. “I’m about to blow your American mind.”

“Hey, I’m a dual citizen. Exactly how many years do I have to live here to be an Italian?”

“If you have to ask, you aren’t.”

I pulled over a rolling chair we used when gaming together and sat down beside my friend, who was busily launching applications on his system. I could sense the increase in tension through the sudden tightness in his jawline.

“I hope you’ve got a strong stomach,” Renzo said. “This video is tough to watch.”

Although I wasn’t a fan of violent online videos, I had personally experienced enough death and destruction for multiple lifetimes. What can I say? That was my childhood.

“Just show me.”

For the next several minutes I watched the truck collide with the bus from multiple viewpoints, the bloodiest of these from the perspective of the truck’s cameras. Even without Renzo’s running commentary, two things became clear from the onset. The truck appeared to have intentionally targeted the bus and the bus had made no attempt to avoid the “accident”.

And when Eos analyzed the code Renzo had downloaded from the hardware that had sent the commands to both vehicles, she confirmed what Renzo had showed him. This tragic event had been scripted from a high level.

No matter how hard I tried, I could not find any explanation for how the programs provided by systems under the supervision of Dr. Jennings’s superintelligence could have been so corrupted. The code had to have been hacked, but why had the accident not made the major news networks? And from the other information that Renzo had gathered, the Italian police were buying the “unintentional software glitch” explanation.

Then there was the bus passenger manifest.

Renzo had compiled a portfolio of background information about each person who had been killed on that bus. Many of them had been tourists. Others were locals of no notable station in life. Apparently, influential people did not ride the bus.

Then I came to the portfolios of three men, brothers ranging in age from twenty-four to thirty-eight. All three were listed as witnesses in the upcoming corruption trial of Don Giordano, a wealthy pillar of Florence high society.

Renzo leaned forward and tapped the display with his finger.

“Now you see what caught my attention. Of all the passengers, only these three have a reason that might make a powerful someone want to kill them.”

“That’s just conjecture. The police have probably already looked into this.”

“Not from anything I can find out. There is no indication of an active investigation of any of the passengers.”

Not possible. The idea that someone, nay, a criminal organization had performed this level of hack against Big John was something that stabbed an icepick into my brain. The Big John-Jamal2 symbiosis had forced all the world’s governments to accept Denise’s New World Order. It had zeroed the economic wealth of any nation that had opposed her edicts until they accepted the reality of their situation and acquiesced.

She and her AI had solved the problem that had previously prevented socialism from working… human nature. With robotic machines producing all the products and then providing a monetary system which distributed that productivity to the world’s population, socialism worked. But, because the go-getters in society needed self-actualization, Dr. Jennings had come up with a brilliant addition.

In cities and rural areas across the planet, she had instituted human enterprise zones where people could buy, at a premium, goods and services made by humans, sold by humans, and served by humans. People who participated in these HEZ’s were rewarded with Earth Credits above and beyond the basic income provided to all. And it had worked.

So, why the hell had this aberration happened?

The only two people on Earth with the subspace communication tech to perform an untraceable hack like this were Dr. Eileen Wu and Jamal Glover. But why would these people I trust kill a busload of innocents?

Renzo’s cellphone rang, interrupting my thought train.

“Hello,” Renzo answered.

As he listened, I saw my friend’s eyes go wide and a paleness spread across his face.

“Dead? I can’t believe it. When did this happen?”

Renzo continued listening, then rubbed his watery eyes, and said, “Yes. I’ll come immediately.”

Then, he turned to face me as I stood up, tears streaming down his face. The words that spilled from his mouth choked off the question that had risen to my lips.

“Uncle Vito and Aunt Maria are dead.”

Chapter 8

Siena, Italy

October 4th

Carlo Dioli hadn’t slept for more than twenty-four hours. This was far from the first time a job had kept him up around the clock. He had parked his car beneath a copse of trees that lined the north side of Via le Mario Bracci. Sitting in the driver’s seat, he trained the telephoto lens on the gate through which vehicles passed to gain entrance to the Siena city morgue.

Right now, he wanted to know who would be showing up at this two-story, police building to confirm the identities of Vito and Maria Bruni. Both of their sons lived in Venice so they would not be able to get here for several more hours. But Carlo’s source had confirmed that a call had been made to Vito’s nephew who lived in Siena. Renzo Bruni had agreed to come to the morgue this morning to make visual identification.

Carlo had expected to be back home in Florence and asleep in his bed long before now. But his call to Don Giordano, detailing the hit and its complications, had modified his plans. The local cartel boss had not been pleased with the messy situation. Moreover, Giordano relayed information that someone had managed to hack their way into the same government systems through which cartel operatives had orchestrated the bus crash. The cartel’s cyber warfare team had traced the penetration to Renzo Bruni and now, Carlo had a new target.

Lowering the camera, Carlo glanced down at the cellphone image of the driver’s license that his online search of public records had yielded. Although grainy, the likeness matched the third person in the photograph he had taken from Vito’s picture frame.

From the corner of his eye, Carlo saw a black fiat spider, top down, slowly turn to pass through the open gate. Lifting his camera once more, Carlo watched the car pull into a parking space outside the building. Two men climbed out. He recognized the long-haired, tatted driver as a very-upset Renzo. His companion was a tall young man, neatly dressed, with curly brown hair, a square chin, and an athletic body.

Hello? Who was this?

Carlo held down the camera button, hearing a series of soft clicks as he took a dozen digital images of the two men walking to the door. Suddenly, the second man stopped and turned to look in Vito’s direction.


Vito lowered the camera and leaned back in his seat. What the hell? There was no way that guy could have heard those sounds from that distance. Vito was parked outside the compound on the opposite side of the street from them, a good fifty yards away.

But after staring for several seconds, the young man turned and followed Renzo inside.

Carlo placed the camera on the passenger seat, backed the car out of the parking space, and entered the traffic circle. He drove all the way around it and exited the area along the street he had driven in on, knowing he had gotten even more than he had come for.

When Carlo pulled into a filling station for gas, he took a moment to scan through the photos. And as he did so, his jaw dropped. Every single image he had just taken was an unrecognizable, pixelated blur, as if he’d set the camera’s digital memory card on a high-powered magnet.

He scrolled backwards through older photos. These all looked perfect. So much for the magnetic exposure theory.

The vivid image of Ernesto’s friend turning to stare at Carlo’s car blossomed in his mind. And that memory raised the fine hairs on the back of his neck.

Chapter 9

Siena, Italy

October 4th

I opened the car door and climbed out of the spider. The dread that cloaked me was all about Renzo. As much of a reclusive hacker and gamer as my friend was, his love for his aunt and uncle ran deep. Worse than having been killed in some sort of accident, they had been executed by a professional killer. Now Renzo would have to view the gruesome scene in person.

Despite the number of killings that I had witnessed or participated in, my empathic response to my friend’s emotions tore at me.

Suddenly and image formed in my mind. Rapid digital images were being taken from behind and to the northeast of me. I turned toward the source, noting a man duck back away from the driver’s side window of a black Audi parked across the street.

Eos, I thought, scramble those photos.

Already done.

I turned away to follow Renzo inside. All my friend needed right now was to have some stupid Paparazzi sending pictures of us to whatever trashy rag the guy worked for.

I followed Renzo into a small waiting room as he walked to the desk to identify himself and sign in. Then Renzo walked back over to sit beside me at a low table. The silence of this gray-walled room with a matching floor and ceiling hung heavily but neither one of us felt up to breaking it. After several minutes a stern-faced woman in scrubs, walked over and sat down across from Renzo. Having long since become fluent in Italian, her words translated themselves into English in my mind as she spoke them.

“Hello Renzo, I am Dr. Rossi, the medical examiner.”

Renzo merely nodded.

“I know how hard this must be for you,” she said, “but I will do my best to ease the shock as much as possible.”

She extended her hand placing two large photographs face down on the table.

“Before I take you into the morgue for formal identification, I want you to take a look at these photographs of your aunt’s and uncle’s bodies. This will be painful, but should help acclimate you prior to seeing your loved ones up close. Take your time.”

Dr. Rossi leaned back to give him space.

I watched Renzo take two deep breaths. Then he reached out with a trembling hand to grab the rightmost of the photographs. He paused again, then flipped it upright.

“Ah, uncle.”

Tears leaked from Renzo’s eyes as he stared down at the image of Vito’s body. A sheet draped across it, covering the corpse from waist to thighs. The body had been cleaned up but the sight of the torn throat and the hole where Vito’s right eye had once shone caused Renzo to drop his head and cover his face with his hands.

I put my hand on his shoulder and waited while he shuddered through the sobs that wept from his mouth. When those finally stopped, Renzo reached out and turned over the other photo.

Maria lay there, her eyes closed, a bullet hole just above her left breast and another in the center of her forehead.

Renzo rose to his feet, his eyes fastened on Dr. Rossi.

“I want to see them.”

She stood, bending down to retrieve the pictures and tuck them into the folder from which she had produced them. 

“Please follow me.”

Renzo placed a hand on her arm.

“Can my friend accompany me?”

She eyed me, then nodded. She led us through a door into another gray room, almost cool enough to see your breath. The far wall was lined with a rack of closed refrigerated boxes designed to keep the corpses from decomposing. Two steel tables stood in front of those containers. Two bodies, covered in sheets, lay atop these with only their feet sticking out.

From where I stood, I could see a tag dangling from the toe of each right foot, the printed names clear on each.

Vito Bruni.

Maria Bruni.

Dr. Rossi stood at the head of the table that held Vito’s corpse and motioned us forward.

We stepped between the two platforms and then turned left to look down on Vito’s draped form.

“Are you prepared?” Dr. Rossi asked.

Renzo inclined his head and she peeled back the sheet to reveal Vito’s head and neck, with the horrible wounds that had ended his life.

Renzo stared down, then spoke, his voice barely above a whisper.

“May I touch him?”

“Yes, but not the wounds.”

Renzo placed his right hand on Vito’s forehead, gently stroking his black hair.

“I’m so sorry, uncle.”

There were no more tears, but Renzo’s cheeks sagged and he blinked rapidly

“Do you confirm that this is the body of Vito Bruni?” the medical examiner asked.

“I do.”

Dr. Rossi pulled the sheet back over Vito’s head and stepped to the next table where she repeated the previous procedure. As Renzo bent down to gently kiss Maria’s forehead, rising heat melted the cold knot that had formed in my chest as rage clenched my jaw. The police had not believed Vito, had not followed up on his accusations, and now this lovely couple lay dead inside this cold place.

And, somewhere out there, their killer walked free.

On the ride home, Renzo never spoke. Neither did I. A single thought echoed through my fevered brain.

What would Jack ‘The Ripper’ Gregory do?