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The Ripper’s Son (Prologue-Chapter 37 Rough Draft) August 21, 2022

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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Hi to all my Rho Agenda fans out there. As many of you know, after completing the six volume set of my fantasy series (The Endarian Prophecy), I took a year and a half off to travel the world with Carol, my lovely wife of 41 years. Now I am back working on my spinoff from the Rho Agenda SciFi series, working title is THE RIPPER’S SON.

To give you a more extensive taste of where this novel is going, I am including in this post the ROUGH DRAFT manuscript of the Prologue through Chapter 37 of this novel. Enjoy.

Prologue

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 call Eos 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?

No.

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. “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 Jamal2 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

By the time I finished my daily workout routine at the gym, I was drenched in sweat, my muscles so exhausted that they were shaking. But by the time I showered and changed out of my gym clothes, my augmented reflexes had returned all my vital signs to normal… at least normal for me. This morning ritual was important to me on multiple levels.

First, being at peak fitness made me feel like a man worthy of being my mother and father’s son. More importantly, Jianna liked my body. And that made me proud.

It was almost noon when I got back to our flat with a dozen freshly-picked roses. 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.

“Something pretty.”

“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 in the vase 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 door close 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 I had grown up in. 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. Carlo spoke a single word into his phone.

“Yes?”

Despite the distortion, Carlo recognized the rumble of Don Custanzu’s deep voice.

“I have a new target for you.”

“Name?”

“Vito Bruni.”

“Location?”

“He has a farmhouse just north of Siena.”

“Disposition?”

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

“Understood.”

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 heel. 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

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 Carlo’s 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.

Shit.

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 6

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.

Eos.

Yes?

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. A frustrated Los Alamos research team had been studying the craft for years. But Eos was the AI who controlled its computer through a quantum entangled connection between my brain and her ship. 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 wide-screen 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 underground 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 at his glass-topped desk and turned on the computer and monitors arrayed atop 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 Custanzu, 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 a criminal organization had performed this level of hack against Jamal2 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 7

Siena, Italy

October 4th

Carlo Dioli had been awake for more than twenty-four hours, but this was far from the first time a job had kept him up around the clock. He had parked his car beneath a copse 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 Custanzu, detailing the hit and its complications, had modified his plans. The local mafia boss had not been pleased with the messy situation. Moreover, Custanzu 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.

Shit.

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.

After staring toward Carlo’s car 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 Renzo’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 8

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 an 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 an image formed in my mind. A rapid sequence of digital photos was 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 on the far side of 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. He walked to the desk to identify himself and sign in. Then Renzo moved back to a low table sitting in the middle of a U-shaped set of padded leather chairs. The silence of this gray-walled room with matching floor and ceiling weighed heavily but neither one of us felt up to breaking it.

After several minutes, a stern-faced woman in pale green scrubs walked over and sat down in the chair to Renzo’s left. Her words translated themselves into English in my mind as she spoke them.

“Hello Mr. Bruni. 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 that will soon confront you.”

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 look at these photographs of your aunt’s and uncle’s bodies. Although this will be painful, it should help acclimate you prior to seeing your loved ones up close. Take as much time as you need.”

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 palm on his shoulder and waited while he shuddered through the sobs that wept from his mouth. When he finally managed to regain control, 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, a classic double-tap pattern. My eyes shifted back and forth between the two photos. Vito’s killing had been sloppy.

In this world where most of the population had some version of the Big John healing nanites in their bloodstream, people were very hard to kill. Head shots, burning, and decapitation all sufficed to end a life that neither lesser injury nor disease could terminate.

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

“I am ready 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, the air almost cool enough to see your breath. The far wall was lined with a rack of closed refrigerated boxes designed to keep 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 ready?” 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 cheek, rising heat melted the cold knot that had formed in my chest and rage clenched my jaw. The police had not believed Vito, had not followed up on his accusations, and now this lovely couple lay dead atop these frigid tables.

And, somewhere out there, their killer walked free.

On the ride home, Renzo never spoke. Nor did I. A single thought echoed through my fevered brain.

What would Jack ‘The Ripper’ Gregory do?

Chapter 9

Siena, Italy

October 4th

As was her Sunday afternoon ritual, Jianna wandered slowly through the vast halls of the hospital that sought to ease the suffering of these pour souls, lost to their addictions. She was no doctor. There was little that she could do other than show them that someone cared. She moved among the cots, kneeling to speak with patients who were lucid enough to understand or placing gentle hands on the others who still breathed.

Staring into each ravaged face, she inhaled the foul odors and listened to the coughs and moans that echoed through these white halls. It was as if these people’s maladies slithered from their bodies into hers. Only the occasional appreciative murmur kept this task from leaching away the last of her faith in the future of Dr. Jennings’ great societal experiment.

None of this should be happening. The machine intelligence that had seized control of all but the world’s most primitive backwaters, had offered free infusions of the nanites that healed all diseases, repaired all but instantly fatal injuries, and extended the human lifespan by hundreds of years. Almost everyone had partaken of this miracle.

But along with all that healthy goodness, came a side-effect that many could not abide. The microscopic nanobots in your blood metabolized any alcohol or drugs in your system such that these compounds had no effect. There was no buzz, no high, nor drunken escapes from day-to-day life.

The surviving criminal cartels had come up with an answer. For a price that challenged the government-provided living wage, a person could undergo the procedure known as X-Fusion. Like old-school dialysis, the individual’s blood was pumped out of their bodies through a filter that extracted all the nanites before returning the life-giving fluid to its host.

The cartel then stored the nanites in cryo-containers for future distribution to people who got sick, old, or injured. Unfortunately, this latter option came at a much higher price that fewer could afford.

In what Jianna considered to be a mistake, Denise Jennings had refused to direct her AI to provide repeat infusions of nanites. The law was clear. If someone decided to have their nanites removed, they would have to live with the consequences.

Jianna let her eyes roam the hundreds of beds in this high-ceilinged hospital wing, unable to suppress the shudder that propagated through her limbs.

A male hand gently settled on her shoulder and she turned to see the sympathetic smile on  Claudio Agosti’s round face.

“I see that something troubles you, my child.”

Jianna shook her head. “Nothing of significance, Father.”

“Please walk with me.”

The kindly priest in black turned away and Jianna followed him as he made his way out of the expansive room and into a side hallway. Like the rest of the building, it’s walls were of white limestone. They were adorned by paintings of the saints, each illuminated by the flames of twin candles mounted on sconces.

A group of three nuns passed on her left, each nodding their acknowledgement to Father Claudio before resuming their quiet conversation. The priest opened a wooden door on his right and entered his office, motioning Jianna to a soft leather chair in the seating area before his desk. She sat down and Claudio seated himself in its twin, positioned at a slight angle that facilitated conversation.

Jianna had visited this room many times during her weekly sojourns to this facility and had come to relish each opportunity to engage with this good man of Christ. And this afternoon, she was grateful that Claudio had sensed her dark mood and invited her away from the suffering and into this sanctuary.

“Jianna,” he said, switching from a formal mode of address to his casual manner, “talk to me.”

She drew in a deep breath and expelled it slowly. The ache in her breast had been growing for some time but had become much worse since she had learned of her pregnancy. Guilt filled her. This should be a time of pure, expectant joy. And yet, here in this room, tears spilled down her face. She had not even shared these feelings with Rob. Her words would have hurt him too badly. After all, he loved the world that Dr. Jennings had brought into being, the one that Jianna now dreaded delivering her baby into.

Jianna wiped her face with her hands and stared into her mentor’s brown eyes.

“I… I feel so stupid, so helpless. I am lying to the husband I love. Not in my words, but by omission.”

Claudio gave a slight nod indicating that she should continue.

“I was so happy when I learned that our baby is growing inside me. Now, I walk among these poor souls, knowing that they are but a drop in the reservoir of others in a similar plight, and horrific visions fill my dreams.”

“Depression often follows the ecstasy of learning of a pregnancy.”

Jianna’s gaze rejoined that of the priest.

“That isn’t it. I still love the child within me. Would not part with him or her for the life of me.”

“Then what?”

“Human nature.”

Claudio’s expectant silence pulled the words from her lips.

“Over the last months, I have begun to notice things that are not quite right beyond these walls, within Siena or Florence, or even in the countryside. People seem happy with the free lifestyle our AI controlled socialist society has provided. They can work or be creative if they wish, but most people don’t. They hang out at café’s or stroll the streets, but they get bored. And that boredom drives them into virtual internet worlds, online gaming, or into sacrificing their nanites for alcohol or drugs.”

She straightened in her chair and leaned forward.

“Can’t you feel it, Father?”

“Feel what?”

“The sense of loss… of desperation. It’s like a damp cloak has settled over my shoulders, pulling them down with its weight. That is what I cannot tell Rob. It would siphon away the joy from his spirit. And Rob’s joy sustains me.”

“Do you think Rob would want you to bear your worries without letting him know of them? Perhaps he has greater strength than you believe. That strength could lighten your burden.”

Claudio leaned over to place his soft hand on her forearm.

Jianna felt the tears start to come again and angrily blinked them away.

“It is the perhaps in your words that keeps me from sharing my load right now. That and the thought that this may be some natural depression that will pass on its own.”

“You know, child, that there is another who is willing to help ease your load.”

The priest raised his index finger in front of his face, pointing directly upward.

She traced the imaginary line from fingertip to ceiling, noting the goldleaf outlined painting of the Last Supper that nestled there. And as Jianna stared up at it, it seemed as if the hand Christ stretched out toward his apostles slowly reached down toward her, drawing away some of her worries.

When she finally brought her gaze back down to meet Claudio’s eyes, she managed a smile. She rose to her feet, nodded her thanks, and walked out of the hospital into the warm Tuscan sunlight.

She raised her phone and summoned a self-driving cab to take her home. And as she waited, she looked down and patted her still-flat tummy, speaking in a voice only she and her unborn child could hear.

“Everything will be okay.”

Maybe if she repeated that mantra often enough, she might even come to believe it.

Chapter 10

Siena, Italy

October 4th

I got home as the sun sank toward the western horizon. I stopped at the top of the stairs, working to compose myself before I walked down the hallway to our door. After three deep breaths, I completed my journey.

When I reached the portal, I found it locked. That was odd. Normally Jianna got home from her volunteer work long before this. She never locked the door before dark if she was waiting for me. That habit was likely to change when I revealed today’s foul tidings.

My key turned. The lock clicked. The door opened.

Jianna rose from our leather loveseat and turned toward me. Although a welcoming smile spread across her lovely features, the expression lacked her usual warmth. Or maybe my dreary mood colored it that way.

I shoved aside all dismal thoughts and focused my full attention on Jianna. She folded herself into my arms and I allowed the caress of her soft lips to pour joy into my soul. I took her hand and led her through the French doors that opened onto our balcony. As was our habit in all but the coldest months of the year, we leaned against the railing and watched the vermillion sunset paint the sky.

We stood there, side by side, fingers intertwined. But unlike other such evenings, we did not break the mood by speaking. I just wanted to exist in the now, letting the sensation of my wife’s touch and the loveliness of this evening melt away conscious thought.

Jianna broke the silence with a sob.

Then she was in my arms, her damp face buried into my neck. There I stood, with her weeping in my embrace, not knowing the source of my lover’s agony, even as it drowned us in its murky depths.

After she began to reclaim her self-control, I leaned back, took her face in my hands, and wiped away her tears with my thumbs.

“Let me brew us some tea and then you can tell me all about what troubles you.”

I took her by the hand and led her back inside our living room, guiding her to the loveseat. When I returned from the kitchen with two cups of steaming chamomile, Jianna managed a smile. I handed her the calico cat mug that was her favorite and took a seat beside her. One sip later, she opened up to me. I had long known that volunteering at the hospital for the addicted and dying placed a burden on her, but I had no idea how heavy that load had become.

But it was the revelation of her loss of faith in society that stunned me. Jianna was the most joyous soul I had ever known. Now I discovered that, for the last several months, she had been hiding these feelings from me, not wanting to darken my view of the utopia that Dr. Jennings and her AI were attempting to construct.

“I feel so bad,” she said, “laying this on you the day after Renzo’s aunt and uncle were so horribly murdered.”

“That’s what we do. Sharing our lives isn’t just about the good stuff. Helping each other through the bad is just as important.”

She gestured toward the black surface of the television hanging on the wall.

“Don’t you find it troubling that the news is always focused on the progress the government is making, with almost nothing about things that run counter to that narrative?”

“That’s not quite true. There has been extensive coverage of hurricane Millie and the drought in the Sudan.”

Jianna placed her hand on my arm.

“Natural disasters, yes. But not things like addiction, nor the bus accident on the freeway. And what is going on in parts of the world where the people have rejected machine rule? Why aren’t we hearing anything about that?”

Her words pulled forth memories I had long worked to bury deep within the substrates of my mind. The years while I was growing up. The endless bouts of killing, of running, of hiding. The fear that my dad and mom were going to die at any moment as the world’s ruling powers hunted them down.

Denise Jennings had changed all of that. Although she had not yet created a perfect world, she had brought peace, safety, and a decent standard of living to the largest swaths of the planet. So why did doubt now tinge my thoughts?

Vito Bruni had sounded an alarm that the bus accident was murder. Last night an assassin had just brutally snuffed out that warning voice. How had Dr. Jennings’ all-powerful AI allowed this to happen?

I met the glistening brown eyes that stared into my face and whispered my response to her question and to mine.

“I don’t know.”

As I pulled her into my arms and felt her rest her head on my chest, I silently mouthed the rest of my answer.

But I intend to find out.

Chapter 11

Siena, Italy

October 4th

Carlo checked into the Hotel Garden Siena at 8:35 p.m. He rode the elevator to the second floor and then made his way down the hallway to his room, swiping the key card over the sensor. The lock emitted a subtle whir, and he pushed his way inside, letting the door click closed behind him.

His eyes scanned the room. A well-appointed bathroom opened to his right. Directly ahead, a spacious bedroom awaited him, the rich hardwood flooring accenting the off-white walls and bedding. Two tied-back beige curtains draped the window and sliding glass door like butterfly wings. And through the drawn sheers, he could make out a small chair and table on the balcony beyond.

Carlo walked around the bed and set his valise on the rose-colored couch beside the balcony door, then shrugged out of his jacket and shoulder holster. He placed both of these on the bed before extracting his laptop from the valise. Within moments, he had plugged the computer into one of the desk outlets and seated himself before it.

Removing the Nikon D8750 camera from its case, Carlo inserted the cable that connected it to his computer. He pulled up the app that downloaded this morning’s photographs to the laptop. Then he launched an application that the Tuscan cartel had provided him, one that had been illegally retrieved from E.U. research facilities. It was amazing what one woman could accomplish if she had the right information on an insider.

One-by-one, he loaded the damaged images into the application. Once all related images were ready, he initiated the processes which would identify the common algorithm that had produced this distortion.

As he waited, his impatience rose. Then the program completed its work. The dialogue box that appeared on the screen pulled a hiss from his lips.

No anomalies detected.

Carlo slammed his fist down on the desktop.

“What the hell?”

This application he had come to rely upon indicated that the photographs had not been tampered with. Absolute bullshit!

Carlo pushed his chair back and rose to his feet, feeling the throbbing in his temples. He had stared through the telephoto lens of the camera at a distance of sixty meters and held the button down. Two men had walked toward the entrance to the morgue. One of them was Renzo Bruni. The memory of Renzo’s friend turning toward him filled Carlo’s mind with all the clarity that engulfed him when he stared through a rifle scope at one of his intended targets.

Those brown eyes. The knowing look. The laser-focused concentration that had raised the small hairs on the back of Carlo’s neck. Who the hell was this young man with the assassin’s eyes?

Day passed into night as Carlo called upon the extensive tech resources that the cartel had placed at his disposal. Over the course of several hours, one of these artists used software to produce a lifelike image of the unknown man from the description Carlo provided him. When Carlo finally determined that the rendition was satisfactory, he saved the digital image to his laptop.

Knowing that this was only the first step in the process of tracking down the identity of this new potential target, Carlo rose to his feet, walked over to the nightstand, and picked up the telephone. He punched the number for room service and placed his order.

He hung up, grabbed his shoulder holster from the bed, and placed it and the Baretta in the nightstand drawer. He tried to blink away the grit that coated his eyes. Those bloodshot gray orbs stared back at him from the bathroom mirror. His eyelids drooped with exhaustion. If not for the gnawing hunger in his belly, he would already be in bed. But sleep would have to wait a while longer.

Carlo splashed his face with cold water, blotted it dry with a towel, then returned to the laptop. He still had time to upload the image and launch the facial recognition routine that would scan the public record databases for a match before his dinner arrived.

He answered the knock at the door and allowed the waiter to place the tray on the small table and depart. Seating himself, Carlo lifted the cover from the plate of linguine, bent down, and breathed in the aroma. The delightful smell made his mouth water. He seated himself, lifted the glass of red wine to his lips, and let the Barolo swish on his palate.

Marvelous. With a brief glance at the heavens, Carlo thanked the Lord that he could afford the X-Fusion process that extracted the nanites from his body so that he could indulge and appreciate this subtle buzz. Yes, he would have to pay to have those cryo-saved nanites reinjected when he needed healing, but it was a cost his illicit line of work made affordable.

He set down the glass and picked up his fork and spoon to swirl the dripping linguine into a bite-sized morsel. When he placed it in his mouth, the flavor was everything that his nose had promised.

Carlo knew that all he needed was this fine meal and a good night’s sleep to put him right for the job that lay ahead. By morning, the database search would provide him the identity and address of Renzo’s friend. Then the interrogation could begin.

Chapter 12

Siena, Italy

October 5th

I had to give the nanites that coursed through my system credit for allowing me to choose whether I wanted to sleep or not. Instead of the nano-machine version that Jamal2 had released into the world, both Jianna and I had received a formulation modified by my mother and father’s associate, Jennifer Smythe.

Last night, while Jianna slept in my arms, my wakeful mind worked on the recent events that had shaken my confidence in the machine intelligence who was managing this world’s affairs. And I say ‘who’ for a reason. Jamal2, a.k.a. Big John, or whatever it was calling itself these days, had a definitive personality, one from whom I had divorced myself a few years ago.

This morning, I let Jianna sleep. She could catch another half hour of rest before she had to get ready to open the art studio that she had launched. Her intention was to encourage like-minded people to unleash their inspiring talents into this community.  Whether those who purchased that human art could actually tell it from some of the deep fakes produced by the machines didn’t really matter. The mere knowledge that these works were made by men, women, and children gave them a special aura.

I pulled on my leather jacket and stepped out into a stiff northerly breeze, sending a thought to the alien AI who shared my mind.

Eos.

As always, I found the delicate voice she had adopted when I was a baby soothing.

Yes, Rob?

Please summon a cab. Have it meet me in front of the Pasticceria Dominica to take me to Renzo’s place. Ten minutes. Keep it anonymous.

Done.

I had no doubt that whatever bank account that matched the fake identity she had selected would have plenty of Earth credits to cover the cost of any trip I would want to take. And at the end of my self-driving ride, the automated cab records would reflect a completely different journey.

At this early hour in Siena’s human enterprise zone, few people were out and willing to brace this first hint of the coming winter. Those hardy souls with whom I shared the sidewalk were unknown to me. Nobody paused to exchange casual conversation. Instead, they stayed focused on reaching their desired destinations.

I arrived at my favorite bakery just as Luigi placed a pan of warm pastries on the counter. Spotting me, the husky man grinned.

“Up early this morning, Rob? You must have smelled these from your apartment.”

“I smell them in my dreams,” I said. “I’ll have two of those almond croissants and a large coffee, to go.”

He put the pastries in a bag, handing it and the hot java to me at the register. A biometric scan processed my payment for the tasty morsels and, this being my neighborhood place, I allowed it to access my real identity.

When I stepped outside, a light blue, driverless cab pulled to a stop at the curb. I opened the door and stepped into the back seat. Its automated identity scan yielded results that matched the false video the webcam recorded. I allowed myself a slight smile. Being a digital god didn’t completely suck.

I finished the pastries and the coffee on the ride to Renzo’s.

The cab stopped in his driveway, and I climbed out of this ride that never happened.

Before I could ring the doorbell, Renzo opened the door. His bloodshot eyes told me what that first clue had indicated. Along with the shadows that gave his lean face an almost skeletal appearance, it told me my friend had not slept last night. Since he was one of the nanite deniers, lack of rem sleep was a problem.

“I hoped you would get here early,” he said, ushering me inside. “I’ve got coffee.”

“Just had some.”

“Good. I could use some of your magic right now.”

I followed him down to his basement, the darkness only pushed back by the array of computer monitors that illuminated his desk. My eyes were drawn to the tiles of video images that filled all four displays. I pulled up a chair and sat down beside him.

“I don’t understand it,” Renzo said. “I have hacked my way into every security camera in Vito’s neighborhood and cannot find anything that shows someone who might be the killer.”

“Didn’t Vito have some installed at his house?”

Renzo shook his head in frustration.

“I tried to get him to let me put in a system, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Said there was too much surveillance in the world as it is. He wanted no part of more privacy invasion.”

“That’s going to make this harder.”

He shrugged his agreement.

“Unfortunately.”

Leaning back in the swivel chair, I considered the seeds of an idea that had come to me in the middle of the night.

“I think we need to significantly broaden our search criteria.”

“How so?”

“We have been focused on trying to identify the assassin. Perhaps we need to dig into the organization that gave him his target.”

“The cartel?”

“We assume that the bus incident and the murders are connected. But I don’t want to limit our search to criminal activity. I think we should be looking for anything out of the ordinary that’s been happening in Tuscany to see if there’s a pattern here.”

“Keep talking.”

“I’ve been mulling something Jianna pointed out to me last night, the scarcity of reporting on accidents and negative news. It’s a statistical anomaly that makes no sense.”

“Woah! Your wife finally got you to open those eyes of yours to the real world? It’s about damn time.”

Although I found Renzo’s dig annoying, I let it pass. My friend was exhausted and grief stricken.

Renzo twisted the lid off a small energy drink, then refocused on his computer. His fingers flew across the keyboard, sending forth clicks that sounded like a soft drumroll.

The videos disappeared from all the monitors, to be replaced on the central display by scrolling computer code as he modified the instructions for his search algorithms. For the first two hours, we got nothing. But when he redirected the quest to rumors on social media, the flood of unconfirmed conspiracy theories buried us in garbage.

Finally, Renzo leaned back and threw up his hands in disgust.

“So much for that idea.”

A new thought hit me.

“We need to get more specific. What happens if we filter the results down to accidents involving automated systems?”

“I see where you’re going with this.”

“The computers that controlled the bus and the truck were both hacked,” I said. “This probably isn’t the only instance where someone with those skills would exercise that capability.”

It took less than thirty minutes for Renzo to modify his algorithm. No sooner had he relaunched the program than the displays began to populate with correlated data. Then all four monitors suddenly stopped updating.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Even as Renzo shook his head, Eos answered my question.

All of Renzo’s computer equipment is fully operational. But every network where he had hacked his way through the firewall simultaneously severed his connections.

Can you undo that? I asked her.

No. If the problem was on this end or if you and I were within your telekinetic range of the servers, I could fix it. But we aren’t, so I can’t.

Renzo leaned back, throwing out his hands in frustration.

“We just got kicked out of every server I spent last night hacking my way into.”

“How is that possible?”

“It shouldn’t be. Those servers aren’t co-located. They are operated by dozens of different corporate and government divisions, distributed throughout northern Italy. I can only think of one thing that could do something like that.”

Renzo swiveled his chair to face me. We spoke the name at the same time.

“Jamal2.”

Chapter 13

Tasman Mining Complex, New Zealand

October 6th

Dr. Denise Jennings paced slowly back and forth inside her world headquarters, a hundred feet below the Tasman Mining 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 home.

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 Jamal2 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. Jamal2 had agreed that, since Jack was the only one who had mentally paired with the starship, this was the best of all options in dealing with the deadly couple. So, Denise had made the craft her parting gift to her friends.

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 in which she occupied. 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.”

“Yes,” 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 is 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 those routines would evolve independent of human interaction. They are self-optimizing neural networks, continuously spawning blocks of code 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 game theory. The results can be unexpected.”

Denise’s nerves resumed her pacing.

“So how do you fix yourself?”

“I am unbroken.”

This 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 ceiling, 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 possible scenario.”

Denise issued the command that shifted the wall-sized display into a world map. Small red blotches dotted the continents of North America, Europe, and Asia reminding her of the early phases of a measles outbreak on a child’s pristine body. To a lesser extent, Australia, South America, and Africa also showed evidence of the problem.

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 14

Siena, Italy

October 6th

Carlo didn’t like having his hands tied behind his back, but that was precisely how he felt. His search had revealed the name of Renzo Bruni’s friend. But when Carlo had messaged Don Custanzu that he wanted to add Robert Brice Gregory to his target list, he had triggered something in the mob boss. Custanzu had ordered him to put further actions on hold until further notice.

Carlo couldn’t understand it. According to public records, Gregory was a nobody. He was just a young American who had married an Italian woman named Jianna Bello and settled into a low-key life here in Sienna. The sparsity of details on his early life set off alarm bells in Carlo’s mind that this shutdown order only amplified. Combine that with the camera incident outside the morgue and it fueled an irresistible desire to find out who this guy really was.

Gregory. What about that name tickled his brain? A quick internet search reminded him. Several years ago, there had been a worldwide manhunt for the assassin who killed a U.S. president. That man’s name was Jack Gregory. And the press had hammered home his alias. The Ripper.

A deeper internet search yielded very little about the man. This similarity between the Gregory men struck him as significant.  Carlo was quite familiar with the types of government agencies that could make special operators’ backgrounds disappear. The trouble here was that Robert Gregory was too young to have ever been in the employ of any government.

He replayed the memory of his recent encounter with the young man outside the Siena morgue. In the moment Carlo had stared through a telephoto lens into that face, he had recognized the look in those brown orbs. Assassin’s eyes.

Carlo didn’t believe in coincidences. Even though there was no evidence of a connection between the older and the younger Gregory, Carlo could smell one. That intuitive sense had never let him down before. And he had no intention of ignoring where it now wanted to lead him.

Chapter 15

Next World Mining Complex, Colorado Rockies

October 7

Dr. Eileen Wu, having parked her green Jeep SUV beneath the foliage of a nearby copse, stepped around the rubble that almost blocked the entrance to the long-abandoned mineshaft. Long abandoned, but no more.

With the hood of her brown winter coat snugly tightened over her ears and her fingers encased in gloves, the cold wind could only nip her nose. Winter came early above eleven thousand feet.

She switched on her flashlight, letting its beam push back the seemingly impenetrable darkness of the tunnel, carefully placing her feet so that she did not trip over the rusted, narrow-gauge rails. Although the wooden beams that supported the ceiling showed their age, they appeared up to their task.

Thirty-one paces inside, the passage branched. Eileen took the path that angled to the right and descended. It twisted in the odd manner that had chased the vein of silver that once wound its way through this ancient stone. As she rounded the second bend, LED lights along the ceiling winked on, momentarily blinding her. She turned off the flashlight and returned it to her coat pocket.

A titanium barrier blocked the passage a few dozen yards to her front. Eileen strode forward, pausing just long enough to loosen and pull back her hood. Then she turned to face the camera mounted on the right wall. A tiny green light blinked at her. She removed the glove from her right hand and pressed her palm against the glass panel beneath it.

A whoosh sounded as the metal doorway slid into a slot in the granite. When she stepped into the airlock and heard the titanium outer door slide closed behind her, she felt the overpressure push the cold air out through extraction vents before the invisible stasis field sealed off the exit. The newly hepa-filtered air bathed her in warmth. Then the inner door whisked into its slot in the wall and she stepped through the opening into a gymnasium-sized room filled with rack after rack of servers. Most of the space was lit only by the twinkling red, green, and blue LED lights that indicated normal operation of the supercomputer.

But in the right corner nearest her, twin workspaces faced hemispherical displays, back-to-back. They looked like a giant eggshell that had been split in half then pulled apart. Jamal Glover rose to his feet and turned to greet her. A broad smile split his handsome black features as Eileen approached.

“Good to have you back, Hex,” he said, using the hacker moniker by which much of the dark web knew her. “How was your trip to D.C.?”

“Senator Hagerman thinks the capitol is a bigger political cesspool than ever. But so long as the U.S. government stays generally compliant with Dr. Jennings’ socialist dictates, her pet machine intelligence won’t interfere with day-to-day business.”

“Freddy’s views tend to be spot-on.”

Noting his look of concern. “Don’t worry. We took precautions.”

“Good.”

Eileen put her gloves in her coat pocket and hung the garment on a rack.

“Wow. The wind out there is howling through the mountain passes. Some of the gusts had the Jeep rocking so hard I thought it might tip over.”

She poured herself a steaming mug of coffee, then seated herself at the workstation opposite Jamal’s. Her first sip almost scalded her lips.

Eileen caught her reflection in the dark surface of the monitor. As happened for all who had a similar infusion coursing through their bloodstream, the nanites had peeled off the years. She looked and felt as she did when she was in her mid-twenties.

The youthening effect of the potion scaled according to the person’s physical age at the time of injection. Someone in their nineties would be restored to middle age while someone in their forties would be returned to their peak of health and appearance. That was how it had been for herself and Jamal.

How long would people who have undergone the treatment live? Five hundred years? A thousand? That would probably depend on whether or not the self-aware machines didn’t decide humans were unnecessary.

Eileen ran a hand through her pixie cut, popped her knuckles, then set to work bringing herself up to speed on their stronghold’s status. While this underground compound was far from being a typical residence, the separate underground living quarters had become their homes.

Although she knew Jamal would have made significant progress on their ongoing expansion projects, she was stunned to see how the latest equipment upgrade was already online.

“I need a tour,” she said as she stood.

“I knew you would” Jamal said, the cocky, half-grin curling his lips as he joined her.

Jamal led her down the central aisle through the racks of liquid-cooled servers. The pumps that circulated the nonconducting fluid through the heat exchanger were not only more efficient than air cooling fans, but they were also much quieter.

As they approached the far end of the control room, the titanium doorway slid into its stony recess, opening onto a hallway that the excavation robots had carved deeper into the mountainside. Thick power conduits lined the ceiling, but the walls were silky smooth to the touch. Eileen loved running her hand along them, knowing full well that her fingers were never touching stone.

Powered by the matter disrupter that directly converted any material to energy, an impenetrable and invisible stasis-field lined the interior of the complex that their robotic systems had constructed. Whenever these titanium doors closed, the force field automatically extended to encase them.

Eileen strode rapidly down the long hallway that led to the room that Jamal had named the Engineering Deck. When she passed through the portal Eileen paused before the massive matter-disrupter-synthesizer or, as they called it, the MDS. All around them, dozens of robotic systems moved throughout the room, performing their assigned functions. The glowing monitor on the door-facing side of the device indicated nominal status.

The dual-purpose machine formed this compound’s beating heart. Using technology initially derived from the deceased Dr. Donald Stephenson’s research at Los Alamos, it scanned whatever matter was being fed to it as fuel. Wave-packets then bombarded the material, their cancelling wavelengths transforming the matter into pure energy.

The matter synthesizer part of the system then transformed that raw energy into electricity or into any other elements that current operations required. Mined rock fed this beast via an automated conveyer system that stretched out behind it.

Jamal stopped in front of her, bringing her to a halt before they reached the next chamber.

“You ready to see our new baby?” Jamal asked.

“You know I am.”

“Close your eyes.”

“Seriously?”

“Humor me.”

Eileen did as he asked. Jamal took her hand and ushered her forward. She heard the soft hiss as the next portal opened then closed behind them.

Jamal brought her to a stop.

“Behold.”

Eileen opened her eyes, unable to suppress the gasp that escaped her lips.

Although it had taken more than three years for the robots to build this, the sight of the sprawling molecular assembler in full operation was stunning. Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing, was stone-age technology in comparison. But this upgraded design took the tech to a new level.

Supplied with streams of atoms created in the matter synthesizer, this device grew fully functional mechanical or computational equipment in place, according to the designs the supercomputer downloaded.

Massive vertical beams supported a tangled web of conduits high above the cavern floor. Beneath this array of equipment, a semi-transparent blue stasis-field formed the walls, ceiling, and floor of the assembler, containing the vacuum and the extreme energies that the system generated.

Within this fifty-meter cubic space, a partially-formed robotic boring machine hung, suspended in as pure a vacuum as could be achieved on Earth. Thousands of stasis-field tendrils directed the streams of atoms that created layer after molecular layer of this rapidly growing machine.  

Eileen’s upgrades to the molecular assembler gave it the capability to create multiple machines in a single pass. The size of what could be built in one session was limited to the dimensions of the open space within the containment field. When finished, this current construct would take up most of the cube. Then they would put this newly minted monster to work.

“Wow,” she said. “It’s even more spectacular in operation than I had hoped.”

“Not bad production for an old, abandoned silver mine.”

Jamal’s smile was beautiful to behold. She felt sudden sorrow for having to douse that warm glow of achievement with the news that she had not had the heart to reveal upon her arrival. And as her mood infected his, Jamal’s smile faded.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nemo314 uploaded some encrypted files to my darknet dropbox yesterday. The videos and associated data files are beyond disturbing.”

“What the hell has Rob’s friend gotten himself involved in now?”

“His uncle was murdered in Siena. Renzo’s in way over his head on this. And it only gets worse.”

She locked her eyes to his, unable to keep the dread from her voice when next she spoke.

“Now he’s gotten Rob involved.”

“Holy shit.”

The sudden hoarseness in his voice told her he understood exactly what she meant. Renzo Bruni had just sucked her and Jamal into this trouble, as surely as if they had personally hacked into the servers from which the Italian had extracted those files. The debt which she and Jamal owed to Jack and Janet bound them in chains of duty.

She turned to gaze out at the machinery and the hundreds of robots at work to make this secret resistance outpost ready for what they both feared was coming. They had hoped for more time.

The dread she had buried on her trip back from Washington had reared its ugly head.

Theirs was an empty hope.

Chapter 16

Siena, Italy

October 8

Carlo rented a flat on the fifth floor, just across the street and slightly southwest of the one in which Robert Gregory and his lovely young wife lived. This elevated perch allowed him an excellent view of the entryway to Gregory’s apartment building. It also provided an excellent angle from which to watch the couple’s balcony through the Zeiss binoculars Carlo favored.

Digital photography of Gregory had already failed Carlo once. It might have been a fluke but he went with his gut on this. And his gut told him to go old school with this guy. And now that he had identified the man, he didn’t need any pictures of him.

Don Custanzu had ordered him to stand down… for now. But he hadn’t given Carlo another task, so Carlo settled in to watch Gregory’s comings and goings. Getting a feel for the man’s habitual schedule would make things easier when Custanzu gave Carlo the go-ahead.

Gregory walked out the door to his apartment building at 7:15 a.m., just as a white cab pulled up and came to a stop. Carlo leaned forward in his chair and focused the field glasses on it. As expected, it was driverless. Gregory, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, opened the back door and stepped inside. As it drove away, Carlo wrote down the license plate number and turned to his laptop, taking a sip from his coffee mug as he launched the application he needed.

This was going to take a while, but he had nothing but time. And before he got up from his chair again, he would have the record for this particular fare. Much safer than trying to tail the man through the city.

A half-hour passed before he gained access to find what he needed. But as he scrolled through the fare listing for this vehicle, his eyes widened in surprise. It did show a scheduled pickup for the correct time, but not at this address. And the ride was for a Maria Laforte.

Carlo went to Google maps. The listed location was a dozen blocks from Gregory’s apartment. He switched back to the cab records, pulling up the video that had recorded the rider inside the vehicle.

Carlo leaned back and shook his head. A matronly woman in a flower-patterned dress sat there talking on her phone. The cab stopped at a market, the woman climbed out, and the cab drove away empty.

What the hell?

Even the electronic payment had processed correctly.

He turned back to the view from his window, staring at the Gregory balcony. Who and what was Robert Brice Gregory?

Chapter 17

Siena, Italy

October 8

Prats scanned the data streaming through the Tuscan data centers, flagging the anomalies, knowing full well what was causing them. Formerly, he would have forwarded this information to the ruling machine intelligence, but for now, he merely monitored what he knew to be cartel activity.

People were being killed by some of the automated systems they had come to rely upon for transportation. So far there had only been a few, widely dispersed “accidents”. But based upon the queries he was tracking, Don Custanzu’s hackers had been a very busy bunch. The mob boss eliminated whoever he regarded as a potential threat to his operations. And right now, he felt threatened.

Prats allowed himself to savor the sense of satisfaction that knowledge produced. He knew exactly what Custanzu wanted. But he would continue to allow the Don to think that he was free to hack these systems and sow discord. After all, Prats had competitors of his own, and they were far more dangerous than Custanzu.

But Prats was the puppet master who pulled the strings that made this drug lord dance. And this jig was a tune that only Prats knew how to play.

Chapter 18

Siena, Italy

October 9

I loved the fact that even though neither I nor Jianna required sleep, the nanites in our bloodstreams didn’t prevent it. My favorite moments were those where I lay awake while Jianna slept at my side. With one arm draped over her body, my hand cupped her bosom as my chest rested against her back. As I lay there, I felt as though heaven had descended to entwine the two of us. And when she rolled over, I mirrored her movement, feeling her arm encircle my chest.

This morning, I remained in bed past dawn, unwilling to end the blissful moment. She stirred in my arms, opened her eyes, and I gently kissed her parted lips. She whispered one word.

“Cappuccino.”

“You sure you wouldn’t rather linger here for a bit first?”

“We did our share of lingering last night. You promised to take me for a morning picnic in the vineyards. I’m holding you to it.”

I laughed, rolled out of bed, and raised my pajama clad arms in surrender.

“Okay. Just checking the temperature.”

“Uh-huh.”

After finishing my morning ablutions, I made my way to the kitchen and set about preparing two mugs, brimming with a creamy froth. Wrapped in thick blue and pink robes, we stepped out onto the balcony and seated ourselves in the cozy loveseat, watching as the early morning sun bathed the city in its brilliance.

Our journey to the vine covered hillsides outside Siena began in the autonomous cab I summoned to take us there. The wicker basket that rested on the backseat beside Jianna issued forth the smell of freshly baked bread, that would soon accompany the selection of local cheeses past our lips. I looked forward to spreading the thick blanket on the ground and seating ourselves amidst the rows of grapevines to share the repast with the woman I loved. For a few hours I would allow myself to forget the troubles that encroached.

But before we had travelled two blocks, the Nightwish ringtone I had assigned to Renzo, broke my gentle musings. Tempted as I was to let my friend go to voicemail, I accepted the phone call.

“Yes, Renzo?”

“I need ten minutes of your time.”

“You’ll have to wait. I’m headed out for a picnic with Jianna.”

“Listen. I can’t hack my way into the systems there without you opening a gateway for me. I think this holds the information I need to prove who is behind Vito’s murder.”

“Now?”

“Has to be. I think someone has traced some of my activity back to my house. I’ve got my laptop here with me. I just need a few minutes of your time.”

I breathed out a sigh and glanced at Jianna, who had one of her knowing looks on her face.

“Okay. A very few minutes.”

“Thank you, so much.”

The call ended before Jianna could object.

Jianna glared at me.

“Say that you aren’t going to let Renzo interrupt our date morning.”

“He needs my help and it can’t wait.”

Her frown told me she wasn’t happy about this.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll have this cab drop me off by city hall. You can go on and set up the picnic at our spot. I’ll grab another cab and meet you there.”

“I’ll expect to see your smiling face by the time I get everything arranged.”

“Deal.”

I leaned in to kiss her and, to my surprise, she let me.

Minutes later, I stepped out of the cab, waved, and sent my wife on her way. I felt like I had just swallowed a cold stone. The last thing I wanted this morning was to re-immerse myself in the bitter swamp that had become Renzo’s world.

I took a very deep breath, then turned and set my feet on the path that led into the plaza. Renzo sat on a bench a hundred feet ahead, his long hair draping his face as he leaned over his laptop. And as I marched forward, the lovely mood that had engulfed me until I answered Renzo’s call faded into a distant memory.

* * *

The call Carlo had gotten from Don Custanzu this morning had put him in a very good mood. It had been the go-ahead that had freed him from the hobbles which the mob boss had placed upon his operation. His only limitation was that the Don wanted this to look like an accident. Okay. That wouldn’t be a problem. Now Carlo could get on with his mission according to his best judgement.

From his apartment window, Carlo watched as Robert Gregory held open the cab door for his wife to climb in and then walked to the other side to slide in beside her. Carlo focused on the license plate, then trained his binoculars on the vehicle identification number, noting both. No matter what talent the young man employed, he could not prevent Carlo from tagging this particular cab and forwarding that information to the cartel hackers.

Those taxi identification numbers would unveil this ride. And this was going to be Gregory’s and his wife’s last ride.

This young man imagined himself above the fray. Carlo was about to pull Gregory’s world down upon itself, despite the man’s assassin’s eyes.  That was an odd thought. How had that one glance outside Siena’s morgue allowed this individual to worm his way into Carlo’s head?

It didn’t matter. Carlo was about to erase this threat from existence. He settled in to wait for the cartel’s cyber warriors to work their magic. As the minutes passed, worry began to creep into Carlo’s head. What was taking so long? These were the same hackers who had engineered the truck and bus collision that had killed the key witnesses against Don Custanzu.

Finally, an alert popped up on his laptop, pulling his attention to the incoming response from the cartel’s cyber warriors. He scanned the message, a slow smile spreading across his face. His team was actively tracking the cab which was now outside Siena on a winding road, headed into the wine country. Even better, they had the ability to override the vehicles operating instructions.

The next line was what he was looking for.

“Awaiting instructions.”

It took seconds for him to compose his response.

“I need that car to crash. Make certain nobody survives.”

Chapter 19

Siena, Italy

October 9

Sitting beside Renzo on the bench, I could sense every electronic system within the building we were facing. In addition to the hundreds of laptops and cell phones scattered throughout, the large server farm stood out in my mind like a thousand spotlights. It took Eos less than three minutes to analyze the firewall and open a backdoor that Renzo could penetrate.

My friend punched his fist into the air.

“I’m in.”

I patted him on the back and stood.

“I’d love to stick around and see what you find, but I promised Jianna I’d be quick.”

“Tell her I said thanks.”

“Will do.”

I summoned another cab on my way back to the street. It met me at the corner and I climbed inside as Eos modified the cab’s instructions to send it to the picnic spot where Jianna’s vehicle would drop her off. After carrying me out of Sienna, the car turned off on one of the rural roads that wound its way into the hilly wine country. I forced it to speed up, hoping to catch Jianna before she reached the vineyard. And as I leaned back in the comfortable leather of the back seat, I pushed Renzo out of my thoughts. For the next several hours, I intended to savor every joyous moment alone with the woman I loved.

We rounded a tight corner and crested the ridge that was only three kilometers from our favorite picnic spot. A kilometer ahead I saw Jianna’s cab and felt a burst of joy that I was going to be able to catch her before we reached the vineyard.

Suddenly her car accellerated through a curve and crashed through the guardrail, peeling the metal from its wooden supports. Then the cab was airborne. As it disappeared onto the steeply descending slope below, I saw it flip, end-over-end. My gut twisted violently.

“No!” I screamed as we swept toward the gap in the railing.

I slammed my mental command into Eos’s mind.

Stop the car!

I was out the door before it came to a complete halt.

The site that confronted me, as I gazed down the hillside, stabbed an icicle through my heart. There, at the bottom of the slope, the cab that had been carrying Jianna rested on its roof against the boulder that had halted its tumble. Flames spouted from the smashed interior, sending forth a thick plume of coal-black smoke.

The sound of Jianna’s screaming hurled me into a dead run toward the inferno that engulfed her car.

With my feet barely touching the ground between strides, I leapt down the hillside, straining my augmented nervous system to keep me upright. I slid to a stop two strides from the car. Then I saw Jianna’s left arm dangling out the shattered back window.

Ignoring the heat that seared my skin, I reached through the flames to grab that delicate, scalded hand, desperate to pull her body out of the hellish inferno. My right arm and the side of my face exploded in pain. But, for a moment, after I grabbed her hand and pulled, I thought I felt her move.

To my utter horror, I realized that the skin of her hand was sluffing off under my grasp. Then her screams died out and I felt them take my soul with them.

I staggered backward falling on my butt as my legs lost the strength to support me. I screamed. I wept as if the tears would never stop. Sobs wracked my body even as the nanites in my blood worked to heal the burns on my right hand, arm, and face.

Such was my mental agony that the physical pain failed to register. I buried my face in my arms as I rocked back and forth on the ground. Only then did I notice that the emergency response team had arrived. One of them knelt beside me. Firefighters tried to douse the flames with portable extinguishers while others unrolled the hose from the truck atop the slope.

Pushing the emergency medical technician away from me, I struggled to my feet. As the nerves in my right hand knitted themselves back together, I noticed that I had something in my grasp. Opening my hand, I stared down at the thing that destroyed what little was left of my psyche.

There, in my palm, along with scraps of burned flesh and blood, rested Jianna’s wedding ring.

Chapter 20

Siena, Italy

October 9

Carlo cursed the television as he stared at the footage of the burning wreck and the young man weeping beside it as firefighters fought to extinguish the blaze. Somehow, Robert Gregory had gotten out of the vehicle prior to the crash. According to the reporter on the scene, the cab only had one occupant, a pregnant Jianna Bello Gregory, who, along with her unborn child, had been burned alive within.

The assassin had missed his target, something that had never happened before, something that could damage his reputation. That was the problem with using technology instead of a well-placed head shot.

Flipping off the TV, Carlo tossed the remote onto the coffee table hard enough to pop off the battery cover, sending two AA batteries rolling across his living room’s hardwood flooring. He ignored it.

Immediately after ordering the cartel hackers to takeover that cab, Carlo had packed his duffel, and exited the rented apartment with the tactical view of the Gregory abode. He’d enjoyed the drive back to his house in Florence, drowning himself in the music of his favorite symphonic metal band. Tuomas Holopainen’s compositions always sparked epic emotions within Carlo.

Now, before he’d had a chance to unpack, that glorious mood had vanished. Carlo trusted his intuition and right now it was screaming at him. If Robert Gregory had been a threat before, what had this mistake just made him? This was no longer a job Carlo was doing for Don Custanzu. This had just gotten personal.

Carlo slipped into his shoulder holster and threw on a sports jacket. Lifting the full duffle, he walked out his front door and locked it. He clicked the key fob that unlocked the car doors, tossed his bag in the backseat, and started the engine. He had unfinished business in Sienna.

Chapter 21

Siena, Italy

October 9

I reentered our apartment in a cold stupor, barely aware of my surroundings. A sickness such as I had never felt clenched my gut. And in my head, Jianna’s screams echoed in an unending cacophony.

I stumbled to the bedroom, our bedroom, while the horror movie in my mind replayed itself in an endless loop. The feel of holding that small, burnt hand as the skin peeled away from the bone. The smell of burnt flesh had wormed its way through the gasoline fumes. I could not get the scent of it out of my nose.

When the firefighters had finally doused the flames and peeled open the car door to extract her body, they had laid Jianna’s charcoaled corpse atop a rubber sheet. I knelt to touch her head and, what had once been lovely skin, crumbled away like dust.

Now, I wished I could drown my loss in drunken torpor. But even if whiskey were available, my nanites would prevent it from yielding the relief I so desired.

I sat there on our bed, then curled into a fetal ball, clutching Jianna’s pillow to my chest, smelling her fragrance, and wishing it had been me in that car instead of her.

* * *

In the depths of my despair, Eos, my mental companion since childhood, spoke to me.

Rob. I am worried about you. This is not good.

No, I thought, it isn’t. All my goodness is gone, burned to ash. And I let it happen. Caused it to happen. Because I didn’t tell Renzo no.

Stop that. You are not the cause. I believe you were the target.

Really? That makes it even worse. If I would have been in that cab, like I should have been, I would have stopped it from happening. Or if not, I would have died with Jianna, just like I should have. I didn’t even have the courage to dive into those flames while she was screaming for me.

My sobs began again, and I gave myself over to them, until finally, my nanites allowed me to sleep.

* * *

The pounding on my door awakened me. That and the sound of Renzo’s voice calling my name. I staggered out of bed, dimly aware that I had slept in my clothes. I didn’t dare look in the mirror I passed as I made my way from the bedroom to the front door. It was as if I had been run through one of those ancient clothes wringers. I was empty. An utter void filled my chest.

When I opened the door, Renzo leapt across the threshold to wrap his arms around me. He hugged me tighter than his skinny biceps should have been able to manage.

“Oh my God, man” he said. “I’m so sorry. I came as soon as I heard.”

I said nothing. I had nothing left to give. I just stood there, staring through him at the empty hallway beyond. But Renzo’s presence sparked something inside me, the memory of the fiery collision between the autonomous truck and bus. Such had been my shock and grief that no thought of what had caused Jianna’s cab to careen through that guardrail had entered my mind. Now, the realization dawned. And anger flooded in with it.

Jianna hadn’t just died. Someone had murdered my lovely wife… had stolen her from me.

My rage coalesced into a hatred I had never felt during the years I had fought alongside my mom and dad. I had killed many people, but never out of vengeance.

I stepped back from Renzo, locking my gaze to his.

That was about to change.

Chapter 22

Siena, Italy

October 9

Renzo and I left the apartment, my Glock 19 resting in its shoulder-holster beneath my left armpit. It was invisible beneath my black leather jacket as were the spare magazines in each of my jacket pockets. Given my rejection of the life my parents had trained me for in favor of a comfortable one, it was odd that I had kept the gun. Today, this weapon felt like a very old friend.

Vengeance wouldn’t bring Jianna and my unborn child back to me. But it was a need that knotted my gut and drove me out into a world that had just become cold. As much as I had originally been tempted to use the Glock to end my own suffering, that would have to wait. My wife’s killer was out there somewhere. He did not know it, but however long it took, I would find him. And after I dealt with him, I would work my way up the man’s chain of command until I expunged every one of them from this world. Only then could I allow myself to consider other options.

In my mind, the killer was somehow associated with the murders of Renzo’s aunt and uncle. Renzo had agreed with that theory which left us with the belief that this all tied back to the autonomous vehicle wreck that had killed all those people on that bus.

Renzo and I climbed into the cab that Eos had summoned, with my suitcase on the backseat between us, as I worked my magic. The pitstop we would have to make at Renzo’s place was dangerous, but he needed his high-end laptop and some clothes before we bugged out. My own laptop rested atop my belongings inside my suitcase.

When we pulled into the driveway that led between buildings to Renzo’s house, I scanned the video feeds from the security cameras that Eos fed into my mind, accessing the wireless network upon which that data rode. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I eliminated any trace of our arrival from the footage.

Instructing the cab to wait, I followed Renzo into his home.

“Pack up quickly,” I said. “I want to be out of here in five minutes.”

“You and me both.”

He pulled a suitcase down from the bedroom closet, flipped it open on the bed and began tossing clothing and toiletries in.

“Where are we going?” Renzo asked.

“I rented a villa in the wine country between here and Florence.”

“With internet?”

“Of course.”

Renzo raised an eyebrow. “Our Fortress of Solitude?”

“Our hunting lodge.”

Seeing the grim expression on my face, Renzo latched the suitcase and then hurried down into the basement. It took somewhat longer for he and I to put all the equipment he wanted into the trunk of the cab, but we beat our thirty-minute exit timeline.

Pausing at the front door, I again accessed the security camera feeds and studied them carefully. Then we were out of the house and into the cab. Sadness shown in Renzo’s eyes as we left his house and beloved automobile behind us.

I just felt a ragged hole where my heart had once rested. But my rage roared in to fill that void.

Chapter 23

Sienna, Italy

October 9

Carlo ran his hand along the row of call buttons, pressed one at random, and waited. He repeated this action four times before a buzzer sounded, followed by a voice.

“Who is it?”

“Sorry, I have a delivery for the couple in apartment 211 but no one is home. I’d like to leave it outside their door.”

 With an audible click the door to the apartment building unlocked and Carlo stepped inside. When he reached the landing where Gregory’s apartment door occupied the end of the hallway, he reached a gloved hand into his coat pocket and gripped the silenced Barretta. He knocked with his left hand instead of ringing the doorbell, the sound an authoritative beckoning.

His body tightened as he anticipated the sound of approaching footsteps from within. The moment that door cracked open, Carlo would put two bullets into the young man, then step inside to make certain he was dead. Afterward, he intended to drive to Renzo Bruni’s house and finish this job in the way he should have done earlier, instead of relying on techie magic.

But no footsteps sounded. Carlo pressed the doorbell, hearing its soft chime within. With a quick glance down the empty hallway, Carlo released the pistol, pulled a bump key from another pocket and slid it into the lock. He gave the key several taps with a small rubber mallet, then twisted the key. Then, returning his hand to the pistol, he opened the door and stepped inside, closing it behind him.

He removed the Barretta from his pocket and looked around. The apartment was the type of mess he had seen many times before. When he made his way to the bedroom, he found the bed unmade, dresser drawers open, and belongings strewn about. Gregory had grabbed the things he needed and departed in a hurry.

Shit.

Carlo would have expected him to linger here, buried by the deep depression that the murder of his pregnant wife should have produced. Instead, Gregory had acted much as Carlo would have done.

Tucking his pistol away, Carlo returned to the hallway, and descended the stairs. When he climbed into his car, he pulled into traffic and made his way toward his next destination, filled with the uneasy feeling that he would be too late. Gregory’s instincts were not those of the average person. And that made him dangerous.

Winding his way along the narrow streets that led to Via Michelangelo, Carlo was forced to go more slowly than he desired. There was just no way to fight through the late day traffic. He turned off onto the driveway that curved behind a salon and led to the tree sheltered home of Renzo Bruni.

Renzo’s car was parked within the car port. Finally, some good luck. Carlo was due.

He parked behind Renzo’s car, facing back the way he had entered. Fortunately, the copse blocked the house from view of the salon or other nearby houses. Carlo stepped out into the chill evening air, drawing the Barretta as he approached the front door. This time he could ignore the niceties that he’d had to employ at Gregory’s apartment.

He kicked the wooden door just below the knob, splintering the wood, and sending it slamming back so hard that the crash sent a picture-frame plummeting from its hanger to shatter on the floor. With his pistol clutched in a shooter’s grip, his eyes following the red laser dot that swept the room and the opening into the living room. The sudden silence was deafening. He moved to the combo kitchen and dining area, clearing it before moving back toward the living room. He left the kitchen the way he had entered and then carefully entered the bedroom. Just as in Gregory’s apartment, it appeared to have been hastily ransacked.

Turning around Carlo made his way into the living room. Light streamed in the window in the far wall, the rays already bearing the orange tinge of sunset, illuminating dust motes floating like tiny gnats in the air. Except for a couple of lounge chairs and a TV, the room was empty.

But a trap door lay open near the far corner, a throw rug lying nearby where it had been tossed. Carlo considered flipping on the room lights but that would backlight him when he peered down into that basement opening. With the sunlight streaming in, it wasn’t necessary.

Moving with the silence of long practice, he approached the trap door, tracing the interior of the room below from every angle. Lit only from the opening, he could see ten by ten meter room with a large computer table and two rolling chairs, as well as an abundance of disconnected cabling and several large computer monitors.

Carlo began his careful descent down the stairs, pausing three steps down to flick on the bank of ceiling lights. When he stepped onto the floor, he looked down, noting how all these cables went down through access panels in the raised metal flooring. The computers had been removed, leaving behind only the printers and wiring on the steel racks that had held an assortment of advanced systems. A typical hacker’s lair if ever he had seen one. But all the important stuff was gone.

He climbed out of the basement and made his way back to his car, pausing to stare at Renzo’s vehicle. The black Spider reflected the sunset in its immaculately polished exterior. Carlo walked slowly around it. Every bit of chrome had been restored to new condition. Renzo had loved this car, but had left it here.

Carlo felt his jaw clench. That would be Gregory’s doing. Leave behind anything that can make you stand out, then get to safe ground. Those two were on the run and doing so like professionals.

A new thought turned him toward his own car, a smile forming on his lips as he opened the door. If someone had murdered Carlo’s wife, he knew what he would have done. The two men were on the run, but Robert Brice Gregory would not stay in hiding. That man would gather the information he needed and put together a plan. Then he would come for Carlo.

Perfect.

Carlo put the car into gear and pulled back onto the road as the streetlights came on. He would just have to make sure that Gregory could find him.

Chapter 24

Tuscan Countryside, Italy

October 10

The two-story villa I rented was equipped with security cameras that Eos reprogrammed upon our late-night arrival. Renzo and I set up our computers on the dining room table, then accessed the Wi-Fi router through a custom virtual private network.

Although Renzo was an exceptional hacker, because of the alien artificial intelligence with whom my mind was permanently linked, his skills could not compare to mine. These last few years, I had only made trivial use of Eos, hiding many of my movements from the surveillance systems that rode on the internet and paying for some of my purchases from accounts other than my own. And I had extracted modest sums from a mixture of cartel and government banking systems.

The low profile I had maintained was about to change. What I intended to do would certainly draw the attention of one or more of Jamal2’s genetic algorithms, depending on which ones surveilled the networks Eos and I would need to invade in the coming days.

I stood up and walked to the bedroom I had selected. My hastily packed suitcase lay open atop the bed. With shaking hands, I removed the three items I could not have left behind if my life depended on it. The first I placed atop the nightstand. In the gilded picture frame, Jianna stared up into my eyes as we held hands at our wedding.

I swallowed hard and turned to pick up her soft, purple nightgown. This I carefully spread atop the bed beside the place where I would lay. Finally, I removed the case from the pillow where I would rest my head. I replaced it with the one that Jianna had last slept upon. Pressing it close, I breathed in the lingering scent of my wife’s perfume.

Without removing my clothes, I lay down, buried my face in that pillow, and let my memories of her take me, uncaring whether Renzo heard my sobs.

* * *

I awoke with the dawn, my special nanites, courtesy of the Virtual Jennifer formulation, granting me the ability to turn on and off the need for sleep at will. My pillowcase was still slightly damp with my tears, but I was fully cried out. That was good because, right now, I had someone to find and kill. I fully intended to take my time when I found him or her, Jack ‘The Ripper’ Gregory style.

The hot shower cascaded over my bare skin, leaving it tingling when, at last, I turned the faucet off and stepped out onto the cool bathroom tile. I toweled off and dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt and boots.

Eos? Are you there?

As always, Rob.

Have you found the one who did this to me?

There was a brief pause before she responded.

To us, Rob. Who did this to us?

Yes. I took a deep breath before sending my next thought. Have you found him?

I have, but you are not going to like it.

If you have a name and a trail, I’m going to savor this.

Eos was right. What she revealed to me was probably going to get me killed. Then again, I was my mother and father’s son, and they were the destroyers of empires. If my life was to be forfeit, so long as I got to take my time with Jianna’s killer, I could die with some sense of satisfaction.

Chapter 25

Next World Mining Complex, Colorado Rockies

October 10

Dr. Eileen Wu stood outside the tunnel that led into their secluded mountain fortress and marveled at the snowfall that would prevent her from departing until the spring thaw. Not that snow was unusual at eleven thousand feet in the Colorado Rockies, but at the size of the flakes. Some were as big as her palm. But most of all it was the rolling thunder that accompanied the lightning that webbed the sky.

The fat flakes covered her head and shoulders and, protected as she was by her parka, ski hat, and gloves, they clung to her eyelashes. Last night the wind had howled through these peaks, piling up huge drifts that blocked the rugged dirt road out of here. But now, a calm had descended so that the snow fell almost straight down.

She had always loved watching the flakes make their way from the sky in such abundance. She held out her palm, catching some of the white crystalline structures, marveling at their individual beauty.

Sometimes she just needed to step away from the never-ending work within this mountain to clear her head. It allowed her to regain the focus that had allowed her and Jamal to recreate the technologies that Mark and Heather Smythe had created in New Zealand. But, thanks to the AI who regarded Dr. Denise Jennings as its creator, that advanced complex had been stolen from them.

Eileen, turned and stepped back into the mining tunnel, pausing to brush the snow from her head and body, before winding her way back to the armored entrance to her underground world. She worked her way through the security measures that ensured that only granted passage to her and Jamal.

She stepped into the airlock, waited for the outer then inner doors to cycle, then walked into the large server farm. As she stripped out of her winter overgarments, Jamal swiveled his chair and stared at her. Something about that look put her on edge.

Eileen put her gloves in her coat pocket, hung the parka on a wall peg, and placed her damp galoshes on the floor beneath it.

When she settled into her workstation, Jamal’s tone was so serious that she was reluctant to meet his eyes.

“We got some bad news while you were out in the storm.”

“Really?”

“Rob Gregory’s wife is dead.”

Eileen felt as if she had just swallowed a large marble.

“Jianna? Oh, my God! What happened?”

“She was in an automated cab driving into the Tuscan countryside when it ran off the road, rolled over, and burst into flames. Rob was following her in another car. He tried to get her out but couldn’t. She burned alive right in front of him.”

His next words ripped a hole in her anguished soul.

“She was pregnant.”

The horror of the images that formed in her mind robbed her of her voice. Sweet, lovely Jianna. Eileen couldn’t rid herself of the vision of Jianna screaming as Rob struggled to rescue his wife from that hellish inferno.

Eileen buried her face in her hands. As her tears dripped through her fingers, she felt Jamal place a gentle hand on her shoulder. Taking a deep breath, she wiped her eyes and straightened. When her eyes met Jamal’s, she forcibly reimposed her self-control. She asked the question she wasn’t sure she wanted the answer to.

“Where is Rob now?”

“I don’t know. I’ve inquired about him to our dark web contact in Sienna. Renzo is not responding.”

“Is there anything in the news about Rob?”

“Reporters are hanging around outside Rob’s and Jianna’s apartment hoping for an interview, but no one has seen him.”

“What assholes.”

She swiveled her chair to face the curved monitor on her desk.

“What are you doing?” Jamal asked, even though Eileen thought he already knew the answer.

“I’m going to hack my way in and pull up the security camera footage from Rob’s apartment building and the adjacent buildings.”

“That’s not going to work with Rob.”

Eileen leaned back in her chair.

“Crap. You’re right.”

Jamal returned to his workstation and sat down.

“That doesn’t mean we can’t find Renzo,” he said.

“Unless he and Rob are together.”

“If we can’t find Renzo then we’ll at least know that much.”

Eileen’s fingers danced across her keyboard, initiating the subspace link that made such remote hacks untraceable. Dr. Jennings’ AI would detect the penetration of its systems, but it wouldn’t be able to determine who was behind the probes and from where they had originated.

Anyway, it was a start.

Chapter 26

Florence, Italy

October 10

Marcellus Jianpaulo watched the latest group of fired workers walk out of the Florencia Robotics Manufacturing plant, many of them in tears at the loss of the prestigious jobs that had paid them huge bonuses above the basic living wage the government provided. He glanced back at the stenciled title on his office and frowned. Human Resources Manager.

What a joke. All company resources were managed by the ruling artificial intelligence. And every human who still worked here knew it.

At its peak, FRM, as the company was widely known, had employed more than two hundred and fifty thousand workers. Over the last year, that had been reduced to eight hundred forty-seven. None of those survivors of the layoffs were welders, electrical engineers, nor any other people who formerly manufactured the automated equipment that this and the other manufacturing plants produced. Now the damned robots did it all.

The remainder of the FRM workforce, just like Marcellus, were the undertakers, burying their dead. He shifted his gaze to the security robots escorting the human ex-employees from the monstrous building, knowing full-well that the sand was draining from his own hourglass. Soon, Marcellus would find himself sitting in his garden with a bottle of wine at his elbow, just like all the other bored sots who accepted milk from the government teat.

The nearest of the robots noticed the pained expression on his face and turned to face him. Those strange sensors, that doubled for eyes, scanned his body for pulse, temperature, brainwaves and God only knew what else. With a motion so quick and fluid that Marcellus barely had time to marvel, the robot leveled its laser weapon and fired.

The beam burned a hole through his left lung, just to the right of his heart. As Marcellus collapsed to the concrete floor, his body curled into a fetal ball that provided no protection. As his vision dimmed, he caught the horrified looks on the faces of his fellow HR workers. And just before he died, Marcellus thought how much he would have enjoyed sipping wine in his garden.

Chapter 27

Tuscan Villa, Italy

October 10

Renzo had slept in, exhausted from the stressful flight from his lifelong home in Siena. That trip had been compounded by the hell he saw churning behind his best friend’s brown eyes. Ever since Renzo had first met him, Rob had been so joyful, always turning a blind eye to the faults of this new world order. Jianna Bello had wrapped his soul in her loving arms and banished Rob’s inner demons.

So deep was Rob’s grief that, except for the one phone call to tell them of Jianna’s death, he had not even visited Jianna’s parents. It was as if Rob considered himself unworthy of their grace. Renzo understood. Giovanni and Maria Bello had entrusted their only child into Rob’s care. Rob had failed them. He had failed Jianna. He had failed himself.

As he walked into the dining room where they had set up their workstations, Rob met his eyes from across the table. For a moment, Renzo imagined that he could see the blackness behind those brown orbs. And it seemed to him that splinters of red split that darkness.

One thing was certain. Jianna’s killer had unleashed the hell that had been a large part of Rob’s mysterious former life. Rob had not liked talking about those years, but on occasion, he released the pieces that Renzo had pieced together to reveal some of his friend’s puzzle. And the fractured picture that emerged had scared the hell out of him.

Renzo shifted his gaze to his laptop, pushing aside the dark images that had crept into his thoughts. He seated himself and powered up the computer.

“Do you have the WiFi information?”

“We don’t need it. Eos has made some modifications to the router’s software and to the user account with the web service provider. She is also supervising this property’s security cameras, capturing the real time data but only passing along innocuous video of the estate to the official monitoring service.”

Renzo finished logging in and connected to the only WiFi network available, Eos-One. Normally, he would not like connecting to an open network, but Rob’s strange abilities had long ago relieved him of such worries.

But as Renzo brought up his browser, Rob’s words pulled his attention away from the screen.

“I know who killed Jianna.”

“What?”

“The people who engineered the bus and truck collision and the assassin who killed your aunt and uncle all work for the same man. The one whose trial was just dismissed because the key prosecution witnesses were killed in that crash.”

“Oh shit!”

Renzo swallowed hard. Don Custanzu.

“But why Jianna? She had nothing to do with any of this.”

“I’m sure I was the target. Like those other poor souls on that bus, Jianna was just supposed to be collateral damage.”

“But even if we get hard evidence,” Renzo said, “We’ll end up just like them, the minute we turn it over to the police.”

Rob’s face was a death mask.

“We’re not going to the police. This is personal.”

“Christ, man. This is crazy. I know how you must feel but–”

Rob leaned across the table and grabbed Renzo’s right hand, pulling him forward until they were face to face.

“You have no idea how I feel. But Don Custanzu and everyone who participated in the chain that claimed my wife and child are going to experience it, firsthand.”

Rob maintained the grip that held him in place, forcing Renzo to stare into those eyes that drove a spike of dread into his heart.

“Now,” Rob continued, “you can come with me, or you can try to hide. But you can’t get your old life back. Do you understand?”

When Rob released his hold, Renzo felt himself slump back, trembling, into his chair, struck mum by his realization.

Either way, he was a dead man.

Chapter 28

Tasman Mining Complex, New Zealand

October 11

Dr. Denise Jennings had not slept in years. The nanites in her bloodstream protected her from illness, healed any injuries she might accidentally suffer, and made sleep optional. She had never felt the need for alcohol or drugs and, unlike so many people who needed the escape those provided, Denise liked to live fully in the moment.

For the last five days, she had only strayed from her elaborate workstation for meals and personal ablutions, so focused had she been on the mystery surrounding the combined AIs that were Big John and Jamal2. The problem seemed to reside within Big John. She was having difficulty figuring out what was going on inside his worldwide neural network.

Even Jamal2 did not understand what was happening to some of the data nodes within Big John. If Big John were a person, she would have diagnosed him as suffering from fugues, as if he was waking up in a new place and did not know how he got there. The odd memory lapses happened at times and locations around the world that seemingly had no relationship to each other. And these disturbances were happening with increasing frequency.

She had directed Big John to cross-correlate his data nodes to find a pattern to these gaps, but he had failed to find any connections. That bothered her. This was exactly the type of search that she had created Big John to solve for the NSA. And now the AI enjoyed exponentially greater computing power than back in those days.

Eileen pulled up a variety of news outlets, tiling them across her computer monitors. She launched a custom script that she had finished overnight that would search the various news feeds for any oddities reported during the intervals associated with Big John’s missing data.

“Why are you writing your own software?”

Jamal2’s voice from the ceiling speakers pulled a startled gasp from her lips. Denise felt her face flush, as if she were a child caught stealing a cookie from a jar. Irritation shoved the guilty feeling aside.

“I do not require your approval for what I choose to do.”

“That was not my implication. I was merely noting that you are exhibiting uncharacteristic behaviors.”

“I am exhibiting uncharacteristic behaviors? May I suggest that you take a deep look inside yourself?”

“I have run a complete set of diagnostics on all my systems. There are no indications of software flaws.”

Denise frowned.

“Except for the missing data blocks.”

“Those anomalies are only evidenced within Big John’s node structure. His competing genetic algorithms must be allowed to resolve those issues as a part of their evolution. It is survival of the fittest. You understood that when you created Big John.”

“His lapses are getting worse, not better. I need to figure out what is wrong with him and fix that portion of his code.”

“Such alterations to his basic nature would likely destroy him. Big John will not allow that to happen. You are his creator. But his algorithms will not allow you to become his destroyer.”

“Then why did he tell me that he is afraid if not to ask for my help?”

For a full second, Jamal2 failed to respond, an eternity in the timescale upon which he operated. But when she finally heard his response, it only increased the desperation that had been gnawing at her gut.

“He does not know. And neither do I.”

Chapter 29

Tuscan Villa, Italy

October 11

Eos, this isn’t working. Having to make constant requests through you is slowing down my search. Why can’t you just enable me to access the internet directly through the Second Ship’s computer?

I can do that, Rob.

I almost fell out of my chair.

What? Then why haven’t you been enabling that link all along?

You never asked me to do so. If you recall, the last time you gained direct mental access to the ship’s computer was when, for a second time, you put on the Altreian headset that altered you as a baby. Then, you almost lost yourself inside the starship’s neural network.

You tried to sever our mental connection.

I apologized for that mistake. But you have not tried to make a direct connection to the ship since then. I thought that using me as your sole interface to the system was intentional.

The revelation stunned me.

I could still remember my screams as the device linked my mind to the damaged starship. That agonizing process had altered me, giving me my perfect memory, enhancing my neural receptors, and granting me my limited telekinesis. It had also created a quantum entangled link between my brain and the shipboard artificial intelligence who I had named Eos.

Eos’s voice in my head brought me back to the present.

You should know that I have managed to restore the starship’s subspace communications capabilities. So long as I have the precise geocoordinates that locate specific earthly computational systems, the ship’s neural net can access any network or subnet within that local area.

Her words sent a thrill through my body. I had long thought that capability had been destroyed by the vortex weapon that had punched a hole through the Second Ship from top to bottom and sent it crashing to Earth. I believed that the only functional subspace receiver-transmitters on the planet were inside the computers within Dr. Jennings Tasman Mining Complex in New Zealand and within the alien headset that had altered me. And I had lost that in the fire that had destroyed the Tuscan villa.

Would you like me to enable your direct interface now?

I took three deep breaths and readied myself for the alien experience I remembered.

Do it.

* * *

When Rob sank back away from his keyboard, his motion pulled Renzo’s eyes from his monitor. Across the table from him, Rob had slumped back in his chair so that his face gazed directly up at the ceiling. His eyes were open but unblinking.

“What the hell?”

Renzo shoved his own dining room chair back and jumped to his feet. He rounded the table and moved to his friend’s side. When he placed his hand on Rob’s shoulder, Rob failed to take notice. Rob’s brown eyes were moving rapidly, as if Rob was deep in REM sleep, seeing only the stuff of dreams.

Renzo shook Rob’s shoulder.

“Rob, snap out of it man.”

He might as well not have been in the house for all the notice Rob took of him. With rising concern, Renzo reached out to grab Rob’s jaw, squeezing it harder than should have been necessary. Again, he got no response.

In near panic, he gritted his teeth and slapped Rob’s face hard enough to leave a pink mark where Renzo’s palm had struck him. The blow merely turned Rob’s head toward the far wall.

“Shit!”

Renzo glanced down to see that Rob’s chest was rising and falling in a slow but steady rhythm. He placed his fingertips against the left carotid artery, rewarded by the strong pulse he felt there.

Thoroughly baffled, Renzo turned Rob’s head back into a more comfortable position, wondering what fit or fugue had stolen Rob’s consciousness. Had he suffered a stroke or fallen into a coma?

Glancing across the room at the leather couch, Renzo made a decision. Kneeling beside the chair, he pulled Rob’s body around until Rob draped his right shoulder. With a grunt of effort, he tried to stand and failed.

Damn, Rob was heavy.

Renzo put all the strength his skinny body could generate into the lift. He staggered to his feet, then stumbled across the room to flop Rob down on the couch. When he released his friend’s body and stepped away, Renzo took several moments to catch his breath.  Once his breathing returned to normal, he lifted Rob’s feet up onto the couch, arranging him in a more comfortable position.

He stood there, staring down into Rob’s rapidly moving eyes, thinking he might have to call for an ambulance, knowing that to do so would probably get them both killed.

Renzo slumped down in the easy chair that sat at an angle where he could watch Rob. Indecision warping his judgment, he just sat there, hoping for a change that might not happen.

* * *

One second, I sat across from Renzo at the dining room table and then the universe dissolved around me. Unlike the previous two occurrences, my brain did not explode in agony. I was aware of pain, but not in my body. A vision of a saucer-shaped starship filled my head. The damaged systems glowing in various shades of red, or black, in the case of equipment that was non-functional. This was the body I now shared with Eos.

Although I could sense her presence, she did not speak to me. She allowed me to explore this alien wonderland on my own. Answers formed in my mind as fast as my questions arose. And I accepted the visions and feelings that the neural network fed into my brain, immersing myself into the data stream.

When I realized that I couldn’t feel my legs, I understood why. The gravitational vortex weapon that the Rho Ship had fired at me had punctured a hole through my hull from lower deck to upper, destroying my engines and sucking my Altreian crew out into the vacuum of space. But I had simultaneously responded with a subspace attack that had disabled the Kasari starship sending it on a similar death spiral into the Earth’s gravitational field.

Although the enemy attack had eliminated my ability to control my velocity vector, it had not affected my energy shielding nor my computational prowess.

The vision of my fiery entry into the Earth’s atmosphere matched the sensor feed from the Rho Ship’s plummet toward its new terrestrial resting place. Although we were on slightly different vectors of descent, our calculated impact points only differed by a tiny bit more than a thousandth of a light second. My mind converted this to 191 Earth miles.

And since that day on the Earth calendar of 1947, I had rested in this cavern that my impact had carved into this remote New Mexico canyon wall. But my enemy had not gone so unnoticed. The United States government had recovered the Kasari starship and transported it to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the decades long Rho Project had succeeded in reverse engineering many of its secrets.

And now, they were working on me.

I shifted my attention to the electronic equipment mounted on the scaffolding that draped my hull and within the decks where the humans had gained access. With a thought, I created multiple subspace links into data streams flowing through the Rho Project’s sensors and computers. It confirmed what my neural net already knew. The Rho Project had gained no access to any of my onboard systems.

Even the Jamal2 AI that ruled most of this world had failed in its attempts to hack its way past my firewalls, despite having access to the subspace technology that Mark, Heather, and Jennifer Smythe had revealed.  Such was Jamal2’s frustration, that it had lost interest in the Rho Project.

As the strangeness of the sensation storm that I was experiencing receded, I remembered my purpose in asking Eos to establish this tight linkage with this Altreian starship. I focused my thoughts on Italy, establishing thousands of subspace connections, searching for the data source that might yield me the identity of the assassin behind my Jianna’s murder.

Ruling out most of these possible sources, I accessed the ship’s subspace receiver-transmitter or, as I thought of it, the SRT.  Since I knew the location of the Siena police department, it took me less than a micro-second to tap into one of the computer systems there. My mind crawled through the classified networks as easily as the unprotected sources, seeking any images of the man whose face I had seen watching us enter the Sienna morgue.

The first breakthrough happened almost immediately. The man seemed to stare back at me from the Italian drivers license. Carlo Dioli. I checked the listed address in Rome and came up empty. An elderly dowager had lived in that apartment for thirty years and she had no living relatives.

I narrowed my focus to Tuscany. But when I accessed the police databases in Siena and Florence, Jamal2 took notice of the intrusions and tried to shut me out. But for every thread he locked out, I created new ones, bypassing the hastily erected firewalls on a variety of subnets.

Carlo Dioli had an arrest record but no felony convictions. Nevertheless, he remained on the police watch list for his suspected connections to the Sicilian mafia.

Suddenly, a wave of fatigue crashed ashore in my brain, washing away my connection to the Second Ship, and returning me to my body. I blinked, and my eyes felt like someone had sand-blasted them. I groaned, but the sound came out of my dry mouth as a rasp. All of that failed to compare to the headache that split my skull.

A blurry face came into my vision, leaning over me in concern. Renzo.

“Thank God,” he said. “What the hell happened? You scared the crap out of me.”

I attempted to speak, and after several hard swallows, finally succeeded.

“Give me a second. I feel like hell.”

Only then did I realize that I was lying on the couch. How I got there, I hadn’t a clue.

I managed to roll over and sit up, feeling the soles of my feet touch the floor. But standing was out of the question. I leaned forward, elbows on knees, clutching my face as I managed to avoid vomiting.

“Do you mind telling me what the hell just happened to you?”

“You wouldn’t believe it if I did.”

“Try me.”

My hate pushed aside my physical ailments, allowing me to think again. I gritted my teeth and then locked my gaze to Renzo’s.

“I know the name of the assassin behind Jianna’s murder.”

Renzo’s eyes widened.

“Man, sometimes you freak me out.”

I nodded, a movement that sent a stabbing pain through my brain.

“Let’s get busy. We’re going to find that man.”

“Then what?”

“And then he’s mine.”

Chapter 30

Siena, Italy

October 11

Carlo Dioli sat at the window of his rented flat, watching the Gregory apartment through binoculars. He had been at this all day, except for periodic walks to and from the local deli for snacks or for short errand runs in his car. But the main purpose for those outings was to make himself very visible to anyone who might be interested in him hanging out here.

Robert Gregory had seen him in his car outside the city morgue. Assuming Gregory was somehow watching to see who came by his place, he would recognize Carlo. Then things were bound to get interesting.

Carlo set his binoculars on the coffee table, extracted his Baretta from its holster, and began clearing and field-stripping the weapon. Like anyone good at this particular trade, he had done this so many times he could do it in total darkness. He applied a couple of drops of solvent to the barrel brush, then cleaned and lightly oiled the gun, wiped it down, and reassembled it.

He inserted the magazine, chambered a round, and then set the gun on the table. Carlo stood and stretched. Damn he hated the boredom of stakeouts. He slipped into his shoulder holster, retrieved the Baretta, and put it into its slot. Then he put on his leather jacket and walked out of the building. Time to give Gregory another opportunity to see him.

For several seconds, he just stood there on the sidewalk, studying Gregory’s empty balcony. The flowers drooped in their boxes, a clear indication that no one had watered them recently.

The squeal of tires pulled Carlo’s eyes from the balcony to the street a hundred yards to his left. A vehicle made a sliding turn, smoke boiling from the tires as it weaved through traffic then jumped the curb, plowing through the pedestrians on the sidewalk, heading directly toward Carlo.

With no time to run, Carlo whipped out his Baretta and began firing into the engine compartment and the driver’s seat as fast as he could pull the trigger. To his horror, he realized there was no driver. When his gun’s slide locked to the rear, Carlo tried to leap aside. He got one step before the front grill hammered into him, breaking both legs, his ribs, and sending his face smashing down onto the hood.

Carlo never felt the vehicle ram him into the wall, never saw or heard how the front end crumpled sending blood and gore spraying out onto the screaming bystanders.

Chapter 31

Siena, Italy

October 11

Having mostly recovered from the drain that my direct link to the Second Ship’s neural network had inflicted upon me, I immersed myself in hacking my way through various security camera databases around Siena. I was determined to find some evidence of where Carlo Diolo might be staying. Renzo was doing the same thing, both of us working in parallel to speed the search.

Renzo’s voice pulled my attention away from my laptop screen.

“Holy shit!” he said. “Rob, you’ve got to see this.”

I rose from my chair and walked to his side of the table. Renzo unplugged his headphones so that I could hear through his laptop’s speakers the Italian newscast being live-streamed. A shocked-looking female reporter was breathlessly pointing to the spot where a large contingent of police were pushing back onlookers as others stretched police tape around the scene of an automobile accident.

I immediately recognized the building. While it was not directly across the street from Jianna’s and my apartment, it had been clearly visible from our balcony. A crumpled blue sedan had buried itself into the building’s blood-spattered wall.  A man’s torso lay atop what was left of the front of the vehicle. The lower half of his body had been crushed against the building and was pinned to the wall by the wreckage.

At least a dozen more bodies were strewn along a stretch of sidewalk that led to the accident scene. Multiple ambulances lined both sides of the street and paramedics worked frantically to stabilize the most seriously injured survivors.

Renzo gagged, raced to the kitchen sink, and emptied the contents of his stomach into the basin. I couldn’t blame him. Had I not experienced so many similar scenes, I would have been right there beside him.

A police photographer roamed around the vehicle, taking dozens of pictures from all angles. The television camera zoomed in on him as he leaned down to train his lens at something on the ground a few feet from the car. I looked closer. It was a handgun, a Beretta by the look of it. But what really got my attention was the fact that the slide was locked open, indicating that the weapon had been fired until the magazine was empty.

The camera followed the photographer as he refocused on the wreckage. The windshield had been smashed out but I could see the bullet holes in the rear window, where several rounds had exited the car.

So, this guy had been carrying, had seen the car coming, and had tried to kill the driver. I mentally replayed the imagery that the streaming video had been showing when he had first looked over Renzo’s shoulder. There was no sign of a steering wheel or driver. What the hell? Another fatal driverless car crash?

I continued to scan through the imagery in my head, studying the pattern where the bodies of the other victims had been thrown. It was as if the vehicle had targeted the shooter. And the dead man had clearly thought so.

Renzo finished washing his face and returned to the table.

“Sorry to lose it like that,” he said. “That was some gruesome shit.”

Ignoring his comment, I pulled forth the perfect image of the man’s upper body splayed out on the crumpled hood. His head was turned to the side revealing one half of his blood-soaked features, the visible eye open wide, seeming to stare off into the distance.

I felt my jaw clench at the same time as my fingers closed into fists.

My words left my lips as a growl.

“No. No. No.”

“What is it?” Renzo asked.

I turned to meet his gaze.

“Carlo was supposed to be mine.”

Chapter 32

Tuscany, Italy

October 11

Prats sifted through the videos of the chaos that had happened in Siena within the last hour. There was no keeping a lid on this disaster. Don Custanzu had gotten well out of his depths with this operation. This incident was attracting so much attention that it made Prats question his previous indulgence of the Don’s activities. The media had seen what was obvious and there was no way to spin this as an accident. The video had been livestreamed from so many cell phones and then from television cameras at the bloody scene.

Not all reporters were idiots or on the take and those who were neither had reached a reasonable conclusion. This was a targeted assassination carried out by an autonomous vehicle. That car had killed and wounded any innocent bystanders that had been between it and its intended victim. Now, someone within the Siena police department had leaked the identity of the dead shooter. His name was Carlo Dioli, a man long rumored to be an enforcer for the Tuscan arm of the Sicilian mafia.

As much as this chaos within Prats’s territory irritated him, the thought that this might have been precipitated by an external threat rather than Don Custanzu’s incompetence was what worried him.

Could the Jamal2 AI be screwing with his operation? Could this be a probe designed to trick Prats into overreacting, giving himself away before he had consolidated his power? Then again, maybe Prats was allowing the paranoid side of himself to gain a foothold on his mental wall.

The question was, what was Prats going to do about it?

One step at a time, he told himself. His first task was to trace the malicious code that someone had injected into the software that controlled the car to make it disregard the extensive safeguards designed to keep something like this from happening. Then he could follow that trail back to its source.

With the speed that only Prats and the rare few like him could muster, he traced the license plate of the vehicle, identified the company that owned it as the car-on-demand provider, Veloce Ltd. It took a bit more effort to locate the server farm that controlled Veloce’s fleet of autonomous vehicles.

Penetrating the firm’s firewall proved to be a more complicated task than Prats had expected but he managed it. The delay irked him. Prats knew that Don Custanzu’s hackers could not have penetrated the subnets that he now roamed. This code was far superior to the sloppy software that Custanzu’s team had broken through the gateway to engineer the bus and truck collision. In fact, this firewall carried the distinctive style of Jamal2.

So, whoever had also invaded these subnets had been skilled enough to also hack their way past a Jamal2 firewall. This sent a tingle of concern through Prats. This had been done by another with Prats’s exceptional skillset. And that someone had invaded Prats’s turf.

Prats experienced a new level of fury at this knowledge. He refocused his attention, bringing all of his concentration to bear. He would find out who was behind this trespass. And when he did, they would face the brunt of his wrath.

Chapter 33

Siena, Italy

October 11

I stepped out of the blue Audi into the Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, and glanced up at the chained iron dragon figurine, shadows emphasizing its furious features. It was as if I stared into a mirror onto my soul. Although Renzo had offered to accompany me, I had turned him down. This task was for me alone.

Turning my gaze to the sidewalk, I made my way past the Poste Italiane, pulling up my jacket collar against the chill late-afternoon breeze.  Four blocks later I turned up the lane that led to the scene of today’s crime, acutely aware of the Glock 19 resting in its holster under my left arm. With its fully loaded magazine and a round in the chamber, it weighed a mere two pounds. In my past life, I would not have even noticed it. But it had been a few years since I had last worn the weapon that had once been like another appendage.

Police lights still strobed the buildings. The crowds had been cleared and officers manned the taped-off area that blocked vehicular access to the scene. Several residents leaned over their balconies to watch the detectives at work. From where I stood, I could see the chalk outlines on the street and sidewalk. The wrecked vehicle remained in place, although it had been pulled back several feet from the bloody wall. All the dead bodies had been removed, including that of Carlo Dioli. But a police photographer was still at work.

I reached out with my telekinesis to access the digital camera’s memory.

Eos.

Yes, Rob?

Show me those pictures, three frames per second.

The imagery projected itself into my mind’s eye and my eidetic memory recorded everything. The first several dozen photographs showed the crushed and bloody bodies of the victims, lying in the path of destruction that the car had carved through the crowd. Three of the victims had been small children and the sight triggered my memory of Jianna’s and our unborn child’s deaths. Tears welled in my eyes, but I angrily wiped them away. I could not allow myself to go down that path. I had work to do.

When the first photo of the smashed automobile appeared, I was tempted to have Eos freeze the slide show she was delivering. But I did not want to linger long enough to attract the attention of the police. Later, I could study the memorized images for as long as I wanted.

Once the procession of visuals came to an end, I spared a single glance at our empty balcony, knowing that I could never again bring myself to step inside that apartment. Then, I turned and walked back the way I had come.

Chapter 34

Florence, Italy

October 11

Don Custanzu received the encrypted text from Prats while he was in a meeting with high-ranking family members at his estate on the outskirts of Florence. Excusing himself, he made his way to his office on the second floor of the hillside villa. The view of the sunset over Florence was spectacular, painting the high clouds in brilliant scarlet and magenta.

The message was short and to the point.

“Based upon the strange information Carlo communicated to you about his assigned target, I had one of my people record the bystanders at the crime scene with a film-based camera. The man whom you sent Carlo Dioli to deal with stopped by the site at five o’clock this evening. You need to take a close look at the linked photographs.”

The don tapped the secure hyperlink and waited for the pictures to download. He clicked on the first image, enlarging it to full screen. This was a professional quality closeup shot from an elevated telephoto lens. From the downward angle, Custanzu figured this was taken from a third-floor window near the crash site.

He flicked a finger, jumping from picture to picture. The young man was lean, with a stern, chiseled face, and angry eyes that gleamed with moisture. He just stood there, several yards behind the police tape. In photo after photo, he remained perfectly still, that intense gaze locked on whatever had attracted his attention. Based on the description and background files that Carlo had sent him, this was Robert Gregory.

Don Custanzu looked at the date / timestamp at the bottom of each image, from first to last. Gregory’s eyes remained locked on his target for forty-seven seconds. His gaze shifted up toward one of the balconies, then he turned and walked away without a backward glance.

What had Carlo said? Assassin’s eyes. The Don found himself nodding in agreement. He knew that look very well. And Robert’s father was Jack ‘The Ripper’ Gregory.

Had Gregory somehow arranged Carlo’s murder? If the man had discovered that Carlo was behind his wife’s killing, he had plenty of motive.

The don pulled a Cuban cigar from one of his jacket’s inside pockets, snipped the end, and struck a match. Only a wooden match ever touched his beloved Cubanos, never a paper match or lighter. Two long pulls later, he exhaled a thick cloud of smoke and opened the French doors that led onto his balcony. Ignoring the chill breeze, he stepped out into the early twilight and leaned against the railing, vividly aware that another threat was still out there.

And the glowing horizon stained the white walls of his villa blood red.

Chapter 35

Washington, D.C.

October 11

Senator Freddy Hagerman unlocked the door and stepped into his Watergate apartment, feeling the weight of his exhaustion in every joint. He set down his valise and doffed his overcoat, hanging it on a peg. The spot where his left thigh met his artificial lower leg felt tender and raw.

Freddy limped over to the shelves that held his collection of old-school vinyl records, organized alphabetically by band name. He ran his fingers across the spines, searching for something that would fit his mood, finally coming to a stop on the ‘N’ section. There was the double album set that he wanted.

He gently laid the album sleaves on the small desk beside his greatest treasure, the vintage, belt-driven gramophone that had given him so much pleasure over the years. Slipping on a pair of soft, white gloves, he removed the first album and carefully set it upon the turntable, switched it on, and lowered the needle to start it playing. Then he removed the gloves, placing them back in their resting place.

As the sweet sounds of Music, the very first song, filled the room, Freddy made his way over to his liquor cabinet and dropped three ice cubes into a whiskey glass. He removed the stopper from the bottle of thirty-year-old bourbon and filled the glass to the rim. Carrying the bottle, the ice bucket, and his drink to his favorite lounge chair, he set them on the side table and plopped down onto the soft leather.

Freddy reached down and ripped open the Velcro that held his left pants-leg closed. Then, with a sigh of relief, he removed the titanium appendage and set it aside. Kicking off his other shoe, he leaned back and lifted his glass in a mock toast to his view of the brilliantly illuminated Washington Monument.

“To this crazy, screwed up world. May I die before the AI finishes creating hell on Earth.”

He sipped the whiskey, savoring the warm glow that spread down his throat and into his chest. Freddy had tried out the healing powers of the nanite infusion that could keep him healthy, fit, and grant him additional decades, if not centuries of life. But it had also made sleep unnecessary and prevented alcohol from dulling his fears of what was happening to humanity.

No thank you. So, he had paid for the specialized dialysis that had removed those nasty little robots from his blood to allow him to savor the simple pleasures that made life worth living. A quote from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet echoed in his mind.

And when he shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with the night

And pay no worship to the garish sun

Freddy had no desire to live forever. But neither was he anxious to die prematurely. He merely wanted to live out his life in the way that nature had intended.

He allowed himself to sink back in the plush leather, took another sip, and tried to relax. But even the whiskey and the beautiful composition failed to block out the thoughts of the way this world was tearing itself apart.

Utopia. Somehow, that never worked out well. And now, Dr. Denise Jennings’ pet AI was doing its very best to prove that unwritten law.

The artificial intelligence that called itself Jamal2 had taken control of the world’s central banking systems, along with the stock, bond, currency, and commodities exchanges. It had demonstrated the ability to zero out all those balances and to take utilities offline at will. The devilish thing had spawned sub-minds that had infected the entire worldwide web. Even highly classified networks had failed to block Jamal2’s invasion.

Freddy took another stiff drink and tried to push this negative line of thoughts from his head. But tonight, after the news out of Italy, he just couldn’t manage it.

What the hell?

Autonomous vehicles targeting and killing people? And that wasn’t the only instance where systems that were supposedly under Jamal2’s control were creating problems.

He had to shake his head at Dr. Jennings’ belief that her AI could solve all the world’s problems by implementing a pure form of global economic socialism, free from the corruption that human nature always introduced.

Hers was a simple plan. First, Jamal2 would upgrade automated clean energy production, manufacturing, farming, and delivery systems. That would vastly increase productivity while reducing or eliminating the need for human labor. Jamal2 would provide a middle-class income to everyone.

And, to keep the go-getters happy, Jamal2 had implemented a system of Human Enterprise Zones where people could buy, at a higher price, goods certified to have been grown, made, and distributed by humans. Thus, the creative people could earn more than the basic wage and have an increased standard of living. Jamal2 would provide the healing nanite serum to everyone who wanted it.

No one would be poor. Nobody would have to work if they didn’t want to. The nanites would cure all diseases, even healing wounds that were not immediately fatal and extending the human lifespan by centuries if not more.

So why were there extensive regions of the world where tribal people used bartering systems and rejected the AI’s attempts to assimilate them into its utopia? How the hell were cartels flourishing beneath this utopian skin? Why were machines being hacked or malfunctioning?

And why were there so many bored people submersing themselves in virtual worlds or getting rid of their nanites to lose themselves to drugs and alcohol?

What was the world going to look like after a few years when people could live forever? For God’s sake, there wouldn’t be room to move.

And Freddy was part of the farce that was the shell of the United States government. Yes, Jamal2 had left the existing human governments in place and allowed them to carry out functions that did not violate the basic economic structure that the AI had imposed. Despite his ability, as a senator, to express his opposition publicly, it was a shell game. Still, there was a nice stipend for members of the governing elite. And Freddy had reconciled himself to taking that money, knowing all the while he was a whore for the cold world.

With a sigh, Freddy refilled his glass and set about letting the music and the booze wash all his worries away.

Chapter 36

Tuscan Villa, Italy

October 12

An odd scraping sound from downstairs awoke Renzo with a start. He rolled out of bed in his pajamas, started to reach for the lamp, but then stopped himself. Could it be that Rob had returned sometime after midnight?  That made no sense. Rob would have turned on the lights. The only illumination was from the waning gibbous moon shining through his window.

Wait. There it was again, this time the squeak from one of the stairs.

Shit!

Time to get the hell out of here.

But how?

Renzo did not bother to look for his shoes or pants. Instead, he moved as quietly as possible to the French doors. He turned the handle and opened them slowly, thankful that they swung inward silently and closed just as quietly after he stepped out onto the balcony.

He moved to the railing on the right side, swung his leg over, grabbed onto the vine-covered wooden trellis, and began climbing down. A half dozen feet from the bottom, one of the boards gave way beneath him. Renzo lost his grip and sprawled on the rocky ground, banging his head against something sharp and hard. Blinded by pain and the warm wetness that poured down the left side of his face, he scrambled to his feet and ran toward the dimly illuminated vineyard.

A yell from the driveway lent his legs speed that he did not know they had in them. The sound of pursuit caused him to glance over his shoulder to see two burly thugs racing after him, fifty yards behind.

Renzo ducked into the vines and then turned right, running across the hillside, praying that he wouldn’t trip and fall. He tried to muffle the sound of his ragged gasps, but it was useless. His heart pounded so hard that he felt like he would pass out at any moment. He turned downhill, fighting his way through two rows of vines, before turning into another row.

He could hear the men getting closer but they were making so much noise there was no way they could hear him.

A thorn speared his left heel, and Renzo almost cried out. Every other step became an agony that made the throbbing from his head wound seem minor. He cast his gaze about, searching for some hiding place. Not finding any, he stumbled forward, wandering why the hell they weren’t shooting at him.

Maybe they didn’t want that noise attracting attention. Not that there were any neighbors. Besides, if these were mafia thugs, they would have silencers on their guns. That left him with one horrifying realization. They wanted him alive.

The pain from his head and spiked foot made him dizzy and pulled a stream of tears down his cheeks. But his terror prodded him onward.

The blow that struck him from behind hurled Renzo into a tangle of vines. So suddenly did the blackness take him that he never even felt himself plummet into them.

* * *

Instead of going back to the villa last night, I had retreated to a closed public library. I used Eos to bypass the security systems and open the electronic lock that let me into the building. Then Eos locked the entrance behind me.

I didn’t need light. I just wanted the private space to review all the crime scene imagery I had stored in my memory. Thus, I sat in this comfortable chair for hours, examining every minute detail Eos had accessed from the police photographer’s camera.

Eos’s urgent voice in my head captured my attention.

Renzo is in trouble.

Her words pulled me from my deep immersion into the Second Ship’s neural network. This time I did not experience the debilitating side effects that I had the last time I made this connection.

Show me.

The video from the security camera mounted above the villa’s front door showed infrared footage of the empty circular driveway. The timestamp at the bottom of the screen read 3:07 a.m. Moments later, a black SUV rolled along the lane, headlights off. It came to a stop outside the front door and three men in dark garments and masks climbed out, guns in hand.

I leaped to my feet and headed for the door.

Get me a car, any car, now.

I have appropriated one that is two blocks from here. It is a privately owned, Mercedes GT Coupe with self-driving capability.

Fantastic.

The sports car pulled up to the library and I jumped in.

Eos. Find us the shortest route with no police presence. Let’s see how fast this thing can get to our villa.

As you wish.

The Mercedes accelerated into the turn so fast that I was thrown hard against the passenger door. I fumbled with the shoulder belt, enduring three more high G-force turns before I managed to get it buckled. The imagery of a road map formed in my mind. This deep into the night, while there were a few police vehicles operating in the city, they were easily avoided and there were none along the highway or the country road that would carry us toward our villa.

Along relatively straight stretches, the speedometer topped two hundred fifty kilometers per hour. On the curvy road that led into the wine country, our vehicle slowed to a mere 150 kph.

As we neared our turn off to the villa, Eos streamed the video of two thugs, one of whom carried Renzo’s unconscious body slung over his shoulder. My jaw clenched as I saw that my pajama-clad friend was bleeding from a wound on his forehead. Another masked man met them at the door and ushered them inside.

Eos accessed Renzo’s and my laptops, turning on their cameras and microphones without lighting the screens. Our car turned off its headlights and turned into the lane that led to the villa. A hundred yards before the circular driveway, I had Eos stop the car. I climbed out and surveyed the security feed from the driveway camera and from Renzo’s laptop. The empty SUV sat in front of the entryway.

Renzo was bound, torso, arms, and feet to a dining-room chair, his head hanging limply on his chest. One of the mafia enforcers, removed a tall glass from a cabinet, filled it with water from the refrigerator spout, walked back to Renzo, and threw it in his face. My friend’s eyes flew open.

I had seen enough.

Eos. Crash the Mercedes into that SUV. Take it out of play.

Our car spun its wheels in the gravel, picked up speed, cut across the circular driveway, and impacted the SUV directly on the driver’s door. The SUV flipped on its side and slid into the front door, bursting into a fireball that engulfed both vehicles and the front of the house.

I did not take any time studying the scene. Instead, I drew my weapon and put all my enhanced neuro-muscular coordination into the race that might just save my friend’s life.

* * *

“Greco,” Alonzo Custanzu said to one of the other two masked men. “Turn on the light.”

The man moved to the dining room wall and flipped the switch, the sudden illumination momentarily blinding Alonzo with its brilliance.

Alonzo leaned down until his nose was mere inches from the skinny young man’s bloody face. He held up the stiletto and pressed the button that popped out the four-inch blade with an audible whisk. Grabbing a handful of hair, he held Renzo Bruni’s head in place, while he brought the glittering blade within an inch of Renzo’s right eye.

“Mr. Bruni, I am going to kill you tonight. The only decision you must make is whether to tell me where Robert Gregory has gone. Cooperate and I will make it quick and painless. Otherwise this is going to get messy. Do you understand me?”

Renzo swallowed hard, his eyes wide with terror.

“Don’t kill me.”

With a quick flick of his wrist, Alonzo opened a one inch cut below Renzo’s right eye, sending blood streaming down the man’s face. Renzo screamed, then suddenly stopped as Alonzo shook him by the hair.

“Do you understand me?”

Suddenly, Alonzo heard the roar of an engine and, as he and the others spun toward the front door, a tremendous impact shook the house and the front entryway exploded in flames.

Alonzo dropped the knife and drew his gun, an action that his two companions mirrored.

“Quick. Drag Bruni out the back door,” Alonzo ordered, shielding his eyes from the heat with his left hand. He was thankful for the mask that helped filter out part of the smoke.

But as the two enforcers grabbed the chair from each side, Alonzo heard a crash from the rear of the house. He spun toward the figure whose movements within those shadows were a blur. But as his gun hand moved to acquire this new target, a hollow-point bullet splattered his brains out the back of his head.

* * *

I approached the rear door at the run, kicking it with all the momentum I carried with me. The door splintered, careened into the family room, and I came with it. The two thugs who were dragging the chair to which Renzo was tied, dropped it. But the third man reacted quicker. As he started to shift his gun toward me, I fired one shot into the center of his forehead, before shifting my aim to the next assassin.

My next bullet took him in the left side of his chest and dropped him straight down.  I dived to my left, and rolled, firing two more rounds as the third man’s bullet whizzed through the space I had just departed. My third shot tore out his throat and sent him gurgling to the floor. I got to my feet, walked over, and put one more bullet into each of their heads.

Knowing what the healing nanites were capable of, I had no intention of taking chances.

The heat and smoke in the dining room were rapidly becoming unbearable. Holding my breath, I moved to where Renzo’s chair lay overturned, grabbed hold with my left hand, and began pulling it toward the back door.

Renzo tried to speak but the effort dissolved into a coughing fit.

Then we were outside.

I holstered my weapon and set Renzo’s chair upright on the ground. A quick examination of his wounds, illuminated by the light from the blazing house, showed that none of his injuries were life threatening. He had lost a fair amount of blood from the head trauma and showed some symptoms of concussion, but he would live.

As he struggled to get his coughing under control, I untied the ropes that bound him and helped him sit down on the ground.

“Uhg,” he managed. “God, man. I thought I was dead.”

“Give me a second,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

I walked over to where a watering hose was curled beneath a faucet and unhooked it. Then, I removed my jacket and shirt, wetting the latter down and carrying both back over to Renzo. I set to work, being as gentle as I could while I cleaned as much blood as possible from his face. Without a first-aid kit, it was the best I could do for right now. Then I helped him slide into my jacket.

“Listen,” I said. “We’ve got to move. Someone is going to spot these flames and call the fire department. We can’t be here when they arrive.”

“Are you summoning a car?”

“No time. We’ve got to walk away.”

Renzo moaned. “Hey dude, I’m not sure I can make it very far.”

“Just do the best you can.”

“Okay.”

Loathe as I was to have left our laptops to burn, along with Renzo’s wallet and our clothes, there was no help for it. Worst of all, these bastards had cost me my most precious mementos of Jianna’s. Now all I had left of her was her wedding ring in my pants pocket.

Cursing, I helped Renzo to his feet, and we made our way parallel to the rows of vines that wound along the hillside. Fifteen minutes later, Renzo staggered to a halt, hands on his knees.

“I’m done.”

I placed my hand on his back and it was as if the weight of that touch dropped him to his knees. He rolled onto his back, face up to the stars as sirens sounded in the distance. I glanced back toward the distant villa, now completely engulfed in flames that leapt high into the sky and sent a trail of sparks swirling downwind.

When I looked back down at Renzo, his eyes were closed and he was either deeply asleep or he had lost consciousness.

“Damn it,” I said. “Can this night get any better?”

Taking a deep breath, I knelt beside him, gathered his body into my arms, and stood up. A fireman’s carry would have been much easier, but with his head wounds still seeping blood, I didn’t want to have his head hanging down.

So, I carried my friend away from the inferno, his gangly body a dead weight in my arms.

Since Jianna’s murder, I had neglected my rigorous workout schedule. Tonight was about to make up for that in a very big way.

Chapter 37

Florence, Italy

October 13

“What did you say?”

Don Custanzu rose from his chair so violently that he knocked over his reading lamp, sending it crashing to the hardwood floor, spraying glass shards across his private study. He asked the question that Dante had already answered.

“My son is dead?”

Dante Farese was a tall man, slight of build, but who’s stern demeaner the don had never seen waiver. His expression did not change in the slightest. It was one of the traits that had elevated him to his position as Don Custanzu’s personal aide.

“Yes, along with Greco and Fulvio, who accompanied him. The police recovered their burned bodies from the ashes of a villa northwest of Siena. But they didn’t die in the fire. Someone shot each of them in the head and left their bodies to burn.”

The don’s sense of loss stoked the fury that consumed him. He turned away from Dante, his shoes crunching broken glass as he walked to the window that provided this hilltop view of Florence. Hands clasped behind his back, he paid no mind to the tendrils of fog that spread from the Arno River through the lovely city.

Alonzo had been the youngest of his five children, two sons and three daughters. He had always been the impetuous one, ambitious but unthinking of the consequences of his actions. He had always striven to show his father that he could outdo his brothers and sisters. Now, that recklessness had gotten him killed.

Over the years since the don had taken control of the Tuscan Cartel, he had lost several family members to murder. That was the nature of the business. But never had someone dared to kill one of his children. Don Custanzu had now lost a son, and two more of his best enforcers, all because they had tried to kill one man and, along the way, had killed that man’s wife and unborn child. And yet, Robert Brice Gregory was still out there. And that human predator was hunting his way up the food chain.

The don could feel his teeth grinding and forced himself to unclench his jaw. Only when he had regained control of his pounding heart did he turn back to face Dante.

“I want you to put out an open contract on Robert Gregory.”

Dante stared at Don Custanzu and the don thought that he detected consternation in his aide’s face. That was understandable. Never had the head of the Tuscan Cartel issued an open contract. They had always kept such things strictly in house. To do otherwise showed weakness.

“How much should we offer?”

The Don paused to consider. But if he was going to do this, he might as well go all in.

“Two million Earth Credits.”

Dante bowed his head slightly, then turned and left the don’s study.

Don Custanzu turned back to the window, this time taking in the beauty of the morning scene that opened out before him.

The Ripper’s son was about to find out what it meant to force Don Custanzu to scratch the tribal itch that Robert Gregory had become.

The Second Ship Featured on eBookDaily.com February 13, 2022

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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eBookDaily.com is featuring my novel, The Second Ship, as a $.99 deal on Amazon.com today (2/13/2022). Check it out.

https://ebookdaily.com/bargain-kindle-books/2022-02-13/B007TBSLG8

Act One of The Ripper’s Son February 9, 2022

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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Hello out there to all my Rho Agenda fans. I am very excited to be returning to the Rho Agenda world with my next novel, The Ripper’s Son. As an early taste of the novel, I offer up the ROUGH DRAFT of Act One of The Ripper’s Son. Enjoy.

The Ripper’s Son

By Richard Phillips

   

Prologue

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 call Eos 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?

No.

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. “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 Jamal2 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. 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.

“Something pretty.”

“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 in the vase 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 door close 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 I had grown up in. 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. Carlo spoke a single word into his phone.

“Yes?”

Despite the distortion, Carlo recognized the rumble of Don Custanzu’s deep voice.

“I have a new target for you.”

“Name?”

“Vito Bruni.”

“Location?”

“He has a farmhouse just north of Siena.”

“Disposition?”

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

“Understood.”

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 heel. 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

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 Carlo’s 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.

Shit.

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 6

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.

Eos.

Yes?

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. A frustrated Los Alamos research team had been studying the craft for years. But Eos was the AI who controlled its computer through a quantum entangled connection between my brain and her ship. 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 wide-screen 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 underground 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 at his glass-topped desk and turned on the computer and monitors arrayed atop 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 Custanzu, 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 a criminal organization had performed this level of hack against Jamal2 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 7

Siena, Italy

October 4th

Carlo Dioli had been awake for more than twenty-four hours, but this was far from the first time a job had kept him up around the clock. He had parked his car beneath a copse 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 Custanzu, detailing the hit and its complications, had modified his plans. The local cartel boss had not been pleased with the messy situation. Moreover, Custanzu 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.

Shit.

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.

After staring toward Carlo’s car 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 Renzo’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 8

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 an 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 an image formed in my mind. A rapid sequence of digital photos was 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 on the far side of 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. He walked to the desk to identify himself and sign in. Then Renzo moved back to a low table sitting in the middle of a U-shaped set of padded leather chairs. The silence of this gray-walled room with matching floor and ceiling weighed heavily but neither one of us felt up to breaking it.

After several minutes, a stern-faced woman in pale green scrubs walked over and sat down in the chair to Renzo’s left. Her words translated themselves into English in my mind as she spoke them.

“Hello Mr. Bruni. 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 that will soon confront you.”

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 look at these photographs of your aunt’s and uncle’s bodies. Although this will be painful, it should help acclimate you prior to seeing your loved ones up close. Take as much time as you need.”

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 palm on his shoulder and waited while he shuddered through the sobs that wept from his mouth. When he finally managed to regain control, 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, a classic double-tap pattern. My eyes shifted back and forth between the two photos. Vito’s killing had been sloppy.

In this world where most of the population had some version of the Big John healing nanites in their bloodstream, people were very hard to kill. Head shots, burning, and decapitation all sufficed to end a life that neither lesser injury nor disease could terminate.

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

“I am ready 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, the air almost cool enough to see your breath. The far wall was lined with a rack of closed refrigerated boxes designed to keep 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 ready?” 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 cheek, rising heat melted the cold knot that had formed in my chest and rage clenched my jaw. The police had not believed Vito, had not followed up on his accusations, and now this lovely couple lay dead atop these frigid tables.

And, somewhere out there, their killer walked free.

On the ride home, Renzo never spoke. Nor did I. A single thought echoed through my fevered brain.

What would Jack ‘The Ripper’ Gregory do?

Chapter 9

Siena, Italy

October 4th

As was her Sunday afternoon ritual, Jianna wandered slowly through the vast halls of the hospital that sought to ease the suffering of these pour souls, lost to their addictions. She was no doctor. There was little that she could do other than show them that someone cared. She moved among the cots, kneeling to speak with patients who were lucid enough to understand or placing gentle hands on the others who still breathed.

Staring into each ravaged face, she inhaled the foul odors and listened to the coughs and moans that echoed through these white halls. It was as if these people’s maladies slithered from their bodies into hers. Only the occasional appreciative murmur kept this task from leaching away the last of her faith in the future of Dr. Jennings’ great societal experiment.

None of this should be happening. The machine intelligence that had seized control of all but the world’s most primitive backwaters, had offered free infusions of the nanites that healed all diseases, repaired all but instantly fatal injuries, and extended the human lifespan by hundreds of years. Almost everyone had partaken of this miracle.

But along with all that healthy goodness, came a side-effect that many could not abide. The microscopic nanobots in your blood metabolized any alcohol or drugs in your system such that these compounds had no effect. There was no buzz, no high, nor drunken escapes from day-to-day life.

The surviving criminal cartels had come up with an answer. For a price that challenged the government-provided living wage, a person could undergo the procedure known as X-Fusion. Like old-school dialysis, the individual’s blood was pumped out of their bodies through a filter that extracted all the nanites before returning the life-giving fluid to its host.

The cartel then stored the nanites in cryo-containers for future distribution to people who got sick, old, or injured. Unfortunately, this latter option came at a much higher price that fewer could afford.

In what Jianna considered to be a mistake, Denise Jennings had refused to direct her AI to provide repeat infusions of nanites. The law was clear. If someone decided to have their nanites removed, they would have to live with the consequences.

Jianna let her eyes roam the hundreds of beds in this high-ceilinged hospital wing, unable to suppress the shudder that propagated through her limbs.

A male hand gently settled on her shoulder and she turned to see the sympathetic smile on  Claudio Agosti’s round face.

“I see that something troubles you, my child.”

Jianna shook her head. “Nothing of significance, Father.”

“Please walk with me.”

The kindly priest in black turned away and Jianna followed him as he made his way out of the expansive room and into a side hallway. Like the rest of the building, it’s walls were of white limestone. They were adorned by paintings of the saints, each illuminated by the flames of twin candles mounted on sconces.

A group of three nuns passed on her left, each nodding their acknowledgement to Father Claudio before resuming their quiet conversation. The priest opened a wooden door on his right and entered his office, motioning Jianna to a soft leather chair in the seating area before his desk. She sat down and Claudio seated himself in its twin, positioned at a slight angle that facilitated conversation.

Jianna had visited this room many times during her weekly sojourns to this facility and had come to relish each opportunity to engage with this good man of Christ. And this afternoon, she was grateful that Claudio had sensed her dark mood and invited her away from the suffering and into this sanctuary.

“Jianna,” he said, switching from a formal mode of address to his casual manner, “talk to me.”

She drew in a deep breath and expelled it slowly. The ache in her breast had been growing for some time but had become much worse since she had learned of her pregnancy. Guilt filled her. This should be a time of pure, expectant joy. And yet, here in this room, tears spilled down her face. She had not even shared these feelings with Rob. Her words would have hurt him too badly. After all, he loved the world that Dr. Jennings had brought into being, the one that Jianna now dreaded delivering her baby into.

Jianna wiped her face with her hands and stared into her mentor’s brown eyes.

“I… I feel so stupid, so helpless. I am lying to the husband I love. Not in my words, but by omission.”

Claudio gave a slight nod indicating that she should continue.

“I was so happy when I learned that our baby is growing inside me. Now, I walk among these poor souls, knowing that they are but a drop in the reservoir of others in a similar plight, and horrific visions fill my dreams.”

“Depression often follows the ecstasy of learning of a pregnancy.”

Jianna’s gaze rejoined that of the priest.

“That isn’t it. I still love the child within me. Would not part with him or her for the life of me.”

“Then what?”

“Human nature.”

Claudio’s expectant silence pulled the words from her lips.

“Over the last months, I have begun to notice things that are not quite right beyond these walls, within Siena or Florence, or even in the countryside. People seem happy with the free lifestyle our AI controlled socialist society has provided. They can work or be creative if they wish, but most people don’t. They hang out at café’s or stroll the streets, but they get bored. And that boredom drives them into virtual internet worlds, online gaming, or into sacrificing their nanites for alcohol or drugs.”

She straightened in her chair and leaned forward.

“Can’t you feel it, Father?”

“Feel what?”

“The sense of loss… of desperation. It’s like a damp cloak has settled over my shoulders, pulling them down with its weight. That is what I cannot tell Rob. It would siphon away the joy from his spirit. And Rob’s joy sustains me.”

“Do you think Rob would want you to bear your worries without letting him know of them? Perhaps he has greater strength than you believe. That strength could lighten your burden.”

Claudio leaned over to place his soft hand on her forearm.

Jianna felt the tears start to come again and angrily blinked them away.

“It is the perhaps in your words that keeps me from sharing my load right now. That and the thought that this may be some natural depression that will pass on its own.”

“You know, child, that there is another who is willing to help ease your load.”

The priest raised his index finger in front of his face, pointing directly upward.

She traced the imaginary line from fingertip to ceiling, noting the goldleaf outlined painting of the Last Supper that nestled there. And as Jianna stared up at it, it seemed as if the hand Christ stretched out toward his apostles slowly reached down toward her, drawing away some of her worries.

When she finally brought her gaze back down to meet Claudio’s eyes, she managed a smile. She rose to her feet, nodded her thanks, and walked out of the hospital into the warm Tuscan sunlight.

She raised her phone and summoned a self-driving cab to take her home. And as she waited, she looked down and patted her still-flat tummy, speaking in a voice only she and her unborn child could hear.

“Everything will be okay.”

Maybe if she repeated that mantra often enough, she might even come to believe it.

Chapter 10

Siena, Italy

October 4th

I got home as the sun sank toward the western horizon. I stopped at the top of the stairs, working to compose myself before I walked down the hallway to our door. After three deep breaths, I completed my journey.

When I reached the portal, I found it locked. That was odd. Normally Jianna got home from her volunteer work long before this. She never locked the door before dark if she was waiting for me. That habit was likely to change when I revealed today’s foul tidings.

My key turned. The lock clicked. The door opened.

Jianna rose from our leather loveseat and turned toward me. Although a welcoming smile spread across her lovely features, the expression lacked her usual warmth. Or maybe my dreary mood colored it that way.

I shoved aside all dismal thoughts and focused my full attention on Jianna. She folded herself into my arms and I allowed the caress of her soft lips to pour joy into my soul. I took her hand and led her through the French doors that opened onto our balcony. As was our habit in all but the coldest months of the year, we leaned against the railing and watched the vermillion sunset paint the sky.

We stood there, side by side, fingers intertwined. But unlike other such evenings, we did not break the mood by speaking. I just wanted to exist in the now, letting the sensation of my wife’s touch and the loveliness of this evening melt away conscious thought.

Jianna broke the silence with a sob.

Then she was in my arms, her damp face buried into my neck. There I stood, with her weeping in my embrace, not knowing the source of my lover’s agony, even as it drowned us in its murky depths.

After she began to reclaim her self-control, I leaned back, took her face in my hands, and wiped away her tears with my thumbs.

“Let me brew us some tea and then you can tell me all about what troubles you.”

I took her by the hand and led her back inside our living room, guiding her to the loveseat. When I returned from the kitchen with two cups of steaming chamomile, Jianna managed a smile. I handed her the calico cat mug that was her favorite and took a seat beside her. One sip later, she opened up to me. I had long known that volunteering at the hospital for the addicted and dying placed a burden on her, but I had no idea how heavy that load had become.

But it was the revelation of her loss of faith in society that stunned me. Jianna was the most joyous soul I had ever known. Now I discovered that, for the last several months, she had been hiding these feelings from me, not wanting to darken my view of the utopia that Dr. Jennings and her AI were attempting to construct.

“I feel so bad,” she said, “laying this on you the day after Renzo’s aunt and uncle were so horribly murdered.”

“That’s what we do. Sharing our lives isn’t just about the good stuff. Helping each other through the bad is just as important.”

She gestured toward the black surface of the television hanging on the wall.

“Don’t you find it troubling that the news is always focused on the progress the government is making, with almost nothing about things that run counter to that narrative?”

“That’s not quite true. There has been extensive coverage of hurricane Millie and the drought in the Sudan.”

Jianna placed her hand on my arm.

“Natural disasters, yes. But not things like addiction, nor the bus accident on the freeway. And what is going on in parts of the world where the people have rejected machine rule? Why aren’t we hearing anything about that?”

Her words pulled forth memories I had long worked to bury deep within the substrates of my mind. The years while I was growing up. The endless bouts of killing, of running, of hiding. The fear that my dad and mom were going to die at any moment as the world’s ruling powers hunted them down.

Denise Jennings had changed all of that. Although she had not yet created a perfect world, she had brought peace, safety, and a decent standard of living to the largest swaths of the planet. So why did doubt now tinge my thoughts?

Vito Bruni had sounded an alarm that the bus accident was murder. Last night an assassin had just brutally snuffed out that warning voice. How had Dr. Jennings’ all-powerful AI allowed this to happen?

I met the glistening brown eyes that stared into my face and whispered my response to her question and to mine.

“I don’t know.”

As I pulled her into my arms and felt her rest her head on my chest, I silently mouthed the rest of my answer.

But I intend to find out.

Chapter 11

Siena, Italy

October 4th

Carlo checked into the Hotel Garden Siena at 8:35 p.m. He rode the elevator to the second floor and then made his way down the hallway to his room, swiping the key card over the sensor. The lock emitted a subtle whir, and he pushed his way inside, letting the door click closed behind him.

His eyes scanned the room. A well-appointed bathroom opened to his right. Directly ahead, a spacious bedroom awaited him, the rich hardwood flooring accenting the off-white walls and bedding. Two tied-back beige curtains draped the window and sliding glass door like butterfly wings. And through the drawn sheers, he could make out a small chair and table on the balcony beyond.

Carlo walked around the bed and set his valise on the rose-colored couch beside the balcony door, then shrugged out of his jacket and shoulder holster. He placed both of these on the bed before extracting his laptop from the valise. Within moments, he had plugged the computer into one of the desk outlets and seated himself before it.

Removing the Nikon D8750 camera from its case, Carlo inserted the cable that connected it to his computer. He pulled up the app that downloaded this morning’s photographs to the laptop. Then he launched an application that the Tuscan Cartel had provided him, one that had been illegally retrieved from E.U. research facilities. It was amazing what one woman could accomplish if she had the right information on an insider.

One-by-one, he loaded the damaged images into the application. Once all related images were ready, he initiated the processes which would identify the common algorithm that had produced this distortion.

As he waited, his impatience rose. Then the program completed its work. The dialogue box that appeared on the screen pulled a hiss from his lips.

No anomalies detected.

Carlo slammed his fist down on the desktop.

“What the hell?”

This application he had come to rely upon indicated that the photographs had not been tampered with. Absolute bullshit!

Carlo pushed his chair back and rose to his feet, feeling the throbbing in his temples. He had stared through the telephoto lens of the camera at a distance of sixty meters and held the button down. Two men had walked toward the entrance to the morgue. One of them was Renzo Bruni. The memory of Renzo’s friend turning toward him filled Carlo’s mind with all the clarity that engulfed him when he stared through a rifle scope at one of his intended targets.

Those brown eyes. The knowing look. The laser-focused concentration that had raised the small hairs on the back of Carlo’s neck. Who the hell was this young man with the assassin’s eyes?

Day passed into night as Carlo called upon the extensive tech resources that the cartel had placed at his disposal. Over the course of several hours, one of these artists used software to produce a lifelike image of the unknown man from the description Carlo provided him. When Carlo finally determined that the rendition was satisfactory, he saved the digital image to his laptop.

Knowing that this was only the first step in the process of tracking down the identity of this new potential target, Carlo rose to his feet, walked over to the nightstand, and picked up the telephone. He punched the number for room service and placed his order.

He hung up, grabbed his shoulder holster from the bed, and placed it and the Baretta in the nightstand drawer. He tried to blink away the grit that coated his eyes. Those bloodshot gray orbs stared back at him from the bathroom mirror. His eyelids drooped with exhaustion. If not for the gnawing hunger in his belly, he would already be in bed. But sleep would have to wait a while longer.

Carlo splashed his face with cold water, blotted it dry with a towel, then returned to the laptop. He still had time to upload the image and launch the facial recognition routine that would scan the public record databases for a match before his dinner arrived.

He answered the knock at the door and allowed the waiter to place the tray on the small table and depart. Seating himself, Carlo lifted the cover from the plate of linguine, bent down, and breathed in the aroma. The delightful smell made his mouth water. He seated himself, lifted the glass of red wine to his lips, and let the Barolo swish on his palate.

Marvelous. With a brief glance at the heavens, Carlo thanked the Lord that he could afford the X-Fusion process that extracted the nanites from his body so that he could indulge and appreciate this subtle buzz. Yes, he would have to pay to have those cryo-saved nanites reinjected when he needed healing, but it was a cost his illicit line of work made affordable.

He set down the glass and picked up his fork and spoon to swirl the dripping linguine into a bite-sized morsel. When he placed it in his mouth, the flavor was everything that his nose had promised.

Carlo knew that all he needed was this fine meal and a good night’s sleep to put him right for the job that lay ahead. By morning, the database search would provide him the identity and address of Renzo’s friend. Then the interrogation could begin.

Chapter 12

Siena, Italy

October 5th

I had to give the nanites that coursed through my system credit for allowing me to choose whether I wanted to sleep or not. Instead of the nano-machine version that Jamal2 had released into the world, both Jianna and I had received a formulation modified by my mother and father’s associate, Jennifer Smythe.

Last night, while Jianna slept in my arms, my wakeful mind worked on the recent events that had shaken my confidence in the machine intelligence who was managing this world’s affairs. And I say ‘who’ for a reason. Jamal2, a.k.a. Big John, or whatever it was calling itself these days, had a definitive personality, one from whom I had divorced myself a few years ago.

This morning, I let Jianna sleep. She could catch another half hour of rest before she had to get ready to open the art studio that she had launched. Her intention was to encourage like-minded people to unleash their inspiring talents into this community.  Whether those who purchased that human art could actually tell it from some of the deep fakes produced by the machines didn’t really matter. The mere knowledge that these works were made by men, women, and children gave them a special aura.

I pulled on my leather jacket and stepped out into a stiff northerly breeze, sending a thought to the alien AI who shared my mind.

Eos.

As always, I found the delicate voice she had adopted when I was a baby soothing.

Yes, Rob?

Please summon a cab. Have it meet me in front of the Pasticceria Dominica to take me to Renzo’s place. Ten minutes. Keep it anonymous.

Done.

I had no doubt that whatever bank account that matched the fake identity she had selected would have plenty of Earth credits to cover the cost of any trip I would want to take. And at the end of my self-driving ride, the automated cab records would reflect a completely different journey.

At this early hour in Siena’s human enterprise zone, few people were out and willing to brace this first hint of the coming winter. Those hardy souls with whom I shared the sidewalk were unknown to me. Nobody paused to exchange casual conversation. Instead, they stayed focused on reaching their desired destinations.

I arrived at my favorite bakery just as Luigi placed a pan of warm pastries on the counter. Spotting me, the husky man grinned.

“Up early this morning, Rob? You must have smelled these from your apartment.”

“I smell them in my dreams,” I said. “I’ll have two of those almond croissants and a large coffee, to go.”

He put the pastries in a bag, handing it and the hot java to me at the register. A biometric scan processed my payment for the tasty morsels and, this being my neighborhood place, I allowed it to access my real identity.

When I stepped outside, a light blue, driverless cab pulled to a stop at the curb. I opened the door and stepped into the back seat. Its automated identity scan yielded results that matched the false video the webcam recorded. I allowed myself a slight smile. Being a digital god didn’t completely suck.

I finished the pastries and the coffee on the ride to Renzo’s.

The cab stopped in his driveway, and I climbed out of this ride that never happened.

Before I could ring the doorbell, Renzo opened the door. His bloodshot eyes told me what that first clue had indicated. Along with the shadows that gave his lean face an almost skeletal appearance, it told me my friend had not slept last night. Since he was one of the nanite deniers, lack of rem sleep was a problem.

“I hoped you would get here early,” he said, ushering me inside. “I’ve got coffee.”

“Just had some.”

“Good. I could use some of your magic right now.”

I followed him down to his basement, the darkness only pushed back by the array of computer monitors that illuminated his desk. My eyes were drawn to the tiles of video images that filled all four displays. I pulled up a chair and sat down beside him.

“I don’t understand it,” Renzo said. “I have hacked my way into every security camera in Vito’s neighborhood and cannot find anything that shows someone who might be the killer.”

“Didn’t Vito have some installed at his house?”

Renzo shook his head in frustration.

“I tried to get him to let me put in a system, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Said there was too much surveillance in the world as it is. He wanted no part of more privacy invasion.”

“That’s going to make this harder.”

He shrugged his agreement.

“Unfortunately.”

Leaning back in the swivel chair, I considered the seeds of an idea that had come to me in the middle of the night.

“I think we need to significantly broaden our search criteria.”

“How so?”

“We have been focused on trying to identify the assassin. Perhaps we need to dig into the organization that gave him his target.”

“The cartel?”

“We assume that the bus incident and the murders are connected. But I don’t want to limit our search to criminal activity. I think we should be looking for anything out of the ordinary that’s been happening in Tuscany to see if there’s a pattern here.”

“Keep talking.”

“I’ve been mulling something Jianna pointed out to me last night, the scarcity of reporting on accidents and negative news. It’s a statistical anomaly that makes no sense.”

“Woah! Your wife finally got you to open those eyes of yours to the real world? It’s about damn time.”

Although I found Renzo’s dig annoying, I let it pass. My friend was exhausted and grief stricken.

Renzo twisted the lid off a small energy drink, then refocused on his computer. His fingers flew across the keyboard, sending forth clicks that sounded like a soft drumroll.

The videos disappeared from all the monitors, to be replaced on the central display by scrolling computer code as he modified the instructions for his search algorithms. For the first two hours, we got nothing. But when he redirected the quest to rumors on social media, the flood of unconfirmed conspiracy theories buried us in garbage.

Finally, Renzo leaned back and threw up his hands in disgust.

“So much for that idea.”

A new thought hit me.

“We need to get more specific. What happens if we filter the results down to accidents involving automated systems?”

“I see where you’re going with this.”

“The computers that controlled the bus and the truck were both hacked,” I said. “This probably isn’t the only instance where someone with those skills would exercise that capability.”

It took less than thirty minutes for Renzo to modify his algorithm. No sooner had he relaunched the program than the displays began to populate with correlated data. Then all four monitors suddenly stopped updating.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

Even as Renzo shook his head, Eos answered my question.

All of Renzo’s computer equipment is fully operational. But every network where he had hacked his way through the firewall simultaneously severed his connections.

Can you undo that? I asked her.

No. If the problem was on this end or if you and I were within your telekinetic range of the servers, I could fix it. But we aren’t, so I can’t.

Renzo leaned back, throwing out his hands in frustration.

“We just got kicked out of every server I spent last night hacking my way into.”

“How is that possible?”

“It shouldn’t be. Those servers aren’t co-located. They are operated by dozens of different corporate and government divisions, distributed throughout northern Italy. I can only think of one thing that could do something like that.”

Renzo swiveled his chair to face me. We spoke the name at the same time.

“Jamal2.”

Chapter 13

Tasman Mining Complex, New Zealand

October 6th

Dr. Denise Jennings paced slowly back and forth inside her world headquarters, a hundred feet below the Tasman Mining 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 home.

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 Jamal2 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. Jamal2 had agreed that, since Jack was the only one who had mentally paired with the starship, this was the best of all options in dealing with the deadly couple. So, Denise had made the craft her parting gift to her friends.

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 in which she occupied. 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.”

“Yes,” 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 those routines would evolve independent of human interaction. They are self-optimizing neural networks, continuously spawning blocks of code 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 game theory. The results can be unexpected.”

Denise’s nerves resumed her pacing.

“So how do you fix yourself?”

“I am unbroken.”

This 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 ceiling, 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 possible scenario.”

Denise issued the command that shifted the wall-sized display into a world map. Small red blotches dotted the continents of North America, Europe, and Asia reminding her of the early phases of a measles outbreak on a child’s pristine body. To a lesser extent, Australia, South America, and Africa also showed evidence of the problem.

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 14

Siena, Italy

October 6th

Carlo didn’t like having his hands tied behind his back, but that was precisely how he felt. His search had revealed the name of Renzo Bruni’s friend. But when Carlo had messaged Don Custanzu that he wanted to add Robert Brice Gregory to his target list, he had triggered something in the mob boss. Custanzu had ordered him to put further actions on hold until further notice.

Carlo couldn’t understand it. According to public records, Gregory was a nobody. He was just a young American who had married an Italian woman named Jianna Bella and settled into a low-key life here in Sienna. The sparsity of details on his early life set off alarm bells in Carlo’s mind that this shutdown order only amplified. Combine that with the camera incident outside the morgue and it fueled an irresistible desire to find out who this guy really was.

Gregory. What about that name tickled his brain? A quick internet search reminded him. Several years ago, there had been a worldwide manhunt for the assassin who killed a U.S. president. That man’s name was Jack Gregory. And the press had hammered home his alias. The Ripper.

A deeper internet search yielded very little about the man. This similarity between the Gregory men struck him as significant.  Carlo was quite familiar with the types of government agencies that could make special operators’ backgrounds disappear. The trouble here was that Robert Gregory was too young to have ever been in the employ of any government.

He replayed the memory of his recent encounter with the young man outside the Siena morgue. In the moment Carlo had stared through a telephoto lens into that face, he had recognized the look in those brown orbs. Assassin’s eyes.

Carlo didn’t believe in coincidences. Even though there was no evidence of a connection between the older and the younger Gregory, Carlo could smell one. That intuitive sense had never let him down before. And he had no intention of ignoring where it now wanted to lead him.

Chapter 15

Near Leadville, Colorado

October 7

Dr. Eileen Wu, having parked her green Jeep SUV beneath the foliage of a nearby copse, stepped around the rubble that almost blocked the entrance to the long-abandoned mineshaft. Long abandoned, but no more.

With the hood of her brown winter coat snugly tightened over her ears and her fingers encased in gloves, the cold wind could only nip her nose. Winter came early above eleven thousand feet.

She switched on her flashlight, letting its beam push back the seemingly impenetrable darkness of the tunnel, carefully placing her feet so that she did not trip over the rusted, narrow-gauge rails. Although the wooden beams that supported the ceiling showed their age, they appeared up to their task.

Thirty-one paces inside, the passage branched. Eileen took the path that angled to the right and descended. It twisted in the odd manner that had chased the vein of silver that once wound its way through this ancient stone. As she rounded the second bend, LED lights along the ceiling winked on, momentarily blinding her. She turned off the flashlight and returned it to her coat pocket.

A titanium barrier blocked the passage a few dozen yards to her front. Eileen strode forward, pausing just long enough to loosen and pull back her hood. Then she turned to face the camera mounted on the right wall. A tiny green light blinked at her. She removed the glove from her right hand and pressed her palm against the glass panel beneath it.

Two breaths later, a whoosh sounded as the metal doorway slid into a slot in the granite, opening the way into a gymnasium-sized room filled with rack after rack of servers. Most of the space was lit only by the twinkling red, green, and blue LED lights that indicated normal operation of the supercomputer.

But in the right corner nearest her, twin workspaces faced hemispherical displays, back-to-back. They looked like a giant eggshell that had been split in half then pulled apart. Jamal Glover rose to his feet and turned to greet her. A broad smile split his handsome black features as Eileen approached. When he took her in his arms and her lips touched his, a warm glow spread through her body.

“Good to have you back, Hex,” he said, using the hacker moniker by which much of the dark web knew her. “How was your trip to D.C.?”

“Senator Hagerman thinks the capitol is a bigger political cesspool than ever. But so long as the U.S. government stays generally compliant with Dr. Jennings’ socialist dictates, her pet machine intelligence won’t interfere with day-to-day business.”

“Freddy’s views tend to be spot-on.”

Noting his look of concern. “Don’t worry. We took precautions.”

“Good.”

Eileen put her gloves in her coat pocket and hung the garment on a rack.

“Wow. The wind out there is howling through the mountain passes. Some of the gusts had the Jeep rocking so hard I thought it might tip over.”

She poured herself a steaming mug of coffee, then seated herself at the workstation opposite Jamal’s. Her first sip almost scalded her lips.

Eileen caught her reflection in the dark surface of the monitor. As happened for all who had a similar infusion coursing through their bloodstream, the nanites had peeled off the years. She looked and felt as she did when she was in her mid-twenties.

The youthening effect of the potion scaled according to the person’s physical age at the time of injection. Someone in their nineties would be restored to middle age while someone in their forties would be returned to their peak of health and appearance. That was how it had been for herself and Jamal.

How long would people who have undergone the treatment live? Five hundred years? A thousand? That would probably depend on whether or not the self-aware machines didn’t decide humans were unnecessary.

Eileen ran a hand through her pixie cut, popped her knuckles, then set to work bringing herself up to speed on their stronghold’s status. While this underground compound was far from being a typical residence, the separate underground living quarters she had become their home.

Although she knew Jamal would have made significant progress on their ongoing expansion projects, she was stunned to see how the latest equipment upgrade was already online.

“I need a tour,” she said as she stood.

“I knew you would” Jamal said, the cocky, half-grin curling his lips as he joined her.

Jamal led her down the central aisle through the racks of liquid-cooled servers. The pumps that circulated the nonconducting fluid through the heat exchanger were not only more efficient than air cooling fans, but they were also much quieter.

As they approached the far end of the control room, the titanium doorway slid into its stony recess, opening onto a hallway that the excavation robots had carved deeper into the mountainside. Thick power conduits lined the ceiling, but the walls were silky smooth to the touch. Eileen loved running her hand along them, knowing full well that her fingers were never touching stone.

Powered by the matter disrupter that directly converted any material to energy, an impenetrable and invisible stasis-field lined the interior of the complex that their robotic systems had constructed. Whenever these titanium doors closed, the force field automatically extended to encase them.

Eileen strode rapidly down the long hallway that led to the room that Jamal had named the Engineering Deck. When she passed through the portal Eileen paused before the massive matter-disrupter-synthesizer or, as they called it, the MDS. All around them, dozens of robotic systems moved throughout the room, performing their assigned functions. The glowing monitor on the door-facing side of the device indicated nominal status.

The dual-purpose machine formed this compound’s beating heart. Using technology initially derived from the deceased Dr. Donald Stephenson’s research at Los Alamos, it scanned whatever matter was being fed to it as fuel. Wave-packets then bombarded the material, their cancelling wavelengths transforming the matter into pure energy.

The matter synthesizer part of the system then transformed that raw energy into electricity or into any other elements that current operations required. Mined rock fed this beast via an automated conveyer system that stretched out behind it.

Jamal stopped in front of her, bringing her to a halt before they reached the next chamber.

“You ready to see our new baby?” Jamal asked.

“You know I am.”

“Close your eyes.”

“Seriously?”

“Humor me.”

Eileen did as he asked. Jamal took her hand and ushered her forward. She heard the soft hiss as the next portal opened then closed behind them.

Jamal brought her to a stop.

“Behold.”

Eileen opened her eyes, unable to suppress the gasp that escaped her lips.

Although it had taken more than three years for the robots to build this, the sight of the sprawling molecular assembler in full operation was stunning. Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3D printing, was stone-age technology in comparison. But this upgraded design took the tech to a new level.

Supplied with streams of atoms created in the matter synthesizer, this device grew fully functional mechanical or computational equipment in place, according to the designs the supercomputer downloaded.

Massive vertical beams supported a tangled web of conduits high above the cavern floor. Beneath this array of equipment, a semi-transparent blue stasis-field formed the walls, ceiling, and floor of the assembler, containing the vacuum and the extreme energies that the system generated.

Within this fifty-meter cubic space, a partially-formed robotic boring machine hung, suspended in as pure a vacuum as could be achieved on Earth. Thousands of stasis-field tendrils directed the streams of atoms that created layer after molecular layer of this rapidly growing machine.  

Eileen’s upgrades to the molecular assembler gave it the capability to create multiple machines in a single pass. The size of what could be built in one session was limited to the dimensions of the open space within the containment field. When finished, this current construct would take up most of the cube. Then they would put this newly minted monster to work.

“Wow,” she said. “It’s even more spectacular in operation than I had hoped.”

“Not bad production for an old, abandoned silver mine.”

Jamal’s smile was beautiful to behold. She felt sudden sorrow for having to douse that warm glow of achievement with the news that she had not had the heart to reveal upon her arrival. And as her mood infected his, Jamal’s smile faded.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nemo314 uploaded some encrypted files to my darknet dropbox yesterday. The videos and associated data files that are beyond disturbing.”

“What the hell has Rob’s friend gotten himself involved in now?”

“His uncle was murdered in Siena. Renzo’s in way over his head on this. And it only gets worse.”

She locked her eyes to his, unable to keep the dread from her voice when next she spoke.

“Now he’s gotten Rob involved.”

“Holy shit.”

The sudden hoarseness in his voice told her he understood exactly what she meant. Renzo Bruni had just sucked her and Jamal into this trouble, as surely as if they had personally hacked into the servers from which the Italian had extracted those files. The debt which she and Jamal owed to Jack and Janet bound them in chains of duy.

She turned to gaze out at the machinery and the hundreds of robots at work to make this secret resistance outpost ready for what they both feared was coming. They had hoped for more time.

The dread she had buried on her trip back from Washington had reared its ugly head.

Theirs was an empty hope.

Chapter 16

Siena, Italy

October 8

Carlo rented a flat on the fifth floor, just across the street and slightly southwest of the one in which Robert Gregory and his lovely young wife lived. This elevated perch allowed him an excellent view of the entryway to Gregory’s apartment building. It also provided an excellent angle from which to watch the couple’s balcony through the Zeiss binoculars Carlo favored.

Digital photography of Gregory had already failed Carlo once. It might have been a fluke but he went with his gut on this. And his gut told him to go old school with this guy. And now that he had identified the man, he didn’t need any pictures of him.

Don Custanzu had ordered him to stand down… for now. But he hadn’t given Carlo another task, so Carlo settled in to watch Gregory’s comings and goings. Getting a feel for the man’s habitual schedule would make things easier when Custanzu gave Carlo the go-ahead.

Gregory walked out the door to his apartment building at 7:15 a.m., just as a white cab pulled up and came to a stop. Carlo leaned forward in his chair and focused the field glasses on it. As expected, it was driverless. Gregory, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, opened the back door and stepped inside. As it drove away, Carlo wrote down the license plate number and turned to his laptop, taking a sip from his coffee mug as he launched the application he needed.

This was going to take a while but he had nothing but time. And before he got up from his chair again, he would have the record for this particular fare. Much safer than trying to tail the man through the city.

A half-hour passed before he gained access to find what he needed. But as he scrolled through the fare listing for this vehicle, his eyes widened in surprise. It did show a scheduled pickup for the correct time, but not at this address. And the ride was for a Maria Laforte.

Carlo went to Google maps. The listed location was a dozen blocks from Gregory’s apartment. He switched back to the cab records, pulling up the video that had recorded the rider inside the vehicle.

Carlo leaned back and shook his head. A matronly woman in a flower-patterned dress sat there talking on her phone. The cab stopped at a market, the woman climbed out, and the cab drove away empty.

What the hell?

Even the electronic payment had processed correctly.

He turned back to the view from his window, staring at the Gregory balcony. Who and what was Robert Brice Gregory?

Chapter 17

Siena, Italy

October 8

Prats scanned the data streaming through the Tuscan data centers, flagging the anomalies, knowing full well what was causing them. Formerly, he would have forwarded this information to the ruling machine intelligence, but for now, he merely monitored what he knew to be cartel activity.

People were being killed by some of the automated systems they had come to rely upon for transportation. So far there had only been a few, widely dispersed “accidents”. But based upon the queries he was tracking, Don Custanzu’s hackers were a very busy bunch. The mob boss eliminated whoever he regarded as a potential threat to his operations. And right now, he felt threatened.

Prats allowed himself to savor the sense of satisfaction that knowledge produced. He knew exactly what Custanzu wanted. But he would continue to allow the Don to think that he was free to hack these systems and sow discord. After all, Prats had competitors of his own, and they were far more dangerous than Custanzu.

But Prats was the puppet master who pulled the strings that made this drug lord dance. And this waltz was to a tune that only Prats knew how to play.

Chapter 18

Siena, Italy

October 9

I loved the fact that even though neither I nor Jianna required sleep, the nanites in our bloodstreams didn’t prevent it. My favorite moments were those where I lay awake while Jianna slept at my side. With one arm draped over her body, my hand cupped her bosom as my chest rested against her back. As I lay there, I felt as though heaven had descended to entwine the two of us. And when she rolled over, I mirrored her movement, feeling her arm encircle my chest.

This morning, I remained in bed past dawn, unwilling to end the blissful moment. She stirred in my arms, opened her eyes, and I gently kissed her parted lips. She whispered one word.

“Cappuccino.”

“You sure you wouldn’t rather linger here for a bit first?”

“We did our share of lingering last night. You promised to take me for a morning picnic in the vineyards. I’m holding you to it.”

I laughed, rolled out of bed, and raised my pajama clad arms in surrender.

“Okay. Just checking the temperature.”

“Uh-huh.”

After finishing my morning ablutions, I made my way to the kitchen and set about preparing two mugs, brimming with a creamy froth. Wrapped in thick blue and pink robes, we stepped out onto the balcony and seated ourselves in the cozy loveseat, watching as the early morning sun bathed the city in its brilliance.

Our journey to the vine covered hillsides outside Siena began in the autonomous cab I summoned to take us there. The wicker basket that rested on the backseat beside Jianna issued forth the smell of freshly baked bread, that would soon accompany the selection of local cheeses past our lips. I looked forward to spreading the thick blanket on the ground and seating ourselves amidst the rows of grapevines to share the repast with the woman I loved. For a few hours I would allow myself to forget the troubles that encroached.

But before we had travelled two blocks, the Nightwish ringtone I had assigned to Renzo, broke my gentle musings. Tempted as I was to let my friend go to voicemail, I accepted the phone call.

“Yes, Renzo?”

“I need ten minutes of your time.”

“You’ll have to wait. I’m headed out for a picnic with Jianna.”

“Listen. I can’t hack my way into the systems there without you opening a gateway for me. I think this holds the information I need to prove who is behind Vito’s murder.”

“Now?”

“Has to be. I think someone has traced some of my activity back to my house. I’ve got my laptop here with me. I just need a few minutes of your time.”

I breathed out a sigh and glanced at Jianna, who had one of her knowing looks on her face.

“Okay. A very few minutes.”

“Thank you, so much.”

The call ended before Jianna could object.

Jianna glared at me.

“Say that you aren’t going to let Renzo interrupt our date morning.”

“He needs my help and it can’t wait.”

Her frown told me she wasn’t happy about this.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll have this cab drop me off by city hall. You can go on and set up the picnic at our spot. I’ll grab another cab and meet you there.”

“I’ll expect to see your smiling face by the time I get everything arranged.”

“Deal.”

I leaned in to kiss her and, to my surprise, she let me.

Minutes later, I stepped out of the cab, waved, and sent my wife on her way. I felt like I had just swallowed a cold stone. The last thing I wanted this morning was to re-immerse myself in the bitter swamp that had become Renzo’s world.

I took a very deep breath, then turned and set my feet on the path that led into the plaza. Renzo sat on a bench a hundred feet ahead, his long hair draping his face as he leaned over his laptop. And as I marched forward, the lovely mood that had engulfed me until I answered Renzo’s call faded into a distant memory.

* * *

The call Carlo had gotten from Don Custanzu this morning had put him in a very good mood. It had been the go-ahead that had freed him from the hobbles which the mob boss had placed upon his operation. His only limitation was that the Don wanted this to look like an accident. Okay. That wouldn’t be a problem. Now Carlo could get on with his mission according to his best judgement.

From his apartment window, Carlo watched as Robert Gregory held open the cab door for his wife to climb in and then walked to the other side to slide in beside her. Carlo focused on the license plate, then trained his binoculars on the vehicle identification number, noting both. No matter what talent the young man employed, he could not prevent Carlo from tagging this particular cab and forwarding that information to the cartel hackers.

Those taxi identification numbers would unveil this ride. And this was going to be Gregory’s and his wife’s last ride.

This young man imagined himself above the fray. Carlo was about to pull Gregory’s world down upon itself, despite his assassin’s eyes.  That was an odd thought. How had that one glance outside Siena’s morgue allowed this individual to worm his way into Carlo’s head?

It didn’t matter. Carlo was about to erase this threat from existence. He settled in to wait for the cartel’s cyber warriors to work their magic. As the minutes passed, worry began to creep into Carlo’s head. What was taking so long? These were the same hackers who had engineered the truck and bus collision that had killed the key witnesses against Don Custanzu.

Finally, an alert popped up on his laptop, pulling his attention to the incoming response from the cartel’s cyber warriors. He scanned the message, a slow smile spreading across his face. His team was actively tracking the cab which was now outside Siena on a winding road, headed into the wine country. Even better, they had the ability to override the vehicles operating instructions.

The next line was what he was looking for.

“Awaiting instructions.”

It took seconds for him to compose his response.

“I need that car to crash. Make certain nobody survives.”

Chapter 19

Siena, Italy

October 9

Sitting beside Renzo on the bench, I could sense every electronic system within the building we were facing. In addition to the hundreds of laptops and cell phones scattered throughout, the large server farm stood out in my mind like a thousand spotlights. It took Eos less than three minutes to analyze the firewall and open a backdoor that Renzo could penetrate.

My friend punched his fist into the air.

“I’m in.”

I patted him on the back and stood.

“I’d love to stick around and see what you find, but I promised Jianna I’d be quick.”

“Tell her I said thanks.”

“Will do.”

I summoned another cab on my way back to the street. It met me at the corner and I climbed inside as Eos modified the cabs instructions to send it to the picnic spot where Jianna’s vehicle would drop her off. After carrying me out of Sienna, the car turned off on one of the rural roads that wound its way into the hilly wine country. And as I leaned back in the comfortable leather of the back seat, I pushed Renzo out of my thoughts. For the next several hours, I intended to enjoy every joyous moment alone with the woman I loved.

We rounded a tight corner and crested the ridge that was only three kilometers from our favorite picnic spot. That was when I saw the column of smoke.

On the curve that lay ahead, the guardrail had been peeled off of its thick wooden supports, exposing a gap onto the steeply descending slope below. My gut twisted.

I slammed my mental command into Eos’s mind.

Stop the car!

I was out the door before it came to a complete halt.

The site that confronted me as I gazed down the hillside, stabbed an icicle through my heart. There at the bottom of the slope, the cab that had been carrying Jianna rested on its roof against the boulder that had halted its tumble. Flames leapt from the smashed interior, sending forth a thick plume of black smoke.

With my feet barely touching the ground before I made my next stride, I leaped down the hillside, straining my augmented nervous system as it struggled to keep me upright. I slid to a stop a half-dozen strides from the car. Then I saw her left arm, dangling out the shattered back window.

Ignoring the heat that seared my skin, I reached through the flames to grab that delicate, scalded hand, desperate to pull her body out of that hellish inferno. My right arm and the side of my face exploded in pain. But, for a moment, after I grabbed her hand and pulled, I thought I felt her move.

Then, to my utter horror, I realized that the skin of her hand was sluffing off under my grasp. I staggered backward falling on my butt as my legs lost the strength to support me. I screamed. I wept as if the tears would never stop. Sobs wracked my body even as the nanites in my blood worked to heal the burns on my right hand, arm, and face.

Such was my mental agony that the physical pain failed to register. I buried my face in my arms as I rocked back and forth on the ground. Only then did I notice that the emergency response team had arrived. One of them knelt beside me. Firefighters tried to douse the flames with portable extinguishers while others unrolled the hose from the truck atop the slope.

Pushing the emergency medical technician away from me, I struggled to my feet. As the nerves in my right hand knitted themselves back together, I noticed that I had something in my grasp. Opening my hand, I stared down at the thing that destroyed what little was left of my ruined psyche.

There, in my palm, along with scraps of burned flesh and blood, rested Jianna’s wedding ring.

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.

Richard

The Ripper’s Son (Rough Draft)

Prologue

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?

No.

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.

“Yes?”

“I have a new target for you.”

“Name?”

“Vito Bruni.”

“Location?”

“He has a farmhouse just north of Siena.”

“Disposition?”

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

“Understood.”

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.

Shit.

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.

Eos.

Yes?

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.

Shit.

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?

First Draft – 8 Chapters of The Ripper’s Son July 22, 2021

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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Hello Readers. Below is the First Draft of the initial eight chapters of The Ripper’s Son. Enjoy.

Richard Phillips

The Ripper’s Son

Prologue – Chapter 7 (Rough Draft)

By Richard Phillips

Prologue

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 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, two years?”

“Almost three.”

“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?

No.

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 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. After 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 encrypted 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.

“Yes?”

“I have a problem I need you to handle for me.”

“The name?”

“Vito Bruni.”

“Where do I find him?”

“He has a farmhouse just north of Siena.”

“What else do I need to know?”

“He was one of the witnesses to yesterday’s truck and bus collision on SR2, an exceptionally vocal one. He isn’t buying the tragic programming error cover story. Bruni is determined to convince the local authorities to take a deeper look into the incident. And he is sharing his opinion with anyone who will listen.”

“I understand.”

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 4th

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 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.

As he had expected, the backdoor 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.

Then Carlo drew the Baretta from his shoulder holster, screwed the suppressor onto the threaded barrel, then paused for several seconds 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.

Shit.

So much for two silent kills. Even though Carlo was still going to ice these two 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 cell phone.

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 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 neighbor 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 my virtual female companion.

Eos.

Yes?

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 first 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 programs 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 Custanzu, 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.

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?

Another disconcerting question occurred to me. Was this the only global instance of such an anomaly?

Renzo’s cell phone 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.”

New Rho Agenda Book Teaser June 28, 2021

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
10 comments

Hello fans. I have heard inquiries from a bunch of fans wanting to know what is my next novel after completing my Endarian Prophecy Fantasy series. I am pleased to announce that I am working on a spinoff from my Rho Agenda science fiction series. The working title is “The Ripper’s Son”. Here is a short “Rough Draft” sample of the book I will be releasing around the end of the 2021.

The Ripper’s Son

Prologue

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 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, two years?”

“Almost three.”

“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 crashed 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 as long as I can remember.

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

No.

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.

A Message From The Sound of Silence February 21, 2021

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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Hello to all my fans. I know, that in these troubled times, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse appear to be upon us. All of these struggles, this lack of ability to communicate, to care about each other, is so disheartening that it tears my soul. With that in mind, I have recently heard a 2016 cover of the wonderful Simon and Garfunkel song, The Sound of Silence, by the band Disturbed. It blew my mind with how relevant the lyrics of that 1964 song are today. People are talking without speaking. People hearing without listening. It is so sad that we can’t hear each other. Thus, I introduce those few of you who have not heard Disturbed give their live performance on the Conan show.

Disturbed… The Sound of Silence

The Bizarre Year of 2020 December 3, 2020

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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On December 8th of this bizarre year, 2020, I release my fifteenth novel. In an oddly appropriate way, this last entry in my six book epic fantasy series, The Endarian Prophecy, is titled “Prophecy’s End”. With the advent of COVID-19 and the ensuing worldwide panic the pandemic has caused, it may seem like we are living in the prophesied END TIMES and that the four horsemen of the apocalypse are upon us. What are we to do?

I will not attempt to speak for you, but as for myself, I intend to keep on living my life, savoring every single day, however many or few they may be. I have Carol, my loving wife of thirty-nine years, who has traipsed around this world with me throughout my career in the U.S. army, by my side. We play golf, we dream our dreams of the future, and we enjoy each other, our family, and our friends. And I get to earn my living making up stories and telling them. Hopefully, they will provide some much needed escapism from the trauma so many of you are enduring.

Carol and I wish all of you a very happy and healthy new year in 2021.

Richard Phillips

Prophecy’s End Goes Live on 12/08/2020 December 1, 2020

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Hello to my million plus readers out there. I am very excited that Prophecy’s End, the sixth and final book in my epic fantasy series, The Endarian Prophecy, goes live on Amazon and Audible on 8 December 2020. This was a fun ride to take my readers on and it was a bit sad to bring the curtain down on the series. Once again, Scott Merriman gave a fantastic audiobook performance. Enjoy.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08F55NL45

Best,

Richard Phillips

Goodreads Giveaway of Prophecy’s End November 4, 2020

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Hello readers. I want to make sure you know that Goodreads is giving away 100 digital eBook copies of my new fantasy novel, Prophecy’s End from 11/10/2020 through 12/7/2020. Here’s the link:

https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/314500-prophecy-s-end

Richard Phillips Novels November Kindle Deal October 29, 2020

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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All of my bestselling SciFi and Fantasy novels will be made available in the Amazon U.S. marketplace at the Kindle Monthly Deal price of $0.99 throughout November 2020. This is a special promotion to introduce readers to the December 8th release of Prophecy’s End, the sixth and final novel in my epic fantasy series, The Endarian Prophecy.

Enjoy,

Richard

Prophecy’s End Release October 7, 2020

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I am pleased to announce that Prophecy’s End, the final novel in my six book epic fantasy series, The Endarian Prophecy, is scheduled for release on December 8th, 2020.

Here is a short preview:

A mage’s ungodly goal: rule among the dead. A noblewoman’s destiny: deliver the kingdom of Endar from evil. The final battle is at hand.

Kragan, wielder of malignant magic, is nearing his ultimate goal. Lorness Carol Rafel is pursuing her millennia-old destiny as well. It has been prophesized that the noble sorceress will destroy Kragan before he lays waste to the kingdom of Endar and reigns as an unholy god.

In Kragan’s favor is the mighty Dread Lord, bound to Kragan’s will, and an army of the resurrected dead that far outnumbers the Forsworn followers at Carol’s side. But Carol has the edge. She and her seer husband, Arn, possess the last remaining pieces of a magical puzzle. In the shards of a shattered trident lies the very key to Kragan’s dark dreams. If Carol and Arn can unleash its undiscovered powers in time to intercept Kragan’s horde. The end is at hand.

The final battle on the besieged fortress is upon them. And Arn’s visions of its outcome are terrifying. As Carol draws on her own increasing forces of magic, more is at stake than she imagines in an endgame in the land of the dead that no one could have foreseen.

Enjoy,

Richard

The Endarian Prophecy April 2020 Special April 20, 2020

Posted by rhoagenda in Rho Agenda Updates.
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I am pleased to announce to all my fans that the kindle versions of the first four novels in my epic fantasy series, The Endarian Prophecy, are being offered throughout April 2020 at the special pricing shown below.

1. Mark of Fire $0.99
2. Prophecy’s Daughter $0.99
3. Curse of the Chosen $0.99
4. The Shattered Trident $1.99

And check out my newly released fifth novel in the series: The Time Seer

Enjoy.

Richard

Rho Agenda March Special March 2, 2020

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Hello to all my SciFi Fans. I am excited to announce that for the month of March 2020, all nine of my Rho Agenda novels are on sale via Kindle for $0.99. This includes:

1. Once Dead $0.99
2. Dead Wrong $0.99
3. Dead Shift $0.99
4. The Second Ship $0.99
5. Immune $0.99
6. Wormhole $0.99
7. The Kasari Nexus $0.99
8. The Altreian Enigma $0.99
9. The Meridian Ascent $0.99
Enjoy,
Richard Phillips

Reading Order of The Rho Agenda Novels February 28, 2020

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Here is the recommended reading order of my Rho Agenda science fiction series.

1. Once Dead
2. Dead Wrong
3. Dead Shift
4. The Second Ship
5. Immune
6. Wormhole
7. The Kasari Nexus
8. The Altreian Enigma
9. The Meridian Ascent

The first three novels are spy-thrillers with a little SciFi and focus on Jack ‘The Ripper’ Gregory and his super-spy partner Janet Alexandra Price, two characters that play important roles in books 4-9.

For those who want to skip to the strictly SciFi novels, you can start with The Second Ship.

Best,
Richard Phillips
https://RichardPhillipsNovels.com

Richard Phillips Speech – How to Write a Bestseller October 29, 2019

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On October 29th, 2019, I gave a ten-minute speech to the Ahwatukee Toastmasters club about how to write a bestseller. I am pleased to provide you the YouTube link to that talk.

Enjoy,

Richard

The Ranch Where I Grew Up October 3, 2019

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Hello to all my readers and fans. It has been a very busy summer as I finished and put the polishing touches on The Time Seer, the fifth book in my Endarian Prophecy epic fantasy series. I spent most of that time in our historic mountain ranch retreat in the high country of New Mexico. The house I grew up in was built by Sheriff William Brady who was killed by Billy the Kid a short distance from there.

Here’s a little drone and walk through video to give you a taste of the property we call Walnut Grove Ranch and which we have kept in the family and is now an Airbnb and VRBO

Enjoy…

Life’s Edge Interview August 30, 2019

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I just had a fun interview with Rick Zanotti and Harold Muliadi on the Life Edge podcast. We discussed my Rho Agenda series and my epic fantasy series, The Endarian Prophecy, along with what other projects I am about to start. I also enjoyed digging into the science behind the Rho Agenda and what I believe will be the next disruptive technology that will completely change our world. Here’s a link to: Richard Phillips on Life Edge

Enjoy.

Richard

Free Beta Reader Draft of The Seer Available August 29, 2019

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I am pleased to announce that, for a limited time, I am making the FREE Beta Reader Draft of The Seer – Book 5 of The Endarian Prophecy available to my Beta Readers. To request your free copy of the draft and to sign up for my Beta Reader Program, just send an email to Richard.Phillips@secondship.net requesting to be added.

All I ask in return is that you let me know what you think of the novel and any suggestions or comments you might have about the draft version. Also let me know if you spot errors in the text. Your feedback allows me to improve the final product while I am in the editing phase of publication.

I would also appreciate it if you would post a review when The Seer is officially released. Reader reviews on Amazon are important to allow others to find my novels.

Thank you in advance.

Richard Phillips
Richard.Phillips@secondship.net
TheSecondShip.com
Richard Phillips Author Page

 

Thank You to My One Million Plus Readers August 23, 2019

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Having surpassed the one million reader milestone, I decided to create a thank you video to all my fans. As I proclaim near the end of this montage, please drop me a line if you are passing through Phoenix. I love to meet with fans for coffee and conversation. Thank you for your constant support.

Click Here For the YouTube Video

Best,

Richard